Monsters of the North, Prologue: Edubard's Legacy
Asmodeus opened his eyes and stared at the cave’s icy ceiling.
Something was wrong.
There were men walking in the snow on the earth’s surface. He could hear them calling to one another, their deep voices muffled by the layers of rock and ice that had hidden his lair for so long. He did not know how they had found him and his sister this deep underground. Nor did it matter now. The language, plain and blunt, was unmistakable.
Quieting his mind, he closed his eyes again and listened more closely. He felt the soft reverberations of footsteps on the tundra above. There were many of them, at least twenty. The voices betrayed a sense of urgency, excitement—and fear.
Asmodeus was used to inspiring fear in other living things. He smiled, shifting his weight from one skeletal leg to another. As a gholgor, he was sometimes mistaken for a man, a very tall, thin man who had seen too many winters. Only when he had drawn too close would you realize that he was far from human, for no man had such dead, sunken eyes or thin, pale lips. No man had such strange, bony hands with fingers as sharp as needles, and as strong as iron. No man had ever seen so much or lived so long. By the time you had noticed these things, it was already too late.
Yes, the sentinels were wise to fear him. Asmodeus himself had killed scores of these brave hunters in his time, striding quickly and silently from behind and sinking his claws into them to stifle their screams.
But he wasn’t immune to fear, either.
The sentinels had tracked and killed many gholgors over the years, adapting and refining their tactics with each kill. Where Asmodeus and his kind had once been a common scourge to all living things, they were now rare, living in remote places such as deserts, jungles, and the icy tundra.
Aware of the danger the sentinels posed, Asmodeus and his sister, Lym, chose to live in the barren north, where human settlements were few. The cold temperatures had been difficult to endure at first, but they had learned to survive in the White Waste by lurking in the deep valleys that grew dark early, hunting only at night, and always returning by dawn to the cave in which they slept.
Still, nothing ever came easily here. The scarcity of food meant that Asmodeus and Lym had to work together. They chose peasants from small villages on which to feed, capturing hunters and fur-trappers who strayed too far into the forest. (Asmodeus especially liked to eat children for they were easy to kill and just as easy to digest.) But he and Lym had to be careful not to attract attention. Too many disappearances would create suspicion. That would bring sentinels, the sea-faring people, who knew exactly what gholgors were, and how to kill them. Now it appeared that day had finally come.
Asmodeus stirred, upsetting the pile of bones at his feet. The sound of the voices, sharp and clear, told him they had discovered the cave’s entrance. It was just a matter of time before the sentinels found their way down into the darkness. He knew he had to move, quickly.
He turned to his sister. “Do you hear them, my love?”
“Yes,” she whispered, her pale eyes glowing in the darkness. “Shall we greet them?”
He shook his head. “Too many to fight.”
Asmodeus could hear her heart beating rapidly in the darkness. Her unblinking eyes, as hard as flint, stared at him, uncertain of what he meant to do. The sentinels would not flee. They never did. Instead, they would approach slowly, methodically, with their hateful torches and cruel, iron blades. She understood the danger just as well as he. “Then what shall we do?” she hissed. “Hide? We can conceal ourselves down here, remain safe.”
“No,” he said. “They will not stop until they have found us.”
“Then how?” she asked, growing more anxious. “How can we defeat so many at once?”
“We must even the odds,” he said. “We will surprise them by catching some of them from behind using the rear tunnel.”
When digging the lair years ago, Asmodeus had insisted they create another outlet so that they could escape if the main entrance was blocked by snow or assaulted by enemies. Lym had objected at first, grumbling about the extra work. Now, the second entrance gave them hope.
“Of course!” she exclaimed. “We can circle back to the surface and kill the stragglers before they even see us.”
They crept down the tunnel together in silence. Gholgors could see in the dark as well as trolls, and though they preferred to venture out at night, they could move well during the day with their long, loping strides.
Soon, they would reach the exit. This smaller opening led out to the sheer face of a cliff, which they would have to carefully climb to reach level ground. Not many creatures would attempt such a feat—but the gholgors were not like other creatures. Their sharp claws and long limbs made them not only formidable opponents but also excellent climbers.
