Dear All This is the first chapter of my upcoming ebook, The Half Broken Crown. I hope you enjoy and please do leave comments if you like (or if you don't!). Hope everyone likes the story, Darren Reid The Half Broken Crown by Darren Reid (c) 2006, All Rights Reserved It was the end of the Dwarf war and all around the world the last embers of death had began to subside. The fires that had raged across the dark sea had been extinguished and life, at least for some, was beginning to return to normal. All this and more, Alraeic knew to be true, but the unfolding scenes of chaos around him forced this knowledge to the back of his battle sharpened mind. When the fires raged, the arrows flew and the swords clashed, it was the gravest folly to consider anything but the immediate circumstances. Almost without thought, Alraeic dropped one shoulder, allowing a flaming bolt to pass harmlessly above where the shoulder had been. The air was alight with the smell of burning wood, blood and the screaming sounds of men dying horrific deaths. Alraeic had read his history well, knew everything that one of his vocation needed too, but in no history is the true horror of war, or even an isolated battle, truly communicated. Alraeic could see through the corner of one eye, as he marched immovably forward, a soldier, possibly one of his own, being lanced through the stomach. What Alraeic saw, what Alraeic knew, was that the soldier was still alive, even as his assailant twisted the lance in his victim's exploding gut. Somewhere in the distance a soldier screamed a horribly brutal cry of agony. Perhaps it was the staggering figure on the bank above Alraeic, the one clutching the empty socket where once an eye had been. But probably not, there were plenty of targets and potential victims in what had quickly turned into little more than a killing field. The acrid smell of smoke was beginning to fill the air; something, quite possibly the pack's supplies, had been set afire. But not even this could deter Alraeic from his course. Some small distance ahead of him, standing atop a ridge that jutted suddenly out from the packed dirt floor of the forest clearing stood Leena, flanked by two of his men. The third soldier had collapsed moments before in a hail of blood, ruptured eye and cranium. Without thought and in spite of all the weariness that was weighing Alraeic down, he quickened his step. The Milons were approaching Leena and her last two protectors, moving in from the obscured copse of trees from which they had been firing flaming bolts into her dwindling body guard. Dirty, sick looking creatures, the Milons scuttled forward, their long grey legs and arms glistening in the forest filtered light of the dying day. At the head of the pack was a Milon quite unlike the rest. Thick, pulsating muscles squirmed under his paper-thin grey skin. His ears were longer and narrower than those of the rest in his pack, drawing to sharper points than Alraeic had ever seen on a Milon. Catching sight of the advancing pack, heralded by an eruption of flaming arrows, Alraeic changed his course, drawing his long, thick blade. Behind him a gust of wind picked up the thick, red, velvet cloak that hung off his shoulder armor, a flag of both his allegiance and ability as a warrior. An unlit arrow exploded out from behind the advancing pack of Milons, colliding violently with the thick breast plate Alraeic wore. Winded, the impact of the arrow almost knocked him down. Almost. But for all the force of the impact, the thick plate armor Alraeic wore did not crack and he barely slowed. With his sword bared, Alraeic burst into a run, charging into the advancing pack of Milons. How many were there? Seven, maybe eight of them? From somewhere behind Alraeic an arrow flew over his head, striking the leader of the pack in the face. His cheek erupted into a violent fountain of blood and puss; the force of the impact knocking him squealing to the tightly packed dirt of the forest clearing. Turning towards the direction of the deadly arrows, the Milon pact made eye contact for the first time with the advancing Alraeic. In a single, seamless motion, Alraeic sliced through the front runner of the pack, taking off the creature's head with an almost careless stroke of his razor sharp blade. A second Milon, a scrawny creature that could afford to miss no more meals than it already had, charged towards Alraeic, its short sword swinging violently. Sword already raised from its last killing stroke, Alraeic brought the blade down upon the second Milon, effortlessly slicing off its sword bearing arm. For a brief moment the mutilated creature only stared into Alraeic's eyes with an expression of complete disbelief before turning and charging blindly back into the forest. By the time the one armed Milon reached the relative safety of the tree line, Alraeic had already forgotten the foul creature's existence. Instead he lunged into the remaining Milon pack, his sword swinging in wide, precision guided arcs, taking off limbs and stabbing through the pathetically thin bodies of the creatures. For Alraeic time had slowed so that every heart beat resonated with a dozen thrusts and swings of his sword. For what seemed like hours, but was in reality, seconds, Alraeic's sword