"We are lost! We are-" Someone screamed in the midst of the chaos, only to be cut off with a gurgling gasp. Ràild's hands tightened on his sword as his companions' ranks began to break. The forces of the Slaugh howled and regrouped from their berserk assault, preparing to cut down their fleeing opposition. Ràild swung his blade at one of the black-armored creatures as it lunged towards him, knocking it off-course. The Slaugh slammed into the hard ground and snorted. It turned and attempted to sit up, when the warrior thrust his blade through its exposed neck.
"Ràild!" The warrior turned at the sound of his name. Luthias, a friend and brother-in-arms, waved towards him while fending off a Slaugh warrior. "Get over here!" Hacking, slicing and battering through the pack of Slaugh, Ràild made his way towards his friend. Yet even as he closed in, two Slaugh pounced on Luthias. One sank its fangs into his shoulder, while the other arced down towards his neck with a war scythe. Ràild bellowed in anger and launched his own attack on the creatures. One fell to his blade, while the other turned and scrambled off like a rabid animal.
The warrior leaned down towards his friend, who lay mortally wounded in a pool of blood. Luthias groaned and lifted a trembling hand towards Ràild. "Go on... back... report..." Luthias gasped, coughing up blood. His head lolled. "Live..."
"No! No!" Ràild panted as his friend passed away before him. He snarled and picked up his sword, anger seeming to radiate off of his body and he stalked towards three Slaugh looting a body. Shrieks resounded off over the hills, which Ràild assumed were the demises of the rest of this comrades. A Slaugh looked up from the body as a shadow blocked the sun, and was dead before it fell back to the ground. The others fell in quick succession to Ràild's vengeance.
Breathing heavily, Ràild gave a quick look over the battlefield. Most of the bodies belonged to his army, the men he had trained with and fought with for years. Only a handful belonged to the brutal Slaugh, those abominations of the darkness. Ràild sighed slowly and shook his head. Ever since the creatures emerged from the Realm of the Caorthannach, Men had been fighting a losing battle. When one Slaugh was killed, two more from the horde took its place.
Ràild sheathed his sword and set off at a brisk walk towards the northeast, towards the Great Broch of Maol-Domhnuich, the main stronghold in the war. He made the way in silence, with only his solid footfalls and the chirping of birds unconcerned with the death and destruction of the previous hours. Then it came into view, the Great Broch. A tall construct of stone, standing over the wall around it and the large town within. Ràild gave a small smile and picked up his pace.
"Halt!" A voice hissed as five men armed with swords and pikes stepped out from behind a ruined stone wall. Ràild dropped his hand to his sword, only for the five to lower their weapons. "Ràild! You're alive!"
"I'm afraid I can't say the same about most of the army..." Ràild lowered his eyes. "It was a bloodbath."
One of the men winced. "We know. Messengers have through already. Conall and Horas, among others."
"They're both good men. I'm glad they made it out. Now I need to be on." "Wait! Did you hear the news?"
"Eachann is dead. We're effectively leaderless."
"What? How?" Ràild reeled.
"Balor of the Slaugh cut him down in battle."
"We have no hope... although there are rumors of you taking his place."
"Me? Just hearsay. Now then, I need to get to the broch immediately."
"Even if not, we stand by you. Head on then, we're only here to keep them out."
'I don't think you'll be much use against a raid', Ràild thought as he hurried on towards the broch. He passed more guards, who let him through without a word, all apparently silenced by the death of their leader. The warrior burst into the broch to find the war council in a state of despair. Laid out upon a great stone slab etched with long-forgotten runes rested the cold, still body of Eachann, dressed in his finest garb. His sword lay across his chest with his hands folded atop.
"Greetings in this sad time," one of the council inclined his head. Three men and a woman stood around a stone table, a map and markers spread over it. An ornate knife was thrust through a point on the map into a crack in the table, showing the location of the droch.
"Greetings, Dùghall." Ràild replied. He nodded to each of the other council members. "Ciaran, Deirdre, Aodh."
"Ràild, we'd like to hear your view of the events of the... battle."
"They came from the West, as usual. Countless Slaugh, charging our little army. Scythes and blades cut a path straight through us. Chaos descended and our lines broke, leaving everyone to fend for themselves. I assume the survivors are still trickling back."
"And they are, but the numbers are few." Deirdre said softly.
Ràild swore. "Out of four hundred?"
"Out of four hundred." Aodh growled. "The Slaugh are too powerful. Without Eachann's genius, we have no chance to counter their raids."