They had almost reached the rear entrance when Asmodeus stopped abruptly. Lym halted, too, and looked at him inquiringly. Then she heard the voices. The sentinels had found the outlet as well! Worse, they were already inside. Asmodeus could see the dim flicker of torchlight on the walls up ahead as the men approached.
“Be wary, lads!” a voice growled. “This one is clever. It’s not often we find multiple entrances.”
“Clever or no,” muttered another, “I’d like to see it outwit my iron.”
“Don’t go running off trying to be the hero like you did in the Moaning Isles, Dramon,” said the first. “We stay together. My father wants us home before winter, all of us.”
“Remember what Prince Edubard said, lad,” cautioned a third. “Slow and steady. That’s how we kill them. It’s been a good year. Let’s hope this is the last of the accursed creatures.”
Asmodeus and Lym listened intently. The last of the accursed creatures? Could that be true? Had the sentinels really succeeded in killing so many?
Moving swiftly, the gholgors retreated. They were good at killing, but they did not relish this fight. Asmodeus and Lym preferred to catch their victims from behind, or in the dark, alone. The thought of battling sentinels in an enclosed space, attacked from both sides amid torchlight, made them afraid, and they hated being afraid.
They returned to the largest part of the tunnel where they fed and slept, picking their way over piles of bones, clothes, weapons, and many other trappings that had been discarded over several decades. As they had expected, they could hear the sentinels approaching from both directions.
“Trapped!” hissed Lym, her voice quivering in fear. The likelihood that they would soon be fighting for their lives now seemed inevitable. “We must meet them here. Fight back to back.”
“No,” said Asmodeus, gravely. “We must break through the ranks. It is the only way. If we can reach the surface, we can easily outrun them, and then wait for night to fall.”
“Very well,” Lym replied. “At least we have one advantage. Didn’t you hear the fools? They only think there’s one of us. They’ll be in for a nasty shock.”
Asmodeus narrowed his eyes. “Only one of us . . .” he whispered, thoughtfully.
Lym turned. “What did you—?”
He raised one long claw and, quick as a snake, cut her throat. Her eyes grew wide in shock as she stumbled backwards, clutching at her wound with both hands and gurgling wretchedly on the blood that bubbled from her mouth. Still struggling to breathe, she glanced at Asmodeus in confusion. “Why?” she whispered. Before he could answer, she slumped to the ice and lay still.
“I’m sorry, my love,” he said, crouching beside her and stroking her white face with one bloody fingernail. “One of us must survive.”
Thinking quickly, he found an old sword amid one of the piles of discarded objects. Wiping it across her throat, it glistened with blood as he set it next to her. With any luck, the sentinels might think that one of her victims had killed her. But where could he hide?
Asmodeus raced back to the mounds of debris and, clearing away a small space, he began to dig into the icy ground of the tunnel. Few creatures had the strength to dig through solid ice, but Asmodeus, with claws like steel, and driven by desperation, made quick work. Soon, there was a hole just large enough for his body to fit.
A voice drifted through the shadows. “How long is this blasted tunnel?”
Asmodeus looked up, his eyes wide. The sentinels were just around the corner now. He had very little time. If they saw him, there would be no escape.
He climbed into the shallow space he had made, and hurriedly covered most of his body again with the ice. Then, using his long arms, he quietly gathered bones and other fragments of clothing to conceal himself before taking a deep breath and squeezing his head and arms under the surface of the stinking rubbish.
He was hidden, but not well. If a sentinel stepped into the pile of filth where he lay, the deception would be over. He had to trust in the hope that his sister’s body would be enough to satisfy them. Otherwise, he was doomed.
Still and silent, Asmodeus waited. He did not have long to wait.
One of the sentinels, a man with a weathered face named Augred, turned the corner and raised his torch as he gazed in disgust at the foul lair. “Here!” he cried.
Another sentinel, a young man named Halam, rounded the corner. “This must be where it sleeps!” he shouted. He drew his sword and sprang into the cavern, ready for a fight. Instead, he saw a gholgor sprawled on the ground. Nearby, lay a blade, covered in blood.
Moments later, twelve sentinels approached from the opposite direction. Everyone seemed to be talking at once. The men were tall, pale, and fair with fierce, blue eyes. Most were clean-shaven, though some had tangled beards. Dressed in thick woolen cloaks and fur boots to protect themselves from the cold, they wore leather tunics and fleece leggings, forgoing the ring mail they normally used due to the freezing temperatures of the north. Each man held a torch and a large, iron broadsword, handling both with ease.
