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The Last King Of Winterhold

The heir to the half-throne of Winterhold is wanted.

The Interpreters and the aristocracy want to use him to legitimize their control in the Hold. The Revolutionaries want him to lead their fierce yet fragmented insurrection against the oppression of the upper classes in the Hold.

The Queen/Lady wants her son to live, while the King/Lord wants his grandson to die. And the heir himself wants revenge upon those who have wronged him.

Death surrounds him on every side and, as always on Winterhold, blood is all.

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Stephen Almekinder

Stephen Almekinder has a variety of experience as a writer. He received a finalist certificate from the Writers of the Future Contest for one of his short stories. He wrote a radio play, which was produced and aired. He adapted the science fiction novel Nova, by Samuel R. Delany, into a screenplay with the permission of the author. One of his short stories was published in a science fiction/fantasy magazine, Once Upon A World, in 1997. Winterhold, Blood of Winterhold, and Lost Empire of Winterhold have been published by Hard Shell Word Factory. Winterhold was a finalist for an Eppie, an award given out by the EPIC (Electronically Published Internet Connection) group, while Blood of Winterhold was nominated for the Frankfurt eBook Award. Hard Shell Word Factory has also published Backyardia, a fantasy novel for young adults. And it is safe to say that the Winterhold series is not yet finished.

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Excerpt

Chapter 1

Trys was embedded in darkness. He and his brother, Gyrs, had trudged through the utter blackness for days. He had come to believe it was a darkness from which all other darknesses oozed. His eyes open and yet blind, Trys crouched in the black space beneath mile upon mile of solid rock and wondered yet again if the path they were on was not truly the Dark Path itself.

They had left the maddening phosphorescent glow, which had clung like a fading stain to the walls of the incredibly vast cavern, far behind as they had ventured out through the water-rotted ice that covered the floor of the gargantuan void. That wan source of light had haunted Trys, just as it had bedeviled him the last time he had gone through it, then on his way with his three companions into the lost valley at the heart of the Northern Range. But now, locked beneath the dome of jet somewhere within the shallow lake of pockmarked ice, he found himself wishing fervently for the faintest glimmer to reassure himself that he was still in a world he could comprehend and that he had not wandered out of life and into the limitless realms of death.

Trys was surrounded by a filigree of ice that reached to just above his knees. He shifted his sodden feet in the end of the narrow gash that he and his brother had created with their sheathed blood blades and their feet, lashing out to break the ice and then moving forward, inch by painful inch. He heard the distinct sound of barely liquid water squelch beneath his soles. They ached from the miles they had walked and from the pinch of the ubiquitous cold that oozed through every seam.

He touched the jagged leading edge of the gash to orient himself. That way was forward; not that it really mattered much any longer. Upon entering this phase of their journey, they had followed the faint depression left in the slowly replenished ice by their previous passage across the flooded and frozen subterranean plain. It had been the light from their torches, thick rolls of rhylichor hide saturated with the fat of the long-necked, barrel-bodied creatures that the inhabitants of the Klynth Empire used as both mount and beast of burden, which had led them astray. The tight circle of illumination had dazzled them and as Gyrs, who had been in the lead, had held his torch high and in his right hand, the increased brilliance on that side had caused him to drift off to the right and away from the faint trace of recently formed ice that had marked their way into the great valley. The torches had proved to be unsuited for the climate within the caverns since the dampness quickly congealed the fat. They had sputtered out and had resisted all attempts at relighting them. The two brothers had then been buried in blackness and confusion. They knew of only a single exit from the stygian realm, but now that they had wandered so far off the path, they both despaired of ever finding it.

Like the torches, their singlesuits were made from rhylichor hides, and regrettably, also proved to be unsuited for the climate, since the coldness easily penetrated the tough fabric. However, the singlesuits had proven to be an excellent form of armor, protecting their skin from the sharp edges of the partially corroded ice through which they plowed. Trys knew that his legs were covered with numerous bruises but not lacerations. He moved his fingers from the raw ice, which marked the farthest point of their progress, and pressed them gently against his left thigh. Dull pain throbbed in his muscles.

Trys straightened his back and thrust his head upward and deeper into the limitless darkness. He shook it angrily. Besides denying them any way to determine their bearings, Trys found the profound blackness maddening in another way. It closed him tightly within himself so that the image of Roxyna’s last moment of life played across his mind’s eye over and over again, the blackness shutting out other impressions to leave him filled to overflowing with the memories of the horrendous sight.

He knew that Gyrs was also suffering with his own demons, for he often reached out to touch him in the dark and felt his body shaking gently with silent sobs. Gyrs had had to strike off Dryn’s head even as her attempt to assassinate Trys, upon orders from King/Lord Nordseth, had gone awry and the killing stroke of the spear had struck Roxyna instead. His love for the murderess, whom he had summarily executed almost by instinct, was obviously tormenting him. Trys knew he was haunted by the burning image of the edge of his blood blade sending her head flying from her shoulders.

