Authors: Shawn E. Crapo
Book Two of
The Dragon Chronicles
Shawn E. Crapo
Copyright © 2013 Shawn E. Crapo
Cover and Map Art © 2013 Shawn E. Crapo
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
I have to give credit where credit is due. If not for all of the fantasy authors I’ve read over the years, this series never would have happened. Thank you all for keeping the genre alive despite the diminishing interest of the general public. We must always continue to live in our fantasy worlds and keep them in our dreams. I must also give thanks to my good friend Kumar Jadhav for assisting me with creating the Radja, a fictional analogue of Hindu/Sikh warrior culture. Also, thanks to Steve Smith for assisting with proofreading.
Khalid stood before the throne of the Dragon in Tel Drakkar. The throne room was dimly lit, with only a few small rays of blue light that filtered in through the broken ceiling above. Around him, sections of wall and segments of columns lie in ruin, their black stone cracked and crumbled. Dust covered everything in sight, from floor to mid wall, and the odor of neglect hung thick in the air. The entire temple had been in the same state of disrepair, having been abandoned and uninhabited for ages, so the throne room’s condition was no surprise to Khalid.
The throne itself was empty, as it had likely been for thousands of years, yet remained unblemished and richly decorated. Its surface was smooth, reflecting the blue light that filled the chamber, and at its corners, various designs of silver, interlaced with purple gems, accented its strangely beautiful design. Something great and powerful once sat upon this throne, and the Sheikh could almost feel its presence as he stood before it.
Khalid was clothed in only a light pair of linen trousers, as he had been since he entered the temple’s grounds. He had felt the unexplainable need to cast away his clothes, feeling that the robes were, somehow, inappropriate for entry into the temple. Despite his lack of garments, however, he still carried the katana given to him by Angus, the blacksmith in Gaellos. Though a well-crafted weapon, it gave the former Jindala Sheikh only a minor bit of comfort as he studied the architecture and décor of the massive throne room, and its empty throne. Its dark and disturbing architecture unsettled him and filled him with apprehension.
Days ago, in a dream, he had been instructed by his Master, Imbra, to travel through the Southern Kingdom and present himself to the Dragon. He was not sure why, but he knew that his Lord had his reasons and, considering the blasphemies he had performed in the past years, he was in no position to resist. All of his life, he had served Imbra faithfully, or so he thought. He had learned through his dreams that a false God sat upon Imbra’s throne in Khem, and that this being had led Khalid and his people into believing that he was their one and only Father.
Khalid himself had served faithfully even though, in the back of his mind, his lifelong impressions of his Lord and Master did not match the reality. Since the God had supposedly appeared in the flesh, he was a different personality than what the Holy books had described. Gone were the scriptural ideals of his benevolence and love; replaced by a cruel reality that did not settle well in the minds of his people. But they followed his oppressive and murderous ways nonetheless.
The Lifegiver, as the false God was known, had bound and enslaved all of the Firstborn, including Imbra and the Dragon, within the Earth. He knew that, together, their power could defeat him. But, lying helpless and unable to take physical form, they were no match for his dark, primordial energy. Thus, the people would be no match for the bulk of The Lifegiver’s army; the Jindala.
They were a people enslaved, compelled to spread The Lifegiver’s word through murder, terror, and oppression. Khalid had murdered with them, following The Lifegiver’s orders to the letter. For this, he was unclean and his soul had darkened. He stood now before the Dragon’s throne to purge himself of this evil, and to rejoin the Firstborn. Through the Dragon, Khalid would be brought back to Imbra, and his path would change for the better. He would be whole again.
Though Khalid now stood before the Dragon’s throne, he was at a loss as to what would come next. Imbra had told him nothing other than to seek Tel Drakkar and present himself to the Dragon. There was no word as to what he would say or do once he arrived, or what would happen. This fact unsettled Khalid, leaving him lost and hopeless, standing before an empty throne in a strange land.
Khalid scanned the throne room nervously, awaiting some kind of sign that would suggest his next action. Throughout the chamber, there was nothing; no signs, no clues, no men or women present. There was nothing but rubble, the throne, and a large mirror that was attached to the wall behind it. From his side of the throne’s riser, Khalid could only see the grayish layer of dust that covered it, and for all he knew it was shattered and useless. Still, he felt the need to find out.
Khalid stepped onto the throne’s riser, glancing at the ornate chair as he passed by. From up close, he was able to make out various symbols and strange writings, none of which he understood. There were pictograms of warriors in battle, strange winged creatures that breathed fire, and men dressed in horned armor. He felt drawn to the carvings; as if he knew somehow he would eventually grow to learn their significance. But, for now, he would accept them as they were; mysterious and unimportant at the moment.
Khalid stepped in front of the mirror, using his hand to wipe away enough of the filth to see his face. He stared for several minutes, seeing himself sadden at the sight of his own image. His eyes were puffy with days of unrest, his hair disheveled and matted, and his beard unkempt and knotted. He reached out again, wiping away more dust, extending the clean area to cover the whole of his body. As the image became clearer, his shame deepened.
He was no longer the handsome, dashing young thief he was thirty years before. Through his years of sloth in the service of The Lifegiver, he had allowed his body to undergo a massive change for the worse. He was fat, soft, and looked every bit like a lazy, entitled Sheikh should.
He felt a lump rising in his throat, and his heart sank in sorrow. Tears welled up in his eyes as he sulked at his own image. He allowed himself to weep, covering his grotesque face in his hands, his body convulsing with his sobbing.
“What have I become?” he asked himself. “How did this happen?”
He knelt, afraid to see his own reflection. He no longer recognized himself, and the feeling was devastating to his already damaged soul.
Khalid,a deep, commanding voice spoke in his head—or so it seemed.
Khalid turned quickly, scanning the throne room for any sign of who had spoken. There was nothing but darkness.
“Who’s there?” he shouted.
It is I, the Dragon.
“Where are you?” Khalid asked.
I am here. But I do not have the strength to commune with you this way for long. You must sit upon the throne and enter my realm.
Khalid glanced at the throne again, unable to overcome his fear. “I cannot,” he said, “I am afraid.”
You must, my friend. Do not fear. I have welcomed you into my temple, and have no desire to harm you in any way.
“I fear myself,” Khalid sobbed, “and I am shameful.”
Fear not, Khalid, I have been watching you as your Father has. I saw how you rescued the children in Gaellos.
I see all that happens in my land. You were very courageous. You saved those children from execution, and have begun a rebellion in the South.
“The Thieves’ Guild?” Khalid asked. “I saw them fight the guards. Was it they who freed the city?”
Yes, the Thieves’ Guild has eliminated the enemy presence in Gaellos and liberated the city. It was all because of you, and your courage. You are a hero, Khalid. You saved my children. You have redeemed yourself. There is no need for you to be shameful.
Khalid lowered his head in sorrow, thinking back at the life he had led. “I have done so many things in my life to be shameful for,” he explained. “One single act cannot make up for that.”
It was not a single act, Khalid. You started a whole chain of events that led to insurrection. Gaellos is free. Even now, the men there gather and lie in wait for the Onyx Dragon to lead them to victory.
“The Onyx Dragon?” Khalid inquired. “Who is this Onyx Dragon?”
He is my son. He has always been my son, since the beginning of the line of kings.
“He has always been your son?” Khalid asked. “What do you mean?”
Throughout history, when the lands were in danger, I have fathered sons among the daughters of Kings. These offspring have been the warrior Kings of legend. They have all been known as the Onyx Dragon, all the way back to King Daegoth II.
“I know that name,” Khalid exclaimed, “He ruled Eirenoch during the time of Sulemain, the first Prophet of Imbra.”
That is correct. And by the marriage of Daegoth’s daughter to Sulemain, our kingdoms were at peace for thousands of years, until The Lifegiver came and upset the balance. He has waged war on the entire world, and enslaved the spirits of the Firstborn. I felt it was time for me to bring back my namesake, to protect my land and, ultimately, The Great Mother. And so, many years ago, I went to Queen Siobhan of the Northern Kingdom, and she later gave birth to Eamon, my son.
“I see,” Khalid replied.
It is Eamon’s duty as The Onyx Dragon to protect these lands. He is the only hope I have to save The Great Mother. The Lifegiver steals more of her power every day, and she is dying. If her spirit continues to weaken, then there will be no hope for survival. Not for her, The Firstborn, or the mortals who inhabit this world. The Lifegiver will lead us to our doom.
“Yes,” Khalid agreed, “I see that now. But I still do not understand who he really is, or where he came from.”
The Lifegiver is nothing, Khalid. He is the chaos that existed before the Universe was born. Everything you see around you is part of the Universe, and thus, part of the Creator. The Lifegiver is the opposite. He is darkness and chaos, and his Universe is the same.
“I think I understand,” Khalid muttered. “He is the negative, the void. But how did he cross over into this Universe?”
Your Sultan, Tyrus the Blackhearted, was the conduit. He is, or was, the product of the two universes at the same time. He was born here, many thousands of years ago, and through dark magic, learned the secrets of matter and energy. Through this knowledge, he was able to project himself into the void between the two universes, and create a bridge between them.
“This knowledge is strange to me, Dragon,” Khalid said, shaking his head. “But I know that if I am to aid in this struggle, then I must learn all I can. I am willing and eager to do so, and I will live by your guidance.”
I know you will serve the Firstborn to the best of your abilities. And I know your determination is strong. Sit upon the throne, Khalid. You need not fear. I will make you whole again.
Khalid swallowed, mustering the courage to step onto the riser again. The stone felt warm and comforting this time, as if the Dragon’s spirit was infused within it. It calmed him as he stepped up and approached the throne, his bare feet absorbing the warmth as it spread throughout his body. He turned, placing his hands upon the armrests, and sighed. With one last look at the dark room around him, he sat, leaning back against the warm, black stone.
Within seconds, he fell into blackness.
Jodocus watched his apprentice, Farouk, gather herbs in the forest near Morduin. The former Jindala Captain seemed to enjoy the task, smiling and laughing to himself as he discovered many of the small plants that were detailed in the tome he carried. It was a book that Farouk cherished with all of his heart, and one that he never went anywhere without.
Jodocus had given him all the materials he would need to become a Druid; tomes, herbs, collection tools, and even a supply of minor spells that he would need for protection and healing. Druidism was a discipline that Farouk had longed for his whole life, having grown up in a land that discouraged anything that involved the natural world. It was not until Farouk had arrived in Eirenoch that he discovered his love for nature, and his wish to preserve it.
Jodocus had offered him this life after Farouk was injured in battle by a Defiler, an extra-dimensional creature that drew the life force from everything around it. Farouk, having rebelled against his master, The Lifegiver, led his men in battle against his former allies and the terrible beast that traveled with them. As a result, Farouk had been caught by the Defiler’s attack, and had lost much of his ability to fight. The injury had cost him his career as a warrior, but only served to encourage his love of living things. Jodocus sensed this love in him, and believed in his ancient heart that Farouk was meant to be a Druid.
He was right.
Farouk’s natural affinity for learning, and using the power of The Great Mother, was impressive. Never before had Jodocus sensed his level of ability in anyone he had ever met. This man, who came to Eirenoch to conquer, had turned out to be the greatest candidate for an apprentice that the old Druid could ever hope for. Farouk’s mastery of the discipline came quickly, and it was quite obvious that he would be an adept in no time.
As he watched his apprentice, Jodocus suddenly sensed a familiar presence. Something in the forest knew he and Farouk were there, and projected a great sense of curiosity. The Druid felt it. He looked around to the trees, scanning the mottled green and brown mass of foliage with a trained eye. When he spotted the source of curiosity, he smiled, knowing how much Farouk would enjoy sharing the experience.
“Farouk, my friend,” Jodocus called out to him. “Come. I have something to show you.”
Farouk looked up from his herb gathering, sitting his basket on the ground to go to his mentor’s side.
“What is it, Jodocus?” he asked.
The Druid pointed off into the forest, singling out a large oak that overshadowed the other trees around it. “There,” he said. “What do you see?”
Farouk follow Jodocus’ finger and squinted, looking closely for the source of the Druid’s excitement. He saw only trees, some ginseng, and various weeds. There was, however, a massive oak that stood in the center of his view. It seemed different somehow, as if it didn’t belong there. He focused, examining every detail, desperately trying to decide why it seemed strange to him.
“I see a tree,” Farouk replied. “An oak, to be exact.”
“True, true,” Jodocus said. “But what is strange about it?”
Farouk looked again, summoning every ounce of attention he could muster. He looked at the tree’s bark, its leaves, and the crown of roots that poked above the ground. He then looked to the leaves, seeing them hanging still from their branches. At last, he realized why the tree didn’t seem right. The whole thing was completely still. Though the trees and other foliage around it were moving in the gentle wind, the oak itself was impervious to it. It stood unmoving among the mass of other life.
“The tree does not move in the wind,” Farouk said.
“Correct,” Jodocus replied. “Do you know why?”
Farouk thought for a moment, unable to come up with an answer. “No,” he replied, “I do not.”
“Wait and watch,” the Druid instructed, crossing his legs and stirring the soil with his staff.
Farouk stared at the oak, seeing only its stillness. There was nothing else. “I see nothing, Jodocus,” he said.
The Druid reached out and touched Farouk’s shoulder, imparting a small amount of his magic to his apprentice. “Watch carefully,” he said. “Concentrate on seeing the tree, feeling it.”
Farouk focused his thoughts on the oak, straining to see into its soul, reaching out with his mind to feel its presence. He began to smile as he finally realized why the tree was still. Its spirit was leaving, and that spirit was becoming visible to him.
A faint, green mist was emanating from the trunk, swirling around in a vaguely human shape. Farouk looked closer, concentrating harder and focusing on the shape that was beginning to emerge. The mist began to coalesce, taking on the shape of a woman, translucent, green, and beautiful. She was small, slender, and moved with the grace of the wind itself. Farouk smiled as she emerged fully, and timidly hid behind the trunk of the oak.
“She’s beautiful,” he remarked. “Who is she?”
“That, my friend,” Jodocus explained, “is a Dryad.”
“A tree spirit,” Farouk finished him.
“Very good. Do you know why she has appeared?”
Farouk thought again, and then said, “She knows we are here, and she is not afraid. She is curious.”
“Yes,” Jodocus said, “the Dryads are always curious. They investigate everyone who passes through the forest and especially near their oaks. Mortal men cannot see them, unless they choose to make themselves seen. But as a Druid, you will be able to see them with practice.”
“I am intrigued,” Farouk said. “I have never seen anything like it. Are they friendly?”
“Not usually,” Jodocus explained. “To us, they will remain neutral. To other men, they may be neutral, as long as the men do not disturb the forest. They may also be a nuisance, however, playing tricks on them or tripping them with roots. But, if anyone tries to damage or otherwise upset the forest in any way, they can be dangerous and hostile.”
“What of the Rangers?” Farouk asked. “Do the Dryads ever interact with them?”
Jodocus shook his head. “No,” he said, “the Rangers protect the forest, and the Dryads respect them for that. They may on occasion help the Rangers if they are in trouble, but never directly. The Druaga, on the other hand, are different.”
“They can see the Dryads,” Farouk reasoned.
“Yes, indeed,” Jodocus replied. “And they have been known to fight alongside them if the need arises.”
“I have no doubt the Dryads are formidable in battle,” Farouk remarked.
Jodocus nodded, smiling. “Yes,” he said, “especially when they command the trees to attack their enemies.”
Farouk began to respond, but was cut short by a wave of Jodocus’ hand. The Dryad had turned to the two of them as they were speaking, and was now headed in their direction. She walked toward them gracefully, her shimmering green form a mesmerizing dance of natural beauty.
She approached Farouk, who stood frozen as she leaned in closer. “What is she doing?” he whispered, trembling.
“Do not fear,” Jodocus replied. “She is only examining you. She wants to see what kind of man you are, and if she can trust you. She knows me, and is curious as to the nature of my new apprentice.”
Farouk said nothing, but remained still as the Dryad reached her hand out to place it over his heart. She slowly moved her fingertips over his chest, tracing the designs on his robes. He felt her energy flowing through him as she touched him, feeling it permeate every corner of his soul. The Dryad’s energy seemed to meld with Farouk’s own, sharing in all of the experiences of his past life, delving deeper and deeper into his consciousness. Finally, her expression changed to one of great admiration. She then looked into his eyes and smiled.
“She knows what kind of man you are,” Jodocus said. “She knows how you retained your honor even when in service to the darkness. She is impressed.”
Farouk returned her smile as she slowly backed away. He watched her closely as she removed the shimmering cloth that wrapped her body and raise it above his head. The cloth drifted down over him, wrapping him in its warmth, and falling against his skin. Farouk’s heart raced, his body numb with the energy that the cloth imparted to him. It then disappeared into his skin, becoming a part of him. The Dryad smiled again, and slowly faded from sight.
“What did she do?” Farouk asked.
“She has given you a new power,” Jodocus said. “She believed that you were ready for it.”
“What has she given me?”
Jodocus laughed, patting Farouk on the back. “She has extended you the power to become one with the trees,” he said, “so you may be better protected from the enemy. It will greatly enhance your ability to become unseen in the forest. She must believe that you will have need of it in the future.”
“How do I use this power?” Farouk asked.
“You will use it the same way you use all of the powers you have gained. You need but focus and will it to happen.”
Farouk nodded in understanding, realizing that using the powers of the Dragon and The Great Mother was as simple as having a thought. The process applied to everything, Jodocus had explained. Will it, and it will happen. All that is required is the strength to believe.
It seemed simple enough.
“Come now, Farouk,” Jodocus said. “There is much damage on the island that is ours to repair. The Dragon has given us these powers to maintain the balance of the island, and we must oblige him. It is time to begin your first communion. Are you ready?”
“Yes, my friend,” Farouk replied, eager to begin his duties. “I am ready.”
The Knights of the Dragon rode at full speed across the open valley. Eamon led the way, his sights set on the company of Jindala in the distance. The enemy numbered only fifty or so, with one man on horseback, and a handful of archers. They would be easy prey and only a small detour in their route.
Having left the bulk of their army in Gaellos, the Knights and their Lord had headed south toward the coastal town of Bray. Along the way, Brynn had spotted the Jindala on the horizon and the chase was on. They had fled when they saw Eamon and the Knights charge them, but the distance between them was quickly narrowing.
Realizing there was no escape; the Jindala had stopped running and arranged themselves in a wall formation. Their leader, an armored man of elegant dress, took his place at the front of their lines, awaiting the inevitable conflict. He held his sword out in front of him, and his right hand was in the air in a neutral gesture.
His signal told Eamon that the company would not make the first move, but would await whatever outcome. Either the group was on a diplomatic mission—as it were—or was in the possession of a precious cargo. The Knights were eager to discover which.
As they neared, Eamon slowed, motioning for the Knights to stop.
“Why are we stopping?” Angen asked. “We could ride them down easily.”
Eamon pointed toward the enemy company, showing the veteran soldier what he saw. Among the Jindala was a woman. Eamon had not seen her during the charge, but she was clearly there, in the center of the formation. The Jindala were protecting her.
“I wonder who she is,” Brynn said as he saw the woman himself, “and why she is traveling with the Jindala.”
Azim rode to the front, squinting to get a better look at the woman. He scowled when he made out her garments, red silk robes with golden adornments, a red and gold crown, and a veil that covered the lower half of her face. He knew those garments well.
“A sorceress,” he spat, drawing his sword. “She is just as vile and unclean as the rest of them. Cut her down.”
Eamon took another look, and then turned back to Azim. “Are you sure?” he asked. “We cannot make a mistake and kill an innocent woman.”
“I am sure, my friend.” Azim replied. “A Jindala woman in these lands is only here for one purpose; to reinforce the soldiers with her magic. Besides, her robes are those of the Ka’ha’di, handmaidens of the Prophet. Were she not a sorceress, her presence would still be a threat.”
“If she were an innocent woman,” Wrothgaar added, “she would likely be the one on the horse.”
Eamon drew his sword. “Then she dies with them,” he said, riding closer to the enemy company.
He closed the gap somewhat, pointing the Serpent’s Tongue at the leader in challenge. The leader slowly rode forward, prompting Eamon to meet him in the middle. Eamon obliged, closing the distance cautiously, urging the Knights to stay back until he charged. He gave Daryth and Brynn a quick glance before he picked up his pace, signaling them to be ready with their bows.
The leader met him in the middle, his dark eyes piercing and cold underneath his gold and black helmet. He wore no faceplate as the other Jindala did, and his turban was red instead of black. The robes he wore were also of red silk, like the sorceress, and were trimmed in gold. Despite his elegant appearance, the sword he carried was that of a veteran warrior, decorative but highly functional. Strangely, the Serpent’s Tongue began to vibrate as he approached.
“We have no quarrel with you, Prince Eamon,” the leader said in Eamon’s tongue. “We merely seek one of our own who has fled to the South. He is a criminal, and is armed and dangerous.”
“Then he is my friend,” Eamon replied smugly. “This is my land, and you are not welcome here.”
The leader laughed. “This is Queen Maebh’s land,” he said, “and she has signed a treaty. We are surely welcome here. You, however, are not. Your kingdom lies to the North. You are outnumbered, my friend, and outmatched. Leave now, and we will let you go in peace.”
Eamon laughed. He turned away, nodding to Brynn and Daryth. Then, spinning his horse around, he thrust the Serpent’s Tongue into the leader’s gut, pulling himself closer to glare into the man’s eyes.
“When you meet The Lifegiver,” he hissed, “tell him I’m coming for him.”
Eamon withdrew his sword and raised it in the air as the man slumped and collapsed to the ground. “Attack!” he yelled, leading the charge into the Jindala ranks.
Brynn and Daryth both fired, sending their arrows into the front line of spearmen as the Knights clashed with them. The Jindala dropped their spears as their comrades were knocked into the air.
The sorceress immediately raised her clawed hands to cast a spell, her face a twisted mask of hate. Lightning sparked between her fingers, crackling in the air and running up and down her pale, bony arms. She growled as she finished her spell, sending a bolt of energy toward the Prince as he cut through the human barrier. Eamon thrust the Serpent’s Tongue out in front of him to block the spell. It bounced off harmlessly, discharging into the ground with a thundering clap.
Frustrated, she reared back to cast another spell, her red silk robes billowing with the gathering of magic. Her face contorted as she uttered the words of the spell, and the dust began to blow around her. Then, an arrow struck her in the throat, silencing her and sending her back several steps. She angrily clawed at the shaft, choking and gagging in an attempt to breathe. Daryth fired a second arrow, catching her square in the forehead and silencing her for good. She fell to her knees, pitching forward into the dust.
The Jindala, now alone and leaderless, raised their spears. The Knights charged again, their battle cries echoing in the ears of the frightened men as they thundered toward them. The ground shook as the Knights neared, causing some of the Jindala to drop their weapons and flee. The remaining spearmen were knocked aside as the horses clashed into their line, and the Knights rode through them, hacking their way to the rear and turning for another charge.
Eamon urged the Knights forward, leading the way through the ranks with deadly strikes from the Serpent’s Tongue. The Knights followed, their weapons slashing and bloodied as they dodged the thicket of spears that were lined up before them. Brynn and Daryth shot from horseback, picking off the attacking spearmen and clearing the way for the charge. The Knights clashed with them again, taking down a dozen more with their second charge.
