The swollen clouds hung low, dark, and fat, a shadowy fog depriving the morning of its sunrise. On the hills beneath, knobs of gray rock burst amidst the green. A mound of rock nestled in the crevice between two hills, ancient and alluring.
A lone figure shivered near the rocks. Layers of robes covered him, yet this was not enough. His face twisted sourly. His skin was blanched and sickly. Spindly fingers poked from the deep cuffs, steepled together. He offered the majestic landscape a pensive, thoughtful glance.
A low, steady sound echoed beyond the crest of the hill, and before long, a figure appeared, riding upon a goat. The wide, inviting smile of the rider was visible from the distance. The goat stepped down along the hillside, meticulous, seeking and finding the ride purchase with each deliberate step. As they neared, the rider’s flowing auburn hair swept against the breeze, framing a handsome, thoughtful face.
“I am–” the rider began, but the robed man held up a spidery hand.
“You are the wizard Callum, a famed sorcerer from the west, both a fabled hero and an infamous scoundrel.” The robed man sneered.
Callum’s smile split his face, but the merriness on his face did not match the look in his eyes. “Fame is my curse. Unfortunately, we do not share it. You are?”
“I am the chamberlain to the Old King.”
“Ah, but that is what you do, not who you are.” Callum pulled his own robe a bit closer. The chamberlain was unsurprised; things were always colder here.
“In all of my years serving the Old King, I have lost track of my own name. It is unimportant. He calls me ‘chamberlain’, and so that is who I am.”
Callum raised his eyebrows, unimpressed, and said no more.
At that moment, a shadow pulsed through the low clouds, dark and swift, and in a short time there was a new figure, standing only meters away from the two, covered in a tan cloak with a shadowy cowl. The sleek, pale curve of a beak poked from the darkness of the hood. The goat bleated irritably at the sudden arrival of this newcomer. Callum and the chamberlain glanced at each other.
“I presume that you are Halifax, the hunter and winged champion of the south,” the chamberlain sniffled, giving the newcomer a wide birth as he approached.
“I am who you say,” Halifax rasped, his voice ragged and piercing. His body was the shape of a strong man, but his head was that of a hawk. His hunter’s gaze looked upon them both; his dark, soulless eyes were troubling. “My people would never ignore the invitation of the king, though it be that he does not pay us any respects in the last century.”
The chamberlain fidgeted. “Apologies, dignified guest,” he began in his most courtly tones, but the bird-man held up a massive hand.
“Save your apologies. I have come.”
Callum smiled. “Are there others invited to this gathering?”
The chamberlain shifted within his robes, anxious. “There were, but the hour grows late. I fear they shan’t be coming.”
The shadows twitched, and suddenly there was an arrival. Small swathed in old clothes, with a massive sunhat covering its head, it moved in a wobbly fashion, like a colt recently foaled. The goat once again quivered at this arrival. Halifax said nothing. The recent arrival remained silent as well.
The chamberlain glared at the small figure. “And you are?”
The figure reached forward, holding out a gray scrap of parchment in a gloved hand. The chamberlain took it, sniffing irritably at this effort. He read over the words with narrow eyes, and glared upon the little figure with only increased annoyance. “You are not the Erlking.”
The little figure looked up, and as its sunhat tilted backward, its shadowy face was exposed. Eyes that glowed like tiny round lanterns peered up into the face of the chamberlain. Halifax gave it a cold expression. Callum grinned.
“This is an affront! The Lord of Shadows sends us a wisp of a shade in his stead!” The chamberlain’s pale, sickly pallor pinked. “The Old King will be displeased at such an insult.”
The shade held out another scrap of paper, but before the chamberlain could take it, Halifax snatched it away. The shade scurried back a step, hands raised. The bird-man gave it no notice. His predatory eyes scanned the paper, and glanced up toward the chamberlain. “This shade,” he screeched, “says that the Erlking is gone. It says that the Eastern Shadow Cities are abandoned.” He glanced at the shade, and the faintest sense of sympathy emerged from Halifax. “It says that it is the last of its people.”
The chamberlain gave the shade a bitter glance, but nodded.
Callum lounged on the goat and gestured behind him. “There’s a storm on the wind, chamberlain, if you can sense it. We’d do good to find shelter. Places such as this tend to get messy and flooded.”
The chamberlain grunted. “So be it.”
He clapped his hands together rapidly, and the ground stirred. The goat bleated again, and Callum laughed at the skittish creature. The shade clutched its hat against its head and scuttled closer to Halifax. The bird-man did not stir.
The mound of rocks trembled, and slowly an opening formed at its bottom, like the mouth of a giant. The passageway within the opening glowed with flickering orange light. The chamberlain didn’t wait, ducking into the cavern as its entrance swelled. “Come, come,” he blustered.
“Welcome to the lair of the Old King.”