Apologies again for the delay on this. I have been horrendously busy as we put the last edition of the year to bed and I am absolutely mentally and physically exhausted. I have not had a real week off since January. It's been a hell of an odd year, what with swapping jobs and returning to my old company. Eurgh.


Samwell

He had to admit that he… disliked the Gate under the Hightower. There was something about it that just made him want to walk away from the damn thing, the moment he laid eyes on it again. He knew what it was now, he knew what was behind it, but he still hated the fact that the moment he approached it he felt the kind of fear that would make even Father piss himself.

Which was something that always made him pause. Bravery… could it only be shown on the battlefield, as Father said? Or were there other ways of measuring it? It was hard to tell these days. At least in these past months he'd been finally free of Father's endless bloody moans about how fat he was, how unmartial, not a warrior, too fond of books.

Finding Otherbane had shut him up. And researching the Gate and the language of the Children of the Forest had gained him the respect of Lords Tyrell and Hightower. So Father could bugger off if he came back from the Wall and started to drop unsubtle hints about joining the Night's Watch.

All of which was a welcome distraction as they hared down the stairs towards the sodding Gate. He could tell that Lord Stark was worried, that Lord Hightower was frantic and that – worryingly enough – Lord Tyrell was holding Otherbane in one hand as they hurtled down the stairs.

But then even he could tell that something was horribly, horribly wrong. He could feel something in the air, something in his feet, about the way that the Hightower was… reacting? That made no bloody sense whatsoever. How could a building react?

Ah. Ah… but then Bran the Builder was supposed to have built at least part of the Hightower. A Stark had had a hand in it. The same Stark who had built Storm's End and Winterfell and the Wall. Who had probably known that the Others would return someday, who had probably used magic regularly.

The Starks had to be linked to the Hightower. Lord Stark's reaction, and that of his Direwolf, was therefore understandable. It was a natural conclusion that he couldn't say because he was running too hard by now.

As they reached the doors to the room with the Gate he gasped. Gods – the Gate was horribly different and he could see flames. The hammering had at least stopped and he wondered why, as he heard Lord Stark mutter about how he could start with the Gate-

And then a cloud of black and stinking air seemed to appear to one side of Lord Stark and a black-cloaked man emerged from it, holding a knife. "You die," he snarled. "You die, Stark." And then he stabbed at Lord Stark, who twisted somehow just before the blow fell, but who was still hit by it, along with the punch to the head that the man added.

"NO!" Lord Tyrell bellowed, and then everything went sideways. As the Lord of the Reach pulled Otherbane free of its holder and hefted it in his hand the black-clad stranger whirled to face him with a snarl. He had dark hair, a patch over one eye, blue lips for some reason and there was something odd about his face that made Sam instantly uneasy. And then the man pulled a black blade made of shadow out of nothing and swung it at Lord Tyrell, who countered it with Otherbane and then – there was a flash of bright light and black shadow and Sam found himself flying backwards, hitting the floor on his back with a thud that made his head swim.

He shook his head, desperate to stop the room from swimming, to get back on his feet, what in the name of all the Gods was going on. He flipped himself over and levered himself up.

What he saw made his mouth drop open in horror. The stranger was standing to one side, hunched over and groaning, shaking his head as if to clear it. Lord Tyrell was prone on the floor, also groaning, Otherbane not far from him. Lord Hightower was also on his back not too far from Lord Stark, who seemed to have been flipped over by the flash of whatever the Hells that had been. And here was where was it all got strange, because his giant direwolf was standing by the prone Lord of the North – and her eyes were filled with burning red fire as she growled and snarled at the stranger.

And to make everything even worse the doorway from the room was filled with some kind of black-tinted fire, stopping the horrified guards beyond it from entering, and the Gate was shaking again, as something howled on the other side, a howl that made every hair on the back of his neck stand on end in sheer terror.

"Filthy, fucking, stinking Hightowers!" The stranger finally screamed as he scrubbed at his forehead for a long moment. "And Starks! Scum and vermin! Tyrells too! And Gardeners! HAH! But I made it! I'm in! So much for your wards! So much for your spells! I am EURON FUCKING GREYJOY! And I SPIT on your wards! Getting through was painful, but I'm here! I'm here!" He turned and faced the Gate. "I'm HERE!"

