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					         Arise A Hero

         Wayne Schreiber


      Copyright 2011 Wayne Schreiber

            All rights reserved.



   The Tanarian Chronicles – UK Edition



            Book 1 – Arise A Hero



          Book 2 - The Crystal King



Book 3 - Usurper of the Gods, coming late 2012



   Visit my website www.ariseahero.com



     Cover design by Wayne Schreiber
MAP
                                             PROLOGUE



    The ageing warrior gave a slight groan as he raised his scabbard and sat on the bench. His

armour was not quite the fit it used to be – too much desk duty. The warmth of the open fire

started to penetrate his silver plate armour sending a golden shimmer across its protective ridges.

    ‘Well Bolzat,’ croaked the white bearded figure across the desk, his fragile frame sinking

back closer to the fire. ‘Have you come about the boy?’

    ‘Of course,’ fired back the old Warlord. ‘And your support will help secure my son’s

training.’ Bolzat’s tone softened, ‘Come on old friend, help me secure his place?’

    ‘I fear I don’t have the same sway that I used to have, but, for my old shield bearer I shall try

my best,’ muttered the old man. ‘Now pour an old warrior a goblet of wine, the good stuff mind,

and tell me how the logistics are faring on the Northern Front. Have we enough supplies to siege

or will we need to force a breach?’

    Bolzat began to run through the endless lists of stores and supplies until the old man

interrupted;

    ‘I was appointed Training Master this morning by Lord Hadrak, but then you knew that

already, else you would not be warming your bones near my fire.’

    Bolzat simply nodded, the slight smile on his face gave away his pretence of surprise.

    ‘You know he is too young, the Su-Katii tradition dictates he should be no less than eight

years and be able to lift the Ale Barrel above his head – he is only five.’

    Bolzat bellowed a laugh that echoed around the hall. ‘My boy can lift the barrel, drink the

contents and then wipe the floor with any eight-year-old in every one of your puny trials.’ The

old man chuckled, ‘Too much of his father in him I think? Very well, I shall grant a favour to an

old friend. Bring the boy to the hall in the morning - and he will die.’
                             CHAPTER 1 – INTO THE WILDERNESS



     Athene had cursed the day that she had signed the charter for the convoy to Nordheim many

times since they set off two months ago. The baggage train was so mind-numbingly slow and

boring as they trundled their way through the increasingly barren countryside. But the money

would keep her in lodgings and wine for at least three months after this trip. Easy money really –

cook for the hundred warriors and twelve merchants, don’t use too much salt, overcook

everything and don’t poison anyone, then return home to Tanaria without the tribes of Nordheim

killing you. Sounded easy. It was easy too, except for the endless stream of delays and the

monotony of the trail. Athene chuckled as she remembered her mother fussing around her before

the trip.

     ‘Don’t take the skirts, do take the woollen leggings, lay off the lip balm there will be a lot of

wild and unruly men on the trip.’ However, it didn’t matter how dressed down Athene stayed,

some toothless hero would sit down next to her fire and start with the war stories whilst grabbing

some soup or hanging around her on fire picket – ‘Oh, my hero,’ was usually enough to make

them think that their story had impressed her – ‘Now bugger off and leave me to cook,’ was what

it really meant. Athene stoked the evening fire to keep the stew warm. The nights had been

getting progressively colder with the altitude of the mountains, the men around her had erected

their weathered tents in the usual fashion against the sides of the wagons in preparation for the

night and the first perimeter patrol was due back shortly. She had noticed the numerous

mercenaries that accompanied them had stepped up their activities and patrols now that they had

entered foreign lands; even if they had been invited into Nordheim it was still in the back of their

minds that this time last year they had been close to full blown war.
    Ralf gingerly approached the fire to warm his hands, the fire giving his boyish features a

warm glow. Athene had developed a bit of a motherly soft spot for him over the last few weeks

on the trail. At sixteen, he was the youngest of the three Balmore brothers. She liked it when

Ralf was on guard duty, as he looked comical dressed in his oversized leather breastplate and a

longsword shoved in his belt that occasionally dragged its tip across the ground. His cheeky

smile and rosy cheeks made the lad seem out of place against the gruffness of the older and

serious men on the trail. He was a nice lad but she doubted his ability to carry out his duty of

protecting the wagon trail effectively. It was more likely that his brothers managed to sign their

contract as a trio, but then everyone needs to start their first proper employment somewhere.

After all she was no different, this was her first trail also.

    As Ralf came into the light of the fire he angled his face away from her then as he turned to

leave, a swelling bruise around his eye could just be seen.

    ‘Ralf, my dear boy, what has happened to you?’ Athene enquired worriedly. Ralf hated

being called ‘Boy’ but never showed his displeasure to Athene; she somehow made the word

easier to stomach.

    ‘I don’t want to talk about it Athene. Can I get some soup?’

    ‘But Ralf, this is the third time I’ve seen you with unexplained injuries, I’m going to talk to

your Captain.’ She was beginning to think that being friends with one of the only two women on

this journey was bringing Ralf a lot more resentment from the other troops than he really

deserved.

    ‘No,’ Ralf begged. ‘Please. You will only make it worse. My brothers have told me that

your first trail makes a man of you.’ His brothers were of a different breed to Ralf altogether and

blatantly avoided Athene but from what she had overheard from the many loose tongues that

were willing to gossip with her; they were a reasonable enough type. Harsh but fair.
    ‘... Or your first trail might break you,’ replied Athene. ‘Was it Adie again?’ she asked. She

could see by his expression that Ralf considered lying to her for a moment, but eventually he

swallowed his pride and nodded.

    ‘I cleaned his sword and armour just as he told me, but I refused to do his shift for him, the

lazy toad wanted an extra hour in his bed-roll. When I finally managed to get him up, he flew at

me from his pit like the devil himself and cracked my head open. …and worst of all my brothers

won’t do a damn thing about that stupid dung herder. They just say that I need to sort things out

for myself.’

    Athene had seen Adie bully and shove a few of the youngsters around during the trip, he was

a tall, plain featured man with matted and unkempt dark hair and broad shoulders. He was much

older than the others, but still of low rank, the type who thought that his years of service had

earned him the God-given right to do as he pleased. Athene had always just laughed away his

vulgar sexual comments that he made towards her when collecting his meals. She had grown up

in a busy tavern, so was no stranger to such comments, but she knew all too well that if she was

stranded alone in the middle of nowhere with only Adie for help, that repugnant greasebag would

have made good his joking words. The thought of Adie slavering on top of her made Athene gag,

she quickly pushed the sickening thought from her mind.

    ‘Are you alright?’ Ralf enquired, tentatively touching her hand.

    ‘Yes,’ Athene replied softly, clearing her throat. ‘Yes of course, I’m fine; it’s you I worry

about. Now don’t take any more shit from that man. If I see him touch you again I will report it

to Capitan Henrick. Now have some soup to warm yourself up and have a good shift tonight.’

    The next night Ralf came running frantically into her baggage tent unexpected, the cold air

following him in.

    ‘Athene I need a stew pot quickly,’ he panted.
    Puzzled, she handed one over and he quickly left the tent. The sound of laughter from

outside made her peep through the gap, to see Ralf marching up and down the path with his

sword drawn across his shoulder and the pot balanced on his head. Adie was amongst the jeering

group of soldiers shouting above the others.

    ‘Now you have your new armour; you will wear your new helmet every time you report in,

boy.’ Athene closed the flap in disgust – she was not in the mood for camp jests tonight.



    At last the long days on the trail had drifted to an end as the convoy approached their

destination, Croweheim, the town that the barbarians considered their capital. The town of

Croweheim was formed from a collection of villages that had grown with time, encircled with a

large timber wall for defence. It seemed rather primitive and would merely be considered a large

outpost fort by Tanarian or Aristrian standards.

    They had stopped at several mines along the wagon trails journey, picking up a fresh cargo

of different coloured crystals at each stop. The widespread discovery of crystals containing what

could only be described as magical powers had already made a lot of merchants and land owners

extremely rich. Before their discovery en-masse, people had known of the odd stone here and

there containing unusual powers, but now they were quickly becoming common place items

providing the most basic of functions. Each mine seemed to produce its own unique strain of the

coloured crystals, and these made up the majority of the cargo that the merchants required for

export and which they now transported for profit and trade. Athene had hated the past days when

they had arrived at the mines, as there always to be so much hanging around whist the paperwork

was being approved or the crystals being recounted, all she could think about was getting her

final pay cheque and proving to her mother that she had been wrong – she could make it on her

own.
    Also at each mine stop the insistence on being searched every time you entered or left the

facility had driven her mad, it had been humiliating to her, especially when she had only entered

to restock some cooking provisions. The merchants running the wagon trail could have easily

ordered some of the men to restock the provisions, but instead they insisted that she and Greta do

it and she had nothing to do with the food at all, she was involved with the accounts scribe. After

starting her employment all sweet and innocent, she had soon learned a measure of distrust on

this trail and suspected the merchants were getting a kick back from the mine’s guards doing the

body searches. Judging from the lascivious expressions on the miners’ and guards’ faces when

she arrived through the checkpoint there weren’t many women working in the business yet.

    Mining had once again become a prosperous profession with the wealth of the crystals

fuelling the economy in all areas.



    They had long since passed the Great Gate – a huge iron-riveted structure that guarded the

only pass through the mountains and marked the end of the civilized world, Athene had noticed a

lot more tension and activity from their armed guards after passing through the gate. Under the

trade agreement the Nordheim outriders had been escorting them through the impressive and

breathtaking views of the snow-peaked mountains and down into the greener pastures of the

valleys below. They were told that their barbarian friends were only there to ensure their

protection and lead them in to Croweheim safely. One of the outriders had been conversing with

the Convoy Master, Bazil, about the best route he should take in to the town, but the barbarian’s

thick tribal accent made him difficult to understand.

    ‘At least this savage had made the attempt to speak a more civilised tongue.’ Bazil thought

to himself feeling somewhat at a loss for not understanding a single word of the Nordheim

natives.
    As the convoy approached the roughly-cut wooden gates of the town, the head Carl

(Bodyguard) of the baggage train, a distinguished man known as Henrick mounted the lead cart

and let out a mighty bellow. ‘Tanarians Halt.’

    In stories told around the camp fires during the trail she had overheard that in his prime he

had been a 2nd Lieutenant in the elite Tanarian Lancers and had seen a considerable amount of

action in the constant border skirmishes. He was of the old school, a cavalry man through and

through and now Head Mercenary – unusually for an officer the other lower ranking warriors

seemed to greatly respect him.

    Today he was dressed in full battle armour that sparkled in the sunlight, with a six foot spear

and plumed helm he was quite a sight and Athene could hardly keep her eyes off him. Around

the camp he had hardly stood out apart from his height, being of average build with long dark

hair displaying the first flick of grey, his square warriors chin and looks were commonplace

amongst the men at arms. But as soon as he donned his impressive battle armour he was

transformed into a different man, a man that could instantly hold a lady’s eye, a man who stood

out above others and moved with a natural and distinct air of command.

    Years ago, when she had been a teenager and had seen nothing of the real world she had

always swooned to gain the attentions of the men in uniform that entered their establishment.

They had stood out from amongst the locals and were frivolous with their coin, but it was not

long before she had discovered the error in her judgment, they being, on the whole, heavy

drinkers and poor lovers. Having spent her early years cooped up in her mother’s inn, she had

grown up for as long as she could remember without knowing her true father, sure there had

always been a different man about the place at one time or another - with a thriving nightlife,

copious amounts of alcohol and an attractive mother owning the place, this was guaranteed.
    Today however, as she watched Henrick, she decided that he had a different air about him to

the soldiers that she had encountered in the past. She sighed unwittingly as she watched him. He

even moved differently to the other armoured men of the trail and seemed very comfortable in his

armour, almost as if he had been born in the steel suit. With military precision and little

disturbance to his bearing and posture he jumped down from the cart and mounted his waiting

pony in one fluid movement. Athene’s attention was quickly dragged away from her little

daydream as the Nordheim drums began to sound from Croweheim and the gates swung open. A

mass of armed men filled the open gap, facing them in silence with weapons at the ready they

waited in battle formation – an interlocked shield-wall.

    Tanarian hands instinctively reached for sword hilts.

    Henrick noticed the shuffling and unease behind him and turned.

    ‘Steady men, do nothing rash. Nordheim trade negotiations are always made under arms, it

is just their way.’ Keeping his voice low he whispered to a nearby trooper, ‘Make sure the

merchants have shield bearers next to them in case it all kicks off,’ he instructed.

    A huge bear of a man stepped forward from the massed men and wall of elaborately painted

shields depicting dragons and mythological creatures that filled the open gate. A cloud

momentarily blotted out the sun allowing her to stop squinting towards Croweheim. With a

better view of the town Athene now realised that the silhouetted shapes above the town gates

were actually severed heads. She bumped into a cart as she backed away from the gruesome

scene, fighting desperately to hold down the taste of bile and panic that started to rise from her

stomach into her throat. To her immense relief she won her battle and was able to hold back her

sudden nausea. The dread of knowing that she would forever be known on the trail as the maiden

that vomited before the trade agreement or perhaps even the battle that might come, helped to
quell the urge to revisit her breakfast. She soon forgot the episode as her gaze dropped to the

imposing figure advancing towards their line.

    He wore a gleaming winged helm and great steel shoulder guards that seemed to double his

size. The man’s bulging arms were the size of her thighs. Athene’s gaze was riveted on the man

or perhaps he was actually part bull, such was the size of his chest. It was not his gold engraved

armour that made her eyes bulge as she studied the man with her jaw a gasp, but the terrifying

battle axe caked in dried blood that he held. This man was definitely no square-basher or

administrator.

    ‘Welcome guests of Croweheim. I am Corvus – King of this land.’ The imposing figure

spoke in poor Tanarian, mispronouncing the start of the ‘Welcome’ as a string of V’s .

    A balding merchant stepped up into the protective aura that Henrick seemed to project, ‘I …I

am Bazil – Convoy Master,’ stuttered the merchant. ‘We bring the magic crystals from our lands

in trade good King, and would gladly welcome your hospitality.’

    Corvus raised his axe high into the air and one hundred hearts missed a beat anticipating

bloodshed to follow, then he drove it deep into the ground as was the tradition of the Nordheim

people - to symbolise that no weapons should be used and to signal the beginning of trade.

    ‘Welcome foreigners.’ welcome – come out of this winter’s day and into my warm halls - let

us talk business and feast, let us start a new chapter in Tanarian relations.’ An audible sigh of

relief passed through the Tanarian ranks.



    The cloud looked just like any other that floated through the sky, maybe a little darker than

the rest, yet unlike the others it now remained static in the sky above Croweheim. Unnoticed by

the convoy, it had been following them overhead the past day magically controlled from afar. It

sank lower in the sky as the Tanarians’ crystal cargo was unloaded into the trade halls. Hundreds
of miles away deep in the Aristrian mountains, the acolyte sat in a small cave chanting the vision

spell, maintaining his master’s magic. Two powerful spellmasters stood behind the hooded

acolyte in discussion, any onlooker could have easily perceived the two as courtiers rather than

magicians, with their lavish clothing and casual tone discussing their previous night out, such was

their ease and tone of the conversation.

    ‘Why do you always insist on such dark and dank surroundings to cast your magic Bellack?’

    The other man gave an audible sigh, ‘Did you learn nothing from your time spent with the

Brotherhood, Saznack? The channelling location can be as important as the spell itself, I know

that I have three years seniority on you Saznack but I don’t expect to have to tutor you in the

basics again. This place will magnify our magic ten-fold.’

    Saznack looked around disapprovingly at the rough cut walls and the slight glimmer of

crystal embedded in them.

    ‘You must be getting weak Bellack, perhaps I should now lead the Brotherhood, I need no

cave to amplify my magic, besides this mud smells like your mother’s dung. I paid thirty silver

for these boots and now they are ruined, the finest buckhide leather now impregnated with the

fragrance of your outhouse – just perfect.’

    ‘Oh hush yourself Saznack, I’ll have my slaves lick them clean for you when we get back if

it is that much of a problem to you. Now observe closely through the cloud; I now command the

powers I have absorbed from the book of Magnus, it is almost time for us to take another step

closer to our place by our Queen’s side; well stop scraping the crud from your shoes and come

and help me channel the spell you fool. This is going to be amusing.’



    Athene had been looking forward to being waited on at the feast for a change, but as usual a

cook’s work is never done. Thanks to the fat merchants bragging and her good trail food over the
past months, Athene had been unwillingly dragged into some strange cook-off for the banquet

feast, or as the Head Merchant Tulbak had put it in diplomatic terms – an exchange of cultures,

trade and tastes. As she began her protests he had pulled her in close and whispered into her ear,

‘Stop your whinging woman – you’ve been paid well, don’t mess up this trade deal for us now, I

will personally give you a bonus if you do this one task for me now and the trade goes well.’ His

spittle showered into her ear, ‘Come on girl I can’t back down now, show them how it’s done the

Tanarian way and I’ll see you good.’

    Athene knew the words were spoken with hollow intent; there would be no escape from

ending up back in the kitchens again whether she liked it or not, so she decided that she might as

well show some willing. On the plus side the judging was to be done at the head table where

both Henrick and Corvus sat. Something about that man both terrified and captivated her at the

same time. Corvus had bounded around his guests seemingly excited at the new company. Now,

up close, she noticed a lot more about the man than her initial view across the field, he sported a

light scar over his right eye, but this only served to enhance his rugged looks. Unlike a lot of the

warriors she had encountered, Corvus had warm eyes, with a twinkle of boyish jest in them, he

was led about the hall by his entourage of advisors and was briefly introduced to Athene, but

after discovering that she was just a cook they deemed her to be of little importance in the

negotiations, he was quickly whisked away from her. His close presence sent an unnatural shiver

down her spine. Was it terror or excitement? She really didn’t care which, the new sensation

was overwhelming, after the brief introduction she needed to catch her breath briefly turning

away to fan herself. Her gaze was soon back on him, glancing up she noticed that he moved his

considerable bulk through the busy revellers in the hall with the grace of a cat and his long blond

hair and golden beard only enhanced the theory forming in her mind that he was indeed part-cat,

as his beard and locks gave him the appearance of a lion’s mane.
    In comparison Henrick who had caught her eye earlier in the day, was efficient with his

movements; he seemed to lack the excitement that the others in the great feasting hall felt. It was

as if he had seen it all before, his only movement was to raise his ale mug to his mouth wetting

his lips every so often. He kept his chin held high and his every move was filled with

confidence, unlike the merchants who cringed away from any of the merry locals that fell about

them as they staggered about the hall quite drunk. ‘Yes,’ she thought to herself, as she fumbled

through her baggage to find her emergency lip balm, it would be an interesting night ahead of

them.

    She threw her bag of provisions and utensils that she had gathered from her wagon into the

corner of the basic Nordheim kitchen.

    ‘Have you got some cider vinegar?’ Athene asked the Nordheim kitchen hand who had been

assigned to help her but now looked back at her uncomprehendingly. Athene gave a loud sigh,

‘Have you Sss-iiii-der Vinnn-egg-aar,’ Athene repeated her sentence slower and a bit louder

feeling her temperature raise at the shrugging of her assistants shoulders. ‘They have given me a

donkey to win the race.’ She was rewarded with another blank look. She kicked over the pile of

sticks used for the nearby oven in frustration.

    ‘This is going to be impossible,’ she screamed now striking her bag of cooking supplies that

had been brought to her. Athene rummaged through her ruffled gear, yes there was hope at last.

She had kept the empty bottle – the smell should be enough to stir recognition into the gormless

kitchen hand assigned to her. After waving the topless bottle under the young man’s nose he

cried out.

    ‘Tobla cuba,’ and then ran off as if his apron was ablaze.

    Athene guessed that the gruff 6’ 4’ one eyed warrior in chainmail was standing watch by the

kitchen door to make sure the king’s food was not being poisoned. With his double headed axe
at the ready she noticed that he followed her every move. She thought it strange that they had

sent a warrior with just one eye to watch her, the good eye glistened a light blue whilst the other

was badly scarred and white. She did not stare long at the man’s battered appearance, she had

plenty to be getting on with. However, it was soon apparent that he was there for more than one

reason, for when she bent down to place her dish into the low iron stove she heard the excited

tone of voices from the other Nordheim kitchen hands that populated the room, she didn’t need to

be a linguist, she could understand jeering and ogling in any language. It was at this point she

realised that only men filled the kitchens in this unfamiliar land. When she arose, with her

cheeks blushing red, old one eye was dishing out seemingly harsh words by his tone in their

cursed foreign tongue and when two of the locals answered him back he dropped his axe,

storming over to bang the lads’ skulls together. Perhaps she had actually been assigned a rather

large guardian angel?

    With a renewed quietness in the kitchen and a smile on her face the real work began again.

The Nordheim cooks worked frantically alongside Athene and had the tall warrior not been there,

the competition between them could well have resulted in a little Tanarian sabotage. Her pot of

chilli powder could have easily been slipped into one their unattended pots. The completed

meals were soon finished and consumed at the head table. The cider-broiled hog had gone down

well, as had the roast swan and sweet potatoes. Sweating and nervous she was called over to

stand before the table with her Nordheim opposite by Tulbak, with the stress and excitement a

wave of tiredness came over her, she just craved a dark corner to huddle up in. She was not

shocked by the judges predictable outcome.

    ‘We’ll call it a draw,’ declared the fat merchant as he winked at Athene and applauded over-

enthusiastically. The merchant resembled a clapping turtle she thought with his fat body and
skinny neck. Repulsed by her employers Athene slipped away from the brief attention and rested

herself, slumped at a side table with a clay cup filled with a strong mulled wine.

    With the ale flowing freely, a selection of mixed crystals were randomly selected from the

wagons and brought before the head table for inspection and more importantly to agree prices.

    A year after their mass discovery the crystals had proved to be a most useful resource. When

picked up they would seem no different to any other rock apart from maybe the colouration.

However when cracked, their true powers became more apparent. The yellow ones radiated a

strong amber light for around thirty days, much to the disgust of the torch makers. The blue ones

provided incredible warmth; several could heat a large room, and the red crystals, when held

close to a wound could aid recovery. The first signs of their powers had been discovered when a

miner accidently sent his pickaxe through his foot and smashed the red crystal below, hardly any

blood had run onto the floor as the wound had immediately started to heal. Questions with regard

to the crystals’ properties were soon raised and many experiments were alleged to have been

conducted by the council before certifying them safe for public use and export. Tulbuk was one

of the few merchants in Tanaria to hold an official crystal export license.

    They had also transported a smaller consignment of green crystals which appeared to have

no special ability but they still made good ornaments. These unusual properties had made the

crystals much sought after and very expensive as they had only been discovered in Tanarian

lands, therefore also extremely lucrative. But there were some who had voiced concerns that not

all of the crystals’ powers had been discovered yet.

    Tulbak had had a long slow climb over the years to get to the position of Head Merchant.

Unlike his peers, who made rash and quick decisions and either climbed or fell through the ranks

quickly, Tulbak had slept on every major decision. Everything in his life had been carefully

calculated, his promotions, his marriage to a wife of a higher class and their children to bring
closer ties to her noble and influential parents. They had all been factored in as an equation to his

master plan. Now, after many months of planning and negotiation, he had secured his license

and the continued supply of crystals to the Nordheim trade routes. Damn he was good, he

thought to himself as he continued feigning his interest in the Nordheim negotiator’s life story, he

let the man talk as he took in the surroundings of the hall. People freely gave away far too much

information on how best to close a deal from their everyday surroundings. The first rule for his

success in negotiation was always to have the meeting in their territory not yours, uncover

everything about them without exposing anything of yourself. His second rule was - if they had

to come to you, hire somewhere different, make some excuses and meet on neutral ground.

These basic rules had served him well so far. Glancing around at the weapons and painted

shields that lined the ornately carved timber walls of the hall, it was quickly apparent to him that

these Nordheimers’ were a nation of thick skulled warriors with their only trade experience in

timber and lumber, they would be easy pickings for a man of his experience. It was obvious that

the blue crystals would fetch the highest price, with wood used in nearly every building it was

their largest commodity. Having the ability to heat their homes with out using wood would be

priceless. He just had to be careful not to upset them and maybe throw in some worthless extras

to make it appear he was giving an incredible deal. Don’t rush him to the final prices, just take

your time and I will be a lot richer he though. Keep smiling and nodding with feigned interest.

    The military men had quickly grown bored with the ongoing negotiations and decided to

drop a compliment to the cooks. King Corvus had just wanted to have a closer inspection of the

exotic dark-haired chef who had prepared the tasty meal for them and badgered Henrick into

introducing them again. As he approached, her hazel eyes immediately fixed on him as he closed

to her through the crowded hall. She was far from unattractive, full glistening lips and a look of

innocence about her, he had seen several more attractive women in Nordheim, but her striking jet
black hair drew him in. All the native women of Nordheim were blond or now grey. Corvus had

been happily married over the past eighteen years but he still could not resist a flirt, especially

since Amiria his wife and Queen had elected to stay out of the way during the men’s business.

    He tripped over a helmet that had been placed on the floor clumsily smashing into Athene’s

table sending their drinks flying but still managing to proudly keep his own tankard of ale from

spilling. He smiled down at his splattered wet guest and shrugged. Not the coolest of

introductions he thought.



    Slowly the unusually dark cloud drifted down against the wind, lower and lower into the

town.
                                       CHAPTER 2 - TRESS



    The slender female figure moved with great care and stealth through the night, picking her

route through the twisted branches and thick prickly bushes without leaving any sign or trace of

her passing. Tress drew in her brown enchanted cloak tightly around her and instantly faded into

the tree line as the undergrowth was disturbed by something close behind her. Her pounding

heart could still be heard inside the cloak but its magical powers retained all sound and body heat

within its enchanted folds. She stopped and listened, even though the overpowering urge to run

was screaming in her mind, her years of training could contain such urges. Her unknown pursuer

was now very close, but it would be unlikely to find her with her magical cloak of concealment.

Had her pursuer been human she would have had very little to worry about and would have

already been back untethering Patch her pony and riding off into the night. Unfortunately for

Tress it was not.

    Anak was an exceptionally old and twisted magician, he had seen and done things that even

he would like to forget. He was the oldest member of the Brotherhood of Keth and should have

died years ago, but through the mastery of the powerful dark arts of blood magic, combined with

the perks of renewed youth that the Brotherhood could provide, his life had been preserved. In

truth it was his pure bitterness and hate that dragged him through each day. He should have been

the leader of the Brotherhood years ago, but now after one little misunderstanding with his order

he had been banished from returning to his God and Queen. What a fool he had been all these

years carrying out her dirty work whilst she remained powerless and dormant trapped forever in a

timeless rift. His only revenge was the knowledge that his continued survival immensely irritated

those that he once called friends.
       Now that he had at last recovered from the shock of losing the better part of his left hand to

Tress’s blade he awaited the satisfaction of his beast ripping her flesh apart. His thoughts of

vengeance blotted out the pain as he looked down at his hand and laughed insanely. The vicious

blow had severed the last three fingers with surgical precision taking him completely by surprise.

Tress’s sabre had flashed out from nowhere slicing his ring and fingers from his outstretched

hand as he reached across for a manuscript in the apparent safety of his library. As the magician

had recoiled in pain with his blood pouring onto the ancient papers, the masked intruder had

scooped up Anak’s fingers and ring, completing her mission, then vanished once more into the

night. This was not the first time that Anak had endured a severe wound; his scarred body was

testament to that. The majority of his wounds were however self inflicted, hazards of the trade,

but then blood magic demanded a high price be paid for its use.

       Anak was filled with a burning rage of a type that he hadn't felt for at least a century, which

only served to further fuel his considerable powers. He felt affronted that his inner sanctum had

been infiltrated; the powerful seals of protection that he had personally placed had been disarmed,

inconceivable by one so young. Why would that bitch go to so much trouble for his ring? He

would consider this later, for he knew that he needed to act quickly if he stood any chance of

exacting revenge. This 'Tyranny of Wizards', as she had been named by the Brotherhood, had

acquired quite a reputation for striking quickly, then silently slipping away again into the night.

He had called upon his dark powers once again and offered further sacrifice from his own blood

to tempt out something from the dark places that held unknown terrors. He soon called forth one

such terror with the scent of his blood, a scent that would lead the beast to his missing fingers or

if it failed it would instead come looking for him. He immediately raised his household guard

and began creating his defences. He would kill them all for their failure if they returned without

her.
    Tress had heard the magician’s further screams of pain behind her – this meant only one

thing, something evil was now after her.

    The rustling bush behind her was the first indication that something was near, perhaps a

badger?   No, not so lucky – this was bigger and now it was close – really close. With the

slightest of movements Tress adjusted her view from within the deep hood of the cloak, she had

used the enchanted cloak on many previous missions and each time it had been crucial to her

success, keeping her hidden and out of harms reach. However, its use in the past had always

been against men – she had picked one hell of a time to field-test its powers against creatures

from the void.

    The beast’s pale eyes could now be seen, reflecting through the moonlight that penetrated the

forest canopy, its hairy dark mass disturbing the undergrowth as it closed. It moved on all fours

slowly, slavering and expelling a misty breath that held small particles that glimmered and

reflected the moonlight, marking its position in the night. The rummaging creature was the size

of one of the larger breeds of hunting hounds; its bony exoskeleton also reflected the faint

moonlight that penetrated the tree canopy. The beast huffed and growled its way past Tress, the

cloak’s magic was indeed strong as the demonic beast passed harmlessly by her feet. A trickle of

sweat ran down her neck as pure terror filled her belly and her grip tightened on her sabre’s hilt

with grim resolve. The beast was now so close that its pungent breath caught the back of her

throat. The putrid stench of decay sent her to her knees in convulsions. As she fell retching and

gasping for clean air she managed to unsheathe her sabre as the beast turned quickly revealing

large fangs that protruded in every direction. Sensing victory it turned and advanced on its

incapacitated prey, surprised to note that instead of being in the final death throes from its deadly

breath this one still had some movement left in her. Still, it would soon be feasting on the lady’s

entrails - flavours that it knew and enjoyed for it had visited this world once before.
    A blinding light from the runes etched in the sabre’s blade suddenly illuminated the forest,

its magic filling the creature with a new emotion. The beast stepped backwards confused. It had

never before known fear.

    It was a short-lived emotion as Tress found the strength in her trembling body to twist on her

knee and send the point of the vorpal blade through the creature’s throat. The night hid the awful

sight of the demon’s dark blood pumping from its mortal wound. The hound’s final attempts to

howl just resulted in a grotesque gurgling sound as the dying creature spun in circles splattering

further blood on the forest floor. Tress’s second strike severed the oversized head from the beast.

Anak would need every ounce of his great power to survive the loss of this creature from the

void, Tress knew all too well from her own teachings in magic, that the master of a summoned

creature shares a special bond with the creature in order to maintain control. Even if he still lived

he would be severely weakened, so she knew the pursuit would effectively be over. More

interestingly her sabre had at last revealed an insight into its runic powers that had remained

dormant since the Magician had presented her with it, although she always preferred to complete

her missions without needing to use its sharp edge. Her blade had sent a wave of fear into her

enemy, which had given her the vital seconds required to slay the beast. Remembering her

training she changed her original direction once again and resumed her stealthy and indirect route

to her waiting pony. She was far from being out of danger yet. This would still take some hard

riding and time before she could relax, she thought to herself - but then again, the living have

time.

    The rush of the fresh morning air had helped to clear away much of the stench from the

beast, which had annoyingly managed to linger in Tress’s throat and clung within the fibres of

her clothes. Patch, her pony, was also pleased to stretch her legs again after the cold night spent
tethered in the dark makeshift corral. She eased the reins – reducing the gallop and patted

Patch’s neck.

    ‘Better slow down girl, we’ve a long way to go. I’ll give you your breakfast once we are

over the next peak, we can relax a bit then.’

    The close tree line that followed the path and lead out of the valley could be better scanned at

this slower pace, the dark shadows that loomed between the sweet smelling pine trees could

easily hide an assailant laying in ambush. Tress knew her cloak would offer no protection whilst

on horseback, so she did not bother to whisper the magic words that triggered its invisibility.

Besides it was a bad practice to use magic longer than necessary, she was a hunted woman and

most who sought her would begin their search looking for the signature of magic being used,

even the use of her cloak could be tracked if you had time to study its powers. For now she

would have to rely on her astute wits and survival instinct, as this was the only way out of the

valley. She had already travelled this route twice before this month in preparation for this

mission; nothing was left to chance once her mark had been acquired. Another hour winding

around the uphill path would take her to a good vantage point that had an unusually fine view of

the valley, including the woods and paths below. She knew beyond this point she had a further

two days’ ride before she and Patch would be through the Great Gate of the Tanarian pass and

then home free.

    The ring of Anak was of no real importance to Tress other than a large purse of gold,

although since escaping slavery she had spent a great deal of time in her own personal interest of

acquiring other items of power, first it started through necessity to survive, then later as her

career progressed and she became more established she would freelance and steal for personal

order and profit. Harnessing the powers of blood magic in her experience often meant trouble

and the use of these tainted items were often unpredictable. No, this one would not be for Tress,
but her employer’s agent had paid a convincing advance sum for it. Forewarned with the

knowledge that a manhunter was now on her trail, Tress hoped the magician would keep his word

with the promised amulet and the hundred gold crowns on receipt of the ring. The problem with

these deals that sounded too good to be true was the predictability that they would usually result

in some form of disappointment, so naturally Tress expected a double cross at some point further

down the line, but she would prepare for and deal with it once she was safely back in Tanaria.

    With the reputation that was associated with her work she always used a trade name when

dealing with clients: Tyranny – master thief and relic collector to the rich and exotic, she had

always found her success to be in her anonymity and the knack of keeping her dealings away

from prying eyes. As a hunted women she had always led a double life to cover her activities,

most of the time she lived a mundane life as an anonymous travelling rope and hemp merchant, a

truly thrilling career compared to the years that she suffered in slavery.

    Despite her immediate concerns about the fantastic offer that the magician had laid out to her

Tress had almost been forced into taking on this job. Her new employer had entered her dreams

without any problem, but at least with the magic amulet as a prize for this job, there might be a

chance to stop its reoccurrence, this was of course based upon his words being true. A month

before, she had lain on the uncomfortable bed, tossing and turning, attempting sleep, but the

cheap inn’s straw mattress scratched her back and the thought of some of the stains that marked it

were better forgotten. She wished she had spent a few more coins on a better room with a less

flea-ridden mattress, but this kind of place drew fewer questions and gathered less attention. She

had learned her trade well.

    As sleep eventually took her, a voice in her head pushed its way to the front of her mind. At

first quiet, it slowly grew louder and louder.
    ‘Tress, Tress do not be alarmed, you are not dreaming – I am using my powers to contact

you from afar.’

    She thought to sit upright, but her body still lay motionless in its slumber on the bed. ‘How

do you know my name? Who are you?’ She questioned inside her dream, beginning to feel her

anger rising at the helpless situation. How could the voice know her name? How could this

person enter her mind? She had read of such abilities but never encountered them before.

    ‘Oh, you know the answers to these questions Tyranny,’ a lump caught in her sleeping throat

as her trade name was used and she realised that her current thoughts were being read.

    ‘I am a practitioner of the arts, but don’t be alarmed, I am not from the Brotherhood or

amongst those that hunt you and I have no intention of revealing your whereabouts or cashing in

on the substantial reward on your head. I’m sure the town watch cares nothing about the items

that you have stolen from all those magicians. In fact I imagine they would probably chip in a

few coins, to pay for your continued harassment. Is it working out for you being a thorn in their

sides?’ asked the mysterious voice in her head.

    ‘Perhaps I may be one in yours?’ Tress questioned tentatively.

    ‘No, I can assure you, you wont be,’ the voice vibrated through her head confidently.

    ‘Do not tar me with the same brush as the other magicians you have encountered, Tress.’

The voice began to laugh, but not unkindly.

    ‘In fact Tress it is quite the opposite, you have already started along a path that shares a

mutual interest with my own, although you may not have been aware of it; you have already

completed one task for me. Do you remember the Soul Vase of Tridus… well, more to the

point, the merchant ‘Regus the Fat,’ secretly - he was working for me.’

    He chuckled again. ‘You also refused my employment on several other jobs, but now I don’t

have the time for such subterfuge. Several times in the past my agent tried to hire you, but you
suspected a trap and flew the nest. Know now that I can find you at any time, as I have done so

tonight, also know that should I have wanted to cause you any harm I would have done so by

now rather than chat. Fear me not my little slave girl, the Tyranny of Wizards, I only ask that

you continue to bring retribution and irritation to those who deserve it and undertake another

task, which is to steal a magic item from an old friend of mine. In return I will pay you an agreed

amount of coin and also supply you with an invaluable gift for an up-and-coming thief. I have

an amulet that can hide you from the magic and the man that constantly seeks to find you. It is

yours if you complete my work. You know that I found you without too much effort, even with

your magic cloak that hides you from sight. It cannot protect you from the kind of mind seeking-

spells that I and others of my art can use. To be honest I am surprised that you have lasted so

long on your own.’

    ‘I’m one slippery fish,’ replied Tress defiantly.

    ‘You know that such an item would ensure the long term freedom of an escaped slave girl

and it would stop meddling wizards like me from ever finding you.’

    ‘I was free before I was enslaved and I have my freedom back again already – you offer me

nothing I don’t already have wizard. This amulet, if it exists at all, might be of interest to me, but

before I make my decision, answer me this. What would a great enchanter such as yourself

require of an escaped slave girl, turned to thievery? You could also tell me everything that you

know about those who hunt me?’

    ‘I can certainly shed some light on these questions,’ returned the dreamy voice. ‘Firstly I

must point out that I do not employ slaves, all those that assist me do so willingly and are well

remunerated. However current events have stretched my resources further than I initially

foresaw, so I have decided that it is time to bring in some new blood, you will be pleased to know

that I only recruit the talented. You are no stranger to me, I have been following your career for a
while,’ he continued. ‘Unfortunately so have several others – your former master, Zerch is at the

front of the long queue and his net is slowly closing in on you. Don’t get me wrong, you have

done an incredible job to evade him for so long, two years hiding from someone with the talents

of Zerch is amazing, but I must take some wind out of your sails – it has not been without a little

help and misdirection from myself. However, what you really need to know is that after

upsetting the others in the Brotherhood, they have now combined resources and also hired a killer

to hunt you down. I suspect he is in the city right now.’

    ‘What, Who is he? What does he look like?’ questioned Tress.

    ‘This I cannot answer, as he evades my sight, but I have seen the results of his work –

deadly. The mob of a dozen thugs and renegades that I paid to intercept him before he reached

the City now lie in little pieces on the road side. I suspect him to be a Su-Katii for only they

possess such skill, although I can account for all twenty of their order, so perhaps he had just had

partial temple training at some point, there has been some talk about half trained students

dropping out of their order and earning their fortunes in the arenas, so I urge you Tress, for both

our sakes, please take up my offer and get out of the city quick, this man is seriously dangerous.’

    Tress weighed up the situation. ‘You know you don’t need to be a magician to foresee my

answer. I knew I was hunted but I didn’t realised my situation was quite so dire or perhaps you

are just very convincing. One further question, before I give you my answer – what is your

name?’

    ‘I have gone by many names before,’ he said, ‘But you, my dear lady, can call me by my real

name – Tamar. If you survive the night I will come to you in your dreams with the details of

your next assignment. Now awaken Tress and live.’
    Patch was rapidly approaching the top of the ridge line and Tress’s mind snapped back to the

present. She knew cresting the hill at this point would silhouette her figure making her visible

throughout the valley, so she quickly dismounted and selected the best route around the peak.

After securing Patch to a strong branch and leaving the pony happily munching on her nose bag,

Tress returned to the ridge line, concealing herself with her magic cloak once more, she found a

nice position that offered full visibility of the valley below. Instinctively she still stooped as she

crested the peak, although the magic weave blended her form perfectly with the blue sky beyond.

Her busy eyes worked their way through every feature far below methodically looking for the

slightest signs of movement.

    Tress’s attention was diverted by a hawk which swooped down close by, bringing an end to a

hapless vole. She began to rescan the area. This was part of her procedure on high ground and

she had more cause than usual to stick with the practices that had saved her life in the past. It

was amazing what an overactive mind could see in the ordinary shapes below. A large flock of

birds flew up from a heavily wooded area and caught Tress’s attention. Something must have

startled them. She re-scoured the area and Tress bit her lip as the small dots that were riders

emerged on the path. Damn – how many were there? Her best estimate was between ten and

twelve riders as the trees obscured her full view, even from this distance they looked like the kind

of mercenary scum that Anak would have employed. Anak must have survived long enough to

send men out after the failure of his void terror, it was a common practice for most magicians to

also employ some hired muscle for the more physical work, or as a bodyguard. His building had

been extensive and could have easily housed a regiment. She cursed the evil wizard; she should

have cut his balls off and finished him when she had the chance – rather than just his hand. She

wished that she had the stomach to take life more freely; it would have made her getaway easier

on several other missions, she had been trained to kill without mercy but a little of the softness
that existed in the young girl before her slavery still existed, it had been dormant for many years

but she was unsure if it was a good or bad thing that it still existed. She calculated that she had

maybe two hours’ advantage over the riders as she ran back to Patch.

    ‘Come on old girl – snack time is over; back to work.’ Patch resumed her pace and the

heather and scrub land flew past their faces as they took flight. It was a few miles of exposed

land downhill from the ridge line and they had to make good time to reach the next set of cover

that the terrain could offer. If the riders spotted her in the open they would increase their pace

and the land was far too exposed to attempt to dog-leg around them. Out running them would be

the best policy for now, the Great Gate to Tanaria may now be perpetually left open in these

times of peace as a good will gesture to the barbarians, but once inside its lawful territories its

policed trade routes and roads would soon detour a band of armed men from going far. At best

they would need to split up to continue their pursuit and then no single man would be the match

of her.

    As she rode her throat still itched and burnt, she reached up and pulled at the red crystal

necklace that irritated her and threw it far from the track. It was of no real importance just a

pretty gift from another lonely soul. Mind, that night had turned out to be a surprising pleasure.

She had awoken early with a thudding hangover yet still craving more, only to be met with the

parting gift of a crystal necklace placed on the pillow and a cold empty bed. Surprised with

herself at failing to notice his departure as she was normally such a light sleeper. She had

immediately sprung from the bed and checked her purse and possessions. Fortunately everything

had been exactly as she had left it. The coloured necklaces had become all the rage since the

discovery of thousands of the small stones in the Tolian mines. Deep in the scrub the poisonous

vapours of the beast swirled about inside the discarded crystal necklace, its untapped power

having reacted on contact with the lethal gasses as it had drawn them in saving her life.
    Tamar had needed to get very close to Tress in order to delve deep into the places of her

mind that he needed to explore. His many years of work may yet depend on this women working

for him, she had been crafted into a tool by another, almost as dedicated as himself. Although,

before this could happen he needed to know that every fibre of her existence could be trusted, and

then he could steer their path to victory, even more so because he had noticed that she bore the

branding of Zerch on her skin, he had never met the magician but knew that his powers rivalled

his own. Her upbringing was indeed unsavoury yet perfect for the work ahead. He decided to

use his powers of illusion to take on an attractive new form, this way getting close, but without

stirring any suspicion from the astute Tress. Through wearing the dragon toothed necklace, his

magical signature was effectively concealed from any who would otherwise detect magic. There

was often a thin line between right and wrong and occasionally you need to cross that line to

reach your goals. He had felt the stress from her missions in her when he had originally entered

her mind, but unable to read her fully at that long distance he had used this information to

formulate his new plan. His original intension had been to just get close to her in the tavern and

read her mind from within the room. But as he sipped his wine and watched her, he found it

difficult to gain the leverage into her thoughts that he sought. It takes emotion to fully release the

mind. As she sat with her back towards him, her sleek shape filled his eyes with a desire that he

had not felt for a long time. Was it the wine or her silky smooth thigh exposed under the table?

With his need to fully read her mind and at the same time address his growing urges, he decided

that their mutual pleasure and lovemaking would satisfy all of these demands, besides he had a

growing desire for her after his first encounter; it was the type that you just needed to fill then put

behind you, he though to himself. Even magicians’ have urges that needed to be satisfied, and it

must be at least a year since he had found time for such pleasures. He had waited for the right
moment for his deception, after her second bottle of wine. Then he formed his illusion from the

small fragments and attributes in her mind that he knew would attract her, he had genuinely been

surprised at how little inside her, there had been to work with.



    Tress had surprised herself at her romantic encounter, she normally kept her distance from

everyone - but then she would never normally drink more than a half bottle of wine in a night,

even watered down as it was. Unusually she must have been feeling the stress before her mission

and with two bottles behind her she had overindulged herself in more ways than one that night,

the man she could hardly remember, she had a problem remembering faces with too much wine,

yet she did recall that he had displayed a tenderness that was unusual in such drunken rutting.

    Her mind wandered with the boredom of the ride and her thoughts drifted back from her

recent encounter to the recurring dreams that haunted her. Tress had suffered in every way

possible as a slave for sixteen hellish years. She had just turned eight when the Northern raiders

had taken her. She could barely recall anything of her younger life now, apart from the day when

she was taken, she could recall every little detail from that day. Everything else was more just a

feeling of happiness or a warm glow of emotion. Her parent’s faces were long forgotten, but

their slaughter was forever branded into her mind. The wood pigeons had been calling from the

trees as Tress had played with her sister Bella, under the warmth of the mid summer sun. She

remembered seeing the birds take to the skies as the armoured riders crested the mound, their war

banners fluttering behind them in the wind. The sound of hooves had filled her ears as they ran

and terrified they sprinted for the safety of the farmhouse and father. They never made it.

Scooped up and flung over the saddle she had watched helplessly through her tears as the raiders

cut down her loved ones as they rushed out to their aid and her new life as a slave had begun.
    Flea-ridden, tick bitten and shaking with malnourishment from the long journey to Aristria

she had been presented and sold at a bargain price to her first master, as a kitchen hand. Aristria

was the second major power on the content, being Tanaria’s equal in advancement with the

exception that it still openly tolerated slavery. General slavery amongst the riffraff of the

population was increasingly being frowned upon, but within the ranks of Nobility and the rich, it

was very much still a mark of power, or an indication of how rich you had become. It was to one

such landholder that Tress was sold.

    The work had been tough and her master and his guests wicked and cruel. As the years

passed by, she never became accustomed to the regular beatings and, in later years, the rape that

would accompany one of her master’s extravagant parties. But then under Aristrian law she was

just an object for her master to use and do with as he saw fit. Most of the other slave girls in the

estate would immediately comply with any command from their master as they had been

conditioned to do so, but inside Tress there still burned the flames of desire, to resist and escape.

She had came close to death after several of the more severe beatings, most had been expertly

dished out in order to leave little trace, as her master liked his slaves to look good at all times.

She had the attitude at the time that death would just be a release from this living hell. As a

prosperous land owner her master loved to impress his peers with lavish feasts and lewd parties,

but after one such feast and too much wine he had arose in the middle of the night with the urge

to scratch an itch. He had wanted to indulge his pleasure on his slaves as usual earlier in the

evening, after feeling tantalised by the revealing bust line of the outfits he insisted his serving

hands wear. He had ordered two of his slave girls to strip on the feasting table and pleasure each

other. His party invitations were highly sought after as they often turned into orgies and his

young and influential bachelor guests were suitably impressed with the display. Unfortunately

that night his wife and the real landowner had returned from her business trip unexpectedly
before the real entertainment had begun. Being tired and crotchety from her long journey, the

feast was prematurely cut short. His gracious guests had made their excuses and left early. With

his wife soundly asleep upstairs his desires were still burning inside him, his mind told him he

should take Rea, she was busty and compliant, but he knew his loins really desired taking out his

frustrations on one of the girls that would scratch and bite back tonight, it would help to ease his

dissatisfaction with his wife’s early return. With his judgment clouded by too much wine he

dragged a kicking Tress from her billet. He knew from the contempt that always burned in her

eyes that she best fitted his mood tonight. Pulled from her covers by her long blonde hair he

forced her over the nearby table, kicking the chair out of the way he slammed her face into the

pine planks and ripped her night gown from her. Tress bit his hand; submission was not in her

nature. He smiled as he battled against the smooth legs that flailed out at him.

     ‘Yes, yes, that’s it my little snapper, I can feel you,’ there was blood running from the tooth

marks in his hand. ‘Now it’s your turn to feel me,’ he grunted excitedly.

    Her screams filled the night. The other slaves in the room feigned sleep, but secretly they

were all relieved that it was not their turn tonight. It was then that the master’s wife walked in,

disturbed from her sleep, she was furious, like a venom spitting snake she struck out at both of

them beating anything that moved. She had always known of her husband’s little indulgences

with the slaves, they were her gift to give to him from time to time, but for this slave girl to temp

him into this action without her permission was an affront to her generosity. The beatings that

she inflicted on Tress that night had been severe but worth it, as the master’s wife had quickly

sold her on to a new master and a new chapter in her life.

    She was unsure of how to take her new master – Zerch, at first. He had moved amongst the

naked slaves standing on the viewing plinths, lightly touching the goods as he passed. It was

unusual for a master to select his own slaves, most sent their agents to do such a menial task. He
had paused a moment longer at Tress than the others. This slightest sign of interest was all that

the ever vigilant slave master watching over the proceedings needed to see, he then gleefully

exacted a higher than expected price on her sale, for he knew from previous dealings that master

Zerch was a man of considerable means.

    Tress’s first impression of her new master was that he lacked the skill of communication,

tending to stalk about trying to avoid others in his household. He had appeared bored, impatient

and abrupt in every encounter but to her surprise and relief he never beat or touched her and she

was also kept well-fed. It was a refreshing change and she was beginning to think that her luck

had finally changed. He had a way about him that demanded her complete attention when he

spoke and eyes that could send a chill down her spine. She soon considered herself lucky that he

had purchased her – at least until the branding. She had been merrily escorted out into the villa’s

courtyard like a cow to the slaughter house by the chatty guard. He had obviously been

instructed to put her at ease, as they normally treated her like she had the plague when she had

tried to talk to them in the past. Once they passed the blacksmiths section two burly guards leapt

out restraining her whilst the resident blacksmith, a short round man with a cleft lip, totally bald

with great shoulders and flabby but strong arms advanced towards her with the glowing white

brand. There was no malice in his eyes, he looked at her no differently than he did when

branding the livestock.

    ‘Hold still now or it will hurt all the more.’ He commanded. Under the tight hold of the

guards, she knew that she was not going anywhere, so for the first time as far as she could

remember she relaxed and complied to her first command, a sign that had greater consequences

than she could have ever contemplated at the time.

    Her screams penetrated the night as the Wizard’s seal was branded onto her back and neck,

bringing a satisfying smile to Zerch’s face as he continued his work in the study. He had at last
sensed her soul break to his will. To him it was like taking a virgin for the first time, he had been

working on her like a wild horse trainer for the past two weeks, unknown to her, he had been

chipping away against her cast iron willpower. His last three slaves had been expelled for

breaking too quickly and submitting to him within a few days, he required more resilience than

that for his plans. She was now marked with a symbol as his, like cattle and he had grand plans

for his cattle’s future. Only another magician from the Brotherhood would recognize the intricate

patterns of the branding, to all others it merely appear like an interesting pattern or one of the

many tribal markings. A pretty young slave girl could be turned into a useful instrument and

used to do things and go places where a Wizard could not.

    Initially with the sudden change to her daily routine Tress had found the new tasks set for her

fascinating and challenging. Life outside of the kitchens was definitely for the better. Zerch had

begun spending a lot more time with Tress on a one to one basis putting her through a number of

daily drills and exercises. She suddenly had a very busy schedule to keep up with. Every

morning was filled with the repeated meditation sessions and mind focusing exercises.

Lunchtime was spent with ‘Grath’ the Weapons Master and the afternoons were whittled away

with Zerch’s teachings and remembering and demonstrating the minor magic incantations that

her new master was prepared to teach her. It soon dawned on Tress that there was a purpose to

all of this but she would gladly face it than go back to the kitchens again. Most nights she was

left to her own devices to study and absorb the lessons that she had learnt during the previous

day. Twice a week she was also tutored in the exploits of the flesh by the regular visiting whore

mistress. Mistress Melanie was a very understanding and confident women switching at times to

act like a confidante to Tress and sometimes like a mother when the turmoil of her past would

rear its ugly head. Unlike her previous experiences she was required to only look and not touch

as part of her ongoing grooming - viewing the lewd scenes before her would serve to remind her
of her damaged and scarred past. Zerch required her to be totally free from the fears of a man’s

touch, so insisted that Melanie visit the halls with her three girls to relieve the garrison of their

wages. After being the object of so much abuse from her old master it seemed almost odd to

Tress that she had been forbidden physical contact with anyone inside Zerch’s halls. Although as

part of her preparation she was required to sit behind the one way mirror of the small viewing

chamber, watching the visiting girl’s techniques and tricks as they worked their way through the

men. At first she just turned away and ignored the proceedings but after time and a reprimand

from her master she followed his orders. She never did work out how he knew?

    Zerch had not been dormant in this aspect of her training, when he had brought Tress she had

appeared to be exactly the commodity that he was after. But as with most impulse purchases you

normally find a flaw further down the line. Tress’s flaw was soon apparent she was a ‘Man

Hater.’ She had not been born with the instinct like some, but instead she had developed it from

her experiences. He needed someone who could convincingly love as well as master his other

challenges. Not wishing to discard her and start anew, he decided to use his magic to work with

what he had; attempting a new skill, using his magic to heal, although he considered that he may

need some help with such an alien application of his skills. Each night when she slept he worked

his magic to enter her mind and erase the memories that tormented her so much, he worked to the

point where he could remove memories from her conscious mind such as an event’s occurrence

but there would still be a long string of facts leading up to the events that remained, this skill was

not his forte, but he hoped it would get her to where he needed her. He had not mastered her

subconscious mind and her dreams could be a bit of a problem. His tool was only going to be as

good as its creator, so he placed her in the viewing chamber like a lab rat to access her after

further memories were removed. With her harboured hatred quickly becoming a distant memory,

she found herself becoming more frustrated after witnessing some of the Guards escapades. She
often required the application of Melanie’s relief techniques before sleep to cool her blood.

Through her numerous conversations with the Mistress she had discovered that she too had once

been a slave, but had managed to earn her release through good service and now prospered with a

thriving and enterprising business. Tress’s hopes were always raised and her troubles put to rest

when she spoke to Melanie. After several years of her tough repeated regime and Melanie’s bi-

weekly visits, she considered her a vital friend.

    One day they sat joking together as they gossiped about Sigmund the newly hired guard, or

Sig as the other guards called him.

    ‘You know my girls have had the stupidity to tell me that they would gladly take no payment

for his time, it is rare to find a creature of his beauty amongst so many beasts, in all my years I

have never had one of my girls come back to me with a comment like that. Can you believe it,

besides they also tell me he is hung like a horse.’ She burst into girlish laughter. ‘Is it true

Tress? You have watched him perform on Elisha this week, she has refused to tell me anything

yet, but I’ll get it out of her eventually. I on the other hand have had to merely admire him only

in his uniform.’ She sounded almost upset at being the boss.

    ‘You lock me in there. Why don’t you sneak in with me and find out for yourself?’

    ‘I would, but you know what Zerch is like with all of his odd rules’ replied Melanie.

    ‘Well, in that case I can confirm, the man is indeed a stallion, Elisha is probably trying to

keep him for herself, but from the racket she made it will not be long before all your girls will be

fighting for his business.’ Tress replied with a straight face, then also burst into fits of giggles

herself. After their laughter subsided Melanie reached over and pulled her in close. She

whispered into her ear. ‘You know we have become good friends over the years, more so I think

than the work that I am paid to do here.’ Tress silently nodded.
    ‘Well the truth is that I think it unfair that you should always watch but never partake, a true

waste of a woman in her prime.’

    ‘Until last week I would have disagreed with you, but Zerch has forbidden it, besides the

guards would not dare touch me,’ she kept her voice to a whisper.

    Well just consider this, I hold the key that keeps you locked in the viewing chamber and my

girls wait for their next job in the adjoining room. I could easily switch you over with Elisha and

get you into that chamber with old Siggy boy.

    ‘As I said before the guards will not dare to touch me and then there is my identifying brand

– I am not worth losing their lives over, not when they have a team of women to plough through

on a regular basis.’ There was an element of logic to the way Zerch ran his villa.

    Melanie looked about her then pulled her in even closer, ‘You forget two things my dear,

firstly it is the summer solstice which means we have a kinky night where we dress as animals

and wear masks and costumes, the men love it and I get to charge them more for the pleasure.

Secondly I have found out that Zerch is away on some business that week. It’s perfect.’

    ‘But I really don’t want to get anyone onto trouble on my account,’ protested Tress.

    ‘Come on girl, I’m your friend and I’m telling you that you need this – think of yourself for

once woman. Guards come and go, as long as you keep the mask on everyone will be fine and

know no different, I’ll see to it that it covers your branding too. Now do you want the stallion or

not?’ Melanie had had to lower her tones once again as her offer had also excited her.

    Tress’s moment of silence began to worry Melanie until she came back with her reply.

    ‘Oh, yes, you can be sure that I want that Stallion.’ Tress blood raced with excitement at the

thought and for some reason with dread at the same time. She hoped that the reality would turn

out to be as exciting as the thought.
    The week to the solstice had been a terrible weight on her mind she had used some of her

newly taught techniques to store away her prominent thoughts in the darkest vault in her mind.

She managed to look Zerch in the eye in every one of her sessions with him.

    The afternoon of the solstice started well and to plan with the timely departure of Zerch, his

villa was now in the safe hands of Grath the sword master, who had recently been promoted to

Guard Commander. He liked things to run smoothly and spent much of his time examining the

details that ensured this. His command would not alter their plan for he would never interfere

with the men’s Friday night frolics, he knew better than that.

    Tress sat in the small chamber, she appeared to sit as usual by the viewing screen, but inside

her stomach the butterflies were going crazy. She had to look away from the first customer of the

night pleasing himself on top of the girl in the bird suit, her wings had flapped about in fake

pleasure putting on a convincing show for the paying customer. The beak faced mask had

entirely hidden the girl’s features, so this filled her with a little more confidence in Melanie’s

words. The key rattled in to lock to the doorway into the chamber and the beaming face of

Melanie peeped around the door frame.

    ‘Are you ready dear?’ She threw over a cat mask and suit over to Tress, I thought this would

probably suit you best,’ she stretched out the thin material inspecting its skimpiness, ‘It’s yellow

tiger stripes will match your blond hair and the mask has a neck guard and ties that will secure it

tightly, easily covering your branding. Apart from that, it does not cover much else, save for the

purpose of giving you tiger stripes across your back and a tail.’ The girl she was replacing came

in and sat down in the chamber whilst she changed.

    ‘Don’t worry I have paid Elisha well for her silence.

    ‘The young women smiled up at her, I really don’t mind if you lose your bottle for this, the

girls are now fighting over who gets to ride the stallion next.’ she smirked. ‘Oh - I will be sitting
this one out, watching for a change, so don’t disappoint, although we will be marking you on

your technique afterwards.’ Melanie gave a mock swipe at her cheeky girl.

    ‘Come on now, I can’t keep my customer waiting.’

    She entered the chamber and found herself a comfortable spot to curl up, cat-like. The smell

of the room was not helping to stir her fantasy. Her heart was thumping wildly and she was

unsure if it was just her, or if the mask was attached too tightly and smothered her.

    She sucked in several great gulps of the stale air that filled the room. The door handle turned

and in the light of the open doorway stood the cleft lipped blacksmith. Tress’s eyes almost

popped out of the thin eye slits of the cat mask.

    ‘No, no, no this was all wrong,’ she thought. She could swear that she could hear laughter

coming from the door way from where she had come. Melanie quickly appeared.

    ‘Sorry Agis you seem to have jumped the queue, you are next after this one.’ Agis the

blacksmith looked at Tress and licked his misshapen lips, ‘I really don’t mind this girl instead.’

    ‘Em we’ll, we see what we can do for you.’ She ushered him out and led Sig in, already

exposing his bristling bare chest he continued to remove garments as he advanced.

    Melanie turned and gave Tress a wink and blew her hair upwards and away from her face,

then she gave the normal brief punters speech, ‘You know the rules, no biting, spitting on or

speaking to, any of my girls. Apart from that, enjoy yourself.’ Sig took one look at Tress and

replied to Melanie’s back as she left the room.

    ‘Don’t worry I will.’

    In an instant he finished stripping and was behind her, Tress cursed her mask for obscuring

her view. Encircling her with his strong arms his firm thighs pushed against her as his desires

grew. His hands followed her curves working their way lower. Tress had to lean against the wall

as her knees went weak. After the first few minutes of his touch she was putty in his hands, she
had suddenly realised that she had not been this close to a man for many years; strangely she

could not even recollect who that last person had been? She knew she was no virgin, yet she

grew nervous and began to feel like one. He expertly spun her about to face him. He was indeed

the prettiest man she had set eyes on. His mouth licked at her breasts as his fingers continued

their intimate exploration. She moved her body to his movements, she began to lose control,

Tress arched backwards sighing loudly, lost in the moment against the cold rough wall. To her at

that moment it was as if she had never before felt a man’s touch. Her hand brushed along his

muscular torso, she could sense the need in his movements as he strained against her, he was oh

so ready for her. With a thrust that made her eyes fly open he knocked the air from her lungs,

introducing her to his pleasures. Her back rubbed against the rough wall and with only the flimsy

tiger striped suit to protect her soft skin, she was soon grazed, yet she felt no pain. With all her

training and techniques instantly forgotten she just became a passenger on his ride, complying to

his every instruction.

    Tress’s screams of pain and ecstasy echoed into the room as Mistress Melanie watched with

delight from the viewing chamber. The man was indeed correctly named ‘Sig the Stallion’ as he

hammered away on Tress at a now frantic pace. Elisha commented, ‘A fat lot of good all that

watching did her, she hasn’t employed any of the advanced movements. She has just locked her

legs around his neck and tries to take everything he’s dishing out.’

    ‘Do I detect a hint of jealousy in your voice Elisha, isn’t that what it is all about? She has

just gained a lot more than you would think. It just goes to show, you can’t beat a practical

lesson.’

    Later that night as Melanie sat in a nearby tavern with Zerch over a late supper, they

discussed the day’s proceedings.

    ‘Well how did she do master Zerch? Has she passed your test?
    ‘I am impressed with her progress; she managed to totally hide her thoughts of deceit from

me for several minutes. After tonight I think that we can safely say that her repulsion of men has

now been cured, although she must gain a better focus of events in the bedchamber. Mind you,

as you have suggested, I understand that some men may like her level of compliance, as long as

she can always separate it out from the real business of why she is there. I must commend you

on your idea of introducing a thoroughbred into my herd, you really are a true business women

Melanie. I may have been deliberately away from my villa, but I miss nothing and you have

played your part well, you should take a break and enjoy your new found wealth. You may

continue to let her have some further time with this Sig as long as she is learning from the

experience. I will permit their secret little affair to continue for another two weeks before

sending my guard away on an errand. It will be interesting to see how well she can mask this

secret from me and a good test to see if my magic will work correctly, erasing Sig forever from

her thoughts.’ He smiled as if already knowing the answer to his own questions.

    ‘She will eventually learn that nothing she does can escape my view. But I think that

perhaps now she is of some use to me.’

    One night soon after Sig’s departure Tress asked Zerch why he always abstained from the

Mistresses visits?

    ‘Tress, there are many elements that can ruin a man and I intend to ruin many men, I can ill

afford any chinks in my armour, which is not made of leather or steel but exists in my own purity

and devotion. Greed and Lust are the greatest tools to bring down a man. Learn this well. I have

both of these qualities, but I know how to control them and with time so will you. If you don’t,

you will be food for the crows.’
    Patch stumbled on a loose stone and Tress’s attention reverted back to the barren landscape,

five more minutes’ ride and she would be over the next ridge line and hidden from anyone

arriving on the path. She would ride a little further and then in the more dense terrain cut away

from the path and hopefully slip her pursuers.
                                 CHAPTER 3 – MAGIC IS POWER



    The sounds of the celebration echoed out of the valley and around the hills that surrounded

Croweheim. Only the night watchmen looked miserably onto the merriment going on within the

town, counting away the time to the end of their shifts. In Croweheim the town watch were

unusually respected as all military men took their turn at guard watch via a rota system, with little

petty crime they spent most of their time on the winter shifts picking up drunken men from the

frozen ground, thus many men owed them their lives. Several drunken revellers had spilled out

of the drinking halls arm-in-arm singing loudly, others were urinating down a side alley. The

watch rounded the corner and redirected the desperate pissers to the nearest outhouse and for

their pains received several sarcastic comments about enjoying their time on stag whilst everyone

else got drunk. Unseen by the townsfolk, the dark cloud descended lower over the town – the

distant enchanter’s spell-weaving driving it on. Saznack needed to stoop in the low-roofed cave

to ensure a good view of the magic events unfolding before him through the vision spell.

    ‘You’re too big to be a Wizard,’ muttered Bellack observing his companion’s awkward

stance. ‘I wouldn’t want to bump into you on a dark night, with your bald head and stupid tear

drop tattoos on your cheek, I would think you a common street thug, not a spell binder.’ He

continued his mockery.

    ‘My tattoos symbolise the tears that I shed for anyone who is brave enough or stupid enough

to cross me, so you see I am a compassionate man. Oh yes, I am a big thug and had I not known

you better I would think you a petite woman with your dainty little frame and long groomed hair.

Perhaps you will find out how big a thug I am later,’ Saznack replied and winking at Bellack he

sucked in his cheeks and pursed his lips in jest, whilst making a mocking movement of a lady

flicking back an imaginary head of hair.
    ‘Go and get some meat on you, my little fairy.’ Saznack retorted.

    ‘Ha, enough of this foolery Saznack - it is time to act. Observe. The second front starts in

Nordheim and the war starts tonight, we will show those fools the error of turning down our

generous offer.’ Concentrating hard and chanting several words of power, he sent a massive

lightning bolt fizzing down from their controlled cloud into the town.

    In Croweheim, several hundred leagues away the fire rained down into the settlement

sending burning debris and hot timber crashing down upon the revellers below. A secondary

lightning bolt thundered down from the dark cloud, as if flung by the thunder God himself. Fire

quickly erupted in the stricken buildings.

    The townsfolk were knocked from their feet by the shockwave and not all were able to get

back up. The cries of frightened children echoed from a nearby ruined building and a man ran

out screaming, his clothes ablaze and he flailed about on the ground in his attempts to put out the

flames. The crystal-laden wagons of the baggage train hissed and fizzed with an unearthly

power, their canvasses were blown far into the night from the shock waves that rocked the town.

As forks of magic pulsed around the streets it took its hold of a wagon filled with yellow crystals

which promptly exploded, showering crystals around the town. The stones landed and continued

to move like a thousand landed fish as the crystals moved with the magic inside them. Where

they landed they smashed and left eerie flickering spots of light amongst the blazing roof tops

and streets. Another bolt of lightning flew from the dark cloud into the town.

    The town’s rune-master emerged from his solitary hut, bare-chested and driven mad by the

horrifying vision he had just witnessed. He was not about to allow this magical assault to

continue and, with a quick prayer to his God, he raised his staff into the air as yet another thunder

bolt came descending from the cloud and struck him full on, great sparks arced about his outlined

form as he struggled to maintain his magical defences.
    ‘Well, well it looks like we have a hero here,’ commented Saznack back in the cave.

    ‘Witness the power of the crystal,’ boomed Bellack and a blinding flash filled the night. For

a second the Nordheim shaman seemed to resist the growing intensity in the sky above him, but

then a second larger pulse of magic filled the air. A burning staff and circle of scorched ground

were all that remained where the rune-master had once stood.

    For a second, silence surrounded the town. The townsfolk nearest to the selection of mixed

and scattered crystals fell to the ground first. They dropped as if pole axed, foaming at the mouth

and screaming in pain. One man fell to his knees repeatedly smashing his forehead to a bloody

pulp on a fallen beam. Next the cartloads of red crystals shattered, exploding like popcorn

sending razor sharp crystal fragments in all directions. As the fragments hit flesh they burrowed

their way under the skin of the folk nearby, as if alive the shards acted with a will of their own.

Soon after, a bearded guard’s chainmail vest burst open as the man’s bulk grew rapidly, the guard

seemed to double in size. There were no sounds coming from his open mouth as he gasped for

air like a landed fish. As the shards of crystal moved of their own accord under his skin, his flesh

changed consistency, giving it an unnatural texture akin to molten rock, his human features

slowly disappeared and were replaced by hideous craggy lumps. The man’s eyes gave one last

twinkle of humanity, then slowly glazed over as his enlarged form froze.

    Athene could have sworn she heard a distant laughter as all hell broke out around her. The

impact of the blast had sent her flying into the middle of the heap of warriors. One minute

Corvus had come over to compliment her efforts in the feasting event and the next she was

wearing him, not quite the way she had envisioned getting to know him. As darkness enveloped

the hall, Athene began the task of untangling her sore limbs from Henrick and Corvus, she

pushed at the charred table smothering her face. Gasping painfully for breath she slipped her

slender frame out from under the king’s cold armour.
    ‘To arms men.’ Shouted Corvus in his native tongue, but instead of the expected sounds of

swords freed from their scabbards and the clattering armour as his men jumped to heed his

command, an unnerving sound filled the hall.

    The damaged roof fell inwards sending a burning beam across the room illuminating a

hellish scene that would remain with Athene for ever. Bodies littered the sawdust floor,

twitching and foaming at the mouth, their faces matted with blood, hair and sawdust. Others spat

out bodily fluids and shook uncontrollably; a group of merchants that had been displaying a

selection of red crystals screamed as their body-mass expanded and grew. Red veins protruded

and glowed from what had previously been men. They were grotesque and their new forms

continued to grow, emanating a reddish glow throughout the remains of the hall. Others affected

by the yellow crystals remained the same size, but their features twisted grotesquely and were

transformed into scarred ugly creatures barely recognizable as human. A cool breeze blew

through the ruins, appearing to blow away the sound of the men’s screams; then a sudden

stillness descended upon Nordheim.



    ‘Very good Bellack,’ Saznack congratulated him by slapping him hard across his back,

almost knocking the breath from the smaller man.

    ‘Did you take me for a mere conjurer of flowers Saznack? It was bloody magnificent,’

roared Bellack.

    ‘I hate to admit it Bellack, but I am genuinely impressed at how you managed to project the

spell so far. Tell me, how was that possible?’ Saznack queried excitedly.

    ‘As I said to you before, it’s all in the power of the crystals. They act as a catalyst to the

magic, they absorb the spell and then project it onwards, but instead of diminishing the magic it
is actually multiplied. Now that their power has been expelled, we must be careful that we don’t

lose control of our new pets,’ cautioned Bellack.

    ‘Well I suppose that if your impressive display was all down to the crystals and not your own

magic – then the display was just mediocre for a dullard of a magician, I bet you that my slave

could do better with maybe two weeks’ training,’ laughed Saznack.

    ‘Ah come on you are ever the optimist,’ countered Bellack, ‘It would take at least a month.’

    ‘Well, great conjurer I bow to your better time keeping and knowledge, now what’s next?’

enquired Saznack.

    ‘Well as long as the others have done their job correctly, we gather up our friendly little mob

from Croweheim and head through the gates to the join the bigger party,’ explained Bellack.

    ‘Killing everything in sight?’ asked Saznack.

    ‘But of course, after all this is war, now you are starting to get a feel for the game.’ Bellack

laughed. ‘Pick a colour, any colour - red, yellow, blue or green,’ he continued.

    Saznack thought back to the start of the attack and transformations. ‘I think that red looks

like the most fun or perhaps… no, no I’ll definitely take red.’

    ‘Oh wait. Bellack interrupted Saznack’s musings.

     ‘Look down there, we seem to have a slight problem – some of the population have not been

transformed.’

    Saznack peered down at the conjured image of the town before he sarcastically remarked.

‘Hmm, as I mentioned to you before - sloppy work.’

    Bellack glared back at him, his face betraying his rising anger at Saznack’s jeering words.

The changing tone grated him.

    ‘Inconceivable. They must be dead. None could withstand the combined might of the

crystals and my powers,’ he snapped.
    ‘Well you had better explain that to them - look again there, that looks like movement to me,

human movement.’ Saznack smirked, amused by his superiors frustration.

