Stealer of Flesh - By William King


ALL AROUND THE unseasonal blizzard raged. Chill flakes of snow landed on Kormak’s face. His feet felt numb, his clothing sodden. Hunger made his stomach growl. Cold leeched the strength from his limbs. He drew his cloak tight about his tall spare form but the wind still cut. He knew that he could not go much further and that he was doomed if he did not find shelter soon.

He pushed a strand of greying black hair from his eyes and squinted into the darkness. Night and snow made it difficult to see more than a few strides ahead.

He was not even sure he was on the road any more, the old route the Oathsworn Templars had taken to the Sacred Lands. The snow had piled up so he could not see the ancient flagstones the First Empire had placed here millennia ago. He was lost in this white wilderness.

This was not the way he had expected to die. When he had sworn his oaths as a Guardian he had thought he would fall in battle with some remnant of the Elder Races who had ruled the world before the coming of Men. There had been times when he had faced death by dark magic or beneath the curved obsidian scimitar of an orc. Once he had seen his end written in the eyes of a lovely vampire. He had not expected to pass in a way at once so terrible and so prosaic, to fall frozen where his brethren would have difficulty finding his body and recovering his dwarf-forged blade.

There should have been no snowstorms in eastern Belaria even this late in the autumn. The weather had been strange ever since the Great Comet had appeared in the sky. Perhaps it truly was a sign that the world was ending.

He wondered if it was worthwhile to continue leading his horse through the storm. There was a reason he was doing so but he could not remember what it was. It was as if the cold had frozen his mind as well as his body. Thinking was as difficult as putting one foot in front of the other.

Perhaps he should simply lie down and rest. Just for a moment, he could pillow his head in the soft snow drifts and gather his thoughts and his strength and then be on his way again. It would be good to rest…

No. That way lay death. If he stopped, he would never start again, would remain frozen in place until the spring thaws hit these vast plains. He would be covered by a blanket of snow which would not warm him but kill him. He needed to move and to keep moving.

And then what, a small, despairing part of his mind asked? What difference did it make? Soon he would reach the end of his strength. Soon his numbed limbs would fail and he would stumble and fall.

He remembered what he planned with the horse. He had heard once of a Kojar tribesman who had survived such a storm by slitting his horses belly and clambering inside it as a sleeping sack. He was not sure he believed that story and he doubted that it would work anyway, but what other hope did he have?

He raised his foot and put it down. Just keep going. One more step. And then another. He had been in worse situations. He had expected to die on other occasions and he was still alive. He needed to stay that way. He must succeed in tracking down the stolen amphora. The demon’s prison could not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. The ancient evil of the Ghul must not be allowed to enter the world once more.

He cursed. He had come so close back in Saladar. He had overtaken the thieves and almost caught them. Only one had escaped, carrying the sealed metal jar in which the Ghul had been bound, while the rest delayed him. He had killed them but they had bought time for the last to escape. If only he had been a fraction quicker he would already have been on his way back with the amphora and not stuck out here in this blood-chilling cold.

In the distance he heard howling. His horse, tired as he was, whinnied nervously. On these cold plains hunger sometimes drove the huge wolves to hunt men. They might be led by something worse. He had encountered sentient creatures who loved to hunt with the packs, had killed