Chapter 52. Confidence. (The Sword Summoner: History Repeats)

Footsteps echoed through the corridors as a hardened warrior walked around the castle, greeting anyone he met with a few words, never stopping to talk. One would think it was an officer or noble, or at least a mercenary but it was not; it was Zak.

The teen walked through the castle like he belonged there so no one questioned his presence. He was hiding in plain sight and the enemies he greeted casually were none the wiser. He had even redirected several slaves to the storehouse within earshot of guards who figured it must be official business so they should not get involved.

He was not sure where he was going but whichever way he turned he seemed to find the odd slave here and there doing various jobs. He knew from some slaves he had met that many had been taken to the Masters’ private sleeping quarters. He had gotten sketchy directions and was heading in what he hoped was the right way to find the living quarters of the Lanstirian nobles.

Testing his luck, Zak asked one of the guards which way the private quarters were and the man answered with next to no suspicion. Zak had to backtrack fifty yards then turn left and continue down that corridor until he reached the end, then turn right followed by the first left.

Zak smiled to himself, knowing that he was in the right place. It was a huge square room with dozens of elegant oak doors lining the walls. He was about to open the first door when a faint scream came from behind a door three quarters the way around.

Within seconds Zak was at the door. He tried the handle but it would not budge. He tried to kick it down but the oak stayed motionless and Zak jarred his foot. He sighed then readied his axe. He swung the double bladed head at the door and splinters shot out. Another swing followed by a kick and the door was open, or to be precise there was a hole in the door large enough to step through.

The room beyond was fairly simple. There was a double bed, a wardrobe, a desk, a cabinet and two shelves. Zak did not focus on any of this though. In the far back corner cowered a young girl and a fat man stood over her, tugging at her arm in an attempt to force her to her feet.

When Zak had smashed the door down the fat man had turned to glare angrily at him, mild surprise showing on his chubby face. His walrus like moustache twitched slightly. The girl remained crouched, her eyes covered by her hands, crying silently.

“How wude!” exclaimed the man. “You can’t just come and thmath down my door, you thupid thod.”

“What?” asked Zak, forgetting the scene before him as he chuckled at the man.

“If it’s all wight with you, I have a thmall lithp.”

Zak openly laughed then shook his head to calm down. “What are you doing to the poor girl?” he asked as he motioned to the girl who had stopped crying and was now looking up at Zak with wide eyes.

“It’s none of your buthineth what I do with my thlaveth,” said the man, his face becoming flushed.

“Let her go,” said Zak in a low, dangerous tone.

“Don’t talk thuch wubbith. Who are you to owder me awound? Leave me now. Oh, and thend thomeone to wepair my door.” The man turned his back to Zak and focused his attention once more on the girl.

The man had just managed to pull the girl to her feet when Zak knocked him on the head with the end of his axe. The man collapsed onto the bed, releasing the girl from his grasp.

“I hate people like him,” muttered Zak as he picked up the unconscious man and carried him to the door. “Wait here a minute,” he told the girl. She nodded and he left the room.

Zak carried the man across his shoulders like he weighed nothing despite his size. He strode off out of the private quarters and headed towards a place that he had been told to avoid at all costs: the Forukks’ barracks. He knew that he had found the right section of the fortress by the smell that seeped through the gap under the door. Slowly he eased opened the sheet metal door and entered.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. It was a long, narrow room with nothing but hundreds of ragged mats that lay everywhere without order. Only half a dozen Forukks currently

occupied the room, all of them grunting loudly in their sleep. Zak silently headed towards the closest Forukk and placed the fat man down on the mat beside the monster. As a finishing touch he draped the Forukk’s arm over the man then positioned the man’s hand firmly onto the Forukk’s rear.

Zak laughed to himself as he left the foul smelling room and jogged back to collect the girl. She was standing exactly where she had been when he had left. She fiddled nervously with her fingers, her eyes darting around the room. Much of the tension faded from her body as Zak re-entered.

“Are you hurt?” he asked in a gentle tone. The girl shook her head slightly.

“You think you can walk alright?” This time she nodded her head.

“What’s your name?” asked Zak, determined to get her to talk.

She looked into Zak’s eyes. “K-Kelly,” she murmured in a soft, faint voice.

“Good. Now Kelly, how old are you?”

She answered quicker this time with more confidence but still spoke in a weak voice. “Twelve.”

“That’ll do. Come on, we’ve got to get out of here.” He moved to leave the room but the girl did not follow. “Come on,” Zak said again, this time grabbing the girl’s hand and dragging her out of the door. Kelly blushed wildly at the contact as Zak towed her towards the fortress’ main entrance.

Zak turned a corner and suddenly shot back around, pressing his back against the wall. Walking towards him along the other corridor was a tall, dark haired man who fit the description of the Lord of Lanstiro. Around him were two large human warriors, two grizzled looking Forukks and a small, scrawny man who looked like an assistant or scribe. Even Zak was not crazy enough to attack the enemy leader in the centre of his own castle, surrounded by his guards. Not without backup anyway.

Zak was about to go the way he had just came when he saw a squad of ten Forukks marching towards them from that direction. “Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place,” he muttered as he tightened his grip on his axe and the now shivering hand of the girl.

Zak began to concentrate on some spell he hoped would obliterate one of the groups heading towards his position when a thunderous dong rippled through the castle. It rang out twice more, flooding the air with vibrating noise that seemed to take an age to fade.

Both groups had halted and Zak listened intently to see what was happening. He heard running feet from the corridor the lord occupied and for a moment thought he had been discovered. He relaxed fractionally as whoever it was stopped and began to speak to his leader.

“Sir, reports say that someone has invaded the castle and has broken into your bed chamber,” a man’s voice reported.

At first, Zak thought they were talking about him but he had not gone into the Lord’s room. Either the fat man had been passing the Lord’s room off as his own or someone else had invaded the castle as well.

“Hunter! He’s gone too far this time,” growled a man, who Zak guessed was the lord.

Brisk footsteps led away from Zak’s position. He popped his head around the corner and saw all the men disappear around the next bend. He tugged Kelly around the corner to avoid the Forukk that were still heading towards them, then ran down the corridor, retracing his steps to the exit.

Guards swarmed everywhere now but with a mixture of stealth and unquestionable confidence, they made it through most of the castle unhindered. They were about to turn onto the last corridor before the exit when Zak heard another scream. He sighed then ran down a spiral staircase that they had just passed. It led into what Zak supposed was a dungeon. The very air had the feel of death and pain upon it and the smell was a mixture of blood and rot.

Kelly huddled closer to Zak. She was visibly terrified by the place. Zak released her hand and motioned for her to be still. He slowly eased open the rusty gate and slipped into the room beyond. It was a dungeon. There were old chains on the wall, several stone beds with thick leather straps and numerous sharp, painful looking tools lying on shelves. There was even a rack at the far end of the room.

There were six people in the room, two on the stone beds, one in the rack, two hung up on the wall and one stood in a white coat with a hot iron in his hand. On closer inspection, one of the figures on the wall was nothing but a skeleton.

“It hurts you so why not him?” screeched the white coated man.

He pressed the glowing red bar against one of the men on the stones and elected a curdling scream from him. He then pressed in onto the arm of a person Zak could not fully see. This man did not make a sound.

The torturer screeched in frustration and moved to a shelf to grab a corkscrew like device. As he moved Zak got a view of the man on the second slab. His face was badly bruised and cuts and burns covered his chest and arms but he was still recognisable. It was Liam.

Zak walked up to the torturer and tapped him on the shoulder. The man whirled around and received Zak’s fist in his face. He flew through the air and crashed into a shelf full of jars that contained fat leeches.

Untying the straps from Liam, he helped the other teen to his feet then began to free the other men of their restraints. Most could barely stand and Liam did not look too stable either but they could not wait there until they had recovered.

“You all think you can make it just outside then we’ll steal a cart or something to get you to the store house,” said Zak. They all nodded weakly.

Zak supported the two weakest men while Liam and the last man helped each other out. The climb up the stairs was nearly too much for them all except Zak. By the time they reached the top Zak was more or less dragging them along. Kelly clung to Zak’s side making his task harder than necessary but he did not mind. There was only one Forukk guarding the exit and Zak easily defeated it with a blast of Nimula.

It only took a few minutes to find a cart. They emptied the rocks from it then the slaves climbed inside. Liam, despite the pain he must have been in, came to the front and helped Zak and Kelly to pull the cart to the storehouse.

Previous – Chapter 51. Hunter and Prey.

Next – Chapter 53. Reunited.

