The three Agori sat on their mounts, frozen with fear. Before them stood dozens of wolves, their bodies a weird mixture of muscle and fur and dull metal. Their eyes were gleaming points of savage light in the darkness. Tarduk could smell their musky odor, mixed with the scent of cold iron.
“Watch out,” whispered Crotesius. “They’ll try to circle around us so we’re surrounded. Then they’ll attack.”
“Thanks for the nature lesson,” Kirbold answered. “How do we get out of this?”
“Ride through them?” suggested Tarduk. “Maybe we can… I don’t know, outrun them.”
Crotesius patted the flank of his Sand Stalker. “I don’t think these animals are going a step closer to those things if they can help it.”
Tarduk wished he could come up with another idea. Going forward was out. Going backward meant trying to race across a narrow trail with a pack of wolves at their heels – if they didn’t fall into a bottomless abyss, they would have the fun of being eaten. He couldn’t believe their journey was coming to an end so soon, and in such a horrible way.
Crotesius was the first to spot a new arrival. Something – no, someone – was coming up behind the wolf pack. The figure was bent and twisted and walked with a bad limp. He carried a staff in his left hand and seemed to be relying on it to stay upright. Even with the moonlight, it was impossible to see the armored being clearly. But then he spoke.
It was a simple word, but delivered in a voice that sounded to Tarduk like the limbs of dead trees scraping against a shelter. To the amazement of the three Agori, the wolves crouched down against the frozen ground. The figure started hobbling forward, moving unmolested through the wolves. All Tarduk could think of was Malum, who now lived among the bestial Vorox.
But it wasn’t Malum coming toward them. Tarduk heard Kirbold gasp in recognition. The Agori from the ice village of Iconox said, “Surel? But you’re –”
“Dead?” the crippled warrior said. “Close to it, perhaps, but still among the living. Lost in the chaos of war was I, and left behind, bent and broken, when the fighting moved on. And here I have been ever since.”
It was too much for Crotesius to take in. “You’ve been living in these mountains with these… these… things?”
“You are of the Fire people,” Surel said, as if seeing the Agori’s red armor for the first time. “So you wouldn’t know about the Iron Wolves, one of the Great Beings’ more… efficient creations. I trained this pack, led them into battle – and when the world shattered, they stayed by my side. It was the wolves who brought me food and protected me from harm. And there were many in these mountains who would have done me harm.”
Surel reached down and petted one of the wolves, brushing his hand across fur and metal. “Maybe you have forgotten – or you never knew – how things were before. Armies marching across the deserts, the jungles, the mountains – battling to claim the energy in the core of the world. The Element Lords led us into war, and when their actions destroyed the planet, they were trapped. Yes, they were trapped.”
Tarduk shivered. Was it getting colder or was it fear that made him tremble? It would have been easy to blame the presence of Surel and his pets, but no – it was getting colder. The wind was picking up and snow had begun to fall: lightly at first, then more heavily. Soon he could barely make out the aged warrior and his wolves through the storm.
“Wait a minute,” said Kirbold, “I remember the war. I remember how it ended… and I remember the Element Lords. But you said ‘were trapped’?”
Surel nodded his head, a painful exercise due to his injuries. “I do not know why you have come here, but I tell you now to turn back. The Element Lords walk this planet once more, and the fortunate among you will die first.”
A roar filled Tarduk’s ears. He looked towards the source of the sound. A massive wall of white was surging down the mountain, an avalanche of snow from which there could be no hope of escape. And standing atop the mountain, watching as doom rushed down toward the Agori, stood a warrior made of ice.