They did not talk much, for the darkness oppressed both of them. Their own words, coming to them from the void and bouncing eerily off the distant walls and ceiling, frightened them even though they knew the source. The sounds, disconnected from the image of the speaker, struck them as oracular pronouncements, echoing and severe. When they had to communicate, it was by faint whispers, syllables spoken with little more than a shallow breath, the mist it generated invisible to their eyes but palpable upon their cheeks.

“Should we try to rest again?” asked Trys, moving his face closer to his brother’s.

“No. Keep going. I’ll break ice. Give you a rest.” Gyrs’s response, while couched in the same hushed tone of voice was sharp with an anger that Trys knew was directed at the blackness rather than at him. “It’s too hard anyway. I can’t sit in the slush. We’ve just got to keep going.”

His brother was right; resting in the pools of half frozen water at the bottom of their narrow trench was something they had only attempted once. They had both woken suddenly, shaken with shivers that touched their very bones. The cruel stab of coldness had saved them, for if they had sat there only a little longer, they would never have moved again.

Trys twisted to his left to let Gyrs move past him, his rhylichor hide singlesuit scraping against the wall of the gash with the tinkle of broken particles of ice marking his progress. After only the briefest of pauses, while Gyrs reached out his hand to determine where the end of the cut lay, he began to methodically break the eroded filigree of ice with both sheathed blood blade and booted feet. Trys knew that his brother kept his head down and his shoulders hunched even as he flailed out strongly with first the sword, then the right foot, and finally the left foot. It was an image that remained etched in his mind’s eye from before the light from the torches had failed them.

Relieved of the strenuous duty of smashing path, Trys shuffled forward after his laboring brother, and as he had before, found his mind following paths of thought and memory through the darkness and because of the darkness. Lost in the void for as long as they had been, it was only natural that his mind would revert to the belief underlying the most ancient of Rituals within the Chronicles of Blood upon the frozen planet of Winterhold. At the end of each person’s life, when the soul was released from the body by means gentle or violent—and upon Winterhold death by violence in a myriad of forms was much more likely—it traveled along the Dark Path that led it deep into the bowels of the world. There it was encased within a pillar of ice and stone, which was part of a vast subterranean complex of galleries, where it waited with all of its fellows for the final day of the world when the warmth of Father Sun would penetrate the body of Mother Ice to melt away the imprisoning ice and allow each and every one of them to soar toward the sky, freed from the cold forever.

As a clan Interpreter, Trys had taught that belief to others in the clan until it had become as meaningless as one of the multitude of extraneous Rituals that had grown up within the Hold where it perched upon the warm slopes of the slumbering volcanic mountain. He had always seen it as an abstraction, a way to express the hope that each soul yearned for. Now that he stumbled, numb from lack of sleep, through the darkness once again, in the place where all of his training told him that the Dark Path would lay if it indeed existed, he found himself wondering if the story was true and if he and his brother would soon come to their respective pillars where they might rest after a long and laborious journey.

The last time they had struggled through the inky darkness, with only a shallow bowl of sacred oil to light their way, they had been four. He and Roxyna had fled to the North, away from the Hold where only death had awaited them. He had planned to have them join the Caynruhl clan, the clan in which he had been brought up as a child of the Waste and which he had only recently realized was his only by adoption. His birth mother was the Queen/Lady Alisande herself, and there was no place in the Hold where he might be safe from the plots to either use him or remove him from the complex balances of blood. Upon nearing the caves of the Caynruhl, he and his love had come upon his brother and a captive he had taken from among the force of Blood Guards sent North to kill Trys, an attempt by his grandfather to correct a mistake made earlier in what could only be construed as a moment of weakness upon the part of the harsh ruler of the half throne of Winterhold. The captive was a woman named Dryn, captain of the troops sent to exterminate the would-be heir to the half throne, and who, almost as an afterthought, had ordered the massacre of the clan he had called his own.

The two men and two women had escaped from the Blood Guards by stumbling into a cave sacred to the higher initiates among the Interpreters. They had followed a tunnel that had led them to the very place they now struggled to cross once again. On the other side of the darkness, they had discovered a vast valley, hidden deep within the folds of the massive Northern Range, unknown to the outside world but containing a world complete unto itself.

Warmed by a belt of hot springs, which spewed poisonous fumes and which encircled most of the great valley, that served to keep the inhabitants in and foreigners out, it was home to three distinct embattled realms. The Empire of the Crimson Klynth occupied the largest part of the valley floor. The Carbuncle Palace, from which the Empress Illyra ruled, lay at its center. Guided, and some would say manipulated, by her primary advisor, the corpulent and devious Osskuth, the Empress kept up the age-old pressure upon the distant end of the valley where the group of Klynth who had broken away from the Empire long ago, and who called themselves the Azure Klynth, battled with the troops of the Empire. The Azure Klynth lived in the narrow and deadly zone close up against the towering cliffs that bounded that end of the valley. They were also known as the Outwallers.

