The Half Broken Crown - Sample Chapters

Discussion in 'Original Works' started by darrenreid, Jun 2, 2006.

  1. darrenreid

    darrenreid New Member

    Joined:
    Jun 2, 2006
    Messages:
    8
    Likes Received:
    1
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Ratings:
    +1 / 0 / -0
    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.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 2, 2006
  2. Senekha

    Senekha <a href="http://photobucket.com" target="_blank"><

    Joined:
    Mar 13, 2005
    Messages:
    4,024
    Likes Received:
    84
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Location:
    Varghala
    Ratings:
    +84 / 0 / -0
    Oo goody, I'm off to read it now :) I'll be back with a review! :D
     
  3. darrenreid

    darrenreid New Member

    Joined:
    Jun 2, 2006
    Messages:
    8
    Likes Received:
    1
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Ratings:
    +1 / 0 / -0
    Great - can't wait to hear what you think - i've another two cahpters i'm allowed to post for free by my publishers so once its been read a few more times i'll add them as well

    Thanks for reading!

    Darren
     
  4. Meena

    Meena New Member

    Joined:
    Oct 12, 2005
    Messages:
    25
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Ratings:
    +0 / 0 / -0
    You can change the character name from Leena to Meena.. i will be more happy :D
     
  5. BBallForLife

    BBallForLife New Member

    Joined:
    Jun 11, 2006
    Messages:
    750
    Likes Received:
    13
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Location:
    NYC
    Ratings:
    +13 / 0 / -0
    The details and battle explanatons are amazing. Post more!!!
     
  6. darrenreid

    darrenreid New Member

    Joined:
    Jun 2, 2006
    Messages:
    8
    Likes Received:
    1
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Ratings:
    +1 / 0 / -0
    Hey everyone

    Hope you are well - sorry about the delay - here are chapters two and three of the Half Broken Crown - please do let me know if you enjoy (or if you don't) my writing!

    Take care,

    Darren




    Chapter Two

    Aeraania

    Alraeic regarded Leena discreetly through the corner of one eye. They had been walking for days now, passing from the forest in which the troop had been slaughtered into a seemingly never-ending prairie. The scenery, as bland as it had become, held little interest for Alraeic; his mind was moving between long stretches of thoughtlessness and deep reflective tones that seemed to block out every sight, every sound around him. Alraeic welcomed the long stretches where his mind seemed to shut down and blocked out the present scenery, past horrors and a future he dared not contemplate. Since he had awakened, shivering like a child caught in the grips of a fever, in Leena's arms, Alraeic relished every moment when his mind did not ask the questions for which his heart called out, nor seek the answers that his soul demanded. For the time being, Alraeic's only companion, other than Leena, was silence.

    The pair had been traveling, alone but for each other, for some days now. Leena had told Alraeic that he had collapsed in the woods and had not awakened for days on end, though she had been rather vague on the details herself. The thought of Alraeic's reawakening was never far from his mind these days. He could still recall Leena's face peering down at him, soft hair cascading down her cheeks, wide blue eyes framed with slight wrinkles that he had never before seen. Alraeic had seen Leena then not through his own eyes but from somewhere in the darkness, shrouded in shadow and bound in torment. Her face had seemed distant at first, the sensation, as she gently ran a hand over his cheek, nothing more than a vague notion. From the darkness, from his cloak of shadow, Alraeic had felt himself rise, slowly at first to be sure, but undoubtedly it had been happening. Leena's face had grown, the awareness of her touch more tangible, but until the moment where he completely regained consciousness, it had all been witnessed through eyes that were not his own. And then, of course, had come the rebirth.

    In one instant, the feeling of distance, of darkness and shadow, the voices, the images, all had ceased. Alraeic had sat bolt upright, his face electrified as if he had been cast into some freezing body of water. The sights, the sounds, the feelings of the forest all assaulted his senses simultaneously, brutalizing him into consciousness. Every nerve in his body had been alive in that moment, the memory of the preceding events uncannily vivid in his mind. That first day, spent laid out on the forest floor as Leena nursed (at her insistence) him back to what she deemed health, had been the most difficult. The rebirth had been swift and electrifying. He now knew who he was, or thought he did at least. But nothing from that moment to this had had the effect of soothing Alraeic in the slightest. He may have been reborn, but he had been birthed with all of the sins of his past life. Alraeic knew this as completely as he knew the sun would sink below one horizon and rise above another. He had known it from the moment he had regained consciousness and when he allowed it, his mind could dwell on nothing else.

    The first night had been the hardest. Leena had refused to allow Alraeic to rise, to move and certainly not to exert himself. He had repeatedly tried to stand and gather the strength to hunt, but his weak, exhausted body had betrayed him. Instead, come night fall, he had lain beside a tiny fire that Leena had constructed. In little more than a single, flaccid flicker of light, he had sat, barely upright; nibbling at the undercooked leg of a rabbit Leena had trapped earlier that day. Leena had sat close to him, shivering until he had wrapped her in his blood splattered cloak. He had awakened bound in the cloak himself, his thick chest plate removed along with what other armor had adorned his body. It was the first real warmth Leena had had since the battle, that her face, much more worn and lean, was the result of exhaustion, of malnutrition, or the constant dread that had weighed her down, body and spirit. None of this had occurred to Alraeic, in part because he himself was too weak to think of anyone but himself, and in part because that first night a spectral image of Eaerad and the Shadow spirit had sat to his other side.

    It had been the sight of the Shadow spirit that had unnerved Alraeic the most. Where once it had been black as the night sky, it was now bathed in a strange ethereal light that seemed to permeate every tree in the forest. It had sat hood up, looking longingly into Leena’s feeble attempt at a fire. It no longer drifted but instead had well formed arms and legs, though the latter were obscured by the long hooded cloak it still wore. It had sat, in complete silence, its arms wrapped around its legs, rocking back and forth. Eaerad had sat next to the Shadow spirit, its smaller body dwarfed by its ethereal companion. Eaerad said little that night and, like its companion, sat staring blankly into Leena's failing fire.

    Little in the way of conversation had passed between Alraeic and Leena. A few token questions, acts of courtesy, but not much else. Leena had sat watching Alraeic covertly, watching as the hulking man first wrapped his thick arms around his knees and then as he had began to rock himself back and forward. Alraeic's eyes had appeared to Leena, at the time, to be quite wild and she did not doubt that fever must still be gripping some part of his mind. He stared into her small fire with eyes that never seemed to blink for what seemed like hours at a time. He looked haunted, traumatized. She wanted nothing more than to go to him, to wrap an arm around his shoulders and to hold him. He had looked so lost, in so much pain. Evidently Alraeic had cared more for the lives under his command than she had guessed.

    In truth, Alraeic had spared his fallen men little to no thought. It was not as if he did not know they had all died in some of the most horrific scenes he had seen, just that the memory seemed unimportant. Every time a memory of the battle tugged at the edge of Alraeic's mind he would invariably glance at the two spirits that sat, quiet and contemplative at his side. He had not been able to keep his mind on his fallen comrades for long. Some time after Alraeic had finished the half raw rabbit that had been served to him, Eaerad had raised his head abruptly, looking first at Alraeic and then to the Shadow spirit. Eaerad had spoken a few mumbled words that Alraeic could not quite make out, its eyes regarding him and his other ethereal companion suspiciously. The Shadow creature had raised its head at this, one of the few times Alraeic had seen its face that night. It had said nothing in response though the flesh on its face had twitched as if it might, before it once again turned its gaze back to the fire. The rest of the night had been marked by silence from all who sat around the fire.

    The following days had proved less of a trial, if only because Alraeic recovered enough strength to begin his and Leena's journey again. The going had been slow, at least for the first few days, but if nothing else they had found more to eat than a few half starved rabbits. Eaerad and the still unnamed Shadow spirit had remained with him, ever present companions he always saw at night though seldom during the day. Since he and Leena had reached the edge of the forest and entered what he knew to be the Great Plains, the Shadow spirit had taken to coming forward during the day. At first Alraeic had not noticed him as he took to walking some distance behind, his head raised and constantly taking in the scenes around them. It was something of a misconception that the landscape of the Great Plains, something Alraeic himself considered bland, was not unvaried. Hills and mounds rose and fell; small copses of trees where a few game animals would live punctured the endless green prairies. Lakes, large and small, the sky, the clouds, the smells and the sensation of the place was a constantly changing thing of which the Shadow creature never seemed to tire.