    ‘How can this be?’ Bellack’s clipped tones showed his anger, which was now directed at

himself.

    ‘Even a dispel seal or a relic would not have stopped the transform spell, how many

survivors are there?’

    Saznack peered down again at the distant image, counting out loud ‘One, two, three, four,

five men, no, actually make that four men and one woman.’ He turned his attention back to

Bellack, ‘It’s not a problem, I will make sure they are killed by our new playmates.’

    ‘No, I want them alive,’ snapped Bellack. ‘They should have been transformed with the

others, I need to find the source of their power that protected them, maybe this could even open

some new paths that could bring us closer to our goal.’



    Athene hoped to God that she was caught up in some kind of dream - perhaps her head had

been battered too hard by one of the armoured men flung into her? All around her the townsfolk

and the warriors were pulling themselves to their feet, one slowly turned to face her, his green

dilated eyes made her recoil in fear. What had happened to these people? These were no longer

humans. Others stumbled around, misshapen with the oddest glints reflecting various colours

from their eyes in the bright moonlight. Only one thing united the seething mass of glinting

colours and misshapen skin on these creatures – they all had the same uncomprehending eyes.

Suddenly, as if on a parade ground, they all moved in unison, even the children and pets within

the town. They all, slowly and menacingly, turned to face the group of five.

    Athene instinctively backed away; cowering behind Henrick clinging to his arm like a

frightened child. The small group around Athene had somehow remained unaffected by the
cursed magic that had surged through the town. The old half-blind bodyguard assigned to watch

Athene in the kitchens stepped forward, his sharp axe raised threateningly, poised to strike the

first creature that moved in their direction. Corvus’ hands desperately rifled through the debris

searching for his own axe which he had dropped in the confusion. Tull, the kitchen hand, felt a

warm trickle of urine run down his leg as the crowd of monsters and misfits turned on the group.

    Corvus stopped his search for the axe and grabbed a nearby broken oak table leg. His

immediate need for any kind of weapon was far more pressing. Swinging the improvised club

directly around into the forehead of the nearest advancing zombie-like merchant, with a sickening

snap that jarred his arm, Corvus felled the man with a single blow.

    ‘Ah, good.’ An evil smile spread across Corvus’ face. ‘They die just fine.’

    Henrick looked around for the quickest exit. He had as usual made a mental note of every

exit when he first arrived, but the landscape of the burning hall had changed dramatically since he

had last scoped out the place. They all felt the wind blowing on to their faces through a great

hole where a fallen beam had smashed directly through the great hall’s wall, they instinctively

moved towards source of the cold air - to their right. A spear whistled past Corvus’ nose and,

moving with the instinct of battle, Corvus swung around on the mob. Quickly improvising, he

flung a nearby bench in the direction that the spear had just come from, attempting to slow any

pursuit. Spotting a half eaten turkey leg begging to be picked up he rapidly scooped it up from

the floor on his way out, blowing the excess sawdust chippings from its skin he quickly stuffed it

down his top as he followed the others. He never passed up an opportunity to pick up food, he

had learnt this lesson after being separated from his raiding party’s after a blizzard interrupted

their battle. He had packed light that day and had been so hungry during his long return that he

had eaten the leather from his belt.
    The bedraggled group navigated their way through the final debris of the Hall and squeezed

through the breached and smoking wall, but as they gulped in the refreshing mountain air, a hand

shot out and grabbed Athene’s leg. Ralf’s glazed and dead eyes stared up at her as he crawled

towards her, his skin green and deformed. It repulsed her and she screamed and kicked out at

him, as she pulled backwards Henrick’s sword lashed out and severed the hand.

    ‘Quickly this way.’ he yelled ‘They are coming from all directions.’ Athene felt sick as she

shook her foot like a dog with an itch until the dismembered hand fell from her ankle. Yet she

had little time to feel pity for poor Ralf as firm hands took hold of her and bustled her along the

street as the growing panic of her situation began to overwhelm her.

    They ran full pelt for the shattered town gate with the gruesome townsfolk following. An

oversized crimson hound with mottled skin lumbered out from a side alley, its muddy drool

spilling to the ground as it sized up the humans. It growled and leapt at the group, but its new

found bulk made the ugly hound misjudge the jump, missing its target. The hound landed short,

skittling into the group hard, its clawed feet grating over the frost-covered cobbles as it

desperately tried to regain its balance. They were all bowled to the ground by its impact apart

from Corvus, whose huge hands quickly clamped around the hound’s mouth and throat before it

had the chance to inflict a bite. The struggle was desperate but short - Corvus’ biceps bulged as

the hound’s neck was twisted backwards and snapped. Three silent humanoid forms appeared

from the alley behind them and lumbered towards the group, blue and green light emanating from

their eyes; Corvus swung the dog’s body with both hands at the newcomers, using the animal as a

flail he battered the figures to the ground. More figures gathered in the darkness behind.

    ‘Quickly,’ Henrick called. ‘Get out of the town and up the hill, it may slow their pursuit,

move it before they regroup and overwhelm us.’ They needed no further prompting and ran for
their lives, the cold mountain air numbing their throats with their forced excursion. The inhuman

mob silently reformed after them.

    One oversized possessed rider burst through the wooden stable door. He sat on top of a red

fluxed horse that was as deformed as its rider. It snorted out its misty breath that gathered in a

hazy cloud in front of it, obscuring the evil look in its eyes, without any command from its rider

the mount jumped ahead of the forming mob, an eerie red glow surrounding the pair. Galloping

up the incline of the hill side they easily covered the distance to the fleeing group, the rider’s

demonic gaze focussed on the slowest of their party. The possessed rider, once a proud

Nordheim noble but now reduced to a large deformed pawn in a magician’s game, barely fitted

into his broken mail shirt and ripped clothing. He leapt from his steed onto Tull’s back, his large

rocky form instantly pinning the teenager’s puny form to the ground. The one-eyed warrior from

the kitchen turned from his flight up the mountain side and rushed back to assist the trapped boy.

Athene was impressed with his fearless valour. The crazed horse attacked the one-eyed warrior

but he stood his ground bringing his large axe to bear. The rider’s mount reared and tried to

knock the grizzled warrior to the ground, but with a swiftness that belied his years, he

sidestepped the flailing hooves, sweeping the shaft of the axe up into the beast’s mouth, turning

the beast’s head away from the blow that was about to follow. Loosening his grip he reversed the

axe and expertly bought the head of the weapon down onto the beast’s neck. Henrick, Corvus

and Athene continued their flight up the hill and into the night.

    ‘You carry on, I’ll get Tull and catch you up.’ shouted old One-eye as the mob advanced

closer up the hillside. It would not be long before they reached the now-dismounted rider

pinning Tull. The sounds of battle ensued behind them as they continued up the slippery track.

    Athene never saw Tull or the grizzled old half blind warrior again.
    Saznack looked at Bellack in disbelief. ‘What are you playing at man, they got away.’

    ‘It must have been the distance – too much delay in the control of my new pets,’ Bellack

responded.

    Saznack nodded his agreement. ‘Your creations did seem a little sluggish in getting

moving.’

    ‘Oh yes …. and have your slaves syringe your ears out Saznack,’ barked Bellack, his

emphasis lingering on the ‘nack’ a little longer than usual in an attempt to further belittle the

large man.

    ‘Next time I say capture, I mean capture everyone. I know it is fun controlling your first red

Rock-Beast, but perhaps I should have started you off with the control of something a bit easier,

like the yellow ones – but last time I checked in the dictionary, capturing someone had a different

meaning to snapping necks and killing them.’

    ‘Well that grizzled old axe man did actually kill my first ever Rock-Beast,’ replied Saznack.

    ‘How could you fail to capture him? He was decrepit and half blind. I would only have

needed to break wind in his direction and he would have toppled over,’ protested Bellack.

    ‘Then he killed the five mindless minions and also the second Rock-Beast. I swear he was

possessed himself. I just meant to knock him out with that last blow. It’s not my fault if his neck

was a tad fragile. Anyhow, I got the boy cook alive didn’t I?’ Saznack retorted sharply, stung by

the extra sarcasm in Bellack’s tone.

    Bellack spoke again a little more gently this time. ‘Well I think that we should have plenty

more time to work on your finesse. But you know what old friend? After the fun that we have

had today I am glad that our overpriced offer for the Moomran crystal was turned down by the

Tanarian council. Now we will do things the old way – no talk just action. Right, let’s get out of

here I’m tired and need to regain my strength for the coming fight. Leave the acolytes to bring
home our flock; we must not forget to honour our allies agreement,’ said Bellack with an air of

resentment in his voice.

    Saznack agreed, ‘Good plan. I can’t be bothered to waste any more of our valuable time on

these few. Besides we will need to recast this spell again tomorrow, so we should get some

sleep.’ He stopped as he was about to leave.

    ‘I may have someone in the area on another mission that could continue our hunt should our

play things fail. I have used him before, he is very reliable. He is expensive but he gets results.

I’ll make the arrangements just in case.’

    Bellack commanded the waiting slave to roll up the floor rug that he had previously made

him lay to quell Saznack’s bitching about the mud of the caves floor, he paused before leaving.

    ‘Oh yes, you know I will need to report this incident to the Su-Katii generals and their

Council, we may yet need their resources to help us find the source of the escapees’ resistance to

my powers, I must discover its source.’

    He paused in thought for a second.

    ‘This perplexes me. In the meantime, arrange transport for our new guest Saznack, get

Marcus to pick him up, he’ll enjoy that. I shall probe our captured cook’s mind tonight, after a

fine meal – how ironic.’
                                    CHAPTER 4 – THE PURSUIT



    Lord Thulsa, Su-Katii warlord and Noble of Aristria, had spent many years of secret

planning and waiting for the perfect time to execute his master plan. For years he had been the

victim of his own success. Twenty years had passed since the execution of his last bold plan that

had brought about the end to a raging war between Aristrian and Tanarian nations. After Twenty

years of peace and mind numbing boredom he thought it only right that it should be he that undid

his original work all those years ago. He had spent his time wisely, slowly planting the seeds of

discontent amongst his men. The other Su-Katii generals had not needed as much work to bring

them around to his plan as he had initially expected, in fact it had almost been as if they had

harboured the same thoughts all these years. Had he miscalculated or perhaps it was their intent

to double-cross? No, the first and foremost ancient ruling of their God still applied – when they

walked this world they were not permitted to cross swords in anger. He had only one dream

these past years; to relive the old days of victory and glory in battle. The current situation that he

had created was quite the opposite. Imagine the formation of the finest warriors and generals that

the world could produce and then binding them to a lifetime of peace. Sadly, the old ways were

gone, but a change was coming and as every great leader knew, it was always best to lead the

change rather than to follow it. As Commander in Chief of the Aristrian army and Warlord of the

Su-Katii order, Lord Thulsa knew that he was born and bred to lead this change.

    The Su-Katii order comprised of twenty full members in total, it had taken a long time to

personally visit each of the members and accurately gauge their reaction to his radical plan. It

was only logical to make two great nations into one. Only Lord Candis had disagreed with his

controversial plan. He always did have too much of a moral code about him.
    ‘Law and honour – pah.’ What were they without victory and the thrill of battle coursing

through your veins again? Unfortunately, for now he was still bound to follow the Su-Katii code

when dealing with Candis. His removal would have been the quickest way to get his plans

moving, he had no love for the man and decided to examine the Su-Katii law in great detail, it

dictated that no member of the order may engage in battle or single combat with another outside

the Su-Katii Temple Rift, it said nothing of killing them indirectly with poison. Unfortunately,

he had no doubt that an unexpected poisoning of a Su-Katii Lord would have set the rest of the

order against him in a heartbeat. One Lord had broken this law along time before and paid a

heavy toll, or so the legend told. Thulsa had no desire to prostrate himself before the God-King’s

mercy, so had instead taken a different tack.

    Now with a new resource secured, the timing for his plans delivery was perfect. His mind

went back to the last time he felt such excitement. Ironically it was when he had taken command

of the Aristrian army after the truce with the Tanarian nation - his first and last post as supreme

commander. Then the war had ripped the two nations apart over a long standing border dispute

for years, each side fighting bitterly to gain the advantage. The population had suffered a great

deal in the struggle and the Su-Katii knights had, until then, remained neutral in the dispute. The

nationality of a Su-Katii was often unknown as they were selected young for training but

occasionally there was no hiding some of their original racial features. Regardless, should they

display any sympathy for a particular nation they would be ejected from the order. They existed

only to serve the will of the God-King, who had now lost interest in the affairs of mortals. After

a vote amongst themselves the Su-Katii had taken measures to stop the war and save the civilised

world from consuming itself.

    Their solution was to bring peace by ensuring that the war could not be won by either side.

Six Su-Katii generals each took a commanding post on the opposing sides. At first in secret from
the enemy forces, so that each side expected their own army to now hold a major advantage over

their hated enemies. By the time they uncovered the deception it was too late. None would dare

oppose the Su-Katii Knights who were now on both sides and in positions of high command.

Some tried to continue the war, but none survived to tell of their victory. With the first Su-Katii

law dictating that none from their elite order were permitted to fight another from their order, an

uneasy peace was established. Those on each side who rebelled against the new order were

quickly put down by their new masters, for no-one could stand toe to toe in combat against the

ability of the Su-Katii.

    It had been a proud moment bringing peace to the nations all those years ago and he had felt

like a true hero at the time. The reality of his first command was that it had gradually grown to

be a disappointment to Thulsa. Later after taking complete command of the 1st Aristrian Battle

Group he had envisioned his years would be spent training and facing strategic challenges that

pushed him to his limits, conquering new lands and banishing raiders. Instead, the peace and

order that they had generated had been too complete. The once exciting possibility now turned

into endless years of trivia, parades, inspections, desk duty… and boredom.

    Thulsa drained his glass at the thought of the past years. At least the fine Aristrian wine had

always been good. He wondered how Candis was getting on with the urgent mission that had

suddenly required his unique diplomacy skills. A trade dispute in Menchata – it would take

Candis months just to get there. He poured another goblet of red wine, which tasted especially

good tonight, but then it was expected, he did own the finest wine cellars in Aristria. There was a

knock on the door and the voice of his personal guard called out.

    ‘Lord Thulsa a messenger seeks audience with you, his paperwork is correct yet he refuses to

tell me his business, he has been searched and all we found on him was a single stick of chalk

and a bag of dust, Sir.’
    Dragging himself away from his musings and back to the present Thulsa responded. ‘At

ease man, let him in.’

    The door opened and a small robed man with a shaven head and half-starved appearance

entered. He took in the plush surroundings with contempt before bowing before the warlord. As

his head inclined low in a bow before Thulsa, he noted the triangular brand on the back of his

skull that marked him as a servant of the Magicians’ sect, although he did not comprehend its

true meaning. Thulsa took in every aspect of the man, as was his habit, from his dirt engrained

fingernails to the smell of horse sweat imbedded into his robes. Yes this man would certainly

appear to be Bellack’s messenger, but if he did not answer with the correct passphrase the man

would be dead in seconds.

    ‘Snowy Peaks?’ Thulsa asked.

    ‘Mountain Dew,’ the bald man retorted quickly, watching for the Lord’s reaction. Thulsa

inconspicuously moved his hand away from the dirk that he always kept concealed in the small of

his back. Without any further words the messenger produced a chalk stick and began to draw a

large and complicated glyph on the boarded floor, the methodical squeaking of the chalk irritated

the warlord as he watched. Thulsa looked on uneasily as the man went about his preparations for

magic.

    ‘My master wishes to converse directly with you Lord,’ the messenger said, by way of

explanation. The strange little man opened up a leather pouch and sprinkled some kind of ground

dust onto the chalk glyph that surrounded him, then seated himself cross-legged in the centre of

the glyph. Suddenly his head shot up, his face contorted, white eyes rolled back into their sockets

as he entered a trance like state.
    ‘Thulsa?’ Bellack’s voice came echoing into the room through his servant. Thulsa’s face

clearly betrayed his anger at the lack of respect for his high rank from the magician. He simply

had not heard his name without ‘Lord’ in front of it for such a long time.

    ‘The second front in Nordheim has been established on time and as promised, the internal

chaos to Tanaria will soon be generated and your ambitions fulfilled.’ The servant intoned.

    ‘Excellent.’ Thulsa smashed his fist onto the table, ‘I can move my units to their form-up

areas, your payment and requests will be completed in return Bellack.’

    Bellack’s servant began to shake as his masters words flowed through him,

    ‘I must ask one more thing of you Thulsa. Yesterday a small group of travellers resisted my

powers - powers that I intend to use further to aid you. I have captured one of their party and we

have analysed the situation and determined that we will need your assistance. There is a girl

amongst the group called Athene Torsden, I need your men to track down her family, her friends,

even her pets – any damn person who has as much as looked at her in the street, I need to know

everything about this girl and I need it now.’

    Thulsa’s forehead creased in a large frown, he didn’t need any extra complications at this

stage, especially one as trivial as this.

    ‘Her mother has a travellers’ tavern – it is called the Ravens’ Roost, you will find it near to

the border where your invading army will pass. I will need you to detain her until I can send my

man to pick her up.

    ‘Is this of any tactical importance to my invasion plans – or is there something else that I

should know?’ asked Thulsa.

    Bellack’s servant Kerric gasped in more air as he felt his masters anger grow through him,

    ‘No Warlord. Call it more a personal insult to my ability.’ Bellack reassured Thulsa through

his servant. ‘Very well,’ nodded Thulsa knowing that there must be some other undisclosed
reason for this sudden hunt, but what did he care about the motives of sorcerers? They had

upheld their end of the bargain so far and now there was yet another task that he required them to

complete. At the end of the day Thulsa just wanted to spend as little time with this degenerate as

possible and get his plans moving. He sighed, now bored with such trivia. ‘It shall be done.’

    Bellack’s bald acolyte gasped loudly as his body became his once again, his blue eyes

opened and he swiftly bowed again before the Warlord.

    ‘Guards. Show this man out, feed and water him, then send him on his way.’ By all the

Gods, it looks like he needs it, he thought.

    ‘Yes Lord.’ The two burly guards helped the shaking runt of a man to his feet then frog

marched him out of the room down the corridors, towards the kitchens.



    Back in the mountains of Nordheim, Athene had struggled to keep pace with the two fit

warriors on the steep uphill climb, she had already been tired from her days labours, but she dug

deep to keep up with the men. The rough terrain had shredded her shins and her woollen

leggings were torn and sodden. Panting like an animal, she needed another break soon.

    ‘Come on lazy bones, almost at the peak now, it will all be down hill after that,’ called

Corvus, his methods of encouragement were not the best.

    ‘Don’t make me have to come over and carry you again, it’s getting far to steep for that.’

The pursuit had at last slowed, the possessed townsfolk had been unable to close the gap on the

group, being far to clumsy in their movements to gain the needed ground on them, but the town’s

animals could move faster and had come at them in several waves. The first wave had been a

pack of the town’s dogs; there had been many, but the two warriors had managed to block the

narrow goat track that they followed, they worked well together with a warrior’s instinct hacking
at anything that came close and they had managed to stop the beasts from getting to the un-

armoured Athene behind them.

    Both warriors had been in full ceremonial armour for the feast and, although savage, the

dogs had been unable to penetrate the light armour with their bites. Such was their mindless

assault that the possessed animals’ broken teeth lay next to their lacerated bodies. Henrick had

loaned Corvus his boot dagger – it had looked pathetic clutched in his huge fist, like a toothpick,

but all the same he had skilfully done the necessary work with it.

    The last wave of beasts had caught them by surprise – two processed crows attacked them,

flapping and pecking at the warriors’ un-helmeted faces - Henrick had swiftly run one through

with his short blade. As the second bird flew about Corvus’s face he promptly bit off, chewed

and spat out the bird’s head in one motion, almost as if he was well practiced in the art, his face

was bleeding from several minor pecks.

    Henrick shook his head and muttered, ‘Savage,’ then called across to him, ‘The bird seems to

have improved your looks a little.’

    Corvus picked up both the crows and tucked them into his belt, ‘It was good of them to

present us with breakfast,’ he smiled back. ‘Now move it, Tanarian.’

    The morning sun gave little warmth as it crested the mountain peaks, but it was welcome all

the same. Henrick relaxed the frantic pace that he had been leading,

    ‘I think that we have lost them now or they have given up. How are you holding up girl?’

Henrick asked with little sympathy in his tone, he had noticed Athene struggling with the pace.

    ‘Shattered.’ Athene huffed back. After weeks riding up on the wagons with little exercise

she now realised just how unfit she had really become.

    Henrick nodded his understanding and added, ‘But at least you’re alive, what the hell

happened back there?’
    ‘I haven’t got a clue, sir.’ Athene replied in a bewildered tone,

    ‘I think we can dispense with the formalities now, you’re not one of my troopers who has to

call me Sir,’ he added gently, ‘Athene,’ as he recalled the cooks name and decided to add a softer

touch to his words after his military style of encouragement during their long climb up the hill

last night. She had seen a different side to him then and had certainly felt like one of his

troopers; it was all that he knew – but it had been effective.

    Corvus perched himself on top of a rock, stretching his feet for a moment. Such had been

the speed of their ascent that Athene’s face now dripped with perspiration; she could feel

uncomfortable damp patches across her body where her dirty and ripped clothes now stuck to her

back. She briefly considered how much of an unattractive sight she might appear to her saviours.

A cold mist had settled in around them and the ground now had a full covering of snow.

    ‘Come on people, we need to get moving or we’ll catch hypothermia,’ commanded Corvus.

Reluctantly the exhausted party moved off.

    Soon after they had reached a ridge line allowing them to make their decent, the chilled wind

almost blew them over the last few steps. After navigating an initially tricky crag the ridge line

dropped off into a more easy going downward slope, which naturally encouraged them to pick

up their pace again. Henrick kept glancing behind to check on Athene, he judged the girl was

beginning to struggle, Corvus had always been at hand to help her when she struggled. He knew

that there was no chance that she would be left behind.

    Henrick had always harboured a dislike for women on a campaign, because men tended to

follow their natural instinct to protect a woman – making then them disregard every ounce of

their military training and intelligence, reacting irrationally to save the female at any cost. In the

past he had raged against his superiors when they had done this and now here he was guilty of the

same offence, paying Athene more attention that the current situation. Perhaps he was feeling the
first signs of exposure. With the wind chill and cold mist intensifying on the exposed mountain

side they may not even make it off the mountain at all. In the past he had seen men go down fast,

during the winter campaigns. Cold weather and steel armour – never a good combination - one

minute they would be chatting away, then a silence fell over them and soon they would slip into a

deep coma. Drastic action or shelter was necessary to stop death claiming a new victim.

    ‘Corvus.’ Henrick called out. There was no reply, ‘Corvus.’ he shouted again.

    ‘You know these lands. Have you a plan for where you are leading us, we desperately need

some shelter?’

    ‘Aye laddie and before you ask, we are already heading in the direction of help, or at least I

think so. There is a cabin some two hours’ further down this valley; an old servant of my father

lived there in solitude. I used to ride out his way with my father as a lad. But I haven’t visited

this area for a few years, so I hope he’s still alive.’

    Four hours later the miserable, bedraggled group silently approached the log cabin. The peat

roof was decomposing, being in dire need of repair and could be smelt before it could be seen.

However the sight of smoke rising from the chimney lifted their spirits resulting in a newfound

burst of energy stirring deep within them, a desire to envelop themselves in its beckoning

warmth. Athene had been half dragged the last mile by Corvus.

    ‘Ah well, think of the benefits, at least all this enforced exercise would shift a few pounds

from her hips,’ she consoled herself.

    Corvus entered first, calling out a greeting – dagger in hand.

    ‘Jaloti? ‘It is I Corvus, your King,’ he said in his native tongue. A faint croak came from

within the building he waved the others over and they all entered cautiously, peeping around

Corvus large frame like schoolchildren. Jaloti, the grey and ancient Hunt Master, lay under his
duck-down quilt delirious with fever. He had once been a strong man, stocky and quick, but was

now reduced to being no better than a living skeleton and he clearly would not last the week.

    The thick pungent air of the cabin sat in their throats, but for the luxury of warmth it was

well worth the occasional gag. Athene slumped down in front of the fire; her teeth chattering,

while Corvus tended to the old man, talking to him gently. Athene was surprised at his tender

actions, a day before when she had first clapped eyes on the King of Nordheim she could not

have pictured him like this. Henrick threw Athene some blankets and furs that lay at the end on

Jaloti’s bed.

    ‘Get out of those wet clothes, quick.’ Henrick commanded. Athene felt no shame as she

fumbled to remove the wet garments with her numb hands, her skin white and her small breasts

pert from the cold; she wrapped herself in some spare animal furs and a scratchy blanket sitting

down to face the fire, rubbing some warmth back into her cold limbs. Within minutes she was

asleep.

    Henrick being a gentleman had managed to keep his gaze averted when passing the furs to

the naked Athene. As a former officer of the Lancers he still maintained a courteous streak

within him, although today he found it difficult to follow his code. Throwing one quick glance at

the slender curved hip and leg protruding from the furs, Henrick was genuinely surprised at her

attractive figure. Athene had for once followed her mother’s advice and hidden her figure well

on the trail with baggy cloths and many layers. Now convinced of the need for some fresh air in

the stuffy lodge, he declared that he was going outside under the pretence of checking the

surrounding terrain.

    The pace of the hill had not affected Henrick too badly. He always maintained a high level

of fitness – he was a lean old wolf and from the old school of training.
    ‘Better to sweat on the training ground than bleed on the battlefield,’ had been the words of

his old master sergeant. Henrick had taken these words to heart and would train in some capacity

every day regardless of the situation or hangover. During the trail to Nordheim he had risen

before first light and jogged around the wagon train in full armour and sword, incorporating his

sentry’s rounds at the same time. The men had secretly nicknamed him the ‘Old Ballista’ as like

the siege weapon, by the time you saw him coming there was bugger all you could do about it.

    After checking the ground around the lodge, Henrick felt satisfied that there were no hidden

surprises although he disliked the ease of approach, there were no defendable points, but at least

you could also take flight in the surrounding woodland in any direction should the need arise.

Starting to feel the chill of the air, he returned inside to enjoy the warmth. He had found a

pickaxe outside and thinking it could be useful he brought it in with him.

    ‘Get out of your freezing armour and warm yourself you fool - and shut that bloody door.’

Corvus barked as he entered. He had tended to the old man as best he could while Henrick had

been outside, making him as comfortable as possible in his last days.

    The two warriors warmed their bones by the fire, they faced each other and conversed

quietly. Once opposing rivals in skirmishes that had long since passed they soon found a

common ground.

    ‘Tell me King Corvus,’ enquired Henrick wishing to get a feel for the character of the man

he would be spending time with. ‘Are the legends I hear about Nordheim Kings and Trial of the

Lake true?’

    Corvus looked at him in genuine surprise.

    ‘Interesting,’ he said, ‘Not many foreigners know of such things within our culture. Tell me

friend, where did you hear of the trial of the lake? As far as I know, no outlander has ever

witnessed this event?’
    ‘Well my good King,’ Henrick gave a mock bow, ‘I have been a soldier in the Tanarian

regulars for many years, eventually being hand picked for the Lancers until my retirement. My

career has taken me to many lands and let’s just say that this is not my first visit here. I must

have heard of it from our local pathfinders that we used to employ,’ added Henrick.

    Corvus frowned and a quiet ‘hmm,’ grumbled in his throat menacingly.

    ‘If I cast my mind back a few years to the Tanarian border skirmishes, a rather talented

Tanarian Commander carried out a series of successful guerrilla actions and maintained an

elusive network of spies throughout my lands before scurrying back through the Great Gate. I

never did manage to catch the bugger.’

    ‘Yes,’ replied Henrick, ‘I think I met the fellow once at the Tanarian Honours Tournament –

can’t remember his name – but he was a damn fine swordsman.’

    Corvus pondered, deep in thought, eventually clearing his throat.

    ‘In answer to your question, a Nordheim King is not just born – he is made. I have faced

many trials and tests in my time – the present is certainly no exception. I’m sure what you have

heard is probably more legend than reality – but yes, as a lad on one of my trials I was cast into

an icy lake in full armour, sword and shield; one of the tests to show that a putative king can fight

on ice and continue to lead his men even if he should fall through.’ He looked Henrick in the

eyes and chuckled. ‘What the legends don’t tell people is that my iron studded shield was

replaced a few weeks before the trial with a painted wooden shield and that my forty-pound battle

chainmail is replaced with twelve-pound ceremonial mail. Both look the same but you see it’s

just not good to have the bloodline heir to the throne drown in front of his people. However,

dragging yourself from that freezing hell and fighting a dual afterwards still wins the respect that

a king needs.’
    ‘Indeed,’ nodded Henrick ‘And by the way, I must compliment you on your sudden mastery

of the Tanarian language. This conversation seems to have helped improve your accent no end as

I notice that your pronunciation is now perfect. I would guess that your teacher came from the

Mirelands by the regional accent?’

    Corvus gave a large crocodile smile, ‘Perception and appearance can serve you in many

different ways. I need neither, now that I no longer have a people to rule.’

    ‘…Or do I?’ He thought. He removed some armour and began to strip off his sodden outer

garments, ‘I won’t be needing these now,’ he said as he threw down the dead crows and collected

food into the corner of the room and continued to cut off and consume a string of smoked

sausages that were hanging over the fireplace. Munching away, he felt weariness take over as he

stoked more life into the fire and then continued to strip off.

    Corvus slid the large iron bolt across the door, then after holding up the blanket and taking in

a good eyeful of the pleasing view below he joined Athene under the pile of blankets and furs.

    ‘Skinny Westerners,’ he grunted. ‘No wonder she was freezing, she needs more meat on her

bones if she wants to stay in Nordheim,’ he huddled in close to the warmth of the furs and drifted

off to sleep.

    Corvus’ dreams were not pleasant. The images of his beloved wife Amiria and youngest son

Lars filled his head disturbing his sleep and awakening him on several occasions. They had been

among the mind controlled crowds pursuing them in one of the waves from the town, their

glowing green eyes tormenting him. He had known immediately that they were well beyond help

and would have struck them down himself if either had come into his path. To him they were

now dead.

    Luckily, Corvus hadn’t needed to put his thoughts to the test, his wife had never been a quick

mover and had been unable to close on them. But perhaps Rikard, Corvus’s elder son, may still
have a chance at life. He was far from Croweheim, and although officially he was enjoying King

Saya’s hospitality, unofficially he was effectively a royal hostage. The rival king’s territory lay

further to the east, but, as was the Nordheim custom, they would exchange their eldest sons in

order to keep peace between their opposing regions. Unfortunately Balish, first son of King

Saya, was last seen growing into a red oversized Rock-Beast outside the feasting hall. Perhaps he

should turn east and try and rescue his son before news of poor Balish’s unfortunate

transformation reached his father. Or if King Saya was to find out that Corvus no longer had a

nation to rule, his son’s life could be in jeopardy. King Saya was not known for his charity and

had personally crossed swords with Corvus in the past. If his rival had escaped being plagued by

this foul magic that had unfolded in his land, he would likely make a play for his kingdom, for in

the wilderness of Nordheim your lands are rightfully yours only if you are strong enough to

defend them. What would King Saya care about a king with no subjects? Or perhaps he was

even behind this in some way? With too many thoughts swirling around in his head, Corvus

drifted back into his restless slumber.

    It had been many years since Corvus had had to take a turn at sentry duty and it came as a bit

of a shock to him when Henrick shook him awake.

    ‘Your stag Corvus, I’m going to get some sleep now.’ Henrick shook the snoring man

awake.

    The thought of rolling over back to sleep was tempting and he knew that if he didn’t

immediately move he would fall back asleep, there was still a chance that their troubles may

follow them, leaving him little choice. He pulled himself up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and

instinctively began to attach his armour.

    Now awake, he scanned the room for anything useful and noticed a hunting bow and a dozen

badly fletched arrows. Jaloti’s eyesight must have been fading badly, he thought, as he had once
been an expert woodsman. Poor old man, he washed out a new cloth and mopped up the sweat

from the brow of the sleeping man. His eyes were drawn to movement on the table where a slab

of maggot-ridden cheese rested. Perhaps Jaloti’s love for cheese had been the cause of his fever?

    He also examined a wood saw and the pickaxe as he circled the room. Corvus picked up the

pickaxe, feeling its weight and balance then looked down at Henrick’s boot-knife tucked into his

belt. It was a simple choice. It may be troublesome if it gets imbedded, he thought, but it had a

much longer reach. He threw some more logs onto the fire and stared into the raising flames.



    The fully grown beast that was once Balish ran down the mountainside oblivious of its

former existence. Its scaly red form uprooted the larger bushes in its path. Stooping to all fours

on occasion as it pounded its way up the hillside with just one burning desire inside its mind, to

close with and capture the three puny forms that had escaped it the night before. Beast was cold

and exhausted but an unnatural power forced it along. As it reached the ridge line, the midday

sun shone into it eyes, the snow capped peaks merged into the green and brown of the tree line

below. In the distant valley below, far to the west, the faintest trace of smoke could be seen

against the blue sky. Beast turned and headed west, the three other craggy beasts that

accompanied it, followed, their shingle like skin reflecting the occasional red sparkle in the

sunlight as they bounded down the hill.



    Athene sat bolt upright, ignoring the furs and blanket falling from her pale form.

    ‘We are in danger.’

    Corvus’ hand instantly snaked out to the pickaxe nearby.

    ‘From what and how many?’ asked Henrick rapidly strapping on his armour. How do you

know this, Athene?’ His eye contact momentarily dropped.
    ‘I don’t know. A voice in a dream. A man? He said something was coming and that I

needed to wake you all up immediately. His words screamed inside my mind and then he was

gone?’

    The crashing of a tree nearby made the group prick their ears up and take her words

seriously.

    ‘Next time, tell the fool in your dreams to give us more warning,’ shouted Corvus. They all

readied themselves as they felt a faint tremor through the ground. Henrick threw the bow and

quiver of arrows to Athene.

    ‘I hope you can shoot as well as you can cook?’ Corvus said as he frantically began to stuff

strings of sausages down his top. He winked at Henrick, ‘If we have to run we’ll need food,

these are mine. You can have the cheese over there.’

    Henrick instinctively glanced at the maggot ridden cheese, shaking his head he unsheathed

his short sword and unbolted the shutters on the window peering out. ‘Does the old man have

any horses nearby?’ he asked.

    ‘Afraid not,’ replied Corvus.

    ‘OK, take anything useful, I think that we should move out at once. We will have to leave

the old man here to his fate.’ Henrick said as he rolled the blankets into bedrolls; the others were

rummaging for water skins and food morsels when the heavy thud of footsteps was heard outside.

Athene cowered back into the corner nervously stringing an arrow, everyone froze looking at

each other, straining their ears for the slightest clue of what might be waiting for them outside.

The ground shuddered as if hit by an earth tremor.

    ‘Steady Athene, only draw the arrow when you know you have a target,’ whispered Henrick.

    The door exploded inwards showering debris into the room. Athene’s arrow dropped from

her bow as she screamed in the confusion. A large Rock-Beast filled the doorway, its huge arm
reached through but its bulky form was unable to wholly fit through, it must have been at least

ten feet tall, the door frame cracked against its weight. Corvus didn’t hesitate; he swung the

pickaxe in a great horizontal arc straight into the beast’s chest. With a thunderous scream, its

wild spasms and thrashings totally smashed the door frame sending splinters of wood and wattle

flying inwards. The beast fell forward into the room smashing through the stinking peat roof to

lye dying on the lodge floor. Henrick darted forwards and ran his short blade into the beast’s eye,

finishing the job. His blade sparked and grated as he pulled it free from the beast, almost as if

pulling it from stone. Athene found her dropped arrow, desperately trying to steady her shaking

hands she managed to fire it at a shadow of movement through the gap where the door had once

been.

    ‘There are more outside,’ she cried.

    A thud was heard as the second beast took the arrow in its chest, but this only had the effect

of enraging it and annoying it enough to make it storm in. Corvus had not yet managed to free

his pickaxe from the fallen beast, so, as the distorted once human face appeared in the room he

flew at it, using his body as a weapon. He was fuelled by an inhuman might from the thought of

what had happened to his loved ones. His shoulder barge caught the beast off balance and

slammed it back through the damaged wall structure, part of the exposed log work striking its

head, momentarily slowing it down. Henrick again sprang forward in a lunge, plunging his blade

into the side of the beast’s throat. It gurgled and fell backwards mortally wounded, strangely its

dark blood just oozed like jelly around the blade, rather than the accustomed spray that would

normally accompany such a kill.

    The third beast peered in to see Corvus picking himself up from the floor, a blade slashed

through the thick of the beast’s neck, half severing it from its torso. Henrick’s heart sank as he

heard and felt the blade snap under the force of the blow. Hell’s teeth it was like striking an anvil
when you hit the bone. His hand and arm throbbed with pain as he dropped the hilt of the now

useless weapon. The beasts momentum toppled it forwards slamming its misshapen and severed

head into the ground.

    The last beast lingered outside, although lacking in intelligence it had seen its companion’s

body drop to the ground. ‘Must capture,’ rang the voice in its head, so instead of entering the

building it began to systematically take the structure apart, its large fists pounded the roof hoping

to seal its prey within the structure, cocooning them within the rubble. An arrow passed its head,

fired from within the building. The corner of the cabin was first to collapse and as if gaining

inspiration from this, the beast pounded even harder in its attempt to reduce the building to

rubble. Staring into an opening that it had produced, the Rock-Beast could now see Athene

cowering away from the falling debris. The urge to pickup the little figure and return to others of

its kind was overwhelming. The distant acolyte’s voice rang in its head ‘Yes …take this one.’

    The Rock-Beast snatched out and grabbed the little screaming figure. A pickaxe flew into

the beast’s back and it gave a tremendous bellow. Reaching behind it with its free hand, it

snapped the wooden handle from the pickaxe, but the head still remained embedded in place. To

the beast, the pickaxe wielder seemed strangely familiar, but it did not stop it from backhanding

the little fellow back into the building. The swinging blow sent Corvus flying into the rubble, he

did not get up.

    The Rock-Beast gave the cabin wall a final shove with its shoulder and the remains of the

structure encased the fallen warrior. The Rock-Beast lumbered off back through the trees and

away from the destroyed cabin the small dark haired figure was slung over its shoulder,

screaming and shouting.
                                       CHAPTER 5 - FRIENDS



    The movement of the beast’s pounding feet was almost hypnotic to Athene. If it wasn’t for

her head bashing off its sharp scaly back she would have probably passed out. The

uncomfortable ride took them through bushes and brambles that brushed past her face and ripped

at her hanging hair in a green blur. They had soon covered the ground out from the woods and

into open countryside, Athene’s throat was now sore from her earlier screaming and with the

constant boat-like motion she had to fight hard to retain her supper. Struggling in the beast’s iron

grip was futile and she wondered what she had done in a previous lifetime to end up in this

terrifying situation.

    Suddenly a confident female voice called out in Tanarian. Was her imagination running wild

or was she going mad? But no, the voice shouted again.

    ‘Going somewhere rock nuts?’

    Athene strained to look up from her precarious position over the beast’s shoulders but all she

could manage to see in the distance was the outline of an upside-down rider silhouetted against

the sunshine appearing from the clouds. An arrow hammered against the beast’s leg, the shaft

shattering on impact, it merely grunted and carried on its way, seeming to ignore the rider.

Another arrow bounced off the beast’s skull, its thick blood oozed out down into its eyes. It now

altered its course towards the newcomer, throwing Athene to the ground, it charged the rider who

skilfully turned her mount and galloped back up the track, the rider turned and fired, this time the

rider’s arrow penetrated the beast’s side. Each time the beast got close the rider would shoot and

retreat again to a safe distance. She repeated this tactic several times until eventually the beast

toppled over mortally wounded, as a final arrow found its mark.
    Dazed from her fall, Athene watched in the distance as the rider dismounted and suddenly

disappeared. Moments later the cloaked figure reappeared behind the fallen beast, her silver

sabre swept down in a huge shimmering arc and the beast’s head began to roll back down the

track towards Athene. She was further sickened by the sound the head made as it rolled towards

her. The rider collected her dappled pony and cautiously approached.

    ‘How are you doing?’ She called out; her Tanarian accent had a slight foreign touch to it.

‘Your choice in boyfriends leaves a bit to be desired.’ She said with a smirk. She looked like an

interesting character thought Athene, the riders thick blond curls sweeping down onto her leather

breastplate armour that seemed to enhance her bust line; she was the first armoured women that

Athene had come across. She was difficult to place, she thought – with a near perfect skin

complexion and high cheek bones she looked almost exotic and Athene thought to ask how she

kept her skin so smooth in this harsh wilderness? She wore finely-made clothes with a tailored

fit, expensive yet bland in colouration – her ridged leather armour moved with a precision that

only a master armourer could produce and its surface was scrubbed to remove all shine from the

leather. A silver sabre with an eagle engraved on its hilt completed her look. Her mottled brown

cloak hid her curves; the side of her neck showed the beginning of some kind of tribal branding

that her long curls of hair helped to hide.

    She extended her hand.

    ‘Pleased to meet you young lady, my name is Tress.’

    As she shook Athene’s hand, something screamed inside Tress and she instinctively

withdrew her hand halfway through the introduction. Tress was no stranger in the ways of magic

and could sense the same tingling of hairs rising on her skin that she felt around magic, except

that somehow this time the sensation was different. This greatly intrigued Tress but as she was

trying to interpret her new sensation, two figures burst out of the forest edge and into the open
ground, sprinting towards them with roughly-cut wooden spears in their hands. Their pace

slowed on seeing Athene, Tress levelled her silver sabre instantly and prepared to wrap her cloak

around herself. Henrick waved as he spotted Athene.

    ‘Friends of yours?’ asked Tress.

    ‘Yes,’ said Athene, ‘Please sheath your weapon or they might take it the wrong way.’

    Tress smirked, ‘I don’t think I have much to worry about with those two.’

    The warriors approached, still dust covered from their escape from the building and puffing

for breath from their sprint.

    After a loud cough that sent some nearby birds flying Corvus managed to speak in between

breaths.

    ‘I’m glad to say it looks like we are too late to rescue you Athene. They looked at Tress.

    ‘Our gratitude to you… you are one brave lady taking on that thing alone,’ said Corvus with

a slight bow of respect.

    ‘I would like to think that you would have done the same for me, there have been far too

many strange things happening in this land to pass good people by, what with the war and

everything.’ Tress replied.

    Henrick and Corvus gracefully introduced themselves, brushing the excess crud from their

attire in the vain attempt to make themselves presentable.

    ‘The war?’ asked Henrick puzzled.

    ‘Yes – haven’t you heard? The Aristrian’s have just invaded the Mirelands of Tanaria and

are now pushing deeper into our territory.

    ‘How did you hear of such things, we are in the middle of the wilderness?’ asked Henrick.

    ‘I have my sources, but it is no lie, I can assure you we are really at war.’ She replied

seriously. Henrick screwed his face up at the news,
    ‘My God – it’s starting all over again - and we thought that we had troubles here. Anyway I

suppose that there’s not much that we can do about it, but thanks for the heads up. On the plus

side there will be a lot of employment available when I get back, thanks again for everything.’

    ‘No problem Henrick,’ she replied.

    ‘No, please call me Henk,’ he instantly responded.

    Athene found her nose instantly put out, feeling slightly rejected with the arrival of the

attractive newcomer – he had never once in those months on the trail ever told her to just call him

Henk, nor had he ever used that charming tone of voice to her she thought, struggling to hold

back the seed of anger that threatened to grow.

    ‘Tell me Tress, have you seen any strange movements along the trails this past day?’ Corvus

asked.

    ‘Would you classify two thousand wandering freaks ambling towards the Marinhino Pass

and the Great Gate pretty unusual? I just managed to skirt around the tail end of them earlier

today.’

    ‘Ah, I see’ replied Corvus, that sounds like they have all left the town, but let’s get off the

path and into the tree-line while we talk things over just to be safe, my legs won’t carry this belly

up those mountain again.’

    The party retired to the cover provided by the dense trees and they discussed their options for

where they would seek refuge next. All bar Corvus wanted to get back to Tanaria to find work or

get back to family, but with the thousands of possessed souls blocking their route back this was

not looking viable. This only left a treacherous two month journey south to circumvent the huge

mountain range that separated the two nations and then there were a number of small tribal

territories that would need to be passed though. These smaller kingdoms were by far the biggest

danger on the journey as they were ruled by various feudal warlords who had no formal
government, just the law of the sword. Travelling their lands without invitation and in such small

numbers could cost a lot of gold in bribes or end in slavery or worse.

    ‘Well my new friends,’ Tress said putting her arms around the shoulders of the two warriors

in an overly friendly gesture.

    ‘On any other trip I would probably just fill you full of lies and be on my way, but in light of

our current situation I feel it better to come clean, probably for the first time in many years. You

won’t want to keep company with me. I’m afraid I just seem to attract trouble, I already have a

number of armed men hunting me and they can’t be far behind - although you do look like you

might be handy in a fight… if you had some proper weapons,’ she patted Corvus’s thick

muscular arm before she continued,

     ‘Believe me; you won’t want to be around when they get here. You’ll be far better off on

your own, as I will be able to evade them, but should you meet with such an encounter, then I

fear you may all be slain on my account.’

    ‘Well lady,’ Corvus began, ‘I care nothing of this danger that you speak of, I know that had I

found you wandering my lands hunted by armed men a week ago you would have undergone an

interesting round of questioning with my magistrates, but you’ve done us a good turn by saving

Athene today – and I’m all out of magistrates, so I would like to return the favour by offering you

a reward. I am still King of all these lands and if you have seen two thousand people or

possessed things as they now are passing by, then I expect that my primary town - Croweheim

will be deserted, if we head for it, we may stand a chance for wherever your fate takes you

afterwards. That way we can refit, re-supply and you are welcome to take whatever you can

carry from my treasury, it is vast and your journey home will require all of these things. The path

that I will be taking will need no gold. Vengeance costs nothing.’
        Every fibre in Tress’s being screamed out to her, ‘Do what you do best – run and hide, you

may be able to slip past the mobs alone. You can make delivery of the ring then fade back into

obscurity; that would hopefully provide enough wealth to lie low or even to live the good life for

a year or two.’

        But deep in her heart she knew that she had already made up her mind about sticking with

this strange bunch – a king’s gratitude was nothing to be sniffed at and could double her profits;

she was going to stay with the group.

        She had heard of this King Corvus before, he had a fearsome reputation as a warrior but after

meeting the man she saw no weight in such talk, besides, she also wanted more time to work out

what had sent her senses reeling earlier. Something about Athene intrigued her.

        ‘Ok, you may regret this, but let’s hope that Croweheim is deserted, because that’s where we

are heading.’ Patch the pony gave a loud snort of discontent as Henrick led the party away from

the track over the rough ground and into the bushes to ensure their route would not easily be

guessed or followed. The old ways of guerrilla warfare were difficult for Henrick to forget.

Athene was still feeling the toll of the past day’s events and she began to lag behind, Tress kindly

gave Athene’s feet a break with a ride on Patch. As Athene slowly recovered she looked

curiously over at Tress leading the pony.

        ‘You’re Tanarian, right? What brings a warrior like you to these far away lands?’

        Tress laughed, ‘I’m no warrior and its hardly far.’

        Athene looked her up and down as she queried. ‘But the armour - the sabre?’

        ‘Oh I see how it could look – but no, these are just necessary tools. As you have found out,

these roads should not be wandered on your own or unprepared. I am just a messenger,’ Tress

lied.
     ‘Is that why you ride alone?’ Athene asked feeling very naïve and then she remembered

something else that had perplexed her earlier.

     ‘Back when you saved me from the beast, were my eyes deceiving me? You disappeared

somehow into thin air, how was that possible?’

     ‘Easy, magic,’ smiled Tress.

     ‘How can magic make you disappear like that?’ she asked curiously.

     ‘The weave of my cloak is enchanted and with a few words its powers can be called upon

and it will hide me from view.’ Athene looked at her disbelievingly.

     ‘Here I will show you.’

     ’Hoping to impress the girl she whispered the magic words pulling her cloak about her she

weirdly stalked along besides her.

     ‘I’d consider taking it back, because it clearly doesn’t work,’ said Athene in a tone of jest, as

she could still see Tress standing there.

     ‘Impossible’ Tress replied ‘Keep pointing at me so I know it’s true,’ she suddenly darted off

to the left. Athene’s finger followed her every move as Tress growingly frustrated weaved

around, then suddenly she faded into invisibility.

     ‘My god you really have disappeared now,’ Athene gasped in amazement. Tress reappeared

ten yards in front of Patch pulling back her cloak. Patch raised his head hoping for a carrot.

     ‘Well Tress, I’ve got to say, I’ve never seen very much of magic before yesterday and that

will do me for the rest of my life time. Compared to this week, life back in my mother’s inn was

blissfully dull.’

     Tress thought to herself that there was a good chance that Athene was going to be seeing a

lot more magic, then she turned her thoughts to her enchanted cloak and began wracking her
brain as to why it had not initially concealed her. In her line of work as a specialized thief,

everything needed to function first time reliably.

    It was getting dark now and the worst of the journey back into Croweheim was behind them.

Some small fires could be seen in the distance where the lightning bolts had set the town ablaze

and the flames had spread to the nearby woodland on the east of Croweheim charring the

countryside. The last leg of the journey had to be over open terrain, but the closing darkness

would help to conceal them should any beasts or mind-controlled beings still exist there.

    On breaking cover, Henrick, ever the planner, spotted a lone overturned wagon at the side of

the path that led into Croweheim. This would make an ideal rallying point should they get split

up or run into trouble. The group nodded in agreement and cautiously continued towards the

smouldering remains of Croweheim. Before they broke cover, Henrick went through the plan of

action a second time to be sure that everyone understood.

    ‘Good everyone is ready? Let’s hope that this place is empty.’
                                CHAPTER 6 – THE BEAR’S FOOT



    The Aristrian cavalry thundered into the small Tanarian hamlet scattering the small group of

chickens that had been happily sifting the debris for the odd husk of corn. It was the first time in

twenty years that an invader had entered these lands. The dust trail hung in the air behind the

lead riders, obscuring the massed ranks of cavalry that were following behind. The riders were

jubilant at their invasion yet sick of the ever changing terrain. For hours they had trudged

through marshlands, sometimes immersed up to the saddle to cross the ground into Tanaria. One

rider was no longer with them as he disappeared under the water – horse and all. Now that they

had reached the hard ground of a road, it produced a great dust cloud that stuck to the wet riders

as if to irritate them further. Now they were confronted with their first Tanarian contact.



    The streets of the hamlet ahead were deserted. The invaders had expected a bloody fight on

their hands but in fact the reality was different. The unit had seen no sign of Tanarian resistance

or activity since they had invaded. A few merchants and a group of farmers had been as much

action as they had seen on their glorious invasion, all had headed in the opposite direction on

spotting the advance party of Aristrian troops. The commander of the thousand-strong cavalry

unit confidently rode up to the largest structure in the Hamlet, the Bear’s Foot – a travellers’

tavern.

    Tethering his horse outside he brushed off the trail dust revealing his red cloaks true colour,

his boots squelched with swamp water as they touched the ground. The putrid smell of the

swampland still filled his nostrils. The settlement was deadly still apart from the newcomers,

Barrad confidently advanced to the taverns door with his spurs chinking on the wooden decking

with every step; the commander’s youthful appearance did not full represent his experience. The
door was unlocked so he entered, followed by several swordsmen, more for the chance of some

refreshment than a show of force, as their commander certainly needed no bodyguards. The long

faced tavern owner awkwardly forced himself forwards from his back room as the Aristrian

invaders shouted for service, shaking with uncertainty he welcomed the newcomers to his humble

inn. As long as they left him and his family alone and hopefully paid he didn’t care which tabard

they wore on their chests. Barrad accepted the welcome.

    ‘I need food and lodgings for my officers and your finest room for myself, barman. Arrange

this and we’ll have no trouble.’

    The tavern owner thought about bringing up the matter of coin, but after a second take of the

man’s foul expression as he emptied marsh water from his boots and a glance at the two blades

strapped to his belt, common sense took over.

    ‘Of course Lord,’ replied the man and hurried about his business. A scream from outside

made Barrad instantly draw both of his blades and rush outside. One of his men had entered a

nearby building and was excitedly ripping the clothing from the petrified middle aged woman

that he had found within. The husband watched helplessly with three long cavalry blades held to

his throat as his wife screamed and struggled against the ravaging man.

    ‘Let’s taste the spoils of war lads,’ yelled the young officer excitedly, as he finally ripped her

dress off revealing a surprisingly nubile body.

    ‘Enough,’ shouted Barrad. The officer stopped at the sound of his commander’s voice,

clearly looking disappointed.

    ‘Ah I understand …Su-Katii have first dibs. Ok men let’s see what else we can find in this

cesspit till it’s our turn,’ he muttered discontentedly.

    ‘Let me make myself clear men,’ bellowed Barrad.
    ‘To be entitled to the spoils of war, first you must fight one, so if you have the urge to take

this woman you will need to fight me first. I may have only recently been assigned the command

of your unit, but my orders will be strictly adhered to by all men and officers alike.’ He turned

and shouted out his words at the crowd of troops that had gathered, making them cringe at his

words.

    ‘There will be no rape or murder here.’ Any man who fails to comply with my orders will

be strung up. Do I make myself clear? Now fall back into line, get the sentries and

reconnaissance patrols out immediately and leave the townsfolk alone. We seek the Tanarian

army not their toothless mothers. There will be no looting here either, you are all well paid

professionals.’

    With a look of utter disappointment on his face, the Aristrian officer went about his business

of organising the patrols. Barrad decided that the men would need to be kept busy to keep them

from temptation and organized them into groups to dig ditches and fortify the hamlet against

possible attack.

    Later that night, inside the warmth of the Bear’s Foot, Barrad and the other senior officers

were poring over the maps, planning their movements and actions for the next morning. A sentry

entered and saluted.

    ‘Lord Barrad.’

    Barrad stood up angrily. ‘We are not in the training grounds now soldier, I know we are

inside now, but on operations we do not salute unless you wish to get your officers killed by an

enemy bowman. Would you want me shot because of your actions?’

    ‘No Sir, sorry Sir’ the sentry’s face reddened.

    ‘Well what news do you have for me?’ barked Barrad.
    ‘Sir, the infantry have arrived – at least six legions and their baggage train …and Sir, they

bear the Golden Stag’s Head battle standard.’ This meant only one thing; that the supreme

commander was present, something that Barrad had not expected. Barrad turned to his men.

    ‘Officers,’ do your rounds again. Lord Thulsa is coming so I want everyone alert and

prepared for his arrival. I want the defensive points manned and sentries re-checked, he will not

tolerate anything but the best from his men. Are the patrols back in yet?’



    Lord Thulsa rode arrogantly into camp as the thud of his marching army and drums filled the

plain, with his chin held high. He was ecstatic in his moment of glory; it felt good to be leading a

fighting force once again into hostile lands. For too many years he had been stagnating in the

royal palace, having to put up with the petty in-fighting of the courtiers constantly jostling and

scheming greedily to improve their rank and position. He had learned with time that this was

also like a battlefield in its own right but one where the opponents didn’t die, (well not often).

Pointless, words would never replace a good blade.

    Now entering the hamlet, his bodyguards closed in about him with their large tower shields

to protect him against the possibility of sniping bowmen, as was their constant overprotective

way. A hastily erected barricade blocked the main road into the hamlet – ‘Good,’ Thulsa thought

to himself, the correct number of men stood manning their post and a spiked trench had been dug

in front of it and at other strategic choke points. He was satisfied that the correct military

practices had been applied.

    ‘Welcome to Tanaria Lord Thulsa.’ shouted Barrad from the door of the tavern.

    ‘Good to see you Barrad, it looks like you have things well under control here,’ said Thulsa

appreciatively.

    ‘Have there been any reports of activity yet Sir? Barrad enquired,
    ‘We haven’t seen any resistance so far, are you sure the Tanarian army exists?’

    ‘It won’t when I’m finished.’ Thulsa bellowed and the men within earshot laughed.

    The leaders entered The Bear’s Foot as Thulsa’s ten thousand warriors and auxiliaries

continued to flow into the hamlet and its surrounding grounds, then went about their duties of

constructing a full battle camp.

    Soon after the Supreme Commander had settled into what was going to be Barrad’s room, all

other people were ejected from the inn. In order to maintain secrecy, even the innkeeper and his

family were evicted from the tavern along with two disgruntled travellers who had been staying

in the upstairs accommodation. Barrad had spent the evening at the tactical meeting, all Su-Katii

generals were always required to attend such meetings and also expected to remain long after the

regular officers and commanders were dismissed. He had just completed his Su-Katii training

and forgone his passing out ceremony, rushing away to make it to his new command before it

deployed. Now to his surprise he was treated no differently than any other established Su-Katii

Lord by his Warlord. Only Barrad and Thulsa wore the crimson cloak that distinguished them as

belonging to the Su-Katii order – the warrior elite. They existed outside the confines and control

of any local law, answering only to their order and God. Barrad had just finished his training in

the last days before the war and now filled the last of the twenty field positions available – each

man a master of every discipline of war and worth a thousand troops or so the legends told, it had

been a long time since anyone had seen them in action. After several lifetimes spent training in

the timeless temple of their God, a position had at last opened for him when Lord Narctiss was

drowned after his ship went down during a freak storm. Breaking with tradition, he had missed

out on the great feast and ceremony that always ended up in the Brothels’ of Cardus, along with

the ritualistic tattooing to mark his new position. He had been disappointed because his father

had held the same position before his death and had described the ceremony as one of the
proudest moments in his life. But with the others already deployed in the field he had no other

choice than to join them.

    Thulsa was in an unusually good mood, the Tanarian wine was substandard, but the invasion

had gone well so far. Three Aristrian army groups had now crossed into Tanaria and only

Battlegroup West had met with some light resistance, this was better than he had expected.

    He gleaned from the briefings that Battlegroup East had been hurriedly assembled after a late

change of plans. In Barrad’s opinion, it was the weakest of the three groups, but perhaps had the

advantage of mobility. It comprised of one cavalry regiment, two light infantry units and one

Aristrian heavy infantry regiment, he wondered why his commander would rush together a third

army group at such late notice? He was astute enough to know that there was something being

kept from him.

    The light infantry were mostly irregular troops, mercenaries and foreign fighters, lacking in

discipline but making up for this in their ferocity. Its target and prize would be the capture of the

Marinhino Pass and the Great Gate far to the north-east. During the briefings Thulsa had

reassured the sub-commanders of continued successes by sharing with them a fragment of his

master plan. A second front would soon be opened behind the enemy lines to misdirect the

Tanarians and bring havoc to their lands. The Nordheim force would be directed by Bellack,

Thulsa’s mystical advisor. His diversion would keep the Tanarian garrisons busy and distracted

until Army Group East could establish command of the region, whilst they had a different

mission. Barrad’s cavalry was to cross the great ‘Illustrian Plain’ that led to the Tanarian capital,

Tarctiania. Lord Thulsa reassured them that they would all see action tomorrow, but it would be

more of a slaughter than a battle. After the briefing when just the two Su-Katii remained in

conversation Lord Thulsa also let slip to Barrad that the Tanarian capital would also be too pre-

occupied to mount an effective defence.
    In the border wars of the great nations years ago, no army had managed to get past the

network of rivers and marshes of the Mirelands, but today the Tanarians had been snoozing and

these lands had been captured without incident. Due to the carefully planned chaos,

misinformation and unrest in the north-eastern territories all major Tanarian units had been

recalled to try and quell the unrest. Thulsa could hardly believe his luck; the enemy had endured

twenty years of peace, which obviously had a debilitating effect on its army, they just simply had

never expected this to happen. He retired to his room, his head swimming, probably due to the

poor Tanarian wine he had drunk to help him sleep.

    ‘Wake me two hours before first light,’ he instructed the guard commander as he retired to

his room, his personal bodyguard surrounded all entrances to the tavern. It was time to get back

into the old regime of early starts. As he stripped off his armour and shirt he inspected the

numerous scars that cut across his tattooed chest. He could remember how and when he had

received each wound which marked him like symbols from an earlier age. Each individual that

had delivered a scar on his body was now long dead. He unstrapped his back dirk and was about

to lay it on his pile of armour, then changed his mind and instead placed it under his pillow.



    At first his dreams had been pleasant; he was marching back through the ‘Pillars of the

Righteous,’ the great stone slabs that mark the entrance way into his Gods rift. He had been

returning from battle in his dream, with the Golden Stag standard held high in victory. Crowds

cheered him as he marched back though to the immortal king’s portal. The Rift was a gateway

that could transport a mortal to the Temple inside; it existed outside the normal boundary of our

time. None knew if it was in another world or dimension – only that mortals could pass back out

of the rift when the God beyond could not. The crackling Vortex marked the passageway and

was magically held between the two great amber pillars. He had forgotten how many times he
had passed between these gates over the years. A great feast awaited him as he entered the

Vortex and the Temple beyond, on arrival the familiar crimson sky replacing what was before a

blue sky. The God-King, unable to leave the grounds of the rift, waited at the portal ready to

congratulate Thulsa on his victories.

    ‘Your name will join that of our other heroes.’

    Suddenly a man’s voice called his name, pulling his exulted glory from beneath his feet.

Again Thulsa heard his name called. A vision of a middle aged, blonde bearded man filled his

mind pushing away the last of his elated mood. He felt himself shaking uncontrollably, barely

able to stutter out his words.

    ‘Who… who… are… you?’

    ‘I did not give you permission to talk maggot.’ shouted Tamar, squeezing his fist so hard that

Thulsa’s tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth.

    ‘Listen to me well, lapdog. Turn your army around and head home, go tell the Aristrian

people of your past glories for they are all you will ever have. Your dishonourable actions will

only lead to your doom. You will not live to see the dream that you desire. The crimson cloak

and two swords no longer stand for Justice and Order. Your God turns in on himself in his prison

and has forgotten the values that matter in peoples lives. Freedom is the first of these values, a

freedom that you are about to take away. When you wake up, turn tail and run back across the

border, you bloated pig-headed fool.’

    Thulsa concentrated hard, forcing out his words.

    ‘I …I ...w ...will ...f …find …y …you.’

    ‘Shut up you stuttering fool,’ Tamar’s laughter echoed in his ears as his face leered in front

of his eyes; then he was gone.
    Suddenly a hand shook Thulsa. ‘Sir?’ Thulsa’s dirk flashed upward through the sentry’s

throat, still mouthing the word ‘Sir.’ He fell to his knees, spraying arterial blood over Thulsa’s

face. Rubbing the blood from his eyes, Thulsa, now fully awake looked down at the twitching

body. In the dimly-lit room, an eerie glow emanated from Thulsa’s bare chest and Su-Katii

tattoos. Their magical powers bound to their ink had at last managed to banish the vision of

Tamar from his dreams.

    Annoyed with himself he shouted for a medic and three armed men rapidly entered,

    ‘An assassin Sir?’ they questioned.

    ‘No, no just a mistake – go and get him help.’

    The first man sprinted away to find a medic. The others dragged the dying man into the next

room. Once out of earshot of their leader they turned to each other.

    ‘Boy, he’s a grumpy one in the morning; we’ll get Ferdinand to wake him up tomorrow.’

Both men laughed as the sentry passed away. Thulsa dunked his face into the freezing wash

bucket, the blood on his face soon washed away with ease. The camp physician arrived as Thulsa

came through to check on the still form of the sentry, unpacking an array of crystals, the

Physician shook his head.

    ‘Too late for this one I’m afraid.’

    Thulsa made a mental note to write to his family telling them their son had died a hero.

    With the new morning the inn gradually came to life. Thulsa had already given one of the

regular Aristrian officers a dressing-down for sending the guard in to wake him, his mood was

foul. After finishing his morning porridge he threw the bowl across the room.

    ‘Right men, we have already wasted too much time here, let’s torch this place and get

moving, we have a war to win.’ He looked about the room and then roared, ‘Well people, I said

get moving.’
    ‘What about the villagers?’ asked one officer.

    ‘Put them to the sword,’ said Thulsa spitting out his words. Barrad appeared from his

lodgings.

    ‘Lord Thulsa what are you doing?’ he growled.

    ‘These people are innocents, of no tactical importance. Why harm them? I know that terror

tactics can work to build a reputation – but Sir they should only be used when resistance is

shown.’

    Thulsa reddened with anger, his cheeks puffing out.

    ‘Look boy. I used to teach those manuals that your quoting in the Temple long ago, so don’t

lecture me on their contents. Now stop questioning my orders and level this place. You know

twenty years ago I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you. Had you not been Su-Katii, I

would have just killed you on the spot for questioning my orders in front of the men. But, I knew

your father; he truly thought you were a cut above the rest. What a fool.’

    The tavern cleared as the officers rushed off to their commands and duties.

    Lord Thulsa continued his rant at Barrad. ‘Your father, he broke all the rules of the Su-Katii

and had you trained earlier than was allowed. Don’t allow this fact to make you think I will cut

you any slack though.’

    His foul mood had truly got the better of him, so he decided to give his new general a

dressing-down to teach him the values that he expected his generals to have in times of war.

    ‘Just because you have passed the challenges of the Temple, don’t think that you have the

experience to succeed in a full scale war. You are still wet behind the ears and out of your depth.

Hell boy, you don’t even have your tattoos.’

    ‘I was assigned to my unit before the ceremony sir, no time,’ said Barrad.
    ‘Well listen to my words. Know this - when at war, the Su-Katii act as one, so you should

have been agreeing with your commander, not questioning him. Now get about your duties, no

more lessons.’ Barrad did not move.

    ‘I won’t tell you again. Carry out my order and spare none of the enemy.’

    ‘Lord Thulsa, answer me this one question.’ asked Barrad, with a cocky smile on his face.

    ‘Why, just before my Father’s death, he told me that the days of the Su-Katii were limited

with men such as you steering our future?’

    ‘What?’ Screamed Thulsa. ‘How dare you speak to me like that? I think that you will need

to work very hard to escape re-assignment.’

    Barrad faced Thulsa staring directly into his eyes.

    ‘…And you will need to work hard just to stay alive, you fat toad. I will not kill these

people.’

    Sensing the mood of the room drop to a chill, the one remaining officer took a step forwards

from his position behind Barrad, fingers curling around his sword’s hilt. Thulsa bellowed at him.

    ‘Hold your position man.’

    The two Su-Katii warriors locked eyes.

    ‘You wouldn’t dare disobey my order, this would break every law that we follow,’ hissed

Thulsa.

    ‘You break every rule of humanity, Thulsa. I will die before I have the blood of innocents

on my hands.’ The rules of the game had just changed.

    Each warrior’s hand rested lightly on their sword hilts, their eyes following the other’s every

movement.

    ‘If you draw your weapons now Barrad there can be no turning back. You will break the first

and most sacred Su-Katii law; there will be no escaping what follows. Surrender your arms now.
    A board creaked as the officer remaining in the room behind Barrad tried to close in on him.

    Both warriors moved with amazing speed, Thulsa was unnaturally fast for a man of his size.

Blades flashed out and after a blur of action Barrad remained poised in the perfect battle stance.

One of his blades was now reversed and thrust out behind him, embedded deep in the young

officer’s diaphragm, the gasping mans legs twitching and giving way. Barrad’s leading blade had

been quickly drawn simultaneously and had severed Thulsa’s right hand, before his opponent

could even withdraw his own sword, the hand lay on the floor twitching in a pool of blood,

Thulsa’s severed stump helplessly fumbled at his swords hilt. Barrad swiftly reversed his swipe

with perfect form, slashing a deep and mortal wound across Thulsa’s throat, the shocked

expression still showed on his face as the dying generals eyes glazed over. Barrad expertly

flicked clear the blood from his blades and returned them to their scabbards. The two bodies

surrounding him fell to the floor.

    ‘You were not the only one who had troubled dreams last night Thulsa. My father taught me

never to betray that which is right and true, a lesson that you forgot a long time ago. Tamar, I

have made my choice.’

    Barrad left the ‘Bear’s Foot,’ his hands shaking with a mix of adrenalin, excitement and fear.

It was still dark, but the sun would soon rise and Barrad passed the eight bodyguards outside

surrounding the entrance to the tavern. The action had been so swift that it had not attracted their

attention and there was now so much commotion going on in the hamlet that no one would have

noticed any disturbance inside the building. The departed officers had already gone about their

orders and the hamlet was already in flames. The screams of the villagers could be heard as the

soldiers begun their slaughter – the men had been all too eager to get started. Barrad coolly

walked past the bodyguards that surrounded the building, whilst inside he was secretly screaming
with pain at the murder scene created by the rampaging soldiers. Their numbers were far too

great even for him. Stopping at one of the guards he remarked.

    ‘Lord Thulsa is in a foul mood and has a chronic headache, he has commanded not to be

disturbed… by anyone.’ The guard nodded his understanding; Barrad collected his horse and

started to ride out of the camp stopping at a perimeter barricade to keep up the pretence of

checking on the men. The officer who had instigated the attempted rape the day before

approached.

    ‘Lord, a few of the villagers escaped to the north, our patrols should pick them up. Would

you like me to send out additional men after them?’ Barrad approached low in his saddle and

plunged his sword through the man’s throat – the watching crowd of warriors jumped to attention

in shock.

    ‘That is the price of failure men.’ Barrad said, pointing to the corpse ‘I will not tolerate

incompetence. Prepare to strike camp; we move out soon, I’ll get the Tanarian scum myself.’

Saddened by the unnecessary loss of life from the army’s actions, he rode off into the night at last

allowing the tears to form in his eyes, he swallowed hard regaining his composure, the acrid

stench of burning buildings was thick in the back of his throat.



    Tamar was pleased with himself. It always took him forever to sleep, too many things

floated around in his mind, all of his perpetual planning was exhausting. Still, once back in his

fortress, he knew that nobody would be disturbing his sweet dreams. The Su-Katii Warlord had

been easy to defeat. Turning his aggression and ego in on himself had been simple, disrespect

and frustration had easily altered his actions. Barrad had been an unexpected opportunity. He

had not expected to find one of such a pure heart so close to one whose ideals had become so

warped over time. Without the ritual Su-Katii tattoos to ward off his magic he had unrestricted
access to the young general’s mind and dreams, yet surprisingly he had not needed his magic, just

a rational conversation had done the trick.

    With one problem resolved he began to think through the others. Bellack and his sect still

needed to be stopped, but how? He had followed their trails through people’s thoughts and

memories but was yet to even pinpoint the hidden location of their lair. He sensed that their

magic was more powerful than he had first anticipated. Why had they fuelled this war and how

could it help his cause? There was always a reason to their every action, what had they to gain?

No doubt their God Queen was ultimately behind their actions. All he knew was that they

couldn’t be allowed to destroy the nation and people’s lives at their whim. It now appeared to

Tamar that others were instead pulling their strings and shaping the world in their image.

However he would stand against them, after several attempts on his own life and being expelled

from the Magicians’ sect hundreds of years ago as the prize for obtaining an insight into their

ultimate goal, he had now decided to spend his every breath thwarting any conditions that would

aid in the God Queen’s release. She had lost the right to walk this world again and her promise

of everlasting youth to her followers had proved to be unsustainable - with diminished returns.

The most talented were summoned inside the temples structure to sleep with her, they would

have years of youth returned to them and would return infused with new found power, but when

they returned they would also be totally infatuated with her. When it had been Tamar’s turn he

had fled the temples grounds before even entering the rift. An uncontrollable urge of panic had

suddenly overwhelmed him and he knew that this sect was no longer for him.

    The morning began with the usual reports. Cedar, Tamar’s loyal servant and friend, bought

in fruit for the meeting. Once a slave but now freed by Tamar he had decided to stay on and

assist him. Cedar bore a large scar over his left eye where his former master had severely beat
him the first time that he had attempted to run away. Tamar had, over time, established a

complicated network of contacts and agents and that had sided with his views.

    ‘Reports please.’ he demanded.

    ‘The Tanarian army attempted a dawn raid against Army Group West, it was repelled with

heavy casualties and they are now in a state of rout, relayed Cedar.

    ‘And what of Nordheim?’

    ‘The region has almost been restored to order as the possessed have moved out, they are

attempting to storm the Great Gate, only a few of those controlled remain in the settlements.

However I fear, the psychological effect of slaying their kinsmen and families has all but

destroyed their will to fight.’

    ‘Yes,’ nodded Tamar, ‘I hate to admit it but the nastiest elements of their plan are also the

most effective.

