The Indie Collaboration Presents
Spectacular Tales III
More thrilling short stories written by independent publishing’s rising stars. In this third SF collection of short fiction, The Indie Collaboration delves into the vaults of speculative fiction once more, bringing you original and innovative Science Fiction and Fantasy stories.
Here you will find stories about Space Pirates and Barbarians, Survivors of plagues, a man doomed by time and an epic tale about Giants and Monsters.
So done your space suit and come join us in exploring more ‘Spectacular Tales’.
Edited by Chris P. Raven
Copyright retained by the Authors
Cover Art by Book Birdy Designs
The Indie Collaboration grew out of a group of independent authors who decided to show the world how great works of fiction can be, without the involvement of any large publishing companies, by creating a direct channel between themselves and their readers. Each author in this anthology has freely donated their time and work and are committed to the Indie Collaboration’s cause:
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Ufburk: Antar’s Brace by Donny Swords
The Quarantine Zone by Ray Foster
Gracious Dragon by Chris Raven
Ufburk: Armour of Enthily (Part One) by Donny Swords
Time by Dani J Caile
The Strange and Unexpected Fortunes of Cedric Raw by Chris Raven
Ufburk: Armour of Enthily (Part Two) by Donny Swords
The Black Knight of Higham by Chris Raven
The Reaver by Vernon Maxwell
About The Authors
Other Publications by The Indie Collaboration
Ufburk: Antar’s Brace
By Donny Swords
Ufburk, now 37, carves a hulking shadow against the curvature of the small interior of the cockpit. In the distance, the sun of an alien cosmos lights the sky brightly. On his forehead, the first sign not of wrinkles, but an omen that the once-barbarians lust for adventuring is ageing him shows plainly on his countenance, and indeed, Ufburk feels old. His spacecraft withstands the torment of flying so close to the sun -somehow.
A frenzy of lights blinks rapidly on the dash panel. Alarms sound, sonically piercing in volume, and the tones do not relent. Ufburk had encountered the same warnings as this when once, he crashed onto a desolate moon.
And that fiasco cost him a year. Cursing, he flips open the console before him revealing a myriad of sparkling electronic switches and selects the third one.
A strange voice, speaking Dirvak, (the language of a dead race) fills the cockpit.
The speaker of those words sounds chilling to Ufburk, but he knows what he hears is synthetic, produced soullessly from the computer that runs his craft. He blinks a few times, hoping to gain clearer focus.
“Anoka, po,” chimes the automated voice.
“Aye,” says the once-barbarian, his voice full of a sandy raspiness he hopes will leave him soon.
Ufburk flicks the fourth and fifth switches, and a panel screen emerges from a slot in the dashboard. A map screen illuminates, and the big man sees then how severely altering course will affect the time involved to complete his quest.
He has no other choice. Thinking of his lost love, taken by that many-eyed demon stirs the substance of his resolve. The line on his forehead deepens as he plots his new route to the one he must face, a wicked wizard with many eyes and mouths, a Defiler of hope.
For three years Ufburk had not known of any practical or impractical means that could accomplish the feat of vanquishing his sworn enemy. He’d spent years searching the ruins of the dead Dirvak worlds to find even the remotest clue, the slightest way to possibly slay the sorcerer.
Presently, Ufburk has a chance to destroy the Many-eyed Wizard, but it is a slim chance.
The star charts appear overwhelming, but allowing the computer to plan the route is something Ufburk has yet to learn. He sets the bearing and continuing to pilot the ship, begins to navigate beyond the range of the sun.
The automated voice speaks up again after some time, “Anoka Avba, Fain.”
Ufburk knows those words, ‘Danger has passed,’ that’s what they mean. He is tired, but he does not trust the ship enough to sleep. Not yet, let him move beyond the fringe of the asteroid belt before hanging it up.
Wrestling his fatigue only makes matters worse, and the pleasant humming drone of the spacecraft, the vibration of it coursing through his seat -ah yes, he is tired, lords.
His reflection shimmers over the cockpit window and Ufburk sighs, knowing how rank and foul he is after two solid years of space travel. It has been so long since his heels have stood on actual ground that the big man wonders if his quest might overwhelm him.
Ufburk cares little for his life and has bent his existence to one end, to kill the Many-eyed Wizard that slew Davina, his first and only love. To think of her leaves a coldness in him now. That grey emotion, its implication is an injury Ufburk endures, but he hates the Wizard for taking his hope from him.
Little else but the course he travels and how little of the peculiar food paste he has aboard the vessel resides between Ufburk’s ears. Worse, water supplies are also scarce, and he is ill.
“Good news travels in packs, like wolves,” he hears his cousin saying as if Danno is there when of course his cousin is light years away. The heroic adventurer thinks longingly about the life he would have had if he’d not left his homeworld behind. He notices he has allowed himself to slump in his chair and rights himself. A formal expression passes over his stern and angular face.
Ufburk’s mood brightens, thinking now that had he remained home he’d have become a sheep herder. Seldom is it when Ufburk allows himself to sulk and act like a lonely child, but his comforts do not compare to the countless lives the hero is responsible for saving.
A huge yawn escapes him, making his chest bellow and then he is coughing. His back aches from a persistent and a racking bronchial infection that he has had for several miles. The edges of his sight lose focus, and his eyes begin to water.
And in this condition with an inconsistent fever and lack of sleep, Ufburk will travel for another year, to make a stop to gain an advantage on his enemy.
One Year Later
“He slashed his bonds Sir Fel.”
“And the gunnery?”
"Dead Sir -all dead. They say he tore their heads off."
As the figures speak, Ufburk listens with rapt fascination. His bulk is concealed nicely behind a stack of barrels. Slick blood coats his meaty fists, and this crimson blur rises to his elbows. The spacedock is quiet, but the once-barbarian knows there are others.
“Dead? All of them? Nonsense, tell me how many of my men remain alive.”
Ufburk grins as he sees the guard’s expression, why the poor man is as pale as a sheep’s arse.
“None sir, none.”
Sir Fel frees his weapon from its harness.
“Well then, you are relieved of your duty soldier.”
Seizing the soldier, Fel hoists the soldier with one arm, while using a three-bladed weapon to eviscerate the armoured man in a single motion. Even as the sound of the soldier’s lifeless body rings down the hallway Fel starts speaking:
“Ufburk, Son of Tiber? Is that you? Well, I tell you, trembling in the shadow does nothing for that menacing reputation you have. You know, on one world they fancy you a Prince? I think that’s an impractical assessment, after all, your father is only a clansman, nothing more. Wouldn’t you agree on that point rogue?”
Fel’s eyes glint at the sound of Ufburk’s voice:
“Surely you are not so unimaginative as to allude that you will leave this moon alive, eh Fel?”
The adventurer sees the apparent animosity on Fel’s face as that man’s worry, not his. For one to go to their grave and have their gods receive them, one must be honest.
A tense silence hangs on, and it is Ufburk who speaks again. Fel is more interested in our adventurer’s space blaster than he hears what the once-barbarian is saying.
“And I crossed the Neppul Lifts to get this far. I know you Scroungers make your trade by selling slaves and tech to the Scala. So as I see it, you are my prisoner.”
“Yet you are alone.”
A chill reaches Ufburk at Fel’s remark, and the lines set on the Godly Commander’s face turn scarier than moments ago.
“Ha! Dear Prince Ufburk, you are a buffoon. How are you so sure you’ll defeat me?”
A searing red beam launches from the end of Ufburk’s blaster, his response to Fel’s taunting. The beam flies true to its mark, but Fel raises his gauntlet, carved with a decorative pattern that looks suspiciously like glyphs and as if waving goodbye, wipes the laser beam from the air, erasing it indefinitely.
“By all means, try and try again. As long as I wear Antar’s Brace, you will encounter ill luck.”
“Then shut your yapper and face me.”
Fel, clad in dark-plated armour laughs.
“Fair enough young Ufburk, but know that when I’ve ended you, I will fetch my squads and destroy your father. Your entire tribe will die, and you are doomed.”
“Then we are a pair,” says Ufburk.
Lord Fel, a Scrounger King as his race, the Ferrucca calls him springs to action, his red hair tied back tightly against the base of his skull making his jutting face severe in the brightly lit hangar.
Ufburk's axe slams into Fel's sinister weapon, and Fel moans at the force of the blow, though he parries it with relative ease. Traipsing the chamber in an ostentatious display of wills, the two battle one another -evenly matched. But as the fight wears on, Ufburk knows that his adversary is toying with him, and he knows that killing Fel is nigh near impossible. As Fel swings, Ufburk lets the blow by and dashes away, reeling around and firing his laser into his adversaries' back. Fel is untouched by the fiery barrage, causing a small moan to escape Ufburk's lips. Now the once-barbarian is revolving and running full speed toward his vessel.
“Fool! I have locked your ship to the bay! You cannot get free, do you hear me? I will hunt your family down, and kill them all. Do you hear me?”
But Ufburk doesn’t hear; he is running for another purpose.
Fel is close behind him, Ufburk knows, the Commander is thinking the once-barbarian fears him. Ufburk bolts down the corridor leading to the centre-most quadrant of Fel’s moonbase. The big man scans the long hall; Ufburk does not know what he is looking for, only what he must do.
"There is nowhere to run -Ufburk! You die today! There'll be no more running. Stop now!"
Above him and before him the stone ceiling crumbles closing the route ahead, and Ufburk skids to a halt, spinning to greet Fel’s offensive weapon.
A mad thrumming rushes to Ufburk’s ears, dark, agitated, and altogether alive. Fel is laughing.
"Do you remember Steele? That asteroid belt holds many secrets, hides incredible power. I have gained much. I'd tell you to visit me there someday, but you will not have the chance. Therefore, I must bid farewell to you young Prince, who shall be dead before his crowning. I am sure this beast will please your more wild side just fine. He is a beautiful specimen handpicked. A creature of distinction that is under my spell and wants only to free himself of me, which means you die. I don't re-imagine my bargains Ufburk; a deal is a deal. By dying, you'll give another soul a hand. Go ahead now -get to it, it is a splendid day to die, and I am on my way. So much time was wasted on you Ufburk, Son of Tiber."
Though the once-barbarian hears Fel’s rant, he grants it little of his concern, for before him, rising from the stony rubble is a thing that should not be. It is a dirty thing, marked with sorrow, shame, and outright rage. A broken horn protrudes from its jutting jaw; the horn is spiny and stained black where the ivory turns deadly and transforms to a thin edge. A full mouth, lined with sharp incisors grins below Fel’s creature’s red-slatted eyes.
“Ugly. Undeniably hideous. I see now how Fel coerced you. But you must know that you are acting deranged. Go now; I don’t wish to kill you, Merrigan.”
Though Fel has left the scene, Ufburk is unable to focus on naught else but the creature before him.
The thing rises on its hind legs, towering above Ufburk. He does not flinch, or act afraid, and the Merrigan Beast knows the once-barbarian is unaffected and wonders at Ufburk’s composure.
"Do not challenge me! And instead of dying just now, join my cause, and aid me in killing Fel. Do this, and I shall slay the Many-eyed Wizard and free you from his charge and the whims his minions -all of them, not just Commander Fel."
“You would,” the Merrigan’s stiff neck shudders as it plainly strains itself speaking, but the huge creature carries on, “Could you?”
The beast studies Ufburk carefully, and the creature lets the silence stretch between them, as he too is scrutinising the company he is keeping.
“Aye, it would honour me to slay that bastard, and I shall kill him, for my betrothed.”
Ufburk’s view of the hulking Merrigan, a type of beast best described as a cross between a rhino and bear with humanoid limbs increases as it leans towards him, bent on its haunches and looked the once-barbarian directly in the eye magnifies.
They stay locked in that primal moment for too long according to either of their tastes, but Ufburk is never afraid because he has lost his sense of self-value, even if he somehow goes on.
“I am Rydal, of Evan-More.”
“I am Ufburk, Son of Tiber, born worlds away.”
“Then we are allies, what actions should we take to defeat Commander Fel?”
“Why we chase him of course, let us be underway. I fear he is swift.”
“Yet I am faster, and I do not boast. My god, Ginisa forbids such. I could carry you.”
And they streak with steady speed through the sleek hallway, with Ufburk riding on Rydal’s heavily-muscled back as he races to catch the God of Deceit, Lord Fel.
Eight Years Later, on Tarak, Ufburk’s Homeworld
“Peculiar,” says Rydal, “what slew them?”
Ufburk regards his friend with haggard eyes. Not issuing a response, but there is no need for words. They silently survey Danno’s dead flock of sheep, and to Ufburk the animals appear as if something turned them inside out.
“Devilry slew them, and I’ve no doubt this is Fel’s doing. Come, let’s check the surroundings, perhaps Danno hid away. He had a place, where he avoided the scorn of the husbands if the women he often kept.”
Ufburk feels alien to his homeworld. This world was one of many, hollowness, yes, being here make him feel empty. Tarak is a broken world now, torn by war. Is this dystopia the work of Lord Fel, who has managed time and time again to elude Ufburk and Rydal? The foul manner, whatever weird thing it was that killed the sheep does remain the once barbarian’s chief worry. Fel’s ambitions have come clearer to Ufburk in the eight years that he and Rydal pursued the Commander.
Coming around the lushly green fields edge, Ufburk heads for a small hill some distance from Danno’s farm. The thick dew has preserved a trail of bent grass headed to Ufburk’s destination. Not allowing himself to hope is the hardest part, though he knows only one man made the marks he follows.
“Wait,” Rydal’s voice is gruff, anticipatory.
Ufburk glances to his side, where Rydal is standing tall, sniffing the air. The once-barbarian stands motionless, though he is full of adrenaline, and he sees that something has irked his companion.
“Dirvak Vul, more than fifty. They have made camp over the rise.”
Ufburk frowns, thinking the news Rydal has given him is terrible and impossible, the Dirvaks are extinct.
Rydal continues to speak, hearing his friend’s dismay, but putting it aside for practicalities sake.
“They are not alone, and this troubles me. I do not understand what my senses are telling me.”
“What of the Taraks, do you smell others of my ilk?”
“Many and one, there, and, there,” Rydal’s massive hand rises and with one significant digit, he points toward the village where Ufburk spent his childhood. Next Rydal points to their original destination.
Ufburk looks again toward the place he is headed and is stunned to see Danno, recklessly fragile and wearing thin black clothing reduced to tattered black rags that are so faded they appear almost grey, strolling towards them.
The stunning figure sways as he stares apparently frightened at the man standing before him, holding a laser gun. The once-barbarian, possibly a Tarakanian, is older now. His knotted muscles are bulkier than Danno recalls, the man looks meaner than ever before and has more scars than his younger cousin once had but it is Ufburk, and he is home!
Ufburk calls his cousin’s name and rushes to greet Danno, who is already doing the same despite his apparent weakness.
They embrace, and Ufburk smothers his shorter cousin’s forehead with kisses, and he cries, not caring if tears break a man or not. He takes Danno’s haggard and darkly bearded face in his hands and looks the man directly in his eye.
“You must tell me what you know, for I have come to vanquish our enemies.”
But Danno is not listening; he stares wide-eyed past Ufburk to Rydal, a mythical beast that defies Danno’s sheepherder’s brain.
“Have I died?” says Danno dreamily.
“No, but if any of your folk are alive, you must hear your cousin and give him whatever counsel you can. I am Rydal, of Evan Moore. My world is far from yours. Prince Ufburk and I are allies. Do not fear, hear your cousin. Forgive my bluntness; there is cause for hastiness.”
For a moment there is a palpable unease, and to Ufburk Danno looks half-mad. Then, Danno falls to the once barbarian’s feet, and sobbing tells them all:
“It was more than two years ago that they came, killing everyone they could, but Tiber smote many. I joined the fight, and we had many wins until Lord Fel came. Now, Tiber uses the last of a significant relic’s power to seal himself and five others who I last saw alive within his home inside a magical barrier. The obstruction angers Fel greatly. I fear that besides your father and those five men that none live on, but I hope I am wrong. Oh cousin, say I am wrong.”
“Rydal senses that many of us Taraks are yet alive, if they are, we shall rescue them. Do not worry cousin; I will free our world.”
Ufburk turns away, staring hard at the dirty floor. Rydal and Danno both know the once-barbarian is brooding. They hold their tongues, knowing Ufburk becomes equally edgy when he is moody. If he wants to speak, he will.
Ufburk’s voice is smaller, grainier than normal, “Where is my dog?”
Danno’s eyes glisten, full of wet-around tears, “Dead Cousin, naturally, and of old age. He was a good pup, but lucky for you, a better sire. Rugsin, Bevold!”
Two large dogs appear. The dogs must have slept in the dark alcove near the end of Danno’s cave because Ufburk is startled by the canines suddenly appearing. Their shadows stretch out in the ebbing glow of a nearby fire. The Big Man’s grip tightens on the Raygun, then as he sees the animals he chuckles, and drops to his knees and is greeted by wet kisses.
“Aye, these are wonderful pups. Aren’t you?” He jokes, ruffing up Rugsin’s shaggy silver mane. The animal greets him with a playful bark. “One can plainly tell Sefer was their sire.”
Ufburk’s attention turns to the other pup, “Bevold eh? Well. You have a godly chest at that fellow. Come and see Ufburk, I only bite my enemies. It’s okay boy, come.”
The dark-haired animal advances cautiously moving with the ease of a panther. Ufburk greets Bevold with an upwards-facing palm, held flat for the dog to investigate. Soon, Ufburk is rubbing the dog’s ears.
“They like you. Go figure, those mutts hate me, cousin, even though I put Sefer with the bitch that bore them. Ungrateful too.”
“That does not matter now; I am pleased to meet Sefer’s pups. I missed that animal when I was away.”
“They can track.”
Ufburk feels a long scar on Bevold’s side; he glances up at Danno expectantly. His fingers trace the thing.
Danno sighs, “It was the Mindless, so I call them. Those are the larger things, with reddish-white skin and eyes that remind me of that thing you carry, the thing that made you leave our world. The Greys caught us, those black-eyed grey ones, and those things set the Mindless on us. They are terrible, those walking brutes. Many carry long-heavy blades. They killed Shanti, the lone female from Sefer’s litter. I carried Bevold home bleeding, and we ran Rugsin and me. I felt afraid for weeks, thinking the Greys would follow the blood trail and execute the dogs and me. It has been over a year; I should think that they’d have come knocking by now.
“Aye. Maybe the Scala know you are here but see you as a non-threat?”
By the look on Danno’s face, Ufburk knew Rydal’s remark stung his Cousin’s nerves.
“I’m plenty threatening,” Danno sneers.
“Says you,” says a dark voice from beyond them. The dogs begin to growl. Ufburk feels that same crawling sensation and knows Fel has found them.
“Yet I think you make for better bait than a man.”
Danno leaps forward, enraged, and Ufburk attempts to stop his cousin, but somehow lets him pass. Danno’s life is over in seconds, His Cousin’s body is soon writhing in a spreading crimson pool, and Ufburk has grabbed Sefer’s pups, wild-eyed with their duty, to protect. His eyes leave Fel, falling away to track the lighter dog.
All at once Fel’s piercing cry comes and Ufburk jerks his head around to see the source of the Deceit God’s agony. It is Rydal, stained with blood. In his off-hand, the Merrigan clutches Fel’s gauntleted arm, torn free of Fel from the forearm to the fingertips.
“I recall you saying that as long as you wore Antar’s Brace that you would stay invulnerable. Well, that’s out Fel. Your plan has failed you. But let’s see, no, I do not think they designed this trinket for my kind. I tell you, once cleaned it should look smashing on my friend here. Don’t you say?”
Fel still screams, as his astonished eyes plead for mercy. Blood sprays outward in pulsing arcs. The God weakens, slumping further into the muck.
“The detail you missed Commander Fel was me. I am a guardian of sorts you see, of light and greys, of disorder, of balance. You had the audacity to underestimate me, my race. Funny, I have sought you for so long. Now you are done,” Rydal grins horrifically in the flicking firelight.
Ufburk says nothing; his friend has already spoken. He knows Rydal’s story; he knows everything.
Fel slumps farther but manages a few sentences “Fools. My master will destroy you both. No one, nay-nothing can stop Seljuk. He is no god or guardian but infinity. You will-”
Commander Fel drops face-first in his pooling blood and Rydal indifferently tosses the arm after him, liberated of Antar’s Brace. The Brace he hands to the bewildered Ufburk, who is unused to Rydal acting as he just did.
“Take it. We must go and hope Fel did not arrange an ambush. At any rate, be ready to fire. We must slay those Dirvaks and whatever governs them.
“If we act swiftly do you think we stand a chance of destroying Seljuk?”
Rydal considers Ufburk’s question, answering promptly and with care, “We must first acquire your father’s advice. By his knowledge, we might find the armour we have several times spoke of and with it, along with Antar’s Brace, you can withstand Seljuk’s many minds and eyes. As you know, his powers will control minds and often make slaves from the many. But yes, yes. Let us run and loose those dogs! Let us bring war!”
“Fine by me. But, where is the Armour of Enthily that you have said I must obtain?”
“Not far Ufburk, come, we will bury your cousin later. Come, Warrior! It is time to free a land.”
So Ufburk, Son of Tiber and Rydal of Evan Moore run toward certain doom, theirs, or the for ends of others yet determined.
© 2016 Donny Swords
The Quarantine Zone
By Ray Foster
The Thames flowed sedately past the hospital. The waters dappled in green, grey and gold slashes that reflected both the sky and the Houses of Parliament opposite. Somehow the building seemed impervious to the burning buildings that blossomed behind it forming a macabre backdrop as dense black smoke floated downstream.
The hospital had been set up as a quarantine area but, now, it was a place where the dead outnumbered the living. Every floor was lined with body bags that contained patients, their friends and relatives and it wasn’t long before the nurses, doctors and those sent to secure the hospital in the quarantine zone fell victim to an unnamed disease.