Between these two old enemies lay a third group and a structure that defined the internal politics of the valley. The Ramparts, consisting of the Inner and Outer Rampart, had originally been manned by Crimson Klynth with orders to keep out the Azure Klynth. Its massive walls stretched from one side of the valley to the other, effectively cutting off the tapering end occupied by the Outwallers. The defenders of the Ramparts, led by the Border Lord Varstryke, had become a power unto themselves, keeping the Azure Klynth at bay but no longer obeying the orders coming from the Carbuncle Palace.

Trys and his friends had been separated upon entering the valley and fallen into a tangled web of plots for power. Gyrs and Dryn had sojourned in the stark realm of the Outwallers, while Trys had traveled to the distant Carbuncle Palace. Roxyna had become the guest and quickly the obsession of the Border Lord upon the Ramparts. After her violent death, Trys had spent some time with Varstryke and his sister, the Lady Kellyn, both of whom had befriended Roxyna. He had discovered that the Border Lord had also loved the woman that he had loved. Brother and sister had urged him and his brother to stay with them, but Trys and Gyrs had had to decline.

They had to leave the valley with its strange allurements and its painful memories. They had to journey back to the outer world of Winterhold. They had to travel to the Hold and face the complex situation there, both to get revenge for their losses and perhaps to try to put Trys upon the half throne. His conscience, spurred on by the murder of his beloved by the agent of his grandfather and rankled by the oppression of the people of both Hold and clan, would not allow Trys to do anything else. His purpose seemed clear, especially when Gyrs hissed his hatred of the King/Lord through clenched teeth and reminded him of who had sent Dryn in the first place. His brother’s straightforward desire for revenge was something he envied. But Trys wondered if his task would continue to be so clear and straightforward once the frigid air of the Waste filled his lungs once again.

He took a deep breath and the corrosive dampness of the cavern’s air clogged his lungs, making him yearn for the searing bite of the wind off the open Waste. At that moment, he feared he would still be breathing the tainted air when death came upon him and his brother as they wandered through the blackness and eventually dropped from exhaustion. He shuffled along behind Gyrs and kept his head down, making a conscious effort to keep to the center of the trench to avoid the sharp needles of the shattered ice on both sides.

Trys opened his eyes and shut them several times in rapid succession in a futile attempt to differentiate between the darkness in front of and behind his eyelids. As he did so, he drifted slightly to the right and the toe of his boot crunched against the lacy ice. He stopped and slid his toe along the side of the trench to assure himself that when he began to walk again he would be headed in the correct direction. Once he had managed to get himself completely turned around and was several yards away from his brother and picking up speed before he realized his mistake. The sound of ice being crushed behind him had reoriented him. He had turned and wildly fumbled his way back, his legs dragging painfully along the sides of the gash, giving him a perverse sense of satisfaction that he was once again headed in the right direction.

The icy sludge at the bottom of the cut was deep enough to cover the tops of his boots and numb his feet in a matter of seconds. Trys surged forward to get beyond the depression. As he did so, he raised his head for a moment, in an instinctive yet futile gesture designed to help him get his bearings. With his heels still buried in the icy slush, he stopped. There was something different about the darkness ahead.

He opened his eyes as wide as he could and shifted his head slowly from side to side. A smudge of light stained the blackness. He closed his eyes, waited for three rapid heartbeats, and then opened them. The faint trace of light continued to hang upon the void, telling him there was a difference between having his eyes shut and having them open. He leaped forward and slammed his right knee hard into an overhang of broken ice on that side of the slit. Ignoring the pain, he kept his head up and his gaze focused upon the blackness, which was no longer complete, hovering in front of them.

“Gyrs!” he hissed, the restraint he had learned throughout the long sojourn through the blank world keeping his voice a low as possible. “Light.”

He knew that he barely whispered the last syllable, for he felt it catch in his dry throat, but his brother immediately stopped breaking the path ahead of him. Trys could tell that he had finished lashing out with his left foot, for it was the second of two muffled smashes, and that he had just raised his sheathed blood blade to deliver a ringing stroke.

“I see it,” quavered his brother’s voice in little more than a hastily expelled breath. “I see it.” The second time carried conviction and a vibrant determination more ecstatic than any shout.

Gyrs lashed out hard with his sword and fragments of ice flew away for yards on both sides of them, the pieces rattling across the pockmarked surface until they settled into holes with a dying tinkle. He kicked and slashed, kicked and slashed, shards spinning back to sting Trys’s cheeks. But Trys refused to lower his head or to close his eyes. He stared straight ahead, drinking in the glorious sight of the pallid glow, which followed the striations in the overarching cliff and outlined the beautiful sight of dips and swells in the raw rock face.

