Part I: The Mausoleum
He knew that he was being followed.
The pale moon hung heavily in the sky as the night wore on, casting everything in long grey shadows. Winter had come to the outlands; no snow yet lay on the ground, but the leaves had all fallen from the trees, and the ground was cracked from the freezing temperatures that crept across the land at night. There was no color on a night like this, no colors on the trees with the leaves fallen, and all else washed away in the light of the Deadmoon.
Mist formed from each breath before him as the great destrier beneath him plodded onward towards their destination. The horse seemed nervous, and his horse was rarely ever nervous. The city of Calessa still lay at least a league away, and they were already in danger.
It seemed that he was always in danger.
'Come, Tyral.' He urged the horse onward in a low tone, and despite the cold, the great beast managed to pick up its pace.
He rode onward through the starkly bare trees, casting his eyes about him at all times, expecting that any moment they might attack from the shadows. Traveling at night was a dangerous pastime, and most of those who tried it would fall prey to the horrific creatures that prowled the outlands in the moonlight.
At last, the great stone walls of Calessa hove into view. He had found refuge at last, a savior from the bitter cold. He could see smoke curling lazily upward from chimneys and lights, though they were few indeed, this close to dawn.
The walls seemed to grow to an immense height as he approached them. It had escaped him just how high the walls of the city were, built of thick and hardened stone to protect against the horrors that lay just outside them. The dusty road upon which he traveled led straight to the vast wooden gates that admitted visitors into the city.
As they approached the gate, he drew the horse to a stop. 'By authority of the Arbiters, I command you to open the gate and admit me to your city!' he called up towards the top of the walls.
There was no answer.
There came from the edge of the barren forest through which he had passed a low, throaty growl. He turned the horse around to see three beasts lingering near the edge of the forest. Twisted mockeries of the creatures they had once been, they stood almost two feet tall at the shoulder. Though they were vaguely canine, no dog would claim them as kin now. Huge teeth, too large for their heads, were bared in anticipation, and their massive claws stood out from huge, oversized paws. In the dark, he could see their eyes glowing a dull, angry red, the color of the corrupted manna that lent them their twisted shape. They eyed him hungrily but did not yet approach, for they knew that what lay on the other side of their gates was their death for certain.
A lonely traveler, alone outside the gates of the city… that was almost a certain victory for the hungry creatures.
'Fel dogs,' the traveler spat under his breath. He looked sharply up once more at the wall. 'Open the gods- damned gates, I say!'
Still there was no response from the impassive stone.
'Damn,' he cursed viciously. 'Nothing for it, then.'
With a smooth motion he swung his leg over the back of the horse and dismounted. The destrier snorted and stepped nervously sideways once the rider had disengaged.
He reached to his back and pulled free the long, straight blade that hung lightly on his baldric. The crystalline blade came free with a low rasping noise, and the area flooded with a blue glow, the pure manna flowing through the blade and lending him strength. He gripped the blade's handle tightly in both hands, and gave a quick nod toward the horse, who took a few more steps away.
The walls would protect the city.
Seeing that their prey had suddenly decreased in size, the fel dogs' confidence increased tenfold. The blue light from the manna blade made them uneasy, but though the corrupted life force had given them size and strength, it had not given them a worthy intelligence.
The traveler braced himself against the charge. He waited; the beasts were closing rapidly, and he kept his eyes trained on the foremost, the largest. That one would fall first, and the others would follow swiftly.
The beast leapt at him, baring those monstrous teeth, a mouth large enough to swallow his entire head in one bite. The claws glistened in the moonlight, the combination of blue and red light bathing both in violet.
He made one swift motion, a half-turn that brought him below the outstretched claws, and then his arms went up, the crystalline blade cutting a long stroke along the beast's underbelly. It was not the killing stroke he had hoped for, but as the beast passed by him it let out an unearthly shriek.
It landed on the ground a few feet away, dripping luminescent fluid that pooled on the ground beneath it. As the traveler turned to meet the eyes of the beast, it let out a low, rumbling growl. The voices of the others joined it and the noise rose to a howl, a cacophony that threatened to deafen him.
'Beast!' the traveler shouted, rushing forward with a downward stroke intended to cleave the creature's head from its shoulders.
The fel dog leapt aside and came back immediately, its claws raking the air as the man took a step backward, out of its reach. He sensed that the others were circling around behind him, waiting for a moment when he was not watching them, so that they could bring him down as a pack.
He spun about, releasing one hand off the grip of his sword. Blue fire began to collect around his newly freed hand, and he let out a cry as the manna fire leapt from his thickly gloved hand at the two fel beasts. One managed to get out of its way, but the fire caught the other directly in the abdomen. The creature let out an echoing yip as the fire struck it, and then as though it had a malevolent intelligence all its own, the fire began to devour it.
Its yip turned into a horrible howl of pain as the blue flames devoured its flesh, reducing it within seconds to nothing but a red glow that quickly absorbed into the earth, the corrupted manna returning to the land for purification.
'One down,' he said with a small smile.
The other two were now circling warily in the other direction. He came about to face them, one wounded and still dripping viscous fluid – it could not be called blood, for it had ceased to flow long ago – the other still hale but its confidence shaken by the sudden loss of its companion.
He once again set his stance with both hands on the blade, and waited.
The wounded one, the alpha, was the first to charge. The wound it had taken had enraged it now, and the dull red fire in its eyes had brightened in fury. Its charge was surefooted and sound, but the wound had slowed it. It feinted and snapped its teeth to the left, but he had anticipated its deception. When it moved back to make its true attack, he sank the crystalline blade deep into the beast's neck. It let out a strangled cry and the thick fluid poured forth from the new wound.
He twisted the blade sharply, and that was the end of the beast. It dropped to the ground, and blue fire crept down the crystalline blade of its own volition, the pure manna seeking to purify the corruption, to cleanse it of its evil. Soon, the blue flames were licking at the corpse, and as they caught they clung to the fur, to the flesh, and reduced it in a flash to the same retreating red glow.
As he pulled the blade free, he turned to face the last of the fel dogs. He stared at it defiantly, daring it to attack him as well, to meet the same fate as its two companions. It stared back, meeting his eyes for a moment. Though the manna had twisted its form and robbed it of many an instinct, self-preservation was still strong in its brain. The prey had outwitted it, and though pride was badly damaged, the desire to continue existing overrode the rage to attack.