Katya Jenova took a deep drag on her cigarette eyes narrowed against the smoke as she looked across the river to the Houses of Parliament. Where were all the decision makers now? Were the corridors of the powerhouse lined with body bags? Death had become commonplace to the point that she did not really care anymore.
The only thing that bothered her was whether her family back in Poland were still alive. Truth to tell she probably would never know – maybe, better not knowing. Her grandparents had been Russian but they moved to Gdansk to work in the shipyards. Their son had married a local girl and had just the one daughter, Katya, who had rejected her Russian heritage in favour of her Polish nationality. After training as a nurse she had been amongst the first to take advantage of the freedom to travel through the European Union to find work in a UK hospital.
There had been encounters with prejudice; cursed as an immigrant on the scrounge for benefits – none of which she received. But though the accusations stung she was happy with her well paid job and a lifestyle that she would never have enjoyed had she have remained in Poland.
Here in the shade of the shrubs set in raised concrete beds she could find solace. It was her sanctuary now – a place to hide from the small crowd that milled, aimlessly, outside the main entrance. None could leave for the quarantine zone had been sealed within the confines of a steel cage, topped with forbidding rolls of razor wire that stretched from Westminster Bridge all the way down to Lambeth Bridge and encompassed the hospital and grounds. Guardhouses had been constructed in front of the Florence Nightingale Museum and opposite the main entrance in Lambeth Palace Gardens.
A figure emerged from behind a tree to turn away from the embankment wall and stroll up the path towards her. As she was about to wave he saw her and turned away looking left and right like a man looking for an escape route. Their paths had crossed several times, with him being a security guard, but any attempt to talk to him had the same result. So now she either waved or just said ‘Hi’ and left it at that. Maybe, she reasoned, he was just not interested in women.
Then from the other side of the foliage she heard a burst of grumbling anger.
“There has to be someone about,” the statement came from what sounded to be a frightened, nervous woman. “They can’t just disappear, surely.”
“They can do whatever the fuck they want,” was the angry response. “They gotta have a way outta here – and I’m not havin’ it. They can’t leave us here to die.”
As those last words were being spat out, so the speaker came around the corner and spotted the nurse.
The burly, brutish looking man – all shaven-headed with thick tattooed arms – halted for a moment which allowed the small mob to close up around him.
“Hey, babe,” the rough voice called out breaking through her thoughts. “You wanna open up this gate, huh?”
As she looked up as the tall, heavily built man took a step closer while the gathering crowd behind shuffled forward in his wake. The leaders face was scrunched up in an angry scowl; fists bunched ready to strike out.
“There are no keys,” a male voice said, softly, as the owner stepped out from the cover of a tree opposite.
“Watchya mean you ain’t got keys?” the man demanded shifting his attention to the newcomer. “How’d you get in and out then?”
Thinking this to be a clever point he grinned, knowingly, at the crowd behind him.
“I don’t,” Pete Quist, the onetime security guard, shrugged. “Those guys out there have them – and I think they are all dead.”
Almost all the crowd turned to look beyond the chain-linked security fence to the camp opposite.
To where the Archbishop’s Palace Gardens had been turned into a mass burial site; body bags shifted from the temporary mortuary that had been set up on the tennis courts. All this screened behind the scenic woodland so as not to disturb those who entered the hospital.
“How can they be dead?” the man blustered, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. “I mean look at those two sitting by the gate – all suited and booted. You can’t say they’re dead. They are protected.”
“Believe me, they are dead,” Katya stated, standing up and stretching. “A week or more and they’ve not moved.”
“But how?” someone else, the nervous female, demanded to know.
“Just like everyone else,” this from a youngster who detached himself from the crowd. “Bug gets you – end of. It’s that simple.”
“ Simple?” the belligerent man shouted. “I’ve lost -.”
“We’ve all lost,” Quist pointed out. “But we are alive. I can’t tell you why and I doubt very much if the nurse there can answer that question. Whatever, an angry confrontation isn’t going to solve anything.”
“Yeah, right?” the mob leader growled. “Well, let me tell you I’m Danny Griggs and no one – but no-one fobs me off and tells me what I can and can’t do. Now, one of you go find the keys to this place.”
“Heard of a Danny Griggs,” the youngster mused, as he strolled in Katya’s direction more to show that he was not with or a part of the mob. “Well known loan shark from down Bermondsey way. Broke an eleven-year-old girl’s legs with a baseball bat because her mum couldn’t pay him.”
This produced some murmurings among the crowd; voices raised in protest while others tried to sooth and reason. The crowd was dividing as the more aggressive faction began to gather behind the heavy set man.
“So what?” Griggs roared, angrier now that his identity had been revealed. He had been caught up in all this because he had come hunting someone who owed him money only to find out that they had died. “Now if you lot don’t get us out of ‘ere there’ll be more than broken legs dished out.”
With his confidence boosted by this support he took another step forward only to step back again as he tried to melt into the crowd prompted by the sight of Quist with an assault rifle aimed from his shoulder.
“Now is a good time to reconsider what you intend,” Quist suggested, pointing the barrel at the man’s mid-section.
At which point Katya stepped up and whispered in his ear – and, following her advice, quickly located the safety catch.
“You can’t kill us all,” Griggs blurted out but his show of bravado rang hollow.
“I know,” Quist agreed with a nonchalant shrug. “But you will be the first to go.”
“Don’t you think that’s a little unfair?” the youngster asked, head cocked to one side as he looked Griggs in the eye. “Like starting a book and never finding out what happens in the end.”
“If there was a solution, I think it would have been found before now,” Quist added. “That is what we should be doing now.”
“ Like solving one of them locked room mysteries,” the youngster supplied pleasantly. “You know the kind where a man is found hanging in an empty room with just a patch of damp on the floor -.”
“He stood on a block of ice,” Katya laughed at her own deduction.
As logic sank in so support for the angry man faded and more people drifted away; defeated, eventually, he followed in their wake.
The youngster, though, was not quite done. He stepped up to and faced Quist.
“You lied,” he stated. “You can open the inner gates – no locks there – just the outer gates need a key. And,” he tapped the rifle, “you don’t have a clue what to do with that. You needed her to tell you to switch the safety. Great with the chat – but, well, not much else.”
“I’m just a hospital security guard,” Quist admitted meekly. “I took this off a dead soldier – more for effect than anything else. Could you have done better?”
The youngster nodded before looking at Katya then back to Quist.
“The name’s Kyle,” he said. “And, maybe, I could but it would depend on your plans.”
“Like everyone else – find a way out,” Quist’s response was automatic. “I just want to get out of London.”
“Same here,” Katya confirmed, looking at Quist while her mind questioned his leadership.
Kyle smiled, sadly, as he pointed at the rifle: “You know what the sad part is – the time will come when you will have no choice but to use that gun and fight. Getting out of this place will be a doddle compared with getting out of London.” He paused long enough for what he had said to sink in. “First, we need to take care of Griggs before that little gang of his re-group.”
He never knew whether that was his Christian or surname. In school, care homes in fact where ever he was addressed as Kyle. Even the foster parents that he had lived with for the last ten years had called him by that single name. These weren’t just carers – they had taken him under their wing and made him their ‘son’. He should have left them when he turned eighteen but mum and dad were reluctant to let go. They had been a unit until the plague had struck them down both dying within hours of each other. Death did not separate them Kyle saw to that as he helped his dad to lie next to his dead wife.
Trapped, as he was, inside the hospital he had learned to find his way around.
Armed with a fire axe he slipped down a flight of stairs into the dark corridors where people did not go. Here were the store and maintenance rooms securely locked to keep members of the public out. Keypads and security codes were no longer useable as the generators had long ceased to function. The axe though was an access code in its own right to get him an entrance into the right place. With the aid of a torch he soon found what he was looking for.
Back in the sun’s glaring light, Kyle had to blink and shade his eyes before strolling down to the main gates. After unbolting the inner gates, he swung them wide before looking over his shoulder at the crowd and the heavy set man rose to his feet.
He was the first to draw level with Kyle who thrust a set of bolt cutters into the man’s hands.
“One key, mate,” he grinned, backing away. “Enjoy.”
Griggs hefted the tool in his hands but there was no gratitude in his eyes – only malice.
“You and I are going to have a little chat later,” Griggs promised.
“Might not get the result you expect,” Kyle grimaced.
“And your point is?”
“You don’t get to find out how the story ends,” Kyle supplied, easily, yet his eyes and his tone were icy. “You’re part in it will be over – simple as that.”
“We’ll see, kid, we’ll see,” Griggs promised as he turned his back to attack the lock on the gate.
Pete Quist aged thirty-four with an athletic build from eating the right food and working out at the gym was shy when it came to girls. Forever single was the way that he saw his future because of that one inability where he could not meet anyone without stumbling over his words.
Exerting his authority was one thing – it might impress the girls – but not up close and personal with them. Also, he felt the older he got then the less interested in him someone like Katya Jenova would be.
“Most people call me Kat,” she said, breaking into his thoughts. “And I think you and I should stick together.”
All Quist could do was nod as he stood there tongue tied while watching the crowd stream through the open gates.
“That’s them sorted,” a confident Kyle pointed out as he strode towards them. “Surprised you’re not joining the parade.”
“You said that getting out of London was not going to be easy,” Katya reminded him. “We want to know what you mean.”
Kyle looked from one to the other while making himself comfortable on an ornamental plinth.
“Simple,” he shrugged. “Think about it – it don’t take long for law and order to break down. Gangs form – they fight for control, territory, food and whatever else they can get their hands on. Sometimes allegiances get formed as it is convenient if they get control of larger areas.” He paused to allow this to sink in. “If you were lucky enough to find a motor you’re not going to get far – roads will be blocked either with abandoned vehicles or barricades. Don’t matter which way you go there’ll be trouble.”
Quist held up his hand: “OK we get the picture. So we go underground.”
“For real?” Kyle questioned. “They won’t have forgotten about the tube tunnels – even the ones that people don’t know exist. Great places to store stuff – get the meaning?”
“So, how are we going to get out?” Quist demanded. “According to you all the ways out are shut.”
Kat attracted his attention by laying a soothing hand on Quist’s arm.
“Why don’t you go over to that army camp,” she suggested. “and see what you can find.” To Kyle, she was a little firmer. “If you have a plan then you need to gather up what food you can. In the meantime, I will get some medical kits. We meet up back here – in an hour?”
Both males nodded, looked at each other and went their separate ways.
As soon as she could she climbed to the changing rooms and stripped off her uniform and changed into sweat shirt and jeans. Had the showers been working she would have had a quick clean up but time was pressing and she had a pharmacy to break into.
However, she found it open but the lack of havoc surprised her. Alerted by a scampering sound she grabbed a fire extinguisher ready to use on whoever and dropped it when she saw who was there.
Everyone knew the diminutive Indian doctor who went by his initials V.J.
“What are you doing here, V.J?” she demanded.
He held up a packet of Paracetamol, ”Headache.”
“You need to go home,” Katya advised him, letting him be aware of her sympathy. “The gates are open.”
“Thank you,” he sighed, getting to his feet. “This – this thing – is over. I think – no, I believe so. Seventy-two hours and no new cases. It is as though the life span of the virus has expired.”
“Expired?” Katya questioned, unable to grasp the meaning of the whole idea. “What? Like it had a sell-by date.”
V.J. chuckled at the allegory:” Something like it. Maybe, man made because it mimics other diseases – I don’t know. What I do know is that it was airborne; infectious by touch and the exchange of bodily fluids. Well, maybe, that but definitely touch and in the air. Think about the speed that it swept around the world.”
He stopped as the enormity of what he was saying hit home. His head dropped and he sank back to his knees.
“Get out of London,” he whispered.
“What about you?” Katya asked. “I can’t leave you here.”
“I will go home,” his voice and smile were weak. “Somehow. I need to know if…”
He left the rest unsaid as though he knew the answer.
For a moment he just stood there forlorn until he realised what the nurse was up to. Together they put together four medi-kits and a back pack of essential medical supplies. Katya looked at some of the equipment and knew that for all the advances without technology none of it would work again.
“It has all gone,” V.J. said, softly. “All the advances we have made over the years – they count for nothing. Labour saving – machines doing what a skilled man could do. Cost effective – means nothing when you have lost all those skills that we need now.”
There was nothing that Katya could say for she knew how right he was.
“Come on, V.J.,” she urged, shouldering the rucksack. “Time to go.”
Kyle had loaded up two holdalls with canned food taken from crates stacked at the back of the army camp and attached to a field kitchen. From the latter he had picked up an array of kitchen knives that he thought might come in handy.
At first, he had volunteered to help Quist find some useful weaponry but the security guard had assured him that he knew what he was doing. Though Kyle felt that was questionable he left him to his own devices.
As Kyle was about to leave the tent he caught sight of a shadow drifting by and from the size and shape there was no mistaking that Griggs had kept his promise – what was more he had a fire axe gripped in his hands as back-up.
The way that the shadow moved told Kyle plenty – importantly, that Griggs had no idea where his quarry was. Maybe, he had seen the youngster enter the compound but lost sight of his quarry all of which could work to Kyle’s advantage but, then, he never took things for granted.
Leaving the two holdalls on the ground, he backed to the back of the tent where he cut the ties to enable his exit. Once outside, he checked the position of his shadow and sighed with relief when he saw that it was behind him. Allowing himself a smile, he felt the weight of the knife in his hand with some satisfaction.
He had wondered if Griggs had run off with the crowd but deep inside knew that the loan shark would want to have that little chat. So now was not the time to disappoint.
“Oi! Griggsy,” he called out. “Let’s have that little chat.”
Griggs spun around.
The knife left Kyle’s hand – a brief flash of dull silver that faded as it sank into the loan shark’s belly.
He slumped to the ground, the axe falling a few feet away. Kyle had moved fast, his foot slamming down on the axe handle before Griggs could reach it. As the youngster bent to pick it up, so Griggs grasped the knife handle jutting from his belly but did not get to pull it out. Instead, screamed as the axe head slammed into his right leg smashing the bone just below the knee; followed by a second blow that shattered his left.
Kyle showed no emotion as he bent down, curled his hand around the shaft of the knife and twisted before pulling it free with a sucking sound.
“Takes a long time,” Kyle mentioned, staring at the sky that was showing the faint wisps of a fiery sunset. “Or so they say for a man to die from a gut wound. Maybe, it will give you time to regret the things you’ve done.” He dropped his gaze to look the ashen faced man in the eyes. “That little girl you crippled was my cousin – mercifully this disease got her. Unfortunately, for you, you got spared and so the story ends for you.”
Kyle retrieved the holdalls and walked away.
There was a questioning glance from Quist to Kyle but the youngster supplied nothing except that his character had reverted to his normal cheerful self. Any conversation was curtailed by the distraction of Katya turning up with V.J. in tow. As she handed out the medi-kits she explained that the doctor was looking for a way out of London.
“Where’s home, mate?” Kyle asked and when V.J. told him, he said, ”No problem – it’s on the way.”
Nobody questioned Kyle but picked up their bags and followed him down a path until they reached the side gate close to Lambeth Bridge. A few blows with the fire axe and the lock was broken. Blindly, they followed him unsure of where they were going even when they went down a flight of stairs that led to the Thames and stepped onto the jetty.
“Your transport awaits,” Kyle chuckled pointing the axe towards a motor launch, ”That’s our way out – no one thinks of the river.”
“Can you handle one of those?” Quist queried hesitantly “I know I can’t.”
“All my life has been spent on the river,” Kyle explained as he boarded the launch and climbed to the cockpit. “Mum and dad as well. We ran pleasure cruises up and down to the Tower and Hampton Court.”
It was dark by the time they reached Richmond where V.J. disembarked. No one, knowing that they would never see the doctor again, said goodbye.
All through the journey Quist had withdrawn inside himself. The close proximity of the attractive nurse filled him with anxiety now that the adrenaline rushes had fled his system. Whenever she had looked at him he had turned away to focus on something else unable to trust himself to speak.
Then, plucking up the courage he faltered yet again as soon as he noticed that she seemed to be no longer interested.
Katya stared up into the sky. It had been a long time since she had seen such a canopy of stars. As she dropped her gaze she saw the moon rising above the smoky shadows over London. She shuddered as the stared into the great red eye in the sky.
“Red moon rising,” Kyle said, without looking around but at the orb reflected in the window “Bad things are going to happen.”
“Bad things?” Quist challenged. “Are you serious? Haven’t we been through enough?”
Kyle’s shake of the head was answer enough.
“Told you, Pete,” Kyle reminded him. “You are going to have to learn how to use that gun.”
“So what now?” Quist wanted to know.
“We head west until we run out of river,” Kyle confirmed.
© 2016 Ray Foster
By Chris Raven
The Asteroid Belt (3AU from 19 Draconis, 49.2LY from Sol and held in fealty to the Terran Star Empire by the Imperial House of Orenstein.)
Two more months before this tour comes to an end, two more months and then he can go home. Two more, that’s all. Gus was amazed he had survived this long. Warfare in a Zero-G environment is remorseless, brutal even. There are no flesh wounds in outa space, anything that pierces an armoured battle suit’s skin results in death, plain and simple. Gustav Beemer was out on patrol, so he was grateful for the armour, the heat shields especially, as the temperature from 19 Draconis was unrelenting in the extreme, even as far out as the asteroid belt.
“Stay alert Gracious!” Sargent Dire’s stern voice barked out through the speakers in Gus’ helmet. That was Gus’ nick name within the squad, Gracious Gus, due to him never wanting to row with his shipmates.
“Serge!” Gus replied. He was being dragged backward, tethered to Grumbling Jed, just to make sure he didn’t drift away from the patrol. His job was to watch the rear, a formidable task in its own right. Old Draconis’ great blinding blue-white orb was directly ahead of him and it was hard to see anything, even with the helmet’s glare shield down.
“You just have to make sure no Orenstein bastard sneaks up on us Gracious, that’s all you have to do, d’ya hear?”
Gus crewed on The Kestrel, a small ‘bandit’ class attack boat which normally hunted out and around Dragon’s Egg, a gas giant on the other side of the asteroid belt, on the ‘cold side’, away from the star. With a large number of lucrative mining colonies on many of its moons, there was always traffic in and out of the system, large haulers and free traders coming to and from The Egg to trade. The 19 Draconis system was officially owned by House Orenstein, one of the five ruling planets of the Terran Star Empire, though the Dragon Free Collective were in system first, by many centuries by all accounts. It now mainly survived by making raids out of The Belt to commandeer any cargo they could take from hapless and unprotected traders up and down the outer system. Out in the outer core of The Empire, there had been very little the colonies could do to protect themselves. That was of course until five years ago, when three cruisers of the Orenstein battle fleet arrived.
Something caught Gus’ eye, but it was just glare from the ‘Old Dragon’, he raised his blaster rifle anyway and scoped around through its sights for a few minutes to make sure.
“You see anything?” It was Jed, his voice was whiney and irritating, which was why he got his nick name.
Two more months, half way there, not long before they can all go back to ‘The Perch’, Kestrel’s base in The Belt, where partners, bars, whores and relative safety waited. Two more months and they could even go back to privateering, although pickings had been lean with those cruisers patrolling around. Some of his shipmates made Gus laugh, especially Grumbling Jed and Rabbit. They thought the cruisers were only here to protect the colonies. Maybe so, but Gus also knew that they were after the asteroid belt for its rich deposits of rare ore. The Collective owned the asteroid belt and that was why they were out here dodging rocks in environment suits. The ship crews of the Collective had all agreed to take turns patrolling their shared back door on the ‘hot side’, just in case the fleet tried to get in behind them.
A brief flash of light again, small blue-white sparkles from Draconis, probably reflected off a mineral rich asteroid. It reminded Gus of Gloria 5’s eyes. Out of all the whores at Madam Jo’s back on The Perch, Gloria 5 was Gus’ favourite. She was an escaped pleasure replicate who had broken her conditioning and escaped. Finding her way to the asteroid belt and with very little ability or inclination for anything else, she had inevitably found herself working in Madam Jo’s doing the same work for which she had been designed.
“That’s OK lovely Gus,” she had often told him, “At least I have a choice of who I pleasure now.”
Gus had promised to take her away from that life, once he had made enough wealth from raiding. He hoped to even take her off system someday, not to the Core Systems of course, they would never let a pirate and a replicate settle in The Core. Only on the frontier would they have any future, on a proper planet maybe, with real air, gravity, some semblance of security. Replicates can’t have children like humans can, but they could still have a good life together on some out-of-the-way world where people didn’t ask too many questions. That was Gustav’s dream, achievable for sure but it would take money, lots of money. ‘No chance of that while patrolling The Belt,’ Gus thought, very little opportunity for plunder here. ‘Only two more months though,’ Gus reassured himself, two more months before he could get back to earning again. He wouldn’t have minded so much if his time in The Belt hadn’t been such a complete waste of time.
In all the time he had been out here, not one enemy patrol had he encountered and Gus was beginning to believe the whole exercise to be a waste of time. That in itself was inconvenient but justifiable, considering the recent increase in House Orenstein‘s naval presence. Gus could cope with that, doing his part for the greater good. It was the regular pointless loss of life that concerned Gus the most. Some parts of the ‘belt’ were just too tight for ships to safely manoeuvre and they were regularly forced to patrol in battle suits, which was risky as perspective was difficult, without clear points of reference. The asteroids were often closer than expected and moved quicker than they appeared. Gus had seen more than one shipmate get knocked helplessly out into space or crushed between two rocks.
“You have a lot to say today,” Gus told the huge blue shimmering orb as its light reflected off an asteroid again.
“Who you talkin’ too?”