Chapter 51. Hunter and Prey. (The Sword Summoner: History Repeats)

The three shadows on the wall moved out of view indicating the patrol had finally moved on. Dawn slipped from her cover then scurried behind the next building. She repeated this process as she slowly made her way forwards, always keeping the column of slaves she was following in sight.

The slaves were a sorry looking group, even compared to other slaves that Dawn had spotted. Every one of them was covered from head to toe in black dust. The only visible colour through the dust was the white of their downcast eyes. Many coughed constantly where they had inhaled too much of whatever substance coated their bodies. There were about thirty in all, guarded by only four traitor humans. Easy pickings if Dawn had a plan, which of course she did.

Stealing a long length of thin steel wire from a workshop, she stealthily raced ahead of the column and began to build a small contraption from bits and pieces she had found. When she had finished, it took the shape of a two foot high catapult. She tied one end of the wire to its lever, placed a small rock onto the firing arm then ran about thirty yards further up the road. Hammering a wooden stake into the ground she curved the wire around it then ran off at a right angle across the main path the slaves were travelling along. She ducked into another side alley then crouched in the shadows and waited.

Dust began to rise in the sky above the building Dawn hid behind and the sound of shuffling feet rose above the distant sound of squawking birds. Her muscles tensed and she wrapped the wire tighter around her hand, keeping it low to the ground to avoid detection. Her fingers were starting to turn blue but she did not have time to alter her grip.

The first guard entered her view. She counted to three then pulled the wire tight. The guard fell flat onto his face with a horrible crunch as his nose hit the ground. At that same moment the wire pulled the catapult’s lever and triggered the arm to throw the stone. Just like she had planned it flew forwards and hit the guard at the left side of the column, smacking him in the temple. He too collapsed to the ground, a faint trickle of blood running down his face. Neither guards were dead but they would be down for a while.

The two remaining guards drew their swords and advanced down the alley that the stone had come from, expecting another attack. When there was no trace of an attacker they cautiously inspected the catapult. Dawn had already pulled the full length of wire back to avoid the guards following the wire to her position.

Dawn readied a smooth, circular stone and threw it as though she were skimming stones on a lake. The stone soared through the air and hit a precariously balanced pile of rubble that was once a second floor to the building forming the right side of the alley. It hit a rock at the pile’s base but it did not cause the rock to fall.

The sound attracted the guards’ attention and they looked up. Quickly, Dawn threw another stone with all her might, not bothering to aim, relying solely on luck.

Lady Luck appeared to be on her side as the stone crashed into the same spot as its predecessor, knocking the rock from its place. The guards screamed and tried to run as a chain reaction moved through the rocks, causing the full pile to cascade down upon the guards’ heads. When she was sure that no other guard had been alerted, Dawn stepped out of her cover and moved to the front of the slaves who were frozen in place, unsure what had happened.

Dawn made sure she had all the slaves’ attention then announced, “You’re free now. Take what weapons you can find then make your way to the large storehouse at the outer wall. Let’s go.”

Without warning, a sharp shuriken shot through the air from a nearby rooftop, its destination: Dawn’s chest. She dived out of the way and scanned the roofs near where it had come from. Nothing.

She turned around to recheck her surroundings and nearly leapt from her skin. Stood face to face with her was a tall, slender woman wearing a suit of tight fitting leather. At her side hung two long, curved knives.

“You shall go nowhere, little girl,” purred the woman in a strange accent. “I could have killed you many times by now but I wanted to see what you could do. You are smart, but against my blades you are nothing. Even fully armed you are as vulnerable to me as that day by the river.”

“That was you!” shouted Dawn, fear and shock replaced by anger. “How dare you watch me while I bathe you pervert.”

She grasped her scimitar and swung at the woman. Despite the fact that she swung at point blank range, the assassin still managed to dodge the attack then deliver a vicious kick to Dawn’s gut. Dawn staggered back until she touched a wall. Two shuriken sliced through her robe at either shoulder, embedding themselves into the wall. Blood began to soak the material around the shuriken where the metal had also pierced her flesh. Dawn tried to move but the shuriken firmly pinned her to the wall. Her shoulders burned at the effort.

The assassin placed one of her knives to Dawn’s throat and smiled. “Now, you shall die. It is the victim’s right to know the name of their killer. The last thing you hear will be the name of the person who stole your soul from its earthly bonds. Black Rain.”

The slaves ran. Black Rain’s attention was solely fixed on Dawn, her knife close enough to Dawn’s neck to draw a single bead of crimson blood. She positioned the second knife so the point dug into her chest right where her heart was.

Dawn knew it was all or nothing now. Bracing against the pain she swung her legs up and kicked out at the assassin. The force of the kick ripped the shuriken from her flesh and she fell painfully to the floor.

Black Rain recovered quickest and lunged at the girl still sprawled out on the ground. Dawn managed to grab her scimitar and manoeuvre it so the metal head took the blow. It shattered as the two blades made contact.

Dawn had to roll to the side as Black Rain stabbed down at her. The knife pierced the ground like it was nothing but water. In the split second Black Rain took to pull the weapon from the ground, Dawn kicked out again, aiming to trip the woman over but it was a useless attempt. The assassin jumped over the attack and landed on Dawn, her legs pinning down the girl’s legs, one arm squeezing Dawn’s throat, the other holding a knife to her side.

Dawn struggled to release herself but the older woman was far stronger than she looked. Dawn had been raised as a princess, unaccustomed to manual labour; this woman was a trained killer. The power and skill difference was a gap too far for Dawn to cross.

Lashing out with her fist, Dawn smacked Black Rain in the face but in that same instant the woman had slipped the knife through Dawn’s skin and slid it between two of her ribs. Dawn cried out in agony while Black Rain just smiled, unfazed by the blood that ran down her chin. She licked away some of the blood and her smile grew in size.

“Time to leave this world,” said the assassin with deliberate slowness.

Dawn sighed. “You’re right. It is the end.”

There was a sound to match that of a tsunami followed by a bone shattering crunch mixed into a blood curdling scream. Then there was silence.

Previous – Chapter 50. A Very Expected Trap.

Next – Chapter 52. Confidence.

Chapter 50. A Very Expected Trap. (The Sword Summoner: History Repeats)

The darkness was soothing and the gentle drip of water hitting the ground was the only noise that entered Liam’s ears. He ran his fingers along the damp rock wall as he walked deeper into the mine. The whole effect was ruined in his opinion by the torches that bathed the tunnels with flickering amber light.

He had found out about the mine while he was searching through the fortress’ blueprints that he had found within the castle’s near vacant library. He had a knack for being in plain sight without being noticed. He had easily snuck inside and stole any documents that had looked useful. Other than a sole librarian, the vast book archives were devoid of life. He had travelled with Zak at first but once inside the castle their paths lay in different directions.

By the looks of it, it was a coal mine. Coal to fuel the Lanstiro war effort.

From around the corner came voices. Human voices. Liam sighed, “So much for a rest,” he muttered as he edged towards the turn.

He peered around the corner but it was just another deserted tunnel. The dynamics of the mine must cause sound to become deceptive, he guessed. He would just have to keep walking forward until he bumped into someone if he could not use his hearing.

Minutes passed by without any contact. The talking continued, keeping the same volume whichever direction Liam turned. Then a new sound began. Faintly at first then growing in volume. Tap, tap, tap. The steady rhythm was really starting to bug him. He picked up his pace figuring the quicker he found the miners, the quicker they would shut up.

He had been walking for over half an hour and had not found a single living creature. No guards, no miners, nothing. He was about to turn around and leave when a transport cart rolled into view, full to the top with coal. It squeaked along the dusty metal tracks past Liam with seemingly no way to propel itself forwards.

After it had squeaked out of view, Liam changed direction and followed the tunnel that the cart had come from. This tunnel was just a long straight line, no corners, no curves and no pathways leading from it. Just the same craggy walls all around him with the occasional torch spreading light through the darkness.

Without warning the tunnel opened up into a small chamber where two men stood talking while tapping away at the rocks with bulky pickaxes. There were no other tunnels leading out of the chamber. The two miners did not seem to notice the new arrival. Strangely, the section of wall where they worked was stone with carved patterns decorating its surface. Traces of the natural rock still covered the slab in places. Liam stepped into the chamber and the miners finally acknowledged his presence. Their talking stopped and their pickaxes were lowered to their sides.

“G’day mate,” greeted the miner to the right in a strange accent.

“Are you here to rescue us?” asked the second man in a high pitched voice.

“Sure,” said Liam. “Are there any other slaves down here?”

“Naa, just us two.”