With a goal in sight, Gyrs worked like a madman, at times ramming his short, solid body forward when the ice would not yield quickly enough to his blows. He even used his knees, for, wrapped as they were in the tough rhylichor hide, they functioned as a type of battering ram. Trys did not even bother to ask Gyrs if he was tired or if he could take his place. His brother had gone slightly berserk, shoveling away at the delicate structure of the ice field and cutting a broad swathe.

He stopped only when his descending sword banged against the wall of the cavern where it swelled slightly outward above them. With Gyrs close up against the vaguely illuminated rock, Trys was actually able to make out the outline of his broad shoulders and could tell, with a thrill, that he had lowered his blade and raised his head. It was the first living thing he had seen since the last torch had sputtered out. He drank in the sight with something verging on madness himself.

“The causeway,” said Trys in a louder voice than he had dared to use before. “We need to find the causeway leading to the end of the tunnel.”

He saw his brother nod and then heard him clear his throat to answer when he realized that Trys might not have seen the gesture.

“It’s all right. I saw you nod. I saw you.”

Gyrs turned around, and although it was still too dark for him to clearly see his expression, Trys knew that his brother was grinning from ear to ear.

“And I can see you. You look exhausted,” cackled Gyrs with delight that he could once again make such an observation.

“You don’t look so great yourself.”

“I feel great. I feel like I could smash a hole through this rock with my bare hands.”

“Let’s find the tunnel instead; it’d be easier on your hands.”

“It’s got to be to our left since we drifted to the right off the path.”

Before Trys could ask if Gyrs wanted him to take the lead, his brother lashed out with renewed energy and made rapid progress along the crumbling verge of the underground lake. Trys kept glancing up at the light striated rock where it towered above them. At first the feeble glow hurt his eyes, since he was so close to it. , but as he continued to stare, his light-starved eyes slowly adjusted and he was able to make out details of the ribbed cliff along which they labored and the rotted ice through which Gyrs was able to tramp easily with only a heavy-footed gait.

A stifled shout and a plunge ahead from his brother announced that he had found something. Gyrs scrambled up onto what appeared to be a low wall. Trys squinted his tired eyes in an attempt to determine if it ran out into the darkness on their left. Meanwhile, Gyrs gained the top and slapped the smooth stone. He then dashed a few feet to the left and stamped his foot before running back.

“This is it,” he declared as if he had just discovered a new continent. “Get up here and let’s find the tunnel.”

Gyrs shifted his blade to his left hand and thrust his right one down toward Trys, who grabbed it. Trys flew up and onto the causeway from the force of the pull. The brothers stood next to each other for a moment, both of them turned in the direction they knew the tunnel should lay. The light was not sufficient to reveal whether or not a gap existed in the great cliff before them, but their hearing, sharpened by such a long sojourn in the darkness, picked up a familiar sound. It was the sibilant rush of water over stone.

“It’s the underground river,” declared Gyrs. “It sounds loud, which means the opening we made in the wall is still there.”

Gyrs swung his sheathed blood blade up in front of his face in an obvious attempt to examine the condition of the scabbard. Trys noticed his movement and glanced down at his own. The rhylichor hide in which they had been wrapped by the workmen upon the Ramparts showed a network of tiny scratches but no true cuts in the material, despite the fact that it had been driven repeatedly through the ice needles of the partially frozen lake. Once again, the hide of the strange beast had proven its toughness and durability.

Trys swung his sword over his right shoulder and slid it into the straps designed to hold it there securely and comfortably. As he did, it banged dully against the other blade already slung there. He clutched the hilt harder for a moment as it vibrated gently. The other blade had belonged to Roxyna. He had taken it with him as a talisman to both remind him of her and to help guard him from harm. He turned to Gyrs who had performed much the same operation with similar results, for he carried Dryn’s blood blade. Trys could not make out the expression on his brother’s face but he knew it was a tormented mixture of love and hatred.

“Let’s go.” Gyrs spoke harshly as he shrugged his shoulders back to allow the blades to lie side by side along his spine.

For the first time in a long time, the brothers were able to walk forward without having to smash their way through any impediment. They found their legs kicking out sharply as they took short, staccato steps out of habit. The stone was firm and dry beneath their soles, and as they moved along, the numbness from the ubiquitous cold, which had crept up their legs and had settled deep within their muscles and bones, melted away. They found themselves walking with an awkward spring in their stride, as if their legs expected at any moment to encounter a frigid barrier and were surprised when they did not.

What they did encounter was a thin carpet of loose stones. Gyrs gave a burst of laughter as he recognized the detritus from the clogged hole that he had shoved ahead of him when he had first entered the stygian cavern. He scrambled up the low talus and thrust his head through the opening in the rock. The noise of the rushing water dwindled to a stifled whisper until he pulled back and turned to his brother.