Seeing their potential defeat, the Jindala began to retreat, dashing through the gaps between the Knights and tossing their weapons to the ground. Eamon called off his Knights, dismounting. He walked boldly before the assembly of surrendered men, looking them over and assessing their will to fight. Their faces conveyed their hopelessness, and the Prince sensed that they no longer had the stomach to continue their mission. They were spent.
“Pick up your weapons,” he said, pointing the Serpent’s Tongue toward them. “Throw them in a pile beside me and do so with your armor as well.”
The enemies complied, stripping themselves of their armor, and placing their weapons together near the Prince. They did so without a word, or any look of contempt. They seemed relieved that the fight was over. Soon, a pile of swords, spears, and armor lay near Eamon, and the men knelt defenseless before him.
“To the North is the city of Gaellos,” he said. “We will march you there. You are to surrender to my army and remain until I return. Do you understand?”
Those who understood the language of Eirenoch nodded and relayed the command to the rest of the men. Eamon commanded his Knights to guard them as he went to search the body of the leader. He was curious as to why the man’s presence had caused such a strange reaction in the Serpent’s Tongue.
He did not see anything unusual, or feel his sword reacting, until he neared the man’s own sword, which had fallen a few feet away. It was a scimitar, similar to Azim’s, but was elegantly decorated in gold and ivory, and bore the symbol of a multi-armed goddess at its cross guard. He called to Azim to identify the symbol.
Azim examined the blade thoroughly, recognizing the icon immediately. “It is Anyar,” he said, “a servant of Imbra. She gave birth to Sulemain, supposedly.”
“I thought Sulemain was a man,” Eamon said.
“He was,” Azim replied. “But it was unknown who gave birth to him. Our legends say that Anyar came to a righteous warrior in his sleep and asked him to father her child. When he was born, she left him with the man and he raised him. Sulemain later became a prophet in his adulthood, after a life of being what we call a Keynakin.”
“What is a Keynakin?” Eamon inquired.
“They were an order of divine warriors, like the Knights of the Dragon. They were the protectors of Khem, defending our kingdom from intruders. The Lifegiver murdered them when he came to power, telling us that they had broken their sacred vows. Perhaps this man was once one of them, but turned against his brothers to save his own life.”
Eamon understood, realizing how important Sulemain was to Azim and his kin. He was still unsure, however, as to why his own sword seemed to react when in the scimitar’s vicinity.
“Strange,” Eamon remarked. “This sword seems to hold some power related to the Serpent’s Tongue. My sword senses its presence.”
“That is strange, indeed,” Azim said. “This may be Sulemain’s sword. That would mean it was forged by Imbra himself as your sword was forged by the Dragon.”
“Then this is an important artifact to your people,” Eamon concluded, then handed the sword to Azim. “You should bear it, my friend.”
Azim shook his head. “I cannot,” he said. “I am not worthy of bearing the Sword of Sulemain.”
“You are far more worthy than its previous owner,” Eamon reminded him. “Even if he was once worthy, then by turning against his brothers, as you suggest, he did not deserve such an honor. It should be yours. Take it.”
Azim stared at the scimitar with wonder, not sure whether wielding it would be his right. Reluctantly, he reached out to grasp its pommel. He felt the sword come to life as his fingers wrapped around it. It glowed with a bright blue light, having been awakened by the touch of a righteous man. He ran his fingers along the blade, sensing its warmth and life. Azim closed his eyes, feeling the weapon’s energy flow through him. It was a good feeling, and Azim was at one with the weapon.
The sword had accepted him.
“I will wield it,” he said, “if my Lord Imbra wills it.”
“I believe he does,” Eamon said, clapping his friend on the back. “I know you will bear it with honor.”
He then went to the rest of the Knights to gather them up. It was getting late, and the sun was beginning to hang low in the sky.
“We will march these men to Gaellos,” he said, “then we continue to Bray.”
One thousand commoners of Khem crowded the vault of The Lifegiver’s great pyramid, naked and pressed together like cows to the slaughter. They wept in terror, aware that this would be their last day on Earth, and many of them had succumbed to the point of falling to the floor. Around them, the Enkhatar stood, menacingly bearing their sharpened spears to keep the commoners at bay, poking and prodding at them to press them closer together.
The Prophet looked on with pleasure, licking her lips in anticipation of The Lifegiver’s appearance. Though a vile and ghastly event was about to take place, the imminent screams of agony that would echo throughout the chamber filled her with excitement and lust. Such were her ways.
She regarded the Enkhatar with discontent, as even she was uncomfortable with their presence. They were the creatures of nightmares; inhumanly tall, armored in brutal black iron plate that was adorned with spikes and blades, and they emanated an aura of absolute darkness that terrified those around them. They were The Lifegiver’s elite warriors, and their appearance alone signified the evil of which they were comprised.
As the prophet glared at the terrified crowd, she reeled in delight at the pools and smears of blood and waste that littered the chamber’s floor. The stench filled the room, pushing the cruel Enkhatar into a fury of ecstasy. They growled in pleasure, delighting in the torture, and it greatly increased their ferocity. Such vile nature pleased the Prophet, and the terror the Enkhatar caused would only serve to enhance the effectiveness of the ritual that was about to take place.
With a thunderous boom, the vaulted ceiling of the chamber suddenly shook. The Prophet knelt immediately, and the Enkhatar hissed as they did so as well. Metal ground against metal as the ceiling split into four sections and opened. Light spilled into the chamber, brighter than a thousand suns, and the people fell to their knees in horror.
“Behold!” The Lifegiver’s voice boomed from above like a chorus of demons. “I have come to you, my children.”
The Prophet watched as the people shielded their eyes from the intense light. Some of them crouched over in repentance, begging for mercy from The Lifegiver’s wrath.
“I have called you all here as my servants,” he continued. “People across the sea continue to defy my word. They blaspheme against me by worshiping beasts and false Gods. I have driven these Gods away and sealed them in my Earthly prison, never to return. But their servants must be turned from their path.”
The people wept, huddling together in terror. Their fate was sealed, and the realization fell upon them. They were doomed.
“I will give you all the power to spread my word,” The Lifegiver continued. “You will show them the way or send their souls to rot with their masters. I have spoken.”
The Prophet closed her eyes, feeling the power of The Lifegiver fill the chamber as the ritual began. The Enkhatar fell silent, their bodies still as statues. Suddenly, the light disappeared, replaced by an eerie red glow that imparted The Lifegiver’s wrath. Lightning shot down from above as the divine being lowered himself into the chamber, and the people screamed in terror at his appearance.
He was darkness incarnate. Though vaguely human in shape, The Lifegiver was a mass of shadow and dark energy that swirled around with blinding speed, accompanied by the howling of a fierce ethereal wind. Wisps of darkness surrounded him, and his mass appeared as a man-shaped void that absorbed every ray of light around him.
“Come to me, my children,” he growled, spreading his shadowy arms to absorb the life of his people.
The crowd screamed in agony as their souls were forcefully ripped from their bodies. Their bones cracked and twisted, and their skin shriveled tightly around their broken limbs as they writhed in pain. The Enkhatar howled their enjoyment, reveling in the people’s anguish, and the Prophet howled with them. She watched as the commoners’ souls swirled around The Lifegiver’s form, disappearing into his darkness, never to return. As the last mass of living energy was absorbed, black energy began to leech from the growing darkness, striking out at the flailing bodies below. It swirled around each of them, penetrating their dying bodies.
Slowly, the people began to rise once more, their expressions of fear replaced by masks of hate and eternal agony. The darkness rebuilt them into twisted human shapes, repairing their bones, and strengthening their shriveled flesh with The Lifegiver’s power. They were still human in shape, but black, twisted, and horrifying in appearance. Though seemingly alive, they were now a horde of soulless creatures that would feel the pain of undeath for all eternity, and spread that pain like a plague upon the Earth. Their fates were sealed, and their souls were damned.
The Prophet had a word for creatures like these, a word that she had learned as a child in her homeland. It was a word that struck fear in the hearts of men; warrior and sage alike.
Khalid awoke in a massive cavern within the Earth. All around him, the rocky walls reflected a reddish glow, with intermittent flashes of blue that indicated some force that he could not immediately see. Before him, the floor dropped away to the depths below. Khalid, though curious, was afraid to look over the edge, not knowing what may lie there. He crouched on the floor, gathering his courage, willing himself to go forward. But his courage was outmatched by his uncertainty, and he was unable to move.
He did not understand how he arrived in the cavern; the last thing he remembered was sitting down on the Dragon’s throne. He had fallen asleep, and then had awakened here. Those events were enough to paralyze him with confusion, and he could do nothing but stare at the cavern’s floor.
Khalid, the booming voice spoke again, this time with more substance behind it.
Khalid stood, fearful. “Dragon?” he asked timidly.
Yes, Khalid. It is I. You may call me by my true name, Dagda. I will allow you this, if it pleases you. Come to the edge of the cliff. I want you to see me as I am.
“I am trying, my friend,” Khalid stammered, “but my legs will not move. I think they are more frightened than I am.”
They will go where you want them to.
“Yes, yes,” Khalid replied. “Here I come.”
With a concerted effort, Khalid stepped forward. Though his legs resisted, he was able to slowly work his way toward the cliff’s edge, step by agonizing step. When he finally reached the drop off, he peered over the edge, looking down into the abyss.
The Dragon lay prone in his true form, immense, black as night with shimmering, onyx scales, silver horns, and giant, bat-like membranes stretching between the joints of his front legs—or arms, as they were. The Dragon was bound in silver threads that shimmered blue with some unknown energy, allowing for only his great, horned head to move freely. He looked upward at Khalid, struggling to see the man as he stared down at him. The Dragon’s head was huge and scarred, marked by eons worth of divine battles against the forces of darkness. But, despite his ragged appearance, there was a great sadness in his eyes. A sadness that Khalid could feel within himself.
“You are imprisoned,” Khalid noted. “The Lifegiver did this?”
Yes, Khalid, it was The Lifegiver. Your Lord, Imbra, suffers the same fate, along with the rest of the Firstborn. We are trapped within the Earth and powerless to help our children. You must free us.
“Me!?” Khalid exclaimed. “How in the Hell am I supposed to do that?”
The Dragon cocked his head, almost seeming to smile as he regarded the now humble Sheikh.
It is within your ability to do many things you would not have thought possible. You are stronger and more able than you think.
“On that opinion,” Khalid said, “I choose to remain dubious. I am just a man. Not a very good man, at that. Even before I swore allegiance to The Lifegiver I was nothing but a thief.”
No, Khalid, you were not a mere thief. You were a cavalier of sorts. One who stole from the powerful and helped those who had no choice but to eat scraps and steal bread. You are a good man at heart. I know this. Imbra speaks highly of you, and I trust his word.
Khalid stood silent, not sure how to take the Dragon’s opinion, or the word of Imbra. “I am honored by your words, great one,” he said, “but I have no faith in their truth.”
I understand, Khalid. But know that I see all. As I look at you now, I see a man filled with guilt and remorse. These things are not present in a man who is inherently evil. You feel shame for what you have done. Admitting shame is a form of honor. You have showed your honor, and you are worthy of righting everything you have done wrong.
Khalid sighed, sitting on the edge of the cliff, having faith that the Dragon would not let him fall. “I must be purged of my sins,” he said. “That is the only way I can proceed with whatever it is you need me to do.”
That is not necessary, Khalid. But, if that is your wish, then I will grant it.
Suddenly, the Dragon drew in a deep breath, his tethered body struggling against its bonds. Khalid leaned back, fearful and unsure of what was about to happen. When the Dragon had filled his lungs, he let loose his fiery breath. Khalid was engulfed in flames, and fell back flailing and screaming in pain. He writhed and squirmed as the flames spread over his body, rolling from side to side to try to extinguish them as they purged what evil remained in his soul.
The Dragon watched the cliff’s edge and listened to Khalid’s cries. He felt sadness at causing the man such pain, but he knew that Khalid’s torture would be short-lived, and he would emerge renewed, ready to walk the Path of the Dragon.
The captive Jindala were marched forcefully to Gaellos, pushed to run at a quick pace in order to reach the city before nightfall. The seventeen remaining captives arrived exhausted, some of them collapsing from fatigue when the group reached Gaellos’ walls.
At the city gates, a group of guards greeted the Knights. Though not subjects of Eamon’s rule, they regarded him with the same respect they would their own ruler.
“Well met, my Lord,” the guard Captain spoke. “You and your Knights are welcome here.”
“Thank you, sir,” Eamon greeted him. “I trust my soldiers have been behaving.”
The Captain laughed, “We appreciate their presence here,” he said. “They provide security against another takeover, and they’re not bad company.”
Eamon dismounted, clasping the Captain’s hand. “We have brought more company,” he said, pointing to the captured Jindala. “Soldiers of the Lifegiver. But I don’t think they’ll be too much trouble.”
Among the guards, a man stepped forward to address Eamon, bowing in respect before speaking. “My Lord,” he said. “May I ask in what direction these captives were traveling?”
“To the South,” Eamon replied. “They were after one of their own who fled in that direction. Why do you ask?”
“I believe the man they seek is Khalid,” the man replied. “And he is responsible for starting the rebellion in Gaellos.”
Brynn recognized the name. Khalid was the Jindala whose nose he had smashed in Taryn. “Khalid, you say?” he asked the man.
“Yes, my Lord,” he answered. “There were children held captive in the town square. They were imprisoned as leverage…to make up for the lack of a larger force. Khalid freed them. I don’t know why. I know he was a high ranking member of the enemy force, but he seemed like a good man.”
Eamon turned to Brynn in question. “Khalid is the man who led the assault on Taryn?” he asked.
“Yes,” Brynn said. “It has to be.”
He looked to the man. “What did he look like?”
The man thought for a moment, recalling the man’s appearance. “He was rather short,” he said. “Somewhat heavy. Gray hair and beard. Strange looking nose.”
Brynn laughed. “That’s him,” he said. “I smashed his nose in Taryn before I let him go. But I don’t understand. What would prompt him to release the children?”
“I don’t know, my Lord,” the man answered, “but he seemed determined to do so. We helped him kill the guards, the Thieves’ Guild and I.”
“What’s your name, sir?” Eamon asked.
“Angus,” he answered. “I am the town smith.”
“Well, Angus,” Eamon began, “your bravery is commendable. You are an honorable man, and you have my respect. But, tell me, did this Khalid say where he was going?”
Angus shook his head. “Not exactly,” he said. “Only that he was going south. I got the impression he may have been traveling to the ruins in the mountains along the Southern Shore.”
“Tel Drakkar?” Eamon asked.
“I think that’s what they’re called,” Angus answered. “I don’t remember.”
Eamon turned to his Knights, his eyes lighting up with curiosity. “Erenoth went there, as well,” he said. “The Dragon called to him and told him to go there. I wonder if these events are related.”
“It is possible,” Azim said. “I know Khalid. If he has somehow lost the will to follow The Lifegiver, then he would likely seek a way to undo his wrongs. If the Dragon is Imbra’s brother, than he would go to him.”
“He murdered the Mordumarc!” Brynn insisted.
“The Defiler murdered them,” Azim corrected. “Khalid, like my brother and I, was under The Lifegiver’s spell. If I know him as well as I think, his actions here at Gaellos were an attempt to redeem himself.”
“I agree with Azim, Brynn,” Wrothgaar said. “Men can change, especially those under the spell of one such as The Lifegiver. If this Khalid is attempting to redeem himself and is seeking the Dragon, then we must accept that. The fact that he knows where the Dragon lies tells me that he was called there. Called by the Dragon himself, perhaps.”
Eamon nodded. “He would have no idea where to go, otherwise,” he said. “And the fact that Erenoth is going there as well means that the Dragon sees Khalid as a man who needs guidance. He may want Erenoth to welcome him.”
“Khalid was a thief in his younger years,” Azim said. “He stole gold and jewels from rich, selfish merchants and pawned them for coin to give to the people who needed it. He risked his life and his freedom to fight against the Sultans who oppressed and stole from their people. I absolutely believe that kind man is still inside him.”
Angus looked up at Brynn. “Sir,” he said. “I know nothing of Khalid’s past. But what I saw that night was not the action of an evil man. He freed the children and helped me to kill the guards; his own people. If he was an enemy, then he has definitely had a change of heart.”
“I accept that,” Brynn stated. “If we meet him again, and I see a different man than what I saw at Taryn, then I will forgive him.”
Azim touched Brynn’s shoulder in friendship. “Then you, too, show your honor, my friend,” he said.
“We should get to Bray as soon as possible,” Angen interrupted. “We need their ships, and the scoundrels who sail them.”
“Right,” Eamon agreed. “Angus, once again, I thank you. You will be rewarded for your bravery.”
“The only reward I wish is to open my forge again,” Angus replied. “These people need weapons, but I am shorthanded.”
“There are seventeen strong men here to help you,” Eamon said, pointing to the captive Jindala. “They seem to have lost their will. Be sure to feed them.”
Angus nodded and watched Eamon ride to the captive group. “You will do exactly what Angus tells you,” the Prince said, firmly. “Do you understand?”
Those who understood nodded and translated for the others.
“I am not one to condemn those who are forced to fight against their will,” Eamon continued. “Do as you’re told, and cause no trouble, and you will be welcome in my Kingdom.”
The men said nothing, but seemed at a loss as to why they weren’t being marched to their deaths. It was beyond their understanding.
As the Knights prepared to ride to Bray, Angus spoke up once more.
“My Lord,” he said. “Though you are not the Prince of this Kingdom, I shall honor you as such. If you plan to lay claim to the throne, you have my sword.”
“I would be most honored to have your support, Angus,” Eamon said. “If you wish, speak to Ulrich, my Captain. He is King of the Northmen that reside on this island, and is in command in my absence.”
Angus nodded, and then turned to look over the captive Jindala. They were able bodied, to be sure, and Angus would use them to the best of their abilities. He had no doubt that they would comply with his wishes. The forge would be reopened in no time.
“Come, my friends,” Eamon said to his Knights. “Bray awaits!”
Khalid awoke on the Dragon’s throne with a start. He shot up immediately after opening his eyes, and patted down his body to extinguish the flames that had engulfed him. He realized his foolishness, however, seeing that he wasn’t actually on fire, and sighed with relief. He breathed deeply, letting his heart slow to a steady pace. He closed his eyes, covering his face with his hands, and stood in silence as he composed himself. Then, realizing he was not alone, Khalid spread his fingers and looked through them.
Before him was a man standing with his head cocked, staring at him curiously. The man was dressed in an ornate black tunic, with pieces of intricately decorated black plate armor over his shoulders, forearms, and knees. His boots were black, with bright silver buckles, and two beautifully crafted swords were strapped to his back. He had black hair, with bangs that were swept back and tied, and his eyes were pale blue.
Strangely, despite the man’s dangerous appearance, Khalid was not afraid. He returned the man’s curious stare, saying nothing, waiting for the stranger to make the first move. After several intense seconds, the man spoke.
“Hello, Khalid.” he said, his voice soft, yet commanding. “I am Erenoth, High Priest of Dol Drakkar.”
Khalid simply nodded, still unsure whether the man was real.
“I see that my appearance was unexpected,” Erenoth stated, relaxing his posture and stepping onto the riser. “But I am here to help you.”
“How did you know my name?” Khalid asked.
“I am the Dragon’s servant,” Erenoth replied. “He told me your name, and he called me here as he did you.”
Erenoth smiled. “To help you begin your journey,” he said.
Khalid backed up to sit back down on the throne, but thought better of it. He began to pace nervously, unsure of his purpose.
“I don’t even know why I am here,” he said. “Or why the Dragon chose me to walk his path.”
“The Dragon works in strange ways, my friend,” Erenoth said. “I was in the same state of confusion when I first heard his call.”
“Were you a thief and a murderer as well?” Khalid asked.
Erenoth narrowed his gaze, putting his hands behind his back and pacing. “I was an assassin,” he replied, “for a kingdom across the sea. I came here to seek adventure, and the sport of hunting the primitive people of this island. But when I stepped foot on shore, the Dragon called to me from Dol Drakkar. I went there, unsure of what lay in the ruins. When I arrived, I met the Dragon, much as you did.”
“You were an assassin and a hunter of men?” he repeated. “So you know my confusion?”
“I do. And I know what the Dragon did to you, though it was not necessary. You had already redeemed yourself through action, but he obliged your request because he knew you would never accept your worth until your sins were purged. I find that very honorable, Khalid.”
“I don’t feel any better about myself,” Khalid said. “I’m still the same Khalid I was before.”
“No, my friend,” Erenoth said. “Not in spirit, and not in body, either. Look into the mirror again. The Dragon has made you whole.”
Khalid stared at Erenoth curiously, seeing him nod in encouragement. Khalid turned, reluctantly going to the mirror once more. Though he was apprehensive, he looked into its glassy surface. He was shocked at what he saw.
Khalid looked twenty years younger. His hair, though still slightly gray, was no longer unkempt and in disarray. It was neatly brushed back and cascaded over his shoulders in clean, even curls. His eyes were no longer drooping and puffy, but were bright and filled with life. Even his nose, which had been broken by the warrior in Taryn, was straight again. He looked down at his body, though, and frowned.
“I’m still a little fat,” he joked, patting his ample belly. “Not as much as before, but…better.”
Erenoth chuckled. “That is something you will have to work on yourself,” he said.
Khalid shrugged. “So, what happens next?” he asked.
Erenoth reached to the left side of the mirror where a round depression was carved into the wall. In the center was a hand-shaped print, which Erenoth covered with his own hand and turned. The entire assembly turned with him, making an audible click. The mirror suddenly shifted down slightly, sank into the wall, and slid to the side.
The doorway that appeared opened in a large, sparsely decorated, yet comfortable chamber. Along one wall was a small bed, dressed in dark blue blankets and skirting. Beside it was a wooden writing desk, perfect and unblemished, with an oil lamp atop it. There were bookshelves along the other walls, another mirror, and several tapestries displaying arcane symbols. In the far corner, a large armoire stood open, filled with extravagant robes and several swords of Khalid’s liking. There were scimitars, kilijes, kukris, and all manner of swords that appealed to his fighting style.
Khalid’s attention, however, was focused on the bed. It had been days since he had gotten a good night’s sleep, and even longer since he had slept on a good bed.
“Before we begin,” Erenoth said. “It is important that you rest. The road ahead will not be an easy one, and your duties as high priest will be taxing on your body.”
Khalid nodded. “What will be my first step?” he asked.
“We will test your fighting skills,” Erenoth replied. “Priests of the Dragon are warriors as well as pilgrims, especially in times like these. We are the last line of defense against the enemy when the Knights are occupied. When I am satisfied that your skills are adequate, we will begin our crusade.”
“Crusade?” Khalid asked. “I never imagined that I would ever be a crusader, or a priest.”
“Keep in mind,” Erenoth said, “that your skills as a thief are valuable as well. Our battles ahead will require stealth, cunning, and subterfuge. All of these are necessary to perform our duties properly.”
Khalid said nothing, but turned his mind back to the comfortable looking bed that awaited him.
“Rest well, Khalid,” Erenoth said. “When you awaken, we will begin.”
“Thank you, my friend,” Khalid said. “I truly look forward to learning my new path.”
