The Sealed City, by Adrian Cole

Though humanity has struggled forward since the collapse of their Solar empire, shadows from the evil days still lurk in the dark corners of Earth. Arrul Voruum will root them out at any cost in this all new story in the saga of the Dream Lords!

A hundred years after the fall of the Zurjahn Empire, which had once sprawled across and controlled an entire solar system, Man began the gradual return to his home world of Ur, leaving a few dogged colonists on the outer planets, where they would begin a long, slow journey into oblivion. Ur, damaged and mutilated, became the new focus of Man’s rebirth in an uneasy truce between the formerly warring factions. Man concentrated his energies on rebuilding and establishing a new renaissance of knowledge across the shattered landscapes. There was room for all creeds, and old wounds began the steady healing process. The terrible darkness that had permeated Ur seemed to have subsided, the reign of the monstrous Daras Vorta little more than a memory of nightmare.

Yet can such things truly perish? Even in the brightest desert, there will be shadows…

 

He’s here,” said the old man, screwing up his eyes against the glare of the desert sun. He pointed at the eastern horizon, where a faint smudge of dust rose in a cloud over the barren landscape. “A single sky craft has landed at the endway station.”

Beside him the three men from the village studied the distance. “How will he travel to us?” said Boruk, their leader.

The old man shrugged. “A small air machine, perhaps. Or he may prefer a horse. It depends how seriously the Council views our plea for help. How much they will afford.”

Boruk grunted. It had taken the rulers, who might have been as much as half a world away in the city of Karkesh, a long time, and several messages, to acknowledge this remote outpost of civilization. On the fringes of their new empire, life was harsh and unpredictable. There were other more pressing things for the controllers to attend to as they reconstructed this ravaged world.

Boruk turned to the youngest of his companions, who was barely out of his teens. Kaspel was a typical desert youth, his wiry body bronzed, almost mummified, his dark hair pasted to his gaunt features, though his eyes were alight with enthusiasm. His formative years of carving an existence out of the rocks and dust of this land hadn’t yet taken their toll on that.

“Is the place made ready for him, Kaspel?”

“It is, sir. As you instructed. I have a bed for him and food. I can be ready to lead him into the western wilderness whenever he wishes to go.”

“Well, it’s his business now,” said Boruk. “We’ve done our part. Whatever’s out there, it’s for him to deal with. I can’t say I’m sorry. We’ve enough hardship to bear without this—intrusion.”

The old man nodded. “The Council could have dismissed us. Yet something about this affair must disturb them. Enough to send the hunter.”

“Covering their own backs,” Boruk said with a snort. “I’m sure we’re of little consequence.”

 

It was gone midday when the stranger arrived, riding in to the fringes of the tiny settlement on a sweating stallion, a fine beast that had evidently been provided for him by his masters in the far off endway station. The rider, a tall, sparingly built man, who had the look of a desert warrior about him, pulled up before the small delegation of villagers and announced himself in a cool, clipped voice.

“I am Arrul Voruum, commissioned by the overlords at Karkesh, in answer to a request you sent to them.”

Kaspel took the reins of the horse and led it to a nearby pool, soothing it and allowing it to drink, though his eyes never strayed from the warrior.

“You’ll want to rest before beginning your work,” said Boruk.

“Briefly. If you can provide me with refreshments and information from anyone who needs to speak about what you’ve found, it will be sufficient. After that, I’ll ride west.”

There was a large meeting hut in the central area of the village, its interior cool, a relief from the oppressive air of the post midday heat outside. Voruum was fed, though he ate and drank sparingly. To the few villagers gathered here, he seemed little different from them, as if he had been raised in desert lands. The old man whispered to Boruk that the hunter was a creature of the sands, probably a veteran of many investigations here on Ur, though Voruum could have been little more than two score years old.

“I was told your village and other settlements in this region have been disturbed by certain – manifestations,” said Voruum. He chose his words with care.

The old man nodded. It seemed to him that this hunter was no sceptic. To him at least this business had weight, even if his masters might have been dismissive. “We could ignore them no longer. Not when men have been lost.”

