A Prelude To The Past..*

(*All spelling errors faithfully reprinted from the original, now onward! Oh, unless you want to get back to the history section, obviously..)

Chapter One
Falling rain hammered on the roof of the shop, and without the wind whistled through the deserted streets. What little light as remained of the day was swallowed up by the dark clouds that rolled across Mirrortown, sweeping south and west across the mountains and emptying their cargo of water as a deluge. Reznor shivered, and reached behind the counter for his keys. Nobody would be out on a day like this, and he would do as well to get home early, as even his untrained eye could see that a huge storm was approaching, and he would not like to be caught on the road when that happened. Slipping his old cloak across his shoulders, he opened the door. The light was failing fast, and he turned and picked up a lantern from just inside the doorway, lit it with his tinderbox and turned back to go.

'I have need of you.' said the stranger, in a low, impassive voice. He stood there, not more than a couple of feet beyond the threshold; a dark form seeming to be a part of the night itself, wreathed in black robes. His face was invisible in the semi-light, as if the cowl were empty and nothing but shadow stood there.

Reznor shivered in spite of himself. Although the figure was shorter than he, the other still seemed somehow to loom above him, and the feeling was unsettling in the extreme. Finally he found his voice.

'Who are you?' he asked, his voice sounding muted. He saw a lot of strange people in his profession, but there was something about this one that was altogether different. Unworldly almost.

'You are Reznor?' the other asked, ignoring his question. 'I am told that you can supply me with some items of armour.'

Reznor stared at him for several moments, still trying to determine the form within the robes. Finally he regained his composure and smiled. Business, no matter who or what the customer, was business.

'Come in, look around.' he said. He was back on familiar ground now, and his voice sounded more confident. 'We sell the finest range of equipment anywhere in the Western Realms! No matter who you are, no matter what your cause, you can trust Reznor's to provide.' His normal speel to new clients, and he continued to run through it as he had a hundred times before. 'Chainmail, helmets, shield, why whatever you n...'

'I will take these.' the stranger said abruptly, the emotionless tone of his voice never changing. A cowled sleeve lifted and a pale hand appeared from the end. A finger pointed at a suit of Reznors finest sets; a light chainmail suit, steel boots and gauntlets to match. A helmet sat atop the chain links of the mail. Reznor smiled, his annoyance at being cut off mid sentence evaporating swiftly. With the money he would make from this one sale, he could take the following morning off. Maybe he could take the rest of the day off too, he thought, and grinned impishly.

'How about a shield, Sir?' he inquired. His shields were good, but hopelessly overpriced. Few people bought them, but the proceeds from just one would pay for a full days relaxation tomorrow. 'The very best quality!' he lied.

The strangers head raised slightly. 'Did I ask for a shield?' he enquired.

Reznors smile faded, and he gulped uneasily. 'Err, no. Sorry. If thats all then, that will be ' he toted it up in his head, 'two hundred and twenty pieces of silver.'

The stranger reached into his purse, pulled out the moneys and deposited them on the counter. Picking up the items he had bought, he then turned and walked towards the door. As he reached it, he turned, and said in a low voice, 'My thanks, shopkeeper.' And then he was gone.

Reznor stood for several minutes then, looking out through the open doorway through which the stranger had left. The moment he had stepped beyond the flickering light of the lantern the shopkeeper had lit earlier, he had seemed to melt into the darkness. Shaking his head slowly, Reznor picked his keys back up again, and crossed the shop to the door. Pausing only to look around behind him once, he stepped outside, turned and locked the door, and then hurried home through the driving rain.

Chapter Two
By the time that the rains had passed, and the dark morass of rolling black that had been the sky had broken up into an ocean of blue, with but the occasional island of white set in it, the stranger had reached his destination. He had made his way down the main pass that crested the mountains, slipping by the Orc Fortress early that morning. The Orcs had not noticed him, just one more shadow that flowed in the night, and by mid-day he had arrived on the Great Western Road. He was some distance east of there now, still on the highway, but no longer in the shadow of the Withered Peaks, and the countryside to the north had given way to rolling forest. Here he had stopped, and set a small camp. He waited now for news, though he knew the wait would not be long. Less than two hours later, the wait was over. Tanor the Pedlar approached from the east, his magic bag, as ever, slung across his back. He was dressed in traveling garb; a short tunic, leather trousers, with boots that rose to mid calf. A sword hung from his side, its scabbard decorated and inlaid with gems. Fakes, the stranger knew, but only the very best assayers could tell. Tanors hair was dark brown, and cut short at the front, though it reached his neck at the back, and he wore it beneath a feathered hat. As Tanor approached within 20 yards, the pedlar called out.

'Well met, Allanon!' he shouted, 'How fares my Druidic friend this day?'

Allanon smiled. Few people of the Realm called him 'friend', and he preferred it that way. But Tanor; Tanor was different. A wanderer like himself. Apart from the people he moved among. Despite the others roguish irrascibility, Allanon could not help but like him.