Erenoth nodded, urging him into the room. Khalid shuffled over to the bed and lowered himself onto the edge. The bed was soft yet firm, and he immediately felt relief as it cradled him. With a smile and a sigh, he spun onto his back, feeling the comforting bed encase him in its warmth.
He was asleep within seconds.
Farouk stood against a massive willow in the dying forest. The great tree was withered and dark, and its branches were cracked and bare. All around, the underbrush and the soil itself were desolate, brown, and lifeless. A Defiler had come this way, drawing the life from the forest with its dark magic, and now the Druid and his apprentice had come to heal the damage.
The apprentice’s hands were spread upon the bark, and his head was lowered in sorrow. He could feel the tree’s pain, and grieved its suffering. The tree had undergone great trauma, and it was losing its will to live. Jodocus looked on, sitting upon a fallen branch, stirring the dead soil with his staff.
“What do you feel, Farouk?” the Druid asked.
Farouk gasped, clenching his eyelids and gritting his teeth. “I feel…pain,” he answered, struggling to breathe as the willow’s agony flowed through his body. “Pain and suffering. Not only for itself, but for the plants around it. It grieves their pain as well, and laments its inability to protect them.”
“Yes,” Jodocus replied. “The willow feels all. As its name suggests, it weeps when the forest dies.”
“Its pain is great,” Farouk lamented. “I can feel it as if it were my own pain.”
“That’s called empathy, my friend,” Jodocus explained. “You feel its pain, and you grieve with it. This is how you heal it.”
“Tell me how to end its suffering.” Farouk begged.
“Show sympathy now,” Jodocus said. “Feel the life of the Earth and let it flow through you. Your sympathy will be the conduit. Tell the great willow that you are here to help, and it will allow you to do so.”
“The pain is very real; excruciating,” Farouk exclaimed. “And the sorrow the tree feels is too great. It wants to die.”
“It will change its mind,” Jodocus said, “once you take away the pain.”
Farouk focused on drawing energy from the Earth. He could feel a tingling in his feet, telling him that he was on the right track, but the power was too weak. He struggled to concentrate, putting all other thoughts out of his mind; all worries, all of his own pain, and all of his past guilt. As he dismissed these distractions, he felt the tingling grow stronger and move slowly up his legs. He sighed with the pleasant feeling, determined to impart it to the damaged tree.
“Very good, my friend,” Jodocus said. “Keep your focus. I can see the power flowing into your body. Take as much as you need and share it with the willow. End its pain.”
Farouk accepted the influx of life, letting it rise into him and flow through his arms down to his fingertips. He let his sympathy for the willow be his guide, directing the life force into the withered bark, feeling it tremble beneath his fingers. The tree began to crackle, leaking sap out of the open gashes in its trunk. The branches above him became strengthened, sprouting small buds of green. The willow’s trunk faded from dead gray to brown as the life returned to its withered mass.
Jodocus smiled, watching the tree slowly come to life once more. “You are doing it, Farouk,” he said, excitedly. “Don’t stop; give the willow what it needs to live.”
Farouk’s expression began to relax as the tree’s agony lessened. He could feel its relief, and the pain he felt began to subside. Above, the green was spreading, each sprout growing into long, supple branches. Leaves sprouted from the ends, slowly elongating into a willow’s typical, weeping canopy.
When the willow was fully healed, Farouk slowly took his hands off of the trunk, backing away to admire its beauty. He smiled as he saw his handiwork. He had saved the tree, successfully passing his first trial as a Druid. He had never felt more proud in his life. Nor had he ever thought his love for nature could be so strong.
“Excellent work, my apprentice!” Jodocus exclaimed. “The willow thrives again, and is no longer in pain. You have done well.”
The Druid stood, placing a hand on Farouk’s shoulder in encouragement. He, too, was proud of Farouk’s work, and was happy to see that his apprentice had succeeded without any help. The man was a natural. He was truly born to be a Druid.
“You have earned a new power, Farouk.” Jodocus said. “The Dragon is proud, and so is The Great Mother. You can now heal trees and smaller plants on your own. You are on your way to becoming a great Druid. I am very proud of you.”
“I owe it all to you, Jodocus,” Farouk said. “And the Dragon.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Jodocus warned. “This was your doing. Your ability to summon the powers of the Earth is extraordinary. Better than any man I’ve ever known.”
Farouk accepted the compliment, simply nodding his head and returning to admire the willow. As he watched, three small branches suddenly began to move together. They twisted themselves around each other, slowly growing together as they did. The braid continued for a full six feet, tightening and twisting to a strong, supple shaft.
“What is happening?” Farouk asked.
Jodocus smiled, knowing what was coming. “The willow is preparing a gift for you,” he said. “Wait and see.”
The twisting continued. As the two watched, the three branches were melding into one single, straight, sturdy staff, complete with a formidable-looking knot of branches and thorns at its end. When the willow had finished, the staff broke off and fell to the ground, its point sticking into the newly-revived soil at Farouk’s feet.
He reached out to take the staff, pulling it gently from the forest floor and admiring its craftsmanship.
“It’s beautiful,” he exclaimed.
“It is your staff,” Jodocus explained. “Given to you by the willow of its own free will. That is quite a gift.”
“What is its purpose?” Farouk asked.
“It is simply a conduit for your power,” Jodocus said. “It will aid in summoning the Earth’s energy and imparting it where it needs to go. You see, to another man, it is just a stick. But to a Druid, it is a tool that helps focus his power, much like a seer or wizard’s staff. You will find that it becomes a part of you, and you will never travel anywhere without it. And remember, my friend, the right staff is given, not taken. My staff was given to me by a great oak many, many thou...years ago. The willow was kind enough to give you your first staff, and it is beautiful, indeed. Honor that gift, always.”
Farouk smiled, proudly holding the staff at his side. “I will cherish it forever,” he said, “as a gift from my friend, the willow.”
“Good, good,” Jodocus replied. “Such a gift is a rarity. Never take it for granted. As your power grows, so, too, will the power of your staff. It may change over time, as mine has, and will reform itself according to its primary use.”
Farouk nodded. “I will test it on the surrounding plants,” he said. “Our work is not complete.”
“Very well,” Jodocus said. “Finish.”
Farouk walked to the center of the clearing, looking down at the brown and withered underbrush that lay around him. He placed his staff before him, anchoring it firmly in the ground, and closed his eyes. He called to the Earth, focusing on drawing its life up into his body. The energy built up slowly, charging and warming him as he concentrated. He could feel the power course through his body, swirling within him as it was directed through his arms and into his hands. He released it into the staff, allowing it to enter its length fully. When he felt he had charged the staff sufficiently, he opened his eyes and released the energy into the ground.
Slowly, the plants around him began to shudder. Their leaves faded from brown to green, uncurling and shifting their surfaces into the rays of sunlight that filtered in through the canopy above. New plants sprouted as well, reaching up into the life giving sun, and spreading their roots deep within the resurrected soil. Several small animals that had been lying dead among the brush stirred and then pounced to their feet, bounding off into the woods. A few moments later, the underbrush had been restored, and the clearing was green once more.
“Very good, Farouk,” Jodocus said. “The forest has been repaired. Your efforts will not go unnoticed. All of the wildlife of the forest is under your protection, and it will repay you in kind. When you need protection, the forest will be your guardian. I learned over my years that it is a symbiotic relationship. Every bit of life you return to the forest will be reciprocated in one form or another.”
“I feel connected to the forest already,” Farouk said. “It is a kinship like none other I have ever felt.”
“That is common,” Jodocus explained. “When your power grows to encompass the land itself, that feeling will be a hundredfold. Communing with the land itself is a much more rewarding experience, and much more intense. But, I’m used to it. You will grow accustomed to it as well.”
Farouk was about to speak, but Jodocus suddenly looked to the side, his brow furrowing in concern.
“Do you feel that, Farouk?” Jodocus asked.
Farouk looked around, then to the ground, opening his mind to the surrounding forest. He felt a minor sense of negativity, as if something was approaching from a distance. Something dark and evil.
“I feel it,” he replied. “I don’t what it is, but I feel its darkness.”
“Yes,” Jodocus said. “Perhaps it is time to use your new gift. Hide, my friend.”
Farouk dashed to the underbrush, crouching as low as he could and willing the Dryad’s gift into action. Jodocus watched as Farouk faded into the greenery around him. He smiled proudly and took a concealed position among the brush on the other side of the path. He, too, faded into the greenery.
The Druid and his apprentice remained crouched, concealed in their hiding places, and waited. After several minutes, the sound of unearthly hissing echoed through the woods. Something dark was approaching the clearing, and both of them could feel its aura. It was a feeling of disparity, anguish, and hate. One that unsettled even the Druid himself.
It was a familiar feeling to him, one that he had experienced in the past. But he had long since vanquished creatures like this from Eirenoch, and was at a loss to explain the presence of something so similar and evil. It was not a Defiler, he knew, nor a demon. It was something that had once been human, but now roamed the Earth in only spirit form.
The Druid took hold of his staff, focusing his power into a single point at its tip. He would blast the wraith with his power when it appeared, hoping it was enough to banish the entity forever.
Farouk saw it first, watching as its blackness floated into the clearing. It was a mass of shimmering darkness, vaguely man shaped, and surrounded by an aura that frightened and repulsed the apprentice. The creature moved to the center of the clearing, spreading its mass to absorb the life energy that surrounded it. Farouk could feel the trees and plants around him shudder, as if they, too, were afraid.
Suddenly, Jodocus materialized within his hiding place and boldly stood in the creature’s path. His staff was raised in defiance, and his teeth were bared in anger. His robes billowed with the power of the Dragon, and his eyes glowed with energy.
He spoke in the Dragon’s tongue, cursing the entity. “Begone, foul spirit!” he growled, aiming his staff at the mass of darkness.
A flash of green light appeared at the end of his staff and streaked toward the entity, exploding on impact. The dark mass screeched in agony; its black, ethereal tendrils moving around sporadically. Jodocus stepped forward, waving his staff before him. With each pass, the staff sparked bolts of green energy into the spirit’s depths, dissolving it gradually.
“Back to the depths of Hell!” Jodocus shouted. “Begone with you!”
Farouk looked to his staff, which seemed to be gathering energy on its own. Without hesitation, he took it up and stood, rushing to stand next to his mentor. As he watched Jodocus continue to dissolve the creature, Farouk raised his own staff, willing the gathered power into a bolt of energy that streaked toward the beast. It shattered the spirit’s form, sending it back from the center of the clearing. It screeched again, swirling faster, trying to regain its cohesiveness.
Jodocus blasted it again, this time sending an invisible whirlwind into the creature’s center. The spell swirled within it, sucking its dark energy into the vortex. It slowly shrank in size as it mass was absorbed, screeching and sending out tendrils of darkness toward the Druids. Then, with a flash of blue, the ball of darkness exploded, sending the two back a few steps with the impact. They watched as the darkness gradually spread out and dissolved.
The wraith had been destroyed.
Farouk stood frozen, still frightened and unsure. He had never experienced anything like this before, having only fought with men in his years as a warrior. Battling an entity like this was a completely new experience.
“Well,” Jodocus said. “That’s that.”
Farouk caught his breath, looking to the Druid in amazement. “What was that creature?” he asked.
“That,” Jodocus replied, “was a wraith. A malevolent spirit. Why it was here, I don’t know. I had banished them many years ago, driving them away from the barrows and tombs they inhabited. This one may have wandered here from across the sea, or the sea itself. There are dead men there, too.”
“A wraith is the spirit of a villainous man?” Farouk asked.
“Precisely,” Jodocus replied. “Seeing this one makes me wonder if The Lifegiver is influencing the dead on this island. Waking their souls and enslaving them to do his bidding.”
“The Lifegiver has created strange creatures before,” Farouk said. “And he has brought the dead to life on many occasions.”
“That is disturbing,” Jodocus said, his face a mask of worry. “If he can raise the dead from this distance, then who knows what else he can do? We must keep vigilant, Farouk. Our task has just become much more complex.”
“I am with you, Jodocus,” Farouk replied.
Jodocus smiled, knowing that Farouk was truly willing to stand by his side. But he wondered if the two of them would be enough to undo all of The Lifegiver’s destruction. It would be difficult and dangerous, but he had no choice. He was created to maintain the balance, and that was what he would do.
“Come, my friend,” Jodocus said. “We will return to my tower. I must do some research into this matter, and commune with the Dragon. We need to find some answers before we can proceed.”
The sky had darkened to a pleasant, starlit evening as the Knights reached Bray. Eamon had commanded the Knights to tether their horses to the nearby trees, and they all lay quietly along a ridge overlooking the coastal town. It was quiet, with only a minor amount of activity along its docks. The town itself was built right on the coast, with most of the buildings and houses resting upon stilts and connected with a network of planked, suspended walkways.
As the Knights scanned the town, they saw only a few scattered Jindala guards patrolling the walkways, and one of their own vessels moored in the distance. Many small boats were docked, but empty, and most of the town’s own fishing vessels had been commandeered and occupied by enemy sailors.
Bray was now under Jindala control. The Knights had to come up with a plan to retake it without endangering the townsfolk. As the Jindala were spread out and unaware of their presence, stealth seemed the best option. They would have to sneak into the city and take out the guards one by one. Arrows were out of the question. Even if the three archers among them were able to hit the guards from this distance, their bodies would fall into the water, alerting any others nearby.
“We’ll need to infiltrate the town without raising the alarm,” Eamon stated. “Any ideas?”
“My armor has the power of shadow,” Daryth reminded him. “I can take out the nearest guard by the shack to the right and signal when the way is clear.”
“Do it,” Eamon said. “And be careful. Hide his body in the salt marsh.”
Daryth nodded, putting away his bow and drawing his dagger. He pulled up his hood and bounded over the ridge silently. As he entered the shadows, he faded from sight, his armor blending in with the darkness.
“I can barely see him,” Angen said, squinting into the darkness. “He’s just a shadow.”
“The power of the Dragon armor,” Eamon reminded him, “is different for everyone.”
Daryth snuck down the hill into the swampy ground below. He remained in a crouching position, treading carefully through the muck to stay silent. His target stood on a ledge attached to the shack, facing away and swaying slowly with fatigue. Daryth approached from behind, his dagger in his teeth. He reached the edge of the dock, gripping the ledge and silently pulling himself onto it behind the guard. When his feet were firmly upon the planks, he gripped his dagger and crept up behind the guard, ready to strike.
Reaching around from behind, Daryth grasped the guard’s head, covering his mouth, and plunged his dagger into his back. The guard slumped to the walkway, Daryth easing him down to lessen the impact. He dragged the guard backward, sliding quietly off the ledge, bringing the guard down with him. He turned to the Knights as they watched and gave a thumbs up to signal that the way was clear, and then dragged the guard to the rear of the shack.
Brynn, still scanning the immediate area, saw another guard on the roof approach Daryth’s side of the eave. He quickly drew his bow, waiting for the guard to reach the edge of the roof, and fired.
The guard flinched, grasping the arrow that struck him in the chest. Without even a groan, he tumbled over the edge, landing with a small splash in the muck. Daryth jumped, turning to the Knights again, his hands raised in question.
“Good shot,” Wrothgaar whispered. “Bad timing.”
“He would have seen Daryth below,” Brynn said. “I had to risk it.”
Eamon clapped Brynn on the back. “It’s alright. No one was alerted. Let’s go.”
The Knights quickly crested the ridge and made their way down to the swamp, being careful to avoid the deeper pools of brackish water. They met Daryth behind the shack and crouched in the shadows.
“Good work, Daryth,” Eamon said. “Did you see anyone else nearby?”
“No,” he replied. “But I didn’t notice the guard on the roof, either.”
“Perhaps Brynn could keep his eyes on the rooftops,” Azim suggested. “His vision seems to be more acute than ours.”
Brynn nodded. “I’ll keep an eye out.”
“Alright,” Eamon said. “We’ll proceed into town, but stay off of the walkways for now. Once we get an idea of where all the guards are, we can take them out one by one. Daryth, lead the way.”
Daryth nodded, and then turned to peer around the corner of the shack. When he was satisfied the way was clear, he signaled the Knights to follow. They crept along underneath the walkways, wading silently through the water. Brynn watched the rooftops, his eyes aided by the moonlight. As they approached another shack, Daryth signaled for them to stop.
“Two guards,” he said. “I can take one, but someone else will have to take the other.”
Wrothgaar scowled. “I can’t do it,” he said. “I’m about as quiet as an avalanche.”
Azim stepped forward. “I will take the other one,” he said, drawing his dagger.
Daryth turned, glancing around to make sure there were no other guards in the area. He then crept toward the two targets, Azim following behind. Daryth motioned for him to get behind the guard on the left, and then crept up behind his own target. The two guards were speaking in the tongue of Khem, and Azim held his finger up to signal Daryth to wait. He listened closely to the conversation.
“I’m not looking forward to seeing the Enkhatar,” one of them said. “Fortunately, we’re on the West coast and won’t have to see them for awhile.”
“Agreed,” the other said. “I feel uneasy around them. Vile creatures.”
Azim turned to Daryth with a worried look. Daryth furrowed his brow in question, but Azim shook his head, not wanting to speak until the guards had been killed.
“I hear the Enkhatar will be bringing new blood with them,” the first guard spoke again. “Something even more vile than the Defilers.”
“Where did you hear this?”
“I overheard Sultan Hadar tell the Sheikhs in Argan. They’re something familiar to the people here. Something from their legends that makes my blood run cold.”
The guards then fell silent. Azim nodded to Daryth. The two stood, reaching out to grab the guards’ ankles. They pulled back in unison, causing the guards to topple backward. They each caught their targets, covering the guards’ mouths to silence them, and plunged them into the swamp, pushing their daggers through their backs.
“What were they talking about?” Daryth asked, pulling his dagger from his target’s back.
“Disturbing news,” Azim said, signaling the Knights to join them.
Eamon and the others dashed across the swamp to regroup. When they had reached the walkway, Azim related the conversation.
“The Enkhatar are coming,” he said. “And they are bringing something with them. I do not know what it is, but it is something from your legends.”
“Who are the Enkhatar?” Eamon asked.
“They are the dead, brought to life to fight for The Lifegiver. They were once men, mighty warriors of ages past, but raised from the dead to serve the darkness.”
“Could these be the former Keynakin?” Eamon asked.
Azim sighed. He had not considered that possibility. The Keynakin were the most trusted Knights of Imbra, and were considered divine warriors among the people of Khem. The Lifegiver had murdered them, and now Azim understood why they had never been buried. An eternity of undead servitude would seem a likely fate for such honorable warriors.
“That is possible,” he said.
“My people have similar legends,” Wrothgaar said. “Dead warlords and their knights who walk among the living. They are called the Draugr, fearsome undead warriors that inhabit the tombs of kings.”
“I’ve heard of them,” Brynn said.
“I have, too.” Angen added. “When I was young, I encountered one in the North. If these Enkhatar are similar, then we may be the only ones who could stand against them.”
“Correct,” Azim said. “Their armor is nearly impenetrable, and even enchanted weapons do little.”
“Where will they appear when they arrive?” Eamon asked.
“I got the impression they will land in the East. The guards seemed thankful they were here on the opposite coast. But they were still fearful of what the Enkhatar were bringing with them. What, in your legends, could they have been referring to?”
“I don’t know.” Eamon said. “We will have to consult with Jodocus, if possible, or perhaps Maedoc. I wish Erenoth were here to relay a message. We need to know the nature of these new beasts.”
“There is nothing we can do now,” Azim said. “We should continue through the town.”
Eamon nodded. “Alright,” he said. “Daryth, lead on.”
The assassin crept through the streets of Faillaigh like a specter, his dark robes blending into the shadows. His years of experience had taught him to remain nearly invisible, and even the Jindala guards that came within only a few feet of him were completely unaware of his presence. To the world, he did not exist. He was a shadow; a deadly shadow with a mission.
Though he had been ordered to eliminate Queen Maebh in Faerbane, the assassin had detoured to the smaller town of Faillaigh to take out another target; one whose words had a more immediate effect on the people of the South Kingdom. Governor Ferrin, sometimes known as the Mouth of the Queen, was Maebh’s formal advisor. It was he who convinced Maebh to allow the Jindala to take up residence in her cities. His motivation, as usual, would have been the prospect of filling his pockets with foreign gold.
Ferrin was a man obsessed with greed, and that obsession was what corrupted Maebh from the day they were introduced. As a charismatic man, Ferrin had no trouble convincing the already petty and shallow sister of Siobhan to turn against her people to live a life of luxury. In a way, she was just as bad as Ferrin, if not worse. She was every bit her mother’s daughter, whereas Siobhan inherited the honor and strength of their father, Magnus.
Despite these differences, however, the assassin was still apprehensive about killing Maebh. She was, after all, the twin sister of his love, Siobhan, and seeing the life drain from Maebh’s eyes would be nearly as heart wrenching as watching Siobhan die. He hoped that she no longer bore any resemblance to her sister, though he knew that her eyes would betray his wish. They would be Siobhan’s eyes.
Garret stopped to rest near the town square, ducking into an alley and behind a stack of crates. Ferrin’s lavish mansion was near, and he could almost smell the man’s greed in the air. He would no doubt be surrounded by guards, or have guards posted at every door. In either case, the only way into the mansion would be through a high window. Luckily, Garret was equipped to climb.
As he gathered the will to continue forward, voices began to echo through the nearby street. A small squad of Jindala guards was approaching, equipped with spears and small buckler shields. They marched in perfect unison, each man scanning the buildings around him for any sign of disobedience. Garret melted into the shadows as they passed, wishing that he could kill every last one of them. Caution stayed his hand, however, and he remained hidden and silent, waiting for the guards to turn the corner. He remained motionless as he watched them disappear into the night.
He was about to dash across the street when he heard a faint whisper nearby. He stopped, scanning the darkness, his heart pounding rapidly. Near the rear of the alley in which he hid, a shadowy figure was crouched. He squinted to get a better look, seeing the outline of a cloaked figure beckoning him to approach. How this man had snuck up on him, he didn’t know, but whoever it was definitely had skill. Garret quietly approached the figure, his hand on his dagger, and his guard up.
“Closer,” the figure whispered. “Don’t be afraid.”
Garret maintained a distance of a few feet from the figure. He was a male, in his early thirties, clean shaven withwell-kept hair.
“Who are you?” Garret asked.
The man pulled aside his cloak, revealing an amulet emblazoned with the symbol of the Thieves’ Guild. “I am Adder,” he said. “Leader of the Thieves’ Guild in Faillaigh.”
“What are you doing out here?” Garret demanded. “Why are you following me?”
“I know who you are,” Adder replied. “And I know why you are here. Tell me, who is your target?”
“My target is my business,” Garret warned. “And how do you know who I am?”
Adder laughed. “Everyone knows you,” he answered. “You are the Scorpion. The deadliest assassin in Eirenoch.”
Garret remembered the name. He had been given the moniker as a young man in the service of King Magnus. It had been years since he had heard it, and was surprised that a man of Adder’s age even knew it.
“We all know of you,” Adder said. “You’re an inspiration to all of us night stalkers and thieves.”
“I am no thief,” Garret said. “I am a member of the royal court, and always have been.”
“Call yourself what you will, but we are with you.”