“Yes,” said Voruum. “I was told three of your people have disappeared and you fear them dead. According to the report, these men were highly skilled, more than capable of dealing with the desert and its problems. There has been talk of demons, is that right?” Voruum’s eyes swept the small company, his gaze unwavering as he sought out the villagers’ fears.

“It is not an easy thing to put into words,” said the old man. “When I was young, I lived on another world, Gargan, which has even more deserts than this world of Ur. I came here after the fall of the old Empire, along with many of us who were repatriated. On Gargan there were haunted places—places used by the acolytes of the evil Warden of Ur, who I shall not name. Shrines and temples to the darkness he worshipped. I never forgot them. Such things have long since been sundered from Gargan and these lands, but they yet haunt my dreams.”

“I hope you have not brought me here to hunt for shadows,” said Voruum.

“I don’t think so,” said the old man. “The young man, Kaspel, will show you why we are afraid of the night. Let him take you to into the western desert. What he has seen there will convince you we were right to summon help.”

Later the old man and his companions watched as the two figures slowly disappeared into the sun-blasted sands and rocks of the western wastes. Kaspel, though nervous, was eager to lead the strange hunter, already focused on the task ahead.

“What do you think?” Boruk asked the old man.

“The Council have taken us seriously. I am sure the hunter learned his skills on Gargan. He may even have Garganian blood—he has their colouring. The purging of that world has not long ended. It is a place of many deserts. There was much to do there, even after I came here, so many scores of years ago. Arrul Voruum is no ordinary hunter. They have sent us a man of experience. I have seen his like before.”

Boruk nodded. He and his companions had sensed something about the hunter, an aura of power, a rare thing. “If there is evil out there, perhaps he is the one to scotch it.”

The old man made a curious sign, a remnant of his own lost past. “I am sure you are right, Boruk. I thought such men were long gone.”

“Such men?”

“He is a witchfinder.”

 

The two men rode long in to the day. Night fell quickly in the desert. Kaspel knew the land well and led them to a rock outcrop where there were overhangs that gave them shelter from winds that had abruptly become cold. He tethered the horses in a gulch where there was a small spring of water he knew to be safe. Further out in the deeper west, the land was poisoned by wars even older than the fall of Empire.

Voruum settled among the rocks, pulling his cloak tighter and chewing on the dried meat Kaspel had taken from the saddlebags. They ate by starlight, watching the stunning heavenly display of lights spread across the night sky in dazzling confusion. Voruum had hardly spoken during the desert crossing, and the young man was too nervous to attempt conversation. He sensed a power about the hunter, a palpable strength.

“How much further?” said Voruum, finishing his meal with a brief mouthful of water.

“Two more days. The place we go to is just this side of the Dead Reach. No one goes there. There are bad stories. A cursed region.”

Voruum nodded. Man was re-populating the world slowly, but the worst of the old war zones would be unsafe for generations yet to come. Out here, on the edge of one of them, they would need to be careful what they ate and drank. The youth seemed sensible enough. Voruum admired his curiosity, though. The urge to explore would be strong within him.

“So what is it you have found out here? In your own words,” he said.

Kaspel looked pleased to have been asked. “Ruins,” he said. “Something long disused, although I’m sure they are not entirely abandoned. The sun wolves hunt the area, so there must be life there to attract them.”

“Men?”

Kaspel shrugged. “Flesh and blood. Ghosts too, maybe.”

“Demons?”

Kaspel shuddered.

Voruum’s smiled wryly. “I’ve read the reports, and I’ve heard your people speak. Now you tell me what you know. Never mind how outrageous it sounds.”

Kaspel nodded. He wanted to unburden himself to this hunter, trusting him where he would have been tight-lipped with others. “There were three traders, men of our local tribes, who spent their lives searching the lands for artefacts, relics of the old times. There is always a demand for such things, mainly in the bigger towns to the east and in the city of Karkesh. There’s a good living to be had from such trade. The men were generous and through their work provided the villages with resources that helped us to grow.”

