Eldred bent over an ancient tome, his only thought the inscribing of a difficult spell from its pages into his reluctant mind. He had no attention to spare for the morning's bright sunlight, though it made his task easier by spilling in through the open window.
A bubbling scream split the misty morning air. He swept up his bag and intricately carved staff of power, hurrying from the room that was his as the village's resident Sorcerer.
He ignored Luvath, the pudgy young daughter of the Bailiff whose household had grudgingly given him a roof over his head household. She was crouching in her usual place outside the door to his room, trying to overhear any scrap of knowledge that might instruct her in the use of magic. Pushing wide the substantial dwelling's front door, he strode down the dusty village street to where a hubbub of excited voices rose under the cloudy sky.
"What's the trouble here?" He pushed through the knot of farmers and their eagerly peering wives, stopping dead when he saw what they were staring at. His stomach churned at what had been a team of oxen and their luckless driver. The bodies were strewn about with wild abandon, chunks and scraps and stringy fragments thrown about in all directions, and the whole area was splashed with gouts of fresh blood. Worse yet, and even Eldred's nerves nearly snapped when he saw it, the bodies still pulsed with an unnatural life! Every bloody fragment twitched and writhed, every puddle and drop of blood rippled and tried to flow toward its parent body.
Raising his staff, Eldred tried to read the energies that seethed about him, seeking to analyze their origins. The dull churning of the villagers' emotions was there; fear and anger, with an undercurrent of stolid enjoyment. The residue of pain and shock from the victims was still present, though fading fast. What he could not find was the energy that animated their corpses! He tuned his perceptions to ever higher bands, reaching for levels he had never been trained to handle, and at last he found it. At first, he was only conscious of a faint spectral glow, weak and uncertain even in this dull light. Some sort of entity was present, that much was plain.
The sun broke through a gap in the lowering clouds, but the energies did not fade and dim as he expected. Instead, they flared even brighter than the sunlight, sparkling and writhing furiously. Only Eldred's upraised staff deflected a lance of light that sought the crowding audience, its impact staggering him.
"Get back!" he shouted frantically, and the villagers melted away from around him. "Get indoors, out of the sun. This thing feeds on light!"
It was swirling and growing as it absorbed the sunlight. The tattered bodies of its victims faded into it, along with everything living, until only bare, parched ground was left in a circle many yards across. The light formed itself into a dense column as tall as a tree, towering over Eldred where he stood with defiantly upraised staff. Energies crackled around him as the thing attacked, but his staff absorbed each bolt. At first, he threw the energy back at his attacker, only to see it re-absorbed. The next attacks he simply deflected, letting them do their damage to whatever rocks or trees they might strike. Growing bolder, he sent probes of his own that sucked and drained at the thing's energies.
"Get back from whence you came!" He thundered the words, banishing a furtive thought that at last he was past the adolescence that had for the last couple of seasons made his voice crack at inopportune moments. As the sun once again went behind a cloud, the being wavered, retreating from the stings that drained and punished it. With a last display of coruscant energies, and a high pitched keening that tore at his ears, it swept away, cutting a wide swath through the green, new fields around the village.
"What ... What was it, Master Eldred?" The questioner was Bailiff Chorgo, tax collector in Moggus Village for the far-off Baron Womath. He had taken no great pains to hide his resentment when the newly sworn apprentice had been billeted on him, complaining because a more experienced man had not been sent. "Will it be back?"
"To both of your questions, I don't know." Eldred's shoulders slumped as he leaned on his staff. "I'll have to consult my books. What you had better do, and right now, is to send your fastest messenger to the Great Guild for help. We could well find that this is a matter that only a Master Sorcerer can handle."
"And who's to pay, if he comes only to find that this thing has gone? Master Sorcerers cost dearly."
"So do oxen. So do men. Whatever that thing was, it could have killed us all. Would have, had the sun been a little brighter." His voice dropped as he considered this. "A demon that feeds on light. I don't know..."
He didn't even notice Chorgo's newly respectful expression turn sour as he hurried back to his books. He had brought all of his texts with him, thick volumes that had been paid for by many a missed lunch, by tattered cloak and unpatched sandal.