“I don’t need your help,” Garret said. “Go about your business, and stay away from me.”
Adder smiled. “Don’t worry, my Lord,” he said. “We won’t bother you. But we will be watching.”
Adder turned and disappeared into the darkness, leaving Garret to contemplate the brief encounter. If the Thieves’ Guild was aware of his presence, then his mission may be in jeopardy. Nevertheless, he would continue. For the sake of the kingdom, Ferrin and Maebh must die.
He returned to his hiding place near the street, seeing Ferrin’s mansion on the next block. It would be a mad dash across the street, he knew, but it was the only way.
With one last look at the area, he chose a good, dark alley on the other side of the street as his destination. He snuck quickly across, his footfalls landing softly and silently on the cobblestone, barely making a sound. He immediately crouched in the alley, blending in with the darkness and taking another look around. There was no activity or any sign that he had been spotted.
Satisfied, he turned and sped down the alley toward Ferrin’s mansion. The buildings in this area were becoming more lavish, and Garret knew that the guard presence would be doubled, so his caution would grow as he neared. When he finally reached Ferrin’s block, he stopped to scan the area.
Several Jindala guards, in groups of two, were on patrol around the mansion itself. They were spaced about fifty yards apart, he calculated; a good enough distance from each other to pass through or take them out group by group. He decided that simply sneaking past was the best plan, as he did not want to alert them to the absence of any of their comrades.
Garret gazed at the mansion, looking for any sign of movement on the grounds around it. There were guards randomly strolling among the trees, but no large groups. Apparently, the Jindala were confident that their mere presence would thwart any attempts at rebellion. This was good, Garret knew. With the death of Ferrin, the people would be more willing to rebel, and the city could be easily retaken when the Knights finally arrived.
He crossed the street along the shadow of a tree, barely visible in its cloaking darkness. When he reached the other side, he leaped over the stone wall that surrounded Ferrin’s property, and stopped to rest behind it. Fortunately, the trees cast shadows everywhere, and his presence within the mansion’s grounds would go unnoticed with little effort on his part.
He eyed the nearest guard, a well armored swordsman with a black tunic and turban; likely belonging to a special unit assigned specifically to guard Ferrin. Garret pulled his dirk, pulling his cloak tighter around him, and crept closer to the guard. His heart pounded with anticipation as he drew nearer. It had been decades since he had killed a man in silence, having only fought in open battle. Nevertheless, he continued, coming within a foot of the guard as he patrolled the grounds.
When the guard reached the shadow of a large oak, Garret reached out, placing his left hand on the man’s right shoulder and spinning him about. The guard barely had time to groan as Garret plunged his dirk into the soft flesh under his chin. He stiffened, falling limp. Garret cradled his body as it fell, resting it gently on the ground. He then wiped the blood off of his blade on the man’s tunic and rushed to the shadow of another tree.
He could clearly see the mansion’s windows now, and scanned them all, looking for the most likely window to Ferrin’s bedroom. He crept from tree to tree, closing the distance to the walls, still seeking the right window. When he reached the rear of the mansion, he spotted a small balcony, complete with a stone railing and double doors leading inside. Garret smiled, knowing this was the most likely entry.
He glanced around for guards, seeing nothing, and then dashed to the stone mansion wall underneath the balcony. A wooden trellis was fixed to the stone, leading all the way up to the balcony and continuing upward to the roof. Garret chuckled to himself as he studied it. How easy Ferrin had made it to penetrate his personal home. Foolish.
Garret grasped the trellis and began his ascent. He silently climbed, avoiding the prickly vines that grew along the trellis’ length. Even in the moonlight he was barely visible, appearing as nothing more than the shadow of a swaying branch cast against the lavish stonework.
He climbed one handhold at a time, careful to test the strength of the lattice work as he did. There were places where the wood was slightly decrepit, but no serious weathering. After a minute or so of climbing, he safely reached the level of the balcony and waited. No one was in the area that he could see, but he would not take any chances. If he were caught, the mission would be over and he would have to flee, his target forgotten and allowed to continue his treachery. Garret could not let that happen.
He extended his leg to the right, placing his foot on the railing. It felt sturdy enough to hold his weight, but its surface was somewhat slick. He would have to be careful not to put his full weight on it, lest he slip and plummet to the ground below. It was at least thirty feet to the grassy surface and a man his age would likely be seriously injured from such a fall.
Putting those thoughts aside, he let go with his left hand and moved closer to the railing. Just as he was about to shift his weight, he suddenly heard voices approaching from beyond the double doors. He changed his plan, backing into the shadows and grasping the hilt of his dirk.
Ferrin stepped out onto the balcony, a Jindala noble at his side. The two were dressed formally, which was unusual for this time of night. They must have been in a meeting of some sort and had stepped out for a breath of fresh air. If Garret was to succeed in his plan, he would have to kill them both. The Jindala noble, being armed, would have to die first. However, Garret could not see into the doors and had no idea whether there were guards inside. Grudgingly, he decided to listen to their conversation and wait for the opportunity to strike.
“I understand your concern, Sallah,” Ferrin said. “But I can assure you that I have the situation under control.”
“I have already received word that Gaellos has been attacked,” Sallah replied, “and the soldiers there have been killed.”
“It’s of no consequence,” Ferrin said. “This Onyx Dragon is just a man. Queen Siobhan’s son, at that. Our forces will have no trouble stopping his crusade.”
Sallah sighed. “He has already defeated our forces in the North,” he said, “and has even killed Tyrus. He was our most powerful sorcerer.”
“Surely The Lifegiver will send more troops,” Ferrin assured him. “If he wants to rule this land, then he will send everything he has.”
“I fear what he will send,” Sallah remarked. “The Lifegiver has the power to animate the dead, among many other things. If this rebellion continues, he may resort to the unthinkable.”
“I am not sure what you mean, Sallah, but we will take care of the problem before that happens.”
Sallah said nothing, but folded his arms across his chest in concern. Ferrin stepped forward, placing his hands on the railing. “Fear not, Sallah,” he said, turning back to the Jindala noble. “The problem will be resolved.”
Garret watched wide-eyed as Ferrin reached behind him, silently drawing a small dagger from his belt. The Jindala turned to walk back into the mansion, oblivious to Ferrin’s plans. Suddenly, Ferrin struck, plunging the dagger into the man’s back, twisting it and drawing it in and out to ensure its lethality. The Jindala struggled, squirming and groaning in Ferrin’s grasp.
Garret stepped onto the balcony, making no secret of his entrance. “Ferrin,” he whispered.
Ferrin turned quickly, bringing the dying man with him. His eyes widened as he saw Garret’s black assassin’s robes. He recognized him immediately. Garret pulled his dirk and finished off the Jindala with a quick stab to the heart. Ferrin let the man down slowly, keeping his eyes on Garret.
“What are you doing here?” Ferrin demanded.
“I came here to kill you,” Garret replied.
“Why?” Ferrin asked.
“I know it was you who convinced Maebh to allow these devils onto the island. Your greed is outmatched, Ferrin, and I knew the prospect of making gold from the deal would appeal to your senses.”
Ferrin scowled. “You are wrong,” he replied. “It was not I. Queen Maebh made the decision on her own. It was she whose love of gold blinded her to the truth.”
Garret sheathed his weapon, shaking his head. “How am I supposed to believe that?” he asked. “In all of the years I’ve known you, I have never seen you pass up the opportunity to line your pockets, regardless of the consequences.”
Ferrin closed his eyes, nodding in agreement. “You are right, my friend,” he admitted. “I have been greedy. I always will be. But not at the expense of losing my freedom, or the freedom of my people.”
Garret was silent. His thoughts were clouded now, swimming in confusion at this turn of events. He had come here to kill a traitor, but now saw a man who was willing to risk his life to protect his people. Or so he said.
“Look, Garret,” Ferrin said. “We have had our differences, and our Kingdoms have always been at odds, but we are brothers. Our people are one, and we must ensure that they are safe.”
“Eamon plans to claim the throne,” Garret said. “And his exploits here are beginning to convince the people to rally behind him.”
“If he wants the throne, then I support him. He is every bit the man his grandfather was. He will make a great king.”
Garret nodded. “Yes,” he agreed. “And the Knights he has chosen thus far are the best warriors the North has to offer.”
“I have no doubt of that,” Ferrin said. “But one question remains; what do we do now?”
Garret furrowed his brow. “That is a good question,” he said. “Do you still have a personal security force?”
“Yes,” Ferrin replied. “But they are Jindala. They are loyal to The Lifegiver, not me.”
“You didn’t think this assassination out very well, did you?”
“No,” Ferrin chuckled. “I’ve been waiting for Sallah to arrive for quite a long time. Once he was here, I had to take him out quickly. I didn’t really think of the consequences. I suppose I should probably flee.”
“That would be advisable,” Garret agreed.
“I can help you with that,” a voice said from the trellis.
Garret and Ferrin looked into the shadows, seeing Adder step onto the railing and join them on the balcony. Garret sighed in frustration.
“I told you not to follow me,” he scolded. “You may have put both of us in danger.”
“I knew you were coming here,” Adder replied. “And I knew that Ferrin was not the enemy. I only followed to make sure you didn’t kill him. But I wanted you to see that he was loyal.”
“Ferrin,” Garret said. “This is Adder, leader of the Thieves’ Guild.”
“We are familiar,” Ferrin replied. “He is my son.”
Garret gasped. He wasn’t aware that Ferrin even had a son, much less one like Adder. “That’s why you know me,” he said to Adder. The thief smiled, nodding.
“My name is Fordran,” he said. “And I am at your service, sir.”
“Can you get your father out of here?” Garret asked.
Fordran nodded. “Not a problem,” he said, and then whistled. Within seconds, three more thieves melted out of the shadows and surrounded the men on the balcony. Garret was once again surprised. These thieves had skill.
“I will take my father to Gaellos,” Adder said. “He will be safe there among our brothers. I suggest you disappear as well.”
Garret looked to Ferrin. “Good luck, my friend,” he said. “I will return to Gaellos when I am finished.”
“Do it swiftly,” Ferrin replied, knowing exactly what Garret’s mission was. “She may be greedy and shallow, but she is still the Queen. She deserves mercy.”
Garret nodded. “I know,” he said. “It will not be an easy task, though.”
“Just remember,” Ferrin said. “She is not the one you love.”
Garret fell silent, knowing Ferrin was right. He would do his duty, but he would do it quickly to minimize her suffering, all personal feelings aside.
“Come, father,” Adder said. “Our chariot awaits.”
Ferrin rose to join his son and his companions. The thieves strapped him into a leather harness, directing him to the railing. Adder’s comrades leapt over the edge, landing softly and scouting the area for guards. When they signaled that the way was clear, Adder and the remaining thief lowered Ferrin to the ground.
“We will see you in Gaellos, Scorpion,” Adder said, throwing one leg over the railing.
“Good luck,” Garret said as the thief disappeared into the darkness.
Garret shook his head with distress. With this new turn of events, his mission became more urgent. Queen Maebh herself had made the decision to allow the Jindala into her kingdom. It was her choice alone. Even with her typical greed and love of attention, it didn’t seem like a choice that she would make. Something had influenced her; something other than the Sultan that Siobhan spoke of. Maebh was, perhaps, under the influence of something greater; The Lifegiver himself, or some other force that had not been considered. Either way, something wasn’t right, and Garret was determined to discover the answer.
Returning to the trellis, the assassin exited the balcony and made his way to the darkness below. Like a shadow, he disappeared into the night.
The Knights continued their covert excursion into the heart of Bray. The water had grown deeper, and they began to feel the effects of trudging through the cold, brackish swamp. Azim seemed to be the most affected, having lived his entire life in the hot desert climate of Khem. Cold, damp weather was new to him, and he longed for the warmth of the sun. Despite his misery, he stayed at Daryth’s side, leading Eamon and his company through the labyrinth of wooden walkways.
Near the center of town, where many of the paths met at a large deck, Daryth stopped, motioning for the Knights to hold. He turned to Eamon with concern.
“Four guards on the platform,” he warned. “One at each corner.”
Eamon strained to see in the darkness, having only the randomly placed lanterns to light his view. He could see the four guards, each facing away from the center of the platform, standing still and seemingly alert. Though they were motionless, Eamon could see that their heads moved from side to side, scanning the town around them.
“Pass them up for now,” Eamon decided. “We’ll continue taking out the other guards, and save these for last. If we attack them now, their absence may alert others in the area.”
“I would prefer an outright fight to this all of this sneaking around,” Wrothgaar said. “My feet are wet and my legs are cramping from squatting.”
“Shall I fetch you a tub of hot water?” Angen joked. “Or maybe a nice warm blanket?”
Wrothgaar punched Angen in the shoulder, smiling.
“Quiet,” Eamon said. “We need to find out how many troops are here, and why the Jindala occupied this town in the first place. Plus, I want to know what happened to the pirates that usually dock here.”
“Likely the Jindala hired them,” Brynn said, “or killed them.”
“The Jindala are not skilled at naval warfare,” Azim replied. “They wouldn’t last long against pirates. Nor would they want to associate with them.”
“I don’t think the pirates would ally themselves with them, either,” Angen added. “I’ve met a few of them before. They don’t take kindly to anyone disturbing their smuggling routes. If the Jindala have chased them away with their presence, they’ll likely be back.”
“Agreed,” Eamon said. “Daryth, Azim, lead on.”
Leaving the four guards behind, the company pushed forward, hiding in the shadows beneath the network of walkways. Daryth and Azim were slightly farther ahead, scouting in front of the group while Brynn maintained a watchful eye on the rooftops. Wrothgaar and Angen lagged behind, guarding the rear, and Eamon remained in the middle, ready to issue any orders to his Knights.
Once again, the Prince saw Daryth stop ahead, and Azim moving closer to confer with him. Eamon crept up next to them, with Brynn behind him. The two men had caught hold of an object floating in the swamp, and the rest of the company gathered to see what they had found.
“It’s a body,” Daryth said. “A Jindala guard.”
Azim turned the floating body over, revealing that the man’s throat had been torn out. “An assassin?” he suggested.
“No idea,” Eamon replied. “Either way, someone else is here doing the same thing we are.”
“He hasn’t been dead for very long,” Daryth pointed out. “He’s still slightly warm and the wound looks fresh. Whoever killed him may still be nearby.”
“Leaving his body floating around like this was rather careless,” Wrothgaar added. “Not the work of a professional, obviously.”
“The wound says that, too,” Daryth said. “It’s jagged, as if done with a dull knife. Maybe even a kitchen knife.”
“I wouldn’t want to eat at that tavern,” Angen said, drawing looks from the rest of the knights.
“Hide the body near the rocks over there,” Eamon said, pointing toward the north side of the lagoon. “We’ll continue on. Perhaps we’ll run into our mystery assassin.”
Daryth and Azim quietly floated the body off to the side of the lagoon, wedging it between the rocks and pushing it under the surface of the water for good measure.
Brynn had spotted a larger building ahead, supported by at least a dozen piers. The building was lit from the inside and two guards stood on either side of the door.
“Daryth, Brynn,” Eamon began. “Take out the guards with your bows. We’ll climb the piers and see what’s inside.”
The two knights nodded, drawing their bows and taking position underneath the walkways in front of the building. The rest of the group moved to the rear, beginning their climb onto the deck. Brynn and Daryth waited until the knights had taken position at the corner, underneath a window that faced to the east. When they were ready, Eamon nodded.
Two arrows streaked to their targets, striking the guards in the chest. They each groaned, grasping the arrows that pierced their hearts, and slumped to the walkway, making only a slight thump. Eamon and Wrothgaar crept around the corner, dragging the bodies to either side of the building, tossing them over the edge to the rocks.
Azim and Angen each moved to the windows on the east and west sides, peering into the glass. Inside, a large table was set up, with three chairs lining each of the longer sides, and covered with candles. Six Jindala were seated at the table, and one man, dressed in white robes, stood at the head. Azim listened to their conversation.
“It is clear that we cannot simply enforce our laws with such a small presence in each town,” the white robed man said. “Gaellos has been liberated, and the pirates that sail the coast are protecting the northern port cities. When our troops arrive here tomorrow by ship, we will send our foot soldiers to support the army that marches on Gaellos. The city must be retaken.”
“My scouts tell me that Prince Eamon’s armies are camped outside the city,” another man said. “The Northmen are with them, along with what’s left of Farouk’s company.”
“Where are the sorceress and her company?” the leader asked. “Have they tracked down Khalid?”
“There has been no contact. I fear they have been intercepted.”
The leader leaned in closer, gritting his teeth and hissing at the man. “Find them!” he growled. “Use the stone to communicate with the sorceress.”
“I have tried,” the man protested. “She will not answer.”
The leader quickly drew a dagger from his belt, leaning in and jabbing it into the man’s throat. The man gasped wide-eyed and clenched his fists around the leader’s wrists, choking and spurting blood. The other men sat silent, looking away and glaring at each other in fear as the man slumped from the blood soaked table.
Azim shook his head, disgusted at the display of cruelty the leader expressed. Even when his own men failed at their mission, Azim had always encouraged them to try harder, and never so much as chastised them verbally. Failure was a part of life, he reasoned, and all men fail at times. Punishment only encourages mutiny. Clearly, this man was a monster.
“You others,” the leader said. “Fail me as he has, and you will suffer the same fate. Take your troops and continue the search for Khalid. He must be found and executed as a traitor.”
The others nodded, standing to pay tribute to the leader as they prepared to leave. Azim turned to Eamon, who crouched next to him, clearly as shocked and confused as Azim himself was.
“He has commanded the men to search for Khalid,” Azim said. “We must find him first. An army also approaches Gaellos, and they are planning to support them with soldiers from their fleet. Their ships will arrive here in Bray soon.”
“We’ll put an end to their plans,” Eamon said.
Azim signaled to Wrothgaar, who crouched at the opposite corner. The two approached the door, Angen and Eamon following behind. Eamon signaled for Wrothgaar to take position in front of the door and prepare to bash it open with his axe. He then turned to Daryth and Brynn, gesturing for them to keep their eyes on the rooftops.
Wrothgaar stood ready, breathing deeply in preparation. He would bash down the door, head straight for the table and leap over it to the other side, chopping down any man who stood in his way.
The Prince counted down with his fingers, clenching his fist at zero. He watched the Northman charge the door and leaped up to follow. Wrothgaar crashed through with his axe, splintering the door to pieces, and rushing in.
The men inside jumped in surprise, their eyes wide in terror as the giant Northman pounced onto the table. Eamon followed, crossing the room straight to the leader. Angen and Azim bounded in after, choosing the first targets they saw.
Angen impaled his opponent immediately, withdrawing his giant claymore and cleaving the man’s head clean from his shoulders. Azim crossed his swords swiftly, slicing his target open with deadly ferocity. Wrothgaar took two targets, splitting one’s head in two and bashing the other with a back hand blow of his axe.
Eamon backed the leader into the corner, slashing the Serpent’s Tongue quickly in a double strike. The leader had drawn his scimitar, but was unprepared for the assault. His sword was knocked from his hand, and Eamon finished him off with another quick slash to the gut.
The remaining Jindala made a mad rush to the door, but Azim dropped to one knee, slashing the man’s shins. The enemy stumbled, pitching face first into the floor. Azim finished him off with a slash to the back of the neck.
“Search the room,” Eamon commanded. “Find anything that would indicate when the fleet will arrive.”
The Knights began searching among the blood-spattered contents, Eamon going to the door to signal the two archers that they were successful.
Brynn and Daryth saw the signal, relieved that their brothers had finished the job without too much of a disturbance. However, it was apparent that the scuffle had attracted the attention of the four men on the nearby platform. The walkways began to shake and rattle as the men made their way toward the building.
Daryth was the first to fire when the guards came into view. His arrow streaked past the lead man, striking the guard behind him and dropping him into the muck. Brynn gritted his teeth at the splash, but fired as well, hitting the lead guard. Daryth fired again, taking down the next man in line. The fourth man did not make an appearance.
“I don’t see the last one,” Brynn whispered.
Daryth peered into the darkness. “I don’t either,” he said. “Where the Hell did he go?”
Brynn waded slowly in the direction of the platform, Daryth following close. They both scanned the walkways, looking for any sign of the missing guard. He was nowhere in sight. Daryth looked at Brynn, shrugging.
“I’d think he would have sounded the alarm,” Brynn said, “or at least called for help.”
Daryth was about to respond, but suddenly his eyes widened and he pointed into the shadows. Brynn turned quickly, seeing the outline of something horned and reptilian stalking the walkway. As the men watched, the mysterious shadow leaped into the air, spreading its wings, and carrying the missing guard off into the sky.
“Was that a dragon?” Brynn asked, amazed.
“I think it was,” Daryth replied. “But I don’t know of any dragons other than Erenoth.”
“We should tell Eamon.”
Brynn agreed, and the two made their way back toward the building, trudging quickly through the swamp.
Inside, Angen found a large scroll case, decorated in odd symbols, and sealed with golden caps. He handed it to Eamon, who eyed it curiously. The rest of the knights gathered around to watch.
“It could be a map,” Azim suggested. “The end caps come off easily, just push them in and turn them.”
Eamon followed Azim’s direction, smiling as the caps came off in his hands. He turned the scroll case up vertically and let its contents fall into his palm. It was a large parchment, tied closed with a red velvet cord that was interlaced with golden threads. The Prince untied the cord and spread the scroll out onto the table, being careful to avoid the blood that covered it.
It was a map of Eirenoch, with key strategic points highlighted with stars, including every major city and port. Along the sides of the map were writings, connected to the highlighted cities by arrows. They were obviously annotations.
“Translate these, Azim,” Eamon said.
Azim leaned into the map, reading silently to himself. He then translated for the others.
“This town has been marked as a meeting place for their fleets,” he began. “They have also marked the typical routes of the pirates, warning the Jindala ships to stay clear. Apparently they fear the pirates.”
“They should,” Angen growled.
“They have also indicated that Faerbane will be the landing place for any major troop transports,” Azim continued. “And that the Enkhatar will land there. The other annotations tell how many troops are stationed in each town. There is also a note pointing to these ruins in the mountains, and the mines nearby.”
“The ruins are Tel Drakkar,” Eamon said. “The Dragon temple in the south. What do the notes near the mine say?”
“It says that there are twenty four men and a Defiler there, all led by Sultan Massoud.”
“Another Sultan?” Eamon exclaimed. “Like Tyrus?”
“No,” Azim assured him. “Tyrus was a sorcerer. Massoud is simply a gold monger. That is probably why he is there.”
“The miners there are few,” Eamon said. “Though they are skilled with weapons, I doubt they could stand up against such a force. They may be dead already.”
“We are too far away to help them now,” Angen lamented. “But if Erenoth is at Tel Drakkar, he may be aware of the Jindala’s presence.”
Eamon nodded, staring at the map. “This is a valuable map,” he said. “We will keep it and consult it when needed.”
Wrothgaar suddenly looked up toward the door, causing the other knights to turn. Brynn and Daryth appeared on the walkway, quickly heading into the building. The knights gathered around them as they entered.
“Eamon,” Daryth began, “there was a dragon outside near the platform. It killed one of the guards as they came near us.”
“A dragon?” Eamon asked, confused. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Brynn replied. “It was the same shape as Erenoth, only smaller.”