Liam shrugged. “Fine. Follow me,” he sighed. As he turned to leave, one of the large boulders next to the exit exploded. When the dust cleared a Forukk stood in the place where the rock had been moments before. There were several crashes behind him closely followed by a storm of dust. Liam looked around to see himself and the two miners surrounded by ten Forukks.

“A trap. How unexpected,” said Liam dryly.

The miner with the foreign accent stepped forwards and a green glaze began working its way up his body. His footwear changed from tattered work boots to fine shoes, his baggy and torn trousers into shining greaves. This change from rags to grandeur took mere seconds until the glaze reached his head. The man’s short untidy hair shrank into his head until he had no hair remaining. Pale skin tanned in an instant. Mr Xion stood before Liam with a complacent grin on his face. Liam did not know this but even so, he got the idea that he was facing a very unpleasant man.

“Where are the miners?” asked Liam, not sounding surprised or intimidated by the fact he was surrounded.

“They are well protected so don’t you worry,” said Xion in mock kindness. “I moved them as soon as I knew you were coming. Two warriors banging on our door looking for a fight for no reason seems like a good distraction tactic to me,” he laughed. “I feared that others might have honed into this location too but apparently I was wrong.”

“Are you going to kill me or just stand there talking all day?” asked Liam in a bored tone.

“I’m not going to kill you. It’s far more fun to slowly torture you until you lose your mind. I do so hate children after all. Call it venting if you will.”

“Yippee,” said Liam without a hint of emotion.

Previous – Chapter 49. Adapt to Survive.

Next – Chapter 51. Hunter and Prey.

Chapter 49. Adapt to Survive. (The Sword Summoner: History Repeats)

Billy cursed for the third time as he slowly waded through the marsh he had gotten himself into. He had been told by a messenger slave he had met that over two dozen slaves were working in the drowned fields to the far west of the fortress that were walled off separately. A gate just big enough to fit a cart through connected the fields with the main city.

Expecting a field like the rice fields back home, Billy had stupidly gone to be the hero without thinking. Now he was up to his waist in thick, slimy water with not a single slave in sight. To make matters worse the bugs around him seemed to have taken a liking to him, biting at his exposed flesh whenever they got the chance.

He was about to give up and turn around when he heard the sound of sloshing that was not being made by himself. Someone else was wading through the water, just ahead of Billy by the sound of it. He stopped moving and listened.

Billy was an excellent hunter. He could tell that whatever was moving through the water was large and wore armour just from the sound of the water. It was a Forukk. He would bet his life on it. Removing his bow from his bag he attached a white feathered arrow and aimed in the direction the sloshing was coming from. Slowly he pulled back the string until it would go no further then released.

There was a satisfying twang then a deep gurgle, closely followed by a splash. Billy investigated his handy work and found that a second Forukk had beaten him to it. He quickly put his bow away and pulled out his crossbow. The bolt fired. It shot into the creature’s eye.

After recovering his ammunition it was not long before he found where the slaves were working. The area of the field was not very large but the plant that was being harvested was twice the size of a normal human. They shot up perfectly straight and narrow like bamboo but their outsides were a dull gore colour.

Because of their large size, the Forukks that guarded the slaves stayed around the edge of the field rather than struggling through the narrow gaps. This gave Billy the opportunity to pick them off at a distance. Granted they were tough up close but an arrow to the head dropped them well enough. By the time all of the guards were alerted to Billy’s presence only four remained.

He was thinking it was easy pickings until one came from behind him and bludgeoned him across his ribs. Rolling back to his feet he narrowly dodged another attack. In one swift motion he drew a small dagger from his sleeve and threw it towards the monster. It glided through the air gracefully like a swan then dug deeply into the leathery skin of its neck.

Billy had just enough time to turn and draw his sword before the still living Forukks reached him. He parried one blow but was caught by a second one across his shoulder. There was a flurry of attacks and a Forukk fell. In exchange Billy received a deep gash along his arm. The larger of the two remaining Forukks lunged, sending Billy under the water.

Looking up weakly, Billy coughed and tried to get to his feet but failed. By now the slaves had formed a ring around the fighters. The two Forukks towered over him, readying the finishing blow, cold anger in their eyes.

As the jagged blade came down it went astray as one of the slaves tackled the Forukk. Billy’s blurry vision honed in on the slave. Horror hit him. It was his Uncle Charley. Desperately Billy tried again to get to his feet and help but his body would not move. His Uncle gave him a look that said ‘Don’t worry’ as the Forukk swung at him. In seemingly slow motion his body fell into the water a pace away from Billy.

Like a ripple, the slaves around them began to shout in outrage at the creatures. Then as one they surged forwards in crazed rage. Three fell immediately to the Forukks’ blades but the sheer mass of humans pulled the creatures down. The slaves grabbed anything that they could from their small harvest knives to stones. One even took Billy’s discarded sword. Five more splashed into the water without rising again before both Forukks went down.

Billy’s mind was blank. It took him a few seconds to realise he was being pulled to his feet. Around him stood the slaves and despite the death that had happened mere moments before, a new hope shone in their eyes.

“We’re guessing you have a plan, young Billy,” grunted the slave that had helped him up. It was farmer McGill.

“Y-yeah,” stammered Billy, still slightly shook up from his uncle’s sacrifice. He forced himself to calm down then continued. “Head to the outer storehouse, second level. You’ll be safe in there for now-”

A roar that shook his very soul thundered from behind him. Billy turned to see one of the giant Forukks that Lily had told him were called Nis’Forukk, standing within arms reach of the boy. Again their stealth surprised him. For something so gigantic to get this close through water without him hearing was unbelievable.

“Run!” Billy bellowed to the slaves who were frozen in fear. This, accompanied by another hellish roar from the Nis’Forukk was enough to get them moving.

“What about you lad?” shouted the farmer.

“I’ll take care of this guy. Go on without me and I’ll catch you up later.” They both knew this was a lie but there was no time to argue.

Unluckily for Billy, one of the slaves still had his sword and he was running low on arrows. He bent down and grabbed one of the Forukk’s blades. It was far bigger and heavier than Billy’s own sword but it would have to do.

“Bring it on!”

Billy cursed repeatedly as he rolled out of the way of the Nis’Forukk’s spiked gauntlet. Fighting a beast such as this was near impossible to start with but with an unfamiliar and heavy weapon and no backup the situation was unwinnable.

The Nis’Forukk struck again and Billy rolled to the side a second too late. The monster’s huge fist clipped the boy’s foot, sending him flying into the water. Before he even had a chance to move, the Nis’Forukk wrapped its hand around Billy’s body and lifted the boy up to its eye level. Its hellfire eyes burned into Billy’s mind. Foul air hit Billy’s face as the Nis’Forukk opened its maw and its stale breath oozed out. Its teeth were large and flat like hammerheads, designed for breaking bones rather than ripping flesh.

The heavy blade fell from Billy’s hand as the Nis’Forukk tightened its grip. He would have cried out but he could not draw breath into his lungs. As his vision began to fade into darkness he saw those yellow teeth moving towards him. He was glad he would be unconscious when his bones were ground to dust.

A distant sounding shout of “Chew on this!” was the last thing his brain registered before he passed out.

A metal barrel shot past Billy’s head and smashed into the Nis’Forukk’s mouth, cracking several of its teeth. Upon impact the barrel exploded, spraying grey gloop onto the beast’s face. It roared out in pain, dropping Billy as it flailed its arms.

Billy hit the ground with a splash of water and an “Oof” as the sudden pain woke him. It would have knocked the breath from his lungs if there had been any to knock out. He looked around as his vision began to clear and saw Trey stood a few feet away.

The Nis’Forukk struck out at Billy again but the grey slop had run into its eyes, temporarily blinding it. The fist landed short. Trey dashed in and pulled Billy out of the creature’s range.

“What the hell did you do to it?” asked Billy as he staggered to his feet and examined the semi-liquid that drenched the Nis’Forukk.

“I had a little visit to the kitchens. That stuff was what the slaves were forced to eat. I figured that he might like to try some,” replied Trey.

“Yeah, but you couldn’t carry that barrel, let alone launch it at that thing’s face.”

“Magnetism. I used some spells to make my hand magnetic, made sure that it and the barrel were both positive. When I got it here I propped it up on a rock, aimed up then punched the barrel. The two positive forces repelled against each other and fired the barrel at the Nis’Forukk.” Trey informed, taking up a teacher-like tone. 

Billy stared blankly at him. Trey sighed. “Nimula, Billy. I used Nimula.” Billy’s face lit up as he understood. Usually he would have understood the first explanation but his brain had been deprived of too much oxygen.