"Is this the book you want, Master Eldred?"
"Luvath! I told you to stay out of my chamber!"
"You said you'd set a spell to trap me, if I didn't. Well, here I am, and nothing happened. You lied!"
"So? Then, why is the end of your nose such a pretty bright blue? Is that some sort of new fashion among the village girls?"
She clapped a hand over the offending feature, dashing out of the room as fast as her pudgy legs could carry her. Eldred cut his chuckle short, breathing an index spell as he opened the book. To his dismay, only one short paragraph glowed with life.
'Hounds of Light. A little known demonic manifestation last observed during the twenty fourth age. Reputed to be dangerous to animals and unprotected humans.'
He shook his head, considering the scanty data. They didn't even mention the effect of light on the things. Well, he knew one way to find out more. Retracing the smudged pentacle in the middle of the room, he cast a handful of powder into the air and intoned a NAME. Darkness boiled up within the pentacle, condensing into a smoky ball that looked back at him with sleepy amber cat-eyes.
"Why do you call me back once more from the sleep of ages?" The icy whisper drifted into his mind as though from unthinkable distances.
"I seek knowledge of the twenty fourth age. Tell me, oh ancient one, of the Hounds of Light, and how they may be mastered. I conjure thee, oh Karafax, speak truth!"
"Death and doom!" The icy voice faded, the smoky ball shrank as Karafax gave a start of fear. "They are death and doom to all they encounter, mortal or demonic. Not demons, but evil Gods, they are worshipped by the semi ethereal beings of the Eleventh Plane. At intervals, hungering for more material sustenance, they descend as far as your Fourth Plane, devouring all life and energy that they encounter. After a time, they may become sated. When that happens, they either return to the Eleventh Plane or stay and become minor deities to some remote tribe until they hunger once more."
"But, how can I defeat them?" Eldred pointed his staff commandingly at the ball of darkness that was, by now, almost too small to be seen.
"I am only a minor demon," the whisperer chuckled, yawning sleepily. "Ask me not of Gods and the death of Gods. Light is their life, energy is their strength. They like not the cool comfort of darknessss..." The ball of ebon faded, and was gone. Eldred stared moodily at the empty pentacle, debating whether or not to call up a greater Power. He shook his head. Karafax was only a minor demon, one whose name he had stumbled across in an ancient manuscript, but he made up in knowledge for what he lacked in strength and courage. The Powers were mighty, but lacked the depth of subtle knowledge that he sought.
His own energies were drained by his battle with the Hound of Light, and by the strain of an impromptu conjuration. Eldred felt in no condition to face the village assembly, but go he must. Summoned by a petulant Luvath, whose nose had faded almost to its normal freckled pink, he stood uneasily before the ranked villagers. He stood as straight as he could, trying not to feel like a child called up for reprimand before his elders. Bailiff Chorgo opened the session as soon as he had assured himself that the entire village was in attendance.
"What have you done to prevent the return of this demon?" He put the question bluntly, plainly worried about the report that he would have to send to his master, Baron Womath.
"It is not a demon. The usual spells will not, cannot command it," Eldred replied in as confident a voice as he could muster. "I have found out what it is. A Hound of Light, an evil Godling from a distant plane. It will settle down and become harmless, in time, but that time will be far too late to do us any good."
"You must do something to prevent it from returning!" Gomple, a normally stolid farmer, glanced nervously at the bar of sunlight beaming in at an unglazed window. "Those were my oxen, my hired man..."
"It could have been any of us," Chorgo interrupted impatiently. "As our village Sorcerer, you are supposed to protect us and our crops from harm. Why the Great Guild of Tarag saw fit to send us an inexperienced youth, instead of ... Well, you're here now, and it's up to you to do the job!"
"I'll do my best, but this is no demon to be tamed by the proper spell," Eldred answered bluntly, uncomfortably aware of his youth and inexperience. "I can only do my best."
