Nightfire: Prologue

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction' started by Wing Rider, Jun 19, 2006.

  1. Borael

    Borael Prophet of Arka

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    Still reading and im liking it more an more!
     
  2. Wing Rider

    Wing Rider Psychotic Cybernetica

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    Okay, I've been away a bit, but the next chapter is coming on, haven't been able to get it all done yet. Stay tuned.
     
  3. BBallForLife

    BBallForLife New Member

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    Can't wait.
     
  4. Wing Rider

    Wing Rider Psychotic Cybernetica

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    Finally got back.

    Chapter 10


    There was harsh murmuring going up everywhere when they finally left the Hall of the Fates. There were hundreds of people filing out in a wave of green, whispering amongst themselves excitedly, casting occasional glances at Malgeron, whose immense size was unavoidable. Agrilos' decision had filled everyone with apprehension and a small hint of fear.
    The High Priest did not leave at all, however. Seretia had scarcely taken half a step out the door when Agrilos himself beckoned urgently towards the near-empty hall, where hundreds upon hundreds of empty seats lined every wall and every ceiling. Uncle Radrick was at his side, as was Malgeron, Kilgun and the veteran warrior Galderos, whose long blonde hair flowing over his shoulders gracefully. There was sign of Vyrell or Kilgun.
    "Seretia," Agrilos said quietly in her ear when she had made his way over to him after stepping over several discarded chairs, "whatever happens next, my advice to you is to stay here in Kurokh."
    She stared at him in shock, catching the troubled look in his eyes, and angered by it. "No," she breathed at once.
    "You will be safe here." The High Priest looked down at her almost disdainfully, but his expression still soft. "I want no danger to you. You've come through enough, and if you continue, chances are that you will be dead a hundred times over. Or possibly more."
    "I don't care," she retorted. Under no circumstances would she let herself be kept in a tiny Drakeling village, unable to do anything of any use.
    Agrilos did not seem disturbed by her response. "It is only my advice," he said in a low voice. "But I will let you attend this second meeting that I will have. You can decide for yourself whether you will or go or not."
    He turned in a flurry of green, his robes sweeping behind him as he faced Malgeron Steelmaster angrily.
    "Where in the world has Vyrell got to? I told him to stay put."
    The Lorekki muttered something inaudible under his breath which closely resembled a curse of some sort. "He'd better turn up," he growled. "But I strongly suspect that the reason he's run off somewhere is to do strongly with the natural wildlife. In particular, trees."
    Agrilos glanced at him in puzzlement for a few moments, but decided not to press the matter. Continuing on briskly, he added, "Zerras and Haufkhin have also failed to get here at the appointed time. They haven't arrived."
    "Ahem…"
    A scaly hand tapped the High Priest on the shoulder, who turned around and looked into the face of a tall, smooth-faced Drakeling with a bow wrapped around his left shoulder. He had a patient look about him, the kind of look that Seretia had only seen before about Aunt Elise.
    "Zerras," Agrilos greeted him, patting him on the shoulder lightly. "Thought you'd gone for a moment. Where's your brother? I wouldn't have asked him to come, but you insisted on it, and now he hasn't even turned up - "
    "Haufkhin's over here, my lord," came the swift reply.
    Seretia inclined her head and caught sight of a second Drakeling, slightly shorter than Zerras but of more build, a short sword at his belt. He did not also carry a bow across his shoulder, but wrapped around one of his claws was a ring of sharp spikes that looked much more vicious.
    The High Priest sighed. "I wish you'd stop jumping up behind me like that," he told them wearily. "It's been a long day."
    "At least we're here, my lord," Haufkhin rumbled, his voice thick and accented. "We could do you the further courtesy of not turning up at all."
    "Thank you for the offer, but no. The present situation is fairly desperate." Agrilos' expression grew increasingly irritated as his searched the vast hall feverishly. "Where is that armoured clown?" he demanded. "If he turns up half-way through the meeting, I'm going to have to explain everything twice."
    "I'll fill him on the small details later," Malgeron shrugged.
    "I suppose so." The High Priest turned back to the others. "What I have decided," he said, "is for a small group of us to somehow recover this legendary weapon, this Nightfire that I explained about in the previous meeting. We don't know where it is, so we are going to have ask those that do, who happen to be the Spirits of the Sun. Thanks to Lorission, I know where they are, but the journey to find them and contact them will be hard and treacherously dangerous. I wish it were within my power not to have to put anyone in so much danger."
    Malgeron and Kilgun looked quite amused at the thought of themselves being put in danger. Radrick looked slightly concerned, whereas the warrior Galderos didn't change his expression at all.
    "As I mentioned before," Agrilos continued, "the Spirits of the Sun are located in the heart of enemy territory - in the middle of the greatest of the Shadowpirate cities, known as Hetris. They lie within the depths of an ancient cavern deep underground, which has come to be known as the "Forgotten Tomb", since almost everyone has forgotten about it, and it is a tomb of some sorts. It is there where we shall find the Spirits we seek.
    "Unfortunately, however, not everything is that simple. To reach the Shadowpirates, you must leave the Inner Sphere altogether and venture into the Outer Sphere."
    Seretia felt her heart miss a beat. She had known that Agrilos would mention danger of a sort, but not this dangerous. Throughout her whole life, nobody had ever returned from the Outer Sphere alive. Leaving the Inner Sphere was equivalent to committing suicide, for within the Outer Sphere, death was the safest comfort to all. There were creatures of nightmares, horrors lurking on every path, shadows watching your every move. She had heard the tales so many times in Little Chilting, tales that chilled worse than a blade of ice.
    The High Priest had paused once, but now his words came out with more excitement. "It's quite simple up to there. Once you get out of the safety of the Inner Sphere, everything will get very dangerous - more than you can imagine. The Lorekki hold the boundary between the Inner Sphere and the Outer Sphere, so we will need to pass through their country. Travelling north-east, we will pass through the Drakeling cities of Chogrek and Flinelle. Somehow we will need to rally the Drakeling armies, which is why Zerras and Haufkhin have volunteered to come along. Once into Lorekki country we will have to pass through the cities of Gervallon, Trakset and Myros."
    "I should be able to unite the Lorekki armies at either Trakset or Myros," Malgeron added. "With the Drakelings we might be able to slow the advance of the Shadowpirates. But somehow I doubt it; Nightfire sounds like our only chance."
    Agrilos nodded gravely, his face greatly saddened. “So it may seem. It is often risky to rely on one source of help when the penalty is so great.” He looked up at them. “You do realise, that if we fail to locate Nightfire, and there is nothing else that can be done, that we – not us in particular, but everyone, Lorekki and Elves and Drakelings alike – are doomed? The Soulsuckers are relentless – they seem to attack everything living that they come across. The few of us that escape them will fall to the powerful armies of the Shadowpirates that shall march from the north-east. When it is over, there will be nobody alive in the world. A dead world…”
    He paused for a moment, his eyes filled with slight puzzlement. “And yet you must question whether the Shadowpirates are acting with the Soulsuckers, under the combination of some unspeakable alliance…or if they are acting on the orders of some other force entirely. If it is the latter – what will happen, then, when the Shadowpirates come to face with the Soulsuckers?”
    “Maybe they will kill each other,” Kilgun suggested, his face bright at the prospect of it. “That would put an end to our problems quite quickly.”
    “In any case,” Agrilos continued, “we have no way of knowing. Time may be able to tell us otherwise.” He frowned. “Another thing that bothers me is the sudden increase in the activity of Chaogri. I’m sure they are connected to the actions of the Shadowpirates in some way. The good thing, however, is that they are much easier to deal with. Unless, of course, there happens to be a lot of them.”
    “There is a lot of them,” Malgeron stated matter-of-factly. “And there are much more.”
    “Then we shall have to rely on our strength and skill in combat and endurance. It is all we have at the moment.” The High Priest looked around at them appraisingly – the huge Lorekki warrior, the hard-faced Kilgun bearing the black object of destruction in his hand, the blonde-haired warrior Galderos who seemed absolutely indestructible, the two Drakelings standing tall with their intents mirrored in their eyes, the gruff Dwarf listening acutely. And the Elven girl, Seretia, who stood out in their midst with nothing to protect her except her own magic, which probably wasn’t ever going to be enough.
    Seretia. His eyes narrowed. She wouldn’t last more than five minutes on the road, he knew. She simply would not be able to survive against what dangers awaited them on the journey ahead. She could barely handle a horde of Chaogri, let alone a Soulsucker. Yet she refused to stay behind. She wanted to make a difference, to fight along with them, even though her own skills were so undeveloped compared to those of everyone else, that she could not possibly make any of a difference.
    Agrilos considered ordering the girl to remain behind, ordering her despite everything that she had said. But he would not do that, he knew. He was a High Priest of Lorission. A servant to the Goddess of Peace. He was not a soldier or a general in an army, although some of the men standing beside him looked like they could have been.
    He cleared his throat. “Nine of us shall go to Hetris, to the Forgotten Tomb. I will go to lead the company, Malgeron Steelmaster will go to rally the Lorekki armies at Trakset and Myros, Vyrell shall accompany him, and Zerras and Haufkhin will travel as the Drakeling representatives of Kurokh as well as to rally the Drakeling armies. Kilgun, Galderos and Radrick will serve as back-up.”
    There was a brief second of silence.
    “You said nine, Agrilos,” Uncle Radrick reminded the High Priest. “Who is the ninth one going to be?”
    Seretia barely heard him, her heart bounding in her throat. Had she heard him right? Uncle Radrick was actually going on the journey? He couldn’t be. Her uncle wasn’t a warrior. He didn’t have any skills, as far as he had known…he couldn’t even cook properly. Hearing Agrilos say it out loud now made her even more determined to go. If Uncle Radrick was going, she absolutely refused not to go after him. Even into the Outer Sphere. He was the only surviving member of her family. The only one.
    “I did indeed say nine,” Agrilos was saying, a soft smile on his face. “She is here among us.”
    He whirled around towards the Elven girl in one fluid movement and brought her in front of the others.
    The others stared at Seretia for several seconds, as if not believing what they were seeing. Seretia didn’t dare look at Uncle Radrick, not wanting to look into his eyes.
    It was the warrior Galderos broke the silence. “A girl,” he said quietly. “Not even into womanhood yet. I’m sure you have your reasons for this, venerable High Priest of Lorission. Tell me, then. What is so important about her that she must travel with us?”
    “It is her own decision,” Agrilos said sharply. “I do not want her to come. She is an elementalist, a wielder of powerful Elven magic. Magic similar to my own. I doubt whether it will be of much use against the Shadowpirates, let alone the Soulsuckers. I would be much happier if she remained behind in safety.”
    “So would I,” growled Uncle Radrick. Seretia mustered enough courage to look at him, seeing dark anger in his eyes and flinching from it. “She is my niece,” the Dwarf said. “She barely survived the massacre of her own village. As long as I live, I will not let her set foot outside Kurokh. I want her to be safe.”
    Seretia shook her golden head stubbornly. “I’m going if you are going,” she said fiercely. “And you are. I don’t know why you are.” She plunged ahead, the hurt penetrating deep. “You’re not a warrior of any kind, Uncle Radrick. You’re not a fighter. As far as I can see, you can’t do much more than I can!” She held back her tears with everything she had. “What can you do that I can’t, then? Tell me that, Uncle Radrick!”
    Her uncle lifted his head, rage in his eyes, but sadness too. He hesitated under her challenging gaze for a few moments. Then he reached behind him and raised in his hand a mighty gleaming axe. His second hand was holding a mace of steel. The Dwarf held the weapons with a professional touch.
    Seretia was so surprised that the tears froze on her cheeks. Uncle Radrick, a fighter? Someone like Malgeron?
    “Enough of this,” one of the Drakelings snapped. It was the burlier Haufkhin, the ring of spikes on his claws catching the sunlight. “I don’t like it. She shouldn’t come. She is only a girl with Elven magic.”
    “Powerful magic,” Malgeron corrected him, coming to Seretia’s defence. He smiled at the edges of his face. “She travelled with me to get here. We did not travel without incident, and she had to use her magic more than once. She also demonstrates courage and quite a good deal of endurance. I don’t insist that she comes with us, but I certainly would object if she did.” At his side, Kilgun nodded in agreement.
    The other Drakeling, the patient Zerras, turned to the High Priest. “The decision is yours, my lord,” he said calmly. “Make it wisely.”
    Agrilos glanced at Seretia, not happy with the situation at all. He wished that she hadn’t awakened in time for his meeting. He wished that she had been asleep just one day more, one day only, so that she would have had to stay in Kurokh. In safety, where he wanted her to be.
    At the same time, he couldn’t help thinking, Two magic-users are better than one. He also knew magic would be of little use, which was why the men he had chosen were all professional warriors. What was he do? He certainly did not want the Elven girl coming along with them. She might get in the way, being less enduring than the rest of them, and there was a much better chance than she would die very quickly. Yet she was strong of purpose and her magic was strong up to a point.
    Would that be enough to protect her?
    Turning around, his decision was made in an instant.
    “She comes with us,” he declared.
    He read immediate anger in the face of the Dwarf Radrick, but he could live with that. Galderos and Haufkhin looked mildly irritated, whereas Malgeron and Kilgun looked fairly pleased. Zerras’ face did not change by a single notch.
    But Seretia’s eyes shone with happiness when she heard those four words, and the tears that had frozen on her face now flowed freely – no longer with frustration or anger, but with such incredible emotion that the High Priest was touched by it.
    “We should take advantage of the best options available to us,” he said softly to Radrick, Galderos and the two Drakelings. He did not want them too displeased with him. “And I say that she shall come with us.”
    Radrick stared at the High Priest, the rage in his eyes bordering on something very threatening. Agrilos returned the stare, refusing to back off. After all, the two of them were the tallest and shortest people in the room.
    At last the rage subsided in the Dwarf’s face and faded into disgruntled acceptance. “Then I will let her come,” Radrick said in a barely controlled whisper. “I will do all I can to protect her. That much, at least, I have a duty to do.”
    Before he could say anything more, a huge crash sounded throughout the room, startling them out of their reverie. It was followed by a muffled yell.
    There was a second crash, followed by some more shouting, and the doors of the Hall of Fates collapsed inwards as something smashed through them.
    Malgeron stepped forward wearily, lending an unsympathetic hand to the armoured figure than had just flown through the middle of the doors.
    “You’re late, Vyrell,” he said through gritted teeth.
    The knight lifted his head, pulling himself to his feet with the aid of the Lorekki. He glanced around the vast hall, meeting Agrilos’ stern gaze as best as he can.
    “Where have you been all this time?” the High Priest barked at him. “You’ve missed the entire meeting.”
    Vyrell looked completely bewildered. He looked to Malgeron for some guidance and found none.
    Uncle Radrick stepped forward and inspected the armoured knight for a few seconds. “Who is this idiot?” he hissed disdainfully out of the corner of his mouth.
    “Ah, yes,” said Agrilos with a tight smile. “This is another companion who’s going to be coming with us.” He stepped back. “For now, let us rest,” he said to the others. “I will make preparations for the journey. We shall leave in just under a week.”
    “What are you talking about?” Vyrell demanded.
    Malgeron sighed. “I’ll fill you in on the details, my friend,” he whispered in a low voice. “On the way out. But for now, just shut up. Life’s bad enough already without your voice making it worse.”
     