Augred, Halam, and the others gathered around Lym’s body, inspecting it. “This one’s big, though it’s not been dead for long,” declared Augred, pushing on the gholgor’s head with his foot. “The corpse isn’t rigid.”
Sheathing his sword, he grasped the hilt of the blade that lay near the creature’s neck. As one of the captains of the sentinels, he had killed three such creatures over the years, and knew that the task wasn’t easy. He thrust the sword into the gholgor’s side before drawing it out again, and gazed at the blade as it steamed in the cold air.
“The tale grows stranger,” he said, surprised. “This sword is old, rusty.”
A deep voice interrupted them from the other end of the cavern. “Have you killed the beast so quickly?”
Prince Edubard and six more sentinels appeared, holding torches and swords.
“No, captain,” replied Augred. “We found it dead where it lies.” He handed Edubard the sword and explained how they had found the body.
“It doesn’t make sense,” muttered Edubard, gazing upon the skeletal creature in the flickering torchlight. “Gholgors don’t kill themselves.”
He looked around at the bones and debris strewn across the floor in the dim light, expecting to see the body of some brave man who must have surprised the creature with a quick sword thrust before he died. But no corpse was visible, only the gnawed bones and entrails of victims several days old.
“Perhaps the beast was stabbed on the surface by someone who knew how to defend himself,” suggested Augred. “It could have fled down here, hoping to survive.”
Edubard looked skeptical. “Perhaps,” he said. “It would have lost too much blood if it removed the blade immediately.” He leaned over and inspected the creature more closely. “But it couldn’t have had much hope either way. The wound is deep.”
“The deeper the better as far as I’m concerned,” replied Dramon, rubbing his hands together and smiling. “Should we care how it died?”
The prince glanced up at the young warrior. Edubard’s eyes were troubled as if he were debating in his mind whether to pursue the matter further. Had the creature killed itself instead of attacking them? Perhaps it knew fighting would be hopeless, and that he, Edubard, feared nothing, and would show no mercy.
His name was hateful among the foul creatures of the world. He had inherited the dragon magic from his father, Childeric, and had used it ruthlessly to punish Valmar’s enemies. Even his sentinels were a little afraid of him, but that suited him fine. Fear, he found, was a useful tool when it came to governing men.
“Perhaps I worry needlessly,” he mused. “What we came here to do is done. Prepare a fire. We will burn the body here. Then we will return to Valmar. It has been far too long since I have gazed upon the green hills of my home.”
“To Valmar!” cried Dramon. “Oh, how I have longed to hear those words, my lord!”
Edubard laughed. “Yes,” he said, looking upon the young man. “To Valmar we shall return. But I’m surprised at you, lad. I would have thought you would be less than excited to put up your sword and return to your father’s plow.”
Dramon bowed. “I am quite out of practice with a plow, sire. I would much rather hold a sword. Before we left, were there not rumors of trolls on the move in the southern mountains?” He waved his blade through the air. “Perhaps I can be of some service, still?”
“We shall see,” replied Edubard. He examined the piles of stinking debris that surrounded them. “First, you can all be of service by wading through this carnage, and making sure that there is nothing here of value. Who knows what we may find?”
Wordlessly, the sentinels spread out and used their swords to comb through the mounds of bones and other fragments of filth that covered the cavern’s floor. A few muttered to themselves, disgusted by the odor that rose to their nostrils as they disturbed the soiled den. They found many old weapons, scraps of leather, fur and hundreds of bones (both animal and human) but nothing of value. With each step, they came closer to the place where Asmodeus lay hidden.
He heard the footsteps approaching. It was just a matter of time now until he would be discovered. He was sure he could kill at least one or two of the men before they recovered from their surprise. But what hope did he have once he had revealed himself?
A sentinel stopped just in front of the mound of bones that covered his body. The man’s breathing was slow and relaxed as he swept his sword back and forth carefully through the pile of bones. Tensing his muscles, Asmodeus prepared to spring to his feet and attack.
To his surprise, he heard a familiar growl followed by a human scream. He did not need to see it to understand.
Lym was still alive.