“I know of such people.”

“Now they are gone. Taken by the desert. I found their horses and the last of their supplies, scattered among the sand and rock. Valuable artefacts they had found were also strewn about. And there was—blood. Much blood.”

“Sun wolves could have taken them,” said Voruum bluntly.

“No. I know the work of those beasts. I’ve seen the corpse of a man torn apart by sun wolves. And the beasts do not use human blood as paint.”

Voruum nodded slowly. “Describe what you saw.”

Kaspel leaned forward and used his finger to draw in a pocket of sand. “It was like this. Writing, I think, but none known to me or my people. Daubed in blood on the rocks. It made me very afraid.”

Voruum studied the strange glyphs for a moment, and then smoothed them away. “A warning,” he said. “You were right to have the Council summon me.”

“Who did this?” said Kaspel, anger barely contained. “Are there really demons?”

Voruum leaned back thoughtfully. “Such things do exist, Kaspel. This may have been men, though. They have claimed these lands and want no one else near. There will be guardians, and I’ll know them. What else did you find?”

“The ruins were half a day beyond the place where the traders died. In a great bowl, rising like a huge dune. It was only when I got near to it I realised it was unnatural. I saw its stones, drawn together, at one time, probably in the far past, curved and sculpted by tools, not the wind. There are streams and pools and plants. The dome is partly buried under sand, partly overgrown with strange trees and roots. There are many packs of sun wolves there.”

“All these things you must show me.”

 

The following day, Kaspel found the place where he had seen the remains of the traders, but the wind and sand had combined to obliterate their last traces. Voruum knew the desert well enough to understand how it quickly reclaimed everything, ever shifting.

“I will protect us,” he told Kaspel. “You’ll feel the air shimmer as I do it. The mind shield will keep the sun wolves at bay.” From his saddlebags he took a sheath and eased from it a long rod. The sun gleamed on the metal as he wove a few patterns with it in the air, using it like a blade.

“What is it?” said Kaspel, fascinated. It must be a weapon, but one that made those of his own people look clumsy and primitive.

“A star lance,” said Voruum. “Not many of us are given to carry these. They store power from light. It will make the sun wolves wary of us, no matter how many of them there are.”

Kaspel gazed at the weapon in undisguised awe. He had heard of such wonders in the legends of his people.

Evening approached as they came closer to the ruins that Kaspel had first discovered out in these remote wastelands. Throughout the day they had heard the snarls of sun wolves, though the creatures never showed themselves. It was evident they were tracking the two riders on each side, hidden by the low dunes and outcrops of bare, sun-scorched rock. As the sun dropped, smearing the western horizon in a blend of scarlet and purple light, they saw below them a deep-sided valley cut into the bedrock by a stream. By now they only drank from their flasks, not trusting the water of this or any tributary streams.

The valley debouched into a wider one and on its far side the last of the daylight outlined the curve of the ruins Kaspel had found. Sand had been heaped over sections of them by the endless wind storms, and twisted roots and branches jutted from the immense dome, clinging to it like parasites, their leaves silent and oppressively dark in the twilight.

“Is there a way into that place?” Voruum asked.

“I know of one. Towards the eastern end. A small archway at the mouth of a tunnel. I did not have the courage to enter. The air that issued from it was foul.”

“Wise of you to hold back. You must remain out here. You’ll be protected overnight. I will investigate while the moon is out and return before dawn.”

Kaspel was torn about making a plea to go with the hunter, as he’d feel less afraid if he accompanied him, but the terrors of the place argued for him to remain outside.

“What if you do not return?” he said.

“Then you must go back and have a message sent to Karkesh. The Council will have to respond—in force.”

Voruum left the youth with the horses in a declivity off the narrow valley. He would shield him from a distance as best as his powers would allow, although he sensed that Kaspel was well enough versed in survival techniques to get through the night. It was not what lurked in the desert that concerned Voruum. He was far more uneasy about the ruins.

