The New Guard (Crossroads Book 1) (7 page)

David
paced the halls alone and did not seek a bed for himself until most of them
were already asleep. He prayed ceaselessly for each of his children and his
missing wife. He asked God passionately for a quick reunion. All the while, he
tried to suppress his understanding of why his family had been called to the
Crossroads.

Chapter
6

Caliban
woke when the last rays of the sun disappeared out of the sky. The other Dark
Riders rose likewise. They all went to see to their horses, knowing the hounds
would only venture out of their lair when full darkness was assured.

Caliban
stood watching the progress of the other Riders and the darkness. He wore his
cloak, though his hood was down. Even so, his dark skin and the black clothes
he wore helped him to blend in with the twilight. Barely visible in the waning
light, his hairless head and face showed signs of burns, mostly around the back
of his head and up his right side. He was plainly missing part of his right
ear. The top half was shriveled by the burn pattern; however, the lower section
missing all together, clearly cut off as it matched up with a scar that
extended from that spot to just below his right eye. Several other smaller
scars mapped his bald head and the left side of his face. As he put together
the rest of his plan for what was to happen next, he traced intersecting scars
on his chin.

Once the
horses were fed and watered, Caliban began organizing his band. “I am
determined to find out what went wrong and why our backup never came through to
help us with the children. These new twelve are also in the Way World, and this
is not acceptable to the plan of the Void. We will break up into three teams.”

Caliban
turned to a rail thin Void Rider covered in a tattered cloak. The Rider’s face
was a map of deep gouges and puffy scars that led to two large, deep set eyes.
It was hard to tell that he was an elf, as his telltale pointed ears were
shriveled, burnt scabs on the side of his head. Long, thin strands of greasy
hair barely covered his head.

“Ferreter,”
Caliban began, “you’ll take a hound and a horse and track down the one child
that was missing from the group. I’m sure it is here, since its brothers and
sisters have been brought over. Track it down and kill it.”

“Caliban,”
Ferreter spoke with uncertainty in his reedy voice, “we were to take the children
alive.”

“Look
where that plan got us,” responded Caliban. “These children are the new twelve.
We do not want the stability they can bring to the Way World. The elven lords
are falling to the powers of the Void. The Way World is slipping into chaos.
Once the Void has full control here, it is a simple matter to take out the
other habitable realms.

“Kill the
child. Make the Light Bringer waste time organizing and calling forth a new
twelve. Meanwhile, our forces will continue to overtake the Light Bringer’s
current Twelve and bring down His order.”

Ferreter
bowed his head, acknowledging his acceptance of Caliban’s plan. Caliban then
turned back to the other Riders.

“Maraud,”
he said, pointing to a still hooded rider, “you and I will take our mounts and uncover
our wayward allies. We will bind them and bring them to the Void to face
punishment for failure. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I feel the
failure of this enterprise lies in the arrogance of our former leader and the
minor demon who disappeared when its services were in need.”

All of
the Riders grumbled agreement and Caliban went on. He singled out a broad
shouldered Rider who showed no sign of his initiation into the Dark Rider
guild. Caliban knew, however, that this particular Rider’s scars covered his
back where his wings once were.

“Vex, you
take the rest of the band and track down the Truth Wielder and his offspring.
Be wary of his abilities, but make sure they don’t make it to the Central
Kingdom, for this will surely be their final goal. Kill them out as you can.
Call on any forces you come across as you hunt them down.

“We must
stay in contact, so be sure to check in at the third watch of every night.
We’ll meet back up as we can. Hunt well, Riders.”

With
those last words, Caliban mounted his horse. As if signaled, the hounds broke
from their shelter and began eagerly sniffing the ground. The Dark Riders
divided as instructed and took off in separate directions.

*

Caliban
found the crossing after a half hour of searching. It was several miles away
from where it had let the Void Riders out the previous night. It was several
more miles from where they had entered it to pursue the new twelve. While this
shifting was an overall good sign because it meant there was a great deal of
instability in the land, it also created tracking problems here and now.