“As far as I can tell, it’s all there; the river cutting through the rock and disappearing into it and the broken pieces of the four guardians. No one was through after us.”

“Who would have been crazy enough to have followed us into this blackness?” muttered Trys.

“What did you say? The noise of the river drowned you out.”

“Nothing, Gyrs. Nothing. Let’s get through the hole and try to find something to burn. This half-light is already beginning to get to me.”

Trys shut his eyes to block out the scabrous glow from the rocks. He hungered to see the full, solid form of his brother and stare hard into his face. The old devils conjured up by the fey light were already flitting through his mind and grating on his nerves.

Gyrs grunted and shoved his head back through the opening. The hilts of his blood blades banged against the top of the hole, which was only large enough for a person to wiggle through on his belly. He reached over his right shoulder, grabbed both hilts, and then pulled himself forward with his left hand. Until his booted feet disappeared through the gap, the reassuring rush of water over stone was completely silenced.

Trys glanced up nervously at the cliff above him. The phosphorescence ran in a series of vertical streaks, which tricked his light starved eyes into believing that tons of rock were about to break off and crush him. He crouched and nearly threw himself into the hole, his feet scrabbling for purchase on the rolling pebbles. The top of his head bumped against the soles of Gyrs’s boots and helped to propel his brother through the gap and send him sprawling awkwardly upon the narrow shelf above the course of the river on the other side. The hilts of Trys’s blades clattered against the stone and caught on a small projection halfway through the short tunnel, but he shoved himself past it by brute force.

“We’re through. It’s all right,” said Gyrs in a calming tone of voice, seemingly aware that something was wrong but not sure exactly what.

Trys leaped up and nearly tumbled into the rushing current as he felt for the lip of the narrow ledge and flattened himself against the wall.

“Light,” was all he could say in a strained whisper.

“I’ll get light. Just a moment,” replied his brother.

Trys saw Gyrs feel around him and realized that he had come to rest upon the remnants of the four guardians of the once plugged hole. They were the desiccated bodies of three men and one woman set up on stilts to make them more intimidating to anyone who might wander that far into the torturous tunnels. When he had first come upon them, as he had led the small group, Gyrs had assumed they had been set up ages ago to guard what might have been the entrance to the Dark Path itself. Having nothing to return to, they had had to go on and Gyrs had tumbled the manikins to one side and had attacked the loose rocks blocking the entrance to the great cavern beyond.

Trys strained his eyes to see what his brother was doing. Since Gyrs had violated the sacred guardians once before by shoving them from their assigned positions, Trys saw him shrug, as if to indicate that he could not incur any more of their wrath. He then pawed over the jumble of disjointed bones and the bryl hides that had once adorned them. He tore off a swathe of leather and rolled it into a tight cylinder. The fabric retained some of its flexibility, but was brittle in a good many places. It crackled between his twisting fingers and powdered leather exploded in his face.

Gyrs pulled out flint and steel from a pocket in his singlesuit, and after three sharp blows, he managed to set one end of the roll ablaze. The fire took hold quickly, nearly singeing his eyebrows as he bent over his task. He coughed as a puff of dusty smoke curled down his throat. Looking for a place to put down the improvised torch without quenching the flame, he shoved the end into the outstretched hand of one of the skeletal guardians, which had formerly clutched the haft of a brum pike. The hand was still connected to the forearm and protruded from the jumble of bones and leather like a beacon for the ages.

Gyrs sat back on his haunches, and after staring fixedly for a short time at the flame whose warmth and light were like a blessing from the gods, glanced up at his brother where he still stood upon the narrow ledge that spanned the rushing water of the underground stream. Trys was pressed flat against the rock behind him. His face was covered with a sheen of sweat, his cheeks were red, and his eyes glazed. He muttered something about the venom from a spinth burning into his shoulders and wracking his head. He too stared at the light and heaved several deep sighs as the spell seemed to abate, leaving him shaky but with his eyes focused.

Gyrs helped Trys down from the ledge and onto the broad path along the river. Once down on the solid path, Trys lurched forward and knelt at the edge of the swirling water, which looked like a sliding black cable between the narrow banks. He scooped up a double handful of the icy liquid and splashed it full upon his face. It drew a gasp from him but blanched the red from his cheeks. He dipped again and filled his mouth with water, gulping it down a throat that ached from its coldness. He continued to kneel there, staring at the rushing flow, while Gyrs set to work fashioning several more torches from the rotting leather of the guardians’ costumes. He got another one blazing and thrust it into Trys’s hands. Trys stared at it closely, narrowing his eyes and reveling in the heat and light that beat against the skin of his face. Gyrs thrust a couple of the auxiliary torches into the straps on his back next to his blades and did the same for Trys.

“We have light and we have water. Now, we just need to follow the tunnel and leave this place,” declared Gyrs.

