Malazan Empire: 1st Grand Malazan Short Story Contest Official Submissions Thread - Malazan Empire

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1st Grand Malazan Short Story Contest Official Submissions Thread

#1 User is offline   Shinrei 

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Posted 09 July 2008 - 06:31 PM

Authors, please submit all short stories to . To keep things simple, please do not upload them here yourself.

I will mail the stories to the individual judge's email addresses and will then post them to this thread. I will limit my posts in this thread to the posting of submitted stories.

Anyone else, feel free to read the stories and comment on them. Judges of course should refrain from commenting on this thread.

Also, I know I don't need to say this because people on this forum are conscientious, but at the same time I do need to say this for the sake of putting it out there: please respect the copyrights of all the authors who submit. Therefore, please do not upload these stories onto any other forum or blog or wherever else without the author's permission.

Here is a link to the Phoenix Inn thread: http://www.malazanem...ead.php?t=11062
You’ve never heard of the Silanda? … It’s the ship that made the Warren of Telas run in less than 12 parsecs.

#2 User is offline   Shinrei 

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Posted 27 August 2008 - 08:21 PM


She was the first living soul to be born in that place for four hundred years and from the first day her world bloomed. The colours and perfumes of a thousand different wild-flowers blanketing the fields surrounding her home. The ghostly waves of an ocean of silvered petals shifting and rolling through the night. Yes her world was filled with flowers. In their microcosm of stamens and carpels and florets truths that belonged to everyone lay patiently awaiting her cognizance. During the Spring she sat amidst droning clouds of bees as they winged their way from one flower to the next leaving a fine golden dust in their wake.

The first time she picked a flower and severed its connection with the earth was when Grandpa died. A poppy. It had started as nothing serious but ended in death and they buried him in the summer as they dripped tears and sweat. She bent down to lace the stem between his cold fingers and brushed a knuckle with her own. Strange that he should be so cold when she herself was so hot. From that vast thermal distance she knew he could never return. And the soil was thanked and returned to its rightful place.

After Grandpa Mother and Father and Uncle and Aunt and Cousin and Cousin and Cousin fell rapidly and she knew it was Autumn. As the stars wheeled the dead tumbled into their graves and the living waited. The sun and the moon cut indifferent arcs through the sky as lives ended. The strongest were the last to go and this was good for she could not dig the graves herself only gift the poppies one by one. A weakness in Father forced her to shovel the first of the dirt over Mother's body. He was too sick to make a coffin. Just as long as he couldn't see the body for the dirt then I will take over, Daughter. She told Father that she was sorry because I can't dig you a grave, Father, I am not strong enough. It's okay, he replied and then he died for her words meant well but they squeezed a little too hard and they killed him.

Winter. Cold. Lonely. Nothing left now but to wait for death and she knew it would not be long. In her final moments she recalled a story that Father had told her the memory of which had been warped but not overly so like an object seen through the bottom of a glass bottle or the reflection in a carnival mirror.

You are the daughter of a star.
You have your mother's eyes.
Your name is unknown to us.
I am not your real father.
With you yet unborn I have fled
Across oceans and climbed mountains
And fought men until they were dead.
I have betrayed friends and killed
Lovers and whored my soul
A thousand times over.
My hands and my mouth and my heart
Are stained with lies and blood
Unto blackness.
And for you I built this house
Where none will find us.
When I leave this place there will be
Only terror and pain to answer
The things that I've done.
But it has all been worth it.
Just to have known you.

In her memory he smiled.

But there was one thing of which she remained ignorant of which Father had said nothing. The purity of her blood guarded her against disease and against toxin. And guarded her against the deadly pollen of a red poppy placed lovingly on a grandfather's grave in the Summer of that same year. But it could not fill her stomach with food. And it could not draw moisture from the air to drink. And it could not will her to move again when her heart had stopped its music.

She died then clutching tight a poppy that nameless daughter of a distant sun beside Father-who-was-not-Father in that clearing in that forest in that place that had known not a living soul for four hundred years.

#3 User is offline   Shinrei 

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Posted 27 August 2008 - 08:26 PM

Bodies littered the floor. Severed limbs, spilt entrails, and rivulets of blood scattered the blasted clearing with vivid colour. One man crawled through the sodden ground, dragging his useless legs behind him by sinews and strings of muscle. Where he was going was anyone’s guess, but by the gouts of red that spewed from the ruined thighs, it was clear he wasn’t going to reach his desired destination.
Another warrior lay sprawled, one arm reaching for his axe which lay in an ever growing puddle of blood and rain. His other arm, along with most of his torso, was several paces away from him, quivering as though cold.
The stench of death and fear split through the driving rain. Blood, vomit, and excrement - the fruits of slaughter.
The blonde woman pulled her son behind her, trying to both shield him from the sight of the carnage, and to hide him from the view of the attackers. There were four still standing, and these kind were bred for war. They lived for it, and the sight of this bloodletting was the norm for them… further more, the man who had wreaked such havoc was gone from the clearing, dragged away through the shrubbery on the northern side by yet more attackers. She could hear him fighting still. The clashing of steel on steel, his glorious battle cry, and the oscillating wail of his victims.
The leader of this bunch stood at the rear, one mad eye watching her through the grey barrage of rain. He was a giant man, head, shoulders and, chest above any of the others. In his great paws was a monumental cleaver. That he was no longer human was all too clear for Liayan. His appearance was too gruesome, too large, too bestial by far.
But she knew this anyway, for this was Onslaught, one of the Thirteen Lords of Khurnoc, Mightiest Hand in all the West and answerable only to the Red Terror himself.
And they have found me, she thought, the Electorate’s gambit has failed.
The child whimpered as he felt the dreadful presence of the approaching monster, and she held him from sight. The other three fanned out, making room for their lord, cruel weapons ready for slaying. Onslaught came slowly forward, sandaled feet forming deep prints, causing rain and blood to rush in over his toes. His single eye never left her face, never once took in the death and mayhem around him, even as it had not during the fighting. He had merely stood there, watching as first six, and then a dozen of his captains were cut down by the man who had been sent to escort her across the Wild.
‘Give room,’ he said, his voice as deep as the ever present thunder that boomed across the landscape. The cleaver came to hang in one hand as the other immense limb rose, a fat finger pointing right at Liayan. ‘The brat will I kill at once… at once, you hear. But you, get of Chordatius, you I will keep. You I will use as I please, until long after your spirit is broken, until long after your grief is but a memory, until the very day your body refuses such torment, and snuffs itself out like a used candle.’
Now he towered over her, looming like some omnipresent demon, and she cowered beneath his might. The very air around him exuded power, and she found herself quailing before him, terrified of his potency. She could feel the heat from his giant body, could smell the stench of him, so animal like and inhuman, could hear the guttural growl that rose from deep in his cavernous chest. He reached a great hand out to snatch from her the heir of Chordatius, and she froze, unable to resist him for even a heartbeat.
The hand came closer as lightning streaked the sky, and the pouring rain redoubled its effort to drown the land, purging it of all and everything.
‘Hey!’ came a voice, halting the hand an inch from her throat. ‘Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?’
Her eyes flicked to the source of the voice, as Onslaught turned slowly to face the man who had emerged from the shrub line. He laughed a deep rumble.
The man known as the Forester stood across the way, battered by the ceaseless rain, cloak and waist-length hair braid tugged almost horizontal by the crosswind. He was a tall man, broad of shoulder and powerful of limb, but he could never match the size of the giant he now faced, and so his challenge was met with mirth from the other three warriors who now moved to circle him. But he stood his ground still, feet planted wide, broad shield held before him, long axe out to his right side. Sheathed across the back of his belt was a huge cutlass, and upon his head a frightful helm. A broad nose-guard and two sets of curving horns gave off a demonic impression; two upwards like those of a bull, and two inwards like a ram’s. And beneath the helm, a mighty jutting beard, through which teeth were bared in grimace, and bottomless eyes of the palest grey.
‘You have failed,’ Onslaught said, gripping his cleaver in two hands once more.
‘How so?’ asked the Forester.
‘Your attempts to evade me have accounted you nothing. The child will be mine.’
‘Am I not living and breathing?’ the Forester asked. ‘Until I lay face up, you will be opposed and obstructed.’
Another laugh from Onslaught. ‘By you? There are none to match me in combat in all the realm, you foolish peasant.’
‘I am not from this realm. Belay your charge for an instant. Come away from that helpless woman and her innocent child, and face me, man to man. With me dead, you can have your way.’
Liayan watched in awe as the four hunters moved closer to her protector. He stood stalwart in the face of their formidable appearance, looking at them with such a cold, dread regard. The look of someone who is beyond redemption. Hangman’s eyes, she thought.
And seeing him withstand their wrath with cold indifference gave her courage. They were warriors, yes, and great slayers of men, but this man they were dealing with was more than that. He was… a hero.
The first of them attacked then, with a high pitched scream. His sword flashed through the rain, and the Forester burst into action. With a roar like that of a bear, he thrust his shield out to meet the incoming sword, deflecting the weapon to where he wanted it with seeming ease. The sword shanked right, and the Forester was already moving, his axe chopping down into the man’s neck, driving through plate armour, through the chain beneath, and right through the man’s sternum. He booted the gargling form away from his axe, and rushed to meet the second attacker.
Even as the howling swordsman came on, the Forester charged him, lashing out with his right leg. The sword strike bounced harmlessly from his shield and his boot sailed through the air, the spike on the toecap punching through the side of the man’s head, killing him. The Forester used his momentum and carried on spinning, throwing his left leg behind him like a battering ram, and knocking the falling corpse thirty feet through the air, where it landed with a flop in a puddle of mud.
The last man cast a fearful look at Onslaught, who looked on impassively, gesturing for him to attack. And so he did, and was dispatched following a frenzied exchange of weapons. He slumped to the wet ground, his helmed head spattering onto the earth beside his body. More blood poured onto the sodden ground.
Onslaught turned his mad eye back to Liayan, but was called an instant later.
‘No, no!’ the Forester shouted, waving his axe and sending blood spraying from its crescent blade. ‘I know your reasons. Why you would slay a woman, yet will not face me.’ He stepped forward and began slowly walking towards the giant warrior.
Onslaught turned to face him. ‘Pray tell,’ he growled. ‘Make these words count, though. They could be your last.’
‘You haven’t attacked me yet for one simple reason. You are frightened of me, Third Lord of Khurnoc. Frightened of what I might do to you.’
Then there were no more words. Onslaught bellowed and charged across the clearing, the very earth trembling beneath his passing. The Forester took the brunt of his attack and then the two were locked in ferocious combat. One a giant, bare-chested monster, the other armoured, yet slight in comparison.
Their weapons were a blur as they fought across the clearing, the Forester being inched back through the mud. His shield was taking a severe hammering, but it was imbued with ancient magic, he’d said, and was indestructible. Still, as she watched, Liayan felt that the shield could never withstand such a battering, nor could the man beneath it. And yet when she felt certain he would fall to his knees, the Forester would counter, hacking back into his antagonist with fearsome replies. But Onslaught’s cleaver was always there, deflecting, blocking, and slashing.
For many minutes they fought thus, and Liayan felt sure she would pass out, such were the levels of stress she was enduring. She knew that the outcome of this dual would mean life or death to her and her son. Quite simply, the Forester could not lose. And yet, it seemed, he must.
And abruptly, she witnessed the moment he would be slain. Onslaught reached out with his left hand and forced the rim of the shield down, and then rained blows down as he held the shield at bay. The Forester blocked with his axe but in short order the long-handled weapon was knocked flying from his hand. The cleaver rose, the jutting beard twisted as the Forester watched the arc of the huge weapon. And then it swung down like a headsman’s axe.
Liayan closed her eyes and screamed, tearing her throat with the intensity of it. Her son wailed too, and she made to turn, to flee and preserve what moments of life she had left. But then she opened her eyes she saw the Forester still moving, his shield held by the rim in Onslaught’s oversize hand. He had released it and somehow avoided the lethal blow, slipping out of the straps and leaving it in Onslaught’s grip.
He deftly drew his cutlass, and charged. Onslaught tossed the shield aside and again there was an intense fight, two ferocious combatants locked in a fight to the death in the driving rain. The cleaver swept in and the Forester caught his arm by the wrist, stabbing into Onslaught’s midriff with his cutlass. The blade slid home and Onslaught grunted, snatching the Forester’s wrist and yanking the weapon clear. Bright blood oozed from the wound, mixing at once with the cascades of water and turning his abdomen red. They wrestled for a moment, Onslaught snarling in fury, the Forester silent, teeth bared beneath his great beard in a grimace of effort.
And then the Forester threw his head in, butting Onslaught in the chin with his horned helm. With a speed that dazzled, he released Onslaught’s arm, and threw a left handed punch into the giant’s face. The Third Lord’s head snapped back, and then once more as the gauntleted fist smashed in again. The cutlass whirled free and he hacked it into Onslaught’s left arm, cutting to the bone. The giant threw a punch and the Forester sailed beneath it, sawing his cutlass across the muscled belly of his opponent.
‘Gaaah!’ Onslaught gasped as his innards gushed forth. He staggered forward, almost stumbling.
But the Forester was relentless, and set about butchering the flailing warrior, his blade a dozen places at once. A forearm splashed to the ground, shorn at the elbow. A great shout of pain erupted from Onslaught’s maw, and Liayan turned away, unwilling to watch the gruesome flaying any longer.

Rain drummed incessantly on her makeshift shelter - his shield rammed rim-first into a tree trunk, and his cloak draped over that - and blotted out all other sounds. Firek was asleep, snoring lightly in his harness around her neck, as she sat on an almost dry blanket, back against the cold tree. It was dark inside, as outside light faded away, but the cloak remained a barrier from the wind, for he hand nailed it to the floor.
The Forester was out there somewhere, in the torrential rain, scouting. He had taken this charge, to keep Liayan and her son alive, and by the Teeth of Hell, he meant to achieve his goal. Onslaught’s attack marked but one of many, and both minions of the Red Terror and denizens of the Wild sought to bring an end to the three travellers.
Folk stayed out of the Wilds these days. Mankind had been driven into their walled cities by the roving savagery of the lands in between them. And as the city states had strengthened themselves against the constant sieges of the People Without, they had become isolated, each a brother apart from his kin. The hundreds of miles that separated one city from another may as well have been a thousands. The Wilds meant death.
And yet the heir of Chordatius needed to cross the wilderness, for Foundation was beleaguered by assailants. Its walls battered by engines of war, its soldiers put to the sword day and night, its wizards met with magic that blighted their own. The Electorate feared the city would fall. Feared it so much, he had sent away his only grandson.
Liayan dipped her head and wept quietly, hoping for the hundredth time that the man he had sent to protect them would be enough.