    ‘What of the north-east?’ enquired Tamar.

    ‘The Tanarian forces have mobilised successfully? The 6th and 8th Regiments have managed

to avoid the open field at the moment and are pulling back in an ordered retreat into the

mountains,’ reported Cedar.

    ‘Then at last we have some good news, we still have an army to use,’ Tamar smiled as he

spoke.

    ‘It is obvious that the Brotherhood is ultimately after this region and it will not be long until I

discover why. Bellack had Thulsa create an extra war band to control the east. If we can still

maintain a strong army in these lands, we can hopefully spoil their plans. There is nothing in this

region worth fighting over, just the mines I suppose, but he could easily have brought the crystals

rather than start a war over them.’ His face was thoughtful as he mulled over the only resource in

the region.
    ‘Ah of course, I think I know what it is he seeks.

    Sorus, another skilled in the arts of magic, stepped forward.

    ‘So this war was manipulated for the conquest of the crystal mines?’

    ‘Yes, I’m afraid so, but not crystals – a crystal,’ replied Tamar. ‘The Brotherhood of Keth

has found a way to harness a dormant power inside of the crystals to bring chaos to our nations,

but they lack the power to free their Queen, they lack the size to hold enough power to break her

free of the rift. Even gathered together they do not multiply their powers, I know I tried it years

ago but I must admit I had no idea of how dangerous the crystals really could be at the time. If

you recall just over two month ago the miners in the Bacu mine reported finding a massive single

formed crystal - I believe they called it the Moomran crystal. If they can harness it’s power, this

single crystal could hold the potential to do untold damage or maybe even free their God. I

suggested to my friends on the Tanarian council at the time that they should take it to the capital

where it should be kept safe under lock and key. How stupid of me, if I had known the threat at

the time I would have had it destroyed. It seemed a shame to destroy it when we were not sure if

we could use this crystal for our own good, we would just need to learn how to harness its powers

correctly. The Su-Katii order was naïve to think that they are the only ones following the old

imprisoned Gods. But let me tell you Sorus, they were imprisoned for all eternity for a reason

and I am not ready to find out that reason.’

    ‘Do you believe they can force her release?’ queried Sorus.

    ‘At first I didn’t think so,’ admitted Tamar. ‘At least not until the discovery of the Moomran

crystal, it was so large that a team of twenty horses would be needed to extract it from the

ground. This stone is no natural phenomenon; it was buried from a time long forgotten and holds

immense powers. Don’t worry too much about it yet Sorus, it’s not going anywhere fast; its still

in the ground. They need to widen the mine shaft first, it will be easy to watch – we will destroy
it only if we must. No, what we need to concentrate on first is making sure that the Northern

gates don’t fall to the controlled ones and get the Tanarian fighting units better organised to keep

the mines behind our lines.’ Sorus nodded his agreement for Tamar’s plan.

    Tamar rose and paced backwards and forwards as he spoke. His agitation was evident in his

voice.

    ‘I have spent a considerable amount of my time and effort in finding and acquiring artefacts

of power and the right people to pave the way to counter this growing threat, but I think that we

may need to bring one more into our fold, the problem is, it could be very dangerous to do so.

    ‘Dangerous?’ questioned Sorus.

    ‘Aren’t we safe here with the mist orb concealing our location?’

    ‘No Sorus, we are not, not if they gain the power of the crystal, but the danger that I am

talking about involves bringing a killer into our house.’

    ‘What?’ said Sorus. ‘I see it as our only chance to turn this situation around. The Tanarian

forces lack any real leadership and when I set about the sequence of events that deprived the

enemy of their leader I discovered another hope amongst their ranks. I think he has already

chosen his side, but I was unable to delve deep enough into his mind to be sure.’ Sorus cleared

his throat and spoke.

    ‘Tamar, I know your particular talent lies in the dream world, but let’s not rely on dreams

ourselves. If you intend to bring danger in to our house we need to be sure beyond doubt?’

‘Sorus, I have made up my mind, the risk is calculated, please, take what you need and go and

recruit me a general.’

    ‘If you are going to start recruiting from the Aristrians…?’ Sorus began to protest.

    ‘He is not Aristrian, he is Su-Katii,’ cut in Tamar. Sorus almost choked on his grape.
    ‘It just gets better all the time. Let me just register my concerns with your plan now, what

madness ails you?’

    ‘Your concerns are noted, but we need him all the same. Sorus you are going on a journey,

take a trip to the armoury and move with haste.’



    I must be crazy, Barrad thought as he rode on through the morning. He had managed to blag

his way past two patrols with no official orders, but then very few were brave enough to

challenge him. Obviously being a Su-Katii knight was proving most useful when on the run. As

soon as the patrols got close, they didn’t even ask for papers they simply waved him on. On the

downside it wouldn’t be difficult to track someone as distinctive once the bodies were

discovered. Perhaps a disguise would need to be employed at the first opportunity.

    Still his father had been right, Thulsa had been a snake and it had been worth it this morning,

just to see the surprised look in his dying eyes. His twenty years of hard living had obviously

slowed his reactions. He chuckled to himself; fate had a wicked twist to it. Thulsa had spent the

last twenty years longing for a war and then, in the first fight he had had, he couldn’t even draw

his sword quickly enough.

    ‘Ah,’ he pondered ‘How many times did I die before I could draw my sword in time – was it

twice?’ His mind drifted back to recall Hadrak the God-King personally congratulating him on

stopping the blow, drawing his short sword in time to block the blade. It had been on his fourth

attempt; that he had at last worked out how to read the movements of his opponent instead of

following the blade. He had reacted swiftly after the six minutes of stillness, waiting and

watching his opponent for the moment that he knew would come. The drill involved the student

kneeling on the ground, sword in its scabbard, waiting for the blow to be dealt. In later lessons

this would be repeated blindfolded.
    His corpse had been thrown from the Temple three times before, a harsh reality of the

Temple’s teaching. It truly was the school of hard knocks. This time the blow was delivered as

his teacher approached from Barrad’s right making it difficult to angle its deflection. Barrad had

noticed the teacher’s knee bend slightly before his feet widened to gain better balance for the

blow’s delivery and had immediately reacted, stopping the blade inches from his face. He sighed

with relief. That had actually been the second lesson of thousands at the Temple of War.

    The first lesson of the temple was how to die. His teacher had drawn his sword and ran him

through while he was still fumbling around trying to attach the scabbard. He remembered the

searing pain and agony looking up into the crimson sky that surrounded the Temple, as he lay on

the ground - a human kebab struggling to mouth the word ‘Why?’ With his life blood draining

into the ground he passed away.

    Filled with disbelief and amazement he found himself waking up by the Pillars of the

Righteous, the great amber pillars that marked the entrance into the Vortex that led into the Rift

and the ‘Temple of War.’ He pulled himself from the ground and turned, a red cloaked warrior

awaited him, ready to lead him back through the Vortex to the Temple of War again.

    ‘How...? But I was slain?’ The answer was short.

    ‘To be the best you must know what it is like to lose everything from your inaction. Now

follow me back in boy and learn.’ Barrad quickly learned to act swiftly, the price for failure was

death …and death was an exceptional teacher in the temple for it only lasted as long as the

student’s heart remained inside the rift. On the occasions when Barrad paid the ultimate price,

his body would fail to decompose, awaiting its return to life once again after being ejected from

the Temple. Barrad had often wondered what held the God-King inside the Temple for he

certainly appeared incapable of leaving, it must have been some kind of time negating magic that

held Hadrak within the Prison’s rift. Yet its effect meant that the temple was the perfect Su-Katii
training ground as, after a trainee’s death, life on the outside would resume at exactly the moment

the trainee’s heart and body were ejected.

    As the years of training went by inside the Temple of War, Barrad discovered that the world

outside had hardly moved on and yet inside Barrad had achieved several lifetimes of gruelling

tasks. The law of the Temple also demanded that time be spent on the outside to live a normal

life, which sometimes proved very difficult to keep focused on. But in reality the life outside the

Temple was restricted. They were confined to the Island of Cardus where few were permitted; it

was a community of old warriors put out to graze. Most of the time they were quite dull

although, when they could remember them, they could tell amazing war stories. Barrad’s father

had remained active, too active for an old man. He died of a heart attack on a mission shortly

before Barrad’s graduation, for even the greatest Su-Katii knights had to answer the boatman’s

call outside the Temple. What seemed like eighteen years on the outside was in reality more than

several hundred years of training and easily more than one thousand deaths in the Temple. How

could any mortal man stand toe to toe against a young warrior who has embraced death with

every false movement?

    As a Su-Katii novice with several hundred years’ of practice, it was no surprise that the

officer who had attempted to slay Barrad in the Bear’s Foot had fallen so swiftly. But the War

Lord Thulsa’s quick death had been a complete surprise to Barrad as he had fallen to the very

first moves that were taught to Su-Katii children. This was indeed a paradox that greatly

entertained Barrad during his ride. The mighty Lord Thulsa with his craving for war had been

felled by the most basic of moves.

    The sun was at full cycle in the sky now and he would require water and provisions

regardless of which path he decided to take.
    As he pondered his future as a mercenary, a small dot of a tree could be seen on the horizon

of the great flat grassy plain that stretched before him. His horse naturally headed for the distant

feature. Barrad lifted his trail canteen to his lips and drank sparingly; he had prepared provisions

to be separated from the armies for a short period of time, but not for weeks on the run. Food and

water would soon be a priority for him, as the grassy plains relied on the rainy season to maintain

its lustrous colour, but it was not due for another month at least. Barrad knew from his training

and logistics lessons all too well that in this climate, with his current equipment and armour load,

his life expectancy without water was around three days. With half a canteen of water for him

and his horse and with little food to digest he could last perhaps five days. This gave him almost

a week’s range before replenishing his supplies, which could prove difficult for an enemy general

in an occupied land.

    His overactive mind continued the perpetual planning that was now second nature. The

distant tree was a definite wedge shape now, which meant it was approximately one thousand

yards away as the detail could not yet be made out. At one hundred yards he would be within

range of a cavalry bow. This was the way a Su-Katii warrior passed away the boredom of a long

trail – plodding along but keeping his mind ever active. The tree would soon be in harassment

firing range, one hundred and fifty yards, the repetitive lessons on judging distance were difficult

to push from his mind.

    ‘Oh Barrad, you are such a saddo,’ he sighed out loud. As he did so a faint musical sound

filled the air, it sounded so strange to hear a flute being expertly played in the middle of nowhere.

It was the last thing he expected to hear. The music was clearly coming from the tree. Intrigued

he steered his mount in directly towards it, perhaps the music was a distraction – he checked the

ground for signs of camouflage or movement – none.
    Notching an arrow to the composite cavalry bow, Barrad’s horse slowly ambled towards the

tree, the music grew louder and its tempo more excited. At the base of the tree on a small rug sat

a small man, his robes were of fine embroidered silk, vivid colours of gold, red and black, Barrad

wondered how he had not seen them from further away. But the sun must have silhouetted the

tree hiding the man who sat at it base, cross-legged. The man looked up and smiled. He was old

but still had a chirpy look about him, he swayed with the rhythm of the music that he played; his

eyes slightly slanted like the people Barrad had seen living in the Steppes.

    The man stopped playing and looked up at twenty yards, still a safe distance. He was bald

apart from some short grey wisps of hair around his ears.

    ‘You took your time Barrad.’ He exclaimed with a hint of familiarity in his tone. It

reminded Barrad of the tone in which his father would talk to him if he had failed to complete a

task.

    A little taken back at his name being used he replied.

    ‘You have the advantage over me sir.’

    ‘No general, it is you who has the advantage over an old unarmed man.’ Barrad lowered his

cavalry bow; there were no combat indicators present.

    ‘You are misinformed old man; I am a general no longer. You choose an unusual location

for your music practice, but I guess it is paying off because you play the flute well – what name

do you go by old man?’

    ‘My name is Sorus and I enjoy a good piece of music whilst I’m waiting for a good general

to ride by.’

    ‘I will be sure to let you know if I see one,’ smiled Barrad.

    ‘You had better let me know then, as I’m looking at the new general of the Tanarian

resistance forces.’ Barrad gave a mock glance over each of his shoulders.
    ‘I think that the sun must have scorched your exposed head a little, old fool.’

    ‘Old - yes, fool – no. Barrad, it is you who would be the fool if you cannot see how clearly

your path is forged to regroup our broken Tanarian forces into a cohesive fighting force once

again – anyway, enough chatter, we both know that you will mull over these words and then

agree to your new post - Fighting is in your blood, besides you have nowhere else to go and a

heart filled with pride. Come on now, let’s go.’

    With that the little man threw a white diamond onto the grassy plain and a great hissing and

crackling filled the air about it. Barrad’s hairs stood on end and his nostrils filled with the stench

of sulphur as a great shimmering portal appeared on the plain and small secondary lightening

sparks radiated outwards.

    ‘Impressive,’ thought Barrad, as the little man, flute in hand, jumped through the portal, the

sound of ‘Follow’ echoing behind him. Easy for Sorus to jump through, but Barrad’s horse was

not so keen to follow. It was near to panic at the sudden appearance of the portal. He tried to

dismount as another flare of lightning sparked and the horse reared up in panic. Fighting vainly

to maintain control of the beast Barrad was eventually thrown from the saddle.

    ‘A curse on that little weasel,’ Barrad muttered rubbing his bruised bum as he entered the

portal.
                                     CHAPTER 7 – MEMORIES



    The small group cautiously moved off into the night, the two warriors at the front, wooden

spears at the ready, the two women watched the rear. Elements of the town were still

smouldering and small embers of charred debris blew about the deserted streets and buildings.

    ‘Welcome to my home,’ whispered Corvus, trying to raise the group’s spirits. ‘If we go to

that building,’ he pointed to a sturdy building with a tower, ‘That is a guard house. It is

defendable and will have weapons, armour and provisions inside. It’s one of the few buildings in

Croweheim made entirely from stone.’

    As the group approached the already open doorway of the structure, a handful of yellow

crystals flew through the doorway to land near their feet. A bright yellow light radiated out from

the crystals illuminating the whole area. From the shadows of the door way a dark figure stepped

forward into the light, sweeping his black cloak backwards from his shoulders. It floated to the

ground revealing a shining silver breastplate engraved with two golden dragons facing each

other. His hands rested on two fearsome blades, his fingers caressing the hilts lovingly. Every

member of their group froze in unison.

    Through his crested helm, the warrior confidently addressed them.

    ‘Greetings travellers I have been waiting for you, my name is Titus and I thank you for your

efforts of bringing these women to me. Hand over the two females now without any fuss and I

will let you two nobodies continue to live your mundane existences.’ He drew one of his blades

and slowly pointed at Corvus and Henrick.

    Corvus’ shuffled his feet, his anger and rage clearly swelling up within him; Henrick sensed

his tension and grabbed his arm.
    ‘Be careful.’ he hissed, ‘I have heard rumour of some killers and arena fighters who have

fallen from the Su-Katii path, I think from the look of him that he may be one of them.’

    ‘You are almost right stranger. I am no reject from their training; I was once the finest of

their Order, so you should know that to face me will mean your death. Make your choice

quickly. You still have a chance for your lives.’ He tapped his sword in his hand, studying their

reaction.

    ‘That one,’ he said, pointing at Tress, ‘The price on her head is the same dead or alive and I

care not which. You will comply at once with my command, or die. Athene and the Tyranny

will surrender and return with me at once.’

    Athene shivered as she heard her name used, how did this man know her name and what did

he mean by the Tyranny?

    ‘You others are worthless to me and may leave. I have no contract on your lives; walk away

now whilst you still have legs to carry you.’ The sound of hooves filled the town as a group of

horsemen rapidly approached, those involved in the stand-off turned to face the newcomers.

    A sinister group of mercenaries dismounted before entering the narrow street, there must

have been at least a dozen of them, their horses were bathed in sweat for they had been riding

long and hard.

    ‘What have we here lads?’ The lead mercenary spat out his words full with contempt.

‘Looks like the bitch has found some company.’

    ‘It just means a few more lambs for us to slaughter,’ said the bearded man behind him. He

raised his spiked mace threateningly, patting its large steel head.

    ‘Hand over that one,’ commanded the leader, he pointed at Tress, ‘Or die.’
    ‘You have quite an extensive fan club Tress. This is getting repetitive,’ remarked Henrick.

At the same time Corvus stepped out in front of his comrades, his roughly cut spear levelled

towards the group of newcomers, he shouted out at them.

    ‘You are trespassers here in my Kingdom. If you want the lady – just try and take her you

toothless bastard, I’ll show you what a lamb I am.’

    The mercenary leader quickly replied in a mocking tone.

    “With that twig the worst I should fear is a splinter.’ Tired of the standoff he raised his hand

and indicated to his men to take them.

    Laughter spread amongst his men as they begun to advance, until the sword flew through the

air and punctured the toothless bastard’s chest. The man’s blood splattered across the faces of the

warriors behind as their leader fell. Titus swiftly leapt over the dying man, his black cloak

swirling about him, in a flash his secondary blade was embedded deep into the nearest

mercenary’s groin, scattering rings of broken chainmail to the ground as the blow landed.

Retrieving his thrown sword from the body on the ground, the black cloaked Titus was already

accessing his next target and the screams of the injured man filled the air behind Titus as the

mercenary realised his manhood had been skewered. A large axe was swung towards the head of

the black cloaked warrior who moved with exceptional speed and precision, surprisingly into the

blow, blocking the axe with crossed blades and sending a vicious riposte into the assailant’s face.

    The rest of the mercenaries immediately fanned out to surround the black cloaked warrior.

They were now more cautious circling the man seeking a weak spot, but none wanting to be the

first to make a move. Titus proclaimed from under his helmet.

    ‘The women are mine to take – as are your heads now,’ his words were made all the more

chilling by the utter calmness of his tone. With that Titus propelled himself forward beneath the

nearest assailant’s guard, sending his first blade through the man’s unprotected armpit while his
second blade simultaneously deflected another warrior’s lunge. Every move from the group had

been read by Titus and his swords now rained a thunderous series of lethal blows on the last of

his opponents, the man was an animal butchering all that stood in his path.

    Titus evaded a blow that would have killed any ordinary man and turned on his last

remaining attacker, who had overextended his reach with his vicious missed blow. Titus’s blade

lashed out striking aside his opponent’s sword while his second blade hammered home directly

through the warrior’s breastplate. The dying man’s eyes rolled upwards in disbelief at the force of

the blow and gasping his final breath fell to the ground. The blood splattered Su-Katii was

encircled by the dead and dying warriors, a familiar sight to Titus. Coolly flicking the blood

from his blades he cleaned and sheathed them, then turned to face his former prey.

    The door to the guard-house slammed shut and the deadlock clunked solidly into place.

Inside, the group breathed a sigh of relief. They had no intention of waiting around to see the

inevitable outcome of the fight and had taken up refuge in the stone guard house.’

    ‘Did you see the speed of that man?

    All of them dead within seconds.’ Athene was amazed. Before this week the most violence

that she had witnessed were just the alcohol fuelled brawls and the occasional stabbings in her

mother’s inn, none of them fatal. Now she trembled with shock and adrenaline, the reality of her

situation began to dawn on her that a professional killer of fearsome ability was now hunting her.

Somehow sensing her distress Henrick gently patted Athene on her back.

    ‘Sometimes my dear, running is the most sensible choice, I’ve seen one of these Su-Katii

fight before, it was along time ago when I was back in the Tanarian Lancers. There were a large

band of Uphrian raiders terrorising the villages up in the Hinter Mountains. The fighting grew so

ferocious that the raiders had routed the local garrison, so they sent for help. Luckily a Su-Katii

general was in the region conducting a training exercise and he managed to reorganize the
demoralised troops. I was part of the relief column that rode out with him, but instead of just

sending the troops in to deal with the raiders again, he called them all together and told them that

they would all be returning home to their families shortly, but before that was possible, he needed

their help with the clean up. He then rode out alone, as bold as brass directly into the raiders’

camp. Their archers fired at his approach, but he cut the arrows from the sky before they could

strike their mark. Their strongest warriors then charged at him, but he swept them aside like

children. Anyone who stood before him was reaped like the summer hay. As I recall it was

almost like watching a dance – a dance of death. True to his words he slew the raiders’ leader

and any that stood in his way, only three of his men were wounded in the ensuing fight as they

rushed to his side and all of his troops returned home that night as promised. Unlike our friend

outside he was a good man and it was extremely rare to find a man who keeps his word. That

black cloaked warrior outside, he moves with the same precision as that Su-Katii general who led

us into battle that day. We should be cautious, from what I remember of the Su-Katii I have no

doubt that he has the ability to make good his words.’

    ‘Pah, I have not yet met a man that I could not best,’ growled Corvus, more to raise the

group’s spirits than in a spirit of bravado.

    ‘Let’s not find out,’ replied Henrick. Athene took her mind off things, busying herself by

preparing the fireplace with logs stacked nearby; she craved warmth after her gallivanting about

in this frozen wasteland. All she needed to find now was some kindling and a flint and steel,

Nordheim was still a backward nation in many ways.

    Realising that they were now trapped Tress then suggested that they should first ensure that

the place was locked down tight before finding out what was at their disposal in the way of food

and weapons. As she said this she picked up one of the glowing yellow crystals by the doorway

and placed it high to fully illuminate the room.
    ‘You know,’ said Tress staring deeply into the light of the crystal, ‘These things are nothing

more than a by-product, an accidental waste from a great spell cast thousands of years ago, or so I

was told.’

    ‘By Krakan, I hate those things’ sneered Corvus, at the sight of the crystal, then he quickly

moved off to double-check all the locks and doors. He shouted over to Tress, ‘There is a

trapdoor with access to the roof of the guard tower, make sure it is bolted.’

    They moved about their checks quickly. Corvus went off to the armoury as Athene

rummaged through the cupboards eventually finding the means to start the fire and she was

delighted when she discovered a large stockpile of provisions.

    ‘Perfect,’ she thought, they were brimming with food, smoked meats, cheese, oat cakes, all

ideal for trail rations. There was even some fresh food that was still edible. She decided to get

the fire started rather than use any of the numerous crystals that still littered the floor, some were

shattered from the magic that had rocked the town, but there were enough blue ones still usable to

substitute the fires heat. She surmised that if their magic did not affect them the first time it was

unlikely to now. Besides she was not about to go outside to get away from them, instead she

kicked the crystals way from her, it would still be a long time before she could trust their use

again. Corvus returned from the armoury clearly impressed with the huge twin-headed axe he

had discovered judging by the dreadful smile on his face.

    ‘Has anyone checked to see what our stalker has been up to?’ asked Tress.

    ‘I would have expected an axe beating at the door by now, or perhaps a fire or…’ Corvus cut

Tress short speaking as if addressing a crowd.

    ‘This building was constructed with one thing in mind, defence. The thick oak door was cut

and reinforced with steel and the stone foundations were dug deep. It would take considerable

time and effort to try and force us out.’
    ‘What hope do we have then? Should we just try and sit this out, I don’t think that he will

leave …or what do you suggest?’ Athene asked. As they spoke Tress’s inquisitiveness took over

and she opened one of the archers’ arrow slits that lined the wall, letting in the cold night air. She

strained her eyes against the darkness trying to make out any movement in the deserted streets

beyond. Suddenly her head jerked backwards as a throwing knife whistled past her nose through

the three inch opening, clattering harmlessly against the wall behind. Henrick bounded over and

quickly closed the hatch.

    ‘Don’t get nosy or you’ll lose it – make sure you keep them locked shut.’ he cried out.

    ‘That was close,’ exclaimed Tress with relief, her heart was still pounding and now she just

felt a little ashamed at her curiosity getting the better of her brain.

    ‘I think it is safe to say that our friend is still out there and has a modicum of skill with

daggers as well as swords,’ Henrick said, extending his arm to comfort her.

    Athene glanced across the room and noticing Henrick’s arm around Tress and her head

nuzzled close to his chest, she could feel the jealousy rise in herself. She knew that there was no

true emotion in the action, she was just weary and cooled her mood by distributing some

watered-down wine and cured ham hoping that a meal would warm their spirits and her own.

    ‘What should be our next step then gentlemen?’ asked Tress finishing off a large chunk of

ham. Corvus replied with his public speech tone of voice.

    ‘With no immediate escape plans between us, I believe that the most important thing at times

like this is a good night’s sleep. Henrick you take first watch, good night,’ and with that he rolled

over towards the large fireplace and embers that had now settled to a warm glow, he drew his

cloak over his eyes and promptly fell asleep.

    ‘Where on earth did you find him?’ questioned Tress sarcastically.
    Henrick stalked round the various rooms often freezing completely still and straining to

listen to the side of the door or window shutter, Athene could not help but watch him, every time

he stopped Athene’s heart would miss a beat. She soon decided that it would be a long and

stressful night if she continued to watch him so she turned her attention to Tress who sat

sharpening her boot knife.

    ‘You mentioned the origins of the crystals earlier; please tell me more about them. I know

that they are valuable, but I had hardly heard of them before my time on the Merchants’ trail.’

    ‘Very well, I’m no expert on the matter, but I used to have a master who …I mean, an

associate of mine who used to practice in the ways of magic and would tell me of events from the

past. He once told me a tale that explained the origins of the crystals and their magical

properties. He explained that the beings that we currently perceive as our Gods were the

offspring of a mighty magician from a foreign world, his powers were beyond belief and the tales

suggested that he was the founder of our civilization and that with his arrival he brought magic to

our world. His wife was from his own world and also a powerful enchantress. In later years

when their children had grown to maturity, becoming young adults, there was a treachery

uncovered within the family. I guess it’s in a person’s nature to crave power. As I understand it,

not all of the children were guilty but through a deception each of his three children were

implicated in some way and with great sadness in his heart he prepared to deal with his children

in his own way.

    Unfortunately the magician’s considerable might did not match his wisdom as he spoke of

the events and his final decision to his wife. In some versions of the story it was his wife who

was deceived into twisting his spell in order to save her children, tricked into believing that he

would bring harm to her offspring she sabotaged his magic. Instead of ending their lives, his

spell was reversed and ended up preserving them, in another version that I read he was merely
casting a spell to reveal the truth in their words, but in either version the magic ended up

entombing their children and burying them deep within several rock faces for an eternity and at

the cost of her own life. The magic gasses created from such a spell were enormous and hung

like clouds in the sky for days, eventually they sunk downwards into the ground and settled,

penetrating the porous rocks solidifying and eventually, in time, crystallizing.

    ‘It’s amazing how these tales manage to survive over so many hundreds of years, I wonder

how much truth is actually in them?’ added Athene.

    ‘It was thousands of years ago – and we know because the children still exist to tell of such

things. That one who waits outside for us, he serves one fraction of them – he is ‘Su-Katii’ and a

warrior of the God-King Hadrak, child of Myridin the Great. All that are bound to him, follow

the path of the warrior and a life of battle. The others that have brought destruction to this land

and who I suspect are behind the war that threatens our nation, are the followers of Queen

Soredamor, the second child entombed. The members of the ‘Brotherhood of Keth’ are her

followers; they are bound to her will - with each one of her followers also becoming her lover on

achieving rank in their sect. She is said to have beauty beyond compare and her Brotherhood will

stop at nothing to meet her requests. They all love to meddle in our affairs as they have none of

their own.’ She sighed.

    ‘I never knew such events had gripped the world or that such people existed,’ gasped

Athene. ‘But you mentioned that there were three children imprisoned for eternity – what

happened to the third?’

    ‘King Hadrak documented him as dying with his mother but to be honest nobody knows –

the imprisoned ones have little knowledge of their peers, perhaps we just have not found his

resting place yet? Anyway I digress - back to the crystals. I once read in an ancient text that

surmised that many elements were combined in the great spell that shook the world. After the
magic was dealt, excess gasses escaped the orbs that imprisoned his children in a new dimension.

Each magical gas contained an element that was designed to sustain their requirements for

comfort and immortality. Their mother had reversed the effects that were designed to strip them

of these properties. Warmth, light, strength and regeneration from injury were the primary

elements, although the page of the scroll that I read these details from was badly damaged and

there appeared to be more effects listed. But I would not read too much into these ancient

legends and inscriptions – I once read another that told that we were all descended from frogs.

    Athene at last relaxed and showed the fainted curl of a smile at the suggestion. ‘You know

Tress I wish I had met you before all of this.’ She reached over and gave her a hug, inwardly

chastising herself for her earlier feelings of jealousy and then retired to one of the deserted guards

bunk beds that lined the wall.

    ‘Good night,’ she loudly whispered and rolled her face into the darker side and fell asleep.

    Tress’s dreams that night were troubled – not an uncommon experience, her talk of the past

had jolted the re-occurring memories of her dark years of slavery that returned to haunt her

occasionally. She could remember so little yet in her dreams a sudden and shocking image of

herself would often appear. Sometimes she would cry out loud in her sleep but fail to remember

the details when she awoke. Those dreams now took her back to her first mission for her new

master, Zerch, who after nearly six years of patient training had decided that it was at last, time

for a test run. Tress’s first test had been to steal the Heart of Ellacker, a great cut diamond the

size of a fist, it was said to contain the soul of an ancient princess. From her library studies she

could recognize most items of relevance and power at a single glance and recalled that the

diamond had the power to restore youth to its owner, it appeared to her that there were many

ways to restore lost years, if you know how. Zerch had tracked its ownership to a wealthy

merchant who had no idea of the relic’s purpose or powers, but the fool of a merchant knew how
to protect his wealth. His strong room had burly guards and protective magic seals to hold them

tight, (a fellow magician had tipped Zerch off after completing the assigned work for an extra

sum). It had been a late night when she had enticed the doorman to break the cardinal rule of not

allowing strangers in, but with her scantily-dressed clothing half-ripped from her imaginary

assailant he could not turn down the damsel in distress routine. Her cover story had been that of

a dancer returning home, she was trying to escape several brutes in the dark streets and had

happened to bang on the merchants’ quarters for help. The encounter had not been left to chance.

Zerch’s agents had followed all four of the men that worked in shifts in the kitchen’s that backed

onto the alley way door. Each man had been assessed regarding his attitude, and the single and

compassionate Anton, who regularly visited his elderly mother had been marked as the soft

touch, Zerch reckoned him the most likely to let her in. As he unlocked the door and put his arm

around the tattered girl to reassure her, she blew the magic compound into the man’s wrinkled

face. He instantly fell to the ground incapacitated. She then had the run of the household. In her

early days as the magician’s thief she did not have the luxury of her magical cloak to help her

complete her missions. Instead she had to do things the old fashion way, sneaking about through

the shadows and avoiding the creaking floor boards, she followed the layout imprinted in her

mind that had been supplied by Zerch, how he obtained the plans, she never knew. On tip toe she

was ever mindful that six guardsmen and two other servants also shared these large quarters

tonight. Her recurring dream would often miss out the smaller details as it replayed, such as how

she had passed the guards, disarmed the magic seal and picked the strong rooms lock on that dark

night. However her dreams never failed to replay the first time she had been forced to kill

someone. Like most killings it had been an act of necessity, yet even now she was still overcome

with remorse. The boy had been sent by a hungry guard to fetch a night-time snack and had

himself been bare footed and silent in his approach. As he padded around the corner he came
face to face with Tress, his jaw dropped and almost instinctively from her relentless training her

dagger shot forwards deep into his throat. He instantly collapsed like a ragdoll slumped into her

arms, covering her body with dark spurts of blood. She had gently put the body to the ground,

deliberately avoiding looking down at the lad’s face, yet in her dreams the head would always

turn and look up at her once last time with a horrified expression.

    Zerch had been a man of considerable means and power. She knew that he was part of the

Brotherhood yet he never seemed to have any contact with them. His past was unknown, but

without doubt he was not a man to be taken lightly and unusually, if necessary, he was not afraid

to get his hands dirty. He had coached Tress over several years – perhaps teaching her too much,

honing her skills in assisting his pursuit of attaining relics of power. He was hard on her but on

the whole not unkind; he had even mentioned the possibility of freedom on one occasion. Five

more years of service and the promise could be fulfilled, although Tress was realistic about these

promises and he had spent as long training her, yet he seemed to be searching for several items in

particular, perhaps he would make good his word and free her if she managed to steal everything

that he desired? As time in his service went by, the jobs that she had to undertake became

progressively harder and a lot worse. The long term seductions and betrayal of confidence jobs

were the worst, when she had to spend months turning her mark into her lover and the inevitable

betrayal that followed often petrified Tress. On one such job in distant Menchata she had even

genuinely started to cultivated feelings for the man. He had been a prince, which had helped fuel

the romantic influence that filled her mind, having never known such feelings could even creep

inside a young girl’s head before. After three months of a different life the betrayal had

devastated her as much as the prospect of no longer feeling his caring touch. Zerch’s hold over

her had been alarmingly strong but after she had discovered how life could be on the other side
she began to crave it more and more. She used every technique that she had been taught to hide

these new feelings.

    With every job the stakes got higher and when, on one occasion her misleading intentions

were discovered by her mark as she rummaged through his strong box, she was required to fight

for her life and Zerch ever near had needed to rescue her. With each successful job her master’s

trust in Tress and her abilities grew so that she was eventually entrusted with, and trained in, the

use of many spells of great practical uses, but of course none to equal her master. Tress was later

trained in the use of more powerful relics and items, including her current enchanted cloak. She

knew better than to let Zerch know quite how advanced she had become in some areas of her

training and of the growing fear of failure and capture, but he was a smart man and would be

close to realising it. She accepted that it was just a matter of time before she may not return

from one of her missions and she decided to act whilst she had the best tools for escape and

several years of her master’s trust. One night seizing an opportunity to escape she stole the relics

that she knew would keep her alive and ran.

    She was still running now.

    She rolled over disturbed by her last thought and her dreams were filled with nicer

memories, her romantic encounter in the bar. She had been so drunk that even the dream

replayed a hazy image. She had been so unusually full of joy that night, the feeling was so

overpowering that even dreaming about the night flooded her with warmth. Perhaps after all this

stupidity she would attempt to track down her lover and relive her experiences again. She

struggled to guide her dream into remembering his features. A face loomed back at her, his face

bore many similar feature of Zerch.
    She sat bolt upright suddenly awake in a cold sweat, looking about at the stillness of the

room, she reassured herself that it had only been a dream. She did not fall back to sleep but

unknown to her; she would never remember the encounter again.
                          CHAPTER 8 – LAMBS TO THE SLAUGHTER



    Thankfully, the night had passed uneventfully, the short bout of shouting and the taunts that

had initially echoed in the streets outside had ceased almost as quickly as they began, as if Titus

knew they were fruitless. Apart from their sleepy-eyed sentry duty and considering what awaited

them outside, everyone had slept rather well thanks to the exhaustion that had gripped them.

Feeling refreshed the group had first refitted their armour and weapons, finding something

suitable for everyone. Henrick had found a thicker chainmail vest than his previous ornate set,

which was a lot more practical for battle, and a full set of greaves to complete the set. On his

head sat a helmet sporting a winged serpent in the Nordheim style, Athene thought it hideous.

    ‘You’ll be seen for leagues with that monstrosity on your head Henrick.’

    ‘It’s all I could find that would fit.’ He insisted. Corvus broke down with a fit of laughter on

seeing Henrick.

    ‘You see, we’ll make a Nordheim warrior out of you yet,’ he jeered, which seemed to break

the tension that had been building up between them over the morning.

    ‘I’m sorry Henrick, but I really do think that helmet suits you.’ Corvus struggled to keep a

straight face.

    ‘It’s just strange to see a Tanarian wearing such fine attire. You know, in my army the

officers need to stand out above the men, it sets the standard as I’m sure you well know.’

    Athene needed some assistance pulling on the mail shirt that Corvus had selected for her.

She had embarrassingly managed to get the shirt stuck around her breasts but now her arms

wildly flailed the air, struggling to wriggle the protective links down over her lithe form. Both of

the men immediately jumped to her aid (which greatly cheered her up as she could not maintain
the pretence of the stuck vest much longer) and with one strong tug with both men pulling it the

shirt fell into place.

     ‘I thought your warriors were meant to have big chests,’ she giggled cheekily at Corvus as

her cheeks reddened noticeably. She then suggested that he had deliberately engineered her

ungainly introduction to donning armour by selecting an overly small vest, she cocked her head

to one side and gave him a sideways glance expressing her suspicions in a single look.

     ‘It was all that I could find in here, I’m afraid. Its one of the boys’ sets, so no need to lay off

the sweet cakes yet milady,’ Corvus smiled warmly, after giving her a mock bow he held his

position observing her stagger away. Athene awkwardly walked off in the armour trying to get

used to the unaccustomed extra weight that now hung from her, she stumbled before reaching the

provisions. She gathered up some eggs and a side of bacon from the fresh rations store and the

group were soon chatting while they ate a fine breakfast as if nothing could possibly be wrong.

The chatter stopped abruptly as a metallic clunk came from the roof. Heavy footsteps from the

tower above followed, all heads turned upwards reminding them of their predicament.

     ‘You did double-check the bolt on the tower hatch didn’t you?’ enquired Henrick quickly,

his eyes widening.

     ‘Of course, this place is locked down tighter than an innkeeper’s daughter,’ said Corvus.

Athene bit back a reply; she knew that Corvus couldn’t know of her mother’s profession.

     ‘Relax you lot. That hatch is also made from the finest Nordheim oak and is reinforced with

iron rivets. It would take a week to get through it.’

     ‘How then are you able to chop down those mighty Nordheim trees?’ asked Tress,

sarcastically.

     Ignoring both remarks, Corvus merely grunted, ‘More bacon please, Athene.’
    Titus methodically chopped away at the top hatch. The rope and grapple hung behind him.

How had his meticulous planning come to this? He had followed Tress’s trail – one pony riding

rapidly, did not require the mastery of tracking that he had acquired over the years. He had

judged that she would head for the Great Gate, but after the voice of Saznack, his patron, had

magically conversed with him, he had changed direction and headed towards Croweheim. He

normally worked alone but the mystic tip-off had saved him a lot of time.

    Having noticed the band of pursuing warriors’ slow pace, Titus had judged he would have

enough time to kill anyone who stood in his way before the mob’s arrival. What did Saznack

want with this Athene anyway? Why did they always insist that he took them alive? His

business was killing, not slavery. He cursed himself for losing the valuable time needed to

complete his task, by offering them a chance of surrender.

    ‘Always got to open your stupid mouth first,’ he muttered and cursed as he chopped, but then

his training had always been to where possible instil fear into an opponent first.

    If you can put doubt into their minds before a fight, then their battle is lost, but this time their

battle would have been lost on any account as it took more than a few men to better the mighty

Titus. ‘I’ll just do things quicker next time and keep my dammed mouth shut,’ he promised

himself. The axe head shattered on hitting a rivet. He cursed. Maybe fire would work better on

the main door he mused.

    Titus climbed down and started dragging combustibles towards the strong door, as Tress

took pot shots at him when presented with a target, she skilfully used a light cavalry bow that she

had found. She released her arrows through the raised firing posts of the upper guardhouse

structure. Her aim was true but this served no purpose other than to delay his work, as with

impressive dexterity he evaded or deflected every arrow. The Su-Katii warrior had now removed

his helmet as if totally unbothered by the pot shots and continued to casually deflected the arrows
that hampered him with a large round shield. He even took time to deliver a bow that infuriated

Tress in return to one of the close shots, such was his cool demeanour. Athene had become

growingly apprehensive at the action going on outside and as it appeared safe to look, she also

took a peep out from another arrow slit to reassure herself that it was only one man that stood in

their way. She was taken aback, she had not expected to be met with his young and vibrant

looks, sparkling blue eyes and short cropped blonde hair. From the commanding and grim voice

that had bellowed from within his helmet the previous night she had expected the dead eyes of a

scar faced killer. Yet she had already seen the truth that hid behind those sparkling eyes. Titus

whistled a merry tune as he coolly went about his business, he had always enjoyed his work and

considered himself the best at what he did. He had first moved the horses to a secure building to

stop his prey from gaining a quick escape, should they be tempted to dash out. Since these new

crystals had made an appearance, finding oil to smother the door with to produce a good burn had

been a difficult task but in the end you can always rely on a blacksmith to have some and he had

found a large vase of combustible oil down by the town forge.

    Henrick darted about inside, checking doors and locks to find out which would provide the

best protection should they need to rapidly retreat. Athene packed trail packs with rations and

equipment whilst Corvus produced a strong box from another room, after several hits from his

axe it opened. He distributed the silver coins found within, between them.

    ‘It’s not entirely the wealth that I promised you all but at least we have some coin if we need

it.’ With that Corvus just rolled over for a mid-morning nap. Athene returned and prodded him.

    ‘How can you sleep at a time like this Corvus?

    ‘Have you ever seen a lion Athene?’

    ‘Not in the flesh,’ she replied, confused at the large man’s question.
    ‘I thought not, as if you had, you would know that the lion is the strongest of all beasts, but

he can only maintain such strength by spending most of his life sleeping. I have saved you a little

space next to me if you decide on a nap.’ A faint smirk crossed Athene’s face as she pictured his

likeness to the giant cat. Tress rolled her eyes, more like an alley cat she thought, she shut the

arrow hatch and returned to the group, she spoke with a tone of remorse in her voice.

    ‘I should have just gone my own way when I had the chance. I never wanted to bring my

problems to you all. We’re now caged up here like chickens waiting for slaughter.’

    ‘No lady.’ replied Corvus, sitting back up.

    ‘When you want to trap a wolf, you must stake a lamb out in a field and wait.’

    ‘We are the lambs and the wolf is outside,’ said Tress. Corvus’ words were not reassuring to

her. Corvus smiled back at her,

    ‘Are we really?’

    ‘It would seem that lambs come in all sizes,’ added Athene ‘but still, who is waiting to trap

the wolf then?’

    ‘Well, as I’m sure old Henrick here would agree, it is not a good military practice to have all

your troops in one place. I, being a good military man, as well as King and Commander of all

Nordheim’s military, had half of my army in the field patrolling my borders at the time of the

feast.’ Corvus bragged.

    ‘There are borders and lands to protect at all times. Now, after finding Tress unharmed in

the wilderness there is hope that this magic has not affected others further spread out in my lands.

As long as they are still alive and are free-willed and loyal, they should be returning to camp for a

changeover later today or tomorrow. So, all we need to do is sit tight, eat well and sleep until my

thousand warriors return. I think that these are odds that even Tit-bit, or what ever his name is,

wouldn’t fancy …and that my dear is how you trap a wolf.’
       ‘Corvus, you old war dog, I could kiss you’ smiled Henrick, a sparkle of hope stirring within

him.

       ‘Well boys,’ pointed out Athene, ‘I hate to break up your newfound relationship but it would

appear that the wolf is also a fellow cook who prefers his lamb smoked.’

       The flames licked up around the main entrance, faint ripples of smoke crept under the door

and into the room. Tress quickly soaked a bed roll and plugged the gap. Luckily the wind was

directing most of the smoke down the side of the hard stone structure, as often the smoke is more

effective than fire at extracting people from a building. Henrick tested each of the many

longswords in the weapons rack for balance and weight, eventually settling on his third selection.

He also grabbed a large tower shield from amongst the armaments. Watching the burning door

he soon realised that Nordheim oak was not all it was cracked up to be. Scratching his stubble-

covered chin he considered their options and eventually he cried out.

       ‘I think I have a plan - your cloak Tress, it can keep you concealed right?’

       ‘Yes, as long as I am wrapped up tight within its folds.’

       ‘Good,’ replied Henrick,

       ‘Because I have noticed that the doors in this guard house have deadlocks on both sides of

the doors. Should that bastard get through the main entrance you could remain concealed on the

outer side of this door, then once he has passed through in pursuit of us you could lock the door

behind him from the outside. The next room leads to the tower and has a similar lock. If we can

manage to get both doors locked, we can trap that killer in the room and make our getaway out of

the tower hatch, then we can escape and run like hell, hopefully towards Corvus men. I spotted

through the arrow slit that the rope he used to inspect the roof earlier was still dangling down

from the tower.

       ‘I like your plan Henrick,’ replied Tress,
    ‘But if he gets across that next room and past the door, he’ll make mincemeat of you all.’

    ‘You’re right’ nodded Henrick in agreement. ‘That guy can certainly move. That’s why I

will be waiting in the doorway with my tower shield. If he makes it to the door I’ll have to bash

him back into the room to buy us more time, but hopefully it won’t come to that.’

    ‘If we arranged some obstacles in the next room, that may slow his advance to the door,’

Tress added.

    ‘Good thinking, Tress, you know I think we make quite a good team between us, two equally

devious minds.’ Henrick gave Tress a rare smile. He went back over the plan again as Athene

moved the trail packs next to the roof hatch.

    ‘If he reaches the door Corvus we only need to defend it long enough to get it locked,

nothing reckless. If you fight him, he will kill you, have you got that Corvus?’

    ‘Yes, yes I know - run away.’ A bottle of plum brandy smashed against the main door, the

flames intensified, roaring higher. The time went excruciatingly slowly as the door burnt away.

Their attempts to douse it with water were fruitless as the arrow slit windows were just too

narrow to throw sufficient water. Later, as the last charred oak slat of the main door fell into the

room, Tress whispered the magical enchantment and wrapped the cloak tightly about her,

vanishing into the surroundings. The sabre already in her sweaty palms glowed slightly, almost

feeding from stressed her emotions. The sword had been delivered to her by a man known as

Sorus shortly after passing in to Nordheim on Tamar’s mission. He had approached her on the

track playing a flute, In passing conversation he had quickly revealed that Tamar had sent him to

deliver a package, He told her that he had looked into her mind and had seen that she could be

trusted to wield a great power. He handed over the sword to her. He also mentioned that its

powers would aid her survival when facing the powerful Anak. He added that they still didn’t

understand the true power of the sword as it did not come from this world, but somehow they
knew it would be of use to her at her most desperate hour. They had been correct on both counts

and she was pleased that they had trusted her with it for it had already saved her life against the

void beast. She had thought it strange at the time that a magician should want to keep a sword

but it obviously had magical properties, although she had no clue as to its powers or origin – it

had not appeared in any of her manuscripts that she had studied.

    She pressed her back against the wall as debris from the burnt door tumbled inwards, big

plumes of smoke and burning embers filled the room. Safe within the folds of the cloak, Tress

did not cough or splutter – no smoke penetrated its magical fabric. A woodsman’s axe smashed

the remaining door fragments into the room, then the small flash of a shaving mirror could be

seen in the doorway as daylight flooded the room. Tress watched silently. This one was a very

cautious adversary. Even though he was obviously full of his own confidence, he still took no

chances before sticking his head through. The hot doorway was still difficult to pass and being

the most likely place to make a stand, the lack of defence had perhaps been a mistake, the killer

appeared more vigilant than first anticipated. Had he guessed their plan? Two silver blades

entered the room first, cat-like, he moved through the doorway immediately placing his back

against a wall. Another cloud of smoke blew in. He brushed the hot embers from his armour and

removed his helmet which was impairing his vision. This one was in no hurry. Henrick clattered

his shield, hoping the sound would quickly draw Titus in to their trap; he coughed with the smoke

as his eyes scanned the doorway looking for any traps or an ambush. It took Athene’s voice to

bring the killer into the next room. He rapidly moved forward towards the girl’s voice, past

Tress, into the doorway – two more steps and he would be in the perfect position to fully close

and lock the door behind him. Tress slowly moved to the door handle preparing to slam it shut.

Titus swung back around and focused on the smouldering doorway, hundreds of years of killer

instinct telling him that something was amiss. Henrick pushed open the door on the far side of
the room shouting abuse at the frozen form. Another gust of smoke swirled around the room and

Titus’s eyes followed it as the smoke traced around Tress’s invisible outline.

    ‘Gotcha’ he smiled as his sword lashed out.

    Time stood still for Tress as she realised what was happening. She threw herself sideways

into the door frame trying to bring her sabre to bear, the warrior’s first sword pierced her cloak,

just missing her leg and burying itself deep into the door frame, her cloak was pinned to the wall.

His second blade sliced across her wrist. Fortunately her leather greaves absorbed most of the

blow, but the cut to her arm was still deep enough to make her drop her blade in shock. Henrick

without thinking charged across the room to her aid, sending the tables and chairs that they had

strategically placed flying. Tress slipped out of her cloak as the warrior tried to pull out his

impaled blade. When he saw his prey slipping away, he sent a blow with his remaining sword in

her direction to finish her off quickly, Tress read the movement and twisted her head to one side,

the sword point just missed her head by a fraction. Titus twisted on the balls of his feet ready to

face the new threat; his blade thrust out at Henrick’s thundering form bearing down on him. The

huge tower shield absorbed the blow. Titus managed to evade the shield bash that followed, with

a deft sideways roll retrieving Tress’s fallen sabre as he did so. Now with Henrick between them

Tress threw herself backwards out of her assigned door, pulling her skewered cloak from the

sword that pinned it, tearing it in the panic and slamming the door shut. With a prayer for her

comrades Tress secured the sturdy lock. The sound of the continuing battle carried through the

thick door.

    Corvus clung to the door leading to the tower, ready to slam it shut in an instant.

    ‘Get your arse back here now Henk.’ The ex Su-Katii warrior immediately wheeled around

blocking Henrick’s retreat and repositioned himself into a new battle stance; his blue eyes

gleamed at the certainty of the victory to come. Corvus grabbed a stein from a nearby table and
threw it at the warrior, trying to maintain his position near to the door but also distract Titus who

was now sizing up Henrick like a hungry tiger. Without breaking eye-contact with his opponent

Titus’s backhand slash smashed the projectile in midair before it could hit its mark. Henrick

seized the opportunity and pressed his assault. His sword missed the agile target but the shield

bash that followed hit home hard, sending his opponent sprawling backwards, a trickle of blood

running from his nose. Henrick felt a surge of confidence as he closed on his stunned foe, time to

finish this upstart. Corvus’s further shouts of ‘Come on boy, run’ went unheard.

    Titus quickly picked himself up spitting a mouthful of blood to the floor while at the same

time managing to deflect Henrick’s attack.

    Both warriors rained a blinding series of blows down on each other, seemingly an equal

match. Unusually Titus found his anger growing, his rage flooding out like a burst dam. The

more furious his assault the stronger his opponent’s defence grew. Unleashing a near impossible

sequence of blows, Titus finally lunged forward, delivering a well-aimed thrust, which penetrated

the narrow gap between Henrick’s sword and shield, however it failed to penetrate his heavy

armour. Winded by the blow, Henrick kicked Titus backwards. Berserk with rage, Henrick

closed the distance and turning the tables he rained down a relentless assault on the heartless

killer, forcing Titus for the first time to go on the defensive. The runes engraved upon Tress’s

sabre pulsed with an ancient magic as Titus used the sabre to great effect, repulsing his attack and

gouging great grooves out of Henrick’s shield as he did so. The Su-Katii launched an ‘Appel,’

feinting a lunge, Henrick reacted swiftly and his sword passed cleanly through Titus’s exposed

thigh slightly lowering his shield as he extended his blow downwards. Without hesitation Titus’s

sabre struck out severing Henrick’s head from his neck, splattering the close walls in the falling

warrior’s blood. Athene screamed in shock as Henrick’s headless body fell to the ground.

Corvus cursed his loss as he slammed shut the inner door and slid the bolt home.
    Corvus braced himself against the door, but instead of the expected battering the bleeding

warrior turned and started to limp towards Tress’s door.

    ‘Damn fool. What kind of man doesn’t follow his own rules? Don’t fight him he said.’

Corvus half-muttered to Athene who still stood frozen in a dazed state of shock.

    ‘Quickly girl, get your arse up and out of that hatch, I don’t know how long these doors will

hold him.’

    Titus spotted movement through the thin gap in the badly-fitting door frame. Clutching his

deeply wounded leg, he stumbled and limped back to the door that lead to the main entrance

thrusting his remaining silver blade through the minute gap towards the shadow that was moving

behind. Tress, straining to view the combat inside, had already anticipated the wounded

warrior’s approaching blow and retreated backwards to a safe distance. As she did so, Titus’s

blade thrust through the door sending splinters flying through the air, but its travel was halted by

the large finger-guard. Tress picked up Titus’s discarded woodsman’s axe and smashed the

protruding blade. With the image of the blonde Su-Katii’s face in her mind; she unleashed her

rage until the broken sword fragments lay scattered on the floor. At that moment, Athene and

Corvus appeared breathlessly in the doorway, having made a rapid descent from the tower.

    ‘Come on, let’s get out of here.’

    As the three made a rapid departure, the sound of Titus’s curses followed. After a brief

discussion they decided that it was too dangerous to wait it out for the returning Nordheim

troops. Finding the secured horses they selected their steeds and sent the remainder scattering.

Corvus had wanted to slaughter all of the remaining horses, but the women now outnumbered

him, and being of a softer heart decided that they had all seen enough butchery for one day. He

decided not to press his suggestion.
    Titus sat on the floor, stopping his ranting only to apply direct pressure to his leg wound. He

was familiar with the best treatment for almost any type of wound but had never had to tend to

his own since his days in the Temple. Remembering back to his years as a youth in the harsh Su-

Katii training regime, first-aid had been paramount. The wounds had come hard and fast then,

injury from blades, blunt trauma and even animal attacks. The painful thoughts of the mauling

and lacerations were indelibly imprinted on the darkest recesses of his mind, however with the

use of the red crystals, treatment had now become much easier. He reached into his belt pouch

and pulled free a red crystal; he cracked it hard against the stone floor and placed it into the

gaping leg wound. It sizzled in his wound and smelt like frying bacon, making him feel sick,

rather than hungry at the thought. After regaining his composure he then kicked Henrick’s

corpse with his good leg, instantly giving himself an intense feeling of self-satisfaction. How had

this dead man managed to wound him? He had never suffered even a scratch in over two

hundred fights since leaving the Temple and they were just the ones that he could remember.

How many lives had he taken over the years? He replayed the battle in his mind as the crystal

continued to fizz in the wound, stimulating the healing process. The warrior had been easy to

read at first, his pattern of movement had been a typical infantry style. Titus had studied and

practiced over a thousand forms of combat over the years and the slain warrior’s moves had been

textbook Tanarian military. Two to three combinations practiced with heavy repetition, these

moves were more effective when used in a massed formation. Yet the dead man had quickly

changed to a variant of Nordheim freeform which had thrown him for it was not the newer form

in practice today; instead it was an ancient style like that practiced century’s ago, most strange?

    Titus remembered the anger he had felt at the point of the shield blow. The canny old

warrior had almost lured him into thinking he only knew one style of combat. It was

inconceivable that the dead warrior had lasted so long in combat against him, let alone wounded
him. He had needed to allow the opening to his leg and tempt the man into a small prize in order

to steal the victory. Titus had slain other Su-Katii knights before in half the time and with far less

effort than he had spent on this one. Something was not right. He looked down at the bloody

sabre. This was no ordinary blade he decided as he distinctly remembered seeing the sword glow

during the struggle. His best guess was that it appeared to feed from his emotions, then, in some

magical way transfer them over to the opponent, why would anyone ever design such an item?

He had heard of such powerful blades in half-forgotten legends. He decided to wrap the valuable

weapon carefully and take it with him… that was if he ever got out of this stupid room. The

blade was obviously far too dangerous for him to use, even if it was sharper than anything he had

ever seen before. Thinking back to the fight and his attitude at the time he guessed that its

powers changed with the mood of whoever wielded it. Who knows and what did it matter, for he

had far too much anger burning inside his heart to consider risking using this sword. He used to

fight without becoming angry with his mind devoid of thoughts, but after reflecting on his past

and what he had just been through, anger was now second nature to him and he would tap in to

this endless resource.
                                CHAPTER 9 – THE FALL OF A NATION



    The city was in a state of utter disarray after the messenger had delivered news of the

invasion.

    ‘How has this happened?’ were the words repeated in the streets and alley ways of

Tarctiania. The Town Square was filled with an angry and disbelieving crowd. The people that

swarmed the streets were of mixed emotion, a small group of troublemakers had even turned to

riot. The proud people of Tanaria could not believe their situation. After all, had they not paid

their taxes that maintained their armies and protected their borders? How had the Aristrian army

just managed to march right through the complex series of defences that had served their nation

so well in the Border Wars all those years ago? The Mirelands had proved to be a good natural

defence in the past, with only a handful of routes that could be traversed without finding yourself

up to the waist in mud. In times of peace it was not uncommon for many a drunk to simply

disappear on the return trip.

    It was inconceivable to the population of the capital that an enemy army was now past their

primary defence and could advance up through the open plains and into the heartland of Tanaria.

    High above the frantic streets where the crowds’ anger could barely be heard, the chancellors

met again in urgent discussion. They had all stood in the chamber several days earlier at a similar

meeting.

    Then, the hall had echoed to a different sound:

    ‘I’m telling you the Aristrian troops have crossed the line, they are not just on some practice

manoeuvre or large scale exercise, they really are intent on invasion,’ shouted Chancellor Orbath,

over the ruckus of the individual arguments that had developed amongst the ‘Council of Twelve.’

Another Chancellor waved his hands, trying to calm the noisy room as he stood up to respond.
    ‘Come now, it has all been blown out of proportion. My opposite number on the Aristrian

government assured me that they were only dealing with an internal issue. One of their generals

has turned against the government and ran for the safety of the marshes. The forces gathering in

the region are merely there to stop him from crossing into Tanaria and causing a diplomatic

nightmare.’

    ‘Why the massive internal troop movements then?’ shouted another man.

    ‘A general has supporters and troops; perhaps they don’t know how far their influences have

spread?’

    The only man dressed in armour in the room stood up, his two swords were handed in to the

magistrate before entering the chambers of council, and until now he had remained silent.

    ‘Gentlemen of the council, you know my position and purpose well, and as the only Su-Katii

member of the six that are currently present in your capital, I can assure you my voice speaks for

all of us. It is obvious that war is coming to Tanaria. The alarm has already been sounded, the

signal fires have been lit and soon the Aristrian army will be banging at your gates.’ He paused

for a few moments to let the true horror of his words sink in to the now silent men, then he began

again – every face in the room followed his movements and tried to read his body language.

    ‘Unfortunately my scouts have confirmed the enemy’s intentions. They have reported that

there are thousands of them already making their way through your borders, but fear not the order

of the Su-Katii has brought you twenty years of peace and we will bring you twenty years’ more.

I have already deployed the five other Su-Katii generals and their units to a state of full battle-

readiness and you will find our forces assigned to their form up positions. The Tanarian Lancers,

led by General Banok, will be ready to engage the enemy within a few hours. All I require is the

Council’s agreement that we can meet in battle and our troops will send the Aristrian scum back
over the borders in one swift strike.’ Towards the end his words had become a shout, sending

spittle into the air as the force of his speech reinforced his stance.

    ‘Lord Aden, you are ever the guardian of Tanaria, we will now vote, but we do not want to

repeat the troubles of the last war, I’m sure I speak for everyone on this matter when I say that

blood may only be spilt if the enemy are on our land.’ The Chancellors voiced their agreement,

as they did with their final vote. Lord Aden scratched his stubble on his lean chin. ‘You have

made the right decision, it shall be swift.’



    An unusual mist had settled over the ‘Great Illustrian Plain,’ yet this did not slow the pace of

the Tanarian lancers. As the elite of the Tanaria cavalry, each man was hand picked for his riding

skills and a little mist was not about to stop them. The unit pushed forwards determined to be the

first to gain battle honours against the enemy. The pace was not as reckless as it would at first

seem, for every rider knew all too well that there were very few obstacles or trees populating the

immense grassland that lead to the capital Tarctiania. The lead rider gave the hand signal that

denoted a watering hole ahead and the two thousand riders continued to ride into the area long

after the Su-Katii leader, Lord Banok had dismounted.

    ‘Before we meet with the hazards of the Mirelands and anything that the Aristrians can

throw at us I would like to address the men so have them form ranks before refreshing the

horses.’

    ‘Is that wise general, so close to the border? I think…’

    The officer was abruptly cut short by his general.

    ‘You are not here to think man. The men require inspiration to fire their spirits. Send out

the sentries and gather the men together, we are not frightened of a handful of Aristrian rebels.
Besides the men need to be addressed and briefed, for some of them it will be the first proper

combat that they have seen.’

    ‘Yes sir.’ All argument had quickly fled from the young officer and he rushed off ordering

the adjutants to form up their men in close order to be addressed by their commander.

    Lord Banok cleared the dust from his throat and begun his speech to the men.

    ‘Proud men of Tanaria, today we will face a peril that has remained dormant for over twenty

years.’ The rows of young faces intently followed their commander. ‘You are valiant men like

your fathers before you, and I know that you too will carry out your duty for your nation, as they

did years before.’

    The ground began to tremble and several faces looked at each other with a puzzled

expression. The elders amongst the ranks instantly recognized the trembling of the ground; they

knew what it sounded like to be on the receiving end of a full blown cavalry charge. Men

screamed in panic as the sentries sounded the alarm and they stumbled over each other frantically

trying to reach their lances and mounts. The first line of Aristrian cavalry swept out of the mist,

ploughing through the terrified Tanarian’ soldiers without mercy. With a smile Lord Banok

ceased his speech; the Aristrian riders parted ranks and passed by him. He threw back his

crimson cloak drawing his two distinctive Su-Katii blades, and with a war cry he charged into the

decimated Tanarians’ fulfilling his bloodlust and completing his betrayal.



    The city gate-house sounded its alarm bell as the tower sentry spotted the lone rider

approaching Tarctiania. The dusty rider’s weary head was slung low over his horse, but seeing

his home walls spurred him back into life again, his pace quickened and soon his shouted words

carried to the sentries.

    ‘Betrayed, he betrayed us all.’
    The sentries could now make out the Tanarian Lancers’ tabard on the rider’s chest. A group

of the city guards opened the gates and rushed out to meet the lancer. The man was bombarded

by questions, and confused, he did a poor job in answering them.

    ‘Speak clearly man, what happened?’ demanded the Guard Sergeant pushing back the others

out of his way.

    ‘The Su-Katii, they have betrayed us ...I don’t know if any of the others got away from the

ambush, but Lord Banok led us directly into a trap, then turned on us, I was lucky to get away.’

    ‘You lie, man,’ threatened the sergeant, ‘There were thousands of lancers?’

    ‘The whole regiment was decimated,’ replied the lancer grimly. ‘The Aristrian forces were

not a small group of renegades as we were lead to believe by our commander. I would say it was

more like an entire army group and they are heading this way, I’ve got to find my family, so

escape while you can, their army fills the plain.’ The lancer was almost hysterical, forcing the

unimpressed sergeant to give the man a slap to calm him down.

    ‘Now then son, if what you say is true that provides us with a bit of a problem, because I

have just marched back from the Halls of Council with the relief guards and the last remaining

Su-Katii in the city, Lord Aden, was entering the Chancellors’ chambers.

    Towering high above the city stood the Halls of Council, which had been built many years

previously on the natural hillside and had a commanding view of the winding and crowded

streets of the city below. Lord Aden was delivering one of his regular campaign updates to the

gathered Chancellors on how well the war effort was going. Since hearing the distant alarm bells

in the city, Aden’s attention had been diverted from his speech and he had manoeuvred himself to

a position near the large open window of the chamber that overlooked the city.

    ‘My generals have reported to me that their initial assault against the Aristrian rebels has

gone well and the enemy has been pushed back into the Mirelands, so…’ He stopped his report
as he spotted the squads of soldiers filling the streets, marching purposefully up the hillside.

There were about sixty men in all, with more falling in individually as they were mustered. ‘So

…the war will soon be over?’ questioned the grey haired Chancellor.

    ‘Yes it will,’ replied Aden as he walked towards the door, the Chancellors watched in shock

as his elbow thrust out smashing one of the two chamber guards directly in his wind pipe,

instantly depriving him of his weapon and pushing his falling body into the path of the second

guard who was in the process of drawing his sword. With a quick thrust he finished the second

guard’s struggle and also retrieving his blade, he spun around to face the stunned Chancellors

whose faces were now white as snow at his savage act. Glaring back at the accusing faces he

cleared his throat and with an ironic smile he spoke. ‘As I said gentlemen, for you the war is

over.’

    The screams of the dying old men brought further guards into the room. Their bodies soon

joined those of the Chancellors.’ Once again the rush of battle flowed through Lord Aden’s veins

and unbothered by the thought of the mass of men forming outside, he coolly reclaimed his own

swords from the weapons’ rack where he had been forced to check them in on his arrival, for not

even the Su-Katii were permitted weapons in front of the council. The temple tattoos were now

clearly visible on the back of his neck, burning red with magic as he waited by the door for the

clatter of soldiers coming up the stairs. He knew that he was already totally surrounded so he

would make them work hard for their pay today. In the silence before their arrival he whispered

to himself, ‘Wizard, you had better be as good as your promise or else I will find some way to

exact my revenge.’

    The armed men came running up the stairs towards the waiting Su-Katii, Aden had

reclaimed his day sack from the check-in desk. Tucking one of his blades under his armpit he

reached into the bag and backed away to the Council chamber’s entrance. The doors flew open
to the first chamber and a mass of men flooded into the room, they may have been soldiers but

they were not prepared for the scene of massacre and butchery that awaited them. Aden noted

the crossbow men in the lead and flung the bag that he carried onto the floor, he then sprang

backwards into the chambers of council. Several bolts thudded into the closing door as the bag of

red crystals skidded across the floor and amongst the men. Hammering began at the door as he

slid one of the dead guard’s swords through the handles, creating a temporary bolt, but he knew

that this would not hold them back for long. The tip of a sword could be seen already protruding

through the thin door as they hacked away at it.

    ‘Come on, hurry up you bastards, I’ve got something here for you.’ A bright light flickered

through the sword-holes and from under the door. Aden almost slipped in the blood as he backed

away deeper in the chamber, his sword raised in a defensive guard. The hammering on the door

abruptly stopped and silence followed the tortured screams beyond. Eventually curiosity took

over and he opened the door a little and peeked through. The mass of naked bodies had shed

their armour like a skin and they were now growing, deep red veins bulged and pumped the evil

magic through their bodies. As they grew, their skin took on a more craggy and darker

appearance, it would appear that this wizard really did have some skill after all. As he watched

on fascinated at the transformation, the beasts turned as one and smashed their way back out from

where they had entered as men.

    Now with his mission completed Lord Aden would easily be able to pick his way out

through the confusion and terror that was about to grip the Tanarian capital.

    In the streets of the town the Magistrate stood as usual, addressing the crowded market

square; his duty was to relay somewhat doctored information down to the population, and

maintain the morale in the city.
    ‘Peace will soon be restored to the furthest reaches of the Kingdom, fine citizens of Tanaria.

I have it on good authority that our brave soldiers have almost put down the Aristrian rebels,’

shouted out the fat magistrate.

    ‘You’re full of lies and shite’ shouted an anonymous heckler, and the town guards eagerly

sought to pinpoint the man.

    ‘Be calm people, please. My word is my bond, the war will soon…’ He never finished his

sentence as the stampede of giant Rock-Beasts came crashing through the huge wooden doors

that lead into the town square from the Chambers of Council. One of the doors, flung from its

hinges, crushed three of the bystanders before the beasts had even made it into the mass of

terrified people that scattered away from them in all directions. The beasts were heading to the

city walls crushing all who stood in their path.



    Saznack’s laughter was infectious and Bellack allowed himself the occasional chuckle as he

forced a Rock-Beast to stomp on a crying woman clinging to her baby. ‘Oops,’ he sniggered to

himself.

    ‘Well if you are allowed to squash some of these flies, I want a crack of the whip too,’

shouted Saznack in protest.

    ‘She just got in the way. Stay focused on the mission, we only have a handful to control this

time, so make it quick, destroy the fortifications first not the population.’ Immediately ignoring

his own words Bellack made one of his controlled beasts backhand a man through a wooden

fronted building, his smile widened. The dozen Rock-Beasts smashed their way through to the

outer city walls and began to rip apart the open main gate and surrounding defences. As they

went about their work the magicians casually chatted, ‘I don’t know why the Su-Katii were so

nervous about us holding up our end of the bargain? Had they any idea of the affront that the
Tanarian council has caused us these past few months they would have realised that we would

have carried out their work for free. I think that their subjects are actually better off without them

– what with their constant bureaucracy and refusals.’ Saznack nodded his agreement as he turned

one beast around to attack a group of armed men that had found the courage to attempt to stop

them. These few were easy to deal with, but soon they would come in greater numbers as they

realised the threat to the city’s defences.

    ‘To think the chancellors could have avoided their own deaths had they just accepted our

offer, the fools. Still, I am glad for their refusal as their pleading cries were far more entertaining

in the end. Did you hear that fat one cry for his mummy?’ Saznack spat out his last words with

true disgust, remembering the moment when their generous offer for the Moomran crystal had

been refused. The beasts worked together to pull down a watch tower as one of their number was

skewered by a group of soldiers bearing long pikes. Half of the remaining beasts swung around

to hold back the annoying troops, Bellack suddenly recoiled in pain, losing his control as a green-

robed Tanarian priest advanced forward with the warriors. His staff was extended high and a

green light flooded from its tip, Saznack shielded his eyes and was overcome with a wave of

nausea, then turned and vomited as his magic was broken.

    ‘Dammed priest, where did he come from?’ protested Saznack as he wiped his mouth on his

sleeve and looked down in rage at his breakfast coving his precious boots.

    ‘I don’t know, I have lost control, but I think that we did enough to finish the job,’ replied

Bellack.

    ‘The idea of a priest commanding that sort of power and being left loose in the city disturbs

me. The Aristrians’ have no one skilled in magic with their army, it could mean a delay in taking

the city,’ retorted Saznack.
    ‘Very well, for once you have a valid point Saznack; I think that we will get Lord Aden to

take a little detour and pay this priest a visit on his way out of the city.’

    ‘Now that sounds like a good plan to me,’ agreed Saznack.

    A household messenger rushed into the chamber, but paused as he saw the displeasure on the

faces on the two spell weavers, he nervously interrupted their conversation.

    ‘My Lords, the Aristrians’ have found her.’

    ‘Ah, good news at last, said Saznack. ‘Go and summon Marcus at once; we have a little job

for him.’

    The messenger was relieved that the news was agreeable; his predecessor had not fared so

well.



    The portal opened in the stale-smelling beer cellar of the Ravens’ Roost, and Marcus, captain

of Bellack’s personal guard stepped through. Spooked by his sudden arrival in the beer cellar the

group of Aristrian soldiers instantly reached for their weapons. It just took one look from

Marcus’s dark eyes to make the young soldiers freeze and rethink their movements. Marcus

introduced himself, his tone flat with no emotion in his voice and showed his papers. The men

had been stationed in the inn, holding the owner under house arrest. They had thought it strange

that the inn-keeper should be of any importance in this war, but then what did they care. The

posting had been a dream come true to the young men, because while their comrades were risking

their lives fighting a war, they were roughing it in the inn, with clean beds and the hardship of

taking it in shifts to drink the ale. Their war was fantastic, but as they say - all good things must

come to an end.
    ‘Where is the bitch?’ Marcus asked one of the wide-eyed youngsters. He pointed up the

stairs and Marcus moved off in the direction of his finger. Once out of earshot the young soldier

turned to his comrades and said;

    ‘Man did you see his eyes? I’ve never seen such hate burning in a person’s eyes before.’

    Another man replied, ‘Yes, I don’t think that our orders, that the woman should not be

touched or harmed will extend to him.’ A scream coming from the room above confirmed his

comment.



    Despite the loss of the warlord Thulsa, the Aristrian forces had gained a lot of Tanarian

territories in the initial invasion. Of the six Su-Katii generals that had been assigned to the

Tanarian side of the peace keeping alliance, only three remained alive. Aden, Algar and Banok

had carried out their missions of deceit successfully and had now joined with the Aristrian forces.

They had all known the dangers and had willingly embraced their missions. Aden, the Su-Katii

Lord, had been assigned to liaise and mislead the Government. He had slaughtered the Tanarian

Chancellors and now without the core of the republic leadership at the helm, the nation was slow

to react. Amid the chaos he had taken one more life and then slipped out of the city undetected.

He was rewarded with the position of supreme command on his return.

    Now with only the low and damaged walls to protect the capital, internal havoc and panic

raged through the city, the Tanarian relief commander made the hardest decision of his career.