Eamon shook his head. Why was there a dragon in Bray? Why was there a dragon at all? He thought the only dragons in existence were those at the temples; the Priests of Drakkar. Perhaps it was another creature similar to a dragon, or another priest he didn’t know of. Whatever the case, the creature had been stalking the village, killing the enemy guards.
“Once we meet up with Erenoth again,” Eamon said, “we can tell him of this dragon. Perhaps he can identify it.”
Light suddenly flashed outside the building, followed by a deafening explosion. The buildings and their connecting walkways shook with the impact. The knights rushed to the doorway to investigate.
Offshore, the Jindala ship moored in the bay was aflame. Kegs of black powder exploded randomly, sending more concussion waves into the town, and filling the sky with black smoke. Townspeople began to appear in their doorways, glaring in surprise and shock.
The remaining guards rushed along the walkways, commanding the people to return to their homes. Through the smoke, a winged form appeared, soaring through the chaos, sending jets of flame toward the burning ship.
“It’s the Dragon!” Brynn exclaimed. “It’s destroying the Jindala ship.”
The knights quickly made their way along the walkways, racing to get to the docks. Townspeople stood about, fearful of the dragon and shocked at the sight of the armored knights. Most of the women, Eamon saw, were veiled, having been forced by the Jindala to cover their faces.
“Remove your veils!” Eamon shouted to them. “You are free!”
Hearing Eamon’s voice, the Jindala guards issued the order to attack. They made their way through the maze of walkways to confront the knights. Wrothgaar raised his axe in the air, screaming his battle cry, and charged. The two guards who rushed toward him stopped in their tracks, backing away as the huge Northman barreled toward them. Wrothgaar swung his axe in a wide arc as he charged, pushing the guards back further.
Azim leaped from behind Wrothgaar to another walkway where more guards were drawing their bows. He landed among them, his twin scimitars flashing in the moonlight. He spun gracefully, slashing his swords in a deadly dance as he attacked. The guards backed away, dropping their bows and drawing their blades. Azim’s swords were like a wall of death, slashing and hacking at the guards, their own swords clashing with his. One guard ducked Azim’s blades, coming underneath with an upward slash. Azim blocked with his left sword, kicking the man in the face, and slashing his neck with his right. With the same motion he spun again, attacking with a blinding double slash, disarming another guard, and striking a blow in the man’s chest. The remaining guards stood motionless as Azim calmly stepped forward over the bodies of their comrades.
Angen barreled through another group of guards, knocking several of them off the walkway into the water below. He punched and kicked them back, making room to draw his great sword. With a howl and a downward chop, he charged them, splitting a Jindala skull and drawing back to thrust into another one’s gut. He withdrew his bloodied blade, growling and gritting his teeth in triumph.
Brynn and Daryth fired in unison, picking off guards that attempted to flank the other knights. Their arrows never missed their targets.
Eamon spotted another group approaching from the shore, apparently fleeing from the attacking dragon. He charged them, the Serpent’s Tongue glowing with his rage. He shifted forward with his blinding attack, disemboweling the first guard and sending him back into the guards behind him. They were thrown backward with the impact, dropping their blades and struggling to remain on the swaying walkway. Eamon charged, swinging his sword in a wide, downward arc. He sliced another guard open, and then crossed his blade to slash in a backhand attack. The remaining guard’s head fell to the ground, and Eamon kicked his body over the railing. He ran toward the shore to reach the docks, watching as the dragon continued its assault.
Wrothgaar continued to chop at his opponents, his axe hacking into the guards with sickening splats. When he had finished them off, he turned to join the rest of the knights as they rushed to the docks. Brynn and Daryth followed, firing at the remaining Jindala who crouched on the rooftops.
The dragon continued strafing the ship and the Jindala that had jumped overboard to escape the flames. Eamon raised his sword in the air, hoping the dragon would see it and recognize the blade. The creature soared in and out of the smoke, firing balls of flame into the already ruined ship. Then, grasping the flaming mast with its claws, it flapped its wings and pulled. With a loud crack, the mast broke off, toppling into the water below, crushing many of the fleeing enemies.
The townspeople cheered seeing the ship destroyed. The knights encouraged them, raising their own weapons in the air and shouting with them. Wrothgaar howled like a wolf, bringing a smile to Eamon’s face. Even Azim, who once fought alongside the Jindala, was cheering in victory.
As the knights and the townspeople watched, the dragon gave one final piercing screech and dove toward the docks. It flew closely over the knights’ heads, hissing as it went by, and disappeared into the night.
“Why is he leaving?” Brynn shouted.
Eamon sheathed his sword, watching the sky where the dragon had disappeared. “I don’t know,” he said. “The better question would be where it came from.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t one of the priests?” Wrothgaar asked. “They may have the ability to transform like Erenoth.”
“It could be,” Eamon replied. “I don’t know for sure. Like I said, Erenoth may know.”
The knights all sheathed their weapons, watching as the crowd of townspeople gathered around them. Eamon looked among them, seeing their expressions of confusion. He addressed them as best as he could.
“People of Bray,” he began. “I am Prince Eamon of the Northern Kingdom. These are the Knights of the Dragon. You are now free. The Jindala have been destroyed, and you may all return to your normal lives.”
Among the townspeople, an older man stepped forward. He was dressed in rags like the rest, but was scarred and built like a warrior. He approached Eamon, extending his hand in friendship.
“Greetings, Prince Eamon,” he said. “I am Velos, the dock master and former captain of the guards. We appreciate your help, and the help of the dragon.”
“It is good to meet you, Velos,” Eamon greeted him. “If you have any guards remaining, assemble them and prepare for another attack. The Jindala will return soon from the sea. We will remain to help you fight them off.”
“Most of my men were executed,” Velos said. “But there are many young men left who are willing to fight.”
“Good. Get them together. Do you have weapons?”
Velos scratched his head. “Not many,” he said. “The Jindala took most of them. We have plenty of fishing spears, but not much else that could be used to fight with.”
“Gather the weapons of the dead Jindala,” Eamon suggested. “Distribute them to the men accordingly. They will be mostly scimitars and spears. Make sure the bows are given to the best archers.”
“Right,” Velos replied. “I will have them ready by morning.”
Eamon nodded, turning to his knights as Velos left to gather his new men. “We will remain here to help them fight off the Jindala,” he said. “They are inexperienced and poorly armed, so we will have to make the best of what we have.”
“If there are any kegs of black powder left,” Brynn said, “we can rig them up to a simple catapult and fire them at the ships as they arrive.”
“Can you build one quickly?” Eamon asked.
“Angen and I can do it,” Brynn replied. “We did it once against the islanders. It didn’t take more than a few hours. We can use the ropes and wood from one of the older buildings.”
“Do it,” Eamon said. “But do it in the morning. I will arrange for some lodgings. We all need a good night’s sleep before the ships arrive.”
Brynn nodded, and the knights parted to mingle among the townspeople. They walked through the crowd, introducing themselves and humbly receiving the thanks of a grateful town. Eamon watched them proudly, grateful that his knights retained their humility in the face of such a great victory. Even with the large amount praise the people gave them, they shrugged off the compliments, stating they were simply doing their duty to the people.
He had chosen them well.
Khalid awoke refreshed and energetic, having finally gotten a good night’s sleep in the temple’s bedchamber. The bed had provided a comforting place to rest his weary body, and the atmosphere of the room had been conducive to relaxing and unwinding. Despite being constructed of stone, the chamber was warm and the air inside seemed to circulate well. It did not feel thick and damp as one would expect, but retained a comfortable level of humidity that rejuvenated Khalid’s whole body.
Though his sleep was not troubled and full of nightmares as it had been of late, he was disappointed that Imbra had not come to him in his dreams. The last time he dreamed of his beloved Father, he felt a sense of love and acceptance that he had not felt since he was a young man. He hoped that Imbra would visit him soon. For now, he was glad that he was able to commune with the Dragon, and his new friend.
Khalid yawned and stretched, swinging his feet over the edge of the bed. The floor was warm and inviting, and he stood up without hesitation. He stretched again, looking around the room. The armoire was still open, and inside, as before, a set of black robes hung prominently in the center. He went to the armoire and removed the robes, admiring the velvet and leather garments with awe. They looked like they would fit, and he gladly stripped off his trousers to find out.
He spread the suit out on the bed, noting the different layers. There was a pair of tight fitting wool trousers, which were to be worn underneath the black leather pants that were also present. An identical shirt of wool was underneath a black leather tunic with an elaborate belt. There were black boots with silver buckles, a pair of armored gauntlets, and armored shoulder pads.
He slowly dressed, looking at himself in the mirror as he did, and went back to the armoire for the cloak that completed his vestments. He returned to the mirror, admiring his new clothes. He no longer seemed like himself. He was more like the old Khalid; the dashing thief of Khem who picked the pockets and robbed the mansions of the rich. He laughed to himself as he pondered those days of his youth.
“Don’t forget your swords, my friend,” Erenoth said at the door.
Khalid turned, embarrassed at his self-admiration. “I was just remembering the days of my youth, when I wore clothes similar to these.”
Erenoth chuckled as he entered. “These clothes are different,” he said. “Not only will they hide you in the shadows, but they will eventually become a part of you. Over time, they will change to suit your fighting style, and may look different than they do now.”
“That is fascinating,” Khalid said, going back to admiring himself in the mirror.
“The knights’ dragon armor is the same,” Erenoth said. “When you meet them, you will notice that their armor is suited to each of them and their skills.”
Khalid turned, smiling at the thought of the knights. “I am looking forward to meeting them,” he said.
“Soon, my friend. Soon. For now, choose your weapons and meet me in the throne room.”
Khalid nodded, leaving the mirror to examine the many weapons that hung in the armoire. Among them, a pair of identical scimitars hung side by side, seeming to gleam in the dim light of Khalid’s bedchamber. He removed them, studying each blade. They were very detailed in their decoration; having the same symbols that adorned the throne carved into their blades. The handles were carved of onyx, with a dragon’s head on each pommel. Both blades were perfectly weighted and balanced, as if they were forged by the gods themselves.
Khalid was used to two-handed fighting, as he had perfected the technique as a young thief. His sword master had taught him the fighting style to accentuate his speed and ferocity. Though while in the service of The Lifegiver he had let his skills wane, he knew once he held a good set of blades in battle, the technique would come back to him. He looked forward to showing his skills to his new friend, and seeing that the priest also fought two-handed, he was curious as to Erenoth’s skills as well.
Khalid stuffed the blades into his belt, taking one last look at himself in the mirror, and joined Erenoth in the throne room.
“I’m ready,” he said, seeing Erenoth awaiting him patiently.
Erenoth nodded. “We will go to the training room,” he said, turning and motioning Khalid to follow. “I have no doubt your skills are formidable, but you must be prepared to fight multiple opponents. We will test your skills accordingly.”
Khalid followed the priest to an area north of the throne to a staircase that he had not previously seen. It was hidden among the rubble, but, like the throne, was perfect and unblemished by age.
“This temple will have to be rebuilt,” Khalid remarked.
“Yes,” Erenoth replied, continuing down the stairway. “Dol Drakkar is being rebuilt as we speak. My priests are going at the task. When your priests arrive, they will do so here.”
“Your priests. They are yours to choose, and yours to lead.”
Khalid furrowed his brow. “How will I choose them?” he asked.
“You will know when you meet them,” Erenoth replied. “When we are done here, we will find them.”
Khalid said nothing, but followed Erenoth downward. Ahead, the stairway brightened somewhat, a faint blue glow lighting their way as they descended. At the bottom, a large stone door stood, carved with the usual symbols, but with a pair of crossed swords adorning its center. They were scimitars like Khalid’s own.
“Have there been many priests who fight with scimitars?” Khalid asked.
“No,” Erenoth replied. “You are the first.”
“Then how is it that this symbol is a pair of scimitars?”
“The Dragon knows all,” Erenoth said. “Past, present, and future. You have always been destined to be a priest of the Dragon.”
Khalid grunted. “Interesting,” he said. “What of the priests who were here before? Did they not question the symbol as well?”
“No,” Erenoth said, simply. He opened the door, revealing a well-lit room beyond, and beckoned Khalid inside.
The chamber was richly decorated with armor, weapons, and statues of proud, fierce-looking warriors. There were many practice dummies about, along with targets for archery, and equipment to do repairs on armor and weapons—including a small forge. Khalid’s attention was drawn to the statues, none of which bore any resemblance to warriors of which Khalid was aware. They appeared plain and featureless, as if they were unfinished. They were, however, armed with weapons that also appeared plain and unfinished.
“What are those statues?” Khalid asked.
“You will see soon,” Erenoth replied, moving to the center of the room where a large sparring circle was carved into the floor. “Nothing is as it appears.”
Khalid nodded, not fully understanding Erenoth’s answer, but stepped into the circle. Erenoth stood motionless, locking eyes with Khalid.
“I can see by your eyes,” Erenoth said, “that you are confident in your abilities, yet maintain an aura of curiosity.”
“Yes,” Khalid agreed. “I am curious as to your fighting style, and your skill.”
Erenoth smiled, drawing his twin swords. “Then let’s have at it,” he said.
Khalid drew his scimitars, taking a scorpion stance, with one leg and sword forward, the other leg bent and to the back. His other blade was turned upward above him, facing Erenoth.
“You are left-handed,” Erenoth noted. “Just like the Prince.”
“Perhaps,” Khalid said, smiling.
Erenoth took his own battle stance; crouched low, with his blades crossed before him. They stood motionless, each waiting for the other to attack. Khalid smiled, knowing that Erenoth would not make the first move. Stepping forward quickly, he struck with his left sword, followed by a quick slash of his right. Erenoth leaped into the air, spinning past Khalid’s blades, striking back with a downward thrust as he passed. Khalid swung his blade back over his shoulder, blocking the attack, and ducked under, standing ready as Erenoth landed.
Erenoth turned, laughing as he saw Khalid prepared so quickly for another attack. Despite his stature, the man was incredibly quick and agile. Erenoth was impressed.
“You have been trained well, Khalid,” he said. “And your skill is impressive.”
“Speed and agility are important to a thief,” Khalid replied. “And you must face an enemy on occasion. Especially when you’re caught in the act.”
Erenoth lunged forward, rotating his blades in a smooth four strike attack. Khalid stepped back, blocking each strike in turn, and adding a double horizontal slice of his own. Erenoth skillfully deflected Khalid’s blades, ducking and spinning to strike low. Khalid leaped forward over Erenoth as he crouched, landing behind him and spinning his own blades in a counter attack. Erenoth rolled onto his back, blocking and flipping over onto his feet.
“Well done,” he said. “Obviously your skills against a single opponent are more than adequate. Let’s test your skill against multiple opponents.”
“How?” Khalid replied.
Erenoth sheathed his blades, going to the center of the sparring circles. With a clap of his hands, he spoke into the air, summoning the Dragon’s spirit.
“Arise,” he said.
The statues Khalid had seen earlier began to glow. Slowly, they changed shape, taking the form of Jindala warriors. Khalid smiled, realizing why the statues had previously been featureless; they were transformable training drones, powered by the Dragon himself.
Four of the statues stepped off their pedestals, walking toward the sparring circle. Khalid moved to the center as Erenoth stepped away, and the Jindala drones moved to surround him. Two of them took the form of swordsmen with dual blades; the other two took the form of spearmen. Each of them readied his weapon, and took a battle stance, awaiting the order to attack.
“Are you ready, my friend?” Erenoth asked.
“Waiting for you,” Khalid said, smiling in anticipation.
The spearmen behind Khalid immediately thrust their weapons, jabbing at Khalid fiercely. Khalid spun, deflecting the attacks, and dashing between the swordsmen’s blades. From behind them, he rotated, slicing his blades at shoulder level, striking one swordsman in the back of the neck. The other swordsman blocked, stepping back to join the spearmen. The injured warrior froze, returning to its featureless state, and walked back to its pedestal. Khalid rushed forward, spinning his blades in a crossed attack. His target thrust his spear forward, pulling it back quickly to slash at Khalid as he spun out of the way. Khalid chopped at the spear, severing its tip and slicing at the spearman’s arm.
The spearman froze, out of the game, and returned to its pedestal. Khalid now faced one swordsman and a spearman. Erenoth nodded, impressed at how quickly Khalid had dispatched the two opponents. He knew the man would have no trouble finishing off the remaining two.
Quickly, Khalid rushed forward, alternating his blades in diagonal slashes. The spearman jabbed, thrusting fiercely and with high speed. Khalid sliced the tip of his spear off, finishing him with a backhand slash of his other blade. He then spun around behind the defeated spearman, dodging a downward chop of the swordsman’s blade and slashing at his gut.
The two opponents froze and returned to their pedestals, silent and defeated. As Khalid watched, the statues returned to their original state, becoming stone-like and still once more. He sheathed his blades, bowing to Erenoth.
“Excellent work,” Erenoth remarked, returning the bow. “You have proved yourself worthy of battle. Now you must commune with the Dragon once more to receive his blessing.”
“I would think the flames would have been sufficient,” Khalid replied.
“That was an attempt to satisfy your need to be purged,” Erenoth reminded him, chuckling. “The Dragon must give you his blessing, as he did myself and the Onyx Dragon.”
“Very well,” Khalid nodded. “I’m ready.”
Erenoth nodded, going to the rear wall of the sparring chamber. A door was there that Khalid had not noticed before. It was perfectly square and decorated with paintings and carvings of dragons and other magnificent beasts. The construction was well blended with the wall, appearing as merely another segment between two supports. Erenoth placed his hand on the left column. With the sound of grinding stone, the door slowly slid inward and to the left, opening the way to the chamber beyond.
Hesitantly, Khalid stepped into the room, gasping at the richly appointed walls and floor. They were black, trimmed in platinum and purple gemstones. Each metallic pattern was in the shape of a squarish knot, similar to the decorations and symbols that Khalid had seen in the homes of Eirenoch’s peasants and its flags. He admired their beauty, feeling the powerful emotion they emanated. The patterns were obviously divine.
In the back of the chamber, a large dragon statue stood on a pedestal, reared back in a majestic attack stance. Its wings were extended, fully spread and prepared for flight. Its head was facing forward, mouth opened, teeth bared. Khalid gazed at the statue in wonder. It appeared exactly as the Dragon himself, yet seemed more godlike and menacing.
“This is the Dragon’s vessel,” Erenoth explained. “This is how you will receive his blessing and make your offerings as a priest.”
“I will not sit on the throne?” Khalid asked.
“Only when addressing your priests or the general populace,” Erenoth replied. “There is no need to be in the physical presence of the Dragon unless he requests it. The idol is sufficient. Here, he will hear your prayers and offer you guidance.”
“What do I do?”
Erenoth approached the statue, lowering his head in respect, and knelt before it. He motioned for Khalid to join him. Khalid bowed his head as well, and knelt beside Erenoth, looking forward to communing with the Dragon once more.
“Father,” Erenoth began. “Bless our new brother, and give him your strength and your power. For he is worthy of your love and your guidance. Make him one with your greatness, and protect him and keep him.”
Khalid closed his eyes, feeling the chamber begin to hum and vibrate. His heart raced, and his blood pumped hot. His breath quickened in anticipation, and he felt his skin begin to warm and tingle.
The Dragon was present.
Welcome, Khalid. It is good to see you again.
Khalid opened his eyes. Before him, the statue glowed with a warm red light, and its eyes were alive and trained upon him.
“I am here to serve,” he said.
You have done well. Your skills in battle are quite impressive. You will be a valuable asset to our crusade, and to the land of Eirenoch.
“I am proud to serve you, my lord.”
Stand, Khalid, and take the chalice at my feet.
Khalid stood and approached the pedestal. A platinum chalice had appeared at the statue’s feet, filled with a glowing, red liquid. Khalid bent down to take it in his hands, glancing back at Erenoth. The priest still knelt with his head bowed as if in a trance.
Drink, my son, and receive my blessing and my power.
Khalid placed the chalice against his lips, smelling the sweet aroma of the warm liquid. It was reminiscent of grape wine with a hint of cinnamon and cloves, something one would drink to cure a fever. Hesitantly, he drank, letting the sweet liquid pour over his tongue. It felt warm and comforting as he swallowed, tingling his throat and stomach like the lotus nectar he had drank as a young man. He liked the sensation, and continued drinking until the chalice was empty. He then returned it to the pedestal and sat next to Erenoth, cross-legged and anticipating the effects of the wine.
The warm sensation spread throughout his body, coursing through his veins like a hot tonic. He felt the warmth grow stronger as it penetrated his muscles and skin, tightening and strengthening them. He sat back, resting himself with his palms behind him, and closed his eyes.
He thought back to his youth, a time of his life when he lived with honor and respect. The people loved him, seeing him as a hero to the poor and downtrodden, and he relished the thought of renewing that honor. For most of the past thirty years, he was in the service of The Lifegiver, and had forgotten about the people. He became the very type of person he hated; selfish, cruel, intolerant of failure, and greedy beyond any of the Sultans and Sheikhs he once robbed. But now, here in the presence of the Dragon, he would become a new man. He would be his old self again and live a life of virtue in service of the Firstborn.
Just as Khalid finished that thought, the tightening in his body began to feel uncomfortable. His stomach knotted, his muscles ached, and a wave of nausea came over him. He sat upright, leaning forward to put pressure on his aching midsection. It was then that he noticed the burning sensation under his skin. It felt as if he was being blasted by hot sand, and whipped by a dozen flails.
Khalid rose up onto his hands and knees as the pain increased. He turned to Erenoth, who remained in his trance-like kneeling position. The knots in his stomach worsened, giving rise to a lump on his throat. With a wretch, he vomited on the floor before him, spewing a thick yellow liquid that glopped onto the stone and splattered like oil. He groaned with the pain, trying desperately to expel more of the foul liquid as it filled his gut. Wave after wave spewed forth, covering the floor, and he struggled to breath between each wretch. Then, the sensation underneath his skin began to change, going from a burning, to a tightening. A different tightening than before, this time more painful and frightening.
“Erenoth,” he gasped. “Help me.”
The priest remained motionless, despite the growing pool of strange vomit that was collecting around the two men. Khalid rose to his knees and fell back, writhing in excruciating pain as his body continued to transform.
“Dragon,” Khalid whispered. “What is happening?”
Your body is changing. Let it happen and do not fear. Erenoth survived, and so will you.
The pain is short lived. I am sorry you must endure it, but it necessary. It is not to punish you or redeem you, but to change you physically. When the process is complete, you will be the High Priest of Tel Drakkar. You will be a draconian.
Khalid continued to squirm as the pain flowed through him. Every part of his body burned, and his skin felt as if it were going to burst. He felt his chest tighten, and he reached up to cover his aching heart. It was beating stronger than he ever remembered and the sensation was disturbing. He had heard of older men dying of heart pain, and was frightened at thought.
“My heart is going to burst,” he cried through gritted teeth.
You will be fine, Khalid. Your heart is rebuilding itself. Every organ in your body is becoming stronger and better than it was before. Soon, you will be perfect and unspoiled by age. Be patient.
Khalid continued breathing heavily as his lungs burned. The breaths were shallow and painful, like stab wounds in his back and chest. He writhed, struggling to draw in breath. There was a feeling of suffocation that seemed familiar to him, as if he were reliving having drowned as a child. Through the blur of pain, he could almost see his mentor leaning over him after bringing him back from death. But the vision was an illusion brought on by his pain, and as he reached up to touch his mentor’s face, his fingers found nothing. Frustrated, and in agony, Khalid collapsed into darkness.
