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The Dragon of Time Two, Dragon Slayer

 

The Dragon of Time

 

Book Two

 

Dragon Slayer

 

Aaron Dennis

 

The Dragon of Time series Copyright 2014 by Aaron Dennis

 

Published by Storiesbydennis.com November 11th of 2016

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned or distributed in any form, including digital and electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the Publisher, except for brief quotes for use in reviews.

 

This book is a work of fiction. Characters, names, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Prologue

 

An amnesiac mercenary called Scar appeared in the middle of the territorial disputes of Tiamhaal. He brought a whirlwind of change, the kind of change no one expected. That man was in actuality the avatar of Eternus, the Dragon of Time, a being outside the realm of human comprehension. Eternus was the universe, it was the ineffable creator of all that was, but having taken a liking to a particular world, it sent a portion of itself to the world of men.

Crafted from the clay at the edge of the world and fashioned from the eight, guiding principles of man, Scar, the mercenary, was sent to slay the Dragons, and so he was named Sarkany, the Dragon Slayer, yet his fashioning was not without flaws, and he lost his memories. Finding himself traveling aimlessly, seeking only to learn of his origins, Scar was beset by Dracos, the followers of Drac, Dragon of Fire, and then he was manipulated by Zoltek, Negus of the Zmajans, followers of the Dragon of Destruction, and finally, the warrior was sent by King Gilgamesh of Satrone, a worshipper of Kulshedra, Dragon of Truth, to the ruined kingdom of Alduheim where a forgotten memory lay buried in darkness.

It was there that he and his men found a paladin, a warrior named Ylithia, who fought in the name of Mekosh, a true God, the God of Severity, and even though paladins had always maintained that Dragons were posing as Gods, most people of Tiamhaal had never taken them seriously, yet what was witnessed beneath the rubble of Alduheim united them in their efforts to reveal the truth to their kings and queens. The leaders of every tribe had established their own countries under the name of their Dragon Lord posing as God; constantly, they fought for territory, supremacy, religious beliefs, and even peace. Things changed when warriors of Kulshedra, Scultone, Fafnir, and Tiamat joined forces with Scar and Ylithia, but their plan to bring to light the lies of Dragons was short-lived; Scar and Ylithia fell in love and left kings and pawns to squabble amongst themselves.

The two abandoned Gods and Dragons for a life of peace, but the spurned King Gilgamesh had other plans, and he sent his men to kill Scar, yet he was away, and it was Ylithia, who was cut down without mercy, and for that act of betrayal, Scar took his sword, joined his old friend, Labolas, invaded the impregnable palace, Inneshkigal, and killed Gilgamesh before all the Kulshedrans of Tironis. Upon the king’s death, Scar was transported to Drangue, where he battled the mighty Kulshedra, a misty whorl of a Dragon, and the Dragon Slayer took the beast’s soul.

Since then, the Kulshedrans have lost their powers—the ability to augment their armor through Dragon’s magic—and they struggle to maintain their borders, their culture, their lives, but Scar is far from finished; he owes someone a debt of blood, and so he has journeyed back to Usaj, the land of destruction ruled by the mighty Zoltek. In Meshoptam, capitol of Usaj, Scar, the pale skinned, seven foot giant, in black, leather armor, has slain the Zmajan, royal guards and come face to face with an old foe….

Chapter One- Zmaj, the All God

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dragon Slayer smiled. A pile of bloody corpses were strewn about the deer pelts covering the stone floor of Zoltek’s palace. Since the guards were dead, and Zoltek had yet to show his face, Scar plunked down on the blackened, wood throne; the seat of power within the walls of Urr. He watched shadows cast by burning braziers dance along the gray stone. An eerie quietude was all that remained of the opposition. Dead men told no tales, but dead Dragons were a different story. A gust of chilly, night air brought forth sparks and crackles from the fires. Scar clicked his tongue.

“Zoltek,” he taunted.

The warrior frowned, crossed his legs, and strained to listen. Only embers chirped when more gusts circulated through the throne room. None of the guards had dared chase the Dragon Slayer into the palace, and inside Urr, Scar had already hacked to bits anyone who wasn’t fleeing for their life. Zmajans were nothing if not fearsome, but the Dragon Slayer was practically invulnerable; such was the blessing of Eternus, the Dragon of Time.

“Think of your son, Zoltek,” Scar yelled. “I killed the little brat when he tried to backstab me. What was his name? Oh, yes, Urdu.”

The fight inside the palace had lasted less than an hour. After charging in, Scar easily mowed down the dark skinned fighters. Their leather armor proved ineffective against the brute’s great sword, a blade forged by Eternus for the specific purpose of slaying Dragons. They tried to fight back with their magic weapons—swords and axes that changed into spinning blades; they were self-propelled saws. Some of the Zmajans, ones with crossbows, turned their weapons into machines that fired bolts at an unprecedented rate, yet the projectiles did little damage. Scar’s newest wounds had already healed over.

“Don’t make me hunt you down like a dog, Zoltek. You’re Zmajan. You are brave, and you are angry. You should come find me and accept my challenge rather than cower in some darkened corner!” Scar goaded. “Come prove to me that Zmaj, the All God, holds you worthy.”

A clanking of metal bled through the vaulted ceiling. Scar looked up. There were still people in there somewhere, but he wanted only to gut Zoltek, take his Dragon gem, and show Zmaj his blade. Capturing all of the Dragons’ souls was his quest, the single reason for his creation, and though Scar detested being ordered around, and by a Dragon, no less, he was still upset over the death of his lover, Ylithia. Such was his wrath, an insatiable thirst for blood.

Killing her attackers in Othnatus had not been enough. Cutting down King Gilgamesh, who commanded them, had not been sufficient, and slaying the Dragon, Kulshedra, had only whet his appetite for Dragon’s blood.

“Zoltek,” Scar called; a constricted tone revealed his intolerance. “It was less than a year ago that you promised me answers. Remember? You hired me to fight for you, to kill Kulshedrans, and in return, you were going to tell me who I was. You were going to ask Zmaj…tell me, have you asked him? Has he told you?”

After having slain Kulshedra, the mercenary’s memories flooded his mind, and so as he sat upon the negus’s throne, taunting him, he knew all too well Zoltek feared the truth. The sound of bare feet coming down stone steps drew Scar from self-reflection. He looked to his right, where a set of stairs led up to private chambers. A thin figure wearing shiny, purple and gold robes descended. Zoltek held a metal staff in his left hand. Its top was a purple gem in the shape of a diamond. Zmaj’s gem, Scar thought. At the base of the stairs, his face shrouded in shadow, the Negus of Usaj glared at the Dragon Slayer.

“I do not fear you, ghost,” Zoltek breathed. His voice was unearthly, something reminiscent of rustling leaves caught in the wind. “You are no one, nothing. Zmaj does not claim you. None of the Gods do.”

“None of the Dragons do,” Scar corrected.

“You are a fool.”

“I owe you for your betrayal,” Scar said and came to his feet.

“I did not betray you. You failed your mission. You killed my son.”

“You lied to me,” Scar growled.

“Never,” Zoltek breathed. “It is not my fault the Gods shun you.”

“Dragons.”

Zoltek struck the ground with the bottom of his staff. It made a strange sound like that of a bell. Scar smiled.

“Tell me, what manner of God speaks only to one man. What manner of God requires a gem for commune?” the Dragon Slayer demanded.

“Why do you even argue? Did you not come here to fight?”

“I need you to know just how foolish you are before you die.”

Zoltek snorted in derision, “You are the fool. You think you killed a Dragon, and now you come into my country and lay my people to waste. Tell me, ghost, you think yourself a hero?”

“No,” Scar heaved. “I think myself the Dragon Slayer.”

With that, he leapt across the room to strike at Zoltek. The Negus of Usaj stepped forwards and lunged with his staff. An arc of purple lightning exploded from the gem and sent the warrior reeling into corpses.

“All that hatred,” Zoltek breathed. “You aim it in the wrong direction, yet I hold Cabazalus, and with it, I will destroy you.”

Scar quickly recovered and attempted a slightly different tactic. First, he snatched a spear from a dead guard. He chucked it then quickly leapt at Zoltek again. Before the spear connected, a web of purple electricity arced off the staff and disintegrated the weapon. By the time Scar closed the distance, the web expanded and remained a barrier between him and his opponent. Steel and magic clashed as muscles tensed.

“Your Dragon magic won’t last,” Scar growled as he struck the barrier with his blade. “Gilgamesh thought Kulshedra would save him, too, but I made quick work of him.”

“Then, Kulshedra is weak,” Zoltek howled in a booming voice that reverberated throughout the keep. “The God of Truth is nothing compared to my God, Zmaj! The All God will reduce you to ashes!”

The web of lightning curled inwards and then wrapped around the Dragon Slayer. It was a sparking sphere of pure energy that blistered his skin and busted the antlers off his helmet. Growling and thrashing, the brute continued to hack at the magic. Realizing that such an approach was useless, he tried to run, and although the energy was bound to his form, he was able to charge his opponent. When they collided, the lightning shot off in various directions. Chunks of stone were knocked from the palace’s walls. Both men were sent to the ground.

Scar came to his feet first. Zoltek was in a crouching position, his face still hidden by his cowl. The Dragon Slayer looked over his wounds and laughed as they healed.

“Your people do nothing but kill, Zoltek. Your Dragon demands it and gives nothing in return.”

“You call this nothing?” Zoltek howled and blasted Scar again with a bolt of energy.