The last of the gruel was cleared from the Nis’Forukk’s eyes and it charged. It leapt into the air, planning to crush the boys beneath its massive bulk. Trey swivelled his arm to face left and Billy’s discarded Forukk sword flew towards him. The second it touched his hand he shot it off in the Nis’Forukks direction. The combined force of gravity pulling the Nis’Forukk down and the velocity sending the blade up was enough to make the blade pierce the Nis’Forukk’s black hide. The attack caused the Nis’Forukk to go off target, crashing to the ground a few feet in front of the boys.

Trey and Billy made eye contact and nodded at the unsaid decision. Trey passed his sword to Billy who then ran off into the surrounding mists. Unsheathing a combat knife from its place on his leg, Trey rushed forward while the Nis’Forukk was still recovering. It whipped out its arm and Trey leapt to the side, not faltering as he charged. He ducked low under a second attack then drove his knife into the beast’s thigh.

The Nis’Forukk laughed as a small flow of black blood bubbled from the wound, burning Trey’s hand like acid. The creature stopped laughing when Trey began to chuckle to himself.

From behind the monster came Billy from the mists. Trey had been an excellent distraction and now it was his turn. He bounded onto the gigantic Forukk’s back, using its spine as steps, then plunged Trey’s sword through the top of the beast’s head.

Trey watched the blade enter the Nis’Forukk’s skull. The creature made a strange sound like distressed metal then collapsed with a thunderous thud to the ground.

“Piece of cake,” stated Billy boldly.

“Don’t talk about cake,” moaned Trey as they both headed to the storehouse to meet up with the others.

Previous – Chapter 48. The Rescue Begins.

Next – Chapter 50. A Very Expected Trap.

Chapter 48. The Rescue Begins. (The Sword Summoner: History Repeats)

Like so many times before, Trey followed his nose. Clinging to the shadows he was guided forwards by the smell of cooking food. It was the only pleasant smell in the thick air that stank and seemed to clog the airways. The putrid scent of the Forukks clung to everything like tar.

Other than a few Forukks guarding various entrances to the uniform dark stone buildings that surrounded the inner castle and a few hurrying humans, Trey saw nothing of note. The city almost looked to be a warped parody of Pastrino but with fewer buildings. Each was an imposing, dark grey stone that could withstand catapults as easily as the black walled fortress at their heart.

As he had expected, the smell led straight to a kitchen. As far as he could tell there was only one door into the building and that was being watched by a grumpy looking Forukk armed with a barbed whip. Through the open doorway Trey could see Mrs Masli, the owner of a grocery shop near to Trey’s house, peeling potatoes. She wore dirty rags that hung from her in every possible place.

The Forukk on guard began sniffing intently at the air, its body tensing up ready to attack. Then its muscles relaxed again as it seemed to recognise whatever it was that it had smelled. “It’s you again is it?” the Forukk growled. “You smell different. Have you been stealing the Master’s smell in a bottle again?” it said in a gruff voice.

Trey stared at the Forukk in confusion. He had been told by Htaed that Forukks could identify people via smell but he had never met this one to his knowledge. Whatever the reason, Trey did not have time to ponder it. The Forukk knew he was there and a mistake in scent would not keep him safe for long.

Trey stepped forwards out of the shadows, testing his luck. The Forukk’s gaze settled on him and for a second it seemed complacent with Trey’s identity. Then realisation struck it. That second was

enough for Trey to dash in and lunge his blade into the Forukk’s chest. It gurgled and growled as Trey removed his sword, then it fell to the ground without another sound.

Mrs Masli had dropped her knife and the half peeled potato in amazement. “T-Trey? Is that you?”

“Mrs Masli.” Trey nodded his head respectfully. “Sorry I took so long. Do you know anywhere I can hide this guy?” he asked as he pointed towards the Forukk.

She seemed stunned as she studied Trey. The lazy appearance and carefree attitude had disappeared. He had killed a Forukk in one strike when the Pastrino guards had struggled to even defend themselves. Now he looked like he had aged many years. He was no longer a boy but a man. She snapped out of her musing then signalled to a nearby pantry door. Trey dragged the body inside.

“Do you know where all the other slaves are?”

“No,” replied the woman. “We were all separated. The leaders of this place chose certain slaves for certain jobs. Me and some of the others were thrown into this kitchen.”

“You mean there are more in here?”

“Yes. The slaves prepare all the food for everyone inside the city other than the masters so there are lots of us here. There’s also lots of guards,” she said with a shiver.

“No worries. Point me in the right direction and I’ll do the rest,” Trey announced with a smile. “Do you know where the northern warehouse is?” The woman nodded. “Go in there, second floor and wait for me, Billy or Zak. Or two people you won’t recognise, a stunningly beautiful girl and a guy dressed fully in black. Anyway, I’ve got to go.”

Without another word they both ran off in opposite directions. Trey noticed several faces he knew from Pastrino, slaving away in the kitchens. He also saw several guards, both Forukk and human. He could not just run in and fight them all; he needed a distraction.

Finding an empty closet he took from his bag Garvel’s Nimula book. Flicking hurriedly through the pages a certain spell caught his attention. He prepared himself for the mental strain then chanted the words inscribed on the page. There was a small puff sound and lots of smoke. When the smoke cleared Trey smiled at his own genius. Stood before the boy, scratching it’s backside, was a monkey.

“Hey little guy. Go cause some chaos for me,” Trey said as if addressing a small child.

“Don’t patronise me, jerk,” replied the monkey in a gravelly voice as it opened the door and headed down the hallway.

“S-sorry…” called Trey weakly.

A series of bangs and shouts alerted Trey that the decoy was working. He leapt through the door and headed straight for the main kitchen area, directing any slaves he found where to go and dispatching the few guards not distracted by the monkey. He got there in no time and after a brief encounter with a particularly ugly Forukk he sent every slave on their way as quickly as possible. Not one had seen his mother since their arrival.

“I’ll catch you up in a minute,” he called after them. A smile crept onto his face as he eyed the various barrels filled with nocuous ooze that Trey guessed was supposed to be food for the slaves.

As Trey set to work on his plan he could hear some of the distraction still within the building. “That monkey just slapped me!” came a distant human voice.

“It wasn’t a slap. You couldn’t tell a good right hook even when it hits you in the face, idiot.”

“Agh! It bit my finger.”

Previous – Chapter 47. Prophets and Protectors.

Next – Chapter 49. Adapt to Survive.

Chapter 47. Prophets and Protectors. (The Sword Summoner: History Repeats)

He tried to dodge, to knock away the metal with his sword but he was too slow. He hit the ground with a heavy weight pinning him down. Twisting around he saw that it was Kenux who had thrown him to the floor in a life or death dive. A dozen gleaming shuriken were wedged deeply into the wood where Pux had been standing a moment before.

“I expect better of you, Wutoxa.” Kenux pulled Pux to his feet. He looked ruffled but short of a few cuts that continued to faintly bleed, he still looked ready to fight.

Pux offered his mentor a grateful nod. “They are looking for something called an Oracle. On the Lord Prophet’s orders they cannot take it.”

Kenux slid his blade from its scabbard. “The battle outside is turning in our favour. Captain Lexisow is leading the counter-attack as we speak. She should be able to handle those Fallen who remain. There are no Yuxova to spare though. It is up to us to defend the Heart.” He cast a sombre look at Vexil’s body.

The shrouded Fallen unleashed another volley of shuriken but with two targets to dilute the attacks and more prepared prey, this second wave achieved nothing. The two captains dashed at the shadow warriors. In perfect unity, twelve short, thin bladed swords were drawn.

Pux sliced at the first Fallen and was certain that the blade should have connected with flesh but the dark Yuxova simply disappeared from his sight. On instinct Pux spun, managing to block a strike that would have severed his spinal cord. Another Fallen ran at him before he could recover his stance from the first attack.

One blade tore into his shoulder while the second only pierced through his coat. Ignoring the sudden pain he sliced off the hand that had missed him then quickly recovered his opponent’s sword from the folds of cloth.

Both blades flashed out causing the Fallen to jump away. Pux was far from an expert at duel wielding weapons but he knew enough to keep most opponents on their toes long enough for him to formulate a better plan.

The Fallen darted in and struck out for Pux’s heart. One blade blocked the attack while the second stabbed the Yuxova through the forearm of his offensive hand. No sound came from the veiled face. With the sword that had parried the strike, Pux lopped off his foe’s head in one clean swipe.

Kenux was wading through the much faster Fallen with seeming ease. Three corpses already lay at his feet while another four Yuxova dashed around him. That was all that Pux had time to see before the remaining three shadow warriors rushed him from three sides.

It took him every ounce of his skill to come out of the flurry of blades with nothing more than scratches. He doubted that he could pull it off a second time. The three Yuxova ran around him, swapping their positions before closing in once more for the kill.

