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James M. Ward, Mary K Brown

Pool of Twilight

1

Dark Dreams

The paladin stood before the shadowed archway, breathing air sharp and acrid with the stench of magic. The stone ruins about him were dark and strangely distorted. The walls of the dank chambers seemed to be undulating wildly, the leprous colonnades lurching at queer angles, as if the place had been designed by a madman.

The paladin gripped a heavy, combat-worn battle-hammer firmly in one gauntleted hand, and in his other he held a white crestless shield. Before being granted a symbol of honor, a paladin had to prove his worth. This was his test.

He stepped through the archway.

Immediately he sensed it. Evil. It lingered on the air, coating him as he passed, leaving what felt like a thin, noxious layer of rancid oil on his skin. The paladin did his best to ignore it as he journeyed into the blackness. His shield gave off a faint azure radiance, lighting his way.

Yesss… Come to me, Hammerseeker.

The bubbling voice seemed to ooze out of the darkness from all directions, shrill and inhuman.

'Who are you?' the paladin called into the murk. The beating of his heart echoed loudly inside his steel breastplate.

Your doom!

Without warning, a pulsing crimson glow burst apart the darkness with violent light, revealing a chamber of monstrous proportions. Ponderous stone vaults, as huge and misshapen as giants, supported a ceiling lost in the crimson miasma. The walls were formed of what seemed at first to be huge oblong bricks. It was only after a moment that the paladin realized what they really were: coffins.

There were hundreds of them. No, thousands. Coffins of beaten gold and worm-eaten wood, of rune-carved stone and rotting wicker. Many were cracked and broken, their denizens hanging out of them in a thousand different states of decay, all leering at him with the ceaseless grins of death.

Come, youngling! Bow to me, before I rend your limbs apart.

Shadows swirled in the lofty nave of the huge chamber. The paladin approached almost against his will. He barely noticed the heaps of treasure scattered around him. Beaten silver urns shone like enormous hearts in the pulsing crimson light. Gold coffers lay broken open, their jeweled contents spilling out of them like guts.

Closer, youngling. Come gaze upon what you have given your brief and pitiful life to seek.

Blue radiance burst into life high in the nave. The paladin caught a glimpse of something hovering at the center of the diamond-hard brilliance, an object of wondrous power. Then the shadows swirled, cloaking the blessed light

And now, Hammerseeker, you die!

Something moved with terrible swiftness in the darkness of the nave. The paladin barely managed to lift his shield in time to meet the blow. He cried out as pain coursed like lightning up his arm. The white shield shuddered, then burst asunder in a spray of twisted shards. The denizens of the coffin-walls jeered at him in a horrid cacophony of teeth clattering and bone snapping.

The paladin fought down the panic clawing at his chest. 'I will stand firm, Tyr!' he shouted to his god. He swung his battlehammer in a whistling arc toward the darkness.

But his footing was not secure.

His heel skidded on coins scattered across the stone floor. His blow went wild, the hammer spinning off into the darkness as he fell to his knees. Shrill laughter bubbled from the alcove as the coffin-walls erupted in a new chorus of gleeful rattling. The paladin hung his head in defeat. He was no hero.

No, you are not, youngling. You are a fool. And now you will die a fool's death!

Midnight-dark claws slashed out of the darkness. They punched through the paladin's steel breastplate as if it were parchment. Four streaks of searing fire streaked across his chest. His body arched backward in agony. Hot blood spattered the dark stone floor. A scream ripped from his lungs.

'No! Tyr, help me! It wasn't supposed to end like this!'

There was no answer to his cry. His god had forsaken him. The shadow-shrouded being stirred again, readying its final blow.

'Kern, come back to us!'

A cry reached through the darkness. The voice was calm and reassuring, but faint, as if coming to him from across a vast distance.

'He can't hear you, Shal.' This voice was deeper than the first, gruffer. Despite its faintness, there was a distinct edge of worry to it.

'Yes, he can. He can and will.' The voice seemed to grow louder, cutting through the darkness. 'You're having one of your dreams, Kern. Let it go. You have to come back to us.'

He struggled to break free, but the darkness was too heavy. It pressed down upon him. He couldn't breathe. It was no use.

'Kern Miltiades Desanea, come back this instant!'

With all his might he struggled upward, toward a faint light that shone brighter and brighter as he rose. Just when he was about to give up, he broke through the surface, and a ragged, shuddering breath filled his lungs.

'Mother… Father…' His voice croaked like an old frog's from a throat as dry as bone dust. 'It was the dream again.'

He was lying in his bed in the comfortingly familiar chamber in Denlor's Tower where he had slept every night of his twenty-two years. A beautiful middle-aged woman smiled down at him. Her hair formed a flame-colored corona around her face, and her green eyes were so bright as to put emeralds to shame. An aura of magic seemed to shimmer about her. But then, she was a sorceress.

'It's all right now, Kern,' Shal said, smoothing his hair-red hair, just like hers-from his forehead. 'You're back with us now.'

He nodded and smiled, the expression suddenly turning into a grimace of pain.

'Shal, what is it?' Tarl asked in concern. A hale, broad-shouldered man, Kern's father was still in his prime despite his snow-white hair. His sightless eyes stared blankly into the air as he reached out to lay a hand on his son.

Kern cried out in pain.

Shal's brow furrowed as she threw back the woolen blanket that covered her son. A gasp escaped her lips.

'Kern, you're wounded!'

Kern stared in astonishment. Four long gashes marked his white nightshirt. Crimson blood soaked the garment. His chest quivered as he drew shallow, painful breaths. The nightmare replayed itself in his mind. He remembered the shadow-filled nave. Something had lurked there, lashing out at him with midnight-dark talons.

'But… it was just a dream!' Kern protested. Instantly he regretted his shout as blood oozed from the gashes.

'How can this be?' Tarl asked. Gently, expertly, his fingers explored his son's injury. Tarl had been a cleric of Tyr for over three decades and had seen and healed more wounds on the battlefield than he could ever have counted. 'You've had the dream a dozen times, Kern, yet this has never happened before.'

Shal laid a hand on her husband's shoulder. 'Can you heal him, beloved?' Her voice was calm and controlled,

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