The arc tore through the warrior’s shoulder. He yelled out in pain, but did not falter and charged again. Zoltek stood at the same time Scar’s blade came down. He parried the slash, but it sent the old Zmajan to the ground. His hood slid back, and Scar saw that his color streaked face had been ravaged by fire, or perhaps lightning. The negus pulled the cowl back down, and started to work himself to his feet by rolling over onto hands and knees, but Scar came up behind him and kicked him hard in the backside. The blow made the Zmajan kiss the floor.

“Yes, I call it nothing,” Scar said. “You’ve spent your entire life in servitude. You bend to the wish of a Dragon, and not because you have to, and not because you want to help people, but because you wish only to kill everything around you!”

Zoltek scurried away and tried to stand once more, but the warrior swept his feet out, and the old man rolled onto his side. “Do you not see,” the negus heaved. “Do you not see that if everyone were united under the banner of one God, there would be no more fighting? Why is it wrong to pursue such a dream? Do the others not wish the same? Who made you judge?”

“You wish to unite no one,” Scar spat. “That is why you keep slaves, pillage, raze, and attack. Had Gilgamesh and Donovan not kept you cornered, you would have done worse to other countries.”

“So, where is your allegiance,” Zoltek barked.

From his back, he aimed Cabazalus at his opponent and blasted him with another bolt of lightning. It caught Scar’s sword, and the two marveled at the display. The energy swarmed about the blade like snakes. Little, violet sparks popped off and vanished, leaving thin trails of smoke. Zoltek focused his might and doubled the size of the bolt, but Scar spun and whipped his sword over his head, keeping the lightning from his skin. Once he completed a circle, he stabbed into Zoltek’s belly. The Zmajan cried out in pain, thrashed against the ground, and let go his staff. It rang like a bell again when it struck the hard floor. Wispy crackles of energy sizzled away into nothing.

Scar knelt next to the dying, old man and whispered, “You will not go to Pozoj, and be glad of it. The Dragon uses men’s souls to increase its power. They wish to walk Tiamhaal again and wreak havoc across the land. I have been sent here to stop them.”

“How? Why?” Zoltek coughed.

“Some questions do not have answers,” his tone betrayed grief.

The Dragon Slayer stood upright. He looked down at his foe, who was curling into fetal position. No doubt, his grievous wound was painful. Scar showed mercy and lopped his head off rather than leaving him to suffer. He frowned and shook his head in dismay. At least, that will quench my thirst for vengeance. The rest was just business. He was going to kill the Dragons because if he didn’t, thousands were doomed; killing Kulshedra had been an act of providence, but killing Zmaj was an act of war.

Scar took a knife from his belt, pried the gem out from the top of Cabazalus, and worked it into the second hole in his blade, above the one with Kulshedra’s Dragon gem. Vertigo immediately overtook him. When the spinning subsided, he found himself in Pozoj, the realm of destruction.

There was but a swirling chaos of colors. Misty shapes whipped around. The warrior tried to gain his bearings; the realm of destruction was even more convoluted than the realm of truth.

Eyes darting about in an effort to catch a glimpse of anything familiar, Scar saw a blue orb of wavering light. It vanished after he noticed another orb of pulsating, orange light. Then, he saw there were orbs everywhere, dozens of them.

“Zmaj,” he called out. “Show yourself! I have killed your brother, and now I will kill you, too!”

A chorus of musical voices accosted the warrior’s ears. Whatever language the Dragons spoke was indescribable, yet the Dragon Slayer was an extension of the Dragon of Time, and so he comprehended the mysterious speech.

Worthless humans are no match for the immortal. We Dragons are the everlasting breath. Zmaj has created everything!”

“You have created nothing!”

Scar held his sword over his head. Much to his dismay, nothing happened. Well, it worked against Kulshedra, he thought. He resorted to swinging about blindly. Through crippling darkness that took his breath away, and the brightest lights that forced his eyes shut, the giant raged in an impotent fury. Then, a blow from sights unseen knocked him away. Since there was no ground, or walls, or anything physical in the Dragon’s realm, he simply kept moving until the energy of the impact subsided. From his new position, he caught a glimpse of the beast. Zmaj was comprised of several, serpentine creatures. The orbs were pairs of eyes that glimmered, glowed, shone, and wavered.

You are the false hope of a weak people, whelp. My son was weak, but in death, he has given his siblings strength. Kulshedra, Dragon of Truth, will be avenged here,” the melody of booming thunder claimed.

Scar furrowed his brow, gripped his sword in both hands, and held his gaze on the Dragon. While misty shapes whizzed by his vision, he propelled himself towards Zmaj.

“Kulshedra was not your son, you liar. I know the truth of things.”

One of Zmaj’s heads—a purple creature resembling a lizard’s maw—struck him from behind and sent him sailing into another head, a shiny, blue snake. Scar balled up in the air. Zmaj was ready to swallow him, but he was prepared. Upon reaching the beast’s, moist breath, the Dragon Slayer gripped Zmaj’s nostril, pushed both feet into the opened, bottom jaw, and worked his shoulder underneath the top jaw. Zmaj laughed with another head, as yet another came slithering through darkness from behind. Before the speeding head made contact, and the blue one chomped down, Scar thrust his blade through Zmaj’s pallet.

That head shook with a force that knocked the bladesman free. He turned, swiped at the oncoming head, kept his spinning momentum going, and slashed at the shiny, blue snake’s throat. As it reeled back, a lifeless heap, the warrior waited for blinding light to pass, and made his move before the darkness thwarted his endeavor; he dashed into the area where all the necks were connected. Like a whirling dervish, he sliced, slashed, and hacked through scaly mass.

You cannot kill me, I am the Dragon of Destruction, creator of all that there is.

“I am killing you, Dragon. You are but a lie created in the void,” Scar howled. “Eternus, the Dragon of Time, has beckoned your end, and I am the instrument of your death.”

With the fall of each head, Scar noticed the scenery stabilized; there was less darkness, fewer flashes of light. The new consistency made dodging swipes an easy feat. Scar shoulder rolled over orange scales, stabbed into a silvery throat, pulled out, and hacked into a gray, eel-like snout. All that remained was an abundance of lifeless serpents.

“Zmaj,” Scar breathed. “I’m taking your soul back to your creator.”

Colored winds of varying degrees of light and dark zipped around Zmaj’s Dragon gem. It glowed brighter and brighter purple until the entirety of the beast disintegrated.

What are you?” The Dragon demanded with its dying breath.

“Sarkany, the Dragon Slayer. I am the embodiment of all principles, yet fashioned as a man to deliver peace. I am Eternus—his avatar…the age of Dragons has truly come to its end.”

At the culmination of Zmaj’s death rattle, the colored winds subsided and an unbearable pressure began crushing the warrior. He screamed in agony and passed out only to awaken breathless on a cold, stone floor. Inside Urr, he gave a forceful exhale and worked himself upright. With one, final glance at the throne room, Scar nodded and marched out.

He walked through corridors decorated with paintings of Zmajans felling members of other tribes. The destructive people in the service of the false All God weren’t going to wreak anymore havoc. As with the Kulshedrans, Scar knew the people were going to feel an overwhelming loss; their magic was gone, the swirling marks of the beast had already vanished, and when he exited to the courtyard surrounding the palace, he witnessed the people of Meshoptam gazing at their limbs by the fires of torches.

“Zmajans,” Scar called out. They looked at him, imploringly. “I have killed your Dragon Lord. You are now free to live in peace. Let your slaves go. Cast your hatred aside. It was never your burden to bear.”

“What have you done to us?” a man cried.

“We will surely fall to the Dracos now,” a woman claimed.

“Scar,” another growled. The warrior turned to face the man who called his name. General Dumar stood some twenty feet away. He slid the ram’s horn helmet off his bald head; the swirling marks of the beast had vanished. The stocky Zmajan dropped his helmet onto gray, dusty soil, and tightened his grip around the handle of his axe. “You have cost us everything.”

“I have set you free.”

Clouds parted overhead. A bright, full moon shone down, revealing worn faces. The aged general growled and charged the brute. Scar did not move, not even when cold steel sank into his flank. The Zmajan bared his teeth, aiming all of his hatred at his enemy’s, gray eyes, but his axe did not change into a magnificent, killing machine as it had done in the past.

“I was going to kill you, Dumar,” Scar whispered, “but I think letting you live is a more appropriate punishment. Look on as your people fall to their knees.”

“How dare you, you impudent pup?” Dumar yelled. “To arms, people. To arms! The ghost has killed our God, and now he will kill us all. He is a bloodthirsty devil!”

To Scar’s chagrin, the general’s, insane ravings rallied the Zmajans. Civilians snatched the weapons of deceased guards and swarmed. He eyed them curiously.

I had not planned for this. Quickly, he shoved Dumar away, thus freeing the axe from his flank, parried the thrust of a spear, and kicked down a lanky Zmajan. I can certainly kill them, but that will make his claims true.

“I am not a beast,” Scar shouted. “Stay your hands. Zoltek and the Dragon have lied to you, twisted your minds and hearts. Be peaceful, and help one another. Soon, all the Dragons will fall, and you will see peace wash across Tiamhaal.”

Dumar raged and repeated that the ghost was a God killer, a dangerous man that had to be killed on the spot. Instead of cutting down the opposition, Scar took off at a full run. He bowled over men, women, and tried to avoid the children. A goat crossed his path on the stone streets of the capitol, and he booted it out of his way. Running blindly from a frothing mob that grew in numbers as Dumar shouted orders, Scar found himself in a predicament. He bore no hatred for the citizens, yet they were out for blood.

Grunting for breath and passing dark skinned warriors in drab garments, he darted behind a flat roofed building, dove into an alleyway, and tried to reason out a course of action. He wanted to get out of there before they left him no choice but to defend himself, yet his thoughts were cut short when he heard the unmistakable sound of galloping hooves. Zmajans on horseback were bearing down the darkened alley. Scar gripped the closest horse by the muzzle and wrestled it to the ground, thus forcing the rider off in the mix.