‘Did you bury the dead?’ she asked, walking alongside the tall man, trying to match his long strides.
Bereft of his helm he didn’t look quite so terrifying, but his weathered face was all lines and ridges, and his brows were constantly knitted in a frown. He glanced down at her and shook his head, the cue of hair swaying behind him. ‘I don’t bury the slain warriors who take up arms against me,’ he said. ‘Any man foolish enough the stand before me and seek my death, well, he can feed the vultures for all I care.’
‘Then they will find Onslaught’s corpse.’
‘Good,’ he said, spitting on the steaming ground.
‘They will be enraged,’ she said.
He smiled. ‘They have a need to find you and your son, lassie. Their rage will not help them in any way… and if they do find us, I have rage enough to meet them in kind.’
She was silent a moment, and then she stopped, turning to face him. He walked on for a while, and then, after noticing she had halted, slowed to a stop. ‘Do you begrudge this task, Forester?’
‘Not at all,’ he replied amiably. ‘My anger is something I carry with me always. I am a lost man, you see - in the literal sense of the word. Since I lost my home, I have ever been tasked with such things as this. And I relish them. They are… a distraction from that which burdens me.’ He walked away and then called over his shoulder. ‘Come on, girlie. It will be night soon, I want to make those boulders by then.’
On the distant horizon a group of stones were piled haphazard against each other. The land was blighted here, with dead trees dotting the landscape like ghoulish sentinels. The sky was clear, but lower down a haze obscured clarity as the wet earth steamed. The Forester wanted to be out of the elements, he’d said. Last night he hadn’t slept, but patrolled all night, until, when, at sun up, he had roused her and they’d set off once more.
Liayan watched him a moment, his shield and helmet strapped across his pack, his long axe used like a staff. The Forester was not a name that suited him. She caught up with him, walking once more by his side. ‘There is a great mystery about you,’ she said. ‘They speak of it in the courts and at the tables. Where did you come from before that day you appeared in Foundation? Where is your home?’
‘There are other worlds than this one,’ he said, looking towards the distant boulders, ‘and I have seen may of them. Before here I was at a place called Bloodstain, a city of death and destruction. Strange, no? Here, the cities are the refuge. There, a maelstrom of slaughter.’
‘Where is this Bloodstain?’
‘In another world.’
‘And how does one cross worlds?’
‘There are many ways,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘From my home world I stepped though a glitch in reality. Since then… I have found many ways. The House of Nanny Bones - the House in the Water - can take you anywhere and anywhen, but those paths are dangerous, and patrolled by the Grey Haired Man and his Maniacs. The Rotunda of Doors can also take you anywhere, but no one knows which door will lead where, and you become lost. There are Gates in many realms, even in this one. You call them Vortexes and rightly fear them. That is where I came from. That is how I came to be here, in this place. Through a Vortex.’
‘You have seen many things,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘I am much older than I look.’
‘Tell me,’ she said, taking his strong forearm in her hand. ‘If you share a burden, sometimes the load is lessened. I am a good listener, and your rumbling voice keeps Firek in sleep. You have a haunted look that comes into you eyes from time to time… you have buried loved ones, have you not?’
He nodded. ‘More times that I care to count. In Bloodstain I hoped to stay, for while at least, and build something new. It was not to be, alas. There was an uprising. A riot. A garrison of soldiers there were set upon by the whole damn city, and I took it in my head to help them. I had pets. A war hound and a grizzled hyena, both from the realm before Bloodstain. They were killed in the ensuing struggles. As were most of the soldiers I befriended and tried to save.
‘There were places before that too. In the realm where I became known as the Forester, I was settled, and I was content to live life in the woods. I had a teenage son, and no one knew of the commander of armies I had been. No one knew the multitude of men who lay dead beneath my weapons. Soldiers came from the city, and killed my beloved boy. It was from that place that the spirits of the forest gave me these weapons. This fell axe,’ he held the long axe up, and she could see the razor sharp blade glinting in the sunlight, the polished wooden handle that was seemingly impervious to damage. ‘And the cutlass and shield I carry, and my helmet. They killed my boy, and so the gods of that world took pity on me, and granted me these items, and with them I cut a bloody swath through the land that they will never, ever forget.’
‘I am sorry.’
He nodded, saying nothing.
‘You are a great warrior,’ she said. ‘The best I have ever seen. Are there any who can stand against you?’
He smiled. ‘Anyone can lose a fight. As long as we all have two hands, two feet and a good head on our shoulder’s, we all stand a chance of winning or losing against everyone else. In my days, I have faced three people who I could not slay. Two of them were from a place called Last Mistake. One was a renegade Anointed Monk, who went on to become one of my best friends, the other a psychopath called Kinnock, a monstrous man, bigger even than Onslaught. Both survived my might. The third man was a soldier at Bloodstain named Bullplough. He too became a friend of mine.’
‘And in this world?’
‘It’s hard to say. These Wilds are full of fell creatures, and men of grizzly determination. And then there are these Gen’rewensai I have heard tale of. They are, it is said, immortal.’
‘So goes the legend. They are the Red Terror’s shock troops, useful for one thing and one thing alone. Killing.’
‘Then we shall test this legend. My axe has put paid to many claims of immortality before now.’
With that he fell into silence, his pale eyes ever searching the terrain for signs of danger. And so they trailed towards the boulders, as, in the east, another storm brewed.

As they neared the boulders it became clear there was a denizen already in residence for them to contend with. A huge borsa bear rose its broad matted head and bellowed at them, bringing a wail of fear from Firek. The Forester had pushed Liayan back with one arm and deftly dropped his pack to the floor. The bear reared, ambling forward, sabre fangs bared.
‘A big brute,’ she heard the Forester mutter as he approached it.
She had been terrified, and stood transfixed as the man walked towards the giant bear, dwarfed by its size and mass. The bear charged, and all at once the Forester leaped aside, flinging his axe into the bear’s path. Bright blood spurted fifteen feet into the air, and the bear’s head slid away, tumbling to the floor. And that was that.
They sat now in the cave created by the boulder mass, as the storm raged without. He’d built a fire, and over this he roasted one of the hind legs of the hapless bear.
‘Have you eaten bear before?’ she asked, pulling her son away from the flames once more.
‘No. But he has goodness and energy in him, so I’ll eat him. Some people quail at eating carnivores for some reason, but not I. If it has meat on it, I will consume it. Bear, cow, sheep, horse… it matters not to me.’
‘But I notice you don’t eat chicken.’
He grinned. ‘I had a scare once, and ate an infected bird… it nearly killed me. Anyway, where I come from, everyone knows the inclination of chickens.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Chickens are evil,’ he said, and then laughed out loud.
Not understanding the joke, she merely looked at him, marvelling at the way humour transformed his face from a brutal visage into a caring one. He was ruggedly handsome, this man. Beneath that beard, she thought, was a man of beauty.
He caught her studying him, and looked her in the eye, the smile slowly fading from his face. ‘Firek’s dad?’ he asked simply.
She shook her head. ‘He was killed in the siege, many months before the birth. Firek has never seen his father.’
He nodded in silence, and then reached forward to turn the spit. The meal took a while to cook, but when it was eaten he opened a wine skin, and the two of them drank of it while Firek lay on his back drinking preserved milk from his container. And when the boy dozed off, the Forester went out into the rain, and was gone for some time.
She felt alone then, and wanted the company he could provide her, an arm around her shoulder perhaps, or a hand cupped against her face. Or maybe even…
‘With that storm I doubt anyone could travel in comfort,’ he said, coming back into the shelter, shaking water from his hair and beard. ‘And a man in armour would be a fool to cross the open plains. He’d be struck dead. I think we have this night to ourselves.’
‘That is well,’ she said. ‘Would you keep me company on this stormy night?’
He looked down at her, concern in his eyes. Thunder boomed across the plains, and the Forester looked across at Firek, who remained unfazed by the tumultuous sound.
‘He is a deep sleeper?’ he asked.
‘Very much so.’
He smiled. ‘Then we have ourselves an accord.’

They left early in the morning, the sky bright blue laced with streaks of pink and yellow. Liayan found her gaze returning to the Forester time and again, and she was pleased to see that sometimes he was already watching her. Last night’s romance had been… momentous. And from it a bond had been forged between the two. Something during the night had turned her admiration and respect into love and longing, and she sensed in him a similar change. It was as if their joining had created an invisible cord that irrevocably linked them. Not just of the loins - although that wasn’t without welcome - but of the soul too.
They marched throughout the day, talking of things inconsequential, as if they were not being hunted, as if her life and the life of her son were not in danger. He carried Firek when the boy became restless, and she saw wonder in the boy’s eyes as he felt the warmth and power of the man who bore him. And there was a fatherly look in the Forester’s eyes in these moments, and she felt a pain in her chest when she thought of his loss.
It was a glorious time, she felt. And the ravages that followed her seemed almost forgotten, until, after they had stopped for lunch, a great cry sounded from the skies above. She saw it soaring through the clear blue, and her heart pounded against her chest.
His eyes had narrowed at the sight of it, and then he was scanning the ground for somewhere to hide.
The terrain was hardpan, but here and there copses of trees dotted the otherwise arid landscape. The Forester pointed to a group of cedar nearby, tall trees with broad foliage and thick trunks. He pulled Liayan towards them. Once beneath the heavy canopy and in shadow, he turned and peered once more to the skies.
‘What the hell is that thing?’ he asked, dropping his pack and removing his helmet and shield. He began strapping the shield to his forearm as she started talking.
‘A roc. Rare this far north, but the storms could have brought him. He’s a magnificent specimen too. The biggest I’ve ever seen.’
The Forester pulled his helmet down onto his head, transforming him once more into a fighting machine, rather than a man. ‘Something that big must be dangerous.’
‘It is. In the south it is said they carry off great mammoths in their talons, and take them to their mountain lairs. And in the Ruby Ocean they’ve even been seen snatching whales from the very waves. They will eat anything they see, including us.’
‘He has to come down here to kill us,’ the Forester said, his gaze following the massive bird as it arced across the sky. ‘And when he does…’ he raised the axe in gesture.
Through the wide leaves she saw the roc gliding on the updraft of the hot earth, massive wingspan curled up in effortless flight. It cried out again, an ear splitting scream that made her cover was almost deafening. They watched it in fascinated silence as it spiralled through the sky a couple of hundred feet from the ground, its vast shadow bobbing over the ground as it breached humps and mounds. And then, suddenly, the roc twitched in flight, wings flapping audibly as it altered direction.
‘It sees something,’ she said.
‘Aye, but not us. Something over that way. Something airborne. And lo, is it not fleeing? What can spook a bird of that size?’
‘I don’t know,’ she replied, shrinking back into the trees.
With great, powerful strokes, the roc drove its wings into the air, pushing it to the south with great speed. In moments it was lost from view behind the foliage. She turned her eyes north, from where the roc had fled. A speck just above the horizon, black and shapeless, but growing with every second. ‘Something comes,’ she whispered, dread creeping into her voice.
He nodded grimly. ‘I see it.’
The shape grew closer and soon enough she could discern its outline. Two huge wings, larger, even, that those of the roc. And two long necks, each supporting a horned, serpentine head, fang-filled maws agape. A long spiked tail swished a hundred feet behind it, dragging in its wake like the trail of a comet. And as it came closer still vivid colours blossomed. Bright reds, and yellows. Shiny black of horns and fangs, and the scaly white underbelly.
‘A daragina,’ she said, her voice almost breaking.
‘A dragon,’ he said in response. ‘A bloody two-headed dragon. The biggest damn thing I’ve ever seen.’
And then a monstrous voice echoed across the land, borne of magic, and loud enough the send dust vibrating into the air. ‘I SEE YOU!’ the voice bellowed.
Firek began to cry, and Liayan held him close, almost crushing his in her panic.
‘Someone rides the dragon,’ the Forester said. ‘And he’s used magic to find us. Well, as I said before, if he wants us he’ll have to come within range of my axe.’
‘What can your axe do against that?’ she sobbed. ‘And even if you could kill it, it doesn’t have to come down. Daragina can loose energy at their foes. He can kill us from way up there.’
‘Shush now,’ he said. ‘We aren’t dead yet.’
The daragina was much closer now, and she could see the rider too. A man of heavy armour, sitting in a low saddle where the two necks met at the body. The huge beast was mightily muscled, with jointed arms and legs like a giant man’s, but each ending in massive talons. The heads swayed back and forth as it rushed to cover the distance between them, wings the size of ship’s sails beating ferociously.
‘PREPARE TO DIE!’ the rider shouted, a sword pointing between the two heads to the copse they hid in.
‘He sees us,’ the Forester needlessly said. ‘Stay here.’
Large shield held at his side, he strolled out into the open, and slowly raised his axe above his head in challenge.
The two heads of the daragina snapped as one to the source of movement, and Liayan felt an impossible terror surge through her watery limbs. The great beast banked right, tilting up on huge wings and drifting over to the east, both heads still fixed on the lone man who continued away from the tree line. The daragina dropped low, coming much closer to the ground and then banked back around, bat-like wings beating anew as it powered towards the Forester, a mere thirty feet from the ground. Then one of the heads roared, a sound of a thousand thunderclaps. The other gnashed its jaws together. And on the thing’s back the rider cracked a whip.
The Forester stood his ground, watching as the monster sped towards him, eating up the ground faster than any horse could run. And then, when it was a hundred paces away, the head on the right unleashed a brilliant burst of flame, and Liayan screamed as the spewing stream of fire speared forward to incinerate her protector.
But incinerate him it did not. He took the blast of fire on his shield, and hunkered down behind it. The daragina bludgeoned on, driving more and more fire into the attack as it sped ever on, closing the gap between them. Fire engulfed the rim, curling round and smothering all. The Forester was driven back, his feet dragging huge furrows in the ground as he was pushed by the irresistible power.
And then the beast flew right over his head, the other maw snapping down and missing him by mere feet. Both heads bellowed in anger, the one on the right expelling plumes of black smoke. The Forester turned to follow it, his visage hidden beneath the fearsome helm. His shield positively glowed, like molten metal, and he shrugged it off, dropping it to the floor and patting out his smouldering forearm. His beard and cloak steamed, and he stood his ground still, drawing the cutlass with his simmering left hand.
The daragina was nearly a mile away by now, drifting around in a huge arc, its roars echoing across the land. The Forester crossed both weapon before him, casting a quick look at his shield, and seeing it still aglow, too hot to hold.
The daragina was closing now at incredible speed, and the Forester turned to run, taking it away from the woods, into the open. It powered behind him as he sprinted, gaining on him with sickening pace. The other head attacked now, green rings darting from its mouth in a barrage of power. The rings came one after the other, a blur of incandescent power that sent roiling shadows speeding along the ground. The first ring hammered into the ground behind the Forester, and he ran on, the ground exploding behind him as he went.
Undulating vibrations speared through Liayan as the attack continued, the ground blowing apart behind the running man, and she knew what his fate would be. Flying earth and debris clattered into him, and the beam of rings grew closer still, very nearly touching his boots.
The shadow of the daragina passed over the Forester and he threw himself to the side, rolling on his shoulder and taking the assault on his crossed weapons. He was sent flying through the air, axe and cutlass knocked from nerveless fingers. He crashed into the floor kicking up a plume of dust. The daragina sped away, banking once more, wingtip almost touching the earth. The Forester sat up, shaking his head, and staggered over to his weapons. He hefted each one again, and faced the oncoming beast once more.
The two-headed monster flew towards him, very low, kicking up great clods of dirt as it came, wing beats blasting the earth.
Flame and green rings speared towards him, each maw open wide. The stench of brimstone filled the air and the man stood his ground, facing the dreadful power of a mighty daragina. He took the blows on his weapons, buckling to his knees. Green energy raged through his body, up his arms and legs, down his torso, and flames of the brightest orange enwreathed him. The assault was relentless, and she saw him stagger further beneath the barrage, almost collapsing to his face.
And then he was hidden from Liayan’s view as the daragina passed over him, both heads roaring in triumph, the rider’s armoured shoulders lifting in rhythmic laughter.
But when it was past she saw him, clinging to the horned tail, cloak ablaze. He clawed his way up, dragging himself up the tail inch by bloody inch. She heard the beast bellow in recognition, watched in horror as it climbed into the sky, growing smaller and smaller by the second. The daragina’s body was almost parallel as it climbed, gaining altitude at an impossible rate.
She ran from the trees so she could follow the ascent, and watched in awe as it barrel rolled, trying to throw the smoking man from it hind. One head snapped back at him, and then the daragina sped to the east and began soaring the clearing, tail thrashing, heads twisting back, gnashing, spewing energy and flame. It was too far away now for her to see what happened, but by the convulsing flight pattern, she knew the Forester was there still. Defying the might of the daragina.
The battle raged on, energy and fire jetting in multiple directions in the far distance. The daragina sped from right to left, covering miles beneath it effortlessly, and then it tilted left, rolling in the air, swooping back down low, and heading once more towards Liayan.
As it closed and spun away again, she saw two figures wrestling on the creature’s back, standing on the unstable surface, locked in combat. The huge beast flew away, tail lashing in frustration, and then, a horrifying sight.
A figure plunging from the daragina’s back, arms flailing. It was too far away to see who it was. The body smashed into the ground, unquestionably fatal. And the daragina shrieked, both heads unleashing vast gouts of power into the air, it wrenched round, wings jerking it upright, like a bat snatching a spider from its web. The tail shot out ridged, and the wings flinched. Rolling now in desperation the daragina pitched forward, spearing towards Liayan’s position, and there on its back, she saw him.
Still smouldering, cloak still afire. He raised his great axe and drove it downwards, into the beast’s back, where the necks joined as one. The daragina jerked, both heads screaming. And again he struck, his war cry audible over the monster’s wail. And in this strike she saw the daragina paralysed. Wings flopped, tail sagged, and the two heads gnashed at each other in panic. It plummeted from the sky, speeding earthward, shadow growing by the second as it dropped like a stone.
The earth shuddered and Liayan was thrown to her knees, Firek tumbling from her arms. A massive explosion of dirt and earth was thrown skyward, and the hard ground cracked in a hundred places, spearing in all direction like lightning across its surface. A column of fire erupted forth, shooting a hundred feet into the air, and a green explosion boomed from the giant daragina as it crashed through the earth. With an almighty thud the green energy spread outward in an ever increasing circle. Dust spewed into the air like a tidal wave in all directions. Fire splashed everywhere.
The death froes of a daragina.
Friction slowed the creature as it ploughed through the earth, and through the haze of debris she could see him riding its back, gripping the shaft of his axe which stuck still from its spine.
Darkness washed over her vision, and she passed out in relief. Somehow, he had done it.