flew into that advancing Milon pack until the last survivors had turned and fled back into the trees. But seconds it had been and as exhausted as Alraeic was, there was no time to slow. He had pushed back a half dozen Milons from the woman he was sworn to protect, but around them, around the camp and around the last failing soldiers he and the other Stars of Aemara commanded, the advancing Milons began to swarm again. Alraeic lunged into the remaining Milon pack, his sword swinging in wide, precision guided arcs, taking off limbs and stabbing through the pathetically thin bodies of the creatures. Dozens of squirming, stalking Milons began to move in a wide arc around the flank of Alraeic's surviving soldiers. A little over a dozen soldiers remained; their dirt and blood battered chain mail reflecting the dull, forest-filtered light as they drew in a tight circle around Leena. In among the soldiers stood the last of the Stars of Aemara, their heavy velvet capes weighed down with blood, their faces straight from the battle. In the center of the defensive circle, alone and the picture of regal perfection stood Leena, her long flowing gown billowing in the harsh wind that had begun to pick up through the small clearing in the wood. With a casual awareness of what was happening around her, Leena reached up and brushed a thick strand of hair away from her wide, penetrating eyes. She held in one hand, a little below her breasts, a long, curving knife, gilded from point to base in an elaborate pattern of runes. In truth it was only the presence of this blade that suggested, at least to Alraeic, that she understood how dangerous the pitched battle had become. With no small amount of difficulty, Alraeic tore his eyes from Leena and joined the human shield that had formed around his liege lady. Whatever would come, whether her fault or not, he would fight to the last this day if that was the need. And, if that was the case, he would hold in his mind two thoughts. The picture of perfection he was fighting to protect and the knowledge, completely undeniable, that had his advice been heeded she would not have led them to this disaster. Although even as the last thought crossed his mind, marked only by the barest hint of a smile, Alraeic knew he could not hold it long. If today was his time to journey to the tower where souls meet their end, he would do so only with the image of Leena as she had stood a moment earlier; the warrior noble baring her only weapon in a last desperate battle. From atop the slight mound upon which she stood, Leena watched Alraeic as he joined the last men that stood at her defense, a sight of male arrogance if ever she could imagine one. The wind that was harrying the soldiers picked up for a moment and Alraeic's thick, blood-soaked cape was picked up, momentarily flying as a flag would from atop the highest tower of Aemara. Such complete and utter arrogance! Leena felt her blood boil just looking at him, with his battle hardened face, set in an expression of complete determination. For a moment she was sure he had been watching her, staring into her eyes with his own deep brown ones, mesmerized and mesmerizing her. The nerve of him that he should think himself equal enough to look upon her as if she were just any woman! Despicable! Did he really think his soft, angular features and short, ruffled hair was enough to make her attracted to him? The gall of some men never ceased to amaze her. Tearing her eyes from Alraeic, Leena quickly scanned the scene around her. The Milon horde was closing in; dozens of the filthy creatures were wearing little more than rags and carrying weapons of the worst workmanship she could imagine. Unconsciously she gripped the hilt of the dagger that her father had given her, allowing its familiar sensation to fill her with pride and the determination to fight. Would she live? Possibly, though she doubted it, but she did intend to take a good many of these filthy creatures to the tower with her if she fell. And maybe Alraeic too, if he got in her way. At least that way he would be her last sight upon Earth. Suppressing a violent rush of blood to her face Leena banished the thought from her mind. Filthy man that he was, he would no doubt rejoice if he knew such a thought had, even for the briefest of moments, crossed her fair and delicate mind. Fair and delicate, yes that was correct. Fair. And delicate. A flaming bolt ripped through the air and into the assembled men in front of Leena ending the brief, peaceful hiatus the troop had been enjoying. A gargled, tortured sound sputtered from what had once been the face of one of the Stars of Aemara, his hair and face ablaze as he fell forward, pieces of cranium falling to the damp floor of the clearing. A shudder that Leena did not try to hide passed through her body; how easily it could have been her or Alraeic or any other the soldiers, for that matter. Alraeic saw Jaena's face explode only through the corner of his eye. The death was a tragedy, no doubt, but right now it was little more than a statistic. One Star down, including himself that left only a three left to lead the troop. And if they fell, would the soldiers stand by their liege lady? Would they honor themselves in death, or would they run? Maybe, perhaps