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2006
  5. BBallForLife

    BBallForLife New Member

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    Still great. I love long chapters.
     
  6. Wing Rider

    Wing Rider Psychotic Cybernetica

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    That wasn't a long chapter :D
     
  7. BBallForLife

    BBallForLife New Member

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    Longer than mine! :)
     
  8. Wing Rider

    Wing Rider Psychotic Cybernetica

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    OK, people and Lorekki, I've finished my complete plan of the story now, so I can on some of the chapters that I've finished recently. Another short one for now then.


    Chapter 11


    Szégar looked down at the planet Kardria and inspected his handiwork. It was no longer a planet. It was an extension of himself.
    He had been experimenting for several hours now. Hours? Days? Years? He couldn’t tell. He didn’t eat, didn’t drink, didn’t sleep, since it was unnecessary to do so when there was so much to do. He was aware of the existence of time, but somehow time was not important. All that mattered was the work he was doing.
    What had used to be the planet Kardria was infested by millions of Szégar’s demonic creations in every single directions. The Demonspawn had been the first. Szégar had developed them, made mutations out of them, added an extra claw here, instilled special powers there, even increased psychic power of individual brain sections in some cases. There were so many that he had almost lost count.
    But no, he would never lose count. The Xargoreks had created them in his image, and his mind was truly massive. If he ever did lose count, he would be on more than one planet.
    He continued to experiment. He was creative. He made many of the demonic creatures serve him in various days, showing him what happens if a particular limb was ripped out here, or if an extra body part was added here. What happened if a dragon and an alligator were combined, for example? Szégar became lost in his work, tearing out pieces of the earth itself to feed his insatiable lust for more knowledge, which seemed so unimaginably vast.
    Once he ordered two Demonspawn to tear each other apart to observe what they did. It was over in less than ten seconds. All that was remained of the loser was a single claw, and even that was devoured an instant later by a small horde of winged demons that consumed the limb with web-like strands that burst from their eyeballs.
    I wonder how many others there are like me, Szégar mused as he watched this. I wonder what they do, and how they think.
    He was quite certain that there were no others like himself but the Xargorek, who did not do anything like he did, since they did not use their skills and abilities in such ways. Varrakon’s actions had pretty much confirmed that.
    The Xargoreks wanted him to break through the light that had imprisoned them for umpteen millennia, and having seen their history Szégar did not mind having to do that. But he did not want to stop at that. So much more would be needed. So much more that was almost unimaginable.
    He had already opened up a portal to the other world, he had told Varrakon not too long ago. It was such a tiny, tiny portal that the imprisoning light could not detect it, and so it had gone unnoticed, and had stayed strong. A portal of such size was suitable for only one kind of creature, one of the first that Szégar had created. They travelled in a cloud of some sort that he had manufactured himself.
    They were infinitely tiny, of course. The Demonspawn were much, much more powerful.
    He sensed a change in the atmosphere amongst the crimson sky, a colour that he worked hard to perfect in conjunction of the conflicting magics instilled in the air. What was it? Szégar recognised it a split second later as the multiple faces of Ralzer appeared in front of him.
    “Szégar,” the Xargorek greeted, coming forward, his massive body seeming to engulf the sky itself. It was not an illusion, it was reality.
    It was strange, but Szégar and Ralzer had dispensed with formalities long ago. They had even seemed to form a bond, some kind of relationship, if it could be called that. Ralzer no longer referred to him as “mortal” although Varrakon insisted on it. Varrakon was the master of them all. He was the one to be feared. Yet how could he be feared, if Szégar did not know what fear was?
    “You are doing very well indeed, Szégar,” Ralzer said, his voice booming from every corner at once. “Varrakon is pleased with you. Yet there is something in which you are lacking.”
    Szégar raised his head, his eyes unblinkingly threatening.
    “This is none of your fault,” the Xargorek growled, not moving, his body still floating in the void above the planet. “It is merely a simple concept that you were not familiarised with. It is not a sign of weakness.”
    Szégar did not believe him. “Lack of knowledge,” he said, his face encased in stone, “is always a sign of weakness.”
    “No.” Multiple of eyes whirled around and settled on him. “You are the only mortal in a universe of Xargoreks.” Ralzer’s voice was harsh, gutteral and angry. “Follow orders wrongly, and we will destroy you. We can do so as easily as we created you. Remember who you are, mortal. Remember why you exist. You have no weaknesses except those which you are supposed to have. Do you understand?”
    “I understand.”
    “Good. Listen closely to me then, for I shall make you stronger still.”
    What happened next was an experience that Szégar would never forget. It was far more exhilarating than the exploration and experimentation he had been doing for all his life up to now – it went beyond that. It burned itself into his mind. There was nothing to be seen, nothing to be heard, only to be thought. For it was only Szégar’s mind that was concerned.
    If he had been anything less than what he was, then, he would have felt sure that death would be better. But he did not feel that, because he had not been created to feel pain, and so felt nothing as information and knowledge surged from the Xargorek’s minds and into his. The psychic strain of all that knowledge, all that pain, may have destroyed him otherwise.
    When it ended, Szégar felt himself to be a new creature completely. He understood so many things that he had not even thought to comprehend before. He understood what pain was without ever experiencing it before. He understood what slow death was without needing to experiment.
    “What is it called?” he asked.
    “We call it torture,” the Xargorek replied.
    With new strength flowing through him, Szégar summoned his powers to create more of the same creatures that already ravaged the land. But no, they were different somehow. Very different. They were soldiers, equipped for war, bearing instruments of cruel torture in their claws, their eyes filled with nothing but bloodlust and violence.
    Szégar named the creatures Demonlings, and was pleased to see that Ralzer was impressed. He made a few more of them, and then paused to watch them slaughter numerous other lesser creatures, cutting them into shreds and driving all manners of weapons into various parts of their body.
    So much knowledge. It felt as if he could do anything. Perhaps it might even be true. Could it be true?
    Szégar stopped, noting that something was wrong. A serpent-like creation had wounded one of the Demonlings in its fifth and sixth shoulders, and the Demonling was roaring in pain. Pain? It feels pain? That should not be right, Szégar thought. Pain is a disadvantage. It distorts the creature’s thinking.
    He removed the emotion of pain from the minds of the Demonlings, taking not too much effort to do so. Blood still poured down, but the pain was not registered. It simply wasn’t there.
    How much more I could do, Szégar realised with grim anticipation. How much more. He didn’t even care whether Ralzer was watching. Or even Varrakon. Or every Xargorek that had ever lived. How much more I could do. I can do anything. Anything.
    I can do anything.
     