As he wound his way down the valley and then along the deeper one it fed, picking his way carefully among jagged rocks and broken scree lit by the rising moon, he tested his mental powers to the full, listening out for any kind of life. He was conscious of the sun wolves, though they shunned darkness, as though it would freeze their marrow. It was unnaturally cold in this place and Voruum was acutely aware that there were forces bathing the ruins, subtle as moonlight, but far more dangerous. There was life here, but in a bizarre, warped form, almost certainly a residue of the old wars.

He slipped across the wider valley and wound his silent way upwards, towards the lower curve of the vast dome and the things that tangled around its base. He had not gone far when he saw the first of the inscriptions, carved on the flatter surfaces of the rocks, their letters filled with inks flaking with age. He sucked in a deep breath, stunned at their meaning. Beyond them there were other designs, crude drawings.

The Brotherhood of the Goat! His mind cried out to him. The oldest enemy, scourge of the nine worlds. Even here, in this most far-flung of regions. It had been the unholy focus for the powers of Daras Vorta, the vile and satanic one-time master of Ur and would-be ruler of all of the solar Empire. Until Galad Sarian, the Chosen One of Mankind, had dragged him down and destroyed him. Voruum and men like him had spent their lives seeking out and removing the last traces of Vorta’s evil, cleansing the outer worlds, such as Gargan.

Voruum continued warily, though his instincts suggested to him that what he had found was an ancient lair, where the acolytes of the monster Vorta had busied themselves long ago. Another slab of rock overlooked the path, and he saw it too had an inscription, with its mocking goat-head design. Moonlight slanted down and highlighted its curved horns. Voruum looked more closely. He felt another stab of horror.

The paint that had been used to sketch this thing was fresh! And not paint, but human blood. He touched it delicately with his fingertips and read elements of its history. The missing traders. They had been murdered, sacrificed, by other men, here in the wild lands, their blood used to paint a warning to anyone coming near these forgotten ruins.

Voruum had been approximately following a path mapped out for him by Kaspel, though he knew the youth had not seen these recent inscriptions and drawings. The opening into the dome must be nearby. Voruum had drawn a mental cloud around himself. No normal man would have been able to sense him. But what powers did any occupiers of the ruins have? If they were descended from the original servants of Vorta, through some undiscovered tribe or blood-line, would they have inherited mental powers? He had encountered such things on Gargan, but nothing that had been able to withstand him or his fellow hunters. Voruum had been ruthless in exterminating them.

Further ahead he came to the opening Kaspel had told him about. Framed by a low arch and partially overhung by trailing roots, it angled down into sheer darkness. Foul air wafted from it, like the exhaled breath of a beast that had fed on carrion. Voruum listened and used his mind to probe that darkness, gently sifting it. He used great care in doing so, knowing that by sending out such a search he could be prodding a sleeping beast, one that might sense him.

There was something there, far down in the guts of the ruins. This would be a dangerous way to approach it. For certain there would be guardians set there. He turned, studying the moonlit rocks for a way up on to the upper dome. As he did so, he heard something below him, a clattering of rocks in the darkness of the opening. Something had stirred and was rising, more stones and earth dislodged by its movement. He imagined a serpent as thick around as a human trunk.

Voruum clambered up over thick roots and jutting stone, the curve of the huge structure steep. In the air around him he felt the stirrings of a fresh breeze and—something else. Wings flapped, shapes swooping overhead, obscured by shadows as the moon slid into cloud. He realised these things were not real but projections. Whatever he had disturbed had certain powers, probably occult. It explained the grim inscriptions, the bloody depiction of the horned god. He tightened his own defences, doubly glad that he had not brought Kaspel with him.

It was an awkward climb, but he managed to reach the upper curve of the dome, winding through the gnarled boughs of low trees and tangled ivy, the mutated growths of centuries. This structure had been here long before the rise of the old Empire, and it may have been the mass of growth that held it together. As he paused to look around, the air trembled again, and this time he found himself under attack.

