“Trey. Wake up. Please be okay.”
Searing light assaulted his eyes as the soft voice registered in Trey’s subconscious and drew his mind back to the forefront of his brain. His body screamed out in pain but a quick check confirmed that everything was still functional.
He was standing upright, held straight by thick ropes that tied him to a tall pole. Similar poles held the other teens. They were all conscious and none looked seriously injured. Everyone retained their armour but their weapons were nowhere in sight. Billy’s lutar was in the hands of a dirty tribesman who grinned toothily as he plucked tunelessly at the strings. Dawn, who was on the pole to the right of him, sighed in relief now that Trey’s eyes were open.
“I have the strangest sense of déjà vu,” commented Zak dryly from Trey’s left.
“Shut up,” grunted Billy who was slumped dejectedly beside Zak. “We were lucky to escape last time we were captured. Now it’s all but impossible.” Between downtrodden looks at the floor he flashed the man holding his lutar venomous glares.
“Impossible you say?” asked a bemused voice that was hidden by a group of Flesh Eroder warriors. It was a calm, strong voice that sounded distant, yet felt whispered directly into the ear. Brutal yet as soft as silk. From the cluster of men stepped a slim man wrapped head to foot in ribbons crusted with long dried blood. Tanned skin stood out in a strip across his face from where crystal blue eyes watched the world with calculating amusement. “Time makes all possible.”
Dawn drew a sharp breath. Almost subconsciously she began to speak in a shaking rhyme. “Beware the man all wrapped in blood, whose riddled words aren’t understood, for in those eyes all souls erode, the man whose life the Sprites are owed.”
The wrapped man smiled, pearl white teeth visible through the folds of gory cloth. The blue eyes moved slowly over each of the captives, studying them with an intensity that knew every secret that their minds contained.
“What an interesting assortment we have gathered here,” he said. He directed his attention at Zak. “Who could have predicted that I would stumble across one of the Summoner’s blood.”
Zak looked genuinely surprised. “How did you know?” Trey had never seen the boy be taken aback.
“I see the auras, as I assume you can on occasion,” the man explained. His and Zak’s eyes were locked with a fierce intensity. “You see, I too am a descendant of the last Summoner. You could say that we are distant cousins. Our blood is hardly similar though. The Summoner had two sons to two different women. I belong to one chain, while you are from the other.”
“Just who the hell are you?” Billy managed to growl. Under the man’s attention the harshness of the words sounded more like whimpers.
“How rude of me. I am Mellow Blacksky, chieftain of the Flesh Eroder tribe,” the man introduced himself. His attention was still solely focussed upon Zak. “I have a proposition for you, cousin. Join me. With your strength, you would be my right hand man. You’d have all of the battle and power that you could desire.”
Zak laughed openly. “I already have all the power that I could possibly want and I’ll have more than enough battle between beating you and then marching into Lanstiro to show those Forukks who they’re dealing with. In the past few weeks alone my power has increased massively.”
“How dare you!” snarled one of the Flesh Eroders. He pushed his way forward and slammed his fist into Zak’s stomach. Zak didn’t even flinch.
“If you want to try the old ‘good guard bad guard’ then you may want to get this guy a hammer,” the teen grinned.
Mellow motioned for the warrior to stand down. He took a step closer to Zak. “Such confidence. Can your body support that confidence though?” Lightning fast he drove his fist into Zak’s gut. If Zak hadn’t been tied up then the boy would have doubled over. Blood spewed from his mouth onto the wooden planks beneath him.
“H-how?” Zak wheezed through pained breaths.
“Blood, my dear boy,” Mellow chuckled dryly. “Use your head. You derive your power from the blood passed down from a Summoner. The Summoner himself has no special blood as it is the prolonged use of the sword that infuses his essence. In old age a Summoner may begin to benefit from these changes but it is his children that gain the most. That power is watered down with every generation.”
Zak grit his teeth against the pain. “I am stronger than my gramps ever was!”
Mellow punched him again and Zak’s eyes looked on the verge of popping out of their sockets.
“Stop it!” screamed Dawn. “Leave him alone!”
The chieftain turned and focussed in on the girl. “And let us not forget you, my dear. Robes the colour of fresh blood and hair like a flame to herald in a new era. I know you, Dawn Rayin of the Heptalli. You were named for your destiny of bringing the dawn of a new chapter in the Heptalli’s history. Nowhere does it state that this new era will be for the better or worse though. Such a mountainous weight for such slender shoulders, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Get away from her!” Trey growled but Mellow ignored him completely.
“Join me, Dawn. Together we can unite the desert as it once was. Think of the peace that would create.”
Dawn fought to keep her face calm, a difficult task under his piercing gaze. “What peace can be found by a man who formed a band of savages named the Flesh Eroders? By a man who wraps himself in the blood of every man, woman, and child that he has ever murdered?”
Mellow laughed a great rumbling laugh. “The world is a contradiction,” he chuckled merrily. “You say that ‘Flesh Eroder’ is savage but what is it that erodes flesh? Time! It is time that reduces kings and paupers to skeletons. This desert that we call home, this wondrous sand as far as the eye can see, all of it is the result of the erosion of time. This desert was a lake, which in turn was once a sea. That sea rubbed against cliffs and mountains, grinding rock into sand. Water eroded mountains to create sand which formed this desert. Life becomes death and that death feeds new life! Life and death, creation and erosion, one is impossible without the other!” he ranted happily as though he was revealing the secret of life to the teens.
“As for these,” Mellow continued, tugging at the blood stained bandages. “Think of them less as a gory trophy and more of a memoriam of the souls that I owe life to. Blood is the essence of humanity, by wearing the blood of every life that I have reaped it serves as a constant reminder of every face, every voice, every set of eyes that I have seen the life drain away from. Look back far enough into the Heptalli’s history and you would see that you wear crimson robes as a reflection of my practice.”