“Get away from me, you fools,” he yelled and took off again.

Sprinting by more riders with long spears and javelins, the warrior bolted down the streets as chickens cackled and fluttered by. Finally, he set his eyes on Meshoptam’s western entrance. All he had to do was make it through the arched opening in the wall surrounding the city, and he was home free in the freezing desert, but someone shouted orders to stop him, and two guards blocked the exit while another sent a javelin over his head. Scar impaled the left guard, picked him off the ground, and slung him into the other guard before fleeing beyond the gates. Riders gave chase, but the horses didn’t fare well in the dusty dunes of Meshoptam. Certainly, the mounts were quick, but they easily lost their footing, and the soldiers were unable to strike the warrior.

Scar gutted two horses that managed to close the distance, lopped the head off a third, and amputated the foreleg of the fourth. More were enroute, but he took off again. Barreling through the chaparral, Scar fled into the night, leaving the people of Usaj to find a new purpose in life.

Chapter Two- The Perseverants

 

Under a clear, night sky, Scar gazed at the rolling dunes and valleys. It was an endless sea of bleak gray pitted against a backdrop of twinkling blackness. The thin chaparral was rife with intermittent buzzing. All manner of insects flew rampantly, searching for moisture. Swatting gnats from his eyes, the warrior pondered his newest obstacle.

“Well…roaming out here will do me no good. I need to get to Alduheim and meet up with Labolas.”

General Dumar had effectively galvanized his people. Since the Zmajans had not taken the loss of their God or blessing lightly, and they had no intention of allowing Scar ease of travel through Usaj, he needed to stay off the roads while treading north.

“Will that be enough,” he questioned, marching between cacti with budding flowers of red. “Beyond Usaj is Satrone, and I am no more welcome there than here….” Scar then wondered about the possibility of moving east into Eltanrof. “That’s still a long haul without a horse.” He started moving aimlessly in the direction he faced. “Maybe, I can steal a horse in the night…of course, I’m not too far from the ocean. I wonder if I can manage to sail around Satrone and into Zetsuru….”

The chilly winds of the desert night nipped at his nose. He felt the cold, but it was not an unpleasant sensation. Taking a deep breath as he came to stop near a squat boulder, he sat and removed his helmet to rub a hand over his smooth head.

“Damn, I probably won’t be able to make it into any town around here or the coast before word gets out,” he mumbled. “I should’ve killed Dumar. Then, maybe, these people wouldn’t be after me….”

The story of the pale skinned giant who killed Kulshedra had already spread throughout the whole of Tiamhaal. The welcoming committee in Meshoptam had proven that, and with the Zmajans now powerless, Scar didn’t feel right cutting them down just to serve his own goal, even if that goal was world peace. As he stood and meandered again through the desert, his immense footprints quickly vanished beneath waves of sand. The Golgor desert blew powerful gusts on a daily basis. Tiny grains of gray peppered the warrior as gales grew potent.

“Of course!”

He decided to maintain his heading, knowing that somewhere amidst the expansive desert there was a road marked by stones. Unlike Satrone, the roads of Usaj weren’t hard packed soil, but the roughly hewn posts guided travelers when desert winds covered tracks every single night. Once I get on the road, I’ll come across someone on horseback…or camelback, or something eventually.

He picked up his pace and jogged along; his goal was to find some riders, simply knock them unconscious, and steal their mount. Usaj’s southern region was mostly arid, but there were many traders moving to and from the capitol; someone was sure to pass by. Recent tribulations left him irritable, though, and he cursed the sands of Usaj.

Scar plodded through the desert for hours. The ability to move for great distances without tiring was indeed a blessing. He dashed by tall, thin cacti, short, round ones, and some reddish shrubs with very thick leaves. Before the predawn twilight, fluffy, gray clouds rolled in overhead. The insects stopped buzzing then, and Scar ran in relative silence; the only sound was the soft crushing of sand underfoot. Another hour passed in that manner, and then the eastern sun blasted the cloud cover to bits. Morning light erupted over a huge, sandy hill, and that was enough to reveal a stone post in the distance. Scar heaved a sigh, veered off to his right, and ran straight for the road.

The stones were visible in the daytime. Each, craggy marker was placed about one hundred yards from the next. They wormed all over the desert; over hills, through dunes, around the scant, few, large boulders. Since the winds had died down overnight, he clearly saw a row of markers like inanimate, stone soldiers in single file, disappearing into a valley.

Slowing to a walk, he kept a steady pace for hours. The sun worked its way overhead. Warmth prickled the skin. Winters in Usaj were dreadfully cold, not that it affected Scar much, but the midday warmth was relaxing. He closed his eyes, still walking, and the image of Ylithia flooded his mind; traipsing through meadows in Closicus under the brightness of a clear sky. Her emerald eyes were so full of bittersweet longing. He wanted nothing more than to make her feel safe, loved, happy, but that had been taken from him, and revenge had left only cold fury. He stopped abruptly, glared at the endless, gray desert, and spat in the wind.

“Even killing these Dragons won’t bring her back…I wonder if anything can,” he murmured. Emotions invaded him. “Silwen! You made me look at her! That’s how I fell in love, and you knew, didn’t you, that she would die, and that that would make me kill Dragons!” His seething mounted to an inordinate level, and he howled at the sky. “Why couldn’t you leave us in peace?” Scar remained still, his fists clenched, hoping for an answer. “You came to me of your own accord when you needed something, now that I need you, you won’t show! Why?!”

No one answered. The hours of plodding in silence had his blood boiling, his mind racing, his emotions bubbling. He stared in a quiet rage over the stretch of land. The winds of the Golgor whipped sheets of sands far off into the distance. Little, gray wisps trailed the gales over tiny, sandy peaks. He grunted and moved on; the fury had passed as mysteriously as it had arrived, and after fury was only longing, emptiness, and determination.

By the time the sun was setting, he was so far removed from vegetation that there were no insects, only more wind. Then, he saw another row of markers that spanned at an angle in conjunction with the row by which he was traveling. He jogged over to find a sign at the juncture.

Etched in a rectangular tablet, Scar read that the southern row of stones were markers for Meshoptam, which made sense. Continuing north led to the town of Shuul. To the southeast, the markers guided travelers to an oasis town called Parapay, and to the northwest, the markers ran all the way to the only town near a river, a place called Inloth.

“That isn’t too far from the Usaj-Satrone border, and certainly the river Inliil spills out into the sea,” he huffed. “It’ll still take me forever to get there on foot, though…of course, standing around won’t get me anywhere.”

He opted to move northwest, and ran off in the new direction. As the evening progressed, visibility in the Golgor rapidly diminished. Scar grumbled. Another hour into his journey, and it had become impossible to see any of the markers. A haboob whirled the sand all over. The flurry stung his exposed skin, embedded itself in the folds of his leather armor, and though his ears were protected by his black galea, the sound of the raging winds stifled out everything else.

With no logical alternative, the warrior plunked down on the ground. Sand amassed over his legs within minutes. He hoped the storm was soon to pass, but it did not let up.

Damn it! He cursed his luck. Trying to take little peeks resulted in eyefuls of grit. Groaning, he sprawled onto his side and protected his head with folded arms. At least, once a layer of sand envelopes me, I’ll be alright. Such valuable time wasted…. The lull in progress allowed exorbitant time to ponder a plan of action.

After escaping Satrone with Labolas and Artimis, they had traveled by air to Alduheim. The Draco dropped off Labolas, giving him ample time to travel to Ch’Nako. The idea was for the former Kulshedran to track down N’Giwah under the guise of a man seeking refuge in a neutral country while Artimis flew Scar to Meshoptam. Upon their arrival, the Draco flew back home to refill his dirigible with artred gas and ponder what killing Drac might bring. He had said nothing on the matter, but his overly cheery demeanor had grown somewhat sullen, and Scar knew the pilot was conflicted. That matter was of little concern, though; all he wanted to do at that moment was kill Zoltek and Zmaj. Something, which I’ve accomplished with little effort.

An object struck Scar’s hip. The impact was immediately followed by falling mass and an angry swear. He sat up in blinding darkness and grabbed his sword.

“Who are you?” the Dragon Slayer yelled over the winds.

“Damn it, man, who are you?” a harsh, male voice replied.

Both men tried to spit sand when a commotion ensued nearby; there were multiple people on the road. “I’m S– a traveler inhibited by this damned storm!”

“Scar?” the voice gasped.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

“Are you alright,” someone else asked.

“What have you found,” yet someone else pried.

“It’s me, Scar, Shrikal,” the voice answered. “I found him!”

The Dragon Slayer recognized the name. Shrikal was a former Zmajan, and now, a Paladin of Perseverance. He put his sword away on his back and reached out for the young man, but accidentally touched his butt. Shrikal batted his hand away while the other travelers started crowding around. Their bodies helped to block some of the sand, but so much was falling from directly above, conversation was challenging.

Shrikal felt around in the darkness, and when he grabbed Scar’s shoulder, he leaned in and said, “I can’t believe I literally tripped right over you. We’ve been searching for days. You killed Zmaj, didn’t you?”

“What? Looking for me? Who?”

“We’re the Perseverants,” Shrikal replied.

That certainly explains their traveling in the middle of a storm like this. Scar smirked.

“Scar,” one of the others called. “Stay calm a moment. We’re going to unpack a tent and try to set it in place, so that we can converse in peace.”

“Fine,” he shouted and tried to spit out more sand. “Hurry it up!”

It took some effort, but meanwhile, Shrikal kept talking. “Is Ylithia with you?”

“She’s dead.”

“Dead?” the young man was taken aback. “What happened?”

