The Shadow of Argoroth
By A.K. Gallagher
Copyright © 2015
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
This book is the intellectual property of the author writing under the pen name A.K. Gallagher. Any portion thereof, may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author, except in the use of brief quotations in a book review. This is a work of fiction – names, characters, places, events, and incidents are either: products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or events is purely coincidental.
First Edition, 2015
The Shadow Stirs
Draven stood on the threshold between what he once was, and what he might become. Doubt gnawed at his mind like a swarm of flies on a dead carcass, as he considered the contorted bridge that stretched over the Argorothian divide. It was all that lay between him and the realm of his enemy – the Raven King.
Draven scanned the sky, which hung heavy with dark clouds of ash and uncertainty. The twisted clouds shunned the life force of the sun – there was only darkness and gloom in the world of Argoroth.
At the gated bridge, chiselled from giant pieces of black granite, stood giant raven sentinels. Their eyes glimmered like black jewels on a moonlit night, even though the day was overcast and grim.
His eyes drew to the barren gorge, which fell away below the bridge for hundreds of feet and sliced the earth’s crust like a jagged wound as it stretched away for countless miles.
Anurah, the shape shifter, his companion and the woman he desired, sidled up next to him.
‘It was long ago when the sun touched the face of the earth, an age since the rain last fell here,’ she said, as she stared across the gorge.
‘Long since the last leaf fell from green trees bursting with life and reached for the love of a gentle sun. What once was alive and fertile is now barren and dead, without hope of reprieve. Such is the end of all things.’
‘Are you certain about this, Anurah?’ asked Draven as his sense of unease grew.
‘You can’t go back; you’re a traitor to the Empire. They have forsaken you and the great god Arku in favour of that abomination, Elianna. Two paths lay before you – exile or execution.’
‘I’ve lost everything in service of Arku,’ he said, distantly as the weight of his circumstances crashed in on him.
How could his kin turn against him in favour of an Elder Stone Guardian – truly it was they who had forsaken the great god, Arku.
‘The path of the righteous is never easy,’ she said, as she placed her delicate hand on his bearded cheek.
He turned his face to her and inhaled, struck with wonder by her breathtaking beauty. Her eyes shimmered like liquid gold as her luscious black hair played in the dry breeze. Draven’s heart swelled with an unhealthy desire for her, though he thought it might be love if such a thing existed.
‘You’re a High Priest of Arku, God of all creation,’ she said, as she straightened the surcoat over his broad shoulders, ‘and a true servant of Arku is not bound by the borders of empires or kingdoms, nor by any loyalty to emperor or man. Those attachments are for the faithless. You must master the power of the Elder Stone you have taken, on behalf of Arku and purify every corner of the earth, no matter what the cost, even if it’s your mortal soul.’
Draven tightened his hand around the cold stone amulet on a broken leather cord. He opened his hand and looked at his blistered flesh. The burns the fire child, Elianna, had given him seeped with clear fluid around the arrowhead obsidian stone that lay in the centre of his palm.
‘Strange… a stone could hold such power over an element,’ he said, distantly, as he caught his doleful reflection on the stone’s surface.
The stone had not come into his possession easily – he had fought for it, risked much to attain it – even his exile from the homeland and Emperor he loved.
Had it been worth it he wondered?
His home, the Empire of Tantania, lay many leagues behind him, and certainly now, after the incident at Fort Calcar, he would be labelled a traitor by his kin, and excommunicated from his priesthood of the Holy Order.
Even if they could not see it now, one day soon, they would understand and honour the sacrifice he had made for their salvation. Perhaps, he would die for this cause and become a hero, a legend told for many generations beyond time. Yes, a righteous hero who fought for Arku – that is how they would revere him after the cleansing.
‘The stone holds an ancient power, a cosmic power… and soon that power shall be yours,’ said Anurah, pained, as she averted her eyes from the stone. ‘And you can return to Tantania with the power of the sacred flame at your command and all will smell the earth when they witness your piety and god given purpose.’
‘Then what are you waiting for? Show me the way,’ said Draven, as his resolve steeled.
He had come too far now to turn back; it would do no good to pine for the past when the future of the world and the salvation of all lay in his hand. Arku demanded his strength and faith against those who had turned against the teachings. Draven would lead them all back to the God of Creation.