Pux loosened his muscles and stood with his swords hung at his side. Steadying his breath he closed his eyes and listened to the soft pad of rushing feet. He waited. In an explosion of movement he threw himself forward, using his blades’ superior reach to scissor the Yuxova in front of him. The other two warriors hit out where he had been while Pux charged past the bifurcated body of the first. His feet moved as quickly as he could will them. The Fallen were close on his heels and gaining every second. Trusting in his luck, Pux ran up one of the pillars and flipped behind the two grey-skinned Yuxova. Pux cut them down before they could even turn.

Looking to the side as he caught his breath, Pux watched Kenux grab the arm of a Fallen who was attempting to slide his blade into the captain’s chest. Without pause, Kenux bent the Yuxova’s arm and used the short blade to slit the warrior’s own throat. The Fallen fell limply to the floor, joining the cluster of his defeated companions.

“Not bad,” Kenux told Pux with an approving smile. “A few more years and you will be one of the best.”

Pux was on the verge of responding when the Lord Prophet flew through the air and smashed into him, sending them both hurtling into the base of a pillar. Heavy footfalls sounded down the chamber. As fast as possible, Pux pulled Xuex up and dragged him behind the pillar. Kenux intercepted Goliox before the giant could reach the Lord Prophet again.

“Are you hurt?” Pux asked Xuex. The elderly Yuxova looked beaten but Pux could see no major injuries.

The Lord Prophet shook his head slowly. “No. I just need a minute to catch my breath. These old organs just can’t keep up anymore.” He coughed then slumped into a sitting position. “Go, my son. Help your brother captain. I will be fine here.”

A pained curse from Kenux shattered any arguments. Pux jumped from his cover and slammed into Goliox’s back. Any normal Yuxova should have been knocked down hard but Goliox only staggered for a step. The Fallen pushed himself back, ramming Pux to the ground. Kenux lunged but his blade clanked harmlessly against the thickened metal armour.

“Every captain together couldn’t hope to beat me! You will all drown in a wave of chaos!” Goliox laughed. It was a booming noise that filled the entirety of the chamber. “The Oracle will be mine.”

Kenux bared his teeth at the massive Yuxova. “The only thing that will be yours is an unmarked grave!” He jumped at the larger fighter and was instantly hit with a wide sweeping swing of Goliox’s oversized blade. Pux hacked at his calf muscle and the Fallen fell to one knee.

A roar that hit Pux like a slap was all the warning he got before Goliox burst back to his feet in a rampage of devastating sword strokes. Veins throbbed on his forehead while his grey skin grew darker, almost black with rage. He lashed out at Kenux who slid under the swing. Goliox’s blade cut deeply into one of the pillars and did not budge when he tried to yank it free. Another bellow was let out. Blinded by wrath, Goliox scrambled for any object to use as a weapon. His bulky hands worked their way to the central altar and gripped hard. With a single, mighty pull, the rectangular slab was raised from the ground.

Kenux charged and was batted across the chamber by a swing of the carved bone block. Goliox spun around and threw the altar straight at Pux. Pux dived to one side but the heavy box caught his legs, causing him to spin into a wooden column.

The altar hit the ground and shattered into a million tiny fragments as though it had been made of glass. As the slithers of white clattered to a stop, a dark-wood cube about the size of a human eyeball continued to spin in the middle of the debris.

“The Oracle!” Goliox exclaimed. His rage faded the instant that his eyes had spotted the plain looking object.

Pux tried to crawl to the cube but his legs would not move. Kenux showed no sign of moving at all. Step by step, Goliox was coming closer to victory. His slight limp did nothing to slow him. Wide-eyed, the Fallen reached down. The cube fell and finally ceased its spinning. Then it was gone.

Goliox whipped around to his right, every part of him radiating the fury of a storm. The Oracle sat a short distance away. Atop it was seated the Lord Prophet.

“The Oracle will not be leaving this room.” The words left Xuex’s mouth as cold, hard daggers. His face was impassive and the Key of Ages rested on his shoulder. “Nor will you.”

“That is big talk for a man who I have already beaten.” Goliox’s eyes did not stray from the Oracle for a moment. He addressed Xuex but it was as though the Lord Prophet no longer existed. “The Oracle will unleash its secrets.”

Xuex’s robes and hair started to sway in a wind that appeared to surround the Lord Prophet alone. A faint white glow overlapped his body, slowly growing into a pale inferno.

Now Goliox’s eyes shot up to stare heatedly at the old Yuxova. “The flames of Akri,” he breathed, almost reverently. “I thought that knowledge was lost.”

“Not lost; only forbidden.” The Lord Prophet’s voice sounded deeper. Each word felt charged with energy.

Goliox took a hold of himself. “No matter. I will kill you then take both the Oracle and the scroll that contains Akri’s techniques.”

From his belt he drew a thin-bladed dagger that was the size of a normal Yuxova sword. His large muscles flexed then he burst into movement. Xuex brought his staff down in a single, sharp strike that caught the Fallen on the knuckles, knocking the dagger clean from his hand. The Lord Prophet twisted his wrist so that the tip of the Key of Ages slammed into Goliox’s gut. The giant shot back, smashed through a pillar then landed in a heap at the other end of the chamber. He scurried to his feet but the Lord Prophet was no longer sat upon the Oracle.

A sharp pain flared in Goliox’s back then he was hurtling through the air again. In a heartbeat he was smacked in a different direction, then another and another. Pux watched in a daze, saw the Lord Prophet seemingly teleport to where the giant would be thrown to continue his assault.

Goliox crashed to the floor after a final downward smash by Xuex. The Lord Prophet landed gently beside Pux, white flames still burning around him. It took a visible effort for Goliox to struggle to stand. Even then he swayed slightly as he faced down Xuex.

“Don’t think that you’ve won! Those of us who follow the true gods have powers of our own!” Blood red tendrils tore through his skin and started to wrap around his armour. From these tendrils, strange crystals formed and spread, encasing Goliox in a jumble of razor sharp edges and points that glimmered in the light.

The flames around Xuex suddenly blazed tenfold brighter than before. The air around him became supercharged and the ground beneath him started to crack and burn. His long hair and flowing robes whipped around him wildly. He pointed the Key of Ages at Goliox and it too became engulfed in the white inferno. “Fool.”

A beam of raw power flared out from the tip of the staff that flooded the chamber in harsh, blinding light. The beam struck Goliox in the centre of his chest, and struggled in place for a few seconds. Then, with a high-pitch sound that cut through the roar of the flames, the crystals shattered explosively. Without the crystal protecting him, Goliox screamed as armour and flesh was seared away by the power. A moment passed until the beam tore into the wall behind him.

The raging white light spluttered then dimmed, fading away into nothing over the course of several seconds. Xuex sagged and the flames flickered out of existence. Sweat was slick all across his pale skin. Opposite him, Goliox was still standing. The vast majority of his chest was missing, leaving only a charred black ring of flesh where his organs had once been. He fell wordlessly, the crystals already evaporating into dust.

A sigh of relief had almost crossed Pux’s lips when a slight thud behind them drew his attention to the Oracle. Two of the black-clad shadow Fallen had lifted the inch long cube between them and were making their way to the exit.

Pux tried to move but knew he would never reach them in time. He called out to the Lord Prophet who turned to face them, the white flames instantly blazing across him once again. One of the Fallen dropped a small ball to the floor that burst and began to flood the area in thick smoke. Xuex threw the Key of Ages like a javelin. He waved his arm and a great gust blew down the chamber to clear the smoke.

The Oracle was gone. One of the Fallen was pinned to a pillar, the Key of Ages impaled through his gut and into the wood beyond. He was already dead. Xuex held out a hand and closed his eyes. A moment later a frown crossed his face.

“He is gone. I can read no trace of him nearby.” The Lord Prophet recovered his staff with a sharp tug before inspecting the dead Yuxova. “They must have powers of their own.”

“What will we do now, Lord Prophet?” Kenux asked through shaking breaths. He had managed to stand and was slowly staggering toward Xuex and Pux.

Xuex was silent and his face was stern. Then the sternness faded and a slight smile crossed his lips. He once again assumed the role of a loving grandfather. “The first things should always come first. It is time to stop that farce going on outside, eh boys,” he announced, offering a helping hand to both captains.

“We are fully grown Yuxova, not boys,” mumbled Kenux as he took Xuex’s hand for support while Pux was pulled to his feet.

“You are still but babies to those of my age,” replied the Lord Prophet as he led the way out of the Heart and into the adjoining corridor.