Trys nodded and rose to his feet, holding his torch in front of him, still a bit closer than was good for his hair and eyebrows. Without another word, Gyrs strode away from the gap in the rock that had marked their departure from the outer world of Winterhold on their way into the valley and that now marked their return to that world. Trys glanced back at the hole in the wall beneath which the tumbled ruins of the guardians lay like a midden heap. The water was utterly black as it raced through the hole under the guardians’ ledge, the same deep hue as the circle punched in the stone wall, which marked the end of the tunnel and the beginning of the void beyond. Trys swung his torch around and thrust it ahead of him stiffly, fixing his mind resolutely upon the path that lay ahead.

That path wound back and forth next to its constant companion, the underground river. The roar of the rushing liquid was at first comforting after the silence of the great cavern, but the steady din soon began to wear upon Trys’s already jangled nerves. He knew they could not lose their way now, but the way out seemed infinitely longer than the way in. The presence of the river also added to the difficulty of negotiating the path. Coming in, they had slid down the sloping path, slick in spots with spray from the river. Now they had to labor to climb those same slippery slopes.

The mist also caused Trys to meticulously protect his torch, for at times the moisture coated the dried leather and hissed into a cloud of steam around the roughly burning flame. He trimmed it of poorly burning scraps, singeing his fingers in the process. Darkness had become something more than merely oppressive to him.

Gyrs was several yards in the lead when he paused and stepped carefully around something in the path. Trys hurried up to him, holding his torch high overhead to cast as much light forward as possible. What he saw made him slow and finally stop when he was only a few feet from it. It was the desiccated body of the man with the bowl of red pigment. On the way in, they had followed the trail of the ancient artist, who had stepped in a puddle of crimson paint in the main cave and then had hurried down along the winding tunnel. The regularly spaced prints of his stained left foot had been their guide until they had come across his body.

The body was unchanged. He was stretched out along the path, the flesh shrunken tightly across the bones but still intact. The essence of the man was revealed and would remain so for eternity. His hands were thrust forward with the cluster of finger bones wrapped about the bowl of dried crimson paint. Trys looked hard at the face that was fully lit by his own torch. He could not tell whether the static features formed a grin or a grimace. The ages of slow dissolution had tugged the leather-like flesh taut across the bones to form an enigmatic expression.

In his present state of mind, Trys saw the man’s yearning to penetrate deeper into the tunnel and the darkness as aberrant. Perhaps he had been mad or merely deluded, driven to the ultimate distraction by the drug and Ritual laden atmosphere in which he had existed as an Interpreter. If he had truly believed that he was headed for the beginning of the Dark Path, Trys reflected cynically, then he would have been very disappointed. Perhaps the darkness had called to him and he had answered, hurrying to his death, spilling paint and not heeding it, only too eager for what he believed lay ahead of him. It all came down to belief, and Trys was not sure what he believed or disbelieved any longer. At the same time that he pitied the man, who might have been little more than a confused fool, he envied him the obvious strength of the faith that had taken him so far along the darkening path.

Gyrs nodded reverently once toward the body and turned slowly on his heel, as if leaving the site of a grave. The shifting of his torch illuminated the lowered ceiling of the tunnel ahead and left the body wrapped in deep shadows. Trys moved his roll of burning leather from his right hand to his left and sketched a brief sign in the air over the artist with the fingers of the free hand. It was the blessing given to those whose feet were upon the Dark Path. Trys wondered if the doubt that he had concerning the reality of the Dark Path negated the simple but evocative gesture. He decided that, in this case, an empty Ritual was better than no Ritual at all.

He then hurried to catch up to Gyrs, who trudged steadily onward, his head down to watch his footing upon the shadow-laden path and the steadily growing solidity of the red prints left so long ago by the questing Interpreter. In this way they retraced their steps back through the sinuous tunnel, eventually reaching a place where the river disappeared from view, taking with it its sibilant roar. Both brothers slowed, stunned by the sudden silence. Neither broke the quietness, and Gyrs finally shook his head and set off with renewed vigor, swinging his smoldering brand back and forth to scatter light farther ahead of them and to either side.

That swaying light next revealed designs and pictures painted in still bright colors upon the walls and ceiling of the tunnel, and they knew they were drawing close to the end of their path. The tunnel fell and rose and fell again before it widened and ran straight and smooth for several hundred yards. Gyrs waved his torch about, the flames scorching the low ceiling and blackening the thickly crusted paint on a mural, which swept up one wall, across the roof, and down the other side. It depicted a herd of bryl fleeing from a band of hunters. After Gyrs had passed with his smoldering torch, the center of the herd was lost in a cloud of gray soot.