'Well.' replied the Druid, 'And how many poor fools have you found to buy your wares this day?'

Tanor grinned evilly and shrugged. 'Enough.' he said, and fingered his money pouch. 'Though I dare say that trade has been better.' His expression changed, and the smile faded somewhat from his lips. 'This business in Alforpia has a lot of people worried. There is even talk amongst some of the more frightened of them of packing up altogether and migrating east.' He shook his head slowly. 'Fools.' he said softly.

Allanon observed the pedlar quietly. The matters to the north would require his attention, and soon. But for now his focus lay elsewhere.

'What news of the Creature?' he asked.

'It is as you feared.' Tanors expression was deadly serious now, all trace of mirth gone. 'The magical seepage from beneath the castle has begun again, though the Sheriff is trying his hardest to cover it up. I had to `persuade` one of the guards extremely hard before he would tell me.'

Allanon breathed in deeply. Deep beneath Sherwood castle, more than a hundred years ago, something happened. Nobody knew quite why, or how, but an anomaly in the fabric of space developed in the very farthest of the burial chambers, and within hours the entire castle was overrun with foul and mutated `things`, that tore to shreds any other creature they found. The fight to restore the castle, and close the anomaly had been terrible, and many had died over the course of the following few days. But finally they had won, and the unnatural monsters had been slain or forced back through the portal. It had been sealed for all time, and life had returned slowly to normal.

Until the previous week, when the corpse had been found.

It was lying in a depression in the hillside, some three miles south of the castle walls, and within the borders of the forest. One of the outlaws had happened upon it without realising what it was, thinking at first it to be some animal that had been chased down and partly devoured by a predator. When he had looked closer, what he say had left him stricken, and he had staggered into their camp a couple of hours later as pale as a ghost, and still retching from the sight. The outlaws had returned en masse, to try and ascertain what had happened.

It was hard to identify who or what the remains were at first, so mutilated were they, but eventually amidst the gore they had found a pouch, slick with blood and other, unidentifiable, fluids. One of the younger outlaws, by the name of Chander, had attempted to pick it up, but as his skin came into contact with the yellowish slime that coated it in patches, his hand had started to char and smoke, and a sickly smell had risen from the blackening flesh. His impulsiveness cost him two of his fingers, and he was lucky to keep his hand at all, for only a chance discovery that alcohol could help dilute the slime had stopped his entire hand from being lost. Much of the corpse had been similarly afflicted; its skin burned and charred or seemingly dissolved into a putriescent mush. When they had finally opened the pouch safely, the effects they found inside clearly identified who the victim had been: Old Tom, the castle groundsman.

The Druid Rkel had always been friendly with the outlaws. He had lived in the forest himself years before, and was known to all thereabouts as a kindly soul, ready to help when he could. Many a time, he had helped treat one of the outlaws when they were stricken with illness, and it was to him now that the outlaws turned. But aside from determining that the killer was some kind of perversion of natural law, he had been stumped as to what it could have been, and had turned to the Inner Circle of Druids for assistance.

That was how Allanon had come to hear of it. He had known, or rather suspected, at once what it could have been, for one hundred years before he had seen similar remains. But how could it be, he had asked himself, when the anomaly had been closed and warded so well? Only the tamperings of an incompetent, one who ignored every warning that they had laid, and every barrier they had placed, could have broken it, and if that had happened, then those in the castle would *know*. How could it be that it had happened and they did not?

But now he had his answer. They *did* know, but the fools had tried to keep it quiet. The Sheriff had placed sentence of death on any who had tried to speak, and in doing so may have sealed his own doom. He sighed. The ward still held, he could sense that much, but it must be weak by now, and several of the things had doubtless already broken free. A hundred years past he had been strong, but now he was less sure that his magic would be sufficient. The last thirty years had pushed him beyond all mortal limits, cumulating in the journey from which he was newly returned. It would take him time, much time to regain his former powers.

Gazing north across the line of trees, his heart heavy, he knew he did not have the luxury of time. He would have to try, and now. To summon the others would take weeks, and by then it would be too late. In any event, only he of the Druids who last sealed the portal still lived anyway, and the newer Druids, while courageous, would probably be slaughtered down there. The nature of Druidism had changed over the years, and this kind of dealing required many skills no longer taught. No, he thought, I must face this alone.

'Allanon?' Tanors voice broke him out of his revire. 'We had better get moving. Guardsman Jaron is headed this way, and I dont care to explain where I got these cut price lanterns.' Tanor coughed. 'Not that they arent entirely on the level or anything, you understand.'

In spite of himself, Allanon smiled. No matter what else may happen, you could always rely on Tanor to be up to something of dubious legality.

They parted company then, Allanon heading north through a break in the trees towards the far off spires of Sherwood castle, and Tanor west towards the mountains. To the far east, a line of dark clouds had appeared on the horizon, and by nightfall, it was clear that the fair weather had been but a temporary reprieve. Both the Druid and the pedlar were lulled to sleep that night by the gentle patter of the rain.