“I,” Scar started, but was overwhelmed by the storm. “This sand!”

“I’m sorry,” Shrikal interrupted. “Give us a second.”

Scar felt the young man’s weight move around. A moment later, some hands took him and helped him to his feet. Then, they led him inside a tent. One of the Perseverants held a small, oil lamp up to the warrior’s face.

“It’s really you,” the old woman said in a gritty tone. She was Scultonian; there was no mistaking the ashy skin, yet her lips weren’t black, or they didn’t look black in the dim lighting. She took off a sand mask, a fringed, cloth covering for the eyes that kept the sand out; her eyes weren’t purple either. He then considered he had made a mistake. “My name is Munah,” she added and pushed long, gray braids from her creased face.

Whipping winds ravaged the canvas tent. Sand peppered the fabric, drowning out all other sounds. A group of five had crowded around the Dragon Slayer; all of them removed their masks. Shrikal’s familiar face and tattooed body brought a sense of comfort, familiarity.

“She’s Scultonian,” Shrikal said. “I can tell you’re wondering…remember, I told you when we forsake the Dragons, we lose their mark…their blessing.”

Scar tried to gauge the situation. It seemed more than mere happenstance that a group of Perseverants plainly stumbled upon him. Apart from Shrikal and Munah, there was another woman of something that resembled Bakunawan descent; she had flat features, pale skin, and light hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. There were also two men with very dark skin, but they weren’t Tiamatish or Zmajan. Scar didn’t know what they were. All of them were inked with strange patterns or runes and wore customary, beige togas. He looked at Shrikal for a clue.

“I’m sure you think this strange, friend, but Ihnogupta perseveres,” the young man breathed. “We needed to find you, and we have.”

“Why are you all looking for me?” Scar snipped in disbelief.

“Because you are the Dragon Slayer, and that makes you indispensable to our cause,” the older, dark man said with a staccato tone.

Both he and the younger man had short hair. It looked auburn in the lamplight, but it may have been any, lighter color. Scar glanced at each of them in turn. They looked related. The oddest thing about the speaker, though, was the way he had elongated the vowels of every word.

“What the Hell is going on, here?” the warrior demanded. “I’m not about to be used by another God.”

“Forgive us,” Shrikal said and sat cross-legged next to the warrior. The paladin glanced at Munah and smiled. Scar then noticed that only Shrikal had sharpened teeth. The others had normal smiles. “I don’t quite know how to begin…I, that is, we were instructed to roam the Golgor for an answer.”

“To what?” Scar interrupted.

“To what has been happening in the world,” the younger, dark man answered also with a staccato tone that appeared to be native to his former tribe.

“Who are you people?” Scar demanded.

“Munah is the Minister of Resolution, an esteemed position among the ranks of the Perseverants,” Shrikal explained. “And that is Mei, a former Bakunawan. Irgesh and Folgar are former Bollans.” Each person nodded when their name was spoken. “When you vanquished Kulshedra, something happened…we thought that the other tribes grew more powerful, but it was difficult to discern. Now that Zmaj is dead, we are certain of it; the death of the Dragons is somehow making the remaining tribes more powerful.”

“How do you know that,” Scar asked.

“We barely escaped a group of Dracos,” Irgesh, the older Bollan, said.

“They chased us from the road and forced us south,” Mei added. “We had been fighting with them for two days when suddenly, their fury grew.”

“And their fires with it,” Shrikal interjected. “They propelled gouts of flames from their very palms, and others threw balls of fire at us!”

Scar shook his head, frowned, and rolled his shoulders before demanding they start from the beginning.

Chapter Three- A Dragon’s resolve

 

 

 

 

The group of traveling Perseverants recounted their tale. Munah explained that Ihnogupta had always pressed his followers to discern a method for rallying people away from Dragons. They adamantly believed that showing the peoples of Tiamhaal how their markings diminished, or vanished altogether, after leaving the worship of their false Gods was eventually going to sway more and more towards understanding. It really hadn’t, but when Kulshedra fell, Ihnogupta spoke to all his Perseverants in a dream.

The twisted yogi told them that something had happened; a man who wasn’t quite a man had entered the realm of truth and killed the Dragon, stole his essence, and was on a quest to deliver men from the beasts once and for all. He then sent various groups all over to find the man called Scar, the same man that Silwen had found, the same man that Mekosh wanted dead.

“It was, in part, divine providence that we met back in Closicus,” Shrikal said, “and divine providence that I traveled with Munah rather than another of the groups.”

The young paladin was pleased and eager to serve his God; that was apparent. Scar didn’t care for providence, though. A wince worked over his visage, making the others uncomfortable.

“You haven’t told me why you’re looking for me. I can kill the Dragons on my own…in fact, I’m the only one who can do it. No living person can enter their realms physically.”

They passed uneasy glances among each other. “What are you saying,” Irgesh demanded.

“He’s saying he’s not human,” Munah replied in disbelief.

“I’m not human…not exactly,” he agreed. “You’re wasting your time. Go rest in peace somewhere. I’ll handle the Dragons.”

Four of them started grumbling then bickering with each other. The warrior frowned and looked at Shrikal, who had remained quiet. He leaned in and touched Scar’s knee.

“They don’t seem to understand,” the paladin said.

Scar shook his head and thanked him for the help. “I’ll be on my way as soon as the storm passes.”

Munah heard him and motioned for everyone to calm down. “Let me tell you why we’re looking for you.”

The Dragon Slayer remained stoic, and she accepted that as an act of compliance. The former Scultonian went on to explain that Ihnogupta, unlike Silwen and Mekosh, did not have his own agenda; he did not want to wield or exterminate the Dragon Slayer, as he was already resolved in the proper quest. Instead, Ihnogupta wanted to offer his support, and the groups were sent out in all directions to find him.

“The world is growing extremely dangerous for us…for all those who don’t worship the false Gods…and now, those who can’t worship them,” she sighed.

“Since the other tribes are gaining more power, the followers are doubly determined to defend their false Gods,” Shrikal added. “We just want to help you.”

“I appreciate your good will, truly,” Scar heaved. “You have no idea the life I’ve led…and in such a short time, but you will only get hurt if you follow me. Keep preaching. That is enough, but stay far from me, lest the weight of the world falls onto you and breaks your bones.”

He chuckled at his remark. The others didn’t think he was funny. Shrikal shook his head. Mei clenched her jaw.

“We are not a group of weaklings, and although we cannot enter the Dragons’ worlds, we can still help. We endure, we pursue, we, we,” Mei stammered. Munah touched her wrist, and she relaxed. That bought a moment of quietude. Scar noticed the winds had died down, and it was slightly brighter inside the tent. Mei’s voice jolted him. “Let us travel with you. The world is out to kill you, Scar…we can help.”

He arched a hairless brow and asked, “You can help me get to Alduheim? I need to meet with a friend.”

“Of course, we will help you,” Munah smiled. “Ihnogupta wants you to persevere. We are all behind you.”

“Alright,” Scar replied, reluctantly, “but I won’t tolerate dissonance.”

“What are your plans now,” Shrikal asked.

“I was wanting to procure a ship to Zetsuru in order to approach Alduheim from the west. Treading through Usaj and Satrone, I fear, will leave me little choice but to kill innocent people; they don’t understand I killed a Dragon,” Scar sighed.

“I’m not certain Zetsuru is the safest option,” Irgesh remarked. They all gave him their attention, and he continued. “With Sahni’s increased power, there is much strife in the western countries. The rana claims to be allied with them, but I hear she’s planning something with Vamvos.”

“Sahni’s a woman?” Scar interrupted.

“You did not know,” Folgar asked.

“I did not, and those Khmerans could be male or female.”

“Yes,” Irgesh agreed. “Nevertheless, the Nagish and Mireuans are up in arms over whatever is happening in Nabalhi, and I don’t think a group of Perseverants will be well received in any of those countries.”

“I was planning on going alone,” Scar reiterated, “but if you do wish to help me get to Alduheim, I’ll accept your proposal…so long as it is a sound one.”

They passed glances again. Munah whispered something to Mei. She nodded once. Then, she gave her attention to Scar.

“Either direction will be fraught with danger,” Mei started. “You’ll want to avoid the Dracos, so we’re not going through Eltanrof, and sailing to Zetsuru and moving through that country will be equally perilous. It would be best to continue north and move through Usaj and then Satrone.”

“But they are willing to fight me even without their Dragon’s blessing,” Scar argued. “There is no need to cut them down, and they will leave me no other choice.”

“The Zmajans, yes,” Shrikal said. “They are always ready to come to blows. The Kulshedrans won’t be up in arms…our only problem will be the Dracos and Khmerans now occupying Satrone, but you won’t mind fighting them, will you?”

“I suppose not,” Scar thought out loud. “Still…I’d like to avoid as much bloodshed as possible. I see now that none of the people are our enemies, my enemies, it is the Dragons that need to die, and preferably no one else.”

“Your slaughtering of the Zmajans suggests otherwise,” Folgar stated.

Scar shook his head, replying, “I had an old score to settle; Dumar tried to have me assassinated when I was working for Zoltek. The same went for Gilgamesh. I killed him because he sent his assassins to do me in, and instead killed my beloved.” Scar grew grim at that point. Mei fidgeted, and the former Bollans eyed one another. “No one else has wronged me personally, so….”

“You are much more honorable that we had hoped,” Munah smiled. “Ihnogupta has truly set us on a gallant quest.”

“Yes,” Scar heaved. “That’s all fine and well, but how do you propose to travel through Usaj and Satrone without fighting?”

“We can mask ourselves as Friars of Tolerance,” Shrikal suggested.