  9. BBallForLife

    BBallForLife New Member

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    Still good, but UNien is still ahead. :)
     
  10. King Eduardo

    King Eduardo yo mama's

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    wow ur stories are really great have u thought of getting them published maybe?
     
  11. Wing Rider

    Wing Rider Psychotic Cybernetica

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    I would but I haven't finished them!
    BBallforLife, Unien's may still be ahead of me, but in the next chapter EVERYTHING begins! Sort of, anyway.
     
  12. BBallForLife

    BBallForLife New Member

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    Well you better post it then. I'm starting to tingle with excitement. :)
     
  13. Wing Rider

    Wing Rider Psychotic Cybernetica

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    Keep tingling! :D Here it is!


    CHAPTER 12


    Seretia spent the next six days in the Drakeling village of Kurokh. Despite its small size, it was bustling with people throughout the day, Drakelings and Elves alike, even with the odd Dwarf. She found herself wandering the streets and exploring, although in truth there wasn’t that much to explore beyond the marketplace. It was perfectly safe. The walls were high and very sturdy, and Drakeling guards ringed the entire village, all heavily armed to the teeth. Seretia hadn’t seen the outside of the village, but now it seemed as if nothing could possibly get in. Another illusion, of course.
    Uncle Radrick was very angry that she was so adamant to travel with them to Kurokh, and he told her so. She had never seen him so angry before. He rarely got angry at all, but now was a special case. After being so happy to be united each other, a sudden change of emotions opened up a breach between them. Seretia was very angry that he had deliberately held back his true nature. Her uncle, a warrior of the Dwarves. All these years, hiding it.
    Even so she refused to back down. Malgeron helped by pointing out that there were enough of them to protect her from harm. Vyrell helped by pointing out that he would exterminate every tree in the area so that nothing would attack her. Eventually, Uncle Radrick turned away from them deliberately and tried to put on a good face. There was no doubt about what he thought of the whole thing.
    Every day continued much the same, and Seretia found herself doing absolutely nothing. Malgeron and the others became increasingly restless, although the Drakeling Zerras seemed to have unlimited amounts of patience, so that it seemed nothing could move him.
    Five days came and went. Seretia thought of how slowly the time went. If only every second could be like this.
    Five days, and the time came to depart.

    Agrilos was there to meet them at the gates of the village. It was the early morning of the following day, and Seretia found herself still yawning, as if she expected to continue sleeping for a long while still. Yet she was anxious to leave the village. Anxious to leave safety, and enter the jaws of death. Just like everyone else.
    A small crowd of Drakelings were there at the gates, cheering, as they left the village at last. Seretia was wearing a set of uninteresting brown clothes supplied by the Drakelings, made for long travel. She also wore a hat to protect her from the sun, although considering the material it wouldn’t have made much difference.
    Agrilos handed each of them a small pack that held their supplies of food, sleeping bags, fresh clothes, and other basic necessities. He did not look Seretia in the eye at all, his head bowed as he passed her a rucksack. Then he passed through the gates last of all, bearing a great staff of steel. Seretia was puzzled by the staff – she had never seen him with it before. What could its significance be? she wondered.
    Just before they left, Agrilos had a young lamb brought before him, a fresh one that virtually radiated innocence. He stared down at it for a few moments, and then had a knife also brought -–a special kind of knife that Seretia had only seen once before in the Temple of Lorission.
    As the Drakelings watched, the High Priest began to chant in an ancient language that Seretia could not quite follow, although she could catch some of the words from her knowledge of the Elven language. She caught the words “help”, “Lorission”, “peace” and “fire”. The chant went up for several minutes.
    Then Agrilos dashed the knife down, killing the lamb on the spot. He wiped the bloody knife on the ground, left it there to be collected, and bid the Drakelings take away the body of the lamb to be washed out and cleaned. The High Priest nodded with respect and turned to join the others.
    The cheers of the crowd behind them gradually faded away as they set off down the road to the north-east. Nine of them: Agrilos, Malgeron, Vyrell, Kilgun, Galderos, Zerras, Haufkhin, Radrick and Seretia. They travelled together almost cheerfully, talking amongst themselves and seemingly not worried about the dangers that lay ahead. Agrilos led the way bearing his staff of steel; behind him were Malgeron and Vyrell; a short distance to the side were Galderos and Radrick; Zerras and Haufkhin brought up the rear. Seretia came up boldly to the front to walk with the High Priest.
    “Are you glad you came, Seretia?” Agrilos said after several seconds, as they travelled around a corner and sighted several more metres of nothing but long dusty roads. “It is dangerous where we go.”
    “We’ve already been over this,” she sighed, as if being lectured for several hours by her uncle hadn’t been enough. “I want to make a difference. Staying behind in Kurokh won’t achieve anything.”
    “You don’t have to achieve anything, Seretia. Not after what you’ve been through. You don’t deserve to.”
    “Yes, I do, Agrilos.” The Elven girl looked up at him almost beseechingly. “I can do something out here. I know I can.”
    The High Priest left the matter alone, but to himself he shook his head sadly. He could not see how anything could be achieved by Seretia here. Not here. Not anywhere, perhaps. It was just an excuse of hers to keep herself close to her uncle, whom she had thought lost forever.
    They walked for twenty minutes or so without saying anything. Behind them, they could hear Vyrell raging on about his hatred for trees, and several noises that sounded like Malgeron was hitting him over the head. One of the Drakelings told a joke, and somebody else laughed. Everyone’s spirits were so high.
    Seretia felt almost furious with herself. How could she be feeling so despairing? There was no reason for it. She had to try and put on a brave face, at least.
    “I haven’t seen you with that staff before,” she commented, her curiosity getting the better of her. “Why do you need a staff for? You can do magic without it, can’t you?”
    The High Priest laughed out loud. “The staff is neither mine, nor is it connected with magic at all. It belongs to Galderos. One of his special weapons, he tells me. I just hold it for him. I won’t use it, of course.”
    Just a staff, Seretia thought, staring at its metal surface in wonder. “What does it do?” she asked.
    Agrilos smiled. “Why don’t you wait and see? We’re bound to run into some trouble soon.”
    The nine of them continued across the dust road until they reached a small hill which they were forced to climb over. As they did so, Agrilos’ voice rang out clearly. “We are heading for the Outer Sphere, but first we must leave Drakeling country. We are heading, then, to the Drakeling city of Chogrek. We should be there by tomorrow, I think – maybe even by the end of tonight if we don’t encounter any trouble.”
    “We always encounter trouble,” Kilgun said rather sourly, making his way down the hill with the others. “There is no possible way of getting through a day without running into trouble.”
    “Trees,” the knight Vyrell said very loudly. “We will be attacked by trees.”
    Agrilos ignored him and led them on across the road. They walked on across the long dust road, feeling the sun burn upon their faces. Within an hour they encountered other travellers, all of them going the other way. None of them even looked up, although she certainly had good reason to. The nine of them looked like a large group of veteran army soldiers, which wasn’t too far off the mark.
    By midday, the sun was high in the sky and seemed determined to assassinate them in all ways possible. Seretia quickly became glad of the small protection from the sun hat she wore. Behind her, Galderos and Kilgun were being affected by it, but were not complaining. Malgeron seemed not to notice it at all, and the same went for the Drakelings. Vyrell, in his thick sturdy armour, surely must have been suffering more than any of them, but said nothing about it.
    After a couple of more hours of walking, their group reached a second hill, and Agrilos bid everybody stop for a rest. Seretia was quite surprised to find that she wasn’t very tired, even after five or six hours of walking non-stop. She was unable to explain why, and put it down to her devotion to Lorission.
    She caught Uncle Radrick glancing at her to see that she was coping alright, as well as Agrilos, and quickly assured them that she was perfectly fine. They all ate a slice of the food that was stored in their rucksacks, and for ten minutes or so rested on the hill, looking up at the sky. Seretia stared at her shrivelled up piece of meat and offered it to Agrilos.
    “What’s wrong with it?” he asked in surprise.
    “It is shrivelled up,” she complained. “It’s horrible.”
    “This,” he replied, smiling slightly, “is what you get when you ration food out and put it in a tight space. It’s bound to get shrivelled up a bit, Seretia.”
    “Here,” came a voice behind her.
    She turned around and saw, with some surprise, that it was one of the Drakelings. The patient one, Zerras. He handed her his own piece of meat, which was slightly less shrivelled up than hers. She mumbled her thanks and, not knowing what to give in return, gave him her own piece of meat. The Drakeling did not take offence, but consumed the meat immediately.
    “Why are we eating meat?” Haufkhin demanded after a time. “Meat is for barbarians.”
    “I’m a barbarian,” Galderos replied. His teeth glinted in a sudden ferocious grin as he ripped another chunk out of his meat and devoured it hungrily.
    Haufkhin glared at him for a few seconds, and then laughed out loud, his voice rich and reptilian. He slammed the back of his fist onto the side of his meat, which was then impaled onto the ring of spikes that encircled his knuckles. The Drakeling that picked at the food as one would a cocktail sausage. After this was done he licked at the morsels of meat that remained clinking to the steel, determined that none of the food was wasted.
    The High Priest now came to his feet, and standing high at the summit of the hill he pointed further down the road.
    “See that?” he called to them. Seretia followed the line of his finger and could make out a dense forest of green. “That is known as the Cacklestone Forest, so-called because it is populated by cackletrees. The cackletrees are very dangerous creatures, but if all goes well then they will leave us alone and not harm us when we pass through their forest. It is said that they will not attack unless they are threatened.”
    “Trees are evil!” Vyrell bellowed. Beside him, Kilgun laughed quietly to himself.
    Agrilos turned in his direction, his eyes hard. “I sense your intent, Vyrell. I do not care about your ridiculous and blindingly idiotic hatred. You will not attack them or threaten them in any way! Do so, and we will not be safe. The forest is huge, and if we are attacked whilst in their midst, we shall not escape!”
    The knight offered no response, but only stared at the taller man. Agrilos stared back for a few moments, then seemed satisfied. With a dramatic flourish, he bid the others continue the journey, down the remains of the dusty road that lay ahead of them for a few miles still.
    As the others of their company began to do so, Seretia lifted her head and looked out towards the distant trees that the High Priest had pointed out to them. They seemed dark and forbidding, a dangerous meadow of constantly changing waters. They seemed unpredictably unpleasant. Forcing the cold feeling away, the Elven elementalist gathered up her rucksack and rushed after the others down the road.