    Eventually, Eaerad began to appear during the day. He too shunned Alraeic, walking along side the ever silent Shadow spirit. Occasionally, Alraeic heard Eaerad talk to the creature, though all the conversations were decidedly one sided and did not last long. In a strange kind of way, Alraeic had grown accustomed to seeing the two spirits and began to find that he missed them when they did not appear on the journey. Leena had asked Alraeic once why he kept looking back; he had replied simply that he was doing so to make sure they weren't being followed. Little else passed between them.

    A strange barrier had grown up between the pair. It wasn't that Alraeic was ungrateful that Leena had taken care of him when he had passed into the darkness. Quite the contrary in fact. But he had started to resent her for the lives that had been lost. He did not spend much time thinking of the troop and found no emotion in him to grieve, but what he did feel, when his thoughts turned to his men, were resentment. Resentment for the lost lives, resentment that he had been charged with escorting a noble born, resentment that she had led them to such an unmitigated disaster. But more than anything, he knew how he was beginning to feel towards her, how his face could not help but contort itself into a smile when he saw her, how he longed for her to comfort him and grieve for the dead with him. And he resented her, most of all, for that.

    They had been journeying for ten days since they had left the forest behind them and at last Alraeic knew their expedition was nearing its end. The final destination, where the Lady Leena would take the high seat, would be cresting one of the approaching hills. If not the one before them, the one after.

    "Why are you smiling?" Leena asked, turning to face Alraeic, her taut face lit up with an expression that demanded a swift answer to a lady's question, "You haven't looked like that in days."

    Alraeic shifted uneasily under Leena's gaze. He had become accustomed to silence between the two of them recently. Certainly they had never exchanged what could be considered pleasantries, not since the battle and certainly not before. A moment of silence passed before Leena tilted her head slightly further to one side, demanding an answer, though a certain playfulness had entered her eyes.

    "Nothing, my lady, it simply occurred to me that our arduous journey is nearing its end."

    "And this makes you smile?"

    Leena turned away from him at this, turning her attention back to the road ahead. Alraeic's cheeks began to flush, anger and frustration broiling in his mind. This was ridiculous. She spoke, and didn't speak, in the tones of an upset wife or lover; ever demanding of her doting man's complete attention and desperate for his despair should they ever be conceivably parted. With some effort, Alraeic struggled to calm himself, letting a wave of frustration wash over him before fading into obscurity.

    "It makes me smile," Alraeic affirmed, "because you shall endure no more hardship. It has not been an easy journey."

    Leena continued walking in silence for a few moments longer, her hair streaming out behind her in a decadent display of elegance. She would be enjoying this, Alraeic had no doubt. She seemed to take immense delight in making him squirm, holding out an acceptance of an apology before taking it away just to see how he reacted. There were moments in each day where Alraeic, had he not known better, would have sworn he and Leena were lovers. Luckily, these moments did not last.

    "If only the end of our journey was the end of my hardships. I have long days, and longer nights, ahead of me."

    Leena didn't face Alraeic when she spoke, but he knew that her face had dropped and was etched with sadness. He had heard that tone in her voice before. Knew it well, though he could not necessarily say why. For the briefest moment, Alraeic's heart broke for Leena. He hoped what she said was a lie or exaggerated or that it would simply not come to pass. Even as he thought this, his heart broke all the more.

    "My Lady, if there is anything?"

    "Oh quiet with your chivalry; events will unfold as they will and whether you are there or not. If you want to help, maybe you can enlighten me about the creature in the forest?"

    Alraeic's heart darkened at this. Some short time before he had become aware that the Shadow creature had appeared twelve or so paces behind them. He had successfully avoided turning to watch it, but now the temptation was almost overwhelming.

    "They are called T'Eranocs, though in truth they have many names, my lady."

    Leena stopped walking. She turned and faced Alraeic, her wide eyes blazing, her face set in a countenance of complete authoritarianism. Alraeic stopped and turned to face his charge. At the back of his mind he was aware that the Shadow spirit, the T'Eranoc, had also drawn to a stop and was watching the pair intently.

    "T'Eranoc? Nonsense. You speak in the Dwarf tongue and I assure you that no such phrase exists. I suppose its closest translation would be Shadow spirit, or Shadow creature, but the sound of it in the language of those foul creatures is far closer to gibberish."

    "My apologies, my lady, I simply tell you of what I know."

    "What you know is half old wives tales and half superstitions, my dear Alraeic. And how might you come to know of such creatures and I might not?"

    Alraeic regarded Leena coolly. He had no idea how such a notion had entered his mind and certainly he knew not a word of Dwarf tongue. And yet, he knew. Knew it to be the truth, as undeniable as the rising as the sun. He knew what he had said to be true and knew more besides. He could tell Leena all of it, all of the truth. Or of course he could lie. Lying, Alraeic decided, was by far the easier option.

    "I grew up in a village and, as a boy heard of them from my father. I never saw one, but my old father could spin a tale so real that I knew what they looked like long before I saw the creature that attacked you in the forest. There are strange creatures that lurk in the shadows, my lady."

    Leena smiled slightly at his explanation; of all things, smiled and continued forward, not saying another word on the subject. Alraeic's blood started to boil, frustration building up in the confines of his skull. Still, he let it pass uneventfully. The image of Leena's smile endured in his mind. It was a happy image, one that he did not mind concentrating upon. When he saw it, time seemed to draw by and even the memory, or more specifically the sight, of his two new companions could not unnerve him. By the time the image began to slip from his mind, his and Leena's destination had crested a distant hill.

    The city of Aeraania did not, as Alraeic had expected it too, dominate the surrounding country side. Instead, this city seemed to grow awkwardly out the side of the flowing hills around it. A thick, well constructed wall surrounded almost the entire city, the image of perfect security ruined only by a still obvious catapult wound which had half collapsed the south facing wall. Mounds of stone sat at the bottom of this wall leading up in haphazard fashion towards the wide breach. From their current vantage point, the damage could have been only a few days old, or a few centuries. Regardless, the damage was very real and it was telling that such vulnerability existed in the city’s defenses. It was too common a sight nowadays to see once majestic cities falling into disrepair; especially in the backwoods and border countries.

    The rest of the city seemed to crouch back and hide behind the mammoth walls, rows of squat little houses that held Aeraania’s merchants, citizens, criminals and nobles. Even the central tower seemed to sulk away from the outside world, cowering behind the collapsing outer walls. Smoke was billowing indiscriminately from thousands of chimneys, blackening the sky overhead.

    The great plains were merging into the flowing hills that marked and surrounded Aeraania. Farms were becoming more and more common as the pair marched through countryside. More than once, Alraeic saw small villages and towns scattered throughout the hills, each of which he carefully avoided, steering Leena away from the sparse settlements. He did not necessarily expect an attack, but with his troop annihilated, protecting the Lady Leena had become a far more difficult and dangerous job. The pair marched, almost in silence for the rest of that day, the great city looming ever larger in front of them. In spite of the brisk pace they set, darkness began to set in long before the pair began to cross the last hill between them and the crumbling city. Leena’s face had grown harder and colder as the day had worn on. As the light of the sunset began to fail, her face was as hard as Alraeic had ever seen it before.

    From this distance, it was quite clear to Alraeic that the extent of dereliction of the city’s walls, quite possibly the city as well, was far worse than he had originally believed. The breach in the south wall stretched deep into the structure of the barrier causing innumerable cracks and fractures throughout the rest of the masonry. The east wall, the other wall visible to Alraeic from this distance, also showed signs of disrepair and damage. In particular a thick, black moss appeared to have enveloped much of that wall, bulging out from the cracks between the thick slabs of stone and masonry, threatening to suffocate the city.

    A shiver passed silently through Alraeic. Aeraania had indeed fallen upon hard times. For a city wall to be in such a condition, in this location in the world, was nearly unthinkable. Slyly, Alraeic turned his fatigued eyes upon Leena. Every fiber of his being ached with weariness: his muscles, bones, heart and soul. It felt to Alraeic as if some great weight was being pushed down upon him from the heavens, that he would never know true, peaceful rest again. Alraeic could have dwelt on the matter, on the feeling, for the rest of the day. And no doubt he would have had it not been what he saw when he faced Leena.