That started a commotion. Munah argued that that was sacrilege. Mei bickered with Irgesh that Paladins of Severity had killed her family, and he countered that followers of severity had nothing to do with practitioners of tolerance. Still, Folgar added that it was blasphemy. Shrikal tried to keep the peace by reminding them that such a ruse was not sacrilege since they had no intention of preaching those principles and only wished to remain hidden.

“Those friars have never been actively persecuted,” Shrikal shouted. “And the fact that they always wear those robes is a boon for us as well. No one will think us a threat. We will persevere, if through deception.”

“The Dracos are out for blood,” Munah yelled back. “They nearly broiled us on the way here.”

“Because we are obviously Perseverants,” Irgesh maintained. “None of that matters, though. All we have to do is wear robes and no one will look at us twice.” That scored a point in favor of masquerading as Tolerants. “It is but a means to an end…we must persevere.”

“Not at the cost of betraying our patron,” Munah retorted.

That scored a point against playing the Tolerant, and again they erupted into an argument. Scar shook his head. Between their shouting and momentary pauses for breath, he noticed the sandstorm had died away, and the early morning sun illuminated the tent’s interior.

“People, people,” Shrikal said with calming motions of the hands. “We don’t have to pretend to be Tolerants, but we must travel ensconced, and traveling solely by night through the Golgor is a waste of time, besides, there’s no way to procure speedy transport as Perseverants—at least not around here—and Scar is a wanted man in this country. Let us find robes, move north, and pray that Ihnogupta recognizes our ruse.”

“Where do you propose we find robes anyway,” Mei asked.

“Parapay,” Shrikal answered.

“Parapay?” Munah was surprised. “That is the wrong direction.”

“I know, but when I was on pilgrimage, I moved through Parapay and they didn’t seem to have a problem with me,” Shrikal stated.

“Hmm,” Munah pondered. “The Zmajans there aren’t violent?”

“Well, I should say they are never pleased with paladins,” the young man admitted, “but aside from dirty looks and venomous slurs, they didn’t raise a weapon.”

“I can’t go in there, though, can I?” Scar reminded him.

“No, however, that is an irrelevant matter. One of us can go in and buy robes.”

“Then, what about transport?”

“After one of us buys robes, and it should be me since they’ll recognize me as a former Zmajan, we can wait a while, and then go back, and procure horses later on,” Shrikal posed.

“Why later,” Irgesh asked. “You could do both while you’re there.”

“Hell! Forget the robes,” Mei shrieked. “Just go in there and get the horses.”

Shrikal winced and reminded her that they still had to travel through two countries before arriving at their destination.

“Besides, the robes are mainly for Scar’s sake,” Munah added.

Mei bit her lower lip then nodded. “Let her buy the robes,” Scar pointed his eyes at her when they quieted down to ponder the plan.

“Why,” Shirkal pried.

“Because seeing you as a former Zmajan, who abandoned their false God before his death, will anger them.”

The young paladin ground his sharpened teeth, but consented with a nod. “So, Mei will go and buy the robes then I’ll go in and get the horses a few hours later. If Mei leaves and returns later for horses, it’ll raise suspicions, and we can afford no more troubles.”

“Agreed,” Scar said “Where will we wait?”

“We’ll make camp on the outskirts far enough off the roads that no one will notice us,” Munah stated.

“And in the event that something goes wrong,” Scar posed.

“We will persevere; Ihnogupta has not led us this far to fall flat on our faces.”

“I wouldn’t put too much stock in your Gods…. They may be real, but they are still manipulative.”

Egos and hurt feelings were apparent. Some of them furrowed brows. Others clenched their jaws or opened their mouths to say something. Shrikal raised his hand to keep them calm.

“I understand your reticence,” he said.

“I am not reticent,” Scar corrected. “I am speaking as someone, who has had to kill an agent of Mekosh, and someone wronged by Silwen, who cared only about killing Dragons and not helping the people she swore she loved.”

His claim left them silent. They didn’t even make eye contact for a little while. Finally, Scar huffed and crawled out from the tent. Upon his exit, the handle of his sword got caught in the tent’s flap, and he nearly tore the whole thing down. He wrested the canvas free, poked his head back in, and apologized.

“It’s fine,” Munah chuckled. “Let us get a move on.”

With that, they took down their tent, gathered themselves, started trotting southeast, and commented on the warmth of the Usajan sun in winter. Its brightness forced them all to squint. Cries of desert hawks echoed across the land.

It was a convoluted plan to be sure—playing dress-up and stealing horses—and hiking to Parapay was going to take at least a day. Then, they had to hope Mei was able to find a shop open at night. If not, they were going to have to wait until morning, and then wait until noon to procure mounts in order to keep suspicions down. Still, Scar was glad for the prospect of traveling by horse, and without bloodshed, otherwise he had a two or three week march ahead of himself. This way, he hoped to reach Satrone by the week’s end, and then find more appropriate transport to Alduheim. All of that was better than stealing a ship and sailing to Zetsuru, especially with the proposed level of strife currently assailing that country. By late evening, Munah advised they set up camp and sent Mei on to Parapay.

Chapter Four- A hopeful premonition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It took Mei little effort to wander into town and purchase robes for everyone. She returned with simple garments designed to keep the skin free of the blistering sun in the summer months. To Scar’s dismay, his was a little tight and too short, but it served its purpose; the gray fabric covered his face when the cowl was pulled down.

Hours later, and after a quick meal of smoked fish and fruit, Shrikal moseyed into town and came back by midmorning with lanky horses for the whole party. He also gave Scar a blanket with which to cover his sword as he reminded them that everyone across Tiamhaal knew of the blade that felled King Gilgamesh. Their business culminated with Munah’s approval; she stated it was time to pack up and ride northwest towards Shuul.

For the most part, conversations revolved around Scar’s actions. He recounted his mercenary work for Zoltek, fighting the Paladin of Severity, meeting Labolas, and being tricked into believing he was the King of Alduheim. They all shared negative remarks regarding Gilgamesh’s ploy. For the longest time, everyone had thought the King of Satrone a rather noble being, if confused about his deity, yet his recent actions were an affront to peace. Fortunately, he was defeated before uniting several countries to mount an attack on Usaj, and since Scar had killed both Kulshedra and Zmaj, there was hope for a new reign of harmony. Sadly, the other tribes were up in arms, and with their increased powers from the unbalance created by the death of two Dragons, wars yet raged. After denouncing Gilgamesh, Scar told them about what he found underneath Alduheim—memories of humans fighting Dragons.

“If only there was a way to reveal those memories,” Munah commented. “Oh, how the world must know such things.”

“I believe Labolas and N’Giwah are working to that end,” Scar stated. “I need to get back there and meet with them to see if Jagongo has become willing to see what Alduheim offers.”

“She sounds like an ideal candidate for spreading the truth,” Mei acknowledged.

“Her or Longinus,” Scar agreed.

Two days passed without so much as crossing paths with another living creature. That was mostly due to them keeping off the main roads. Their horses moved slowly across the desert, but they were tireless animals. Traveling in a northwesterly direction, gray sands spanned monotonously all the way beyond the Golgor. By the time the horses were nearly ready to give in to exhaustion, Folgar opted to take a break and set up camp. He and Irgesh, who turned out to be his brother, worked quickly to erect the canvas tent. Cloudy skies were an indication of bad weather.

There was no rain to speak of, even on the periphery of the desert, but sandstorms were still a possibility if the winds came from the south. Scar looked up at the clouds. They shot across the sky, morphing into undefined blobs of fluffy gray. The lack of color in the spanning environment left him a bit gloomy.

“Cheer up,” Shrikal said.

“There is nothing cheery about any of this.”

“You’re wrong. There is much to be cheery about.”

“Like?”

“Like traveling with friends,” Shrikal smiled.

“Friends,” Scar sighed. “I have abandoned my friends.”

“You will see them at Alduheim…and I am your friend. We are all your friends.”

The giant pondered that. He feigned a smile and looked Shrikal in the eye. The paladin was genuine. It was true that Labolas was still his friend as well, but Scar wondered about N’Giwah; they had not spoken since he snuck off for a quiet life in Othnatus. He also thought about Artimis, Borta, and Marlayne. All three of them had either helped him or counted on him to deliver them from Dragons. At least I am doing that now. After a pause, and an exhalation, he shut his eyes in reverie.

“I miss her,” the warrior remarked and sat down in the dirt next to the tent.

“You mean Ylithia, don’t you?”

“Yes…she was the love of my life…a life I was not created to enjoy. What do you think about that?”

“I think you have persevered,” Shrikal said without missing a beat. “And that is enough…it is a shame such a wonderful person has died, but…and far be it from me to tell you how to feel or what to do, but I can only suggest you live whatever life you have been given. It is all any of us can do, but only you can choose to enjoy that life. That is our gift as humans.”

“I was created to kill Dragons, not enjoy human trivialities.”

“Created by whom, the Gods?”

“No…I,” he trailed off and removed his helmet to wipe his head. “It doesn’t matter.” He cleared his throat. “I am here to kill Dragons, so that men may enjoy a life of peace…or at least a life out from under scaly claws.”

“Well, that is certainly something for us to be thankful for.”

“I am in a mood, friend. I would like to be alone for a time.”

Shrikal smiled sadly and left Scar to his brooding. The young paladin assisted the others in tending the horses, cleaning the sand from their gear, and eventually vanished inside the tent. Hard winds started blowing from the west. The expanse was much less sandy and the dunes and valleys long left behind them had been replaced by a flat horizon. At its end, Scar saw only the flatland meld with puffy clouds.

Night came, and the warrior crept inside the tent with the others. The Perseverants led an austere life; they had no luxuries and slept curled up on thin blankets. Their smell was horrendous even in cold weather, but they still smelled better than a dozen, sweaty, Zmajan warriors. For the first time in weeks, Scar fell asleep and dreamed of Eternus.