    They reached the Cacklestone Forest a few hours later, just as it was beginning to get dark, the last rays of sun slowly sinking beneath the horizon. The trees here were twice as big as Seretia had seen anywhere else, and for the second time she had the same cold unpleasant feeling. She didn’t like the forest at all; it made her nervous in a way that aggressive hordes of vicious Chaogri didn’t.
    Uncle Radrick slowed down until he was right next to her, helping her along as they trudged through the forbidding forest trail, birdsong humming all around them in a void of sound. He saw her face and looked concerned.
    “Don’t worry, Seretia, we won’t be attacked here,” he said gruffly. “Not unless that fool Vyrell does something stupid, and he’d better not do that when we’re not even a day out of Kurokh yet.”
    She nodded absently, concentrating on ignoring the presence of the trees around her.
    “I’ll be frank with you, Seretia,” the Dwarf said after a few moments, not looking at her. “I’m not happy that you’ve come, not happy at all. I know I’ve said this to you before, but I’m saying it again just in case it didn’t penetrate the first fifty five times or so. If anything goes wrong, stick by me. Rely on me to protect you. I owe you at least that much.”
    She shook her head sharply. “You don’t owe me anything, Uncle Radrick. Not anything. I chose to come, and I can look after myself.”
    Uncle Radrick chuckled. “No, you can’t, girl. You think you can, and maybe Malgeron and Kilgun think you can, but the truth is that you can’t. Remember that when you’re fighting for your life. There are some things that your magic cannot prevail against, but which I can do something about. There are some things that can render you powerless in the time it takes you to blink at them. Remember, Seretia.”
    Then he was gone, re-appearing next to Zerras a moment later, talking in animated chatter, leaving the Elven girl behind with Galderos, who ignored her completely. Seretia stared after her uncle for a time, reflecting on what he had just said.
    After a few more hours of walking through the dense forest, Agrilos turned around in mid-stride and raised his voice.
    “I said earlier that we hoped to reach Chogrek by the end of tonight,.” he announced. “I still wish to do so. We should be out of the Cacklestone Forest within the next hour, and then Chogrek will not be too far away.”
    “Can we kill some trees first?” Vyrell asked.
    “No, you cannot!” the High Priest snapped. “If you want to attack a tree, I suggest you attack one that doesn’t react! If you so much as touch one, I will blast you into oblivion!”
    “Can’t we set fire to them on the way out?”
    “No, no and no! Vyrell, I should remind you that the purpose of this quest is to seek out the Spirits of the Sun in the Forgotten Tomb of Hetris! It is not, I repeat not, to turn into a pyromaniac and burn down all the forests just because we don’t like them!” Agrilos’ face showed clearly that he was at the edge of his patience. “Now, if you please, we shall continue!”
    “Whose idea was it to take us through a forest, venerable High Priest?” Kilgun said lightly in good humour.
    The High Priest chose to ignore him. “Just get moving, all of you. The sooner we’re clear of this, the better.”

    They continued along the shadowed forest path, eager to leave the darkness of the forests. Through gaps in the trees, the night sky was very cloudy, the air almost silent. Seretia wondered what kind of creatures lived in the forest at night. Were there vicious wolves that would tear her to pieces? Were there fierce bears that would knock her flying with one huge paw? She didn’t like the unknown at all; she never had.
    Agrilos stopped them about twenty minutes later or so with an upraised hand, his eyes flicking backwards and forth as he studied them. He stepped forward, a frown creasing his face.
    “Where did Zerras go?” he demanded.
     
  14. Wing Rider

    Wing Rider Psychotic Cybernetica

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    Seretia looked around her in surprise to where the Drakeling archer had been standing a few minutes ago. Zerras, the Drakeling who had swapped his food for hers. Hadn’t he been talking to Uncle Radrick just then?
    Malgeron looked just as puzzled. His purple gaze searched the trees and found nothing. He spun around towards the other Drakeling.
    “Haufkhin!” he barked. “Where has your fellow Drakeling gone? You were with him just now, weren’t you?”
    The burly Drakeling looked confused. “I had turned away, and…”
    “No,” interrupted Uncle Radrick, stepping forward a pace. “He was talking to me. He’d seen something in the trees, and wanted to investigate what it was.”
    The High Priest cursed under his breath. “Did he, now?”
    “That’s what he said,” said the Dwarf solidly.
    Agrilos gripped the steel staff in his hands tightly until his knuckles turned white. “Tell me something, Radrick. We are supposed to stick together. If one of us leaves, they are on their own. Their own, I say. Alone. We can’t go searching for everyone who decides to wander off.”
    “He didn’t exactly wander off,” Uncle Radrick admitted. “He went in a very particular direction.”
    “Which direction was that?” enquired Haufkhin with interest.
    The Dwarf turned and pointed deep where the trees and bushes were thickest and looked more threatening than any other direction. The Drakeling nodded once, and then with a single bound of his webbed feet, he had shot off in that direction, disappearing into the trees, swallowed up by the darkness in an instant.
    The High Priest cursed again.
    “Nobody move!” he shouted before anybody could. “Nobody else go after him! We can’t afford to lose anyone else - I said, nobody move!
    Malgeron pulled at Vyrell’s hand, who had been in mid-step towards the same path that Haufkhin had taken, perhaps with the intent of murderous tree-killing in his mind.
    “Do we go after him or wait for him?” Galderos said quietly, his face strong and patient.
    Agrilos held his temper with a visible effort. He shouldn’t have to tolerate this, he told himself. He really shouldn’t have to put up with this. But of course, he did, because of who he was. He glared at nobody in particular and slammed the steel staff into the ground with a dull thud.
    “We’ll wait for him,” he said through gritted teeth. “If he doesn’t come back, we’ll go after him.”
    Uncle Radrick nodded in acceptance and sat down heavily on the forest floor. Vyrell and Seretia followed suit. Agrilos, Malgeron, Kilgun and Galderos, however, remained standing.
    Several minutes passed with no sign of either Drakeling. Seretia was becoming increasingly restless, and noticed that Agrilos also was, although for a different reason. She had liked Zerras’ patient attitude to her and his kindness and was worried that he might be in some danger.
    After exactly five more minutes, there was a huge explosion of noise and a huge roar split the silence, making everyone jump. The ground shook and several trees ruffled their branches. The birds stopped singing altogether.
    A second later, the tree that Seretia was resting against suddenly came alive.
    She cried out as the ground shuddered underneath her feet and split asunder, jumping clear as the tree uprooted itself completely, shook its branches, rotated in a few circle and lumbered directly towards her.
    “Cackletree!” Malgeron shouted, but did not draw his sword.
    Seretia, still shaken by what was happening, could not move as the great tree charged directly towards her, ready to crush her into the earth. In the next instant, Uncle Radrick grabbed her and forced her out of the way, and the huge cackletree charged past them and through the undergrowth. Within seconds it had disappeared.
    “You alright, girl?” Kilgun hissed out of the corner of his mouth.
    She managed a quick nod, still frozen by the realisation of just how close to death she had come – and not even being the intended victim. She turned towards her uncle to thank him for saving her life, but he had already got to his feet.
    “What’s going on here?” the Dwarf demanded.
    Agrilos spun around to face him. “The cackletrees are rising. They have awakened. And do you know why? Because something has stirred them! Something equivalent to what I have been telling Vyrell not to do for the hundredth time!”
    “What did I do?” said the knight in surprise.
    “Not you! The Drakelings! They did something that threatened the trees somehow. And now every cackletree in the area is after them, damn you!”
    As if to sound his exact words, the tree that was nearest to Vyrell also came alive, stretching itself towards the sky, a roar echoing from within. Seretia shrank back from the size and ferocity of the creature, frightened of it almost as much as she was frightened by the Soulsuckers. Like the first cackletree, it rotated in a circle and lumbered off the same way as the first one had done. Two other cackletrees followed after it, roaring to the sky, their branches catching stray pieces of grass and moss and shredding them apart.
    The noise had started before as a loud rumble. Now it was building up to a great crescendo.
    Malgeron was the first to react, drawing his sword and dashing towards the dark cluster of bushes where the two Drakelings had departed earlier. Vyrell and Kilgun followed after him immediately. Agrilos looked absolutely disgusted. Then, in the next instant, he and Galderos also ran towards the dark path. With no other sensible option remaining to them, Seretia and Uncle Radrick followed them in their search for the two missing Drakelings.
    Looking back on it from later on, Seretia realised that they were probably all mad. What chance did they stand against a handful of the gigantic cackletrees, let alone a whole forest of them? It would have made better sense to get out of the Cacklestone Forest as quickly as possible, and much safer.
    For some reason that choice of action didn’t occur to anybody. Maybe it was the desperate plight of Zerras and Haufkhin, trapped in the woods with cackletrees coming at them from all directions. Maybe it was curiosity to find out exactly what Zerras had seen and had prompted him to leave them in the first place.
    They hurried through the disused trail, sweeping past overgrown weeds and plants that partially blocked their path, Seretia struggling to catch up but finding that Uncle Radrick was having much more trouble. Galderos helped him along, however. The trail twisted and swerved here and there, slowing them down. All around them the enraged roars of cackletrees could be heard, and it seemed that at any moment one of the gigantic creatures would appear in their path to destroy them all.
    To Seretia’s surprise, not a single cackletree appeared to stop them as they ran on through the dark trail, finding their way through the night as they looked ahead for any sign of Zerras or Haufkhin. The creatures seemed to be everywhere except where their small company were.
    The trail swerved sharply to the left, and Kilgun skidded in the other direction, pointing at the ground in front of him. It was riddled with the kind of footprints made by a large river creature, like a great lizard of some kind – or a Drakeling.
    Malgeron increased the pace, racing ahead, the others struggling to keep up.
    When they turned the next corner, the path opened up into a huge clearing bereft of trees and bushes. The group of them stumbled into the clearing, unable to stop themselves. Seretia tripped and fell into the mound of grass, and was instantly helped up again by Agrilos.
    “What the - ?” Uncle Radrick started to say.
    The roars of the cackletrees sounded on all sides, rising to a deafening bellow of thunder. Around them, the huge creatures lumbered forward one step at a time, surrounding them in a circle of death. The roar grew louder and louder as the cackletrees gradually advanced towards them.
    Kilgun raised the black object in his hand and fired at the nearest opponent. A missile sprang from the object and thudded into the thick bark of the cackletree. The creature didn’t even seem to notice the attack, and its advance continued relentlessly.
    Uncle Radrick raised his axe in both hands and hurled it with a yell. The axe spun through the air and imbedded itself into another cackletree. This time, there was an effect. The cackletree stopped short, as if realising that something had happened that it had not been aware of. Then it continued to come forward, yet with slower, weaker steps.
    “I advise you all to take cover,” said a cold voice just in front of the Dwarf.
    Seretia looked around with surprise to see the tall form of the High Priest standing tall with his arms raised high above his head. What was he doing?
    She hit the ground quickly as an almighty explosion of fire shook the forest, and waves of scorching heat spread in every direction, with Agrilos in the middle of it. He shouted something over the roar of the flames that were engulfing the grass around them, and they all ran in the direction he had pointed. Seretia didn’t know what he had done, but it had forced the cackletrees back by several paces, and now there was a chance for them.
    Smoke billowed out towards her, threatening to tear her lungs apart. She held her breath and plunged through it with Uncle Radrick and Agrilos close beside her. In an instant she was through. They were all through. Seretia chanced a glance behind them, and was relieved to see the dark forms of the cackletrees still behind them, blinded by the smoke and the flames that Agrilos had summoned.
    “What are you doing here?” shouted a voice in their midst. The voice of a Drakeling.
    “Haufkhin!” Malgeron bellowed in outrage. His Lorekki features were knotted with such anger that he could barely speak. Nevertheless he managed to calm himself down sufficiently enough to shout over the roar of the flames, “Where the hell is Zerras, you fool?”
    “I thought you might be able to tell me!”
    An instant later, Zerras’ head emerged from behind a tree. The Drakeling archer was out of breath and looked exhausted. He saw the rest of them and there was undisguised relief in his eyes, but sank to the ground panting. He waved his hands at Agrilos, trying to speak, but the High Priest was not in the mood for it.
    “What in the world do you think you were doing?” Agrilos practically screamed at him. “Do you know how many of those cursed trees have been after us? And why have you awakened them in the first place, you idiot?”
    Zerras did not appear to take in a single word of what the High Priest was saying. He gasped and coughed for a few minutes, trying to speak, desperate to do so. Galderos came up beside him to give him a pat on the back, which seemed to help to some extent.
    “It’s back there,” he panted. “I caught a glimpse of it, it’s back there…”
    “What, man?” Agrilos barked. “What are you talking about?”
    “The light, the light…all bright…all light…light…”
    The Drakeling collapsed to the ground suddenly, his speech slurring and turning into gibberish. Haufkhin looked concerned, and started trying to give his friend more room to breathe.
    In the next instant, an inhuman roar went up from behind them. Seretia glanced behind her, and was horrified to see that the huge mound of cackletrees that they had left in the fire and smoke had somehow recovered, and were marching towards them determinedly. Their bark was badly burnt and smoke still billowed out from around them as they limped forward. Waves of heat circled them in enormous amounts.
    Kilgun had seen them too. “The cackletrees are coming!” he shouted. “Hurry! We have to get out of this forest!”
    The others did not argue. Haufkhin heaved Zerras over his shoulder with a small effort, and they all ran as fast they could to the other end of the path, where a glimmer of light could be seen. Nightlight, but light nonetheless. An exit to the forest. A chance to escape. Seretia did not think the cackletrees would pursue them once they were clear of the dense woods.
    The cackletrees had been visibly weakened by Agrilos’ earlier spell, and they could not keep up, their roars still echoing throughout the Cacklestone Forest. The gap in the trees seemed so far away. Seretia remembered Uncle Radrick and noticed that he was only just managing to maintain their rapid pace.
    A second later, the cackletrees stopped dead in their tracks. They turned around and headed back the way they had came.
    Galderos stopped as well, looking back at the retreating cackletrees in wonder, the surprise in his face mirrored in the eyes of everybody else. Uncle Radrick came to a gradual stop, panting as he did so.
    “They’re giving up,” Vyrell said. “Why are they giving up?” He turned in his head slightly. “Malgeron, why would they be giving up?”
    There was no answer.
    “Where,” said Agrilos with pure rage in every muscle of his face, “is Malgeron?”
    It was at this point that every single cackletree in the forest took it upon themselves to scream at the top of their voices with such intensity that it seemed to Seretia that the whole world would explode. Just underneath the terrible sound was the incredible thunder of dozens of the creatures marching in perfect harmony – as if they were all marching in the same direction.
    A chill ran down Seretia’s spine as she realised what that meant.
    Then Malgeron Steelmaster appeared behind them on the forest path, his face pale and sweating, holding his sword in one hand and a small object in his other, which was balled into a tight fist. He shouted towards them words that could not be made out over the screams of the cackletrees, which were close behind him to smell his skin, and the huge thumping noise that was the footsteps of the cackletrees themselves.
    But there was no mistaking their meaning. Galderos and Vyrell rushed forward to defend him. As the cackletrees surged towards the Lorekki, the two warriors closed in, swords thrusting and hacking at living bark. This had no effect at all except to buy a few more seconds.
    A few more seconds was all that was needed. Malgeron sprang out of reach of the creatures coming towards him, and joined the others of their group, exhausted but unharmed.
    “Run!” he bellowed at all of them. “Run, curse you! Get out of this accursed forest!”
     
