The four moved like dark shadows against the edge of the forest. There was little noise but the steady sound of water bubbling somewhere ahead.
“Just watch your footing, it is slick just ahead,” Sasha hissed as she bent over and looked at the ground ahead. She could still barely make out the path their prey had made.
“I should take lead,” Morrow stated. He pulled his hair back, tying the long blonde hair back with a strip of leather. His pointed ears were now exposed as he slipped his bow into the strap he wore on his back. He fastened his cloak and looked at Sasha.
“Fine. We haven’t seen a trap in hours.” Sasha paused and stretched her tired muscles.
Parker passed Sasha a water skin, making sure she drank enough. She passed it back and kissed his cheek. The dwarf blushed, slid the skin back onto his belt, and then made sure his cloak covered his axe. He didn’t want to worry about it getting damp in this weather. It was then that the boy stepped forward and looked into the growing dark of the passage that would lead into the valley.
“I could always …” began Araz. He raised his arm and took a step beyond Morrow.
“NO!” cried the others. Their sudden noise sent bats flying into the night sky.
Araz looked down at his feet and slowly dropped his arm. “I was only trying to help.”
Parker petted Araz’s shoulder. “I know lad, but the last time you tried to help by starting the fire, you set the walls of the cave aflame. That damn thing burned for five months. Just glad the men in that area didn’t find out it was us.”
Araz nodded. He still wasn’t sure why his friends traveled with him. They were a successful band who often managed to save people, stop trolls, and had gone up against a warlord and a dark demon. Yet they took him in, even with his magic being so unpredictable.
“It knows we’re here now,” Morrow stated. “I’m not sure if we can bypass his men as we go in.”
“There are no caves in this area. I checked with kin and other sources before we came.” Parker stroked his beard as he studied the passage before them. “The river becomes rapids as it heads down into the valley, then slows, and finally ends in the lake that the creature has built his stronghold by.”
“We’ll just have to do our best to get through this passage.” Morrow waved to the expanse before them.
The woods thinned before them and finally ended. There were two streams on the left side that fed into one large river, running downhill through the passage. The river ran quickly, and the undeniable sound of rapids echoed against the rocky sides. The remaining space between the rocky sides was just wide enough for a horse and cart.
“Not enough shadows for my liking,” Sasha grumbled.
The rain that had been threatening began to fall. The roar of the river grew stronger hid any noise they made as they slowly crept deeper into the dark passage. Morrow seemed to fade from view as he moved quickly ahead into the passage way. Sasha followed, Araz kept pace, and Parker took up the rear covering all trace of their passage.
Shhuff! Shhuff! Shhuff!
They froze where they stood. They knew the sound of Morrow’s arrows finding their mark. It seemed forever until the elf stood before them again.
“I took care of the trolls he had at the bridge. The bodies hit the river and were quickly swept away. We should move. I’m unsure when the bodies might be found.” Morrow waved them on.
The group hurried through the last hundred feet only to find the river turned and the bridge was the only way to get into the valley. Morrow having killed the guards allowed them to race across the bridge and into the edge of the woods on the upper part of the valley. The valley that spread out before them was huge. It stretched for miles with woods, farms, the lake, and a huge castle perched at the far end of the lake.
“Once the bodies are found, you know seven hells are going to be released!” Parker smiled and cracked his knuckles.
“We need to find somewhere to rest. We can’t make it to his stronghold tonight. Hell, I should say morning,” Sasha said as she pointed to east where a rosy glow was already making itself known.
“We should hide in the forest,” began Morrow.
“No!” Araz stood shaking. His skin began to glow slightly. “We need to move into the valley. One of the enslaved will help us and give us the clue we need.”
Parker, Sasha, and Morrow looked at each other, nodded, and began to guide Araz into the valley, trying hard to stay to the shadows and away from people. As Azar followed his friends the glow faded and he concentrated on not falling on the uneven ground in the darkness.