 

****

 

“Sarkany, Dragon Slayer, welcome home,” Eternus rumbled.

Scar took a long inhalation. The plateau on which he stood was a lifeless, gray rock. Around him were more of the flat pillars growing from the degrees of darkness from which the void of Eternus extended. The warrior closed his eyes then turned his face upwards. Upon opening his eyes, he witnessed vortices of blackness swirling, melding.

“Dragon,” Scar breathed.

“Ihnogupta has worked tirelessly to find you. It will do you well to have such help against the Dragons.”

“I can handle them on my own.”

“Clarity, Sarkany, is knowing when to rush and when to delay.”

“What do you mean?”

“There is no need to rush off, and kill the beasts.”

“I thought you wanted me to bring you their souls.”

“Certainly, but time is a ceaseless flux, and it matters little if you venture on your own to battle, or march steadily with friends in tow.”

“Then, why dally?” Scar argued. “More and more people kill each other as time passes.”

“That is true, yet they need time to adjust. Once the Dragons are defeated, men will be left on their own.”

“They have their Gods,” Scar interrupted.

“Indeed, but even the Gods cannot provide a reason for living, for enjoying their lives; they are little more than guides, concepts of ideologies. Have you not listened to your friends?”

“None of that concerns me.”

“What does?”

“You care?”

“But of course, Sarkany. You are me after all,” Eternus consoled.

“Then, let me live when this is over.”

“You wish to remain on Tiamhaal?”

“What other option do I have?” the warrior moaned.

There was a pause like emptied lungs. Scar felt Eternus’s contemplation in his chest; a void pulling away from inside.

“I had planned on returning you to me. Such a wealth of experience satiates my existence,” the Dragon explained in its guttural drone. Scar slowly tilted his head and clicked his tongue in a sense of despair, disgust. “No…I see it. You have become so different. I had not anticipated such a thorough embodiment of the eight principles, but tell me, what will you do if given the opportunity to remain yourself?”

“I do not know…I am not meant to live among them, an eternal creature; you have seen to that. It would pain me to make friends, to see them grow old and die, witness their agony and strife,” Scar grieved. “I, I was happy once, though…you must know that.”

“There is more to existence than happiness.”

“You created everything…you gave everything else a chance to live for itself, to experience whatever there is out there, and some have squandered that gift, others have striven for so much more than they can bear, and yet they still have that gift…am I not due the same?”

“You vex me, Sarkany,” Eternus grumbled. “You complain that you do not wish to live among men, and yet you wish that I let you be.”

“That is not what I am saying!”

“Tell me what you wish then? I may grant it in kind for obedience.”

“I want Ylithia.”

“She is gone….”

“Garbage, Dragon!” Scar spat. “You created her once, create her again.”

Once more, the Dragon’s ruminations stole the warrior’s breath. He plunked down on the rock. An eternity of silence passed. Scar adjusted his position to sit cross-legged, and gazed off into the infinitude.

“Travel with the Perseverants,” Eternus suddenly said. “Lead them to Alduheim, so they may meet with Labolas and N’Giwah. Their combined efforts will bring them an appropriate path.”

“Are there others like me,” Scar asked after dismissing the Dragon’s statements.

“No…. I have only ever once walked Tiamhaal.” The answer left the warrior in a state of turmoil. He was not man or eternal being, not truly. He was something caught in between. “Finish your quest, and I will absolve you of your troubles. Once reunited, we can leave the known for things indescribable.”

“You words mean nothing to me,” Scar sneered.

“Irrelevant. Kill the Dragons, return their souls, and together we will travel from these planes of existence. Once you are part of me again, you will have no pain, no worry, no aspiration, no joy, and yet you will have everything.”

“Except for my singularity…. I will kill your Dragons and be done with it because that is my reason for existing.”

“Compared to infinity, everything’s life is little more than a blink of an eye. All life is eventually relinquished back to me, and you are no different, so do not despair, Sarkany, enjoy your gift of awareness for so long as you possess it.”

The dream world shattered.

 

****

 

Scar awoke sprawled out on the blanket inside the tent. Morning had arrived, and everyone rose at about the same time. They didn’t so much as grumble. Instead, they stood, stretched, packed, tended the horses, and ate breakfast as they rode northwest, yet the brute remained in a morose mood.

“You seem worried,” Munah said and pushed a gray braid from her aged face.

“No,” Scar replied. “I am but anxious to see this matter to its end.”

“Perseverance is a principle, which cannot be taken hurriedly. I understand that you are not one of us, but in this particular matter, perseverance is the only principle before you.”

“I disagree. We need severity to smash the Dragons from this reality. We need tolerance to accept those, who are not like us, to accept conditions outside of our control. We need love to keep us fighting when he have exhausted ourselves. We need hate to remain fixed on our goal. Without madness, we certainly would not be going against Dragons. Without sobriety, we lack a level head in the face of misperception, and sloth allows us a moment’s respite to enjoy the trivialities of this wonderful world…I understand what he was trying to tell me, but…my grief is still too near.”

Scar had looked down at his horse during his ostentatious speech. The animal’s buff coat was lustrous and warm. He ran his palm over its neck and patted it amicably. Everyone there had been scrutinizing him, but he was oblivious.

The warrior’s claims unnerved the travelers, yet none of them mustered a cogent argument. Scar had aptly nailed down the human condition, and they knew it, yet they had chosen to persevere.

“I suppose you speak truthfully, Scar,” Munah agreed after a long silence. Bouncing slightly up and down from trotting horses, the group of riders started considering their stake in defeating Dragons. A thought occurred to the old woman. “You said you understand what he said. Do you mean Ihnogupta?”

“No,” Scar answered her with a brief glance.

“Then, who, man?” Irgesh accosted.

“I cannot say, because, because he, or it, is something outside the realm of understanding,” Scar murmured.

“I think you’re just sulking,” Mei snipped. “I can guess why. Shrikal told us your lover is dead. I am sorry for that, but you should fight for her. I’m certain she does not want to see you like this.”

Scar looked at her and narrowed his eyes. How can I possibly explain that another Dragon, a true Dragon, the only real Dragon, created everything, and that I am him? These hardened people need not know…nor would they believe me.

“You’re right,” he told Mei. “I am sulking. What of it?”

The former Bakunawan pursed her lips and shook her head in a sign of resignation. “You miss this woman,” Munah asked after a moment of politeness.

“Of course!”

The old woman took a long breath. She seemed to be searching for the right words.

“Khmer is a Dragon….”

“Obviously,” Scar eyed her, dubiously.

“Whenever you march into Budai to face Sahni, you should ask her about life,” Munah advised. Scar arched a questioning brow, so the former Scultonian explicated. “Although the Dragon certainly did not create anyone, Sahni holds strange powers…an exchange might be made…a life for a life.”

“What do you mean,” Scar pried. “Ask Sahni to give me back Ylithia in exchange for letting her live? It’ll be hard enough to convince her to give up her Dragon gem for her life. Gilgamesh and Zoltek were certainly unwilling to listen to reason, not that I really asked Zoltek, and if everyone’s powers have increased from the deaths of the Dragons, Sahni will surely be doubly resolved, no?”

“You will not know until you have asked.”

“It can’t hurt,” Shrikal remarked.

“No, it can’t,” Scar conceded.

To ask Sahni to help bring back my loved one…can such a thing be done? Her soul belonged to Kulshedra, and now that Dragon is dead…although…I do hold his soul. Scar unwrapped his sword to glance at the amber gem. It no longer glowed, neither did Zmaj’s. Scar wondered why Eternus made no mention of such a possibility. The Dragon Slayer then looked back to Munah, who was adjusting her robe.

“Silwen says that when people are killed, their souls go to the Dragon guiding the victor. Kulshedrans killed Ylithia, and her soul went to Drangue. I destroyed the realm of truth when I killed the Dragon. Ylithia’s soul is gone, isn’t it? How can Sahni help,” Scar finally asked.

“That, I do not know,” Munah replied, indifferently. “I was merely trying to ease your burden.”

Scar looked away and quietly thanked her. Little else was said that day. When the sun started to set, the Minister of Resolution preached a short sermon about an old man, who had been made to endure years of torture.

The old man in the story had been captured by the Gyosh. They locked him in a cage and beat him daily before questioning him about a supposed, subterranean path located between two towns. Apart from accepting beatings and starvation, the old man had to bear the burden of worry as without him to herd the family’s sheep, they were likely to starve, but he remained faithful; he told himself every day that although that day might be his last, if it wasn’t, he certainly did not have the luxury of cracking and giving away the secret of the path, since the Gyosh wanted access to it in order to mount surprise attacks.

After years and years of torture, the leader of that particular regiment of Gyosh died from an illness. His successor was a very different man, and had no intention of razing villages. The old man’s knowledge was no longer needed, and they let him go. He walked back to his home, and was glad to find that his family had also persevered; the oldest son had learned enough from watching his father tend sheep that he managed to triple the size of the herd.

“It is because of the scars that old man carried that we ink our skins today,” Munah said. “We are not all as fortunate as he, to be caged and tried by our peers, so we provide our own trials of pain.”

“It was Ihnogupta, who tested that man,” Irgesh said.

“He could have easily delivered that man in one form or another,” Mei added, “instead, Ihnogupta allowed him to suffer, so that he might appreciate the act of persevering through a terrible ordeal; it gives a true appreciation for life, for experience, for single-mindedly focusing on one goal.”

“Is it just a story,” Scar pried.

“No one knows,” Munah said, dismissively. “It doesn’t matter. You see, the point is only that everyone must endure; the Gyosh leader was unable to endure under his trial of not knowing the secret passageway, or the trial of his illness, but the old man endured everything given unto him, and at the end, he found his way back home, and without compromising his people.”