That was Rabbit, another escaped replicate, a military model this time, designed for strength and endurance, not particularly for intelligence.
“Nothing Rabbit,” Gus explained, “I’m just talking to Draconis.”
“Why? It can’t talk back.”
“Don’t worry about it Rabbit.”
Gus continued to watch ahead, tethered to Jed as he was, slowly being towed backwards. Draconis filled his whole field of vision, acting like a blue shimmering backdrop behind a complex mass of movement as rocks and planetoids drifted, turned and occasionally collided.
The blue-white flash caught Gus’ eye again and this time he wasn’t so sure it was just glare.
“Serge!” The urgency in his voice brought the patrol to a halt, everyone moving into defensive positions, a tall order considering they were all floating in free space. Serge came down to the rear with Corporal Frisk as Gus untethered himself from Jed.
“What have you got Gracious?”
“I don’t know Serge, something, movement? Something keeps catching my eye.”
The patrol floated around for the best part of an hour, everyone straining their eyes towards the sun, trying to see something in its glare. In the end the Sergeant decided they should investigate and the Patrol tentatively retraced its steps back the way it had come.
For hours they explored the asteroids, Gus trying to find the last place he thought he saw something but it was like trying to find a nut on a barrel of bolts. Serge was just regrouping everyone ready to return to The Kestrel when Gus saw something out of place on a small rock. Carefully controlling his manoeuvring jets, he was able to attach himself to its slowly turning surface, tethering himself to a hastily placed belaying pin. Frisk joined him and together they looked in disbelief at a single person pressure tent embedded deep in one of the asteroid’s craters. It had been the glare of its solar panels that had caught Gus’ eye.
“So much for no contact,” Gus commented dryly, turning to share the joke with Frisk, only to find him floating from his tether above him, a neat laser hole in his helmet’s plasti-glass visor.
“Frisk is gone,” Gus announced, struggling to crouch down in zero gravity, “sniper on this rock…”
“Form on Gracious!” Serge ordered, “Stay low Gus, we’re on our way.”
Gus scanned the rocks above him, pulling his tether in tight to keep himself as low to the ground as possible. There was a sniper out there in the rocks with an accurate and long-ranged laser rifle. Gus knew if he stayed still much longer the sniper would get a bead on him and he’ll join Frisk floating above the asteroid like a grisly balloon.
“What the hell, these suits are made to take anything.”
Gus set his jet pack on full power and untethered himself. He hit go and unfurled as he launched himself upwards, hurling himself towards the rocks, firing his blaster as he flew; bright red plasma erupting ahead of him like the fire from the jaws of a dragon.
© 2016 Chris Raven
Ufburk: Armour of Enthily
By Donny Swords
Exiting the cave where Lord Fel lay dead, killed by Rydal, Ufburk’s companion, they run and through the air whistling in his ears, the Son of Tiber hears odd, gyrating mechanical noises. Adrenaline fuels him as his knotted beard flops near his chest and his dark brown hair floats behind.
Ufburk’s heart, stricken by the recent loss of his cousin Danno nevertheless carries on. In the distance, in the Northeast, there erupts a thrumming sound. It is almost musical in nature. But Ufburk sees something of more immediate import; it is a small cut in the jagged mountain nearby his old hunting path. He motions to stop, and Sefer’s pups stand and wait expectantly. “They are well trained,” he thinks, and that thought widens the sadness growing inside.
Rydal, still spattered with Lord Fel’s blood, stops smoothly, breaking his gait with much more ease than one might expect.
“That cropping in the stone face is where I often sat, waiting for deer when I hunted here. Do I smell the others? Should we ambush them?”
“I think so,” says Rydal, “Let’s move; so we might surprise one or two before all falls to rubble.”
Ufburk begins to sprint for the rock wall, hearing the odd mechanical noises ever still. Rydal runs beside the once-barbarian. At full-speed the bulky warriors make their way to the alcove of stone, and they hunker down.
Rydal is frowning, and the furrows on his face deepen and wrinkle the more he sniffs at the air.
“I had hoped,” says the Merrigan.
“What, say you?”
A lengthy silence or at least an unpleasant one to Ufburk stretches onward to what he judges to be infinity. His nerves prickle, and it feels as if his skin is crawling with fire ants. They stink, aye he smells something out there. But he is not only concerned about the unexplained noises or the enemy. He ponders his mysterious friend Rydal of Evan-Moore and the death the Merrigan gave Lord Fel.
That cycling sound comes nearer and under them Ufburk thinks then and later knows he hears trudging. For some time nothing happens. Rydal does not speak, and Ufburk feels his tension rising.
A mist has lifted from the forest floor as the mid-morning sun evaporates the dew and warms the wet earth. To Ufburk the scene seems more like a dream world than Tarak, his birth world.
“Friend, if I die today, you must travel to the Valla Cortex, and you must swear you will kill that many-eyed wizard. Stop Seljuk; he strips the galaxies of all life and resources. I fear that unless a warrior claims Seljuk’s life he could live on for generations,” Rydal’s eyes widen momentarily, sharpen.
Ufburk’s mouth falls open to start to speak, but Rydal shushes him.
“No time. These things are machines, not alive. There is one way I found to slay them. A thick plating lies at the base of the neck; it creates a bulge, like so. Break that free and below are wires, tough to see, but no matter. Just cut them away. Slice those wires and these monsters stop moving. Or this strategy once worked. These are rough enemies Ufburk, do not let them get a hold of you.”
Nodding, Ufburk makes use of what precious time he has. Golden sunlight shines, and the rays are visible in the mist. Ufburk can faintly hear Whispering Stream a mile off. The trudging is steady, even. He judges the timing of his approaching enemies to be a work of wizardry, for each foot lands simultaneously with the others as if the machines are synchronised entirely. He shivers involuntarily, wondering what these enemies might be like to face in mortal combat and knowing he will soon learn what it means first hand.
Sitting in the natural blind, where he spent many days and nights killing deer and rabbits for the village makes the once-barbarian misses his bow. Sighing, Ufburk equips his Raygun, the thing that led him to all of this. But Rydal tells Ufburk, no, to use his father's axe: to hack at the bulbs near the base of the enemies' skulls. The Merrigan uses a word to describe them; a word Ufburk will long to forget -Cyborgs.
Soon, three figures emerge, casting long shadows over the wall of mist. The sound of the Cyborgs is inescapable. Though the three shudder and Bob as they move, they are quick. There are many of the mechanised Dirvaks, at least fifteen. These are far off in the woods yet.
Throughout this all, Sefer’s pups wait quietly for a command Ufburk does not give them, in a nearby strand of trees.
“Quietly,” Ufburk whispers, and he motions that he will flank the enemies.
The Cyborgs freeze, their heads are turning toward Ufburk and Rydal is charging the enemy. Ufburk whirs into action and the promise of battle excites him. What he sees as he draws within striking distance horrifies, and he does his best not to retch. Wishing he could turn away, he is committed to his assault nevertheless. Ufburk’s actions have exposed him to his enemies making now the time to fight.
He rolls past one Cyborg, hearing Rydal smashing into another, but loses sight of the third. He takes no time to wonder over the wires, pumps, and gears or the fluids that preserve the fleshy remains of the Dirvaks. These Dirvak cadavers, made host to the evolution of tech sicken him.
Gaining his feet, he has time enough to hack away the bulbous pocket behind the Cyborg’s neck. Metal on metal squeals quickens then vanishes as the behind the neck cover pops off on impact, revealing a network of thin gossamer wires, which look like spider webs to the adrenalized once-barbarian.
“Still no sign of the other,” he thinks even as something sends Tiber’s well-made weapon sailing, wrenching it from his hands with ease. The cover has flown off the first Cyborg, but Ufburk sees he has to finish the job. He realises time is sparse.
Rydal fights the last of the Cyborg Trio and is bleeding. Sefer’s pups remain silent.
Anger surges through Ufburk, igniting his battle blood. The coverless Cyborg has spun toward the once-barbarian who is bewildered at the sight of its glassy eyes. Ufburk does not fully comprehend what he is seeing. Our hero curses the abomination before him and shoots one glass Cyborg eye off with the Raygun, sending golden sparks flying.
It fires back, but Ufburk no longer stands where he once was. He rolls back and away, gains his feet and leaps at the third Cyborg. It fires a green-lit gun that shoots bluish rounds unwillingly to the sky as Ufburk pries open the hatch at the base of the Cyborg’s neck and plunging one hand into the web of wires there, pulls them free, ignoring the jolting electrical shock he receives as best as possible.
The thing halts, remaining upright, the reddish glow in its glassy eyes flicks out even as the other fires on Ufburk. He feels a flash of severe heat fly past and then Rydal’s alarming cry. The Merrigan rushes the last of the two Cyborgs as Ufburk sees the other smoking on the trail, laying flat and face-first on the misty lawn. Rydal’s powerful arms entrap the Cyborg from its front side.
“Cut the wires!”
Ufburk is already doing so, after prying open the cable hatch with better speed than the first and soon he is again electrocuted as he yanks away the Cyborg’s circuitry. The thing stops immediately; its lone eye goes cold. Ufburk kicks it over. The Cyborg falls with a satisfying thud, a lifeless sound.
Rydal is opening the leather purse he uses to stow various useful items. Out comes a brown bottle, an ancient one according to Ufburk’s discerning eyes.
“You did some of the work already, but we must hurry. Pull an eye free from each of these other husks. Let us be sure these Cyborgs will at least be challenging to repair.”
Ufburk groans, “Others, more by many will arrive shortly. We should push on.”
“No. If we are not sure that these machines will remain useless, we might need to fight them again far too soon. Takes a moment each.”
Removing the cap from the brown bottle, Rydal pours from it some acrid concoction that immediately starts to erode the alien circuitry that somehow allows dead-flesh to walk. Thin grey smoke flushes from the open eye-socket of the first. While grunting, Rydal finishes the other two.
Ufburk calls the pups over, rewarding them with petting and kind words for not joining the fight. Perhaps he will use the dogs, but not now.
Soon, Ufburk, Rydal, and the pups are again underway, running toward the knife-edged mountains at the edge of Thunder Plains. They plan to divert the Cyborgs and the Scala away from Tiber’s barrier.
The natural basin of Whispering Gully provides thick-forested cover for predators, yet Ufburk and Rydal are the only living creatures here, save rodents.
Ufburk eventually slows his gait, wanting to keep a close enough proximity to his pursuers to keep luring them. His brain spins with all that has occurred, and now he stops, panting, clutching his sides and bends forward to draw in a chest full of fresh air. Slowly, Ufburk rights himself.
“Before we go on, you must talk more friend. My thinker is twisted up. Confound it; I cannot understand! How were you able to slay Commander Fel when he wore this trinket? I was unable to scratch him, and I fired many shots right at that devil. The Commander even said that as long as he wore Antar’s Brace, I would encounter bad luck. So how did you kill him? Lord Fel was a god; he had strange powers. And what will this artefact do for me? To me? And the armour? Why do you lead? It’s more my world than yours. Tell me; I must know.”
“As I told Fel, I am a guardian of sorts. What I guard is the power you witnessed, the one I used to kill the Commander and other magics. It is a magic that nullifies the spellcasting of even the elitist master. Antar’s brace emits a kind of forcefield. It repels projectiles and guards the wearer against piercing weapons, though one can still get skewered by a powerful foe. Don’t rely on the brace in hand to hand wars.”
Ufburk’s stunned expression disappears only after some time. He speaks slowly, hearing the steady march of the Cyborgs some miles away.
“You killed Lord Fel with a magic trick?”
“And strength, yes. My spell allowed for enough time to remove the limb. I made use of that time. I am sorry for not telling all. It is tough to decipher what is relevant, and I have only just mastered the Tarakanian tongue, though someone tried to teach me lifetimes ago. I have travelled many roads. Look, Ufburk, we must go. They draw ever closer.”
Together, Ufburk and Rydal agree on a course of action. Their plan is not a plan at all. The band of Cyborgs that are stalking them and the undoubtedly larger contingents of Scalas, the brutal race that destroys and enslaves the Dirvaks even in death outnumbers them. The Scala force is overwhelming; the Cyborgs are unrelenting and with each soldier having the strength of ten men. Ufburk is grateful for Rydal and what the Merrigan knows. Between them, Ufburk carries three weapons, a dagger, Tiber’s axe, and the Raygun that got him into this mess. Rydal carries only one, a blade of bleached bone, fourteen inches long. Ufburk has a shield slung over his back, neither wears any armour, but they still hold a rough advantage or two. Most all their so-called powers lay in their skulls, in the shape of their brains. Ufburk can win battles with wit, and he knows the powers of rational thought. The Merrigan named Rydal uses his mind to tap powers unseen, unimagined. Collectively, they know their duties. Even so, their plan remains hardly formulated, because they are warriors, and they cannot endlessly collude their thoughts before fighting a battle for their lives.
To kill their enemies is only one part of their loose-knit mission while speaking to the Chieftain-King Tiber is the end goal. Ufburk glances at Antar’s Brace, knowing much rides on the artefact.
Ufburk prays to the Light God to aid him aiming his bow and to steady his axe. He asks for resolution, “and thanks to you Lord for my continued safety, I will not squander your gifts.”
Rydal says nothing, but he is praying to that same God, given a different name by his race a billion miles across galaxies from Tarak, Ufburk’s homeworld.
At long last they reach the rock face, Ufburk climbed years before, to board the same spacecraft he used to return to Tarak.
“Places hold power son. And this authority is known by those like us. Our world seems unremarkable, ordinary, but we are not of this world, and this place has many strengths.” Ufburk clearly recalls Tiber’s words now, as if spoken afresh. Gooseflesh erupts covering his arms and legs. In context, to Ufburk as a child, Tiber’s statement seemed odd, nothing more. Now the once-barbarian cannot help but wonder what meaning Tiber had suggested.
Ufburk loosens his shield straps, made of long leather strips and fashions harnesses for the pups; Rugsin whines as Ufburk ties the animal to Rydal’s back. Bevold makes no whimper as if the dog is keen to reach the top of the hill.
The climb is arduous, lengthy and taxing. Ufburk takes to the cliff side with the fervour of a mountain man and has time enough to rest at the top before helping Rydal over the lip and onto level ground.
“From here we will see them coming. It is the best we can do, I think,” Ufburk lifts the Raygun, “I will pick them off, but be ready. I’ve no idea what those blasters the Dirvak drones haul can do to one.”
“Then I will guard our backside. Call if you need help, and I will do the same. I’m going to stand vigil by yon stones. Stay alert friend; I’ve no wish for either of us to fall this day.”
Ufburk watches Rydal go and thinks it is good to have a friend. He takes a second look at the dogs and decides to have them wait in a nearby strand of grass lying flat. He does not need to ponder if Danno trained the pups to fight, every Tarakanian does. Nor does he worry what command to issue because he already knows what word Danno would have chosen. The command will be the name of Danno’s only love, Marsa, who drowned one day at the pond on his Cousin’s land. Ufburk admits something to himself that he had not before, that Danno’s womanising was merely a way for his cousin to get over the loss of his love. Ufburk understands. His first and only love, Davina, was slain by the evil many-eyed demon Seljuk. Ever since the once-barbarian has sought revenge on the Wizard and every soldier that fights for his standards.
The Scala and the Cyborgs are part of Seljuk’s fold. For this, they shall perish.
From his high mount Ufburk does not relish the sight of his world. The land lies in semi-ruin ravaged for resources by the Scala, who no doubt come on behalf of the Demoki, Ufburk’s long-sworn enemies. North, past his hometown by a short distance Tiber’s protective and arching dome shimmers with silverish flecks, coloured in violet-reds by prismatic events occurring in intervals.
In the debris that once was, the Thunder Hills are the hosts of the Scalas, pilots, and bombardiers. Ufburk sees familiar vessels, of Scala design, and Demoki crafts. The Greys or Scalas, beings with dark orbital eyes and consistently grey skin-pigment have fashioned an encampment, nearby the face of Golgi, a Mount of Summoning.
The sights disturb Ufburk as he strains to make sense of the sprawl. He listens to the advancing mob of Cyborgs as well.
From the knoll come Rugsin and Bevold, slinking low, withers high. Bevold draws close to his new master, and the dog nuzzles Ufburk’s side.
Now, he hears a new noise. A stealthier sound, underneath the mechanical pumping pistons and synchronised marching of the Cyborgs, and this noise is in closer proximity than the others.
“Good, heal dogs. War has come,”
From the Glade nearby a bellow issues from many throats, and a lake of Greys storm Ufburk’s perch.
“Stay by,” the once-barbarian tells his hounds. He is firing his Raygun, red streaks of fiery laser beams criss-cross from target to target, blowing heads apart. Ufburk sees no sign of Rydal, and he has lost track of the Cyborgs. He senses an ill-omen but fights, hounds lying near his feet. But the Scala are too numerous for Ufburk to seek his friend, and he resolves himself to stand or die.
His fingers reclaim their earlier fervour for the strengths the Raygun holds and the destruction it brings. And it seems that the Scalas cannot hit the side of a mountain as they return fire and those azure bolts shot from Grey’s weapons fly fully away.
“It is Antar’s brace. ‘Tis…”
Rydal calls, but Ufburk’s mind remains consumed with murder. His shots cut down the advancing mob in droves, but the Scala no longer fire. Their only desire is to reach him. But they will not.
“Not while I wear Antar’s Brace,” Ufburk says.
Beams rip from the Raygun’s muzzle. One hits a Scala, tearing the top half of its now flaming skull off and spinning the Grey eighty degrees before it drops dead, burning on the ground. Ufburk’s next shot opens the chest of the leading Grey, and an expanding hole begins to glow. The ember looks like the tip of a colossal and hot cigar; flames shoot up from the corpse as it drops. Another shot blows away the weapon wielding arm of another Scala, and another removes its head in a similar fashion. Another Greyskin’s one blackened orbital eye burns as it hangs from the creature’s face, scarlet goo dangles from the wound, sizzling from Ufburk’s fiery laser beams.
A battle lust builds, charging Ufburk’s barbaric fever as he fires with steady accuracy at the charging horde of Scala infantry. Rydal’s cry escapes our hero’s mind, as he no longer even calculates his shots. The warrior does not measure results; he fires and legs, arms, torsos and heads fall to the ground, struck with flaming madness. His only focus is the rate he fires his weapon. Its coils often overheat during times like this causing the Raygun to malfunction. Losing those moments will not do.
‘The Cyborgs are gone,’ he decides. ‘This bunch is meant to be enough, perhaps those machines wait below, in case I retreat, which seems cowardly, but smart.’
The Son of Tiber does not retreat, Crimson bolts fly. Smoke drifts from the dying and dead. The Scala force continues to pour over the grassy knoll towards him. Ufburk continues to kill them, turning the aliens to smouldering ashes and sacks of ruined flesh.
The numbers dwindle. Ahead less than five Greyskins remain, but three are close, within yards.
Ufburk depresses the trigger, taking away the first Scala’s features, formerly featuring the same looks as the flanking two, and vaporising that alien face. The others merely swerve to avoid their fallen comrade and dive headlong at Ufburk. They brandish electrified wands that sparkle with silvers and blues in three-digit hands.
Those long, shiny rods come close to striking Ufburk and then are jolted loose by Ufburk’s parry. The lightsticks bounce away from the Scala’s peculiar fists where they flop and crackle on the ground, shining brightly before abruptly going dim.
The once-barbarian pummels one of the Scalas several times with his bare knuckles and lands a lucky kick on the other, managing to send the Gray sprawling.
Sefer’s pups come running, ears flat, teeth barred and the once-barbarian feels a pang of guilt for calling on them. But pups have to learn to fight.
The two dogs spring with supernatural grace, muscles rippling -mouths foaming, and the deep growl of war in their throats. Rugsin and Bevold tear the pair of Scalas to shreds in a horrific display of savagery, returning obediently to rest at Ufburk's side, slathered in dark blood.
The big man scours the embankments, the knoll, the grassy battlefield and nearly gives up hope of finding Rydal when his eyes settle on his friend’s unmistakable bulk, lying face down near an outcropping of stones.
“By the stones” Ufburk mutters as he moves toward Rydal. The dogs follow, eager to stay with their new master.
The Merrigan’s sides heave rapidly as Ufburk approaches, and the sight disturbs him. It is as if his friend is critically wounded. Ufburk begins to think the worst and to believe this to be true.
Dropping to one knee, the once-barbarian does not see any blood. The Merrigan’s sides begin gyrating with the force of Rydal’s wheezing respirations. Ufburk wants to freeze time or to run away, to get far away, from the Scala, from watching those he cares for dying. When he rolls Rydal onto his back, Ufburk finds that his friend is laughing, the strain of the Merrigan’s uncontrollable laughter has left Rydal’s eyes shimmering with silver tears, and those glittering droplets fall as Rydal continues to wheeze and moan.
During his long wait for the Merrigan to regain composure, Ufburk broods on the fields. He sees no further enemies for a long span. All the while Rydal’s chuckles grow more manic, less tamed.
Eventually, Ufburk spies a Scala walking alone. He assumes the Grey is avoiding him. He raises the Raygun, flips a switch on its side and peers down the sights and shoots. The Grey, now missing part of its face and jaw drops, smoking. This event only causes Rydal to laugh more.
Some time passes before Rydal stops laughing and then time skirts by as he regulates his breathing. Finally, after staring long enough at Ufburk’s scowling face, Rydal does tell his friend what happened to cause his odd behaviour.
“You were firing my direction. I could do nothing because each time I thought you would guard against blasting a hole in me, several shots whizzed by me. Pinned down as I was, I wanted desperately to get out of your firing line, but it was almost like it wasn’t you shooting after all. You kill like a demon. I think I laughed due to fear. Once I started, I felt unable to quit giggling. I am sorry for the delay.”