As the sun rose, farmers could be seen. Some were feeding chicken, others pigs, and others moved to milk cows. They could see men moving toward the river and lake, nets and poles in hand to fish.
“The slaves are up and moving,” Sasha watched as the men moved with purpose.
“Where are the women and children?” Araz stared but could only see men.
“I’m not sure.” Sasha whispered as she pointed toward an old man, who exited the house they were hiding behind, and began tottering toward a huge barn upon the hill before them.
They watched as he navigated the slight hill to the barn, carefully following the path. He was nearly at the barn door when he lost his footing and fell. Before anyone could stop him, Araz raced to the old man’s side.
“Here, let me help you,” Araz said as he reached out to help the old man up.
“Thank you,” said the old man as he slowly was helped to his feet. “My name’s Barron. You must be newly captured.”
“No, he just has a tendency to run into trouble,” growled Sasha as the three of them caught up.
“You’re a woman!” Barron stared wide-eyed at Sasha.
“She definitely is all woman,” stated Parker as he wrapped an arm around her waist.
“Quickly, all of you into the barn before someone sees,” sputtered Barron.
Morrow opened the barn door, and everyone moved inside.
“You aren’t captured?” Barron stood staring at Sasha.
“No. We’ve come after the Lich Draugr King,” Morrow stated as he peered out through the slats in the door.
“Where are the women and children?” Sasha stared at Barron.
Araz stepped forward. He took Barron’s hands in his own and looked in his eyes. “Please, tell us.”
Barron shook and slowly sank to his knees. When he spoke, it was at a whisper.
“The king had been a good man. His wife was so sweet and was beloved by everyone. When she became pregnant, we all rejoiced. Then six months into her pregnancy she began to run a fever. Every healer was sent to help, but her majesty passed within days. The king was inconsolable and began researching through forbidden tomes. He vanished for nearly a year. When he finally returned he wasn’t the man we knew. He gathered all the women and children into his castle. A new tower was built. Strange beasts roamed the valley and draugr began to appear. Then the king began using magic. The castle was altered, what had once been a place of protection and festivities had become a prison instead. Worse still for us was knowing our families were being held there by our former king, now our captor and tormentor.
“Eventually he decreed that sacrifices would be made as he attempted to resurrect his queen and once a day one of our women or children could be seen being dragged up the outside staircase of the tower to the king’s magic chamber. That night either a creature or a body came down, but either way, yet another loved one was lost to us. We tried to attack the tower, but our strongest were killed, and some of the youngest men were taken. We learned they were used for breeding. We work to feed them. We…we have no choice.”
Barron lay weeping on the floor and Araz sat and held him. The others went to the back of the barn to make plans.
They were exhausted and needed rest before they continued. Barron hid them in the barn, he returned later with some food for them as well. They slept in shifts until darkness fell. While Sasha, Parker, and Araz prepared, Morrow slipped away to do some reconnaissance. It took an hour before the elf returned.
“There are wargs, dragons, wraiths, and mimics scattered all through the woods. If we stay by the farms we will be fine until we reach the last farm. The Lich King has used his magic to alter the pigs. They aren’t normal. He has pigs, hundreds of pigs, and he has made them feral, huge, and man-eating. To be honest, I would need to barely stoop to pass under one’s stomach.” Morrow paused and looked at Barron. “They dumped a body into the pen and it was gone in moments.”
Barron nodded. He wandered to the back of the barn, counted slats from the corner, dropped to his knees and began removing the straw. A few seconds later Araz joined him and helped him pull a box out that had been hidden there. Barron took a key from around his neck and opened the small wooden box.
“Here,” Barron removed a small blue brooch and handed it to Araz.
“What is this?” Araz stared at the deep blue stone set in the middle of the design.
“Paramim,” Sasha said as she stared at the brooch. “Also known as Wizard stone, or a sapphire.”
“It was to be a gift to our king and queen, however, as a magic user you might use it best.” Barron smiled sadly.
“Thank you.” Araz slipped the brooch into his pouch.