Anurah glared at him for a split second before her face broke into a sultry smile.
‘Follow me, and have a care, dear Draven, to show weakness here, is unforgivable and a sure sentence of infernal condemnation,’ she said, as she strode toward the bridge and her long ruby robe trailed through the ash and debris behind her.
Draven and Anurah walked in silence over the fractured stones of an ancient road and into the ruins of the city of Argoroth, which was now fallen beyond any measure of hope and unrecognisable in its despair.
The air was thirsty. It sucked at his burnt flesh and drew moisture from it until his skin cracked – only dust and ash ruled in this forsaken kingdom.
The charred bodies of people, from the old world, littered the streets – the cinder remains of a civilization decimated, frozen in time – to endure forever the moment of terror and destruction that ended the Great War.
On they walked through the eerie desolation, until finally, a twisted tower of ruin rose from the tortured earth, like a cold blade, against the ash-ridden sky.
Anurah pointed to the crumbling stones, and said, ‘behold, the Castle of Argoroth – once the mighty stronghold of Raman the Raven King.’
They climbed the wending stairs of shattered stone blocks that led to the castle gates. Draven slipped several times on the built up layers of a powdery ash, which seemed determined to cover this world like a sheet over a dead body. At the top of the staircase, the front doors of the castle, made of obsidian, stood unadorned but heavily damaged with the scars of battle.
‘This kingdom flourished with the blessings of Arku – before the curse of the fire child,’ said Anurah, in a hushed voice, as she teetered at the door, her body tensed.
Draven caught her reflection on one of the door’s warped surfaces. Bent and haggard, Anurah looked unfathomable in her decay. Her skin, rotten grey flesh, hung from her bones like a cadaver picked at by carrion. The lively eyes, he adored, were dull black and sunken in their sockets.
Draven recoiled and stared at her as if for the first time. His eyes struggled to make sense of her appearance and she flickered from one form to another, as if she were made of light and shadow.
‘What is it?’ she asked, as her golden eyes narrowed. She covered her head with the hood of her robe to hide her face.
‘I thought I saw-’ he began but he wasn’t entirely sure of what he had seen.
‘Thought you saw what?’ she asked, sharply.
‘It’s nothing, exhaustion has addled my mind,’ he said, though he felt uncertain of her for the first time.
‘We are so close to the end now. Stay strong, Draven. This place will deceive you if you let it. It will play tricks on your mind.’
‘It’s a mistake to be here,’ he said, as panic bubbled in his stomach. He had the strong sense of been woken, as if a blindfold had lifted from his eyes.
A fog cleared from his mind. Anurah had used him. She had snaked her way into the Holy Order and rose through the ranks of the priestesses by way of manipulation and guile – and he had listened to her. He had fallen for it. He was a fool.
As if she had read his thoughts, Anurah said, ‘You’re a traitor to your Empire, Draven. The Emperor will kill you on sight if you dare set foot on his land. He will not favour you as he once did, not as long as his son, Luthando, has it in his mind to love Elianna.’
Draven’s heart faltered for a moment, as an enchantment slipped from his mind. All he ever wanted was to serve Arku through the will of his divine Emperor. He had turned against his Emperor. Everything he had loved, cared for, and devoted his life to, was gone – what had he done? Anurah had tricked him onto a false path – one set against his own people but for what purpose?
‘What have you done to me,’ he said and he took a step away from her.
He had woken from a terrible dream, only to find a waking nightmare.
Anurah reached out to stroke his arm and his eyes locked to hers. The golden depths of her eyes held his attention as she caressed his face.
‘You must prove you’re worthy of Arku’s divine love by sacrificing much, even the love of your Empire. In time they will call you a hero.’
‘A hero? But a priest wants not for such things… only to serve… to help…’ he whispered, confused, as his mind warped.
‘And you will be rewarded with eternal paradise.’
A shimmering veil slid over Draven’s mind and his thoughts of regret and fear turned to heated thoughts of Anurah’s otherworldly beauty and his need to possess her, to be one with her, and defile her body.
‘And when the power of the Elder Stone is mine, I will have you,’ he said as one arm gripped around her waist and pulled her hard against his body.
‘Yes, my darling,’ she cooed, and kissed him softly on the cheek. ‘The Elder Stone of Fire will be yours to command and so will my body.’