The days that followed were eventless, save for the nights that they spent in each other’s arms. He was remarkably well following his dreadful encounter, and thanked the spirits of his forest home for the armour they had made for him.
They made good time, walking through the night at times, pressing ever on towards the city of Elaasaunt. And then, on the fifth day since the attack of the daragina, he paused, sighting two great pillars far to the northwest, built seemingly at random in the wilderness.
‘Let me take a look at them,’ he said.
She felt immediate concern. ‘Dare we risk the detour?’
His eyes were narrowed to thin slits. ‘For this, I dare,’ he said.
It took them almost two hours to reach the giant pillars, and as they closed she became awed by the size of them. Each one must have stood a hundred feet high, and was as wide around as twenty arm spans. They stood rooted in the hard earth, defiant of the winds that blighted this place.
He ran his hands along them, feeling the rough stone, a look of consternation on his face.
‘What is it?’ she asked.
‘This is a Gateway,’ he said, looking up at the pillars.
‘A Vortex?’
‘Kind of. I am certain of it. The Grey Haired Man told me of such things. Pillars such as these were built by the Iu’Sanareesha. These would have been here before the mountains themselves. They were built before all and everything.’
‘How do they work?’ she asked, looking through the space between the two, imagining the crackling power that she knew from the Vortexes back in Foundation. ‘It looks dead… dormant. There is nothing here.’
He looked at her sharply. ‘Everything is here,’ he said. ‘Beyond this Gateway there are no boundaries. A master of these pillars would be able to travel to any place, to any moment.’
She saw in his eyes the desire then. The desire to control these portals, and selfishly thanked the Seven Sword Gods that he didn’t know those ancient secrets. Lest he marched through, back to his home world, and left her to the fates.
‘These runes,’ he went on, still running his hand along the pillar on the left, ‘touched in just the right combination, on both sides at the same time, will activate the Gateway.’ He pointed through the gap. ‘Something else would appear here then. Somewhere else.’
‘Will you leave?’ she asked in a small voice.
He smiled broadly. ‘When I’m having so much fun here with you two? No, I will stay. To the end of my task and beyond. It is powerful knowledge, non the less, to know the whereabouts of these mighty things.’
And they moved away then, Firek looking at the pillars in wonder. She took the Forester’s hand, squeezing it in unspoken gratitude, and he held her hand back, not once glancing back at those portals to another place. To his home.

They walked onwards, through the night this time, for the Forester claimed they were close. And as dawn breached the southern sky, a far more sinister glow bathed the eastern horizon. They redoubled their efforts, but before they had crested the rise and came into sight of Elaasaunt, they heard the grim sound of war. The noise of battle drums rolled across the land, horns and whistles blared, the baying of hounds and horses haunted the air, all above the distant screaming of men. So too the pounding of something huge, like a ram against a stalwart gate, and the thwack of scores of catapults.
She looked at him in horror, and he looked back, a furious look across his countenance.
They inched to the rise, her heart in her mouth, not wanting to witness, but needing to. Compelled by unseen hands, she staggered on.
The mighty city was in flames. Here they were, two miles away from their destination, and between it and them, an army lay in wait. And what an army! Such of the likes she had never seen before. There were hundreds of thousands down there, in great blocks and phalanxes. Huge war machines rolled towards the beleaguered walls. Lines of cavalry, thousands across, charged in and engaged in the battle for the moat. Elaasauntian Horse Lords met the charge, their pennants flashing white against the black army that assailed them. But they were hideously outnumbered. The infantry without the walls was overrun too. Heavy armoured Korgans, Halfmen, and Siolons crashed against their line with monstrous force. They held for now, but for how long, against such an insurmountable foe?
The ground before the city was awash in warfare, as the Shining King sent forth his undefeated army to clear away the enemy from his walls. Fires burnt across the plain as Elaasauntian shock troops ran amok in the camps of the attackers, siege engines burnt, sending billowing clouds of black smoke into the morning air. Sorcery blazed across the sky, from hundreds of places in the field, attacking walls, gates, and lines of infantry, but also from the wall, where stood the Shining King himself, Elaasaunt’s lone sorcerer. And he was devastating in his power, blasting the invading army with beams of light, sending corpses flying hundreds of feet through the air, whilst at the same time defending his city against the power of those opposing wizards.
But even he could not withstand this force.
Hundreds of giants rumbled forward, looming over the armies beneath them like gods. Daraginas spiralled through the air, dozens of them. They unleashed their power onto the walls, and into the city, burning and slaying indiscriminately And there, near the back of the dread host, was Hira-anock, the twenty headed daragina of the Red Terror himself. Bigger than any other living creature Liayan had ever seen.
The walls of Elaasaunt were the stuff of legend, nearly fifty man-heights tall, and deeper than the moat that surrounded it. Yet here, against this horde, it looked set to fall. Pulled down by the machines and giants; the Gate of Alli Kah smashed by the bull-headed battering ram that took a thousand men to wield.
The northern front of the battle was the fiercest, where a bluff overlooked the plain before the city. There, on those slopes, thousands of men were locked in combat with the dire denizens of the Wild. They were forsaken, their retreat back to the city well and truly blocked. But the battle raged on none the less, the clash of weapons audible even from the vast distance. And well they might fight on, Liayan thought with dismay, for there is now no city to find succour. Elaasaunt was as good as lost.
‘Maaaamaaaa!’ Firek wailed, his eyes rooted to the bloodbath beneath them.
‘Have you ever…’ she muttered, turning the child away from the scene.
His face was as stone. ‘Never seen a battle like this,’ he said, watching the ebb and flow of those warriors who fought for their very lives. ‘Not even the Suramium Fields. The Red Terror has pulled all of his minions from the blackest pits where they reside. Nothing could turn aside this host. Nothing. This place is doomed.’
She shuddered, and let out a helpless sob. ‘Why do they do this?’
He looked down at her. ‘Because it is here, and they want it. Back there Foundation faces a siege, here we can see their determination with our own eyes. Other cities may face the same woes as these two. There are bleak times ahead for the folk of this world.’
‘What will we do?’
‘I still have a boon to keep. I must see you and Firek to safety. We need to leave. Now. It seems we have been seen. Yonder breaks a squad, streaming away from the battle, towards us.’
‘Oh, Onius!’ she gasped, her blood turning to ice as she saw them. Gen’rewensai, their skin blood red, their massive axes forged of curse-metal. These were the immortal troops that had caused the Fall of Badaban. They were unstoppable in battle, they were demi-gods. Even the Forester couldn’t face them down. ‘It is the Gen’rewensai! They have found me!’
His face darkened like a thundercloud and he straightened. ‘Time to test that legend.’
‘No!’ Liayan screamed. ‘We must flee. They cannot be opposed. Not by you, not by anyone. We must flee!’
‘To where?’ he asked. ‘They will track us down in the Wilds, and I will have my confrontation, but it will be on their terms. Better that I face them now.’
‘No. We can go to the Gateway. You know how to work it - I saw it in your eyes.’
‘I can create an opening, yes. But I haven’t a clue where it will take us.’
She threw an exasperated hand down at the battlefield. ‘Can it be worse than this?’
He bared his teeth, and she saw the struggle in his features. He was loath to run from a fight, yet he was nobody’s fool.
‘To the Gateway then,’ he snarled. ‘Before it is too late.’

The flight was an awful one, and when Liayan’s strength failed her, the Forester was there, sweeping her from her feet and running on, bearing the weight of all his armour, all his weapons, and the weight of two others. Long legged strides drove them onwards, and after what seemed an eternity, she saw those looming columns in the distance. He ran on, gait unchanging.
Liayan craned her neck, trying to look round the mass of his body at their pursuers. They were there. Fear crept through her body like an army of ants, and she shivered. There were six of them, each one a match for a hundred men or more. But they were still far off, and the Gateway was closer now, closer than they were. They were going to make it, she realised, but would he be able to make the damn thing work.
Minutes passed as he blundered on, breathing coming in great gasps now. She wriggled free of his arms and ran alongside him again, some of her energy coming back. And then they were in the shadow of the towers, and he slammed into one of them, casting an eye back at the Gen’rewensai. They had slowed now, seeing the two humans halting, thinking it some kind of surrender.
‘You see this one?’ the Forester puffed, pointing at a rune on the left hand column.
She nodded, noting the emblem that looked like a sun rising over a V-shaped valley.
‘You must hold it on your side at the same time as this rune here, both with the same hand, like this. We both have to do it at the same time. Can you do it? Be sure now, if contact with any other is made, nothing will happen.’
She placed the thumb of her right hand over the sun rune, and then stretched her little finger across so that it covered the lightning bolt. She felt breath cloud before her face as some ancient power awakened.
The Forester looked back at the Gen’rewensai - who were less than a hundred paces away - and then to Liayan. ‘When we link hands the circuit is made,’ he said. ‘There may be no coming back here. Not ever.’
She nodded, unwilling to even comprehend that at the moment, her one overriding urge being to preserve the life of her infant son. ‘Do it,’ she said, reaching her hand across. Firek cried out as he swung loose to dangle around her neck on his harness. Fingertips stretched to the limit, she felt an overwhelming surge of panic. She couldn’t reach the Forester.
He was at full stretched too, his neck straining with the effort, but there were still inches between them.
‘Release the boy!’ he said. ‘I will take one of his hands, and you the other. The circuit can still be made.’
She released the pillar and began unstrapping Firek from around her neck. Behind her the Gen’rewensai shouted in alarm, finally understanding that something was awry. They broke into a run once more, closing the distance between them with terrifying swiftness.
The Forester grabbed Firek’s hand, and she took his other and then stretched for the pillar, her fingers swiftly searching for the runes that would make this confounded thing work. Power blasted into life, and she saw a brilliant light where once a blasted landscape stood. She cast a quick glance over her shoulder, taking one last look at her home.
The Gen’rewensai screamed, axes swinging at her, and she stepped forward, arm trailing behind her to keep in contact with the runes.
White light exploded around everything, and she was instantly blind and deaf. She felt the Forester’s safe embrace and burrowed into his chest, feeling her son beneath them. How long this went on for she couldn’t tell, but after a while of weightlessness, she felt something solid beneath her feet.
‘We’re here,’ he said, slowly releasing her from the shroud of his body.
When she saw to where they had came she gasped, tears instantly running from her eyes. She looked back, thinking to go back into Gateway, to be taken somewhere else, but there was nothing there, nothing but hills that stretched into the horizon.
Before them a battle raged before a city, smaller than Elaasaunt, but still large. Besieged. Fires burned, thousands of men lay in molten heaps of slag before the walls, and sorcery lanced across the sky from three hilltops. High above hundreds of gigantic ravens wheeled, and there was a some massive airborne mountain there too. It was like a flying fortress, from which midnight black power erupted, lancing into one of the hilltops and destroying whoever once stood there.
Liayan screamed.
The Forester looked on, a look of stubborn anger on his face. ‘I hope,’ he said, ‘that there are means of travelling between realms in this place.’

This post has been edited by The 20th: 25 November 2008 - 01:35 AM

You’ve never heard of the Silanda? … It’s the ship that made the Warren of Telas run in less than 12 parsecs.

#4 User is offline   Shinrei 

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Posted 24 November 2008 - 11:53 AM

Sorry for being slow to post this one. It got lost amongst the spam that has inundated that address. Writers, if you have sent me something that has not been posted, my apologies for the inconvenience but if you would please send it again, I would appreciate it. As for the rest, submissions please!!! :D

The Nacreous Forest:

Shevil Brim stared across the enclosure, out at the dark, tangled, impenetrable Nacreous Forest. It was ill-named, he thought sourly, as rain pelted the cabin. The Nacreous Forest squatted at the edge of the known world, a bleak barrier that was seemingly impassable. Twenty years ago this whole area had been part of the Grahn Kingdom, but it had been annexed. The Grahn had had plenty of tales about the Forest.

Just Shevil’s luck to be assigned to this bloody outpost, leagues away from civilization. Him and a half dozen other poor fools.

He pulled his eyes away from the ancient trees and moved to the hearth, using a tinderbox to light a warm blaze. Even that didn’t completely take the chill out of the cabin, although at least he had patched up the roof; the leaks had been driving him mad.

Shevil sighed, ran his fingers through his lank brown hair, and pulled off his surcoat, flinging it onto the bed. Next followed his mail shirt, which he placed on its shelf. His sword was tucked away in its stand; not like he’d be using it here. No one around for miles except a handful of half-witted shepherds.

He sighed again. Not a woman around for miles, either. The shepherds were all big, burly fellows who refused to leave their caves unless it was raining. Some strange local custom. Made the lads’ evening-off a little less than social.

Shevil resisted the urge to sigh a third time: he was doing far too much of that. Instead he sat down at the table, his chair creaking, and poured himself a goblet of wine. Against army regulations, but he was the highest ranking officer for nearly a hundred miles in every direction. So fuck ‘em.

Someone knocked on the door and he started, sloshing wine over his padded undershirt. He scowled as he got up to answer the door. That would leave a stain.

He unlatched the door, which swung open to reveal a sweating, wide-eyed, worried Corporal Tanner.

‘Sir, I think you should take a look at this,’ the squat man gasped, breathless.

Shevil noticed his shortsword was held firmly in one hand.

The outpost was small: four cabins and one storehouse arrayed in a U shape, the open end facing the forest. The buildings were small, but sturdily built, just in case a marauding band of raiders did happen to find themselves in the middle of nowhere.

Tanner lead Shevil around to the back of the storehouse. For the first time since Shevil had been stationed here, it had stopped raining. The sky was an almost black grey, an ominous dark shade.

Shevil noticed Tanner pointing at the wall with his shortsword and glanced over. His eyes widened.

A crude picture had been drawn in black paint. A featureless entity reached out to seven stick figures, as if to embrace them. Underneath, in a hurried scrawl was written the word “leave”.

‘Gather everyone in the enclosure,’ Shevil snapped. ‘I want to know who did this.’

‘Yes, Captain Brim,’ Tanner replied.

Privates Nenn, Blunt, Wreth, Aloman, Karr and Corporal Tanner faced Shevil in the courtyard. They were a sorry lot, their Captain reflected, not helped by the rain which had soaked them through. The downpour had begun to wash the black image on the storehouse away. The sky was darkening rapidly; night was falling.

No one had owned up to the vandalism, and every single one of the men had an alibi. The lack of black paint in the compound also suggested outside interference. Shevil was very pissed off indeed.

‘If I find out who was behind that defilement of a military building, well, you’ll be shipped home and kicked out. How’d you like that, hmmm? No pay?’ He spat angrily. ‘Now, fall in, and I don’t want to be disturbed for the rest of the night. I don’t care if it’s the unlikely event of one of you dying, leave me in peace.’

He returned to his cabin and bolted the door, staring out the small window as he drank his wine. The rain tapped an endless beat as the sky blackened. A pallid glow shone behind the clouds: he assumed it was the moon.

After a while, he retired to bed. As he fell into restful oblivion, it barely registered with him that the rain had stopped, again.

Private Blunt vanished sometime during the night. The door of the cabin he and Karr had shared had not been forced. It was almost as if it had opened of its own accord. Karr had somehow slept through the disappearance. The soldiers had spent the better part of an hour looking for their missing comrade, but to no avail. The land was more or less flat for miles around, but the outpost had been built on a slight raise, so if he had gone anywhere across the plains, they would have seen. The only place he could have gone to avoid discovery was the forest. It was the only place he could have been taken.

And they soon came to the conclusion that taken he had been: painted in blood and black paint on the storage house’s wall was the picture, although this time the artist had added more detail. The creature that had once been entirely featureless now had two reddish smears for eyes, and its limbs terminated in long, curling, needle-like fingers.

And now it only reached to embrace six stick figures.

The company were understandably shaken.

But the rain washed the image away, and the new message with it.

“You will suffer.”

Shevil watched as the soldiers set about fortifying the outpost. The privates set up a perimeter of sharpened stakes and barbed wire, and torches were set at regular intervals. They hissed loudly in the rain, but the oil-soaked rags kept burning brightly.

‘That should do if they try again, Captain,’ Tanner had reported confidently. Shevil had told him to relay the order to have all the swords sharpened. The men needed their minds taken off the loss of their comrade, at least until they found the bastards responsible.

Karr was bunking with Nenn for the night, and Tanner with the Captain. Shevil had decided that it was necessary to sleep in shifts. The mysterious abductor had shown no problem in breaking and entering without waking Karr.