The Gate shuddered again and dust cascaded down from the ceiling. Sam stared at it in horror and then looked around quickly. Lord Stark looked as if he was dying, his chest barely rising and falling, Lord Hightower was trying to pull himself up and Lord Tyrell was also groaning and trying to sit up.

It was up to him.

Oh Gods.

Sam stood with a shiver and a shudder and then scrabbled over to grab Otherbane. And then he stood and shambled over, chest heaving, to face the mad Greyjoy as he cackled in front of the gate, waving that unsettling and bizarre sword in the air.

It was the hardest thing he'd ever done in his life and he issued a silent prayer to the Old Gods who had tossed the Drowned God through this bloody thing and asked for their help from this madman.

For a long moment Euron Greyjoy didn't seem to even notice him, so caught up was he in his cackling madness – and then he blinked and frowned at him. "You. Boy. Get out of my way. I have a destiny to fulfil. I will become a God here today."

"No, you will not," he said, trying to stop his teeth from chattering with terror. "I am Samwell bloody Tarly and I'll… fight you if I have to. You… you'll not get past me."

This seemed to amuse the Ironborn madman immensely, because he laughed and laughed – and as he did Sam stared at him. There was something strange about the man's face, as if the skin was too loose in places. The one eye he could see was almost bulging in its socket and the cheekbones looked a bit odd.

"You?" Greyjoy finally said. "You're a Tarly? Randall Tarly's whelp? I heard his heir was fat as butter and a craven! Is it you? There's more meat on you than there should be, surely?" The cackling came again – and then stopped. "Go away boy."

"No." He hefted Otherbane again and then noted how the lunatic blinked and looked warily at it. "Oh – are you afraid of this? Otherbane?"

"I fear nothing, boy," Greyjoy snarled. "And I have won. Stark's dying or dead, Tyrell's over there, you are in my way and I will achieve my destiny. I will kill the Drowned God! And I will absorb his power! I will wax and others will wane and I will be a GOD!"

The noise from the Gate stopped suddenly and Sam knew in his heart that whatever the thing was that remained on the other side of the Gate, it was terrified.

And then there was a sound like something like a keen, or a wail, or a shriek from Otherbane. It shook in his hands as if it was alive and Sam blinked as it seemed to glow with red light.

Euron Greyjoy seemed to flinch slightly – and then he looked about the room wildly, before staring at Frostfyre as if he had only just noticed her. "YOU!" He shrieked the word. "How did you – No. No. NO! Stark's dead! I killed him!"

Frostfyre howled at the Ironborn madman and Sam would see that the eyes of the Lord of the North were barely open – but totally white.

"Greyjoy!" Sam said thickly as the black-clad took a step towards the prone lord and the Direwolf. "GREYJOY!"

Euron Greyjoy whirled on him and he swallowed and clenched Otherbane in both hands.

"Fight me." They were words that almost made him want to piss himself. But he meant it. "FIGHT. ME."

There was a long and singing moment of silence as the mad Ironborn seemed to debate what to do in his head – and then he raised the black shadow sword in his one hand and strode towards Sam.

Fuck, he thought in desperation, I'm going to bloody die. But I'll die like a Tarly. And he hefted Otherbane and prepared to meet that blow from Euron Greyjoy with all he had and – and then everything went sideways again.

Something shook the room with a massive thud, something froze him in place, Euron Greyjoy too, the latter trying to look in all directions with his one eyeball.

"Thank you, Sam." The speaker was Lord Leyton Hightower. He was upright again and red and green fire burned in his eyes. "You'll never be forgotten for your bravery. Give me Otherbane now." The Lord of the Hightower gestured and then Otherbane was ripped out of his hands and flew through the air towards Lord Hightower. As it smacked into his hands he strode, shakily, towards Ned Stark.

Euron Greyjoy groaned and then shook in place as he seemed to try and break free of whatever had been done to him, but it was too late, Sam knew it, as Lord Hightower placed Otherbane gently onto the chest of the Lord of the North.