Caliban
chose to seek out their entry point from the prior night in hopes of finding
some clue as to the whereabouts of the wayward demon. When he finally found it
an hour later, he saw signs of a struggle. The band of thralls had been set
upon and, as there was a fresh mass grave, it meant the forces of the Word had
intercepted the Riders’ backup. Caliban looked around and came to the
conclusion that the force which set upon the demon and his thralls must have
been angels; as most of the other followers of the Word would have likely burnt
the dead. Caliban smirked; this would prove to be an error on the angels’ part,
he thought.

Caliban,
Maraud, and their hound dug at the mass grave until they got to the first body.
Pulling the torso free, Caliban flooded the body with Void magic and summoned
forth a fragment of the lost soul.

“Tell me,
thrall,” he spoke to the unmoving body, “what happened here?”

For a
moment there was nothing, and then the body twitched and began to scream.
“Stop! I’ve served well! Not the flames!”

“Thrall,
awaken! I need information you still have.”

“The
fires are all about me. . .”

“They are
not at the moment. For the moment you have a respite. How long it lasts depends
on your usefulness.”

The
thrall opened its decaying eyes and saw where it was. It then settled its eyes
on Caliban.

“Good,”
Caliban said, nodding his head. “Now tell me, what happened here? You were at the
crossing with your demon. The Riders went through; then what happened?”

“We were
to wait for the Void Riders’ signal that they had something. . . I can’t
remember. . .”

Caliban
knew memory loss was a problem with partially revived beings, since they were
neither fully dead nor fully alive, they could not recall much of either realm
they were in. However, he did not wish to spend all night waiting while the
dead thrall tried to remember.

“Enough!
What happened with your demon and the other members of your group?”

The
thrall blinked, trying to bring its focus back to Caliban. “The demon was hurt
. . . strained. It was not only trying to hold the doorway open, but prevent it
from shifting. There was a flash of light. . .”

The
thrall’s mind drifted. It began to look around and whimper about flames.
Caliban held on to the thrall, listening closely for any further clues. After a
minute, he realized the thrall was of no more use. Just as he was about to let
go and sever the thrall’s connection to this world, it reached out and grabbed
tightly to Caliban’s wrists.

“NO! NO!
Not the flames again!”

Caliban
looked contemptuously at the thrall and spat out a response. “Stupid meat sack!
The flames are your punishment for failing your master, the Fallen One, and the
Void. You are thrice damned and cannot escape your just dues!”

With
that, Caliban threw off the thrall, slamming the dead body back to the ground.
He stood and looked up at Maraud who merely stared at him, waiting for Caliban
to decide what was to happen next. Caliban shook his head while he wiped the
dirt and decaying flesh from his hands and wrists.

“We could
try that all night and not get any further useful information,” Caliban finally
said. “We’ll have to look around. The thrall confirmed an angel attack, and it
looks like the attackers came directly from the Word’s realm. Let’s look around
and see if we can find evidence of the demon’s banishment. Otherwise find spore
so we can track it.”

Maraud
silently nodded and went to work. The hound did, too.

*

Ferreter’s
job was going to be the hardest, but that was what he excelled at. Of all the
Dark Riders, he was the best tracker. It didn’t matter that he’d never seen his
quarry or that he didn’t have actual spore from his prey. He had enough to
single out this wayward child. Ferreter knelt in front of his hound and laid
his hand on its head. Both of them closed their eyes and vividly envisioned the
previous night. They started with sights concentrating on the faces of the
children they had encountered: eyes, noses, hair, ears, mouths, cheeks, chins,
bone structures, and various other small details. Ferreter compared them again
and again, drawing an image of the family similarities. He then added to the
composite the Sword Bearer’s features.