It was almost half way through Tanner’s shift when the rain stopped. Outside, the torches blazed that much brighter, the reddish glow pervading the room.

Tanner glanced out the window. Everything was silent: the torches flickered, the damp ground glistened, and the cabins remained lifeless barring the glimmer of the guards’ eyes. Wreth and Nenn were on watch duty now, Tanner knew. No doubt they were as on-edge as he was.

A blurred shape darted across the enclosure. Right in front of Tanner’s eyes.

He leapt to the door, sword in hand, and flung it open. Nenn and Wreth stepped out of their cabins at the same time, alert with faces set in grim determination.

‘Went towards Blunt’s cabin,’ Wreth growled. ‘Let’s take the bastard.’

Nenn nodded, and both men looked at their Corporal. A heartbeat later, Tanner replied with a humourless smile. ‘Let’s go then.’

Silently, they crept towards the empty cabin, peering into the gloom. The three soldiers paused at the door, which hung open. Taking a deep breath, Tanner rushed in, sword at the ready.

The cabin was empty. Wreth stepped forward to stand beside Tanner, dark eyes darting around. ‘I could have sworn-‘

A muted gurgle cut him off. Both men spun to see Nenn get dragged the last few feet into the forest, a bloody trail leading back to them.

‘Oh, shit,’ whispered Wreth as his eyes slowly adjusted to the shadows of the forest.

Dozens of twinkling eyes were watching the two soldiers. A second later and they were gone; Wreth couldn’t tell whether he had imagined them or not.

‘Oh, shit,’ he repeated.

It started to rain.

The next morning Shevil gathered everyone in the central courtyard and handed out torches.

‘We’re going to burn the forest. Now, problem is, it’s only safe when it’s raining, but of course we have to do this when it’s dry. So we do it quick. We hit hard and fast. Otherwise we might just provoke a response,’ he said. The soldiers nodded.

It rained for the entire day. The soldiers spent their time sharpening their weapons, repairing any minor damage to their armour, and mentally preparing themselves to assault the Nacreous Forest. And playing cards. Gambling was the standard military pastime, after all.

Captain Brim spent the day staring out at the forest. It was old and strong, and that unnerved him. Back in his younger days, when he had been posted at Cardel City, he had heard a bard spin a tale of a forested island somewhere in the Cobalt Seas. Apparently, in this place, the trees were immune to fire, being a fragment of the original Old Forests that once covered the world.

It wouldn’t be good if they charged forward only to find the place wouldn’t burn and its denizen had become very pissed off indeed.

Brim scowled. Their relief would have arrived soon enough, too. Now he would have to explain the mysterious deaths of two soldiers at the very least.

His scowl deepened, and he went to find his wine.

The downpour stopped late that night and the men moved as one out of their cabins. Only to freeze. Blunt’s cabin had been covered in blood: a detailed image of a demonic entity with vulpine features and a jagged tear for a mouth, reaching out to five very accurate pictures of the remaining soldiers. The blood gleamed wetly in the flickering light.

After that, the men approached with trepidation. Whoever or whatever was responsible was fast. Damn fast.

Shortsword in one hand, blazing brand in the other, Tanner approached the forest. They were moving in a wedge formation, Captain Brim taking point. Slowly, they drew closer. Tanner could make out the moss-covered branches, the serpentine roots, the tangles of ivy that clung to the oldest trees.

Brim thrust his brand against the nearest tree, a tall, majestic old thing.

Everyone stared.

Nothing happened.

Brim hissed in frustration. ‘Back to the outpost,’ he ordered.

‘Sir, wait. What’s that sound?’ Aloman asked, his thin, reedy voice shaking.

Tree branches creaked in the soft, whispering breeze. Leaves rustled. The men were breathing heavily.

Something within the forest was growling.

As it drew closer.

‘Everyone fall back,’ the Captain screamed. ‘Fall back!’ As one, the soldiers turned around and raced for the cabins, stumbling, slipping, sprinting.

Behind them, dark, indistinct shapes padded out of the forest. Inhuman eyes fixed on the fleeing soldiers, then looked skywards.

It would be, alas, a dry night.

Private Karr was not a brave man. At the tender age of fourteen he had run away from home as fast as his legs could carry him, nursing his bruises, leaving his mother and younger sisters to his father’s drunken mercy. Leaving them alone. Leaving them defenceless.

Truth be told, he hadn’t even wanted to join the army, but what else was there for a young man? He had no skills and no craft to call his own. He had no way to survive on his own. And so he had enlisted.

He had always requested posts miles away from any conflicts, far away from violence and pain and all the things that scared him. He thought he was finally getting lucky when he had been assigned to the Nacreous Forest outpost. True, there wasn’t anything to do, and there weren’t any women around for miles, but Karr wasn’t great at dealing with women. They reminded him off the family he had left behind. And they scared him a little.

He wasn’t great at dealing with anything, really.

And that, tragically, was Themon Karr’s last thought before he died.

Tanner glanced back to see vague, hunched, bestial black figures crowd around Karr’s body, and wished he hadn’t. He closed his eyes and swallowed, remembering the picture painted on the cabin. It had seemed almost, but not quite finished.

He really, really didn’t want to see one of those things up close.

As Karr went down, Wreth snarled and spun around. His torch was dying, but it still cast a small circle of light.

‘Come on, you freaks! Come and get some!’ he roared, waving his sword in the air as he squinted into the darkness.

He heard cabin doors slamming. Good. That meant the others were safe at least.

‘Come and answer for what you did to Blunt, Nenn and Karr! My friends!’

Something flashed out of the darkness, spinning end over end, and Wreth staggered back. He looked down. Karr’s sword protruded from his stomach. Wreth wasn’t a physiker, he didn’t know if it was fatal, and so he pulled himself together as best he could.

He didn’t even know he was in shock, as his life tumbled to the ground in a tide of crimson.

But that mortal wound was not what killed him. Oh, no. His sword dropped from numb fingers.

All around him, the shadows closed in.

Tanner slammed the door shut and Aloman rammed the sturdy wooden table up against it. Tanner stepped back, looked around, and then slowly pushed the solid, mostly empty bookcase up against the hearth. The windows were too small to be used as access, so he let himself relax a little. Only a little.

Aloman glanced at him. ‘Sir, where’s the Captain?’

Shevil Brim skidded into his cabin, turned around in time to see Wreth die, and shut and bolted the door. Quickly, he barricaded it with his chair, an old, heavy thing.

The door rattled in its frame behind him. He snarled, a thing of rage and fear, and grabbed the empty bottle of wine. He smashed a window with the hilt of his sword, stuck out his arm, and swung the bottle about furiously.

It connected with something and shattered. The creature it had hit jerked back, matted, wiry hair brushing against Brim’s hand. Whatever the damn thing was, it howled and clawed at his arm with inhuman strength.

He managed to withdraw his arm before it was torn off. Barely.

Sharp talons had cut to the bone and raked his flesh. Blood ran down his arm in great streams, pooling on the floor. It was not a mortal wound as far as Brim could guess, but it was damn close, and without a physiker, he might well bleed out.

Something skittered across the roof. Brim froze. The repairs he had made could hardly be called defensive; if those things were as intelligent as they seemed…

Claws scratched against tiles. Dust fell from the roof. Suddenly, the noise ceased.

A tile was lifted up and hurled away. Something pallid, moonlight, shined in, painting a grey lake upon the floor. A lake in which beastlike silhouettes floated. Shevil braced himself. More tiles were removed, the column of pale light widening until the Captain knew a sizeable hole had been formed.

The Captain waited, shaking, He was shaking so much he could barely hold his sword.

A long, slender, black furred arm reached into the room. It ended in a hand with six fingers as thin and sharp as blades.

Whatever Shevil saw next killed him.

Aloman flinched when he heard Brim’s last despairing wail, and backed away, pressing himself up against a wall.

‘Oh Gods oh Gods they’re going to kill us all,’ he mumbled hysterically.

Tanner glanced at him. For some reason, in this situation, under plenty of stress, in mortal danger, he really felt alive. He knew he could survive this. He just knew it. ‘Get up, man. We aren’t dead yet. We just have to hold until it starts raining. Probably will any minute now. Come on, it rains all the time here.’

Aloman shook himself and slowly got to his feet. He probably hadn’t even noticed he had fallen, Tanner guessed.

The window behind Aloman exploded in a storm of shattered glass as a brown-pelted arm with too many joints wrapped itself around the Private’s neck, throttling him.

Tanner let out a cry of fury and jumped forward. All his earlier fear was gone. He hacked at the arm, hot blood splashing everything, until he severed it. Aloman collapsed, breathing heavily.

‘Thank you, sir,’ he managed, looking up at the short, bald soldier who had somehow just saved his life.

Tanner bared his teeth. ‘Any time.’

More windows imploded, and long, slender muzzles poked into the room. Sniffing. Trying to get the scent of the two soldiers.

‘They’re blind,’ coughed Aloman with sudden realisation. ‘That’s why they wait for the rain to stop. It washes away our scent.’

Tanner nodded slowly, thinking. Wreth had told him about the eyes watching from the forest. Could he have been mistaken? Could they have been his imagination?

From a pocket, Aloman produced a small hipflask. Somewhere in the back of Tanner’s mind, amusement registered. Aloman had always followed rules and obeyed orders and regulations to the letter.

The private opened the flask and splashed alcohol over himself. Even from where Tanner was standing, the sharp stink was overpowering. All around the room, muzzles shivered with revulsion.

Aloman stepped up to a window silently, and inspected the creature lurking beyond. Tanner was tempted to join him; it seemed his plan had worked: the thing didn’t respond.

Aloman repeated this procedure with all four other windows. None of the creatures seemed to be able to detect him. At the last window, he turned to Tanner and grinned.

A fatal mistake, turning his back.

The creature’s dead eyes lit up with a terrible hunger and fixed on Aloman’s neck. Before Tanner could yell out a warning, the muzzle snapped away out of the window, and an arm shot forward. Attenuated, razor-sharp fingers curled around Aloman’s neck and ended his life.

Life fled from Aloman’s eyes as his smile turned from satisfaction to confusion. Unable to say a word, Aloman died, trying in vain to cough out something.

Something like: “Sorry, sir.”

Tanner roared with grief and sheer berserker choler. He sprinted forward and snatched up Aloman’s weapon as the arm withdrew. Eyes bulging with madness, he kicked the table away from the door.

Said door burst from its hinges and twisted, beastlike shapes flowed inside.

Swinging his two swords, Tanner hurled himself into their midst. Pained howls echoed across the plains as he wove a lacerating deadly dance with skills he didn’t know he possessed.

A few days later, soaked to the skin from marching through heavy rains, seven men arrived at the outpost to find a scene of destruction. Two cabins had had their doors kicked off their hinges; one had no roof. The storehouse had been raided and emptied, and barbed wire and wooden stakes were strewn everywhere. A handful of burnt out torches were scattered around.

There was only one body, a small man with a shaved head, dressed in standard military gear. The two swords in his hands had been broken; both blades snapped three quarters down the length.

One of these soldiers was a physiker. He determined that the cause of death had been the dozens of shallow wounds the man had received somehow. He had bled out, fighting something terrible.

Very worried, the Captain sent one of his men back to the city with orders to return with a much larger force, to track down whoever was responsible.

The soldier returned with threescore elite men a week later.

The camp was abandoned. Empty. The soldiers searched the surrounding area for a number of days, but found nothing. Any tracks had been washed away by the constant rains.

The camp was left to decay after that.
You’ve never heard of the Silanda? … It’s the ship that made the Warren of Telas run in less than 12 parsecs.

#5 User is offline   Shinrei 

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Posted 05 December 2008 - 02:49 AM

Submission #4

Basin, Tree, Gods
By Kazaman

The water below him was metallic and still. Cool and clear as diamond and crystal. The basin in which it was in was an old piece of pottery, made of brown clay. It was decorated with images of dying and suffering all around it in black paint. It was decorated in images of what was to be, soon enough. Well, not soon enough, at least not to him; but all in good time.
The ancient being stared into the basin of crystal clear water and saw what would happen when the time came. He saw the terror in the eyes of those not yet born. He could see the mixture of relief and horror from the elderly, who were glad to pass away but wished for another way to do so than this sorrowful ending-of-all.
He looked away and all the images depicted in the basin vanished and were replaced with the reflection of the tree above it, and of the sky above the tree, and of the sun nestled up high in it’s heavenly roost. The tree reflected within was an old tree. An ancient tree older than himself. It had been sentient once, and more alive than any other of its long-lived race, but now it was in a sort of sleep that greatly mimicked death, a sleep deeper than a coma, a sleep full of dreams of the past.
He knew all this because his teacher had told him it was so. His teacher who had passed to the void, but when he had been alive was the oldest thinking being in the world, except for the tree. For though he had been born long after the god’s had died, the tree preceded even the immortal ones.
His teacher had spoken to him once about what his own teacher had told him of this subject. He said to me once, his teacher had passed on to him, that though he was older than me, and the gods older than himself, the tree was older than all. This had puzzled him, for he had been taught that the gods created all. He had asked about that, and had been answered by: You were indeed taught thus. But that was only partly true. When he asked how so, his teacher had refused to respond. This had frustrated him, and he had then killed his teacher.
He waved his arm atop the basin, to watch the scene again.

They were both seated on cushioned benches of marble within a circular and roofless stone pavilion, which had columns around it on which were carved the same scenes as there were on the basin he watched this through. He was speaking to his teacher, and his teacher to him. His teacher was old, and looked his age. His beard was gray and wispy white, as were the tiny bits of hair left atop his head. His cloak was black and weathered. His face was carved with many deep wrinkles and scars.
He himself was youthful in appearance, but was then in fact about a century old. His teacher must have been at least a dozen times as old, but he would never reveal to him his age.
As he thought and observed, he realized that the moment of the killing was coming soon, so he focused on the scene and listened.
"You were indeed taught thus. But that was only partly true," he looked a little annoyed at being asked what to him must have seemed a juvenile and ignorant question.
However that would not stop him from asking; "How is that so? Explain it to me!"
The ancient teacher simply shook his head and looked at the boy with his face played in a concerned look. "I haven’t the right. Even in there deaths the gods have a power over such secrets that I cannot break."
His own face suddenly took an eager air to it. "Maybe if I-"
He was cut off. "No, you cannot help me try either," There was no arguing with his teacher when he said a flat out no.
But this time he needed to try this. He needed to know why the gods were younger than the tree. He needed to have the knowledge that even his teacher could not retrieve. He would retrieve it. He would and could and knew exactly how. But this stubborn old man, he wouldn’t let him try. He wanted no one to have the glory if he couldn’t, that was it. He was greedy. A corrupt, greedy, stubborn old man who thought only for himself, and taught his student only things of unimportance such as healing, and tiny magics that started fires and drew up water to the surface of the earth. This time, he would get what he wanted.
He summoned the magic. The magic he had barely learned to use, and could barely control. He summoned great masses of it he had never thought possible to gather.
The old man noticed, and summoned his own in a too-late-of-an-effort to defend himself. He was dead and knew it. Ah yes, he could see the terror in his teacher’s eyes. It gave him energy even now, hundreds of years later. He watched as the magic turned from the red glowing ball in his hands to the pitch black anti-light it was today, and he watched as it released and hit the old man. He watched at how it crushed his bones, his old corrupt bones. He watched the body be incinerated into nothingness.

He brought himself back to the present in a deep breath. A very deep, calming breath that relaxed his senses enough to think.
He thought that perhaps today was the day. He would try what he had tried many times before and failed. He would try to awaken the tree, and then force its secrets from it. He was powerful enough now, he knew it, could sense it.
He walked over to the base of the tree, at the bottom of the pavilion’s steps. He took his strides slowly, and with each step gathered more of the magic. He gathered enough to awaken the tree and destroy it if it dared defy his authority. He would know the god’s secret.
He took a great, deep breath and touched the tree with both of his magic-covered hands. He was immediately aware that the tree had already awoken almost an hour ago, during the time he had been watching the image of his teacher’s murder in the basin. The tree had been waiting for him to try this time.
It spoke to him. The god’s secret…it is that they are not really gods. They are false. There are no gods. They were mortals who made magic their slave. Just like you, tiny little fly.
He panicked and let all the magic he could muster push the tree’s powerful conscious away from him. But it was too late.
The tree creaked its branches around, and he felt himself being overpowered by the tiny amount of magic the tree had used. He felt himself fading away to the void, until he could feel or think no more.
You’ve never heard of the Silanda? … It’s the ship that made the Warren of Telas run in less than 12 parsecs.

#6 User is offline   Shinrei 

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Posted 06 December 2008 - 10:19 AM

Submission #5

Dreams and Reality
by CS

Part I: Dream ?