  15. Wing Rider

    Wing Rider Psychotic Cybernetica

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    The others did not argue. Haufkhin heaved Zerras over his shoulder with a small effort, and they all ran as fast they could to the other end of the path, where a glimmer of light could be seen. Nightlight, but light nonetheless. An exit to the forest. A chance to escape. Seretia did not think the cackletrees would pursue them once they were clear of the dense woods.
    The cackletrees had been visibly weakened by Agrilos’ earlier spell, and they could not keep up, their roars still echoing throughout the Cacklestone Forest. The gap in the trees seemed so far away. Seretia remembered Uncle Radrick and noticed that he was only just managing to maintain their rapid pace.
    A second later, the cackletrees stopped dead in their tracks. They turned around and headed back the way they had came.
    Galderos stopped as well, looking back at the retreating cackletrees in wonder, the surprise in his face mirrored in the eyes of everybody else. Uncle Radrick came to a gradual stop, panting as he did so.
    “They’re giving up,” Vyrell said. “Why are they giving up?” He turned in his head slightly. “Malgeron, why would they be giving up?”
    There was no answer.
    “Where,” said Agrilos with pure rage in every muscle of his face, “is Malgeron?”
    It was at this point that every single cackletree in the forest took it upon themselves to scream at the top of their voices with such intensity that it seemed to Seretia that the whole world would explode. Just underneath the terrible sound was the incredible thunder of dozens of the creatures marching in perfect harmony – as if they were all marching in the same direction.
    A chill ran down Seretia’s spine as she realised what that meant.
    Then Malgeron Steelmaster appeared behind them on the forest path, his face pale and sweating, holding his sword in one hand and a small object in his other, which was balled into a tight fist. He shouted towards them words that could not be made out over the screams of the cackletrees, which were close behind him to smell his skin, and the huge thumping noise that was the footsteps of the cackletrees themselves.
    But there was no mistaking their meaning. Galderos and Vyrell rushed forward to defend him. As the cackletrees surged towards the Lorekki, the two warriors closed in, swords thrusting and hacking at living bark. This had no effect at all except to buy a few more seconds.
    A few more seconds was all that was needed. Malgeron sprang out of reach of the creatures coming towards him, and joined the others of their group, exhausted but unharmed.
    “Run!” he bellowed at all of them. “Run, curse you! Get out of this accursed forest!”
    They all made another mad dash for the gap in the trees that they had sighted earlier, fear driving them and giving them new strength. Seretia didn’t even look behind her to see how Vyrell and Galderos were faring. She didn’t hesitate, didn’t do anything all but run.
    She was alive after ten more seconds, which surprised her. When she blinked again, she saw that above her were clouds. Night clouds.
    She was out of Cacklestone Forest. She was safe, and she was alive.
    Uncle Radrick grabbed hold of her and pulled her forward by a dozen more metres, where true safety lay. The others had all made it too. Agrilos was shaking with rage like she had never seen before, the steel staff in his hands quivering beneath his tightly clenched hands. She wondered for a moment why he hadn’t given it back to Galderos yet, then dismissed the thought from her mind.
    Vyrell and Galderos still hadn’t emerged.
    But then they did so in the next second, just barely ahead of the enraged cackletrees, just out of their grasp, their swords keeping them safe from harm as they leaped out of reach and practically threw themselves out of the forest and reached the safety outside.
    Gradually, the roar of the cackletrees subsided. The sound of their footsteps faded into silence. The cackletrees themselves returned to their places in the woods where they had been resting before Zerras and Haufkhin had awakened them.
    Seretia stared in disbelief. Everything was as it had been before. It was as if nothing had happened out of the ordinary at all. As if they hadn’t been there.

    “All right,” the High Priest snarled ten minutes later when Zerras had sufficiently recovered enough to speak. “I want an explanation to why we risked our lives back there to rescue the two of you, who shouldn’t even have gone off in any case. I also want to know why you –” He pointed at the big Lorekki disdainfully. “ – also thought you might do the same thing, and why we had to risk our lives to get you out as well. We barely survived this evening.” His eyes flared with an inner fire. “Now who is going to speak first?”
    Malgeron wordlessly uncurled his fist to reveal a small cube that was glowing softly with a curious light that seemed to pulse gently in a static rhythm of some kind.
    “This,” he said quietly, “is what we risked our lives for.”
    The others of their group crowded around him, staring at the strange little cube in fascination. Seretia, for her part, didn’t know what to make of it. It was like nothing she had ever seen before. There seemed to some magic element about it, but if there was then her own Elven magic would give an indication to her that it was, and it did not. It puzzled her in a way she could not define.
    Agrilos rotated the box anti-clockwise and released a hidden clasp on it. The top of the box swung away, revealing the inside, which were even more bewildering. It consisted of a complicated metal device that Seretia had never seen before, a chain of metal tubes winding her and there, connecting to this and that. She wondered what it could be, and of its possible purpose.
    “What is it?” said the High Priest.
    Seretia was surprised to hear Agrilos ask this, and was sure everyone was as well. They had all thought that somebody as learned in magic as Agrilos would surely know what such a device was. Perhaps it wasn't magic at all then, but was something else entirely.
    “I don’t know what it is,” Malgeron growled. “But whatever it is, it’s important. The cackletrees guarded it with their lives. Touching it in any way threatened them, so they attacked us.”
    Agrilos continued to study the strange cube for a few more minutes, trying to deduce its nature. From his expression, he did not seem to know anything more about it than anybody else.
    At last he closed it up and handed it back to Malgeron, although his face was troubled.
    “Keep it, then. Perhaps its purpose will be revealed later on. The Spirits of the Sun will surely know, in any case. Let’s just hold onto it until we get there.” The High Priest glanced around at them. “Looks like we won’t reach Chogrek today. We’ll camp here and continue towards Chogrek tomorrow.”
    “Not here,” Vyrell said immediately. “Too near to the forest.”
    Agrilos sighed. “We’re safe here, Vyrell. The cackletrees won’t leave their habitat, believe me.”
    “No,” said Galderos, turning. He, too had barely escaped death at the hands of the cackletrees. “We should find a safer place. Camping near that forest doesn’t feel safe to me.” He grimaced. “I don’t think it ever will.”
     