The next
sense the hound and Ferreter examined was smell. Here the hound had far more to
contribute than did Ferreter. Each of the children and the Sword Bearer had
unique scents, but like physical features each family member shared a base
smell that defines the line. It took some searching, but they soon found it and
memorized it. Between the two of them, they would be able to track that smell
through a crowded market and still locate their prey.

Even
after Ferreter and the hound created the familial composite they stayed bonded,
studying the image and smell so each subtle alteration was known. Satisfied
that he would be able to identify the unknown child, Ferreter broke the full
bond; however, there would always be a part of him within the hound and part of
the hound within him. It was one of the costs of becoming a Void Rider.

Upon
standing, Ferreter quickly mounted. Both he and the hound closed their eyes and
began rotating on the spot, noses in the air. They found a strong family scent starting
nearly a mile from their current location. This would be the band traveling
with the Truth Wielder. Ferreter opened up a link to Vex’s hound and passed on
the scent of their prey mind to mind. Vex’s hound altered the group’s course
slightly, bringing them in line with the trail of the children. Vex passed a
hint of annoyance through the hounds, letting Ferreter know they already had
the scent well enough. Ferreter ignored him and broke contact.

Ferreter
sat upon his horse and puzzled over the information he now had. The Dark Riders
had moved only about one quarter of a mile away from the gateway when they
returned to the Crossroads. The Truth Bearer and his brood obviously moved a
great deal further along once they came into the Way World, but their scent
started further off than it should have. Upon exiting the gateway from Earth
there had been no sign of the minor demon and its thralls; not even a sign that
they had ever been there.

Ferreter
was not a demon; therefore, he was not versed in what was and was not possible
with gateways. However, he did know that on the planets they connected with
gateways could shift instantaneously anywhere on the world. It now seemed the
connecting point here on the Hub Realm could shift also. Ferreter became sure that
what he needed was a Way Watcher or a demon. He knew he could find one or both
of these at Dead Hollow and so signaled his mount to head south.

The
journey took a little over two hours and brought Ferreter to a swamp land
populated with numerous lifeless trees and thick grass with spiny burrs. These
burrs would attach to passing creatures and slowly work into its flesh, making
it necessary to cut them out. There was only one unmarked road into the swamp
that didn’t eventually lead through a patch of these grasses.

Ferreter
knew this path well and easily found it. He moved quickly across the terrain
and into the heart of the swamp. There, at its center, lay a haphazard
collection of hovels ranging from crumbling shacks, improvised lean-tos, and
reinforced burrows. Ferreter dismounted and led his horse to one particular
shack. Leaving his horse and the hound outside, he entered without knocking on
the plank door.

Inside,
he was greeted by the smell of feces, urine, bile, and rot. His eyes quickly
adjusted to the darker surroundings and found, huddled in a corner, a nearly
lifeless form. Going over to it, he threw off the small mound of fetid rags
that concealed it.

“I seek a
Way Watcher,” declared Ferreter.

At the
sound of his voice, the lump began unfolding and revealed itself to be a
misshapen human woman. She opened her milky eyes and turned her head toward
him. She spoke in a raspy voice, “I be seeing what you needing.”

Without
another word the woman groped around until she found the shard of a mirror. She
first cut herself with it, then took Ferreter’s hand and cut him with it. Then
she asked, “What Way?”

Ferreter
answered, “The Earth bound doorway within this kingdom. I seek to know all who
came through last night.”

The woman
brought the mirror fragment up to her forehead and began chanting. After a few
moments she spoke, her voice slightly stronger but seeming further away.

“In
darkness last I see. Here are thirteen travelers: an angel, twelve humans. They
flee fast. Shortly come Void Riders, two quickly killed. The Way a river,
twisting, turning. . .”

The
woman’s body moved to match her words. Her slimy white hair swayed from side to
side, blocking her face. “Far goes the river, far, far. Three, might four travelers
go far without stepping long. The Way a river, twisting, turning, returning.
The Way closes.”

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