The sun was at its highest point in the sky, birds were singing, children were playing happily in the streets and Trey was still in bed. A strange noise drifted into his head. He stirred from his sleep and slowly opened his eyes. He was alone in the bedroom but the noise sounded close by. He pulled himself from the covers and headed into the main room. Billy was sitting there playing what looked like a lutar.
Billy noticed Trey enter and strummed the strings happily. “Look what I’ve got,” he bragged, showing off the instrument. “Avocado Dusk gave me their spare and taught me the basics on how to play it. I haven’t slept all night.”
“Cool,” was all Trey could answer as he eyed the instrument enviously.
The two boys stayed in all that day and relaxed. Billy sat and absentmindedly played small, mistake filled tunes. Trey jotted down notes about everything that had happened since his departure from Pastrino. After most the day had passed Billy could actually play the basics accurately and Trey had filled several pages with notes on the Forukks and the various places they had travelled.
Zak didn’t show his face that day either. The two boys just sat and talked for many hours of the night until weariness overcame them and they both drifted off into pleasant dreams.
It was the fourth day in Onlasar and both Trey and Billy were awake early. Zak had run into the room excitedly and shook Billy awake while Pux let his bird peck Trey into consciousness.
“Follow me!” said Zak happily.
“What have you done now? Killed someone or something?” asked Billy cynically.
“Not that I know of. Who knows? Who cares? Let’s go!”
Zak hurriedly led them to the study, almost skipping with joy. They entered the room and he guided them to the table that he had been sat at the last time they had seen him. On the table was the ‘The Arts of Nimula’ and another, rather large item covered with cloth.
Anticipation rose. Both Trey and Billy guessed there would be some kind of doomsday weapon or monster. Zak overdramatically removed the cover and there was… his axe.
Billy looked like he was about to shout something very angrily when Zak started talking.
“Try and lift it,” Zak said.
“What?” asked Billy, sounding slightly confused?
“Try and lift it,” repeated Zak.
“Fine!” Billy walked up to the table, grabbed the axe handle and pulled. Nothing happened. The teen had strong arms due to his frequent use of a powerful longbow so he was surprised when the weapon hadn’t even budged. He tried again with all his strength but still it didn’t move. Trey joined in but even together it barely wobbled.
“Now watch this,” said Zak.
He placed one hand on the handle and lifted it straight away, resting it on his shoulder. Trey and Billy stood with their mouths wide open. Zak laughed then balanced the very end of the axe on his index finger then removed his other hand and casually used it to pick up a glass of water and drink from it.
Only gormless looks came from the other two boys so Zak explained what he had done.
“You see those cool, shiny little rune-like symbols on its blade; I put them there with Nimula. It makes it five times heavier to everyone but me or any who share my blood. For me it’s five times lighter than it should be. Cool isn’t it.”
Shortly after Zak had finished bragging they all had set out to see what food was on offer throughout the city. Many wondrous delights were found, like pies that tasted like cupcakes, but none more so than what Trey found in a small shop at the edge of the shopping district. It sold milk, but not just any milk. It looked, smelled and tasted like milk but had alcoholic tendencies. Drinking it made you drunk but without the hangovers in the morning. Trey bought large quantities of the stuff with what little money he had then went back to the inn while Billy and Zak continued looking around. When they came back they found him asleep in the water basin.
On the fifth day their roaming brought them to the military sector of the city. It was a fenced off cluster of large buildings with dummies and targets positioned around the outside area. Portions of the sector were open to the public at certain times such as the dojo and the archery range.
A few guards were visible training with bows or swords while several well dressed officers and officials could be spotted carrying papers or inspecting the men. Everything looked well organised but it was clear that it was only a small scale setup that couldn’t support a full army. Trey doubted if half of the men he could see had ever actually seen a battle. Onlasar had seen few disturbances outside of small bands of brigands and the occasional barbarian raids throughout Trey’s lifetime.
Billy was arguing with one of the guards in an attempt to gain access to the archery range. The guard continued to refuse on the grounds that it was outside civilian hours but the appearance of a lean figured woman with raven black hair silenced the guard.
She wore the plated armour and pristine beige coloured uniform of an officer and had an ornately designed spear strapped to her back. She had a strongly defined face, one that looked to have known hardships, but her dark eyes were soft and her red lips were curved slightly in a warm smile.
“You must be the boys that the commander was telling me about. I am Suzy Fireblood, Commander Nakai’s lieutenant.” She spoke in a strong, confident voice despite her conversational tone.
The guard frowned. “Sir, these kids want access to the facilities outside of public hours,” he grunted disapprovingly.
“Leave them with me. They are guests of the city so the least we can do is offer them our practice yards,” the lieutenant told him. The guard shrugged his broad shoulders then stood to the side with a crisp salute. Suzy motioned to the teens and they filed past the guard into the training grounds.