He had decided that the capital was indefensible and would have to be abandoned. All forces

were to retreat back to the Western coastline, hopefully retreating faster than the Aristrian

invaders could advance. Rallying points were decided upon to provide a vital breathing space for

what remained of the Tanarian armies to attempt to regroup. Of the other Su-Katii generals that

had commanded Tanarian forces in the lead-up to the war, General Maraki, Commander of the
Eastern Division, had perished the night before the invasion. His treachery had been unveiled to

Tamar as he had followed the trail from Thulsa. In his dreams, the traitor had been identified

and, as the general slept, Tamar had him shamelessly murdered by the use of a poisoned blade

from one of his more specialised agents. But now the magician realised his miscalculation, he

had only uncovered the trail to three of their order so he had not uncovered the real extent of the

Su-Katii’s treachery.

    As the invasion began, the traitorous commanders’ final tasks had been to manoeuvre the

Tanarian forces into tactically unsound positions or to lead them directly into ambushes. Two of

the Su-Katii commanders had died in the relentless combat that followed, Algar was one of the

Su-Katii survivors, a true mountain of a man, at nearly seven foot tall. Unusually for a Su-Katii

he favoured the use of an enormous two-handed hammer rather than the typical twin blades.

Once he had lured his force into a dried-out riverbed facing an Aristrian ambush, none of his

former troops dared to challenge his waiting hammer. After the inevitable Tanarian defeat and

surrender, Algar had found himself oddly sickened by the screams of his former troops begging

for their lives as they were slaughtered one by one. He had to walk away after giving the order.

He had commanded the unit for the past six years and knew many of the men and even their

families well. It was difficult to remind himself that winning a war was not always pretty, but

orders were to be adhered to no matter what, the prisoners would deplete the much-needed

rations and supplies for their forthcoming campaign.



    When the Aristrian army darkened the vast plain outside the capital Tarctiania, the plans for

siege were quickly discarded. To everyone’s disappointment, on their arrival the gates were

already smashed and wide open. Its only defences were the walls laid to ruin by the retreating

army. In fact the only movement that came from the city was from a mad old coot of a man who
had refused to leave. Strutting out of the gate, the madman jumped about barking at newcomers.

For several minutes the thousands of men just watched with amusement as the malnourished man

taunted their army. The mad dog was soon put down.



    Of the controlled souls in the east, only the Nordheim mindless ones remained, battering

away at the Great Gate. They were to have stormed through it by now to lay waste to the

surrounding hillside communities to ease the path for the approaching Aristrian forces.

Unfortunately for Bellack, their mindless assaults had failed to breach the thick reinforced doors

and the most seasoned of troops defended the gate. A garrison that had stood for years in a state

of constant alert against Nordheim aggression and the mindless ones had died in their hundreds.

Soon after one of the major failed assaults, a large contingent of the possessed beasts broke from

their serried ranks and headed back inwards towards Nordheim lands.
                                    CHAPTER 10 – THE DREAM



    Bellack questioned his man servant, barely giving him time to reply.

    ‘Well man? Stop grovelling and get to the important details, tell me what I need to know

about the woman? What have the dark arts and her interrogation revealed?’

    ‘Master, the acolytes report that she has no powers to speak of, she is merely a woman,

nothing more.’

    ‘Impossible. How could her daughter resist the full might of my transformation spell?

Perhaps we should set Marcus lose on her again to discover what’s behind this, or do I have to do

every little thing myself?’ Bellack barked, his irritation clearly showing as he grabbed the man

by the throat.

    ‘Master, if I may explain, there was more that you need to know. She is just a woman, but

one with an interesting history.’

    ‘Quit dawdling worm, out with it.’ Bellack snapped, giving the poor man little time to

explain the memories that that the acolytes had revealed to him.

    ‘The acolytes’ were able to travel through her memories and uncovered some interesting

information. When she was younger and, I imagine from her uncovered history, somewhat more

comely, they managed to trace her employment back to the Isle of the Su-Katii God-King. She

lived in the community in Cardus, she was the ale-brewer’s daughter and also the barmaid. After

the victory celebration of the Elsa Pass, all Su-Katii were invited to a huge feast and celebrate the

victory with Lord Hadrak himself. They drank the Temple hall dry and demanded more

provisions be bought through the portal. For such a celebration the old laws were forgotten for a

day. Their need was so great, several men and women were constantly running fresh supplies

through the rift. During the drunken festivities, one of the warriors desired more than just a refill
and coupled with her. Her memories were too faded to tell his name – I don’t think she knew it

herself, although their drunken rutting was easy to extract from her mind, as their daughter,

Athene, was conceived in the God-King’s Temple that night.’

    Bellack smiled with amusement,

    ‘Well, well, well, who would have thought it – a woman in the Su-Katii temple? A child

conceived in a dimension of magic, where time does not exist. Who could predict the effects of

that? All this time we thought it impossible, but it must indeed be that only the Gods themselves

cannot conceive in the rift. Did the Su-Katii Order know of her pregnancy?’

    ‘No master, she was moved along from the island with the others, before the Order had any

knowledge of the child. Besides, her memories revealed that she had acquired an inn and had

soon shacked up with a few of her drunken patrons so no one could tell who the Father was.’

    ‘The little slut,’ laughed Bellack.

    ‘It could have been any one of the twenty knights in post at the time, I wonder which one it

was? Still the identity of the father is unimportant. It is the consequences of her actions that

appeared to have empowered Athene in some way. How did the mother fare against your arts?’

    ‘She is broken to our will, yet as you commanded she still lives – but after her memories

were sucked from her mind, she may not be of much further use to you. She is a mere husk of

the woman she used to be.’

    ‘Ah, I’ll be the judge of that. Is she still a looker?’ Bellack enquired, then tutted to himself.

    ‘Pointless, asking a eunuch.’

    ‘I may have her later if the mood takes me, I’ll see then if there is any point in keeping her

alive. The last batch of slaves were a little too fat for my liking. Can you imagine it? What kind

of slaver allows his stock to eat that much grain, surely there is no profit in it?’ If not I’ll just

give her to Marcus he thought to himself.
    The servant just looked back blankly at Bellack not knowing if his master really expected

him to answer such a question.

    ‘You may go now, but summon Saznack to me before you depart.’ He was waved away.

The servant grovelled and bowed his way backwards out of the room. As Bellack sat back

absorbing the fresh information Saznack appeared.

    ‘I know what you are going to ask,’ Saznack interrupted as Bellack opened his mouth to

speak.

    ‘And no, I still have not been able to track down Barrad, the renegade Su-Katii. I have

scoured Western Tanaria and have found nothing. Of course had he been influenced like the

others, I wouldn’t have to waste my time conducting this search.’ He made the last words flow

out in a mocking childish voice, as if in some way it was his peers’ fault that Lord Thulsa now

lay dead and their direct influence into the Aristrian forces was now compromised. His plan had

been to divert the blame a little further from his own failures, to level the playing field before the

anticipated questions were asked by Bellack.

    ‘I am only as good as the tools that I have to work with …you being one of them.’ Bellack

sighed. Anyway there’s not much we can do about it now, I say forget about it and leave it to the

Aristrians’ …he is their problem now – so moving on, have you made any progress with

Athene’s capture yet Saznack? Does your man have her yet?’

    ‘I expertly guided our hunter to the prey and he has despatched one of the vermin protecting

the girl, but there have been some minor complications, he somehow managed to get wounded in

the fight and is delayed a little in his pursuit.’ Bellack’s face flushed a deep red as he demanded

an explanation.

    ‘What? But there were only four of them, how did they manage to injure him, I thought you

said he was good, if not the best?
    ‘I cannot say what passed between them; my powers were masked when that stupid girl got

near our man.’ Admitted the large magician, he paused and then continued to confess the

remaining facts of the incident.

    ‘It gets worse, Titus was trapped in a building – and I reckon it will be a while before he cuts

his way out, in the meantime our bird may fly off to freedom.’

    Bellack briefly considered the implications,

    ‘Perhaps your man has spent too many years on the shelf and is no longer up to the job?

Which one died Saznack? Was it the Tyranny?’

    ‘No, it was one of the warriors – the Tanarian one.’

    ‘Hell’s teeth, that bitch has more lives than a cat,’ Bellack threw away the apple he had just

picked up, suddenly losing his appetite,

    ‘I’ll not have her steal from me again - make sure your man kills her next time. Put all of

your attention into finding Athene, we need to apprehend her now. Send the possessed back after

her again if you have to. Use any means necessary because I think that she is a lot more

important for our aim than we first anticipated.’

    ‘But the Great Gate hasn’t been breached yet. I thought the mine…’ Bellack cut him short.

    ‘The mine will fall to the Aristrian forces closing in, even if the Gate does not.’

    ‘Let the pathetic nations fight their own little wars, we need to remain focused on our

mission. Soredamor must be freed. Do you not also yearn for her man? The power that would

be released would give us untapped resources, perhaps enough to make us truly immortal this

time. Imagine it Saznack, an eternity spent with our Queen? I can already taste it in my dreams.’

    ‘You know what Bellack, I think you are right, but our controlled ones lack the intelligence

to meet our needs. They are also a constant drain on our resources. Why don’t we just release

them to go feral? Their wild destruction would still serve our purpose.’
    Bellack locked eyes with his fellow sect-member.

    ‘We can’t risk Athene being killed by a stray beast – but I think you are right to a degree.

We do need intelligence, cunning and unstoppable power, and I think I know how to deliver all

three of these values in one package. The question is, where do we deliver the package so as to

be most effective? The enemy’s aware of the girl’s worth, I can see Tamar’s subtle hand in this,

they will try to get her to safety via the shortest path. The gate is blocked and the distance is too

great for a direct portal. The only other option is for them to head south – but that’s at best a

two-month journey. That’s far too much time for us to close in on them. No, they are alone and

need protection quickly.’

    Saznack cut in ‘Hmm, if they had the means to amplify a portal they could just reach into

Nordheim I think.’

    ‘Yes Saznack, I see you’re not quiet the dullard that you make out to be.’

    ‘The Tohali mountain shrines are the only places in Nordheim that could house such power.

The large crystals that still remain within would increase the portal’s range enough to get them to

safety. That, my friend, is how they will get out. I state my reputation on it.’

    ‘Our controlled ones could help to herd our cattle to the slaughter house. But our prey would

surely have magical help to hand if they can portal that far.’

    ‘Then we need to be prepared. Will we also need to bring Titus back into play?’ asked

Saznack.

    ‘Oh what I have in store for them won’t require him, but let’s play it safe and contact him

anyway.’

    ‘OK let’s do it. We will catch them at the shrine, but for what I have in mind we will need

some extra assistance, this will be very dangerous and there is only one man powerful enough

and stupid enough to attempt what we need. It will go against my good nature to have to ask for
his help and he may need some persuasion, we didn’t exactly part on good terms. But I know

that he will come just to gloat at us asking for his help alone. He has little time left, so when he

hears what we have to offer, he will assist us. Fetch the diamonds and get me Anak now.’



    Despite his soft words and weak chin, Barrad found himself admiring the golden-bearded

mage’s approach. On arrival, Tamar had immediately requested that Barrad surrender his blades.

Barrad contemplated his request then complied, noticing the flicks of grey showing amongst the

magician’s blonde bristles. He didn’t need to give Barrad any stirring speeches of introduction,

or a show of power to toe the line. They both understood these were merely tools to encourage

the correct behaviour in the meek. Neither fitted that bill.

    In return Tamar appreciated the directness of the young man, there was something refreshing

about the young general’s attitude. A wise head on young shoulders was not uncommon in the

Su-Katii ranks, for most had already lived several lifetimes by the time they had reached

manhood, yet Tamar sensed that there was also another dimension to his character. Tamar

slipped away as Barrad enjoyed the delicious array of foods and fruits that had been laid out for

his arrival but his soldier’s stomach was not accustomed to such rich flavours and he later paid a

high price for consuming too much fruit at one sitting.

    On finishing his small feast, the steward of the halls led Barrad to the open courtyard where

Tamar awaited his arrival; he was leaning menacingly on a large crystal mace. The two-handed

weapon’s diamond-like head shone in the sunlight of the gardens. The magician had tried to hide

the threatening stance, but Barrad could read the slightest sign of threat in anyone’s body

language. He began to think that he had made a serious mistake.

    ‘I’m afraid I have a dilemma where you are concerned, Barrad. I have only just met you and

I’m unable to read your heart and mind fully with my mystic talent. Your mind races so quickly
that you are difficult to follow although your initial actions have done us a great service, I sense

that you live by a code, but I need to see what lies beneath. With you it’s like reading only the

first sentence of every page in a book when I look into your mind. I hope you don’t mind but I

need to know what lies at the bottom of your pages. Should you be something other than what I

hope you are, you could be the downfall of me. There are a lot of people’s lives at stake, far

more than you could ever imagine, so I need to be sure of what kind of man you are.’

    Barrad noticed the additional rings, bracelets and amulet that now adorned the wizard. These

had not been present on the wizard when his image had visited his dreams the night before,

indicating only one thing.

    ‘Dressed for battle,’ he thought.

    ‘What do you ask of me Tamar?’ he inquired with a raised eyebrow.

    ‘Simple, I just require two things; drink this solution,’ he pulled forward a silver tray with a

large goblet of liquid in it.

    ‘I think not wizard, what is it, a poison to quickly dispatch a potential threat. Perhaps this is

just a clever ruse and you also work for the Aristrians’,’ said Barrad swiftly weighing up his next

actions.

    ‘If this were the case I would have just sent your transport portal into the middle of the

ocean. If you are truly ready to stand against the evil at work in this land you will have nothing

to fear from the goblet.’ Tamar studied the young warrior’s reaction intently.

    In a second Barrad calculated the situation, unarmed and facing an unknown and prepared

magician, he knew he had already made his decision the second that he had passed though the

Portal.

    ‘OK Tamar, lets do it your way, what will your brew do to me?’

    ‘It’s just a potion to ease you into a deep sleep.’
    ‘Oh good,’ Barrad replied, trying to brush off this unusual request. ‘I could do with some

sleep, I can never get enough.’ He smiled a little nervously.

    ‘And the second thing you mentioned, what else do you require of me?’

    ‘Survive.’ Tamar said seriously.

    ‘Believe me that’s also something that I can’t get enough of, I will certainly try. I don’t

suppose you could give me any hints on how to achieve your requests?’

    ‘Only one - follow your heart. Do you accept then?

    ‘Of course I do. Rest easy on your mace and pass your potion over here and let’s get this

over and done with. I understand your concerns and I will rise to any challenge. I always have.’

With that Barrad gulped down the sweet liquid, waiting for any adverse effect.

    ‘You will experience the complete range of emotions, it’s the only way to read you, please

don’t hate me for this, but I need to be sure,’ Whispered the Magician.

    ‘I’ll only hate you if I don’t return.’ Saying that Barrad lost focus, his head hit the table with

a thud and a loud snore rippled from his mouth. His mind started to spin with faces of people he

had met in the past, with the memories of training in the Su-Katii temple. Again, he felt the pain

as one of his sword blocks was ineffective and the teacher’s blade slid over his own, the

longsword piercing his chest. He was back there again, reliving the moment, screaming, fighting

for his breath as the coldness of death enveloped him. The teacher’s final words rang in his ears.

    ‘Next time boy, step forwards to meet the blow, with the weight of your body backing your

block you will turn the blade, have confidence, you will stop it. I will see how you do next time.’

The second blow sent him to his resurrection quicker.

    The light faded into blackness and the sensation of spinning filled his head. He found

himself on a cold floor, a badly tiled floor at that. A beetle scurried across the floor and over his

hand. He quickly recoiled to the safety of the corner of the room. This just wasn’t right, staring
down at his hand it was now tiny. He jumped up with an unusual lightness, looking around the

room he recognised the layout; this was his father’s lodge. Above the fireplace his father’s huge

silver drinking tankard still hung. He would often take it away with him on trips to dwarf his

companion’s mugs, he always liked to boast about how much more he drank than the others. His

father relished one-upmanship. He had even had his swords forged an inch longer than those of

the blades of the other knights. Barrad stretched up on tiptoe to reach the tankard, struggling to

retain his grip on the monstrous handle. He polished its surface on his vest and looked at the

warped reflection of himself – a bright eyed infant stared back through the distorted surface of

the tankard. He looked no older than five. He read the inscription etched upon its surface ‘In

gratitude to Bolzat the Brave.’ He felt a surge of pride for his father well up inside him. One day

he thought, when he was older, he too would have such a tankard.

    The urge to pull a funny face at his reflection overtook him, with a childish laugh he

surmised that like an infant, his emotions were now beyond control.

    ‘Focus Barrad, this isn’t real,’ he whispered to himself. As Tamar had said to him, it was

just a test, but it sure felt real. He bit his finger to make sure and felt the tears well up inside

himself, this wasn’t funny. He wanted his mummy. He wiped away his tears and then rubbed his

snotty nose on his sleeve.

    A challenge must have been set for him and his overactive mind thought through the

possibilities. I’d better give my infant body a test run, to make sure I know what I’m capable of.

Grabbing the nearby fire stoker, wielding it as if it was a sword he practised several manoeuvres.

The tip of the stoker was heavy and kept dipping towards the floor with each lunge and he soon

threw the stoker back into the fireplace in a tantrum after several failed attempts. Oh boy, it was

difficult being five again. This was not the kind of challenge he had had in mind, mental note to

oneself – never trust a wizard. Now if his memory served him correctly, through the front door
outside there was a small stinky outhouse, a stable to the left, and an overgrown copse to the

right. He had spent a lot of time playing in the copse when he had been younger, hitting trees

with sticks and the like. In fact, they were the final memories that he could recall before his

infamous wailing and screaming trip to train at the temple. He had sobbed the entire journey. He

turned to his right, spotting the door to the cellar and a shiver instantly ran down his spine. He

found himself clenching his fists – he hated the cellar.

    His father had piled endless chores upon him in the months preceding his one way trip. He

forgot how many times he had been ordered to struggle with the ale barrels up the steep wooden

stairs, and the sound of their creaking floor boards still haunted him. Bolzat had even given

explicit instructions to Emily, his nanny, to make him lift the ale barrels every night when he was

away, which was often. Barrad had just considered his father to be a boozer but his preparation

had eventually shown its worth in building his upper-body strength and will power. His eyes

welled up when he remembered the cruel and unthinking words he had spat out one night, after

too much ale.

    ‘You know your mother didn’t want you, don’t you? But keep your chin up son - she didn’t

want me either, just my money or a fancy man on her arm, the little slut. I had to pay thirty gold

coins to stop her from feeding you to the dogs, boy. I should have killed her.’

    Barrad wiped the falling tears from his cheeks at the memory.

    ‘Tamar, this is getting embarrassing.’ He yelled at the echoing walls. He moved through the

door, struggling to lift the heavy latch as he moved outside. The brilliant sunshine caused Barrad

to squint as he took in the familiar old views of home. It even smelled right, disgustingly right he

thought, as a gust of wind blew over the stench from the outhouse. Little Barrad heard a

disturbance to his left; the chickens in the hen house were going ballistic. Barrad jogged over to

investigate the disturbance. As he got nearer he could see the chickens inside flapping around the
netting in panic, a fox was entangled in the nets that surrounded the hen house snapping at

anything that moved or came within range of its white fangs. The fox frantically chewed at its

entangled leg as Barrad approached. The youth spotted the hunting knife stuck in the tree nearby.

After a two-handed tug the blade was released from the grasp of the tree. The young boy stepped

forward towards the unfolding drama, one nervous step at a time. Barrad looked at the chickens,

then at the fox. As the knife was poised to strike, the fox looked up at the boy then its eyes

focused on the blade. To Barrad’s utter amazement it spoke to him in the common tongue,

    ‘Please young Sir, do not slay me, for pity’s sake. My children will surely die without me. I

am only trying to save my cubs from hunger.’

    Barrad froze for several seconds considering his options and the strange event, then lashed

out, plunging the knife into the fox’s side several times until its screams for mercy stopped.

    Barrad looked up as he heard the clatter of horses and the trail of the riders approached, dust

rose around the path as his father came riding back home. The accompanying riders waved and

headed off leaving just a single rider. His father sat on his horse in full battle armour and

weapons, his thick dark beard hiding any expression - an impressive and intimidating sight, his

chain armour links shining around his chest on which the Su-Katii tabard hung with pride. Little

Barrad ran to his father finding himself shouting.

    ‘Daddy, Daddy, I killed a fox.’ His father dismounted.

    ‘Good boy,’ he said ruffling Barrad’s hair playfully.

    ‘Come see,’ called the little boy.

    As his father approached the hen house a terrible noise erupted from him.

    ‘What have you done boy? You’ve killed all of our chickens.’ Little Barrad turned and a

bloody scene lay before his eyes. All ten of the hens lay cut to shreds, feathers and heads littered

the reddened floor.
    ‘It… It wasn’t me,’ squeaked little Barrad, trying to pluck up courage in his now mouse-like

voice.

    ‘The fox did it.’ Yet the body of the fox had now disappeared.

    Grabbing the bloody hunting knife from the boy, Bolzat inspected the blade for sharpness.

    ‘Barrad.’ his father shouted loudly flustering the boy.

    ‘I am going to ask you ten times for the truth. If you tell me a lie you know I’ll not mess

about, I’ll just cut off one of your fingers with each wrong answer.’

    He pinned the young boy’s arm to the tree trunk and in a cool, calm and levelled voice

Bolzat asked.

    ‘What happened to my chickens?’

    ‘I don’t know,’ came his response.

    ‘Who killed them? Answer me boy, you will not get a second chance?’

    ‘Not me, father,’ Barrad’s voice trembled.

    The blade came swiftly down and severed his first digit. Little Barrad screamed in agony,

his legs wheeled about flailing in the air in his futile attempt to release himself from the vice like

grip of his father.

    ‘That cut was to prove to you that I am not joking,’ said his Father, a stern frown on his face.

    ‘Now I’ll ask you again, did you kill my chickens?’

    The child looked his father directly into his eyes and replied,

    ‘No father, I did not. I killed the fox.’

    Bolzat began to hum a tune softly to himself, an old nursery rhyme as he went about dishing

out his punishment. The blade sliced easily through the boy’s flesh and bone. Again he cried out

uncontrollably through the pain. With a shout from the stables Barrad’s old nanny, Emily, came

rushing over.
    ‘Leave the boy alone.’ she cried.

    His father’s face came in close to his ear, he whispered. ‘I’ll tell you what son, I’ll take off

one of her fingers instead – you can keep the rest of yours. Now, for the last time, give me the

truth. Give into your pride and admit to your actions and then we can all go to bed.’

    Summoning every ounce of courage he possessed, Barrad shouted out.

    ‘Leave her alone, you big bully. If you are going to cut fingers off then take mine, if you

take any more off it will only mean that I’ll not be able to lift another one of your stupid barrels

from the cellar.’

    Bolzat pulled back little Barrad’s hand and effortlessly skewered it to the tree trunk – the boy

passed out.

    Barrad awoke during the night shivering and still pinned to the tree trunk. He could barely

feel his, now numb, arm and with his eyes streaming with tears he strained with all his might to

pull the knife free but the blade was embedded too deeply. He pulled at it, attempting to work it

loose with his other hand, but the pain made his knees give way. As he stared into the night in

despair, a pair of eyes gleamed in the moonlight and from the undergrowth emerged another fox

which proceeded to taunt the trapped boy, by snapping at his heels and retreating quickly.

    ‘I suppose you are going to start talking as well,’ said Barrad through his teeth gritted with

pain.

    Silently the fox gathered the severed fingers lying around the base of the tree in its mouth

and scampered off. Several minutes later it returned and sat beside Barrad just out of his reach.

    Through its lolling tongue it spoke with a female voice, its mouth curled into a smile.

    ‘It was me that killed the chickens,’ the fox smirked.
    ‘I have also killed your magician, Tamar, while you have been sitting here dreaming. Now

you are going to be trapped here, neglected by your mother and stuck in this dream forever.’ The

fox broke into a mad laugh.

    ‘Who are you? Why would you do such a thing?’ asked little Barrad with fear truly building

within him.

    ‘I am Soredamor, a God to you pathetic mortals. I command powers beyond your

comprehension, boy.’

    A mist engulfed the fox and a beautiful young lady emerged, scantily dressed her jaw-

dropping figure brushed past the trapped lad, her raven black hair swishing into his face. The

sweet smell of her hair lingered under his nose and seemed to magically mesmerise him. With

his first glance he realised that he had never seen a woman of such perfection and could not take

his eyes from her.

    She stroked his face; he smiled back feeling the urge to please her.

    ‘Now to finish my business, I am going to kill your father and your nanny first just for fun.

You really should not have killed my mate. But, I think I will have you instead, I can tell you

will be a real man when you grow up. I will keep you in his place, if you live long enough to

grow up.’ She sniffed his scent and licked her lips ‘Mmm I could just eat you up.’

    With that the shapely figure magically shifted its form once more – this time into that of a

great war-bear and charged off towards the door of the building, its impact sending it flying

inwards off its hinges. Barrad fought down the bitter taste in his throat and began frantically

pulling at the blade that pinned him to the tree. Again it did not budge, so instead, thinking

quickly, he pulled on his trapped wrist and strained with both legs then dropped his weight

slicing his hand through the embedded blade and out past his remaining fingers. This time there

were no tears – just beads of sweat dripping from his forehead. He ran to the faint light of the
doorway, stooping to pick up a stick along the way to combat the bear. As he raced through the

doorway, Barrad tripped and tumbled forward, but instead of hitting the solid ground with his

face he fell into what felt like a dark bottomless pit, spiralling ever downwards.

    ‘Barrad… Barrad.’ He heard his name being called repeatedly. Barrad sat up, quickly

bringing his wounded hand in front of his eyes. All of his fingers were present; he breathed a

sigh of relief. Quickly he inspected his other hand – all appeared okay there too. Tamar sat

beside him, an unreadable expression on his face and his crystal mace across his lap.

    ‘Welcome back from your dreams Barrad. Before our business is concluded here, please

answer me these simple questions.’

    Barrad sat up rubbing the sleep from his eyes and yawning loudly, judging on account of still

being alive he gathered that he had passed the magicians strange test.

    ‘Firstly Barrad, I must ask - why did you kill the poor defenceless fox trapped in the net?’

    Holding Tamar’s gaze Barrad replied.

    ‘That’s a simple question; a fox is a fox, be it trapped, hungry or even a talking fox,

whatever. It would have killed everything in the hen house had it got in. Besides, it put itself

into that situation not me, so it was the fox’s fault it died.

    ‘But surely you have could have just cut it free?’

    Nope, I’m afraid it had to die – a talking fox is just plain and simply wrong. Be it a dream or

not, if it could talk and it was that desperate for the survival of its starving cubs then it should

have asked me for some food instead. It attempted to take what was not his, when it had other

options available to it.’

    Tamar scratched his chin intrigued. ‘Ok, so why did you not just expand the truth a little

when your father started cutting off your fingers? Was telling the truth really worth losing your

fingers over?’
    ‘Of course. What is a little pain compared to the truth? My father bought me up never to

back down against bullies and never to tell a lie. Besides he would never have carried out such

barbaric acts against me – he may have been a deadly warrior but he was never unfair to me. He

had such a high moral code and his actions in your created dream were so out of character for

him that I realised quickly that it had to be your doing. So did I pass your tests, Wizard?’

    ‘Your father taught you well Barrad. Had you lied you would now be dead, for no snakes

will do my work …unless of course I need a snake for an unsavoury task.’

    The Su-Katii merely nodded thinking back to the strange dream.

    ‘Good, if I have passed all of your tests and you have the power to control my dreams, feel

free to introduce that fiery raven-haired lady back into my dreams any time, I like them wild and

foxy, but next time can you make her a little kinder to me - but please, no bear this time, unless

she bares all.’ He joked.

    The young warrior laughed at his own joke releasing some of the tension from the completed

test. His laughter meant he missed the magician’s muttered reply.

    ‘I didn’t create any dark-haired lady. He must mean Emily?’ The magician wondered why

the Su-Katii would wish to dream about his old nanny Emily baring all in such a way. Who

cares? He has a true soul and as long as he can manage to get the army to follow him there is

hope for our cause.

    Tamar got up and walked away muttering to himself and shaking his head.

    ‘A stubborn, but honest lad. Full of compassion and emotion, but an uncompromising heart,

he will need one soon.’ His footsteps faded into the distance.

    The rest of the day had been spent in debriefings and discussions for the best defence of the

nation. Overall, the Tanarian forces had carefully avoided battle where possible. Only two major

actions had been fought since the start of the invasion, both had ended in defeat and moderate
casualties. Instead the commanders were buying time to reorganise, from the internal turmoil

caused by the Su-Katii’s deceit. The remaining Tanarian forces chose to withdraw and fortify the

more defendable positions, allowing the enemy to gain ground and hopefully thin their resources.

The immediate plan of action, devised with the capital now in Aristrian hands, was to fall back to

Tagel on the west coast. Before the war Tagel had been a busy coastal port sitting on top of a

freshwater spring and also on the main trading routes to the independent kingdoms in the south.

It had been selected because it was well fortified, and boasted a Keep that sat high on top a rocky

inlet overlooking the town and provided private access to the sea. This made it ideal for a static

defence plan that was to stretch the enemy’s supply lines. The only issue that remained was the

problem of the displaced population. Thousands of Tanarians’ flooded the plains outside Tagel’s

walls and were refused entrance.

    In the north-east, the army was in total disarray and Tamar had insisted that Barrad would

need to take command. Barrad observed throughout the day that Tamar had watched him like a

hawk absorbing every word and movement that he made, which unusually made him feel a little

uneasy at times. As he lay in bed that night enjoying the fresh smell of the sheets, Barrad could

not help thinking that with the over-indulgence of food throughout the day he was like a hog

being fattened up for the kill.

    Tomorrow Barrad would have to head out to the Eastern forces and win the support of the

surviving Tanarian regiments. He knew that a Su-Katii warrior would not go down well as the

Tanarian forces had already witnessed his order turn against them. Would he and Tamar really

be able to convince them that he had turned against the Su-Katii? How was Tamar planning on

getting them to accept me?’ he mused. Those mountain men were tough unforgiving souls.

During the day, Tamar had promised his support and had given Barrad a necklace which the

magician referred to as ‘A relic of great power,’ to help achieve his task ahead. Barrad had
immediately put it on, although he doubted its powers as the tatty necklace appeared to be crafted

from what looked like a bunch of crocodiles’ teeth. Tamar insisted that they were dragons’ teeth

but Barrad thought otherwise. Who cared as long as it’s magic would help win over the men due

to be coming under his command.
                              CHAPTER 11 – BURY THE HATCHET



    The three Tanarian commanders stamped their feet and kept their limbs moving to generate

some body heat as they waited for the magic portal to form. The freezing gale rolling down

from the Eastern Mountains could chill a man right through to the marrow. The commanders

were in a solemn mood, as were the thousand armed men who stood-to in a parade formation

behind their three generals, silently suffering the cold wind. The generals did not take kindly to

magicians meddling about in military affairs, especially as the command had filtered down to

them from their superior who was merely the emergency stand-in Commander. He had only

achieved the role because of the chaos in the capital.

    Tamar’s hooded agent Lewem stood by the shimmering portal radiating from the slowly

decaying diamond beneath. He had liaised with the commanders through the correct channels

and with the magicians’ influence and help he had been warmly received by the newly formed

high command; that warmth was yet to be extended from these men of the north-east garrisons.

The advantage of the swift relay of messages and military orders by Tamar’s magic had already

been a massive help in organizing a unified defence, although the sudden news that they were

being assigned a Su-Katii commander plunged the mood to one of distrust. With the fall of the

capital some in the east had even talked about forming a new independent region, but these were

still just whispers. Now, judging that the attitude in the camp was rapidly taking a turn for the

worse from the unsavoury news he had delivered, Lewem decided that he would engage with the

massed ranks whilst they were kept waiting for their new commander, but his futile attempts to

address the crowd and raise their morale fell on deaf ears.

    ‘Thank you resistance fighters of Tanaria for agreeing to meet in parlay with the last true Su-

Katii general,’ he would always pronounce the letter ‘S’ sibilantly as if he had swallowed a
snake. Some amongst the assembled soldiers wondered if he was indeed human or possibly part

reptile beneath the dark hood. When Lewem laughed, which was often and generally timed

inappropriately, it was simply a string of S’s hissed out. Lewem deciding the human touch was

needed to win the crowd, they needed eye-contact to warm to his words, so he pulled back his

hood and cloak, revealing his plain looks and greasy black hair. As he talked, the commanders

were split between following the movement of the mole above his lip, or following the sway of

his slightly hunched back as he shuffled his feet nervously. Their cold wait did not last long

before a defiant form appeared through the transportation portal. Thirty archers on the raised

hillside behind silently notched arrows into bowstrings. Barrad now sported a new deep purple

cloak that Tamar had insisted he wear instead of the traditional Su-Katii red.

    ‘Red is no longer your colour, you will no longer be associated with the corrupted ones,’ he

had said before leaving. He had thought to himself that it would take a lot more than the change

of your cloak to show people that he was different. If this is what Tamar had referred to as help

with winning over his new command he was in deep shit. Before he had departed Tamar’s final

words had been;

    ‘I have gathered the leaders together for you general, and primed your audience, now it is

down to you to win their trust – good luck, I think you will need it. I must go as some urgent

business, as always, demands my attention, I leave you in Lewem’s hands.’ Tamar gave a shiver,

and then rapidly stalked off, back away from the portal before its collapse.

    The cold wind blew right through Barrad, whose armour and undergarments offered little

protection against the harsh elements. The weather was bitter here. Looking at the assembled

ranks of soldiers that stared back with eyes filled with contempt, he suddenly felt quite alone. He

slowly approached the three nervous commanders standing in front of the ranks of men. Lewem

hovered obsequiously around Barrad’s every step, hampering his advance and his attempts to
appraise the situation – thirty bowmen to the right, twenty heavily armed bodyguards close

behind the commanders, plus a massive contingent of men-at-arms beyond them. It would

appear that Tanarian trust was in short supply. This challenge could either prove interesting or

very bloody. As he closed on the three silent figures he shouted out.

    ‘I am going to reach for my swords and put them into the snow. I do not need them to talk to

your generals.’ He slowly reached out and pushed both his swords into the snow and advanced

several yards further to the three men that stood in front of the army.

    ‘Relax men, I am here to help you by taking over your burden of command – my name is

Barrad,’ he paused looking past the men he shouted out, ‘Now enough of this nonsense - let me

speak to your commanders.’

    The three men looked at each other then shuffled forward a step.

    ‘Do not take me for a fool.’ shouted Barrad. ‘I said the commanders. The real commanders.

Not you three raw recruits.’

    Three men stepped forward from behind the group of bodyguards.

    ‘How did you know?’ called out the lead man and real general.

    ‘Easy, the man on the right has a nervous look to him and wears a wedding ring. Not one

general that I have ever known has had time to hold down a marriage. The man to the left,

because of his advancing years had obviously been chosen to give the impression of great

experience. However he wears a general’s surcoat which would get him noticed and immediately

marks him as a target, which goes against the common Tanarian practices employed in times of

war. More likely he has been ordered to wear it for show. Plus I noticed that his insignia on the

crest distinguishes him as a cavalryman, yet his footwear matches that of the archers.’

    ‘Well,’ retorted one of the real generals, ‘You certainly have an eye for detail, but do you

have a head for winning battles?’
    ‘What about the middle decoy?’ questioned another man advancing from the ranks, whom

Barrad took to be the last general.

    ‘Oh him,’ smiled Barrad, ‘He is one mean-faced son of a bitch – he could be a general, but

bearing in mind the other two jokers it was highly unlikely. Come on, let’s get out of this wind

and around a fire, we have a lot to discuss.’

    ‘Very well,’ they agreed, ‘But know this Su-Katii – had you not personally slain the

Aristrian Supreme Commander and had several very prominent people vouch for your loyalties

we would not be talking now, although I still remain to be impressed by your tactical ability.

Barrad let the comment go unanswered.

    The massed men were stood down and commanded to go back to their duties. Walking

towards the beckoning warmth of the command tent, the third general quickly explained that they

had only remained anonymous to test the newcomer’s ability, a suggestion of the wizard, not

because they suspected that there may be some trouble with his arrival. Barrad nodded

understandingly.

    ‘Pick up your swords, Su-Katii - sorry sir, I mean, Lord Barrad. You never know when you

might need them,’ said the first Tanarian general, lacking any real conviction in his words.

    ‘As long as it’s not to use on us,’ added a second Tanarian commander with a nervous

smile.’



    Back in Nordheim lands the horses snorted and panted with the effort of their riders pace.

    ‘We need to slow down for a while or the horses will be spent,’ said Tress.

    ‘They have already been pushed too hard,’ agreed Corvus, as he patted down the sweat from

his chestnut steed.
    They had pushed on hard for the last hour to put as much distance between them and

Croweheim as possible. Not one of them had said a single word during the ride, the loss of

Henrick still weighing heavy in their hearts.

    ‘Still, I think that would have been the way he would have wanted to go - in battle,’ stated

Corvus, sensing that the others were also thinking of Henrick.

    ‘Yes.’ said Tress. ‘He displayed amazing skill and valour at the end, may his Gods eternally

bless him for saving my life’.

    Athene swung around in her saddle,

    ‘Quiet. I can hear something?’ she said, wiping a tear from her eye.

    The group halted and scanned the area, hoping to God that it was the returning Nordheim

patrol. They opened their mouths as they strained to hear the slightest of sounds. Moments later

on the ridge line towards the north-west, the first of the possessed crested the horizon. It was a

crazed female with shards of green crystal glistened from her skin. Her hair crystallized

backwards as if frozen in a gale. She halted; smelling the air, then spotted the riders and let out a

blood curdling scream. More howls followed behind her. Her hands, extended into long

crystalline claws, like stilettos hanging down from her hand, they raised and pointed towards the

distant group. The green-tinged possessed ones were the most disturbing to view as they still

showed more human features than the others. The faces of old comrades and loved ones could

sometimes be seen. They began to run towards the group over the open ground, several bulkier

red forms appeared behind her. A sound similar to that of stampeding cattle filled the air.

    ‘Come on, now is not the time to stand and fight this freak show,’ Corvus spun his horse

around and spurred the unwilling beast on again. His companions rapidly followed.
    An unusual thunderstorm had settled over ‘Wyverns’ Nest, Bellack’s home and heavily

fortified mountain villa situated deep in the Aristrian mountains. Lightning illuminated the

jagged skyline.

    Inside Saznack and Bellack greeted Anak as he was led into the meeting hall.

    ‘How long is it since we last met face to face Anak – about sixty or seventy years perhaps?’

Bellack asked trying to set a civil tone to their meeting.

    ‘Let us not pretend that we are old friends Bellack, you have supplied me with enough

information to get me interested enough to attend your home, but I have not forgotten the past,’

croaked Anak as he scratched instinctively at the leather capped stump that used to be his left

hand. Bellack smirked as he remembered the incident.

    ‘Ok, have it your way then, but you know that you should have consulted me before taking

my slaves all those years ago, I desperately needed them to complete the spell.’

    ‘Don’t keep bringing that up Bellack. I had no time, and needed their blood urgently – get

over it.’ It was as close that Anak came for an apology for the small feud that had developed last

time they had worked together in the Brotherhood.

    Bellack nodded ‘…Yes, yes we have been there before, let’s just leave it that you still owe

me the gold for them.’ He decided to move off the subject quickly.

    ‘Well Anak, I am just pleased that you accepted my invitation.’ The mage host could not

help himself and fell back into his rhythm of mock hospitality, offering his guest some fruit.

Anak raised his hand in refusal as he spoke.

    ‘Well normally I would avoid the monotonous tones of your laughable sect, Bellack. Why

waste your time attempting the impossible, your God will never be free.’

    ‘Enough of your blasphemy.’ shouted Saznack, who until now had remained in the shadows

behind his partner-in-crime.
    ‘She is still your God as well; you are just bitter because her renewing effects will no longer

work for you. You are here because we need your unique skills in your cursed blood magic and

if you had any faith left in the Brotherhood and love for your Queen you would help us, besides

with the coldness of death creeping towards you, this is indeed your last chance at to prevent it.’

Anak barked back at the comment that instantly questioned his reasons for attending,

    ‘It wasn’t so cursed when you needed me to corrupt the Su-Katii blood tattoo ink, my magic

has made them your bitches ever since.’

    ‘Your price was indeed heavy for that task Anak but we do need such skill to be displayed

again,’ Saznack admitted reluctantly. As the one-handed wizard deliberated his next action,

Bellack spoke.

    ‘Come on man don’t think of turning us down, you haven’t heard what we have to offer you

in return yet – would the one that took your hand be of interest to you? The Tyranny, she is

amongst those that we hunt. Now make your mind up as time is of the essence. If you don’t act

now they will escape us forever for we are unable to track them, but we know where they will

soon be and we need a Soul Beast to be waiting for them.’

    ‘Ah I would see that slut flayed alive, but the thought of her soul forever screaming at the

beast’s foul breath would be pleasing to me.’ Anak savoured the thought for a moment before

continuing.

    ‘Ok, with the chance for revenge on the table you know I cannot refuse – my heart is as

black as your teeth. But you know, even with my great powers, the Soul Beast may still kill me,

or for that matter all of us – it is not to be underestimated.’

    ‘Why don’t you just go yourself and deal with them, it would be far less dangerous to us

all?’ asked the wrinkled old magician, further screwing his face up at the task ahead of him.
    ‘I have many matters in hand at the moment, I can’t afford to waste my time sitting about in

an old shrine all day waiting for them, that is why we have magic to command. Besides I believe

that Master Tamar may attempt their rescue, so I need something that has the ability to

intelligently follow our orders and deal with him as well.’

    ‘Ah Tamar, I have not heard that name for some time and I had hoped never to hear it again.

You desire a beast, and face a magician; I think that you ask for too much from me.’

    ‘Hush your defeatist noise man,’ Bellack scoffed back at the last comment.

    ‘What’s so important about this girl that you wish to capture, I hope you do not waste my

time with your promises?’ asked Anak.

    ‘I have heard she has immunity to your magic, or is it that your powers are just too weak?’

    He was hoping to get the rival magician to rise to his comment, he enjoyed mocking him.

Bellack let loose a hysterical fit of laughter.

    ‘If only I had more time to enjoy the depth of your wit Anak.’

    ‘Now to business. The girl seems to resist the magic in this world but the Soul Beast is from

another – perhaps she will succumb to its unearthly powers.’

    ‘In any case the beast has immense physical abilities should its magic fail. Well, so the

legends have it,’ added Saznack.

    ‘The legends are correct, but my skills will also cost you the lands and the subjects of

Southpoint to rule over after your glorious war is ended.’

    Ok, your price is agreed, but what you could possibly want with that unprofitable coastal

region is beyond me, Saznack will make the arrangements,’ added Anak. Bellack was pleased to

see that the old magician was still as predictable as ever and fuelled by revenge.

    ‘Good, then we will all have reason to celebrate tonight. Get Marcus to arrange the slaves,

we will need many and have a lot of work to do before then.’
    The blood of the slaves trickled down the built-in channels in the floor that traced the

pentagon shape. The lines of blood ran from five angled slabs that manacled their unlucky

victims. In the dim light of the chamber the channels were lined with red crystals. Two burly

guards pinned the screaming wretches to the slabs as they pulled them one at a time from the rust

encrusted cages. The two magicians moved to the points of the pentagram, chanting dark

incarnations and slicing deep bleeding cuts into the slaves.

    Anak stood in the middle of the terrible scene, chanting the sacred words that he had

memorised hundreds of years before. As he chanted, the dagger clasped in his right hand would

cut a series of grooves into his own left forearm opening several deep cuts. The blood ran down

his elbow to splash upon the crystals below. The room appeared to shudder. Saznack

immediately threw a large crystal into the centre of the pentagon. In his left hand he clutched a

silver relic – a bright orb that radiated power and lightning arced from the relic into the centre of

the pentagram. The darkness of the blood chamber occasionally further illuminated by the

lightning outside through a small roof opening. Anak’s chants quickened in tempo and a white

mist formed around his feet. The pentagram suddenly burst into flames. Anak shouted out the

last of the incantations, the chamber echoing his inaudible words. Then dropping to his knees

through gritted teeth he chopped off his little toe, which he quickly slung into the centre of the

pentagram as a vessel to enable the Soul Beast to enter this world. This was not the first toe to be

lost by Anak in such a way. Blood continued to ooze from the wound as finally a silence settled

over the room. A portal began to swirl in a Vortex as Bellack placed a diamond to the floor and

backed away, all eyes in the room turned from the portal to focus on the toe. It began to twitch

like a new born infant, blood wept from its exposed wound as it pulsed with the rhythm of a
heartbeat. Soon it began flipping about the floor like a landed fish. As it flipped and bled, it

began to grow larger at an accelerating rate, changing as it began to grow from its foetal shape.

    ‘Careful, do not approach it. You will need to force it through the portal quickly before it

reaches full strength or else we’re in big trouble,’ screamed Anak above the loud crackle of

magic pulses that now filled the room.

    ‘I know, you half wit.’ Bellack pulled at his enchanted amulet from around his neck for

extra protection, fighting the urge to move into the pentagram as a terrible aura started to fall over

the room. Bellack muttered an incantation and a great shockwave rolled across the room from

the amulet. Again he felt an uncontrollable urge to move towards the growing beast and his foot

stepped forwards. The invisible wall of force hit the growing beast flinging it from its feet into

the portal.

    Saznack rushed forward and smashed the crystal that was holding the portal open with an

iron headed staff, the weakened and depleted stone shattered abruptly closing the portal.

Everyone present gave an audible sigh of relief including the remaining slaves in the cage. Anak

fell to the floor and tended to his bleeding foot, an evil smile spread across his face.

    ‘I hope that they enjoy their new friend,’ he laughed. ‘Now bring me some food, I need to

build my strength back up again. It will now take all my powers of control to stop the beast from

claiming your girl for itself.’



    The three riders had pushed their tired horses for far too long, but needed to ensure that their

crazed pursuers were left far behind them; both riders and mounts were now exhausted. The

large peaks of the Tanarian border-mountains stretched in front of them promising no way

through the daunting range, so with good visibility in all directions they dismounted and walked

the tired animals discussing their limited options.
    ‘We could try and get over the mountains, you know there are a few hidden goat tracks that

cross the peaks and there are also caves for shelter,’ suggested Tress.

    ‘I know these lands well, Tress. There are no routes over those peaks it is a false rumour that

we spread to entice foreigners into these mountains so that we could trap them and kill them.

The only pass is through the Great Gate. There are however caves that can provide us with

shelter in these steppes, but you know there can be no camp fires tonight, as it would draw those

who hunt us from miles around like flies to dung, so we definitely need to find the best shelter

early.’

    After scouring the hillside for some time, the group had managed to find a shallow cave that

at least afforded some shelter from the biting wind.

    ‘With so little room inside we are going to need to huddle in close together, so it looks like

you ladies are going to get lucky tonight. Don’t worry, I’ll go in the middle so you can both get a

piece of me,’ grinned Corvus, still trying to raise their spirits in his own way.

    The two ladies looked at one another shaking their heads, but managing the first smile since

leaving Croweheim.

    ‘I would rather sleep with the horses,’ replied Tress with a twinkle in her eye.

    ‘You will be – they need keeping warm too.’ he replied.

    Athene blushed as she thought of nestling up to Corvus’ naked chest. The reality of the night

to come would be a far cry from such thoughts.

    With the horses fed, Corvus ran through their plans for escape, for by now Titus could well

be free and would surly resume his hunt.

    ‘I think our options are somewhat limited. Tomorrow we can either try to get through the

Great Gate or head south? I think the Gate will be a death trap, that’s where the mob from the
town headed off to, so I suggest that we head south and take our chances.’ Tress nodded in

agreement.

    ‘Come on; let’s not talk about death traps and the like. My mother always told me that the

best plans were always made on a full stomach. We’ll have something to eat, it will help cheer us

up a little,’ suggested Athene.

    ‘Mine always told me never to bed with foreign women; I have followed her advice for

years, now at last I get two surrounding me at once and look at the trouble I’m in. Why do

mothers always have to be correct?’ replied Corvus.

    ‘I would stick with your mother’s teachings if I were you – there is still a little room at the

back with the horses.’ added Tress.

    ‘Perhaps I will,’ agreed Corvus always trying to have the last word, ‘They nag me less.’

    The wind had picked up through the night and the temperature had now fallen well below

freezing, but their shallow cave kept the worst of it out. The group had removed their cold

armour and their teeth chattered as they huddled together amidst a pile of furs and blankets.

Their packs lay beneath them on the ground in an attempt to keep out the penetrating cold.

Corvus was quite comfortably wedged between the two girls, his great arms pulling their slender

bodies into him to ensure they shared their body heat and everyone made it through the night. He

was determined not to let their shivering keep him awake.

    The horses were also restless and gathered together at the rear of the small cave. Corvus

alone slept soundly. He had set an elaborate array of trip wires and deadfalls for anything that

should venture up the difficult trail, if they were followed them up this track there would not be

much hope for escape. As Tress drifted in and out of sleep; she awoke feeling a sudden repulsion

at the thought of a man’s body next to her. The claustrophobic feeling soon passed and her teeth

chattered as she rolled closer back into his warmth and began to dream. It was the familiar and
more pleasant of her recurring dreams of what her life could have been like, had she not been

dragged into slavery. No matter how hard she tried, she could not remember the faces of her

parents. A tear was in her eye and she woke up abruptly as Corvus farted loudly. He muttered

something about warming them up as she drifted back off to sleep. Hearing a rustling noise

outside she picked up her sword and investigated, she could use some fresh air. Straining her

eyes and ears there was nothing but the chattering of her teeth and the blowing gale. Suddenly

Tamar’s voice interrupted her return.

    ‘Listen quickly. This spell is too difficult to maintain at such a distance and the presence of

Athene dampens its effect. In order to get to safety’ - his voice faded in and out ….. ‘Shrine two

hours’ ride south. Stick to the … and you will get to it. When you get there we can … a portal

to get you out of … all other routes are doomed.’ Tamar’s voice faded to a whisper and

disappeared.

    The cold night passed without further event. At first light Corvus stretched his aching back,

miserably strapping back on his cold armour. He gave a great shiver and looked over his

shoulder. Good job the girls were not watching as he liked to maintain his macho image.

Picking up his large axe he decided to check the lie of the land in the better light. Staying low, he

scanned the landscape, but all appeared peaceful.

    After disarming his traps, he joined the girls who had awoken and started to pack up camp.

They ate a simple breakfast of smoked meats, cheese and a little rye bread, the food was difficult

to digest with the cold water. Tress recounted Tamar’s words and instructions and Corvus

recalled the structure that she described. With the chance of a quick escape a decision to head to

the shrine was made swiftly.

    ‘I know of this shrine,’ said Corvus, ‘It was built long before my people ruled this land. It is

constructed like a great barrow mound similar to an iceberg, in that more of the shrine is actually
beneath the ground. A strange sect of priests used to maintain it, devout in worship and deadly in

battle. We had a treaty between our people for generations, some forgotten deal that we would

leave them be in peace.’

    ‘Are they hostile?’ asked Athene.

    ‘I should hope not. I believe that they are now long dead. The stories tell how they rode out

to battle hundreds of years ago to a distant land and never returned, but their shrines of worship

remained protected by a great yellow dome of magical power. None could ever pass it.’

    ‘Ok, if it is so well protected how are we supposed to get in past that dome-thing then,’ asked

Athene.

    ‘I don’t know. Tamar’s voice was very broken in my dream, but he must have a plan,

perhaps he will meet us outside or something?’ Tress decided to leave out the ‘Path to doom,’

part of the dream, no need to upset the increasingly frustrated Athene.

    ‘It is decided then.’ Corvus remarked abruptly. ‘Let’s be on our way.’
                                   CHAPTER 12 – THE SHRINE



    As they rode along the base of the steep hills in the pleasant morning sun, Corvus decided to

confront Athene with an issue that he knew he just had to get off his large chest.

    ‘Once we get you all to the safety of the shrine and your magician, I won’t be going any

further with you.’

    ‘What?’ cried Athene. ‘You have just got to stay. We need you - I need you.’ She fluttered

her eyelashes at the Nordheim King, giving him her very best defenceless look.

    ‘No lassie, you don’t need me as much as you think, although I hope that I have been of

some service to you, even if my hosting skills need a little more honing.’ Corvus looked deep

into the young lady’s sparkling green eyes forcing him to quickly look away before he began to

reconsider.

    ‘I’m afraid that my path lies elsewhere as I have a blood debt to settle. Not to say that I

won’t return for another one of your fine meals from time to time. I’ll always let you have the

honour of cooking for me when I return in the future - if you are lucky of course.’ Corvus looked

sheepish and cleared his throat.

    ‘You must also know that I have reached this conclusion because you may no longer be as

safe as you think with me around. Whilst you were both lying asleep this morning I went outside

to disarm the trip-lines that I had set the night before, when a dark vision suddenly came to me, I

felt stunned, like being hit with a great hammer and believe me I know what that feels like. A

voice then forced its way into my mind. I think it was from the one who hunts you Athene, not

the Su-Katii but a Wizard. He was easy to push from my mind, probably because he found so

little in there, but before I rid myself of him he told me that my younger son was dead but my

wife still lived amongst the possessed that he controls. All I had to do for my love’s safe return
to a normal life again was to put my axe through Tress’s skull and deliver you to him. My wife

and my subjects would then be returned to me.’

    ‘I take it from the fact that I am still drawing breath that his offer was not acceptable to you?’

Tress asked, watching Corvus’s reaction like a hawk.

    ‘Tempting, but your head would just have just blunted my axe,’ he smiled then immediately

followed his humour with a chilling tone.

    ‘No my friends, evil has a way of corrupting the truth, I know that the voice was lying and

that my wife is lost to me forever. But I will see that those responsible for the destruction of all

that is precious to me are punished. Although I know that I must care for the living rather than

the dead.’

    ‘What do you mean?’ questioned Athene.

    ‘I have another son still drawing his breath in a neighbouring kingdom; it is our custom to

hostage a rival’s family to maintain peace between clans. Once I have seen you both to safety I

intend to go back and find what is left of my army and then get my son back. You see, as soon as

they find out that I failed to protect my hostage then my eldest son Rikard, is as good as dead.

Don’t take this the wrong way but hopefully it’s just you that they want to capture. I figure I can

slip through better on my own and muster my men.’

    ‘I understand,’ retorted Tress. ‘It still took courage to warn us of these events, a lesser man

may not have warned us of the suggestions of our hunters.’

    ‘And I hope that you find and free your son,’ said Athene sincerely.

    ‘Oh yes, added Tress with a wink, ‘And thank you for leaving me in one piece.’

    ‘Well I just figured that had I split you in half, two of you would have been twice as

unbearable,’ Corvus laughed. Athene averted her head throughout the conversation so that the

tears which threatened to well up in her eyes would not be seen.
     As they rode on, Corvus thought back to earlier that morning when he had shaken free from

the voice in his head. Fingering his axe, he had looked down at the two sleeping women. It

would have been so easy to drive the axe down. His love for his wife had been great, but now he

also knew that the process could be reversed and a plan was beginning to hatch in his mind.

Anyway, if his wife had ever found out that he had killed a friend to save her she would have cut

his balls off.

     The group rode on. Athene’s mind raced; first with the memories of Henrick’s courageous

last stand, she just could not stop thinking about his last moments, then onto the dreadful thought

of losing Corvus as well. Moving on, she dwelt on the mystery of why she should be hunted so,

there seemed to be an abundance of time to consider such matters. She knew that she had done

nothing to warrant such pursuit and eventually came to the conclusion that her mother was in

some way connected and therefore could also be in danger. What had they done? They were just

a simple family running an inn in a border village. She had been mostly kept away from the

customers in the back kitchens struggling to make the place profitable and had not even been

allowed the attentions that serving at the front bar offered. It was the best her busy mother could

offer to shield her from the rough environment of a busy inn. She had always found the

customers talkative and friendly on the occasions she had ventured out front to clear tables. She

had never understood why her mother had tried to be so protective of her, after all it was

impossible to grow up totally innocent in a drinking establishment. Her mother had always been

considered desirable in her prime and it was not long before another new man was in her life.

But it had been the creepy advances of her new stepfather that had eventually influenced her

decision to move out and try her hand at something else. His playful butt-slaps in passing had, in

the first instance been mildly amusing, being unused to such attention, but over time his growing

familiarity had developed into full blown gropes. His wandering hands would on occasion
encircle her bust whilst the stench of stale ale was breathed heavily down the nape of her neck.

She had the sense to know when to make her unpopular decision to leave, but moving in with the

busty serving wench was a mistake. It had proved to be a wild introduction into the single way of

life as her roommate was too generous with her invitations to drunken customers to visit their

lodgings and continue their partying.

    ‘Over there.’ shouted Corvus. ‘See the large yellow sphere in the distance? That is the

magic aura that protects the shrine, below the sphere lies a grassy mound that leads down into its

depths. You can see it when we get closer - I used to peer through the yellow dome and wonder

what mysteries it held, when my father rode me about to understand the kingdom that I would

some day inherit.’

    ‘It looks a little too quiet down there, is it always like this?’ observed Tress.

    ‘This whole land appears still after the events of the last few days.’ replied Corvus.

    ‘Let’s just get this done and get you girls to safety.’ With that they picked up their pace

towards the magic dome.

    Tethering the horses to a nearby tree, Corvus picked up a large stone and threw it against the

translucent yellow barrier surrounding the shrine, but it bounced back off into the ditch.

    ‘Well it at looks like nothing has changed here over the years.’ he remarked. The protective

magic field appeared impassable to them.

    ‘How did that magician expect us to get in, I have no trust in these magic users. It is

impassable, there seems to be no entrance’. Athene’s anxiety levels began to rise.

    Tress held her head in her hands wracking her memory of her dream as silence and a wave of

depression engulfed the exhausted group.

    ‘I don’t know, Tamar’s words were very broken. ‘All I know is that we must get in, I know

a little magic, let me try.’
    Tress knelt in front of the dome for several minutes with her eyes shut chanting her words in

a low unknown tone, every so often she would wave her hands in the air. Eventually with a gasp

she opened her eyes and said with confidence.

    ‘There is no way in.’

    After several minutes of thoughtful contemplation, Athene rose shaking her head.

    ‘This past week I’ve been hunted, starved and even dragged about like a doll by a giant

Rock-Beast, I’m not about to give up yet.’ She pulled a shortsword from her saddle and charged

at the dome in an unusual fit of anger. As the infuriated woman neared the dome, a portion of the

shield evaporated away before her.

    ‘Bloody hell, you’re more than a cook Athene, how did you manage that? It was as solid as

a wall before?’ Corvus gawped.

    Stopping on the far side of the dome Athene simply turned and shrugged her shoulders

puzzled.

    They stopped and listened. An unnatural silence had settled over the valley, not even a

bird’s cry could be heard. Tress’s skin tingled and itched, she freed a new blade that she had

acquired in Croweheim, its steel looked dull compared to her previous sabre.

    ‘I sense magic in the air, but there is no substitute for a bit of steel,’ she murmured almost to

herself.

    ‘I just feel a shiver down my spine,’ replied Athene as she marched back through to her

horse and as she removed her provisions, she also pulled free a bow and notched an arrow.

    ‘OK,’ said Corvus ‘Let us proceed - with extreme caution.’

    They all followed her lead and removed everything of use or worth from their mounts.

    ‘If all goes well we won’t be coming back to the horses,’ stated Tress.
    In a different mountain range hundreds of miles away, Tamar’s vision spell traced Anak’s

transportation portal across the Aristrian border. He watched silently and invisible to detection,

as his spirit eyes followed the shimmering trail of magic that leaked from the wounded stump of

his severed hand. Unseen by human eyes Tress’s sabre had left an unmistakeable magical

signature on Anak’s wound; this signature now enabled Tamar to track the old weasel’s

movements in his dream-like state. A second portal suddenly opened before the old man as he

rested, reluctantly Anak pulled his weary body from the rock that bore his weight and passed into

the crackling Vortex. Tamar began to home in on the reappearance of the magic trail eighty

leagues to the north, his spirit eyes covered the distance quickly, it took him deep into the

mountains of Aristria. With this spell he had free reign to move in any direction, but only

observe. Many times he had tried to enhance the spell to empower him with sound as well as

sight, but for a reason that baffled him, he could not make it work.

    Suddenly his vision spell was extinguished like a flame. Strange, he scratched his chin in

thought, perplexed. Taking this opportunity for a quick break, he had a sip of his watered-down

wine and then, unable to pull his mind away from the problem of the spell’s sudden failure he

recast the spell. Perhaps it had been his last modifications to attempt to grant him sound that had

made the spell unstable? This time he began his vision from further back from his last location,

so the vision spell was free to float through the air or pass through stone and after some searching

around to pick up Anak’s trail he spotted a large three-towered villa built on the edge of a huge

ledge, thousands of feet above ground level. There appeared to be no pathways up to the Villa,

making it a likely candidate for the Brotherhood’s nest. He approached for a closer look spotting

a glow that marked Anak’s passing and instantly his vision faded again, confirming that his

magic had indeed been dispelled the first time and that he had found the location that he sought.

Excitedly he returned to his body.
    ‘Cedar, call in all of our favours and gather our magic users at once. I have found them; the

old snake has at last led me back to their lair. Begin our preparations; we shall destroy them

early tomorrow morning.’ The courtyard burst into a hive of activity as people begun rushing

about their duties and messengers departed.



    It was a pleasant night in the Tanarian forest, the creatures of the night had finished their

hunting and a stillness settled across the trees as the victors digested their meals. Now, as the

morning approached, a new group of hunters assembled in the courtyard of Tamar’s hidden

complex. The four men sat waiting silently for their leader and focusing their thoughts on the

battle to come. Not all the men had met each other before, but when Tamar arrived and greeted

the men individually, their respect echoed his own. They had all worked in some capacity with

him previously and had proved their commitment to him on several occasions. There was his old

friend Sorus, Delanichi the trickster, Anamack from the distant lands of Menchata dressed as

always in his colourfully bright silk robes and Ragnor the hermit of Nordheim. Each man quite

accomplished in their own right and all brought their own unique set of skills and experience to

the table – they were united in their dislike for the Brotherhood. Delanichi’s art was especially

respected by Tamar who had observed that he seemed to draw his powers from a different source

than the more commonly-used crystals. He had not yet worked out how he did it and was ejected

when he had tried to enter his mind for a sneak peek, although this was probably just another one

of his many illusions.

    Under the clear night’s stars in the open courtyard, they finished their discussion of their

assault plan. It was deliberately simple so as to minimize the probability of things going wrong.

There were always so many factors to consider that could go awry when it came to magic and

several continuity plans were also discussed. They would batter down their defences and then
focus their combined powers on each magician, one at a time. Delanichi would distract and

misdirect any of the others that would try to stop them. There would also be the acolytes to deal

with. While they lacked their masters’ powers they could not be underestimated if they appeared

in any numbers. The Brotherhood had a habit of holding a large reserve of potential members,

ever-ready to augment their ranks and with the potential rewards of renewed youth, acolytes were

often willing to risk their lives to advance their careers. As the first red rays of the morning sun

were about to appear, a diamond was released from Tamar’s hand to the courtyards cobbled floor.

It fell to the floor with an almost metallic clang, bouncing from the many stones until it

eventually settled between the paving stones. A brilliant light pulsed outwards from the stone as

a newly formed transport portal lit the night sky.



    Deep in the Aristrian Mountains, the maelstrom of power arched down from the five

magicians who stood aloft the Wyvern’s Nest hurling down their magical assault. The torrent of

power released by them struck an invisible field that arched around the dome and protected the

dwelling. The electric power seemed to hang in the air as it battled against the translucent dome.

The men continued their chants for several minutes driving more power into their spell. Their

efforts were met by an echoing laughter that rocked through the mountains as it dissipated against

the unmoving and illuminated protective dome. Bellack shouted at the group as he stood on the

balcony of the tallest tower, his voice magically magnified to echo his power.

    ‘Ah… Tamar, how nice to see you alive again. Did you really hope to force your entry into

my abode with just this pathetic little band of tricksters? You will be wasting your time and your

powers with that approach.’ Tamar slowly nodded his head in agreement,

    ‘For once you are right, Bellack. It does appear that our attempts to gain entry are turning

into a bit of a lost cause; you must have spent years preparing these defences. Why don’t you
come outside for a one-to-one chat? I’ll dismiss my associates and we can talk about this like

gentlemen.’

    A portal was immediately opened by Delanichi and the four other magicians briefly said

their farewells before passing through. Bellack really hadn’t expected the group to give up so

easily and was now a little intrigued, but he just couldn’t pass up the chance to mock his old

associate, besides, the Soul Beast had been summoned and there was still some time to kill before

its prey came to it. He still needed to be careful though – Anak must not be disturbed or they

would risk losing control of the beast. He leapt from the tower balcony and floated harmlessly to

the ground, just within the radius of the magical shield.

    ‘Our task will soon be complete, Soredamor will soon be free, a shame that you left the

Brotherhood Tamar. You too could have enjoyed true immortality.’ Tamar had not regretted

walking away from their order once and knew which words would rile Bellack the quickest.

    ‘I don’t need to enter the Vortex and sleep with that bitch Soredamor to gain another lifetime

of youth. You know there is a limit to how many times that works, just look at Anak all

shrivelled up, he is testament to that.’ Bellack’s face reddened,

    ‘You blasphemous fool. You never did finish your initiation and enter the rift. What

pleasures you denied yourself. Had you had the courage to enter you would now know that we

only carry out our actions out of love.’

    ‘Misguided love, Bellack,’ Tamar snapped back.

    ‘You could never understand, once you have tasted her lips – your soul is hers, but I would

give it freely. I don’t know how you have lived for so long without her Tamar, but I will enjoy

hunting you down. You and your kind will continue to provide our Brotherhood with great sport

in the days to come.’
    ‘Ha. What a Brotherhood you have. You can hardly stomach each other but you all sleep

with the same woman …yet still she has never been with child. Is it that you are all dick-less or

is it that your Queen is only half a woman.’ shouted back Tamar with a broad smile across his

face.

    Bellack rushed forward, his lips curled upwards in an ugly snarl, an orb of lighting starting to

form in his hands. Tamar stood laughing at the Brotherhood wizard as he rushed forward at him.

    ‘I’ve changed my mind – its time for you to die, Tamar.’ Bellack released the bolt of power,

but before it could land on Tamar it was deflected harmlessly into the sky by Ragnor’s protective

shield. Delanichi’s illusion had now broken; his clever spell had created an overlaid image

depicting a scene of the magicians leaving, as Ragnor had simultaneously hidden the group from

view. The men had remained invisible, listening and waiting until Bellack could be baited out.

    Tamar was now concentrating on a spell as Sorus spoke to the ground asking it to hold onto

Bellack’s feet. The element of the rocks obliged his request and the rocky ground expanded

upwards to cling to the Brotherhood magician’s feet. Anamack finished his words and the

ground around Bellack burst into flames enveloping the magician in a magical fire. Before they

had time to rejoice, a huge wave of air sprang from Bellack’s hands extinguishing the flames

around him and continuing up the hill side to blow the men from their feet. Sorus lost his

footing, flailing his arms in the air in wild panic he fell from the ledge - with a scream he

plummeted hundreds of feet down the ravine. As he fell a portal appeared far in the distance

below and Sorus disappeared from view. With a smile of satisfaction on Bellack’s face, the rock

surrounding his feet shattered and the magician jumped backwards into the protective dome

surrounding the Wyvern’s Nest.

    ‘Nice try, you almost had me there – Ah… but I see now, very clever Tamar. I wondered

why you didn’t attack me with the others, but I see now, you have shadowed my thoughts. You
may have witnessed the creation of the Soul Beast but there will be little that you can do about

it.’ He raised his arms and several acolytes mounted the battlements and began throwing stones

towards the remaining four’s positions. Ragnor looked down at his feet seeing that the stones

where actually green crystals. The crystals pulsed out their magic and Ragnor quickly kicked

away the nearest stone uttering a series of protective words. The four looked at each other

blankly as Bellack and the acolytes turned and left the battlements returning back into the

building without further comment.

    ‘What was that all about?’ asked Delanichi.

    ‘I don’t know, but with his shield still intact I guess that our assault is now over.’

    ‘Let’s go,’ replied Anamack sounding quiet and deflated.

    ‘This has been far from a wasted trip my friends. I have learnt a lot from Bellack and you

are right, we must get going from here immediately, as we have a further evil that needs to be

stopped,’ explained Tamar.

    Delanichi’s news shocked the group. He had reached into his pocket and pulled out some of

the diamonds used to initiate the portals. The stones were now just useless rocks and as he pulled

one out for a closer inspection, it just crumbled to dust in his fingers.

    ‘Oh no,’ murmured Ragnor as he also pulled out his diamonds, discovering the same thing

had happened to his stash of stones. The final spell against them had been designed to remove

their ability to meddle in the Brotherhood’s affairs and it had done exactly that. After a short

discussion Tamar refused to bring Sorus back. He had contacted him through his thoughts, but

with his newly gained intelligence, it was more imperative that he should be sent to complete

another mission immediately, no time could be spared. The magicians would now have to resort

to their age-old skills and the use of their own magic to travel back. This approach would be both

costly and slow, compared to the portals. With the old transport spells, learnt before the time
when the crystals had became common practice, you could only move over your line-of-sight

then recast the spell, repeating the process until you eventually reached your destination. They

would rotate the spell between them, but even then, over this distance their return trip was sure to

exhaust them.



    The open doorway leading down into the darkness of the shrine somehow reminded Corvus

of an open mouth awaiting its dinner, especially with the overhanging masonry that surrounded

it. He had marvelled at the sight as a child, peering through the dome, now at last he would find

out what lay within. The group hesitated before starting their descent, as if the others also sensed

the same apprehension.

    ‘You know, I get the feeling we are being watched,’ Tress’s words struck a chord.

    ‘Me too,’ agreed Corvus, scanning the hillside for movement, first to the left then the lower

lands to the right. Fetching a lantern from a saddlebag, Athene lit up the corridor ahead, she had

had no desire to pick up any of the numerous crystals that had been scattered about the streets of

Croweheim. Corvus barged past her in the narrow corridor to lead the way. Not a single sound

penetrated the stillness and small particles of dust floated up into the air as the group cautiously

made their way down the ancient stone stairs. After descending through several ninety-degree

turns and noticing a distinct dampness growing in the air, light could be seen radiating out

through a stone archway and chamber beyond. She admired the stonework art that contained

ornate scenes depicting divine beings and hunting beasts; the colours of which had long since

faded from the sandstone – it had been painstakingly crafted using long forgotten skills. They

moved forward with caution.

    ‘This looks to me like some kind of reception room.’ Corvus’ voice echoed eerily around

the chamber as he spoke.
    A further set of stairs at the far end of the room descended deeper into the bowels of the

earth.

    ‘Let’s keep going, Tamar must be down here somewhere.’ Tress suddenly realised her voice

had now become little more than a whisper.

    Down and down they went, ever deeper into the murky darkness. Athene wondered how

people could dedicate years of their lives to worship in such surroundings. The afterlife must

hold outstanding rewards for this level of dedication she thought. Eventually, the chamber

opened up to the right into what looked, from the neat array of weapons and shields that

surrounded the walls, like a training area. This certainly did not look like the residence for a

group of pacifists, there were swords, spears and shields of unusual design covering every inch of

wall space. Tress pushed open an adjoining door, which creaked loudly, the room beyond was

minimal. Ten beds lined the walls with military-like precision, spare robes, rotten through with

age, hung nearby and yet the room still managed to smell of sweaty bodies as if the priests had

not been long gone. They continued on in their search for Tamar and their noses soon told them

that they were nearing the latrines, which had obviously seen some recent action indicating that

they were not alone down here. Not wishing to linger near the repugnant smells, they continued

towards the only exit, a long stairway of stone paving leading down, worn smooth through years

of use. The yellow glow of lighting crystals lit the chamber ahead where an open hall stretched

out before them. The owners of the shrine must have discovered the powers of the crystals a long

time before the rest of the continents, as their crystals had either been replaced or did not degrade

like the others that Athene had seen. It was still eerily quiet and not a single soul had yet been

discovered. A large wooden table with cooking utensils stood in the centre of the room with a

recently used hearth behind it. The smell of cooked food lingered in the air and the symbols of

the old Gods were attached to the walls, brightly polished silver hammers crossed with a half-
moon, they surrounded the room at even intervals. The tips of highly polished spears sparkled

and caught the eye in the weapons racks beneath them. Bronzed life-sized statues of a great

warrior and a beautiful lady also decorated the room. Athene shuddered at the casts of the

figures, their realism was bordering on creepy. On a tapestry behind the statues was a scene with

the two figures matching the casts cowering, from what appeared to be, an elder couple. A

lightning-rod in the lady’s hand sent a great beam of light down upon the cowering couple. Her

other hand held a long sword that pierced through the back of the elder man; a hawk clung to his

shoulder, its wings flapping in panic. Behind the lady stood an infant’s cot. Athene studied the

ancient tapestry for several minutes, before Corvus motioned her on.

