Heavy darkness stifled every sight and sound. The air was icily cold and the ground was a mush of foul smelling mud. There was little room for a man to move, the walls being tightly pressed and the stone lid leaving just enough room for a bent backed sitting position.
Blake Hunter sat within this claustrophobic dugout with his head hung. His body ached but he paid it no mind. He had finally found Sarah after all of these years and Zendek had taken her straight from him before he could even try to make amends to the woman. She blamed him for leaving her, hated him for something that had made his life hell. Anger and depression flooded through his weary body.
Why did everything have to turn out like it had, he asked himself. It was not like he had wanted any of this to happen. After Dill had left Pastrino, Blake had tried to continue his life. He had stayed with Sarah and they had many happy years, even when the Ghibok war occurred and he was drafted as a soldier. The mindless death and destruction of that conflict had changed his views about many things but through it all, Sarah had remained his entire world.
When Brian Delb eventually proposed to Laura it had set Blake’s mind racing with the realisation that all he wanted from life was to settle down with the woman that he loved. Dill had gotten it all wrong. Rank, money and skills meant nothing when you found happiness. At that moment he had committed to becoming a real man, taking responsibility of his life and following his heart. That meant marrying Sarah.
Blake dry-washed his hands nervously as he waited outside of the Delivery Exchange. He was dressed in his finest clothes and wore an ornate scabbard at his side with a sleek golden handle at its top. It would be any moment now.
The door opened and Sarah Sted stepped out of the building with a smile on her face. Her long brown hair was tied back in a ponytail and her athletic body was clad in the brown trousers and jacket of the Delivery Service. Seeing Blake in his finery, she raised an eyebrow as she approached him.
“You’re looking a little fancy for welcoming me home,” she said warmly. “You weren’t busy were you?”
They embraced, giving Blake time to think. He picked his words carefully. “No. I have something important to do later, but first I need to welcome you back properly.”
“Oh. I haven’t been gone that long have I?” Sarah mocked playfully. “Skigge is only a short ride down the Rike after all.”
Blake flashed her his best smile. “Any time away is long enough to miss you.” He took her hand and began to lead her down the street.
“Where are we going?”
“It’s a surprise,” was all Blake told her. He led her along the long winding paths through the city that avoided the crowded areas and allowed them to soak in the few pleasant sights that the cramped buildings allowed.
They wandered for a while, Blake picking out their route with care so as not to reveal their destination too soon. The sun was out, the birds were singing and Blake was perfectly happy just to walk with Sarah at his side. Or he would have been if he was not on the verge of an internal panic attack.
Finally he could delay no longer. They crossed through a wide street where the bigger houses sat and emerged into the emerald fields of the North Park. It looked much the same as the day when Blake had fought to protect Sarah, what felt like an age ago. He had come out from that incident with two contrasting things: an ugly scar across his face and the first kiss from the woman whose hand he now held.
Sarah began to comment but Blake placed a gentle finger over her lips to silence her. They moved the short distance from the edge to the aged swings where a wicker basket sat waiting. With an exaggerated flourish, Blake offered the plank seat to Sarah. She took it with a small laugh.
“I’ve been thinking,” Blake began. “All of my life, my sword has been my soul. It was my life, both my hobby and my job. The war taught me that the sword wasn’t something I should devote my life to though.” He unfasten the scabbard from his belt then dropped to one knee, offering it to Sarah with both hands. She accepted it with a perplexed look, her eyes drifting between Blake’s face and the weapon.
“My soul is inside that scabbard. My heart, my dreams, my very essence rest in your hands. Draw it.”
Sarah closed her fingers around the hilt and pulled slowly. There was no sound of sliding metal. The handle pulled away from the scabbard without any sign of an attached blade. At first horror flooded her mind as she thought that she had somehow broken it but then her eyes caught a dazzling glint from the underside of the guard. Turning it so that the pommel faced the ground, she clapped a hand to her mouth to suppress a strangled gasp.
Held firmly within a cut section of the under guard where the blade should have connected was a golden band topped with a shining diamond that reflected Sarah’s startled face a hundred times over as she looked down upon it.
“Blake, it’s so…so beautiful.”
Blake cupped her hands in his and locked eyes with her. “I have given up the sword. You are now my soul and my one love. For you I’d give up anything, even my own life. I give myself to you forever. Sarah Sted, will you marry me?”
A curse escaped Blake’s lips as a sudden cramp in his calf cut off his chain of memories. He was snapped back into the cold harshness of the now. He tried to shuffle into a more comfortable position but it only made things worse.
He gave the lid that sealed him into the pit a hard but futile smack. He had been alone for far too long. After coming to this place, other slaves had come and died constantly, most not lasting more than a scant handful of years. Zendek, Maklar and the Forukks had been the only constants. Constants that he had wanted to kill each day for almost fifteen years.