The group slipped away as darkness swallowed the landscape. At a quick run they followed Morrow across the vast valley toward the castle. The final obstacle before the tower was the farm where the pigs lived. The closer they came the clearer they could make out the pigs. They were the size of giant horses, bright red eyes, and tusks the size of a child. The noise they made gave the group pause, but the quartet continued onwards. As they approached the last farm, Morrow raised his hand bringing them to a halt.
“Something is wrong,” Morrow whispered.
“The birds, beasts, and all the animals, even the damn pigs have gone silent,” grumbled Parker.
Suddenly, fires lit all around them, highlighting them as they stood exposed in the field.
“So you’re the ones who killed my trolls and entered my kingdom uninvited.” The Lich Draugr King stood before them. The grass at his feet froze and died, for the power of a Lich is the power of the dead. Morrow launched a volley of arrows, so quickly no one could see, at the king. Arrow after arrow flew through the night all focused on the Lich’s heart.
A cold crackling sound shattered the silence. The Lich seemed to laugh. He raised his hand and cold wind sucked the arrows from mid-air, spun them around, as he watched while they slammed into Morrow, and the elf collapsed to the floor.
Parker pulled his axe and raced toward the Lich. He screamed and jumped, swinging his mighty battle axe. Meanwhile, Sasha rushed from the side, pulling daggers and began tossing them with accuracy at the Lich’s head. The Lich smiled, raised his hand, muttered something and the air grew colder and both warriors froze, coated in thick layers of ice. The blades dropped from the air and shattered like glass upon the ground.
Araz stood rooted, scared to move.
“And you child, are next!” The Lich moved toward Araz, his eyes ablaze.
Araz stepped back, sliding his hand into his pouch, he squeezed his hand and cut his palm on the brooch he held. Suddenly, he knew what to do. Instead of focusing on the Lich, he turned and released his powers unto the pigs the Lich had. His magic flowed like a blue mist from his finger tips and swirled across the ground. Each pig it touched turned to focus on the Lich King. Ten, then thirty, and finally hundreds keeled a horrifying noise as they charged toward the Lich, who began to cast his own spell a bit too late. Like a wave they swarmed over the Lich, each biting and tearing into him. As they did they began to transform, growing wings, shrinking in size, their eyes losing the red glow. Suddenly the sky was filled with tiny flying pigs and the Lich was gone.
For a moment Araz watched the pigs as they buzzed out of sight. Then his attention was drawn to his friends who lay like broken toys in the field before him. Tears dripped from his chin as tried to remember the spell he needed. He took a step and nearly fell from exhaustion, so instead he calmed himself and took a deep breath. Araz reached deep inside, gathered one more spell, spread his arms and cast it. Spent he crumpled to the ground unconscious.
The spell spread across the field in a mass of sparkles. It covered Sasha, Parker, and Morrow before the sparkles faded. Moments later, the ice melted leaving Sasha and Parker shivering on the ground. The arrows impaling Morrow turned to ash and blew away. A glow enveloped Morrow’s body, and then he sat up slowly, feeling bruises everywhere the arrows had been, but otherwise unharmed.
The three slowly crawled over and checked on Araz.
“I think the kid saved us all,” Parker got out between chattering teeth.
Sasha gathered some wood and started a fire. Once it was burning, she sat and faced the other two. “The oracle said he would save our lives. I guess he did.”
Morrow sat, holding Araz in his lap. “Yes, but I still wish I could have seen when pigs fly.”
“Once he wakes up, we’ll go collect everyone from the castle and find out how he did it,” Sasha shook her head. “Every time we are awake his magic goes haywire. We all die, and he kills a Lich, by himself! He even brings us back.”
“Shh. Let him rest.” Morrow wrapped Araz in his cloak and kissed his forehead. Carefully, he pulled Araz close and arranged the mage so that Morrow was his pillow.
Sasha and Parker curled up by the fire, warming themselves, and basked in each other’s company. They were grateful to be alive.