“The commander has filled me in on your situation. I genuinely hope that you are all mistaken or are lying but he senses no deception or uncertainty in any of you. He has a good sense of character so I won’t ignore his opinion until the evidence proves you right or wrong. Until then we have been stepping up our training and recruitment.”
Billy shook his head. “It’s still not enough. We saw the Forukk army. The majority of it never even entered the city. A few extra bakers and apprentices aren’t going to make any difference. We need a real army if anybody hopes to stand the smallest chance of surviving,” he finished soberly.
Suzy eyed him with a calculating look. She sighed passively. “It isn’t our call to make. That power lies with Lord Baranox. Without any proof of danger, he won’t spend a single vim extra. Don’t sell us short though. The men and women of Onlasar have never lost a battle. We always rise to the occasion.”
Billy scoffed at the woman angrily. “I know Onlasar’s feats of battle well enough. My grandfather only moved to Pastrino after the ‘brigand king’ was defeated outside of Skigge. But let me ask you: do you have anyone left who can wield a Thunder-Shot? How many of these men have fought anything tougher than the odd bandit? Do you intend to stay here and let your walls keep you safe while the world burns?” As Billy spoke his voice grew louder and more heated until the other soldiers began to cease their activities to stare at him.
Suzy waved away a group of men who had gathered behind her and were staring daggers at Billy. She took a fierce step towards him and grabbed a handful of his woollen shirt that he had bought the day before from a trader selling goods from Pastrino.
“Listen up, boy. Most of us aren’t trained soldiers. We are guardians trained to protect our city and our people. We are willing to fight though, willing to face any odds to carry out our job. These men put their life on the line because they believe in it, not just because of the handful of Rhen that is a soldier’s pay. If you are right and war breaks out, just be lucky that you have such strong hearts as those of Onlasar at your side.”
Every soldier nodded their heads proudly at her words. She let go of Billy’s shirt, causing him to stagger back. “If any Onlasarian blood still runs through your veins then you should already know all of that.”
Silence hung heavy for a few moments. Billy stood still, his arms twitching slightly. After a moment he clamped his arms to his sides and offered a formal bow. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have doubted you. Thinking of what the Forukks did just makes me so angry. I hate all of this sitting around and waiting. I feel so useless.”
Suzy grasped his shoulder. “I understand. Sometimes, waiting can’t be avoided. Time should never be wasted though. Every hour of calm is an hour more to train. The more you train the longer you’ll hopefully survive when the action finally begins. I’ll show you around then you are welcome to use our facilities.”
As they walked, Suzy pointed out the various areas of the campus. “As you can see, we have an archery range that is fully equipped with everything that is needed. In recent years, training in archery has diminished somewhat due to our mountainous surroundings reducing the bows’ effectiveness. They are still useful against the forest brigands though.”
“We also have a multipurpose dojo there to your right and a Tactical Assessment Centre there at the end for teaching people to think instead of just clobbering blindly. Information, stratagems, tactics, command: all of it is available within to those with an open mind.”
As they walked, Trey’s eyes were drawn to one of the many hollowed out boulders that formed the majority of Onlasar’s older buildings. “What about that building?” he asked.
“It’s a museum of sorts. Antique weapons and armour, memorials to fallen soldiers, showcases of heroes and famous battles, that kind of thing. You are welcome to have a look around if you’d like.”
They entered the building and were immediately met by a colossal bow that was twice the dimensions of the longbow on Billy’s back. It was carved from black wood that glistened in the dim light like jet, while intricate carvings covered everywhere except for its very centre. The arrows beside it were as long as a man’s arm and had a very narrow, spiral weaved head that looked easily capable of piercing metal plate.
“That is one of our famous Thunder-Shots,” the lieutenant stated. “That bow could send arrows flying for over a mile when fully drawn. Those arrows went through armour and flesh with equal contempt and at close range could impale numerous men at a time. Back when they were in use, scores of Breakers would stand atop Onlasar’s walls and pound any besieging army with unstoppable shots. Anything within a mile lived or died by the Breakers’ grace.”
“Why don’t you still use them then?” asked Zak as though she was stupid. “Anything that powerful shouldn’t be in a museum gathering dust.”
“Just look at it,” Suzy answered. “It took unimaginable strength to draw back that string. Breakers were chosen as boys and were given heavy training their entire lives just to be able to use one. To train a new Breaker took over a decade of constant work and the end results of such strain was crippling deformities and poor health. Breakers never made it to retirement.”
Zak snorted then grabbed the bow off of the wall. The others moved to stop him but he hopped lightly away. He pulled at the string and it slowly began to stretch. The muscles in his arm were strained but he quickly had the string as far back as his arm would allow.