“Perhaps now you will let me lead. ‘Tis my world, my Brace, my will.”
“What is wrong Ufburk? You do not sound the same to me,” Rydal’s ebon eyes narrow to a slit, “Are you feeling okay?”
For a moment The Son of Tiber does not reply, and a palpable tension marks the time. When he does answer, Ufburk is genuinely confused.
"Yes, yes I feel -no. No, It'll be fine. Yes, fine -fine. Good."
He raises the Raygun to Rydal’s eye.
"Ufburk, lower your weapon. Fight him; it is Seljuk. Think how you hate him. Seljuk is telling you what to do -don't let him. Lower the gun and live to kill that crafty wizard with many eyes. Seljuk is your enemy, not me. Drop the weapon Ufburk, let's go see your father."
A chorus of bells seems to be exploding in Ufburk’s ears. The chiming is loud enough not to sound like individual sounds at all, but some array of external supersonic beams. A blister suddenly bubbles and pops on Ufburk’s shoulder; a searing pain blasts reality to nevermore. Ufburk begins to feel warm, hot, feverish. His skin stings as if he rolled in hot coals.
“Fight Seljuk, he is the enemy,” Rydal says.
The thoughts whirring through Ufburk’s brain are muddled, disruptive. Whenever he tries to concentrate a sharp pain gnaws at that place between his eyes. “Seljuk…”
The word is all he hears. Nothing else Rydal conveys to Ufburk matters to the big man but that single word. That offensive word. The once-barbarian hears the name of his enemy and does the natural thing. He revolts. Struggling, he senses the wizard’s mind, smaller, within his own, that presence, Seljuk’s occupancy of his very mind, confirms Ufburk’s growing feeling that Seljuk violates him. Red bursts of rage fuel the man as he battles the wizard occupying his brain.
Ufburk’s growing agony is fast turning to a destabilising misery. The big man slumps, fighting vertigo. The pain heightens and continues to climb. Driven to one knee the once-barbarian is unaware at all of anything, not Rydal, or the twisted and torn Greys littering the field. The hurt he is enduring is because of the wizard, Seljuk.
“Seljuk killed my love,” Ufburk’s lips whisper, seemingly against his will. The statement emboldens him. Again, Ufburk lashes out at Seljuk, who somehow has found a gateway to the hero’s thoughts and is hiding within Ufburk’s brain. The once-barbarian clashes with Seljuk’s mind, striving to push the Wizard out.
“Fel is dead Seljuk! Do you hear? That is not all; I am not alone. If you are here on Tarak, let’s meet. It seems I should kill you.”
From somewhere Ufburk hears a screaming voice, but it is far and unclear to the point that everything he is hearing is unintelligible. Our hero wonders if he will live to reach his father.
A rush of strength-depleting agony explodes in Ufburk’s skull. Seljuk’s power has turned the big man to so much quivering jelly and as the once-barbarian flops on the ground. Fighting the Wizard’s mind, Ufburk feels tiny. But his will does not give in to the demands of the demon haunting him, and soon Ufburk feels Seljuk’s presence weakening. The struggle burns in between his ears, a crippling madness that makes his ears ring, and Ufburk is aware of his runny nose.
Still, he pushes, fights. The ringing in his ears lightens, his head throbs less than moments ago. Ufburk gains a new found hope -and fights doubly hard. Before long the once-barbarian is free.
Rydal takes a cloth from his satchel and dabs a smudge of blood from under Ufburk’s nose. The Tarakanian is wary, having forced the wizard away.
Ufburk stays down, on one knee, saying nothing, but feeling an intense gratitude and sense of relief. Something tells him not to gloat over winning his battle of wits with Seljuk, so Ufburk does not let himself believe that he has entirely won out.
No longer dwelling on the Wizard, Ufburk turns his attention to Rydal. The Merrigan wears a crinkled brow and appears troubled.
“What say you?”
Ufburk stands, awaiting Rydal’s reply.
“Clearly, Seljuk is close. Let us kill his soldiers, perhaps he will come to us in the flesh, it would please me to see you kill that creature. I think, though, that we might be able to trick Seljuk into coming to us, should we reach Tiber.”
“Since when have you taken to calling my father by name?”
Rydal does not reply, as he simply waves off Ufburk’s remark and begins to hike the steep path heading towards the rock face where the two adventures will climb out of Whispering Gully.
Again, they put the dogs into the leather harnesses and tie them to each other’s backsides. The climb is steep, yet Ufburk hadn’t forgotten the various hand and footholds he used when he hunted here. Following the big man up the rock face does not hinder Rydal either, he follows Ufburk upwards with incredible ease.
Neither adventurer pauses when the reach the summit. The valleys below make them gasp. Here, on the high rising mound, the reality of Demoki influenced destruction makes itself evident. A sprawl of dusty brown and blackened soot, with acrid plumes of steam rising as the ruined soil expels a poison Rydal knows all too well are what remain of the formerly lush lands around Ufburk’s old village.
Near where the village once was, there is a shimmering dome, Tiber’s ward against the Demoki controlled Greys and Dirvak Cyborgs. Ufburk notes the route they must take is in the open for a long span. Out in the sterile field is a silver fleck. On instinct, he raises the Raygun, peering down the sights of the gun and fires upon what shimmers there.
For one instant the sight of the Raygun’s fiery beam cuts the sky and then a massive explosion rocks the land. Lights span the field, and an enormous fireball licks the air in a marvel of lurid orange-red flames and jet-black smoke.
“Minefield, use caution,” says the once-barbarian and together they head toward the desolation, nearer now than ever to the end of their quest to hold council with Tiber.
All is quiet, utterly still. The only sound Ufburk hears the noise he and Rydal make and that is little. Chaos has found its way into the big man’s thoughts, and he wonders what he will say when he looks at last upon his father.
Though they proceed carefully, none oppose them. The unnatural quiet persists and beyond its muffled energy neither traveller can sense anything of magnitude.
“Be on guard,” Rydal says, “sorcery must abound.”
“But look!” exclaims a bewildered Ufburk. “Light dances oddly over there, it is him, it’s Seljuk. He hides in his spectral tower, which he also hides by magic.”
“And he waits for the Chieftain King to lower his guard,” adds Rydal.
“Then what shall we do?”
Prince Ufburk frowns, considering the Merrigan’s question.
“I suppose we will sneak ourselves in; father would leave me passage. He knows his chances are scant, but better if I return. Come, let us go east, beyond that bend. The Knolls there might obstruct Seljuk’s view. That will hardly help, though there is a cave, behind a stone wall that we can access. It will lead us to my father.”
They traverse the snaky trail leading them toward Tiber and an ever darkening sky looming with thunderheads that somehow had appeared in a radical display of hastiness. The dogs follow without hesitation.
At first the once-barbarian thought the clouds were natural, but now Ufburk feels alerted, his skin tingles with a mixture of paranoia and anticipation. What lurks ahead is viler than he once wanted to believe.
Rydal also stares horrified at the same looming swath of sky Ufburk sees and feels a combination of fear and dread. But he does not remain quiet.
“I have seen this same storm on another occasion. It marks the arrival of Seljuk’s assassin, a dark knight from a bygone time. His name is Rolo, of Weinvangarden, an ancient world. The myths say he has strange powers and that no wizard can defeat him while he wears his armour, forged by the Goddesses long before Tarak became the world you know. And if this is Rolo, who brings that stormy sky, then our quest is doomed. None can kill him. Our weapons are useless, and the Armor of Enthily will nullify whatever magics I might have found helpful.”
Sensing their master’s unease, Bevold and Rugsin trail Ufburk at his heels. He thinks, so does Rydal. They keep moving, despite the promise of danger. War weighs heavily on their minds, and the pups feel that tension, so they too are in an intensified state of awareness.
As he puzzles over matters, a certainty steals over Ufburk, a plan, a sure fire plan. But he does not allow himself to dwell on his idea. Instead, Ufburk begins to sing, not out loud, but within. It is an old song about a fighter. The lyrics grant him a wish if hope would be too strong a word. Still, Ufburk refuses to let such thoughts settle in his brain, for fear Seljuk lords over his every move.
When at last, they reach the trailhead, Rydal glances around, with an air of frantic and erratic nervousness that made the pups wary of him.
“An ambush awaits us; I’ve no doubt.”
Ufburk moves to face his strange companion, squaring his shoulders and turning his back to the stormy skies.
"Aye, and you will fight them -here. Bevold and Rugsin cannot remain to help you, and I must reach father. I can stop this invasion Rydal, but you must face this army alone. I will return to you when I can, but I have to go. There are around eighty of the Scalas. There," Ufburk points with a thick forefinger, "and there."
Rydal and Ufburk exchange glances and the Merrigan knows the once-barbarian is right. Ufburk’s gaze into Rydal’s jet eyes is unrelenting.
“Here,” Ufburk unstraps Antar’s Brace and hands it to his friend. “That artefact will lessen the odds for our enemy. I do apologise for leaving you now, even if I must.”
“Go friend, but take the brace. It is no good for me.”
Ufburk nods and he walks away, strapping on Antar’s Brace once more and he disappears into the thick brush and trees. Rydal tracks the once-barbarian for a while by noting the swaying brush and then his friend is gone.
Rydal of Evan Moore resolves to fight the Greys alone and then, he attacks.
Ufburk hears their death-cries and allows himself a thin but determined smile.
© 2016 Donny Swords
By Dani J Caile
“Beep beep beep.”
“Beep beep beep.”
What time was it? He was sure he’d turned off his alarm before going to sleep.
“Beep beep beep.”
He picked his head up off the pillow and squinted over at his radio showing the digital red numbers. 4:45. In the morning.
“Beep beep beep.”
Who the hell sets their alarm for 4:45 in the morning? It wasn’t loud, but it must’ve been close.
“Beep beep beep.”
Get up already! Was it a neighbor? Had they set it to get up for some reason other than to piss him off?
“Beep beep beep.”
Hell, this was all he needed! Turn the damn thing off!
“Beep beep beep.”
Right, that was it! He got out of bed and moved over to one of the walls connecting to a neighbor.
“Beep beep beep.”
The sound didn’t get louder, or quieter. He moved over to the other wall.
“Beep beep beep.”
The same there, no change. He lay on the floor and put his ear to the floor.
“Beep beep beep.”
The same again. Was it his neighbor above?
“Beep beep beep.”
He took the chair from his desk and stood on it, then stood on his desk, getting as close to the ceiling as possible.
“Beep beep beep.”
No change. No damn change. Was it something in his room? He jumped off the desk and picked up his phone.
“Beep beep beep.”
Not that. He opened the clock on his phone – no alarms set.
“Beep beep beep.”
What the hell was it? His laptop? He looked over to his desk. The screen was black, the standby light off.
“Beep beep beep.”
Oh, come on! Was there anything else? The toaster? The microwave? No, they had different sounds.
“Beep beep beep.”
He ran into the kitchen and checked. No lights, nothing, only this constant…
“Beep beep beep.”
Standing there, he listened. Was it coming from the door?
“Beep beep beep.”
He opened the door. Nothing, nobody in the corridor.
“Beep beep beep.”
Was it the window? He closed the door and walked over to the window, first listening for the…
“Beep beep beep.”
…and then opening the window. It was cool outside.
“Beep beep beep.”
The same, constant alarm, wherever he was, whatever part of the room he stood in, this irritating…
“Beep beep beep… Beep beep beep.”
It wasn’t possible.
“Beep beep beep.”
It was coming from him.
“Beep beep beep.”
“Beep beep beep.”
Where? What? How?
“Beep beep beep.”
Had he eaten an alarm clock? No, that was stupid, a stupid idea.
“Beep beep beep.”
But the only thing he could think of. The last thing he had was pizza. Margherita.
“Beep beep beep.”
With some beer. Had there been something in the pizza?
“Beep beep beep.”
Maybe if he felt his body, maybe he could locate it. He wrapped his arms around his stomach.
“Beep beep beep.”
Not there. He raised his hands up to his chest to feel his heart.
“Beep beep beep.”
A bead of sweat ran down his face. Not in his chest. Then where?
“Beep beep beep.”
He grabbed his head in both hands. It was in his head.
What? Yes, it was in his head! Hang on, what?
There were only two beeps now. What the hell did that mean?
It was his head, definitely in his head! But what? Did he have something in his head?
What the hell could it be? Where was it? He had to find out where it was!
He ran into the bathroom and turned the light on. Standing there, looking into the mirror of the medicine cabinet, he saw the eyes of a frightened man.
A petrified man. He ran his hands over his head, searching for the location of the sound.
Inside, in his brain. In his brain! What? Inside his brain?
What the hell was inside his brain? He raced through his mind, his memories. Was there any time…
…anyone did anything to his head? Any time? No! He was…
…sure of it! No injuries, no stitches, no operations, nothing! What the…
…hell was this?
© 2016 Dani J Caile
The Strange and Unexpected Fortunes of Cedric Raw
By Chris Raven
Cedric Raw was over the moon. He crouched on one knee and clumsily pulled one of his boots off. They were a good pair of boots, well made and solid, so they had done the rounds. Cedric quickly dropped a handful of copper coins into one of them and started to put it back on. The boots were slightly too big for him and he knew the coins were going to slide around the sole every time his feet sweated. But he didn’t care, the boots were sturdy and still reasonably waterproof. He had taken them off the feet of Gamey Dan, a notorious beggar Cedric had found dead in an alleyway three weeks earlier.
Before standing up he gave his companion’s head a grateful tussle. The old scarred and weather-beaten terrier wagged its tail and gave Cedric’s hand a lick.
“We done pretty well there,” he told the brown and ash mottled dog, “a couple of days’ worth of begging in just an hour of ratting, were going up in the world.” The terrier nuzzled the pile of dead rats that lay between its paws.
“We’ll ‘ave to get a pole to stick them on,” he told the dog, “To advertise our new business.”
The dog had come along with the boots. Not right away, a few days later, when it had become obvious that no amount of shouting, kicking or stone throwing was going to keep the damn thing away. The dog had been Gamey Dan’s, so Cedric assumed it had followed the smell of its master’s old boots. Initially at any rate, now they were firm friends, more so after today’s work.
Cedric had hated the dog at first. Not wanting a dependant, another mouth to feed, he had tried his best to scare it off, but in the end he was forced to tolerate the beast, who was want to sidle up and sit next to him at every opportunity, nose to boot. Despite the odd solid kick to the snout, the dog always returned and Cedric learned to ignore it as he begged for food and coin each day. Before long, Cedric noticed his takings had gone up and he realised that people felt sorry for the dog and would give Cedric a copper or two extra to buy something for it to eat. He also found the dog inexpensive to keep, as there was always someone willing to throw it a bone or a half finished pie.
That morning, Cedric and the dog had changed pitch and were begging outside the Shipwright and Lobster, down by the docks. The tavern keeper had come bursting out the front door, burley and red faced, and demanded that Cedric stay right where he was. Cedric hadn’t survived the streets for the past thirty-five years by being foolhardy, so he turned to flee, tripping over the dog and falling face first into the gutter. A few minutes later, when he had finished flaying his arms and begging for his life, Cedric opened his eyes.
“Is that dog a good ratter?” The inn-keep asked, looking down at Cedric with a bemused look.
“The dog, is it a ratter?” The inn-keep repeated. Cedric had no idea, but told him that the dog was the best.
An hour later Cedric and the dog re-immerged from the tavern’s cellar a good few copper prices better off and with a new career ahead of them. It turned out that the dog was a good ratter and word quickly got around. Cedric and his dog became so sought after, it wasn’t long before they had a regular round of inns and warehouses to tend to each week. Within the year they were so successful that they could afford to rent a small damp hovel, still in the Warrens of course, they weren’t that rich, but at least they were off the streets.
Cedric’s heart sank as the dog scampered ahead and sank its teeth into the back of the assassin’s calf. Cedric had been turning to run away before the assassin spotted him, but instinctively twisted back to try and catch the dog before it got them into trouble again. Tangling up his legs, Cedric staggered forward before tripping over his oversized boots and falling awkwardly forward, arms flaying, he accidently landed a solid blow to the back of the assassin’s skull with the ratter’s pole he always carried. All three went down in a heap, the assassin out cold with the dog still worrying at his leg.
Cedric lived in the Warrens, a network of narrow winding roads, hovels and alleyways south of the docks and the river that cut its way through the city of Lundrum like fat running through an old piece of bacon. The Warrens were poor, dark and dangerous and even the City Watch thought twice before venturing out into its tangled web of streets. The only way to survive the Warrens was to pay protection money to the Thieves’ Guild. Nothing happened in the city, especially in the Warrens, without the Guild getting its share. It had even taken a cut of Cedric’s takings when he was begging and it started taking an even larger cut when he became a rat catcher. This was how he had gotten into this predicament in the first place.
Six weeks earlier, a day or two after the guild’s last collection, Cedric was approached again.
“Who are you?” He demanded of the large man in black leather armour and a long hooded cloak. There was no mistaking that he was from the Guild.
“Are you the Rat catcher, Cedric Raw?” The fat man asked in a round oily voice.
“Wag Martin’s already been ‘round,” Cedric told him, annoyed at being bothered twice in the same week.
“You don’t need to concern yourself with that my dear man, not at all, not at all. I’m not collecting.” Cedric was not convinced.
“No?” He asked suspiciously.
“No sir, not at all. Quite the contrary,” the man reassured him, “I am actually hoping to offer you a job.” Cedric’s stomach jumped into his throat.
“A job?” Cedric was still suspicious. “For the guild? I won’t be any good to you as a burglar and I don’t like violence.”
“Quite so,” The fat man agreed, “I am hoping to employ you for the other skills I’ve been informed you possess.”
“Skills? I’m a rat catcher, and the dog here does most of that.”
Cedric reluctantly invited The Fat Man into his hovel to talk more of the job opportunity. He hadn’t wanted to, but the friendly fat man had insisted, and there was something about his polite and amenable voice that frightened Cedric more than the usual toughs and ruffians the Guild usually employed.
It was ‘The Fat Man’ who was being stalked when Cedric’s dog decided to interfere. They were on route to meet him with important information and he had noticed the furtive cut-throat creeping up behind.
As Cedric looked up from the floor at The Fat Man’s round sweaty face he noticed a thin smile, just before his obese employer, with surprising deftness, pulled out a long thin sword from under his cloak and swiftly thrust it downwards towards Cedric’s head. Time seemed to slow as Cedric watched the blade approach and imbed itself into the assassin’s body, just inches from his left ear. ‘Nice blade,’ he thought, feeling both terror and detachment simultaneously, ‘clearly not from around here, Eastern probably, going by the ornate pattern around the handguard,’ The Fat Man tugged at the blade, trying to free it from the assassin’s corpse, warm blood started to spray against the side of Cedric’s face.
“Is that a Seprian blade?” He asked as The Fat Man helped him to his feet and bustled him down a nearby alleyway.
Before Cedric was a rat catcher, he was a beggar and before he was a bodyguard, he had been a jailor and a spy. That had been the job The Fat Man had asked him to do, spy out his enemies in the Thieves Guild. It had turned out The Fat Man was quite high up in the guild, Cedric was wise enough not to ask how high, and he suspected a rival of organising a coup against him. This rival was Warder Derikjon, the head jailor for the city dungeons and The Fat Man suspected he was coordinating his revolt from down there.
Due to The Fat Man’s connections, Cedric was offered a job as apprentice keeper the very next week. On his first day at The Dungeons, Cedric took the dog with him, it hadn’t occurred to him not to. The grizzled old jailor, whose job it was to show him the ropes, was furious and beat Cedric all the way to the Head Jailor’s office, the dog snapping at his heals all the way. Warder Derikjon listened patiently to the jailor’s rant and then transferred Cedric to be apprentice to the Head Torturer, thinking the feisty little terrier might be a useful encourager for the prisoners to talk.
The dog soon became a firm favourite with the guards, not in the least with Derikjon, who started leaving little treats for it for Cedric to pick up at the end of each day. Before long, Cedric was a regular visitor to the Head Jailor’s Office and he was soon privy to overhearing little titbits of information. He was finally running small errands and had become part of the conspiracy, not so much by design, more by the passive acceptance the conspirators had of his presence. By the time Derikjon had realised that he was a spy, Cedric had already fled the dungeons with a list of all The Fat Man’s enemies, forcing Derikjon to bring forward his plan to assassinate his enemy long before he was ready, a plan, as we know, Cedric was able to inadvertently foil.
With the evidence Cedric provided, The Fat Man was able to move against Derikjon with the full support of the guild. And with the conspiracy quashed, its members either fled or killed, a number of vacancies arose in the guild and Cedric was offered a position as head enforcer for The Warrens.
Cedric Raw was over the moon. He dropped a handful of silver coins into his purse and motioned his heavies to let the craftsman go. Their young battered victim fell to his knees in a slump and Cedric crouched down in front of him and stroked the dog’s head, now more grey then ash brown, as it sat by him and growled menacingly at the frightened pot maker.
“Now then,” Cedric told the young man gently, patting him on the shoulder, “that was all a bit unnecessary wasn’t it.” The pot maker nodded enthusiastically. “Next time you miss a payment, I won’t be so kind, I won’t be so moderate. Next time I’ll give these two fine gentlemen the day off and I’ll use the dog.”
Cedric got to his feet with a grunt, the pot maker fell forward and grabbed at his legs thanking him for his mercy.
“Gerroff,” Cedric snapped, angrily and kicked the young man free, “you leave so much as a scuff on these boot and I will kill you.”
‘Not my boots,’ Cedric thought to himself, as he quickly checked them for damage, ‘not my lucky boots.’