The walk was painfully fast for the two injured warriors but they were both determined not to show weakness in front of the Lord Prophet. They did not encounter a single living creature as they passed through room after room. The only sound was their footsteps and the burdened breathing of Pux and Kenux.

Sound flooded back into the three Yuxova’s ears as the entrance doors were swung open. A handful of spider bodies were sprawled across the platform and far below them on the forest floor was a carpet of corpses, both Yuxova and animal. Hundreds of Yuxova waited in the clearing around the mighty tree, all of them the brave warriors of the Guardians.

Stood at their head was the Captain of the Night Riders, Lexisow, atop of her snow-white owl. The female Captain wore a flowing white dress that matched the feathers of her mount and her ice blue hair rolled around her figure in the wind. Despite her beauty, Pux knew she was a very skilled fighter and had never lost a battle.

“My children!” bellowed the Lord Prophet from the edge of the platform. His voice reverberated through the trees, carrying for miles around him. It was like thunder from a mouse. Every creature in the forest gave their full attention to him. Even the trees seemed to lean in closer to hear what he had to say.

“That which we had turned into myth has revealed itself to be an all too real danger. Yuxova who betrayed their brothers and sisters many lives ago and were exiled to the darkest corner of the world fought against us this day. The Fallen have returned and we must be ready for anything that they can throw at us.”

Xuex looked every person in the eyes before continuing. “We cannot become blind to the rest of the world though. Forukks continue their rampage of the land and humans are dying all around us. Too long have we lingered in our trees and let the world forget about us. Too long have we allowed corruption to spread. That ends today. The Yuxova will strike back and nothing can stand in our way!”

Pux noted that Xuex never mentioned the Oracle or any of the events within the Heart. He had no idea of the importance of that box but everything screamed at him that they had not really won the battle. The Fallen had accomplished their goal, a goal which they made their existence known to achieve.

“Long live the true Yuxova!” roared Kenux from the Lord Prophet’s side. The army and gathering citizens chanted those five words as loud as their voices would allow.

Xuex turned to Pux. “What did you learn in your travels?”

Pux cleared his throat then gave a full report on everything that had happened since he had left the forest with Trey, Billy and Zak.

“Hmm. It looks like we will have to be swift in recovering our forces. There is still much work to do and little time to do it in,” the Lord Prophet mused.

“Sir?”

“We leave for war and death when the sun lifts above the horizon. For victory or defeat I do not know but I will not have the Yuxova forgotten from the records of time or recalled as unfaithful cowards.”

Pux lifted his sword into the air. “For honour.”

“For honour,” chorused Xuex and Kenux as they raised their blades up to cross Pux’s. The Oracle could wait for now. There was a group of teenagers in need of saving first.

Previous – Chapter 46. Lanstiro.

Next – Chapter 48. The Rescue Begins.

Chapter 46. Lanstiro. (The Sword Summoner: History Repeats)

The early morning sun breached the wall of clouds that constantly obscured the sky just enough to appear as a waxy blotch in the far distance. Twisted birds that may once have been owls glided over the landscape, returning to their nests with the coming of the light. Silent shadows moved through the roaming mists that surrounded Lanstiro. Slowly they began to meet up around a black barked tree that stood in solitude at the centre of an open patch of ground.

“Are we all clear on what we have to do?” asked Trey as he adjusted the black cloak that he was wearing over his armour.

The whole group, other than Htaed and Lily, were wearing the shadowy cloaks that Htaed had tailored with a grace and speed that stood at odds with his powerful build. Shrouded in darkness, the group could move with the stealth that shining armour could not provide.

Each person nodded in unison, nervousness and determination playing across Trey, Billy and Dawn’s faces while Zak and Lily looked like they could barely contain their excitement. Liam just looked emotionless as always. Htaed looked off to the distance, his eyes unfocused.

“We will travel together for another five minutes then Lily and I will move to the main gate while you find your own way in,” said Htaed.

“Are you sure you’ll be alright just marching up and knocking on their front door?” asked Dawn. Concern edged into her voice.

“We’ve faced worse,” Htaed said with a shrug.

“Yep. They don’t stand a chance!” chirped Lily.

The group moved on through the marsh lands that surrounded the last mile around the tainted fortress that was Lanstiro. The closer to their destination they came, the more barren and harsh their surroundings became. Then as suddenly as it had engulfed them, the fog ended. A mere fifty foot in front of them stood Lanstiro, towering over the group like a monstrous nightmare. Its walls were shielded with black iron sheets that were firmly fitted to the thick stone of the original structure and an uncountable amount of sharpened metal spikes rose from its surface like static hair. Its upper peaks jabbed out toward the heavens like daggers. Forukks patrolled the walls, crude crossbows swaying lazily as the creatures marched back and forth like guard dogs.

“Wait here while we get their attention,” announced Htaed as he and Lily strode off toward the huge, skull encrusted doors of the outer wall. The teens obeyed and watched from the edge of the mist.

The two warriors reached the doors without hindrance. Forukk guards gathered above the gate but made no move to attack. Htaed knocked on the steel-plated wood with such force that dents appeared in the metal and the sound reverberated throughout the ghostly structure. Without warning an arrow shot from the battlement aimed right at Htaed’s chest. Without even looking up he deflected it with a flick of his wrist.

“Come on out and try to end my life, you lowly dogs!” Htaed boomed.

With exaggerated slowness the doors began to open. All was silent as the door eased open then stopped half way. From inside ten Forukks swaggered out growling fiercely at their guests.

“They’re underestimating us. I hate it when people do that!” snapped Lily as she leapt forwards to meet the Forukks. She threw the chakram in her right hand and it struck the lead Forukk in the throat. She slashed at the next Forukk as they met then spun around, grabbing her other chakram from the Forukk’s corpse as she tripped another creature then severed its head.

Htaed had followed up behind Lily. Three Forukks bounded at him with weapons at the ready. With one horizontal cut all three fell to the ground dead. The last four Forukks were killed just as quickly.

The fortress door fully opened and a stream of monsters came out to face the two warriors. Well over a hundred surrounded them.

“They’re still underestimating us,” shrieked Lily.

“Not for long,” sighed Htaed as he motioned to Trey and the others to go.

With a vicious roar from every Forukk present, hell broke loose.

* * *

“He’s given the signal,” informed Trey to the others. “Let’s go.”

After checking that the enemy’s attention was elsewhere, the group scurried from the mist to the imposing wall. They could not brush up against the stone for extra cover as sharp spikes protruded from it at every angle. They skirted the wall until they found what they were looking for.

About three quarters the way around the fortress was what Htaed had told them to look out for. Out of every spike that covered the black walls, only one had a crimson skull shoved onto its end. This was the sign of a secret entrance according to the giant man. How he knew no one could guess but it was the only chance they had.

Unluckily for the teens, the skull was near the top of the outer wall, with no purchase to grab other than the sharpened metal. Zak volunteered to climb up first and pull the spike that was actually a cleverly hidden lever. He very soon regretted this choice. Every spike had an edge like a razor and while they were effective for climbing the wall, Zak’s hands soon became a bloody mess despite his plate-backed gloves and his sandals quickly disintegrated.

The others watched in horror as Zak neared the lever. Blood dripped down from his cuts, splashing the ground below him. He reached out with a shaking hand, grabbing the lever and slowly pushed it up. A small section of the wall opened up and snapped to the side like a mousetrap. Zak only just avoided being crushed by flipping off of the wall and landing roughly on the floor next to Dawn. From that height it was a miracle that he had survived the fall, let alone avoided breaking any bones. Trey was sure that if it had been anyone else then they would have been too slow to escape the trap.

Zak shouted out in pain as he held his left leg. Dawn inspected it and announced “It’s sprained.”

“Looks like we’re all going to have to climb up to get inside,” Liam pointed out.

“You saw what happened to Zak. Even without the fall he got all cut up. If we try then we’ll be half dead before we even get inside,” argued Dawn. “I have slight healing abilities but we won’t have time to fully reform the skin. Even that is pointless though as I couldn’t use my healing powers when my own hands are damaged. It’s not like I can effectively heal myself.”

“I can.” Everyone turned to Liam. He shrugged under the attention. “I learned to heal my own wounds so that I would never have to rely on others.”

“Could you heal us too?” Trey asked.

Liam shook his head. “I’ve never tried to heal others. I suppose that I could probably heal Dawn’s hands to the point where she can help the rest of you.”

“It’s the only way,” sighed Trey. “Zak, you ready for another climb?”

“No,” he replied to everyone’s surprise. He had never shown fear, weakness or even common sense. He was up for anything. “We won’t be able to hold our weapons once we’re up. Yes, Liam and Dawn can heal us but then they will be too drained to fight. We lose either way.”