He opened his hand again and his eyes held the stone hungrily.
‘Put it away. Put it away,’ she beseeched and shielded her eyes from it.
He ran his hand over her silky black hair. He enjoyed the pain the stone caused her. He sniggered, pleased by it, and then stowed the stone in his breast pocket.
Beneath their feet, the ground trembled and without a hand to force them, the castle doors rumbled open.
‘What magic is this?’ he asked, dubiously, and peered into the chamber beyond.
‘The Emperor of Tantania is nothing compared to the might of Arku,’ she said, proudly. ‘If you value your life, if you wish to join the righteous and cleanse the earth of the Elder Stone Guardians, enter here with a strong heart and the throne beyond will be yours.’
‘I do not fear my God,’ he said, and he took a deep breath, as he entered.
Cautiously, he walked through the doors. They entered a high vaulted corridor and the temperature dropped to freezing. Draven’s breath came in misty puffs as he rubbed his hands together for warmth.
‘It’s so cold in here,’ he said, and his voice echoed off the high stone ceiling.
‘The fire that burns brightest consumes all,’ Anurah said, reverently, with her eyes fixed on another door that lay directly ahead.
Lining the walls of the grand corridor were the overcooked remains of Argorothian soldiers in their battle armour, still at their posts. Their black helms creaked and Draven was certain their dusty heads followed them as they walked the length of the corridor.
Through the next door, Anurah led the way up a spiral staircase of flat stone slabs, which wended into the lofty tower.
At the pinnacle, they came upon a set of aged wooden doors. Again, the doors swung open by no hand seen by eye.
Ahead, a circular chamber lined with lofty columns reached past the collapsed roof and into the sky. There, a ball of sickly black vapour churned above the tower as snaking tentacles of smoke floated serenely around it.
Draven sensed a presence deep within the shadows and its mind turned to him, like the crack of a whip. The air rushed past Draven’s body with the force of a hurricane and slammed him against the wall.
The Shadow descended, and the distant moans of many tortured voices filled the chamber. They wailed and moaned in their terror and anguish, their pain almost palpable.
Draven lurched forward as the Shadow siphoned his breath from his lungs.
Anurah, who stood beside him, unmoved, smirked, as Draven fell to his knees and gasped for breath.
The tendrils of black vapour thrashed around the chamber and coalesced into a mass of thick black ash, which hovered above a kingless throne. A dull red light pulsated from deep within the Shadow’s core.
‘Why have you disturbed me?’ asked the Shadow, in a voice as dry as the stones underfoot.
‘Raven King,’ Anurah said, reverently, and dropped to her knees.
‘No, what have I done?’ uttered Draven.
The veil of Anurah’s enchantment shattered from his mind and Draven backed away from the Shadow, horror struck.
‘I bring news of the fire child,’ Anurah said, and ignored Draven’s terror.
The Shadow shuddered and its great plumes rippled as it fixed its mind upon her.
‘Speak,’ said the Raven King.
‘I have found her, my master!’ Anurah said, jubilantly.
‘Anurah?’ croaked Draven, disorientated.
He turned to her for help but found her changed – the face of a woman with decomposing flesh and pointed black teeth sneered back at him.
‘Who are you to enter here?’ growled the Shadow.
‘I am Draven, High Priest of the Holy Order of Arku, you have no power over me,’ he repeated in a rushed whisper to ward off the evil that peered into his unprepared soul.
‘He is Tantanese, my lord,’ sniggered Anurah.
‘Tantanese! Disease of the earth,’ the Raven King seethed, as the hurricane winds within the Shadow stirred. ‘Thieves! Scoundrels!’
‘Bow before your master,’ Anurah ordered.
An unseen foot kicked the back of his knees and Draven fell to the floor. His face hit the hard stone and his nose shattered with a sickening crunch.
‘It was Draven who took the Raven Stone from her, to return to you master. The fire child, attacked him, burnt his flesh as you can see. Draven killed her brother and he took the stone!’
‘You killed Beothain’s grandson Mathusal?’ the Shadow asked, silkily.
‘Cut his head clean from his neck and it just rolled away,’ she said, with a devilish laugh of satisfaction.
‘No,’ said Draven, and he shook his head in disbelief. ‘I didn’t want to hurt anyone!’
The Raven King was silent.