Chapter Three
By morning the weather had still not cleared, and a heavy drizzle rained down upon the Realms. The forest path upon which the Druid trudged had been turned into a mire by the rains, and in places he was forced to skirt into the trees to avoid patches of quaqmire-like mud. He had been walking since dawn, but progress was slow, and by mid morning he was barely more than 10 miles into the treeline. Somewhere not far off, thunder rumbled and echoed across the landscape, and the wind picked up, whipping his robes about him, and chilling him despite his clothing. Ahead, the path widened out into a clearing, dominated by a tree of huge size. A figure stood at the foot of the tree, looking up at the clouds, as yet unaware of the Druids approach. One of the lookouts for the Outlaws, Allanon thought, but he had no desire to talk, and so stole quietly past, keeping to the trees. It was getting dark as Allanon finally approached the walls of the castle, and he settled down to wait for it to get darker still. The storm clouds overhead blocked out the light from the moon, and he knew that by midnight it would be pitch black. As an Elf, this would give him a huge advantage over the humans inside, as his night vision and keen hearing would help him detect the patrols of guards long before they could see him.

As the shadows deepened, and the sounds of activity from the castle faded, the Druid ran over in his mind what he was going to do. The burial chambers, he was certain, would be locked, but Tanor had said that the occasional patrol checked the entrance and within, implying that one of them must carry a key. He would wait until he discovered a patrol that had such a key, and then ambush them while they checked the ruins that nestled against the inside of the northern castle wall. The storm would, he hoped, drown out any noise from the fight, and with the advantage of surprise, it should all be over in a few seconds. Then he would make his way down into the crypts below the castle, and reseal the portal before it grew large enough to allow any of the more dangerous creatures through.

He checked his mistletoe and adjusted his armour while he waited for darkness to fall. What if it was too late? The thought plagued him and buzzed around inside his head like a hornet. What if the ward has failed? He tried to dismiss it, but the thought refused to obey. What if the ward has failed? What if? Allanon shook his head slowly. Then, he thought, then - we are in trouble.

Time drew on, slowly but inexorably, and the colours faded away from the world. Allanon looked over at the sign that stood some twenty feet away on the main road. 'Beware of Thieves' it read, 'Especially MrDeath'. A strange sign, it had been there as long as anyone could remember, long after 'MrDeath' whoever he was, had been forgotten by those who passed through. Allanon remembered him of course, Allanon remembered them all, all those who once lived, fought and died in the Realms. How long, he wondered, until I too am just a fading memory?

Shaking his head again, he pushed the muse from his mind. Enough waiting, he thought; time to act. He stood up and begin to move slowly and quietly towards the castle wall. The portcullis was open as he approached. It always was, day and night. The castle had not been seiged in living memory, and the sheriff knew that the Outlaws lacked the leadership to assault his stronghold, so he left his door invitingly open. Allanon wondered at times whether the sheriff wasnt trying to goad them into attacking. It would be easy enough to lower the portcullis once they were inside, and trapped in the courtyard, they would be cut down to the last man. A fine trap indeed, but one that would serve to his own advantage today, and he slipped noiselessly toward the gatehouse.

Ahead, a sentry stood guard beneath the gatehouse, leaning boredly on his spear, but alert nonetheless. Allanon slowed and melted into the undergrowth barely twenty yards away. He spoke a few quiet words and a small flame sprung into being, hanging like a torch in mid air. He sent the torch bobbing towards the gatehouse.

'Who goes there!' shouted the guard, as he spotted someone approaching. He couldn't make out who it was, despite the light of the torch the newcomer carried, and extended his spear warily.

'I said who goes there!' he repeated. 'Identify yourself!'

The figure in the darkness seemed to slow, and then started moving away from the gatehouse, skirting the wall towards the west.

'Hey you!' the guard demanded. 'Stop! Who are you!'

The stranger seemed to stop at this, and stood stationary some thirty feet off to the guards right. Cursing, the guard unfastened his own torch from the sconce that held it and strode towards the stranger. He still couldnt see the figure mind, but the others torch shone out in the darkness like a beacon. As he approached, he called out once more.

'Good...now identify yourself in the name of the Sh...'

The torch suddenly started bobbing away, and then fell to the ground and went out with a hiss. The guard muttered to himself. One of the outlaws no doubt, he thought. Must have scared him off. Grumbling about having to stand the midnight shift, he returned to his post.

Meanwhile, Allanon was inside the castle, and working his way around the main courtyard.


I hope you have enjoyed reading Prelude so far, as I have certainly enjoyed writing it. I would like to thank the following people for their assistance with it: Chauntea, Goldmoon and Rrath, who have led the druids so well. Rkel for not minding a guest appearance in chapter two! The namless wizard who worked with me on the plot ;-) to make sure it fitted what was being planned for the mud. And finally the many people who have mailed me to say how much they liked it >beam<.


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