“We don’t have any choice!” snapped Billy. “Stop moaning and just get on with it.” Without waiting for a response Billy began to climb.

After the shock on Zak’s face passed a new respect for Billy entered his eyes then he too began to climb. Liam followed them both without a word, leaving Trey and Dawn at the bottom. Trey began to climb but stopped when he realised Dawn was not moving. She looked terrified as she watched blood come down around her like rain.

“Are you coming?” asked Trey. She shakily looked up at Trey, then at the other boys and finally at the entrance. “Don’t worry. Sure it hurts but it’s the only way. Its either carry on forwards or give up and go back.”

Dawn made a sound that was a mixture of a laugh and a sigh. “Trey, I’m not scared of pain. I’m kind of afraid of heights,” she stuttered with an embarrassed look.

Trey thought for several moments before holding out his hand. “You have nothing to fear. We’re all here for you.”

Still looking unconvinced but not wanting to look weak she accepted his hand. She would have held on longer if they both did not need two hands to climb.

“Just don’t look down,” said Trey with a hiss of pain that he tried to turn into a nervous laugh. It did not seem to help.

It took less time than they had expected for them all to crawl into the tunnel. Once inside it was a tight fit, especially for Zak with his huge battle axe and dual katana. Luckily it was a very short tunnel that led to some kind of storage room. There was just enough space among the various boxes for all five teens to fit inside the room. There was no sign that the room had been used recently.

Liam sat crossed-legged and began to trace his index finger along the cuts of his left hand. After a few minutes he swapped hands. Once he was finished he wiped away the blood. There was not the slightest of marks upon either hand.

“What did you do?” Dawn all but gaped. She grabbed his hands to examine them thoroughly. “The skin should at least look raw. It looks like you never even had any wounds.”

Gently taking hold of Dawn’s shredded hands, Liam began to repeat the process. At the girl’s prompting he started to explain. “Most healers speed up the body’s natural regeneration, forcing what would take weeks to heal to take only minutes instead. The damage is still there for the most part. I…sort of…reverse the wound.”

“That shouldn’t be possible,” Dawn muttered. She studied her first hand in amazement. “It just doesn’t work like that.”

“If you say so,” Liam commented blandly. His hands continued to move smoothly but sweat beaded on his pale forehead. As soon as Dawn’s hands were unbroken skin once more, she set to work on patching up the others while Liam slumped against a crate to recover.

It took longer than Trey had hoped but eventually everyone was ready to continue. Trey, Billy and Zak’s hands were still sore though while Dawn and Liam were weary from their work. They would have to suffice. No more time could be wasted.

They cautiously climbed down a ladder that led from the room they had entered to a much larger storage room. This one had been used recently.

“So, how are we going about all this?” asked Liam to no one in particular.

“I haven’t worked out the details yet but I think we should split up and search. We can cover a bigger area that way plus we have less chance of being discovered. We are all competent in a fight so we should be fine,” said Trey with forced optimism. “Stay safe and we’ll see each other when every slave is free.”

“You realise that there are so many flaws in this plan that it can’t possibly work,” sighed Liam.

“Like what?” asked Zak.

“Like where do we meet up, how long we have until we meet up, how to find our way around, where to get food and water, where to sleep-”

“Okay. We get the point. The plan is a little sketchy but it’s all we have. We’ll meet back in here at sundown with anyone we’ve freed. Sound good?”

“Not really,” complained Liam

“Dibs on the castle!” said Zak.

“Let’s go.”

They exited the storage building then separated, heading out to search their individual areas.

Previous – Chapter 45. Strange Hosts.

Next – Chapter 47. Prophets and Protectors.

Chapter 45. Strange Hosts. (The Sword Summoner: History Repeats)

“Holy Sprite!” murmured Billy as he gazed at the blood soaked woman.

She wore a knee length yellow skirt, knee high socks of pink and white stripes, a white tank top and steel vambraces etched with rabbits. Her purple hair hung down her back in a ponytail. In her left hand was a chakram in the design of a deadly periwinkle flower. Another identical one hung at the right hand side of her waist. Her eyes were a fluorescent blue and she had a maniacal smile.

“So, you wanna die?” she giggled.

“Not really,” began Trey but he was interrupted by Zak.

“Bring it on!” he shouted as he readied his axe with an equally insane grin.

“Zak calm down. We’re not here to fight, let alone with a person who killed that thing,” Trey said as he motioned to the Forukk at her feet.

“What do you mean you’re not here to fight? Everyone is here to fight. Fighting is what everyone does. If you’re not here to fight then why are you here?” said the women at twice the speed normal people spoke.

“Why should we tell you?” said Billy.

“‘Cos’ I’m gonna beat you if you don’t tell me,” snickered the woman.

“It’s five against one, we have the advantage,” stated Dawn in her best attempt at calm diplomacy.

“That’s what the Zelo Empire said: ‘It’s one against ten thousand, we have the advantage.’ It never did them any good,” said the woman with a laugh.

“We’re heading to Lanstiro to free the people of Pastrino. If you want to try and stop us, we will fight you and we will win,” said Trey.

“Invading the fortress of an army of Forukks with only five kids? You’re my kind of people. That sort of battle might be fun. I’m Lily by the way,” said the woman as she attached the chakram back onto her belt.

“We don’t want to get into a fight. We’re getting in, finding the slaves and getting them out,” Dawn explained tensely. The woman seemed to be getting to Dawn in some way.

Lily laughed hard holding her ribs. “You expect to sneak into the enemy main base, find every slave in a huge area that’s crawling with Forukks, then have a mass exodus back out again, all without being noticed?”

“Pretty much,” smiled Zak.

“Sounds fun. I still prefer a frontal assault though,” said Lily as she began to skip down the hill, heading south. “C’mon. You’ve gotta meet Htaed.”

“Do we follow?” asked Dawn.

“She is strong,” commented Liam. “She’ll be a big help in enemy territory.”

“Agreed,” said Trey.

They followed her along the cliff for ten minutes when she suddenly hopped off the edge. As the group rushed over to the side they were relieved to hear her shout up for them to join her. Peering over the edge they saw a large ledge ten foot below with a small house perched at the right hand side. Grass covered the ledge giving it a peaceful feel.

As they climbed down to the platform, the idyllic scene around them was shattered as they noticed that what they thought had been a fence was really hundreds of pikes circling the lawn, impaled Forukk heads festering at the tips.

“Wait here while I get Htaed,” called the woman as she bounded into the cottage. It was a simple building of carved stone blocks and thin wooden planks covered in a layer of a pale, clay like substance.

A few moments later she jumped back out dragging a giant of a man behind her. His matted black hair rested across his broad shoulders, baggy trousers swayed around his legs in the wind and he wore a torn coat over his bare chest. He had no shoes. In each hand he held a great sword as tall and wide as Trey. His face was hard and scars crisscrossed all of his visible skin.

“What brings such young people out into these forsaken lands?” spoke the man in a soft voice that contrasted with his brutal appearance. No one seemed able to respond. He looked far scarier than the Forukks and his very presence spoke of death and destruction. His calm demeanour and soft voice just added confusion.

Liam finally answered his question. “We go to free the slaves that the Forukks are holding captive.”

Htaed cocked an eyebrow, whether in suspicion or amusement no one could tell. “Come inside to eat and rest. You will not get another chance after this point.” All five teens made no move to go inside the house. They were with two complete strangers who seemed far from normal and were very powerful. Any number of traps could be inside the cottage.

Lily scoffed at the group for their suspicion. “You’re underestimating us. I hate it when people do that. We hate those Forukks so we obviously won’t be working with them and if we wanted you dead you’d be dead by now. We don’t use traps and deception like cowards.”

The group was not particularly reassured but the woman was right, they could have killed them whenever they felt like it and they certainly did not like the Forukks, the skewered heads were a testament to that. Cautiously Trey took the first step over the threshold and looked around.

The whole inside was just one large room. A hammock hung at either end of the room and a plain wooden table sat at the centre between the two. A small fire flickered in the fireplace behind the table, opposite from the door. Other than two old chairs and a cupboard there was nothing else in the house. Once everyone was inside the house became rather crowded. Htaed offered Dawn a seat and Lily took the other leaving all the men to stand.

“I believe we have a lot to discuss,” said Htaed. “We must be quick with words though as within the next few days the slaves will be spread so thin throughout enemy territory that it will be impossible to find them all.”

“What’s to discuss?” asked Billy. “We know what we are doing. The only question is will you help us and that only needs a one word answer.”

“If you think it is that simple then you really will need help. Five children cannot invade an enemy fortress and hope to survive.”