    ‘Where is this damned Wizard?’ Corvus said grinding his teeth.

    There was still no sign of anyone about, despite indications to the contrary. The thought

beginning to occur to them – perhaps the magician was not here or maybe someone else was.

    ‘Are you sure Tamar will get us out from here?’ questioned Athene. ‘Because I’ve got to say

my gut feeling is to get the hell out of here as quickly as possible.

    ‘Yes, I feel it too,’ nodded Tress. ‘But I do trust Tamar, I am sure he will arrange for our

escape from these lands, I expect by a transportation portal as the magicians seem to favour this

expensive method of transport. There is a hidden power within this Shrine it will enable him to

reach this far and pluck us out to safety. Keep your chin up girl, I have done a number of jobs for

him in the past - although I have not always known it, but he has always seen me right.’

    ‘What is this portal Tress, why is it expensive?’ asked Athene, showing her inexperience

with the ways of magic.

    ‘The magic portals bend the dimensions of space at two points, like pinching two points in a

line of string, then folding the two points together to form a circle. Then what was a long

distance becomes an adjoining space – a space through which we can step through and cover a
vast distance in seconds. It is tricky to achieve and requires a container to harness the magic, and

the price for its mastery is half your life time in the study of magic, and of course a diamond that

can be destroyed as the vessel for the magic needed to create the portal. I bet you wish that you

had never asked now?’

    Look, there’s another stairwell over there, let’s get you girls to your portal,’ called Corvus

from the far end of the room as he explored. The group pushed on down towards the promise of

escape, eventually reaching another dimly-lit chamber.

    ‘What is that over there on the floor – a pile of rags?’ asked Corvus straining his eyes in the

dim light.

    ‘No, it is a body. Look.’

    They approached the shrivelled, emaciated corpse lying amongst the rags. It looked like a

fly sucked dry by a spider.

    ‘Oh my God.’ cried Athene.

    ‘What could do such a thing?’

    The dead priest’s contorted face was turned upwards; his death appeared recent and the

scratch marks made by his finger nails in the sandstone slabs showed the terror that he had

experienced in his final moments to get away.

    ‘Perhaps a caretaker,’ suggested Tress.

    A noise on the level above them made their heads snap round. It was a sound of stone

grating on stone and it now scraped along the steps towards them, getting louder all the time. A

bead of sweat trickled down Tress’s forehead. The temperature had raised a few degrees as they

had descended deeper, yet she knew that it was not the temperature that had increased her rate of

perspiration. The green, crystallised, once-human figure stamped purposefully down the stairs

following their scent and into the chamber. It spotted the group with weapons drawn, and
wrinkled its stone-encrusted nose, hissing savagely towards them, its black forked tongue lolling

in the damp air. Instead of charging towards them as they had expected, the beast withdrew back

into the shadows of the upper layers of the complex.

    ‘I don’t like this one bit,’ said Corvus. ‘That beast displayed different behaviour from the

others that we have encountered. I am going to go up and kill it.’

    Tress grabbed his arm, holding him back.

    ‘There may be others up there, perhaps it is a trap. As you say the beast behaved differently.

Maybe there are more beasts up there waiting to ambush us so you may need to come through

with us after all Corvus?’

    ‘Ok, we’ll do this your way Tress, but if your Tamar fails to turn up down there we’ll be

stuck in a death trap. Hopefully we will only need a few minutes to make our escape, but I want

to know early if this thing comes up behind us,’ with that, Corvus dragged a great table across the

entrance to the upper level staircase and propped it up with several chairs.

    ‘That should do it.’ he said, admiring his handiwork.

    They rapidly moved on down the corridor into the hall of worship below. A huge dimly-lit

chamber stretched out before them, the hall was immense and well decorated with gold and silver

edgings, its high ceiling causing the room to echo at the slightest noise. At any other time they

would have stood in awe at the impressive sight.

    At the far end of the chamber an unusual scene awaited them. A frail middle-aged man

hunched over an altar on which stood a large green crystal figurine, his back and chest were bare,

a grey ponytail swept down his defined back as he stood weeping, the sobbing cries echoed about

the hall in a strange rhythmic melody.

    ‘Tamar.’ shouted Athene.

    ‘No, that’s not Tamar, he has blond hair.’ pointed out Tress to Athene.
    ‘Did Tamar send you?’ Tress shouted across the room.

    The puny figure just continued to weep into its hands. As they scanned the room, they

noticed another decimated body scattered into pieces on the floor. Around the room the murals

decorating the walls were splattered with blood. The group continued to move closer to the

weeping figure, although they only desired to leave this room, it was as if they now viewed

themselves in a dream. They seemed to look on helplessly at themselves, unable to stop their

approach as their feet continued to draw them nearer to the weeping sound. What had before

seemed to be no more than a tiny frail figure, began to transform and grow with every

involuntarily step nearer, it turned revealing its evil face and beckoned them forward. The crying

and weeping had now ceased, replaced with a confident laughter and the group’s inquisitive

attitude quickly switched to one of uncontrollable terror as it opened its mouth in a victorious

grin. They were now only meters away from the terrifying figure, which faced the group.

Amazingly it now towered over them. Athene’s eyes fixed on a pasty white face and contoured

expression that revealed large conjoined translucent fangs. Inside the enlarged fangs a red mist

swirled, in an almost hypnotic pattern. Athene, was instantly repulsed and terrified by the figure,

she had seen nothing of its kind before and rapidly scrambled backwards, but Tress and Corvus

continued to advance helplessly in terror.
                                       CHAPTER 13 - TERROR



    Taloned fingers reached out to grab Tress, when a brilliant arc of light flew out from the

crystal statue situated directly behind the beast. She tried desperately to pull her tattered cloak

about her, hoping to vanish and evade the promise of harm that loomed over her, but the damaged

cloak only managed to partially hide her head. The beast’s cold eyes gleamed with the imminent

victory that it knew would soon come. A portal now formed from the beam of light, struggling at

first, due to the extreme range of the magic, but then, amplified by the statue, it stabilised directly

behind the beast. Lewem was first through.

    ‘Quickly friends, this way,’ he hissed, motioning them towards the open portal, his last word

stuck in his throat as he stared at the Soul Beast’s back.

    The Soul Beast swung around on its new prey, catching a surprised Lewem in its grasp. His

eyes budged in terror as he suddenly comprehended the full danger of the situation that he had

walked into. He screamed his last breath as the fangs of the beast plunged down deep into his

head. Tress felt the bile rising in her throat at the sickening sound of Lewem’s skull being

crunched inwards. His eyes rolled upwards and his legs flailed around wildly as the last essence

of his soul was sucked from his body and a new entity swirled within the Soul Beast’s translucent

fangs. His legs ceased their swinging and the shrivelled, emaciated husk that had once been

Lewem, dropped to the floor.

    During the fleeting seconds of Lewem’s death, Corvus had desperately been straining against

the unholy aura surrounded him. The beast’s magic preventing him from further raising his axe in

his trembling hands, as it now felt as heavy as a blacksmith’s anvil. Unusually for Corvus, he

could barely summon up the courage to face the beast. Before it, he was but a small child.
    Sorus was next through the portal and into the fray; he wore a leather helm and breastplate

that ill suited him, and in his hands he wielded a large iron trident that was instantly raised on

seeing Lewem’s husk. He jumped from the portal into a defensive fighting stance. The Soul

Beast’s talons ripped out at the newcomer but Sorus was better prepared than his companion and

was able to deflect the death blow with the shaft of his trident. The magician opened the palm of

his hand and blew forth a black powder towards the beast; the powder seemed to expand and

swirl around the room like a swarm of bees, finally dissipating into the air of the vast hall. To her

relief, Tress slowly felt signs of movement returning to her leaden arms.

    ‘Get yourselves through that portal quickly,’ Sorus shouted.

    ‘Not you though, my pretty,’ he snarled, turning his attention to the Soul Beast. Tress didn’t

need telling twice and immediately closed the distance to the portal.

    ‘You’re staying with me - or going back to hell,’ stated the magician.

    The points of his trident flashed upwards and the Soul Beast backed off while simultaneously

swerving to avoid Corvus’s wild axe-swing as he suddenly regained his strength. The laughter

that had earlier emanated throughout the chamber had now changed to a lower tone, one more

like a series of angry animal growls. The beast raised its fist and bit deep into its own hand. A

great shockwave radiated from the beast and shot across the room, as the air around the beast was

sucked from the hall. The resulting boom produced a painful sound pulsing through their ears

that was almost as bad as the shockwave itself. Tress was not hanging about; she had already

looked into the face of death and headed for escape, when the shockwave hit her it sent her cart-

wheeling forwards through the portal. With the force of the air Corvus and Sorus were thrown in

the opposite direction across the room, the wall of air passed harmlessly around Athene, merely

ruffling her hair. Amazed still to be standing, Athene actually started to believe that she might
have some kind of power after all, but how could she harness it to help the situation? She still

felt helpless; after all she was surrounded by greater company.

    She quickly decided her best plan of action would be to follow Tress and run towards the

portal and safety, the beast was obviously dangerous. She almost made it, but the Soul Beast

moved with incredible speed for something now so large and was upon her before she could

reach the transportation portal. She could tell from the malice burning in its blood-red eyes that

something was preventing it from slaying her. Corvus and Sorus were quickly on their feet and

closing back in on the beast fast.

    The table that had been positioned to block the stairs and entrance into the hall, suddenly

splintered inwards as a green-taloned arm punched through the half-rotten wood. At that

moment, taking advantage of the slight distraction, Sorus thrust the point of his trident forward

piercing the Soul Beast’s hip. The enraged beast quickly chopped downwards, its backhand

blow, smashed the shaft of the weapon and then frantically clawed at the trident’s embedded

head, eventually pulling it free, sending a glowing red fire spraying out of the wound where

blood should have been, Sorus was caught in the radius of the flames and was badly burnt before

he could bring his magic protection to bear.

    ‘Barashek,’ he shouted and the flames pushed past the sides of his outstretched hands and

harmlessly past him. Athene struggled frantically to free herself from the clawed hand pinning

her to the spot. She drew her dagger and stabbed at the gnarled claw that held her. The Soul

Beast did not flinch as the dagger pierced its tough skin and more fire pulsed from the resultant

wounds, but unlike Sorus, the flames fell harmlessly around her, without so much as singeing one

strand of hair. Astoundingly, and to their horror, the jagged wound inflicted by the trident had

now miraculously healed, but at least this had stopped the flow of fire spewing from the

punctured flesh.
    ‘With Hellfire for blood and such physical strength our defeat looks inevitable,’ thought

Sorus who had seen nothing of its kind before. Smashing through the remains of the table

blockade a green possessed one had now entered the chamber. Corvus rapidly assessed the

changing situation. He knew that striking the Soul Beast would burn him to a husk, yet he

needed to make himself useful in this encounter. He did not posses any magic protection like

Athene and with one green part-man, part-demon creature making its approach from the right; a

quick course of action was required.

    ‘I’ll take the Green,’ he mused and shouted his decision to the group.

    He sprang forward to meet the green possessed one. The two toppled to the ground, Corvus’

battleaxe deeply embedded in the green humanoids chest. It gasped its last gurgling breath

before the axe came down again severing the thing’s head. Corvus watched the doorway for any

further beasts that might follow, none came.

    Sorus had conjured an invisible barrier about him, absorbing the raking blows from the

enraged Soul Beast that seemed to grow feeding from his magic, although, from the desperate

look on his face, it didn’t look as if his magic would hold for much longer. The beast sunk its

teeth into the magical shield and the invisible barrier became visible for several seconds as the

beast began to suck the magic out of Sorus through his protective shield.

    ‘It’s no use,’ he shouted panting for breath. ‘The portal will close shortly and this beast is

just too strong for me.’

    With that, not wishing to share Lewem’s fate, just as his shield collapsed a smouldering

Sorus dived back through the portal to safety. The beast’s laughter echoed about the hall once

more.

    ‘Krakan’s shit-house - this wasn’t good,’ thought Corvus, just himself and Athene left to face

an impossible foe, this was not how he had pictured his death. Without thinking, roaring a final
shout of despair and anger rolled into one, he threw his battleaxe towards the mass of the beast, in

the vain hope of ending the fight quickly, one way or another. The Soul Beast twisted with

unnatural speed and the axe flew harmlessly past the creature, smashing into the crystal statuette

directly behind it. The portal abruptly closed with a tremendous shockwave that flung the nearby

beast to the ground. As the beast pulled on the still-standing Athene’s leg, to get back to its feet,

she looked down at the pitiless eyes beholding her and slammed her dagger down into its face,

the hellfire that spewed from the wound enveloped her arms yet she remained unharmed. Her

second strike shattered one of its long, protruding fangs. The tooth snapped with a sickening

sound, releasing thousands of consumed souls into the air. The red mist of the escaped souls

swirled around the room like a tempest with an unearthly sound, like that of a crowded room

filled with a thousand voices. The murmurs suddenly disappeared in an instance. The Soul Beast

screamed and clawed at its mouth, as if in an effort to keep the forgotten souls in. Its mouth

finally erupted with a blinding light and a final magical pulse tore through the hall as the beast

was ripped back to its own dimension. The pulse blasted Corvus backwards with such force that

it flung him from his feet far into the side catacombs of the hall, knocking him senseless. Even

Athene was knocked from her feet by the great wind that erupted through the chamber. When the

red mist and dust finally cleared, the Soul Beast was no more. In a serenely peaceful moment the

dust settled gently back to the floor of the room.

    Titus couldn’t believe his luck as he entered the great chamber of worship. After being

slowed by the injury to his leg from Henrick, he had fully expected to be taken off this contract.

But his sponsor had once again contacted him, supplying him with the location of the Shrine and

had also used some dark art to accelerate the healing of his wound by the red crystals. Ordinarily

a wound of this magnitude would take around a week to heal with the aid of the red crystals and
over a month without, yet he was once again mobile in half a day. This had put him back in the

chase again.

    It all appeared far too easy to him, as he entered the chamber. The girl was lying dazed on

the ground with the unconscious warrior crumpled in a heap nearby. This was too good to be

true and his years of experience made him stop and re-evaluate the situation. Things were never

as good as they would at first appear, there were signs of a desperate struggle and a newcomer

had also been involved, judging from the state of some of the corpses not all involved in the

struggler were human. He noticed that the one called Tyranny, his secondary mark, was no

longer with them or perhaps she was hiding again? The depleted and smashed crystal statue

shards indicated that magic had been used, may be a portal for escape but as ever he assumed

nothing.

    The colour drained from Athene’s face as she looked at the unsavoury and familiar visitor

looking across the hall at her, she dashed over and began to shake Corvus frantically.

    ‘Wake up Corvus, please wake up,’ she pleaded in a panic-stricken voice.

    Titus sheathed his fearsome new Sword Breaker blade that he had selected from the

Croweheim armoury. It was the length of a long hunting knife with deep groves in the back of

the blade designed to trap and snap an opponent’s weapon. Against a swordsman it was a very

intimidating tool, although Titus knew through his endless years of training that the Sword

Breaker should really be called the Sword Catcher, as it rarely snapped the blade. Tress’s old

sabre was wrapped and strapped to his back, being too valuable to be left with the saddlebags and

horses above. With his now spare hand, he scooped up some of the plentiful dust that caked the

ground and threw it about him in a wide arc, carefully studying its effect as it had always been his

habit to be cautious. He then continued to limp purposefully towards Athene. He carefully

vectored in on her, blocking her angle of escape to the only exit from the chamber behind him.
As he approached her, unexpectedly he spoke very softly with the same sweet whispers that he

had used to calm his first wild and stubborn pony, trying his best not to startle her into doing

anything stupid. His soft tone caught her off guard for just a moment.

    ‘I know what you are thinking Athene.’ He used her name to try and give a more personal

touch of familiarity.

    ‘How deep was that wound in my leg and can you make it past me? I can assure you, that

thanks to the healing crystals, I am quite mobile and you won’t make it past me.’

    ‘Murderer.’ she screamed. The words continued to echo about the hall.

    Titus threw another handful of dust into the air behind him and watched its effect.

    ‘Murderer? No, my little lamb.… slaughterer of the numerous men that have tried to kill me

over the years, YES and too many to count, but they all died in battle, as did your comrade.’

    Quickly reading her body language he realised that whilst Athene was seething with such

rage the softly, softly approach was not going to work. It was time to become more direct.

    ‘Throw away the dagger that you hold concealed behind your back and discard your bow or

you will feel the wrath of my displeasure. Come with me now without any further trouble and

you will have my word that I won’t truss you up like a chicken bound for market. I am not here

to kill you. If that was so, you would be dead already so just consider me your escort.’ He

smiled unnervingly.

    ‘I won’t let you kill my friend,’ sobbed Athene as she shuffled over and hovered in

indecision above the unconscious Corvus.

    ‘You are quite right,’ answered the growingly impatient Su-Katii.

    ‘As long as your friend has the sense not to follow us,’ he looked down at the sprawled

figure.
    ‘If he ever wakes up, he will keep his life. I am not in the habit of slaughtering unconscious

opponents. Call me old-fashioned but I prefer them with a bit more of a fight about them. Now

come on or I’ll change my mind.’ he barked, his voice rising to a shout, leaving no doubt as to his

authority.

    After half-jumping out of her skin at the warrior’s sudden change of tone, Athene quickly

weighed up her options. With the crystal statue shattered there was little hope of another portal

or rescue, so with all hope draining from her limbs she gave in to his request, throwing her

weapons to the ground she nervously shuffled over to his side. Anything else she knew would

have been foolish.

    As they began their ascent out from the dank air of the shrine, Titus limped along silently

behind her, the hairs of her neck stood on end the long and silent trip to the surface. On reaching

daylight, she noticed that the protective dome that had magically surrounded the area had now

totally disappeared. Taking a deep breath, she relished the fresh air that once again filled her

lungs, a small pleasure against the dread and uncertainty that now filled her.

    Athene tried to cling to a small fragment of hope – after all, she and Corvus were still alive.

The swordsman had at least been true to his word and left the Nordheim King lying on the floor

still drawing breath.



    Tress was extremely relieved to be through the portal and into the safety of Tamar’s

compound, but she was still extremely apprehensive about what might come through the opening

behind her, so she quickly moved away from the Vortex of power and begun to study her new

found surroundings, looking for the nearest exits and escape routes. She begun to weave a spell

of misdirection that Zerch had taught her, it may give her the vital time needed to escape, should

the beast follow through the portal. After what seemed like an age, Sorus jumped through the
portal, she could see immediately that he was in a bad way, his arms were charred black and

elements of his clothing were still alight and smouldering. Tress acted quickly, dragging a

nearby drape from the wall and smothering him in its folds to extinguish the last of the flames.

The portal suddenly snapped shut behind them.

    ‘What happened back there? Where are the others, Sorus?’

    After catching his breath the exhausted magician just managed to stutter out, ‘I’m sorry, I

just couldn’t help them, the beast was to strong for me. Poor Lewem.’ A wave of despair blew

over her; she had become quite comfortable with the odd group of characters, more comfortable

that she had felt around other people for a long time since her slavery. She genuinely hoped that

they had made it to safety as well, but who was she kidding, with the portal closed they were as

good as dead. Tress quickly pulled herself back together, her real emotions rarely surfaced.

There was no point in beating herself up about matters outside of her control, yet with the

shrivelled image of Lewem still in her thoughts, she could not stem the tide of pity that she still

felt for those poor souls left behind. Wiping a tear from her eye she noticed for the first time the

quietness of the complex about her. The place appeared to be deserted.

    ‘Where is everyone?’ She enquired. Tamar had always seemed to make out that he had a

busy network of people working around him but now that she was here, it would appear

otherwise.

    ‘It’s a long story, but to be brief, let me just say that the place is empty because everyone is

out there, on the front line facing up to the current dangers and challenges that plague us. Tamar

will hopefully be back here shortly, he got tied up on another job. But for now, would you be so

kind as to fetch a burnt old man his crystals. They are in a chest under my bed, down the

corridor, third room on the left. The red ones if you please.’
    After patching up Sorus and dozing on the soft silk bedding of the guests’ quarters for a few

hours, she was gently awoken by Cedar, Tamar’s House Master, he had returned from one of his

many tasks. It had been a monumental struggle to pull herself up from the soft sheets and on

leaving the room she promised herself that when she settled down, she would spend some of her

profits on a bed and sheets in the same design. Tamar had at last returned, looking as weary as

she had felt when she had arrived earlier.

    ‘Nice to finally meet you in person, Tamar,’ she greeted him, with arms outstretched. Tamar

appeared awkward at the gesture of a hug and Tress quickly withdrew the offer, remembering

that magicians rarely engage in such normal activities and bodily contact. In return, Tamar

expressed a nod of greeting, which by magicians’ standards was as good as a hug.

    ‘I am relieved to see you are still alive and well Tress,’ he replied.

    ‘As I am; to see you,’ she retorted.

    He rubbed his shortly cropped blond beard, Sorus here has informed me of the struggle with

the beast, I would have sent you more help if I could have, but it was only by pure luck that I

even managed to get Sorus to you in time. He patted his injured companion gently on the back.

This poor thing has been both flying and burnt to a crisp in the same day; it’s much more

excitement than he is used to.

    ‘I know and I can’t seem to escape it. Every time I mention my retirement you seem to find

me new challenges to meet,’ complained Sorus.

    ‘Well old friend we still have plenty to do so your retirement will have to wait just a little

longer.’

    Sorus quickly cut in, ‘You said that last year.’

    ‘Well I truly wish that we had time to talk about more pleasant things but after our little

confrontation with Bellack, we are against the clock and need to act fast. I have had to redeploy
our allies to cover some of the other possibilities that I read from his mind and I have made

arrangements with the Nordheim King,’ Tamar smiled.

       ‘What, Corvus is alive?’ Tress’s face beamed with renewed colour and expression.

       ‘Yes, rest easy, I don’t know how – but they are both alive.’ he sucked in a large breath of

air.

       ‘That just leaves me with one more base to cover and only one agent left, it must be fate,’ he

stared directly at Tress.

       ‘You can take Sorus along with you, even in his roughed-up state I’m sure he can be of some

use to you.’ Tamar’s eyebrows rose hopefully, expecting the agreement that did not come.

       The thought of being sent directly back out into God knows what by this magician, was not

an appealing one to Tress.

       ‘You forget Tamar; I am not one of your agents to command. I’m just a freelance who has

helped you out once or twice in the past for my personal gain. Don’t get me wrong I appreciate

my rescue, but had you not redirected me to ride south and assist Athene I would have been home

and dry already. Let’s not kid ourselves here, I know that the rescue was set up for Athene, I

have been around magic for far too long now to know that there is something different about that

girl, even if she doesn’t know it.’ Tress was tired and abrupt and craved to return to the

comfortable bed again.

       ‘You’re quite right Tress, I know from your past that you have spent your lifetime being

ordered about and controlled by magicians and sometimes even worse. It was merely a request, I

know that I already have the debt of an amulet in payment, but this was precisely where I was

hoping to send you - my next mission would have taken you to pick up the magic amulet as I

promised. It also involves another task that would require your stealth. If you were willing to

undertake it I would send you and Sorus down to my armoury, to get yourselves kitted out and
prepared. I’m sure that he could repair your cloak as part of the deal and I could also throw in

say three thousand gold Tanarian sovereigns for your troubles?’ Tamar noticed the widening of

her eyes as he spoke to her. It was a figure that she could easily retire on, living in total luxury

every day. His negotiations needed to be swift for he was himself beyond exhaustion from his

convoluted trip back and he desperately needed to recuperate immediately for the tasks ahead.

    ‘I must admit, your offer of gold is both generous and attractive to me,’ she began her words

slowly and with deliberation. ‘But, the price must equal the danger involved. I prefer to be

around to spend my retirement fund, so I will have to say, NO.’

    Tamar managed to totally hide his anger from her, ‘I can offer you one further redemption

that gold cannot buy,’ he mentioned casually.

    ‘Oh, go on …now you have really got me intrigued.’ She smiled girlishly back.

    ‘I can take you to the one lover whom you will actually remember after the weeks pass.’

    ‘What? How do you know about…’ she stuttered her words in confusion as the blood

drained from her face.

    ‘You and I know that you can never remember your lovers for more that a few weeks,

therefore you will never experience, well at least remember the joys of true love. Just describe to

me now if you can, what did the last one look like? Or can you even remember any details of the

night.’ His words rang true in her mind, he was right – there was an empty hole in her heart that

she yearned to be filled, she knew that she had been with many men but not one face or event of

their passing could now be remembered – she never could. But how could he know this, only

through his magic arts could he probe the recesses of her mind. She was wise to the ways of

magic and had not detected such an attempt. His words jolted her attention back to his offer.

    ‘You can never truly experience love if you can never remember it. The gaping hole in your

soul can be filled. Do you believe in destiny Tress? Because the one man that you can love and
remember every day waits for you on the other side of the portal that I will create. It is a fate you

both can’t run from. Neither of you know it yet, but trust me, it is an unstoppable force - you will

be lovers. Don’t you want to remember? I can help you remember.’ he walked around her as he

spoke his gentle words.

    ‘Just say ‘yes’ to my offer and I will help you remember, I can also stop your dark dreams

that come back to haunt you.’ He touched the curls of her long blonde hair, then quickly

withdrew his hand as his desire to have her again threatened to grow.

    ‘Who is this man, at least tell me his name?’ she asked.

    ‘Barrad,’ was his simple reply.

    Tress cheeks flushed with a crimson glow at the thought of remembering a man’s touch. She

bit her lip in thought.

    ‘Your terms are acceptable Tamar, explain what is required of me,’ nodded Tress.

    Tamar had lied without remorse about her future lover, but he simply needed her skills and

assistance at any cost. After seeing the mess that had been made inside her mind it had been easy

to select the right cords to pull; besides if she indeed found what she now sought, he was

confident that he could heal the deep wounds of her mind, well a least with a little help from

Sorus who had a talent in these areas. But thinking back to the night when he had indulged

himself and deceived her, the face that he had created from her fragments of desire had certainly

not been that of Barrad.

    They all sat down as Cedar supplied some refreshments and went over the required tasks and

plans, after which Tamar retired to his quarters and Sorus led her through the corridors to the

armoury. All manner of weapons and strange artefacts were arranged in the room behind its large

iron-bolted door. Tress’s well-trained eye picked up the tiny slight-of-hand movement that Sorus

made before entering. This room obviously had some form of magical seal protecting it. There
were swords, armour and other items of clothing strewn all around the room. She even spotted a

cat-box and Tress found herself wondering what possible magic could such an item contain that it

warranted a space in Tamar’s armoury? Sorus rummaged through the piles of items talking away

to himself, eventually pulling out a long bolt of woven cloth from amongst a pile of banners,

    ‘Ah ha, here it is,’ he muttered to himself.

    ‘Please remove your tattered cloak Tress and I will see if I can patch it up for you.’ She

complied, passing it over marvelling as she watched him work repairing the cloak. He was like a

seamstress sowing away at the fabric, only stopping briefly to enchant some further magic into

his work.

    ‘You know, you’re very good at that,’ she commented.

    ‘Years of practice. Unlike a lot of mages I actually like to repair things rather than break

them, its much more of a challenge,’ he replied, with out as much as an upwards glance as he

focused on his task.

    ‘I know what you mean,’ she replied, ‘I also like to create things, but I’m just not very good

at it. All I can create is chaos according to my old master. Well I guess he was right, I certainly

created chaos for him in the end.’ She understood the true meaning of Sorus’s grunt in response

to her comments; it meant without doubt that he would rather work undisturbed. She remained

silent, picking at various items that surrounded her, until Sorus abruptly said ‘Please, do not

touch.’

    Pulling a face back at him she remain spread out on the floor uncomfortably, eventually

nodding off until he loudly declared ‘Finished.’ He passed back her repaired cloak and after a

quick inspection she nodded her appreciation of his work. Slipping it on she uttered the words of

power and promptly disappeared from view.
    ‘Good, that seems to have done the trick, but I must warn you – my eyes are not as good as

they used to be,’ he grinned.

    Tress reappeared, ‘Ok, let’s go and get this over and done with, I have a date with destiny

and I’m eager to retire.’

    Sorus rummaged through several further areas of the room eventually pulling out a crystal-

cut vial of liquid, he had also retrieved several small pots and handed them all over to Tress.

    ‘The contents of this vial would appear to be liquid, but I can assure you, it is not and you

will need it to complete Tamar’s task. Inside is a potent magic that is very corrosive and the

container itself is also not as it first seems. It is constructed purely by magic and made to appear

exactly like glass. It is unbreakable by normal means, so don’t worry about damaging it. He

handed it to her and as she touched it he chanted a short spell. ‘It is now bound only to your

hands, so only your fingers can open the stopper, I’m afraid the contents are far too dangerous to

be unleashed by just anyone.’ He paused and looked down at the other two jars in his hands.

‘With these on the other hand you will need to be extremely careful, inside these jars are three

separate compartments, if you smash the jar the compartments will mix causing an instant

explosion. They can be very useful in the right situation – sometimes you need something a little

more instant than magic to get you out of a scrape. I like to call it Dragon’s Thunder, after its

effect when the pot breaks and of course; don’t stand too close if you can help it.’ Tress took all

of the items and placed them securely about herself, a little nervous about the Dragon’s Thunder

packing and placement.

    She also selected a new curved blade with a keener edge than her current Nordheim weapon

from amongst the clutter of the room, hoping that it may contain some magical properties she

closely inspected the blade but Sorus informed her that it had no magical powers.
    ‘Tamar had just liked the bird of prey fashioned into the handle,’ he said. Pushing the

polished blade into her scabbard, she said with an air of bravado ‘I guess that we are ready now?

Let’s go get this over with.’ Sorus nodded and began the portal spell of transportation.
                                  CHAPTER 14 – DELIBERATION



    Barrad’s new command and reconstruction of the army had not gone down well. The men

obviously had an uneasy fear of him, which in some ways was useful, as a general’s presence

should instil a little fear into his men. It made them quick to react to his orders and less likely to

feel that there was room for discussion. Yet his ultimate aim would be to try and gain the men’s

respect and trust, as they would fight better fuelled with their pride rather than forced by fear.

Fear had a way of spreading deep into the places where it was not desired. The larger issues with

the troops’ attitude came when he had had to dismiss one of the three original generals that had

held command. During the hours of debriefing and questioning on his arrival it had been quickly

apparent to him that Onus was not a natural leader of men. He was well liked by his men as he

had always tried to avoid confrontation. He had had the opportunity to crush the enemy’s

advance parties at several points during their invasion, but he had instead chosen to withdraw

back to this lightly fortified position. It was apparent that he was the result of mandatory staff

promotion in the senior officer class during the years of peace and lacked the foresight and

judgement needed to make a swift and sensible decision.

    This had been a setback to his aim with the men. Although a general should never

needlessly risk his men, sometimes a decision that would cause the immediate loss of lives to

some, could later hasten the end of a war. It was inevitable that men were going to die during the

course of a campaign so why not for achieving a goal. His time with the Su-Katii had taught him

that if such decisions are taken, they should only be made when there is a distinct advantage to be

gained. This was the difference between a good commander and a butcher. In war, lives were

like a currency in which one should deal carefully. A good leader would make such decisions,

but Onus had clearly shown that he was not one of these generals. The man was just too weak
and inexperienced for the burden of command, bearing in mind that these were not forced levies;

all were professional soldiers, paid to fight and possibly die for their country. The problem that

he now faced after his dismissal of the general, was that Onus’ attitude had spread to the men,

who were now convinced that a butcher was at the helm. He knew it would not be long before

the desertions began and punishing deserters would also deal a huge blow to the men’s morale,

because seeing a comrade’s feet swinging from a jib is not the best way to keep a credible

fighting force in check.

    These decisions weighed heavily on his shoulders and the situation could easily spiral out of

control. Therefore, in an attempt to win the men over he went against the years of teaching and

wisdom stamped into him and everything that he had ever been taught about the devil making

work for idle minds. He gave the army the day off, rotating the men through a short leave period

in Monaki. The town of Monaki stood high on a mountain plateau commanding a fantastic view

of the lowlands and army camped several hundred yards below. The bulk of the Tanarian army

was camped along the crest and slopes of a single tack that wound its way down from the plateau.

Pockets of flat ground about the track provided enough ground to pitch tents against the cold

gales. There were two further goat-tracks that traversed different routes to the ground below, but

only the primary track could sustain horse drawn carts for resupply or trade. Barrad had known

that most of the troops were native to this mountainous region, known as the Black-rocks and this

would give them one last chance to say goodbye to their loved ones or a greeting to the plentiful

barmaids and whores of Monaki. He hoped this action of generosity would raise morale and

maintain the army’s headcount, for every other idea that he had contemplated would surely result

in an unacceptable loss of headcount or fighting spirit. Tamar’s last report had the enemy still

several days’ march away giving them a small reprieve. Besides there was a method in his
madness, if the bulk of the men all went up into the plateau it would make the only three tracks

out of the mountains easier to monitor.

    His battle plan had been hatched in his overactive mind after the first night at his new

command, he had no intention of seeking glory by marching his force into the open plains below

to fight a pitched battle against a mixed force that vastly outnumbered them. Oh – no. The six

thousand men under his command would be reorganised into four groups to defend the three

mountain passes that meandered up into the high grounds and town above; one force for each

pass with the fourth as a reserve. The two smaller passes would require a force of no more than

two hundred men to control them, as only a maximum of four men could pass at any time, they

should easily be able to hold the ground without relief for a week. It was the large valley path

that initially presented the biggest headache to his plan. This track was steep and it zigzagged its

way up the side of the natural ravine, the large flat areas along the track had originally been cut

into the black rock face to provide passing points for wagons on route to the town. Barrad had

walked up and down the main track several times, studying every twist and turn to learn the

ground on which he was likely to fight - in the hope of finding any advantage. His moment of

inspiration had occurred during his third hike up the trail, when he stopped to view the valley

below. A squad of troops involved in physical training hailed their respect and continued their

jog upwards past him along the track. After finishing his assessment of the valley below he

turned back to the path and noticed that the natural slope of the path soon hit a short horizon as it

twisted, the legs of the squad of troops running up the hill were now hidden behind the camber of

the path.

    ‘Squad halt.’ he shouted to the men.

    ‘Oh shit, what does the big cheese want with us now?’ whispered the lead soldier to another

squad member.
    ‘Squad prone,’ shouted Barrad, after a moment of confusion, the squad’s corporal shouted at

his men.

    ‘That means lie down in the dirt where you belong, you worthless cretins.’

    As they jumped to the floor, the men instantly disappeared from view and a smile grew

across the general’s face. Surprise could be an excellent advantage.

    ‘Good job men. Crack on.’

    After the men had been assigned to their new groups and his changes to the order of battle

had been enforced, the men’s whingeing managed to carry within earshot of command tent.

When you split a force that has stuck together for years there is always someone who has a

brother or an old comrade who they would rather fight and die with. Barrad smiled to himself,

this was a good sign, when the whingeing stopped, that would be when the real trouble began.

    The next part of Barrad’s plan required him to win a small victory in order to improve the

men’s fighting spirit and remind them that defeat was not the only outcome against the Aristrian

army. Until now they had only tasted the bitter flavour of retreat and defeat. Another aspect of

his plan for victory which he needed to factor in was that the Aristrian Army Group North was

under the command of Azeth Khan, the oldest and most experienced Su-Katii general that he had

ever encountered. If he could remove the head of the snake, the body would wither and die, or so

he had been taught by this very same Su-Katii general. Personal combat was desirable with this

man as it would be a win-win situation. Should he fall against Azeth, he would wager that his

troops would be quite happy to see their own young pup of a commander dead and fight all the

harder for their own lives. With this plan developing further in his mind, all he had left to do was

to wait for Tamar to work his magic and locate the exact position and numbers of the invaders in

his next regular update. He now looked forward to tonight’s dream visit for the first time.
    In the temple of the Su-Katii he had been tutored in the best use of all tactics and had studied

every factor that could bring victory to the battlefield, the last stand at Misilain, the Battle of

Prisiilica, he had studied them all. During the training, war games and simulated massed battles

obtaining a clear victory had always been an extremely difficult challenge. There were so many

elements to consider and perfect - a Su-Katii was expected to master complex tactics and even

diplomacy as well as the sword. As the only remaining elder student of the Su-Katii Lords, the

expectations demanded of him had been extremely high. He remembered the teachers had

always treated the units as faceless regiments, but Barrad now knew otherwise, with the faces of

the men looking up to him for hope and their desperate eyes burning into his soul. An uncaring

man would be able to remove himself from the burden of hope and human loss about to occur.

Although he did not fit this bill, he knew that despite the forthcoming tempest about to be

unleashed he would not waver from any of the difficult decisions that would be necessary. The

faceless ones had wives and children, parents and loved ones that now depended on his untested

ability as a leader. During the training in the temple he had learned another valuable lesson. A

commander shares the fate of his men in both victory and defeat. With every defeat in those old

war games, the result had always been to suffer the pain of death, as a reminder of the real fate

that accompanied such a loss, but without its true finality - within the Temple death had become

an unwelcome companion during his time there, but also provided an excellent incentive to win.

Today however for the first time, he realised what was at stake for the thousands of men on this

hill and felt a very heavy weight on his shoulders.



    On the day of the enemy army’s arrival, Barrad awoke with a smile on his face, the prospect

of fulfilling his life-time of training with the real thing infused him, dread and apprehension were

not feelings that he could comprehend today. The previous night’s dream visit from Tamar had
been most enlightening, he had been provided with the enemy’s numbers and position and now

only time would tell whether things would work out as they had planned. The last few days had

gone as well as could be hoped, all preparations had been made to the defences and to ready the

men for combat, the long days of practice, changing formations and working on individual

combat techniques had resulted in a marked improvement throughout the army. With the high

workload and the unusual measures that Barrad had taken, the number of troops prepared to

defend the Black Rocks had not diminished greatly, well, once the Provost had emptied the

drinking emporiums of the last of the stragglers…

    Barrad stretched his muscles which were still knotted from the previous day’s spear practice.

It had been a while since he had worked out with clumsy infantry weapons, instead of the

precision-crafted blades to which he had become accustomed. He pushed open the tent-flap and

the fresh mountain air brought goose pimples to his bare chest and arms, the freshness of the cold

air made a man feel alive. The cloudless night had caked the ground with a light morning frost.

    He staggered out to the fast-running stream that ran down the rock face, close to the

makeshift camp. Clambering down onto a large smooth rock it provided a natural shower; he

unwillingly began the invigorating routine of a mountain-man’s wash. He tried to put aside any

thoughts of what might be getting flushed down through the stream from the town above.

Barrad’s thoughts strayed back to the many Su-Katii teachers of tactics that had tutored him over

his many lifetimes of training. With his recent change of allegiance the thought occurred to him

that he may now be forced to oppose any one of them, both in personal combat, or with his army.

How the different masters had contradicted each other. Some had insisted that only sound, solid

tactics and reliance on training, granted the victory, while others believed that the ability to

surprise and strike first was a pre-requisite to decimating the opposition. The only conclusion he

had reached, was that any one of these conditions could bring victory, as long as it was used in
the correct situation, which made judging the situation the most paramount factor. If he indeed

had to face those who had taught him tactics – would they use the same tactics twice, or would

they do the opposite of what they taught him as a bluff? His head hurt as he contemplated these

things until an uncontrollable shiver reminded him that he was standing half-naked in the middle

of freezing mountains. Drying himself off, he quickly concluded that his opponents’ tactics

would depend on whether they knew that he stood on the battlefield or not. He looked down at

the large teeth on the amulet about his neck. Tamar had explained to him on a subsequent dream

visit that as long as he wore the dragon’s tooth amulet its magic would keep him hidden from all

prying eyes, and if local spies had not revealed his new command, he stood a chance that the

enemy may not know of his presence here. The invaders would be full of confidence thinking

that the Tanarian forces were still in disarray. With that thought he retreated back into the

relative warmth of the tent. He started to don his distinctive Su-Katii armour but suddenly

stopped, and called his squire and told him to fetch a set of standard Tanarian infantry armour.

He had realised that if his presence was not obvious on the battlefield the way in which the

enemy commander conducted his battle would be more predictable and therefore give him a

further advantage. They would need as many factors in their favour as possible today. This

move outweighed the fact that some of his own troops may think their commander was not on the

battlefield, he would soon spread the word of his deception and show his face when the men were

formed up. Soldiers could gossip faster than old women.

    The Tanarian army had once been a proud professional unit; they had battled the Aristrians

to a state of stalemate in the previous war. But, twenty years later, with only border disputes and

marauding bands of thieves and robbers to test their metal, they had been caught with their

breaches down. They were far too rusty to mount an effective defence at the start of the week,

but now after an intensive turnaround they may perhaps last a little longer. Barrad would have
liked another couple of weeks to put them through their paces, but he knew that not even Tamar’s

powerful magic could delay the invaders for that long. He had no doubt that they would fight

hard, because they had no other choice as they were caged in with their backs against the wall -

there was no escape from these mountains. But the question remained at the front of his mind,

could they maintain discipline and follow orders correctly? Well today they would find out.



    Azeth Khan, Commander of Army Group East sat proudly on his tall charger. At last his

appetite for battle would be fulfilled once again as for years now, he had craved for that which he

could not have. In his youth, frequent combat had been commonplace and it was not until his

later years that he realised just how much like a drug it had been. Now at last his craving would

be satisfied.



    His scouts had returned with the good news that the last of the Tanarian dogs had ceased

their retreat; the pursued stragglers had fallen back to a final position in the mountains with the

rest of the vermin. He had expected to bring them to battle during the initial invasion but instead

they had just fled the field – pathetic. The rearguard skirmishers had scampered back to the

safety of their lines. Now commanding the freedom of the open plains, the enemy had allowed

him free movement to execute his mission - to capture the crystal mine in Bacu and then to

dominate the ground and destroy the enemy. The majority of his cavalry had been sent forward

to secure the mine as they could cover the distance and secure the objective quickly. They would

have been of little real use on a steep mountain assault; penned in on the narrow track they would

have only been a hindrance. Although Azeth did keep several cavalry squads back to run down

any stragglers that got past his infantry, he hated the thought that anyone should get away. The

order to take the mines as a priority was ridiculous to him, he had argued the flaws of not
capturing all strategic areas first until he was sick to what remained of his back teeth, but the

order was unchanging and came directly from the top. Still he would personally take great

pleasure in exterminating these vermin; now that their nest had been completely contained their

fate was surely sealed. His scouts had already reported finding three tracks leading into the hills.

Two of them were mere paths, easily defendable, so his superior weight in numbers would be of

little use there. The third track was much wider making it difficult to defend. He did not need to

be the master tactician that he was, to work out where to deliver his main assault. Azeth’s small

stature and rapid mood-swings had not won him any friends on this or previous expeditions. The

tall Aristrian nobles found the skinny pock-marked general difficult to stomach and doubted his

credibility when they were told that a Su-Katii general was taking command. They had expected

a warrior chiselled from solid rock to fill the door frame. Instead a flimsy little weasel of a man

had moved annoyingly into the room. On introduction to the Officers’ Mess, the despicable little

man had sat himself in the corner like a spider in a web, taking in his new surroundings, waiting

and listening. Eventually after a few too many wines a young officer had managed to make an

insulting comment about Azeth and the Su-Katii, asking a fellow loudly how an old bag of bones

had ever managed to get past the so-called rigorous training regime of the Su-Katii, let alone

advise the Aristrian army on how to fight. Overhearing the comment the old bag of bones sprang

almost gleefully from the corner and with a smirk on his face, his answer had been swift.

    ‘Allow me to demonstrate,’ said Azeth. Unbuckling his ornate sheathes he allowed his

blades to fall to the floor. Azeth preferred the Falchion style blades, short and single edged

curved blades, as thick as a broadsword that could produce a terrible and deep wound. He then

pointed to the cocky youngster; his yellow nail and thin scrawny finger singling him out. Tilting

his head to one side he coolly spoke his cold words.
    ‘Please finish your wine young man. Enjoy it for it will be the last thing you taste before I

kill you with your own blade.’

    The young officer froze for a second hoping that one of his superior officers would say

something or step in, but they had the sense to stay seated, for a Su-Katii general was

untouchable under Aristrian law. Looking around the silent room in growing frustration the

younger man calmed himself for a second, then he picked up his wine goblet and went to take a

sip. With his temper rising, his face reddened with the embarrassment of the whole room

watching him and the veins in his temple pulsated as he threw his wine goblet at the skinny old

man. The Su-Katii stepped immediately forward, easily avoiding the flying goblet, which

sprayed the surrounding officers with the blood-red liquid. In one fluent and swift move the Su-

Katii kicked a nearby chair upwards into the young man’s face, momentarily stunning him as he

drew his broadsword. With impeccable timing, the Su-Katii caught the youngsters arm just as

the blade tip was free of its scabbard, carrying his momentum forwards, he drove the freshly

released sword backwards into the young man’s stomach. The consumed wine did nothing to

help dull the slow and agonising death that eventually befell him the next day from the fatal

wound. As the young man lay mortally wounded on the cold floor, writhing in pain at his feet,

Azeth looked around the room quizzically.

    ‘Does anyone else require a demonstration of my skill or have any further doubts you wish to

discuss …I am a good listener?’ he enquired, aiming his words towards the other startled young

officers who had sat at their loudmouthed colleague’s table. Apart from the groans of the dying

man, Azeth’s question was greeted by a resounding silence.

    ‘I thought not. Remember this day well, for I now take your command and this will be my

response if you fail to follow my orders to the letter. Now please enjoy your wine, and the rest of

the evening, gentlemen.’
    Azeth was of the old school. He had fought in all of the major battles of his time and

genuinely missed the thrill of a good war. Over the years he had become hardened to the horrors

that came with this territory, he had seen them all. As they rode towards the mountains, he had

already begun to plan what tortures he would inflict upon any of the Tanarian survivors.

Eventually his military mind took over from the darker thoughts that once again seemed to

constantly push to the front.

    ‘Send only two hundred men to each of the smaller passes, they will serve to keep them

hemmed in. Make no assault, just kill them if they try to break out. Now get up there, double-

march and do not disappoint me. I want them in place quickly to cut off all escape routes before

our main force arrives at the larger path to seal the trap.’

    ‘My Lord’ said a scout tentatively. ‘I believe the locals call the mouth of the path the

Giant’s Footprint. They say a giant ran across the hills smashing the rocky crags eventually

falling on the higher ground creating a flat plateau for the hamlets above.

    ‘Tanarian retards. Thanks for the history lesson, but I will be rewriting it today. There

should be just enough light for one assault. Go and prepare the Uphrian mercenaries for they

shall have the first battle honours today.’
                                  CHAPTER 15 - HOSPITALITY



    Titus trundled along the trail behind Athene on the dappled Nordheim pony he had acquired

from the stock left outside the shrine. He had deliberately put the girl on his own horse, even

though the steed was almost four hands taller, much faster and bred from a fine line of

thoroughbreds. Anyone else would have thought it a poor choice, for the larger mount could

easily escape any Nordheim pony that Titus now rode. Unfortunately for Athene it was also

trained expertly by its master to halt on his whistle, amongst other tricks. With a growing bruise

on her hip from being vaulted from the saddle it had only taken one such display to prove that she

should give up her idea of escape. As they rode over the rough terrain of large rocks and bushes

it was obvious to Athene that Titus was still in some discomfort from his wounded leg, which

pleased her greatly. He was already irritated by the irregular movement which aggravated the

wound and the thought that his mission had now turned to one of baby-sitting, irritated him.

Titus’s mood darkened. Feeling a trickle of blood running down his leg he reached into his

saddlebags. After some time rummaging about he eventually produced a red crystal from his

stash, which he promptly cracked on the saddle pommel. He loosened his waist ties enough to

stretch down and rub the escaping liquid into his throbbing leg wound. As the wizard had

promised, the damaged flesh and skin tingled as the crystals powers accelerated the wound’s

healing process and eased the pain. He gave a small wince followed by a loud sigh of relief.

Athene took a backwards glance and was both astonished and amused to see Titus, with his hand

down the front of his leggings slowly rubbing his hand up and down with an expression of

blissful relief on his face. Titus was suddenly aware of a long forgotten sensation of

embarrassment.

    ‘My leg... hurt leg…’ he tried to explained hurriedly. ‘I needed a crystal on it.’
    The expression in her rolling eyes and a large sigh, were all that were needed to cut the

warrior’s babbling short.

    ‘Great,’ she said. ‘I am forced to share the trail with a pervert as well as a murderer. Is it

any wonder I tried to get away?’

    ‘Hey lady, I don’t have to explain myself to you – but you can rest easy. It was just my leg

that I was tending to, the wound was deep. I can assure you I am not in the habit of molesting

young girls,’ said Titus. ‘But to be fair to your looks, you do fill the view ahead marginally

better than that of the fat old swine I used to keep.’

    ‘Wonderful, also a sweet talker, my luck just gets better all the time,’ said Athene

sarcastically.

    ‘Shush, face forward and follow the track,’ was his curt response.

    After several hours over the rough terrain, the entertaining sight of Athene’s rear end

rhythmically swaying about in the saddle ahead, had lost its initial appeal, but, after scanning the

barren landscape, his eyes returned to rest comfortably back on Athene. He had decided that it

was the more interesting of the two and continued his letch.

    Far better indeed than fat old Hogger, but he would never tell her that. Their journey

continued and Titus soon grew bored. He was not used to escorting prisoners, it was a new angle

to his more ruthless job and he decided that any conversation was better than none to brighten up

the mundane ride. Even if she was just going to spit feathers at him, he thought, at least it could

prove amusing and would whittle away a few more hours if nothing else.

    He had already noticed the slight wrinkle in Athene’s nose that preceded any angry outbursts

and would happily provoke her just to invoke this reaction again. ‘How do you strike up a

normal conversation with a captive,’ he thought, his task was usually just to kill the target, not

escort it. The immediate answer that entered his mind was, ‘However I damn well please, she is
my prisoner.’ However, a cool gust of wind crossed his face and it seemed to blow away some of

the hatred that had filled his mind. For a brief moment, a glimmer of the younger and more

curious Titus returned, a man filled with confidence and pride.

    ‘Tell me lady - why would a wizard offer a small fortune to hand over a simple girl like you?

The other one that you were riding with, Tyranny, I can understand how she would fetch a good

price on her head. She has been looting and stealing from wizards for far too long, not the kind

of people that you want to cross, but you, as far as I can see are unimportant and have offended

no-one.’

    Athene did not reply.

    ‘Perhaps you are also a wizard yourself,’ he continued. ‘Although I think not, or you would

not still be riding this path with me, so what is it that you do exactly woman?’

    Still no response.

    ‘Why is there a price on your head? Listen lady, we have a long way to ride and I can tell

you, this is going to be a really boring trip if you remain so chatty. Come on, let’s start over

again, maybe we could just pretend that I am a handsome young stranger that you have just met.

Of course I don’t have to pretend much there, perhaps with my former past forgotten we have just

met on the path whilst out for a little ride.’ He hid his sarcasm well, trying to tempt out the

wrinkle in her nose with his comments.

    ‘Oh, hello young maiden. Pleased to meet you, what’s your name milady and what brings

you to these fine lands?’ His sarcasm was now very apparent.

    ‘My name is Athene,’ she replied in a girlish voice worthy of a six-year-old.

    ‘And I have been kidnapped by a perverted, smooth talking, sword-wielding bastard.’ Her

voice reverted to its normal tone. You were right, if I had been a wizard I would have used my
magic and turned you back into your natural form – a slug, or escaped you by now, but judging

by your words it would appear that I am some kind of precious cargo to you.

       ‘A slug,’ he laughed, ‘Is that what you think of me, how fantastic.’ Athene found his delight

even more irritating and fired back at him

       ‘No, I figure that perhaps a slug is too complimentary and that if you were going to hurt or

rape me you would have done so by now. My experiences have taught me that most men in a

position of power like to touch rather than just watch my arse for several hours. So this makes

you either an extremely patient slug or a lover of boys.’ Her confidence grew as it occurred to

her that he may not want to damage the goods in his care, she decided to see how far she could

push it.

       ‘So my queer fellow, I’ll happily make idle chit-chat with you as you take me to God-knows-

where, but you should be aware you may have a proper fight on your hands, not with your sharp

swords, but instead with my tongue. As she glanced behind, she took in a deep breath to try and

defuse her growing anger and red cheeks, but she quickly realised that she actually didn’t care

any more.

       Titus could not resist a cheeky grin at the red face and crinkled nose.

       Catching sight of the grin she took a sharp intake of breath and continued, ‘If you want to

talk you can begin by telling me why the hell you have taken me hostage. Who wants me and

why?’

       ‘Ah, it would appear that the lady does have a mystical talent after all, eyes in the back of

your head and a tongue like a rattlesnake.’ He knew that terminating the conversation would

infuriate her further, so replied, ‘I beg your pardon for disturbing you. Face forwards and ride

on.’
    Feeling smug, Titus knew that his last command had made her seething with hidden rage

underneath her now composed exterior, but the silence that undoubtedly would follow would be

worth it.

    Another half-hour passed on the trail and the seeming endless plain stretched out before her,

the distinct green of woodland could now just be made out in the distance. Athene could not help

but replay the previous conversation in her mind. What had she been thinking? It had been a

foolish thing to say. He may have been almost prankish with her so far, but she knew he was a

very deadly man, now worst of all she actually felt guilty for her outburst and her demands. It

had been pure anger that had taken hold of her at the time, now she realised that if her

assumptions were wrong, her anger could get her killed. Even if she was a precious cargo, best

not to push her luck any further,’ she thought. However if she could change her tack and engage

him in a lasting conversation, he might actually start to see her as a person and not just his

prisoner. When she was younger she had overheard tales before in her mother’s inn about a

prince who had been held hostage and was initially treated no better than a dog, but every night

his captors would untie him to eat and he would tell his kidnappers tales of his father’s

adventures during the old wars. His father had been a skilled tracker and a fearless warrior who

had escaped death several times. When his ransom was eventually paid up, the kidnappers gave

him parting gifts because they had grown to like the prince and his amazing stories. Athene

thought it more probable that they feared the father and were hedging their bets in case he came

after them to wreak vengeance. Was there any truth in the story or was it just a fairy tale, who

knows? Either way she figured if she could be a little bit more of the old Athene and get her

captor to view her as another human being rather than a bounty, she may have a better chance of

coming through this alive. Thinking of her mother’s inn made Athene wonder how she was
faring. She muttered to herself, ‘it looks like she was right again.’ She paused wondering if

Titus had overheard her.

        As if he could read her mind, Titus said. ‘Mothers are rarely wrong. What was she right

about?’

        She could feel his victorious grin behind her back as he feigned his curiosity.

        ‘My temper, she always said it would get me into trouble.’

        ‘Trouble surrounds us all, all of the time, like a cloud. But it is not your doing lady, it just

happens. Believe me I have seen far too much of that cloud over the years, count yourself lucky

to have a mother, I never knew mine.’

        ‘I am sorry to hear that and please, call me Athene, I’m certainly not a lady or a wizard

either, I’m afraid - just a cook. Now that this freezing wind has cooled my temper down, I must

apologise; I regret that I called you all of those foul names earlier – by what should I call you

sir?’

        ‘Just by my given name, Titus’ he replied in a firm voice. ‘Now see that dip in the ground,

up there, by the large rock? It will provide some shelter from the wind, so head directly for that

and we will take a short break for some food. Don’t worry, I won’t be calling upon your cooking

skills, it will just be the pleasures of some smoked meat and rye bread. He shook his head and

murmured to himself, ‘By the Gods, they have me capture a cook, how ridiculous these times

have become.’

        She snorted in disgust at his comment then remembered that she was striving to appear nicer

so instead she complied without further argument and rode towards the wind break.

        The meal had been as Titus had promised, plain and simple. Athene had offered some of the

oatcakes that she had picked up back at Croweheim, to add some further variety to the bland

flavours. Titus proved to be more than willing to make further small talk with her, commenting
on the rations and even asked some questions about her mother. The more he talked, the less he

would treat her like a prisoner, or so she hoped. As she prepared the horses, ready to hit the trail

again, she gazed around the vast countryside. The tall mountains reaching for the sky in the

distance were familiar; she had passed those tall twin peaks before, when arriving through the

Great Gate. The horse suddenly became skittish as the wind blew a new scent to their noses. She

raised her head from the shelter of the hollow and, as a second gust of wind blew her dark hair

about her face, she spotted to her right a number of the possessed stumbling along aimlessly

across the open ground and she looked back nervously at Titus.

    ‘Not again, we need to get out of here quickly,’ she rapidly packed up the remaining food.

    ‘Don’t worry yourself; they won’t bother us,’ said Titus calmly.

    ‘I wouldn’t be too sure of that,’ retorted Athene as the figures advanced closer. Titus

continued to slowly pack away unbothered, then calmly walked to the far side of the rock.

    ‘Excuse me – nature calls.’ Titus stood urinating in the direction of the figures still

approaching.

    Athene was skittish as she impatiently waited for him to finish his business, she was sure he

was deliberately trying to tempt her into trying to make a run for it again.

    The mindless mob came within twenty metres of the hollow. Every intimidating inch of

these horrifying figures could now be clearly seen.

    The hairs on the back of Athene’s neck stood on end as the group stumbled on past them

harmlessly. She sighed and looked down unwittingly realising that she was now clutching

Titus’s shoulder, she quickly brushed herself down, as if to brush off her disgust.

    ‘That one there looks a bit like you don’t you think?’ He pointed and laughed at the ugly

half-naked possessed female. She fought hard and did not take the bait.
    Both horses needed sweet words of attention to keep them calm until the last of the

abominations had passed. Athene was surprised at the gentleness of Titus’ words to calm the

beasts. ‘Perhaps he cared more for animals than people,’ she thought.

    As they resumed their journey, she decided to find out how far she could push a conversation

with this brute. She was desperate to find out who was ultimately behind her abduction and why.

    ‘Henrick, the man you killed yesterday, said that you were a Su-Katii – what did he mean?’

She managed to hide the distress in her voice well.

    ‘Ah your friend Henrick, he was a good fighter, in fact he was an incredible fighter towards

his end, well - for a ‘One Lifer’ but I think he had some help from this. He patted the hilt of

Tress’s sabre now hanging across his saddle.

    ‘You see, I have fought countless opponents over the last nine hundred years and never

sustained as much as a scratch, well apart from once - but that’s another story.’

    ‘Nine hundred years?’ Athene repeated. ‘You are kidding me right, or are you really trying

to tell me that you have lived for nine hundred years? If that’s the case you’ve certainly aged

well. Is that what Su-Katii means?’

    ‘Well not strictly speaking. Like most things in life, it is complicated.’ His mind appeared

to linger on an old memory.

    ‘The Su-Katii is an order of warriors, nothing more.’ The vehement manner in which he

uncomfortably spat out the words told Athene that he now regarded them with an element of

contempt. He made no attempt to hide his disgust.

    ‘You were one of them, or are still one of them, aren’t you?’ Athene probed.

    ‘I am no longer a member of the Su-Katii order, yet once a member, always a member.’ he

sneered.

    ‘Now ride on Athene.’ His sudden discomfort of the conversation showed in his tone.
    She noted the use of her name rather than ‘Lady.’ She smiled to herself and settled for the

small victory.



    Anak’s lifeless body lay frozen in its contorted death throes on the ground. In his last

minutes he had called upon every shade of darkness to try and preserve his puny life but it was to

no avail. It had happened too fast and the last essence of his life had been sucked away from his

body when he fell with the Soul Beast’s demise. His dark magic had a high price for failure and

his controlling link to the beast had sealed his fate, dragging him down to Hell with the beast like

an umbilical cord to a baby. Saznack and Bellack had both retired quietly to their chambers

exhausted, feeling the strains of the day they both desperately needed to recuperate.

    Later deep in the summoning chambers of the Wyvern’s nest, the acolytes desperately

struggled to maintain their control of the possessed. Three of the six lay in a deep sleep or coma

on the cold stone floor, their bodies totally overcome with exhaustion from the demanding spell.

The other three could feel the panic rising inside them as their powers of concentration struggled

to maintain the single consciousness that controlled the mindless possessed.

    ‘We need to wake up the Master now, only he can decide whether or not to release them,’

said the first acolyte

    ‘But if one of us leaves, the spell will be broken and we will be finished,’ cut in another of

the acolytes.

    ‘Slaves.’ shouted the third, ‘Slaves, come now, quickly.’

    But none appeared as, following procedure, they had all been locked away when a human

sacrifice was required. It was never good for the obedience of the slaves, for them to witness

another of their number being butchered. However for this very reason the Wyvern’s Nest

maintained a small garrison of troops in case the slaves required a little ‘discipline’. It was led by
the perfect man for the job, Marcus Thain, the most heartless, cruel, but efficient commander

money could buy. He made the men he commanded appear almost saintly and all they demanded

in return was a purse full of silver, twenty days’ leave and as many slaves as they wished for their

personal enjoyment.

    The screams from the lower gatehouse often carried into the main residence when the new

slaves arrived and were inducted to replace the older ones that had mysteriously disappeared.

Marcus had also proved useful on several special tasks. He was too tall to pass anonymously

through the streets, but his unique presence had always proved of worth for enforcing the

sorcerers’ demands in the past, especially when a rough hand was needed. Marcus had already

selected his new plaything from the latest batch, one of the young Nordheim girls from the recent

influx of lively new slaves; she was still fresh with the hope of escape. This batch had been

delivered to the guards as an advance payment for the forthcoming missions but this one would

not see the sacrifice room. With silk-soft skin and firm thighs she had scratched and fought

Marcus from the second he had pulled her from the batch. She was strong – this was good. She

would need to be for what he had in store for her.

    Unfortunately for the struggling acolytes, Marcus’s quarters were the closest to the

summoning chambers and their feeble shouts for assistance went unnoticed as the young girl’s

screams of terror drowned out Marcus’s shrieks of excitement, as he fulfilled his torturous desires

drowning out all other external sounds.



    Barrad stood in the front rank of the shield-wall anonymously blending in amongst his

troops. The three-deep wall of heavily armoured men spanned the fifty paces that stretched

across the bottom of the track. He now wore a standard infantry-crested helm and plate-grooved

chest piece. His purple cloak concealed the twin blades slung about his shoulders, the straps
adjusted to a low sling so not to allow the pommels to protrude above his shoulders. The cold

steel of his mass-produced helmet pressed into the back of his neck in discomfort as he watched

the dark malevolent mass of men approach. At first the enemy had appeared like a stream of ants

coming up through the valley, but now their serious faces could be seen individually. His men

may not have much love for him, but they were certainly glad that he was now standing in the

front rank alongside them. Whilst on the other hand the original Tanarian generals stood on a

higher twist in the path with a rank of shield bearers standing at the ready about them, they had

orders to remain visible next to the war banners and they watched on from the relative safety of

the higher ground. Barrad was familiar with the use and techniques of all weapons including

almost anything that could also be turned into one, but now standing amongst the men, he could

not help but think that that the main reason that soldiers the world over struggled to stay alive on

the battlefield was down to the poor quality of the weapons and armour they had available to

them. The spear was far too heavy at the tip and its prolonged use would cause accelerated

fatigue on the upper arms and shoulders resulting in inaccuracy. Still it would serve its purpose

today.



    Azeth rode to the front of his advancing army to survey the ground and assess the

preparations and ability of his opponents. Several days’ labour preparing the defences were

evident, with several ditches dug into the frozen ground at the track’s entrance to slow a charge

up and lines of sharpened stakes had been driven into the ground to stop any cavalry. It appeared

that the natural terrain also favoured the defenders. The necessity for his men to expose their

faces as they looked upwards on the steep track would make them vulnerable to archers and it

would also limit their room to manoeuvre. Beyond the rocky crags of the first choke-point, the

enemy had massed, the path widened out in points as it wound its way up to the mountain plateau
above. He knew the busy mountain town of Monaki lay beyond it, dominating the plateau and

overlooking the rock face beyond it, several of the roofs were visible marking its position. He

also knew that the enemy would be fighting for their families’ lives as well as their own. There

would be no further retreat for them.



    Azeth confidently trotted back to his men. ‘Now it is time, we shall see how those dogs

fight.’ he shouted. ‘There is still enough light for one good assault. Let’s see how they stand up

to our Uphrians and their renowned charge. If they could break the line it should be easy to

overrun them with a superior weight of numbers. We will be feasting in the town by nightfall.’

he announced. One of the Aristrian officers spoke up from behind him.

    ‘My Lord, should we not follow protocol and offer them the chance to surrender first?’

    ‘What? And spoil our fun? Ahh what the hell,’ he thought. ‘These are mountain men,

proud and arrogant, they will refuse anyway – let’s give them the chance to turn us down.’



    The Tanarian line shuffled restlessly as the invading battle group formed up below them, the

first column of several thousand men advanced. ‘Uphrians,’ whispered one of the men closest to

Barrad. The distinctive war paint on their faces could now clearly be seen.

    ‘Interesting’ thought Barrad.’ He would have expected a cavalry assault first, but there was

a noticeable lack of cavalry. They must be deployed elsewhere – or perhaps it was a deception.

Still, the effects of a Uphrian war charge was almost the same as a cavalry charge. The Uphrians

were once a proud and wild independent warrior race living on the extremes of the north

Aristrian borders, they had been conquered many years ago, but at a high price after their

constant raids into the rich Aristrian farm lands could no longer be tolerated. But their warlike

reputation still befitted them as one of the best mercenary forces money could buy. Their most
renowned tactic was the surge in which they simply broke ranks and quickly descended into their

opponents in a screaming mass. They painted their faces with images of ferocious beasts to

frighten their foes into submission, then charged into them like a herd of frenzied buffalo

wielding large two handed swords and axes as their weapons of preference. If the line broke

against them, defeat was sure to follow. They were also known for their bloodlust and total

disregard for discipline in fighting as one unit. Barrad hoped that this would be their downfall.

The message was passed down the line for more men to keep out of sight in the mountain coves.

    ‘Listen men.’ Barrad called out. I have no inspiring speeches for you – today is simple.

Fight or die. Just remember this, your loved ones lie behind you on the plateau up there and your

failure will also mean their death. Keep your ears open and fight well.’

    A rider with a white standard approached the Tanarian lines. The eyes of the entire field fell

upon him. His horse snorted out the cold mountain air as it stopped. The herald wasted no time

and shouted out his proclamation.

    ‘The generous Lord Azeth offers you these terms of surrender – all ranking officers will step

forward and surrender themselves for judgment and all fighting men will lay down their arms. If

you submit yourselves to Lord Azeth now, every fourth man will enter slavery and all others will

become subjects of Aristria. The people of Monaki will pay tribute of four thousand gold coins

or equivalent livestock towards the Aristrian war effort. In addition, all subjects will swear

allegiance to Aristria. If all of these terms are met today, most of you will keep your lives. You

have a few moments to make your choice.’

    The herald’s dark eyes nervously scanned the opposing ranks. The answer from the

mountain men came quickly. Talos, the blacksmith broke ranks, with his great hammer raised

high above his head he leapt out in front of the men.

    ‘You lying swine. Get off my lands.’
    He screamed the words as he stomped down the hill towards to the herald. The herald turned

his mount without a backwards look and swiftly retreated back to the formed Aristrian ranks.

Some overeager archers from the Aristrian lines let go a volley that peppered the ground some

twenty metres in front of Talos. Suddenly feeling rather exposed, the blacksmith backed up

towards his comrades, stepping slowly backwards not wishing to turn his back on the enemy.

Barrad shouted down the line.

    ‘I like your fighting spirit Talos, but break ranks again and I will kill you myself. Remember

the lives of your comrades also depend on your actions. Now men, do you think that those

pathetic painted faces can scare you? Let’s show them what awaits them. Let the foreign cattle

hear the sound of the mountain lions.’

    The men in the shield-wall gave a great battle-shout followed by the sound of a thousand

weapons crashing against their shields. The noise carried far throughout the valleys. The men

now stood taller, hurling insults at the approaching Uphrians. A whooping scream penetrated the

air and the Uphrians broke into a slow jog forwards. Their archers also advanced behind and a

large volley darkened the sky.

    ‘Arrows,’ shouted the men from the Tanarian ranks. The pounding of feet echoed through

the valley as the Uphrians increased their pace. The shield-wall effectively soaked up the first

barrage of arrows that rained down on them, the thick heavy infantry armour and large tower

shields did their job well against the arrow storm. Only one man fell to the rear of the shield-

wall, an arrow through his throat. Strangely everyone seemed to always remember the first man

to fall in a battle ‘Riken, son of Hilda,’ was that man today.

    The repetitive chinking sound from the Uphrians’ scaled armour quickened, marking their

sudden change in pace. The sound filled the valley but was soon overshadowed by their battle

cries as they broke from their jog into a full-blown charge. The steep hillside slope did little to
slow their unstoppable pace. The Uphrians hit the shield-wall like a great wave upon the shore

and the thunderous sounds of battle filled the valley. Men screamed as steel tore flesh and the

fallen were trampled under foot. The thousands of screaming Uphrian warriors funnelled up the

hillside into the enemy, the lead axe-man savagely swinging his massive axe through several

men, he carved a gap through their shield-wall. A Tanarian soldier stepped forward to fill the gap

left by a fallen comrade, smashing the rim of his shield across the axe-man’s face, momentarily

stunning his unstoppable advance. The Tanarian replacement stepped forwards into the opening

break in the wall in an attempt to plug the growing gap. Another axe struck his shield and as he

turned to meet his opponent, a huge sword stuck the replacement Tanarian in his exposed side

smashing his ribs. The enraged Uphrian warrior quickly finished the man off then continued his

push forward and the hive of men that followed forced the Tanarian ranks apart. With the

defenders now split into two groups, the weight of the Uphrians’ advance pushed aside the ranks

of the defenders back to the rocky walls. Sensing victory with the enemy close to rout they swept

up the track forcing the defenders back against the valley edges as they raced upwards towards

the town.

    The arrows tore the throat from the lead Uphrian, his blood sprayed onto his bewildered

companions, soon others fell as the second volley hit. Past the twist in the valley, a large

contingent of men had pulled themselves up from their prone position and created another shield-

wall blocking the exhausted men’s advance whilst the Tanarian archers behind peppered the front

rows of the battle-scarred Uphrians. The trap was set and now the Tanarian archers were having

a field day, taking care to aim their arrows into the mobs’ centre.

    Azeth had already ordered the advance of the main force after witnessing the initial success

of the Uphrian charge. From the excitement of watching the results of the Uphrian charge and

the damage inflicted by his shock troops the delay had formed a natural gap between the massed
units awaiting their orders to advance. Now his mighty Uphrians, exhausted half way up the

hillside faltered in the hail of arrows, they had only counted on the one line to break, but still

their tenacity carried them upwards to clash with their foe.

    As planned, Barrad had worked his way around to the sides of the valley track during the

fighting, trying hard not to distinguish himself, but he was still able to save the lives of several

men around him as he moved. The men had followed their orders well and the scripted rout on

the first charge had looked convincing or perhaps they had genuinely routed? It had been so

chaotic. But now, pressed back to the sides of the track, they were like barnacles clinging to the

side as a fast-running wave, flowed through the middle of them up the track. Suddenly under the

press of men, the wooden frame and canvas, made to look like shale, gave way and revealed a

large area to the side of the path. For a moment the rear Uphrians just stared in shock at the

hundred armed Tanarian’s crammed into the recess. The cart passing-point that had been

selected for the ruse, had been so well camouflaged with the rock flake covered canvas that it had

looked just like an extension of the rocky walls that lined the track. Bolstered by the extra

reinforcements to their rear that had been so well concealed, the Uphrians were now surrounded

on all sides. The men streamed out from behind the deep set coves to rejoin the troops and with

Barrad now leading the way, they fought their way back for space to reform the original shield-

wall behind the Uphrian mass. The force blocking the path ahead received reinforcements from

the floating regiment that Barrad had created sprinting down from the town above, thus encircling

the now-panicked enemy. Their archers on the hill now switched targets and slowed the rate of

advance from the main body of Aristrian troops that now marched up the hill to their lead unit’s

aid. Some vital time was needed to deal with the trapped Uphrians. Barrad stepped out to meet

the advancing troops alone. Throwing aside his shield and bloodied spear he drew his twin
blades and strolled towards the fifty man wide front rank of the Aristrian light infantry that

approached the exposed backs of his men.