While the sentinels were busy inspecting the cavern, she had somehow staggered to her feet and caught the closest, Dramon, unaware. Using one of her long arms, she had pinned his sword against his body and jerked him upward violently with the other, causing him to drop his torch. He struggled in her grasp desperate to free himself, but without fire or blade he could not hope to harm her.
The sentinels raised their swords and torches, and closed in around her warily, for she still had the strength of many men. The torchlight hurt her eyes even as her shadow danced on the walls behind her, making her seem like a pillar of darkness. Even now, injured and bleeding, she looked down upon them menacingly, hoping somehow to survive.
She raised her claws until they were touching Dramon’s cheek and gazed at the sentinels surrounding her. The young man in her grasp did not dare to move.
“Let me go, and I will spare his life,” she hissed.
The men hesitated and looked at their captain. Edubard stepped forward, still pointing his sword at the gholgor. “He is a sentinel,” he replied coolly. “He has promised to kill you and your kind, or die trying. We all have. Do you think we fear you, demon?”
Lym gazed at Edubard with hatred in her eyes. There was no hesitation in his voice. He meant what he said. There would be no negotiation, no safe passage. With each passing moment, she would only grow weaker. Already she was growing dizzy. She had to act.
Lym smiled down at Edubard wickedly, her breath visible in the torchlight. “Then he will die trying!” she said, snapping Dramon’s neck and flinging his body at Edubard.
The men cried out and charged toward the creature.
Augred was the first to reach her. Gripping his sword, he thrust it forward, attempting to skewer her. Before his stroke arrived, Lym jumped over all of the sentinels with remarkable dexterity, her limbs extending like a giant spider in the gloom. Some of the men crouched down and raised their weapons, fearing that she meant to crush them. Instead, she cleared them easily, and landed in a pile of debris at the far end of the cavern, scattering bones everywhere.
Lym sprinted down the tunnel toward the main entrance with astonishing speed. Nearing exhaustion, and bleeding badly, she willed herself to keep going. Only a few hundred feet more and she would reach the surface. There she could make her way into the shadows of the forest where they could not find her. In time, she would heal. Then, she would have her revenge. On the sentinels. On Asmodeus. On everyone.
She saw the moon’s pale light ahead. She could feel the wind on her face. The entrance was near!
Suddenly, behind her, she heard something in the dim, cold tunnel from which she fled. It was faint but clear.
A human voice. One of the sentinels. Was he singing? Chanting? Compelled by a power she didn’t understand, she stopped and turned. She saw nothing, not even the torchlight of the men sure to be following her.
The voice spoke again. It had grown louder, accompanied by a dull pain that arose inside her head.
The voice repeated itself, becoming deeper, stronger. It was harsh, even cruel. She rubbed her head and tried to keep going but her legs stiffened, slowing her progress. Why couldn’t she run faster? The chanting grew even louder. She turned again, sure that she would see the owner of the voice. Instead, she saw only darkness. What was the source of this infernal song? When she made it to the entrance, the pain in her head had grown worse. Now, it was all around her, pulsing, throbbing. What was happening?
Before she could take another step, the pain in her head exploded and washed over her, running down her limbs. The chanting was deafening. It was all she could think about. With each syllable, her head seemed to shatter anew as she writhed and struggled. Conquered by the pain, she shrieked and stumbled as she fell to the ice. She turned over on to her back and looked up, her chest heaving and falling.
The last thing she saw was a man standing over her, his face illuminated by the torch he carried. She did not know how, but she was sure he was her tormentor, the man they called Edubard. The man who betrayed no fear. It was he who chanted the magical words, the words that were worming into her brain, driving her mad, killing her. His blue eyes blazed as he gazed down on her without pity. He seemed to be enjoying her suffering.
Finally, she understood what he was chanting, even as she succumbed to death.
“Die,” he said.
Die by the power of my voice,
that I, Edubard, may rejoice.
Die inside this icy tomb,
and go to your eternal doom.
More men appeared in the tunnel, looking at him warily, uncomfortable with the words he uttered. If Edubard noticed, he said nothing. He stared down at the gholgor, curled up and twisted like a dead spider.