"Then we have to bring him back."
"You think we haven't thought of that? We've even consulted that witch Leanan Sidhe from her prison."
"What of the books in the library, the forgotten volumes of magic?"
"You know that no one can read them. No man or woman in the land knows the words of those tomes, so why bother?"
"So what? We line up to die? Throw more men at the Slaugh and hope they survive?"
Ràild shook his head, dropped his sword by the door and stormed out. Pausing outside, the warrior gazed up towards the bright sun shining down on the broch. The sun seemed to contrast with the dark events of the morning, the death and bloodshed. Pushing the thoughts from his mind, Ràild set off towards a small cottage, one particularly dear to him. He stopped at the front of the building and rapped on the door.
The door opened to reveal a young woman. She gasped, then broke into a smile and threw her arms around Ràild's neck.
"Ràild! I've been so worried about you! I've been hearing the reports, all the bad news... be careful, please! I don't want to lose you..."
Ràild hugged her back. "I've been worried about you as well, Isbeil. It's so wonderful to see you again!"
"Isn't it, though?"
"Verily! We'll have to talk later. I have something I need to do, but first I wanted to see you again."
"Be sure to hurry back!" Isbeil smiled a second time. "Oh, and here!" She unfastened her necklace and refastened it around Ràild. The warrior glanced down at it, grinned and hugged Isbeil tighter.
"Thank you, dear. I won't be long, I just need to find a book."
With a quick wave the warrior moved on again, this time heading towards a large stone building. Ràild pushed open the door to the library and stepped into a darkened room filled with bookshelves and tables. Sets of small candles blazed upon each table and fixtures in the walls, casting illumination upon volumes new and old. Ràild made his way to the far back corner, where a handful of books sat covered in dust.
"So this is where books go to die..." He muttered softly, gazing over the intentionally-forgotten books. Ràild's eyes flicked over the shelves, over scrolls that should have been damaged by the current era but seemed intact. One book, however, the one he was searching for, was gone. A thick book, purple in color, inscribed with the words Leabhar a 'bhaile Nam Marbh, was for some reason missing from the usual spot.
An odd feeling grasped Ràild, a mix of a feeling of being watched and having someone sneaking up behind you. He spun, to find a small table illuminated by a pair of candles shining down on a sharp, pyramidal stone marked with the symbols for Fire, Insanity and Death. Lying open sat the book he desired, its pages open to a pair of pages covered in arcane symbols. Somehow the warrior, a man who had little time or desire for reading, knew the words that he had never before seen. Their feel on the tongue, their pronunciation, it all fit.
Ràild ran through the words, a chant-like incantation. One by one the candles in the library went out, so that by the time he finished speaking he was nearly in total blackness. Eventually only the candles in front of him remained. Confused and somewhat startled, he reached for the book, but sliced his hand on the rock. Blood dripped down onto the paper, where it ran down into the symbol of an eye marked with a Z and vanished into the page.
The warrior jumped back into reality as the candles reignited. Yet this time he was not alone in the library. He glanced down to see a long shadow cast behind him, clearly nonhuman. Eight tentacles replaced the arms, and the feet vanished down into blades.
"Well hello there," a deep, harsh voice whispered. "You called?" Ràild reached for his sword, then remembered that he had left it back at the broch. "Don't worry, if I wanted you dead, you would be."
Ràild grimaced, sent up a short prayer, and turned to face the voice. What he found was not what he expected. Instead of some demon or god of death, he was facing a young man who seemed even younger than himself yet stood a full head taller. The stranger was deathly pale, as pallid as a corpse, marked with black veins and topped with silver hair. His purple eyes matched the scarf he wore around his neck, atop black clothes. Ràild found himself wondering who would actually wear what this mysterious newcomer was clothed in, being such a contrast to the common greens and reds.
The warrior's mind went blank when the stranger looked at him expectantly. "I, uh..."
"Weren't you expecting me?"
"That depends, who exactly are you?"
The stranger's eyes seemed to blaze brighter, and the candles dimmed. He smiled, revealing long, sharp teeth. "I am Shadow Bearer, Ghost Kin, Glad-O-Blight, Steward of the Dead and the Shadow Throned. Children tremble in their beds when stories of me are told. I am the End, the Third of the Trinity... and you just called me in. Now, what can I do for you?"
Ràild's resolve strengthened, although he was left to wonder about exactly what the book summoned. "Our leader is dead, slain by the foul Slaugh. The wizards speak of your book in whispers, saying that it can revive the dead, restore life to the lifeless and soothe the restless spirits. Can you bring him back?"