time would tell, perhaps not. It mattered little at that moment in time as the advancing Milon horde burst forward in a charge, what seemed a multitude of sweaty figures waving crude blades and spears. The time for thinking, perhaps forever, was over. At this Alraeic could barely repress the smile that was spreading over his lips. Raising his thick, razor sharp sword to the sky he began to step forward towards the charging band of monstrosities before him. "Weapons forward," he bellowed, his throat cracking painfully. To either side of him the troop began to advance. Those who had been rich before being drafted into service raised the swords they had brought, the others brought up an assortment of bows, arrows, blades and bludgeons. If Leena was to survive, the troop would, almost entirely, have to be sacrificed for her. Without another thought Alraeic lunged forwards in a run, leading the last charge. All around Alraeic, the sounds of the battle faded away; his peripheral vision narrowing until the leaders of the Milon pack became all that he could see or hear. The air through which Alraeic and the troop was charging had taken on a slightly putrid smell; burning timbers and blood. The wind had picked up lifting the few red velvet capes left into the air like streaming banners. The Milon pack was close now, filling the air with low, guttural groans and cries. Reaching upwards with his right arm Alraeic heaved his blade over his shoulder, ready to swing it down upon the first group of the filthy charging creatures that reached him. From somewhere behind him, Leena watched the charge, her breath caught in her throat. She was alone now, but for the few charging figures in front of her. How many of them would come back, if any at all? Slowly, Leena took a step backwards as if the extra distance would offer her some greater protection if the Milon pack broke through her last line of defense. She could, of course, turn around and run, fleeing blindly into the woods. There was no maybe about, it was her role to flee, and Alraeic had made that perfectly clear long before they had encountered the day's calamity. Every worse case scenario, every potential problem had been plotted out between Leena, Alraeic and the other Stars of Aemara. It was their duty to make sure she got to her destination safely even if that meant the death of the troop, of every last escort; it was her duty to make sure the sacrifice was not in vane. And even now, as the moment came, Leena paused, paralyzed by indecision and fear. Could she escape? Maybe, though the final leg of the journey would be arduous and dangerous if undertaken alone. Had she the skills to survive? She was trained in woodland survival, but was that enough? She had known they would be hunted on their journey, yes she had known that at least, and had deviously kept the fact from her protectors; if they knew she was hunted they might have asked why and that, she had decided at the time, was a question she would not, could not answer. Again a shiver passed through Leena's body that was not brought on by the strong breeze whipping through the body filled clearing. It occurred to Leena that she held her life in her own hands at that moment. Run as she was duty bound to do, as she was expected too (at least Alraeic had expected it, he had not even looked back from his charge to make sure she was fulfilling her duty!), or stay and fight. But what was the use? She had only a single dagger, and as beautiful as it was, it would be little use in the battle. But she was not afraid. But she did turn, and she did run. It was, after all, her duty to allow these men to die for her. Alraeic did not see Leena turn to run, did not see much beyond the Milon pack leader before him. Thick, pulsing muscles churned and flexed under the thin grey skin of this creature with every slash or thrust of its crude, rusted sword. One of its ears, the left though things were moving so fast Alraeic couldn't be sure, had been clipped off just below where it became pinched into a point, giving one half of the creature's face a strange human quality. The thought passed so quickly through Alraeic's mind that he barely even registered it. His blade had become heavy in his battle-wearied arms, his muscles tied into knots, his body held up with little more than adrenaline. The creature before Alraeic seemed barely to tire, regardless of how many times it bludgeoned its blade into the spaces where moments prior Alraeic had stood. Heaving his thick blade into the air with no small amount of effort, Alraeic feigned to one side, the creature responding by diving backwards, its weaponless arm trailing after the rest of the body. Alraeic lunged forward, taking the creature's trailing arm in one of his thick, callused hands, stopping the creature's retreat in one bone-jarring movement. For the briefest moment, the caught Milon glanced up at Alraeic with a perfect expression of surprise and terror; the moment did not last. Alraeic swung his sword like an axe into the creature's side, cleaving a thick hole that excreted thick bubbles of blood so dark it was almost black. The creature shrieked in agony and shock, looking down at Alraeic's blade with an expression of mixed horror and shock. With a painful