‘He has served you well enough, my lord. Even though he is Tantanese, his mind was weak and easy to enchant,’ said Anurah and bowed her head low to her master.
‘The pious ones are always weak of mind. I shall reward you Draven… with the memory of all you have done,’ crooned the Raven King.
‘I want nothing from you! Foul creature of the dark!’ Draven said as he stumbled back to his feet and held a hand over his bloody nose.
His heart ached with guilt as the memories of what he had done under Anurah’s enchantment bombarded his mind.
‘Luthando was my friend, my brother,’ he cried as his head reeled with the memories of his betrayal.
He had kidnapped and tortured Beodaw, an old man. He had executed Mathusal who had bravely protected his sister, Elianna. He had laid his hands on Elianna with desire, lust and hate. The taste of her blood filled his mouth.
‘NO!’ he wailed as he held his head.
Anurah’s mouth pulled back from her rotten gums in a savage grin as the air drew from the room again.
Pain, indescribable pain wracked his body and Draven’s skin began to bubble and hiss. Large welts turned into blisters and they burst with fluid and gushed over the ash-ridden floor in pools of sickly yellow pus.
Draven’s body ignited in flames and he writhed in agony, his mouth opened to scream but his lungs were on fire. His body convulsed as an intense light burned from inside him and ripped apart his cindering flesh. Embers popped from his eye sockets as his eyeballs ruptured. He rose into the air, and his body twisted unnaturally.
Images, dark and horrific, pummelled his mind, but each evaporated into swirls of black mist before he could decipher them. Hate crept into his heart, so toxic in its potency; he thought he may die from it until it seeped into his veins and settled in his mind as a blood-fuelled rage that only death and revenge could satisfy.
His frame swelled, engorged by the power of the Raven King. Rippling muscles hardened beneath a layer of ash and sinew and then he fell to the floor, unable to move as his new body solidified.
‘I am Arku come to the world, I am chaos and you shall be my body on earth. My blood is your blood, and you will not rest until they pay for my suffering,’ declared the Raven King.
Draven rose from the floor and straightened his back.
He knew only one purpose – to serve the Raven King.
Draven held his head high, honoured and bound eternally to the Shadow of Argoroth. He inhaled deeply, and his rib cage expanded and cracked, swelling his frame to twice his human size.
He tilted his head and cracked his neck, as if he had been still for a long time. His black armour bore the marks of heavy battle and intense fire. A raven in flames, emblazed on his chest plate, stretched its wings to the sky. Draven’s body had risen from the Shadow, fully formed, and fully healed, yet he felt different, as if a fire burned deep within his core.
‘My lord,’ Draven said as he fell to one knee and bowed his head.
Draven held the Raven Stone in his hand for his new master. There was no other – only the Raven King.
The Raven King’s attention snapped to the amulet and he crooned softly, as if he might weep at the sight of it.
A black smoky tendril slithered across the floor and caressed the stone, with the longing of lovers reunited after an age of parting. A wispy hand of ash and fire snatched it away from Draven hungrily and he held the stone in triumph.
‘The Raven Stone,’ he moaned with painful delight.
Draven smiled, his master was content.
‘Where is she?’ he moaned and his voice rose to a shrill pitch. ‘Where is Elianna? I must have her!’
‘She is with the Tantanese,’ Draven said.
The Shadow closed in on him, his eyeless attention pinned Draven to the floor.
‘You saw her?’ he whispered, jealously.
‘She is grown, she is strong. Her power is awake,’ said Anurah.
‘Yet you failed to bring her here and now she is without the stone,’ the Raven King thundered as he rounded on her.
‘Forgive me, my lord. I waited an age for Beothain to release her only to find he had cursed the stone. It burns my eyes and strips me of my power.’
‘It is not cursed you imbecile! It is your death calling. The oath you made to the child, you broke. To break an oath of an Elder Stone Guardian is to summon a most grievous punishment’ – he laughed deeply – ‘The thought of your inevitable suffering brings me joy.’
‘Master, I want only to serve you, to please you, to live for you.’
‘You are dead already, Anurah. Your soul is mine, in here with all the others.’
A funnel opened within the Shadow’s black mass. Shadows of corrupt souls reached out for her and wailed with agony.
‘I asked but a simple thing and you are unable to do it. Perhaps it was a mistake to raise you from the dead?’