But Gyrs did not even glance at what lay around him; he was focused on what lay ahead of him. The end of the long tunnel was marked by a smoothly carved arch whose edge was decorated with the pictures of two stylized brums, their elongated bodies stretched out along the arch, curving from base to apex. The bright blue paint in which they were rendered was certainly not realistic in hue, but it did capture the essence of their grasping savagery, the needle points of the claws sparkling as they reached toward each other, frozen in the act of tearing at the flesh of the enemy. Gyrs ignored the artistic achievement by the ancient artist and strode purposefully through the arch and into the cave beyond. Trys found himself shrugging his shoulders as he passed hurriedly beneath the forceful design, confused by being so affected by the painting and unwilling to have his brother see his involuntary gesture of protection.

Gyrs’s stride slowed and he then halted when he reached the center of the domed cave. He held his improvised torch high over his head in a futile attempt to thrust back the shadows gathered above him. The light from the bundle of ancient leather was not powerful enough to dispel the darkness overhead. It did harshly illuminate a single picture painted upon the curved arch overhead. A few bold strokes of crimson paint depicted a face. Whether it was a man’s face or a demon’s visage was unclear. The mouth was open wide in a silent and toothless scream, the eyes twisted with what might have been pain or devilish glee, and its forehead rippled with tightly spaced and subtly curved lines like the side of a wind scoured dune of snow.

Upon his first sight of it, Trys knew it was the light shining upon it that created a large portion of the startling effect. If the source of light had been from the burning of the sacred oil from one of the stacked earthenware jars stacked in a corner, then the sight would not have been as stark and arresting. He knew that the light from the oil was thick and yellow, tempered by the darkness that had crept into its very substance from the centuries it had sat there. They had used the oil to light their way into the tunnel when there had been four of them. Now with just two, there was no need to trim a wick in one of the shallow dishes and set the liquid aflame.

Trys stepped up close to his brother and thrust his own torch above his head to cast its light upon the image. The added illumination shifted the shadows dramatically from one side to the other and dispelled some of the raw magic. By clapping Gyrs upon the shoulder, Trys was able to shake him out of his morbid reverie and return him to an awareness of his immediate surroundings. Gyrs scowled and then brought his arm down sharply, as if his torch had been firmly tethered to the painting and he could only break the contact by a sudden movement. He shook his head and cursed even as he lowered his gaze as well as his torch, sweeping the floor of the cave with its burning end and losing bits of charred leather in the process. The surging light from the torches pushed back the shadows and clustered them behind the stacked jars of sacred oil, which were the only sizeable objects in the cave.

Trys glanced at the jars and their rocking backdrop, but Gyrs turned immediately to the other end of the domed space. He shoved his torch out ahead of him and stalked over to the low and narrow opening to the outside. Without hesitation, he trampled on the end of the rolled and charred leather and snuffed out the flame. The diminution of light startled Trys, who instinctively held his own twisted wad higher to keep the shadows at bay. Gyrs got down on his hands and knees and shoved himself into the low opening.

Trys watched his feet disappear into the cleft in the rock and opened his mouth to call out to him, but found no words to utter. What could he say? Why should he delay leaving the realm he had come to hate and even fear? Trys turned around slowly to survey the sacred cave of the Interpreters. It was obvious it had not been visited since he and the others had gone through it. Dust and ice were heavy on all of the flat surfaces. The fact that such a special space had been ignored for so long suddenly struck him as strange. Where were the Interpreters from that section of the Northern Range? Why had they not come here to perform some of the more secret Rituals necessary for the continuation of the clans?

A muffled shout burst from the tube into which Gyrs had vanished. Trys knew that he must join his brother and leave the mystery of the abandoned cave for later consideration. He shuffled over to the cleft and bent down to see how narrow it was. Another imperative shout made him lay his torch down upon the rock. He watched it burn unevenly, the flame licking greedily down along a crack in the dark brown bryl hide. He raised his foot and lowered it slowly and carefully onto the fire. When the heat began to warm his sole through the thick rhylichor hide, he ground his heel hard on the flame and scuffed it out. The moment the light flickered out; Trys lunged for the hole and scrambled into it. Light from outside filtered through and he shoved himself toward it with a desperate mania to see true sunlight once again.

Trys reached the end and dragged himself free of the constricting rock. He lay face down for a moment, while the diffused sunlight making its way into the torturous defile completely blinded him. Keeping his eyes tightly shut, he raised his head to the fresh air and let it touch his face. Even without sight, he could sense the open space around him and knew it was not capped by a dome of rock. He was outside once again.

After what seemed like a long period of time, he raised his eyelids slightly. The flood of light both scared and exhilarated him. He clamped his eyes shut once more and waited as patiently as he could, listening hungrily to the sounds around him. He heard the drip of water, the faint susurration of wind over uneven rocks, and the uneven footsteps of someone trying to walk when their eyes were still dazzled by a bright light. He knew it was Gyrs.