“We aren’t children, we’re young adults,” stated Zak. “Anyway, Lily looks only a few years older than us and if what she says is true, she can survive anywhere.”

Htaed looked thoughtful for a moment. “Lily is… special. She is a lot older than she looks.”

“Whatever. We’re still going whether we stand a chance or not,” Trey concluded.

“We aren’t going to stop you. We are just saying that you need a distraction while you sneak around,” Htaed said.

“You mean-”

“Yep! Me and Htaed are gonna kick some Forukk butt while you lot scurry around like mice,” chirped Lily, barely containing her excitement.

“Anyway, eat up and rest for the remainder of the day. Once the morning comes we will set off. Lily and I will knock on their front door while you go around the back.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Trey as he held out his hand to the warrior.

Htaed shook his hand, the coarse appendage fully encasing Trey’s, then they began to eat the strange food that had been placed upon the table while they had been talking. As they rested, Htaed filled them in on his plan and discussed all that he knew of the Forukks and of the city itself.

Previous – Chapter 44. Torn from Home.

Next – Chapter 46. Lanstiro.

Chapter 44. Torn from Home. (The Sword Summoner: History Repeats)

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.

Chapter 43. The Oracle. (The Sword Summoner: History Repeats)

Slotting another bolt into his crossbow, Pux ran down the golden-cream corridor and headed towards the Heart where he was sure the Lord Prophet would be. Veins of grass green fungi illuminated the passageways with a soft emerald glow like the sun filtering through a thin leaf on a summer’s day. He encountered no sign of resistance as he ran through the first few rooms although he could see signs of a recent battle. A few stray bodies littered the floor, blood smeared the aged walls and occasional gashes bled sap where a weapon hid bitten into the tree’s flesh. Pux borrowed a discarded sword from the side of a young warrior’s corpse. He looked barely out of his teens.

Navigating through the vast maze-like structure of the tree, it took Pux longer than he would have liked to reach the Heart. He peered around the corner into the long aisle that led to a golden door. That ornate wood was all that barred access from the core of the tree. Two Fallen stood guard beside the now battered door and patches of blood stained the floor. Bodies from both armies clustered the hallway.

Pux span around the corner, releasing a bolt as he dodged two arrows that flew to meet him. Without wasting a moment he charged forward. The bolt struck the guard to the left through his stomach, pinning him to the door. The second guard let loose another arrow which Pux deflected with a deft flick of his borrowed sword. He delivered a swift slash across the remaining guard’s chest who fell to the floor with a scream. Pux stepped over his crumpled body and inched opened the door. It was designed for two Yuxova to open but Pux managed it alone, swinging the first guard who was still pinned to it.

The Heart was as stunning as Pux remembered it. He had only been here once before, on the day that he had been given the rank of Captain. More of the glowing moss formed beautiful patterns around the soft core-wood. Golden leaves grew along the ceiling and around pillars that filled the room in concentric rings. At their centre was a bone-white alter where a silver sapling grew from a hole filled with dark soil.

To Pux’s surprise, only three Yuxova occupied the chamber. A handful of bodies that belonged to the Protectors of the Heart were sprawled messily around the floor. Their strong bodies, strict training and hardened redscale armour had not helped them in the least. There was not a single Fallen corpse to indicate a battle had been fought there.

The Lord Prophet Xuex stood beside the altar, resplendent in his snow white robes. Combined with his well-kept white hair and beard and his albino skin he looked like a divine spirit among the living. He held the tall silver staff known as the Key of Life firmly in both smooth hands. Before him two Yuxova fought with a fury that Pux could hardly believe.

One of the combatants was Captain Vexil, leader of the Yuxova soldiers that guarded the Tree of Ages. The other Yuxova had the dull grey skin of a Fallen One but the similarities with the invaders ended there. He was twice the size of a regular Yuxova in all aspects, his hands looking easily capable of crushing Vexil’s skull. He did not look like a monstrosity though. It somehow looked natural, like a Yuxova should grow to that height. His armour was just a scaled up version of the normal Fallen equivalent, albeit being of a far finer quality. An elegantly curved sword rested in each of his hands. He wore dark hair in a ponytail while a thin beard and moustache combo framed his dominant jaw and thin lips. Eyes that gleamed purple sat above a hooked nose.

Neither fighter slowed but Pux was certain that they had already noted his presence and assessed his possible impacts upon the situation. Not that he could do a great deal at the moment. The two Yuxova fought at a level that Pux had no hope of competing with. If he jumped to aid Vexil then he would be little more than a distraction, a child for the other captain to protect.

Vexil rolled under a wide arcing sweep of the giant Yuxova blade but had no time to jab at his opponent’s back before he was kicked across the room. He hit a pillar that was obliterated a moment later by the oversized sword. Vexil dived away and was on his feet in an instant. His blade darted out, striking the larger Yuxova across the calf in an attempt at hamstringing his foe. The metal barely made it past leather-like skin.

The Fallen shrugged off the damage. He slashed down and Vexil tried to parry. His sword was knocked clean out of his hands and stuck itself firmly near the top of a nearby pillar. Undeterred, Vexil thumped any spot he could reach that was not guarded with armour. He dodged away from an attack but then another caught him just under his shoulder. Vexil hissed in pain, staggered back and fell on a section of rubble.

Without emotion, the giant Yuxova stabbed down, lodging his blade through Vexil’s gut and into the wooden ground below. He left it stuck there and approached the Lord Prophet.

“Where is the Oracle? We know that you have it hidden,” the Fallen Yuxova boomed. He held out a broad hand. “Give it to me now and your pathetic race will survive for a few years longer.”

The Lord Prophet eyed the giant calmly. “You will not take what you desire. We Yuxova are the chosen protectors of the Oracle. Our lives are bound to its safety.”

With a low sneer the Fallen recovered his blade. “Then your lives are forfeit.” He brought the sword down upon the elderly Yuxova with a crash.

Pux skidded into place at the last instant. The impact of the dark metal smashing into Pux’s sword sent the smaller fighter straight to his knees. Without hesitating, the Fallen kicked Pux away and prepared himself to strike down the albino prophet again.

A crossbow bolt pounded into his shoulder. A pained grunt issued out from the Fallen. He whipped around and plucked a second bolt from the air before it too could pierce his flesh. With cold eyes he cast the bolt away and rounded on Pux. An oversized hand pinned the young captain to the wall before he could escape while the second hand wrenched the crossbow effortlessly away. It cracked then shattered as he clenched his hand.

“Is this what counts for a captain now?” the Fallen snorted. “My brothers would weep if they knew just how weak you tree-dwellers have become.”

A sharp thud caused the giant to turn back to the Lord Prophet, his arm never loosening its grip on Pux. The white-robed Yuxova had fixed the invader with stern eyes.

“That is enough, betrayer. You will not harm another of my subjects.” The Lord Prophet adjusted the Key of Life so that its tip was pointed out at the Fallen’s throat.

“You think to best me?” rumbled the giant ominously. “I was a captain before you were even born.” He whistled a single sharp note and from the doorway spilled a dozen black shrouded Yuxova with wicked daggers. Not an inch of their skin was uncovered. “Search the chamber. Find me the Oracle. I will deal with this fool.”

“As you command, Chosen Goliox.” The shadowy warriors saluted with a fist to the chest then dispersed themselves around the room. Their every movement was fast and precise.

The giant, Goliox, threw Pux straight upward. Pux hit the ground hard several seconds later. All of the air was knocked out of him and every joint felt torn. Goliox had already moved away and was circling with the Lord Prophet before Pux had landed.

Steel clashed with silver as Goliox brought his weapon down upon the elderly Yuxova. The Lord Prophet blocked the attack, his aged bones still capable of holding up against the Fallen’s superior strength. A fluidity that belied his frail build became apparent in the old man as he weaved his way around Goliox’s attacks.

“Captain Wutoxa, while life still flows through your veins you must not allow these traitors to gain possession of the Oracle.” Xuex gave the order calmly, never taking his eyes from the swinging blade that sought his life.

Pux twitched. The words broke through his mental fog, sparking the flame of resilience within that had fled his body with his breath. Inhaling deeply he dragged himself into a standing position and grabbed his sword. For a moment his eyes focussed on the Lord Prophet but a slight shake of his bearded head dashed any thoughts of Pux rushing to his aid.

No sooner had Pux taken his first step toward the shadowclad warriors, they stopped their searching and turned to him in perfect synchronisation. Before Pux could even blink, every one of them seemed to have spawned a handful of throwing stars. He cursed. The room shimmered with spinning metal that filled Pux’s vision.

Previous – Chapter 42. From Stone to Steel.

Next – Chapter 44. Torn from Home.