Scar arched an eyebrow. He understood perseverance well enough. He had endured throughout his short existence, but something rang true in Munah’s words. It took the Dragon Slayer some time to unfurl that knowledge. Everything, every living creature…even those things that do not have life must endure. We endure love, peace, war, time, boredom, and if we do not…? Then, our life, our actions, and our experiences aren’t worth much. That’s it, isn’t it? His morose mood lightened a bit. He gave himself a half-hearted smile.

Days and nights of traveling by horse eventually led the group over the Inliil and to the newly annexed portion of Usaj. Zmajans willing to work for a future rather than kill wantonly had started erecting a small establishment around a Kulshedran, lookout tower near the Eltanrof border. The battlement stood prominently over tents, shanties built from sturdy bushes and other demolished furniture from within the tower, and a single, stone home, yet under construction.

The riders came upon the scene from the south. Sweaty, dark skinned men and women turned their attention to the mounted travelers. Quick glances left them the impression of a group of Tolerants, and one Zmajan made a joke about the stupidity of paladins, but another reminded him that, like the paladins’ claims, they had indeed lost the blessing of their God, the colors of their skin. That sparked an argument between many more Zmajans, and Scar and crew veered off to the east, onto the hard packed road that encircled Satrone.

“See,” Shrikal whispered and grinned. “By covering our inked skin, we have certainly avoided conflict.”

Munah raised a brow beneath her hood and replied, “We cannot know that for certain. They may just as well have acted the same.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Irgesh claimed. “It’s him they would have noticed.”

He had motioned with his head to indicate Scar, and the consensus became that with or without a robe to cover their skin, Scar stood out like a giant, sore thumb; that was the reason they all needed to be disguised. The warrior agreed that his stature seemed to draw everyone’s attention, and wondered if there was no one as tall as he. No one knew.

They grew silent again, lulled by the trotting of their horses. A moment later, cool winds blew from the east. The sky was clear and sunny, but had yet to grow warm. Munah tugged at her robe’s sleeves.

“Which town do we head towards,” Folgar asked.

“Any town along these roads has transportation for hire,” Irgesh said.

“If we head east, we can make it Oros,” Scar chimed in. “I have been there before…although that might be a problem now.”

“I think with the death of Zmaj, the Kulshedrans are probably placated…at least somewhat,” Munah remarked. “I propose that we shed these disguises soon and head into Oros. There, we can trade these horses, or sell them, and use the money to purchase a carriage ride to Tironis.”

“I’d rather avoid the capitol,” Scar frowned.

The group began individually assessing the initial plan. While their horses clomped along in cadence, Shrikal pulled back his hood and breathed in the crisp air of Satrone. The Shumite Mountains to the east, with their wispy pines, brought a woody scent not present in the drier air of Usaj.

“We can ride into Ralais,” he advised.

“In Sudai?” Mei sneered. “That will take us days out of our way.”

Munah and the Bollans agreed, but Shrikal argued otherwise, “Ralais is on the Malababwen border. It’ll be a simple matter to travel by ferry up the Undalayan and into Ch’Nako. From there—it’s what—a two day march to Alduheim?”

Some grumbling occurred. The Perseverants were certainly working towards a common goal, but Scar noted they didn’t get along very well; they were all opinionated, and none of them minded letting the others know how they felt. The Dragon Slayer casually leaned onto his mount and laid the side of his face against the horse’s neck.

“The Gyosh haven’t made too much trouble for you, have they,” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Munah said. “I have not personally dealt with them since the death of Kulshedra.”

“We wouldn’t be there for long,” Shrikal started.

“We don’t need to be there at all,” Mei interrupted. “We can travel north, away from the eastern border, and cross into Alduheim.”

“You don’t have to be so obtuse,” Shrikal fired back. “It’s logical to stay away from conflict.”

“You’re preaching sloth!”

“I am not preaching sloth!”

“Stop it, both of you,” Munah shushed them. “Listen, perseverance comes in many forms; persevering over conflict and persevering by avoiding conflict are both viable options.”

The brothers stated their minds, too. They were in favor of the quickest route, but Shrikal maintained that the quickest route and the shortest route were two different things. Mei was obviously happy to throw fists with whoever stood between them and their destination, but Munah and Shrikal saw no reason to look for a fight.

“In our case, there should be no need to go in search of fighting,” Scar agreed. “Traveling unrobed through Satrone will slow us down, but traveling through Sudai will add days to our journey. Let us remain disguised until we reach Alduheim. All we really have to do is go towards Tironis, and leave the carriage on the outskirts of the city.”

“He’s right,” Folgar agreed with a rub at his chin.

“Maybe, we should just keep these horses and forget stopping in Oros to secure a cart altogether,” Irgesh suggested. “I mean, how much time do we save anyway?”

“Negligible, to be certain,” Mei assented.

“See? We’ll just camp again. We have the supplies,” Irgesh snipped.

Scar shook his head and readjusted his posture. Sitting in a cart was much more comfortable, but the truth was evident; they did not need one.

“What we should do,” he started, “is follow the road east until the first, northern crossroad. We can take it towards Jurr; a tributary from the Aims ends just south of the town. We’ll camp there, rest our horses then move at a brisk pace all the following day. Since that places us west of Oros, we’ll certainly make it to Tectitlan by the next morning, and then, we can relax our pace all the way into Alduheim.”

They mulled it over. It was a sound enough suggestion. After giving it some thought, Munah reminded them that Khmerans had occupied the area of Satrone south of Alduheim. Folgar amended the plan, suggesting they ride northeast from Tectitlan towards Malababwe, since they were looking to meet up at the exploration camp the Tiamatish had established outside of Alduheim anyway.

“The ride will become cumbersome,” Scar commented. “The terrain in that area is swampy, and bug ridden, but,” he took a pause and considered cutting down Khmerans, “but if we want any kind of peaceful meeting with Sahni, we might do well to avoid the Khmerans altogether.”

So it was settled; they rode to the tributary of the Aims south of Jurr. Found a place devoid of human life, rested their horses and camped. The Perseverants passed out from exhaustion, but Scar was unable to sleep. Images of Ylithia’s sweet face washed over his memory.

Chapter Five- Preserving bridges

 

The travelers had set up their tent a hundred yards from the riverbed, where the scent of willow was heavy on the air. On the outskirts of Jurr as the horses sipped from the stream, and the travelers swatted at bugs, the Kulshedran inhabitants, who rose early in the mornings to haul pails of water, eyed Scar’s group with fear and curiosity. Though the travelers’ camp was a mile out of town, Kulshedrans in times of war were leery of unfamiliar faces, especially since they had been left without a blessing, yet friars of tolerance were known for peace, and since no one from either group exchanged words, they simply steered clear of one another.

Shrikal watched the peasants. They quietly conversed among themselves and cast glances at the campers. The paladin decided it best to inform his group that time was of the essence. He gathered everyone into the tent.

“We should go,” Shrikal started.

“I agree,” Munah nodded. “We’re rested. No sense in drawing unwanted attention.”

Scar poked his head out of the tent. The sun had not yet risen, but the glow of early morning revealed the comings and goings of thin, bronzed people wearing drab clothing. They were agitated, and one of the men was moving his arms erratically in conversation. Twice, the man pointed at the tent.

Retreating inside, Scar spoke. “They’re getting antsy out there, Kulshedrans. The horses have had their rest. Let us ride a bit and then feed them after we’re away from this place.”

“I thought Jurr was a peaceful town,” Irgesh snipped.

“It is,” Scar grunted. “They have not attacked us or set our tent aflame, and that is enough; no need to overstay our welcome.”

“Agreed, agreed,” Munah accepted. “Let us hurry.”

They scrambled to dismantle camp. By then, the peasants had left, but Scar’s crew yet worried they might return with soldiers, so they hastily packed what few supplies they had, mounted the horses, veered away from the tributary, and took northern trails towards Malababwe. Bugs chirped, and birds began singing during the trek.

Morning dew refracted the errant beams of an early sun. The humidity of Satrone’s northern lands allowed lush growth all along the hilly terrain. Feeling refreshed, and breathing in the scents of wilting wildflowers, the travelers moved at a steady pace.

Flaps of wings and coos of pigeons composed a spur-of-the-moment aria, but the monotony of riding got the best of the Bollan brothers, and speculations regarding the affairs of leaders like Sahni, Sirokai, Hashnora, Shinjuru, Jagongo, Donovan, and Takashi culminated in wild assumptions. Apart from claims that Munir and Donovan had bad blood for years, and Takashi’s and Shinjuru’s attacks on the Khmerans’ borders, they didn’t really know who was plotting what. Nevertheless, Munah reiterated they needed to keep their eyes peeled for Dracos, Mireuans, and Nagish, since the defeated Kulshedrans were no longer equipped to keep their borders safe.

Scar furrowed his brow and drew his lips inwards. He listened to his friends’ allegations, but wondered how much was truth and how much was conjecture; so far as he knew, the Khmerans were the Kulshedrans’ biggest threat, and now possibly the Dracos and Gyosh if they weren’t overly busy killing each other. He knew very little of the Mireuans and Nagish.

“Satrone is protected by the Vaspian Sea on its western border,” Mei argued.

“I doubt their navy can protect them from attacks by boats if the Nagish and Mireuans decide to attack via the sea,” Munah disputed.

Scar shook his head in dismay. There was so much strife in the world. He thought back to the words of General Sulas; Kulshedra’s death will cause the people of Tiamhaal to slaughter one another without mercy. The old man had been correct. Eternus says I have time, but do I? The longer this takes, the more people die, but then killing all the Dragons won’t stop people from fighting, not really; they’ll squabble over territory, resources, and who knows what else….