Sunshine glittered in weapons of the fallen, laid out amongst high broken yellow grass. Blood stained, satured the earth, turning the cold ground where thousands had fallen into red gruel of nightmares.

Above the thousand crows eating their fill, clouds of acrid smoke. Tainted white sailing upon slow wind in cotton lumps, etheral, feylike. Remnants of instant violence, reminders of sharp sound, quick death; now beauty of a kind.

She strolled over the field of battle like a goddess of war harnessed in pure silver, enshrined by skyblue gems and black velvet, a silver apperention supernatural her presence upon tarnished earth.

She was in their middest, a guard five centures in number warriors whom had brought slaughter for her purpous, their bargain was victory for silver.

Once stained honor had caused reactions of violence for she was aristocrasy in its utmost blue blooded incarnation, ancestors hailing from nightmares and gods. Yet what was ancestry for whom could not find exalted relatives with but a bit, creative thinkering.

This behavior was to be expected of her bloodline, with a pedigree fifthy generations there came responsabilities. Honor needed redress.

This conflict had its root in such ancestry but a generation ago. Warring between brother and sister where not unknown amongs the nobility of dreaming, no it was the right of blood, inheritance of power waged upon the swing of cold damned iron.

Seven times she had been rejected as her sibiling conspired, she however had proven her worth, dramatic in her choice of champions for the dead upon the field of challange where mostly fey.

Whereas her own bought, men where warm flesh humankin from beyond dreams, dreamers gone astray into her web of promise and lure of charm. Scant a thousand had they walked against the bastion of Sad-Kaltheish, last castle of her brothers. Situated upon the alof plataue of Sinmair to war for her rights in the heart of the winters land.

Opposed by ten thousands beasts, trollkin hard upon the eye, noble Sideh in exquisite beauty. A multitude of dreamkin had assailed them without relenting.

Now she strode silent over the end of her trial, for there was but one standing in her way. Cold iron had severed bloodkins massive might, clouds of intollorable sulphure burning a path amongst legions of the Sidhe.

A savage smirk mired her perfection, her brother smiled without joy drawing forth a blade of crystalised dreams, glimmering in the sharp cold rays of the sun, not unlike a diamond blade could be envisaged.

Creating her blade from the sulphurous smoke of minions infernal weapons. Drawing a cruel bladed lance from its nothingness, pale milky surface boiled, ozed as smoke just barely contained by a fey lady's vision.

There where only two words told before they met with violence.

”Sister” The deathly pale man told his sibling, voice of breaking metals and storm fury.

”Brother” The rebell said acknowledging her bonds of family, with ill veiled disgust and superiority.

Then blades flickered, spanned out her black guard stood around them five hundred survivors of fifty battles, heroes on their own.

The fey prince unleshed winter upon the antagonist with a slight gesture, decending on the princess streams of pure white flowed like frozen rivers.

Contemptious she spoke a single word of power, calling into exsistance a deamon of the sixth level of hell, a queen amongst lesser, a mistress of hell herself goat legged, iron hoved with a horned noble brow; upon a fallen angels body perfect in every sense.

Brimstone fire spurned out of its hands out of its mind out of its every breath ice melt, boiled and waporised turned into lethal orange mist.

Nilaihah, duchess of hell formed the fury of hellfire into a burning spear her purple eyes reflected intense black shine. They where culdrons of fury, powerless despair, merciless death dealing. She spoke in low voices, powerful legs bringing her closer to her quarry.

”Dreams fallen, reminesence of life drawn beyond contempt sad lifeblood into exsistance rest undeserved granted beyond...”

Her mouth moved with endless reminders of blurred, forgotten poetry melding a thousand verses of dark desires into hopless mess. Words she once inspired into a hopeless mesh.

Her tattered dark wings beat into the air as she lunged for the iced veins of a winter prince, peerless in swordsdance he parried, riposted drew immortal blood in a face bereft of blemish.

Weightless blade carved patterns of harm into her pale flesh, coming towards an end as he called guardians. From the earth they formed seven great hunting hounds, crimson coat with boiling blood in eyeless sockets.

Barrow muts engaged a wounded godling as fey fought fey once more, mortals eyes followed, anticipating, eyes now familirized with the impossible.

Janlis, disinherited princess of fey called her sorcery, not feylike it was a thing of reality, dark knowledge. Crows flew flesh ladden corpulent bloodstained dark grey in great flocks. Away ! Animal intellects screamed, recalling ancient days, days where such magic last been seen.

The sky darkned the world changed dreams of insanity took winters frozen realm, words coming like a endless howl Janlis, whom cared little drew down the doom.

Brother spoke against, words without meaning, unwords. Futile attempt at unmaking.

In the distance the angle Nilaihah skewered leader of the pack, broad bladed spear shining with steaming blood.

Consentration broke, unmaking flawed by anxity scattered by mere winds. His sister ended her calling. Like a hand it came from dark sky opening grasping for the noble blood. Tearing up bloodied earth.

It was incomprehencible a creature out of primordial dreams of unmen. A nightmare of nightmares, undescribable its many limbs tore into the prince and no swordsman could have prevailed. Extremities flew, black blood ozed as he fought with dedicated skill causing awe in mortal minds. Undaunted the attack kept surrounding him alone against a multitide that was one. He fell was torn at, his blade held down by fleshy dark things.

It was over, they could feel it in the air, taste it in the wind as it broke into icy gale. Cleansing like a veil taken from the scene the air cleared, the ground turned frozen and the surface glittering. Spasming remnants of the horror twitched as they froze solid.

In the distance an angel gave a victorious cry filled with uncomprehending pain.

Amongst mortals whom had followed, the cry for their leader was unflinching, tired. Janlis raised the carcass of her brother high and cried into the fierce current.

"Queen acknowledge my right !"

The Challange met with dry laughter as winters queen danced out of the soils frozen cover. Cloth spun from frost, complexion of snow, eyes made from saphire. Joy died for her presence was wretchedness, misery her words where pain.

"Why little creature, why have you brought fire, steel, life to my land."

Janlis proud in triumph was daunted but never quenched.

"To claim birthrights denied."

"What right your foolishness plain for all to see."

Spreading arms she hinted at the entire battle field, conceivably the long war.

"Yet I remain, he is vanquished."

Queens smile like sunshine upon glittering snow, flaunted her contempt.

"Yet thee remain ignorant. Claim what is rightfully yours only after amends have been made."

Once more the lithe creature indicated the whole, everything that surrounded them.

"What crime have I made that victory will not unmake ?

"Only one."

The queens words where a whisper amongst the moving air, yet her long fingered hand pointed accusing. Towards men, mortal, worn.

Humans saw in the face of their leader naked fear, terror walked amongs them. Stared at capriciously by twin beauties of otherwordly danger, a nightmare rose in their minds.

"Live in their world as they have done in ours."

Relife was tangible amongst them, fighting nightmares had been enought, battling rulers of dreams would have been beyond.
Their princess looked at her sovergin with hate, even a night in reality would be most exquisit of hurts.

"One night in the material for their night."

"No one for each of theirs, one death for each of theirs, one nightmare for each of theirs, one silver earnt for each paid."

Queens laughter followed dark unrelenting.
Part II: Reality ?

Tsian woke from the dream, like from a fierce nightmare, the grip of memories still upon him. Had it only been a dream, battles, war. Had it all been nothing but deranged nightmares unreal in reality.
He rose from his bed with its coarse fabric and the woman he could not name. Then it dawned upon him a long time ago he had been here, this was his home. Even thought the word clung like foul tasting manure on his tongue. No ! His mind wanted to say, you are a warrior, one of the survivers, one of the brave. Her champion !
Reality intruded, she was Calea his wife since sometime before and mother to his long grown children. Like a nightmare it intrude upon him this was his place the dusty raw wood of his house was home. Poor undecorated walls and the soiled bedcloths all he own, there had gone a long time since he was a soldier. Running into the house other room, he dove into his old war coffer covered with a layer of dust it lies in a corner. The blade lies there, no longer shining but still sharp its edge notched with use. Besides it lies a moth eaten hat with a long ostrich feather, it has seen better days. Beneath it a uniform he could barely remember wearing. With that he knew the truth it was more then twenty years since he was a soldier.
Something was wrong, besides the familiar relics of a past laid a kidskin bag held together by bands of bronze. It was new and never before had he seen it. Hungry for something, he takes it and ravenously tear it open, finding what he had not expected yet looked for, confirmation.
It had not been a dream, at least not in the usual sense, for here they laid his payment. Seven pieces of fey silver. Larger then any coin he knew thick like a thumb and so beautiful, glittering even in the dead of the night. He felt overwhelmingly happy, not because the payment would cover his debt, allow him to buy anything he had ever wished for no somewhere in the back of his mind he wondered, is there a way back ?
To the fields, how many battles had there been, he no longer remembered for the dream was fading but he could picture the last one. Know that he had stood with friends on both sides and won victory, it had been exhalirating beautiful, the feeling had been right.
Tsian felt tears run down his cheeks and wondered if it would ever be right again, could this mundane world ever again become home.

A year past in the village beyond the hill they begun speaking about the queer Tsian and stories begun to grow up about an old man with a treasure trove. A man who paid his workers in silver and always looked into the distance like he saw a diffrent world. It was said he had killed his wife but no one knew, one day she just was not there. No one would go looking she had been the last of her kin her children living faraway.
And then there was the old man who looked strangely fierce as he sat. Looking into a diffrent distance then the ones they saw. Workers saw his old nagged blade laid out in his lap. He had been a soldier once a fierce killer had he not what was it twenty years since he came here a young man.
They wondered what he was doing, why he remained and stories one more sinister then the other where spun around winter fires that year. When the old man walked the village paths everyone was fearfully . By now he was a murderer and perhaps witch doctor gods know how he had gotten the silver. Tales of attrocities, murder and banditry where attributed to poor Tsian. Yet no one could explained why no sign of it had come before now, had he been so afraid to be uncovered, dared he not to show his wealth.
Tsian did not care in truth he barely saw them, he heard only their whispers in a gaze, in a stance, even in a greeting. Within he smiled because he knew they would never even consieve of the truth.
He had drowned his wife, well it had been only days when he realized something had been left behind something inherintly human had remained in the dreamland.
He was no longer Tsian who had fought in the war of three pretenders, not the Tsian who had been a strong warrior for the priest king, not even the Tsian who fell in love with a farmers daughter.
All that had been purged in the battle against nightmares for a lady he could still picture clearly.
Nothing! He had felt nothing as he pushed her into the marsh and stood looking as she sunk, frantic trying to claw her way onto dry land where he stood. The desperation of her eyes, her pleeding screams it had meant nothing.
He knew then that it was so.
Tsian had become a monster.
It took him nearly a year to understand it, he mostly sat looking into the horizon alone he paid others no heed.
The silversmith had given him a hundred silver coins for one of the fey coins so he need not worry.
But in the end he understood, the princess whom he had bargained with was the key. Like she had broken the rules of the dream, he had broken the rules of this world, like she was forced to attone perhaps he was paying with his memories with his humanity, his sanity. At night he dreamed of taking their place, becoming one of those he had slaughtered with blade and musket, one of the bestial shapes that had howled while their blood satured the soil.
It felt little like nightmares to him.

It was not until the third year had past in the dead of winter he decided. Adorning his uniform, blade on hip, a moth eaten hat onto his head; amongst sparse hair. Fastening the fey bag of silver to his belt he was ready. The meagre house burnt behind him as he walked away over his frozen land. In village he bought a horse and rode.
Like no sane traveller he rode alone along the Kings Road, no other goal that to find something. Something he needed to find. He knew not what it was, he was distraught but certain. It was there somewhere, it was like he could follow a hidden smell, intangible and elusive.
Not until he neared a village unknown to him did it meet him.
There where men on the road five men with weapons. He smiled and knew it was fitting, urging his horse even harder and drew the blade that had served so well long ago.
Somehow insane bravery and dashing daring carried through them, one was falling in a cascade of blood. Tsian smiled turning the horse with his knees, waving the blade high. The remnaning looked astonished on the old madman.
He charged and once more he felt his blade bite deep but this time the horse faltered fell and he rolled away with the grace of an old man. It hurt and he knew they would be there raising the blade in a desperate parry. Death was certain, yet he cared not he had not felt truly alive for years.
In a blurr the pike hit him right through the chest nailing him to the hard frozen soil. Blood flowered around the iron blade, he could see the unwashed smile in the face of the man above him.
Perhaps a farmer turned bandit, like he had once been, no more he was a soldier again. Tsian tried to strike at his killer but there was no power in his arm, perhaps he died, perhaps he did not for as he tried to raise his arm he heard her voice.

The voice of Janlis his princess yet it was not like it came from inside his head but from somewhere close. He could not hear her words but he knew once more he would make a bargain, with his last strength he whispered an unconditional agreement.
Perhaps it was just what happened when men died, perhaps it was not. Either way his eyes regained clearity and he saw her fighting three from a perspective at their feet. Her long bladed bronze spear cut through them kill them, he saw her being cut her cold blue blood drip along worn patched cloth. No finer then his old rags. He saw her win with a tired smile that marred her perfection already tainted by sweat and dust.
Tsian tried to smile at her in vain.
He could hear her voice clearly as she whispered into his ear her intoxicating closeness reaching him even where he laid feeling nothing but pain.
Will you once more be my knight ?
Tsian did not need to consider, not even think he had already agreed and she knew.
Then rise Tsian.
Suddenly his body was not heavy the pain was reciding, with her outstretched hand he rose and felt better then he ever had. His still blotched and aged, his hair still grey but yet he was vital once more the man who had dispatched fey nobility with iron. Perhaps his mind said it was what happened after death, fulfilmet of wishes held in life, perhaps there truly was a benevolent deity who knew paradise.
He did not care.
Your body is frail if you return my silver I will donn you once more in the flesh you remember.
Without any regrets he handed her the small bag and said apologetic, distraught.
I have but six.
It will do.
She said with a smile that should have made him tremble but in his eyes, it showed warmth and forgiving, loving and apprechiation.
She called upon the magic he had seen her do a thousand times before and his flesh became smooth black like in his youth, his hair returned to its natural darkness and aged eyes returned to perceptive piercing yellow.
Tsian could feel it, he was whole again a creature meant to bring death and to be victorious. He fell to his knees before her and lowered his head.
Lead me princess.
He could not see her breathtaking beauty it was clouded by reality. Yet with his words, her face lit up like from a long despair. He knew not that in her mind it was the first victory in a long cold three years.
He was surprised when he felt her slender arms around his head and her head upon his, she was tiny besides him. Feeling her icy tears run down the side of his head he wondered no longer if it was reality or dream no he was scared. Terrified yet knew all would be right she was there with him.

The princess might never have cried where anyone had seen her before, she had never wanted to nor had her arrogance allowed. She stood over her warrior, the first one to see her, the first six parts of her impossible quest completed and relife flooded her. Somehow she tried to convince herself that it would be easier from here. She had already died and sleept nights enough here to know that those would be a scant part of her attonment. She had already dreamt more nightmares then she cared to recall but these where the first parts of the payment regained.
It was visible on her body if one knew where to look, the terror of this material world, which despoiled beauty and hated difference. Here where her magic was a thing of elusive whisperers where it had been a gale she had been sparse with its use. Here her wounds remained, healed only to allow her use of a body that had become accustomed to pain. The twin slavemarks, the one of a slave and the one of a women who had been recaught where barely faded on her palms. Her legs had been broken the third time yet it was barely seen in her nimble grace. Her back hidden beneath a tunic of course wool was a map of pain and she knew this was why she had used her might. The power that could never be regained here to heal another.
It had happened to fast. She had done it without realizing, that it was not why she held this man in her arms. Why she wanted him to consol her. They had been companions for a long time in another world, he had looked at her like he had been searching, for just her. His gaze held not terror or raw desire both which had caused more then one of the nightmares she had suffered or caused.
This world had not been kind to her kindred, iron prevailed everywhere and her kind was unknown and near powerless. Here she was nothing special. The slavers had seen a beautiful girl, an arrogant unbroken women, not a princess. He saw something else, saw what she remembered to have been but it was so long ago.
Janlis had give up to try applease the queen, to be allowed to return a thousand times. There had been no answer she would live here until her quest was complete under she had attoned her crimes.

They camped near a fast running stream they had horses and food, even a few more coin in their pouches. Curtesy of the bandits. Tsian could do nothing but study her for she was wearing an expression he had never seen on her face. It took a moment while they prepared a fire and meal, for him to realize that he knew it not but had seen it long ago in the face of a peasant girl along the road.
Calea had worn it then. A soft face making him wonder, as tears ran down his cheeks for no reason he could put into thought or words. Looking away trying to hiding his tears but he knew she had seen. There was a silence as they ate enveloped in their own dark thoughts. Tsian found himself glad for both the silence and the company.