    ‘Show them your mountain hospitality men,’ he shouted.

    But only a few of his men had turned on hearing his words above the clash of swords and

scream’s of dying men from the slaughter going on behind. Panic had soon replaced the

premature smiles of victory on the painted faces of the trapped invaders as the encircled men

desperately fought for their lives. The reformed Tanarian force above now pushed the lead

Uphrians backwards into their still-advancing force, causing further confusion. The close-quarter

fighting now hindered the use of their two-handed weapons. With little room to manoeuvre

amongst the crush and mew of the steep hillside, the track soon ran with their blood.

    ‘What is this?’ cried Azeth shooting bolt upright in his saddle in surprise, he watched aghast

as the lead warrior calmly strolled out towards his advancing force, discarding his shield and

spear in favour of two shining swords. Even from this distance the very movement of the warrior

left him in no doubt that he was a Su-Katii, this could be only one man. How had he not known

of his presence here?

    ‘Kill him and smash the troops to the rear, get my Uphrians out of there now.’ he screamed.

    The first ranks fell upon Barrad like a wave that would have drowned any normal person, but

his movements were practically superhuman – side step, riposte, parry, lunge – two men fell

dead. The first moments when your opponents are still full of confidence in their weight of

numbers and own abilities were always the most dangerous to survive. Once he had established

the fact that death met anyone who dared to face him, or indeed to attack him from the rear, the

opponents’ confidence and willingness to die underwent a rapid transformation. Two swords

struck out at him simultaneously from opposing sides. Both were swept aside and his foot kicked

the face of the newly approaching opponent to his front. A spear was thrust at him from behind,
just missing his head. Today his years of training were being taxed to the extreme. He sliced the

tip from the spear whilst decapitating another swordsman who had overextended his lunge. The

Aristrian infantry’s advance had been stopped by one man and distracted before they could reach

the exposed backs of the Tanarian soldiers as they went about their slaughter of the Uphrians.

    The single word ‘Barrad’ fell from Lord Azeth’s lips as he witnessed a whirlwind of blades

carving up his front ranks. He studied the fighting style of the young Su-Katii warrior – his

father had indeed been right to train him so early. He had only seen such skill with the blades

once before. Most of the men had learned fast and now struggled to get out of his path for they

knew that certain death awaited them. An Aristrian cavalryman galloped in from the side. He

was an officer, anxious to gain rank and bring down the warrior, but his aimed lance-tip was

easily brushed aside by one of Barrad’s lethal blades, his other blade lashed out as if swatting a

fly. The lancer’s vision of triumph was cut from his shoulders as his head toppled to the ground,

severed by the second blade. Barrad pointed a blood-drenched sword towards the mound where

Azeth looked on.

    ‘Come and feel my blade Azeth – it longs to meet you.’ he bellowed.

    The skinny little man recoiled in disgust at the offer.

    ‘Archers?’ he shouted.

    Barrad cut several shafts from the air that were heading towards him, pulling up a body from

the ground he used it as a shield soaking up the majority of arrows intended for him and dashed

forward into the ranks of archers. Two bowmen fell dead the others just ran for their lives, some

dropping their bows in their panic. A detachment of Aristrian infantry came to the rescue of the

archers and now fanned out in a large semi-circle around the lethal warrior.

    ‘Azeth,’ he shouted again. ‘Come save your men – only you need to die today.’ His words

just about carried to the general over the battle.
     Azeth was now faced with a dilemma. Not to fight would lose him face before his army, but

to fight would almost certainly result in his death. Azeth was supremely confident and had been

amongst the best of the Su-Katii with a sword, but he knew he was old and now well past his

prime, although his experience may still win the day against youth. On the other hand by not

facing him today, Barrad’s confidence would grow out of proportion, perhaps filling him with

overconfidence and this would make him more likely to make a mistake in a second encounter.

Azeth decided discretion was the better part of valour and withdrew to make camp, he knew none

of his men would dare bring up the matter of his retreat.

     Finishing their slaughter the Tanarian forces rushed down to stand with their commander and

the men rapidly reformed the shield-wall in case the attack was resumed. The dark of night had

already started to close in and the attackers had pulled back, they would not fight well after their

commander had just refused single combat. This day was done.

     Barrad turned back to face the Tanarian ranks to rapturous celebrations. The men slapped

his back and shoulders with excitement, clearly impressed with his performance.

     ‘My God.’ one complimented, ‘It was like the War God himself had descended upon the

field.’

     The last of the Uphrians lay dead in the pass. Only a handful had managed to fight their way

back out of the death-trap, but not one of the surrounded men had begged for mercy or quarter.

They had fought bravely and defiantly to the very last man, setting an example that the Tanarians

themselves might need to soon follow.

     As night fell, the songs of victory carried down the mountainside to the disheartened

invaders. The songs also carried to the cartloads of wounded being ferried up the hill to Monaki,

the dead being tossed down as a message towards the enemy camp that now filled and lit the
plain. A fire cart had been pushed out just past the mouth of the mountain track to illuminate any

stealthy approach or night raid.

    Barrad finished the day with the final briefings to his men on the tactics to be followed the

next day. Quietly satisfied with the way the day had gone and confident that his officers were

fully aware of what would be demanded of them, Barrad spent some minutes cleaning the caked

blood from his fingernails in the cold stream that ran down past the command tent, then,

stretching and relaxing his aching muscles, he moved back to the light and warmth of his crystal-

lit tent. Pulling back the leather entrance flap he suddenly halted, finding a singed and blackened

Sorus stretched out comfortably on his bed.

    ‘You took your time Barrad, I have been waiting for you,’ said Sorus quietly.

    ‘You’re looking a little worse for wear, did one of your spells go wrong old man?’ asked

Barrad.

    ‘I feel it,’ groaned the ageing magician. ‘We have a new problem to discuss – a matter in

which you may have some experience.’

    ‘Before you continue, aren’t you going to introduce me to your lady companion?’

    A figure stepped out from the shadows sizing him up with a single glance. She had been

sitting silently transfixed with the man’s presence after the name Barrad had been spoken. Could

Tamar be right about this man? He appeared younger than her, perhaps only nineteen, but

confident and strong, would he remain in her thoughts? The wizard had said that they both did

not know of their desires so she fought down her pounding heart, she certainly knew, but she

decided to play it cool. She could live with young.

    ‘Excuse my manners, Barrad. This is Tress – she has worked with us before and is a friend.’

    Tress quickly brushed back her hair feeling suddenly flushed; she managed to thrust out her

ample chest in the process ensuring his attention and then delicately offered Barrad her hand.
    Following her movements, he placed a small courteous kiss to her hand, as was the practice

in high society. ‘Pleased to meet you my lady,’ he said, putting on his posh and noble voice.

    Barrad took in her lithe form, a curvy, but athletic, build. A far cry from Tamar’s other

stuffy associates.

    ‘Hmm, a blonde about his tent would make a much better view than these craggy

mountains,’ he thought. It would be nice to have some female company for a change.
                                      CHAPTER 16 – THE WOLF



    Titus reined in his pony to ride alongside Athene, all the better to converse. She had

managed to maintain an on-going conversation with the cold-hearted man since they rode out

after the meal break.

    ‘I don’t mean to pry,’ she said, ‘But from what you said earlier, I sensed that you were in

some way pained by your past. I’m afraid I only have two skills in life; one is that I am a

damned good cook – my mother saw to that and the other is that I am a good listener. My mother

used to say that a problem shared eases the pain.’

    ‘I need no priest or agony aunt to confess to - my past has already provided me with far too

many dark memories deeply ingrained up here,’ he tapped his head. ‘So you are too late for that

my dear, but enough of this and listen to my next words… Keep on riding towards that woodland

over there,’ he nodded to the east.

    ‘Will you stop with that?’ Athene snapped back, she quickly held her tongue realising that

Titus really could infuriate her with the just the slightest look or word, even when she was trying

to play nicely. She later apologised for her prying.

    ‘No, I think a change of plan is needed,’ replied Titus. ‘We have been watched over this last

mile. Head over to the tree line that parallels this path and for God’s sake don’t stare towards it,’

he hissed.

    ‘Once we move into the tree line our paths should meet and we will find out who has been

following us. I hope for your sake it is not that fool that I left alive in the shrine. Perhaps it’s just

some members of the local tribe whose land we happen to be crossing, but either way, if they

cross me they will end up dead. Now keep up your conversation with me to make it look as if we

haven’t noticed them.’
    ‘The fool’s name that you are referring to is Corvus,’ replied Athene, her attitude beginning

to show through again. It was almost impossible for her to maintain an attitude of civility

towards this killer. ‘King Corvus and these are his lands that you ride across now, so I guess that

actually makes you the trespasser here.’

    His open laughter filled the air, seeming to wash away Athene’s harsh comments, she looked

at him confused.

    ‘Actually, Athene, a long time ago most of these lands used to belong to me. I originally

came from these lands before you were a twinkle in your mother’s eye and many years later I

returned and conquered them, so it is in fact you and Corvus who are the trespassers. Perhaps

this Corvus is some distant blood-relative of mine? He was quite handsome don’t you think? So

it could well be a possibility.’

    He stroked his chin line and eagerly awaited her reaction.

    She bit her lip to stop herself responding. He was so full of himself she thought and also full

of something else. As she reached the tree line his boastful words spun in her head. What if his

words were actually true? Was there nothing this man had not done before? She decided not to

ponder too much on his words, for they were most likely shallow and she was pretty sure he was

just saying these things to wind her up. Since she had pressed her conversations with the killer

she had the growing perception that he had just been toying with her like a cat with a mouse,

perhaps he had guessed the reasons for her chatter and was merely baiting her with impossible

claims for his own amusement.

    Titus suddenly called out towards the tree line in the Nordheim tongue, speaking fluently and

with perfect pronunciation.

    ‘Unstring your bows and show yourselves.’
    The breeze carried his words to the rustling bushes. Slowly two figures emerged from the

tree line. From their appearance, both men were from Croweheim – probably trappers or hunters

from the look of their more-than-adequate winter clothing and the string of rabbits hanging across

the back of the youngest one. No armour was visible and, although they both carried bows, no

arrows had been notched. Nordheim warriors typically wore their armour over their padded

clothing to keep the cold metal further from their skin, unlike some Tanarian men of the warmer

climates that she had known who wore their thin chainmail vests under their cloths to conceal

their protection and purpose.

    ‘Hello friend, by ‘Kraken’ it’s good to see some normal folk walking this land again.’ The

elder of the men shouted out. ‘Do you have any news of what has happened to the land? I was

out hunting with my son when the world turned mad. You two need to be careful, there are

strange beasts everywhere.’

    Titus studied the two figures in silence; they appeared genuine and were without doubt local

hunters. Evoking the Nordheim God of war’s name ‘Kraken’ brought back to him distant

memories of the real man rather than the myth.

    Athene, not understanding the Nordheim conversation had interpreted Titus’ silence as a

prelude to something sinister and she whispered to him.

    ‘Please, don’t kill them.’

    He whispered back. ‘Hush your noise woman or I may have to.’

    ‘Is there safety anywhere? Perhaps from where you have come?’ called out the father.

    ‘I think you may now find safety back at the town of Croweheim.’ replied the Su-Katii. ‘I

have heard that all the unaffected survivors from this cursed magic that has plagued your land are

now massing there, but I’m afraid we are not heading that way, so unfortunately you’ll have to

make your own way there, but I’m sure you know these lands better than us.’
     ‘Thank you for the information. My son and I fled that area before, when the strange ones

began to roam the land and we have been living rough ever since. If you need any assistance

with crossing this land, I’ll gladly lead you to where ever you are headed. To be honest it’s just

nice to see a human face again,’ said the elder man.

     ‘I’ll let you into a little secret, old man.’

     Titus smiled sardonically at the man.

     ‘We ride directly into the eye of the storm to bring an end to this evil that now stalks the land

and it will be far too dangerous for you and your son. Go back to Croweheim and rebuild your

lives.’

     The elder hunter looked Titus up and down apprehensively, unsure if this stranger with

perfect Nordheim pronunciation was joking with him, his eyes finally resting on the two fine

swords that hung from Titus’ belt.

     I think you are right, we’ll be on our way now, but please before our departure, we have been

fortunate to some degree. It would appear that the beasts have scared the smaller animals from

the ground and we now have a bumper catch of rabbits. Please take one with you, for some fresh

meat on the road ahead, wherever you may be headed. They are best stewed if you have a pot, or

maybe your helmet would do, I’m sure your beautiful wife will know what to do with it.’ Titus

struggled to keep the smirk from his face.

     ‘I would starve or die of food poisoning if I left the cooking to my wife. My friends, if you

are looking for some good advice, never marry a foreign woman, they are pleasing to the eye, but

harsh on the ears. As for her cooking; well let’s not go there.’

     The three men gave a short laugh and prepared to depart.

     Titus whispered across to Athene. ‘They have you to thank, I let them leave with their lives

in exchange for some fresh food, which I expect you to cook tonight in gratitude for my mercy.’
      Titus spoke again in the thick Nordheim language. The younger hunter unhooked a large

rabbit and slung it over to Titus who deftly caught the dead animal. With a short wave and a

word Athene understood as a farewell, the two disappeared back into the trees. Pleased with the

thought that Titus had finally listened to her, but suspicious about the parting laughter, Athene

put it from her mind as she was already starting to slaver over the thought of the fresh meat, and

how she was going to prepare and cook it for the two of them.

      After the two parties had left to go their separate ways Athene looked across meaningfully at

the arrogant-looking Su-Katii.

      ‘I see you even managed to laugh about something?’ she said sarcastically.

      ‘Yes we did, I told them that I was going off to save their insignificant lives and I think that

they believed it.’ he said shaking his head at the stupidity of the two hunters.

      ‘Thank you for not killing them, perhaps you have an ounce of humanity inside you after

all,’ Titus began to fidget in his saddle seemingly annoyed at her comment, after a short huff he

curtly replied.

      ‘I don’t kill everyone that I meet you know. After all they were just a couple of hunters

caught up in this stupid war. I expect that when they arrive back home they will wish that I had

killed them, as soon as they discover that they have lost everything, I can tell you Athene I

understand that pain.’ His voice revealed a croak of emotion in the last sentence.

      Her eyes sparkled as she realised that she might have found a chink in his armour to work

on.

      ‘If you are indeed – or rather, were, Lord of this land, then why let your people suffer and die

from this evil magic?’
    ‘Because Athene, once you have abandoned yourself, it is very easy to abandon others,’ he

answered from his heart. She gauged that she had him on a roll now and was ready to exploit her

advantage.

    ‘What can cause a man to abandon everything?’ asked Athene now genuinely interested in

the conversation and hoping he would reveal more.

    ‘Pride and overconfidence, I would say for starters.’

    ‘How so?’ Athene enquired softly.

    ‘Oh what the hell, I suppose we have plenty of time to kill on our journey before we pass the

Gate and I hand you over at our rendezvous. The mighty Titus now reduced to babysitting

missions. Yes, I was once a Su-Katii Lord, but in a time long forgotten by most, the order was a

little different then, it stood for honour and pride,’ Athene held her tongue this time.

    ‘Or so I thought. We were truly the shining knights of our age. Being one of the chosen few

meant that from the early age of eight I was in a perpetual cycle of training with the Order and

eventually the service of the War God Hadrak. He truly is an immortal, not like some of the

other names that get bandied around now days. He exists in a different dimension to our own, a

dimension that can be reached from our world, but only accessible via the Pillars of Justice on the

Isle of Cardus. They say he is all-knowing, watching the actions of men and passing judgment

on the course of nations through his right arm – the Su-Katii knights. However, the truth of the

matter is, that he is a prisoner, trapped in a dimension of time just out of sync with ours, never

ageing, as a punishment for a long-forgotten crime. He just remains trapped in the rift and

cannot die by blade or age. It is the ultimate punishment.’

    ‘So not really much of a God then, powerless and a convict,’ commented Athene.

    ‘I think that given the choice I would be devoting my time of worship to those who

imprisoned him, as they are obviously the ones with the power,’ she added quickly, noticing that
she had judged his contempt of Lord Hadrak correctly. He did not even raise one of his annoying

eyebrows at her harsh comment.

    We have plenty more time to kill, so just to bore you further here is the full history lesson.

Over a thousand years ago there was a great earthquake that wrecked the lands, and once the dust

had settled from the devastation on the small Isle of Cardus, a large Vortex like Rift was revealed

behind a fallen cliff-face - it had been hidden for untold years and led to the God-King’s prison.

You are just a young woman, so I would not expect you to know its location, I’ll explain simply

for you, Cardus is just off the western coastline at the furthest point where Aristrian lands merge

into the expanding marshes and meets the Tanarian border. Anyway, I digress from the core of

my story to lessen the facts for your understanding.’ Athene could feel her anger brewing within

her and now began to regret her inquisitiveness.

    ‘A young and inquisitive knight eventually plucked up the courage to pass through the

crackling magic Vortex, after first throwing a cat through the rift to see what would happen. A

few seconds later it returned, thin and emaciated but alive. Nervously he passed through the

menacing rift and discovered it to be portal to what he later described on his return, as a large

temple residence stuck in another plane of existence, one with an eerie red sky.

    A week had passed before his return and he told of the God-King’s lavish hospitality and

how he had been his guest for several months, surviving on the many fruits that grew from

surrounding grounds and water from a single fountain – we eventually came to understand that

time passes differently on either side of the portal. The God-King was so overjoyed at having

human company again after millennia of solitude, that he held a series of great feasts. Food and

wine were ferried into the rift for celebration. People could party for weeks and then return with

hardly a night gone by. That was before the fight. We revert to behaving like animals when we

drink and inevitably a fight broke out, daggers were drawn and blood was spilled. After one such
fight, a young man lay dead and the God-King commanded everyone to leave immediately. He

did not want his home to turn into a temple of blood at the time. However, amazingly, when the

body of the fallen man was returned through the rift and back to his own time, he awoke in the

same state that he had entered, alive. There was no trace of a wound on his body and amazingly

he could even recall all the events that had passed within the rift up to his death. Don’t ask me

how such things can be, I still have trouble comprehending it now, so leave such matters to the

magicians I say. The young man went on to have several more knife fights after his boastful

stories of returning from the dead and seemed to acquire quite a taste for it. From that day

onwards we discovered that inside the rift and temple we could learn from our experience and,

through death, our experiences could be taken to the extreme. I can assure you Athene; you’ll

never make the same mistake twice when you experience death as the result of your wrong

action.

    The young knight who initially entered the rift became in later years the ‘Su’ of the Lands, a

position that we now know as a Baron. He quickly realised the potential of the Rift as a training

ground where a student can have as much time as he needs, to learn and hone their skills from the

ultimate lesson. A deal was soon struck with the God-King and Baron Suna would supply

women, exotic food and fruits through the portal for Lord Hadrak’s pleasure, in exchange for

twenty places at the temple in which to train his men.’ Titus laughed.

    ‘What’s so funny?’ questioned Athene.

    ‘For all of his earthly enjoyment it transpired that the so called God-King was sterile - some

God. Although he obviously still craved all the gluttony of the palette and earthly pleasures that

had been denied to him over the many years. The Baron selected sixteen men from his personal

bodyguard – the Katii Guard. The other slots went to his most trusted generals and himself,

forming a total of twenty positions. They fought like demons throughout the day and when the
ultimate lesson was reached the body or sometimes parts of a body, were ejected out from the rift,

then the jolly fellow would casually stroll back through the portal from the dead and get back

about his training.’

    ‘Were you one of the original founders?’ Athene asked.

    ‘No, I was down a generation from the originals,’ he replied.

    ‘The order was formed into a school for the finest talents in the land, but even with their

amazing combat prowess they occasionally overestimated their ability and fell, leaving a new slot

to be filled. I was captured as a youngster on a raid into Nordheim. I fought everyone that tried

to turn me into a nice obedient slave-boy. In the end they were just going to give up on me and

feed me to the wolves, but the commander liked my fighting spirit and in later years, after

enduring the Su-Katii regime, I returned back as Lord of these lands that are now known as

Nordheim.’

    ‘My God,’ gasped Athene. ‘You must have had a hard upbringing to rise from being a slave

to a commander.’

    ‘As they say in the temple – you need to die a thousand times before you learn how to live

and I can tell you I certainly know how to live.’

    They rode on silently for a while, watching the red sky in the distance as the sun descended,

she tried to absorb his words, starting at last to believe his tale.

    ‘I guess being robbed of my childhood would have made me bitter too,’ she mused.

    ‘No Athene, you misunderstand, it is not that which I hold in contempt. My curse was that

my skills and ability far surpassed my fellow knights. I had soon become so good at reading

every movement of an opponent that I was constantly deployed by my superiors in endless wars.

If they needed a land conquered they just sent me, my hands have helped to forge most of the

Nations that are now considered ‘Great’ today. I was never really interested in the command of
men so instead they just used to stick me in the front rank of an army and then tactics wouldn’t

matter. I would slaughter any who opposed me and drive the enemy from the field. My

reputation was legendary and many times the enemy would simply capitulate on seeing my war

banner, before any blood was spilled, such was my reputation at the time. Eventually none had

the gall to stand against me, so you see I can also save lives as well as take them. On occasions

when I would return from battle, I used to be so cocky and full of my own invincibility that

eventually the inevitable happened and I ended up coming to blows with a fellow Su-Katii who

thought that I was all talk and no metal, the fool dreamed that he could better me. We both

decided that the only way to settle our differences was a dual outside the temple, which under Su-

Katii law was forbidden. Our code stated that a Su-Katii may only fight a peer inside the temple

rift, but one of us had to go. My boasting was not ill-founded for I am still here. But

unfortunately that duel sealed my fate within the order. I was soon invited to attend the temple to

atone for my deed in front of the God-King. But his intention was clearly to make an example of

me, and for my disobedience I was sentenced to be ejected from the order, humiliatingly

whipped, then made to serve two years as a blacksmith’s apprentice to relearn my skill of

patience. I was to be kept on the Isle of Cardus where they could keep a close eye on me and

assign me any dirty jobs that required my unique talents. With a carrot waved under my nose

they hinted that with time I may be able to earn my way back into the fold. I was not about to

take their worthless words lying down. Hell, what a fight, I cut my judge’s head cleanly from his

shoulders, as my reply. With twelve of the order present for the sentencing it was quite a battle,

they didn’t stand a chance. Three of the Su-Katii had to come back through the temple rift twice

after I continued to cut them down, Lord Hadrak had kicked their dead bodies through the portal

entrance to get them back in to help contain me. I even struck Hadrak himself, but my weapon

bounced harmlessly from him, but he still felt the pain of the blow.’ He smiled to himself.
        ‘After an hour of hard fighting they managed to get lucky and bring me down.’ He paused

with his story, considering if he should tell her the last and more embarrassing part, then

continued.

         ‘…I slipped on a crushed peach of all things and then they were all upon me in a second.’

        ‘But what was the point of it all - if you cannot truly die in there? Was it a test?’ asked

Athene.

        ‘No. It was a punishment for slaying another of the order but perhaps they were trying to

gauge the true extent of my skill. I think that my ability made them nervous for I surpassed them

all.’

        He paused sucking in the cold air. ‘Did you know that I had a wife and a son once Athene?’

        ‘No I didn’t,’ she replied.

        ‘My body was kept within the temple as a reminder to those who would dare to disobey the

Su-Katii code. I was quartered and thrown into an old barrel, hidden away in some forgotten

corner of the temple, or so the legends of my deeds that I have since heard, suggested.’ His hand

instinctively grasped his sword pommel and the old fiery rage burnt again in his eyes. Athene

gently reached across and touched his shoulder and the fire instantly disappeared from his eyes.

        ‘How did you get out?’

        ‘Honestly, I don’t know. Perhaps the God-King decided to release me or someone

accidentally threw an old barrel out of the rift, who knows? What I do know is that the

punishment had been extremely effective. I had been entombed in the temple for around eight

hundred years, never aging, whilst my remaining loved ones and family in the outside world died

of old age. There was just the trace of a tremor in his voice as he uttered the last sentence. This

was the closest that the ancient warrior could come to displaying his emotion at his immeasurable

loss.
    ‘How long have you been free Titus?’

    She questioned him instinctively trying to change the subject from his loss, although she

found it almost unbelievable when this brute spoke of such tender things.

    Several years now and I’m still trying to understand this new world that I have returned to,

but my fighting skills are still in demand, except now I fight for personal gain rather than the

Order.’

    ‘You know it doesn’t have to be this way, Titus. I mean with me.’ she locked eye with him

and again touched his arm.

    She carefully watched for any sign of reaction to her words.

    ‘I must admit Athene, since we left the shrine together, I have found a strange inner peace

come over me and you are the first person that I have opened to. I must apologise for my lack of

skill at kidnapping you, but this is a new skill to me. Perhaps your mother was indeed correct or

perhaps you are a sorceress after all.’ He shook her hand from his arm, ‘I will endeavour to make

sure that you understand your boundaries, we may talk but you will not escape me or persuade

me otherwise from my assigned mission.’

    He then muttered to himself. ‘Perhaps if I can clear all of this anger from my mind I could

master this sabre and exact my vengeance.’ Noticing his blazing eyes and talk of revenge, she

decided not to push for her release any further. But instead changed tack by investigating his

words further. ‘What’s so special about Tress’s old sabre?’

    ‘Ah, that’s the Tyranny of Wizards’ first name then? You have already witnessed its ancient

powers back in Croweheim, or did you really think that your Henrick could stand against me in

battle for more than a few seconds without magical aid.’

    ‘I don’t understand,’ she admitted.
    ‘No, nor did I at first,’ he said. ‘But I have replayed this in my mind many times since and I

think that I have now worked it out. When I picked up Tress’s sabre during the fight, its magic

feeds on the blade-wielder’s emotions and ability or perhaps even state of mind and projects them

at everyone around it. The weapon contains an unusual magic that would only permit someone

with a singularly clear and focussed state of mind to be able to use it effectively. As a Su-Katii I

learned the ability of many enchanted weapons, but none as complex as this. Perhaps it could

even instil terror into an opponent with the right practice of thought. I still carry far too much

anger inside me to consider its use and have already been stung by it once. Someone with my

considerable skills - projecting them back into an opponent would be dangerous; it would

probably get me killed. But perhaps with time it may yet find some use and a new purpose in my

hands.’

    Athene merely nodded absorbing every word that he spoke.

    ‘Now, let’s pick up the pace whilst there is still a little light.’
                             CHAPTER 17 – THE TEARS OF HEROES



    Sorus’ finger followed the map south-west to the coastal town of Tagel.

    ‘Here is where the retreat stops.

    His finger tapped the blot on the map. He shivered as a gust of wind blew open the flap to

the command tent reminding him of how bitter the weather could become in these extremities of

the Kingdom.

    ‘Tamar has reported that the Tanarian forces have been pushed back along the coast to Tagel,

they are leaderless and in total disarray. There are also thousands of refugees gathering there

already.’ He moved closer to the blue crystal, flexing his old and withered hands against the

warming blue glow that radiated out from the small stone.

    ‘I know Tagel,’ replied Barrad, ‘It is a well-constructed coastal fortification on an outlet of

land with its own port for re-supply.’ He had studied every stronghold built to understand their

characteristics and advantages. ‘It is as good a place as any to retreat to, as the sea defends its

back and the walls are both high and thick.’

    Sorus cut in. ‘The problem that we will need to face is that it is not large enough to house

and protect half of Tanaria. Most of the army have taken residence inside, but several thousand

Tanarian citizens, mostly refugees from Tarctiania, lie exposed outside the walls and more are

arriving daily. The rearguard are fighting a desperate action to delay the enemy, as best they

could to give us a little breathing space to find a solution, but we need to act fast as men are

dying every minute.’

    Barrad spoke up again. ‘Tactically there are two options as I see it. The first is to dig in and

fortify the position further; perhaps by constructing another outer wall, they have one large

resource at their disposal – manpower. The second option is to flee to another position.
However, I think with the surrounding lands being predominantly flat and open you run the risk

of being mown down by enemy cavalry. Or of course, you could combine the two options,

maintain a force in Tagel and get the civilians to run for it. The advantage of this tactic would be

that a large part of the Aristrian army would need to be maintained to lay siege to the remaining

force in Tagel, giving the refugees the best chance of escape to any of the smaller Kingdoms

further south such as Tagadir or Bohem and possibly even splitting the Aristrian force.’

    Tress pitched in for the first time after listening intently to the conversation. ‘You know

crossing the border as a refugee is as good as selling yourself into slavery. The surrounding

Kingdoms have been compliant with their trade agreements but unlike Tanaria they still employ

the use of slaves. Moving thousands of refugees into their lands would no doubt be seen by them

as an invasion by us.’

    ‘The Kingdoms have always maintained good relations with Tanaria, I’m sure they will

continue to honour their agreements.’ stated Sorus.

    ‘I would not be so sure, I think that Tress has a valid point. When a nation is strong people

will bow to its every request, but when it is weak and on its knees you can take what you want

with a swift kick to its loins.’ replied Barrad.

    Surely escape and a chance of life is still a better than annihilation?’ replied Sorus, raising

his voice and feeling the stress of the situation.

    Barrad sensed the strain on the magician’s shoulders and reassured Sorus, extending an arm

to his shoulder, ‘Ten thousand less mouths to feed a day would increase the siege supply reserves

by at least three months for the remaining troops. The defenders of Tagel may well need those

three months, yet I would gladly sacrifice them if we could save the lives of the people outside

the walls.’
    ‘You try telling the refugees to leave the safety of Tagel - just see what kind of reception you

get?’ smirked Tress.

    ‘What shall I convey to Tamar then?’ asked Sorus.

    ‘Who is in command of the force at Tagel?’ asked Barrad.

    ‘A Staff Officer named Thorsten – his background is in logistics so he may be useful in a

siege but tactically he is unproven.’ explained Sorus.

    ‘Has he ever seen combat before?’ Barrad asked.

    ‘No,’ came Sorus’s direct and unwanted reply.

    ‘Barrad nodded with his head in his hands, ‘God this was never going to be easy was it?’

    ‘Get Tamar to speak to him – he won’t like this, but get him to field-promote one of the other

officers to the position of Field Commander then get the new Commander to run combat

operations and assign responsibility of the siege supplies to Thorsten. When finding a new Field

Commander get someone with some campaign experience, if not just find me a down-and-dirty

fighter or even a pub brawler – you know the type, the kind that just keep on getting up and

coming back at you even when you’ve knocked them on their arse several times. He will need

that kind of tenacity. My advice is to get Thorsten to concentrate on their logistics, work parties

and supplies, unhindered by the burden of command. It’s a full time job on its own. The men

will need a fighter to follow and inspire them and I don’t know of any man who wilfully follows

a logistics expert into battle, even if it makes sense in a siege. Offer escort to the Kingdoms, for

those willing to leave, then all remaining will need to earn their keep, digging in – that may weed

out the wasters when you need to work for your keep. Also tell him that we are sending help.

Tagel must be defended at all costs and we must strike out at the enemy where there is

opportunity.’

    ‘What help are you sending,’ asked Sorus thinking that he had missed some vital point.
    ‘Help? Barrad sighed. ‘There is none. It is a simple lie, but men fight better when they still

cling on to hope.’

    ‘Maybe there is still some hope,’ countered Sorus. ‘There is another matter that we need to

consider and address today. There is an old saying amongst us enchanters. “There are no secrets

in death.

    ‘Indeed, I have heard this said before, but how does this help us?’ asked Tress puzzled to

where Sorus was leading the conversation.

    ‘Well, let me explain. As you already know, amongst Tamar’s considerable talents are

dream-walking and reading minds. When Anak died in his struggle controlling his conjured

beast, his essence was sucked down into some dark hell with it. As his soul traversed our astral

plane his lifetime of memories and deeds were exposed, during his transition Tamar was able to

read a dark secret from his past deeds.’

    ‘Oh I love a dark secret,’ smiled Tress.

    ‘You won’t like this one,’ snapped Sorus.

    ‘As Anak’s soul was stripped from his body when the fallen Soul Beast dragged him

screaming to his doom, Tamar had total recall of his memories and unsavoury deeds over the

centuries of his existence. A terrible thing to view by all accounts as the wretched creature had

lived for over a thousand years with all of his dark acts preserved within him. Amongst them

Tamar witnessed an evil act carried out by a very young Anak many years ago. He corrupted the

Tears of Heroes with his blood magic and then handed the reins of its control over to the

Brotherhood leadership, a position that is now filled by the magician Bellack.’

    ‘Tears of Heroes?’ questioned Tress, surprised that she had never heard of them.

    Barrad cut in. ‘Allow me to explain, the Tears of Heroes is a small well on the Su-Katii Isle

of Cardus. It is said to contain natural properties that protect against magic. It is an undrinkable
well of red-tainted water that constantly drips from holes within the porous rocks high above the

pools.’

    ‘How is this old well important in all of this?’ asked Tress.

    ‘Let me finish and I will tell you,’ insisted Barrad tilting his head in her direction and

addressing her like an excited child.

    ‘Water from the Tears of Heroes is one of the key ingredients used in the Su-Katii Tattoo

Ceremony. When a trainee warrior attains his final Su-Katii rank after the gruelling years of

training, the Ceremony of the War Lords is held. The newly ordained warrior assumes his post

and takes a gift from each of the warlords present, normally a sword or armour, but there have

been more inventive and extravagant offerings in the past. The new Su-Katii then receives the

body-tattoos as a mark of his achievement. The tattoos were said to help protect the warrior

against the one element that is beyond their control – magic.’

    Sorus nodded adding. ‘Anak’s magic was ingrained into their tattoos and has slowly

dragged the Su-Katii under the wing of the Brotherhood’s control, making them their pawns in

bringing about this war.’

    Tress slowly eased her fingers around her new sabre.

    ‘Easy,’ hissed Barrad, spotting the slight movement. He ripped open his padded jerkin.

    ‘See. No tattoos. When I ended my training the war was imminent and there was no time

for my tattoo ceremony. All the Warlords were already deployed to the battlefield; I was instead

rushed out to my command with the promise of a deferred ceremony. I am sure from my

considerable time with them, that the other Su-Katii are oblivious to the magic that now drives

them, it would appear that I had a lucky escape, for I must be the only Su-Katii free of this curse.’
    Tress relaxed ‘I’m sorry Barrad, but I have witnessed the Su-Katii in operation, from the

sharp end – it is not a nice place to be. How could such a massive corruption to the Su-Katii go

unheeded for so long Sorus?’ Tress enquired.

    ‘Anak’s magical corruption was very subtle in design, so much so that it went unnoticed.

Imagine it working like a ball running down a very shallow incline of a hill it can cover a

considerable distance with very little disturbance over time. Once it has momentum its action is

set, then when it reaches a cliff edge the large drop is inevitable and its fall is clear. We have

now reached the cliff edge and have found the source of the evil turning man’s desire for

conquest in on themselves. The Su-Katii are now but the puppets of Bellack’s will.’

    It all appeared quiet clear to Barrad now. During his training his teachers had seemed like

reasonable enough fellows, hard but fair, but their actions and rationale had rapidly changed the

instant war had been declared. Everything that he had witnessed and been taught over the years

about the Su-Katii seemed to have be a charade after this last week. He alone had stuck

meticulously to his father’s teachings.

    Barrad cleared his throat. ‘This war must indeed have been the cliff to your ball, Sorus and I

would like to be introduced to the thrower. But my father also had the tattoos, yet remained an

honourable man. He taught me to try to preserve life, not take it, and most importantly never to

kill for pleasure.’

    Sorus patted Barrad lightly on his back. ‘Magic affects the weak-minded of us first. You

have abided by your father’s code well so at least one true Su-Katii remains.’

    Tress had been listening in shock at the depth of the corruption that had spanned these lands

over the last hundreds of years. ‘I have but two questions concerning this. What is their aim and

can their evil be reversed?’
    Sorus ignored the questions, and for a few seconds the tent was silent, then at last he spoke

up. ‘To be honest I don’t know if the Su-Katii can be freed of this scourge. What lies deep

within a man’s heart can be impossible to change and I think that the magic just brings the worst

to the front. But the Brotherhood’s aim is simple. They wish to capture the Tanarian crystal

mines, one mine in particular in Bacu, less than two days from here. They have been after it for

the past year. An immense crystal, now known as the ‘Moomran Crystal’ was discovered deep

within the ground. A string of foreign merchants have been trying to acquire it, even before it

has been extracted, offering prices far beyond its worth. Our government decreed that the crystal

was to become a national treasure, to be displayed in the capital’s Central Law Court. Barrad’s

eyes widened in anger.

    ‘All of this trouble for a stupid crystal? We are fighting a war for a piece of rock?’

    ‘Yes’ snapped Sorus. ‘Men have fought over a lot less, earth, soil even, so why not a rock?

The difference is that this crystal could serve a purpose to the twisted magicians who have

brought about these events. I notice that the timing of this war has coincided with the completion

of the widening of the mine shaft that holds the stone. The mine has been prepared and is ready

to give up the crystal from the earth.

    ‘Why don’t your magicians just group together and deal with these troublemakers, then we

can end this insanity,’ said Barrad.

    ‘If only it were that easy,’ agreed Sorus. ‘They have spent years hiding and protecting their

grounds, preparing their actions long before we knew of their plots, they have repelled all our

magic and believe me we have tried to use it. No, I’m afraid that your mission here has now

changed Barrad, so you must be adaptable. Isn’t that what they teach you Su-Katii? What we

need from you now is to break out of these mountains and retake the mine…’ Sorus paused for a

moment, not wanting to give the last of the news,
    ‘And it must be done tomorrow. The crystal must now be destroyed - at all costs. Shattering

it will reduce its power, rendering it useless for their dark aim, for with its power they seek to free

their God. Let me just surmise to say that this would be very bad for all of us.’

    ‘You are always full of such fine news Sorus.’ Barrad began with a sigh. ‘Today we were

fighting for our lives in a sound defensive position against a larger force, we managed to survive

one night, now you tell me that our fate really depends on us abandoning our superior position

and fighting the larger enemy force on their own terms, in order to drive them back to the mines.

Fantastic, I can’t wait to tell the men.’

    ‘Well Barrad as I see it, you have a huge advantage over the enemy - a magician at your

disposal. Me. We also have a backup plan – Tress here, has a certain talent at infiltrating hard-to-

reach areas and we will arrange a distraction to help her. She will sneak through their ranks and

make her way to the mine, she carries a liquid that can destroy the crystal they seek.’

    Barrad looked Tress up and down then half-joked ‘I’m sure she could reach any area that she

sets her mind to, but it’s a lot to ask of her.’ Remembering his manners he continued. ‘Why

don’t you conjure one of your magic portals to transport us into the mine, then we can just finish

this without risking all of our men?’ he suggested.

    ‘No can do I’m afraid. We tried that before we came here,’ replied Sorus shaking his head.

‘They must have some magic protection deployed at the mines rather than with their main force.

Tamar cannot see into the area around the mines, but we sensed a strong field of magic in use

there, it has destabilised the use of the transport portals.’

    ‘I don’t know if it is of any help Sorus, but I still have Anak’s ring that I was commissioned

to steal,’ said Tress, ‘I forgot all about it with the events of the last few days.’

    ‘It is of little consequence, a minor item that helped Anak to regenerate his health after the

bouts of self-harming blood magic took their toll on his body. It acts much like the infused red
crystals do on the body and just aids recovery. Tress’s hand lashed out across Sorus face leaving

a reddened cheek. He took the slap with out any attempt to move.

    ‘I risked my neck for that. You magicians are all the same,’

    ‘Calm down Tress,’ urged Sorus. ‘We are all pawns in a bigger game here, it’s not my fault

Tamar needed to get Anak to lead us to the location of the Brotherhood of Keth and you were the

easiest way to do. Anak’s thirst for revenge would be their undoing. Thanks to your bravery we

now know where Bellack is located, so all we need to do is penetrate his defences and bring him

down.

    Tress sat puzzled for a moment, ‘Of course the Sword, it is not from this world, its signature

would be simple to follow and that’s why Tamar insisted I take the Sabre?’

    Barrad burst into raucous laughter, the situation was now humorous to him. ‘What a pair we

are, me fighting for a rock and you a worthless ring. How ridiculous have our lives become?’

    Tress sat deep in thought as the men went about the details of their new plan of attack. She

had a growing feeling in the back of her mind that this could well be her final mission; there were

actions at play much larger than she had first anticipated. Pushing this thought from her mind,

she began to wonder if they had all been played from the beginning. ‘What about Athene, was

she just a pawn too?’ Her eyes gazed deeply at Sorus’s as he went about his planning, studying

and searching for any sign of deceit in the man, next they rested on Barrad. Could she still

believe these magicians, was he really the one for her? She smiled to herself – only one way to

find out? She unwillingly pulled her gaze away from him, how was poor Athene faring she

wondered, Tamar had said that she still lived, but unfortunately with the ancient killer Titus now

at her side, she is beyond any reach of help now. May her Gods look out for her.’
    Brin was beyond exhaustion as he picked himself up from the mud for the second time, he

realised that he had just been sleep-walking over the last hundred yards. His horse had been

stolen when he fled the city and now he felt every step on his sore and tender feet. The forced

march from the capital had been gruelling, but they just had to keep moving, as to fall behind was

to die. For three days now the Aristrian Skirmishers had harried the rear guard, often riding

through their thin lines and striking at the groups of refugees and stragglers beyond, knowing

that this would slow the Tanarian retreat further. Over the last days he had personally killed five

men at close quarters in his fight for survival, the last he had strangled after bumping into him in

the pitch black of night. The nights had without doubt been the worst; people would fall into

ditches twisting ankles or worse the periodic volleys of silent arrows that would fall from the

blackness to claim further lives.

    Bedraggled and on the edge of despair, Brin almost collapsed when he saw the long lance-

tips above the small trees to his left. The armoured cavalry came charging out towards them.

The other nine exhausted men gathered to the sides of Brin to form a defiant circle of shields,

even though they knew that they wouldn’t stand a chance against this many riders. One man in

the shield-wall shouted out in relief on spotting the large predatory fish embroidered on their

banner that fluttered wildly in the wind. They were Tanarian, their banner marked them as

belonging to the Tagel garrison, they relaxed their wall of shields and some of the men even fell

to their knees with shouts of exuberant celebrations as the riders closed the distance to them, and

stopped in front of the relieved men.

    ‘Hail friends and welcome to the lands of Tagel,’ cried out the lead rider. His words were

monotone and lacking in conviction and his upturned face gave away his true opinion of the mud-

covered figures.
    ‘We have been running into stragglers all morning, but none this far back. I must admit we

only expected to meet with the enemy here, the Gods must favour you, as we were about to run

you through. Only old Sergeant Kennings here pointed out that you fellows were all carrying

round shields, rather than the square Aristrian type. Fortunately for you my Sergeant Kennings

has eyes like a hawk, but even he nearly missed seeing your tabards through all of that muck.’

Although he saw no indication of the man’s rank, the way in which he spoke to Brin indicated

that he was obviously born into the officer class; this was perhaps the first time that he had been

genuinely happy to run into an officer of the pompous type, in the field. As an experienced

tracker employed for years as a scout for the Tanarian army, Brin was no stranger to danger and

had met many such men in the past. They relied on their noble breeding and wealth to demand

respect, whilst often leading their men into danger rather than out of it, but now with the arrival

of this fighting patrol and the knowledge that the safety of Tagel was nearby, he too found

himself with uncontrollable tears streaming down his face. These last few days had been

extremely emotional and now he scarcely dared to think that he may yet see his Peta again.

When the Capital had begun to evacuate he had managed to secure her passage out. The

merchant had been a compassionate man and it had only taken ten gold sovereigns to secure his

pregnant wife’s transport, in his cart to Tagel. It had been his entire savings, yet he knew in the

days to come his gold would hold little worth. He had done business with him before so he was

no stranger, a rogue certainly, but fortunately a likeable one. His intention had been to then

arrange for her elderly mother’s passage as well, but she had resisted the idea of leaving her

home. Unfortunately as he moved about the manic streets he had been conscripted back into the

service of the crown by the newly formed pressgangs that roamed the city and had ended up

being one of the last to leave the deserted capital. After spoiling the water and setting areas of

the city to fire he had spotted the dust cloud that marked the advancing enemy. Their army,
which was vast, must have taken years to amass and he wondered how the Tanarians had been so

unobservant as to miss such an enormous threat? He had been a boy soldier during the last war

with Aristria and this army dwarfed the ones from his memory. Now as he approached forty he

had hoped never to see such things again in his lifetime, but it was not to be. He rapidly departed

the city.

     His daydreams and drifting thoughts were rudely interrupted by the cavalry officer’s next

words.

     ‘I must inform you that Tagel is now full to the brim and unable to accept any more

newcomers. My orders now are to divert all others south.’

     ‘No, please for the love of God let us continue into Tagel, my family is there, they need me,’

pleaded one of the men.

     ‘The streets are packed and thousands are now camped outside the town gate,’ replied the

officer. Brin spoke up. ‘We may not look it but we are in the employment of the army, we are

the rear guard, beyond us you will only find the enemy. To deny us entrance to Tagel now would

be as good as a death sentence.’

     The officer eyed the rag-tag group of men and his grey moustache twitched as he mulled

over his decision. ‘We need tough fighting men not the homeless or the meek - we have them in

droves, from the look of you, those swords have seen some action. I think that you men shall

gain entrance to the town; you will report to the provost and declare your unit. What unit did you

serve with?’

     ‘I was a scout with the 4th Regiment,’ Brin began, but stopped short as a group of twenty

archers, sporting the Eagle of Tarctiania on their tabards, suddenly emerged from the wood-line

behind them. They spotted the cavalry and ran towards them, only stopping to exchange fire with

their close pursuers.
    ‘I thought you said that you were the last.’ said the commander, pulling down his helmet’s

visor and spurring his horse around to face the threat. He pointed his lance in the direction of

Tagel. ‘Head that way to safety and get yourselves cleaned up,’ he said to Brin and his men. The

rate of fire increased from the woods and the first of the enemy archers could now be seen. One

of the Tanarian archers fell with an arrow through his back.

    ‘Get off this field and into some cover,’ yelled the lead archer to his men. The cavalry

officer shouted a command and the fighting patrol wheeled around levelling their lances to

charge the emerging enemy down. Brin felt a surge of pride as he watched the Predatory fish

banner ride off to engage those who had brought him so much misery these past few days.

Finding a new surge of energy the handful of men hurried of towards Tagel.

    The first view of the castle had been impressive. Perched on top of a rocky outcrop that

dominated the town below, it had stood defiantly against anything the world could throw against

it, for hundreds of years. The people of Tagel had maintained their castle well, for with its own

sea port and causeway entrance, the thick castle walls had protected its population on several

occasions and, as history has it, the castle had never been captured or conquered. The only

downside to its defence was that it had been built in a time when the populations were not so

vast. The castle’s expected capacity was only a thousand men which, by modern standards was

small. Under the peace treaty with Aristria, the border Keeps and defences on both sides had

been demolished, leaving only the larger castles bordering the smaller kingdoms to the south, but

the defences on these structures only faced out of Tanaria. The refugees with horses had been

advised to keep on going down to the south rather than stay at Tagel, as the town had quickly

began to overflow. The small fishing town had a stonework fortification that surrounded it, with

several wooden structures that had naturally grown up with time outside the walls. Now as Brin

and his fellows approached the town there must have been at least twenty thousand people spread
outside of the town’s walls, makeshift shelters. The grounds around the town were packed tight

with similarly exhausted refugees and the only sounds that greeted them were that of the crying

children that dotted the ground. The pungent smell of the huge population had assailed his

nostrils and hit the back of his throat, long before the sight of it. Now beyond exhaustion and in

the folds of safety, finding his Peta would have to wait a little longer. His legs buckled and he

collapsed against a nearby tree stump, pulling his cloak about him with the last of his energy, he

fell instantly into a deep sleep.
                                      CHAPTER 18 - ESCAPE



    Titus calmly guided his horse around the carnage that spanned the path leading to the huge

gate. The Great Gate still stood locked shut and defiantly blocking the route into Tanaria,

although it looked a little worse for the last few days. The large red crusher variant of the beasts

were repeatedly pounding on the warped and splintered doors that barred their way, the red glow

emanating from their bodies almost gave the impression of a fire flickering at the base of the

large structure. Several of the solid oak trunks that made up the gate doors had been shattered,

dislodged with their rivets sheared off, giving just enough space for some of the smaller creatures

to swarm through and face the blades of the exhausted Tanarian garrison. Behind the affray,

more beasts, that had once been civilized beings, milled about uncaring, waiting for their turn to

move through the small breach, as arrows and projectiles rained down on them.

    The two riders were ignored as they passed the rear edge of the milling possessed ones. Not

wishing to linger, they spurred their horses up the incline and away from the scene. A blood-

curdling scream nearby reinforced their mounts’ decisions to break into a gallop as the riders

decided to make the best use of the last of the light. At sunset, the weather took a noticeable turn

for the worse and a quick battering from some huge and painful hailstones did nothing to help

Athene’s growing desperation to escape. Their pace dropped with the darkness, only slow

progress could now be made. The boredom of the pace only gave Athene more time to consider

her immediate future.

    ‘Who did you say you are handing me over to?’ she asked.

    ‘Wizards,’ replied Titus abruptly.

    ‘Can’t you just let me go? …You know you’re not as bad as I first judged you.’
    ‘I’m afraid not. You’re not a bad girl, but its just business - my word is my bond, besides I

am trying to rebuild a reputation in this new world and to do that I need to be seen as both

professional and reliable. Plus, of course, this job is cash on delivery and it’s a very generous

payment.’

    ‘What on earth are you trying to build Titus? What do you need the money for? From what

I can see you are pretty good at taking whatever you like.’ He smiled back, but the darkness hid

his evil expression,

    ‘Oh, you know the usual things. I’m just trying to earn a little coin and be the best at what I

do. Oh yes, and to build a reputation that will instil nightmares to those I hunt.’ She didn’t like

his tone much, but had to ask,

    ‘And who do you hunt next that deserves such terror?’ The smile on his face dropped to a

sneer.

    ‘I have heard rumours of a certain Su-Katii who was instrumental in my punishment and

imprisonment inside the Temple for all those years; they say that he still survives inside the rift

away from the reach of death. He is retired, yet still clings to his life in old age inside the

Temple, surviving the millenniums that threaten to take his life. He knows that I am still young

and now free, I want him to taste the fear of his demise when I arrive to drag him out from that

rift and take him apart one little piece at a time. I can tell you girl, there are plenty of others who

will be getting a visit from me - ancestors of my enemies; I have quite a list.

    ‘It won’t bring her back you know.’ Athene whispered under her breath but luckily he did

not hear her last words. She turned her back on the thick-skinned warrior, watching the bushes

slowly pass as they moved further along the rising path that brought a heavy and unwelcome

snow fall. Through the growing white haze ahead, two menacing red forms came lumbering out
to cross the trail, a smaller yellow flicker of movement behind indicated a further smaller beast

was set back.

    ‘Steady’ whispered Titus. ‘They will just pass us by.’

    ‘I don’t want to alarm you,’ she said her voice rising in panic. ‘But they have just seen us

and are charging towards us.’

    ‘Damn magicians,’ he cursed, spurring his mount forward in front of Athene then expertly

ducking low in his saddle avoiding the large red arm that swung at his head. His blade that had

instantly sprung into his hand arced through the air, slashing a long wound in the first beast’s

shale-like side, delivering his agile riposte.

    ‘Let’s ride the hell out of here,’ Titus shouted back over to a now empty saddle. ‘…Oh

crap.’

    A yellow beast that had been following in the shadow of the larger red creature sprung past

Titus hurtling towards Athene’s pony, her mount twisted in its panic to get away, throwing

Athene from her saddle onto the snow filled ground. Titus rolled his eyes in exasperation and

vaulted from his saddle at the creature as it raked its talons across her chest, ripping her clothing

but the thick rings of her chain vest below held back the vicious assault. With a thrust his blade

pierced the yellow beast’s back as it crouched over her, its sharp tip stopping a fraction away

from her face. She gasped in relief as the dead beast slid from his blade and then felt repulsed,

she rapidly scrambled from under the beast as its blood begun to drip over her face. A second red

beast charged Titus, its eyes glowing with hatred and loathing for the form it now faced, a vague

memory of what it had once been enraged it further. Now free for the first time from the magic

that had once sustained and controlled it, a new sensation drove it to madness - the need to feed.

Both its arms swung down at the little figure that stood before it in the moonlight, but the figure

rolled through the snow between it’s astride legs, a silver blade grated into the beast’s groin and
with its strength ebbed out it tried to turn but instead stumbled and crashed to the ground. Titus’s

Sword Breaker slammed into the large beast’s side, sealing its fate, but the weapon, not really

designed to stab so deep, stuck in its foe at an awkward angle, as a result it could not be pulled

free in time to meet the first creatures following assault. With a thunderous roar, that ruffled

Athene’s hair, it made its last charge. Titus threw himself from its path hamstringing it with his

remaining sword. It struggled to raise itself so he hammered his sword through the beast’s throat.

With a final gurgle and one last twitch, the mountainside was once again still.

    ‘I find exercise is the best way to keep warm in the snow Athene.’ The darkness hid his

sarcastic and triumphant smile as he retrieved his trapped blade, ripping it free with both hands

then cleaned it of the gory remnants of the beast in the snow.

    A sickening snap echoed about the hillside as an enormous red fist flew downwards from a

thicket behind them, crushing the back of the pony Titus had ridden. Athene’s jaw dropped at the

size of this one. It was huge. Splitting the bushes during its advance, it shovelled up the lifeless

pony to its mouth and then with its great rocky jaws crunched its head clean off. An agile yellow

female came charging in and Titus moved quickly to intercept the newcomer. His boot kicked

forwards, sending the yellow beast skidding off the track and tumbling down through the snow

covered bank. Still chewing the pony’s head, the huge Rock-Beast lifted the carcass and threw it

towards them. Titus pulled Athene to the ground as the body thudded into a large pine tree

behind them, sending a large shower of dislodged snow over them. Athene felt her anger raise as

the cold snow went down the back of her neck. There was barely enough time to brush

themselves down before the beast was upon them. Athene ran for the cover of the trees skidding

in the snow, whilst Titus stood up waving his swords about in the air and shouting to attract the

beast’s attention. The remaining horse bolted in terror, but with one whistle from its master it

obediently halted again in its tracks.
    Athene’s eye was attracted by the glint of steel in the moonlight as she spotted Tress’s sabre

on the pony’s carcass. She snatched up the blade as Titus engaged the beast in a desperate

struggle. In a new display of intelligence, the beast had grabbed a large branch and was swinging

it wildly at the evading warrior, the extremities of the branch flaying him in a succession of near

misses. With several light scratches on his face from the bush, Titus systematically chopped the

branch from the beast’s fist. A huge rocky foot slammed into Titus sending him, winded,

through the air and into a snow drift. The towering creature was quickly upon him. Two large

hands clamped around his head and lifted him high into the air. His swords flailed the air in

panic, struggling to strike the large arms that held him in their vice like grip.

    The beast watched its prey dangling with curiosity as if trying to decide which would be the

best part to eat first. If it squished its head there would be little left inside to enjoy. Titus began

to swing his legs like a pendulum. Just as the beast decided that snapping his neck would keep

the flavour in, Titus dropped his sword and with incredible dexterity, caught it between his feet.

With the momentum from the swinging motion his feet flew up towards the beasts face plunging

the sword deep into its eye. Such a howl had never been heard before as it dropped the man back

into the snowdrift and pawed at its blinded eye. Titus was surprised to see the sparkling point of

a silver sabre unexpectedly jutting from the beast’s belly. Oddly Athene had felt no resistance as

she sliced the blade free through the beast’s side. The men seemed to always exert so much

effort during their fighting, but to her it seemed so easy. She had to quickly jump backwards to

be clear of the tumbling form. As it looked up at her with cold eyes she hacked off its head with

a single chop. It reminded her of her of when she had to prepare a goose in the kitchen and use

the cleaver to take off its head in one clean motion. The move was yet another trick she had

picked up along the trail from all of the warrior’s talk; always finish off your opponent as quickly

as possible. She was learning a lot on her travels. The yellow beast had now scrabbled back up
the hillside and hungrily approached Athene on all fours, she backed away in fear at its sudden

approach, her sabre’s tip extended towards the threat. Remembering the early conversation about

the sabre she focused on her genuine fear of the moment that made her stomach twitch and her

legs wobble. A white pulse radiated from the sword and the beast turned and ran in terror.

    Gasping for air and nursing a sprained neck, Titus ploughed his way out of the snowdrift to

find Athene standing over him with a shining sabre in her hand. They both froze in indecision

for a moment. She noted that he held a freshly drawn dagger in his left hand.

    She weighed up the situation. Was this to be her one chance at escape? If she sent him

running in terror how would she survive alone in this harsh terrain? It would not be long before

he would return from the swords magic and it would be unlikely that she could cut him down.

     ‘I thought you said that you were a mighty warrior,’ said Athene. ‘Well, that thing certainly

gave you a run for your money. You were lucky I was here to save your arse, I think.’

    The tension of the moment defused as he gave a slight laugh.

    ‘Unfortunately I cannot recall the lesson from the Temple on how to combat a fifteen-foot

man-mountain that uses ponies for slingshots, but I’ll add it to my list of things to brush up on. It

would seem that the world has changed considerably since I last walked it.’ She looked down at

him feeling smug at his humbled position in the snow.

    ‘Obviously, when a little girl has to save a mighty Su-Katii, I can see there were flaws in

your training,’ she said as she rested on the sword, still in indecision.

    ‘Enough of the sarcasm, Athene, your tongue can be as sharp as that sabre in your hands at

times. Now please be sensible, drop the sword and let us get on our way to meet with a roof and

some warmth. We are heading to an old lodge that I know of which is not far away. It will serve

us well with this weather front coming in. Go and fetch my horse because we are both going to

need to share it from here on in.’
    With a sigh she dropped the weapon and did as commanded. But a new plan for her freedom

was slowly formulating in her mind, she did not like it one bit, but her options were dwindling

fast. Swords were not the answer against this man - or were they?



    They rode two-up with Athene in front, for another two hours, resentfully huddling together

for warmth as the weather further deteriorated. Titus’s arms encircled Athene’s slim waist,

moving only to adjust the reigns, or occasionally rubbing at his sore neck and fidget with his

rapidly healing leg.

    Their journey had taken them higher up into the mountains again and their pace had slowed

drastically, as the heavy snow brought with it a total white-out to cut through. As they veered off

the path to the left and traversed their way through a thicket a structure suddenly appeared

through the whiteness. Relieved at the prospect of warmth and a meal they entered quickly,

leading their mount into the dark shelter with them. Titus went about lighting a fire the old

fashioned way, with flint and tinder as the wind whistled through the generous gaps in the rotting

door. Whilst Titus struck the flint above the tinder repeatedly, Athene made out a well-prepared

room stacked with logs, then darkness prevailed until the next strike of the flint when pots and

new looking utensils could be seen lining the fireplace. With the third strike, the tinder lit and

slowly the fire took hold, its living flames radiated out a flickering light across the room.

    ‘I have to say Athene, there is nothing like the smell of a true wood fire.’ Titus half-

muttered to himself.

    ‘I believe it would be even better with some rabbit stew cooking on it.’ she added.

    She could now see clearly around the room, which was remarkably well-equipped. With

clean fire-pots, a knife and even a chopping board it would make her meal that much easier to

prepare. This lodge was no chance encounter that they had strayed across, it was prepared and
purpose-built. She had heard Henrick’s tales along the trail about how he would have safe

houses assigned during a campaign in which his men could visit when raiding an enemy’s lands

during the harsh winters. A hessian sack hanging from a rusty spike contained some slightly

ageing winter vegetables and potatoes. Perfect, she thought as the cook inside her took over. She

could easily have been back on her cook’s wagon again on the trail. Titus tended to his horse as

Athene prepared the meal, relishing the increasing warmth of the now blazing fire as she did so.

    Soon after they had finished the meal, both quickly took turns to dash outside into the

freezing blizzard to relieve natures’ call, a chilling experience. The wooden bed in the corner

with a down-filled mattress beckoned her to come to its warm folds but she resisted. Despite

feeling the sleep-inducing effects of a full belly from the best-tasting meal that she could

remember eating for a long time, she could not sleep yet. Titus, rubbed his equally full stomach,

then half-limped, half-waddled over to his horse and pulled free the naked blade of the magic

sabre and began a speech, evading eye contact with Athene as he did so.

    ‘There is something special about this sword.’

    He looked down at its faultless craftsmanship for a short time.

    ‘I almost feel uncomfortable in saying this, but you know that there is no escape outside in

that blizzard and I don’t want you slitting my throat whilst we sleep. I also have no desire to tie

you up for the night either, a little runt like you would only wriggle free,’ He cleared his throat.

… ‘Besides I have no rope.’

    He drove the sabre deep into the thick oak floor with both hands, half its blade sank into the

floor, close to the bottom of the bed. Pushing all of his weight onto its hilt he was satisfied that it

was lodged solidly. He shortly followed this action with his own variety of weapons.

    ‘It will take more than a woman’s hand to pull these free and I must warn you, I am an

incredibly light sleeper, I would easily feel you move from the bed – I’m afraid we will be
sharing it, so please put any ideas from your mind. Now go to bed. I will seek nothing but

warmth in there from you tonight.’

    She awkwardly tried to removed her steel vest, Titus was about to lend a hand but decided it

was much more interesting watching her struggle with it over her head. Eventually red-faced and

with a pout she freed herself and following with the outer garments she slipped into the cold bed

and replied.

    ’Relax Titus; I didn’t save you earlier so that I could slit your throat whilst you sleep.

Besides I think that I am starting to enjoy our …how do you say, little exchanges?’

    ‘Hmm, now I really am worried,’ he replied as he also eased out of his armour and pulled

away the padded under-garments and slipped into the far side of the bed.

    ‘Damn,’ said Titus, flinching from the cold and trying to deflate any tension, ‘I was hoping

you would have had it warmed up a little by now.’

    Exhaustion came over her like a wave as she stared at the mesmerising dance of the flames

across the room. Her head jerked upwards as she struggled to stay awake.

    ‘Bad dream or are you just a fidget?’ Titus asked.

    ‘As I said, the slightest of movements will wake me.’

    ‘I suppose they taught you that in the temple as well, did they?’ she replied curtly.

    She knew that the opportunity for her freedom had finally raised its twisted head and she had

to act out her plan now, for the one and only chance of her release depended on. She focused

herself on the task ahead for a second then wriggled deep down the bed into the covers.

    ‘Hey,’ Titus protested as some of the covering furs were dragged from him, he quickly

tugged some back. Athene’s foot edged out of the bottom of the bed, her toes stretching out to

touch the hilt of the embedded sabre. Focusing her mind she deliberately drifted back to some of

her more wild and passionate nights of times long gone by, she felt the sabre warm to the touch
of her foot. Her nervous fingers slowly drifted over her thighs and slid between her legs helping

to finding the exact emotion she sought. After only the slightest of movements she could not

help but release a deep sigh. Titus stirred as the sabre’s magic glow filled the room with the

same power displayed earlier, only now as she had intended, instead of fear Athene’s lustful

thoughts were projected into the room.

    His lips met hers with an unexpected intensity which forced her to gasp for breath and she

almost fought him off with the surprise at such a strong reaction from the sword’s magic. A hand

replaced hers between her thighs, while his other hand impatiently tore open her undergarments.

Her already hard nipples were almost painful as they were further exposed to the cold air but

were soon warmed by his ravaging tongue. Quickly tearing off his shirt Titus paused over her for

a second taking in the exquisite view, his Su-Katii tattoos now burned like fire on his skin with a

red magic that helped illuminated the room. She pulled him back down to her beckoning lips, his

tattoos faded back down to an unnatural shade as their malevolent powers were neutralised by her

touch. He breathed the unexpected words from his hot lips into hers repeatedly like a man

delirious, ‘I must have you, I must have you.’

    There was no turning back now; Athene’s plan to use the sword’s power to win over the

warrior’s heart and her freedom was now in full effect. As Titus expertly brought one exquisite

sensation after another to her trembling body, she found herself shamefully excited in her deeds

and was now repeating his words back as she craved more of his continued touch. With the

magic in the room driving Titus’s desires, their lovemaking was wild and energetic, Titus flipped

Athene over to enable him to drive his needs deeper inside her and with every stroke his rhythm

grew more frantic, sending her spiralling up toward certain orgasm. The pony whinnied softly,

disturbed by the inhuman noises they were making. Panting with pleasure, Athene lifted her

head from the covers; glancing up through her ruffled hair she faced her shameful, but now
uncaring, reflection in the glowing blade. Her eyes lost focus, hiding her shame as she felt his

rippling muscles tense with his quickening pace. All doubts of her actions were extinguished as

her climax broke her concentration. Exhausted and sated she glanced back at the sword with a

sly and satisfied grin, for it had permitted her plan for freedom. Suddenly, as his hand reached

for hers she realised exultantly that she no longer needed the sword’s powers, for she had awoken

something new deep within. Athene’s heart told her that he was now hers and she pulled him in

close and began to dream of her freedom.
                                    CHAPTER 19 – THE ATTACK



       Egrick was proud of the position and rank that he had managed to attain in the Aristrian

army. He was a career man and had worked hard at it, always gaining the respect of his friends,

family and peers for his dedicated years of service and feared by those that dared to displease

him. He was important. His job was also important, commanding the twelve-man squad that

guarded Lord Azeth’s tent as he slept this night, the graveyard shift before dawn. Lord Azeth had

insisted that he was to be awoken an hour before first light, to fail in this duty would ensure

certain death so all remained vigilant and alert. It was common practice for the army to ‘stand-

to’ ready for combat at first and last light, much to the disgust of the troops. Having to stand

ready in formation enduring the freezing weather waiting for an enemy that would rarely dare to

show itself against the might of the Aristrian army was no laughing matter.

       There had been a lot of whispered talk amongst the men, mostly away from the ears of the

officers in the camp about the defeat of the mercenaries. Their reputation as fearsome fighters

had been reinforced in some of the small engagements along the way, they had been deployed as

skirmishers leading the advance of the army group and had displaced and dispatched any natives

who had decided to stand in their way. The regular soldiers despised them for their lack of

discipline and a rumour had started amongst the men that they were getting paid more than the

regulars. All the ‘old sweats’ that had an opinion to voice around the campfires reinforced the

view that an army wins battles on its cohesiveness and ability to follow orders effectively, not on

how ferocious they were. So all in all as far as Egrick could see, any losses to the reckless

mercenaries would not be of any major impact to the army and would leave more of the spoils for

him.
    Egrick’s thoughts wandered back to his wife and child as he stared into the still blackness

ahead, they would be gleefully awaiting his triumphant return with numerous gifts. There would

be some fine celebrations again upon his return, when the war had started he had hoped that his

army group would be assigned to assault the capital, the plunder and bounty would have been

unimaginable with so much wealth to go around. But, after his initial disappointment at getting

assigned to ‘Army Group East’ his mood had soon changed when their mission, to capture the

crystal mines had been revealed. The mine’s wealth was legendary, fetching nearly eighty silver

coins for a good crystal; he should have an ample opportunity to turn a good profit on this

campaign.

    He wiggled his toes in his cold boots to keep himself active and alert, then warmed his

freezing hands over the brazier that was located a safe distance away from the tents; his duty was

also as fire picket in addition to generals bodyguard commander. He topped up the water pot that

was suspended above the fire, it was close to the boil, letting his hands linger in the hot steam.

He cursed himself for not buying the expensive fur-lined gloves that his wife had insisted he

purchase before his rapid departure to war, she always had to be right. A hot drink would

definitely help to fix him up and keep him alert through the remainder of his stag. Drawing his

cloak about him he stamped his feet to get his circulation going again, watching the water boil

through the dim light as another icy gust of air blew through his clothes.

    A sudden flash of light and sound like thunder erupted from Azeth’s tent forcing him to

instantly shield his eyes away. Although half blinded, in a second he had freed his broadsword

and was running towards his master’s side.

    The hysterical cry of ‘Guards.’ was shouted above the singing of blades. Azeth jumped

through the tent flap backwards like a frightened cat and left a large bloody smear across the tent
from the deep slash that had been inflicted to his forearm. Egrick was instantly at his master’s

side ready to stop anything that should come out from the tent.

    Barrad slashed open the tent to pursue his prey, only the silhouette of his battle armour and

helm could be seen against the bright light of the transportation portal, illuminating the night

behind. Amongst the combat Sorus moved himself away from the deadly blades flashing through

the night, he began chanting a new magic spell.

    The ancient and skinny Su-Katii parried a stunning series of blows that were rained down

upon him. Barrad easily turned aside Egrick’s lunge and slammed his armoured elbow into the

man’s face, knocking him to the ground then continued his deadly assault on Azeth.

    ‘You’re getting too old for this game Azeth,’ he taunted through his closed face helm.

    ‘Save me the effort and offer me your neck. Let me give you a quick send off as I did

Thulsa, or else I will bleed you like the pig you are.’

    Azeth was wounded in the initial surprise and was now fighting for his life. Two guards

attacked Barrad from behind, attempting to save their desperate general. They died in seconds.

    Egrick gathered his senses looking up from the cold ground. Azeth now had several cuts on

his unprotected body. Any attempts from Azeth to counter-attack back at the deadly intruder

were instantly stopped and new cuts were opened up on his arms for his effort. Until now, Egrick

had thought his general a God amongst men, but now his jaw dropped, as he witnessed his God

being taken apart by this new killing machine. He had the sense to know what would happen to

him if he returned back into the fray, instead wishing to once again see his family he shuffled

backwards on his arse through the slush, away from the battling men.

    A squad of men came charging from the darkness to attack Barrad, but before they could

close in on him Sorus released his spell, with his arms and staff waving in the air he seemed to
pull a white light from the darkness. A stream of forked lightning flew out from his out stretched

arms into the mob, bowling the advancing men backwards to the ground in screams of agony.

     ‘Hurry up Barrad, stop punishing him and just finish it, we have a lot of company coming.’

Sorus shouted.

     A large group of armed men charged forward out of the darkness from the Aristrian camp.

With a flickering mass of light starting to fill the valley from illuminating crystals they came like

an endless stream of enraged ants when their nest is disturbed. The first wave of men to arrive

were almost comical as the front runners were smashed to the ground as they struck the invisible

magic barrier that Sorus had created, then men following tripped over and squashed into the front

ranks causing a mass pile up amongst the chaos.

     The killing machine upped his pace and continued to land a mesmerising and unstoppable

number of blows; Azeth’s left arm was eventually hacked from its socket as he failed to keep

pace, the second blade quickly followed piercing his ribs. Barrad twisted the blade free then

hammered it back into the dying Su-Katii’s chest once again. With a final spit of contempt at his

killer, the old warrior fell backwards dead into the slush. The intruder that had invaded his camp

and killed his master turned around to face Egrick, his dark eye slits watching him like a cat

sizing up a mouse, he raised a sword, but the smaller balding man with the staff shouted out to

the killer.

     ‘The portal is closing.’

     Both men instantly turned and sprinted back full pelt, jumping through the portal that had

formed in Azeth’s tent.

     Relieved at their departure, and for his life, Egrick surmised that they must have used some

kind of magic upon him to keep him pinned to the ground unable to move to his master’s aid, it

must have been the same magic that had repelled the other soldiers who had attempted to come to
their aid, there could have been no other explanation. He was no coward and that was what

would be going into his report.



    ‘Good work Barrad.’ Sorus’s continued excitement was now becoming annoying to the

young warrior, who had been shouting his praises and reliving the battle for the last half-hour.

    ‘By the Great Suckling Sow you can sure fight, laddie.’ he continued to jump around Barrad

excitedly.

    ‘A mother pig. What kind of perverse Gods do you magicians worship?’

    ‘The kind that has twelve tits to suckle and can provide a fantastic bacon breakfast in the

morning.’

    ‘Ok Sorus. I accept that you are a little odd, but I can’t argue with your logic.’

    One of the original Commanders entered the command tent, dressed for battle.

    ‘All the troops are stood-to and awaiting your orders sir. They have not yet been informed of

your victory over Azeth, I thought it better that you address the men yourself?’