“H-how?” was all that Suzy managed. Zak shrugged then eased the string back. Snapping out of her stupor, the lieutenant snatched the weapon from his hand and re-hung it. “You boys aren’t what you seem, are you?”
“So much for discretion,” Trey sighed.
Suzy’s quizzical look turned into a faint smile. “Don’t worry. I won’t ask any questions. As soldiers, we are trained not to question things.”
They moved through the building’s densely arranged exhibits under the lieutenant’s direction. Pastrino was not known for war or battle so no such place existed within its white walls. The boys took everything in and frequently questioned the woman.
She explained to them that in the past, Onlasar relied upon Breakers and a core of soldiers known as Strikers. Where the Breakers were giants of men focussed on long range attack, the Strikers were lean men with wiry strength, speed and agility who wielded short, very thin blades known as ‘Lightning Strikes’ that were designed for stabbing at the foe in enclosed spaces. These were well suited for the narrow mountain passes and cramped caves and tunnels that made up Onlasar’s terrain. Unlike the Breakers, Strikers were still in operation as the city’s elite troops.
Once they were finished, Suzy led them back outside. “I have some work to attend to now.” She passed a folded sheet of paper to Billy. “Take this. It will give you access to whatever training facilities and equipment that you require.” Briskly, she turned on her heels and began to walk away. “Train hard boys. I’d hate for you to die young.”
Trey watched the woman disappear into a large, square building that was painted in red and had golden trim. It was easily the most decorated structure in the fenced off area, marking it as the Command Post.
He shook his head slightly. “They might be able to defend their city but they don’t have the numbers to march the length of the land to attack the Forukks.”
“Numbers mean nothing,” Zak snorted. “If they’re as brave and well trained as that woman was bragging then that’s what matters. If we could just find a spell to multiply me to create about a dozen Zaks then we wouldn’t even need an army. Twelve of me would be unstoppable.”
“Twelve of you would be a nightmare.” Trey observed dryly.
“For our enemies.”
“For the universe in general,” finished Trey. He turned to Billy. “What do you think?
Billy’s face remained passive. “I think that we need to train harder if we ever hope to see our families again.”
“Agreed,” nodded both Trey and Zak before the three of them entered the wooden-framed dojo.
* * *
The sixth day was more dramatic than those before it. A messenger came for them at six in the morning, much to Trey’s horror. Both he and Billy ached terribly after the prior days training. Zak looked as fresh and energetic as always. An urgent meeting was being held at the castle very soon. They didn’t even have time for breakfast. Trey felt like crying.
The meeting was being held in the audience chamber. Unlike when they last visited, it was now full of people, all of them important looking. Only commander Nakai spared them a smile among the sea of grim faces.
“You’re finally here,” stated Lord Baranox to Dawn. He completely ignored the three boys. “We can begin the meeting now. Our scouts that were sent into the mountains report very grave news indeed.” He clicked his fingers and a bedraggled woman in the Onlasarian scout uniform of brown dyed silk and leather stepped forwards to address the assembled audience.
“After searching a great deal of the mountain range we discovered that there is a large force of barbarians gathering. Not just a few tribes but all of them. They appear to have joined forces and are preparing for battle. They have twice the men we have. They are organised as well. I swear that they even had monsters in black armour roaming their camp. It was one of those who raised the alarm on us. We tried to retreat but they were everywhere. Only I made it back with my life.”
Nakai rose to his feet. “This means that a major attack on the city will happen within a few days which we are ill prepared for. It also means that Miss Rayin was likely correct about Pastrino so we have no allies, nowhere to run, and a far more fearful enemy to face even if we win the battle here.”
“Is there nothing we can do to avoid all of this,” asked a nobleman.
“No,” answered Nakai bluntly. “All we can do is gather anyone who can wield a sword, give them armour and weapons, prepare what we can and hope for the best.”
Lord Baranox sighed. “Fine. I loath saying this but the city is to be shut off. No one leaves or enters. Any person who is within the city’s walls and can fight will defend the city, Onlasarian or not.”
“What about us?” shouted Trey. “I need to save my mum and staying here won’t help me do that. The longer I wait the more chance there is she is dead.”
“You and your friends will stay and defend the city just like everyone else. If you attempt to leave you will have an arrow embedded into your spine. That applies to everyone.”
“I give full command of resources and people to Commander Nakai. He will lead you to victory in this battle. Begin the preparations. Dismissed!”
Dawn and the boys stormed angrily out of the hall ahead of the dejected crowd of nobles. Terror hung thick in the air. Trey clenched his fists painfully. He was stuck in a hopeless battle the exact opposite side of Farava to the hopeless battle that he wanted to fight in. Like it or not, they were all trapped here until victory, or more likely death, released them.