He awoke in the night and for a moment he was afraid it had all been a dream, that he would wake up once more in his home surrounded by the trappings of familiarity. Yet it took but a moment to find that he was sitting by a campfire his back to a tree, it should have been cold but his powerful youthish body felt it only as a passing discomfort.
She was not in her bedrolls, but it took but a moment to find her from the sound of water splashing. She stood to the hip covered in the cold water of the stream, rapid water running around her slim body crashing against her. He could only look enchanted at her in the darkness for her palid body was beautiful and the water had removed any blemish of dirt and dust. Then she turned towards him and with an inviting gesture she said.
Join me. It was the first time her voice did not hold a request, a command but asked perhaps even pleeded.

The queen of winter gazed into her pool of crystal water, it painted in vivid colors a glade in moonlight. Where one of her daughters stood submerged in water. Daughter, perhaps even you can learn. She thought with a sad smile.

This post has been edited by The 20th: 22 December 2008 - 10:53 PM

You’ve never heard of the Silanda? … It’s the ship that made the Warren of Telas run in less than 12 parsecs.

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Posted 19 December 2008 - 02:00 AM

Submission #6 by Sinisdar Toste

In prehistoric times, life was bitter, tempestuous and short; eked out on blasted landscapes only a few million years abandoned by tyrant lizards, great matrons and horned leviathans. Human-kind wandered in a haze of ignorance, every shadow casting horrors that could not even be articulated.

‘Ladiiiiees aaaannd gentlemen! Folks of all ages! Tonight on the Popes Hill stage of Birds Hill Park, we bring you, straight from the concrete jungle: Ten Thousand Drums!’

During the time of light, our ancestors went out into the land, exerting a tenuous kind of control over what lay within a day’s walk of their shelter. The great golden eye soared across the heavens and glared down upon the earth, driving the great cats and other competitors into the shade. But with the cooling of the blessed orb and its retreat beneath the horizon, the tables were turned. So as the beasts were wont to do, human-kind made a ruckus to discourage the predators.

‘To keep our hearts up to pace with the pounding, driving rhythm of the Ten Thousand Drums… Their luscious curves, slippery when wet! Eyes wild with the exertion of the ancient dance! Souls scorched by the incandescent wands of fire! The dance troupe known only as Tellendarri!’

Humans may have shivered in darkness for eons, fearing the plains bear, the mountain cat and their uncanny night-vision, but the sun was not the only source of light. For when the sky was ripped open and water poured down, jagged, angry teeth lashed out from the clouds and brought the sun down to earth. Humans, with their thumbs and unique – sometimes fatal – curiosity, then took into their hands the fire of the sun.

And what miracles were wrought! With fire, humans became the master of any domain, driving away the dumb beasts and lighting up the shadows. Fire hardened the points of their spears, and game was brought in plenty. Fire then cooked the meat, sweetening it, and as the juices dribbled from pulped lips through grizzled beards, the light of fire reflected in the eyes of humans. A taste shared by none of our fellow beings; sizzling, dripping, meat injected awareness into the human consciousness. Yes, there was never a greater tool and ally to humans than fire.

‘And lo! In the darkest night, as it was in the beginning, the thunderous drums call to the storm clouds above. The dancers beseech and plead to the heavens for the gift of fire. Silence now, and observe this scene, where time stands in flux.’

On the low stage, the dancers twirl and flail. Fiery wands weave a skein of light that refracts and shatters on the gaudy jewelry of the belly dancers. All sweat with the exertion of their need. Encircling the low black platform on all sides are the bent backs of the Ten Thousand Drums, cacophonous and harmonious all at once, they choose the flavour of the dance. Beyond this circle of thumps and grunts, the people of the tents gather in anticipation of the ecstasy to come. The fling themselves about, wild in the throes of most intense life, and near a stone wall at the edge of the group dances a lone woman. Her grace is unmatched by any around her, for she is the Nameless Dancer. A spirit, perhaps, come to bless what must be the most ancient of traditions.

Back beneath low shelves of rock, a low, flickering glare paints unseeing stone with fitful, grotesque shadows. In a tight ring, stocky males stamp their feet, beat on hollow logs and mash their fists together. Heads hang close together and they mutter in a tight lipped tongue, whispering to the spirits of the sky. Beyond the rock shelter their womenfolk dash about in the rain, free limbed and graceful. They petition the spirits with a passion unseen in their mates, yet not absent. And in the sky above Popes Hill an answer is given.

The clouds hang overhead with menace. Red and speckled as the underbelly of a monstrous dragon they are, lighting up with every beat of its gargantuan hearts. They beat unheard for now, as the Ten Thousand Drums come to a new climax. The dancers seem locked in a sensual embrace with the elements, and they draw the entire circle of onlookers into their world of fire. For fire is life, and life is fire; without the sacred flame, the humans frail bodies would have been devoured by the harsh dawn of their existence. It is an ancient memory, an instinct, coded deep in our DNA and the modern people gathered at the foot of this hill feel a disquieting chill grip their souls as flashes of antiquity flit past the window of their minds eye. A primeval emotion and they fear it even as they exult in it.

The drums reach a fever pitch, hands bruised and purple find new speed and do not feel the hours lateness. Nor do the limbs of the dancers drag at their frames as they find higher places to leap to, lower places to descend to. If anything their eyes shine brighter and brighter, mirroring the fervor in the eyes of all the witnesses.

‘Wait, hold a moment! The Nameless Dancer! She makes for the peak! For the very conjunction of earth and sky!’

She races swift as lightning, smoky and insubstantial as time and upon gaining the highest ground for miles, reaches out and screams!

In a former time, the scene is repeated. Atop a pile of unformed rock a flat faced, greasy haired mother wails with a banshees fury. Lightning and thunder herald her arrival in their domain and echo throughout history.

The ghost of the past is unseen and unheard; only we who are witness from yet another time and place see her blow away in the wind as the first peal of thunder overpowers the Ten Thousand Drums.

‘Oh, the mighty voice of thunder! The roar of the gods, we once thought, and see as they cower beneath another lost memory. The dancers have lost their equilibrium and the great dragon screeches its pleasure at disrupting the puny humans and their play. What grand folly!’

For the most miniscule fraction of a moment the Ten Thousand falter in their rhythm before tumbling once more into cadence. As one the crowd bolts for the hill. Dancers, drummers and all, this is what they have been waiting for. What they have been calling down. Though perhaps they knew not why they gathered, it is a pattern that has been followed for thousands of years.

What little protocol there was is swept away, as men and women tear off their clothes and bellow for the storm to impart its gifts: of death, of life, there is no distinction. They are one. Fire is a useful ally, but, as was learned in ancient times, it is fickle. Dancing with the whims of the wind and burning as often as warming.

The dome of the sky lights up every few moments now, each accompanied by a robust burst of sound. The rain has started and soaks the revelers crowded on the hill. Most are naked or half-way there and copulating couples litter the hillside. This is another thing that has been passed down. Fire is life. Fire, is passion. The burning, all consuming passion that human-kind felt deep within itself ever since its birth. They knew fire, fire in their hearts, before they had ever known it in their skin.

Throughout the night, the beast rages and storms, trees falling to the ground. Felled, burned, by the angry teeth of the sun.

And out from the caves dash the men of the tribe. Wild and hooting they descend on flame wreathed branches with stone axes, amputating the life-giving fire and carrying it back to their hearths. As the flames grow and grow, the faces surrounding it gain an ethereal quality, as though in their underdeveloped egos they do not wholly belong to this moment.


She stands, places a log on the fire, and laughs at a quip from one of the many jesters at this fire. They seem hazy this morning, made of fog and she squints to make out their faces. Rain still drips from emerald leaves and gathers on tall blades of grass. Beyond the trees rises Popes Hill and she shivers recalling the primal excesses of the night still passing. But it’s time is nearly up. False dawn is overtaken by the true arrival of the sun, lifting its golden head above the horizon like an awakening savior. The red flames of the campfire wave a cheery greeting to their creator as mirthful humans tend to its burning garden. They are in the moment once more, disconnected from the past and so the shimmering wraith-like figure weaves unseen through the tents. Still dancing, still nameless, still there.

True story. Happened to a friend of mine - the man behind this avatar.

This post has been edited by The 20th: 08 January 2009 - 10:39 PM

You’ve never heard of the Silanda? … It’s the ship that made the Warren of Telas run in less than 12 parsecs.

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Posted 22 December 2008 - 10:59 PM

Into the Lion’s Den

There was a certain freedom to be found in insignificance. The freshly fallen snow of the night’s blizzard crunched softly underfoot. The sharp tang of pine pierced the crisp, clean air. And there was silence, as of an ancient world drawing a deep, soft breath. A lone figure prowled the dark forests that covered the northern slopes of the Magkhar Mountains, searching intently for a sign. A hedge-eagle slid the currents high overhead, a grey shape against the painfully bright blue. The figure had the sense that the bird watched him for a few heartbeats before dismissing him. A large adult might have tried for him, were it hungry enough, but he did not think this one was yet fully grown. Sighing, Stronach moved on.
Yes, there was a certain freedom to be found in insignificance, to be naught but a passing moment, as a bird, or a mouse in a vast, frozen wilderness. Up here, on the roof of the world, Stronach always felt closer to the other realms, imagined he could cross some nameless icy stream, or plunge into a night-dark forest only to find himself in the deadlands, the phae kingdom or some spirit-world. Up here, he hunted the unseen, and others in turn might well be hunting him, but this was life without the trappings, shorn of morality and expectation, wealth and envy; this was survival, honed instincts and simplicity. And he was alone, perfectly alone. Just as it should be.
He had lost the trail last night in the storm. Stronach, however, had been born and raised on mountains just like these, far to the south, and he had been tracking since he was old enough to walk – or even before that, if he believed the stories his father told him of his mother.

Stronach’s green eyes narrowed. A blanket of knee-deep snow hid the rocky trails, and treacherous gullies and sheer drops lay concealed by high drifts and false, white ground. He stopped on the edge of a small open plateau where the north side fell sharply away to reveal the endless expanse of the northern plains, an immense sea of white that shone so bright beneath the cold sun that it hurt the eyes to look upon it. This was the homeland of the Khulmagkhar, a fierce and wild people from beyond the northern borders of Aravon. Stronach spared a glance for the clear sky that seemed to have been washed by the Gods in a single shade of brilliant blue, before turning back to the trees that ringed the clearing. Tough pine branches sagged beneath the weight of the snow, dropping their burdens, on occasion, in a thud and a flutter of powder. He knelt to examine the small broken branches of the tree beside him and dug his hand carefully into the snow beneath where he found the broken bits only a hands-length beneath the surface. He sensed he might be close once more. A slight breeze, a marginal shift in direction and he caught the faintest scent. His hackles raised. He, the hunter, was now also the hunted. He scooped a mouthful of snow to hide his breath, and stood.

Stronach’s hand slipped beneath the layers of furs that he wore and closed around the worn leather grip of his sword; he drew it an inch or so to make sure it was not frozen into the scabbard. He tossed his head to shift the iced locks of black hair from before his eyes. Stepping left foot over right, he moved sideways towards the precipice, positioning himself so that an ancient pine stood at his back, never taking his eyes from the far side of the clearing where the tree-line shaded to shadows only twenty paces away.
It was a bitterly cold morning but blessedly calm after the storm of the last two days. Stronach had feared only that his quarry had reached the deep forests at the foot of the mountains before the storm had hit for they would have been able to push on and leave him far behind. He knew now that he had been fortunate and rather than losing ground, he had caught them up. He eased his sword from its scabbard. It would be a harsh place to die, but so long as his opponent was worthy, he would not curse Ishumar when he went before him.
More than one shadow flitted through the trees. He drew his sword and pulled his dagger out into his right. The very air seemed to thicken, heavy on his shoulders. His legs were numb, beyond his control. Dull silver eyes stared out from the depths, lifeless and unblemished, ancient and primordial. Slowly, the hulking shape of a Doman stalked into the clearing, thick, heavily scarred hide taught over immense muscles. They were huge, wild beasts, more akin to wolves but not entirely inhuman. Fear stole the breath from Stronach’s chest, threatened to unman him, whispered from beyond that it would be wiser to curl up and die. The sane part of his stumbling mind screamed at him to run, even though he would be dead before he had taken ten strides. The only choice left was to defend himself. Experience and training took care of the rest.
Domans were used by the Khulmagkhar for hunting – the ones they reared from pups – but he did not believe that this one obeyed any man. Its teeth were not yet bared, and its growl was faintly threatening but the sheer bulk of the oily grey beast emanated dominance and perfect violence. Even as it crouched lower and stalked closer, he kept but half an eye on it for the other beast was circling to his left. He could neither see nor hear it but he understood these beasts and their casual violence, powerful and terrifying and cunning in equal measures.
Suddenly, the big, pale one stopped, cocked its head and licked the air, exposing a horror of jagged and broken yellow teeth. They had caught another scent and now Stronach heard the faint crunch of snow some distance behind him. He cursed softly, hoped for a moment that it was one of the soldiers. Another step, too light, short-legged and awkward.
“Go back, Gavin!” His voice was startlingly loud and savage in the silent forest, “Run boy!”
The Doman before him coiled back and roared with primeval fury, hackles raised and silver eyes ablaze. Stronach shuddered, his own shouts and anger suddenly pathetic and boyish. Snow was shaken from the trees. The howls rolled back in echoes from the mountains, drowning his voice like a whisper in a storm. Trusting now only to instinct, he had barely time to half turn and roll as the second great dog burst from the trees to his left in an explosion of white and leapt at his chest. Stronach stabbed blindly – a flash of silver – a glint of yellow – as he rolled into the heavy snow and for a few agonising moments he could see nothing, only sense as he tumbled helplessly, vulnerable and deafened with the savagery of the action. Snow and heavy furs slowed his movements. At the point where he expected to come up from the roll he was yanked savagely backwards as easily as a leaf in a river. His furs drew up tight around his neck and he gagged, suddenly realising that the beast had leapt over him but had caught his bearskin cloak. The growling and barking of the Domans surrounded him. His balance was lost, perspective distorted. Heart hammering, strangled cries for mercy escaped his lips. On his back, he was dragged headfirst where he caught a glimpse of the brilliant sky above. Snarls and snaps sounded by his ears. His shoulder cracked against something solid and he instinctively twisted and grabbed for it. Whether it was rock or tree he knew not but he clung for his life. With one last viscous jerk, the beast released him but his arm broke in a sharp crack. He screamed and tried to scramble to his knees, staggered and swayed, his sword gone and the dagger lying hilt-deep in the snow beside him.
The second Doman was nowhere to be seen but in the same instant that he saw the boy run into the clearing he tried to shout a warning but it would not have mattered anyway. The first dog, an immense grey beast whose oily fur rippled like silk in the bright of the day was upon the boy so quickly that Stronach doubted the Gods themselves could have stopped it had they tried. The boy’s dagger was a pathetic gesture and he collapsed beneath the beast as though he were made of paper. He never even made a sound. Stronach staggered to his feet and searched frantically for his broadsword. He found it half-buried, between him and the Doman, snatched it and staggered into a run. The sound of ripping flesh and crunching bones was almost drowned by the dog’s growling. It tossed its head to tear chunks from the dead boy, spraying blood in every direction. So absorbed in its grizzly feast was the Doman, that it never saw the blade that ended its life in one furious downward slash that sliced deep into its neck and shoulders.
Stronach was breathing hard. Pain lanced through his arm. Silence fell once more. He surveyed the clearing. Barely an inch of snow lay undisturbed and from the amount of blood soaking the ground and dripping from trees it looked as though a score of men had fought and died here. Stronach realised that the second dog must have leapt right over him and onto the edge of the plateau where it had slipped over the precipice to its death. It had almost taken him with it. He cleaned and sheathed his dagger and sword and knelt by the dead boy. He was unrecognisable from boy they had discovered two days ago, left behind, abandoned for some unknown reason by the raiders – though he had his suspicions. His chest and neck had been ruined and warm blood still oozed from a dozen gaping wounds. Pale ribs were visible beneath the gore, scored with bite marks.
“Judge this one with mercy, Ishumar. Grant him the eternal peace of the Heavenly Upperworld.”
He left the boy where he lay for it would be impossible to bury him and he could not build a cairn before nightfall. Stronach eyed the skies. He had a couple of hours of the day left, and time enough to make it back to the camp.