thrust that set Alraeic's muscles on fire he freed the blade from the creature's side, letting the squealing body crumble as he did so. Alraeic had become separated from the rest of the troop. He could see them, or at least thought he could, through a pulsing mass of Milons who looked to be scrambling in around the survivors like rats over an animal carcass. A few stragglers surrounded Alraeic, though none as large as the still twitching pack leader. They began to swarm around him, three or four scrawny creatures, one whose clothes had been entirely ripped off, another whose skin had been dyed a faint red by spilt blood. Alraeic settled his weight onto his right leg, stretched the left out before him and raised his sword above his head. Every muscle in Alraeic's body burned now, his bones groaning in silent agreement. The stragglers had not encircled him but instead formed a barrier between him and the backs of the Milons overwhelming the troop. He would cleave his way through these bedraggled creatures and then into the flank of the Milon pack. He would die, he knew that, but he would do it fighting to get to his men. Before Alraeic could move, the world around him seemed to darken and shift somehow. The Milon stragglers in front of him faded somewhat into the shadows, each creature now giving off a faint aura that clung around them like a low-lying fog. The Milon horde that had encircled the surviving members of the troop shared a joint aura that hung around them, pulsing as if keeping time to the beat of the some unknown heart. The forest, the sky, everything seemed to glow and pulse and for the briefest, most fleeting of moments Alraeic could see and, more importantly, understand everything. Alraeic's heart began to slow, sweat that he did not know was covering his face, began to dry and calmness permeated every facet of his being. Not seeing a thing of what Alraeic saw, the straggling Milons between him and the main horde that was now bludgeoning the last of the troop, wantonly darted forward taking advantage of their attacker’s apparent lapse in concentration. The blood-soaked Milon, a pathetic, scrawny creature that called itself Eaerad, took the lead in this impromptu charge, waving his short, misshapen blade before him. Alraeic watched the four Milons approaching him, led by the creature coated in pints of human blood. They snarled and howled as they moved, their overly long legs stumbling over rocks and tree roots as they neared, a picture of complete gracelessness. Their auras pulsed and warped as they moved, linking up briefly before breaking apart and flowing around them like water. Alraeic did not raise his sword, doubted he had enough strength left in his arms to do so even had he wanted. The Milons were almost tangible in his mind now, creatures he could reach out and touch or brush away like leaves on the wind. He did not act, didn't know if he could, and was not entirely sure he was not hallucinating from exhaustion. The brief moment where everything, every answer and every question, had been known to him was gone, the last dying ember already beginning to fade from his memory; but not all the knowledge was lost. As Eaerad came within striking distance, Alraeic struck outwards with his mind, a kind of general sweeping motion that would pulverize anything it touched. The blood-covered Milon raised its battered blade above its head before widening its eyes in shock and in horror. Tears of blood began to leak from the corners of its eyes, from its finger tips and from every orifice on its body. And for a moment, Eaerad could see exactly what Alraeic saw, could see the pulsing auras that surrounded them all, and he too knew all of the answers and all of the questions. From the center of the creature's chest exploded a thick beam of light that only he and Alraeic could see. The beam of light formed itself into a vague, ever-changing image of Eaerad with wide, terror stricken eyes. The image was screaming in panicked terror, clawing at its own body, desperately trying to pull itself back to where it belonged. The trailing end of light was now reaching out towards Alraeic's chest, connecting little above where his heart was beating slowly. For a moment the apparition of Eaerad hung between his own body and Alraeic's, screeching terribly. The apparition hung in this position only for a moment before being torn from the grip of its own body and disappearing into Alraeic. From then on, Eaerad felt no more and saw only darkness. II From Leena's vantage point, hidden behind a line of trees that quite suddenly melded into the wider forest behind her, Alraeic had become completely obscured. Instead, Leena could see only an indiscriminate mob of Milon figures slumped over the few surviving members of the troop. The Milon pack had commenced hacking, gouging and tearing into the barely visible clump of human survivors. The only real details Leena could make from the scene was the occasional, though all too clear, sight of limbs or some other bloodied mass being thrown carefree from the squirming pile of creatures. A single agonized cry escaped the barely living mound, echoing dully through Leena's ears, chilling her heart and planting her feet firmly to the soft ground of the forest. It wasn't