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This is the first chapter
THE HALL OF PORTALS
And his God spoke:
‘The pestilence precedes you.
Hurry, let it not be wasted.
Reap all the souls for Purgatory.
Search for the key.
The key must be found!
Kill the boy!’
If Anders had not been brooding over the tragedy of Dom’s lost soul, or wondering what had become of Augusta and Thaddeus, he might have noticed the ripple in the wall in front of which he sat his back against the oak tree. Albeit it was a small undulation, a wrinkle hardly noticeable in the vast panoply of the constantly moving hues and shades, merging shapes, and the ever-changing hum of Life.
It occurred way to the north of Mantovar, in the place that Lord Tragen had warned them of. Mortally afraid of the place, Tragen had been prepared to quarrel violently with his long-time friend, Hugo Locklear, Captain of the Grim, when he’d suggested sailing north to get around the demon-created storm off the coast of Mantovar. The old wizard had been adamant; no-one was to ever consider travelling to the Frozen Wastes. To bring their charges anywhere near the foul habitation was more than extreme folly—it was tantamount to executing Princess Augusta and her friends.
Anders, murdered friend of the four young wizards in Life, Lord Aidan, Thaddeus Prince Griffin, Princess Augusta and Lady Beatrix, spent his strange afterlife as their sentinel at the Wall of Colours in Limbo. But even if he had noticed the wrinkle he’d only have scratched his head, having no idea what it could possibly mean. He had never heard Lord Tragen’s warnings of the terrible dangers residing in that place so couldn’t be held answerable for ignoring the signs of abnormal activity. He couldn’t be blamed either for not noticing the new gateway that had opened up allowing the Darkness through into Mantovar. The entry had been swallowed up by the immensely larger torrent of demons pouring through into the cavern beneath the surface of the island of Sanctity.
So, Anders continued to meditate totally unaware that hell was about to be unleashed in Life. His concerns centred on his friends’ problems. Augusta and Thaddeus losing their magic in captivity, imprisoned by Razor Montetor, deposed heir to the mountain clan of Griffin Island. Then there was Aidan’s need to rescue his mentor, Tragen, ensnared by demons within the Darkness. And, of course, Aidan’s need to search for the Tree of Paradise so that he could create his own staff. That tree was also somewhere in Limbo, Anders had no idea what it looked like so he couldn’t search for it himself to aid his friend. And then there was the fifth member of their coterie, Beatrix, desperately worried for her friends as well as trying to cope with her guilt at her involvement in what had become of Dom. Dom, the eleven-year old green boy, son of their friend Leonid, had accidentally joined the ranks of the soulless ones. The accident had occurred when she and Aidan had been forced to carry him through Limbo to escape from the mine cave-in above Bylani.
There were priorities upon priorities in the coterie’s search for answers to these problems. But, above all, to survive the task imposed on them in Findar’s prophecy, they had to identify the evil One behind the Darkness and the Lady of the Light, the devil God’s enemy. For both of these Gods – if the Lady was such a being – had entangled the five young wizards in their war.
On the northern outskirts of the village of Walrus Bay, built on the shores of the frozen lands in close proximity to the mammals and fish they hunted, the Giants, Boron, and his wife, Emerald, were preparing to leave their home. At the behest of their chief, Cobalt, they were to search farther inland than Giants had stepped for centuries. The race of Giants had volunteered to settle on the long coast of the Frozen Wastes millennia before and had never ventured very far north into the hinterland—until now.
Boron was roughly two and a half times the size of a human, tall even for his race, and broad with it. He had long, flame-red hair as did most of his people; only occasionally did a Giant have locks of jet-black. Boron’s face was devoid of any growth, no Giant could grow a tidy beard, not even stubble, though the young ones did persevere until they realized their elders did know better, sometimes. His large turquoise eyes troubled he glanced across at his wife, a Giantess whose head just reached his shoulders.
Emerald caught his look and read his mood instantly. ‘Do not worry about me, husband,’ and she smiled. ‘I am fleeter of foot than you.’
‘You may be, but you are also stubborn. If I am in trouble you will not leave me even though others must be informed of danger. But this time there can be no option. When I tell you, you must flee.’
‘Boron,’ glaring she laid aside the pack of wrapped poached seal fillet she was about to place in her canvas shoulder bag, ‘I have loved you from the moment I could first speak, from the moment I took my first steps as a child. I have grown up with you. You are my right hand, my heart. I cannot live without you so do not say I am stubborn because I want to live. If matters go amiss then we will overcome them together…or fail together. So, no more talk of parting, you would never leave me in peril, either.’ She stood in front of him, her hands on her hips, daring him to defy her.
‘My beloved, if all the stories from our history are true then I believe we go into immense danger. I cannot help it if I worry about you. But I do understand you, for my feelings are the same.’ He stooped and, taking up his sealskin bag by its drawstring, he walked towards the door which necessitated passing her within arms’ length. He grabbed her and pulled her to his chest kissing the top of her head, breathing in the heady perfume of her red hair. ‘Come, let us go. The sooner we leave, the sooner we return.’