* * *

Nestled beneath a towering rocky overhang, sheltered somewhat should the weather turn rapidly foul – as it was wont to do in the Magkhars – was the camp of the Aravonian soldiers. The cold sun had not yet set, the sky streaked in yellow and grey, but here on the northern slopes, night had effectively fallen. One stone-ringed fire burned off the darkness around the half-dozen sullen men and their horses, and they muttered unhappily and griped about the cold. They gathered close to the fire to leech whatever comfort they could from it, their backs turned to the coming of another bleak night in the mountains as the darkness closed in upon them. So it was that none of them noticed the lone figure ghosting through the snow-dusted trees towards them.

Stronach reached the edge of the forest and snarled silently. All six of them were huddled around the fire. He cursed loudly and stormed towards the camp. Startled, the soldiers leapt to their feet amid much swearing and yelping. The spooked horses snorted, stamped and strained at their tethers. Breac, the Sergeant who led these men, was an utter fool and it was time to sort the problem.
Once Breac recognised him, he barked a nervous laugh and sheathed his sword. The big Sergeant slapped his fat belly and took a step forwards to greet him.
“Welcome back, Ranger, where is the boy? Finally got…”
Stronach drove his fist into Breac’s face and felt the nose bone break as pain lanced down his hand and arm. Breac staggered back, stunned and stupefied, blood pouring from his nose, hands half-raised in an attempt to protect himself. He tried to say something but Stronach kept on, followed him and punched him again. This time, Breac crumpled to the ground unconscious. The other five soldiers stood uneasily, still within the protective circle of yellow light from the fire. Faced with a situation such as this, their Sergeant laid out by one the King’s Rangers. Stronach, still swathed in the cold, blue shadows of a winter night, seized the initiative.
“The boy is dead. Dead because no-one stopped him following me.”
Apprehension swept across their faces and eyes flitted and searched the dark of the forest as though half-expecting an attack.
“My orders were very specific, keep guard and nobody leaves. You get no second chances out here. If you bastards don’t start listening to me I guarantee none of you make it back alive. Anyone who doesn’t like it can try to find their own way back to Rhunlund, right now.”
He waited for any response but there was no challenge in their eyes. Stronach lowered his voice and went on, “You do exactly what I say from now on. If I think we need to have this conversation again…I will vanish…and you will all die out here.”
An uneasy quiet fell over the camp, broken only by the groans of Breac from where he still lay in the snow, dark blood spattered around him. Perhaps it was the calm way in which he spoke, or the glint of fury in his eyes or even some other primeval sense that spoke to them. If he left there would be little or no hope of any of them finding the way back south. Stronach approached the fire now.
“Brogan, get over here and set this bloody arm.”

* * *

“That’s a Jaiklar stick, isn’t it?”
Stronach grimaced as Brogan wound the dressing around his forearm, securing in place a long piece of flat and slender Blackwood so that it served as a splint.
“Yes. How do you know of them?”
Brogan shrugged to readjust the heavy, woollen cloak that draped from his shoulders. Beneath his heavy beard, his face was beaten to a worn and painful looking red by the cruel northern weather.
“About this time last year we discovered a Ranger while we were on a patrol in the north of the valley. She had been chased into a cave by two of those big snow leopards when she fell and broke her leg. She said that she just holed up for three days with her Jaiklar stick splinted to her leg and then upped and walked out. That’s when we found her.”
Stronach grunted, “You mean, she found you.”
Brogan snorted a laugh and pulled the dressing abruptly tight. Stronach breathed in sharply, releasing it in a long, low growl of curses.
“It has its uses,” he agreed.
Stronach’s anger was fading, allowing him to question its source. It wasn’t just about the boy’s death – Stronach didn’t know him – or even that the soldiers had been incompetent and allowed him to wander off after Stronach. No, the boy had come to see him as some sort of saviour, had stayed close and drew comfort from it. Stronach didn’t like it, had never liked anyone depending on him, but just hadn’t been able to bring himself to discourage it. Five days at the hands of the raiders had damaged the boy badly and Stronach had ignored the ancient truth: getting close to people gets you hurt.
Brogan sat back on his haunches, his work done, as Stronach tried meekly to make a fist. A knifing pain ended that test. It was perhaps worse than he thought, and definitely worse than he had hoped. Despite the ice in the air, he wiped beads of sweat from his brow and pulled the hood of his bearskin further over his head. Brogan slipped his gloves back on and swung his legs over the log that they were sitting on to face the welcoming fire. At their backs, endless forests lay shrouded in the deep cold of night, their silence and breathlessness unsettling in their seeming emptiness. For the soldiers, it only sharpened the feeling that they simply did not belong.
Stronach dug into his saddlebags and produced a wineskin before joining the others around the fire. He drank long and deep, spluttering and then coughing painfully as he choked on the fierce liquid. His throat burned but already he felt a tremendous warmth from somewhere deep within as it flowed through him like the drug of the Vakhurian Tiger Poppy. Of course, he had them too but it was unlikely that these men would take kindly to that, and even if they did, he would not share them.
Before long, Stronach’s eyes glazed and he felt comfortable and warm. The pain in his arm was gone and the cold was a minor irritant.
“What are you drinking, Ranger?” One of the soldiers eventually asked, his companionability earning him a sharp look from his comrade.
Stronach eyed him lazily, unable to make out much detail because of the glare of the fire between them and the effects of the drug. He also caught sight of Breac, unconscious from the Kukuasa sap that Stronach had given him before resetting his nose. Even then, Stronach had known that he would need his drink this night and he would not risk the Sergeant waking up with the desire to restore his pride.
“It’s a special concoction. A Ranger secret. Help yourself, it will do you more good than that weak-as-water goat’s filth that you drink. Bloody Magkhar children…” He waved an arm vaguely northwards, “…drink stronger stuff almost from birth.”
One of the soldiers laughed, “If these barbarian women have stronger drink in their tits then I am going to have to get one for a wife!”
At that, they all burst out laughing, perhaps with more vigour than was necessary but there was no denying that the Magkhar Mountains were a bleak and soul destroying place.
Presently, none of the men took him up on his offer and they continued for a while at least to lighten their moods to lift the shadows from their shoulders. They were still joking and drinking when Stronach fell into a deep sleep.

* * *

Stronach stirred from his slumber, half-awake and half-aware of his surroundings. It was bitterly cold and his throat burned painfully whenever he swallowed. Bleary eyes protested at the faint greying of the skies and his every muscle seemed to ache just in anticipation of the coming day. Stronach reached out from beneath his furs and forced himself to a sitting position. He scooped a handful of snow into his mouth and let it melt. It ached his teeth but was blissfully soothing in his throat. Another double-handful of snow he smeared over his face. Although years of living in the wilderness had hardened the Ranger in countless ways, the pain that shot along his arm from his momentarily forgotten injury sucked the breath right out of his lungs. His eyes watered as he fought to regain his breath, and after a while he flexed his right arm carefully but there had been little improvement so far. The intermittent throbbing that almost brought tears to his eyes was the only evidence of the work of the Jaiklar stick.
He had slept soundly and free of nightmares so with all things considered, he felt good this morning. Until, that is, he caught sight of the wrapped bundle that had been the boy’s pack and blanket – frost-covered and discarded. Moving sluggishly, and favouring his bad arm, he stoked the fire and tossed on a handful of frosted sticks that crackled and threatened to put out the low flames until it flared back to life. He kicked a couple of the sleeping soldiers, curled as they were beneath great heaps of furs and, slowly, the camp began to stir. The man who had stood the last watch trooped eagerly back to his companions as Stronach rummaged through his baggage for his breakfast. As he squatted by the fire and chewed on hard wheatcakes and strips of frozen meat, the soldiers groaned and muttered. A few mouthfuls of whisky completed his meal and then he was packed and ready and waiting – again.

* * *

Stronach led them back along the trail he had found the day before and he neither stopped nor commented when they crossed the small plateau. The corpse of the Doman was just a slight rise beneath the snow, covered by light snows that had fallen through the night and none but he would ever know of its existence – not until the thaw and then only by scavengers. No one had spoke to the Ranger of the boy’s fate but any unasked questions were scoured away by the sight of the iced-over face and single arm that were all that had not yet been covered. To a man, the soldiers muttered prayers. A posting in the garrison of Rhunlund Fortress was hard soldiering, bred tough men or broke them. Dying out here, where the soil was too hard and frozen to dig, denied them Ishumar’s final embrace. A soldier could face death with stoicism, accept its inevitability and know, truly know, each day could be the last. But for the soul to wander lost between the realms, forever in impotent agony, shorn of the embrace…
The seven-strong party wound their way down from the mountains on a switch-back trail, their sturdy little Magkhar ponies more than equal to the task. As the day wore on, past noon and on into the lengthening shadows, the sky remained clear and beautiful, the air bitterly cold. They ate in their saddles and spoke little.
An hour or so before dark, Stronach found his way onto more familiar territory, surrounded still by the towering evergreens, rocky gullies and immense boulders that dotted the land as though some race of giants had warred here centuries ago.
“The going will be easier now,” he announced to his weary comrades as they reined in around him.
Sergeant Breac, who had remained almost silent for the entire day, suddenly burst out in angry and frustrated tones, “What in the Planes of Hell does that mean? Don’t tell my men that it is going to be easier when you damn well know it is not! Do not raise our hopes when you know they will be dashed! This is just all bloody trees and snow and nothing else.”
Stronach glowered at him but spoke calmly, “Control yourself, Sergeant.”
Breac’s eyebrows arched in disbelief, “Control myself! Where the hell are we, then? Where is this trail you claim to be following? Where are the savages we have been following for thirteen days? I say you are lost, and that you have lost the trail!”
Stronach grinned at the sudden memory of standing over his brother, fists clenched and bloody, a heartbeat before his father cuffed him on the back of the head, knocking him down, senseless. That is for losing your temper so easily. A man quick to anger is a man easily manipulated, and that’s not how my sons were raised.
Silence and calm, he had since learned, un-nerved weaker men far better than fury. And despite what he had said last night, these were still Breac’s men. The soldiers grew uneasy, gazes were averted and eyes searched the ground awkwardly.
“Listen, Sergeant, we are not lost. Two years ago I spent the summer in these forests and I know them well. There is a cave of sorts, not far from here and it is ideal for us tonight.”
Breac, clearly growing in confidence and aggression, urged his pony closer and leaned towards Stronach, “But where is the bloody trail?”
“There is a path, a half mile east of here. That is the one they used.”
Breac smiled as if suddenly seeing his winning argument, “Then you have brought us too far over. Did you miss the trail and hope to rediscover it before any of us found out?”
Stronach sorely wanted to thump Breac again but it had not worked the first time and he had neither the time nor the patience for the Sergeant’s continual interference. Something would have to give. Soon.
“I brought us here for the cave, and to avoid a Doman lair”, a few worried faces glanced up then, “and because I know where they are going now and this way is quicker. Now, if I have to stop and explain every…”
Breac sat back in his saddle and dismissed it with a wave of his hand, “We haven’t the time left in the day for this, take us to this cave.”
To Stronach, it sounded way too much like an order. He was going to have to do something to end the dispute permanently. Breac could get himself killed if he liked but Stronach had to keep the others alive because he did not believe he could succeed without at least three of them. He hoped, suddenly, that he never found himself in a position to save Breac’s life.

* * *

He slept little that night, huddled in the corner of the bleak cave where the warmth of the small fire they had built did not reach. Stronach made no secret of the fact that he was watching Breac for signs of the treachery that shone in his eyes. His sidelong looks, heavy with intent, and the uneasy glances he exchanged with his men betrayed what was in his heart. No-one spoke more than a few words and the soldiers communicated mostly in grunts and shrugs – as wary as a pack of dogs. Brogan was the only one that came close to being outside Breac’s circle, and that, it seemed, was down to the somewhat distant personality that the soldier possessed. He knew that Brogan was a veteran, and no fool. In Stronach’s mind, the Kingdom would fare better with men like Brogan commanding men like Breac, and not the other way around.
He had known all along that Breac did not want to be here, too comfortable had he been within the safe walls of Rhunlund Castle. He had been forced to give up his drunken nights with a whore in his bed for the freezing wastes of the northern forests in winter. When they had found Gavin huddled by the trail, Breac had argued hotly for cutting their losses on the other boy and turning back before anyone got killed. Stronach explained that this was entirely the purpose of this old barbarian trick, playing on fears and blunting vengeance. In Breac’s eyes, Stronach was a despised thing, a man he did not know who had dragged him out to find some children he also did not know and all for no good reason that he could see. It did not seem to matter that Stronach was a Royal Ranger and so charged with the King’s business and he had every right by the King’s own laws. Breac was at the meeting where one of the King’s Inquisitors had tasked them with retrieving the boys and even this, incredibly, did not seem to matter. One simply did not defy the Inquisition – not unless you truly wanted to spend your every remaining, living breath in prison...assuming, that is, they did not simply scramble your mind with no more than a thought, inflict a raging, suicidal madness, or reduce you to a drooling idiot wallowing in your own piss and shit. No, something else, something deeper twisted the big Sergeant’s belly but Stronach found that as he washed down some black trail-bread with whisky, he really did not care what it was.

Worse nights than this the Ranger had spent: floating on driftwood on an empty ocean, buried in a snow-hole and struggling for breath high in the Magkhar Mountains – A wiggle of the two remaining toes on his left foot reminded him of that long night. Never-the-less, he did not fancy Breac’s buck-handled knife as his companion for his last night on earth. Stronach had always known that when he died, it would be to a worthy foe and that was something that Breac was not. So he drank sparingly and did not sleep but even as he lay awake, crouched beneath his furs on the unforgiving rock floor, he knew that he could not maintain his vigil for more than three nights. Overhead, the sky was clear and the souls in the Upperworld shone fiercely. For all that the men of Aravon feared this land, to Stronach, it was the most beautiful place in the world; especially at night.
His Uncle, Tchurach, had fought many years for Aravon, and Stronach remembered him now, sitting on the porch of his mother’s house, basking in the orange radiance of a setting sun as he sharpened his old sword. His mother’s brother, he learned more of her from him than from his own father. His left arm had been hacked off by a Lycian Blademaster in the third Marcosian War, and his eyes failed him now but Stronach was as much in awe of him as ever. Tchurach spoke less and less towards the end, and had never said much at all, not to anyone. In a lucid moment he spoke only once to the young Stronach that day, Western born and western bred, strong in the arm and weak in the head.
Why he remembered this after all these years only the Gods knew but he would heed those words now for Breac was a westerner, from Tharkax judging by the drawl accent, and Stronach would have to be careful.

* * *

High snows veiled the mountains from sight the next morning. In the forests below only the trailing edges of those blizzards fell, and the northern Ironwoods sheltered the Aravonian men from most of that. The winds that would numb exposed flesh in minutes on the rocky heights were broken by the giant evergreens. The forests were a peaceful place.
Stronach slipped carefully from the saddle, bracing himself against the stabbing pain in his bad arm but never taking his eyes from the new tracks that cut a diagonal across their path. He had followed the easy trail since dawn, and it was now near midday. Ever north and west on an ancient and broken path, his quarry no longer made any effort to hide their tracks or numbers. Just off the trail, the tumbled ruin of a long abandoned and long forgotten tower broke the forest floor. A tall statue of black stone, missing a head, leaned drunkenly against the tower wall. Snow and ice hid most of it.
Stronach guessed that the enemy either believed themselves safe, perhaps no longer pursued, or that they were leading him to an ambush. One never knew with the Red Island Sorcerers.