that Leena did not want to turn away, to run blindly into the darkness of the forest, but more that she could not tear herself from the sight before her. Her eyes seemed glued to the macabre sight before her, unrelentingly attached to the incomprehensible violence that had engulfed the troop. A few of the Milons had broken away from the main body and had proceeded to search out the few limbs that had been discarded by the rest of the pack in their blood lust. Leena's stomach lurched heavily as one of these outcast creatures came across the mangled remains of a forearm and proceeded to wrench pieces of loose, bloody flesh from it with its sharp, glimmering teeth. Leena had no idea how long it had been since she had lost sight of Alraeic for it could very well have been his forearm that the short, fat Milon some distance before her was now feasting upon. Surely only a few seconds had passed since she had charged into the cover of the forest, certainly she had paused and turned for only a few seconds more. Leena's legs were weak, starting to shake; they felt seemingly detached from the rest of her. Her whole body was now starting to shake and tears she did not know she had shed rolled carelessly down her cheeks. With no small amount of effort, she began to take short, tentative steps backwards into the forest, never tearing her eyes from the Milon pack that were now so covered in blood that she could not tell where the pack ended and the troop, or what was left of them, began. For what passed as an age, though in reality passed in minutes, Leena backed slowly into the forest, allowing the trees to envelope her, slowly blocking the image of the battlefield. At some point Leena realized that the battlefield was now completely obscured by trees, had in fact been so for some time. At this slow dawning realization, she at last allowed herself to turn in the direction she had been wandering. Her heart was beating relentlessly in her chest, pumping blood loudly through her ears. Her dagger was still in her hand though she had quite forgotten its existence until she glanced down, started at the sight of it, her hand now white from gripping it so hard. With some reluctance she sheathed the dagger in the elaborate and embellished scabbard that hung loosely at her waist. All around her, the forest had closed in from every side. Thick trunks, covered in moss, stretched skywards, the ever present sound of birds and insects filled the air, making for a pleasant change from the horrific sounds of agony that had assaulted her in the preceding hours. For no particular reason that Leena could discern, she knelt down and, with an outstretched finger, drew a long, titling tower into the soft, wet ground before her. In her homeland, a place she had not seen in countless years and where she had been, still was bound, the tower was a symbol of death and a mark of respect for those that had passed. She would sit by the crude drawing. And she would weep for those that had passed into the tower's embrace. Not all roads lead to the tower. But theirs, Alraeic's, certainly had. Though he could not see her and though he remained some distance from her, running blindly through the forest, Alraeic saw all of this and more. He saw Leena kneeling in front of a crude drawing; the knife now hanging in her scabbard, and the movement in the trees beyond. The image of Leena faded in and out of existence, merging, obscuring and then being completely overtaken by the sight of the forest as he moved swiftly through it. The fatigue that had weighed him down to the point complete exhaustion was now only a vague thought in the back of his mind. All of Alraeic's body for that matter had faded from his consciousness. Clumps of hair, matted with Milon and human blood, fell limply over his eyes; Alraeic barely brushed them away. Whether his eyes were covered or not, the sight that mattered, the sight he needed to see, glowed with an irrepressible brilliance in his mind until some obstacle before him forced the image to the darkness where no eye can see. The sense that Leena was close, growing closer in fact, did not negate Alraeic's frustration that he could not sense precisely in which direction he should move. Trees with thick and twisted branches reached out to scratch at his tired body, birds sang songs that deafened his ears and always the croaking, broken voice of Eaerad sang in his mind. I've got a love that's greater than your power, I'm going to lead you along to the tower, It's in my true heart that my power grows, I'm going to take you to the tower that eats souls. The thought of what had happened in the clearing, of the last charge, his last encounter before charging blindly into the forest to find Leena had not yet occurred to him. He could not allow the thought to form in his mind, to break his concentration or cripple him by reliving the bitter terror and confusion of the events. And what if thinking about his gift would make it stop? He didn't know that it wouldn't, didn't know that it would. About his new circumstances he knew nothing, but he knew this; with his gift he could find Leena, would find Leena, and that was all that mattered. Again, the forest around Alraeic faded into the vision of Leena, shuffling uncomfortably in front