‘My lord, I spent fifteen years infiltrating the Order of Arku. Fifteen years I scoured the Empire waiting for any sign of them. When Beothain let her leave his clutches, she fell into the hands of the Imperials and the Emperor’s son has bewitched her.’
A snarl ripped from the Shadow.
‘The Emperor’s son? He would use her as a weapon against me!’ he bellowed, angrily.
‘The Emperor’s son loves the fire child,’ informed Draven.
‘Loves her?’ he said, as his black mass recoiled with repugnance. Then he laughed deeply. ‘Love is an empty thing. She will only know grief from it. That is a lesson she must learn. Kill him, hunt him down, make him suffer, make them all suffer for what they have done to me!’
The Shadow rose up and the dusty black vapour spun at a dizzying pace.
‘I hunted her down, I sent the legion of the underworld to take her but they failed to capture her,’ said Anurah.
‘Where is the Sword of Argoroth?’ he snapped, and the smoke stirred towards Anurah menacingly.
‘The s – s – sword?’ she stammered, nervously. ‘Beothain went to Grey Rock Mountain, to the sacred realm of the Elder Seven. He found his way in and probably held counsel with those lesser gods and goddesses, to conspire against us. He returned with the sword and I took it from him.’
‘Beothain is dead,’ the Shadow asked, teetering on exhilaration.
She shook her head, ‘No, my lord, the Imperials came, the fire child saved him. I found her in the mountains. I wielded the sword against her, but it refused to harm her as if it had a mind of its own.’
‘Do you know nothing, you pathetic wretch! The Elder Seven forged the sword in the fires of her blood at her birth. The sword will not turn on her unless she asks it to. Give it to me. Give me the sword.’
‘She took it, the girl took it! The sword chose Elianna over me and she stole it!’ Anurah whimpered and cowered away from the Shadow.
The churning vapour swelled. It filled the chamber and engulfed Anurah and Draven in its folds. There was no escaping him. A tendril wrapped around Anurah’s throat and lifted her from the ground. Her feet hung limply in the air.
‘You gave it to her,’ he seethed, in a voice so deadly, she began to tremble.
‘It chose her,’ she rasped, through his tight clutch.
‘Of course it chose her, which is why you were to bring her to me.’
Another tendril whipped from him and smacked her hard across the face. She slid across the floor in a heap and left a trail through the ash.
‘Please forgive me, my lord, I can do better, I will not fail you,’ Anurah whimpered, as she crawled to her knees and prostrated herself before him.
‘You are already dead. Your pledge means nothing. The stone is not enough – I need the child and the sword. I WANT THEM RETURNED TO ME! Bah! You are useless.’
‘Forgive me, I am nothing and unworthy.’
The Shadow churned mid-air, as if in deep thought.
‘You will retrieve all the Elder Stones for me. All seven pieces do you hear? I will reunite them all and hold the Creation Stone in my hand. Then I will devour their world and bring a reign of chaos greater than all of Arku’s beginnings!’
‘My lord, yes of course, anything you order, it shall be done.’ She licked her lips nervously. ‘Forgive me master, where do I start, you are ever wise and I am but a humble servant.’
‘You will start with the Isle of Undine. The ancient Elder Stone lore speaks of the seven tribal trees, and I once heard rumour a Guardian still lives there. It was long ago, but have a care for the things that grow or you will make many enemies there.’
‘Yes, my master.’
‘Draven,’ the Raven King called. ‘Anurah is a disappointment, perhaps you will not be. Make sure she does not fail again.’
‘Yes, my lord,’ said Draven and bowed his head, grateful for the chance to prove himself.
‘And what of the fire child and her companions?’ asked Anurah, slowly.
A face of churning embers emerged from the smoke and its red-hot eyes studied the Raven Stone thoughtfully. His deep laugh rumbled through the chamber.
‘Elianna will die without the power of the stone, Beothain knows this,’ he said, softly, as one smoky finger caressed its glassy surface. ‘A guardian cannot survive without it. If her companions wish her to live, they will have no choice but to come to me.’
SPOILER ALERT - If you haven't read GODLESS I - The Raven Stone, this chapter excerpt will spoil it for you! Chapter One Excerpt is a sneak peak of Book II in the GODLESS series, continues journey of Elianna, who has to find a way to come to terms with her power as an Elder Stone Guardian.