His life back in Pastrino felt like an eon ago. The proposal had happened in the Spring, they had married in Autumn and he had found himself trapped in this hellhole during the winter. Time meant little in this ever shadowed land but by Blake’s reckoning it must be late Summer. It could not have been much longer until his fifteenth wedding anniversary. So many lost years.
Blake awoke suddenly in a cold sweat. It was dark and all was quiet except for the gentle breathing beside him. He turned his head slightly to see Sarah’s sleeping form. Realising that all was well and that it had been a simple nightmare that had awoken him, Blake tried to return to sleep but could not settle himself.
Not wanting to disturb his wife, he slid from the covers and padded softly to the window. His wife… Sprites, it still felt so strange to think of Sarah as such. Strange yet natural. She moved slightly in her sleep, snuggling deeper into the covers now that she did not have Blake’s warmth. It had almost been a full week since the ceremony that had forever joined them together. It still felt too beautiful to be anything but a dream but Blake knew that every second was pure reality.
Despite the calm of the night he felt restless, the lingering adrenaline of the nightmare still pulsing through his veins. The night was clear and a faint, cold breeze drifted lazily through the leaves outside of the window. Thousands of stars glinted and glimmered in the heavens above. This would be one of the last pleasant nights before the winter weather took a true hold upon the land.
With a last look at Sarah’s sleeping form he slipped on some clothes and crept from the room and down the spiralling stairs. The steps creaked with every movement but Blake quietened them as best as he could. It was an old house in much need of repair but it had cost him every Rhen just to buy it. It was only in his budget due to its close proximity to the bell tower. The view was worth the noise any day though; at least to Blake who could sleep through anything.
Shrugging on an old coat, he left the house and braced himself against the crisp cold. Without a destination in mind, Blake made his way north to the park. Visible beyond the decaying wall were the rolling forests where he had fought in the war. His legs yearned to keep moving so he did not linger long in the green grass before veering west. He thought about crossing the city to the poor shambles that clung to the northwest wall where his mentor Gravel Malma lived but decided against it. The elderly man had enough on his plate at the moment without Blake calling uninvited. He was going to be a grandfather soon after all. Blake had never seen him happier.
After a while he found himself at the large gap in the wall where a collapsing tunnel in the mines below had caused a section of the wall to crumble. The forest beyond was still while night birds squawked from the trees in an eerie song.
He remembered chasing through those trees after Dill. If only he had been stronger, things might have turned out differently. He had trained harder than ever after that, determined never to lose again.
Something moved in the undergrowth but Blake ignored it. The wild was full of nocturnal animals that would be scuffling around in search of food. His mind was elsewhere. Everything had been such a rush recently that it was a rare moment to have the quiet time to be able to think.
A sharp snapping of a twig drew his eyes back to the forest. The woodland beasts should not be venturing this close to the city. They usually kept well clear of the walls for fear of humans. Pulling himself from his musings, Blake scanned the dark slits between trunks for any sign of the creature. The word was that wolf activity was on the increase after all.
He could see nothing through the thick gloom and had just turned to begin his walk home when a shrill scream split the night air. Without a second’s thought he span and sprinted into the trees in the direction that the scream had come.
He had only travelled a short distance when he skidded to a halt beside a young girl who he recognised from the city. She was a small, fair haired girl named Clara Scuddle and was known for mischief and trouble. This was not the first time she had ventured away from the city in the night.
The girl stood rigid, her eyes wide with terror. She faced what Blake had at first glance passed off as a squat tree trunk but now that he looked he saw that it was a tall, thick-built humanoid creature with dark leather skin and horns. Its bestial snout and burning eyes darted between the girl and him, saliva dripping from its cruel fangs. A heavy iron mace was held in clawed hands.
It growled then leapt at him with inhuman speed. Blake dove to the side, rolling to his feet as the metal sphere impacted where he had been standing a moment before. The monster flowed into the next attack in a heartbeat and Blake back-stepped it by a hair’s breadth.
“Run!” he shouted at the girl as the mace swung at him again, this time from the side. Blake caught the creature’s arms and tried to hold them in place but his foe was far stronger than him. Through painfully gritted teeth he managed to yell again for Clara to flee.
Like a switch had been flicked in her head, the child screamed again and ran. The demon kneed Blake in the gut and moved to block the girl but Blake sprang onto its back. He pummelled the back of its helmet and slammed his fists into its ribs but he may as well have been attacking a statue. The beast peeled him away and smashed him into a tree. Blood flecked his lips.
The monster adjusted its grip so that it held Blake by the throat against the rough bark of the trunk. He hammered at its snout and kicked furiously at every part of the monster that he could reach but it made no difference. Waving his arms around wildly as his lungs began to burn, his hand scraped against a nearby branch.