of the crude rendering of the tower. I've got a love that's greater than your power To one side of her, a dark, shadowed figure moved through the trees. Too tall by far to be a Milon, the shape ruffled and floated, fading into and out of the forest. Arms and legs appeared momentarily only to disappear as the dark shape floated around where Leena was perched. The shaped moved with only a vaguely human shape... I'm going to lead you to the tower …as if it was wrapped in a cloak of darkness, a cloak of shadows. Alraeic could not suppress the shiver that ran up his spine at the thought. But he was close now coming… It's in my true hear that my power grows …towards where Leena sat whispering a silent prayer under her breath. Alraeic could see everything now with a… I'm going to take you to the tower that eats souls …perfect clarity; the vision, the forest around him, and the spectral creature that was drifting towards Leena. It floated above the ground, a fine cloud of smoke and shadows drifting in the air, the only discernible shape that did not alter was that of its head, a half eaten corpse wearing a hood of shadows. It was moving closer to Leena, stretching out two shapes that began to resolve themselves into arms. Its face was as much bone as it was flesh, though its jaw was completely bereft of any features. Instead, what was snapping in anticipation was a jaw bone grafted from smoke and shadow. Locked behind it was a black, leathery tongue that flicked out whenever the jaw bones parted. Alraeic could almost smell the creature, could almost taste its sick, decayed sensation upon his tongue. How could she not see it yet, why had she not moved? Frustration, the first emotion Alraeic had felt since he had faced Eaerad, began to flood his body and realization was quick to follow. So was panic. The creature was now moving directly behind Leena, its long shadowy arms outstretched. A few seconds and it would have her. Leena had closed her eyes to pray, cleared her thoughts and began meditating. The creature closed in, inches from reaching out and grabbing her. Very slowly, Leena let a hand drop to her waist, exhaling as if it had been part of some meditative pattern. Gently she worked her hand towards the scabbard in which her dagger lay. She knew something was behind her though she would not turn to face it until she could be sure of cutting it with her blade. Her hand fell unnoticed upon the hilt of the blade, the familiar sensation acting to slow the heart that now raced in her chest. She could feel the intruder, no doubt a stray Milon, just behind her. Without further thought, she sprung to her feet pivoting around as she did so, her blade bared. For just a moment the shadow creature recoiled in fright, shying away from the blade and the human that held it. Leena's heart seemed to stop when she saw the shadow creature, even as it recoiled in terror from her. The moment of panic was soon in passing. The creature had no flesh in the lower part of its face, though what it did have upon its cheeks crinkled upwards in the approximation of a smile. Panic gripped Leena and the dagger she had been holding dropped seamlessly from her hand. The creature stretched out its arms and pounced forward, its long, leathery tongue shooting out of its mouth as it charged. Leena froze, her eyes wide at the sight of the approaching creature. Its hands came to her face and stopped just short of her delicate cheeks. For a moment the creature hung, suspended, before her, its wide, black eyes widening in what Leena thought at first had been delight and later would come to realize had been terror. Through the creature's shadowy form Leena could make out a single, solitary figure, though not its features. The creature rotated its head until the back of its hood hung before Leena's eyes. Alraeic watched the creature turn to face him, marking the features upon its face. Somewhere in the back of his mind a faint memory tried to be heard, but was quickly quashed. The creature's black eyes were wide and staring, taking in all of Alraeic at a glance. Where once the creature had ended in an indiscriminate cloud of smoke, a long, trailing edge had appeared, flowing outwards towards Alraeic. The edge meandered until it collided with Alraeic's chest, opening his eyes wider than they had ever been to… I've got a love that's greater than your power …the world around him. Realization, consciousness and power flooded Alraeic's body and mind, the whole… I'm going to lead you down to the tower …universe becoming just another answer to just another question. Fear, panic, all fell to the back of Alraeic's mind; only the creature sprawled out before him concerned him now. Without thought, without… It's in my true hear that my power grows …action, the creature before Alraeic began to buckle and convulse, an ear splitting scream escaping its mouth. Through the creature Alraeic could just make out Leena… You've become the tower that eats souls …dropping to her knees, her eyes shut tight and hands clasped over her ears. The scream lasted only a moment before being silenced for eternity. It was some time before Leena could open her eyes, though when she did, the shadow was no where to be seen. Only Alraeic remained, face down on the forest floor.