Emerald looked up into his eyes, still uneasy but full of love. ‘We’ll discover the reason for the trembling of the ice and we’ll return safely with the news,’ she caressed his face.
They both turned as the door opened and Coal entered. It was very unusual for a Giant to have a nickname, but because he’d worked in the coalmines in the Scissor Mountains for years until the sea had called him, as it did most Giants, Slate was known as Coal. His skin though was nearly as black as his nickname, with long hair the same he stared at them momentarily seeing the fear on both their faces and then nodded at the bag in Boron’s hand. ‘Shall I take that? The sled is all but ready up at the snowline, your lead dog, Loper is now being harnessed, a few minutes and you can be off. Be aware, though, Chief Cobalt is walking down the road heading here.’
‘Thank you Coal, we have been expecting him,’ said Emerald now free of her husband’s embrace. ‘Husband, I think it’s time to don our coats.’
Boron passed his wife her large hooded overcoat made of the fur of polar bears and picked up his own. With fur-lined, knee-high, sealskin boots they would be dry and warm during their trek across the Wastes. Halting outside his home he pulled his fur mittens from his pocket, preparing to put them on his hands he watched his leader approaching along the well-kept road, last night’s snow flurries already disappearing leaving the ground bare. They were fortunate in the time of year; it was summer, though latish in the short season at the top of the world. In winter they would not have been able to get far out of the village; the snowdrifts then would have towered over the roofs of their houses.
Shrugging into his coat Boron took the opportunity to look around at his comfortable domicile. It was a home built and added to over the long period of their marriage; a house which they had both hoped would eventually ring with the sound of a child’s laughter. It did but only for a few years. Giants were gifted with longevity but cursed with low fertility. The race was lucky to see a new child born once in a decade. Boron and Emerald, although wedded for nearly two hundred years had only conceived one child. Tragically their very young son had been murdered by a human years before and they had never fully recovered from the death. The pain of their loss still lingered though it had decreased over the years. But still, tears were never very far beneath the surface of their emotions.
The death of their boy, Kyan, born to Emerald and Boron thirty years earlier, was the only distressful incident the Giants had had with the outside races. The killing of a child to a race that had so few was devastating. A human had sneaked ashore on a particularly stormy night. Kyan had discovered the man stealing from the Giants’ Moot Hall and had been killed to silence him. However, he had lived long enough to whisper to his parents a description of the thief and the captain of the man’s ship had executed the perpetrator before the day was out—and before the Giants could tear him apart. A simple memorial of blue kyanite had been erected on a slope overlooking the sea. But it had taken many years for the Giants to come anywhere near trusting and treating amicably with humans again. However, necessity had gone someway to healing the wound.
Walrus Bay was home to a hundred families but only four children. There were not many more in any other of their settlements along the coast. The village homes were built of stone dragged laboriously from the Scissor Mountains in the east, all were low having only one floor. The Giants used to build higher, sometimes having three or four floors, but the winds of latter years had become too strong and the top storeys shook and crumbled. The Giants, though, were reasonably content with their lot. Life in Walrus Bay was hard in winter, easier in summer when the bay was not frozen over. The fishing was good whatever the season; a surplus of gunnel sustaining them along with crabs, lobster, the all-important seals and whale. The hunting was also rewarding there was plenty of bear, foxes and hares to the north, although no Giant ever hunted very far in that direction. Trading with merchants sailing up from the south was also productive ensuring they had a steady supply of metal goods in return for furs and whale oil.
However, the ships were guarded constantly now against the occasional human who couldn’t understand why the giants did not wish to sell the minerals all knew abounded in the hinterland. The merchants had come to realize that when the Giants said no they meant it. No visitor was ever allowed ashore unless accompanied by a Giant. Even so, for those humans in search of minerals there was a ready market for the coal dug from the drift-mines in the Scissor Mountains. The Giants had become expert in the art of mining when the Svartalfar, the black elves, had shown them a means to blast through the overlying rock and get at the fuel beneath. But the Giants did not delve below the surface of the permafrost of the snow plains, they were too afraid they might disturb that which should not be discomfited.
Boron fretted, his thoughts dwelling on the last few weeks. Something unusual was developing beneath their feet, giving rise to an unusual tremor in the leagues-deep ice. It had first occurred three months earlier and, although they had been puzzled at the time, they had thought no more about it until they experienced it again ten days later—and at least once a week since.
The Giants had been slow to come to a decision, fear being the cause. They’d met every day after that first month. Discussing the possibilities and probabilities, never dreaming of the truth in those first meetings, they’d come to the conclusion that the tremors could only be the after-shock of an earthquake. But they did not know where the quake had originated and they needed to. Earthquakes in the Wastes sometimes led to great ice floes breaking away. Once, centuries earlier, they had lost an entire township because they had ignored the signs. So this time they sent out patrols to all points of the compass—except into the extreme north. They had returned with no evidence of any disturbance.