His words were interrupted by a child's wail of terror, and once more they heard the shrill keening of a Hound of Light. While the villagers still sat paralyzed by sudden terror, he dashed for the door. A pillar of swirling light swept down the crooked street, glowing even brighter than the warm spring sunlight. With upraised staff gripped tightly in both hands, he stood facing it, feet braced wide apart as though facing physical attack.
The entity slowed, uncertainly, and Eldred was sure that this was the same one he had faced earlier that morning. His staff weaved in an intricate pattern as he chanted the first spell that came to mind, and a hush fell on the land as the sky darkened. He quickened the spell's pace as another Hound of Light appeared, then another and another. The sky darkened still more, clouds rolling in from all sides, and in moments Moggus Village was at the center of a drenching downpour.
The Hounds slowed, groping uncertainly for the sustenance that was denied them. Huddling together, they sent a shaft of energy into the lowering clouds. The rain ceased for a moment, a patch of blue showing overhead, but the rays of sunlight slanting through fell far to the east. Their shrill keening rising and falling in an angry promise of evil yet to come, the Hounds swept away in pursuit of the spot of light and were gone.
"Now, will you send for help?" Eldred faced Bailiff Chorgo angrily. "There were at least four of them, that time, and there could be more. More than I can defend against at one time, by far."
"Yes, yes! I shall send to the Great Guild, but you've got to protect us until help gets here!"
"I can call for other help, but the price may be higher than you will be willing to pay," Eldred told him, aware that he was in control of the situation for the moment. How long that would last, though...
"Anything you ask!" Chorgo promised. "What will you need?"
"Nothing for myself, but the consequences of my actions may be dire indeed."
"Our lives come first," Chorgo told him, solemnly. "Cast your spells, and we shall abide with the results. Only, hurry!"
"This storm will last until the sun has set, and this night the stars should be favorable to my purposes. We shall see what may be done."
The second Being studies the results of His opponent's first move. With uncharacteristic haste, It moves a piece that It has been contemplating for some time.
Tarag's two moons revolved about each other, lighting a sky that was clearing rapidly. The stars wove complex patterns against the night, influencing all below for good or evil. As the moons approached the zenith, Eldred finished the last of his preparations. He took a moment to relax, gathering his strength as he awaited the proper moment to begin.
"Now attend me, oh Dark Powers," he chanted, casting a tiny object into a brazier. A puff of vile smoke arose, then another and another. Striking the rough ceiling, they spread until they reached the walls. Instead of growing thicker, they crept down the walls in a heavy blanket that even spread along the floor. At last, Eldred was entirely enclosed in a bubble of darkness, lighted only by a faint glow outlining the pentacle in the center of the room.
"Who dares to call on the Dark Powers?" The voice that seeped through the smoke was thick with phlegm, echoing as though through endless muddy caverns. "By what right do you summon ME?"
"I am Eldred," he answered, fighting to keep his voice steady against the fear that threatened to buckle his knees. "I am apprenticed to the Great Guild of Tarag, and I call upon you by right of the Sorcerer's Pact."
"All right, all right. What is your problem?" The oozy voice sounded utterly bored with the petty affairs of humankind.
"Moggus Village, where I am assigned, has been attacked by a pack of the beings called Hounds of Light. I ask your aid in defeating them, or at least in driving them away."
"By the terms of the pact which we both must honor, I suppose that I must do what I can." The voice chuckled horridly, and Eldred shuddered as he recalled the terms of that pact. "Since they are not of my realm, I cannot control them directly. AS you have found, they seek light. But, be warned, they can function without it if need be. I can give you a spell that will hamper them, but more than that you must do for yourself."
The glutinous voice ceased, and as the smoke dispersed Eldred saw a sheaf of parchment drop to the floor inside his pentacle. Using the powers of his staff, he carefully levitated it to the table by his bed, not touching it until it was well clear of the glowing lines. The parchment was heavy and crudely dressed, a prickle of hairs roughening its surface, but the writing was plain enough. Eldred scanned the words, and shuddered. This spell demanded no powders, no philters. Nothing but the spoken word. The most demanding kind of spell, it drew only upon the soul force of the Sorcerer himself.