  16. Carline of Crydee

    Carline of Crydee Beyond eternity

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    It took me a while to read it, but it's still amazing :)
     
  17. Wing Rider

    Wing Rider Psychotic Cybernetica

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    Finally my school have stopped blocking this forum! :D
    If you like that chapter, the next chapter is a hundredfold better. I haven't posted for a while, so I'll post that soon.
     
  18. Wing Rider

    Wing Rider Psychotic Cybernetica

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    Chapter 13



    They continued onwards to Chogrek the following day, setting off late in the morning, putting aside all thoughts of their narrow escape the previous day. The Cacklestone Forest was left far behind them within the hour. Seretia felt herself breathing far easier than she had the previous night, and even Vyrell ceased to rant on at everyone as much as he had, which was enough to put anyone in a good mood.
    There was much curiosity aroused about the glowing cube that Malgeron Steelmaster had retrieved. It was an enigma that none of them was able to figure out, not even Agrilos, although the High Priest constantly questioned the big Lorekki about it in the next few hours of their journey leading up to midday. Malgeron explained that he had found it heavily guarded by half a dozen of the vicious cackletrees, and had managed to get through to it only by diverting them away, which Zerras and Haufkhin had half succeeded in doing.
    Zerras and Haufkhin’s side of the story was quite similar. Zerras had caught the faint glimmer of a strange light in the trees and had gone to investigate, but had told only Radrick where he was going, and not Agrilos as he should have done (as the enraged High Priest continued to remind the Drakeling). He caught a glimpse of the strange cube, took one step towards it and then was attacked by cackletrees on all sides. Luckily he managed to escape the grasp of his adversaries by darting back the way he had come, although he was diverted into the undergrowth.
    Haufkhin also came after his companion, but did not see the strange cube or even the light that came from it – but he did see Zerras, and called out to him. This turned out to be a bad idea, for the cackletrees immediately turned on him as well. After retreating away from them, he managed to lose sight of Zerras, and panicked.
    “And then the rest of you turned up,” the Drakeling finished, tearing off a chunk of meat with his powerful jaws, when they stopped for lunch by the side of the road at midday. “Lucky, too. I had just about given up hope.” The rest of the meat disappeared down his throat. “The rest you know, my lord.”
    Radrick stared down at the glowing cube in Malgeron’s hands, his face full of contempt. “It better be worth something,” he muttered. To the Lorekki he suggested, “Perhaps I could keep it? At least for the moment. You can’t handle two swords and keep hold of that thing at the same time. And I’d be ready to wager that it’s pretty damn important in some way.”
    After a moment of hesitation, the Lorekki shrugged and tossed it to him casually. “You keep it, then. See if anything comes of it. But I don’t think much of our chances.” He laughed. “I don’t think much of anybody’s chances.”
    They finished the remainder of the food and started to head down the road where several more travellers were going past in the opposite direction. They had no more food, but once at Chogrek they would be able to replenish their supplies and rest their aching muscles, although the trek so far hadn’t been too difficult to make.
    Within twenty minutes of near-silent walking, Agrilos sighted the Drakeling city not too far ahead of them, pointing it out to the rest of them. Seretia stared at it in amazement. The size and scale of it seemed far too alien to her, for she had never seen anything like it before. Even at a distance, she could tell that it was far larger than Little Chilting, or even Kurokh. It was not a small simple village. It was a fortified city, a place where people bustled together in huge crowds and went about their business, where buildings served a higher purpose than they did in an insignificant village.
    Development. There was development here.
    For the first time, Seretia had an inkling of just how small her own world was in comparison to the real world. It terrified her into the silence of her own mind. She realised just how ignorant, how stupid she was. She understood partly why Uncle Radrick and Agrilos had been so anxious not to let her come. She was far too ignorant.
    But they had still permitted her to come. Why? Perhaps to help her understand?
    At that point she was momentarily distracted by something – the lack of movement. It took her another moment for Seretia to realise that they had come to an abrupt halt.
    Agrilos had brought them to a halt where another traveller stood. He did not actually stand, as it was. He sat inside a wagon where two great horses were tethered, but the size of the wagon itself made it seem as if he were standing tall. An old bearded face turned to them, eyes sad and penetrating.
    There were several swords strapped up behind him, as well as spears, clubs, bows, arrows, quivers, wrapped up food rations and a large assortment of different sizes of armour. Seretia realised why the High Priest had chosen to stop here. It made sense, of course.
    “Human merchant,” Galderos muttered at Haufkhin’s side in front of her. “Not many of them left around here. Humans are usually too lazy to not stay in one place, they prefer farming. Elven merchants are more common. They sell magic, too. But not this one, it seems.”
    Agrilos stepped up to the merchant’s stall. Malgeron stood up beside him, and what remained of the sunlight was effectively blocked out.
    “What canst I do for yu, dracco?” the merchant wheedled in a rasping voice. “Ask what yu see. Yu seek what yu see? Seek it, do yu?”
    Malgeron said calmly, “I want three swords. Three of the best.”
    The merchant stared at him in amazement.
    “Steel,” the Lorekki whispered. “Lorekki steel, if you have it.”
    A shake of the head. “Cost yu, soldier. Cost yu big.” The merchant stepped back a step. “But yu see, dracco. Yes, dracco. Yu see everything.”
    “He sees more than everything,” growled Galderos. “Give him what he wants, dracco.”
    The merchant glared at him, and then turned around and walked to the back of the inside of the wagon. He soon reappeared with three blades that he slammed onto the counter with both hands. The first blade was a common longsword, similar to Vyrell’s. The second was a heavy broadsword with the emblem of a dragon imbedded in the hilt. The third blade was jagged on one side with deadly spikes, and straight on the other, with a faint green tinge on the edge.
    “The jagged one is called Singing Blood,” the merchant said, an unpleasant smile on his ancient features. “It is very good. Very good indeed, soldier.” He made a hissing sound between his teeth. “Hsss. Hsss…kills good. Makes people die.”
    “It is a Lorekki blade,” Malgeron replied without changing his expression. “I will take it. And that one,” he added, motioning to the broadsword with the dragon emblem in its hilt.
    “Get me some arrows too,” Zerras called from behind them. “I exhausted a few against the cackletrees, and they didn’t even do any damage.”
    A large quiver of arrows were slid onto the counter along with the broadsword and Singing Blood. Malgeron slid the jagged sword into the belt at his waist, and tossed the broadsword to Galderos, who accepted it. He also picked up the quiver of arrows and threw them over his shoulder, which were caught by the Drakeling archer.
    “Very expensive,” the merchant repeated, his eyes alight. “Very. More need for money, dracco. Oh, yes. Money, dracco. We are wanting, we are.”
    Malgeron sighed and nodded slightly. Agrilos came forward.
    “Do you know who I am?” the High Priest said quietly.
    The merchant’s gaze wandered and fixed.
    “If you do, merchant, then let me assure you that money is not important.” Agrilos’ face was hard. “Very soon there will be plenty of money, I promise you. Plenty.”
    “What are yu about, dracco?” the merchant hissed.
    Agrilos smiled. “There is nothing to worry about. Are you going to Dwarf country?”
    A swift, uncertain nod.
    “Good. Then there is money for you. Much for you to scavenge. The corpses are piling up, merchant. If you are lucky, you will not be one of them. If you survive, which is not completely possible at the moment, you will be richer than you can imagine.” The merchant’s face was pale now, and the High Priest’s smile contained no humour in it. “Do you understand what I say?”
    The ancient face bowed in fear.
    “They are coming,” the merchant breathed in a barely audible whisper. “They are coming. All of them. Hell’s Breath ist coming, and the Soulsuckers follow.”
    “Follow?” Seretia said sharply. She was speaking out of turn, but didn’t really care. “Follow what? What is there to follow?”
    The merchant didn’t turn. “Hell’s Breath will not stop until the world is a ravaged wasteland. Devoid of souls. We saw it. They are coming. Anyone who resists…shall be destroyed.”
    His head whipped around to face them again. “The evil ist coming. It is coming, I say. If yu value your souls, die first. Better that than what the Soulsuckers shalt do to yu.”
    The merchant disappeared back into his wagon, and his maddening whisper grew into a scream. “Away with you!” he shrieked. “Get away, curse you! I want no more of you. They are coming, and you have no cursed future!”
    Whips lashed out at the horses of the wagon, and they sprang forward at a gallop, bearing away the merchant and his cargo down the path that let back towards Kurokh. Seretia stared after the wagon in sheer astonishment, not understanding completely, but feeling a shiver creep down her spine at the merchant’s words.
    Within the hour, they passed through the gates of the city of Chogrek. The guards on duty admitted them through without question, although that may have been due to the presence of Agrilos. The High Priest seemed to know a lot of people, and also seemed to be on good terms with all of them.
    The walls dwarfed even Malgeron, and seemed sturdier than anything Seretia could imagine. Surely the Soulsuckers couldn’t break through this? But then she remembered that walls were nothing for a being like Hell’s Breath, a being that could fly over the walls and engulf hundreds in almost no time at all.
    Almost every single creature in the area Hell’HH
    was a Drakeling, but Seretia had become accustomed to this during her stay in Kurokh, and did not feel as threatened. There were a few humans passing through every now and then, but no other races. No Lorekki, although that was expected, since they were not welcome in Drakeling country…but no Dwarves of Elves either? Here? Seretia felt herself wondering if there were any Dwarves of Elves that remained aside from her and Uncle Radrick. Surely they can’t all have been destroyed by Hell’s Breath. There must be still some remaining. There must be.
    “Malgeron,” Kilgun hissed out of the corner of his mouth. “Get out of sight.”
    A small crowd of Drakelings had formed where the Lorekki was standing, their faces rapt with amazement and repulsion. A number of them were armed. Quickly, Galderos and Vyrell stepped forward with drawn weapons to force the crowd away, and as they did so Malgeron lifted his hood over his face in a flash of white, veiling his Lorekki features. The crowd soon dispersed, muttering to themselves angrily.
    Agrilos was looking towards the outer perimeter of the city, and now he turned back towards them. “It seems that the presence of the Soulsuckers has been detected here in Drakeling country,” he said. “The city guard has quadrupled since my last visit. But the citizens of Chogrek are not panicking, which is slightly more convenient.” He shook his head sadly. “Guards shall not be enough against the Soulsuckers. Nor against the armies of the Shadowpirates. That is why it is ever more important to rally the armies of the Drakelings, the Lorekki and the humans.”
    “What’s happened to the Elves and the Dwarves?” Seretia demanded. “We haven’t seen any of them in our journey.”
    The High Priest shrugged and smiled. “They are around, Seretia. If you want an opinion, I think they are hiding. The Dwarves will hide in the mountains or underground if they can find a way, and some of the mountains can go very deep indeed. The Elves may hide within their own forests or use magical means to disguise their whereabouts. They seem to be very good at that.”
    They walked on through the streets of Chogrek easily, moving in a loose group. The Drakelings around them seemed oblivious to the fact that several armed men were in their midst. A few heads turned, but that was about all. Perhaps Agrilos had sent word that they were coming, or perhaps it was just the usual attitude to strangers. It would certainly have been the case in Little Chilting.
    “We’ll need a place to rest first,” Agrilos ventured after they were well into the middle of the city. “And I happen to know just the right place.”
    Malgeron glanced at him. “It allows Lorekki in, too? Asks no questions? That kind of thing?”
    Agrilos sighed. “All of that and much more. You’ll see when we get there. The innkeeper is an acquaintance of mine, and he might even have some news of the area. The road to Flinelle may be safe, but…things may have changed.” He smiled. “So many things have changed that it makes perfect sense for a few more to change.”