Ever since he found them, all those years ago, on that dead beggar in the Warrens, Cedric had had nothing but good luck. He had worked his way up out of the gutter and was now a guild lieutenant with his own area to control and people below him. He was a master now, with means, position and prospects. The only thing he could think of that could account for all his good fortune was the boots. Finding them was definitely when his luck changed, so he had always worn them, keeping them well maintained, always polished, always repaired. With his recent flat feet, the boots even fit him properly now.
Cedric turned and walked away from the grovelling pot maker, the dog trotting happily along behind, just like it had always done. Cedric was glad he had shared his good fortunes over the years with this scrappy little dog, knowing the animal was probably his oldest and most trusted comrade.
“We have a lot to thank these old boots for my friend,” he told the dog, giving it a rare smile.
© 2016 Chris Raven
Ufburk: Armour of Enthily
By Donny Swords
The ruts near the cave entrance appear occluded by some manner of substance the once-barbarian has seen before. A trip-hammer heart pounds fervently beneath Ufburk’s breastbone. It is near-silent now, but this moment fills him with unease. A palpable air strains the environment.
“I smell gases,” Ufburk mutters, “nothing more.”
But is there more? Ufburk is unsure if he wants the answer. He studies his bruised right fist; it is overly swollen. Blue ribbons congeal into lavender pools below the skin. A certainty that he is not alone with only his pups for company steals a pathway to his overactive brain.
Adrenaline still surges in his veins. He casts a sidelong glance toward the entrance of the cave and shivers when he thinks again about the fight he recently endured. Before moving on, the once-barbarian stares at the bloodstains covering him from his elbows down.
“Here’s guessing I have sparse time at best. There is little room to clean up before greeting father. But yon stream should help me. You two are in need of some sprucing up too.”
Despite his rhetoric, Ufburk is proud of the dogs his cousin raised for him. Thinking of Danno makes for sadness. Enduring his melancholy, Ufburk leads the dogs deeper into the darkening cave, towards the sound of running water.
As the shadows darken, Rugsin and Bevold take the point, staying low on instinct. Ufburk follows them soundlessly, hoping to reach Tiber soon and put an end to Tarak’s enemies.
The only sound is the underground stream, which is his destination. They move hastily, despite the risk of danger. The once-barbarian understands his peril and that his father would not want his only son to put himself in harm’s way to reach him. But Ufburk has no other choice and has a will of his own with which to contend. He will take the chance, even if his plan turns to folly and he dies trying.
The deeper they venture into the cave the further the temperature plummets until Ufburk is straining to keep his teeth from chattering. Ufburk flicks a switch on the side of his Raygun, and an eerie light emits from its side panel, enough luminance to help guide the way.
The gloom blends with the amber-shining luminance of the Raygun. Still, there is only the sound of the distant stream. The gaseous air leaves Ufburk feeling unsteady, but he knows his plan is the only way he will reach his father.
He does not allow himself the luxury of fear. Perhaps there might come a day for grieving or to feel the aftershocks of the terror he endures; this is not such a time. Bravery is not a conscience thought, yet neither are his trepidations. Ufburk presses onward. Bevold and Rugsin stay near their master.
Mere minutes later Ufburk emerges into a vast cavern, where the stream ends in a semi-circular pool. A green mist rises from the watery depths there. The aqua green colour is entrancing, the deep water is inviting him. The once-barbarian disrobes, dropping his carelessly folded leather jerkin and breeches to the dusty ground. Beside him, Bevold whines. Ufburk absentmindedly pats the pup, assuring himself as well as the dog,
Placing his axe and Raygun on top of his folded clothes, Ufburk bends to speak to the animals;
“Hold here, watch. Watch only. Do not deny me! Hold here.”
Taking a deep breath into his heaving chest, the once-barbarian dives down into the unexpectedly cold pool. Something beyond his understanding compels him to fall deeper swimming rapidly, despite the growing numbness that pervades his limbs and torso.
The absence of light makes vision impossible. Only thoughts, driven nearly mad by some other presence guide Ufburk. A sharp pain jabs at his sides, he knows this is his need to breathe yet still he goes down that dark chasm of endless pooling and near freezing waters.
His lungs sting from the effort, and somehow he continues, refusing to listen to the now-demanding voice of Seljuk telling him to suck the water into his nose and throat. Without reason Ufburk’s left arm shoots upward and he is pressing Antar’s brace against his mouth, and it seems he can go forever now, swimming under the hillside near the place he grew tall, from a child to a man.
And he reaches a stone face, feeling along its jutting surface with his opposite hand allows him to find a small tunnel through the limestone. Ufburk squeezes through, carefully keeping Antar’s Brace pressed against his mouth and the underside of his nose.
Miraculously, the need to breathe has vanished. Ufburk scrapes a calf on the passage but soon passes through; he knows it is bleeding. A vague light is visible above him. Moving rapidly, he swims upward, kicking furiously and clawing the water with his off hand.
As he shoots toward the surface, he begins to feel a growing need to breathe real air once more. A cold fear envelops him when he thinks about Antar’s Brace, but Ufburk pushes upward. He must see his father before he follows through on his plan of action.
Breaking the surface, Ufburk cannot help himself, he gasps at the thick air like a starving man, manages to find the pool’s edge and hauls himself onto the muddied earth. Even as he lies on his back, sucking warm air into his near-breathless and cold body, the once-barbarian hears footsteps. The sound of the footpads comes to rest over him, and Ufburk opens his eyes. Ufburk’s father, Tiber, Tarak’s King and Chieftain, stands to grin down at his son. The King’s eyes are teary, but his son’s stream as he sees a father he thought he might never see again.
“Ah, my Princely Son has a will that gods might envy. But we have little time Ufburk before you must kill Rolo.”
King Tiber extends his firm hand, helping his brave son to his feet.
“Come, eat. talk. We must be fast, but you will need all the energy you can muster. There is much to weather.”
So Ufburk does rise, his eyes welling with silver-homecoming tears. His feet are insensitive to the hard floor, and The King pauses to warn Ufburk that his feet could be seriously injured, “if he is not more careful,” and to “take care they do not get cut.”
Ufburk knows blood is easy to track but is not worried his enemies have followed him here. Looking down at his white puffy skin shows there is cause for caution. In the chamber, a reddish glow emanates from down a longish corridor.
The Chieftain-King takes the route, saying nothing now.
The tension between the two feels heightened to Ufburk, but he holds his tongue, knowing Tiber will speak when there comes the need. A steady drop in temperature leaves Ufburk, still in the buff, chilled. He fights himself to stop his trembling, and soon they come into the warm chamber from where that reddish glow came.
“In that chest are your old clothes, the ones you trained Sefer while wearing.”
Ufburk finds the rags and fearing they will no longer fit him; he squeezes his thighs into his old dark pants. These still fit him well, but the sleeves and chest portions of his soft sewn shirt no longer allow him to wear the thing, he tears the sleeves away, tossing them aside and rips the shirt at the collar, splitting the garment open at the neckline, exposing the chest. He does not know that he will don the wardrobe for many years. It only feels good to wear clean clothes after so many years wearing his others.
“Take that meat from the fire and have your fill,” says The King from over Ufburk’s shoulder. “The carafe holds wine, ‘Tis thin son, but helpful. I will tie your hair back for battle as I inform you, and you take your nourishment. Time casts a small shadow, but we cannot be foolhardy. We are the last chance for Tarak, the galaxy.”
Ufburk says nothing as he listens to his father.
“Rolo is here son, near the mouth of the tunnel you went through. He is our most precise danger. I sense Rydal too, alive, and fighting.”
At this, Tiber stops talking, seeming to listen to the stillness.
“Yes, Seljuk does hide with a small army in the wing. We might still arrest him now, forever. Will you swear to do as I say? My very life will depend on you; so answer rightly.”
Tiber’s frankness confounds Ufburk, but he swears fealty to his father.
They talk plainly; their motives are transparent. But it comes to bloodshed, their plan.
"Rolo is many things son, but the first thing you must know is that he was once my brother. Seljuk stole his mind, promising riches -all the spoils of battle, to Rolo. And Rolo was not, is not, weak. He fought Seljuk, as you likely have, inside his mind. The Many-eyed wizard won that war of the spirits. The Wizard Poisoned my younger sibling in ways that no living man should endure and now Rolo is hollow."
“An Uncle? Does he not know you, father? Can we save him?”
“I do not see any resolution, other than Rolo’s death and the same for Seljuk. You must venture out soon, from the exit in yonder cavern. Circle in behind Rolo and kill him with this bone-sword.”
Ufburk accepts the weapon and Tiber returns to braiding Ufburk’s thick brown mane. He thinks the weapon eerie, as it looks too similar to Rydal’s. Ufburk is aware Tiber has called his friend by name.
“Looks flimsy, light.”
“Tis, yet it has an enchantment and is forged by a master.”
“What weaponry will Rolo bring?”
Ufburk is frowning, while his thoughts turn to his Raygun and Axe.
“Rolo will be dangerous, regardless of what weapons he bears. Go now, kill him, before he reaches your pups.”
Suddenly thinking of the dogs raises a concern for the once-barbarian.
“Has died. Yes, but we shan’t perish soon, Go on Ufburk. I have work to do as well.”
For a long instant, Ufburk does not take action. He only stares at the mischievous sparks flying to and fro inside his father’s eyes.
“We will speak when this is through. You must move!”
Tiber shoves Ufburk toward the passage.
A twinge of desperation colours Ufburk’s spoken response, “I shall, but stay alive. I have to talk with you at length. I must know how I can travel the Universe, and yet it leads me back to you. I have to understand why I am going to kill an uncle I have never known and did not know I had.”
“That is fair. Go, son. Please. Run!”
So Ufburk sprints down the corridor. His bare feet no longer leave him feeling concerned. Cuts or no, presently, he thinks about two things, fighting and dying.
Sometime later, Ufburk emerges into a pale dawn. Before him, a silverish barrier flickers and he recognises it as the King’s magical blockade. A sense of wonder informs him. Thinking he once knew his father was a baseless assumption. Ufburk decides Tiber has too many secrets to know him well. And an uncle?
The whole thing feels untidy, off. Calming Ufburk’s frayed nerves will take some time. The once-barbarian moves swiftly to the barrier and as the thing flicks out with a wink.
As Ufburk rounds one hillside, he spies the landing where the first cave he entered opens its maw. Standing in the bright sun is a man, broad-shouldered and heavily plated in dark grey steel. The steel shines disproportionately according to the light that surrounds it and on Ufburk’s wrist, Antar’s Brace tightens.
The man is more a giant than Ufburk. The armoured man stares at the once-barbarian with high intensity, yet does nothing else.
There is no sign of Rydal, or of the Scala hordes and their Cyborgs. Ufburk cannot see his dogs.
Out in the open and already sighted by his foe, Ufburk turns and treks across the sward. A strange pattering grows steadily under his breastbone. In one hand he is clutching the bone sword.
When Ufburk is some seventy yards away, the armoured giant pulls out a heavy weapon, forged of a dark steel and levels it at the once-barbarian.
“Uncle lay down your arms, or I am forced to arrest you, even if that be by death!”
A thunderous crack splits the air. Ufburk’s ears explode with brilliant pain and then muffled, he hears ringing. A thin trickle of ruby blood runs unnoticed from his nose into his beard. Again there is a flash and the sound of roaring thunder. Cupping his hands to his ears the best he can while holding the blade he advances, knowing Rolo is firing some weapon.
“Aye, I hear your fury well enough!”
Ufburk’s cry causes the armoured man to shake his head. It is not Rolo’s anger the once-barbarian is addressing, rather, it is Seljuk’s. And it is the Many-eyed Wizard who has enslaved Ufburk’s Uncle.
Sadness steals over his heart. The Prince knows that Rolo cannot be brought to reason, that the wizard has ruined him. The armoured man is lost, enslaved so, and was lost long before today.
One projectile assumedly would have killed the once-barbarian, but Antar’s Brace repels the round, sending it smashing into a hillside. The next sound to come is a dry, metallic cracking as Rolo’s Revolver strikes on an empty chamber.
Again the vacant click sounds, and again.
It is Rydal, bloodied and wounded but alive. The Merrigan raises one palm in a wiping motion, and Rolo’s Revolver has flung aside. The giant charges the Merrigan, not making noise. The sight triggers Ufburk’s superstitious leanings and causes his anxiety to soar.
Rolo bounds into the Merrigan at full speed, knocking Ufburk’s big friend backwards. The two fall in a flurry of thrashing body parts, fighting even as they fall.
Ufburk is dimly aware that he is running toward the fight, and that Rolo is on the Merrigan’s chest, beating poor Rydal possibly to death. A fine scarlet mist dots the air for emphasis.
The once-barbarian dives at Rolo knocking the man free of Rydal. Now it is Ufburk railing against the bulk of Rolo’s assault. His Uncle is like a hundred oxen, and the armour he wears is thick enough to repel any weapon and presumably to shatter the bone sword Ufburk wields quite readily.
Seconds pass before Ufburk sees his peril, he cannot fight such a brute. Rolo is preternaturally resilient. On that haggard face, Ufburk sees traces of his lineage but no sign of compassion or remorse, no evidence of his Uncle’s humanity remains.
Rolo is striking him, Ufburk sees flashes and feels exploding pain. The once-barbarian feels something snap at his side and knows Rolo has busted a rib.
And then a voice breaks out in the chaos, hearing it, Ufburk’s hopes simultaneously soar then plummet. The once-barbarian is aware he no longer holds the bone sword. From one puffy eye; he sees Rydal lying dead or unconscious before him, and he knows he too is wounded severely.
“Rolo, fight me, brother!”
It is the King, coming down the gentle slopes of the grassy knoll near the cave. Ufburk struggles to take a knee, and his head spins for his effort. Blood spatters from a gash on his thigh. Ten yards away, he sees the bone sword, lying in a tangle of grass. Rapidly, he begins to shuffle toward that blade, knowing it is significant. Why else would Tiber have given the weapon to him?
Gripping the hilt makes Ufburk’s hand tingle as if the blade is suddenly alive and this, in turn, invigorates the once-barbarian.
Rolo is fighting Tiber, but the Chieftain retains his footing despite the force of the armoured man’s flurries. Ufburk sees his father’s axe describe a half-moon in the bright of day, leaving a silver blur in its wake and then the axe flies free, repelled by Rolo’s might.
The King throws his head back, laughing defiantly and charges his possessed brother, and now Rolo is winning -he is winning against Tiber the same as he fared against Rydal and the now horrified Ufburk.
But the Prince is not ready to become King and he charges his Uncle, who has already hurt the King considerably. Rolo sees the charge, hits Tiber a final time and stands to fight his nephew. Still, no emotion shows on the warrior’s face.
They clash together, but Ufburk feels energised, and he fights with all the courage and ardour he can muster. Finally, Rolo succumbs to his will, losing ground. They fight wordlessly with one knowing much and the other bent only on bringing death.
Tiber and Rydal do not stir, rather, they seem broken to Ufburk, who tries his best to put them out of his mind. The bone sword sings as he strikes out at his Uncle and ten Ufburk finds an opening in the armour, near the underarm. The bleached blade sinks in easily. Rolo slumps to his knees, and rolls then onto his back. He gasps and scarlet ribbons of blood soak his beard, and the cloudiness leaves his eyes.
“Your father, haul me to him…”
Ufburk stares down at the wounded man in disbelief.
“Nay,” replies the once-barbarian.
“You must. I need to tell the King…”
More blood gushes from Rolo’s lips, but again, he manages to speak;
“‘Tis no need brother. I have come to you.”
Rolo’s eyes spark with excitement.
"Ah, Tiber. You must," A spasm rocks Rolo and he grimaces, spitting out more blood. "take this armour, the Armor of Enthily and cleanse it the old way. Give it to Ufburk, with it; he can save the Tarakanian race -he can kill - Seljuk."
Rolo’s eyes shut then, never to open again.
Rydal does awake for more adventures with Ufburk, yet it takes months to heal the damage he sustained at the hands of Rolo. The dogs, Bevold and Rugsin, re-join their master, whose side they remain loyal to for several years. Over the coming days, Tiber reveals many of his secrets to his son, but not all.
And Seljuk has vanished to the void, to gather his powers and Ufburk thinks it will be long before they meet.
© 2016 Donny Swords
[The Black Knight of Higham
**]by Chris Raven
The black knight came a-riding down,
To guard the mountain track.
His aim was to protect the town,
And drive invaders back.
Far up upon that mountain road,
The Black Knight stood his ground,
Upon which was a gauntlet throw’d,
For any opponent found.
That’s what I came upon, by chance,
Caused me to end my trek,
Before me, tent, horse, sword and lance,
Black standard ‘round its neck.
Stood motionless, the knight’s head panned,
As I trudged up that rise,
Black armoured, tall, with sword in hand,
A visor’s slit for eyes.
As I stepped on the dark knight’s land,
He turned to block my way,
And silently he raised a hand
But not a word did say.
His tower’d frame, forced me to stop,
The Knight had checked my path,
Silent, cold and still was he, not
A single sign of wrath.
The task ahead ‘came clear to me,
It filled me full of fright,
To carry on with my journey,
I knew I had to fight.
No warrior was I, nor bold,
Dressed not in steel, nor hide,
From the shadows I unfold,
On wits I’ve more relied.
I drew my sword, thin, curved and sharp,
A light Seprian blade,
No match against sword, plate and shield,
A knight against a knave.
I charged forward and feinted thus,
I just missed my foe’s swing,
Rolling behind, I gave a thrust,
My blade so sharp and thin.
I skip’d and roll’d, I gave a faint,
My blade struck true and fast,
At all the gaps in the knight’s plate,
Until he failed to last.
With gurgled groan, sword’s hilt unclasped,
The knight fell to his knees,
And as his last breath slowly rasped,
I knew my path was freed.
So on, I go, my road released,
My once home lies ahead,
To seek revenge in which to feast,
A past love that’s now dead.
© 2016 Chris Raven
By Vernon Maxwell
Sheets of flame and ruin fell upon the small town. Children wailed and screams resounded. Death had arrived with the lurid orange and gold fires burning unchecked through homes and liveries, stables, and barnyards. The smell clung to the air, permeating Samson’s senses. He pressed on through the destruction, his hopes frail, and with a heavy heart.
Samson the Giant came from the north, where drakes often found ways to outlast winters and men. Were it not for the unrelenting spirits of such dragons, arriving in full maturity, they might have been left alone. They could not be tamed or subdued. No matter the preparations made, a dragon was the worst of foes. This dragon was farther inland than any in hundreds of years, and triple the size of any; he was fearsome, so bearded in thick scales that his throat resisted lances. Arrows pelted its black scaly skin and bounced away harmlessly.
The wizard Vanin, Samson thought, still must be far off. Little did that giant know that his Vanin, his lord and wizard, was nearer than he hoped. Closer than Samson dared to dream was the wizard, Lord Vanin, making his way to the burning town from which the giant currently fled.
Samson knew he must run, thus he did. He was loath to flee, but none but Vanin stood a chance against such a huge dragon. The horned beast did more than frighten, and did not bargain. This dragon cooked his smorgasbord of seared flesh endlessly murdering with molten flame and ruinous claws.
Lurid dragon’s fire rose like walls behind the beast as Samson fled. This giant of a man, knowing what the dragon could do, fled destruction beyond what the bravest could withstand. Samson could not fathom how the dragon chose his town; later this would burden him, but now he turned his back on all he loved and ran southward.
Devastation lay north, amid the fire and the smoke, so Samson took the greener route — a blunder in actuality, for Vanin approached in the dragon’s wake, along the beast’s own route, healing whom he could and bringing painless death to those yet suffering. Vanin moved quickly, swift in the glowing day, fending off flames wherever they kindled about him.
The wizard’s demeanor seemed calm, but he was not.
Approaching the beast, Vanin reflected on his circumstance quickly, whilst retaining the urgency necessary to meet this current threat, be it one dragon’s depredations or the work of many lizards prowling his lands.
A single dragon had never before inflicted such havoc, but all signs pointed to a single fire-breathing lizard at the heart of this chaos — an alpha dragon. If such a fabled dragon stalked the lands, he’d be twice clever, and reign over many drakes: a dragon king. In truth, a single, average dragon could not so damage his land and militaries. So this dragon was no average monster. Vanin dared hope that the beast might be less threat to his subjects’ safety than he feared. For if what the wizard believed was true — that this lizard was an alpha — not even caves could keep men safe from a dragon king.
The wizard Vanin tracked this scaled enemy with his every skill. Yet always the dragon howled, miles ahead, ever before him. Even from a distance, this dragon’s cries chilled the wizard, bleak reminders of Vanin’s duty, heralding dragon fire in flaring orange spheres; burning trees to charcoal; leaving behind mere blackened trunks and ruins smoking from the soil.
A revelation struck the wizard, clear to Vanin’s inner sight: huge threat or no, this beast he tracked was no dragon king. The alpha had not yet come hunting. Cursing, Vanin shook his staff before him, casting a spell to resist poison and flame. He nearly stumbled, expending so much energy against a future threat he could see nowhere but in his mind. This spell was costly, cast here and now, but promised protection for the wizard along his way.
Determined, the maestro Vanin pressed on. Long ago his father’s armies had failed against such an alpha dragon. Long ago in Nammok. There, rumors still circulated of how the alpha dragon slew Vanin’s father, campaigning far from his seat of kingship while Vanin ruled in his stead. And after, Vanin kept on ruling. His father had preferred axes to gavels, battle to compromise, and died as he lived, weapon in hand.
At his core, Vanin remained his father’s son, although possessing a gift for diplomacy which his father lacked. The wizard still refused to believe these stories: his father fought too well to fall to a dragon, no matter its size. Nevertheless, Vanin’s heart beat more labored than on normal days. This he ignored. Scaly beasts would not prevail over him or his people while he yet breathed. For centuries, he’d been lord of this domain, holding his ground against all comers.