"OLD GODS!" Lord Hightower shouted and the room seemed to shrink for a long moment as everyone, including the now crouching Lord Tyrell whose eyes were widening as he realised what was going on, looked at him. "Old. Gods." He looked at the Gate and then at the mad Ironborn – and then at the Direwolf. "A life for a life." And then he placed a hand on the head of Frostfyre.

Red light exploded into the room, red light that came from the hand of Lord Hightower, tinged with green. The Direwolf froze in place – and then howled again.

"NO!" Euron Greyjoy finally bellowed, "NO!"

But it was too late. Ned Stark suddenly sat upright, his face smeared in blood, his hand grasping for and finding the Fist of Winter.

And then, as Lord Hightower slumped, bonelessly, down, Lord Stark stood up and hefted the Fist of Winter.


Ned

Until his dying day he never understood just what it had been that tugged him… sideways. He remembered a vague feeling of dizziness, of touching Frostfyre's side as he fell, as the darkness took him and then… it was as if he had jumped sideways. Perspective flickered, he was suddenly a slightly different height and he had too many legs.

But he couldn't move. It was as if he knew that he shouldn't move as well. He had to be by… himself? He could sense that he was dying, or rather his body was getting weaker and weaker, what had the man who had attacked him had on that blade?

It was then that he caught sight of the man and he suddenly really couldn't move, because there was something else there, inside that man, he could sense it, smell it, see it. There was a blackness about him, like an aura or a shadow. Evil. He was seeing a man who was drenched with evil.

And then the man identified himself as Euron Greyjoy, in a cackling rant that made his fur raise with fury and horror. This was the kinslayer Greyjoy, the man who had murdered his own crew to create something beyond horror.

The Gate was making horrible noises, some too high-pitched to almost hear, there was something on the other side of it that was terrified – and then he watched as Samwell Tarly confronted Greyjoy. He could tell that the lad was terrified, he could see it in his face – but he still did it anyway. He stood in front of the Gate, Otherbane in hand, and he stopped the man in his tracks. Because Ned could tell that he was afraid of Otherbane.

And then something ran through him, the knowledge, no, the absolute certainty, that the Old Gods were here, in this room, at this time. He could feel it. The room seemed to shake – and then he felt something else wax in the room. Someone was performing magic, an old and deep magic that came from the heart.

It was Leyton Hightower. He could feel it in the air and he wondered at how he could do so, if this was how Frostfyre could normally see the world, sense the magic, be aware of such threats.

He could sense the moment that Euron Greyjoy seemed to notice him again, that unsettling eye looked at him as the Ironborn kinslayer ranted at him – and then Otherbane was almost ripped out of young Sam's hands and flew towards Lord Hightower, who took it and then placed it onto the chest of the… body to one side that was his real body? Was he dead?

"OLD GODS!" Hightower cried and Ned felt his body – both bodies? – quiver. "Old. Gods. A life for a life."

Red fire exploded everywhere and as Leyton Hightower placed a hand on his head he felt himself suddenly fall through a sudden and unimaginable distance. Suddenly there was a need to breath, to take a gulp of air into his lungs and he sat up, Otherbane clattering on the floor to one side as he clenched his hand around the Fist of Winter. Strength suddenly flowed through him, the pain at his side receding and then vanishing completely.

He stood and flexed his muscles – and glared at Greyjoy. His mouth was dry, he could feel dried blood on his forehead and he was angry. Very fucking angry. And by the way that Greyjoy paled – even further – he could tell that the bastard was afraid.

"Euron Greyjoy," he said, through a dry mouth. "It's past time for you to die."

Samwell Tarly had run to Lord Hightowers body and was shaking his head over it and Greyjoy stepped back, before casting a quick look at the Gate behind him. Frostfyre was growling ferociously at him and at a gesture from Ned started to pace off to one side, flanking him. The Ironborn bared his teeth as he hefted the black and cursed blade in his hand – and then he squinted and pulled a face as he pulled another one out of the air into his free hand.

"I think not Stark," Greyjoy growled through lips that seemed wrong somehow. "I have a destiny to fulfil! I will be a god!"

"No, you're destined to die and become a corpse" Ned replied and then quickly bent down and picked up Otherbane is his own free hand. He could feel the weapon warm slightly to his touch and then, to his surprise the head of the spear lightened and then erupted into red flame that let off no heat. "Winterfell!"