With his eyes still tightly closed, Trys got to his feet and put his back against the rock next to the opening. He took a gloriously deep breath of fresh air. It nipped at his throat with a damp chill, but he could immediately tell that it did not contain the deadly sharp edge of deep winter. Impatient now to see what lay before him, he opened his eyelids once again and was able to keep them open.

The curtain of light dazzled his eyes. By blinking repeatedly and wiping away the constant stream of tears, he was able to make out the general outline of the cul-de-sac in which he found himself. Walls of rock leaped straight up to the perfectly blue sky on three sides. The small open area outside the entrance to the cave was littered with small pebbles and clumps of dirty snow. He had never seen such a beautiful sight.

The sound of booted feet treading across the uneven surface and grinding the smooth pebbles underfoot made him look carefully over to his right. There he saw Gyrs just returning from a circuit of the stone cup with a broad grin on his face. He walked with a spring in his step and a roll of his broad shoulders as he gloried in simply being in the open air once again.

“It’s over,” declared Gyrs.

“I know, and none too soon. My eyes were atrophying.”

“Oh, yes, well, that’s also over. But what I meant was winter. It’s spring.”

Trys sniffed the air, and even trapped as it was in the removed pocket at the end of the obscure gorge, the peculiar tang which every inhabitant of Winterhold knew meant spring rippled deep down in his nostrils.

“I can smell it,” said Trys with a sigh of satisfaction.

“That means we can get out of this canyon now. I’ve scouted the slope where the huge snowdrift was when we came in here. There’s a path we can climb back toward the Waste.”

Trys nodded and stepped away from the wall next to the hole in the rock. He kept his gaze down since the light was still harsh for his sensitive eyes. He did spare one last backward glance at the opening. It looked so small and insignificant at the bottom of the soaring rock face.

The loose gravel which had been blown in over the years by the wind charging down the narrow canyon and which coated the floor of the cul-de-sac turned beneath his feet to keep him off balance. He threw out his arms and used the weight of the two blood blades strapped across his back to help him navigate across the unsteady surface.

Gyrs had adopted the sliding walk that all inhabitants of the Waste use to cross unstable snow and moved ahead of him to the base of the steep slope leading up and out of the dead end. Trys followed his example and soon joined him where he could see that the relatively warmer sun of spring had knifed down between the close set walls of the gorge and melted much of the snow at the center of the ice encrusted slope to reveal a rough path snaking upward.

They ascended in single file, and once they reached the top continued on their way along the bottom of what amounted to little more than a slash down through the rock. Snow and ice still encumbered the surface but actually made traction better, since it held the rounded pebbles in suspension and they did not have to worry about them rolling beneath their soles.

The walls of the canyon were rippled with horizontal scars gouged out by the glacier, which had cut its way down through the bedrock of the Northern Range centuries ago. Trys ran his hand along the wall on his right and recalled the furious blast from the storm off the Waste that had driven him and his companions down the throat of the gorge. From what he could tell by looking up at the narrow ribbon of sky visible high above, it was probably mid-morning. The rays of the shifting sun had lingered on the right hand wall most of the morning and the stone was warm to the touch. Ruefully, he moved the tips of his fingers away from the sun-kissed rock. The contrast to the last time he had traversed that path was more than he could bear.

Ahead of him, Gyrs gave a wordless shout. Trys lengthened his stride and was running nearly flat out by the time he reached the end of the canyon and skidded to a stop next to his brother. Instinctively, his hand went to Gyrs’s shoulder and he gripped it tightly as they both stood and contemplated the open Waste.

Its pure whiteness was a blaze of searing light, enough to engulf the universe and blanch all color from it. At first he shrank from its stark power, absent so long from his life but never truly forgotten, even as his very flesh tightened in the presence of the color that contained all others. Then he turned his slitted eyes to face it, not to face it down but to acknowledge its power and give it its due, which was the only way to live with the whiteness that was the Waste.

Once again in its presence, Trys knew that the Waste contained all the things he would ever need, and that beneath its bitter sterility lay a rich fecundity. It was a perfect joining of opposites where life and death were only inches and moments away from each other. He knew it would be good to walk along the edge of that blade once more, to feel the razor sharpness beneath the feet and sense the abyss on either side.

Gyrs grunted to indicate that he was more than satisfied to be back in its presence once again. Without a word, he stepped out of the defile and onto the swirled snow. His boots crunched through the crystals of ice and he grinned, like a child taking its first successful steps by himself. He hurried down the gentle slope in front of the mouth of the canyon, his gait falling into the familiar broken rhythm of step and slide.

Trys followed him, breathing deeply of the air that lay quiescent and cold along the foothills of the Northern Range. As he did so, the flicker of a shadow caught at the corner of his eye and made his first step onto the snow awkward. He turned his head to glance back. He saw nothing but the rough face of the cliff and the jagged gash of the gorge in the sun warmed rock. He thought no more about it as he walked out into the Waste.