Vanin’s lands were not bloodstained — or hadn’t been. Until the dragons had come, united under an alpha, drawing courage from numbers and direction from king. Many drakes were too small to breathe flame; these used fang and talon. Opportunists quick on their feet, these slaughtered the innocent, simple folk. Despite many drakes killed by guardsmen, human casualties mounted daily, and refugees fled before the scourge from above.
Until Vanin arrived.
These drakes were a minor annoyance to Vanin, at their best impeding his progress for the time it took his spells to slay them. Wherever Vanin went, dragon spawn quivered like fish out of water as thunderbolts cracked from his fingertips and pierced his enemies, frying them in crackling bolts of lightning. Such magic had little effect on older drakes, with their thicker scales, stronger hearts. Vanin killed those with his bone staff’s long and jagged tip, trusting its oval haft, a sapphire hardened by nature and a lifetime of spells, to bestow death where due.
What secrets that sapphire stowed away: hidden enchantments not even Vanin understood. Many spells did bind with the gem and with the bone, delivering Vanin powers which most wizards would dare not wield if they lived a hundred lifetimes.
As Vanin reached the rubble of what had been Samson’s childhood home, he saw Samson, fleeing; if Samson had not been a giant, Vanin might have missed him altogether at that distance.
And he saw a dragon whose wings beat like wild winds cross the bright clouds overhead.
This dragon swooped on powerful wings toward Samson.
Samson’s prayers had summoned Vanin to save him, but Samson and this dragon were yet too far away for a yell or a spear or a bowshot. But not for Vanin’s otherworldly powers. He spoke a spell, then another, to ward off the dragon before it attacked the giant — to gain some time, for a warding spell would not last long.
In midair, the dragon decided to change direction as if it could no longer see Samson, choosing instead to chase fleeing flocks of villagers south through fields of chest-high grasses.
Fire swept the fields. Screams rent with agony assailed the giant’s ears. Samson broke through an irrigation ditch swiftly, heading toward the beast now chasing easier prey.
Meanwhile Vanin had shortened the gap between him and his scaled foe. “Dragon!” Vanin’s voice boomed across the valley. “Come and die!”
Above Vanin’s head, the wind itself paused.
Then the beast let out an ear-splitting scream of fury. This outcry laced with hatred boomed across the fields.
This screech, a cry unlike any other, hurt Vanin’s ears.
Vanin raised a palm before him, reasserting his ward. Fire was no factor in this battle yet. Magic would be. Magic spent like money, like water, taking its toll on his reserves, weakening him. This risk Vanin must take. When his reserves were exhausted, his magic might fail him; but he must try until his heat ran out of beats.
This dragon wouldn’t wait. This dragon, a hell spawned thing, plated in scales, with red slatted eyes full of knife-edged fury, desired to wreak havoc now, lay ruin now upon the weak and the undefended.
Too many had already died before the lizard’s onslaught. This dragon would perish, and nothing would change that. Vanin was in no mood to die today.
Seeing the pain those malicious dragons had caused his world infuriated Lord Vanin. They would all die after this . . . war? He finally admitted this was war. He would strip his enemies clean of spirit and destroy them. The cries of children echoed loud enough in his ears and memory to convince him, as did the broken faces of their parents contorted before his eyes: destruction heaped onto his people for no reason.
Someone had not performed their duty. One or two of the hunting clans had left some dragons alive who then bred, thrived, and preyed upon Derusa, a small city in Vanin’s domain. Now those dragons brought outright war. This betrayal was likely brought by a rival clan of men, so finding them might become simpler once the dragons and their drakes met their fates.
Thus far, Vanin had seen hundreds of the damnable drakes on his trek down from Nammok. Too many. Of these, he slew all he saw of the recent spawn from some great wyrm. While they brought nightmares to his subjects, Vanin thought little of the lowly drakes, although he despaired over the devastation those fiendish creatures unleashed upon his subjects.
Nevertheless, ruin could only be answered with ruin.
Long ago, laws were set in stone concerning dragons and their kind. These doctrines, enacted when Vanin was a child and set in place by his father, were enforced, their dictates absolute. Dragons and their worshippers were enemies for the doom of Great Tiber’s army to vanquish. Tiber, Vanin’s father, was a practical man, if stern and deadly. Such a purge had come once before, thousands of years gone. And might well come again. Tiber’s merciless defenders destroyed countless dragons, all their worshippers and cults. Blood ran in rivers then, gushing dragon blood and the blood of men who served beasts. Upon Tiber’s command, none who revered dragons could remain alive; they too were purged from the land.
Or so it was said; so it was celebrated. Purged these wyrms might have been, but not well enough. For one wyrm must have breathed on, lying low for lifetimes, waiting in some dark cavern to enact its inhuman revenge.
Vanin waved his arms and shouted, then thumped his staff to make it spit a bolt of blue.
The dragon’s head turned; its wings beat toward Vanin. Now Tiber’s son and successor must gauge the threat from the dragon bearing down out of the clouds toward him. But he’d succeeded: the dragon wanted wizard-meat, no longer tempted by tough and sinewy giant’s flesh.
Seeing the dragon veer and swoop toward the old wizard with the staff that spat lightning, Samson dove for an irrigation rut, watching the massive beast flapping toward the grey haired wizard. This must be Vanin, the great wizard Samson had summoned — to save them all or die trying. Guilt shook Samson speechless: another death on his conscience, unless this wizard were more than he looked. Gaunt Vanin appeared far less formidable than the flying lizard he taunted.
Nevertheless, this gray-haired specter must be the famed wizard Vanin: who but a wizard would taunt a dragon?
Samson had his doubts concerning the confrontation’s outcome. . . .
As the beast swooped near, the wizard either found hidden strength or found the dragon’s weakness. Narrow-eyed, frowning, Vanin spoke some mad verbiage no human ear could parse, then waved his staff in the air. This time the stick contorted like a snake.
Fire blossomed from the wizard and the dragon, so bright that Samson’s eyes reflexively shut against the brilliance shooting from the wizard’s staff and enrobing man and dragon in a cloak of flame.
Through watering eyes, Samson watched the dragon fall like stone to earth, blasting apart from within, showering the ground with shards of sand and black glass that caught in Samson’s hair and pricked his face and stung his lungs when he breathed,
Some wizardly ward must be protecting the old man from the summoned fire, Samson thought, for the ancient seemed not burned or harmed at all.
Coughing and hacking, shaking bits of dragon from his hair and arms, Samson ran to his deliverer, who could be none other than Vanin, Samson’s very own lord.
Finding Vanin had been Samson’s mission. Now here was Vanin. He hoped the master saw him for who he was as the giant ran toward the death-dealing sorcerer. . . .
As Samson ran, the maestro recognized the giant dashing through grassy fields towards him: Samson, one of his subjects. Vanin cursed under his breath, not at huge man advancing, but at dragon debris strewn around.
Samson pulled up short before the wizard and went to bended knee, “Lord Vanin, I am yours in service. What should I do?”
“Standing would be a start. Samson, is it? The expert rower, last summer, at Wood’s Keep? So Samson, tell me what you see now. And what you saw before?”
“The dragon you defeated destroyed my town, killed my family, burned houses with women and children inside while men worked the fields, and slaughtered the men themselves as they raced home to save their families. My family, too. I tried saving them, failed and narrowly escaped a fiery death myself. No common man could kill that thing. Yet you killed the accursed lizard, my lord, and saved my life. I am in your debt.” Samson’s words sounded odd to his own ears, clinging to air full of an acrid stench. How could his simple brawn be useful to a powerful wizard? The giant wished he could crawl away. Vanin terrified him. Despite Vanin’s frailty, the wizard’s gaze made the giant feel small.
But the wizard-king smiled. “What if I told you that the dragon you see scattered around us in ashes and slivers was not real, but illusion?”
Samson shook his head, bewildered. How could such a thing be true? How could Lord Vanin say such a thing, when so many had perished because of this dragon, and bits of defeated dragon were strewn all around them? “How can this be so?”
“Because I say it is so. Stop cowering. You’re my servant. I am your lord, your overseer. On my throne I may be a king; when magic is needed I may be a wizard. Today and henceforth, until this battle is over, I am only your lord, the overseer. We are building an army. We can stop it — all this death by dragon. We shall mount a crusade to do it. But you must pledge your life to me.”
“I do. I will, my lord.”
No drakes or larger beasts threatened them further that day. Samson helped his master tend the wounded or bring eternal sleep to those needlessly suffering.
By then, in Samson’s eyes, the wizard was mercy incarnate. Overseer. Not king, not wizard: overseer. The overseer Vanin showed empathy, and left none in anguish behind.
“Lord, how can you give so much?”
“Such love is simple to give,” Vanin replied.
“These drakes, they could be the thoughts, the thralls of one alpha dragon. Certainly a new cult has arisen. Samson, do you not see? This alpha dragon possibly has worshippers. How else could our enemies get this far? I ask you, how? Surely the brigand clans did not unleash so many drakes, and none larger, with no help?”
Vanin’s theories were evolving. Unbeknownst to his domain’s defenders, a mysterious alpha dragon must have arisen secretly, one with a vile agenda,
Samson addressed Vanin: “If we are leaving this place, what must I do, O Lord?”
“Wait a moment,” said the wizard to the giant. The shards the dragon left behind began to pull together, shiny and cobalt against the smoky skies in front of Vanin. Raising his staff crookedly to the windy air, the wizard croaked an entreaty none but he understood. Then the bits of dragon melded together, becoming steely, hard and fearsome at the wizard’s feet, remade by his magic into a fierce club fit for a giant. Vanin picked up the club, and heft it.
“Follow me,” the wizard demanded as he handed the club to Samson.
They walked for miles. Wherever they went, wildfires were extinguished; no dragon-fires burned after they passed by.
Samson found meals for them as they traveled, looking for evidence of a cult, smiting whatever drakes lived nearby. Many of these smaller drakes perished at the end of Samson’s club, a splendid gift from Lord Vanin.
They never seemed to find what Vanin was looking for, although they trekked from village to village, week in, week out. Eventually Vanin did find recruits, here and there, after long searching: plowmen and merchants, blacksmiths and youngest sons, thieves and ne’er-do-wells. So many folk claimed fealty to his lord now, when before, wherever the wizard came bearing spells, they’d curse Vanin, saying he was only a greedy overlord who cared nothing for commoners.
While they marched northwest, killing the rouge dragons as they went, their cadre grew.
Vanin did little, helping only when absolutely necessary.
Samson found himself hard-put to kill the young dragons, and yet Vanin lent no hand. One day, months into the bitter campaign, the giant Samson could no longer repress his curiosity.
“Lord Vanin, why do you not help me, when you can easily do so?”
“I would not be a good teacher if I did everything for you. One day you will be as I, and then you must honor your students, allow them to learn.”
Samson built strength every day; one did not need to be a wizard to see that.
Samson stopped asking questions of his overseer. He learned the ways of warring against the lizards. Soon few lands held sanctuary for dragons. Vanin had found the trail.
A new war was brewing.
In Vanin’s honor, Samson sang his every evening away. During the day, he smote beside his master, who did nothing but stare at his hands occasionally while his minion did the best he could.
The giant and wizard no longer trekked the lands alone. Men now enlisted by hundreds, recruited from destroyed settlements and from the roads they travelled. Farmers, ruffians, thieves, cutthroats, and puritans alike flocked to Vanin’s side to end the madness and put a stop to the dragons. Fear of Vanin’s magic and Samson’s strength kept the rank and file in line as their force grew into a squadron, a company, and kept growing.
In battles, Samson barked the orders. In keeping with tradition, Vanin did little to help vanquish the lower drakes, though he often made a spectacle of the larger dragons, slaying them in dramatic displays of power and courage which pleased his men. Morale was high, and the wizard’s troops legion.
Vanin’s troops pleased him. They fought decisively, bravely. Their courage and determination must be enough. Let them learn the art of war, free of his scrutiny while he observed them, sorting their talents.
The troubling aspect of this so-called dragon crusade remained the magical force behind the drakes. Whence came the magic? Magic was more to be feared than the dragon-king, who himself, some said, languished in thrall to a corrupt power.
Was it an alpha dragon, sending the drakes to his kingdom? Why send attacks so chaotic, unreasoning? Now that enough boots and spears pursued them, dragons were less threatening. Vanin believed that a mastermind lay behind these attacks — that something or someone had bastardized and twisted an alpha dragon. What or who could do such a thing? Questions without answers would keep. Vanin put his concerns away and marched onward. Answers would come in time.
Samson said little, focusing on his and Vanin’s physical safety. Theirs was a beneficial arrangement. While the overseer had his head in the clouds, looking for his portents, his answers, Samson dealt in hard truths.
With his own truths Samson would serve Vanin well — truths of war, warriors with sturdy arms, his own grip on his capable club. The giant carried a large shield painted with a soaring falcon, Lord Vanin’s symbol, scrawled across its surface; a short-axe; and a dagger. But Samson most prized his club, carrying it always. He wore plates, fastened by leather over chain mail, as did all the men but his rangers and woodsmen. Several blacksmiths following Lord Vanin’s troops provided whatever metal Samson or Vanin’s men needed. Wielding both shield and club became second nature to the giant. As his skills grew, he tasted the grit of war. Vanin was unchanging, often unhelpful, but unrelenting when crossed. Together they made a pair, and the men who served Vanin and Samson respected them.
In addition to his staff, the wizard Lord Vanin carried only a dagger, seldom used.
Theirs became a scarlet road. One test led to the other. The men that followed Vanin and Samson hardened, as did the giant. Within the band, their warrior spirit grew, their hearts beat hopeful. Vanin’s men obeyed his orders. They had seen what these dragons could do. His soldiers knew the havoc that dragons caused, the destruction they levied on the land.
Although Vanin, Samson, and his tactical troops had advantages over the unthinking drakes swarming their domain, such creatures were dangerous.
“Best not to fight dragons in the dark.” So Lord Vanin decreed, and thus they’d halt their marches each night and make supper before dark. Fires were not allowed after dusk; cooking became difficult without flame to boil a pot. Life was rough, unrewarding, yet all continued onward. Camp at night was silent and dark but for grunts and snores. Samson set patrols to ensure the safety of the group, but nothing came for them from the dark.
Samson wondered why so many drakes kept coming, and from where. His questions multiplied.
In answer, Vanin became increasingly distant. He healed whom he must, and otherwise stayed away from the fighting. After each confrontation with the enemy, he patched up the survivors. They did as he asked, stopped where he decreed, behaved as he ordered.
When Vanin stopped their march, at a bay called Jes, they began building a wall meant to seal the Jes inlet off from the north-blooded drakes. Vanin’s ordered Samson to recruit newcomers from surrounding hamlets; their gaggle of camp followers grew apace.
So they set their backs to making a wall in the land of Jes, behind which to build a new city. Samson took a standout fighter named Farkas from the hunting party and ordered him to find the young, the glory-hungry, and the combat survivors and meld them into a city guard.
This is the true story of the building of Thantrix, not the one they teach in school. The city rose from where Jes inlet met the plain at Vanin’s bidding to ward off the dragons, and the wizard established it a long way from any other northern towns.
Soon enough watchtowers scraped the sky whence dragons might come; long lances cluttered each tower, readied to fire upon the beasts. Riders tamed mounts from the wild for patrols around the city. Farkas watched over all for Lord Vanin, who went onward with Samson. luring and killing the ensorcelled dragons by ones and twos, then threes and fours, driving them away from the newly erected city.
Days drifted and years slid by, until Vanin at last had the lands organized and protected. They went throughout the region, uniting and healing people, training soldiers, constructing walls and homesteads. At each new settlement Vanin left a portion of his growing army to watch over its citizens. Four immense walled cities now embraced the majority of his people in mudbrick and stone.
On this night, as always, Vanin sat apart from others in camp, resting quietly by his fire, his face expressionless, showing nothing of his doomsayer mood. Recently he’d tired of reactively hunting drakes. The lizards set the agenda now. He no longer hid at night. Let them come. His magic had grown inside him. This lent him insights — and insults.
His enemies confounded him; they knew him better than he knew them. Despite that, the predators from above who haunted his people had little chance against his organized men. They swooped swiftly, almost eagerly to their deaths, as if they did not fear death by arrow or spear or sword.
Vanin suspected spies within his ranks and inside city governments. But governments were needed now. Perhaps success lay only in narrowing his responsibilities down to one. For normalcy to return, Vanin was convinced, the alpha dragon must perish. Some of those in charge of his hard-built towns might not be wholesome or fair, but they safeguarded the people, allowing Vanin to focus on the alpha dragon — the one who started the bloodshed. This intuition nagged him, but couldn’t be silenced, or outrun, or ignored.
Vanin would forge a special sword, and with Samson alone trek north, leaving his warriors behind to face the drakes alone.
He and Samson, a force of two, would invade this maddened enemy, while his forces patrolled his domain and protected its people.
Or so Vanin thought. So he planned. So he remarked. . . .
Waiting longer was no option worth considering. Vanin’s enemy bided its time for a reason, knowing the drakes were losing. A death by dragon had not occurred to the settlement at Thantrix or its three sister towns for a long time.
Now he must heal the sick and unfortunate, enable them; turn loose the wild-hearted; unshackle them. Serving these ends, Vanin sent his dogs of war ahead of him, to the newest walled city, Salvos, east of Thantrix, to grow the ranks of the army posted there.
Vanin longed to know his enemy’s name and face. His best infantryman, Gant, was an able captain and had his orders. His troops would slay the trespassing drakes, guarding Vanin’s domain while the wizard and giant took their now private war north — to pierce the heart of their enemies. Gant’s eager war dogs would follow their captain into the north woods or to hell if Vanin so bid, for as Vanin was Gant’s master, so Gant was the lord of his hounds. The captain would mount a brave defense in Vanin’s absence.
So Vanin and Samson ventured to Salvos, there to meet Gant and his men and issue them new orders regarding the defense of Vanin’s domain in his absence.
In Salvos, Vanin and Samson spent a week prepared for their journey, leaving behind lands much safer and hearts much braver. Folk here understood he had saved them; they served not by conscription, but as volunteers. As volunteers, he allowed them to rebuild their pride by helping them harness their ambitions. Aside from the corrupt, whom there would always be, every person who served Vanin found hopes of increasing their fortunes.
And the corrupt? Vanin would deal with them once the dragons fell.
As Vanin honed his new sword for the coming of a battle he could nearly smell, Samson exercised, his mind roaming free, envisioning how to fight this storied foe. The giant loomed above most, and his stature brought both advantages and disadvantages. The army’s smithy had helped him develop new leggings, protecting spots where beasts and men might first strike. He wore plate mail that covered him entirely. For brandishing, he had his steel shield lined with bull hide to aid wielding it against heat. The giant’s shield was heavy enough to grind the densest of bones to a puce pumice, and large enough to shield him from dragon fire. Samson had his short-axe, and his club as always, to deliver death to the dragons.
Vanin had been wise, Samson knew. Was wise, the giant still believed.
Samson supposed himself harder to reach now than ever before. He was older, not the overgrown young man who first met the wizard on the day the dragons came to his town. Even so far from where he’d met Lord Vanin, dragons yet soared aloft, despite all the hunting. Vanin said the reptiles would not stop until the alpha dragon in the north was silenced by truce or death.
Samson tired of walls and cities; he itched to make war, to bring the dragons down. The giant wanted to see not only men, but the wilds themselves free of the pestilential drakes.
Why not go today? Make war today? Samson had his club and shield, his armor, well-fitted and gleaming. These brought to mind and heart the songs of war. His hands, feet, and weapons were no newcomers to killing drakes, even larger dragons. His resolve had seen him through the toughest fights unbroken.
As for Vanin, seeing Samson’s progress made Vanin proud.
A fateful chill stirred the early morning air, as Lord Vanin assessed Samson, whose armor glimmered in the brightness of dawn.
Few scars decorated this warrior of his who lurked in the shadows of the city walls, and those scars were well earned. So many times, Vanin had wanted to intervene. To help Samson. Seeing the war-seasoned giant now, the overseer knew he had chosen correctly. Who knew what they might face? Their future was a hard guess, and charging the enemy a gamble. Although it would not end well for his people if he took no chances.
Therefore yet Vanin sowed his seeds of war. He found Samson by a stable, petting a young pony. Samson saw his master immediately, and left the pony, who nickered in protest. “Good day Samson.”
Samson bowed his head to Vanin.
“Heavens, Samson, we’ve come too far for that.”
“You are my lord; I honor you.”
“By being yourself you honor me. We have beasts and the king of beasts to slay!”
“Very well. Do we march north now?”
“Now. Let us be underway.”
Crossing the city alongside Samson to reach the city gates reminded Vanin of why he fought dragons. While not as large as the settlement at Gol to the east or as bristling with watchtowers as Collunda to the south; nor or as large as Thantrix demesne in the northwest. Salvos seemed a sturdier city than its peers, built for war and held as it was by troops loyal to “Vanin the Overseer,” as the folk here called him. Salvos was enclosed by three sets of walls, the opening to the sea; within, its palace crouched, surrounded entirely by archer’s towers and lancers. Salvos’ defenses stood solid, functional; its battlements proud.
Approaching the thick wooden city gates, Vanin saw Gant, waiting for them alongside the mounts they would take north, and pack mules to carry their provisions.
Vanin had appointed Gant to lead Salvos’ forces. Requiring unwilling citizens to serve in the army or city guard was not Gant’s choice to make, although he wished it were.
Vanin’s rule and his alone was law here. And Overseer he might be, but Vanin was no overlord, deaf to the will of his people. So Gant was forbidden to conscript soldiers. But Gant wished he could. Gant’s entire life had been burned away by dragons . . . he would stay behind, and slay whatever drakes entered his domain.
Marking the worry lines on Gant’s face, the wizard told him, “We shall prevail, friend Gant, guard the city and give directives as needs arise. Fight fiercely, Samson and I shall return.”