    From the profile, her face seemed gaunter, paler than he had ever seen it. Her wide, beautiful eyes still glowed but were framed by wide circles of exhaustion. Her cheeks were so pale that they were beginning to turn a pale blue color. A gust of wind picked up Leena’s hair, sending it out in long, concaving motions behind her. She looked like a queen, in spite of her obvious fatigue.

    “Alraeic, if you intend to continue staring at me I am going to have to start charging you.”

    Leena stopped walking and turned her pale face to Alraeic, meeting his eyes with her own. Stopping with Leena, Alraeic struggled to compose his face, hide his surprise, shock and, worst of all, the growing smile he could feel lurking under his cheeks. Another gust of wind shot through Leena’s hair, though this time the strands flew more wildly, with less purpose.

    “My Lady, accept my apologies”, Alraeic began, steadying his voice as best he could. “I cannot help but worry about the hardships you believe you will face in Aeraania.”

    Leena regarded Alraeic coolly for a moment. Her eyes flicked up and down, taking him in at a glance. Her face was dangerously still, betraying no emotion. For a moment Leena opened and closed her mouth hesitantly, choking on words she didn’t know she wanted to say. The moment passed. A sly smile spread across Leena’s face, lighting her complexion and obscuring her exhaustion.

    “My hardships, Alraeic, are my own to face. Have I not already warned you about attempting chivalry around me?”

    At this Alraeic could only smile. Turning, he hoisted the rough sack that hung over his right shoulder, ignoring the clash of armor pieces inside. Leena watched as Alraeic turned and began to walk, sparing a few seconds for herself before she began to follow in Alraeic’s hulking shadow. She walked like this for some time as the sun began to descend over the horizon lines of rolling hills. To the east lay the Great Plains that they had left behind and already that land was covered in darkness.

    Although he walked only a few feet in front of her, Alraeic felt completely alone as he marched. Glorious silence filled his ears and the dying embers of the day lit his way forward. Aeraania was now beginning to fall under the cloak of night; the cracks and flaws of the city hidden by the nights encroaching shadow. The less discriminate the city appeared, the more Alraeic’s heart relaxed, ignoring the burden he was carrying. The air was beginning to cool, loosing the humid quality that had prompted Alraeic to strip himself of armor and heavy clothing. Other than the leggings, he now wore only a simple black shirt that was still stiff and hard in places from the blood it had absorbed. This thick chest plate and the few other pieces of ornamental armor he carried were now wrapped neatly in his supply sack, wrapped protectively in his scarlet, blood stained cloak. Had not it been for the great sword that hung from his left hip, there was almost no suggestion that Alraeic was what he was. Taking in a long, deep breath of the still air of the approaching night, Alraeic allowed calm to pass over him for the first time in days.

    “She’s holding back from you. “

    The voice that spoke was weak and willowy, like smoke on the wind.
    Alraeic shot his head round towards the sound of the rasping voice, instinctively letting a hand move towards the hilt of his great sword. Before him stood not a figure but the half transparent shape of the shadow creature. It was facing Alraeic deliberately, its hollow, lifeless eyes staring unflinchingly into Alraeic’s own.

    “Is there a problem, Alraeic?” Leena inquired from behind him.

    Realizing that he had come to a stop and was, as far as Leena would be concerned, staring into an empty space, Alraeic stumbled forward, returning his head to the horizon in front of him without ever letting his eyes fall from the specter drifting contentedly beside him.

    “No, my Lady”, Alraeic called in as steady a tone as he could manage. “I thought I saw some movement.”

    “And did you?” Leena’s voice was falling away, she was meandering again, her attention already focused on something else.

    “No, just a shadow.”

    Good. The last word was dreamy, distant and distracted. Alraeic would have doubted that Leena even remembered he had paused had he not known the lady better. Regardless, he very deliberately kept his face facing towards the destination. His eyes never moved from the gaze of the shadow creature.

    Silence drew out between Alraeic and the phantom as they moved together. From under his hood Alraeic watched the shadow creature, the T’Eranoc, assess and study him. The half flesh, half bone face of the creature contorted and moved as it assessed him, as if seeing Alraeic for the first time. A cold chill worked its way down Alraeic’s spine at the cold regard the creature gave him.

    “What would you know of such matters, T’Eranoc?” Alraeic spat through clenched teeth, never letting his head or body turn as his instincts demanded to the creature. The shadow creature’s features did not alter at the tone of Alraeic’s voice. Instead it continued to stare at Alraeic with an empty, haunting gaze.

    “Suffice it to say, human, that about such things as deceit and betrayal I know more than you give me credit for.”

    The flesh that only half covered the shadow creature’s skull began to bulge and ripple, moving sluggishly across the creatures face. As the flesh rippled and pulsed over the face, it left a simple, bloody trail behind it. The creature’s eyes narrowed slightly, locking its gaze firmly onto Alraeic’s own.

    “Be that as it may”, Alraeic growled, “I do not believe you could speak the truth to me, even if you wanted to.”

    “Such an untrusting little creature,” the shadow hissed, drifting towards Alraeic, “but you know that I speak the truth on this matter. Deny it to me, deny it to yourself, but in the darkness of your heart you know what I say to be nothing but truth.”

    Alraeic regarded the shadow creature coldly, pushing the inescapable truth of its statements to the back of his mind. He would not, could not give into what this creature had to say. In vain, Alraeic sought words to throw at the abomination besides him, but none came. Instead he continued to stare down at the phantom that was, and wasn’t there, that existed in reality, but only in the reality of his own mind. For the sake of all that was good

    “Alraeic, come over here!”

    The sound of Leena’s harsh, commanding voice immediately broke Alraeic’s tragic train of thought. Without thought he pivoted away from the phantom, his eyes refocusing keenly upon Leena. He would not let that creature win, would not listen to its foul lies; lies that he knew to be truths. Alraeic stared at Leena for only an instant before turning back quickly to face the shadow creature. Glancing over his shoulder, the space where the T’Eranoc had been drifting was now empty. Panicked, Alraeic darted his head around quickly looking for any sign of the creature. None remained.

    “Alraeic!”

    Turning again, Leena caught, and held, Alraeic’s gaze. Resigning himself, Alraeic begrudgingly slowed his pace, allowing the lady to catch him up.

    “My apologies my lady, I believe the light is playing tricks on my eyes.”

    “Yes, be that as it may, we must rest and set up camp for the night.”

    Alraeic looked down at Leena through cold, harsh eyes that clearly betrayed his shock. Leena looked back up into the tall warrior’s face, forcing her eyes not to settle upon the deep lines of anxiety and exhaustion that were written across it.

    “But my Lady, if we continue at our current pace, we could be at Aeraania in little over three hours.”

    Leena forced herself to offer some semblance of a smile to her last bodyguard. He did not, after all, know her true mission, or the importance that was attached to it. And he certainly didn’t know the importance of creating a grand entrance for oneself in order to begin her mission. A pretty face, to be sure, but Leena doubted her companion had much in the way of imagination.

    A true, grand entrance was a task rendered almost impossible by the annihilation of the troop, but if she had to publicly flog him to do it, Leena was determined that the powers-that-be know she had arrived. And that would be her first victory. A small victory, but an important one, none the less.

    “Are you so keen to rid yourself of my company, Alraeic?”

    Alraeic’s face flushed visibly as he broke eye contact with Leena. He glanced nervously to one side and then the other before returning a renewed gaze upon his charge.

    “My Lady, as you well know, I shall be available to you for some time when we reach the city. My concern was that we find you a room, in an inn perhaps, so that you might have a restful night’s sleep.”

    “So that is what you are concerned about, my welfare?”

    “Your welfare is at the forefront of my mind.”

    “I’m sure it is, but we rest here tonight.”

    For a moment Alraeic could only stare bluntly at the diminutive figure before him, her eyes blazing with authority. Beyond Leena, the shadow creature stooped into view, drawing its self very near to her shoulder. It focused upon her, the flesh starting to crawl across its face as it did so.

    “As my Lady wishes.”

    Alraeic struggled out, desperately avoiding eye contact with the phantom now looming over Leena. It could not hurt her, not any more, not in any way. She was safe, he was safe. He would protect her, yes that was right. He was her guardian now.