“She has met her end,” he muttered. “Burn the miserable creature.” Turning away from the gholgor, he faced his men somberly. They kept their eyes on the ground, unwilling to meet his gaze. “Bring Dramon’s body to the surface,” he commanded. “We will bury him here in the White Waste before we set sail for Valmar in the morning.” He turned to Augred. “Didn’t he say he liked the hills?”
“Yes, captain,” said Augred dutifully, glancing at Edubard before looking away again. “He came from a small village near the northern range of the Skelding Mountains. He . . . he liked high places.”
“Very well,” replied Edubard. “We will bury him in the hills here with a view to the sea. Let us work quickly. I wish to leave this foul place by first light.”
Gholgors have keen ears, and Asmodeus overheard everything before he fled. When the men had followed Lym’s flight, he quietly emerged from his hiding place and sprinted down the rear entrance, making his way up the cliff to the surface. It was evening. Clouds concealed the moonlight, allowing him to cross the tundra and reach the safety of the forest. He glanced back a final time before disappearing into the trees.
He was angry at himself for being sloppy, for allowing them to come so close to killing him. If his sister hadn’t been there, he would now surely be dead. Still, questions crowded his mind as he crept through the deep snow. Who was that strange man, the one they called Edubard? He shivered as he recalled the cruel words, the rhythmic chant directed at his sister. He would remember that name. What sort of magic did the man possess to kill with a song? Only the oldest dragons were capable of wielding such power.
Despite these questions, Asmodeus smiled grimly. Two things he knew. First, the sentinels were unaware that he had survived. In fact, they suspected that Lym was the last of the gholgors. He was safe for now. Second, the sentinels, led by Edubard, were returning home to a land named Valmar.
He looked up and realized he had reached the foot of the mountains. The peaks rose up before him, steep and jagged, covered in ice. But he was not here to scale the cliffs. He was searching for a way under them. Finding a seam that led into the earth, he wound his way down into the bowels of the mountain until even the moonlight seemed like a distant memory. When he reached a large cavern, he stopped and permitted himself a smile. This place would be his new home. He would wait for the sentinels to leave before resuming his murderous ways. This time, he would be much, much more careful.
Picking his way down to the cavern floor, he froze. A stone edifice sat in center of the hollow, glowing faintly. It was tall and erect, like an accusing finger, at least six feet in diameter. He crept closer and realized it was a column, smooth and polished. Stranger still, someone had carved faces into the surface of the stone. He knew that certain men created such things, even worshipped them, fashioning images of animals or gods out of the earth. He had no need of either.
Still, these faces were different somehow. They certainly weren’t human. There were five of them stacked upon one another, each ugly in its own way. The first face, the one closest to the ground, had large tusks, and looked angry, aggressive. Above it, another countenance, with a broad, flat nose, leered at him arrogantly, like some forgotten king. A third seemed to be laughing, but judging by its expression, it was a cruel, merciless laughter. The fourth, with round, full cheeks, seemed to have gorged on something unwholesome, while the topmost face simply stared at him with cold malice in its eyes. He was about to touch the object when he heard a voice whisper in the darkness.
He sprang backward, and looked around wildly. Had the sentinels found him? Was this a lair of some kind? Were other creatures waiting in the shadows, ready to pounce?
Do not be afraid. Do you think you have come here by chance?
He looked back at the column. Was he going mad? Or were those faces addressing him?
“What do you mean?” he asked, suspiciously. “How do you know my name?”
We know all of our children.
The faces seemed to study him with wicked glee. He walked toward the column, drawn by some unseen power, and realized that he wasn’t just imagining it. The eyes in each face were following him.
We have heard your thoughts, Asmodeus. We have felt your deep anger. Your undeserved suffering. We share it. That is why we have called you here. We wish to help you.
He thought of Lym’s expression as she had looked up at him, hands clutching her throat, before she fell at his feet. “How can you help me?” he muttered. “I am alone now.”
A dull, grinding sound filled the cavern. He looked up to see the front of the column, the side containing the faces, swing slowly open like a door, revealing a narrow passageway. It was even darker than his surroundings.
Come with us, Asmodeus. We will teach you how to fight with more than just flesh. We will make you stronger than you ever imagined. We will make you a god.
Drawn by the promise of these words, Asmodeus crept toward the stone, and disappeared into the darkness. Silently, the door shut behind him.