    The High Priest brought them to a large place on the northern edge of the city with a golden-green banner reading The Horned Hybrid and the emblem of a creature that was half Drakeling, half serpent. There was green and golden paint spread all across the broad exterior of the wooden panelling, giving it a warm and strangely comforting appeal, despite the manner of the name and its emblem.
    Inside it was mostly deserted. A few Drakelings were drinking by themselves and making quiet conversation, but other than that there seemed to be little activity. The main room was deceptively small, allowing space for the bar and half a dozen tables or so, nothing more.
    The bartender looked up when the nine of them entered, his mouth open in amazement. Quite possibly he had never seen so many people enter the inn at once in a whole week.
    Malgeron shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Immediately everyone else wisely held their breath. The appearance of eight armed soldiers is enough to make anybody uneasy.
    The Drakelings on the other tables stared at them almost threateningly. Seretia decided she might be happier if she just evaporated, before their stares shifted to her as well. She could not bear the reptilian stare of a Drakeling for too long.
    Agrilos moved forward to the bar, his voice quiet in the sudden silence of the inn, seeming much louder than it would have done under normal circumstances.
    “I wish to speak to your master.”
    The bartender’s eyes widened in recognition.
    “Bring him,” the High Priest cut him off impatiently. “Tell him who has come, and what we have brought with us. Tell him also what we know.”
    The bartender faltered, stumbling back a few steps, his face pale. “I was not given leave to –”
    “That is correct. But you have been given it now. Bring your master.”
    The bartender fled into the back rooms of the inn in an instant, his scaly form disappearing into the shadows in his fright. Agrilos’ face did not lose a single ounce of tension. Instead he turned around towards the other Drakelings who were eyeing him suspiciously, as if trying to figure out what kind of man he was to dare to make an entrance like this.
    “Out,” the High Priest said sharply. “Out!”
    Three of the Drakelings took the hint and raced for the door as fast as they could. They collided with Vyrell, who had forgotten that he was in the way, and bounced off him, ending up in a sprawled heap in the dirt outside.
    Two Drakelings had not moved at all, but remained sitting at their table. The hard expressions on their faces suggested that they would not be moving for a long time, not if they could help it. They locked eyes with Agrilos, their glares malicious and malevolent.
    “You do not tell us what to do,” they said in a low hiss, forked tongues darting in and out as they spoke. “Dracco are unwelcome. Dracco have no place here. Dracco belong in their own cursed country.”
    Agrilos raised his head above them. “I do not think it would be wise for you to threaten me. You heard what I said. Get out, both of you.”
    The two unfriendly Drakelings must have been unusually drunk, because they immediately sprang to their feet, swords drawn. They did not seem to be aware that their combined strength would be no match for that of the High Priest, let alone Malgeron Steelmaster, Vyrell, Kilgun, Galderos, and Haufkhin. There was also Zerras’ arrows and Seretia’s own small magic to fall back upon.
    “Dracco invade,” one of the drunks growled, baring his teeth. “Dracco must die!”
    He screamed a battle-cry and charged at the High Priest with sword raised above his head. Agrilos did not move a single inch, nor did he make any effort to defend himself. There was a rapid flurry of movement, and the drunk was thrown back as a powerful blow ripped through this body and sent him flying backwards with such force that he went right through the wall and landed outside.
    The remaining Drakeling stared at Agrilos for a second, and then bolted. Kilgun helped him on his way out with a well-aimed kick.
    There was suddenly the sound of approaching footsteps, and the bartender reappeared, followed by a burly Drakeling that was bigger than Zerras or Haufkhin. At first glance he appeared to be some kind of bodyguard, but then he came forward with barely a glance at anyone and shook hands warmly with the High Priest. He was the innkeeper, Seretia realised then.
    “Trouble again, Agrilos?” he said lightly with a broad grin. “What else would bring you this far away from your precious Temple?”
    “Again,” the High Priest replied with a brief nod. “But much more this time, I’m afraid.”
    “I thought as much,” the innkeeper mused ruefully. “The last time you were here you were trying to save the whole country from destruction. What is it this time, the world?” He laughed. “Anyway, I don’t see what business of mine it is. Special rooms, then, and everything fitted up. No expense required, my friend. Come, follow me.”
    “How did he catch on so fast?” Haufkhin hissed as they ascended the stairs towards the rest of the inn.
    “He’s very good at thinking,” Agrilos replied stonily. “Which is more than I can say for some people.”

    As it turned out, they didn’t spend more than the rest of the day and a part of the next in Chogrek, for Agrilos revealed to them that night that they would be leaving for Flinelle the next day. This was against what Seretia had hoping for – after the experience with the cackletrees the previous day she would have been much happier staying in Chogrek for a bit longer, where at least it was safer. But the High Priest seemed much more anxious to continue their journey as quickly as possible.
    They prepared to leave early the next day, especially when Zerras reported that the temperature outside wasn’t as harsh as it had been during their trek to Chogrek. The heat would be much more tolerable.
    There was also no sign of any Soulsuckers or Shadowpirates in the area – not yet, anyway – and Seretia couldn’t help feeling better about that. There was also an absence of the vicious spiked Chaogri. Besides, she felt well rested now that she had managed to catch a decent sleep, unlike when they had all ended up sleeping rough near the Cacklestone Forest.
    She never found out the name of the innkeeper. She wished she had, for he seemed possessed of the same kind of stuff that Kilgun, Vyrell and Galderos were made of. The kind of person you became if you travelled with Malgeron Steelmaster for long enough.
    She found Uncle Radrick waiting with Malgeron and Zerras downstairs in the morning. The Lorekki was in hushed conversation with the innkeeper, and Zerras was rifling through his quiver, seeming to admire the arrows that Malgeron had bought for him. But the Dwarf beckoned to her, and she realised almost immediately what he was going to say.
    “There is rumour of Shadowpirates in the area,” he said to her. “Do you know what that can mean?” His face was as hard as steel. “We won’t survive when the armies come. None of us. But I shall protect you with everything I’ve got, Seretia. I owe you that.”
    The Elven girl stared at him with mixed feelings that she could not even begin to comprehend. “You don’t owe me anything. I can survive, and survive is what I will do. For all of us.”
    “For yourself, Seretia. Don’t be foolish. This is war. It may not seem like it, but that is what is happening as the Shadowpirates march at us from one side and the Soulsuckers approach from the other.” Uncle Radrick gripped her arm gently. “If you die, then there is nobody to blame but myself. Your auntie, mother and brother – they are all dead. No, not that – they are far worse than dead, if the High Priest is not mistaken in the functions of the Soulsuckers.”
    Seretia stepped back, away from her uncle. “You’re a warrior. You’re something that I could never be. Why did you hide it? Why didn’t you tell us?”
    “Because it isn’t something I’m proud of! None of you would ever look at me in the right way again. Ever. But that is not what matters. You are what matters.”
    The Dwarf stepped forward, his eyes concerned. “On the journey ahead, I want you to stay close to me when there’s any sign of danger. You can sense things better than some of us. And I want your company, Seretia. You shouldn’t have come, of course, but it’s too late now.”
    He would have said more, but at that point one of the Drakelings at the bar chose to start singing battle-hymns at the top of his voice in screeching tones that grated on the ears of everyone within a mile. Kilgun and Haufkhin came down, awakened by the terrible singing, and yelled at the drunken Drakeling to shut up, who ignored them completely.
    Vyrell and Galderos came downstairs as well, glanced at one another, and hit stepped over to club the Drakeling into unconsciousness. Before they could do so, however, the Drakeling’s voice cut out as he turned on his side and vomited up several gallons of beer that he had consumed in the past few hours or so. Galderos stepped out of the way, so that the vomit went all over Vyrell’s feet. Vyrell stared at the mess on the floor for a brief second, then shrugged and went over to join Malgeron.
    The drunken creature gurgled for a few seconds, singing, “Aye, for all ye fools that march, towards ye doom, for blood ye claim, your soul to gain, and He shall smite thee and rip you from the earth, from your mind, into the raging Hell of shattered suns…”
    Another torrent of vomit surged from his damaged throat and into the huge puddle that already surrounded it on the floor of the inn. The innkeeper cast a worried glance at the poor drunkard, and then with a great sigh turned to the unpleasant task of cleaning the mess up.
    “We are leaving,” came the voice of the High Priest from out of nowhere. Seretia turned to see the tall robed figure bearing the steel staff in his hands, standing at the top of the stairs. “We shall spend no more time here. Flinelle awaits.”
    “Come,” he said, moving swiftly through the door and bringing the eight of them through the early morning air, the fresh air that stank of life and contentment. The air that reeked of happiness.