    “Oh, one last thing Alraeic,”

    “As my lady wishes”, Alraeic replied in a dreamy, half alert tone.

    “Tomorrow when we enter the city it is important that the people of Aeraania know that I have arrived. I will need you to finish our journey in your full armor and uniform, we need to create something of an entrance.”

    “An entrance?” asked Alraeic. “If my Lady wishes it, I can scout ahead, inform a runner. The nobility will know of you arrival before you,”

    “No, Alraeic, all the people need to know I have arrived, word must spread throughout the city. This is the job for which I charge you upon our arrival.”

    From beyond Leena’s shoulder the T’Eranoc leaned closer, its face a few short inches from Leena’s own, though it was Alraeic to whom he spoke.

    “She keeps secrets, hides truths, and uses poor Alraeic. When was the last time a noble wanted her arrival to be known throughout the city, among the peasants? When? When? When?”






    Chapter Three

    The Black Guard

    The final march towards Aeraania was carried out mostly in silence. Neither the shadowy figure of the T’Eranoc, nor that of Eaerad appeared to Alraeic in the final night’s camp, nor in the few hours it took to travel to the mammoth gate of the city. Instead, Alraeic was gifted to a few hours of silence and privacy; both commodities that were becoming harder and harder for Alraeic to attain. The previous night Leena had fallen asleep almost as soon as she had laid her head upon the soft grass below her, the small fire Alraeic had prepared still burning high into the night’s sky. For the longest time Alraeic had simply sat in silence, staring into space vacantly. Reveling in this brief sojourn of silence, he couldn’t help but fear that the almost perfect moment of tranquility would be snatched away from him at any moment by the sight of the shadow creature. Or, of course, Eaerad.

    Hours seemed to pass before Alraeic had had the energy to empty his supply sack, sorting through the sparse pieces of armor and finery that had been emptied upon the grass. With a vacant amount of effort, Alraeic had polished the loose pieces of armor, had unraveled his long, scarlet cloak and prepared his full uniform for the final march upon Aeraania. But for all of the silence, all of the inane tasks associated with preparing a full uniform, a definite feeling of uncertainty never left Alraeic.

    It gnawed irritably at the back of Alraeic’s mind constantly through the night as he worked preparing his finery for tomorrow’s journey and the impression Leena had made clear she wanted to make. Even as Alraeic awoke to see the sun’s first rays cresting Aeraania, the familiar sensation of utter uncertainty sprang into his consciousness, demanding that its presence be acknowledged.

    The irritable sensation had continued to gnaw at Alraeic even as he and Leena had begun the final stretch of their journey. If Alraeic had been gifted with silence from his demons, he had not been gifted with peace of mind. The east wall of Aeraania was looming close now; close enough to make out small figures moving in and out of the giant gate that barred entry to the city. Close enough to make out the two figures, clad in black, which stood at either side of the entrance.

    The main gate into Aeraania stretched easily fifty feet upwards, coming very near to the top of the city’s defensive wall. Alraeic had seen many such defensive gateways before and knew the kind well. The full gate was rarely, if ever, opened. In order to do so, an elaborate system of levers and pulleys had to be operated to safely swing the mammoth gate out and later shut again. For day to day use, a much smaller opening, cut into the structure of the main gate, was swung open and guarded, allowing merchants and peasants to move in and out of the city at their leisure. Alraeic had seen many cities in his life, seen many similar fortifications and gateways, but Alraeic had never seen them guarded by figures in black.

    As he and Leena approached the main gate, more and more details upon the figures exposed themselves. Curiously, neither figure carried a sword. Instead, each held a long lance with a curiously shaped head; like a spear with a second razor attached perpendicularly. The lances were long, standing at least a foot taller than both of their carriers. No armor was visible upon either of the guards, the only marking upon their uniform being a slightly distorted figure upon their left breast.

    From the moment Alraeic had spotted the curious figures he had focused his attention upon them, straining his eyes to make out every detail he could. Though Leena had seen the same sight, they were far closer to the city before the odd appearance of the guards piqued her interest. She strained her eyes towards the fast approaching sight, watching as the two guards talked and, apparently quite roughly, dealt with a few slow moving merchants. Inside her chest, Leena’s heart sank.

    Glancing serendipitously up at Alraeic, Leena took a moment to compose her features, scorning herself for even thinking the awful thoughts that had crossed through her mind. She would not, could not, give up now. She had not been trained, her entire life, for such a task as this, only to surrender at the first adverse signs. She would not surrender. Still watching Alraeic through the corner of one eye, Leena studied the hard expression upon the warriors face. Though she hated to admit it, even to herself, the look of utter determination upon the face of her guardian, allowed Leena to draw no small amount of strength and confidence. With her army annihilated, strength and confidence were about the only two weapons she now possessed. And Alraeic, of course, though a single soldier would offer little protection if her enemies wished to destroy her.

    “Why do you suppose those guards are dressed as they are, Alraeic?” Leena inquired in her most conversational tone of voice.

    Alraeic did not speak immediately; instead, he narrowed his eyes, evidently focusing upon the two figures at the fast approaching gate. His jaw flexed slightly, a sign of concentration that Leena found hilarious every time she saw Alraeic trying to think. A long moment drew out between the pair before Alraeic replied, and when he did the icy tones in which he spoke repressed any residual mirth Leena felt towards her guardian.

    “I do not know for certain, my lady. There are many possibilities.”

    “Such as?” With almost no hesitation, Alraeic could not help but turn his head slightly further towards Leena at this. She was panicked, if that were possible.

    “It is entirely possible that the good Duke has simply chosen to alter the uniform of his guard.”

    Leena stared coldly up at Alraeic, not justifying his response with an answer. Evidently, Alraeic got the message.

    “However,” Alraeic began in almost apologetic tones, “I have never known any loyal Duke or nobleman to remove all of the royal signage from the uniforms of his guard. Is it possible, my Lady that the Duke is preparing to…disassociate himself from his oath of loyalty to the King? It is my understanding that such as this has been happening in the backwoods, from time to time.”

    “Careful, Alraeic.” Leena said in cold warning tones. Some subjects were not for discussion outside of the nobility. Alraeic obviously paid far more attention to rumors in court than he had initially let on. The problem with rumors is that they are almost always wrong, or at the very least, lead to wrong conclusions. Without a doubt Leena knew Alraeic’s theory to be wrong, but even so, it was not completely at odds with the truth. Leena had to stop herself shaking visibly at the thought.

    The final stretch of the journey to the city gate was finished without another word spoken; Alraeic quite content to offer no more explanations for the strange appearance of the guards and Leena happy to offer none of her own. Indeed, Leena’s relative silence upon the subject played upon Alraeic’s mind as the looming city wall finally blocked out most of the country side around it. She was quite happy to ask for an explanation but offered none of her own. Even suggesting the possibility that the Duke had gone into revolt had not had the affect Alraeic had desired; Leena had not let a single clue as to their true purpose escape. Instead she had cautioned him in those well rehearsed, cool tones of authority.

    Alraeic had not much time to dwell on the possibilities. As the soft grass under his and Leena’s feet gave way to an uneven, ill-maintained cobbled road, the two guards at the main gate began to advance towards them, their lances lowered and held in an aggressive pose. Back at the gate two new guards, also clad in black and carrying the same long lances of the approaching pair, took the vacant positions left at either side of the city’s entrance.

    Beside Alraeic, Leena stiffened visibly, although she remained far more composed than he would have expected a noble in her position to be. Through the corner of his eye, Alraeic spared Leena’s remarkable bravery, one of many talents she had taken great pains to hide from him, only a momentary glance. But Leena was not alone in this journey as being the sole possessor of secrets.

    The advancing guards moved towards Alraeic and Leena quickly, or at least quicker than Alraeic might have expected from the look of them. On Alraeic’s left, the guard was of only average height and build with a face that told more of the years he had yet to experience than those he had already lived through. The lance he held was thick and well crafted, though the slight shaking of the weapon in his arms betrayed his inexperience with its use. Without a further thought towards this young guard, Alraeic turned his full attention upon the other advancing figure.

    Whilst the first guard looked young and inexperienced, the second wore the pockmarked face of a ravaged youth and torrid temperament. For all of the uncertainty that marked the first guard, over-confidence and grim determination emanated from the second. The older guard moved with a certain gracelessness that Alraeic knew to be a symptom of a life of violence. With every step of the older guard took, his mangled face seemed to grow more and more disgruntled in its expression. Finally, little over six feet in front of Alraeic and Leena, the pair came to a halt, the lances turned directly upon them.

