Tarduk closed his eyes tight. A massive avalanche of ice and snow was roaring down the mountainside toward him and his allies. There was no way to outrun it or evade it. He and his two fellow Agori, Surel and his Iron Wolves, were all doomed.
In what he was sure would be his last few moments of life, he thought about all the artifacts he would never discover, all the mysteries he would never solve. Most of all, he thought about the map that had brought him north into the mountains, the one with the carving of a red star upon it. It would be easier to die if he could at least know the meaning of that symbol.
There was a flash of light so bright he could see it through his eyelids, and a wave of almost unbearable heat. Tarduk opened his eyes to see the mountainside ablaze, the flames so intense they melted the snow to water and turned the water to steam in an instant. The Iron Wolves growled and backed away, Surel going with them. The two Sand Stalkers the Agori rode reared up in panic, and it took all the riders’ skill to keep them from bolting.
Tarduk peered through the flames to try and see the ice warrior he had spotted before atop the peak. Yes, the crystalline figure was still there, his body language speaking of unbridled rage. “We need to get out of here, now,” Tarduk said.
“What convinced you?” asked Kirbold. “The avalanche or the firestorm?”
“The possibility of meeting the cause of either one,” Tarduk replied.
This time, there was no need to worry about riding into the midst of the Iron Wolves – the fire had driven them all away. Surel, however, had lingered in the area. As they rode up into a pass, he emerged from behind a rock and hailed them.
“Go back,” Surel implored. “There is nothing for you beyond here. Go back to the safety of your homes.”
Crotesius laughed bitterly. “You obviously haven’t been to one of our homes lately.”
“That jet of flames…” said Tarduk. “That wasn’t natural, was it? That was the Element Lord of Fire who saved us.”
Now it was Surel’s turn to laugh. “Saved you? You are dust to him – not even dust. That was an attack on his frozen enemy. You were simply caught between them.”
“Wait a minute,” Crotesius interrupted. “I remember the Element Lords, and their armies, and the war – but the war ended more than a hundred thousand years ago.”
Surel shook his head. “It ended for you, for their soldiers, and it ended for Spherus Magna, as all things did in that one horrible moment. But for the Element Lords, the struggle goes on.”
Tarduk glanced behind. He saw no sign of anyone following them, and so thought it safe to continue. “A struggle over what?” he asked. “The Core War was fought over energies from the heart of the planet, but the planet no longer exists. What is there left to fight over?”
Surel said nothing – simply raised a withered arm and pointed toward the north. Tarduk felt a chill run up his spine. He didn’t bother trying to convince himself it was just from the cold. He dug into his pack and produced the fragment with the map. Surel glanced down at it. Tarduk heard a sharp intake of breath.
“The Red Star,” he muttered. “The Valley of the Maze.” He looked at each Agori and turned. “You seek the same secrets as the Element Lords, and you risk the same fate. The heart of the Maze holds the last riddle of the Great Beings. Many have entered the Valley in hopes of solving the puzzle. None have ever emerged again.”
“Let me guess,” said Crotesius. “You think we should turn back.”
Surel shrugged, not easy to do with a body so badly twisted. “I think the Red Star burns in your eyes and in your heart as it has for so many before you. I think you will go on, no matter what warnings I give you. And I know – I know you will die.”
Tarduk glanced at Crotesius and Kirbold. Neither looked afraid, or maybe they were just hiding it well. And he knew Surel was right. He had to discover the secrets hinted at on this map, even if it meant riding into danger.
“You’re right,” Tarduk said. “We will go on. Can you help us, tell us anything about what’s up ahead?”
Surel was silent for a long time. Then he shook his head and said, “We live in a broken world, Agori. And in such a place, nothing stays whole and untouched. The stream of life gets diverted, dammed up, misdirected, and even,” he said, glancing down at his own ruined body, “distorted beyond all imagining. What awaits you to the north? A realm of lies. A place where beauty hides a rotten heart, where trees provide no shelter, the air no cooling breeze, and where water does not quench your thirst. And the moment you believe what you see or hear, touch or taste – it will be too late for you.”
“Stop speaking in riddles!” snapped Crotesius. “If you have nothing useful to say, get out of our way.”
In a flash, Surel drew a dagger and had it at Crotesius’ throat. Tarduk could not recall ever seeing even a prime Glatorian move that fast.
“I could kill you now and spare you the horrors to come,” said Surel, eyes blazing. “But you don’t deserve such mercy. Ride on, Agori. Beyond this pass is the Forest of Blades – all who travel through become one with nature. And beyond that the oh-so-welcoming waters of the River Dormus. And if you survive, the Maze waits for you.”