Night creatures swept in across the surface of the dome, huge, bat-like shadow-shapes, claws extending, slashing at him in a carefully synchronised assault. He swung up the star lance and used its dreadful heat to cut a swathe into the assailants. They fought in eerie silence, the only sound the buzz of the lance’s power. It was not difficult to keep them at bay, but he sensed other forces beginning to wake, seeping like mist from the many cracks in the stone surface under him. This miasma shaped itself into vaguely human forms, and they too closed in, but the power of the star lance limited their efforts.

Voruum knew, however, that it was a beacon, singling him out and pin-pointing his location for whatever evil lurked in this dome. He had determined to find it. Accordingly he took the offensive and rushed in at the first group of ethereal figures, shredding them like silk with light and driving them out into the night. He likewise seared the aerial forms in a blur of movement, creating a lull that gave him time to study the dome’s immediate surface.

He assumed whatever human servants made obeisance to the powers of darkness in this place would come looking for him, probably in an attempt to snare him. If they came in force, he may find himself suffering the same fate as the three traders. He needed to find a way in quickly.

While the aerial shapes temporarily disappeared, he discovered a larger crack in the stonework, partially prized open by a massive ivy root. He slid the star lance into it and used its energy to enlarge the crevice, the stones grinding, the ivy cracking and splitting. Then he was in, dropping down through the rough shaft he had created. Behind him there was a rush of air as the pursuit looked to follow. He dropped on to a level of wide brickwork and used his weapon to fuse the stones overhead. They glowed, briefly molten, blocking the entry.

Voruum adjusted the light, dimming it as much as possible. He would have to do without it soon, or other forces would be locking on to him. He followed the wide bricks, part of the inner vault and used yet more ivy-like growths to descend. A vast well of darkness opened out below him, filled with trailing roots. Spider-like he clung to the rock wall, working his way around and down. There was light below at last. He sheathed the star lance.

He came to another ledge and by the dim glow could discern a parapet. He was on the uppermost ledge of a crumbling gallery that ringed the huge gulf, which could have been an immense chamber, a cathedral from the lost ages. Light picked out further details—the countless strands of dangling roots, the interlocked blocks of stone, metal spars, encrusted with rust and wrapped in fungoid growths.

Moving around the gallery, kicking through heaped dust and rubble, he found a narrow stairway and began the precarious descent, made more dangerous by the crumbling natures of the steps. He sensed movement up on the ledge behind him and instinctively drew his mental shield tighter. They had lost him! He felt their frustration like the hot breath of anger. He moved on, as quickly and silently as he could, getting off the stairway and out along another, narrower, gallery. From here he could see better down into the cavernous interior of the dome.

The light came from a dozen or more braziers, where coals glowed and smoke drifted upwards in long spirals. Behind a line of them a massive shape loomed up between two fat columns, a statue that had been cleaned of debris and growth, and polished recently, its limbs and trunk bathed in the glow of the fires. It was a gross human figure, its obesity exaggerated, as though such an attribute was worthy of it – a god or demigod, used to sating itself. The head was massive, the features slightly twisted in a smile that suggested extreme debauchery and licentiousness.

Voruum drew back into the shadows, appalled. He recognised the face. He had seen the records of the past. His apprehensions about the nature of this place had been well-founded.

The statue was of the former Warden of Ur, the malevolent Daras Vorta.

Voruum had uncovered a nest of his worshippers. They were there, gathered in the shifting flame-lit central area, as many as a hundred of them. He studied them for a few moments, but they were too far below him to make out details. Carefully he wormed his way further along the gallery. There was another long twist of root, coming out of the wall like a fat pipe. He clambered on to it and worked his way down, shielding himself from the pursuit. Half-glimpsed beings went past him higher up, following the gallery.

When he had reached a point low enough to be able to see more closely, Voruum clung to the root and watched events below. The floor of the chamber had been cleared of rubble and dust, swept clean to reveal a circular design, surrounded by sigils and pictograms that suggested demonic forms and creatures from the pantheon of disgusting gods worshipped by these people. Ruling over all of them would be Shaitan, the Lord of the Pit, Daras Vorta’s master, in whose unspeakable name the Warden of Ur had sought to subjugate all of mankind and unleash a nightmare rule.