Samson hoped so.
A small crowd of women, children, and a Gant’s guardsmen gathered in the shadow of the battlement wall as the giant and the wizard made ready to depart and the gate winched open. They cheered for Vanin and the giant beside him, knowing these two alone rode out to face the threat of the alpha dragon.
With pack mules’ tethers in their hands they swung up on their horses and kneed them onward, and heavy gates swung shut behind them, muffling crowd noises. The sky above was clear and blue, promising snow to come; winter would soon be upon them here.
Vanin, reins and tether in one hand and his opal staff in the other, squeezed his horse’s barrel as Samson’s bigger mount came alongside his, and they struck southward at a brisk pace.
When at last they slowed to a walk to navigate a gully, Samson called to Vanin: “Will we return?”
“I cannot say for sure, Samson.”
“I did? Oh — yes, that is true. And so we must win: I pride myself in being a man of my word.” Vanin spurred his mount, his pack mule behind him. Samson’s large charcoal stallion kicked at Vanin’s mule, then his own, then reared and snorted, wanting to lead, not follow Lord Vanin’s horse.
They would ride to Spirit Lake, camp for one night, then cross the next morning into unknown lands — lands held by dragons or by none.
From somewhere above the walls of Salvos, or the bordering forests and lands, something had watched them leave the city. Vanin could feel its purposeful stare crawl over his hide.
Vanin wasn’t surprised: that watchful gaze alone was reason enough for war. Although he would have preferred peace, to express its sentimentalities with his rival, war was the only language understood by this enemy he sought. The crimson writ of blood came steady to such dark foes. Few of which ever grace, but rather they disgrace worlds, these fiendish corrupters ruin lives, and futures. Such vileness must be ended.
This forest land was home to mysteries not even Vanin knew much about. The border line between mundane and mystical had always existed, but now, Vanin wondered why. How was he lord of so much of the south, yet unacknowledged in the north?
This did not sit well. For some time as they rode on, Vanin dreamed of ruining this enemy, and this soured his stomach. He shifted his thoughts then, to concentrate on the mission before him.
Just then, as they were rounding a tight bend in the road, Damson’s horse balked and reared, and Samson fell to the ground, unhorsed.
The giant’s horse didn’t bolt, but flared its nostrils and stood its ground.
Vanin then saw what had spooked Samson’s gelding: spriggans, creatures like trees that walked and killed and hid in forests until they spotted prey.
The wizard ordered, “Samson, fetch your reins, and mount up! We must ride away, and fast! Now!” But even as he spoke, Vanin knew it was too late: the spriggans were coming after them, and they were many.
Vanin had heard of these creatures called spriggans, elementals born of the earth who thrived on living flesh. Long ago his father had taught him what he must do if he met one — or more than one.
Vanin dismounted, tying first his horse and then the pack mules to a low-hanging tree limb.
Toward man and giant came the spriggans, rustling their amber gold leaves, their rootballs rolling, rutting up the dirt as they came. These spriggans were eyeless. As they approached, the rings in their trunks gaped open, then shut in a flapping rhythm, expanding and shrinking like accordions.
These abominations had no cause to challenge the wizard but their insatiable hunger. He would have gone peacefully along, leaving the animated trees alone — until they advanced. He sighed, his staff held out before him. Long branches reached like tentacles for him, but the spriggans were still too far off to envelop the wizard or his giant in their carnivorous embraces.
From the thickets they rolled, and from the shelter of the old-growth timber, towering against the cloudy sky. Behind them came more of their kind, younger spriggans with pale green leaves. Deadly embraces waited in their branches; their bark revealed mouths opening wide.
Any one of them could swallow both wizard and giant whole. Branches flexed and whispered, readying to constrict, to impale or strangle the life from these human interlopers.
Vanin saw sap seeping from their bark like sticky blood. He saw their lust for human flesh. Yet these creatures, although hungry and sentient, were not foolhardy, so something must have driven them to attack.
Vanin used his wizard’s skill to peer inside them, and what was there made the wizard pause.
From a few feet behind Vanin, Samson rushed forward to protect his master.
At this, the circle of spriggans tightened; their mouthy trunks gaped wide, their rootballs whirling. These abominations kept herding their quarry inwards until Vanin and Samson stood back to back.
Now the boles of the woodland spriggans reached out to grab them. Samson broke the branches stretching toward him with violent swings of his heavy club.
Wounded spriggans smelled ripe, green. Despite Samson’s club, they creaked, rattled, and pushed closer to their prey. Samson broke more limbs, and swung and swung his club until he heard their horses scream in fear.
Realizing the horses might break their tethers and flee, the giant pummeled a snaking root that reached for Vanin’s ankle, then pushed back two spriggans back by clubbing their trunks.
Spriggans hissed at him and rolled back, making room for the giant to club them more.
Samson smote the spriggans while Vanin did nothing.
“Lord . . .?”
“Samson, I am going . . .” Sweat rolled down Vanin’s face, set and determined.
Samson swung his club wildly, and the animated tree trunks flinched and shrank back.
Samson fought on, even after Vanin’s warning, while their horses and mules screamed from the woods. Were other spriggans attacking their mounts?
Nearly exhausted, and distracted by the cries of horses and mules, Samson stopped swinging his club just as flaming lines split the earth, golden and ruby red. The turf around him cracked and humped and swelled into a widening inferno of fire and cinders and death.
Concussive explosion blasted from the earth, splintering the young trunks, engulfing the spriggans in flames.
Samson toppled and fell to the ground, crashing roughly onto his backside, dazed and staring.
White ashes fluttered on the wind, and a shadow came running at him. Only as the heat began dissipating did the giant recognize that shade as Vanin, reaching down to lift him up.
“Come along Samson. One cannot sit on his arse for too long, lest it grow soft.”
The giant smiled. “Indeed, Lord Vanin.” Samson hesitated then and finally asked, “Master, what good am I to you? You have saved me many times. Am I better than a burden to you?”
“Burdens are made in the mind, beliefs the same. You believe as I do, although we never discuss our beliefs. You are a good follower, Samson, and a better friend. Your blessing is that you do not understand.”
Samson sat quietly as the furrows in the ground closed up, the last flames died, and a rain of ash fell from the sky, making everything new and white and clean.
Samson stared mutely at Vanin, holding his peace. The giant often wanted to say more. But somehow knew he should not. Samson often felt alone when fighting was needed. As he just had, with the spriggans, until Vanin turned them to ash. Yet whenever Samson truly needed Vanin’s aid, the wizard always helped his servant.
Pointing north, Vanin said, “Come. We have far to travel. These woods are no inviting place to spend the night.” Vanin pointed to the northeast. “We’ll camp on that ridge. Quickly, Samson. Danger still has its scouts.”
When they found their way back to their horses and mules, the horses and mules were dead and their provisions gone. Spriggans, or something else, had slaughtered their mounts and mules. Only crimson mud and gory bones remained.
If they would continue, they must do so afoot.
Both men stared long at the paltry remains of horses and mules butchered where they’d been tied.
Finally Vanin said, “Its fine Samson. I need a good long walk. Best I do something, is that not right?” The wizard offered a faint smile as he struck northward.
Vanin knew the two of them faced grim prospects, savage enemies. Samson might now be a juggernaut on the battlefield, but although giant, he was only one man.
So they sojourned, Samson killing drakes who attacked on them from above, and Vanin hiking with the butt of his staff as his walking stick, while days melded together and Vanin worried.
Questions vexed Vanin, questions that couldn’t be answered, questions that couldn’t be silenced. The wizard could not quiet his brain, nor could he or speed their journey. His patience for this alpha dragon had grown thin. The trek stretched out before him, arduous, promising nothing but death. Whose death? This remained the final question Vanin must answer.
They slept under the stars every night, tired and sore, heads on their packs, often without supper.
The cool air grew brisk on the morning that the wizard realized he no longer felt haunted by a stare he’d felt now and again since departing the city, but never acknowledged. He hadn’t felt those invisible eyes on his skin since the spriggans, so now he could admit how worrisome that stare had been. He sat a long time, trying to make sure that haunted feeling had left him, one hand resting on his scabbard, his eyes fixed on yonder hilltop,
Samson merely watched and listened for things a giant could hear and see until the two of them set off into the forest and up the slope.
In daylight, the forest around them was ghostly and unnaturally silent: the morning mist felt cold to the wizard’s exposed and reddened nose. Vanin and Samson paused where they were, alert to any sign of mischief or mayhem. They saw only forest branches and misty undergrowth, nothing more, although Vanin knew better.
For hours, nothing terrible sprang out of the woods to claim them.
Samson grew calmer. The giant tried hiding his fear from Vanin, to no avail. Vanin saw the truth. Fear makes fools of all at some time or other.
Vanin realized what lurked in the forest but said nothing of that truth to his giant: the souls of thieves and cutthroats, unfit for salvation. He knew what they wanted. So the wizard and the phantoms of the forest struck a bargain, a deal mutually beneficial.
Someday, by this pact, Vanin must sacrifice some of his land to the phantoms, give them a large forested area in his northland as theirs. This debt he would gladly pay; he knew of worse things than haunted forests, and the patch he’d chosen was not peopled.
They passed through the mist, free of threat from phantoms or hidden predators who might shred flesh. Samson shivered twice again, then calmed. The giant would ever serve his lord in good faith, fighting when the wizard so decreed. This, his fate and the fighting, were not his pleasure but his war bond.
The dragons had murdered Samson family. Drakes still made life unbearable for folks in his domain, even after all the killing the giant had done. He longed to stop the dragons, to end the warring for the people. Samson fought, renewed by Vanin’s spirit, breathed because of the wizard. Those were reasons enough to fight
When they left the misty morning path through the phantom forest, they came on a dark, deep rut. The straight rut, unnatural, made Vanin suspicious and Samson cautious.
They chose a new route, one which led northeasterly, away from the customary road and through rough country which might conceal them from hostiles.
The journey turned as spare of words as of company. That evening at an emerald lake near sunset, they admired the view and praised the water they drank. The threat of preternatural danger always existed, but Samson savored the world’s best when he found it in stream or fruit or friend.
Neither his nor Lord Vanin’s path led to simple endeavors; the wizard chose no easy course. From the lakeside they worked their way around and north again — always north.
Northbound travel itself became a trial, and lonely. They spied little wildlife, other than waterfowl, of which Samson counted only a few. Yet leaves danced and crackled. Samson imagined snakes slithering and rodents scuttling. Or had he really heard them?
The trek grew cold, then colder. The steel armor the giant wore made chills mightier. Samson suffered in silence, until Vanin heard Samson’s teeth chattering.
“Are you uncomfortable?”
“I am cold, no bother.”
“Then say so. We must meet your basic needs on this journey, so you’ll be fit to fight when the road ends.”
Vanin lay his hands upon the giant’s breastplate and those hands glowed briefly. Then the glow disappeared — or found its way into the steel.
Samson stopped shivering at once, again stunned by Vanin’s magical skill. No longer was the giant hot, or cold. . . .
“Thanks be to you, milord.”
“And to you, Samson.”
The silent forests, nor the two men said. Skirting the lake became nigh impossible for them as the timberline at its edge grew thicker and night drew closer. The hush on the wind was palpable, eerily unnatural.
As they went on, certain evidence began to present itself to Vanin, small things his big friend had overlooked: a first strand of hair, thick and coarse, caught in the bark of a tree, another found shortly before nightfall, stuck in a log.
Vanin became openly suspicious of the quiet then. His giant would not break the silence: he remained alert.
Something had rid the forest of life, and that something might be upon them with the night. As dusk settled, they reached a bowl-shaped clearing, populated only by saplings under three years in growth. Even in the coming dark the wizard’s eyes told him a fire had burned away the old forest here. Gnarled tree stumps stood in mounds on uneven ground, with tufts of long, golden grasses shooting from the soot and ash on the trees; elsewhere emerald mosses and ivy covering the remains of the older forest downed a handful seasons passed. Lore said that moss only grows on the north side of trees. Vanin knew that saying to be false, but the mosses on the felled trees grew northerly, all the same.
So what had happened here, southeast of the unknown? A blaze so large, so concentrated as this surely came from a dragon. If they could locate the center, the point the fire struck when the dragon first unleashed his attack, he could gauge the beast’s size. And perhaps direction.
While he debated the question of this possible dragon, Vanin caught a distinct odor: sweet smell of flesh, preserved with stink weed and coarse salt from the southern valley falls. The salt commonly found in his cities, and even in the sea and across it. Agrian monks had collected the substance for centuries. Although the practice slowed because of the depredacious dragons and drakes Vanin repeatedly purged from their lands, it went on. The smell of human flesh, in large quantity concerned him more. Fire-breathing worms were not his or Samson’s immediate problem.
Dragons were infamous hoarders, coveting riches, rows with scales, pack rats with wings. Collecting and preserving human flesh, especially with stinkweed and salt was a rare practice to all but draconic reptiles. Witchcraft employed the method only rarely and then only for rabbits, and the effect of such magic was to grant men better control during lovemaking. When added together with the looming silence, which seemed darker — larger now — like a giant hand waiting to smother them, Vanin understood what he sensed. He remembered leaving Salvos, those eyes crawling over his skin. Yet on this trek they’d encountered relatively few drakes or enemies of any sort, other than spriggans. After the wizard reduced the animated trees to cinders, the gaze vanished. A thin line peeled its way off the back of his neck, ruffling the white hairs there. He began preparing Samson for what lay ahead. If this creature was as he believed, then the giant deserved the truth.
After Samson heard Vanin out, they proceeded as if nothing unusual had been said. Except that the giant kept his mind on their objective: remaining alive long enough to see morning. Eluding such an enemy might depend on luck as much as skill.
Morning came with a strange bellow from the northwest — not far away. The sound arrived with the first rays of light. This groaning, heartfelt, heartbroken, and enraged sound came from a beast unknown, alien.
Wide-eyed Samson locked eyes with Vanin. The wizard nodded but said nothing, shrugged as if to say I told you so, and began to climb a tree.
Above the ground, Vanin would wait. On the ground, Samson would protect his lord.
As dawn teased the land awake, Samson saw bent trees to his left and fought to keep from retching as he caught sight of bodies hanging from bowed branches, harbingers of horror.
These corpses stank with the overpowering odor they’d been smelling in the clearing, and since.
Could it be that under the cloak of night, Vanin hadn’t seen where they had unintentionally wandered. Or had he known all along where they were?
Soon cracking sounds came, interspersed with noisy footfalls. The giant called his resolve to buoy his spirit, renew his confidence. A determined man has all he needs. Samson was wise enough to know this.
The giant stood composed against a foe significantly larger that broke into the tree line too far away for Samson to see, and guarding his ground while what came to kill him smashed trees down to kindling to open a path to him. Even while remaining bold, his eyes strayed to those horrid corpses dangling like livestock from the trees. Mortified, the giant Samson came to understand their common cause of death. Something had squeezed those people to death, something large and coming his way, something which stomped trees to the ground and felled everything in its path.
This time when the gigantic beast let out its bellow, the sound was quite near. For Samson, time seemed to stretch as he heard the sound. He peeled his eyes from the corpses swaying from the trees and spun to meet the beast who groaned and roared and wept all at once.
This sound swelled, agonized, and Samson was aggrieved to hear it.
This adversary yet hidden proved a tortured being, and an angry one.
Soon the forest line buckled, and the crown of the beast’s head came into view. A large ivory horn, thick and grooved at its base, but long, slender and sharp at its tip, sat atop an enormous bronzed skull covered by thick-muscled skin. Its jaw jutted with sharp teeth guarding a huge maw and complimented by a single eye, freakishly malevolent and hostile.
In this eye, Samson saw storms, anguish, and unreason. Its defiantly dark glint cut into him all its own, before it ever touched him.
Though this Cyclopes was seven times his size, the giant Samson dreaded only that eye. He recalled his Uncle Del, dead for years, telling frightening tales of such creatures when Samson was young, and his mother scolding that her brother exaggerated.
No one could exaggerate this beast, its reek, its roar, its fury, its pain.
“A Cyclopes eats people’s flesh. The monsters catch hunters, soldiers, woodsman, and pickle them somehow, string them up. Funny thing is, they don’t eat often, or until the meat has aged . . .”
Samson’s Uncle Del told terrifying stories when the bottle took control before the spirits he drank killed him. Samson had often believed Del drank so much wine because the sight of monsters made him crazy, not that his crazy uncle “imagined things” as his mother thought.
The Cyclopes’ one baleful eye made Samson stop thinking of dead Del. Its smoldering intent made his own circumstance clear enough. Samson hadn’t time to flee or time to be brave.
Decided, the giant Samson ran towards the Cyclopes, to keep the monster busy and away from Vanin’s roost. Trees were less than cordwood to this adversary.
Samson was not relieved to see his opponent clearly, or to realize that his one-eyed aggressor had no weapons. Thick calluses stained with fresh red blood on the Cyclopes’ hands and knuckles testified to how those people hanging from the trees had died. Old One-eye had crushed them each in his sizable grip.
Vanin watched, from his perch amid high boughs, helpless, as his giant friend rushed their enemy on the ground. The wizard felt helpless. Of all imaginable horrors, he had led Samson to a Cyclopes, one of the few creatures resistant to his spells. Due to Vanin’s own distrust for steel and lack of ability to wield it, Samson was left to fight this enemy completely on his own.
Samson kept his mind clear, smelling the fetid stench of the Cyclopes, which moaned as the giant darted and rolled between its legs. A few feints by Samson, first to one direction, then to another, disorientated the flesh-eater.
But then something happened Samson did not expect, the giant tripped as he darted through the Cyclopes’ legs, where he fell at the creature’s feet, splayed out on his belly. Samson’s club clattered to the ground, whilst the Cyclopes attempted to snatch the giant from the earth to flattened Samson as he had crushed the corpses suspended in the trees.
Using adrenaline as his incentive, Samson rolled away from the Cyclopes’ groping hand, then managed to retrieve and hug his club tight to his chest as he flipped away to buy seconds of safety. Still avoiding both groping hands and the Cyclopes’ furious stomping, the giant flipped to his backside to stand. A deep shadow had risen above him, and raising his shield, Samson had just enough time to block Old One-eye’s two handed swing. The blow was a brutal one, but the giant had braced himself well enough, butting against the crushing hands of the Cyclopes with his steel shield. As One-eye righted himself, shaking its bruised fists, Samson stood fully, not waiting around to be swung at again.
The Cyclopes punched at Samson with a single fist, and turning sideways, therefore avoiding contact, the giant bashed his shield into the beast’s crimson stained fist. His shield rang loudly and recoiled, nearly torn away, and the giant’s defense did little other than anger the thing that stomped men as flat as it did trees.
The Cyclopes took a breath to fill a sail and snarled a roaring snarl so loud it made Samson’s ears ring.
Half stumbling, shaking his head to clear his ears, Samson nearly toppled and stopped himself by bashing hard with his club at the Cyclopes’ right ankle, all Samson’s weight, muscle, and will arrived behind his giant satisfying thud, followed by a ripping, snapping sound as the giant’s club broke the longus tendon of the Cyclopes’ bare ankle.
The Cyclopes dropped, wailing in fury and pain. But the beast was not done. Fighting on all fours, the Cyclopes struggled against the giant savagely, to no avail.
Despite Samson’s bulk, he was smaller and swifter than his enemy, whose first injury was crippling. The Cyclopes could barely crawl; its bloody right hand held its ankle. Tears poured from its single eye.
When Samson’s club found the Cyclopes’ single eye squarely, the giant felt as if he were putting an animal out of its misery. And he was.
Blinded, the Cyclopes couldn’t avoid that final blow, delivered expertly to the base of its skull. With one great exhale, the monster breathed out its last and lay dead in a pool of its own brains and blood.
When Vanin came down to meet up with Samson, now stooped with exhaustion, the giant growled. “How is that that so many of our battles are left to me, Lord Vanin?”
Vanin gave him an answer: “I am no swordsman, and that creature could not be defeated by magic. Best we get on my friend. I apologize for letting you down.” Vanin held out his clean pale hand.
“Milord, I did not . . .” Embarrassed, Samson didn’t take the offered hand, but wiped his grimy ones on his hips.
“Ah, nah-ah,” Vanin said extending his palm farther. “I understand how terrible it was to fight this foe. As for me, I may have rivaled you in self-torture, knowing I could not fight him and win — or even fight him and live.”
“You can do anything!” Samson grabbed the wizard’s fine and aristocratic hand and squeezed it.
“I cannot. I cannot do many things. That’s why Enra led me to you, Samson.” Reclaiming his hand from the giant’s grip, the wizard flexed it; wry humor danced on his lips.
“Who is Enra?”
“The god of salvation.”
“Why would you require salvation?”
“We all do, Samson, lest we slide down some beast’s gullet.”
“I can’t argue with that.”
Their life together had always been bloody. Samson wanted to make the realm safe and peaceful but worried what would become of their unspoken union when the warring ended. The giant reflected on those thoughts while they marched the day away, with the forests alive with life now that the Cyclopes who once roved them had been felled.
By nightfall they had come even farther north and drakes began appearing in droves overhead, attacking in flocks.
Despite their numbers, battling the drakes came welcome to Samson and Vanin, each for his own reasons. Samson wanted to quiet his mind, his guilt over slaying the Cyclopes even though he had to do or die.
Vanin used the flood of drakes to find the dragon’s mind when it manifested, thence to locate the alpha dragon that bent the beasts’ brains to his will. Or so he had deduced. Seeing the Cyclopes, Vanin now knew that the enemy he faced was formidable, and canny. Something began to trouble the maestro concerning his theories. . . .
Samson and Vanin did not sleep that night, or eat, sitting back to back under the stars –sentinels far from home.