    They passed out of the gates of Chogrek easily enough, the Drakeling guards admitting them out of the city without question, and thus their journey continued. The nine of them walked along the same dusty path that led away from Chogrek and towards the comparatively smaller city of Flinelle, another place in Seretia’s life that the Elven girl knew absolutely nothing about. She had thought the world huge, but now it seemed larger still; larger than life.
    The gates of the Drakeling city were soon left far behind them, and it was after ten more minutes of further walking that Agrilos whirled around in a flurry of emerald robes and called for everybody to stop.
    “We shall not be going any further along this road,” he stated. “My enquiries in Chogrek have led me to suspect that Shadowpirates roam this road. We cannot allow that to obstruct our quest in any way.”
    As Uncle Radrick had cautioned, Seretia realised.
    “A rumour,” Haufkhin grunted off to the side. “Only a rumour. I would trust the rumours of the city no more than the mind of a Chaogri, my lord.” Galderos gave a curt nod upon hearing this, confirming his own beliefs.
     
  19. Wing Rider

    Wing Rider Psychotic Cybernetica

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    “Nevertheless,” replied the High Priest, “it is still a possibility. And I believe it would be unwise not to ignore any warnings of what lie ahead, even if they are untrue themselves. So I propose that we take another path.”
    “Another path?” Kilgun exclaimed, his face angry. “I didn’t come all this way to stray from our original course and end up somewhere that I didn’t expect to end up!”
    “We shall not stray from our original course,” Agrilos snapped back at him. “We are not on a ship, Kilgun. We are on foot. Besides, I have reason to believe that the path we take would be something of a shortcut. It is also unlikely that the Soulsuckers will not be dwelling in this area, since they happen to go after the villages alone.”
    Zerras inclined his head and smiled wryly. “Then there will be a time when there are no villages left. Or towns, or even cities. Or anything else. Everything will be gone."
    Seretia glanced towards him, feeling a chill at his words. She thought she had suffered a huge blow at the fall of her own village. But for everything to fall, absolutely everything in the world, everything that she had loved or even known about…that provoked in her a feeling that she didn’t quite understand. It felt very strange indeed.
    She wondered anew at what would happen if the Soulsuckers destroyed everything and moved into the Outer Sphere. Could the Shadowpirates deal with them? Would they, even, or were they allied as Agrilos had suggested in Kurokh?
    “Very well,” said Malgeron suddenly, jolting her out of her reverie. “Which path is it that you shall lead us down? A diverted route?”
    The High Priest shook his head. “No road is visible, Malgeron. No, we shall not take any marked road of any kind.” He raised his head and looked out towards the distant forests and fields that bordered each side of the road for countless miles in all directions. “We shall travel via the invisible route.”

    The next few days were the best times that Seretia had ever had before, an experience she had not known since the earliest of her childhood days.
    Nine of them, travelling across open country and space, across lands that were completely deserted of any other, yet full of the life of nature, the birdsong whistling in their ears, the hills around them rising up and down in an unending torrent; peace was in their souls for the next few days. Their hearts were light and they joked and talked amongst themselves, smiling and laughing as if there was no danger at all, and as if the world itself was not at risk.
    For those few days, it almost seemed to be true. It seemed that Agrilos had been correct – they saw not a glimpse of a Chaogri or anything threatening all the while, let alone a Soulsucker. They were safe here, their path unobstructed, and nothing could harm them. Nothing would harm them, not whilst on this road. They sped on through the winding grasses and flowers of life, birds flying past them, the wind sweeping in their faces, and the tension went out of them.
    Even Vyrell ceased ranting his hatred for trees, which had undergone a dramatic increase ever since their narrow escape from the Cacklestone Forest. Galderos and Haufkhin stopped giving unfriendly looks to Seretia as they had always done from the start, although the former did so less often, his eyes less trusting. Uncle Radrick put aside his concern and anger for his niece and engaged her in conversation, sharing food with her and talking off the past when every moment seemed to go on forever, and everything had lived in harmony exactly as it was meant to be.
    The High Priest no longer snapped at anyone, his mood brightened by the change of atmosphere, nor did he lean heavily on the steel staff that he bore as he led them onwards. Malgeron shed his disguise completely, glad that there were no travellers to meet who would turn away from his face in disgust and loathing if they caught sight of him. They were alone here, alone with the children of nature, and they were content. Kilgun slipped his dangerous black weapon to his side and kept it out of sight, as if worried that the birds would look unkindly to its nature.
    So much peace, Seretia whispered to herself. So much peace. When will we have this again? Why can’t we stay here and wait for everything to settle?
    There was no need to light fires at night anymore when the time came to make camp, for in this area there were always bushes where food could be foraged. Zerras was able to identify several types of plants that were edible and highly nutritious, although Kilgun and Uncle Radrick refused point blank to eat any of what he brought. Seretia smiled inwardly; her uncle had always disliked vegetables with a passion.
    Malgeron volunteered to stand guard each night by himself, but Agrilos would not have any of it, and forced everyone to take turns for those few days. Seretia noticed why Malgeron wanted the night to himself; the Lorekki seemed so much at peace with the sounds and smells of the countryside. Yet he spent so much time away from it – perhaps he had no choice.
    So much life in the world, Seretia wondered as they travelled and the hours went by. If I am going to die, I will at least be happy, knowing that I have seen all of this. Lorission, can we keep it like this? Can we? For how long? She realised how much she loved peace; the reason she had offered herself up to Lorission in the first place. She had not regretted her action, and still she did not. Perhaps it had been the biggest step in her life that she had ever taken.
    Three days passed, seeming a slow eternity of peace.
    Three days passed in bright harmony for all of them as they journeyed onwards to Flinelle.
    But on the third day itself, everything changed.

    Seretia awoke to the sound of eternity.
    She didn’t know how to call it anything else. That was the whole name she could put to it, for the sound was so infinitely vast, so finely attuned, that it seemed to engulf her completely.
    A second later, the sound itself seemed to burn, as if on fire, and she saw the face of an alien creature emerge out of nothingness. It bore eight pulsing orbs on one side of its face. The other side of its face was a complete web of spikes.
    Seretia watched it curiously, alone in the darkness, barely aware that neither she nor the alien creature was actually breathing. A part of her mind wondered where she was. Another part of her mind wondered what she was.
    She never paused to wonder what the alien creature was. Why was that? Did she already know?
    The alien creature was watching her intently. The orbs on its face pulsed in a steady rhythm as if alive. Somehow Seretia knew that not only were the orbs alive, but they were what the creature used for sight.
    “Aellf,” the alien whispered. “Aellf.”
    Seretia did not move, not aware that she should, her gaze caught by the strange creature. Its six arms did not frighten her in any way, only intrigue her.
    “They are coming,” the alien’s voice cut through her mind in an urgent hiss. “They are coming, all of them…”

    Seretia! Wake up!”
    The Elven girl shook her head and blinked sleepily, tossing her golden hair in a sweep around her. What was going on?
    “They are coming!” came a voice, and she suddenly recognised it as Kilgun’s. An echo from the vivid dream she had just experienced. Such a vivid dream, so unlike anything else in her life. She wondered what it had meant. She wondered what had happened to cause it.
    Sunlight burst upon her eyes at last as she forced away the sleep and weariness that still clung to her like grains of sand, and she saw that everyone around her was shouting. Something was happening. Perhaps her dream had been a warning of this, even if it had come too late.
    The first thing she noticed was that the birdsong had stopped completely. The second thing she noticed was that the border to Lorekki country was not far off at all. She could already see the tell-tale marks in the dirt from where she was lying. That meant they had gone past Flinelle completely. Why had they done that?
    The third thing she noticed was the purple lightning crackling from clouds that were sifting around in a rapid circle above their heads. Even in early morning.
    Even in her semi-conscious mood she couldn’t help thinking, Those days of peace I will never have again.
    As she desperately tried to stand up, Uncle Radrick and Zerras positioned themselves on both sides of her to help her. Seretia stared round at the rest of the group. Galderos and Malgeron were both on full alert, weapons drawn and their eyes searching for hidden movement. Singing Blood glinted as the light caught it. Nearby, Haufkhin stood firm with his short sword poised in both hands – he must have been on watch.
    Vyrell was the only one of them who had not been fully awake. Not that it mattered, though, for he was now at Malgeron’s side.
    In their midst stood the High Priest, his eyes cold as he saw the meaning of the purple lightning that continued to flash about them. He knew exactly what it meant, and it was quite possible that none of them would escape.
    “What’s going on?” Seretia shouted above the howling of the winds. “What’s happening?”
    Agrilos did not answer her, but gestured ahead.
    The Elven girl looked ahead as the purple lightning continued to slash the skies threateningly. At first, she could see nothing but mist and light. But then, as the clouds continued to rumble and the sound began to increase, she caught a flash of white. Several flashes of white.
    Bone, she realised. Moving towards them.
    There was another sound now, a sound that was far louder than the rumble of the thunder. It took only a few moments for Seretia to recognise it for the sound of a large army of soldiers marching in steady procession. From the way it was building up to a steady crescendo, it seemed that the army was coming towards them.
    The flashes of white were all around them now. The army, whatever it was, was coming at them from all directions.
    She turned slightly, and glimpsed the movement of Malgeron’s and Galderos’ swords as they tightened their hands around the hilts, ready to fight.
    The sound was almost deafening now. Seretia stared hard at the ghostly white faces of the soldiers marching in on them, wondering what they were. What could they be? Why were there so many of them?
    Purple lightning struck the ground at their feet, splitting the earth asunder. She cried out and leapt back from it, as did Haufkhin and Zerras. Nobody else moved, apart from that.
    The sounds of marching had faded, but the ones who had been marching were still there. Still out there.
    The lightning flashed again, and Seretia was able to see one of their enemies very clearly, so clearly that the creature’s form was burned into her mind forever. She saw the leather armour draped around his ribcage like a layer of fat. She saw the large shield gripped in one hand and the sword gripped in the other. She saw the black leather boots wrapped around his feet as if they truly didn’t belong.
    She also saw his face and the rest of his body, which was completely devoid of skin, stripped of flesh and blood, so there was nothing holding him together except bone. Bone. She remember the flashes of white she had seen. Bone.
    She was looking at a skeleton. A living skeleton, that was, for a faint red glow pulsed in its eyes sockets, a glow where none should be.
    And as she gazed around at the others around it, Seretia realised the horrible truth. They were all the same, the huge army surrounding them in bitter silence. They were all skeletons, just like the solitary one she had seen. They were held together with nothing but bone.
    “No,” she breathed, her eyes streaming with tears, “no, no, no….”
    In the next instant, the purple lightning struck the earth a second time, sending all of them sprawling.
    And then the skeletons started to advance once more, marching towards them with the red glow in their eyes driving them, their grins locked in unison, the death in their empty features a promise of what would be coming.
     
  20. Carline of Crydee

    Carline of Crydee Beyond eternity

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    I haven't finished it yet, but it's still good :D keep posting it!