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Prologue: Summer of the Year 994


Summer of the Year 994

After the Founding of the Empire of Ilkazar

Hunt’s End

A blue-lighted room hollowed from living rock. Four men waiting. A fifth entered. “I was right.” The wear and dust of a savage journey still marked him. “The Star Rider was in it up to his ears.” He tumbled into a chair.

The others waited.

“It cost the lives of twelve good men, but they were profitably spent. I questioned three men who accompanied the Disciple to Malik Taus. Their testimony convinced me. The Disciple’s angel was the Star Rider.”

“Fine,” said the one who made decisions. “But where is he now? And where’s Jerrad?”

“Two questions. One answer. Thunder Mountain.”

Denied a response, the newcomer continued, “More of my best agents spent. But word came: a small old man and a winged horse have been seen near the Caverns of the Old Ones. Jerrad took pigeons. Birdman brought one in just when I got home. Jerrad’s found him, camped below the mountain. He’s got the Horn with him.” His final remark was almost hysterically excited.

“We’ll leave in the morning.”

This Horn, the Horn of the Star Rider, the Windmjirnerhorn, was reputed to be a horn of plenty. The man who could wrest it from its owner and master it would want for nothing, could create the wealth to buy anything.

These five had fantasies of restoring an empire raped away from their ancestors.

Time had passed that imperium by. There was no more niche it could fill. The fantasies were nothing more. And that most of these men realized. Yet they persisted, motivated by tradition, the challenge, and the fervor of the two doing the talking.

“Down there,” said Jerrad, pointing into a dusk-filled, deep, pine-greened canyon. “Beside the waterfall.”

The others could barely discern the distance-diminished smoke of the campfire.

“What’s he up to?”

Jerrad shrugged. “Just sitting there. All month. Except one night last week he flew the horse somewhere back east. He was back before dark next day.”

“You know the way down?”

“I haven’t been any closer. Didn’t want to spook him.”

“Okay. We’d better start now. Make use of what light’s left.”

“Spread out and come at him from every direction. Jerrad, whatever you do, don’t let him get to the Horn. Kill him if you have to.”

It was past midnight when they attacked the old man, and could have been later still had there been no moon.

The Star Rider wakened to a footfall, bolted toward the Horn with stunning speed.

Jerrad got there first, gutting knife in hand. The old man changed course in midstride, made an astounding leap onto the back of his winged horse. The beast climbed the sky with a sound like that of beating dragon’s pinions.

“Got away!” the leader cursed. “Damned! Damned! Damned!”

“Lightfooted old geezer,” someone observed.

And Jerrad, “What matter? We got what we came for.”

The leader raised the bulky Horn. “Yes. We have it now. The keystone of the New Empire. And the Werewind will be the cornerstone.”

With varying enthusiasm, as their ancestors had, the others said, “Hail the Empire.”

From high above, distance-attenuated, came a sound that might have been laughter.

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