“Our family has worn red for centuries,” Dawn countered.
Mellow swung around to face Zak again. “And there we have the answer to your question of how my power supersedes your own. I used my talents to extend my life exponentially. The last Summoner was my grandfather.” Like a whip he rounded on Dawn. “Those tales that mothers tell children to scare them about the blood wrapped leader of the Flesh Eroders are not made up stories, nor is it a mask taken up by a new man every few years. I am legend. I am time immaterial.”
Liam yawned. “Enough talking already. If you’re going to kill us, just get it over with.”
“You are quite right, Onlasarian. I have an appointment at your city’s walls to keep.” Mellow nodded. He began to walk away.
Zak snarled at him. “I…am the…strongest!” He hissed a chain of strange words. As his voice picked up tempo, dark clouds boiled above them. Lightning flashed and forked down upon the head of the chieftain. Mellow raised his arm and batted the blazing bolt away like a fly. The lighting scored a deep line of molten glass into the desert to their right.
Tutting under his breath, Mellow pulled a book from his bandages. Its dark crimson leather casing and golden lettering made it instantly recognisable. ‘The Arts of Nimula’. He leafed through the pages then threw it across the deck in disgust.
“You put such faith in a child’s toy,” he grunted. “Books such as that were used to teach children the basics of the power, the words little more than an aid to help concentration.” Mellow raised his arms and the land shook and groaned violently. Sand rose up all around them, enclosing over the ship until it formed a shell that surrounded the three vessels. Mellow lowered his arms and the sand crashed back into its original place.
The Flesh Eroder warriors cackled with raucous laughter at the sheer fear and shock on their captives’ faces. Even Zak seemed stunned by the display. Power still crackled through the air, dissolving slowly in the wind.
“Get the ships moving again,” Mellow ordered the men around him. “Time alone won’t destroy Onlasar. While we have nothing to do other than wait, prepare the Bloodgrounds. Our guests may as well provide us with some manner of entertainment during their demise.”
A chorus of cheers erupted from a thousand throats. Men and women jumped to their tasks, hooting with an eager bloodlust that chilled Trey’s spine.
A tiny voice whispered behind Trey. “A real mess you’ve gotten into this time. How many times can you possible get yourselves captured?”
“Pux!” The Yuxova moved onto Trey’s shoulder, crouching low to avoid detection. “Can you cut the ropes for us?” Trey whispered.
Pux shook his head. “No. The ropes are too thick for my blade. Add to that you are all tied up separately, I would be noticed before everyone was free. Even if I could, there are too many warriors for you to escape from. Remember, there is no battle to distract them this time.”
Trey thought, his mind racing with plans. “Liam, do you still have any boomballs?” he asked in a low voice.
The older boy inched his head forward slightly. “Yeah. A few smaller versions.”
“They will have to untie us to take us to this ‘Bloodground’,” Trey explained. “When they do we need a distraction. Zak, do you think you can keep them busy for a few seconds?”
A shark-like grin spread across the boy’s face. “Oh, I’ll keep them distracted alright. Death is pretty distracting, right?”
“Liam, you break away and run. Pux, guide him through the ship to something important, keep him away from any enemies where possible. Destroy what you can with the boomballs. If this ship stops then Onlasar will have one less army outside of its walls. At least for a while longer.
“And what about us?” grunted Billy. “I didn’t notice the part where we are saved.”
“Neither did I,” Trey replied heavily. He could see no way out, but with so much depending on his actions, he would somehow find a way.
Trey couldn’t be sure how long they hung there, but it felt like an age before anything happened. Judging by the sun, only an hour or so had passed. A group of Eroders finally came for them. Mellow wasn’t among them.
“Cut ‘em loose!” commanded an Eroder. He had hundreds of teeth strung around his body. Men with hatchets scurried to the copse of poles and hacked the ropes apart. Before any of the teens could take a step, each was held firmly by two guards.
Trey made a show of looking defeated. His shoulders sagged and his head hung, his downcast eyes watching the shuffle of his dragging feet. The act wasn’t too difficult. He still couldn’t see any way out of their situation and his body stung everywhere from the carrier’s destruction. His armour had taken the brunt of the damage but now that too pained him. Its weight pulled him down and the shining metal roasted him in the unforgiving glare of the sun.
They were moved across the deck through a tangle of crates, cages and rope coils. Stairs leading both higher up and below deck were scattered seemingly randomly. Flesh Eroders were everywhere but there were plenty of places to hide.
“Now!” Trey shouted.
Zak heaved his shoulders and thrust his head back, breaking his guard’s nose. With a fluid movement he swung around, kneed the man in his gut then threw him at the next closest warrior. Every free man rushed at him. Zak raised his arms and crossed his palms above his head. A blinding light flashed out from his hands, enveloping everything in searing white.
The light faded away. The closest Flesh Eroder smashed a club into Zak’s head. Zak broke his arm in return. Then the rest of the warriors piled onto him, beating the teen down and wrapping him in heavy chains.
A flabby man wearing lots of gaudy jewellery prodded Zak’s chest. “You fool. Did you really think you could run? Ha! Idiot.” A few of the other tribesmen snorted laughter directed at the teen.
“Says the guys who are a prisoner down,” Zak pointed out.
The men whipped around. Liam was gone, his guard dead on the ground with several tiny punctures in his throat. The flabby man roared in anger. “Search the ship! Find him!” Both men and women scurried off to obey the command. “Get these meat-sacks to the Bloodgrounds. Mellow wants a show so we won’t disappoint. The quicker they die, the quicker we can eat.”
Billy groaned. “I hope you know what you’re doing Trey.”
“So do I,” Trey muttered quietly.