    ‘Yes, thank you Dellneck, you are correct. I shall address the men shortly, then we’ll send

the Aristrian scum packing home.’ He patted Dellneck’s back as he went to follow him out.

    Barrad turned before his departure. ‘Oh yes, any news on Tress yet, did she get though the

enemy lines alright?’

    ‘Well we certainly provided a large enough distraction this morning but I’m afraid I just

don’t know anymore,’ replied Sorus. ‘Once you passed over Tamar’s necklace to her, she

remains hidden from all means of tracking, magical or otherwise. How do you think that we

were able to keep your existence here hidden for so long? It was a dark night and she has magic

to aid her, I can assure you she is not just tits and smiles, she is an extremely resourceful woman,

so I hope with the grace of God that she made it through.’
    ‘Well, I hardly noticed,’ he obviously lied. ‘Was it just me or did I forget to button my

breaches? I felt that her eyes never left me during that last briefing, she certainly has a way about

her that could easily distract - may your fat old sow of a God bring her luck,’ said Barrad

strapping on his helmet once again. ‘Now come on, we have a nation to reclaim.’



    Tress picked up her pace as time was critical - she had to make it to the mines in time. Now

that she no longer had any concerns about her detection with both her cloak and the amulet, she

had weaved her way past the last of the out lying sentries with ease. From her study of the maps

before her departure, she knew that if she continued to head towards the three-star constellation

for another hour, she should hit an old cart track that would take her directly to the crystal mine.

With daybreak rapidly approaching she would need to try and find a reference point on this flat

landscape to keep her line of travel. She removed the fur-lined jerkin that had covered her

armour. She knew her pace would need to be quick, Sorus had made it crystal-clear to her that

time was now of the essence. They could no longer wait until the army broke out. Tamar had

communicated just before her departure that the prize crystal was being drawn from the ground

today and once it was on the surface and away from the interference of the other stones in the

mine the Brotherhood of Keth could claim their prize and transport it back to their master. The

wetness of the long grass soon penetrated her knee-high leather boots as she continued to jog

across the difficult terrain. She had spent a small fortune on buying different pairs of boots but

not one pair could constantly keep her feet dry and she wished that the magicians of the world

would spend more time working on more practical magic to stop these annoying problems

instead of conquering the world. She pushed her pace harder as she darted between the lighter

patches of grass. The dark patches brought the potential of a hole and a twisted ankle and she

had already missed her mark more than once this morning, her mud-splattered legs were
testament to that. Eventually crossing the tundra ahead she reached the raised ground that

marked the cart-track that she had been seeking and slumped down on the side of the track

catching her breath. Her leather armour had began to chafe her inner thighs as sweat had worked

its way into every crevice from the hours of exertion and with her breastplate also rubbing her to

soreness, the constant movement of another few hours travel could end up very painful. The

coldness of the ground began to penetrate her bones as she sat on the track rubbing away the

weariness from her burning thighs. With her cloak still tucked around her, she emptied the

excess water from her mud encrusted boots and pulled off her sodden socks and replaced them

with her spare dry pair. She knew this routine well and was well prepared, this action should

keep her feet in good shape long enough to complete her task. She tucked the wet socks under

her arm-pits to dry them out. ‘What a picture you must look and smell,’ she thought. ‘If only

Barrad could see you now. With damp socks for perfume you will be sure to charm him.’

    At first light she prepared to make off again, tightening straps and adjusting her armour as

best she could, then stopped and listened as the faint clatter of approaching hooves could be heard

in the distance. Quickly wrapping her cloak about her, she blended into the surroundings as the

sun rose fully, filling the plain with light. The rider was in a hurry and coming from the direction

of the Aristrian lines. Most likely a messenger bringing news of either Barrad or Azeth’s death,

for she knew of their planned attempt on his life. Either way she could desperately use that

horse. The rider was still some way off so she used the time to select the best point of ambush.

She went thirty meters past a narrow twist in the track because outriders were trained to avoid

obvious choke-points. Instead she selected a point where the embankment, led back to the track

from the moor land, it was a very shallow gradient and likely to be selected as the point of return

to the track. She found a nice raised mound that would put her inline with the rider, then drew

her replacement sabre and holding on tight to her repaired cloak, she waited. After what had
seemed like an age, the rider eventually approached. He had been tucked low in the saddle riding

hard, but now, as Tress had guessed, his pace slowed to a canter as he appraised the twist in the

path. With nothing but open moorland visible for miles, he slowed and carefully selected a short

cut to rejoin the track. As the rider crested the soft ground to meet the track a sword flew out of

the air striking the top of his helm. The rider didn’t have the slightest clue what had hit him and

the blow cart-wheeled him from his saddle to the ground and luckily for Tress the rider still had

one foot trapped in the stirrup as the panicked horse took off. After a short burst of speed the

horse grew tired of dragging the attached Aristrian, who had acted like a brake, stopping the

frightened animal. Now all Tress had to do was calm down the animal and then she could be on

her way again in comfort.

    She walked slowly, crouched over as she edged forward, to present less of a threat to the

crazed eyes that now watched her. With a wild snort and two backward paces, the horse

displayed its distrust of the stranger, but her soft words eventually calmed the animal. Tress’s

hand slowly grabbed the reins.

    ‘Great, now I’m in business,’ she thought. ‘With this horse I’ll make good time to the mine.’

    She freed the soldier’s foot from the stirrup and a groan came from the man, miraculously he

was still alive. Her blow had landed towards the top of his helmet, which had deflected the

weight of the blow into the large blue crest that plumed from its top. Through mud-encrusted

eyes, the man looked up at the dominating female, focusing on the sabre that flicked his sword

away and then extended down to touch his throat. She spoke down to the man in his native

Aristrian emphasising her words. Her blonde hair was blown across her face by the crosswinds

that travelled the plain and the riders eyes widened in genuine surprise at his assailant’s beauty.

    ‘Which one lives?’ she shouted down at him.
    ‘What are you talking about?’ groaned the man, still trying to regain his senses after his

ordeal.

    ‘The Su-Katii Commanders, you oaf. …Which one still lives?’

    Tress pulled off the man’s helmet by the plume, giving it a good shake to get it off and gain a

better look at him. The bearded veteran’s weather-beaten face showed a sneer of contempt at his

rough treatment, no doubt being unhorsed by a woman did not sit well with him. His sneer

quickly changed to a wince of pain as her sabre’s point pressed deep enough in to his cheek to

focus his attention, a small trickle of blood ran down his face.

    She knew the man now clearly understood her request.

    ‘I’ve already wasted too much time with you. I’ll ask you one last time and then I will start

to remove body parts, starting with your manhood. Which Commander still lives?’

    ‘Lord Azeth lies dead,’ the man spat out the words, spraying his beard with spittle in the

process.

    Tress breathed out a sigh of relief. The short time she had spent with Barrad had left her

with a little admiration for the man and his values. Anyone who would fight against the order

that raised him because of their inhumane actions got huge respect from her. She especially

respected this with her own shady past; she had understood his decision well. Besides he exuded

a confidence that was not self-centred and his sparkling green eyes also showed a level of

compassion that had made a more-lasting impression on her than any other man she had ever met,

or at least remember. Tamar’s words rang in her head again, she pictured Barrad face in her

mind and could still clearly recall his face, ‘You fool,’ she thought – ‘Its only after you sleep with

them that you forget.’ Every single man’s dream was her curse. Looking back down at the

injured man she could not contain her smile. This was indeed good news and would be a large

blow against the invaders’ combat effectiveness.
    ‘Well my Aristrian friend,’ she mocked. ‘It looks like your Gods have spared you once from

my blade today, let’s not disappoint them a second time today. Your greedy little country lies a

week’s march that way’ she pointed her sabre down the track. ‘Your army will soon be defeated,

now get out of my country whilst you still have the chance or else I’ll use my magic to track you

down and I’ll aim a few inches lower next time.’

    Tress mounted her new transport, looking back down at the battered and still invader she

jeered.

    ‘Are you still here?’ She then spurred her new horse onwards up the path. After a few

minutes she took a backward glance. The man had pulled himself from the ground and was

indeed limping off in the direction she had indicated.

    ‘Sensible man’ she told the horse.
                             CHAPTER 20 – THE MORNING AFTER



    Titus awoke late to the sweet smell of honey porridge. His eyes studied Athene’s slender

and naked form with admiration as she stirred the large cooking pot and put another log on the

fire, he wondered how she had hid her well-proportioned figure so well on their journey. She

spoilt Titus’s view by grabbing a large fur skin and wrapped it about herself for warmth. He

couldn’t explain what had come over him the night before, but as he continued to watch Athene’s

perfect form a new hunger came over him, he wanted more.

    ‘Leave the porridge my love and come back to bed.’ She dropped the fur fixing his gaze

once again as she returned back to the bed. She needed no magic sword today.

    Their lovemaking this time was filled with intimate passion rather than the animal like

rutting of the night before. Later they both sat cuddled up in the bed eating burnt porridge.

    ‘You know Athene, since your very first touch back outside the shrine I could tell that there

was something special about you. Since I have been with you I feel in some way different.’

    ‘How so,’ asked Athene cuddling up to his chest.

    ‘I think that you have made me feel alive again,’ he replied smelling her hair.

    ‘Well my love,’ she kissed his chest ‘I have enjoyed your feelings several times now I have

never experienced a man of such stamina, perhaps we should just enjoy each other for the rest of

this day. She started to move deeper down into the furs but his hand stopped her.

    ‘I admire your appetite and impeccable choice in lovers, but I’m afraid not. We are already

late and we need to get going now, if I am to deliver you on time.’ Athene’s heart missed a beat,

her head spun struggling to fight down the anger that now threatened to engulf her, she buried her

head deep into the furs and let her tears flow.
    She had prostituted herself to this pig for nothing, she felt ashamed of her actions but even

more ashamed by the fact that she had also immensely enjoyed herself in the process – sadly to

the point that she had pushed her original intensions from her mind and totally gone with the

moment. Now she burned with the feeling of betrayal and cursed herself for being such a fool.

Titus quickly dressed and after strapping on his armour and the multitude of weapons that he

carried, he turned and gave Athene a playful smack on her still exposed rump in an attempt to

establish some form of contact with her, even if it turned out to be a negative response.

    ‘Come on, get that fine arse of yours into your garments or else I will deliver you naked if I

have to.’ A few seconds passed and after some deep breaths a teary-eyed Athene moved up from

the bed after gaining a momentary command of her temper, she knew that he meant what he said.

Suddenly like a child in a tantrum she smashed at anything that got in her way as she violently

slung her clothes on in between shouts and smashes. The pony backed away from her as she

cursed and kicked her way through the room. During the scene Athene avoided all eye-contact

with the impatiently waiting warrior who instead chose to pass his time clearing the doorway of

the snowdrift that had gathered against it. During the night a blizzard had covered the hillside

with a thick blanket of snow, he led the horse out first and Athene finally followed in silence, the

cold morning air seemed to help douse her temper a little.

    ‘It was a strangely uplifting scene,’ thought Titus, ‘The blue sky against the magnificent

jagged mountains, a beautiful lady by his side and the birds singing their morning song. Was he

now enchanted or had he indeed been living in a dream these past years? Why had he not noticed

such small pleasures before in life, such as a bird’s song? They truly could have just been two

lovers going out for a morning ride, like the words of his mock role-play the day before and he

knew he held that power of choice in his hands now. Remembering his personal agenda he knew
that they all must pay, above all else they must pay. Athene’s sobs brought his mind back to the

present reality.

    ‘Come on my dear, it’s time to mount up and be on our way.’

    He intercepted the slap that headed towards his face and unceremoniously shoved Athene up

into the saddle. ‘If that’s the gratitude that I get for calling you ‘Dear’ instead of ‘lady’ I may at

last hold my lose tongue,’ he snorted half to himself before mounting the pony and settling in

comfortably behind her, he pulled her in close to into him.

    ‘Please just let me go Titus or come with me, I would pledge myself to you, if you just say

yes.’ She begged one final time, her voice now gentle and calm. With a shake of his head he

replied,

    ‘I’m afraid my dear I can’t do that, you know that, so please don’t shame yourself any

further.’ Her tearful eyes turned to defiant anger,

    ‘Then in that case I have nothing further to say to you apart from this.’ she said her words

angrily and with the final word she let out a loud fart onto Titus as her final display of disgust at

the man sat closely behind - a trick Corvus had shown her several days before. Titus’s laughter at

her anger and futile action echoed around the mountains as they rode off through the thick snow.

    As they rode on through the morning, she wondered at just how big a mistake she had made

the night before. Nothing had changed between them, she still sat on this pony being taken to her

possible doom, yet now she felt ashamed of her actions and it was strangely her that felt used

although she knew it should be otherwise. As the time passed she replayed the night again and

again. Each time she found herself hating herself even more, not because of the events of the

night, but because of the emotional ties that she had developed towards this brute although she

tried to hide and deny it deep within herself. It was crazy, she never though of herself as one of

those stupid bar maidens that would be swept from their feet by a handsome passing stranger.
Her mother had often joked about her future love, telling her that it was like an unstoppable force

when it hits. ‘Love turns the most astute minds into fools,’ she would say. If only she had

warned her about passing Su-Katii knights, it must be a family trait, for as she recalled from one

of her mother’s numerous stories, years ago she had once joked to her about loving a Su-Katii

knight when she was younger, she had not understood the word before. Straining through her

memories she could remember her saying that her relationship would never grow to fruition as he

was sent to conquer distant lands where he subsequently died. This couldn’t be the one for her,

she reassured herself, she had only spent one night with him and he was a pig-headed animal, but

she knew deep down that it shouldn’t work between them, but even now the tingling in her belly

told her otherwise, she felt different about this one. This feeling couldn’t be the stupid emotion

of love, surely? What she did know was, had he asked anything else of her that morning apart

from to be handed over and torn away from his side, she would have done it, so why couldn’t he

just do the same for her. How could he ignore her so? These feelings just swirled around

repetitively in her head as the horse carried her closer to her destiny. This only infuriated her

further. Perhaps the magic of the sabre had in some way also affected her? She sunk her head

into the pony’s neck and wiped away her tears in its thick fur. She was comforted by the strong

smell of horse.

    Titus attempted some small talk as they rode, but her single response of ‘Traitor,‘ left him in

no doubt as to her feelings and the remainder of the journey passed in a deathly silence.

    At last, after winding their way through the mountains and several narrow passes with some

heart-stopping drops, the ruins of a temple appeared on a slope below, similar in design to that of

the sunken shrine that they had encountered days before. This shrine however, had been totally

destroyed by what looked like a landslide. Instead of a protective dome surrounding its

parameter smashed masonry littered the ground.
    Titus patted Athene’s leg. ‘Your journey is almost over; you will soon be rid of me.’

    He felt the need to break their long silence that had haunted him by explaining the history of

the shrines as they slowly plodded forwards, even if it was to be a one-way conversation.

    ‘In the years of my youth, just after I had been ordained as a fully fledged Su-Katii knight,

the first crystals were just being discovered, pulled from the mountain streams. At first people

just though them pretty stones but it wasn’t long before they revealed special properties and soon

word spread of their magical powers, but it was not until later years that new variants and colours

of crystals were also discovered deeper in the ground. The biggest of these washed-up rocks

were then first discovered by a fisherman called Dedus, who, after accidentally going over the

edge of a waterfall, reported seeing the amazing crystals in the bottom of the pool, as he dragged

himself back up to safety. Other legends say he died in the pool and the crystals brought him

back to life. Either way the Cult of Dedus was born, they were the first to command the power of

the crystal.’ Athene listened acutely to the tale.

    Titus chuckled to himself. ‘In those days you only had to fart and a sect or cult would spring

up.’ He tried, without much success, to inject a touch of humour into his one-way conversation.

    ‘I guess you would have had several cults following you if you had been around then,’ he

said patting Athene’s rump.

    The glint of a metallic shield stopped Titus’s chatter short. Athene’s despair was apparent as

she twitched nervously in the saddle, guessing that this was the end of the road. Across the ruins

stood a group of armed men, their armour as dark as their mood and expressions on their faces.

No snow covered the circle around the ground on which they stood. The bright green circle of

moss under their feet created a vivid contrast against the white backdrop. They stood directly

above the ruined and buried shrine. Several days earlier when the wizard had revealed the

location of Athene to Titus, he had also explained that he would need to deliver her to a crystal
shrine for transport back to his lair. With the crystal of the first shrine destroyed, this place was

the next obvious choice, although he did think it strange that the wizard did not mystically

contact him again since he had acquired his prize.

    What appeared to be the leader of the rough-looking group, stepped forward and shouted out

at the approaching riders.

    ‘These are private lands that you are riding into, your name and business, sir?’ The man’s

grasp instinctively went to his sword.

    ‘Titus, formally of the Su-Katii and I am here to deliver this girl to the wizard.’

    The leader barked back, ‘Good, I thought as much, my name is Marcus, Captain-at-Arms to

the Brotherhood of Keth. You are in the right place for your delivery. Now we can at last get out

of this freezing cesspit and be on our way back home. They dismounted and Titus made to pass

Athene over to the group, but she clung to his arm like a child.

    ‘Did last night not mean any thing to you? I… I love you.’

    Titus smiled a wide grin at Marcus as his head tilted towards him, a large frown appeared on

his already creased face. He allowed the men, unmoving to drag her from his arm, leaving

several finger nail marks across his hand in the process.

    ‘Women always seem to love me,’ he shrugged at the rough looking group.

    ‘Last night was a real unexpected treat my lady and you certainly did not disappoint. Had

you not manipulated the power of the sword, I would have had to consider forcing my pleasures

upon you, but I must give you my thanks, as you saved me the effort. I may even reduce my fee

to the wizard for such an unforeseen pleasure.’

    She managed to free one arm from the burly guardsman and Titus allowed her blow to land.

    ‘Looks like you’ve had a lively package to contend with these last few days, Eh?’ smiled

Marcus understandingly and already sizing up Athene’s well-proportioned figure in anticipation
of the enjoyment he to might feel, should his masters finish with her. Athene looked into

Marcus’s face and shuddered, the dark shadows of his eyes were soulless pits. His dark stubble

and upturned mouth seemed to give the man the appearance of having a huge square jaw line.

    ‘My master will be pleased Titus. You have done well to retrieve this one from the nest of

the enemy,’ he reached past his black chain mail vest to fumble around in a belt pouch.

    ‘Well I would have been here sooner had your master managed to contact me and control his

pets better,’ fired back Titus, showing a flicker of anger in his words. ‘I’ll just take my fee and

be on my way if it’s all the same to you?

    ‘Marcus smirked. ‘My master has ordered me to escort you both back to his residence, I

have no payment for you with me, he wishes to reward you personally so let’s be off.’

    Pulling free a large square-cut diamond from his pouch, Marcus whispered a dark prayer into

it then threw it into the ground and the crackling tempest that formed about the diamond

expanded into a large transportation portal, beyond which lay a dark room within the Wyvern’s

Nest. The crystal buried deep below the ground in the shrine boosting the diamond’s power and

providing the extra range needed. The men quickly filed through, but as Athene was roughly

shoved through, the portal collapsed – Titus’s sword was instantly in his hand and turned

aggressively to face the remaining men, suspecting that the wizards had closed the portal before

he could follow, but to his surprise it reopened again. The remaining guards frowned at each

other, then with a breath of relief followed through. Titus gave his own sigh of relief at the sight

of the reopened portal, at first thinking that he had been duped by the magicians. Quickly

removing his important possessions and the sabre from his horse, he removed the saddle and

picked up his helmet, finally he whispered a last goodbye then he set the horse free.
    Marcus was waiting for Athene on the far side of the portal. He helped pull her up from the

ground as she fell to the cold slabs of the floor on her arrival, he extending his arm and smiled,

revealing his yellow teeth.

    ‘Welcome to the Wyvern’s Nest,’ he said, pulling her in close to him whilst at the same time

feeling the fullness of her breasts, not the largest he thought - but firm enough to bite on. She

scratched at his face, forcing his groping hands to stop their journey downwards.

    ‘Ah, another wildcat. Well you know what they say, like mother, like daughter, I will find

out for sure once Bellack has finished with you.’ His wicked grin left her no doubt that he meant

his words. ‘What? My mother is here? Take me to her now,’ she demanded.

    ‘I forget which grave I put her in after she began to smell and could no longer fulfil my

needs,’ said Marcus. His rasping laugh echoed through the damp room.

    ‘You lying bastard,’ she screeched, frantically clawing at his face. ‘You lying bastard.’

    ‘It was your mother that did the lying,’ he goaded, seeming to instantly feed from her anger.

    He pulled free a short rope from his belt and after a quick backhand slap to adjust her

attitude, he secured her flailing hands. Unable to control himself, with such sweet meat so close

by he gave a long slimy lick across Athene’s cheek and she retched at his breath. At that moment

Titus appeared through the portal and not liking what he saw, he gave Marcus a great kick up the

backside sending the already off-balanced man sprawling into the wall.

    ‘Get your filthy hands off my cargo; she was to be delivered unharmed and your breath could

well kill her. I could smell it the other side of the portal for Kraken’s sake.’ Titus shouted

loudly. ‘Besides, she has not yet been paid for, so until you cough up she is mine to do with as I

please.’ Marcus’s hand had instinctively gone to his sword-hilt as did the other men’s. He had

always been quick to anger yet his quick devious mind tended to intercept his fists before his

brawn landed him in to deep.
    ‘Judge your next actions well,’ Titus spoke with an icy tone. ‘For I am not in the habit of

repeating myself to incompetents.’

    In a vain attempt to ease the tension Marcus simply brushed himself down and replied.

‘Indeed Su-Katii Lord, this way,’ he led the way up out the dank cellar towards the plusher

quarters and the masters of the Wyvern’s Nest lodge.

    After several more flights of stairs the decoration of the corridors became more lavish,

golden door handles and fine jewels decorated the walls. This place reminded Athene of the

King’s palaces that her mother used to tell her about in her story tales. Was her mother really

here, or was she indeed dead? How could they have captured her? She wondered, her mother

lived hundreds of miles away in Tanaria? She suddenly became depressed as she realised the

lengths that that they had gone to, to capture her. These people were incredibly serious and

resourceful. The strain of the last few days now caught up with her, she could no longer hold it

together and she fell against a door sobbing hysterically as she fell to her knees. Marcus stopped,

delighted at the sound, swinging around, and apparently entertained by Athene’s actions, he

cocked his head slightly to one side and began to mimic her crying, his mock tears eventually

giving way to deep laughter.

    ‘I must insist that you hurry your package along Lord Titus. This pathetic girl is still your

problem.’ Marcus smirked back at the Su-Katii as he enjoyed the moment. With one hand Titus

pulled the deflated Athene back up to her feet.

    ‘For God’s sake woman, stop making a scene,’ he said as he hurried her along the corridor.

‘Move it woman. I don’t wish to stay here any longer than I need to. I have better things to be

doing now.’
    Her irritating sobbing continued, so Titus pulled her along with him even harder. Athene

stumbled as she was dragged along by her bound hands and let out a yelp as her arm was almost

wrenched from its socket.

    ‘Get up.’ commanded Titus.

    She continued up the corridor like a reluctant teenager, cursing and muttering under her

breath till at last they arrived at a large iron rimmed door. Marcus first knocked, announcing his

presence from outside and then entered.

    ‘At last we have the pleasure of your acquaintance, Athene Torsden,’ Bellack addressed her

with a large pussycat grin on his face. The powerful magician lay slumped back in a

comfortable reclining chair enjoying the moment.

    ‘Welcome to the Wyvern’s Nest,’ added Saznack pacing around behind him. ‘I trust you

won’t get bored here,’ he grinned.

    ‘We will soon see if you were worth all the fuss that you have caused us,’ sneered Bellack,

almost making his words sound like he was finishing Saznack’s sentence.

    ‘No-one will be doing a goddamn thing until my payment is met. Rank, money and land, as

agreed,’ interjected Titus.

    ‘Oh, you are expensive, Titus,’ observed Saznack.

    ‘But worth every single coin of it.’ Bellack finished off Saznack’s sentence seeing Titus

begin to bristle with agitation at Saznack’s flippant comment.

    ‘I like your no-nonsense approach, it’s quite refreshing. Marcus, stop slouching around and

go and see to Titus’s arrangements. We don’t want to keep our most valuable asset waiting.’

Saznack ordered the Captain of the guard away. Bellack struggled to pull himself up out of the

comfortable chair and instantly, one of the two slaves in the room was at his side assisting him.
    Bellack walked around inspecting Athene, almost sniffing the air about her, then motioned to

a nearby slave to fetch some water and fruit.

    As the slave moved towards Bellack bearing the refreshments, he shouted.

    ‘Not for me you half-witted fool. Offer it to the lady. All this magic and might and you still

can’t get decent slaves,’ he muttered to himself.

    The room was lavishly furnished and Bellack motioned to the two newcomers to sit. They

did so and the leather seats seemed to envelop them, Bellack slumped back into his comfortable

seat.

    Athene was not about to turn down fresh fruit in her anger, her stomach was already

rumbling in hunger – so she struggled with her bound hands to move the fruit to her mouth.

    ‘Well,’ Bellack began. ‘You probably have a lot of questions at the moment and so do we.

If you answer all of ours, then we may answer some of yours, but for now, all you need to know

is that we have a bit of a situation with an imprisoned sorceress that we serve. She is our God.

All we seek to do is free her. You see she is the love of our lives, as a woman you should

understand that. Yes we have been a little greedy along the way, but then who isn’t these days.

You are probably asking yourself how you fit in to all of this so I will briefly explain. Although

you are not aware, your current predicament came about because you were conceived in the

wrong place. Your life was started in a prison similar to that which holds our mistress and as a

result of the magic of your surroundings you appear to have developed a natural resistance to its

magic or perhaps all magic – the same magic that holds my Queen.’

    ‘We will need to put this to the test,’ added Saznack.

    ‘Our aim is to try to nullify the force that holds her - using you.’ He turned from his pacing

and his gaze fell upon Athene.
    ‘Now that I am armed with the knowledge of the method in which we can bring about this

resilience to magic, I am not about to test it by pushing one of my slaves into the rift to be

impregnated and waiting another nine months to find out if my theory’s are correct. There could

be any other amount of variables in this equation, so that is why I need you my dear.

    ‘You could have just asked.’ She murmured to herself.

    ‘Now that should be enough information to answer most of your immediate questions,’

finished Bellack.

    ‘No,’ Athene replied, her anger clearly showing on her face. ‘Is my mother alive, where is

she? I won’t help you until I know.’

    ‘I don’t know,’ lied Bellack, ‘But we will try and find out for you. Now if you were to try

and work with us it would be the best thing all round.’

    ‘Marcus said she was in a grave here, you lying bastards,’ she screamed.

    Bellack seethed at her words, his men should not idly waggle their tongues to his

possessions. ‘Your mother is alive, now, we will achieve our aim, either with or without your co-

operation, dead or alive – so don’t cross us or try to be a heroine, just work with us and I

guarantee you will be richly rewarded. We will make you a princess or give you whatever you

desire. The other path would not be good for your health. Look deep into my eyes girl – you

know what I am saying is true.’

    ‘I desire the truth about my mother.’ Athene demanded.

    Marcus returned with an iron-bound chest, which he placed on the armrest next to Titus.

Bellack’s burning eyes followed him back into the room; he would punish him later for flapping

his gums about her mother …when something suitable sprang to mind.

    ‘You are in no position to make demands – It is as I have already said, she still lives and is in

our care; should you not cooperate we will kill her.’
    ‘I want to see her first.’ she demanded.

    ‘Marcus cut the tongue from her head, her demands tire me.’

    ‘Yes Lord.’ Marcus’s eyes lit up and he drew his dagger advancing on her and with one

hand gripped her jaw and begun to squeeze open her mouth.

    ‘Err, I take it that is my payment inside the chest?’ questioned Titus after clearing his throat.

    ‘Indeed it is,’ replied Saznack.

    ‘Will I need to count it all before I allow you to continue your surgery? I like to be sure

every thing is in order before our transaction is complete.’

    Athene screamed in terror as dirty fingers gripped her tongue, the dagger moved up towards

her mouth, she shouted words just about recognisable as ‘OK, OK.’

    ‘Marcus, stop.’ commanded Bellack.

    ‘Do you understand what you are dealing with now girl? Next time the knife won’t stop.’

She nodded timidly and fell back into the chair.

    Marcus tapped the iron-bound chest with his dagger before returning it to its scabbard,

inviting Titus to explore its contents. Titus pulled himself forward, thinking as he did so that

with so little sleep he could easily fall asleep in such a chair.

    ‘Would you be so kind as to open it for me Marcus?’ he asked. Marcus gave back an

offended glance towards Titus and Saznack’s face lit up as he noticed the expression.

    ‘I do believe you have a healthy lack of trust in us Titus.’

    Titus gave a slight courteous nod. ‘I have not lived for so long merely by my ability to

swing a sword, magician.’

    ‘Good. I like a bit of healthy mistrust, it keeps a man on his toes.’ Saznack’s voice softened

to an almost sincere tone. ‘However you are among friends now and we pay our bills, we also

never forget those who have done us great service. In the days soon to come, trust me that will
be more important than gold. Besides I think your new position in the army will be of huge

advantage to us.’ Saznack turned back towards Marcus. ‘Go ahead then, open it for him.’

    Marcus went ahead and opened the latch on the chest and placed its contents on the chair,

one item at a time. A large purse full of gold coins for immediate wealth, a merchant’s draft for

long-term wealth and there were also two paper scrolls. Titus unrolled them, revealing a land

deed and a commission proclaiming him Supreme Commander of Army Group East. He then sat

and counted the coins and smiled inwardly. ‘Excellent, everything is exactly as agreed,’ he said

and managed a rare smile then stopped in thought.

    ‘No doubt my new appointment will ensure that the current Su-Katii commanders don’t

become too over-confident of their dominance of their Aristrian commands.’ Titus chuckled.

    ‘They are not going to enjoy having to deal with me.’

    Bellack smiled. ‘We’ll have to watch this one Saznack, he is far too quick-witted for a

warrior.’

    ‘I have one further request before I release Athene to you and depart,’ asked Titus, Athene’s

bleary red eyes watched in unusual silence, the usual fire replaced now with just hollow despair.

‘I will also need a new horse to take me to my command, or preferably magic up my old one.’

    Again Bellack gave a loud roar of laughter.

    ‘My dear Titus, you cannot simply ride out of the Wyvern’s Nest. We are several thousand

feet up in impassable mountains so you will require the use of magic to come and go here, but we

will arrange a portal for your departure, we should be able to get you within walking distance of

your new command.

    Saznack spoke up. ‘Come gentlemen; let us get out the finest wine for a celebration. It has

been a pleasure doing business with you.’
                          CHAPTER 21 – THE BATTLE FOR MONAKI



    The first light of the morning sun crept across the Tanarian mountainside, bringing with it a

multitude of reflections from the steel armour and weapon-clad troops that lined the plateau and

eventually spread out across the pass to the valley below. Two armies faced each other grim

faced and in silence. This morning there would be no surprise attack, all who stood on the field

knew that this entire Tanarian region’s fate as well as their own lives lay in the balance today.

    The Aristrian’s were formed up in ranks six deep. The core of the formation were the heavy

infantry regulars, full time native Aristrian soldiers who, after three years’ service were invited

into the unit, based upon their performance and then provided with a set of superior plate armour,

helmet and shield by the state. They stood formed up with the grinding machine (heavy infantry)

in the centre, with the flanks positioned to funnel the new meat into it. The command banners

held their usual position in the centre behind a tight shield-wall, the Aristrian regulars with the

mercenaries and auxiliaries making up the flanks. The remnants of the Uphrians and Milotite

hired fighters stood uneasily on the left and right flanks respectively in open order, or as some

would put it, as a rabble. The Milotites were dark-skinned tribesmen, as black as their reputation

and renowned for their skill with the throwing spear from a distance. Each man also carried a

wicked Tulwar for the close-in bloody work. The remaining Uphrians on the left flank were

shoved in with the rest of the mixed men-at-arms, individual mercenaries or bands of hired

fighters well equipped and signed up for a share in the bounties of war. A smaller contingent of

perhaps two hundred riders waited to the rear, presumably as a quick reaction force. A text book

formation thought Barrad. This would ring true with Tamar’s last dream report and appraisal of

the situation that the army group had deployed its cavalry to the mine, which was one less factor

to worry about. However what was very apparent to all looking on down towards the enemy,
was that the invading army filled the plain. Their Commander may have been slain but with their

numerical advantage their mere sight could still invoke a knee-wobble in even the sternest of

men. A new Commander had stepped up to the challenge and they were still obviously ready to

fight.

     Barrad instantly assessed that the mixed men-at-arms on the left flank would be the best side

to push hard. They would fight well individually but not cohesively as one unit. From his

tactical teachings in the Temple he knew that mercenaries usually joined a force in groups, and

would fight for gold, survival and their mates, in that order, but they were probably the most

battle hardened. He judged that when faced with an organized and determined formation they

would not fare so well, besides he would place himself opposing this flank to make sure they

broke. He also realised that their Commander had made a mistake in putting the Uphrians with

the men-at-arms on that flank. A day earlier it would have been a sound decision, but after the

slaughter of the Uphrians, they would have to face the same force again. They were tough men

but defeat is difficult to forget and besides, they would be better used in an attacking manoeuvre,

rather than in defence. Barrad lacked the real life experience of commanding an army group but

he had studied every major battle and could recite the manual of war backwards. With foolhardy

decisions like this from the replacement Commander there may yet be some hope of a breakout.

     Barrad had pulled all but fifty men from the other passes, having ordered the men remaining

at the mountain passes to triple the amount of campfires overnight to give the impression that

larger numbers were stationed there. Should the passes fall they would have a serious problem

on their hands, yet they were so narrow he judged that they could be held with half that amount

for the duration of the battle and today they needed every single man that they could spare here.

     A large cheer erupted from the troops to the rear and all heads turned to check out the

commotion. Marching down the track from the top of the plateau came a rag-tag contingent of
townsfolk, the grey hair of the old and long locks of the women could be clearly seen as they

marched down. There must have been four hundred of them, carrying bows, clubs, pitch forks

and even a saucepan was spotted. One man amongst the army shouted.

    ‘Hey Ralfnuk your mother comes down to show you how to fight.’

    Another voice shouted out. ‘No, it can’t be her, as she’s still in my bed.’ The group erupted

into laughter at Ralfnuk.

    The townsfolk all knew that if the army failed today, the best that they could look forward to

would be slavery, so after being persuaded by an inspiring speech by Onus, the general that

Barrad had earlier dismissed, they took up a position behind the main force. Barrad looked over

at Onus proudly standing in front of his rag-tag command, he avoided going over as he had more

to deal with than his own dented pride, but he knew that he had been wrong about this man and

now hoped that he had not made any further errors of judgment.

    Barrad scanned the enemy’s lines one last time, seeking out their replacement Commander

for a target, but the man at least had the sense to remain anonymous, although he suspected he

would be amongst the rear of heavy infantry near to the Armies battle standards. An officer

approached Barrad.

    ‘Sir the fire carts are ready to light.’

    ‘Proceed,’ he nodded.

    There was no point in standing on a steep slope and not making good use of it. The carts had

been filled with a combustible mix of straw, saltpeter and mixed oils, enough to guarantee a

thunderous reaction. Flaming torches were thrown in and each team of six strong men waited

nervously, just long enough to be sure that the fires had taken hold, then pushed the carts like

mad down towards the disheartened enemy who had thought the carts a barricade.

    ‘Well lads,’ shouted Barrad, ‘There’s no point in keeping them waiting …Smash Them.’
    The flames from the carts burned higher, fed by the sudden rush of oxygen as they rattled

their way down the rough track, building up speed before smashing into the scattering soldiers.

One of the carts exploded, sending a great plume of smoke and hot splinters into all around.

Several men were splattered by the burning tar-like substance that had been filled into the carts

and scalded men rolled around screaming on the floor frantically trying to stifle the flames. The

heavy infantry in the centre had parted ranks with well-practiced military precision, allowing the

carts to pass harmlessly through, then as one they closed ranks again. The final cart struck a rock

and tumbled over the side of the ridge in a tumbling fireball missing its intended target. The fire

carts had never been intended to inflict a large amount of casualties, but were intended to bring

disarray to the enemy lines before the main assault and hopefully instill a little fear into them.

They had done their job well against the flanks and the front rank of the Tanarian army now

poured down the hill to smash into the confused enemy lines. The thick smoke belched across

the battlefield adding to the confusion, as the first volleys of arrows struck home. The enemy

raised shields to the air, then quickly leveled them to meet the charge. A small contingent of

cavalry had passed through the advancing infantry to strike with well-rehearsed precision to

maintain the disarray until the infantry arrived. Several riders and mounts fell to Milotite

throwing-spears yet this did little to stop their pace as they hammered home their downhill

charge. Lances shattered as they smashed against shields or embedded themselves into armour

and flesh. Discarding the long lances into the mass of men, the horsemen switched to the long

cavalry sword that each man carried, to hack and slash at the heads that peeked above the rims of

their shields as they rode along the front ranks. An axe-man ran out, cleaving one of the rider’s

legs and shattering the horse’s ribs with the blow. The beast stumbled into its neighbour sending

a second man hard into the floor. Their bodies were instantly enveloped by a dozen madmen

hacking them to bits, as the front rank of the Aristrians momentarily broke ranks. The Tanarian
foot-soldiers came within fifty yards of the enemy, then a distinctive horn sounded and the

marauding riders turned tail and rode rapidly back up the sides of the track in single file, allowing

the weight of the infantry to smash into the waiting invaders. Barrad was pleased with how well

the men carried out the difficult manoeuvre; the endless practice had paid off. The Aristrian’s

were in a state of surprise, they had expected to bring the attack to the enemy today, not the other

way around. The clatter of their armour and shouted insults filled the valley with an unpleasant

crescendo and the screams of the dying soon followed.

    Barrad fell upon the enemy line, his blade storm bringing death to any who opposed him.

Not one Uphrian wanted to advance against the warrior with the two gleaming blades, the dark

rumours of the campfires had greatly enhanced his reputation, but their stubborn warrior’s pride

stopped them from retreating in front of their comrades. The first man to die almost seemed

eager to get his life over with. He had rushed at Barrad screaming a war cry, with his huge two-

handed sword raised above his head. Barrad was already past the man before the sword could

fall, one of his blades had opened a long wound across the man’s exposed painted torso and his

intestines spewed forth from the great gash. His other sword hamstrung the large man dropping

him to the ground to be trampled into the slush by the men that followed. Without stopping,

Barrad continued into the crowd before they had time to gain sufficient space to make good use

of their longer weapons. An axe-head was deflected and his helmet smashed into the nearest

man’s face, quickly finishing the stunned man off with several straight thrusts to his torso. Now

bunched up, the Uphrian to his right did not have sufficient room to swing his enormous axe, so

instead he dropped it and leaped at Barrad hoping to bring the agile warrior down. The man’s

outstretched hands were taken off at the wrist and his face met Barrad’s elbow, breaking his nose

with the impact, he fell as if pole-axed.
    The killing blow should be easy to land, thought the final Uphrian from the group. He

recognized the man with his back towards him to be the Su-Katii Commander from the day

before, the man was still occupied as he gutted his Uphrian captain. Should he manage to slay

the enemy Commander, he would revel in his victory for months and would be the hero of the

battle. Filled with these thoughts, he had studied his movements and judged his stab with

perfection, but his opponent moved with an unnatural sixth sense that could not be calculated.

His long dagger struck out towards the man’s exposed back, but something was wrong, he could

no longer move. He struggled to angle his head downwards and viewed the silver blade

skewered through his neck and the unforgiving eyes viewing him through the tight eye slits,

kneeling on the ground the Su-Katii’s arm extended up delivering the coup-de-grace. His vision

faded, he hadn’t even seen the move coming; it was time to join his God.

    The left flank began to buckle as the Tanarian troops quickly filled the void that Barrad had

created. The men behind him also gave a good account of themselves, but then that was expected

of them as he had hand-picked them all. Only the strongest Tanarian squads of men had been

selected and placed to oppose and smash this flank, it had to fall if they had any chance of

victory. The men facing the experienced heavy Aristrian infantry in the centre were not faring so

well. Many bodies were already slumped against their shield-wall. Each Aristrian soldier

protecting the other with interlocked shields and well-drilled precision, it was proving difficult to

breach. With their superior numbers, Barrad was acutely aware that they merely had to stand

their ground and wear the Tanarians down to win the day. For all their fighting prowess, if the

centre fell, their force would be divided and defeat would just be a matter of time. The enemy

had themselves expected to be marching up the hill to attack not stand their ground against the

waves of men streaming down at them. If the unexpected assault went bad they would attempt to

regroup across the narrowest point of the track and fight for survival there.
    As the last of the Uphrians fell, the remaining bands of mercenaries were beginning to realise

that they may not be around to collect their gold unless this strong surge into their ranks was

stopped. Their counter-attack came from the sides of the fighting wedge that had pushed through

their ranks. The General leading the wedge was almost through their lines. If they could cut off

the troops that followed behind him they may have a chance of overwhelming him. Garnak was

the only man up to the challenge of leading a counter attack and he recognised the opportunity

and rose to the call, he always did. Garnak was a legend amongst the men, a giant of a man with

a girth to match. His nose had been broken countless times and his rare smile revealed several

missing teeth, each one had been accounted for in one fight or another. His face was hardly

distinguishable from the crosshatch of scars, which he tried to conceal with a dark patchy beard;

he was not by any account a handsome man, having a face only a mother could love. Today he

wore his distinctive gladiator’s helm, as he liked his opponents to see what was coming after

them and its long spiked ridges let all who faced him know they were about to meet with a

champion of the arena. As a five-year-old orphan he had fought for the amusement of the rich in

order to survive. Now as a man of thirty two, he had not only fought in many wars, but had also

gained much experience of the infamous fighting pits and additionally had mastered and survived

the Great Arena, which was rare even for a free man, never mind a slave. He was a man who had

seen every horror that life could offer and had instigated or participated in most of them. He had

joined this campaign for further fame and wealth and no Su-Katii boy-general was going to steal

it from him. Garnak’s unit surged into the leading squad of Tanarians, inspired by their leader’s

savage assault. The huge man smashed aside two warriors with one bash of his immense square

shield, he preferred it to the smaller ones of his mercenary companions, as it provided complete

protection and its corners provided an extra point as a weapon. His engraved iron war hammer
stove in another head as he moved closer to his target, the man’s eyes rolled upwards and his legs

buckled. The hammer would gain several more notches on its shaft after today.

    Garnak charged in amongst the Tanarians behind their general like a raging bull. With

several swordsmen watching his back, he continued forwards with his onslaught. A man came at

him with a spear trying to run him through but he deflected the strike and smashed the shaft with

his hands, the terrified man bounced backwards into the men behind him as he tried in vain to

escape Garnak’s hammers next blow. The back of his skull splintered into a hundred pieces

showering its gore over his comrades; his helmet offering no protection against the deadly war

hammer was flung like a ball hitting a bat into the distance.

    Barrad stopped pushing his onslaught, allowing the small group of men that had followed

him to overtake his lead, observing the desperate action being fought behind him. Had it been a

particular cry over the cacophony of the battle, or his warrior’s instinct that had halted his

advance? The huge mercenary ploughed through the side of the Tanarian fighting wedge moving

with surprising speed considering his heavy plate-armour and immense shield, which moved like

a second skin on this man.

    Today was business as usual for Garnak as he smashed another man’s jaw with an audible

snap that could be heard above the screams of the dying. Barrad moved through his men back

towards the giant who was decimating his lead troops. The effect of fear was now starting to

spread amongst the Tanarians for they had considered themselves the elite of the army and were

falling fast to this man. This one had to be stopped and quick. He observed the awesome skill

and inhuman strength of the man as he catapulted a freshly killed opponent into his next target.

This man was incredibly strong, gaining continuous victory by quickly overpowering his

opponents. Most Su-Katii had a muscular, but slim, build, winning their fights by using inhuman

skill, intuition and expertise. Their strenuous expert training seemed to provide them with
untapped stamina, suiting them well to long battles and multiple opponents. He knew that when

a Su-Katii knight tires and fatigue sets in, the hand fails to move as fast as the mind intends and a

new slot in the Temple is made available. This opponent had reached the pinnacle of his ability

through animal like aggression and brute strength.

    Garnak spotted Barrad and bellowed out a personal challenge for combat across the blood-

covered field. He thanked his Gods as it had been some years since he had killed the last Su-

Katii in the arena and today would grant him the further glory and recognition that he craved.

The men of both sides rapidly withdrew to form a space; none wanted to get in their way -

relieved that now they might not have to face one of these killing machines. It had been many

years since anyone had witnessed a challenge of single combat.

    Neither warrior wasted any breath on the other, they knew no psychological advantages

would be gained here with insults; instead they ploughed into each other with a deafening crash

that made all around them disengage and turn to watch the spectacle. Barrad flew forward with a

thrust that immediately closed the distance between them, his movement reached beyond that of

any normal opponent, his blow lashed out at the heavily-armoured man’s head.

    ‘Such speed,’ Garnak thought, as he jumped backwards trying to avoid the blow. The sword

point dinted the side of his helm. This one was undoubtedly faster than the last Su-Katii he had

slain, but he would quickly crush him all the same. Instinctively pushing out with his shield, the

second blade thudded against its iron rim. He arced an overarm blow around his shield at the

man’s head, but instead of the accustomed thud, it wrenched his arm as it met with no resistance,

hitting nothing but cold air. He twisted around, bringing up his shield to meet the counter-attack

that he knew would follow such an opening. The Su-Katii unleashed a complex six-move

combination designed to move the shield away from the body and expose a small gap in which to

thrust. Garnak instinctively understood that he was in someway being setup and instead smartly
chose to disengage, he back-peddled for space, as he did so, sending his hammer swinging

upwards in an unexpected uppercut towards the man’s chin. Barrad’s well drilled footwork

carried him to safety, but the giant now seized the initiative and stormed forward in an attempt to

finish the Su-Katii quickly. With his vision filled with the large shield bearing down on him,

Barrad, used a series of side steps to keep the mercenary twisting awkwardly around after him,

slowing his chase with alternating blows both high and low, whilst avoiding the circular swings

of his hammer. A blade bounced off Garnak’s exposed shoulder-guard and Barrad was forced to

jump backwards as the giant returned with a sweeping shield bash that just missed his face,

losing his footing Barrad unexpectedly slipped to the floor amid the blood and slush. The

hammer streaked down towards his head, both men now gasping with their exertions. With

blades crossed, Barrad stopped the incoming blow, the force of the giant behind it jarring his

arms. A huge foot lashed out and half-caught him as he awkwardly rolled back to his feet. The

watching mercenaries began to chant their hero’s name as the giant pressed his attack. Barrad’s

sword lashed out with a vicious riposte that hit the giant’s coif, bruising his neck and causing him

to fight for air from the blow. Another follow-up blow was deflected by Garnak’s heavy

breastplate; his expensive armour had been a fine investment over the years. Regaining his

breath he circled Barrad now more cautious hoping to find a new angle of attack. Suddenly and

unexpectedly, the giant sunk to his knees, his arms slumped loosely to his side. Barrad was

confused by his movements, but as Garnak’s body turned and dropped to his knees, a large

double-headed axe could be seen embedded deep in his back. During the combat he had moved

too close to the watching Tanarians and obviously not everyone on the battlefield was in the habit

of respecting the battlefield code of single combat. With his spine shattered Garnak’s huge bulk

fell, face down into the mud. Barrad’s gaze was evil as he searched for the axe wielder, but he

had rapidly disappeared back into the seething mass of men that had already begun their renewed
combat again. He now realised that this fight was not just about his own personal honour or

pride, men would protect their own lives and that of their families at any cost. The victor today

would be the last man standing, not he who followed a code. The battle was raging on and he

needed to capitalise on the loss of Garnak. He turned with a war cry and engaged the nearest

enemy. The mercenaries were horrified at the death of their champion and faced with the blood-

splattered swords of the advancing Tanarian champion, they reconsidered the ultimate price they

would pay for their coin. The rout of the left flank had begun.

    The Aristrian reserves and cavalry were quick to react as the situation was now critical for

them. Their attempts to wheel their formation into a position in which they could defend the left

flank were severely hindered by the streams of men stampeding back through them, fleeing the

field. On seeing the growing panic the cavalry Commander decided that the day was lost, his

small reserve force was massively undermanned – if they advanced into the fray, they too would

be decimated. With the advantage of their horses his unit were almost guaranteed safety if they

left the field now, he could easily rejoin with the force at the mine. He decided the battle would

be lost without Lord Azeth at the helm. He despised the infantry Commander who had assumed

command, it should have been him that took the privilege of overall command, they were both of

equal rank and then they would not have been in this situation. Their own lives could yet be

saved if they departed now.

    The stand-in Commander shouted frantically at the horsemen as they turned tail and departed

the blood-soaked pass. ‘Dammed horse-shaggers.’

    He only needed a few minutes to reorganize the three rear lines to extend the formation

losing the depth of the ranks but covering the crumbling flank better, this would stop him from

being totally outflanked and keep the Tanarians hemmed in by the jagged rocks that lined the

wide track. Even without the left flank and the cavalry, they still outnumbered the enemy nearly
two to one. He could still make a victory out of this, he just needed his men to act quickly but in

despair at the coward’s retreat from the field, he hurled every insult he could think of at the

retreating horsemen then dealt with the situation.

    ‘Turn your men to the right and guard our side …Front rank. We can finish these dogs.

ADVANCE.’

    Commander Arteious bellowed and pointed, indicating where he wanted his men. The well

disciplined Aristrians followed their Commander’s instructions and two long horn blows sounded

the manoeuvre, with a renewed effort the infantry began to force the Tanarians back up the hill.

    Barrad knew that the battle was far from won and began his assault on the shield-wall of the

heavy infantry. As he looked around he realised that half of his men had broken ranks to pursue

the fleeing warriors of the left flank – fools.

    ‘Hold the line.’ he bellowed, but it was too late, the men were beyond recall. Their only

chance now was to throw themselves at the reorganising infantry before they were fully reformed

into an impenetrable phalanx, even he would have trouble in penetrating such a formation.

    Farlow, the carpenter’s son, had found a good vantage point from which to fire down into the

masses. Very little return fire had come their way once the foot soldiers had engaged at close

quarters and he had been sent down by his father, to represent their family in the conflict as part

of the town’s contingent, but now he was running low on arrow shafts. His younger brother was

already running back up the hill, puffing and panting as he wondered why it had to be him who

had to replenish the spent arrows. He had seen two men fall from his direct arrow strikes since

the start of the engagement and he hoped to make it three.

    At this distance, the men swarmed like bees in the valley below and his arrows had

disappeared into their close ranks. He had notched his second from last arrow when some

movement caught his eye below. The man’s gestures seemed to indicate that he was of some
importance, frantically pointing in several directions. He took account of the crosswind and

slowly released the air from his lungs as he loosed the arrow, just as his father had taught him. It

arced high though the air eventually taking the man in the thigh. Disappointed, he loosed his last

remaining arrow at a Milotite warrior that had broken through the lines and was running up the

track. The man dropped as if pole-axed. He crouched back behind the rocks, at last satisfied

with his work and thinking his brother had better hurry up as he did not want to fight in hand-to-

hand combat with his whittling knife.

    The Aristrian Commander felt like he had been punched in his inner thigh, adrenalin carried

him on for a moment and, not knowing his femoral artery had been punctured, he continued

barking his orders until his sudden collapse. His dreams of victory faded as fast as his lifeblood

pulsed from his body, Arteious collapsed, lifeless, into the mud.

    With their Commander dead and men pouring around their flanks the men began to think of

retreat, as they knew that if the enemy fully enveloped them they were finished. One of the old

veterans slid his sword through the back of a youngster who was inciting retreat, but with Barrad

carving through the men on the flank, the veteran’s action had the opposite effect to what he

wanted. The bulk of the heavy infantry, now leaderless, thought only of escape and smashed

their way backwards through the tide of men that threatened to envelope them through the gap to

the left that Barrad had created. The Aristrian front rank was still oblivious to the withdrawal

behind, leaving them extremely exposed.

    With renewed vigour, the Tanarians again fell upon their thin line and this time the men were

easily pushed back and pulled to the ground as the streams of troops charged through them with

ease. The Tanarian victory was now sealed, every man now ran for their own lives in earnest.

The old veteran’s trampled body lay twitching on the cold ground with an Aristrian dagger

through his back.
    The lighter-armoured Tanarian troops pursued the routed invaders for several miles

continuing their revenge where possible, but the bulk of the Tanarian force held their ground

celebrating their victory with wild cheers. Barrad caught his breath, suddenly noticing the chill

of the wind again penetrating through his armour to his sweat soaked undergarments. There

would be little time to celebrate, Sorus had insisted that time was of the essence in order to reach

the mine.

    He immediately began to reorganize the men ready to move out to the mines, but before they

departed there was something that he knew he would need to find, but where could it be? The

townsfolk were now busy tending to the wounded and dying, some exacting their revenge.

Looking out across the barren landscape he wondered how Tress had got on with her mission,

then shouted for horses to be arranged.
                                   CHAPTER 22 - ENDURANCE



    Corvus was unstoppable; he rode Patch straight through the deep snowdrifts in the most

direct route. Pushing the panting pony hard he had no time to traverse around them and he

continued to follow the line of single pony tracks, as he had an urgent deadline to meet. With a

snow-encrusted beard and numb extremities, he had already endured a lot, yet still struggled on

through the bitter cold. Both Corvus and Patch were totally exhausted, wet and shivering and he

knew that he was close to hyperthermia due to the extremely trying night that they had both

endured.

    After leaving the shrine the previous day he had covered several leagues on foot, jogging

along at the standard Nordheim military pace – run one league, walk another and so on, until the

blisters stop you. Moving around an area of prickly bushes he had been relieved to find one of

the mounts that they had previously used that day. The Su-Katii had scattered the horses before

entering the shrine. What an amateur, he thought – he would have killed them all to be sure.

Tress’s contented pony had been happily grazing on a thistle bush and was not at all spooked by

his rapid arrival. Had it been luck or had the magician had a hand in this as well? It appeared to

Corvus that this Tamar fellow seemed to have his finger in too many pies for his liking. He was

beginning to realise to his horror that he had now placed his total trust in this ‘Tamar’ and he

didn’t like it one bit. As King of a harsh and savage nation he had never placed his trust in an

outlander and this was a new and worrying experience for him.

    Thinking back to the morning when he had been laid out on the cold floor of the shrine

unconscious, he had awoken with his head spinning and a rare clarity of mind which was almost

dreamlike, enveloping him. The magician’s astral form had casually walked around him in

conversation but fortunately he was a different magician to that of the dark robed Wizard that had
bartered for Amiria’s life. He was the one that Tress had spoken about – Tamar. He began

explaining the recent events of the world, before finally coming to the real reason for his

communication.

    ‘Corvus, I’ll be straight with you. I have a task that urgently needs completing it will take

you to the nest of the enemy and I need your help. Are you up to the job?’

    ‘I’m up to anything that will hit back at those bastards, but your job will have to wait, I have

my own agenda. My remaining son is being held as a royal exchange hostage, and with the death

of my rival king’s son …whilst in my care, his life now hangs in the balance. I must gather what

remains of my kingdom and men and free him, with force if necessary, before the news of his

dead son travels.’

    ‘What about Athene? Have you abandoned hope for her? She is being taken to the very

place where I seek to send you, she badly needs your help and the survival of the nations may

also be tied to her fate. Should she be of use to Bellack, it could forever change the world as we

know it. Come on man, you have already witnessed some of these changes in Nordheim, the first

of many changes to come.’ Tamar’s image had paced around the king during their conversation

like a caged animal. Corvus did not like his body language one bit.

    ‘I cannot give up my family to rush out after a wench that I just met a few days ago, I’m

responsible for a nation and have a duty to any survivors.’ But she did have nice hair and a fine

figure, well once she was out of the baggy cloths that she seemed to favour, he thought to

himself.

    ‘No I’m sorry, what do I care of your problems? My answer is NO, I have already lost one

son, my other one needs me,’ his reply was stern.’

    Tamar listened disappointedly, yet he never entered negotiations without an ace to play.
    ‘You will run into your fate, even when you try to escape it, but if you agree to my words,

you will at least know what path to take and be prepared for what awaits you. If not both you and

your son will be dead within the week. Our paths are aligned – where I need you to go, you will

find Athene and your wife alive.’

    ‘What, but she’s…’

    ‘No Corvus, she is no longer a beast and lives again as a human, only the creator has the

power to return the beast back into the person, Bellack had already restored her when he made

you the offer for the exchange for Athene, he had to transform her back to gain the intelligence

on you from inside her mind, I know this because I have seen these events in Bellack’s mind. He

was desperate to get her exchanged and she is presently languishing in his dungeons. If you do

as I say and carry out my task you may still have time to save her. I can assure you that if you

take on my mission I will weave a spell that will enter your rival king’s mind, convincing him

that your last remaining son Rikard’s life will be of value to him in the trying times ahead. You

will be free to complete my task, rescue your wife and perhaps even exact some revenge, I could

have just used my magic to convince you of this, but I still believe in giving the true of heart a

chance. Unfortunately for your rival King, he is an abuser of innocents and I will not afford him

the same courtesy. All that I’m sure of is …if you delay your wife will die Corvus.’ At last this

Tamar was starting to some make sense to him.

    ‘Wizard, if you can read minds you would see that I have done far too many terrible things in

my time, perhaps you weren’t watching me then?’ said Corvus, rolling his eyes in disgust at

himself.

    ‘I can’t watch everything that goes on in this world, but I can see what is deep within a

person’s heart – I wish I couldn’t sometimes, but we can only play with the cards we are dealt.

So do we have a deal then King Corvus? My task only requires the use of your axe and then you
are free to do as you please, rescue your wife or help free Athene and then we will take it from

there.’

    ‘Go ahead and tell me more of what is required, wizard, but if you are lying to me, I will

come back and snap your neck,’ threatened Corvus menacingly.

    He had listened to the magician’s plans intently, committing every word to memory. The

vision faded and as he came to, his head was thumping as if had polished off a barrel of ale.

Groggily he had gathered up his weapons, removed a bag from Lewem’s decimated corpse and

began to stagger back up through the eerie silence of the deserted shrine.

    He had known that he would have little chance for rest on his pursuit to the second shrine

and as the sun had gone down he had came across the two hunters who had attempted to keep

their camp fire low. Excited with the news that their king was alive they had informed him of

their encounter with Titus, he was a little surprised at the killers’ good behaviour, but from the

encounter he knew that they had perhaps five or more hours on him. After being supplied with

food and extra furs to keep him warm, they had waved their king off again, uplifted that they still

had a leader for these dark times.

    His pace had slowed in the darkness, yet he could ill afford to ride with the careful attention

that was usually required at night. One rock or pothole would be all that was necessary to leave

his pony lame. Even worse, tonight the screams of many beasts, now feral and wild, could be

heard individually roaming the land. At first, the change in the weather had been a blessing and

the heavy snowfall helped to obscure him from the beasts that were closing in on him, but as the

blizzard got progressively worse, he knew instantly that it had the potential to kill him. Caked in

snow and freezing, his chainmail armour would be a death trap, even with the under-garment

padding, the weight of the cold steel links forced the coldness closer to his body. Because the

blizzard had struck so quickly and the fearful cry of the beasts were so close, he had not had
sufficient time to stop and tackle the complicated ties and awkward angles required to remove the

armour. He rode on freezing in the thick snow, hoping to put some distance between him and the

enraged howls that carried through the night, when he suddenly remembered Lewem’s bag that

he had been instructed to pick up. With the feeling in his fingers fading fast, he managed to untie

the lid by pulling the strap free with his teeth. Bending over in the saddle with his hood down

against the total whiteout that faced him and annoyingly blew into every exposed crevice, he

struggled desperately to get into the contents. With his hand shaking uncontrollably he reached

inside. The crystals and diamonds jiggled about the bag due to Patch’s struggling movements

through the snow, but eventually he was able to locate several blue crystals, which he smashed

against the large axe-head that was slung from his saddle. Quickly, after enjoying the growing

warmth against his hands for several seconds, he shoved the glowing crystals down his top where

they would do the most good. Not forgetting Patch he had held two crystals against the pony’s

sides as he clung on low, huddled against the beast for maximum warmth.

    Titus’s plan of escape had been easy to read and he had needed no wizard to guide him

through his own lands as he knew well the location of the second shrine which had been damaged

and pillaged after a landslide when he had been no more than a babe in a cot. Even with the

second shrine under the rubble of the landslide, it was likely that it would retain its powers to

increase the range of the portal diamonds, through its proximity alone - many of the underground

quarters remained untouched as they were now totally inaccessible.

    He had found the partially consumed bodies of slain beasts soon after, none of which were

human remains, which meant it likely that those he sought were still alive. Judging from the

marks of the struggle that had taken place, there had been quite a battle here as smashed and

splintered trees, and the carcass of a pony could be seen in the undergrowth. This was good as it

would slow them. Later in the morning, Corvus had found the cabin and, after cautiously
approaching, had warmed himself quickly against the still-warm embers that he managed to fan

back into life. He had got lucky with his breakfast and rapidly consumed a pot of burnt porridge

left in the hut, it was rank but it would supply him with the much needed energy that he would

require to continue the pursuit. Some time after setting off again and feeling renewed from the

brief respite from the elements, his horse became skittish. Corvus trusted the creature’s sixth-

sense as animals often had better senses than the rider, so he freed his axe from its sling in case of

trouble. He scanned the path ahead, the bushes were a good distance from the snow covered path

that continued up and around the hill side, he carried on cautiously smelling the air, hearing the

slightest sound he twisted around to check behind him, nothing. As he turned back to face his

front, a flash of movement caught his eye and his axe instantly came to from its low slung

position over the saddle. A stoat continued its mad dash across the path, Corvus exhaled with

relief.

     ‘Spooked by little creatures now, are we.’ he remarked to himself holding his last word as he

looked up. Just around the slight bend in the path crouched a green, scale-covered possessed one

chewing happily on a pony rib, it was clearly identifiable as female, as its naked form still

showed some vague lady-like features about it. The creature opened its mouth and hissed at him

with disgust, its black forked tongue dripping with saliva as it did so, thinking what a tasty snack

he would make. It began to advance towards him on all fours through the deep snow. His first

thoughts were to wonder which one of his people this beast could have once been, as even

malformed by the magic this creature looked familiar, but then he had known a lot of ladies in his

time, some a little better than others. He was instantly drawn away from this puzzle as the beast

broke into a frenzied charge towards him.

     He moved in the saddle exactly as he had repeated a hundred times before in battle. ‘Move

low to the right and start your swing before you are on top of your opponent, to allow for the
extra movement carrying your opponent closer to their doom.’ His two-handed axe had a lot

better reach than the green talons that snaked up at him and his axe carved through the beasts

rib’s just under the shoulder as it reached up for him, halting the creature’s attack. He backed his

mount away from the wounded beast as it still clawed the ground, trying to drag its mangled body

and open fangs towards him. After several minutes of blood loss the beast finally died. He

dismounted and struck the beast once again to be certain. He looked down at the corpse then

quickly turned his face back into his horse in tears as he recognized the birth mark that still

showed on the left breast after its transformation. This creature had once been Elsa, his first love

as a teenager who had taught him how long winter nights could be spent in a better way. He had

repeatedly teased her about her unusual dark birthmark which reminded him of an extra nipple.

She had always jokingly replied.

    ‘Well my Lord, a future king should never settle for the norm, he should always aspire for

more. Once you have had a woman with three, you will feel robbed with anything less.’

    She had been wrong, but he had always remembered her with the soft spot that a man always

harbours for his first love. Although an elder conquest with your language teacher for your first

relationship was always going to be a lot of fun, it would never really work. The ensuing gossip

in the royal court of a prince, rutting with a foreign scholar, had seen to that.

    ‘Goodbye my first love, you should have left Croweheim all those years ago when I asked

you to.’ he whispered to the beast’s body with a tremor in his voice, then wiping his eyes clean

he mounted up again to continue his pursuit, a burning rage soon replaced his tears.

    Eventually he neared the ruins of the sunken shrine and Tamar’s voice came to him

unexpectedly like a bell ringing in his head.

    ‘Corvus. Stop where you are now. Move no closer to the shrine or you will be discovered.

Your timing is perfect, but you just need to wait a few moments longer where you are.’ He was
already getting fed up with these annoying voices in his head and wanted to get this mission over

and done with, just to be free of this annoyance alone. The wind whistled around him as he

remained still in his saddle, he could swear that he could hear faint voice in conversation in the

distance, and on hearing a female’s scream it took every ounce of will power to remain where he

was.

       ‘Count down from ten, then ride like your tail is on fire through the open portal.’ boomed the

voice in his head again.

       ‘Remember your mission, but I’m afraid my powers can no longer help you once you have

passed through the portal, good luck.’ Tamar’s voice faded as Corvus counted backwards from

ten. Three, two, one he counted silently in his head and then spurred Patch into life. Snow

sprayed in all directions as the exhausted mount summoned up its remaining strength and

thundered down and around the scattered rubble into the ruins. The pony’s footing became

firmer as the snow gave way to the circle of greenery in the centre. His view was fixed on the

transport portal ahead which was still open and crackled and hissed as Patch hurtled towards it,

unbothered by the noise.

       ‘Stay open, stay open, you son of a bitch,’ he repeated and almost shouted as he crossed the

final few yards towards it.

       The frightened pony skidded to a halt before the entrance of the portal, refusing to go any

further. Corvus clutched his large axe and leapt down to run full pelt towards the magic Vortex,

diving through the transport portal head first he passed through it just in time, as it closed seconds

behind him.



       Tress had made good time along the cart track with her commandeered pony, it was late

afternoon and she realised that the horse had been invaluable. Stopping at a fork in the track, she
observed an old marker stone. Chiselled roughly on it, she read ‘Masterstone Quarry, Bacu, 2

Leagues,’ a jagged arrow pointing to the right. She was now very close to her destination so she

rode on for almost a further league, then dismounted and sent the horse running back from the

way she had just come. There would be no quick getaway from this mission, as from here on in

stealth would be her only ally. The track had fed into a slight valley, just as Tamar had described

to her, a small copse of trees was all that remained of the woodland that had once filled the

valley. The slopes of the valley were hewn with roughly-cut tree stumps, the timber from which

was now employed deep within the mine shafts that lay beyond. The stone structures and timber

roofs that made up the mine complex could just be seen as Tress approached. She could also see

the Aristrian sentries guarding the entrance. With her cloak tightly wrapped around her, she

closed in, but after her encounter with Titus and the damage it had sustained she now had doubts

about the cloak’s ability to conceal her. Tress decided she would not risk getting too close if she

could help it to increase her odds.

    Her cautious approach to use stealth early had paid off, because as she moved towards the

mine she now noticed movement high up in the remaining trees of the copse. Amongst the

branches she spotted a bored looking man sitting wrapped in a blanket observing the land. He

had a large horn hanging from his back and was positioned with a good view of the moorland

from where Tress had approached, obviously an advance lookout, ready to raise an alarm. Her

years of experience and procedures paid dividends today and from his almost sleepy demeanour,

she knew that the guard had not spotted her stealthy approach. She spent as long as the situation

permitted to assess all of the guards’ patterns, then quickly made a final check on her equipment

and tightened any loose straps before moving out. The Dragon’s Thunder jars and the vial of

liquid that Tamar had provided her with were still secure. Tamar had guaranteed her that the

vial’s acidic contents would shatter the huge Moomran crystal that it was her mission to seek out
and destroy. Once poured onto its surface the magical mixture would render the crystal unusable

for its intended purpose – the freedom of the God Queen Soredamor. She slipped past the outer

sentries into the large courtyard and gasped at the sight of the huge crystal resting on a large bed

of sand. When she had been asked to destroy the crystal she had envisioned something the size

of a man’s head. Being the size of a large wagon the oddly smooth surface of the crystal

glistened with the light of the late afternoon sun and dwarfed the men that bustled about it. Amid

a hive of activity, the Aristrian troops were untethering the teams of horses and removing the

large logs that had been used as rollers to extract it. The path of logs led back to the enlarged

mine entrance. Along the far side of the courtyard a group of Tanarian miners lay exhausted, still

chained together and silent. The amount of noise and commotion in the yard was a great

advantage as it would lessen the chance of her detection. She instinctively moved into the

shadows of the huge open structure of the stables to the right. Most of the horses were still

tethered within the stables, but moving amongst animals was always a risk. She noted the dark-

cloaked acolytes moving amongst the troops, muttering their mystic enchantments from the

darkness of their hooded faces. Some of them were obviously making the first preparations for a

powerful transportation spell while others had started drawing a large pentagram about the

imposing Moomran Crystal and were planting smaller green crystals into the sand and around the

points of the pentagram. There must have been a thousand people in the complex, each going

about their tasks or resting by the buildings. Tress could plainly see that there would be no easy

way to get close to the crystal, even with her cloak. A horse whinnied to her right, seemingly

spooked or was it just her overactive senses? Her heart was pounding with the nervous

excitement of the moment. She had always retained a thrill at being dangerously close, whilst

remaining unobserved. It was almost like a drug habit, she could remember this sensation from
the enforced missions during her days in slavery - the familiar rush of adrenaline that she would

feel, she had never been able to fully kick the habit.

     It was an Aristrian cavalry mount that had first detected her and become skittish. Vicious,

and bred for endurance, they were much larger than the local speckled ponies from the

surrounding hills and this one had definitely sensed her presence. Fortunately, there were more

than enough horses here to make an effective distraction and allow her to make a concealed

approach in the ensuing confusion up to the crystal.

     Tress moved away from the nervous animal whilst she mulled over her decision to use the

horses. How had the Tanarians fared this morning? Had they broken out of the hills? She

realised that there wouldn’t be any help from them today even if they broke out immediately they

could not cover the ground that quickly; perhaps it would be before midnight at the earliest. She

knew all too well that the Acolytes were about an hour away from completing their magical

preparations that would teleport the crystal back to Bellack. She would have to risk a distraction,

as to wait for the army would mean failure although any action to disrupt and delay the ritual of

transportation would be of some benefit, as by delaying them, they would have to go back over

some of the magical rituals again or maybe even restart it from the beginning. However, they

would need to be disrupted more than once to delay them for the amount of time that she needed

and it could all be in vain, as the Tanarian army may not have even broken out of the mountains

yet, if at all?

     With so many people in one small area this was indeed a dangerous mission for her,’ she

considered. ‘How had she let that magician talk her into it?’

     If she managed to destroy the crystal there would be a thousand people after her and the

acolytes were also skilled in magic. Her amulet would hide her from the usual searching spells,

but when you know someone is this close, there were other darker ways of discovery. With a
curse at the growing task, she moved into the stables drawing her dagger as she began to work

her way behind the unsettled animal’s cutting all the leashes that she could find. The noisy

unease from the animals attracted the attention of two solders, who were too preoccupied with

their deep conversation to stand any chance of detecting her. They moved along the stables

checking on the horses, they were fairly nonchalantly in their approach, chatting about the

whores and bars that they were going to frequent when they returned home. Tress remained

perfectly still until they were fully satisfied that it was just the rats that had annoyed the horses

and moved off. She took one of the prepared jars of Dragon’s Thunder from her belt strap and

backed up to the rear wall of the stables. Closing her eyes and averting her face from the burning

flash that she knew would follow, she threw the jar onto the hay-strewn floor with great force.

The jar smashed instantly, mixing the combustible contents and producing a mighty flash, which

then set the hay alight.

    The hysterical horses panicked and stampeded out of the stables in all directions. Men were

knocked to the floor and trampled, others scrambled for safety as confusion reigned in the camp.

Tress immediately took advantage of the distraction that she had created. Moving with lightning

speed behind the terrified animals, she clutched her magic cloak and dashed towards the crystal,

her hands trembling with adrenaline as she clutched the vial and ran over the strewn sand to the

great stone.

    A grizzled looking Aristrian sergeant bellowed out.

    ‘Stand to men and keep your eyes peeled.’

    He walked coolly out through the mine entrance pulling the men back into shape and

obviously knew a distraction when he saw one. It was too late for Tress to stop now, she was

committed but it all seemed to happen in slow motion as her heart thumped heavily in her chest.