"Yes, although I will not."
"However, I will allow you to do it. There's a price, though."
"What is it? I die in exchange for him?"
"No, but not far off." The stranger paused and looked at Ràild, who suddenly felt an odd sensation, as if someone else were thinking in his head. "Isbeil, such a pretty name."
"Isbeil? No! Absolutely not!"
"I can read your thoughts, if your leader does not return you have no hope. I'm giving you that hope."
"Anyone but Isbeil, please!"
"You asked for my help. This is it. I rarely give assistance to mortals, normally one of my friends does that. But there are some things that are not to be tampered with, even in the most dire circumstances. Sacrificing order for evil, progress to stagnancy, and life to death. So I offer you my power with the price I give you. Her life for his. One death to save many. You have one day to decide."
"Wait-" Ràild began, but the stranger was gone. He groaned and slumped against a wall, feeling the necklace that Isbeil had given him. "There must be some other way, there must..." At his words, the small stone pyramid rotated to face him, the symbol for death glowing brighter. Ràild gritted his teeth and grabbed the stone. Looking about, he hurled it down towards the door, where it fell to the cold floor next to a book someone had dropped and left.
Frowning, the warrior strode towards the fallen book and inspected it. The volume fell open onto a page, revealing a single sentence. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. Ràild slammed the book shut and thrust it back onto the case, then left the library as fast as he could.
The next afternoon, the council stood around their table once again.
"The scouts report that the Slaugh are planning to mass an attack from the southwest." Dùghall said, pointing his finger at a point on the map.
"Then we counter them, set a trap." Aodh replied.
"Flank them and cut them off?" Ciaran asked. "Front and back, slay them all."
"That could work..." Deirdre nodded.
The council turned in unison as the gasp from behind them. Eachann slowly opened his eyes, gazing up at the ceiling. He fumbled with his sword, then sat up, a confused look on his face.
"Where am I? Why I am I dressed in-" He stopped at the shocked expressions of the others.
"You're alive. Silver Siren, you're alive!" Aodh stood gaping.
"What do you remember?" Deirdre asked slowly, her eyes wide.
"A battle. Screaming, fighting, death. Balor the Slaugh was there, we fought... was I injured?"
"You... you were dead."
"What do you mean, dead?"
"Dead." Ràild's voice filled the air. Everyone turned to see him enter, head down and a purple book tucked under his arm across his chest. Tears ran down his face and splashed on the tome, but appeared to have no effect on the paper. "Welcome back to life," he choked.
"Ràild... what did you do?" Eachann asked warily.
"I did what I had to. 'The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.'" The warrior took a deep breath, stood still for a moment, then left the book on the table and fled the room.
Ràild knelt by the statue of his far younger self, standing tall on the hill. In the statue's hands there rested a book, a book which Ràild had cursed and damned during the many years after the defeat of the Slaugh. The former warrior reached down to his throat and lifted the necklace given to him so many years ago. A sob escaped him, as it often had when he visited the statue. Him, a hero? No, despite what others thought, he was not.
A voice that he had also cursed broke through his thoughts. "You made the right choice, you know." Ràild looked up to see the stranger, completely unchanged over the previous half century.
"Did I, or did I throw her life away?"
"You didn't. Come, I have something to show you." The stranger extended a hand.
"What is it?" Ràild questioned apprehensively. "Someone else to sacrifice?"
"No. It is time. Remember my titles?"
"'Shadow Bearer, Ghost Kin, Glad-O-Blight, and the Shadow Throned.'" Ràild quoted.
"You missed one. 'Steward of the Dead.' It's really my main purpose. But enough standing around, take my hand, there's someone I'd like you to meet."
For some unknown reason Ràild felt compelled to obey the stranger. He reached out and grasped the outstretched hand. It was ice cold. A tingle ran across his body, not pain but certainly not a pleasant feeling. The world seemed to spin around him, and the old warrior felt disoriented.
"Apologies. Now then, we're here," the stranger gave a smile that tried to be calming and instead appeared terrifying, as the landscape changed from the cloudy hill to the inside of a great stone building. The building seemed to be a hybrid of ancient Egyptian and gothic architecture, angular, fancily designed and covered in runes. A figure approached through an ornately carved doorway. The stranger nodded towards them. "Here she comes."
A smile lit up Ràild's face as the stranger stepped aside and motioned him forwards.