Sample text for A march into darkness / Robert Newcomb.

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Should the Jin’Sai somehow prevail against the Enseterat, even then his trials will have only begun. For a Vagaries servant shall come to taunt him, and he will seduce the Jin’Sai into following him on a march into darkness.

—Page 242, Chapter VI of the Vigors

Gaius was unusually fair for a minion warrior. he was clean-shaven, with light brown hair and green eyes. Recently promoted to the rank of captain, he commanded the eleven warriors stationed near the magnificent azure pass that had been carved into the rugged Tolenka Mountains. Eager to impress his superiors, he took his first command seriously.

Seated by the campfire with five fellow warriors, he looked up at the mountainside. He could easily see the pass shimmering in the night. Six more warriors were camped up there, watching it. Even from its great distance up the mountainside, the pass’s magnificent rays flooded the plains below.

Gaius and his troops had been stationed here for nearly two months, but the pass had yet to relinquish any secrets. As he looked back down at the fire, he wondered whether it ever would. Those were riddles for wizards to unravel, and far beyond a warrior’s knowledge.

Tristan, Wigg, Faegan, and the sorceress Jessamay had arrived in Minion litters to view the pass just after the Jin’Sai and his forces turned back Wulfgar’s invasion for the second and final time. Ox and Traax had accompanied them. Although his written reports to the Jin’Sai had said little since his posting here, Gaius still sent them along at regular intervals.

By now it was widely known that the Jin’Sai was a widower. During his visit, each of the warriors had expressed his or her heartfelt condolences. His face grim, Tristan had thanked them, then ordered that his group be taken to view the pass. Gaius had climbed aboard and directed the litter bearers up the mountainside.

On reaching the site they all disembarked. They walked to face the glowing pass while the wizard Faegan levitated his chair on wheels, following along behind. The entire mountainside had been scorched black and barren. Even now, warm cinders crunched beneath their boots. There were no trees, no brush, and no grass—just the strange pass, shimmering brightly against the face of the granite mountainside. Because their habitats had been decimated, all the forest creatures had fled.

They’ll never return, Gaius thought as the group approached the strange phenomenon. The craft is at work here, and somehow they know it.

When they saw the group coming, the six warriors guarding the pass came to attention. At first no one spoke. As everyone stood before the pass’s wondrous presence, it was almost like there could be nothing left to say.

The deep gap was barred by a brilliant azure wall, its aura so bright that it hurt everyone’s eyes. It stretched silently from one mountain sidewall to the other—a distance of about twenty meters. Looking up, they could see no limit to its height, for it disappeared into the dense fog that always crouched atop the mountain peaks.

The pass’s flat surface was smooth as glass. As the visitors gazed into its depths they could see white shards of light shooting to and fro, as if begging to be released to the outside world. It was a wondrous, awful thing. No matter how many times Gaius came here, he was stunned by its majesty.

Knowing that his place was with his troops, the captain stayed behind as he watched the inspection party approach the glowing wall. He saw the wizards point at it and speak anxiously to one another. Tristan said something to the wizard in the chair, and the mystic nodded.

Gaius watched the Jin’Sai unsheathe his dreggan. As the blade cleared its scabbard, for several moments its unmistakable ring filled the air. With another nod from Faegan, the prince walked closer.

Gaius held his breath as the prince drove his sword directly into the glowing wall. The blade disappeared effortlessly, like it had entered the still surface of some countryside pond.

As the prince steadily held his weapon, the light shards on the pass’s other side started gathering around it. They danced to the dreggan like it was a lightning rod, but they did it no harm. With another nod from the wizard, Tristan withdrew the blade and sheathed it. Again the wizards and the sorceress huddled together, talking in urgent tones. Finally turning away from the pass, the Jin’Sai ordered a return to the base camp.

The royal party stayed the night, and everyone feasted. As the smell of roasted venison filled the air, much akulee—the dark, bitter brew of the Minions—was consumed. Although they spoke little about what they had seen, Wigg, Faegan, and Jessamay had been sociable enough.

But the Jin’Sai was another matter. He had eaten little, then gone off to be alone at the camp’s far edge. He sat there for hours before finally falling asleep, holding the gold medallion around his neck and drinking akulee while he stared into the darkness. The two wizards and sorceress had looked at him often.

At dawn the inspection party had thanked Gaius, then flown back to Tammerland. Before leaving, the Jin’Sai had instructed Gaius to keep the reports coming, no matter how sparse they might be. The captain had answered with a smart click of his heels.

His thoughts returning to the present, Gaius again looked up the mountainside. The pass’s azure rays still flooded the ground around him. He had no idea how long he and his warriors would be stationed here, but they would gladly do their duty until ordered otherwise.

Gaius took a last pull on the akulee jug, then wiped his mouth with his forearm. Lying down by the fire with the others, he finally fell asleep.

as the pass through the tolenkas continued to shimmer, three of the six warriors stationed nearby lay asleep by the fire. The other three sat on camp stools playing at cards. It would be dawn soon. Then they would sleep while the others stood guard.

Being posted to this desolate place had quickly become tiresome, even for diligent Minion warriors. The wall of azure light never wavered, never threatened. Silent and beautiful, for them it had become nothing more than what it appeared—a seemingly harmless construct of the craft. Even the usually wary Minions had begun taking its harmlessness for granted.

Without the warriors noticing, a thin white line started silently climbing up the middle of the azure wall. Starting at the ground, it soon stretched as high as the eye could see and disappeared into the fog. Still the three warriors did not turn around. The line quickly parted the wall into halves, revealing a space that was dark and endless.

As an intruder came through the gap, still the warriors did not notice. A mounted black stallion stepped silently forward to a place about five meters from the fire. The vapor from the stallion’s nostrils streamed in the cool night air.

The warrior named Eranan was the first to jump to his feet and draw his sword. Startled, the other two quickly followed.

Without hesitation the rider raised one arm. With a muffled explosion, Eranan’s insides burst through his chest and abdomen. His fellow warriors watched in horror as his vitals slipped wetly from beneath his body armor and fell to the ground. Without saying a word, Eranan dropped his sword to fall facedown, dead where he lay.

Drawing their dreggans, the other warriors ran to attack the intruder. Before they could near him, they died in the same hideous fashion as had Eranan. Rising sleepily from their places by the fire, two more warriors perished before they grasped what was happening.

The lone surviving Minion charged, swinging his dreggan for all he was worth. Surprisingly, the murderer did nothing to stop him. Sure that he was about to take the intruder down, the Minion smiled menacingly.

The dreggan blade came whistling around, slashing into the rider’s right shoulder. But as it did, the warrior felt no resistance against it.

Doing no harm, the dreggan flowed through the intruder’s body, then down through his mount as though they were ghosts, burying itself into the trunk of a nearby tree. The warrior frantically struggled to free the blade, but could not. His eyes wide, he looked up at the miraculous opponent who had just bested him. The being’s face was hideous, terrifying.

“Who are you?” the warrior demanded.

Staring down at his bewildered enemy, the being atop the horse smiled. He raised one arm.

“I am a Darkling,” he said quietly. “But you won’t live to tell anyone.”

The warrior’s organs exploded like those of his fellows, and he fell dead to the ground. His dreggan—still caught in the tree trunk—glinted softly in the light of the three red moons.

Saying nothing more, the rider guided his horse down to where Gaius and the five other Minions were camped. The dark gap in the pass sealed itself, leaving no trace of the exit that had just formed.

In the end, the sleeping warriors at the bottom of the mountainside would fare no better than their brothers.

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