    “Halt where yer are,” The older guard growled towards Leena, “ye’ve nay business approaching this city ‘less ye’ve been granted a pass by the guard.”

    Alraeic regarded the guardsmen coolly, his right hand twitching, aching to grasp the hilt of his blade. The guard gave Alraeic only a cursory glance; if he knew what Alraeic was, he gave no sign of it. Evidently, it was clear who was in charge.

    “I was unaware, guardsman,” Leena began in well measured neutral tones, “that a noble born required a pass to enter any province ruled by the King. Is that not correct?”

    The guardsman fidgeted visibly as Leena spoke, his left eye continually twitching with deeply suppressed rage. Through the corner of his eyesight, Alraeic watched the younger of the guards, his forehead now covered in a fine coat of sweat, look to the older figure for reassurance. With the older guard’s attention upon Leena and the youth’s upon his elder, Alraeic discreetly slipped his right arm across his midriff, allowing his hand to come to rest on and tightly grip the hilt of his great blade.

    “A noble born, are ye?” The older guard seemed to chew the words as if digesting the meaning, “we’ve nay seen a noble blood in these parts in a very long time, why might ye be coming here now?”

    The guard leaned forward, one of his eyes twitching as if to underline his point. Unconsciously Alraeic’s stomach churned. A simmering anger had begun to broil in the pit of his gut. The sight of the guard, the way he made a mockery of Leena, denied access to a noble born! Such things were unheard of in the interior. Such things had been unheard of, at least until recently, even in the backwoods.

    “You mean accept for the Duke, of course?”

    “What?” The guardsman seemed to recoil slightly at Leena’s words, as if she had spat upon him.

    “You said you had seen no noble blood here in a long time. I assume you mean that, other than the Duke and his family, you have seen no noble born here in some time.”

    The guardsman again leered forward, his face twitching and convulsing as he did so. For a brief moment, he faced Leena wordlessly, his face drooping into an expression of utter confusion before, slowly, resolving itself into its typical, inhospitable, mask.

    “But o’ course, me Lady,” the guardsman leered, “except for the good Duke.”

    “Excellent. Take me to him.”

    “Take you to who?” The guard spat back reflexively.

    “To the Duke, I demand you escort me to him immediately. That is my right.”

    For the first time since the beginning of their confrontation, the expression upon the guardsman’s face did not alter; not even so much as an involuntary spasm. Instead he adjusted the angle of his lance, though only slightly. Very subtly he adjusted the line of his shoulders, again only slightly. To his other side, the younger guard imitated his senior, though with none of the subtlety of his elder.

    “I’m afraid that the Duke is otherwise indisposed of at the present time. He is taking no visitors nor holding court with anyone, noble born or no.”

    “Are you telling me?”

    “I am telling you that you aren’t allowed in this here city,” and spoken through an insidiously wide grin, “my lady.”

    “Upon whose authority, guardsman, do you deny me entry to a royal city?”

    “Why the Duke’s, of course.”

    Without waiting for the guardsman to finish his last word, Alraeic ripped his sword roughly from its scabbard. The young guardsman who stood closest to Alraeic lunged forwards, his lance shaking convulsively in his hands. With little effort, Alraeic hooked his sword under the advancing lance, slicing the dangerous tip clean from the body of the weapon. Ignoring the fumbling youth whose face had dropped into an expression of unparalleled fear, Alraeic took a swift step forward, placing himself between Leena and the elder guardsman.

    The expression upon the elder’s face had turned from distorted tranquility to shocked rage. His eyes visibly widened as Alraeic seamlessly beheaded his partner’s lance. By the time he had regained control of his senses, Alraeic was already moving between him and Leena. Instinctively the guard lunged forward, feigning to one side with his lance, drawing Alraeic’s sword away from his body. As Alraeic swung to deflect a blow the guard had no intention of delivering, he stepped forward, roughly altering the swing of his lance, thrusting it instead towards Leena.

    Alraeic watched the feign with an almost unreal horror. The grotesque guardsman was moving quickly, swinging his lance towards the now exposed Leena before Alraeic could stop his heavy swing of his blade. Instinctively, Alraeic let his sword drop to the hard ground, reaching with his now free hand behind his back for a small hunting dagger that was packed neatly into his belt at the base of his spine.

    The old guardsman had Leena in his sights. The filthy noble blood stood with her face frozen in ambivalent terror, her soft, porcelain features contorting as the guardsman’s lance drew towards her delicate throat. The guardsman did not hear Alraeic’s sword clatter loudly upon the cobblestones beneath his feet. Leena had come to encompass his whole field vision, as many other victims had done so in the preceding years.

    Pulling out the short hunting knife, Alraeic let his right knee collapse under his own weight, throwing himself back in front of Leena. Knife gripped tightly in his hand, he thrust upwards, engulfing his blade in the guardsman’s throat. Even as the blade sunk into his thick, lumpy neck, the expression upon the guardsman’s face did not alter, holding with it until death took him with a look of perverse joy. As Alraeic’s knife plunged to the hilt, the guardsman’s mouth opened slightly, allowing his crevassed tongue to fall out between his lips. Blood spurted out from the wound in the guardsman’s throat, splattering somewhat upon Alraeic’s forehead. Never moving, Alraeic waited until the limp body of the guardsman dropped off the end of his tiny blade.

    Leena, her blood chilled to ice, took a small step forward to where the elder guardsman’s lance had dropped, only a few short inches from her own throat. Her hands were trembling slightly. Turning, she watched Alraeic’s profile, his lean jaw grimacing in anger and determination as the elder guard dropped limply from the end of a tiny hunting knife. Without thought, Leena fumbled under the wide sleeve hanging from her left arm, drawing out her own finely embroidered blade from a scabbard that had been woven into her traveling gown. The younger guard started to stumble forward, the remains of his lance now held diagonally across his body in both his trembling hands. Leena turned quickly to face the young fool, her face now hardened into an expression of utter rage and anxiety.

    “Stand down, guardsman,” Leena boomed at the approaching youth. The young guard held his position, paralyzed by Leena’s well practiced, commanding tone. Alraeic had his sword once again, rose from the ground and was turning towards the second guard. Vaguely, Leena was aware of the sound of charging footsteps as more guardsmen were undoubtedly pouring towards the pair.

    “You were ordered to stand down by a noble born, guard, now stand down,” Alraeic’s voice was deep and shaking with suppressed rage. His sword was now stretched out in one arm, its tip resting upon the remaining guard’s throat.

    “You killed Theon,” the youth spluttered out as he dropped the body of his now useless lance, “you killed…”

    “Silence.” Alraeic pushed his blade forward the tiniest amount, though enough to prick the guard painfully in the throat, and more than enough to bring him out of his mounting hysteria and back to reality. The young guard dropped his voice to silence and stared at Alraeic with wide, blue eyes that were glazing over with tears. To one side the sound of footsteps dropped off as a dozen guardsmen, lances held forward, reached Alraeic and Leena. Each guard moved with a slow gracelessness, drawing a circle around Leena, Alraeic and their hostage.

    The other guards were a wide mix of ages, the oldest with long, silver strands of hair that hung loosely from his skull like features, the youngest baring the same wide-eyed naivety of Alraeic’s hostage. Alraeic waited patiently for the guards to drop into formation, painfully conscious of Leena, edging very slowly towards him.

    “Stand down ye vagrant,” the silver haired man crooned towards Alraeic, “ye’ve killed one o’ the guard, and nothin' can redeem ye now.”

    Alraeic did not move. Instead he stood motionless, the tip of his blade pressed dangerously hard against the young guardsman’s throat.

    “Did ye hear me boy?” The silver hair guard demanded again, “I said to lay down yer weapon before I take it from ye.”

    “Guardsman,” Leena interrupted in her usual commanding tone, “it is you that I order to stand down.”

    “Aye, I bet ye do, and tell thee, upon whose authority? Ye may be noble born, ye, I can see that, but my authority comes direct from the Duke. Ye were told to turn around.”

    “And perhaps we may yet.” Leena smiled slightly as she spoke, “it was my intention to arrive ahead of the legion I command, to speak with your Duke, but if it is required we shall turn back and return with them.”