Jodocus and Farouk stood amidst a great magical circle inscribed in the tile atop Jodocus’ tower. The circle had archaic symbols carved along its circumference, and a large triangle was centered within it. The two were just inside the inner circle, standing at the points of the triangle. Jodocus held his staff straight out before him, resting its base on one point, and Farouk stood in the same fashion at the point to Jodocus’ left. The remaining point was empty, and both Druid and apprentice waited for its occupant to arrive.
Several hours earlier, Jodocus had summoned Maedoc to join them in this communion. Though perfectly capable of communing with the Dragon themselves, summoning the Great Mother required the power of three. In times past, Jodocus, Maedoc, and Traegus had taken their places in the circle. But now, with the departure of Traegus, the trio had been incomplete, and neither the Druid nor the Seer were able to commune with the Earth herself.
Lately, however, with Farouk’s power growing, Jodocus had hope of communing once again. Farouk’s mastery of the abilities he had been given were a telltale sign that he was ready to assist in the ritual. Maedoc had not questioned Jodocus’ suggestion, fully believing that if the Druid had faith in his new apprentice, then he could as well.
“He is coming,” Jodocus stated.
Farouk turned to look at the vacant point on the triangle, watching as the wispy figure of Maedoc faded into existence with the appearance of a growing bubble of energy. Maedoc was transparent at first, but as he fully materialized, he grew more solid, and small, residual flashes of energy sparked over his body. The man was somewhat older, possibly in his sixties. His hair was long and unkempt, dry and graying. His robes were gray, plain and inconspicuous. The only decoration was the belt Maedoc wore. It was purple silk, emblazoned with white dragons. His staff was black, made of a light metal, and bore a resemblance to a great spear with a four bladed point.
“Welcome, Maedoc,” Jodocus greeted him. Maedoc nodded in respect at the Druid, and then turned to Farouk.
“This is my apprentice, Farouk,” Jodocus continued.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Maedoc,” Farouk said, nodding his head.
“And you, as well,” Maedoc returned the greeting. “Jodocus has told me your story, and I am intrigued. From what he says, your abilities as a Druid are innate.”
“Nature has always been in my blood,” Farouk said. “It was only when I came here that I realized I was meant to preserve it.”
“Then I welcome you, my friend,” Maedoc said, smiling.
“Now that the pleasantries are done,” Jodocus said, “let us begin. Farouk, focus on the spirit of the Earth itself, as you did with the willow. Your thoughts will assist in opening a portal for the Great Mother to project her energy. She will appear to us in the center of the triangle, and we may speak to her.”
“How will she appear?” Farouk asked, curiously.
“She may take any form she wishes,” Jodocus said. “But she prefers a form similar to that of the Dryad we met before. Take note, however, her presence is very powerful, much more powerful than that of the Dragon. If you feel that you cannot continue, step away from the circle. There is no need for you to over stimulate yourself.”
“I understand,” Farouk said.
“And remember to keep your mind open,” Maedoc added. “If your mind wanders or your focus is shattered, you will no longer be able to speak with her. But fear not, this is your first time and none of us expect perfection, not even her.”
Farouk nodded, closing his eyes and focusing his thoughts as instructed. Maedoc and Jodocus began their focus as well, concentrating their thoughts on the Earth and calling to the Great Mother. The three men stood in silence, each one adding to the thoughts of the others and strengthening the point of energy in the center of the circle.
A tiny green light began to materialize, growing larger and brighter, spinning faster and faster. Tendrils of green energy began to swirl around it as it picked up speed and size. After several seconds, the light began to take the shape of an orb, swirling with tiny clouds and bolts of electricity that arced to the open air around it.
Farouk saw that the orb looked like the Earth itself. He could see the continents and islands that dotted its surface, and the moon also began to come into existence. It slowly spun around the Earth, slowing its pace as the orb of the Earth began to settle in a stable rotation. The orb began to grow again, becoming as large as Farouk himself. It was a beautiful sight and Farouk’s heart began to pound with joy. He watched as the orb began to pulse and throb, seeming to match his own heartbeat. He breathed heavily, never taking his eyes off the orb, and never allowing a single stray thought to enter his mind.
The orb began to change shape, taking on a vaguely human form. The surface contracted and reconfigured its shape to form a body, limbs, and a featureless head. Farouk concentrated on strengthening the link, allowing the Great Mother to emerge fully. His efforts were more effective than either Maedoc or Jodocus could have guessed. The link completed much more quickly than it ever had before, and the two experienced elders were surprised and impressed with Farouk’s power.
The green energy continued to swirl around the human shape, filling in the gaps and transparent parts until a fully formed female body stood before the three of them. She was very similar to the Dryad in appearance, but with a billowing gown of shimmering energy and long flowing hair. She was pure spirit, but somehow seemed tangible and fully corporeal. Farouk’s eyes widened and a smile spread across his face. He gazed into the eyes of the Great Mother, who had chosen to face him and address him first.
“Hello, Farouk,” the Great Mother said. “I have been waiting for this moment since the beginning.”
Farouk said nothing, but struggled to maintain his composure as the spirit spoke to him.
“Mother,” Jodocus said. “We are honored to be in your presence, and we ask that you commune with us. We are in need of your guidance.”
The Great Mother turned to the Druid, glancing at Maedoc as she did. “Hello, Jodocus,” she said. “Ask me what you will.”
“I have the feeling,” he began, “that the Dragon’s knowledge of The Lifegiver is limited due to his imprisonment. We need all of the information you can give us regarding this malevolent spirit’s nature.”
“The Dragon is the embodiment of my wrath and passion,” she replied. “His knowledge is indeed limited. Though he did battle with the spirit known as Absu in the beginning, he was not alone.”
“What do you mean, Mother?” Jodocus asked.
“My child Kronos assisted him,” the Great Mother replied. “Kronos, who embodies my strength and will. He, too, lies imprisoned within the Earth, but he can be freed.”
“How?” Maedoc asked.
“His bonds can be broken by natural means. But there is danger involved. A disaster strong enough to break his bonds could kill many thousands of innocent people.”
“Where does Kronos lie?” Jodocus asked.
“He lies in the North,” the Great Mother said. “In the land of giants.”
“I would not want to see Wrothgaar’s people put in danger.” Maedoc said. “They are strong warriors and we will need them in the upcoming battles.”
“There is another way.”
The Great Mother turned to Farouk, who straightened. His heart pounded in anticipation of her answer.
“One of you must travel to the North and wake him,” she said. “Jodocus and Maedoc are too old to make the journey. But you, Farouk are young and strong.”
“I will do whatever you ask, Mother,” Farouk said. “I am yours to command.”
The Great Mother smiled, approaching Farouk and caressing his face. “I know, my child,” she said. “And I know you will succeed. You are the only one who can do this.”
Maedoc looked at Farouk, nodding his approval. “I believe he can, as well,” he said. “I can sense his strength and will.”
“And I concur,” Jodocus agreed.
The Great Mother returned to the center of the triangle, facing Jodocus once more. “Before I speak to Farouk alone,” she said, “ask me what you will.”
“What is the nature of The Lifegiver?” Jodocus asked. “What is his true being?”
“The Lifegiver has existed from the beginning,” she answered. “When the Universe came into being, The Lifegiver, known as the Absu or the darkness, was created. Its purpose was to cause chaos, the very chaos that is required to create order.”
The three men winced slightly at the contradiction. The Great Mother smiled at their confusion. “To create matter,” she continued, “energy must be concentrated.”
The Great Mother summoned a cloud of energy above her; a featureless ball of light that floated motionless.
“This is complete order,” she said. “Without chaos, the Universe would remain this way forever. It is only by adding chaos that parts of this energy cloud can be concentrated and stars can form. Once these small eddies of chaos are able to draw enough material into a point, the forces of the Universe can begin creation. It is also this chaos that pushed the Universe into this shape to begin with. It was Absu’s intention to undo the Universe’s introspection and dissolve it. What Absu did not realize was that chaos was the very reason it was created.”
“This is what I feared,” Jodocus stated. “Undoing order was the intention, but creation itself was the result. Now he seeks to destroy all life.”
“Correct,” the Great Mother said.
“Then how did Absu enter this plane of existence?” Maedoc inquired. “And why did he choose this world?”
“Absu has destroyed many worlds,” the Great Mother replied. “Directly or through his tools; the voids that exist in space. This world exists in many planes, and throughout all the planes of existence, it is the most abundant with life. Therefore, the power of creation is strong here. Absu was able to open a small link between his dimension and this one through this well of life. Through this link, he was able to communicate with a mortal being here.”
“Tyrus,” Farouk said.
“Yes,” she answered. “Many thousands of years ago, when mankind was still in an age of barbarism and primitive ways, he found Tyrus. Absu communicated with him, convincing him to assist in opening the link and allow his darkness through.”
“And he cannot be destroyed?” Maedoc mused.
“No, only banished from this realm. His existence is required for the Universe to continue creation. It is only at the end of time that Absu and the Universe of matter and energy can be reunited.”
The three of them contemplated this revelation, unsure as to its entire meaning. Even the ancient Jodocus was at a loss. Only Traegus, with his knowledge of science and chemistry, would even begin to understand.
“There is one other thing, Mother,” Jodocus said. “There was a creature, a wraith, in the forest near Morduin. Where did it come from, and why was it here?”
The Great Mother turned to Jodocus. “The dead walk among you,” she replied. “The Lifegiver upsets the balance. You know this. He has the power to raise the dead and to steal the souls of the living. Even now, his strongest creations, the Enkhatar, are on their way to Eirenoch, and they bring death with them.”
“Death?” Farouk said.
“The Lifegiver has created an army of undead. In this land, they are known as wights. They are soulless humans, trapped in their twisted and grotesque bodies, under the control of their master. They can multiply by transforming those they kill. They must be dealt with first, before their numbers are allowed to grow. The Priests of Drakkar can assist you.”
“Tell me, Mother,” Farouk said. “Where is Erenoth now?”
“Erenoth trains a new priest,” the Great Mother said. “One who will be his counterpart at Tel Drakkar. He is one of your kinsmen, Farouk. A man named Khalid.”
Farouk nodded, recognizing the name. “I know him,” he said. “And he is now a servant of the Dragon?”
“Yes, Imbra has convinced him to serve the Dragon and bring his courage and will to this battle. He will be a great asset in the future.”
“Who or what are the Enkhatar, exactly?” Farouk asked.
The Great Mother lowered her head in sorrow, knowing the answer would not be pleasing to Farouk. “You know of them,” she said. “They were once warriors of great honor and respect in your lands.”
“The Keynakin,” Farouk said with a lamented tone.
The Great Mother nodded, floating closer to Farouk to ease his pain. “The Lifegiver took their souls,” she explained. “He then twisted them and corrupted them into creatures of utter darkness. Fault them not, my child. They, like you, fell under the spell of Absu. Though their bodies are under the control of The Lifegiver, their souls are pure. However, they are trapped in torment. They must be freed from their prison. This will be the task of the Knights of the Dragon.”
“How will the Knights find them?” Maedoc asked.
“The Enkhatar will seek them out,” the Great Mother replied. “Farouk’s brother, Azim, carries the sword of their leader, Sulemain. They will surely try to retrieve it.”
Farouk’s eyes widened at the thought. “How did Azim come by this weapon?” he asked.
“It was wielded by a Jindala noble,” she answered. “It was powerless to this noble, but came to life once again when held by a righteous man, your brother.”
“I have no doubt that Azim will wield it with honor,” Jodocus remarked. “He is a noble man with a great spirit and a pure heart.”
Farouk silently thanked Jodocus for his words, knowing that Azim’s purity of heart was quite obvious, especially to the Druid. Jodocus had previously held Azim’s own scimitar, sensing that it had never spilled the blood of the innocent.
“The sword of Sulemain is a powerful weapon,” Farouk added. “And Azim’s heart would be pure enough to unleash it.”
“It is true, my child,” the Great Mother agreed. “Azim was born to wield it.”
Farouk smiled and nodded.
“Jodocus,” the Great Mother addressed the Druid. “Eamon needs your guidance. Go to him when you are able. He is in Bray. He will ask about a dragon that was spotted in the sky. I have no answer to give other than that I do not sense any life coming from this creature.”
“I don’t understand,” Jodocus replied.
“The Druaga may know,” the Great Mother said. “They may have had a hand in its appearance. Seek them out if need be.”
“I will tell him,” Jodocus replied. “And I thank you for speaking to us. It has been a great honor, as always, to be in your presence.”
The Great Mother then turned to Farouk, approaching him and placing her hand upon his chest. Farouk swallowed, feeling the power of her touch flow through his body.
“My child,” she said. “I will give you the power to break one of Kronos’ bonds. He has the strength to break the rest. I wish I did not have to send you on this task, but I have no choice. I do not wish to summon a star to fall from the sky. Such an object would cause too much destruction and I cannot bear to kill any more of my children.”
“I understand, Mother,” Farouk said. “I am honored to do your bidding.”
“I will imprint the location of Kronos’ prison into your mind. This way, you will not need a map to reach your destination. Be wary, Farouk. You will face many dangers along the way. The Northmen are suspicious and may mistake you for a Jindala. But their shamans will know that you are a Druid. Do not hesitate to demand to speak to them if you cross paths with their warriors.”
“I will remember this,” Farouk said. “Thank you.”
“And lastly, remember that once you reach Kronos, your task is complete. You may return with my blessing. Kronos and his warriors will know what to do from there.”
“If I am asked,” Farouk said, “am I to reveal my mission?”
“To the Northmen, yes,” the Great Mother replied. “Kronos is their Grandfather. The Father of all of their gods. If they know you are there to free him, they will be sympathetic to your cause, and may aid you in some way. But you will have to convince the King of the North, Cannuck. He is a shrewd man, but is fair and reasonable.”
“I understand,” Farouk replied.
“Very well, my children,” the Great Mother said. “I grow weary and must rest. The Lifegiver has drained me beyond my ability to commune for long periods of time.”
“Thank you for your wisdom,” Maedoc said, bowing in respect. Jodocus bowed as well, prompting Farouk to do the same.
“Goodbye, my children,” she said, fading from sight with a subtle sparkling of earthen magic.
The three were left to recover from the powerful presence of the Great Mother. Such communions were taxing on the soul, even more so than a communion with the Dragon. The Great Mother was the source of all life, and even in her weakened state, her power was overwhelming. Farouk, being a novice at such awesome rituals, was moved beyond words. He stood frozen, contemplating the encounter, and desperately trying to make sense of his feelings.
He felt the hands of Maedoc and Jodocus upon him. It was a great comfort. The two sensed his confusion and his outpouring of emotion. They both remembered the way they felt after their first communion with the Great Mother and knew that Farouk would need assistance coming out of it.
“Easy now, my friend,” Jodocus said. “Sit if you need to. The Great Mother is a powerful spirit, indeed, and her presence can be hard to get used to.”
Farouk sat with the help of the others, crossing his legs and rubbing his face with his hands. “I am...awed beyond words,” he gasped. “And apprehensive as well. This task is so much to bear.”
“We will speak of it later,” Jodocus said. “For now, it is best that you rest and regain your strength.”
“Yes,” Maedoc agreed. “I will remain if Jodocus doesn’t mind. I will provide you with some tools you can use on your journey.”
“It would be most appreciated, Maedoc,” Farouk thanked him.
“Let’s go inside now, Farouk,” Jodocus suggested. “I will prepare a tonic for your nerves. Maybe some lotus tea would be nice?”
“Yes,” Farouk replied. “That sounds good.”
Maedoc and Jodocus helped Farouk to his feet, firmly holding him up as they entered the stairwell into the tower. Farouk was glad for the help, and that both of them were there to counsel him before his journey. It would be a difficult task, for sure, and he would need all the help he could get. He would be traveling in a foreign land, with a climate that was the complete opposite of his homeland. And he would encounter people that would see him as nothing more than an invading Jindala. It was a prospect he did not look forward to.
Never in his life did Farouk ever imagine he would be asked to perform such a difficult task. His life had been fairly uneventful up until now. But he knew his new life would lead him back to a path of righteousness, and he wasn’t one to turn down the chance to redeem himself. The Lifegiver was now, and had always been, the enemy. He would do all he could to help send the being back to its own dimension. His first step was to become a Druid. He did that. Now, he would serve the Great Mother and all of the Firstborn. To do this, he would follow her wishes to the letter, regardless of the danger. He would attempt to awaken Kronos and set him free; a task that would helpto ensure the Lifegiver’s defeat.
Morning had broken over the town of Bray. Mist slowly rolled in from the sea, floating among the wooden buildings and swirling gently in the wind. There was a chill in the air, and the townsfolk who had gathered with their weapons held their cloaks tight about them to keep warm.
Along the cliffs that looked over the coast and surrounded the town, Bray’s best archers were lined up. Within their groups, Azim, Daryth, and Brynn stood command. Small fires and barrels of tar were distributed among the men for the upcoming defense. Each man was equipped with dozens of arrows that he could coat with tar and set aflame. The Jindala would meet a cloud of fiery missiles upon their arrival.
At the east side of town, Angen and Wrothgaar manned the quickly fashioned catapult. It was a simple but effective design. Timbers had been tied together into a long shaft, which was then lashed to the supporting piers. The shaft was placed upright, and a rope tied to its basket. Wrothgaar, who stood waiting about twenty yards behind it, would wind the rope around a crank-equipped wheel to draw the catapult back. Angen would then place a barrel of black powder in the basket, and the Northman would release the contraption by letting go of the crank.
Eamon gazed at the catapult with doubt. Though Brynn and Angen had both had confidence in the makeshift weapon, its structure seemed too crude and simple to be very effective.
“We need to test this thing,” the Prince said. “We’ll have to see if it will throw a barrel far enough to reach the ships when they arrive.”
“No problem,” Angen replied. “Wrothgaar, pull it back!”
The Northman nodded, grasping the metal crank and beginning the process of pulling back the shaft. As he cranked, the shaft bent, slowly curving back toward where Angen stood. Though apparently flexible, the shaft creaked and groaned as it neared Angen’s platform. Eamon gritted his teeth, expecting it to snap. To his surprise, the shaft gave enough to line up the basket to be loaded. Nodding, Angen grabbed a barrel full of stones, equaling the weight of the black powder barrels, and dropped it into the basket.
When the barrel was in the right place, he turned and nodded to Wrothgaar. The Northman let loose the crank, quickly stepping back to avoid the spinning handle. The shaft snapped back into the vertical position with a twang, hurling the barrel as far as the eye could see. Smiling, Eamon watched the barrel soar through the air, only to splash into the surf several hundred yards out from shore.
“Ha!” Angen shouted. “It works!”
“Nice job, men,” Eamon said, smiling. He looked to the cliffs, seeing Brynn nodding in the distance. The Prince raised his fist in the air, signaling his approval.
“How many barrels do we have?” Eamon shouted to Angen.
“Eight,” Angen replied. “If our aim is good, that should be enough to sink three or four ships.”
“Excellent,” Eamon exclaimed. “Let’s hope they sail close enough and in the right direction.”
“Let’s hope our dragon friend returns to join in the fun,” Wrothgaar added.
Eamon was still at a loss as to the nature of this mysterious beast. It had been stalking the town, silently killing the Jindala guards, and had attacked the enemy ship. It was obviously an enemy of the Jindala, but whether or not it was a friend to the Knights remained to be seen. Though he had not heard of any wild dragons not associated with the great Dragon himself, Eamon still considered the possibility that this was the case. A wild dragon was not unheard of, after all. There had once been thousands of dragons in the past.
Perhaps they were returning.
Along the ridge, Brynn made his way behind the line of archers to where Azim was standing. The former Jindala stared out over the shore and off to the South. His eyes were squinted in the morning sun, and his face was grave.
“How many ships do you anticipate?” Brynn asked him as he approached.
Azim turned to him, and then looked back over the sea. “The ships can carry fifty men a piece,” he replied. “I don’t anticipate a large force. The Jindala are not aware of our army in Gaellos. The men that will arrive here are meant to support the larger army from Faerbane that was dispatched to retake the city. Their numbers should be few.”
“That’s good news.”
“The only problem will be luring them into the line of fire,” Azim added. “The catapult can only fire in one direction.”
Brynn chuckled, clapping Azim on the back. “It does have its limitations,” he said. “But that’s the price you pay for the lack of materials and time.”
Azim smiled. “I’m sure it will work just fine.”
“I hope so,” Brynn said. “We only have eight tries.”
Azim returned his gaze to the sea, scanning the horizon for any sign of enemy ships. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Brynn was fidgeting, kicking the dirt with his boots.
“What is it, my friend?” he asked the younger man.
“I was wondering what it was that made you doubt The Lifegiver.” Brynn said.
“I had always had my doubts,” Azim replied. “But it wasn’t until I came to this island that I realized how much truth was behind them.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” Azim began, “Imbra, in our culture, is the god of peace, love, and knowledge. He was always known to be a kind, compassionate entity who helped our people thrive in the face of any obstacle. But The Lifegiver is the complete opposite. He is cruel, spiteful, and cares nothing for life. Everyone knows this, but his power has blinded the people to that fact. It was the Dragon’s strength in this land that allowed my brother and I to see through this mask.”
“How did you each know about the other’s doubts?” Brynn asked.
“It was a younger soldier named Malik,” Azim explained. “It was he who had the courage to speak of it to Farouk and I. We were both afraid to voice our feelings to anyone for fear of execution, even each other.”
“Malik was very brave, then.”
“Yes he was,” Azim agreed. “I mourn his death at the hands of the Defiler, much the same way you mourn the death of Fergis.”
“The bravest are always the ones who are robbed of greatness,” Brynn said, sadly.
“Fergis will be remembered for his bravery, and his sacrifice to save the people of Taryn,” Azim reminded him. “He died with honor and in a manner befitting of a warrior. He died in battle. He will be remembered for that.”
“He was the closest thing to a father I’ve ever had,” Brynn lamented.
“You didn’t know your father?” Azim asked.
“Not well,” Brynn replied. “The only thing I ever got from him is my sword. It was a great gift, but I would rather have had a father.”
Azim put his hand on Brynn’s shoulder. “If Fergis meant as much to you as you say, then he is your true father. Remember him as such.”
Brynn nodded, smiling. “I always will,” he said. “Thank you, Azim. You’re a very wise man.”
“Not really,” Azim said, laughing. “Farouk is the wise one. I’m the warrior.”
Brynn returned to his place in the line of archers. Azim watched him go, realizing how much he liked Brynn, and felt a kinship with him and the other knights like no other he had ever experienced. He was proud to call them his brothers, and would gladly fight with them until the end.
Further down the line, Daryth stood among his own men, keeping watch over the southern arm of the bay. He fully expected the Jindala ships to be cloaked in some type of magic, with only the faint green mist that Erenoth had described signaling their approach. So far, no one had seen anything, and the young knight began to wonder if the ships were even coming.
As he continued to scan the distant waters, something caught his attention from the corner of his eye. He turned westward, where the sky was clearer. Among the clouds, a tiny black dot appeared, moving in a random pattern. The object was diving, rising again, and swaying from side to side.