Nevertheless, the tremors had increased in strength and frequency over the latter weeks and they became mortally afraid. The quakes’ epicentre was somewhere in the far-flung north in an area knowledge of which they had forced over the centuries to the depths of their subconscious—for their sanity’s sake. The lack of activity in that region in recent memory, the absence of threat and horror, had all led to complacency and a false sense of security. All the same, it now had to be searched and Boron and Emerald had volunteered, or rather Boron had offered his services as he was the Giants’ most experienced hunter. His wife had demanded to accompany him and had not taken no for an answer.
They walked across the road and up the short slope to their son’s memorial and both laid a hand on the stone. It was a ritual Boron and Emerald observed every time they departed Walrus Bay – saying farewell to the boy who was always with them in their hearts. They did the same on every return home – saying hello to their son. They stepped back to the road and waited for the supreme leader of the Giants to reach them.
‘You are ready?’ asked Chief Cobalt coming to a halt alongside them. ‘I will walk with you to the snowline.’
It wasn’t far, being late summer the snow was now beginning to creep southwards towards the village. Another few weeks and Walrus Bay would be again clothed in white, the seas frozen for leagues into the Deep. They walked in silence broken only by the sound of their boots striking the well-worn earth covering the permafrost of the road. Eventually they reached the outskirts of the village and espied the sled in the distance. It was piled high with provisions and shelter for a month. Loper, the huge blocker, a dog bred from malamutes over the years for its size and strength – its head reached the waist of the giants – was now harnessed at the head of the gangline in front of a team of twenty hiders. Hiders were dogs only a little smaller, their heads reaching the shoulders of the blockers. Worked in twos, each pair was harnessed to a tugline attached to the central gangline. But these long-haired dogs were unusual in that they had a mind contact with the Giant they chose to obey. And Loper had chosen Boron and Emerald, so had the hiders. All the dogs, despite having timber shelters in which to dwell, opted to roam free over the cold, harsh environment and sometimes hunted far afield on their own never failing to return home. And they always answered their masters’ mindcall.
Cobalt asked again. ‘You are fully prepared?’
‘We are,’ answered Boron. Lacing his mittens tightly around the sleeves of his white coat he glanced at his wife who had walked ahead and was now checking the ropes securing the large canvas wrapping the load. Taking it from Coal who had picked it up along with Boron’s bag, he hefted his favoured weapon, a double-headed axe. Savouring the feel of the well-oiled, amber handle he slung it across his back. His wife’s lighter and shorter axe lay atop the load on the sled within easy reach of her hands, as were their bows and arrows, the bowstrings safely packed away in sealskin pouches to keep them dry.
‘If it is as we suspect do not linger, return quickly. In the meantime I will mobilize our people and implement the ancient plans.’ The chief hesitated, his face grey he looked to the north. ‘We are far fewer than we were when we first took on this task,’ he grimaced. ‘If only we’d realized then that in the centuries ahead of us the cold would have such a detrimental effect on our seed. We never dreamt that we faced our doom.’
‘You are considering the possibility of seeking aid?’ asked Emerald; strolling over to them she’d overheard the last words. She ignored the expressed sadness of not bearing children. The misery sometimes overwhelmed a Giant and he or she wandered alone in the wastelands or on the ocean, occasionally for weeks. They returned reconciled for a time with their inevitable demise until depression took hold once more and off they’d go again.
‘It depends on what tidings you discover. I never thought the day would come when we’d find ourselves unable to complete our pledge. But…we’ll see. It’s all down to numbers in the end, we always knew that if there was a breakout then we’d need help. Go, my friends. Go with our love and our confidence in your abilities. By the Norns—be safe!’ He hugged Emerald and shook the hand of her husband. Stepping back he watched as Emerald sat on the sled her back to Boron standing on the runners. The long whip stood in its stirrup, waving at his right shoulder, the tool her husband very rarely used to drive any team and never at all on Loper.
‘Aye, let’s hope that Skuld stays her hand and does not sever the threads of our lives, quite yet, my Chief.’ They both spoke of one of the three major Fates of their religion, the Giantesses who ruled the destinies of mortals—Skuld being the Norn that ended their pre-determined lives. The other two were Urd and Verdandi whose remit was the care of their past life and the present life of a new-born Giant.
‘Mush Loper.’ Boron shouted and with a bark from all the dogs the sled moved slowly over the thin snow cover onto a deeper whiteness on the road leading north to the hunting fields.
Their friends and neighbours stood at the side of the highway or in their doorways and watched silently as the pair departed, none knowing if the two would ever return. Five minutes later Loper led them over the crest of a low hill and onto ground that again sloped gently upwards, the road leading past the whale oil refinery. Loper was eager, the dogs sensing the hunting ahead. As the sled left the environs of the village they increased speed and Boron drove towards that he and his wife never hoped to see.
Back in the village Coal stared at his chief. ‘Do you really mean to ask for aid?’
‘If I do, then you are the one who will go south to find it—find the wizards and the leaders of the humans…and elves.’ Chief Cobalt turned away, his shoulders slumped, his head down he failed to hide his growing panic. He faced the annihilation of his race in a duty self-imposed a thousand years earlier.
And Coal wondered what sort of greeting a Giant would receive amongst the humans—especially a giant seeking wizards. And as for elves, the only way he’d find them was if he accidentally trod on one—they’d been lost to the world for a thousand years and more.