He lunged with the Fist and Greyjoy parried the blow with a grimace, dark sparks sparking off the black blade, before ducking under Ned's second lunge with Otherbane and then making Frostfyre dart back just before she could hamstring him.

"Damn you!" Greyjoy howled, taking another glance back at the Gate. His face looked wrong, the skin slack again, there was something dark under his one eye.

"Ned!" The word came from Willas Tyrell, who was at last upright and off to one side, looking angry and pugilistic. "Throw me Otherbane!"

Ned smiled a savage grin and then toss the weapon to the younger man, who hefted it with a smile as his face was lit up with the red flames from the tip of the spear. "Grandfather died to stop you, you son of a whore Euron Greyjoy. And we will end you."

Greyjoy licked what seemed to be very slack and dry lips with a grey-purple tongue that again looked wrong – and then Ned swung the Fist, Greyjoy parried in a shower of black sparks, the other black sword came around but then met Otherbane as Willas Tyrell attacked on the other side. More black sparks and something in the room seemed to squeal and gibber as Greyjoy danced backwards, his chest heaving from the effort of the fight.

Ned took a step forwards. He was tired but this was a fight for his life and the lives of so many others and he lashed forwards again, joined by Willas in another dual attack that had Greyjoy again pushed back, black sparks showering onto the floor from the parries that he was delivering with those black blades made of something evil.

And then he attacked, slashing against the pair of them, forcing to step backwards themselves as they parried his assault. More black sparks – what were his blades made of.

But he had pushed too far. Frostfyre went in low as he passed her, those great jaws flashing out and then suddenly Greyjoy screamed as the Direwolf ripped out a part of the pack of his leg. She darted back quickly, shaking her head and spitting out what she had savaged from him and Ned could see that the flesh she was almost retching on was red and black.

Greyjoy went down on one knee for a moment and then staggered upwards, before the Fist hammered into his shoulder and something crunched, making him scream again. As he staggered back, almost hopping on his good leg, his lips peeled back and his teeth seemed pointed almost as he snarled at them all.

And then he dropped to one knee and thrust the swords into the floor in front of him. Ned blinked – and then a crack of lightning seemed to boom from the swords and something seemed to flash from them. Ned didn't even hesitate, he darted forwards and somehow parried the flash with the Fist, directing it away from them and somehow into the far wall, which was scorched from the blow. The impact almost drove Ned to his knees – but then he came fully upright again.

"You die now, Greyjoy."

The Ironborn bared his teeth again, looked at the approaching Willas Tyrell, glanced at the snarling Frostfyre, shot another desperate look at the Gate – and then he screamed in pain and frustration. "I WILL KILL YOU ALL!" And then he raised a hand and conjured a portal of black and stinking air, before passing into it slowly.

Ned started forwards, meaning to kill the wretched man, but then the room shook again and Greyjoy screamed again in agony. His face was distorted as he passed into the portal, horribly so and Ned paled as he saw it ripple in a way that nothing human ever should. "WARDS! BUT! I! AM! STRONGER!" Another scream rent the air – and suddenly he was gone, leaving his robes, which slithered wetly to the ground with an unpleasant noise.

Ned stood there panting for a long moment and then he looked at Willas Tyrell, who looked as exhausted as he felt. The black fire at the door to the Hightower was gone and the guards who had been on the other side took hesitant steps into the chamber, their eyes wide as they looked at him and the others.

"Be careful," Ned panted as he looked about warily. "He came from nowhere, although… I think that getting here hurt him."

"Getting out too," Willas said. "Left his robes."

"Not just robes," Sam Tarly said, and there was horror in his voice. "That's his skin."

Ned frowned and then walked over to it. And then he paled. Yes. Euron Greyjoy's skin was puddled on the flagstones, turning grey and then blackening as it seemed to sizzle in the air.

"He must be dead," Willas muttered as young Tarly threw up to one side. "Who could survive that?"

"Someone no longer human," Ned replied. "He's… beyond wrong. Evil. Mad."

And then the Gate shook again and then flared with a terrible, unnatural light as it pulsed. The Drowned God was coming through.