Voruum studied the acolytes of evil as they danced, writhing and cavorting, naked men and women, painted gaudily, faces masked, their contortions casting lurid shadows across the floor and statue, whose face seemed to grin down in pleasure at the frenzied activity, which grew more depraved with each passing moment. Voruum could sense the atmosphere curdling, as though the ceremonies were pooling the energies of the dancers and shaping them into a palpable force, a potent weapon of terrible menace.

The dancers cleared a space around the central markings on the floor and again Voruum sensed with his own mental power the efforts of the people below as they concentrated them on the markings. The circular lines moved, one set clockwise, the other ante-clockwise. They were opening the floor. Voruum understood that, with their energy so focused, he would have an opportunity to strike at their heart while they were distracted by their ritual, one moment of vulnerability.

As the stone floor groaned, shifting as the great weight of the circular slab turned and rose, the acolytes chanted liturgies in a strange, ancient language, although Voruum recognised in it the name of Shaitan, their god of night. The huge stone, its underside thick with pale grey growths, hovered in the air like an impossible air raft and then glided to one side of the chamber, swallowed by shadows there. It had revealed a large hole some eighty feet across. From his vantage point overhead, Voruum could look down into that darkness.

His head reeled as he studied it, and he shuddered as he felt a blast of freezing air released from below. He was gaping down into, not the earth’s bowels, but—a well of stars! It was as though he was seeing beyond a domed ceiling, looking up at the night sky, filled with gleaming stars. Yet such stars! They were faintly coloured, scarlet, mauve, deep orange, like fiery embers, a universe beyond imagining, far, far from the one Voruum knew.

The acolytes had gathered around the very rim of the well, standing precariously on its lip, but their chanting increased, their voices combining like a solid thing. They sent the words of power towards that blasphemous sky, a summoning. Voruum watched as the inverted heavens shimmered like the surface of a wide lake.

And the chanting was answered.

Something shifted in the remote darkness, a thick, black cloud, blotting out the stars. It formed into the head and shoulders of what could have been a demigod. Voruum saw with despair that it was horned. Like a monstrous aerial craft it was moving towards the opening. The acolytes would bring it here and give it form in this temple of madness.

All Voruum’s instincts screamed at him to flee, to get back outside the dome and get away. For moments he was torn. Yet he stood his ground and unsheathed the star lance. The acolytes’ combined power was stronger than his, but if he struck now—

He swung out the star lance and unleashed a stream of white hot light, aiming not for the oncoming horror in the well, but at the acolytes. A line of them screamed as the searing heat caught them, setting them instantly ablaze as they were catapulted out into the well. A score of blazing bodies tumbled like torches outwards and Voruum caught a glimpse of the huge shape beyond them, its progress temporarily halted by the appearance of the hated light. Again Voruum poured fire on the acolytes, whose chanting had been completely disrupted as they sought to discover the source of their attacker.

Half of them had fallen into the pit, the remainder surging together, trying to form a new barrier, deflecting the power of the star lance. Voruum dropped to the floor of the chamber, standing under the shadow of Vorta’s statue, across the gaping floor from the acolytes. He walked forward, as close to the open well as he dared and prepared to unleash the star lance’s incandescent heat down towards the thing that hovered ever closer.

Realising what he intended, the acolytes shrieked their fury and poured their own energies into holding him back. The intensity of their assault forced Voruum to defend himself from wave after wave of their twisted magic. He heard the grinding of stone on stone, and moments later the huge circular lid of the well slid across the floor. They were closing off the well! Rather than risk him pouring the heat of the star lance into it, they were shutting it. At least it would prevent the horned darkness from spilling into the chamber and—what? Possessing them? Filling them with untold power so they could wreak havoc here on Ur, surging out from this sealed city in a wave of destruction in the name of Daras Vorta and Shaitan?