Several astute men had remained near the crystal during the distraction and would need to be
dealt with swiftly. She pulled her sabre free, arcing back her cloak and the nearest man fell

instantly and silently with his windpipe cleanly severed. The second man fell as he started to

turn, Tress’s arm jarred as her sword clanged against the man’s helmet and the impact hurt her

arm, but the blow still managed to drop the man. One acolyte, distracted from his task of etching

the symbols of power on the ground, looked up at the intruder and began to chant a spell. Tress

quickly whispered the words that she had learnt in the service of her old master Zerch, many

years before. The cantrip instantly glued the acolyte’s tongue to the roof of his mouth ceasing the

terror that he was about to unleash. She quickly placed the thin vial in her mouth to free up one

hand, her cloak swirled backwards as she reached to into her baldric. Tress’s throwing knife

thudded into the man’s dark hood, sending him reeling backwards to the ground. Tress jumped

backwards from the path of a panicked horse. Hugging in close to the large crystal she quickly

pulled out the acid vial from her mouth, thankful for the sturdy magical glass not breaking in her

teeth, but as her hand was about to pull off the stopper, a crossbow bolt punched her from her

feet, sending the vial flying backwards into the sand. She slowly looked down in disbelief at the

bolt embedded deep through her leather breastplate and into her chest. She tried to breathe but no

air entered her lungs. Panic was quickly overtaken by the darkness that enveloped her.
                                    CHAPTER 23 – THE PRIZE



    A bald-headed man in a long black robe entered the room without announcement, his eyes

quickly gave a dark glance across at the seated guests, his black hood pulled back allowing his

face to betray the contempt burning deep within him. An armed stranger, obviously a Su-Katii

was an unusual sight in his Lord’s Halls where it was rare to see any visitors at all. Why did they

need to bring them here? He disliked anything out of the usual, but remembered his place and

swiftly bowed before Saznack.

    ‘My Lord, the Moomran crystal is prepared and ready for transport.’

    Saznack sighed. ‘Must you disturb us, tell me when it’s here you oaf, not when it’s coming,

can’t you see we have company? Now get out of my sight and let me know when we have it.’

The man hid his years of frustration as well as he could, the end rewards would eventually be

worth it. To be taught the ways of extreme power was not an easy path, his masters treated

everyone in their household with disrespect because it was simple, they were all powerful and he

was no more than a clump of shite on their shoes, trying to learn the path to such power. Many

others like him had been scraped off over the years. One day master Bellack had summed up the

acolytes’ position to him clearly, ‘Kerric, you should all have the sense to know that you are

nothing more than just plain scum, should you eventually grow in power – you will just be a

larger pile of shite. The difference that power gives you is that you can then make them pay for

their words in return. Until that day hold your tongue and do as I say.’ He had to endure much

and his unquestioning service was the first step on a greater road. He simply nodded and left the

room.
    Titus noticed the slight fidgeting of Bellack’s fingers, betraying his excitement at the bald

man’s news. Not wishing to outstay his welcome he quickly drained the last of his fine vintage

wine and licked his lips.

    ‘Delicious, that wine certainly helps to thaw you out. Well gentlemen, now that our business

is concluded I’ll be on my way.’ With that Titus rose out of his deep seat, picked up his

belongings and turned to leave. Saznack noticed the handle of the sabre protruding from the

cloth wrappings that hung low on Titus’s back for the first time. It caught his eye, but then

nothing magical escaped him.

    ‘Hang on a moment Titus before you leave. That sword that you carry wrapped up on your

back, would you mind if I take a closer look at it?’

    ‘Of course not.’

    Titus obliged, unwrapping the rags from the sabre and presenting the magician with the

sabre’s handle. Saznack accepted the blade and held it closer to a crystal that was illuminating

light into the room, he intensely studying the blade in silence for several minutes.

    ‘You see, right here are the words,’ he pointed excitedly at a small inscription on the sabre.

‘Thulnir, Taric, Sum,’ Saznack read out the magic inscription that only a magician could translate

correctly and the blade of the sabre flared up with a bright magical glow making Athene jump in

her seat. Titus’s eyes widened in surprise at the unexpected magical reaction to the words on the

sabre.

     ‘Do you know what you have here Titus?’ Saznack asked.

    Titus managed a shrug of his shoulders to match his puzzled expression.

    ‘A sword,’ he replied sarcastically to the magician.

    Ignoring the sarcasm in his comment, Saznack continued in a new excited tone.
    ‘It’s not just a sword, it is Sum, one of the three lost swords of the Gods. The father of our

Gods created three blades, one for each of his two sons and one for his daughter. The legends tell

that the metal from which they were forged came with their forefathers, from another world.

Sum was the sword forged for the daughter, our Queen and it is a relic that would be priceless to

us. We were led to believe that all three of the blades were lost to mankind forever after the

disaster that befell the Gods. Where did you find it Titus?’

    ‘The thief, Tyranny that you originally sent me to dispose of had it. Although she escaped

me in Croweheim I managed to retain her sabre, I thought it might be of some value so, I brought

it along with me.’

    ‘By the Gods,’ snarled Saznack.

    ‘I would be interested to find out where that vermin stole it from? That thieving rat has a lot

to answer for. I guess the pleasure of her death will just have to wait for now.’

    Markus started to rock on the balls of his feet as he stood behind the seats bored and waiting

to be dismissed. He had no interest in this conversation and still had several slaves strung up in

his room that he was eager to get back to, but he knew from Saznack’s tone that now his master

was excited about something he could be waiting here for hours to be dismissed. What further

irritated Marcus was that Bellack dismissed the slaves in the room the moment that Saznack grew

excited about the sword.

    Titus cleared his throat. ‘Call me a dumb old warrior, but if Athene is what you say and she

does have this immunity to all forms of magic, or that she is surrounded by this anti-magic aura,

then how can it be that the sword glows with that bright magical power in her presence? I can

tell you this is not the first time that I have witnessed its power active in her presence; so please

humour my ignorance and explain to me how this can be?
    Athene continued to look down at the floor disheartened during the entire conversation, still

mulling over the grim possibilities of her new existence as a magician’s guinea pig. She was not

offered any wine and was starting to understand the feeling of being an object rather than a

person. She just withdrew herself deeper into a safer place within her mind and was now paying

little heed to the men’s conversation. She was already starting to become accustomed to people

talking about her as if she was not present.

    Bellack began to reply to Titus’s question but Saznack abruptly interrupted, enjoying the

attention.

    ‘Please allow me to explain, Master Bellack has a habit of overcomplicating matters to the

simple-minded, erm …by that I mean those unskilled in the arts of magic. You see the powers at

work here are dependent on the source of the magic. This seemingly insignificant girl – Athene,

she was conceived in a temple constructed by the magic of this world. She has somehow

developed an unnatural immunity to the powers of our world, but this sword and the two others

that exist; they come from a totally different universe and play by different rules.

    ‘No wonder you needed me to do your dirty work if it only took one quick rut in the temple

to bring about the demise of your magic,’ joked Titus, instantly wishing that he had kept his

mouth shut for once.

    Saznack began to laugh loudly and deliberately, but anyone could see that the comment had

riled him. In the environment that the magicians had created for themselves they were not

accustomed to hearing anything other than the words they desired, he was just not used to

someone below his station making such comments. Saznack realised it was not the warriors fault

that he was an uneducated cretin, he would educated him.

     ‘It is not just the power of the temple that is in play here, mortal. The magic of this land is

intertwined with the elements around you. It comes from the earth, the stone, the crystals, even
from the very air you suck into your puny lungs. If you could comprehend the scale of the power

that we command and can bend to our will you would drop to your knees and beg forgiveness for

your blasphemy. We intend to use the crystal to intensify and control that which is already there.

The girl is a freak, her existence should not be possible, but sometimes it takes an abomination to

sort out a situation that was previously unsolvable. If a normal man was just to glimpse the true

powers that we command for just a second, it would consume you and burn your soul to ash.’ As

Saznack spoke he had wandered about the room viewing his reflection in the polished surface of

the blade and he liked what he saw there.

    ‘Impressive,’ Titus remarked – his tone flat and clearly unimpressed, then added,

     ‘But he does go on a bit, doesn’t he?’

    Saznack turned to face Bellack, his face appealing for backup and hoping to seek a

compliment for his boastful speech.

    ‘What?’ He raised his hands into the air in protest, ‘I was just relaying the reality of the

situation to the weaker-minded amongst us.’

    Bellack shook his head. ‘I’m going to have to agree with our Su-Katii friend here. You do

rant on a bit too much sometimes.’

    With a snort he reluctantly passed the sabre back to Titus.

    Bellack shuffled in his chair. ‘As I said before we are both reasonable and powerful men. I

think we will need to negotiate a new deal for the sabre Titus.’

    ‘Sure – not a problem,’ Titus nodded.

    ‘To be honest I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s not been of much use to me and has only

brought me bad luck so far. He patted Athene on the head and she looked up at him for the first

time since entering the room. The fire once again sparkled fiercely in her eyes.

    ‘What would you consider a fair price?’ asked Saznack.
    Titus ran his fingers through her hair returning his hand to rest on his chin in thought.

    ‘No gentlemen, it is of no use to me - here please take the sword.’ Titus offered the sabre

handle first, to the lurking Marcus who accepted the magnificent weapon with alacrity. I have

just one simple request in return, it is nothing of consequence.’

    ‘You have only to name your price Titus and it shall be paid to you,’ replied Saznack a

victorious smile on his face, elated at the thought of possessing Queen Soredamor’s old blade and

becoming her favourite.

    ‘Name your request Titus.’ The warrior’s lips curled into a smile as he locked eyes with the

magician,

    ‘Good. The price is …Your life.’

    As the last word emerged from Titus’s mouth, his silver blade lanced out with blistering

speed, in a blink of an eye it was pushed through Saznack’s stomach with a force that surprised

everyone in the room. An expression of shock was frozen on the dying magician’s face as he

dropped to his knees; his bloody entrails were spilled to the floor as the sword was ripped free.

The Su-Katii turned on Bellack, like a butcher selecting a lamb for slaughter, drawing his second

blade as he advanced. The magician’s broken dreams flickered in front of his eyes as he

struggled to get out of his deep seat, he attempted a quick spell of distraction to buy him vital

time to escape, but nothing happened in the presence of Athene. Immediately the sabre in

Marcus’s hand extended to protect his master from the strike. The parry stopped the blow that

would have easily split the magician’s head in two. Titus jumped backwards avoiding the dark

swordsman’s follow-up strike. Confused by the sudden commotion Athene was slow to realise

what was going on around her in the room and remained seated.

    ‘Get behind me Athene, quickly.’ shouted Titus, she failed to move.
    ‘Don’t you realise? I’m with you woman.’ She began to move as his words sunk in and

Titus moved forward to intercept a blow that Marcus maliciously aimed at her. Making the most

of the moment Bellack rolled out of his chair and fumbled about within his robes as he rose.

    ‘You treacherous dog, I’m going to eat your heart,’ shouted Marcus as he began his assault.

Titus felt the dark warrior’s rage fill his mind as his cruelty enveloped him. As he had guessed

these were all emotions that he could use to his advantage, there was never any fear behind those

dark set eyes. He felt the need to inflict pain on this pathetic fool that stood before him, before he

killed him. He had known that by handing Marcus the sabre, he would distract the man and gain

a measure of advantage from the man’s inability to harness the sword’s magic. The sabre had

almost certainly been lost for centuries so it was unlikely that his opponent would know how to

make use of its powers. Although he would not need its magic to defeat this man, he had felt the

power of the sword before and knew its effects. He did not try to fight the wave of hatred and

cruelty that now filled him and was reflected by the wielder of the blade.

    Titus deflected Marcus’s thrust, skewering his foot to the wooden floor with his off-hand

Sword Breaker. Titus could feel his pain, but it was nothing to him, he had died a thousand times

before in the Su-Katii Temple. He followed the move with a heavy shoulder barge that knocked

Marcus from his feet, ripping his foot open further. He fell with a scream of agony. A glass vial

smashed on the ground behind the fight and dark smoke billowed about at the back of the room in

the area where Bellack had recovered himself to. The unbreakable sabre of Sum swept out from

the sprawled Marcus shattering the Sword Breaker that pinned him to the floor. With a sneer of

pain upon his face Marcus swept out again at Titus’s feet, hoping to return the favour, the Su-

Katii leapt past the strike stabbing down through Marcus’s sword arm. Growling in anger and

with his arm now useless, the sabre fell from Marcus’s hand, in desperation he spat at the Su-

Katii just before the sword-pommel and fist smashed his teeth from his open mouth. Titus sword
sank into the sprawled man’s leg and began to slowly slice its way along his thigh towards

Marcus’s groin, his foot pinned the disarmed man to the ground for his final punishment. The

malice began to fade from Titus’s mind, with his senses restored, he soon realised that a greater

threat still existed. He finished off the slumped man quickly, cutting his throat without further

thought, then jumped into the dark smoke swinging wildly in all directions, but to his

disappointment the expected and familiar jarring of contact did not come. His sweeping

movement helped to clear away the dark swirls of smoke revealing that the magician had

somehow vanished. He returned to check on Athene.

    ‘Damned magic, I never did like the stuff,’ he said casually to Athene as if nothing had

changed between them.

    Her firm slap surprised him. ‘Hey, did you not hear me; I said I was on your side… I always

was – I just couldn’t show it.’ He caught her second slap, drawing her in tight to him extracting a

kiss from her unwilling lips.

    ‘Well, I was yours from the moment I picked you up at the shrine, once in your presence, I

think that you awoke something in my soul and my path was then set, but you see, I had to play

out my role here like an actor. Had I not been so convincing, they would have sensed my

deception and we would both be finished. All I can say my love, is that I am sorry for the

deception, but it was necessary to neutralize the threat to you. These magicians are not the type

to just leave you alone, they would leave no stone unturned to find you and would just keep on

coming.’

    Athene paused for a second then her expression changed and grabbing his breastplate by the

neck hole pulling him back to her. Her lips were electric in her embrace and he could feel his

heartbeat racing against his armour as he separated himself from her.
    ‘We are far from out of the woods yet, but if we get out of this ok, I may allow you to

continue with this …if you are lucky,’ he winked.

    Bellack ran down the corridor from the secret passageway, the Wyvern’s Nest had been

purpose built and constructed to his exact specifications, with many hidden surprises. Panting

with the unusual exertion he stopped momentarily, sucking in great breaths of air and fighting the

nausea that had suddenly come over him, he was not used to running. How could his plans have

gone so badly wrong? How had they been so foolish as to trust this man, desperation perhaps?

He had let a tiger into his home and now he craved revenge against this warrior,

    ‘Damn Saznack and his recommendations, he had been lucky to meet with Titus’s blade

compared to how he would have punished his lack of insight.’ Above all else he seethed from

the affront he had caused his pride and after bursting into the nearby summoning chamber; he

knew he would have revenge. The bald-headed acolyte who had entered the room early stood

chanting the final words with several others of his brethren.

    ‘My Lord, the crystal comes now.’

    ‘Excellent Kerric, I must have it, I will continue the spell myself, I need you to go

immediately and raise the guard and kill the Su-Katii, but be careful - command them not to harm

the girl. Now go quickly.’ Kerric knew better than to linger but was surprised that his master

had at last remembered his name and shot off down the long corridor towards the garrison.

Bellack knew it was unlikely that his men could defeat such an ancient Su-Katii, but he only

needed them to delay and distract him long enough until the crystal arrived. Then there would be

no limits to his power. The room shook with the electric storm that enveloped it as the acolytes

chanting filled the chamber.

    ‘Yes, yes.’ shouted Bellack. ‘The crystal is at last mine.’
    The blinding light of the Vortex filled the room and Bellack’s insane laughter echoed into

the night.
                                   CHAPTER 24 – THE MISSION



    Winded by the force of the bolt, Tress had managed to pull her cloak around herself as she

fell backwards, instantly vanishing from sight and smothering her face in the rough fibres of her

cloak. Fighting for breath, she had then painfully crawled her way over the twenty paces across

the yard, some how managing to avoid the last of the panicked horses. It was pure adrenaline

that had carried her the entire distance. A hoof from one of the last of the crazed horses had just

missed her head before she ended up to the left of the mine-shaft entrance. Ever thoughtful of her

mission she had managed to retrieve the dropped liquid vial along the way. Now that she was

clear of the kill zone, she propped her back against a rock-face to gain a better view, the true

agony of her chest wound now brought her to tears. The imbedded crossbow bolt was bleeding

profusely, but luckily most of the blood had stayed within the confines of her cloak soaking into

the inside weave rather than giving away her position by marking the floor. She knew that any

further movement would run the risk of leaving a crimson trail of blood which would have them

homing in on her in seconds, but then she was in no state to move anywhere with the feathered

bolt still jutted from her chest. Her ridged leather armour had absorbed some of the impact but it

was no match for the iron-tipped point that had punched its way several inches into her chest; she

knew it was bad and from the location and pain it was definitely life-threatening. Now she lay on

her side fighting for breath, her face contorted and wincing against the pain. Her breathing

became heavier as her lungs begun to fill with blood, her throat tensed and strained towards the

wound in her struggle to breathe. She had seen sucking chest wounds several times before and

she knew all to well what would be necessary to have a chance at survival. She slowly drew her

stiletto dagger and begun to trace her fingers up her side under her armour, then cutting the side-

straps that secured her leather breastplate. She stopped unintentionally, her grip loosened on her
dagger as her head spun; fighting for consciousness she needed to move quickly, pulling her

armour aside and pressing her fingers along the side of her breast, searching desperately for the

space between her ribs to insert the dagger’s tip. She looked back up at the hectic courtyard and

the solders sweeping the area for her. Strangely the dark-robed acolytes were more concerned

with their original task of preparing the transport spell to remove the crystal rather than with

hunting her, but she knew that would change soon. Tress gritted her teeth and pushed the blade

an inch into her side. The pain of the dagger was nothing compared to the sudden relief she felt,

as her breathing seemed to stabilise. As she withdrew the dagger she passed out.

    The dark-robed acolytes were infuriated that an enemy had approached so close to their

prized crystal unnoticed and took out their anger on the nearest group of Aristrian solders,

screaming at them to do their jobs properly. How had these fools let her get so close to their

prize and if the crossbow man had killed his target why could they not find her body? Was she

alone? They had no time to debate these issues, their master demanded his crystal now and

failure would mean a painful and slow death at best. The remaining acolytes gathered together

and continued with their mission, the ritual of transport. With a further hour of undisturbed

preparation they could move on to the final phase of the spell. Several diamonds glistened in the

ground surrounding the great stone. Within the Moomran crystal, many colours swirled around

shimmering almost rainbow-like as the streams of light from the courtyard were reflected back

out from deep within the crystal. The spell had begun.

    Tress groggily came around, the pain was still intense but at least she could draw some

breath now, luckily the scouting troops had not come close to her location, well not whilst she

had been conscious. She assessed her situation and options again – it was desperate. She knew

that she still had one flask of Dragon’s Thunder left and could perhaps use this and try for the

crystal again, but she also knew that, with her wound, next time there would be no escape. She
clutched the vial of mystic acid in her hand. Was the crystal really worth losing her life over?

Did she really have anything to live for, or should she go for it?

    The dark figures were on a tight schedule and had begun their final ritual, gathered around

the great crystal regardless of the hidden threat that may still exist to them. Tress could not let

them finish their task but she was unsure whether she even had the strength left to throw the vial

and hit the crystal from this distance, especially hindered by her wound. Instead of wasting the

acid, she agonisingly eased herself closer to the side of the mineshaft entrance. If she decided to

go for the crystal this would help conceal her throw from at least half of the acolytes and men in

the courtyard, only her arm would be visible from under her cloak if she threw the last pot of

Dragon’s Thunder. Stealth was often a statistics game. If she decided to attempt to disrupt the

ritual in order to delay the spell and break their concentration, it would take a lot of energy for a

spell of this magnitude and may well wear them down and also gain her further time in the vain

hope of the army arriving, it was that or give up in her current state.

    Should she be discovered, she decided to herself resolutely that she would make an attempt

to throw the vial onto the crystal; in the past she had been constantly drilled by Zerch to plan

every step of her actions and come up with backup plans as far as possible. She had been an

endless list-maker on other missions and it always seemed to help her work through a problem

logically. The tempo of the dark acolytes’ chants quickened and the first signs of their magic

could be felt in the air.

    Tress’s underarm throw lobbed the flask of Dragon’s Thunder just short of the chanting

group and the resultant exploding flash dazed the men completely, breaking their spell casting.

    Tress’s pulled her hand quickly back beneath the hidden folds of her cloak, wincing at the

pain of the manoeuvre at the same time. Miraculously her position was still undetected.
    The acolytes were enraged by the unacceptable interruption to their mission. They could no

longer accept this game of cat and mouse that could perhaps stretch further on into the night. The

acolytes came to the conclusion that with the soldiers’ inability to find the source of the

disruption the Aristrian cavalry men were obviously inbred with their mounts and were of no

further use to their safety. They would need to undertake the search and discovery of this pest

themselves and exact revenge for their fallen brothers. The acolytes knew that they would learn

to master many of the powerful incantations needed over time, but individually they still lacked

the raw power, ability and experience of their masters. Together though, they may be able to

create a surprise for the hidden assailant. They silently gathered together, all knowing what must

be done. With their, combined powers they were convinced that they would have the ability to

deal with the situation. The nine men gathered around their comrade who had fallen foul to

Tress’s handiwork. As they moved, they scattered the floor with light-emitting crystals, then

after retrieving their fellow’s body, they each smeared their faces with his blood to mark

themselves with a scent that would protect them. Next they dragged over a second robed-acolyte

who had been wounded and crushed during the stampede. He was still alive but he struggled to

breathe with his chest crushed. The group linked hands around the man and began to chant,

weaving a spell of considerable power. Tress looked on from a distance helpless to react, as did

the ranks of soldiers who instead watched with a fixed reaction of both fascination and disgust

behind the group of chanting acolytes.

    Telosis, the trampled and broken acolyte felt his body changing as he lay on the freezing

ground and began to ponder how the day had held such strange twists of fate. This morning he

had been fit and healthy with the prospect of participating in plans that could change the world,

then a few moments ago he was facing a slow death as he battled for every breath, but now freed

from the pain he felt his body healing, growing stronger, changing, but changing into what?
    His broken ribs contorted and twisted as his form changed. Agony was once again etched on

Telosis’s face as he transformed, but his human features and expression soon disappeared. His

broken bones fused together as his muscles grew and his spine curved and reformed. His teeth

moved in their gums, grinding in pain they extended until they were almost jagged and tusk-like

and a multitude of fine bony spines forced their way through his skin. The last pondering

thoughts and memories of his humanity faded as the man became no more.

    The robed figures rapidly backed away as the Hellhound opened its eyes for the first time,

the wild and ferocious look in its eyes made them, for a split-second, doubt their own powers of

command over the oversized beast as it aggressively leapt up and took a snarling look at its new

surroundings. Its long tongue lolled, tasting the foreign air between the enormous tusks that

jutted upwards from its mouth. Its muscular body was coated by an array of bony spikes and

bristles which appeared where fur would have existed on any normal hound.

    Concentrating harder, the group projected the second spell into the hound’s small mind. The

cloaked image of Tress appeared to the beast and the hound began to salivate at the thought of its

next meal. With a howl, it jumped to its feet and began to sniff the ground stalking its prey.

There were so many different scents to follow and there was the taste of blood already on the

ground. The Hellhound began to circle the area rapidly.

    With the sound of the hound’s howl, Tress came around from one of the short blackouts she

had been experiencing, as well as the constant burning pain in her chest; she was gripped by a

new fear as the hound circled the yard. Desperately she searched her mind for any reference to

this beast in the old journals that Zerch had made her study – anything that might gain her an

edge over such a dangerous beast as this. She had encountered several similar entities from other

dark places but each creature seemed to have their own unique abilities and she did not relish

discovering what this one had in store for her. Tress suddenly remembered that that she still had
Anak’s ring in her belt-pouch. He had used it to regenerate his health after paying the price for

using blood magic. The thought of using a ring that had once sat on his foul finger disgusted her,

anything that Anak had once owned was likely to be tainted in some way or another, but without

it she may well die from blood loss alone, a fate that may be preferable to the beast homing in on

her now. There was no choice, she rapidly rummaged through her pouches until she found the

ring then slipped it over each of her fingers until she found the best fit. Tress immediately felt a

tingling sensation around her wounds as her injured capillaries slowly began to heal. The pain

began to decrease as her body began to regenerate and the constant bleeding of her wounds

ground to a halt. She even thought that she could feel the crossbow bolt still protruding from her

chest move slightly outwards. But best of all, the mind racking pain was now numbed by the

ring’s magic.

    The Hellhound followed one of the many scents, approaching the group of dark-robed men,

snarling loudly at them. With animal instinct it would kill anything that displayed signs of

weakness. The hound was suddenly stopped in its approach to the acolytes as the stench of the

painted blood filled its sensitive nose. To the beast it was like ammonia and it turned away

quickly spotting a nearby group of watching soldiers whose smell was not so repulsive. The

quicker men rapidly ran for their lives to the nearest cover available, apart from one man who

came to his senses a little slower than his comrades and lagged behind. It never paid to be last.

The beast decided to test its new found strength and fill its empty belly at the same time. It

pounced on the fleeing man from behind and his screams lasted only a moment as the huge jaws

clamped tightly around the man’s head, crushing it like a melon. The beast spat out the remains

of the head, this flesh did not taste right, it needed sweeter meat. It could smell what it wanted, if

only it could find it. It trotted off sniffing the ground with a renewed interest. Most of the
soldiers ignored their bravado and ran backwards for their lives. Some further away jeered and

laughed at their fellows’ panic.

    The beast ground its teeth in excitement as it picked up a new scent. Tress could tell as she

followed the hound moving in the exact path that she had taken from the direction of the stables

that it had now found her scent. She realised that one way or another, her mission would soon be

over. She pulled herself up from the rocky mine-shaft entrance and limped towards the crystal,

trying to close on it before the beast found her. There was no blood dripping from her wound

now to give away her position, but now that she was moving, not even the ring could dull the

agony that she felt as her feet staggered towards her mark with the cold sweat of fear covering

her brow. Tress knew that she lacked the strength that would be needed to bring down the bone-

armoured hound and her hands trembled as she clenched the vial. The hound rapidly approached

her with its nose low to the ground. Her gaze focused back on the crystal as the dark-robed

figures began re-chanting their transportation spell. Her clammy hands clung to the acid vial in

indecision. Only two more steps and she would be within an easy throwing range of the crystal,

she undid the vial’s stopper. The hound was now so close that its putrid smell was unmistakeable

and it suddenly gave a great howl of excitement as it tasted her presence in the air.

    Tress threw open her cloak and threw the acid vial with all her might.

    It tumbled through the air almost in slow motion before her and with a single word to dispel

the magical strength of the container; it smashed directly into the hound’s skull splattering the

sizzling liquid in all directions. The hound was in mid pounce when it fell, twitching, to the

ground as its skull rapidly dissolved into liquid. The reaction was so quick the dying beast hardly

made a sound before the acid had burnt its head and vocal cords away. Tress jumped backwards

out of its path, struggling to pull her cloak back about her. Two crossbow bolts impacted into the
ground where she had been standing seconds before. As the sand was disrupted by her rapid

retreat, arrows and bolts flew from all around her as the men randomly peppered the area.

    ‘Screw the mission,’ she had thought in those final seconds. ‘I want to live.’

    Tress hoped her choice for her life would still be fulfilled as an arrow just missed her head as

the troops some way back continued to fire into the area with their bows, in the hope of getting

lucky.

    ‘To hell with these meddling wizards,’ she thought as a crossbow bolt passed harmlessly

through the fabric of her cloak. She was sick of them ruling the actions of her life, why should

she now die for them? She only wished for a simple life, to live, love and reminisce.

    The soldiers rushed back into the courtyard like ants, swords drawn, trying to trace the

direction of the intruder, some swinging their swords around wildly into thin air.

    Suddenly with a tremendous blast of wind and blinding light a huge portal opened beneath

the crystal like an immense shimmering well and for a second, the crystal seemed to hang in the

air, then the large stone fell downwards into the light, in an instant it was gone. Some of the

acolytes had continued their spell during the last commotion and could not maintain the portal

longer than a few seconds, but that was all the time that they had needed. Tress had failed in her

mission but she hoped that she now still had a chance at life.

    With all the commotion Tress slipped back unseen into the mineshaft entrance, needing to

rest for a moment just inside long enough to catch her breath. She staggered into the darkness

trying to take in the dark surroundings and advertently kicked an empty horse harness which

went crashing down the internal slope into a deep shaft, the attached chain clattered loudly as it

followed the harness down. This reinforced her decision that the darkness of the mine held too

many hidden dangers for her escape. Tress immediately moved back out of the mine hoping that

the clatter would serve as a distraction and would perhaps draw her hunters into this area whilst
she sneaked out past them elsewhere. She quickly skirted around the edge of the courtyard, the

noise in the mine had indeed attracted some attention and a detachment of solders moved to

investigate. The dark-robed acolytes, now totally exhausted, were unable to further assist the

solders so she surmised that with the fullness of night she may still have a chance to get past

them and out of this alive, it was always good to cling to hope. The weary acolytes retired to the

warmth of one of the side buildings of the large courtyard to recuperate from the strain of their

magic. Ten burly men now stood shoulder-to-shoulder across the two entrances to the building

and the only courtyard entrance (and exit) was also guarded in the same fashion. Tress had no

intention of going after the acolytes as she only cared for her own survival now. She would face

Tamar’s displeasure if she lived through this, but he would have a job finding her now that she

had the amulet, and any way, what difference did an extra wizard on her trail make to her? After

her rapid exertions her chest wound began to seep blood again and looking down she spotted a

few drops of blood dotting the ground. This was not good and she hoped that the dim yellow

crystal light illuminating the yard might help to hide her trail. The patrolling groups of soldiers

moved closer, unaware of her presence. One of the officers was forming the men into a long

extended line spanning the length of the courtyard. His intention was to methodically sweep the

entire area, a manoeuvre which brought a growing sense of panic to Tress as she was still inside

the cordon of men and now her retreat back into the mine entrance was also blocked by the large

contingent that searched it. At least a dozen archers had also climbed onto the roofs of the stables

for a vantage point scanning for any signs of further movement. With a curse that should not be

repeated by any lady, Tress started to back away as the line was formed and began its advance.

They trudged forward at a slow, but deliberate, rate and with every step they took, the clatter of

their armour echoed about the courtyard with a desperate rhythm. There was nothing to do now
but wait for the inevitable discovery. Perhaps she should have used the acid on the crystal after

all, she pondered these final thoughts as the line advanced ever closer to her.
                              CHAPTER 25 – A TASTE OF POWER



    ‘Where is my crystal man, what the hell is the delay now?’ demanded Bellack, shaking the

acolyte about like a rag doll as he seethed with rage. The ringing alarm bells of the garrison

filled the corridors and were followed by the clamour of activity as the guards began to flood

through the passageways of the Wyvern’s Nest.

    A magical white fire suddenly encircled the room pouring out from the multitude of

diamonds on the floor, yet the men remained unharmed from its licking flames. The fire snaked

out from the small stones like a living form, moving in great circles around the room, then, with a

blinding flash of light and a deafening thunderclap a savage blast of wind ripped through the

room and forced the men back to the walls fighting for their footing, the portal opened and closed

within a split second. Turning back to where the blinding light had been their eyes once again

adjusted to focus on a new feature within the room. All stared in wonder at the awesome sight of

the huge crystal that now filled the chamber. The changing colours that flickered within its

smooth surface were mesmerising. Bellack found himself just wanting to stare into the depths of

the crystal for a moment, he snapped himself back to the present and the danger that now was

loose within his halls.

    ‘Gentlemen, we are back in business, let us end these fools and live out our dreams,’ he

patted a nearby acolyte’s back with a broad smile developing on his face. ‘Excellent work, now

with this untapped power we shall give our guests a welcome that they will not forget.’

    Titus lead Athene through the passageways seeking a way out or at least a defendable

position, he cared nothing about perusing Bellack, he just wanted to get out of this place and

wondered if they really were thousands of feet up in the mountains. ‘Let’s head upwards and

find a way out Athene, it would be nice to have some fresh air again.’
    Titus had stuffed the bags of coins into his pouches and flung the iron chest to the floor, he

also retrieved Marcus’s unused blade to replace his own Sword Breaker.

    ‘You won’t need that any more,’ he said to the corpse. ‘Athene retrieve the sabre for me, we

can’t leave that behind.’ He cut free Athene’s bound hands and she retrieved the sabre, re-

wrapping it and handing it back over to Titus out of habit. ‘Good, now let’s get moving.’

    ‘Wait, we can’t leave yet, I need to find my mother, please Titus help me find her?’ pleaded

Athene clinging to him like a school girl. Titus’ expression softened for a moment and he

dropped a brief kiss on her upturned face.

    ‘How could a man refuse you, we will first look for her upstairs, we can then work our way

down if we can’t find her.’ As she clung close to him her smell instinctively reminded him of the

magic of their night together, the memory overwhelming his senses. ‘Had this hunger been

forced into him or had it always been there,’ he questioned, as the distant memory of his long

dead wife seemed to push her way through their shared warmth, making it easier to part from

Athene’s touch. They moved out and along the corridor choosing a direction randomly, different

from the way that they had initially been lead in.

    Behind them in the reception room from which they had just departed, the ground around

Marcus’s body glowed with the fires of hell, the wooden floorboards covering the stone slabs

ignited around the fallen Guard Commander’s body. His spilt blood began to bubble and fizz as

it boiled on the floor - slowly it began to move, irregularly at first, then with a more decisive

movement towards Marcus’s body. The blood moved with a new unholy life, it oozed back up

into the wounds from where it had originally sprung and the gaping flaps of skin on the wounds

resealed themselves as the blood re-entered his body. Marcus twitched once, twice then with a

series of uncontrollable spasms and an unsavoury gurgle the corpse wheeled about on the floor.

With a sudden inhuman jolt it sprang to its feet bolt upright – as if to attention. Large talons
pushed their way out through Marcus’s fleshy fingertips and the demon that had formed inside

him continued to grow, the human flesh contorted grotesquely as the demon slid out of the body

like a snake shedding its skin. Its dark inhuman eyes took in the new surroundings and its black

forked tongue tasted the air through its large fangs. It shook its scaled back and tail like a dog,

shedding the remainder of Marcus’s flesh and throwing particles of skin in all directions, then

with a blood chilling roar and its master’s desires driving it onwards it moved off to find its prey.

    ‘What the hell was that?’ asked Athene nervously.

    ‘I think it more like, what from hell was that?’ replied Titus holding out Tress’s sabre to her.

    ‘I think that it would be better if you were armed and it will be a lot better for both of us if

you keep the sabre for now, besides your fear may actually work better for us. You have already

shown me that you have a firm understanding of how the sword works, just use it as best you can.

Come on now let’s get out of here, follow me,’ he told her.

    ‘You have to be joking, the roar from that thing came from behind us, I don’t want to be

eaten first,’ and she shoved her way past him and they ran up a series of stairs through a large

wooden door which they bolted shut behind them. Catching their breath they looked about the

new room that they had burst into, which appeared to be a feasting hall. Obviously by the clay

flagons and tin cutlery this was not the masters’ feasting hall, but perhaps that of the acolytes or

guards. Food was still on the table and two kitchen slaves stood gawping at the newcomers but

with one swirl of Titus’s swords they bolted for the far door almost falling over each other.

Athene touched Titus’s arm softly.

    ‘Don’t worry, you should know by now that I would not kill lowly slaves, at least not unless

they had good price on their heads.’

    The sound of shattering wood could be heard in the distance as the reception room door was

smashed from its hinges.
    ‘Hmm, that’s not good,’ grinned Titus sarcastically, seeming to enjoy their danger. She

rolled her eyes at him, not filled with his vivacious optimism of the situation.

    ‘All of the doors in this place are strong enough to stop a charging bull smashing through

them, I think we had better get moving again.’ They quickly dashed in the direction the slaves

had ran, ignoring the corridor and rooms that stretched out ahead of them and instead, they

continued up a nearby white marble staircase. They ran through the door and the freshness of the

night air hit their faces. High walls enclosed the courtyard in which they stood, illuminated by

the large yellow crystals embedded in the front of each of the three towers that dwarfed the

lodgings below.

    The detachment of guards looked just as surprised to see the couple as they were themselves.

For a second nobody moved, then all hell let loose as Titus seized the initiative and with a loud

battle cry that made Athene jump, he stormed amongst them all. He gutted the first guard that

had rushed off to the alarm with such haste that he had forgotten to don his armour, while at the

same time he deflected a well-aimed lunge, sending a vicious riposte across the second guard’s

throat. The group of men jumped for space as this madman darted amongst them, his two blades

clanging against steel as one of the guards sent a series of blows and counterblows against Titus.

After two rounds of exchanging blows Titus killed one guard who had tried to move around

behind him towards Athene at his rear. The current opponent with whom Titus exchanged blows

had some skill, the wizards had spent their coin well, but against this Su-Katii he was easily

tricked into a premature assault, when Titus feigned a slip on the blood going down on one knee

he pushed aside the hammer blow and thrust upwards sending his sword through the guard’s

chainmail vest and into his stomach.

    ‘How sloppy of me,’ he thought. He had been aiming for the man’s diaphragm, ‘Two inches

too low.’ he muttered and also instantly knew that the blade had not gone in deep enough to
finish the man quickly, his foe was doubled up in agony, his face so close he could smell his last

meal in his stale breath as he swung around and decapitated the man. Spinning his blades to clear

off the blood he turned to the remaining three men and took up a new offensive posture towards

them. The men backed away and Titus advanced like a hound hunting down its prey. He

covered the ground with remarkable speed to the first man, who barely had time to bring up his

blade in time to parry. He was not so fortunate with his second blade that came in low and cut

through the guard’s leg below the knee, dropping the man to his back clutching at the stump. The

other two turned and attacked together, one was swiftly disarmed and his sword clattered across

the yard with his hand still tightly holding its grip. The second guard struck the floor with his

longsword as Titus evaded the wild overhead blow and the man’s second swing was swiftly met

and Titus returned with two stabs to his side and ribs. He too fell dead.

    Without a second thought, or a glance backwards, Titus moved back towards Athene

skewering the injured men on the ground casually as he passed. Athene had this time noted the

grace with which he moved in battle, almost like a dance she thought, ignoring the horror and

horrendously bloody wounds that his sword dance had inflicted. She rewarded his bravery and

valour with the warmth of her lips.

    ‘With this kind of encouragement I would wish for more men to fight.’ he declared. As he

spoke, another door smashed behind them, this time a lot louder and closer, Titus shouted up to

the sky as if talking to his Gods. ‘I said more men to fight, not more monsters.’

    They ran to the battlements on the walls seeking a way out, but the magician had been true to

his words, several hundred feet of near vertical rock separated them from the valley below.

Athene’s head spun and her knees wobbled as she caught a glimpse of the massive drop down.

Holding tightly to a rail, she slowly edged backwards to the safety of the courtyard. Their next

option was to try the towers as a steep internal spiral staircase would provide the best defensive
position available. They ran towards one of the tall towers to try the door, but there was no

handle, just some strange runes and markings around the ivory-coloured door. It felt totally solid

to the shoulder and Titus knew instinctively that he would be wasting his time trying to break it

down.

    A voice boomed though the courtyard as Bellack watched the scene through the Moomran

crystal, which, thanks to a simple spell, was also projecting his voice.

    ‘There are no paths out of my home, so there will be no escape for you now. Perhaps you

should create a portal and leave… oh, I forgot you can’t … didn’t they teach you that at the Su-

Katii Temple? They did at mine. Such a shame, because I would not want to be in your boots

right now, can you hear what’s coming for you?’

    The courtyard door crashed off its hinges to the floor and the large dark-scaled demon

squeezed itself through the doorway. Bellack’s laughter was hysterical at the distress in Athene’s

face. The evil beast stood close to nine feet tall, obsidian black, with its body a mass of

overlapping scales and talons as long as short swords protruding from its hands. Athene’s heart

pounded in fear at the size of demon as it stood upright and she went to run but a strong hand

caught a firm hold of her.

    ‘It would run you down before you could get to the next tower,’ said Titus calmly.

    ‘We’ll kill it here,’ he said optimistically, limbering up for the forthcoming battle, which he

knew would be the toughest contest he had ever had to undertake.

    The demon did not waste any further time and charged towards them, Titus sprinted

forwards to meet its advance. The demon thought it unusual that a man would counter charge it –

normally its prey just turned and ran at its mere appearance. ‘This would be simple,’ it thought.

    It would swiftly take him down and consume his entrails. ’But Titus’s timing was

impeccable, the demon had not practiced its attacks for several hundred years perfecting its form
as its current opponent had. As their bodies were about to collide, Titus broke into a backwards

slide, it was extremely awkward in his armour, but he managed to carry it off. Sliding between

the demon’s legs he sliced into its inner thighs with both blades as he passed, the wounds were

nowhere as deep as he had intended and he discovered that the thick scaled tegument of the beast

was much tougher than expected. The strikes would have chopped any normal man’s legs clean

to the bone in passing. Titus had allowed his slide to carry him further to avoid the long talons

that scraped the ground as his foe twisted around after him. He had judged, correctly, that the

demon had far too much forward momentum to effectively strike at a target now behind it. They

both recovered their footing, quickly turning back on each other instantly sizing each other up

again with new-found respect. The two began to circle each other seeking any advantage as the

blood oozed down the inside of the demon’s legs.

    Titus instinctively knew that the black pupil-less eyes that assessed him held a cunning

intelligence. They were not feral like a beast’s, but instead were cold and calculating and

reminded him of the way his old sword-master used to size him up before a bout.



    Corvus slammed hard into the two guards who had been left behind to watch the portal until

it closed, as was their standard practice. All three men rapidly scrabbled to get back to their feet

and the first guard up bolted down the dank corridor for help. Corvus knew that if he made it

around the corner to raise the alarm he would be a dead man and so he threw his huge axe after

him. It struck the man square in the back and he went down hard. The second guard picked up

his dropped sword, seeing the threat that had ploughed into them for the first time. Corvus

immediately threw himself on top of the man, his bulk easily smothering the smaller man. The

guard quickly realized he was too close to use his sword and punched Corvus in the face. The

blow did little else other than knock the thick matted snow from Corvus’s beard. The two men
fell back to the ground in a desperate struggle and after a swift elbow to the guard’s throat

followed by a head-butt, the guard was much easier to handle. Corvus’s muscular arms stretched

around the struggling man’s neck and with one flex of his thick arms the neck snapped with a

sickening crack. The lifeless body was unceremoniously dumped back to the ground and after

retrieving his weapons Corvus cautiously moved out.

    Following Tamar’s instructions he walked the perimeter of the structure that he had entered,

always moving left. Several times he backtracked to avoid contact with the busy inhabitants.

Eventually he came across the first chamber that he had been seeking, a plain room illuminated

with a crimson light which was totally empty apart from a small platform on which sat a red

crystal the size of a man’s head, its magic radiated a presence of power that Corvus instantly

disliked. He raised his axe and struck it with an immense blow, but to his surprise nothing

happened. His mission was to destroy the four different-coloured crystals that held Bellack’s

spell of protection, producing an impetrative shield of magic around his lair. Corvus gave the

crystal another heavy blow and a few cracks appeared on the crystalline exterior. With the third

blow the crystal shattered sending a shower of microscopic shards into his exposed face and

hands. He cursed the pain as numerous minute beads of blood appeared on his skin. It reminded

him of the day he had fallen into the thorn bush drunk, only then the ale had had soon made him

forget the pain and cackles of laughter from his amused wife. With one crystal down he moved

out again in search of the next one. He yearned to accidentally bump into one of the magicians

en route, he would make them pay for what they had done to his people.

    After finding several storerooms and a well, Corvus rounded a corner to face two armed men

sat on stools in front of a door, they were surprised to see the large armed man approach, their

hands reached to their swords on seeing the blood running down the thick-set face of the man.

Although they hesitated, as this villa was only accessible to those invited.
    ‘Easy men, he wants you upstairs, he is cross and impatient,’ Corvus said with a tone of

authority as he continued his casual approach.

    ‘What… Who wants us? …Marcus?’ stuttered the first man.

    ‘No you fool, your God.’ Corvus swung the great axe, cleaving through both men’s throats

with a single arcing swing. Opening the door he found another simple chamber the same as the

last in which sat a large green crystal on its plinth. This time Corvus tuned his head as he

smashed down with his axe but, completely missed it with his first blow, sparks flew into the air

as his axe head struck the ground. Taking a better aim the second time, the blow still did little

but scratch the surface. As with the previous crystal it took a third blow of the axe before it

shattered violently - again, his hands were covered in what appeared to be shaving nicks from the

tiny green slivers that had been scattered by its destruction. Gritting his teeth in determination he

moved out again hoping that he did not run into a squad of men on the next room.



    The stand-off finished after Titus had slowly backed away to the stairway which led up into

the battlements. He expertly kicked a small pot that had lined the path up into the creature’s face,

instantly following the move with a stunning sequence of powerful blows. As the beast raised its

arms he slashed down at its belly then avoided the raking talons that tried to rip at his face.

Striking the demon several times during the sword play, Titus noticed that his strikes, which

would have killed any normal man several times over were only leaving shallow cuts against the

armoured scales of the beast. In his many years of training to become a Su-Katii knight he had

spent much time learning how to fight a huge variety of animals – mostly bears, lions and wolves

which had been transported into the temple for the more practical aspects of finishing the fight.

Having your face ripped off by a marauding bear in the temple certainly always inspired the

correct posture and movement on a second attempt. As there had been no demons to fight for
practice in the temple, the tactics that he now applied to this battle were a cross between fighting

a bear and a dual-sword wielding giant. Strangely he was enjoying the challenge.

    Titus sidestepped the lunging claws and sliced the beast’s wrist as he passed, he would take

this thing apart one piece at a time if he had to. The demon’s tail whipped around at him as it

spun, crashing a heavy blow into Titus’s helmet, making bells ring in his ears. He had forgotten

about the tail, but it was a mistake that he would not repeat, through pure warrior’s instinct he

avoided the next series of strikes from the demon. Throwing up his blade, the beast impaled one

of its clawed hands on its point with its final strike. Its hand slid down the steel towards the hilt

and closer toward Titus’ throat, he had to release the blade to avoid its advance, he ducked down

and pulling out a dagger, he plunged his short blade into the beast’s ankle in passing. With a

growl the demon kicked out and sent the warrior flying, but he rolled with the blow and came

back up to his feet, ruffled and winded but determined not to show it. The demon withdrew the

blade from its hand and threw it to the ground giving out a deafening roar. Shouting over to

Athene, Titus called out. ‘Don’t worry, I have it exactly where I want it now – you can tell, its

getting mad.’ She understood the demons frustrations with the man as he jumped once more

back into the fray. Titus did not understand the theory of defeat, but then he had never

experienced it before. Managing to avoid the talons, he struck the demon with several more

blows and its black blood oozed out of the cross-hatch of numerous wounds that now scarred its

body. The beast now felt weakened from the myriad of cuts and changed its tactics, heading

instead for Athene and at the same time, Bellack’s voice once again echoed about the grounds.

    ‘Quite a show you are putting on for me, but you will be dead soon, you know even if you

slay this one I now have the power to summon hundreds more like it. You will eventually

crumble and I will enjoy watching it.’ Bellack continued to laugh at the desperate pair. ‘Fight

well, Titus the betrayer.’
    Staying low, Titus intercepted its move but the beast turned his blade aside with its forearm,

closing the distance to Athene. She raised the glowing sword and backed away in panic. The

demon stopped its advance. trying to comprehend the new emotions that flooded into its head. It

had no receptors to comprehend this emotion that bombarded it and simply stood there confused

for a second. Then it reeled in pain as Titus had reversed his blade, gripping his sword two-

handed for added penetration and leaping onto the demon’s back, this time he drove it deep

through the scales into the beast. The demon swung around, attempting to shake the warrior free,

its teeth raked through his armoured shoulder and into his flesh. Blood-smothered chain-links

from his armour flew into the air, but Titus, was no stranger to pain or death, he showed little

reaction to the vicious wound, but he knew that he needed to be free of its grasp quickly or else

he would soon be overpowered.

    With a tremendous twist of its head, the demon hurled Titus back against the wall of the

battlement and opened its large fanged-mouth in a jagged smile, delighted at tasting his flesh, its

foul breath whistled through its teeth as it stumbled forwards to bite its prey again. The iron

helmet smashed into the demon’s face, Titus’s head butt had initially smashed into its face, but

now its mouth worked its way down chewing at his head. He released the helmet strap and

pulled his head free, seconds later, the helm was a mangled mess, crushed in the demon’s fangs.

The demon arched in pain as the sabre of Sum slashed deeply along its back, Athene’s blow had

carved through its dark scales like butter. Titus moved quickly, pulling his dagger back out of his

belt he plunged it to the hilt into the demon’s eye. The beast dropped to one knee in agony and

its high-pitched screams reverberating about the court yard with a spine-shuddering sound.

    ‘Here, finish it off,’ cried Athene over its screams. She threw the sabre to Titus.

    His catch was perfect and he swept the blade immediately through the demon’s neck before

any detrimental effects of the sabre’s magic could take hold. The beast’s grotesque head toppled
to the ground its dark eyes staring up to the moonlit sky. Titus and Athene fell into each other’s

arms, exhausted and relieved.

    ‘Why do these things always have to smell so bad?’ questioned Athene fighting her nausea

and urge to retch at the smell of the body.

    ‘Just forget that thing,’ said Titus, painfully. ‘There’s a hero bleeding to death here.’
                                  CHAPTER 26 – KERRIC’S HOUR



    Bellack felt the death of his plaything like a pin prick to his neck, whereas, before without

the power of the Moomran crystal he would have been lucky to survive such a defeat.

    He was enjoying his new-found powers. The fact that Titus still lived was just a minor

setback but he would soon send another demon to rectify the situation, he had plenty more slaves

to convert. If the next one failed he would just teleport the annoying Su-Katii into a cliff-face or

something, but for now he was just enjoying watching him squirm. The teleport option would

actually be a little bit trickier, as he would first need to separate him from Athene’s magic

dampening field. He knew now that it must have been her presence that had blocked his attempt

to seize control of the mind of the Su-Katii knight, because with Anak’s blood-magic in place as

his failsafe plan, this should have worked. The elation of soon being in a position to attempt to

free his queen and hold her in his arms under a blue sky was beginning to overtake the current

matters. He took a deep breath to calm his thoughts.

    ‘Right then Titus, let’s see how you fair this time - demon number two coming right up.’

    The door of the chamber suddenly flew open and an acolyte’s bloody corpse was flung onto

the floor.

    ‘Hello Sonny.’ said Corvus. ‘You must be Bellack - at last we meet, now let me introduce

you to my axe you murdering son of a whore.’ The burly Nordheim King advanced throwing

back his axe, poised to strike.

    Bellack quickly placed his left hand back onto the surface of the huge crystal and extended

his right finger towards the intruder, a constant green ray of light instantly fired out hitting the

warrior. Bellack was genuinely surprised himself at how fast he had been able to cast the spell,

the crystal was indeed powerful. The advancing warrior’s movements slowed to within two
paces of Bellack, eventually coming to a complete stop, straining with exertion against the

powers that held him and with his axe still raised above his head poised for his final death blow.

    ‘Now, that’s better. What have we here …Ah King Corvus, I must say I am genuinely

surprised to find you here, come to join your wife have you? I gather you know that she is here,

but I’m afraid as with most things, there is some good news and some bad news.’ The green

beam continued to hold Corvus as his muscles and veins bulged with the exertion to move.

    Bellack continued to mock the trapped king.

    ‘The good news is that your wife was too good a bargaining chip to be left useless and

possessed by the power of the crystals so I have returned her to her original form, but I’m afraid

the bad news is that since you turned down my offer I gave her to the men.’ His voice changed

its tone to one of mock concern. ‘Sadly she is not quite the women that she used to be as the

transformation can leave some mental scarring on the weak-minded. However, I will thank my

men on your behalf for helping her through such a tough and trying time - and you should too, for

she is now a lot more accommodating. I might not be a specialist in this field but I do believe

you could also be celebrating her pregnancy, although I could not begin to guess which one is the

father, it could be any one of thirty.’

    Corvus’s eyes were like a wild animal’s and Bellack could hear his teeth grinding in anger as

he struggled to mouth words. ‘Kill you,’ he gurgled out, spittle foaming out between his teeth as

he struggled with his words.

    ‘I would have truly loved more time to torment you further, but I simply must be rude and

kill you now, I have another demon to summon and a bigger problem than you to dispose of.

Goodbye Corvus.’

    The magic beam changed colour from green to red and Corvus was wracked with agony, the

axe clattered to the floor as his body violently vibrated, it was as if every molecule in his body
was being torn apart. Suddenly he felt no more pain, as the small crystal shards that were

imbedded in his skin glowed like hot coals as they seemed to absorb the power of the Moomran

crystal flowing into his body. He fell to the ground and blacked out.

     ‘Strange,’ thought Bellack. ‘He should have been dead by now, that blast would have killed

his demon let alone a man, but I can still sense his heart beating.’ He opened up the flood gates

of the power flowing though him, directing it into the dying mans body.

     At that moment, Tamar entered the room through the still open doorway, he calmly stepped

in and Bellack’s jaw dropped like a stone. He wore an ornate white and gold breastplate and

carried his large crystal mace in front of him.

     ‘Tamar. What …how?’ he gasped.

     ‘My foolish, but brave, friend here managed to destroy your crystals - the source of the

magical powers protecting your home and previously kept me from this place. Now we can come

and go to your little den of rats as much we please, so surrender yourself now and accept your

fate.’

     ‘You pathetic man, you underestimate my powers and that of the crystal. You will be

begging for your life when I am done with you.’ Bellack’s extended finger became an open

palm, pointing away from the now still body of Corvus and a wider beam of power shot out

towards Tamar. The large crystal mace absorbed the power sending a maelstrom of magic,

crackling into the air, away from it in many directions. Tamar took a small step backwards as its

force pushed him backwards, but he still held his footing.

     ‘You cannot hold out against this power forever, give it up now and die quickly Tamar, I will

be through your defences shortly.’ The beam of power directed against Tamar intensified.

     If you believe that you’re more foolish than I thought,’ said Tamar, ‘My comrades have

already summoned Titus and he brings Athene with him on his way down here now and once she
arrives both the crystal and your powers will be useless. Although she does not yet realise it, I

think we both suspect she may be more powerful than you and I combined Bellack, and she will

douse our magic like water on fire. How are your skills at fighting a Su-Katii in hand-to-hand

combat? None of your men can stand against him.’

    Bellack turned white as he could see this was no bluff and he poured more power through his

palm in a vain attempt to finish Tamar off quickly. The crystal mace was now burning white

with the magic fire radiating through it. He turned and looked into the large crystal and saw the

image of Athene and Titus rushing down a nearby corridor.

    ‘May a plague take you all,’ he whispered, then, stopping his magical assault on Tamar he

placed both hands onto the crystal and speaking further magical incantations, his hands began to

sink deeper and deeper into the crystal.

    ‘You will all burn in the fires of Hell,’ were Bellack’s last words before he disappeared into

the crystal with a blinding flash.

    Moments later Athene and Titus arrived at the chamber lead by the brightly-dressed

Anamack; surprised to find both the huge crystal and Bellack were gone from the room. Titus

instantly raised his guard at the sight of another wizard, but Athene thought that this wizard had a

softer look about him than Bellack.

    ‘Easy Titus, it is I, Tamar,’ Athene grew excited, ‘Tress told us about you. Do you know

each other?’ she asked Titus.

    ‘Nope, never met this guy,’ Titus replied, perplexed.

    ‘What happened here? Where is Bellack? Your friend here,’ Titus pointed at Anamack

before he continued,

    ‘Was very brief with his explanations.’
    Athene looked about the room and spotted the huge bulk of a man on the ground, she knew

that shape could be only one person.

    ‘Corvus.’ She shouted and ran to his side.

    ‘Does he live?’ asked Tamar.

    Athene pulled away his furs and armour placing her ear on his chest. ‘I hear a faint

heartbeat,’ she said excitedly hugging his chest.

    ‘How did that old ox get here? He appears to be in the same state as he was when I left

him?’ commented Titus with a sigh. ‘What a foolish one. Now, where is Bellack, wizard?’

Tamar ignored the questions and paced the room silently for a moment in thought.

    ‘Yes, that’s got to be it, move back out of the room Athene.’

    He cast a quick spell and the large outline of the Moomran crystal could faintly be seen

where he stood, transparent and translucent, then it disappeared again. ‘The crystal is still here –

except it now exists just outside our plane of existence, Bellack has been absorbed into the

essence of the crystal. I sensed him trying to escape and tried to contain all of his escape routes

but it appears that he was reflected back into the crystal when he tried to flee. If you can’t get out

you go in. He has managed to pull the crystal and himself into a different plane of existence,

very clever.’

    ‘Can he escape?’ asked Athene.

    ‘Possibly, but certainly not whilst you are near the crystal. Don’t worry, I have the power to

entomb him within the other plane forever, but I will need you to stay here for a few days whilst I

get things setup, just to ensure his return is hindered. It is a powerful spell and I will need time to

assemble the ingredients with which to cast it. Ironically, Bellack’s fate will be that of his God-

Queen that he sought to free.’ Tamar gave a rare chuckle. ‘A fitting end for such a misguided
man.’ Titus disagreed, ‘In my opinion, a head on the end of a pike is always unbeatable,’ he

commented.

    Tamar bent down and inspected Corvus muttering various inaudible words for some time

then turned back to Titus and requested help.

    ‘I’m having a problem using my magic with Athene still so close, could you please help me

move him to a different room, he weighs as much as a bull. Athene, please remain here.’ Titus

obliged the wizard request and together they dragged him to a different room, a good way from

Athene’s influence.’

    After a few minutes he came back in to Athene and Anamack.

    ‘You are correct, he lives and appears to be stable but something is wrong, I can detect

magic about him and he will not wake, I think he is in some kind of coma but I cannot read any

dreams or thoughts from him, his mind is totally blank. I will get my men to take him back to a

place of safety. I have two squads of men clearing out the remaining acolytes and guards at the

moment and once this place is fully secured we will free the prisoners. I will need to spend

weeks tearing this place apart and to be honest I am dreading the secrets that I may find here.’

    ‘Hey wizard, have you got something in your box of tricks to patch this up?’ Titus pointed

at his deep shoulder injury. ‘I seem to be out of red crystals, I have never needed so many lately.’

    ‘I’m sure I can do something for you.’ Tamar led Titus into the corridor to tend to his

wounds. As he used his magic, touching his crystal mace to his shoulder to heal the wound

enough to stop the bleeding, he began to probe deep into the Su-Katii’s mind.

    A dark-haired woman’s image instantly appeared whom at first he thought to be Athene, but

as she turned about with the joy of laughter he realised that he did not recognize her, although he

could feel Titus’s love and desire for her. A small child ran over and hugged the pair; Tamar
noticed that she wore a wedding ring. The sudden vision of the endless slaughter and horrors of

battle made him recoil at Titus’s other memories.

    The warrior’s hand darted out in a choking grip around Tamar’s throat.

    ‘Do not read my mind, Wizard! The memories contained there are personal.’

    He released his grasp and Tamar sucked in several deep breaths surprised at the man’s

astuteness. After composing himself he replied.

    ‘I’m sorry, but old habits die hard. How did you know that I was reading you Titus, few

have detected me before?’

    ‘Simple Tamar, you are a wizard so you just can’t help yourself, and also your face betrayed

your actions. Anyone who delves into the horrors locked away in here cannot hide their shock.’

He tapped his head.’ Tamar nodded slowly.

    The last of Bellack’s pleading and begging guards were quickly despatched without mercy

by Titus as he lead the squad of Tanarian volunteers that had arrived with Tamar through the villa

on a clean up operation. Several bodies littered the ground from their last stand. Beyond them

lay the last of the slaves’ cells and soon, the almost incomprehensible dream of freedom would

become a reality for the people beyond. As Tamar’s men went forward and unlocked the cell

doors they were met with enthusiastic responses from the bewildered slaves, all apart from the

final dark cell.

    As the last rusty cage door creaked open there was no movement. They stared into it, their

eyes straining to adjust to the darkness within. Three figures strained weakly against the

manacles that held them as they struggled to move. As light was brought to the chamber it was

only the placement of the rags hanging from their gaunt bodies that gave away their gender. Two

men and one woman cowered away from the light that now lit their cell, turning their heads in an
attempt to hide from the light. The man holding the yellow crystal began to retch at the stench of

urine and faeces, almost slipping as he freed them.

    ‘How can people survive in places like this?’ he thought as he held his nose and tried to keep

his dinner down. Amiria, Corvus’s wife’s blank gaze showed no comprehension of her new-

found freedom as she was led up and out of the slaves’ quarters.

    After being washed down and eventually identified as Amiria, she was taken to Tamar who

had decided to take up a temporary lodging in the Wyvern’s Nest.

    ‘What’s your interest with this one?’ asked Titus as he moved along the armoury’s weapons

rack, testing the weight and balance of the various swords.

    ‘She is Corvus’s wife who was transformed by the crystals and Bellack’s powers. I have

made several promises to achieve my victory over the Brotherhood of Keth this month – she was

one of them.’ Titus studied the skinny woman who blankly stared into the wall.

    ‘Are you sure that she has been transformed back to her previous form?

    He clicked his fingers repeatedly in front of her face but she did not flinch or move.

    ‘I don’t think her king will be very pleased with what you will present to him …that is, if he

ever recovers, l think that you may also have to employ your magic to get rid of her lingering

stench …phew.’ Titus waved his hand in front of his nose.

    ‘I see you are a man filled with compassion Titus, I hope that your heart continues to extend

to Athene. I will have my friend Sorus use his talent to help them, he is far better skilled and

suited to tend to this kind of mental injury than I. You of all people should know how important

it is to look after your wife.

    Titus’s eyes filled with a burning rage for a second and before Tamar could blink, Titus’s

sword tip was at his throat.
    ‘Make no mistake, Tamar, I don’t like wizards, you lot always have too much to say. If you

wish to humiliate me or make suggestions about my deceased wife I suggest you rethink your

words. Remember, your life means nothing to me and I have taken many others for much less.

He let the blade fall away from the relieved man.

    ‘Is there really any point in caring for this vegetable, I think that she is done for and I think it

would probably be better all round to just to finish off the poor wretch now.’ He threw the sword

in his hand to the ground and selected a new one to add to his belt.

    ‘All wounds can heal Titus, it just take time and effort.’

    ‘As long as it does not heal leaving a nasty scar that marks you for life.’ retorted Titus ever

trying to get in the last word. Tamar patted Titus on the back.

    ‘A warrior and a philosopher perhaps there is some hope for you yet. You know Tanaria

could use a fighter such as you over on the west coast. There is still a desperate struggle going

on there with the nation at stake, if you can purge yourself from the hatred and lust for revenge

that you harbour, there may be a good man in there somewhere.’ Titus shook his head,

    ‘No, for now we have other plans, I have a different lust in mind; I will be staying here with

Athene until you have woven your magic to entomb Bellack forever. Not that I really think she

needs me here for protection as she seems to have quite the knack for victory – but don’t tell her I

said that. She also has request that we search for her mother, you are sure that she is no longer

here?’

    ‘That is correct, I would have been able to find her if she was, even if she was dead.’ replied

Tamar scratching his chin, perplexed.

    The transportation portal opened up and the men began to march the lines of slaves through

to freedom.
    Tress had backed up to the far end of the wall as the extended line of troops continued its

slow and methodical advance towards her. She considered her chances of climbing up over the

tall complex wall, but even with the ring to help heal her wounds, it would still be a long time

before she would be anywhere near fit again. The men were now so close that she could have

almost joined in with their conversation and she wondered how long she would live if she

surrendered to them. Suddenly a horn sounded three longs blasts. The men froze and turned to

look at their commander who stood shouting over to the sentry, just out of Tress’s earshot, but

the men’s next reactions brought her great relief.

    The commander began barking about orders and pointing furiously, his men ran for their

horses and began forming up into battle order near the main entrance to the mining facility and

they obviously now had bigger fish to fry. She was able to move freely and hobbled over

towards the entrance resting herself at the copse of trees just outside the complex. Her legs gave

way as she slumped down with her back against a tree stump, exhausted. She was lucky because

her leg had fallen outside of her cloak, but the troops’ attention was now distracted by other

things.

     ‘I just need a little rest,’ she thought. Through her half-open eyes, she watched as riders

approached the complex. With the night’s full moon, the windswept plain was well illuminated

and a number of riders approached and stopped short while the leader advanced alone. His

commanding posture seemed familiar and as he neared she could see that he held a long white

fluttering banner. She recognised the armour and long purple cloak that blew in the wind behind

the rider as he came into the radius of light from the mining complex and she thanked the Gods

for the sight. She wanted to call out to Barrad, but she knew that she would be cut down before

she could get to him. Besides, at the moment she was so exhausted she would be lucky to stand

again, let alone walk.
    Barrad casually rode within spitting distance of the ranks of Aristrian cavalry; he slid his

helmet up to sit on the back of his head, so that he could look these opposing men directly in their

eyes. The cavalry commander rode out from the ranks with a white shirt wrapped around his

lance tip. He was not eager for this parley yet the protocol of war demanded that he ride

forwards.

    ‘I recognise your parley rider. State your business,’ barked the Aristrian commander,

noticing the sweat covering the horse’s flank indicating that the newcomers had been riding hard.

    ‘For those of you who don’t know me I am Barrad of the Su-Katii and now commander of

the Tanarian forces in this region. You will at once surrender any magicians who travel with you

and hand over the large crystal from the mine.’ A joke was made from one of the men in the

ranks close by about just killing this foolish commander who had ridden too close to their lines.

    ‘I think you have things around the wrong way, I see no more than three hundred men on the

fields behind you. I have two thousand men under my command here.’

    He raised his hand and a thousand riders that had been camped in the hollow grounds behind

the mines rode out. The Aristrian commander confidently spoke with a smug expression,

    ‘As for the crystal you are too late, the magicians have already transported it away, I suggest

you ride off whilst you have the chance and my mood is good. These are all Aristrian lands now

but I will be honourable and give you a five minute head start before we ride you down.’ Barrad

tilted his head with a mock expression of confusion as he addressed the commander,

    ‘I can only guess that you have had a lack of communication with your army, because you

are obviously unaware that it no longer exists, I have killed your commander in single combat

and decimated your kinsmen, had you known this your words would not be so bold. You only

see my advance party on the fields; my other warriors are surrounding you as we speak so your

escape from here is no longer possible.’
    Another officer rode forward, come on sir, he is so full of shit I could smell it from back

there, let’s just kill them and be done with it.

    Barrad reached down slowly into his saddlebags and pulled out Azeth Khan’s head, holding

it high in front of the Aristrian line for all to see, before throwing it down into the mud. The

commander’s earlier smug expression dropped from his face.

    ‘If I am a liar, tell me I am wrong when I say that you will be the first to die.’ Titus said to

the new officer. ‘My men up there have only travelled with me to clean up your bodies after I am

done with you. I am Barrad of the Su-Katii, do you require a demonstration of my skill?

    He pulled out his twin blades and pointed the tips towards the men. The alternative however,

is that I will offer you, only once, the chance to lay down your arms. I am prepared to let your

cavalry ride out alive, perhaps you will all live to see your families again?’

    ‘More likely you will cut us down as we leave.’ replied the commander.

    ‘I think that I have met before with you, in one of the pre-war briefings, perhaps you

remember me? I still hold to the old Su-Katii values, not the madness that the rest of my order

seems to have adopted, I have already proved this by my actions in giving you a chance to avoid

the bloodshed and loss of lives. As for cutting you down once you hand in your weapons, do not

judge me with your own standards. You all have fast mounts and I’m sure you know how to use

them. As long as you don’t stop or harm anyone during your departure I will be merciful, a trait

that others should also learn. What say you?’ He raised both his blades to the moon in signal.

As he finished his words, thousands of lights lit up around the surrounding plains in a wide arc

around the mine. The mounted men instantly began to murmur amongst themselves and the

commander nervously considered his position then threw his lance to the ground.

    ‘There has been enough fighting, I do remember you from before the war and I will lay my

trust in your word. I can give no guarantee however that we will not face each other again, as
once we return we will be merged back into the war effort again. They may well also hang me

for my decision, but at least this way my men will live.’ said the Aristrian commander. Barrad

nodded,

    ‘Then perhaps we are both men of honour. Now be on your way and don’t stop until you

reach Aristria or our deal is off.’

    The man pulled out his cavalry sabre and threw it to the ground to join his lance. The

clattering of weapons being thrown to the ground filled the night as the other men resentfully

followed his example.

    ‘There are a dozen or so acolytes resting in the building yonder, they are all yours.’ The

commander pointed at the miners’ quarters. Barrad nodded and then watched as the two

thousand riders spurred their horses off into the night.

    After the riders had thundered away Barrad thought he was going mad as he heard a faint

noise, no, it was someone calling his name. He looked about the moonlit plain and trotted over to

a nearby copse.

    ‘Barrad help. I’m over here,’ Tress cried out, throwing back her cloak revealing her sorry-

looking figure. He rushed over to her side.

    ‘Tress. I thought that we must have overtaken you, what happened? Are you alright?’

    As he drew closer he spotted the feathered bolt protruding from her chest.

    ‘No,’ was all she could manage to squeak, bursting into tears. He rushed to her side

instantly noticing the wetness of blood as he held her.

    ‘I tried for the crystal, but got shot …the acolytes they tried to kill me.’

    ‘Not any more, they won’t.’ Barrad rose as the Tanarian riders entered the mine’s perimeter.

‘Medic.’ he shouted. ‘Get me a healer now.’ He directed the rest of his men towards the
building that the Aristrian commander had indicated then tucked a bed roll from his saddle under

Athene.

    ‘Slay them all,’ was his command and the men surged off into the building.

    ‘Tress motioned to him to come close and then flung her one good arm around him, ‘Kiss

me’ she demanded. He followed her orders. ‘Please don’t let me forget our first kiss.’ She

whispered.

    A strange request he thought as she passed out with exhaustion. His eyes followed his men

riding into the complex. Where was that bloody healer?

    The acolytes were in an almost comatose state from the night’s excursions. They died

swiftly without a struggle or a scream while the unit’s healer tended to Tress.

    The coldness that arrives just before daybreak could now be felt in the air as a small

detachment of riders approached the mine. Sorus looked almost comical as he rode into the light,

the man just didn’t look right on a horse.

    ‘Good job with the magic illuminations Sorus, bang on cue, I almost believed that half of

Tanaria was out there myself. Now, please can you take a look at Tress - she is badly hurt.’

Sorus didn’t waste any time and after awkwardly dismounting he ushered the army healer out of

the way.

    ‘I’ll take over now, go and get some more blankets, man, we will need to keep her warm.’

    Barrad paced up and down the length of the copse until daybreak, Sorus eventually

approached him.

    ‘She had lost a lot of blood, but she is tough one, I have removed the crossbow bolt’s iron tip

and my magic has put her to sleep, she will heal better that way. I’m afraid that I am urgently

needed elsewhere and must immediately depart. I have communicated with Tamar and they have

contained the crystal and the threat to the nation. Please let Tress know that, when she wakes up,
otherwise she will be distressed with her failure and stress is the last thing that she needs right

now. She can be moved now that she is stabilized, so get her inside the warmth of the buildings.

With that Sorus threw his diamond to the ground and uttered powerful words of magic. The little

bald man glanced backwards and smiled for the first time at Barrad as he carried Tress down

towards the buildings, then he leapt through the portal.



    Kerric the bald acolyte had carried out his duty by raising the alarm with the guards, but as

he had been returning to his master’s side, Tamar’s portal had opened up just in front of him and

the invaders had poured through into Bellack’s home. Just managing to get back around the

corner and out of sight in time, he moved undetected to the nearest room. Marcus’s room. He

recognised the middle aged lady that was bound to the wall as Athene’s mother. He had

overheard much talk of the importance of her daughter and considered her to also be of some

worth. A young and pretty Nordheim girl nervously raised her head from behind Marcus’s bed,

her exposed thighs bearing bite marks and worse. Her eyes followed his movements as he

rummaged through the mess of the room eventually finding the diamonds that he sought, he had

only been considering his own escape. Yet after summoning the portal it had been a mere

afterthought to unchain the two women and take them with him, one that the God Queen would

now surely reward with his promotion. Some new slots had just become available in the

Brotherhood of Keth.



                                                THE END




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