“What is that?” a soldier asked.
Daryth squinted into the distance, trying to make out the objects shape. “I can’t tell,” he said. “It’s too far away.”
“Could be the dragon we saw last night,” another soldier said.
“I hope so,” Daryth said. “We could use his help.”
Eamon saw the object in the distance as well. He could not make out its shape, but noted its erratic flight. Whatever it was, it was coming toward them, and seemed to be alive. In his heart, he hoped it was the dragon that attacked the Jindala ship the night before. Such an ally was always valuable, especially considering the uneven odds of the combatants.
“What is it?” Wrothgaar asked, approaching from behind.
“It may be the dragon,” Eamon replied. “If so, this may be our chance to find out more about it.”
“It’s the dragon,” said a voice from behind them. The two men turned, seeing Jodocus sitting on the edge of a walkway, his feet dangling far above the swampy surface below.
“Jodocus!” the two men said in unison.
“Hello, my friends,” the Druid greeted them. “I see you have prepared the men here for battle.”
Eamon looked out over the green troops, nodding. “They’re frightened,” he said. “But they have no choice but to defend themselves.”
“They’re lucky they have you to lead them,” Jodocus said.
“Do you have any knowledge of this dragon?” Eamon asked.
Jodocus shook his head. “No,” he said. “But we’ll find out soon won’t we? But, that’s not why I came. You want to know the nature of the new creatures that are in route to the island, yes?”
Eamon nodded. “We overheard a conversation between Jindala soldiers. Azim says these creatures are from our legends.”
“Yes,” Jodocus said. “The Lifegiver is using the fears of the people to break their will. When these creatures arrive, they will strike terror into the hearts of all who behold them. Maybe even more so than the Enkhatar.”
“What are they?” Wrothgaar asked.
Jodocus hopped down onto the walkway beside the two men, landing with a groan. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “That was a bad idea.”
Angen joined them, nodding to Jodocus as he walked up. “Hello Jodocus,” he said.
Jodocus smiled, patting Angen on the shoulder. “The Lifegiver has the power to steal souls,” he explained. “He has performed this ghastly deed to feed on the legends of Eirenoch. Wights, they are called; soulless monsters whose only motivation is to spread the agony that they suffer. Their existence is one of pain and anguish. They feel nothing else, and it fuels their wrath.”
“They can make others like them,” Angen added. “Anyone who dies at the hands of a wight becomes one as well.”
“Correct,” Jodocus said.
“How can we fight such a creature?” Eamon asked.
“Only a priest can destroy them,” Jodocus replied. “Erenoth has the power, and soon, Khalid will as well.”
“What of the priests of Drakkar?” Eamon asked.
“They have the power to dispel them,” Jodocus said. “And when Khalid creates his own priests, they will wield that power too. But only the high priests can fully destroy them. Let them worry about the wights. Your focus will be the Enkhatar. They will pursue the Knights, especially Azim. He wields the sword of Sulemain.”
Eamon furrowed his brow. “Why do they seek the sword?” he asked.
“They are the Keynakin,” Jodocus said. “Or they used to be. They will seek the weapon of their leader, as it is the most valuable to them. It is only by bringing the sword to the tomb of Sulemain can The Lifegiver enslave him as well.”
“That must not happen,” Eamon said. “Such a disgrace would destroy any hope the people of Khem might have. Seeing their true prophet enslaved would spell the end for them.”
“True,” Jodocus said. “Sulemain must be left to rest in peace.”
“Where is Farouk?” Angen asked, suddenly realizing Jodocus’ apprentice was not with him.
“Farouk serves the Great Mother now,” the Druid explained. “She has asked him to perform an important task. It is one that will elevate him above all other Druids in the world.”
“What task is this?” Eamon inquired.
“You must not know,” Jodocus replied. “For knowing his task may endanger him. But when he returns, he will surely share his tale. All I can tell you is that it will be a dangerous task, but the outcome may aid us in this struggle against the darkness.”
“That doesn’t tell us much,” Wrothgaar remarked.
“No,” Jodocus agreed, smiling. “No, it doesn’t. I must return to him to see him off. But first, I came to see you, Angen.”
Angen looked to the others in question, then back to the Druid. “Why?”
“In the near future, you will face the Enkhatar,” Jodocus began. “They wear armor of dark energy that is immune to mundane weapons. To fight them, you will need a more powerful weapon.”
Angen pulled his claymore from its scabbard, holding it protectively in both hands. “I have carried this sword since I was a young man,” he protested. “It has served me well.”
“Of course, my boy. Of course it has. Let me have it.”
Reluctantly, Angen handed Jodocus his sword, hilt first. The Druid grasped the pommel, pulling the sword from Angen’s hand. The point fell to the ground, causing Jodocus to chuckle.
“It’s very heavy,” Jodocus said, smiling.
“Yes it is,” Angen said. “My strength lies in my arm, not my grace.”
“It’s true,” Wrothgaar said jokingly, prompting a back handed smack in the gut from Angen.
With another chuckle, Jodocus hefted the weapon and went to a nearby boulder embedded in the cliff wall that surrounded the town. He rested the point of Angen’s sword against it and mouthed a silent chant. He then closed his eyes and jammed the sword into the stone.
“Great Mother!” Angen exclaimed, wide-eyed.
Jodocus opened his eyes, chanting more magical words and focusing his power to draw energy from the stone. “The stone is very powerful,” he said. “And it is happy to share its energy.”
The knights looked at one another in turn, expressionless, as if in slight disbelief.
“Ah, yes,” Jodocus continued. “The stone is sympathetic to the Great Mother’s plight. It is giving the sword a great amount of its power. Can you see it?”
The knights looked at Angen’s sword as Jodocus held it. The pommel glowed with a silver light; the power of Earth. Angen reached out to touch it, feeling it vibrate with the flow of energy. Jodocus stepped back, making room for Angen.
“Grasp it like you would in battle,” Jodocus instructed him, “and thank the stone for its gift.”
Angen grabbed the pommel with a sure hand, feeling the strength of the stone pass into him through the blade. The energy felt powerful and rejuvenating, as if he, himself, was becoming an unbreakable statue as it flowed through him. Silently he thanked the stone for its gift and looked to Jodocus.
“Now,” Jodocus continued. “Pull the sword from the stone.”
With a grunt, the mighty Angen pulled his claymore from the stone. Metal ground against rock, and sparks flew as he withdrew it. When it was free, he raised it upright, gasping in awe at its refined appearance. The blade shone like silver, fully polished and carved with strange symbols of the Earth itself. The blade flashed and seemed to glow with a life of its own. Angen smiled, happy to receive this great gift from the Earth.
“It’s beautiful,” he exclaimed, “and even more well-balanced than before.”
Jodocus laughed, knowing that the warrior would cherish the sword until his end. “The blade is unbreakable,” he said. “And it will cut through anything, even the armor of the Enkhatar.”
“I thank you, my friend,” Angen said.
“No need to thank me,” Jodocus said. “It was the stone who gave you this gift.”
“I will bear it with pride.”
“I know you will,” Jodocus replied. He then looked to the sky and a smile spread across his face. “Oh look, our dragon friend arrives.”
The knights turned to look, seeing the dragon sail toward them slowly. They could see that the creature was not black as Erenoth and the Priests of Drakkar, but metallic gray with a slight shine. The wing membranes appeared as black leather stretched between its fingers, and its eyes glowed green like emeralds.
As the dragon neared, it slowed and began to hover over Eamon. In its claws was a scroll case, black and trimmed in gold. The dragon opened its claws, dropping the case. The Prince caught it, looking to Jodocus for an explanation.
“Open it,” the Druid said, smiling.
Curious, Eamon opened the scroll case, watching the dragon as it landed. Obviously, the dragon was some sort of machine. It was clearly made of metal, and driven by some unknown force. There was the sound of metal clanking against metal as it settled into a resting position, patiently waiting for Eamon to read his message.
Eamon unrolled the scroll that slid out, tilting it so Jodocus could see the script on the page. Jodocus smiled once again. “Ah,” he said. “The script looks familiar. I think I know who sent our friend here. Read it to us, my friend.”
Eamon cleared his throat and read the letter out loud:
My dearest Prince Eamon,
Greetings, my friend. It has been many, many years since I set foot on Eirenoch, but I can tell you that I was born in Bray over a thousand years ago. I am, and have always been a strong believer in protecting my lands and my people. However, my appearance has degraded over the centuries and my presence would only serve to frighten and confuse anyone who should behold me. Please forgive my absence.
I can assure you that I fully support your efforts to drive away this foreign menace, and will do what I can to aid you and your knights. For this reason, I have sent my dragon. He is what one would call a golem. He is an animated construct, composed of a metal which I have personally researched and made good use of. It is a crystalline metal that is stronger than steel, yet as light as wood. The dragon’s name is Titus. Please address him as such. I have instructed him to obey your commands. Please feel free to use him as you see fit. I am aware that your friend, Erenoth, is not available to you at the moment, so I sent Titus to take his place.
He can act as your scout as Erenoth did. He can also be used for aerial attacks and is a valuable asset on the battlefield as well. He doesn’t require food, obviously, but be sure to keep him well-oiled and supply him with a good dose of sunlight daily to keep him energized.
If you need further assistance of any kind, please be aware that I currently reside on a large island to the West of Eirenoch. It may not be accessible by ship, but I have created a portal that will transport you here instantly. It lies at Southwatch near the North/South border. Please do come see me as I have items and spells that may be of assistance in this battle. And please tell Jodocus that he was right about the fig trees. He will know what I mean. I look forward to meeting you and your knights.
Your friend always,
Traegus, Archlich of Eirenoch
“Traegus?” Eamon exclaimed. “The Lich?”
“I knew I recognized his script,” Jodocus said. “I am glad to hear he is still among the…well, living, I suppose.”
“Who is Traegus?” Angen asked.
“He was a wizard once,” Jodocus said. “One of the most powerful in Eirenoch. When the end of his natural life came near, he used his magic to extend his life…well, unlife. He is now a lich, a wizard so dedicated to his craft that he refused to succumb to the natural order of things and die like he is supposed to. He is a good friend, though, and his counsel would be beneficial in this battle. I would suggest going to see him as soon as you are able.”
Eamon nodded. “We will do so,” he said. “But first, Bray must be secured.”
“What about the fig trees?” Wrothgaar asked.
Jodocus laughed. “Just an inside joke,” he replied. “He can explain it better than I. For now, I feel that I should inform Azim that his brother is doing well, and not to worry.”
“Very well, my friend,” Eamon said, affectionately patting the Druid’s shoulder. “It was good to see you again.”
“Goodbye, Knights of the Dragon.”
Jodocus faded from sight, leaving the knights to return to their positions. Wrothgaar, frustrated, mumbled, “I still want to know about the fig trees.”
Eamon laughed as the Northman walked away. He turned to Titus, who stood awaiting orders. Eamon was fascinated with the dragon’s construction; segmented limbs, jointed wings and a fully articulate head. What a wonderful creation. Traegus was truly a master engineer.
“Titus,” Eamon addressed the machine. “Scout to the Southwest. Keep a lookout for the Jindala ships, and return to me when you spot them. Do not attack.”
The dragon bowed its head, leaping into the air and flapping off across the town. Titus soared higher into the sky and headed out to sea along the shore. Eamon watched in awe, wondering how a metallic object that large could keep aloft. Surely it was a uniquely light metal, one that would be useful to an armorer. He would ask Traegus of that possibility when he could.
Azim and the rest of the knights watched the dragon swoop by on its way to scout for the ships. They all knew now that the creature was on their side, but none yet knew its nature. They were all pleasantly surprised when Jodocus appeared near Azim, bearing his usual wide-faced grin. Brynn and Daryth both waved as he looked in their direction, and he returned their greetings.
“Hello, Jodocus,” Azim said.
“Ah, Azim, it is good to see you again.”
“Where is Farouk?” Azim asked.
“That’s why I am here,” Jodocus replied. “Farouk is preparing for a quest. It is one that will mean the difference between victory and defeat.”
“I do not understand,” Azim said, cocking his head.
“I cannot go into detail at the moment. Once he is underway, I can reveal more information. What I can say is that Farouk now serves the Great Mother herself. He has graduated beyond service to the Firstborn. One day, if he is successful, he may become the Grand Druid.”
“That is good news,” Azim replied, smiling.
“Well, yes,” Jodocus agreed. “But the journey he has undertaken will be dangerous and difficult, especially considering his lessened ability to fight. His future depends on whether he can complete his task.”
“I have faith my brother can overcome any obstacle that lies before him,” Azim assured the Druid. “He has our father’s resolve and determination.”
“Oh, I do not doubt that,” Jodocus said. “And his abilities as a Druid are impressive enough to attract the attention of the most powerful force in this world. He’s a natural. It makes me wonder where he got that.”
Azim laughed, thinking of how true Jodocus’ statement was. Farouk had always been attuned to the natural world, even as a child. “He gets that from our mother,” he said.
“She must have been a wonderful woman,” Jodocus remarked.
“She was. Our father loved her very much, as did we.”
“I will bring Farouk to see you before he leaves,” Jodocus said. “He is apprehensive about his journey. Perhaps a chat with his brother will improve his morale.”
Azim nodded. “I would appreciate it, Jodocus,” he said, taking the Druid’s hand in friendship. “I will do what I can.”
“Good, good. Now, I must go help him prepare for his journey. Good luck in the upcoming battle. As before, I cannot interfere, but I can encourage you to fight hard.”
“Goodbye, my friend,” Azim said.
With a smile and a parting wave to Brynn and Daryth, Jodocus faded. Azim turned his attention back to the sea. Thoughts of Farouk swirled around in his mind, bringing a smile to his face. He felt intense pride in his older brother, and silently prayed to Imbra to grant his older brother his divine blessing. With Farouk’s dedication and love of nature, he would no doubt put his entire soul into whatever task the Great Mother had asked of him. Farouk would not fail. Azim knew it in his heart.
Titus rounded the mouth of the bay as he scanned the sea for any sign of the Jindala ships. With his magically enhanced vision, he would be able to spot them with no trouble, even through their cloaking spells. He would then report back to his new master, and await further orders.
From the line of archers that he had passed on his way along the coast, the mechanical dragon surmised the plan of action; the archers, who were prepared to fire a volley of incendiary arrows, would set fire to the ships as they passed. Then, when the ships approached the docks, the makeshift catapult would be used to finish them off. Any enemies who managed to reach the docks would be dealt with by the assembled militia.
When he had reached a good distance from his allies, Titus summoned his own cloaking power, forming a shield around himself that would blend him in with the sky. He was now invisible as he soared above the shore.
Ahead, Titus saw a shimmering green mist that signaled the presence of the Jindala. He dove in for a closer look, sharpening his eyes to see through the magical cloak. He counted four ships, their decks overloaded with enemy soldiers that were likewise armed with bows. He circled the fleet, keeping a distance from the summoners who maintained the cloaking magic, and noted the rowboats that lined the outsides of the ships.
With one final pass, the dragon swooped around and headed back to Bray to report. The Onyx Dragon and his knights should have no trouble dealing with the enemies. Titus would contribute to the battle as well, using his own flaming breath to down their vessels.
It would be a good fight.
Daryth saw the metallic dragon pass and swoop close to let loose a growl of warning. The Ranger knight turned and signaled Eamon with a raised fist. Eamon returned the signal, prompting the archers to stand ready.
“Get ready, men!” Daryth ordered them. Brynn and Azim repeated the order down the line. The archers crouched, knocking arrows and awaiting the order to draw.
Titus landed near Eamon, folding his leathery wings and approaching his master.
Four ships. Fifty men and a summoner aboard each.
“Well done,” Eamon said. “Thank you. Be ready and try to take down the summoners any way you can.”
Titus bowed, sailing off into the air once more.
Within minutes, the shimmering green mist came into view. The sea was distorted by its magic, like heat waves coming off of black rocks. The wake of the ships was visible, but distorted to the point of simply looking like frothy waves.
The ships sailed silently into the bay, making the turn around the cliffs and heading straight for the docks. Daryth watched as the last ship came near, keeping his eye on Eamon for the signal. The Prince opened his hand.
“Ready men!” Daryth called. Azim and Brynn repeated the command. The entire line of archers dipped their arrows in the burning censors, and drew their bows, kneeling at the ready. When the first ship approached the lagoon, Eamon clenched his fist.
“Fire!” Daryth ordered.
Streaks of flame sailed through the air as the rain of fiery arrows was launched. The Jindala aboard ship watched in horror as the flames arced down.
“Titus!” Eamon shouted. “Attack!”
The metallic dragon soared into the air, letting loose a growl that shook the docks. Titus sped toward the nearest ship, dodging the flaming arrows that streaked down from the cliff tops. With a swooping dive, the dragon let loose a jet of flame that engulfed the mast of the ship. Men aboard scurried about, rushing to put out the flames and dodge the hundreds of arrows at the same time.
As the arrows struck, their coated tips exploded, spreading the inferno across the decks and impaling the desperate enemies. Titus circled around for another attack, this time firing balls of flame that burst at impact. Though engulfed, the ship sailed on, approaching the designated catapult target area.
“Wrothgaar!” Eamon called to the Northman. “Ready the catapult!”
The Northman pulled on the crank, straining and grunting with the effort. The catapult’s mast bent back, carrying the basket to Angen’s level. The older man hefted a powder keg, ready to load the weapon with its fiery ammo.
The lead ship continued its approach, her crew struggling to douse the flames that threatened to sink her. Being quite a distance from shore, the depth of the sea was still well above wading level.
Angen dropped the keg into the basket as it reached his platform, then grabbed his torch and set the cask itself aflame. The tar that had been rubbed on its side went up quickly, burning steadily as the three men waited for the right moment.
“Hold,” Eamon called, keeping his hand parallel to the ground.
The archers on the cliffs continued their barrage, sending volley after volley of flaming death to the ships below. Every vessel was aflame by now, and all of the Jindala were panicked and off guard. Some began to jump overboard, desperate to escape the flames. Brynn and Azim shot at them from their vantage points, killing dozens as they swam to shore.
“Fire!” Eamon commanded.
Wrothgaar let go of the crank, stepping back as it quickly unwound. The shaft sprang up as it straightened, hurling the powder keg into the air in a high arc. A tail of sparkling powder trailed behind it as it soared toward the front ship. The knights watched with anticipation, crossing their fingers as the barrel plummeted toward its target.
The keg impacted the bough of the ship, exploding into a huge fireball. The Jindala on deck were thrown back with the force, some of them blown to pieces and or thrown overboard in flames.
The allies cheered. They had struck a crippling blow, and their victory seemed assured. With renewed confidence, they continued their relentless barrage.
“Again!” Eamon called.
Once again, the catapult was loaded and fired. The second shot hit the center of the ship’s deck, splintering the hull. The Jindala were decimated, blown apart and into the air. All that remained of the lead ship was the burning skeleton, ruined and floating aimlessly as it slowly slipped beneath the waves.
The remaining three ships were aflame at various places on their decks. The Jindala were now firing back, their own arrows flying in futile attacks at unseen targets. Their only visible attacker was Titus, who weaved in and out of the line of ships, sending his fiery breath along the decks.
The ships began to close in on the shore, their steersman attempting to shield them from the barrage of arrows. The lead ship had disappeared beneath the surface, and the next ship in line sped quickly toward the port to release its rowboats before the catapult could strike again. Titus dove down, incinerating the boats as they were lowered and boarded.
“Reload!” Eamon commanded.
The catapult was drawn back again, and Angen reloaded its basket. Eamon held up his hand, signaling them to hold. He squinted to see the ship in the distance, barely able to make out a black cloaked figure on its bough. He looked to Azim, who was now facing him from his post on the cliffs.
“Summoner!” Azim called.
“Fire!” Eamon commanded.
The catapult sprang into action again, sending its projectile hurdling toward the ship. Eamon watched as it arced downward, aimed to impact right on the ship’s bough. The summoner onboard raised his arms, conjuring a spell that crackled the air around him. A sudden burst of shimmering energy shot from his clawed hands, smashing against the flaming barrel and splintering it in the air. The burst shook the docks, and left the ship unharmed.
“Damn it!” Eamon cursed. “Titus, take him down!”
The dragon turned his attention from the rowboats to the dark figure. He swooped down, preparing his jet of flame. The sorcerer turned to him, awed at the sight of the machine that lived. Titus let loose his flame, scorching the sorcerer and setting his robes on fire. The man flailed and stumbled from the bow, bouncing past his comrades as he fell into the sea below. Titus dove, extending his claws and grasping the man’s shoulders when he resurfaced. The dragon lifted him high into the air and over the rocks at the shore. The summoner struggled to break free, flailing his arms and shouting magical words. Titus headed toward the cliff side at full speed, swooping upward as he released the summoner from his grasp. The man slammed against the rocks, dying instantly as his body was shattered.
The archers cheered as they watched the dark mage tumble to the shore below. Titus flew past them, drawing their attention and encouraging them to continue their barrage. Azim pushed his men on, his moral boosted by the sight of the dragon’s attack. Hundreds of arrows rained down on the remaining ships, dotting their decks with flames. The Jindala ignored the small fires, preparing to board the small boats as the ships approached the bay.
Azim focused on the summoner at the head of the third ship. The man’s dark form seemed twisted and contorted as he cast an unknown spell, drawing swirls of strange energy in the air above him. Azim drew his bow, bringing the summoner into his sights. He let loose, crouching to watch the arrow soar toward its target. A bright burst of energy exploded above the summoner as he finished his spell. From out of nowhere, a man-like figure appeared in the air above him, its devilish features focused on the line of archers. Azim’s arrow met its mark, striking the summoner square in the chest and throwing him back and over the edge of the ship. Though his arrow had met its mark, Azim scowled as he recognized the summoned creature.
“Daryth!” Azim called, knowing that the Ranger was the only one whose bow could harm the Djinn. “Efreet! Concentrate your fire on it.”
Azim shouldered his own bow, rushing to join the Ranger. Brynn also came, his face a mask of concern.
“What is that creature?” he asked, glaring at the flaming, man-shaped entity.
“Efreet,” Azim answered. “A spirit of flame. My bow would only strengthen it. Daryth has the only bow that would be effective. You and I should concentrate on the men. Take out the remaining summoner if you can.”
Brynn nodded, taking a place among the firing archers to take aim at the summoner. Azim rushed away, heading toward the docks to inform Eamon of the creature’s nature.
Daryth drew his bow, his heart racing as he watched the devilish spirit speed toward the wall of archers. Its face was fearsome, like a mask of absolute evil that smiled and laughed as it approached. His bow sang, sending an arrow of green Earth energy streaking toward the entity. It impacted the Efreet in the shoulder, sending the creature into a fit of rage as the life energy singed its flesh. It glared at Daryth, grinning evilly as it changed direction and shot straight toward him.
Brynn rushed to Daryth’s side, his sword poised to defend the Ranger. Daryth’s bow twanged over and over, sending arrows one after another at the charging Efreet.
“Keep firing!” Brynn yelled. “I’ll hold him off.”
At the docks, Eamon saw Azim rushing toward him. The Prince, having given the command to fire the catapult again, called out to him.
“What is it?”
Azim stopped, breathless. “The summoner has brought an Efreet,” he said. “An evil spirit of the desert. My bow is useless against it.”