The wizard and the giant took to their path at the crack of dawn, vowing not to rest until their journey ended. Each man understood their goal. If they could not end this, a plague of drakes would ravish their lands. With the Cyclopes gone, no longer killing every being in its wake, new dragons could flood their lands more readily. The dragon had tamed the drakes serving it, but it could not tame Old One-eye. Vanin believed the Cyclopes must have kept the number of drakes invading his domain lower.
As they began to ascend the narrowing path, Vanin pulled up his hood to stave off the cold. A light dusting of soft snow fell in spirals, floating lazily and serenely to the ground. Then came a noise neither man had heard in such volume: the cry of a full-grown dragon.
In this cry were the screams of billions of tortured souls, somehow unified into one demonized voice. Buffeted by its booming, Samson felt insignificant, and Vanin as well. This was no Cyclopes.
This was worse.
This was a Sisa, an ancient beast who had found his way back through the ages somehow.
Again the dragon called out. Everything stood still, even Lord Vanin. Fear sunk into his heart like the tip of a spear, and he felt faint.
When the wizard swooned Samson caught him at the crook of his elbow, pulling him upright.
“Tis close by, milord. A demon, and too much for my club. You must use your sword and help me this time. We shall go, meet him in his nest and see it done, by thy will! Breathe deeply, and then let me lead you onward.”
Whisked away by the moment, Vanin hardly cared if Samson took initiative. A wizard was all he was then, a paltry magic-caster. He unsheathed his sword. “It’s time I be a swordsman as well,” he muttered.
Beneath his considerable beard, Samson smiled slightly.
They went flat-out toward their objective, heedless of who or what they might meet on the way. Neither traveler understood the cunning wyrm ahead, which even then readied his flames.
But Vanin understood that this was not a common dragon, but the wyrm of myths. This deviant and vile beast had raised the dead and renewed and used those drakes to slaughter cities, and burned others to the dirt. The dragon’s control over lesser drakes was exercised in detestable ways and to the ruin of men.
Chill air whistled in their ears under a feeble sun. Samson studied the terrain as he took the lead, his club in hand, shield on his other arm. Vanin stayed tight at the giant’s heels. Gravel bit at his leggings, the occasional reminder coming by way of a sharp stinging scrap of gravel or a low hanging branch. Vanin kept his sword on his side, resting one hand on its pommel.
The wizard’s eyes searched the forests before and about them for a sign of the dragon or signs of life. Little stirred in that section of forest. Even the few living plants seemed ill and dying. Still running, they kept pace until the hillside curved, obscuring the road behind. Stopping to rest, Samson took a seat on a stone.
“If we ran all day, we would not reach the dragon,” Samson offered.
“Agreed. Let us walk to greet him,” said the wizard.
Without warning the ground began to tremble. Figures like skeletons, but made of slate and sand, rose from it. Soot churned high into the air, forming great dust clouds where lightning cracked like the whips of gods in the heavens overhead.
These unseemly stone sentinels had risen to rid the road of Samson and Vanin, intruders. Emotionless, in a circle they went after the giant and wizard. Samson’s club did little, ringing off the rock-bodied assailants with loud, useless, and painful attempts to smite them. Each swing vibrated the giant’s arms violently, threatening to steal his club away.
The struggle became just that. Samson strained his muscles attempting to keep the rock soldiers back, since he could not vanquish them. And lost track of Vanin in the dust and the melee.
He wondered where Vanin was. Even as near to death as was the giant, he ached to curse the wizard for his unhelpfulness after Samson’s many years of faithful service.
The killing circle grew taut, and nothing kept more stone soldiers from coming.
Then rain poured down in fat, splattering drops, soaking the giant and muddying his traction. Samson fell flat on his back, flopping roughly onto the hard dirt and punching the air from his lungs.
A sheet of dust sharp as glass blew across Samson’s face, sanding off enough skin to make him bleed from his pores where his beard didn’t cover him. For a moment, the giant simply shut his eyes, trying vainly not to breathe or open his lids until the dust settled. A dreadful wait, that, eyes closed and helpless. But nothing claimed him.
A foot kicked him gently in the ribs. “Let’s go Samson, and stay alert. There may be other trials. We don’t have the luxury of dealing with a lesser beast.”
Luxury? Samson’s brow furrowed. Vanin’s magic, as well as his mind, baffled the giant. Ever and anon their enemy left utter carnage behind. Vanin’s thoughts at this present moment were harder to fathom than usual. Lesser beast? Samson turned Vanin’s words in his own mind as dust still fell, littering the ground in anonymous sprinkles from Vanin’s last spell. Lesser beast?
Vanin had possessed no spells to help either of them with the Cyclopes, a frightening truth. Would Lord Vanin leave Samson with no defense? Must Samson fight the dragon as he had the Cyclopes — all alone?
No turning back, not now. Samson bottled his confusion, setting it on a shelf to ferment until his elderly years, if he’d have them. His club was required by Lord Vanin, nothing else mattered. The dragon’s lair could be breached before dusk. The giant felt a surge of excitement, mixed with a hollow regret — combined with an undefinable longing. Soon they would face the cause of all evil: the death of his family; his life of warring; his master’s onerous duty.
The enormity of the task and its value should they prevail made Samson nervous. And no man should go undecided into battle.
Walking felt almost dreamlike. As they forged northward, Samson’s head grew heavy. He felt as if his helmet were filled with molasses. Muzzy thoughts skittered. Gnarled, uprooted trees lay on their sides, dead for weeks. Sound he heard rang muffled, when he heard anything at all.
Vanin sniffed at the air. He’d felt someone watching, as soon as they’d begun the climb toward their final stop. Sulfurous, ammonia-tainted mist puffed at their feet early on. Later it began spilling over the tops of his boots, almost liquid as it rolled off his feet while they propelled him towards the beast and his fate. He could smell corruption, not just from the mist, but staining the air — reaffirmation of his adversary’s foul will.
Before long Vanin grew wary. The air here was a drug, poison: an attempt to addle their senses. Vanin might have cast a ward if he understood this enemy. He’d begun one. And stopped. This was no winged beast, nor a rival spell-caster. Clearly, pestilence underwrote this enemy’s influence upon the land; its power and madness had far-reaching implications.
“Samson, do you recall the pair of roots I gave you? Samson?”
Samson heard Vanin, albeit as if from a great distance. The giant’s mind echoed a hundred whispering voices of nature, rebounding off the prison of his thick skull. Swaying slightly, he stared downwards, trudging towards salvation. Then a sharp swat stung his cheek.
Confused still, the giant shook his head to clear his thoughts.
“You must focus on my voice. Fight that vile beast trying to control you, weaken you.”
Vanin’s voice, although varying in pitch and volume, never lost its command or certainty.
“Must I strike you yet again?”
“No, my lord — though . . .”
Samson’s eyes had widened, and Vanin, whose back was turned, watched his companion point a big finger towards the source of his alarm.
Vanin saw its ebon and red slatted eyes first, before he could make sense of its beard and scales. Later? Oh, later, he would recall all: the dragon’s deep scaling; its lengthy talons; its gaping, tooth-lined maw. But then, he saw only that awful gleam in its eyes, hot with hunger and remorseless purpose. Yes — abhorrent as the sight was, he saw. Vanin’s lips quivered as they renewed a ward he had not used for millennia, its green glow limning him bright against the darkening day.
Samson was beside him, alert now, club and shield forward.
The canny beast stood on its hind legs, a show of power that both did and did not accomplish a rudimentary pecking order on this field of battle.
Vanin’s hands were aglow. Samson’s gripped his armaments, raising his shield as the dragon’s breath cooked the painted design off its surface, leaving it blackened. As the dragon came at him, the giant raised his club, protecting the frail old wizard beside him.
This dragon loomed enormous, easily five times larger than the biggest dragon the giant had faced before. It was well plated, with dark scaling against which a spear would have been useless. Samson slung his shield on his back, switching it out for the short axe he rarely used.
He felt gratitude for that weapon then, knowing he must rely on swiftness to outpace and outmaneuver the dragon.
Fire smacked into the ground behind Samson, igniting grasses and brush, though miasma yet covered the ground. He ignored everything but the beast, his own eyes wanting to recoil in terror as he watched its grotesquely overdeveloped muscles ripple below its thickly scaled skin.
This skin resisted Vanin’s lightning-bright spell, buzzing through the air like deadly hornets — only to be devoured by its prey. The wizard’s first spell did nothing as the dragon’s flesh absorbed it, dispersing it harmlessly to vanish with a whisper and a hint of stormy air.
Vanin’s failed attack did not dissuade the giant, or slow his legs, as he dashed away from danger to gain an advantage by reaching the beast’s side.
His feet found footing, despite a mist boiling off the ground.
At first, beside the horned juggernaut, which towered above him, Samson gasped at the welts between the dragon’s large scales. Something foul festered within those dark recesses. Samson could sense the sinister nature of something much more than simply dragon. Forces of evil stirred inside this behemoth.
The huge dragon had no wings, unlike many of the drakes the giant had fought before. With its breath aflame, the dragon tried to follow Samson’s progress, turning like a horse resisting a rider’s attempt to mount.
And the giant noted the way it moved, like an enormous lizard, on sturdy, capable and surprisingly nimble legs.
Samson dashed at speed, and slid to a halt under the dragon’s belly. There he tried his hand axe, but its curved blade did nothing when he brought it down in a powerful hacking and slashing motion. In fact, his effort left no marks whatsoever, beyond infuriating the beast who then stood on its hind legs, slashing with a front talon at the giant.
Samson broke and ran.
As Samson bolted, a slashing talon ripped into his armor and chest. One burst of pain was all he felt as the dragon struck him. Samson thought of Vanin; then saw fire, felt heat; and found himself tumbling through the air.
The dragon’s squalling breath caught him, blowing the giant into the forest. Samson only had time to wonder where Vanin was as he crashed onto the smooth flat ground and collapsed.
Darkness overtook him.
Vanin tried to reach the giant but could not. When the dragon swatted Samson off into the growing night, Vanin renewed his onslaught but could not save his faithful servant. Furious, the wizard focused on the beast. Flames splattered helplessly against his ward, and as the dragon’s powers met the wizard’s, he found heart and purpose, actual faith where doubt had been too long.
Hanging his staff on his back, drawing his sword, the wizard’s lips sang a song of free will, reborn in steel, and his sword responded. Magic lit the blade, rolling out a maelstrom. This fire jumped like static, growing sharper and fiercer exponentially with Vanin’s iron resolve.
Wasting no time, Vanin struck at the dragon foe, cutting a crimson slit along its ankle joint. The beast howled, rising on its haunches, and swatted at the wizard as it had struck at Samson.
A terrible, fetid odor rose from the beast’s wound.
Vanin dodged a swatting talon, cutting away one knuckle’s worth of the beast’s arsenal. The single claw, cut from the first knuckle, disappeared onto the misty ground. From the dragon’s throat came a savage growl, followed by more flame, which again washed harmlessly over the ward of the wizard, holding firm.
Deep within, Vanin vowed to end the conflict. So Vanin stopped, facing his adversary.
This dragon knew his enemy, and its eyes burned with malicious intent.
Then the dragon charged on all fours and whirled, swinging its spiked tail at Vanin, who leapt, slashing downwards as he passed safely over the tail and striking skin, then bone. The dragon screeched, smacking the wizard with its tail’s return.
Vanin had little time to react when the dragon snapped its jaws at him. But he managed and, righting himself, stabbed the dragon between jaw and ear.
The beast wailed.
The wizard withdrew his sword, still bright with scorching current. This magic took chunks from the dragon’s scaly hide.
Vanin dodged a set of claws and, for a moment, couldn’t catch his breath.
Blood trickled down the dragon’s cheek like tears. It shook its head in frustration.
Vanin quickly stabbed at the beast’s belly, accomplishing enough damage to make his foe rear back.
While uttering a cry only his soul heard, the wizard plunged his sword into the dragon, running as his blade slit open its underside, then ripping the sword free in a scarlet haze and bringing it down full force, his feet planted, hacking at the beast’s left hind foot.
The dragon howled.
Vanin felt no satisfaction when the beast’s foot rolled away amid an appalling spurt of gore. Rather he set out to sever the dragon’s other foot.
When the dragon fell at last, it landed mostly on its back. The beast was not dead, as Vanin had hoped.
The felled beast clung to its hatred to stay alive. It lived yet, wanting only to kill the wizard it could see, but couldn’t reach.
Moving swiftly, his grey beard flowing out behind him, Vanin found his friend Samson. Seeing that the giant lay dying, the wizard returned to the beast, who vainly attempted to kill him with flames a final time.
Sliding to a stop, avoiding the still lethal front talons of his enemy by cutting them off, the wizard plunged his blade into the dragon’s breastbone, cracking it open. Dark venous blood and clear fluid gushed from the horrific tear. Gristle and guts hung from the wound as the dragon’s lungs began collapsing.
Next, Vanin tore away that evil heart which had animated this enemy of his land and people for so many years. And, whispering, Vanin ate the beast’s heart while it still beat, swallowing it in all it chewy toughness.
That dragon heart hit the wizard’s stomach like a rock. Ripe blood oozed freakishly down the wizard’s chin who, wiping gore away, again ran to his fallen friend. Were the giant of a lighter breed, Vanin might have carried him closer in the first place. Precious seconds should never be squandered, he thought, recalling a saying for fending off death.
Samson’s breath was ragged, cold sweat breaking on his brow; his skin had lightened, taken on a blue tinge.
Vanin used a dagger to cut away the straps holding Samson’s chest-guard in place. Any other dagger would have been useless against such sturdy straps — any but this one, which was the wizard’s own.
Once he stripped Samson of armor, he removed the giant’s chain mail. The maestro stared only briefly at his friend’s leaking chest before holding out his own glowing hand to his friend’s forehead.
Vanin’s dagger tore into Samson, cutting deep. Vanin’s main hand plunged into the incision and broke his friend’s breastplate apart. The wizard kept his glowing hand, lit with a warm amber light, to the giant’s forehead and he sensed his friend’s passing come near.
Willpower left the wounded warrior quickly once his heart was punctured.
In the coming dusk, little seemed certain as Vanin cut out the giant’s wounded heart, so near to death. That heart no longer beat when it slipped down the wizard’s gullet to unite in his stomach with the heart of Samson’s slayer, the dragon lord.
Vanin’s convulsions came immediately. He slumped, fighting the urge to move his hand away from the giant’s cooling forehead, as his body rocked with the price of his deeds. At that moment, Vanin did not care what god’s rules he bent or broke. He had lost enough. Samson would not be counted among those losses. Not even if the gods willed it.
What remained of his friend was dimming by the time Vanin began to vomit dark blood and then, mouth stretched wide, expelled something larger than his fist, which appeared alien in the stretching shadows of the night.
Even as it fell from his lips, the wizard’s hand caught the sticky heart, dropping it deftly into the giant. With one word, and a flick of his wrist, he made the wound begin to knit its way toward healing.
Sinews met with muscle and reunited as the wizard aided their progress with prayer. Soon the scarlet hues and broken bones were whole and fleshy. Although a large scar did cover the giant’s chest, no other sign of a mortal struggle remained.
Samson had felt far off, and cold, but when his eyes flicked open the giant’s injury had vanished, and the mist had disappeared as well. Mystified, he stared into Vanin’s sea-blue eyes, seeing his savior and feeling blessed for the company he kept.
The wizard leaned in as Samson sat up and the giant took his hand. Vanin sounded exhausted, but he kept his voice light: “Come along, Samson; one cannot stay dead forever.”
The giant did stand. And as Samson did that, he swept up the wizard, hugging him. It was a deed he’d never dared before.
And later, Samson even thought he saw a slight smile on Vanin’s lips when they turned to begin the trek home.
Theirs was a pleasant journey.
© 2016 Vernon Maxwell
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Dani J Caile
Chris Raven was born in South London just over 50 years ago. He originally started out in Theatre in the 1980s but he became side-tracked by health and social care, where he has made his living for the past 20 years or so. More recently he has found his way back to the creative arts by contributing a number of short stories to the Indie collaboration’s series of free anthologies.
He has also contributed illustrations to other author’s works and has been coordinating a shared writing project with other new writers called ‘Tall Stories’.
Find Chris at www.chrisravenblog.wordpress.com
As a proud member of the Indie Collaboration, I am pleased to bring you three more chapters from Ufburk’s adventures. Spectacular Tales is the place where Prince Ufburk began and so I am delighted to have him be a part of Spectacular Tales 3.
If you want to read more Ufburk stories, please check out Spectacular Tales 1&2 from The Indie Collaboration.
After completing ‘Red Moon Rising’ (Spectacular Tales 2) I thought that it might be an idea to continue the theme but with a different set of characters. Once again I have written to a soundtrack – this time with Sabaton and Sia dominating.
Dani J Caile
After a lifetime of reading clones and a decade of proofreading coffee table books, Dani J Caile began writing in 2011 and has written many books, including ‘Man by a tree’, ‘The Bethlehem Fiasco’, ‘The Rage of Atlantis’, the infamous ‘Manna-X’ and his latest ‘How to Build a Castle in Seven Easy Steps’, published by Line by Lion Publications.
He has also self-published many short story compilations on Shakespir.com called ‘Dani’s Shorts’ available for free and based on the 500 word weekly Iron Writer Challenge, and some of his work can be found in other anthologies, such as ‘Circuits & Steam’, and publications from the Indie Collaboration. When not writing, teaching English and proofreading, he is busy with his loving and long-suffering family.
Vernon Maxwell lives alone in Tempe Arizona. He lists Michael Moorcock and Robert E Howard as two of his writing influences. He is pleased to be included in Spectacular Tales 3 and hopes you enjoy his story.
OTHER PUBLICATIONS BY
The Indie Collaboration
TALES FROM DARK PLACES: THE HALLOWEEN COLLECTION
A selection of chilling stories from some of the best indie authors on the market. We dare you to venture into these pages of spine chilling tales and stories of ghosts and goblins. Freely donated by the authors themselves, these dark passages are a great example of their various, unique styles and imaginations. This is the first of a series of free topical collections brought to you by The Indie Collaboration.
YULETIDE TALES: A FESTIVE COLLECTIVE
A diverse collection of stories showcasing some of the best indie authors on the market. Filled with heart-warming romance, mysterious humour, sinister, supernatural thrills and tearful sorrow, this anthology has something for everyone. So snuggle up with a warm glass of mulled wine and join us for the festivities, while we lift your spirit, tickle your fancy and rattle your bones.
KISS AND TALES: A ROMANTIC COLLECTION
Another collection of free original tales brought to you by The Indie Collaboration. This time we present a chocolate box selection of love stories. Some are romantic, some funny, some sad and some mysterious. Whatever the style, there will be a story in here that will melt even the most hardened of hearts.
SNIPS, SNAILS & PUPPY DOG TALES: A CHILDREN’S STORY COLLECTION
Another collection of free poems and stories brought to you by The Indie Collaboration. This time we take you to a world of dreams. To far-away lands of magic and wonder, where ducks and children have adventures and learn about the world; where heroes help their friends and elephants get lost.
So pack your lunch box, grab your coat and shoes and join us in a land of make believe.
I can’t wait. Can you?
An eclectic collection of stories from various authors. From action filled Science Fiction to dark sinister chills, humorous mystery, and wild impish fun.
Ideal for relaxing in the summer sun.
A thrilling anthology of short stories by some of the rising stars in independent publishing. In this collection we bring you a ship’s locker full of great Science Fiction and Fantasy. There are tales about beautiful princesses and cunning thieves, intergalactic wars, cosmic energy beings, warriors and rocketship pilots.
So strap on your jet pack and grab your broadsword and come join us in exploring these ‘Spectacular Tales’.
TALES FROM DARKER PLACES
A selection of chilling stories from some of the best Indie authors on the market. We dare you to venture into these pages of spine chilling tales and stories of dark shadows & darker tidings, shifters, ancient warriors, zombies, & demons… See the world through the Ripper’s eyes, and so much more. So many dark, foul things wait for you between these pages. Freely donated by the authors themselves, these dark passages are a great example of their various, unique styles and imaginations.
Join us in Darker Places.
KISS and TALES 2
In 2014, The Indie Collaboration was happy to offer a diverse collection of free short stories and romantic poetry highlighting a wonderful group of authors from all over the world. This year they’re back with a new collection of romance and poetry for you to enjoy on Valentine’s Day.
Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice
Another collection of children’s stories and poems from The Indie Collaboration. Once again we take you to far-away lands of magic and moonbeams, wishes and daydreams, cookies and ice creams.
I can’t wait to go back. Can you?
Spectacular Tales II: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Collection
Another thrilling anthology of short stories by some of the rising stars in independent publishing. In this second collection of short Speculative Fiction we bring you another treasure chest of great Science Fiction and Fantasy. Here you will find stories of intergalactic policemen, virtual soldiers, spirited princesses, lonesome spacemen and even megalomaniac dogs and kleptomaniac goats.
So dust off your old suit of armour and grab your blaster pistol and come join us in exploring more ‘Spectacular Tales’.
Summer Shorts 2
In this second helping of summer fun, The Indie Collaboration comes up with yet another unique collection of original stories from the authors we have come to know so well. Now in our third year, The Indie Collaboration comes up with yet more exciting, enthralling and funny stories. Ideal for relaxing in the summer sun, just don’t get carried away and stay out too long.
More thrilling short stories written by independent publishing’s rising stars. In this third SF collection of short fiction, The Indie Collaboration delves into the vaults of speculative fiction once more, bringing you original and innovative Science Fiction and Fantasy stories. Here you will find stories about Space Pirates and Barbarians, Survivors of plagues, a man doomed by time and an epic tale about Giants and Monsters. So done your space suit and come join us in exploring more ‘Spectacular Tales’.