Desperately he clutched at it and pulled, snapping the wood free. He grasped it like a dagger and rammed it into a fiery eye. The demon bellowed, dropping Blake as it staggered back in agony. It grabbed at the stick and tore it free of the socket, its eye still skewered upon the spike.
What he would give for his sword right now, Blake thought as he faced down the furious being. He could run. It was only a short distance to the city. He was confident that he could make it. But then this threat would continue to pose a risk to those who he knew and loved. No, as a city guard it was his job to protect Pastrino from any danger.
Taking a deep breath, Blake steadied his shaking body. He bent down and picked up a thick, club like branch from the leaf-strewn ground that was about the length of his forearm. The monster grunted in amusement. Blake offered it a grin of his own then whispered a chain of words to the wood.
Sudden flames flared into existence along the length of the makeshift weapon. The demon took a hasty step away when Blake swung it experimentally to adjust to the short stick’s balance. The beast regained its courage quickly though and rushed at Blake with a howl. Blake ran forward and slid under its bowed legs, jumping to his feet and smashing the branch into the back of the monster’s head before it could turn. It spun and Blake ducked under a wide horizontal swing before jabbing the flaming club up into the creature’s snout.
The smell of burnt flesh filled Blake’s nose. The demon reeled back, a hideous sound gushing from its maw. Seeing his chance to strike, Blake took it. As the monster back-peddled, Blake tacked it, sending them both to the ground. Fangs tried to snap at his face but Blake managed to manoeuvre the branch and shoved it down the monster’s throat. The beast writhed for several moments then became still.
Panting, Blake rolled off of his fallen foe. He had no time to fully recover his breath though. The Lord needed informing of such a threat lurking outside of his walls. Blake had never seen anything like the creature before but if there was one there could easily be more. He rose to his feet.
Rustling noises suddenly surrounded him. The bushes between him and the safety of the city parted and another of the monsters stepped into view. This one held a hatchet in one hand and the bloodied body of Clara in the other.
Blake cursed, turning to run further into the forest but his path was blocked by yet more of the foul beasts. He counted four all together, pinning him firmly into that one spot.
“You will not tell of what you have seen here,” rumbled the monster that held Clara’s limp body in a rough parody of human speech.
“You going to stop me?” Blake growled in response. He scooped up the dead creature’s mace and held it at the ready. It was too heavy to be practical but he had little choice at the moment.
One of the monsters behind him bounded forward and Blake only just parried its attack. As he blocked, another rushed in and slid its serrated blade across his hamstring. Blake toppled to the floor with a pained grunt but managed to bring his mace down upon his attacker’s foot. The third kicked him in the face, sending him sprawling onto his back. He tried to stand but a hail of vicious blows kept him down despite his best efforts.
From the verge of unconsciousness, Blake felt himself being slung over one of the monster’s shoulders. He wanted to fight, to lash out at the best but his limbs would not work and his brain felt misted over.
“You will be the first of many to give yourself to the rebirth of Lanstiro,” the lead demon hissed into his ear.
“And the girl?” Blake managed to rasp.
The monster barked a harsh laugh. “We will need food for the journey home. Young meat is always the best.”
The memories of that night still gave Blake nightmares. He had never known peace from that moment on. It had been a hard journey to the wasteland that surrounded the ruined city of Lanstiro. The shadows of Miankkuth had extended far beyond the lands of legend and had grown to be disturbingly close to civilisation.
Despite all of that, the biggest surprise had been finding out that it was Dill who now ruled both the fortress city and the legions of the Forukks. At first Dill had seemed as surprised at seeing Blake as Blake had at seeing his old friend but it quickly became apparent that Dill was not the same man he had known.
At first Dill had tried to sway him over, tempting Blake to become one of the new rank of ‘Masters’ that would conquer all of Farava. After he had refused though, Dill became cold towards him and locked himself away in the castle. Any mention of his past life would send him into an inevitable rage. No; the Dill he had known was dead. It was Zendek who ruled now, a man who shared nothing with Dill other than a face.
The latch above started to rattle dully. Blake could hear the heavy breathing of a Forukk through the stone slab. With a creak, the hatch opened and a dim gloom diluted the pure darkness of the pit. He stared up at it blankly.
“Get back to work, scumbag,” came the deep-voiced order from the Forukk’s snarling mouth. It grabbed Blake’s arm roughly in its oversized hands and yanked him out of the hole. “Lord Zendek wants you to know that your woman will be in his safe hands while you pick the blood-grapes that will make the wine for them to enjoy. Now move! You have work to do.”
Blake nodded and gave the brute his best grin. “Indeed I do,” he said before ramming a sharpened stone into the Forukk’s throat. It gurgled silently then collapsed. He collected the angular blade from the Forukk’s belt then shoved its body into the pit, closing the hatch with a thud.
“I’m coming for you, Sarah.”
Previous – Chapter 43. The Oracle.
Next – Chapter 45. Strange Hosts.