    The silver haired guardsman paused, lowering his lance slightly as Leena spoke. He turned his attention towards Alraeic, taking in all of his features. Aye, he knew what the strange warrior was, but he’d give the vagrant no recognition, not here at least.

    “Ye’ve come with a royal legion, ye say?”

    “Of course, the King does not abandon the outer provinces during their times of need. Which is why I must speak with your Duke, I assume he will be pleased with the arrival of a royal army to command?”

    Leena let the last words she spoke drift off; paying close attention to the guard and how his face reacted to every word she spoke. Though she dared not tear her eyes from the silver haired guardsman, Leena could hear ruffling sounds as the other guards moved their lances nervously, daring to lower them from their intended victims.

    “Ye knows the Duke well, I imagine, me lady,” the silver haired guard begun, “though he will not be expecting your…visit.”

    “That is quite alright,” Leena gestured vaguely with one hand, “I need not meet with him today, but I do demand you lower your weapons around me.”

    “Aye,” the guard spluttered as he lowered, “aye, right ye are. Arms down.”

    Slowly, and with no small amount of resistance, the remaining guards lowered their lances, passing inquisitive looks among each other and towards the silver haired guard. Reluctantly, Alraeic followed suit with his sword.

    Stepping away from the young guard whose face by now had turned completely white, Alraeic positioned himself directly in front of the silver haired guard, only small inches separating the pair’s bodies.

    “We require an escort through the city,”

    “Nay lad, I’ve a…”

    “You will do as I command, or I will run thee through myself.”

    Very slowly, reluctantly, the silver haired guard took a step back from Alraeic, anger flushing through his face as he did so. A silent tremor passed through Alraeic. Leena’s legion had been destroyed, disturbing in itself, but to be released only when threat of a royal army was issued…nothing about this situation made sense to Alraeic, though none of this showed upon his face. For now, the guardsmen saw only grim determination and confidence.

    “Move out, escort!” the guardsman groaned loudly to his small troop.

    Silently the guardsmen filed around Alraeic and Leena, forming a poorly rehearsed escort. The silver haired guardsman moved to the front of the troop and gave the order to march. To either side of the old, silver haired guardsman, the shadow creature and Eaerad moved. Whilst the shadow creature loomed over the old guard, drawing close and hissing vehemently, Eaerad simply looked up, his eyes narrowing into an expression of perverted delight. The troop began marching with Alraeic and Leena contained within their body. The shadow creature and Eaerad did not move, but rather watched in silence as the group moved off towards the gates of the city.

    II

    Marching in the midst of their new escort, it was not long before Alraeic and Leena passed through the enormous gate to the city. Crossing the threshold, the first thing that struck Alraeic about the city was not the seemingly random arrangement of poorly maintained houses, nor even the fact that every street corner seemed to hold a member of the city’s guard clad in black. Rather, it was the intense smell that seemed to emanate from the grey-brown mud that coated the city’s streets, permeating every surface. It said much about the city that its inhabitants moved about their business seemingly oblivious to this insidious odor.

    Repressing the urge to cover his face, hold his nose, do anything to block out the horrid, rotting stench, Alraeic turned his head to watch his companion. Leena held herself in a completely regal pose, not allowing the smell of the city to alter her perfect face in any way. A low gust of wind picked up her long, flowing hair. Gracefully, she raised a hand to her head, taming the few strands that were dancing upon the breeze. She caught Alraeic’s stare with her own large, oval eyes. For a moment she stared at him, her pupils dilating so much that they seemed to block out all of the rich hazel that normally marked her eyes. After a moment of staring clandestinely at each another, a wide smile spread across Leena’s face forming deep dimples on her cheeks, something Alraeic had not seen upon her face since they had set out on their journey.

    The smile lasted only a moment before Leena turned her attention away from Alraeic, a look of regal stoicism replacing the all too brief expression of hopeful caution she had shown him. Reluctantly, Alraeic did likewise.

    The party meandered through the crowded city streets at a quick pace. The members of the escort frequently were forced to physically push or throw dirty, starving peasants from their path. Several times during the trip, bedraggled looking people, usually old women with bent backs, made it past members of their escorts, and every time they were pushed out of the way, often before they had fully extended a hand to beg for a spare coin from the visiting noble woman. No beggars appealed to Alraeic.

    The fact that there were beggars was not unusual; they tended to be in every city of any significant size. What was curious, at least to Alraeic, was the way in which Leena seemed to show dismay or hopelessness every time one was pushed away. Alraeic watched this happen, time and time again. He watched as Leena moved, ready as if to give some coin, and watched the sorrow filled expression she offered the poor beggar who was inevitably thrown clear of the marching party. The fact that a noble felt so visibly guilty that a peasant, a beggar no less, was being treated so by her escort, was noteworthy in itself. But what was more curious, even than this, was the way in which Leena made it appear as if she were prepared to give out what little coin she had. And since the Milon ambush and the burning of the troop’s supplies, coin was something neither Alraeic nor Leena possessed. Certainly not in enough quantity that they could afford to give it away, not to anyone. And yet, beggar after beggar threw themselves in vain upon the escort, and beggar after beggar received an almost identical look of sympathetic sorrow from Leena.

    After some time marching through an ever more confusing twist of mangled, dilapidated houses, the silver haired guard, who had until then been leading the escort, left the group with only a single curt nod to another, much younger, guardsman who took the lead of the escort. Neither the departing silver haired guard nor the new leader of the escort offered Alraeic or Leena an explanation; instead, the group continued on in silence.

    Before long the escort came to a halt outside of a relatively well maintained building. It could only be described as relatively well maintained because in any other city it would no doubt be called a slum. In Aeraania, it was one of the city’s finest inns. Hanging haphazardly above a door that didn’t quite cover its distorted frame, hung a sign with a picture of a twisting tower that snaked upward towards the sky.

    “Here ye are,” the young guard who had taken the lead of the escort said with a wide, sarcastic gesture, “The Tower Inn.”

    Leena opened her mouth to answer, but the guard had already turned his back and the escort was starting to disperse.

    “Hold there,” Alraeic shouted after the young guard, drawing out his sword for emphasis, “we demand to see…”

    “Ye demand nothing,” the young guard spat contemptuously. “This place’ll de ye grand. The Duke, as ye’ve been told, won’t see ye today. But if yer lucky, the Prime Council will.”

    “The Prime Council,” Leena spat, stepping toward the departing guard, “commands only civil matters; I demand to see the noble in charge of this city.”

    The young guardsman simply stared at Leena until she finished, saying nothing for several moments. Before he spoke, his mouth started to spread into a smile, revealing two rows of crooked, yellowing teeth.

    Speaking through his smile, he said in thickly sardonic tones, “The Prime Council will be with ye later today, maybe. I suggest ye get comfortable waiting for him.”

    Without another word, the young guard pivoted in the mud drenched street and headed off with the rest of the dispersing escort.

    III

    The interior of the Tower Inn was, at the very least, better looked after than the half collapsing exterior. As Leena and Alraeic entered they were greeted with a huge, roaring fire and a fat, grease covered innkeeper. The innkeeper moved with the kind of grace that Alraeic had seen from many similarly bloated men, doddering and swaying as he moved towards his two guests.

    “Ah my Lord, my Lady, you honor me; please, please,” boomed the grotesque figure as he gestured towards a half a dozen vacant chairs by the fire side. “’Tis been a long time since we’ve had any visitors such as thee to my establishment. Can I offer ye any refreshments?”

    “Wine, please,” Leena said, taking a seat nearest the roaring fire. Smiling even broader at the order, if that were possible, the innkeeper turned to Alraeic, his thick, hairy eye brows shooting up his forehead as he asked the same question.

    “Wine,” Alraeic said simply in a rough, callous voice. The innkeeper’s eyebrows dropped and his smile faded somewhat. After a brief moment of indecision, the squat figure burst into motion, nodding and thanking Alraeic for his order, mumbling to himself as he left the table to fetch wine for the pair.

    Leena was staring into the roaring fire, her face lit tenderly by the glowing, crackling flames. She said nothing and did not regard Alraeic. Somewhere out of sight, the sound of plates crashing erupted through the small room, accompanied by the frustrated musings of the innkeeper. Conspiratorially, Alraeic leaned forward in his chair, speaking in low, hushed tones.