The others reined in as they neared but on seeing the intensity in the Ranger, they stilled their tongues. Stronach surprised himself by allowing for the possibility that this new trail might not mean what he had at first thought, however, within moments, his hopes were dashed. What he found seemed almost impossible.
Stronach knew these tracks, knew what they meant and who they meant. Once before, many years ago, this quarry had escaped him, left a mark, a stain he had borne since. Stronach was faced with two questions: what was he doing in the Magkhar Mountains, and why would he leave such obvious tracks? Fire and bloody Ice! Why is everyone leaving such obvious tracks! Well, he grumbled to himself, the answers did not matter much at all but he guessed that travelling in such a vast wilderness where a chance encounter was a near impossibility, he had grown careless – unlike the Sorcerer. The tracks led east, parallel with the mountains.
“Have you found a trail?” Brogan asked quietly.
“Yes. Brogan, you and I will follow this eastern trail for a while. The rest of you keep on north and we should catch you up in two or three days.”
Stronach took his horse by the reins and began to walk it when Breac nudged his mount forwards aggressively, “Where in the planes of hell are you going?” He spat, his face red with rage. “You can’t just up and leave! You are the one that dragged us out on this pointless chase and you are here as our guide – in case you have forgotten – so you can bloody well guide us! All of us!”
The Sergeant’s outburst had pushed the mood of the men from nervous to downright frantic now. Stronach growled in frustration; this witless idiot did not know when to shut up!
“Listen, Dabhran here can read a track, can’t you?”
Breac scowled at the squat soldier behind him, Dabhran, who shrugged and scratched his blotchy neck but there was a reluctant nod in there somewhere.
“And a herd of cattle would be harder to follow. Just hang back and keep going, don’t push too fast and don’t stumble into them. They are still at least ten days from where they are going and we will catch them in four.”
Leather creaked as Breac straightened in his saddle, “So be it,” he announced. “My official report will include your wayward behaviour and your decision to jeopardise this mission today. My men will be praised for the courage that drove them to fulfil their duties in spite of you. Brogan, you go with him.”
Stronach’s expression remained flat. Did Breac really believe that a report from some unknown Sergeant in an outpost on the edge of the Kingdom could challenge the word of a Royal Ranger? Perhaps, but at that point, Stronach decided he would not kill Breac, nor would he save him but the man deserved to be broken, knocked back down to the ranks and never again given authority.
“I guess we will all get what we deserve, Sergeant.”
Breac’s frown darkened uncertainly. Punishment to fit the crime, thought the Ranger, and easily done, besides, murder would prove difficult to justify, even for him.

* * *

Stronach and Brogan followed the trail east for the rest of the day. Their path took them through great, dark swathes of the forests where Stronach suspected few men had ever been. At times the trail faded and vanished and a frustrating amount of time was lost finding the new tracks. As a Ranger, he was used to slow and painstaking tracking and his immense patience and determination for such endeavours (for which he was justifiably proud) was a prerequisite for his profession. Today, however, his determination was not tempered, and soon, obsession conquered his patience.
He spoke little with the soldier, wrapped in dark thoughts and anticipation of the last play in a long since unfinished game; resolution he had not realised he had required until the opportunity for it was presented.
Two hours short of nightfall, Stronach lost the trail in a wide rocky gully. He stole carefully back and forth across the feeble, shallow stream that wound through it, searching for cracked ice by its edges. He visited the far end of the gully and scoured the darkening forests beyond. He stood peering at the jagged and oft-times sheer rock walls that hemmed them in north and south for signs of passage or caves. With a start, he realised that night had fallen. Shades of clouds drifted above and the souls of the Upperworld winked, disappeared and returned. Brogan had set a small fire beneath an overhang in the south wall and piled stones high around it to conceal it as best he could. The soldier sat in silence, wrapped within his furs and chewing on dried meat, his scabbard lay at his feet alongside the fire.
And I’d wager that idiot Breac has set a bloody signal fire and has them singing old songs to keep the fear at bay.
Stronach settled back amongst the rocks in front of the fire and tugged his massive gloves off to warm his hands.
“How long have you been on the frontier, Brogan?”
The soldier regarded him with level eyes, “Six years come summer.”
Stronach was more than a little surprised, “I thought you only had to do three before you could be reassigned.”
Brogan nodded, a faint smile on his face, “I like it here. It’s a singular task. You do your job and nobody messes with you. I am a simple man, like you.”
The Ranger snorted and dug into his bags for his whisky, “Only one other person in the world ever called me that.”
“Only you cannot settle can you? Yet she loves you just the same.”
Stronach narrowed his eyes.
Brogan smiled with genuine warmth, “Some call me perceptive. I just know things about people. Not like I have the Spark.”
People joked about having the Spark like they joked about having the rupture-plague but the mirth in Breac’s eyes took the edge off of it.
“Well, even if you do, I doubt the Inquisition will come looking for you all the way up here.”
Breac wagged a gloved finger, “Don’t be so sure.”
“What else does your insight tell you? About me.”
“That you love her also and you know yourself too well. That is why you will not go to her…for her sake.”
Stronach’s head drooped a little and he drank some more whisky. His broken forearm ached enough to make him grimace.
“Mine is a lonely and dangerous road, and where it takes me is rarely of my own choosing.”
Brogan settled back and closed his eyes, “I sense we will be awake for a while yet. Tell me of your life, Stronach, and I shall tell you of mine.”
Stronach grinned.

* * *

By mid-morning Stronach finally conceded defeat. They left the gully and retraced their steps back west through the wintry forests. Stronach’s heart was heavy with disappointment and he did not speak for some time.
“You never asked me who we were following, Brogan,” he said finally.
The soldier shrugged, “What business is it of mine?”
“If it were the other way about I would have asked you.”
Brogan grinned, “Well what would you have said if I had asked?”
“I’d have told you it was none of your bloody business.”
The soldier laughed.
“It is clear you thought you knew who you tracked, and that this person meant a great deal to you. Perhaps you were not fated to find them just yet. Perhaps this was naught but a simple sign that you must remember one day to resume your search.”
Stronach nodded, “Well, it has done that.”
He found himself questioning the wisdom of leaving the other four men under Breac’s inept command to pursue a personal goal. Perhaps it had been selfish but he could not see how he could have resisted the chance. One, he thought pessimistically, that he might never get again. Shortly before nightfall, as the winds picked up in the whispering tree-tops and a light snow began to fall, they found them.

* * *

Dabhran, the squat, reluctant soldier with the blotchy skin was the first one he saw. He had to stare at it for a few heartbeats before he realised that the thing was actually Dabhran; or at least had been. His naked corpse dangled from the tree by the rope around his broken neck. He had been beaten to a bloody mess, limbs twisted in inhuman ways and his feet hacked rudely off. They lay in the bloody, muddy snow beneath him.
Nuim, the oldest and most cynical of the soldiers, and the moody Quln had both been brutalised in a similar fashion though it looked as though they had less sport with them.
A short distance away they found Maufy, the half-Magkharian lad – the youngest of them all. His naked body had been spread-eagled and tied face down over a large fallen tree. His back was a lattice work of angry red whelps and dried blood. His throat had been opened though Stronach suspected not until after he had been savaged. Blood had dried in thick, congealed lumps around his anus and down the backs of his thighs. Of Breac there was no sign but the tracks of a large party led away north, easily followed.
“I was wrong to leave them,” Stronach admitted.
“You cannot allow yourself to think that, ranger”, said Brogan angrily, “Self-pity does not suit you, and the right or wrong of it does not change what happened. These men were my comrades, so I don’t want your fucking pity and regret, only your skills and resolve to finish the mission. Besides, that road leads to a dark place best avoided.”
Stronach was stung by Brogan’s fierce words, but knew the truth of them in his heart.
“There is no self-pity here, only regret and recriminations because the wrong choice led to men dying. This is the difference between giving orders and following them. No”, he raised a gloved hand, “I do not berate you. No, I would call you ‘friend’, Brogan, and vow that my resolve to finish this is undiminished.”
Breac was unfazed, “No self-pity you say! When you sit there chastising yourself and wrapped in your own grief, not for these dead men, but for yourself, for your mistake and how that makes you feel. The decision to follow the trail of whomever you sought was made, and if you had not…you and I might be dangling from a tree now as well…” He glanced at Maufy’s defiled corpse, “…or worse.”
That much, Stronach had to admit, was likely true, and if he were dead, the mission was over, and he would have failed.
Only once in my life have I failed at this. That same failure back to haunt me doubly this day. That same failure that means I am alive this day. Nothing is truly ever black and white. Is it, father?
Finally, he looked up, “We will bury them if we return this way.”
Brogan’s glare was intense, “Then we go on? With the mission?”
Stronach nodded, “Too fucking right.”

* * *

The Khulmagkhar camp was only a little over a mile away and it was dark by the time they had tied their horses and stole to the edge of a large clearing. Stronach and Brogan lay quietly amongst the trees and watched.
It was a shallow, natural bowl in the earth a hundred paces across. The snow-topped stumps of severed Ironwoods dotted the clearing like fat, round, white-cushioned stools. Open now to the sky, the ground was matted with coarse grass and shrubby weeds, trampled for the most part by the barbarians. A large, rough lodge had been built from the fallen trees at the eastern edge, and a faint orange glow shone through the doorway from within. Occasionally, a shadow blocked the light.
The ground disappeared in a rough circular shape in the dead centre of the clearing – a pit it seemed, perhaps twenty paces across. Scattered around the clearing, Stronach counted sixteen Khulmagkhar warriors in their furs, armed with spears and axes, and, surprisingly, there were no women.
“They have neither Domans nor dogs to guard their camp,” Brogan whispered.
“Nor did they set a guard,” Stronach replied.
Brogan nodded lightly, careful to make no noise, “It is as I thought. They believe they have killed their pursuers and have dropped their guard. This could make all the difference…for us.”
It did not sit too well with Stronach but he had to admit that the enemy’s belief that they were safe might be enough to tip the scales.
At an unseen signal, the barbarians rose silently from where they squatted around the clearing, cast in the scant light of a few small fires, and moved to converge in a circle around the pit. Some stepped back warily from the edge, uneasy glances cast down into the darkness from whence a deep growl now came. From the doorway of the lodge, a small, terrified looking boy stumbled into view, and thus, the two week hunt was over. Help us now, Ishumar, help us get at least one of them home.
The figure behind the boy had his hands upon the boy’s shoulders. He was unlike any of the Khulmagkhar. A long dark cloak of thin material flowed from his shoulders, partly covering the steel armour that encased his torso and limbs. Crimson armour that rippled like oil on water, alive, sentient.
“Red Island Sorcerer,” Brogan whispered venomously.
A dark, horned helm crested his head, visorless to reveal the narrow, gaunt features of his face. The Sorcerer paused to regard the barbarians.
Stronach eased back onto his knees and unwrapped the cover from his short hunting bow, removing his gloves and quickly knocking an arrow.
“Confusion will be our weapon, Brogan.”
The soldier laid a gloved hand on his arm, a peculiar expression on his face, “I will take it from here, friend. Go into the lodge and do what must be done there, and be ready. The boy must survive, above all else.”
In the years to come, Stronach never understood why he obeyed.

He circled around the clearing unobserved and found himself in the blackness at the back of the lodge. He crept forwards and crouched beneath the small opening there, stilled his breathing and listened. Faint sobs could be heard. He rose up and peered in. Breac, stripped naked from below the waist, lay strapped face-down over what looked to a make-shift altar to Haerates. It was he who sobbed. Other than an empty set of manacles and a few sacks the lodge’s single room was empty. Outside, through the doorway opposite, the Sorcerer and the boy had begun their walk towards the pit. Stronach eased himself up and through the opening.
He clamped a hand over Breac’s mouth before he even knew he was there. The Sergeant jerked and tried to scream, eyes rolling wide with terror before Stronach bent sharply to whisper in his ear.
“Shut up you foolish bastard!”
Relief struck the man with such force that he emptied his bladder. Stronach grimaced, “How is it that you are alive and your men are not? Did you grovel and abase yourself to spare your life?”
Breac shuddered.
“Did you defile Maufy so that you might live?” His voice had dropped to a promise of death. Breac shook and wept, the sheer horror and shame of his terrible secret revealed, destroying the last vestiges of the man.
Stronach drew his knife…and cut the ties that bound him.
He took his hand from the Sergeant’s mouth.
“Not a sound,” he warned.
A terrified cry pierced the night outside, and another and then suddenly there was chaos. The sounds of battle, curses and shouts and screams drowned Stronach’s feet as he raced over to the doorway. In what seemed no less than madness, the barbarians had turned on one another with an unbridled savagery. Around the lip of the pit they fought, and the Sorcerer, astonished, was backing away. He stopped suddenly and turned to look to the south. Stronach chanced a glance out and saw Brogan striding across the clearing towards the Sorcerer, sword in hand.
“The boy is mine!” His voice was startlingly loud, solid, like a wall.
The crimson-armoured Sorcerer made a quick gesture with his hand…and nothing seemed to happen. He did it again…still nothing. He shrieked and raced to the edge of the pit.
Stronach was suddenly barged aside and he regained his feet in time to see Breac, still half-naked, charging down the path. The Sorcerer turned, pulled the boy around in front of him like a shield and screamed. Breac did not stop.
“No!” Brogan yelled, “No!”
The Sergeant, a complete fool to the very end, dived headlong into the Sorcerer’s chest and all three tumbled backwards and vanished into the pit.
Stronach drew his sword, winced at the pain and weakness in his arm and raced out of the lodge. At the same moment, Brogan charged forwards as well. Stronach’s path was blocked suddenly by a barbarian, wounded and dying but frenzied beyond reason. Stronach knocked the axe aside with his sword and then drove it into the man’s chest…and his wrist snapped.
Stronach screamed and fell to his knees, dropping his sword and knife and trying to clutch the freshly broken arm. Through watery eyes he saw Brogan leap down into the pit.
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”
The roar of some massive beast echoed from the black depths. Growling with anger, Stronach scrambled to his feet, grabbing his dagger and lurched to the edge of the pit.

In the pit below, a monstrous creature the size of a mountain bear snapped its huge, crushing jaws in frustration and anger. Beneath its grizzly maw, lay the lifeless body of the Sergeant, great chunks of flesh torn from his shoulder and side. At the far side of the pit, the Sorcerer had eluded the beast momentarily and was staggering to where the boy sat cowered up in a ball. A knife flashed in the Sorcerer’s hands, the bloody ruin of his lower jaw rendering him unable to form words of power. The predator’s attention now was on Brogan and it had forced him back against the edge of the pit. The soldier directed frantic jabs at its head with his sword, unable to pass it. Stronach spun the dagger in his hand…one chance.
…The boy must survive above all else…
…He threw.
The knife whistled through the air and buried itself in the Sorcerer’s neck. He stiffened, clutching at the hilt uselessly, staggered and fell within the beast’s grasp. Massive paws snatched the fallen man and dragged him under its huge frame. It rose up on hind legs and charged its front paws down onto him with all of its might. There was a shattering of bones and slushing of flesh.
Brogan raced around the edge of the pit, snatched the boy up and started to run back but Stronach had anticipated him and had made to follow him around. Stronach stumbled onto his belly, crying out wildly as his broken arm hit the ground and stretched his good arm down. Brogan hefted the boy up and Stronach grabbed him. It was with an almost inhuman effort that Stronach got the boy out. There was nothing he could do for Brogan.
When he looked back, he saw the soldier make a desperate dash for his sword only to be swept against the side of the pit by a huge, bone-breaking paw. Stronach shut his eyes and rolled away.
…he will be worth an army of men, one day…
The thought, not his own, he was certain, had somehow, strangely, been Brogan’s. Only later, much later, when the Inquisition came to collect the boy on the docks in Dromax, and Stronach watched the sleek, dark ship slip across the black waters and vanish in the hissing rain, did understanding finally come to him.

For a while, he had not the strength to move. The boy lay beside him on the cold earth, clutching his furs, and they were both of them unwilling listeners to the beast feeding. All of the barbarians were either dead or gone. Stronach gathered a handful of the shaggy Magkharian Mountain Ponies and whatever supplies he could find. With an enormous effort, during which time he passed out once, he reset the broken wrist with the Jaiklar Stick.

* * *
Before the sun rose over the horizon, within the unforgiving forests beyond the Magkhar Mountains, a man and a boy rode south.
South, towards Aravon.
The man led them back by a different route; to spare the boy.
“What is your name, lad?” He asked as they left the clearing and the beast in the pit, “Why are you so important?”
The boy, slightly, remarkably, recovered from his captivity did not know anything about being important.
“But my name is Kubasch.”
Stronach glanced at him and looked away, swallowing down a large mouthful of whisky. There was something about the boy’s eyes, definitely something.
He will be worth an army of men, one day.
“My father used to tell me I drove my mother to distraction as a babe”, a ghost of a smile, “crawling around on hands and knees following frogs and spiders and cats and mice. She swore I used to hunt the dog by tracking his prints through the mud.”
“I never knew my father. Or my mother. All the important people in my life are dead.”
“What do you know of your parents?”
“Nothing. Are you my friend?”
Stronach thought of sacrifice, of the men who had died so that this boy might live. This boy whose name he had not even known until now. There was no balance in life, no true justice. Yet, it was the least he could do.
“Yes, I am.”
“Will you stay with me?”
“Yes, I will.”
“Then you will die too.”
Stronach watched the boy as he spoke, did not know what to feel about the absence of any recognisable emotion. “I knew the man who saved your life. Would you like to hear about him?”
He will be worth an army of men, one day.
Stronach’s wrist was never quite the same again.
You’ve never heard of the Silanda? … It’s the ship that made the Warren of Telas run in less than 12 parsecs.

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