“Take command of the archers,” Eamon said. “Brynn and Daryth will deal with the creature. Concentrate on sinking the last ship before it reaches the docks. We’ll hold off the Jindala who reach the shore.”
Azim nodded. “Good luck, my friend.”
Wrothgaar watched as the barrel he had just launched smashed into the hull of its target. It exploded with the impact, shattering the ship’s deck and sending her crew overboard. Titus finished off the crippled vessel with a jet of flame as he passed. The ship was done for.
Dozens upon dozens of Jindala were now packed aboard the row boats, preparing for an assault on foot. Eamon rallied the foot soldiers, urging them forward to meet the approaching enemy.
“For Eirenoch!” he yelled. The men of Bray let loose their war cries and charged the docks, pouring over the platforms into the marshes below. The first Jindala to disembark were met by the onslaught before they even reached the shore. Eamon took the lead, cutting them down with fluid sweeps of the Serpent’s Tongue.
On the cliff tops, Azim ran behind the archers, commanding them to continue their relentless barrage of arrows on the remaining ships. His attention was focused on the Efreet, who was now engaged by Daryth and Brynn. As the Ranger backed away and shot arrow after arrow of gleaming green energy at the creature, Brynn stood the ground between them, cutting off the creature’s advance with his magical blade. Azim drew his scimitars, noting the glow that emanated from the sword of Sulemain.
The Efreet appeared demonic as it attacked; red-skinned and wrapped in flame. Its face was a scowled mask with glowing red eyes, chiseled features, a mane of black, swirling hair, and horns that curled forward like a ram’s. Its muscular arms were held aloft as it gathered flame to attack. Brynn and Azim stood side by side, swords poised to defend Daryth as he pummeled the creature with his arrows.
The Efreet cursed and growled as the streaks of green impacted its body. The magical arrows exploded on contact, sending sparks of energy pulsing through it. The Efreet reared back to attack, its claws bared and curled. Its arm arced toward Azim in a blinding slash. Azim ducked and rolled toward the entity, striking from its flank as Brynn also countered. The dual attack threw the Efreet off guard, and both blades sliced through the magical flesh.
The Efreet howled in pain, spinning in fury as it gathered power to cast a spell. A burst of flame exploded from its core, sending the three men back and onto the ground, their hair singed. The Efreet ceased its spin and chuckled, its voice deep and sinister. Daryth drew his bow from the ground, aiming straight for the Efreet’s head. Brynn and Azim rolled onto their feet, crossing their swords to prevent the Efreet from charging the Ranger. Daryth’s bow sang, but the Efreet dashed to the side and streaked around Brynn and Azim, heading straight for him.
“Fool!” it hissed. “Your arrows are mere bee stings.”
Daryth drew back once more, seeing Azim calling on the power of the sword of Sulemain. The blade glowed blue as its magic gathered. Brynn, wide-eyed, backed away. When the glow became blinding, Azim charged. The Efreet turned its attention to the former Jindala captain. Seeing the blade, the creature backed away quickly, its arms flailing in a desperate attempt to cast another spell. Daryth let loose one last time, his aim set dead center on the base of the Efreet’s skull. Azim, howling with rage, hurled the sword of Sulemain at the creature. The blade turned end over end as it flew, ringing loudly with the magic of Imbra. Daryth’s arrow struck the Efreet behind the jaw, the shaft exiting through its left eye. At the same time, Azim’s blade buried itself in the Efreet’s chest, bursting into a blinding flash of light as its magic penetrated the dark entity.
The Efreet screeched with pain, grasping the hilt of Azim’s sword. The knights looked on with fear as the Efreet trembled and shook as its body began to disintegrate.
“Stand back!” Azim warned, nudging Brynn back with his arm.
“What’s happening?” Daryth called, rising to his feet.
“I’m not sure,” Azim replied. “I’ve never killed a Djinn.”
The Efreet began to spin and fly apart. The archers on the cliff turned their attention to the spectacle, dodging the chunks of ethereal flesh that flew their way. With one last curse, the Efreet exploded, sending out a shockwave that knocked every man around it to the ground. Azim’s sword remained in the air, spinning and turning among the cloud of debris and magic. Then, it began to glow once more as the energy around it collapsed into the blade. The shockwave reversed, drawing all of the surrounding material inward.
Azim sat up quickly, scanning the area for the Sword of Sulemain. It stood in place where the Efreet had exploded, sticking in the ground and gleaming with swirling energy. Azim crawled toward the sword, transfixed by the life that seemed to emanate from within its blade. As he reached out to grasp the pommel, he felt the powerful field surrounding it. It tingled as his fingers closed around it, and energized his body. Grasping the sword with both hands, he pulled it from the ground and held it before him. His gaze remained locked on the blade, and he was impervious to the events around him.
“Azim,” Brynn said, nudging him on the shoulder. Daryth, having returned to his feet, approached as well.
“Azim,” Brynn said again. “Are you alright?”
Slowly, Azim came to his senses, seeing the archers around him staring. Some of them were still engaged in the fight below, sending their arrows down in waves. But, for the most part, the knight had their attention.
“I’m alright,” Azim answered finally. “We should get to the docks. The Jindala are swarming in.”
Brynn nodded. “Men!” he called. “To the docks.”
Eamon stood in the shallows, poised for battle as the Jindala rushed toward him. Wrothgaar and Angen were at his side, and the foot soldiers of Bray stood at their flanks. The Jindala fell one by one as arrows streaked in from the approaching mass of archers. The bodies of the enemy floated atop the bloodied water, becoming obstacles for the attackers.
Above, Titus continued his assault on the ships, crippling the final vessels beyond repair. Their decks and mast were cinders, and their crews had abandoned ship in favor of fighting face to face. The fleet’s destruction was assured, and Titus had served his purpose well.
As the Jindala reached shore, they met with the combined defensive forces. Eamon and his warriors cut them down as they struggled to get to dryer ground. Though at a major disadvantage, the attackers fought fiercely and with more skill than those that had previously occupied the town. They were specialized forces, with black tunics and steel plates, and a voracious appetite for conflict. They growled and snarled like animals as they rushed the forces of Bray.
Eamon dodged a spear thrust from the lead warrior, countering with an upward thrust of the Serpent’s Tongue that laid open his attacker’s chest. He kicked the dying man out of the way and quickly slashed the next in line. From the corner of his eye, he could see his friends engaged in their own dance of death. Wrothgaar’s axe swept high and low, felling the dazed Jindala one after another. Angen’s massive sword cut through the water as he attacked, sending walls of blood-colored droplets into the air.
Blue and green streaks of energy plowed into the middle ranks, telling the Prince that Azim and Daryth had arrived from the cliff tops. The battle cries of their warriors mixed with those of the foot soldiers, and the glorious sound fueled the defenders to press on. Soon, the entire defensive force was blocking the port, atop the docks and in the shallows. The Jindala were now crowded in the water, fighting to gain ground and push the battle out of the marshes.
“Keep them back!” Eamon shouted, slashing at the nearest enemy.
Arrows flew from the flanking archers and into the rear ranks of men in the water. The defenders fought hard in the red colored surf, navigating amongst the floating bodies of Jindala. Azim, Daryth, and Brynn pushed their way to the front to fight next to their brothers. The Knights of the Dragon, assembled at the head of the defensive force, were a fearsome sight to behold. Yet, the elite Jindala fought on.
The enemies formed a wall of spear points at the front of their ranks, marching forward through the muck in a tightly-packed formation. Angen, with his great sword, hacked and chopped at the spears, cutting his way through and thrusting his blade forward. Wrothgaar’s axe did the same, knocking away or splitting the spears that were thrust at him. Brynn and Daryth continued to fire their bows into the line, felling the spearmen one after another. Finally, the line was broken, and the knights and their allies formed a wall of their own.
The Jindala were driven back, losing the ground they had gained. Those that were at the rear were forced into deeper waters, having to stand on their toes to keep their heads above the waves. Eamon saw them bobbing up and down to avoid drowning, holding on to each other in desperation.
“Farther!” he yelled. “Drive them into the water!”
Suddenly, the waters amongst the massed Jindala exploded. Bodies were flung high into the air with an unseen impact, and the rain of water that followed obstructed the view.
“What was that?” Wrothgaar asked.
No one could answer. The knights and the Jindala themselves were dumbfounded. However, Titus, having made a swoop across the enemy ranks, settled calmly on the rocks nearby. He sat unmoving, as if waiting for something.
Before Eamon could issue the order to press on, the Jindala began scream. Many of them were dragged underwater by some unseen force, only to resurface seconds later in a cloud of blood.
Azim, seeing the carnage, smiled. “I’ve seen this before!” he called. “Fall back!”
Eamon did not question Azim’s words. “You heard him!” he yelled. “Fall back!”
As the defenders retreated into shallower marshes, they all looked to the sea behind the disappearing Jindala. The surface of the water began to bubble and churn, as if something were surfacing. Eamon could only guess that some beast had come to feed on the men in the water. Though a welcome help, the fact remained that a ravenous beast would not distinguish between the two forces.
“Keep out of the water,” He warned.
Eamon looked to Azim, whose smile remained. The former Jindala captain looked to him, urging him to keep watching the churning sea. Eamon watched carefully as the bubbling increased. Strange, rounded objects began to emerge, along with what appeared to be masts and rudders. Eamon looked on with wonder.
A ship that could sail underwater!
“What is it?” he asked Azim.
“The Radja,” Azim replied. “These are the pirates the people of Bray speak of. They have returned.”
Eamon looked back to the ship. It was fully surfaced now, appearing as a strange contraption of spheres, spikes, oars, and other nautical equipment, all bound together in a form that could easily slip beneath the waves. The people of Bray were in awe. Though the Radja regularly visited and had dealings with the town, never before had they brought such a vessel. It was an object of wonder, and it inspired them all.
As the last of the Jindala floated lifeless to the surface, strangely garbed men also began to surface, knives and spears in hand. They were strangely dressed, with grayish, leather-like suits and strange gear whose function Eamon could only guess. They slowly made their way to the shore toward the knights, nodding respectfully and bowing in friendship. The closest of them, removed his blue-green face mask, revealing dark skin, a long beard, and a mustache that remained curled at the ends despite him having been underwater.
He approached Eamon confidently, smiling, and finally spoke in the tongue of Eirenoch.
“Greetings, my friend,” he said. “I am Jadhav, and these are the Radja.”
Eamon smiled and took the man’s hand. “It’s good to meet you, Jadhav,” Eamon said. “I am Eamon, crown prince of the Northern Kingdom.”
“I know who you are,” Jadhav replied. “I have been waiting for you and your knights.”
Eamon stopped short, eyeing the foreigner curiously. “You’ve been waiting?” he asked. “Why?”
Jadhav chuckled, clapped Eamon on the shoulder. “I am the Raja of Pashir,” he said. “So we are peers, it would seem. I have been posing as a privateer for many years now in an effort to gather allies to lay an assault on The Lifegiver’s Great Pyramid. When he is defeated, I will take back my throne and lead my people out of the darkness. As I said, these men are the Radja; elite warriors from a long line of what you would call knights. They are the descendants of nobles from ages past, and they have taken an oath to protect the people of all cultures from oppression, no matter what their beliefs.”
“That is a noble cause,” Wrothgaar said, nodding to Jadhav.
“Indeed it is,” the Raja replied. “They serve me faithfully, despite the fact that a usurper sits upon my throne in Pashir. He is not the true Raja, only a servant of The Lifegiver.”
“Then we are indeed allies, Jadhav,” Eamon agreed. “I plan to unite the north and south kingdoms of Eirenoch and claim the throne. If you would help us, then we may continue to our ultimate goal and destroy this demon once and for all.”
Jadhav smiled, extending his hand once more. “I agree,” he said. “Consider myself and my men at your disposal. Our swords and our ships are yours.”
Eamon took Jadhav’s hand again, looking into the man’s eyes. What he saw was a man of great passion and honor. He would make a great and powerful ally, and with his ships, could be instrumental in capturing Faerbane and protecting the coasts.
It seemed the tide had turned for the better.
Khalid,” Erenoth whispered as he nudged the newly born priest. “Wake up, my friend. It is time to begin your crusade.”
Khalid opened his eyes, seeing the face of his friend hovering over him. He was in his bed, still in his priest’s robes, and Erenoth sat on the edge.
“What happened?” Khalid asked.
“You are a Priest of Drakkar now,” Erenoth replied. “The High Priest of Tel Drakkar, to be exact. You have been infused with the blood of the Dragon.”
“I feel terrible,” Khalid complained. “I feel like I drank a cask of wine by myself. And I’m saying this from experience.”
Erenoth chuckled. “I know how that feels as well, in both cases. And you are correct. It’s a very similar feeling. It will pass.”
Khalid yawned, rolling onto his side, away from Erenoth. “If it’s all the same to you I think I’ll sleep it off.”
Erenoth stood, pulling the blankets off of Khalid with a single tug. “Up now, Khalid!” he said firmly. “It is time.”
Khalid turned to look Erenoth in the eye. He blinked several times to clear his vision, shocked at what he saw.
There stood a dragon.
Khalid bolted upright, startled. “What in the name of....what....?”
It is I, Erenoth.
“You’re a dragon!?” Khalid asked, confused.
I am a priest like you, but I have been one for thousands of years. As your power grows, you will be able to transform as well.
“I’m still dreaming,” Khalid insisted, not entirely sure what was happening.
Khalid looked up, staring the dragon in the face. Before his eyes, Erenoth shifted forms, morphing into the Erenoth he knew. The Erenoth that looked like a man.
Khalid shook his head, still not quite sure if he was awake or dreaming.
“If you are to be the High Priest of Tel Drakkar,” Erenoth began, “then you are going to need acolytes; initiates who will eventually become your priests. I have six, and so shall you.”
Khalid stood, nodding in agreement. “Where will I find these priests?” he asked.
“We will go to the mine to the east,” Erenoth explained. “A small troop of Jindala has captured it and they hold the miners there prisoner. The inhabitants of the mine were once loyal subjects of the Dragon, and frequented this temple in the old days. They will do so again, and their strongest would make excellent acolytes. But the choice is yours.”
“I like that idea,” Khalid replied. “It’s another chance to show the people, and the Dragon, that I have changed my ways.”
Erenoth smiled at his friend. “You have already done both by making a vow to serve the Dragon. But this will be your chance to introduce yourself to your flock.”
Erenoth chuckled. “Your congregation, then,” he said. “Once you free the miners, they will assist you in rebuilding the temple. They are all master craftsmen and skilled with stone.”
“Alright, then,” Khalid agreed. “I am ready.”
Erenoth nodded, beckoning Khalid to follow him to the throne room. Khalid did so, fascinated once again to see Erenoth transform into the dragon.
Climb onto my back. We’ll get there faster this way.
“Alright, my friend,” Khalid sighed. “But I’m not as light as I used to be.”
He climbed onto Erenoth’s scaled back, taking a place behind his wings and between two spines. When he was settled, Erenoth let loose a mighty roar. From above, dust began to fall, and a loud grinding noise echoed throughout the chamber. Khalid looked up to see the ceiling opening to a wide shaft through which sunlight filtered down.
Off we go.
Khalid held on tight as Erenoth flapped his leathery wings and sailed upward through the shaft. Khalid breathed in the fresh air, made warm by the afternoon sun, and felt his spirits lifted. The sensation of flying was exhilarating, making his heart pound and his breathing quicken. He laughed out loud as the two of them rose above the tower’s exit. The view from aloft was amazing. He could see for miles around, and knew that the beauty of this land was his to call home.
At last, he had found his place in the world.
How are you doing back there?
“I am speechless,” Khalid yelled over the wind as Erenoth banked and headed east. “I’ve never felt anything like this since I climbed Rajtal’s tower in my youth.”
Who is Rajtal?
“The former Emperor of Kursh, a land to the east.”
And why did you climb his tower?
“His daughter was up there!” Khalid replied, laughing.
Erenoth roared with dragon laughter, diving down to give Khalid a small jolt in jest. Khalid laughed again, patting Erenoth’s neck.
“Easy, friend,” he said, smiling. “I’m a lot older now and my stomach is not as strong as it used to be.”
You’ll be fine. Hold on.
Erenoth shot faster through the clouds. The ground below streaked past quickly, even from this height. Khalid gritted his teeth as the wind rushed around him, blowing his hair and causing his lips to flap. He laughed as he imagined how he must look; a nobleman of Khemite origin riding a dragon through the clouds. What would his father think?
“If only my father could see me now,” he yelled.
What would he think?
“I think he would be proud of my current life,” Khalid replied. “It’s far removed from my years as a servant of The Lifegiver.”
What about your years as a thief?
“Well,” Khalid thought for a moment. “He wouldn’t have approved of stealing. But he would have been happy to see me give everything I stole back to the people who deserved it.”
I agree. You were a hero.
“I suppose I was. But my later life tainted that badly.”
You are a hero once again, Khalid. You saved the children in Gaellos, and now you are a priest of the Dragon. You will forever be honored in Eirenoch.
Khalid smiled. He was happy that his life now had meaning again. He was actually beginning to forget his years in service to The Lifegiver. He bid those memories good riddance. Now he could concentrate on his mission.
“How much longer?” he asked.
Not far now. Look ahead. To the three peaks.
Khalid looked up in the distance. As Erenoth had said, three peaks formed a triangular shield around what looked to be a caldera, or a large crater. Within the depression, which was hundreds of feet from the level ground, a small village had been built. Even from this distance, Khalid's perfected vision could make out stone buildings, wooden walkways, and tunnels that bore into the inner walls of the depression.
"What is that?" Khalid asked. "What are the mines built on?"
Tens of thousands of years ago, a giant rock fell from the sky and created this crater. It was made of an unusual metal. Metal from which hundreds of legendary weapons have been made throughout history, including your swords.
Khalid understood the significance. Though The Lifegiver himself was indifferent, the Jindala lusted after the unusual metal, this iron that fell from the sky. It was their goal to possess all of it, and be the sole bearers of weapons made from this magical substance. Sulemain himself had wielded a sword crafted of this same metal, forged in Khem by Imbra himself. And no doubt the Onyx Dragon's sword was forged from the iron from this very mine. Possessing this mine would be of top priority to the nobles. Its source of unearthly steel was a virtual fountain of ultimate military power.
"The Jindala must not be allowed to take a single scrap of metal from these mines," Khalid said. "Not even a stray piece of copper."
Then we shall waste no time.
"What is the plan?" Khalid asked. "Intimidate them until they leave? Claim this mine as holy ground?"
No. We kill them all.
Khalid laughed, seeing the logic of the simple, straightforward answer. There was no reason to waste any time. The Jindala would never leave on their own.
Are you ready, my friend?
"Yes!" Khalid called. "I am ready!"
Erenoth let loose a deep, echoing roar that caused Khalid to grip tighter. They dove as fast as an attacking eagle, straight for the guards that were posted on the south watchtower. Khalid laughed as he saw the faces of the men when they realized that a dragon was indeed soaring toward them from the sky. Erenoth shot a fiery blast, engulfing the tower in flames, and dove past. Khalid saw the men jump from the tower, flaming all of the way to their deaths.
The guards on the ground scattered, and the miners who were visible took cover, yet watched. Erenoth hovered in the air for a moment, flapping his wings and growling at the Jindala who cowered back. With a final snort, he landed. Khalid stepped off, drawing his swords and facing the many soldiers who surrounded them.
"Are we keeping count?" Khalid joked as he looked upon their confused faces.
"If you wish," Erenoth replied as he transformed. "But I am already ahead."
Khalid laughed, the two of them closing the gap between themselves and the enemy. "Those didn't count," he said. "You were in dragon form."
Erenoth smiled, drawing his swords. Before the two of them could act, the Jindala tightened their circle around them, poising their spears to attack. Several swordsmen approached, their blades drawn and their eyes filled with lust. Their initial shock at seeing a dragon had worn off, apparently, and they came fearlessly.
"Good luck, my friend," Khalid said.
The two of them charged, spinning in the air simultaneously. The surprised Jindala backed away as they attacked, readying their spears. Khalid came down, twirling his blades in a double backhand slash. His attack disemboweled then decapitated his first opponent, and set him up in his scorpion stance. He sneered at the line of enemies remaining.
Erenoth's aerial spin landed him between two opponents. He dispatched both with a single horizontal spin, and turned to face those that remained. Back to back the two of them stood; ready to face the coming onslaught.
With a concerted effort, the Jindala attacked, thrusting their spears toward the duo. Both men dodged their attackers, slicing off the ends of their spears and countering with diagonal slashes. Seconds later, four more men lay dead their feet.
"That's four for me," Erenoth boasted, glancing at Khalid.
Khalid quickly knocked a spear out of the way, dispatching its wielder with a backhand slash and thrust.
"Four," he said, grinning.
All at once, the remaining Jindala charged, furiously jabbing and thrusting their weapons. Several of them drew their swords, coordinating their attacks with those of their comrades. Erenoth and Khalid fought together, each complimenting the other's attacks. They parried and countered, and the sound of their blades clashing echoed throughout the mines.
The miners looked on, cheering on the two companions who had apparently come to their rescue. Their sounds of joy also echoed, and many of them realized that the leader had been alerted.
The Sultan emerged from his tent, his eyes wide as he saw the chaos unfold before him. His eyes narrowed as he saw Khalid. The man looked familiar to him, but he could not place him. Confused and furious, he drew his weapon and ran to the fray.
"Stop!" he commanded his men.
The fighting ceased, with Khalid and Erenoth backing away, yet standing ready. The Jindala lowered their weapons, looking to their leader in question as they, themselves, backed away. The Sultan eyed Khalid, approaching cautiously.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
Khalid smiled, recognizing the Sultan, but not remembering his name. "We are the Priests of Drakkar," he replied in the Jindala tongue. "And we are here to reclaim these mines for Eirenoch."
The Sultan's eyes widened. "Sheikh Khalid!" he said, shocked. "Traitor!"
"It is you who are the traitor!" Khalid hissed. "You have abandoned Imbra, and your people!"
The Sultan struck with a downward slash of his scimitar. Khalid easily dodged the blow, bashing the Sultan in the face with his fist. The Sultan staggered, cursing and spitting blood. The remaining Jindala resumed their attack, and Khalid could see Erenoth begin his offense once more.
"You swore an oath to The Lifegiver!" The Sultan reminded him, backing off to stay clear of Khalid's reach. "And now I see you wearing the vestments of a false God."
"The Lifegiver is the false God," Khalid corrected him. "You are a fool to believe otherwise. And now you die."
Khalid drew his inner strength, focusing his power on one final attack. As he released his wrath, his body shifted forward, melting into the wind and appearing directly in front of the Sultan. The surprised Jindala looked down, seeing Khalid's blade embedded in his gut. Khalid lifted his other blade up to the Sultan's throat, leaning in closer to speak.
"When you see Imbra," he began, "I hope he forgives you. Goodbye, my brother."
Khalid drew the blade across the Sultan's throat, ducking away to avoid the spray of blood and pulling his other blade free. The Sultan fell to his knees, his eyes wide with shock, and his hands gripping his throat to stifle the crimson flow. Khalid turned away to join Erenoth in finishing off the rest of the soldiers, unaware that the dying Sultan had summoned his most powerful ally.