    “My Lady, I am deeply unsettled by the situation here. Why are we made to wait in this,” he gestured vaguely at the dank, plain room in which they sat, “pauper’s inn for the Prime Council? You know as well as I that such men hold no real power. The Duke is keeping you at arms length for a reason.”

    Leena listened patiently as Alraeic spoke, nodding slightly at each point he made. After he finished speaking she continued to stare into the burning fire before replying, her own voice hushed to a whisper.

    “Without a doubt, my Alraeic, you are right.” She turned to face him, her cheeks turning up into the wide smile Alraeic had seen only once since they had departed on their journey, “Perhaps it is time you and I took the initiative, take matters into our own hands, say tonight?”

    “We,” Alraeic began in a strong, commanding tone, “will be doing nothing. It is not your place to be,”

    “Alraeic please, I’ll have you know…”

    “I’ll have you know, nothing.” Alraeic interrupted, his eyes locked upon Leena’s own. “It is not your place to be making…investigations, least of all in a city such as this. Tell me what you need done and I will do it for you.”

    Leena could only smile at Alraeic’s commanding tone, the way his face hardened when he tried to be serious and the way his eyes narrowed, ever so slightly, when she allowed her smile to widen. Leena leaned forward in her chair, opening her mouth to contradict Alraeic, but the sudden bustle of the innkeeper returning stayed her tongue. Instead she allowed herself to drop back into her chair, her smile fading and her face returning to its usual regal serenity. Alraeic too allowed himself to relax into his wide, comfortable chair, his own face loosing all the hints of emotion it had carried only moments before. By the time the innkeeper reached the pair they were sitting together in perfect silence, their features masks of serenity.

    The inn keeper clumsily laid out two pewter mugs on the short, rickety table that sat halfway between the pair and the fireplace. Awkwardly, he leaned over Alraeic, pouring a thick, odorless red wine into the two mugs, spilling the thick, globular liquid onto the old table as he did so. After a few moments of this awkward service the innkeeper took a step back, pulling his thick stomach out of Alraeic’s face. He stood to one side of the pair, a wide, senseless smile spread across his face. He waited.

    With a gesture from Leena, Alraeic picked up the two mugs, handing one to his liege lady. Both of them gestured to the innkeeper whose bashful smile broadened at the acknowledgment, and both sipped deeply from their mugs. The wine was rich and tasted strongly of berries, contrasting sharply with the distinct lack of smell it gave off. It was all Alraeic could do not to smile as the sweet flavor poured over his tongue.

    “Tell me,” Leena said over her mug to the still smiling innkeeper, “your Prime Council seems a powerful man in this city.”

    “Oh, no, my Lady. Well, I mean he is in his own way, but it’s the good Duke that makes all the great decisions. Aye, he’s done grand for our city,” the inn keeper gestured towards the room around him. Leena’s smile did not alter, but her eyes did narrow.

    “Of course, but he is the person I am to meet later here today. A great responsibility for the Prime council, wouldn’t you say?”

    The inn keeper said nothing. Instead he continued to stare at Leena and Alraeic with that same, wide grin that covered his fat, greasy face. Leena raised her eyebrows visibly, prompting the peasant for an answer. Still, none was forthcoming. Alraeic put his hands firmly upon the arms of his chair and pushed himself to his feet, his mouth opening to demand he answer the noblewoman. Before he had fully straightened, his legs gave way from under him and he collapsed back into the chair. Rage filled Alraeic and he opened his mouth angrily, but no sound was forthcoming. In vain he raised one arm only to find it heavier than he could manage. Involuntarily, his head slumped to face Leena. She was in her chair, slumped low, and her eyes wide and staring.

    Sounds started to erupt in Alraeic’s ears, like sirens or a raven’s cry; he could not quite tell. The fire no longer crackled but hissed, no longer danced, but slithered. The walls of the room were moving and twitching, the air no longer smelled, or at least, Alraeic did not notice it so much. Breathing was becoming a chore, and a painful one at that.

    The innkeeper no longer smiled, but grimaced happily.

    IV

    Pain raced through Alraeic’s arms. His hands, his wrists, his biceps, his shoulders. It hurt to open his eyes. Tears stung at Alraeic painfully. His eyelids weighed heavily and he had to labor intensively to open them. It was some moments before Alraeic could see anything. Even as he blinked away the last of the tears that had welled in his eyes, it was a strain to see anything.

    It was dark in the room, though miraculously, the insidious odor that permeated throughout most of the city seemed absent from this particular chamber. Or perhaps it wasn’t absent so much as it was obscured. As Alraeic drew closer to consciousness another smell started to fill his nostrils. Sickly sweet and putrid at the same time, one of the first definitive thoughts that crossed Alraeic’s mind as consciousness returned was the surety that he smelt dead flesh.

    His eyes clearing, details of the room in which he stood were starting to become clear. Only, he wasn’t standing, but hanging. Wrought iron steel shackles were fixed firmly around his bloodied wrists and a slight breeze alerted Alraeic to the fact that he was naked from the waist up.

    Directly in front of his eyes, Alraeic could see little through the darkness of the chamber. Several feet in front of him, he could just about make out the details of the wall chamber wall; wide, roughly shaped stones, dripping with the same black moss that he had seen smothering the city wall.

    “Ah, Captain Moradain,” spoke a soft, rasping voice from somewhere behind him. “I see you are joining me? And what a fine day it is to be awake, let me tell you.”

    Alraeic strained painfully to make out any familiar details in the voice, though none were forthcoming. The voice seemed to be bouncing off the walls of the chamber, echoing slightly, giving it a booming quality. Alraeic could not, though he tried, determine where the owner of the voice stood. Had it not been for the empty wall before him, the owner of the voice could very well have been standing in front of him.

    “You see,” the voice started again, “I woke up this morning, Captain Moradain, with little to fill my day. Bliss, you might say, though as my dear wife would tell you, I need little innocent distractions to fill my day. Little hobbies. Alas, today, there were none.”

    The owner of the voice was moving, his footsteps echoed throughout the chamber, assaulting Alraeic’s delicate ears. His voice was also growing louder, the echo that had marked its initial appearance dropping away somewhat. He was getting closer.

    “And then, to my surprise, out of my little world I am called to you, Captain. Imagine my joy. Like I said, today is a fine day to be awake. I am ever so happy you awakened.”

    Alraeic opened his mouth to speak, but could only manage a dry cough. He wretched painfully, the action causing sharp pains to blast through his bound wrists. Tears welled in the corner of Alraeic’s eyes. The footsteps of the stranger grew louder, quicker until a figure appeared in front of him.

    The man who had addressed him had a lean, narrow face, with small penetrating eyes. He wore the same black uniform as the guards he and Leena had encountered earlier in the day, but was it the same day? Alraeic’s head swam painfully. The figure in front of him raised a tiny clay mug to Alraeic’s lips and tipped some foul water down his throat. Alraeic coughed and heaved as the water flowed into his mouth. After a moment of pain, the water started to caress and ease the burning pain in Alraeic’s throat and he started to gulp. The mug was hastily pulled away from his mouth.

    “Now, now, Captain Moradain, we wouldn’t want to give you too much of this. After all, too much might drown the words you might otherwise want to offer me.”

    The figure smiled sadistically up at Alraeic. Stepping away, he raised a hand and ran it through his slicked-back, greasy, black hair. He smiled up at Alraeic and placed the mug absently upon the floor of the chamber.

    “How do you know my name,” Alraeic croaked out painfully. The figure before him smiled wider at the question.

    “Greenleaf,” He said simply, “or so we call it in our little part of the world. The ‘backwoods’ is how you refer to our sleepy little city?”

    Alraeic did not answer, but instead continued to stare at the figure in front of him. He held his face in a stony silence, offering no show of emotion. He knew Greenleaf well, had used it himself, in fact. His stomach turned at the memory.

    “Leena,” he struggled out, his throat now aching painfully again, the soothing affects of the water failing.

    “Leena? That’s how we refer to our liege ladies now? By their given name, no honorary, no respect. Oh come now Captain, I expected more from you.”

    “What have you done to her?” Alraeic spat at the figure.

    “Nothing.” the figure smiled. “Yet. But of course, that all depends on you Captain, what you can tell us, and more importantly, what you can convince me to be true, will mean all the less we need to take from your liege lady.”