Too late Voruum tried to prevent the lid from closing. It turned again, screwing itself down. He felt himself kick up against the statue of Vorta. He swung round, seeing its gross belly looming over him, as though its obsidian stone was gleaming flesh. Angrily he swung the star lance and directed white heat at it. Immediately the black stone cracked, a web of damage spreading across the torso and arms. It was too late for the acolytes to stop Voruum’s sweep of destruction.

He had to dive to one side as the severed head of the statue slid from its lofty place and crashed down into the chamber, shattering in thousands of pieces of debris. The acolytes had drawn back, clouded in dust. Their powers had receded, partly drained by their efforts to seal the well. As the dust shifted, Voruum stood opposite them. He knew that his star lance was running out of energy. But the statue was ruined. An arm cracked free with the sound of thunder, and it, too, exploded on impact with the floor.

A chunk of stone spun end over end and caught Voruum under the elbow, numbing his arm. The star lance was flung from his nerveless fingers, skidding across the chamber. For a moment no one moved. The air abruptly trembled to a deep and evil laughter, as if Daras Vorta himself was jeering Voruum from beyond the grave.

Then, adding his own scornful laughter to the supernatural sounds, the leader of the acolytes, a robed being who appeared to be their priest, stood over the star lance. “You have offended Shaitan for the last time, intruder!” he snarled.

Voruum attempted to use his mental powers to prevent the priest from picking up the star lance, but he felt the combined anger of the acolytes surge against him, holding his own power back. He watched helplessly as the priest gingerly lifted the weapon. There was a small amount of power left within it—enough to strike a killing blow against Voruum.

And if the acolytes opened the well again, there would be nothing to prevent them from bringing the darkness from the stars through.

Voruum knew he could dive to one side or the other, but he’d not escape the deadly light of the weapon. The priest knew it, too. He stepped forward, preparing to administer the kill. As he did so, something struck him in the chest, smashing him backwards. He staggered, dropping the star lance, fingers plucking at the haft of an arrow. Blood was already welling on his chest. He dropped to his knees as another shaft tore into his throat.

The acolytes drew back in horror and it gave Voruum an opportunity to rush forward and retrieve the star lance. He used its last energy to scorch the acolytes, felling half a dozen of them. They fell, burning like huge torches, the stench of burnt flesh rich in the air. The remainder fled into the darker recesses of the chamber. Voruum saw the life ebb from the priest as he fell to the stone floor, his mask slipping from his face and shattering.

Voruum recognised the face. “Kannol Tuldis,” he said. The man was an administrator in Karkesh, a high ranking official in the service of the Council.

“You cannot avoid him. The grave cannot hold him…” gasped the man, spitting blood and with it his life.

Voruum was distracted by a sound behind him and swung round to see the youth, Kaspel, coming towards him, his bow strung with a third arrow.

“Forgive me, sir,” said the youth nervously. “I disobeyed you and followed. I did not think you would be safe.”

“I owe you my life,” said Voruum. “Not my anger. I would have sensed your coming, but my powers were somewhat diverted, as you can see.”

“Are there many more of them?”

“I think not. They will have fled, back into the desert. You may find, when we examine the dead, that some of them are from familiar villages. The disease that is Daras Vorta’s legacy is far-reaching. More than was realised. There will be work to do among your people.”

“Will I be permitted to help, sire?”

Voruum smiled, the first time the youth had seen him do so. “It will be dangerous.”

Kaspel nodded, lowering the bow.

You’ve taught me something, Voruum thought. My arrogance almost undid me. I may have an element of Dream Lord power in my blood, a secret inheritance, but even so, it is foolhardy to conduct a crusade alone. While I am here at the edge of the Dead Reach, perhaps I’d do better to train a recruit.

“I must return to Karkesh and make my report,” he told Kaspel. “After that, look for me in your village once more.”

Adrian Cole is the author of some two dozen fantasy and sf novels and numerous short stories over four decades. His recent NICK NIGHTMARE INVESTIGATES won the prestigious British Fantasy Award for the best collection of 2014.