    The figure took a step forward, leaving only a few short inches between his and Alraeic’s face. When he spoke a rank odor poured out of his mouth that made Alraeic’s stomach churn. It was all he could do to hold his face still and emotionless.

    “So, I need to ask you some questions, and you will answer me. You’ll lie, of course, but sooner or later we’ll get to the truth of the matter. We always do.”

    “You are committing treason.”

    “Silence,” the interrogator spat. “You will speak only when I allow it.” He raised a hand and slapped Alraeic firmly across his face.

    The figure stepped away, appraising Alraeic from his new vantage point. Again he raised a hand, running his distorted, mole covered fingers through his long, greasy hair.

    “Now, I know you have no army. That much, at least, you have confessed already. Milons you said? Horrible little creatures. I quite believe you when you told us that they offered your men no mercy. But, that of course, begs a new question. Without an army, why did you come here? What purpose could a noble and a single soldier hope to achieve by threatening our city with your annihilated troop? Please answer the question Alraeic, we have much to discuss.”

    Alraeic struggled to keep his head upright and sneered at his interrogator. Working moisture into his mouth, he tilted his head and spat upon the coddled floor below. The interrogator watched this action with a kind of happy complacency. He waited for a moment before acting, before moving. Slowly, very slowly, he stooped down and picked up a long, thick knife that was knotted at one side.

    “This blade is not very sharp,” he began as he leaned over, “but in many ways it is a far more efficient weapon because of this fault.”

    The interrogator straightened his back, the blade held out before him. Deep terror started to well in Alraeic’s gut as the interrogator stood back up baring the twisted knife. But the terror did not last long. Standing behind the interrogator, its face just visible over his shoulder, stood the Shadow Creature, the flesh warping and moving over its face, the barest hint of a smile written upon its scant features. Alraeic could do little but smile himself.

    V

    Leena lay strapped to a hard wooden surface, her hands tied above her head and her ankles bound painfully together. The room stank worse than the city streets they had traversed earlier that day. Her hunting knife lay several feet away upon a short wooden table, tantalizingly close and ironically out of reach. Tear stains ran from her eyes and down her soft cheeks. Somewhere out of sight, a clock was working, filling the room with a dull mechanical sound. Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.

    “Ah, me lady,” spoke a cold, deep voice from just out of sight, “Tis unfortunate that we must meet under such circumstances.”

    Tick tock, tick tock.

    A figure stepped into Leena’s field of vision. The figure was wide and fat, though the shape of his arms suggested his image was a misleading one. Though he possessed a fat stomach, it was likely covered in layers of thick muscle. The figure was clad in black, similar to the city guard’s uniform. But even this was different somehow. Blinking rapidly, Leena cleared painful tears from her eyes. She tried to move, only to find she could not. Her back cracked painfully for the effort. Fresh tears welled in her eyes.

    Tick

    “Oh, come now, try not to struggle; you’re such a pretty, such a noble little thing. It is quite unbecoming.”

    Tock

    Leena stopped her painful wriggling and instead turned her wide eyes upon the figure, desperately trying to focus upon him. Over his right shoulder a richly woven piece of golden rope was attached. On his right pec, an emblazoned symbol stood out, a crown broken in two, sitting in the middle of a roaring fire. Leena’s stomach turned to ice. She tried to speak, but found herself coughing painfully instead.

    “Don’t try and talk. You must be parched?” The figure raised a clay mug to his lips and started sipping, “Lovely.”

    Tick tock.

    Leena contorted her face into a sneer, narrowing her eyes and tensing her shoulders. The figure only smiled at her. The stranger’s face was not an unfriendly one as such; certainly it seemed to lack the harsh lines that many in this city seemed to wear with pride. He looked down upon Leena and ran a hand through her hair, very gently, and always with that painfully sweet smile upon his face. Leena felt like retching.

    Tick

    “Now, let’s dispense with the pleasantries, shall we? I know you, my Lady, and it is only proper you should know me. Pera Sain, Prime Council, at your honor and service,” the figure boomed, leaning forward in a mockery of a bow. Leena desperately tried to speak, to call out,

    Tock

    to do anything, but could only cough painfully for her efforts.

    “Now, I know, more or less why you are here. And might I say, it is very crafty of you. Very, very crafty. Though I get the impression your companion is not aware of your true purpose,” again he stroked Leena’s soft hair. “I wonder what he would think.”

    Pera sat down upon the edge of the wooden surface and smiled deeply at Leena once again. A long, silvery strand of sweat dripped from his head, landing upon Leena’s nose. She wriggled briefly, and painfully, for a moment before lying still again.

    Tick

    “Like I said, my dear, I know your purpose here. It has failed; let me assure you of that; it has failed. Though perhaps not entirely.” Pera leaned forward, his fingers surging into the depths of Leena’s hair. “You see my problem, Leena. You don’t mind of I call you Leena, do you? Good. My problem, Leena, is that quite clearly the King has not yet lost interest in our sleepy part of the world. And if he sent an army once, he will probably do so again.”

    Tock

    “And I can’t have that. The Black Guard has done me proud, but they are no army.”

    Pera stood abruptly and started to pace the small room, taking in all of its plain details with a disinterested eye.

    “What, I ask myself, is a Prime Council to do to secure the freedom and rights of his city and its citizens? Why, isn’t the answer clear, my dear? We will have a powerful family, you and I, a powerful family. Oh don’t look so, why be a simple noble when you can be my queen?”

    Without another word, Pera leaned forward over Leena and started kissing her face wildly.

    Tick.

    VI

    The Shadow Creature reached one long, skeletal hand out towards the interrogator. Its bony fingers twitched and flexed as the arm extended, a long black tongue reaching out of its mouth, licking the exposed jaw bone.

    “So, Alraeic,” the interrogator began, “shall I use this,” he gestured with the blunt blade, “or shall you talk?”

    In that instant the Shadow creature wrapped its fingers around the interrogators right shoulder. His eyes widening in sudden shock, the interrogator pivoted instinctively in the direction of the touch, moving the blunt blade defensively across his chest. His face altered violently, turning from steely confidence to anger and finally, desperate fear. The Shadow Creature removed its hand with a single quick motion and thrust it instead towards the interrogator’s neck. Its cold fingers wrapped themselves around the colder neck of the interrogator and raised him, struggling and gasping into the air.

    With a single, snapping motion, the Shadow Creature thrust the terrified interrogator against the stone wall Alraeic was facing. The man struggled painfully, slashing at the Shadow Creature with his blunt blade. Every swipe passed seamlessly through the Shadow Creature’s spectral body, its long black, hooded cloak not even stirred by the motion.

    Bending its elbow, the Shadow Creature brought the squirming figure of the interrogator up to its face and warped its features into a semblance of a smile.

    “I’ve got a love that’s greater than your power,” the Shadow Creature hissed gutturally at the mute figure that hung helplessly in his grasp. “You’ve got to go, go to the tower.”

    “Why?” The word was labored out past the interrogator’s compressed throat.

    The Shadow Creature smiled widely at the question. Arching its elbow, the interrogator’s head was lowered and the Shadow Creature lurched forward, its skeletal jaw snapping the top of the interrogator’s skull from the rest of his body. Blood, bone and a thick grey puss exploded from the open cavity, spraying Alraeic and the walls of the chamber violently.

    The interrogator’s body dropped to the floor in a pool of blood, twitching and convulsing as it fell. The Shadow Creature moved slowly over the still twitching corpse and drew its face up to Alraeic’s own.

    “Get me down,” Alraeic demanded through parched lips.

    “Not yet,” the Shadow hissed, “first you must do something for me.”
     
  7. darrenreid

    darrenreid New Member

    Joined:
    Jun 2, 2006
    Messages:
    8
    Likes Received:
    1
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Ratings:
    +1 / 0 / -0
    P.S haha Meena - i'll keep ur name in mind for future stoesi - hope ur good, and BBallforlife - thanks for the comments - were well appreciated :)

    D
     
  8. Turin

    Turin Valar Morghulis

    Joined:
    Aug 9, 2003
    Messages:
    5,496
    Likes Received:
    24
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Location:
    BFE
    Ratings:
    +24 / 0 / -0
    Hi Darren, please make sure you post in the proper section.

    Thanks.