“Are they attacking,” he pried.

“Who,” Munah asked.

“The people from Zetsuru and Jinshuke.”

“Oh,” she fumbled with her thoughts a moment; the conversation had drifted from that topic, but she replied. “I don’t know, but there has been talk that they will. Those two countries are practically one and the same; the wind and water Dragons are allies, so their countries can unite and mount sea based raids. Furthermore, Satrone borders Zetsuru to the north, so an attack by infantry is a possibility.”

The Dragon Slayer took a breath and rolled his neck and shoulders. “I feel like it is my responsibility to rush and kill the Dragons; if I hesitate, people will butcher one another…the Kulshedrans don’t deserve that.”

His solemn tone affected the riders. They abandoned conversations for a time, simply scrutinizing the surrounding area. Swaying, brown foliage from a close-knit group of hearty oaks against the horizon contrasted markedly with the hazy, blue sky. Meandering ever closer to the woods, daylight diminished, and cool winds blew. Winter was nearing its end, and all of the stalwart companions weathered the chill with ease.

The sun had set completely and clouds covered the dark skies before they arrived at the fringe of the oak forest. There, they rested amidst the hardwoods for the night. By the campfire, Scar recounted his traveling in a similar fashion with Poland and some of the other warriors Gilgamesh had handpicked when he sent them all to Alduheim.

“Do you think that Gilgamesh was plotting back then?” Mei wondered.

Scar glanced at her. She, being formerly a Bakunawan, a worshipper of the Dragon of Light, had him wondering what she knew about Hashnora’s stake in everything. After all, Hachi, an assassin hired by General Sulas under the orders of Gilgamesh, was Bakunawan. He had claimed that Hashnora had foreseen the future.

“No,” he finally answered.

She frowned and blinked in surprise, asking, “Then, you think he was really trying to fight for peace?”

He remained quiet a moment. The firelight rendered everything outside their immediate vicinity black, and the smoky scent surrounded them; it kept the bugs at bay. There wasn’t any noise other than sizzling twigs crackling from the campfire until the Dragon Slayer broke the silence.

“Well, I think Kulshedra lied to him, and he bought into truth a little too deeply. He obviously thought Alduheim had some secrets for him to wield to that effect; fighting for some kind of peace, but he certainly wanted to defeat the Khmerans and take Alduheim for himself…only thing was, he wanted me to rule Alduheim in his stead, or at least he said so, and that didn’t work out. We learned about the Dragons there, and I decided I had had enough of fighting…I wanted only peace with Ylithia, and so I left, and so he learned of the Dragons from the others. I really can’t tell you what he was thinking, but…perhaps…he wanted peace, if in his own image.”

“The kind of peace you get when one man rules the world isn’t real peace,” Shrikal mumbled.

Everyone was in accord; they nodded their heads solemnly. Another moment of silence eased by then an owl hooted in the distance. Something about the sound brought unto Scar a gnawing feeling, a consuming emotion that wasn’t quite grief; it was closer to loneliness, longing. He looked into the darkness.

“You mentioned there were others when you traveled,” Folgar said. “Who were they?”

“Apart from the Kulshedrans, we had Marlayne from Closicus, and Borta from Balroa, but we met up with N’Giwah and his men outside the cave they had found. There were quite a few of us. We split into a smaller group to worm our way towards Ylithia, who was cutting people down in the name of Mekosh at the time.”

An orange glint shone over his face. The firelight glimmered over his eyes when they grew glassy. He lowered his head, causing shadow to obscure his countenance.

“Ylithia was a Paladin of Severity,” Folgar pried.

Scar took a long breath before replying, “She was, yes, an obstacle standing in the way of further exploration. Mekosh had her guard the stadium wherein the memories of Alduheim laid. She had killed everyone who tried to get there…she said Mekosh was afraid they would destroy what they did not understand. He might have been right, but both myself and N’Giwah were already guided by the idea that the Gods were in reality the old Dragons, so unbeknownst to my crew, N’Giwah and I were going in to fight Ylithia…the young woman Silwen wanted me to look at, and you know those paladins wear those black helmets, so…I had to get it off her, which meant I couldn’t kill her…everything changed when I saw that gorgeous face; Silwen’s plan….”

The Dragon Slayer sniffed and rubbed his nose. He wasn’t crying, but he was close. The others tried not to stare at him.

“Anyway,” he continued, “N’Giwah and I wanted to find some evidence supporting our beliefs, and we did; we saw men fight Dragons and those Dragons said their names. We saw Drac, a flaming beast, Naga, a watery serpent, and Mireu, a bird-like Dragon with invulnerable plumage. At that point, all N’Giwah and the others wanted to do was unite under my guidance. They wanted me to meet with Jagongo and try to start influencing the Tiamatish, since they were already neutral, but when I found out that Gilgamesh had tricked me with those false claims of being King of Alduheim, I went mad and ran away to Closicus with Ylithia. I mean, all we wanted was a normal life. We didn’t care about Gods and Dragons anymore.”

They remained quiet. Shrikal sipped from a water skin. Folgar and Irgesh traded dried meats and fruits. Munah looked the worse for wear; she was practically falling asleep on her side, her braids splayed out. A moment later, they all agreed to get some rest and slept inside the tent.

The following morning, they packed their gear, tended their horses, and set about moving through the forest. It was not long before they found fruit trees interspersed among the oaks. Further in, they heard the sound of rushing water and eventually came unto the Undalayan, a mighty, murky river swirling over exposed roots.

Mei was the first to complain about the terrain, claiming the horses were unable to traverse thick trees, low hanging vines, and muddy soil. As Scar had predicted, following the river was an ordeal.

He dismounted, unfurled the cloth that hid his sword, and started hacking down some of the thinner trees. “I know this is difficult,” he said, sliced through wood, swatted at a mosquito, and spoke again, “but we must push through this mess. If we follow the river, we’ll come to Butu, a peaceful village amidst the trees.”

“Butu is not in Satrone,” Irgesh argued.

He also dismounted in order to lead his horse over roots. Frowning, Folgar did the same, and then they all slid from saddles to march onwards.

“No,” Scar heaved. “It is in Malababwe, but it lies along the river.”

“And when we get there, we can take a ferry to Ch’Nako,” Shrikal said.

“That’s right, and Ch’Nako is a short haul from Alduheim. This will be the safest course; there will be no one out here except for maybe the Tiamatish, and they won’t start any fights.”

The vegetation was inordinately thick, even during the cold of a waning winter. Perseverants or not, they all grumbled. Forced to inch along by foot, they pulled their horses and left Scar to hack away at vines and smaller trees. He griped about their lack of weapons. Shrikal replied that their martial arts were sufficient for self-defense, and Scar pointed out that they weren’t defending themselves against trees.

Hours into their journey, they had little choice but to wander west of the Undalayan; the soppy ground was sloped, causing the mounts to lose their footing. Risking an injury to their horses was simply out of the question. Fortunately, they found a clearing, an immense opening in the canopy where a Kulshedran battlement stood prominently. It appeared abandoned, but they all froze on the spot, straining to look and listen.

“Did you hear that?” Munah whispered.

“I did,” Scar answered.

“Well, I didn’t,” Folgar huffed.

“Shouts from the jungle,” Scar said.

Holding their breaths, they waited another moment. People were fighting somewhere beyond their line of vision. On the other side of the tower—hundreds of yards away—clashing of steel resounded through thick vegetation.

“Stay put,” Scar warned and skulked into the large opening at the base of the tower.

The structure was devoid of Kulshedrans, though their food and equipment was strewn all over the place. The warrior glanced back at his friends. Munah was biting her lower lip. Shrikal curled and uncurled his fingers. They were ready to fight, so Scar motioned for them to join him. Once they made it beneath the cover of the tower, a blood curdling scream resonated from outside.

“Look,” Shrikal pointed.

Movement shook branches a hundred yards away. Suddenly, men broke free from the underbrush. Kulshedrans in brown leathers were striking with long spears. The tanned warriors were fighting Khmerans, faint featured people with long hair, dark skin, colorful robes; they carried scimitars.

As the Kulshedrans puffed and struggled to fight off the screaming warriors, two, more men clad in strange, scaled armor darted from the wood line. They brandished slightly curved blades, katanas. At first, Scar thought them Nagish; they looked similar, but he noted their silvery eyes.

“Mireuans?” he whispered. Shrikal nodded. “They are fighting the Kulshedrans…they have allied with Khmerans.”

“It looks that way,” Munah added.

“We should fight,” Mei griped.

“Damn,” Scar grumbled. “Help the Kulshedrans.”

Irgesh and Folgar frowned. They traded a look of displeasure, but Scar had already charged off, sword at the ready. He bowled over two, Kulshedran warriors, parted a Khmeran from its head, and delivered a boot into the armored flank of a Mireuan. All the fighters were in the throes of confusion; Shrikal capitalized by performing a leaping kick. His attack sent a Khmeran into the trunk of a tree, and while the fighters remained dumbfounded, the other Perseverants came in to disarm the Khmerans.

“Fight the Mireuans!” Scar howled. “I’ll kill these bastards!”

It was known that Khmerans were blessed with an ability to heal their own, and the only way to kill them was to behead them, and since Scar was the only one with a sword, he did just that. The Kulshedrans cheered in reply, struck their spears at the Mireuans, who unleashed gales of wind from their palms, and turned tail to flee into the woods.

“Don’t let them go,” a Kulshedran woman yelled.

She ran off, and her brethren gave chase. Scar was ready to assist, but a second group of Khmerans joined the fray, and among them was a priest. It stood in prayer, trying to heal its fighters by way of a glowing mist, but Scar threw a fist at the closest enemy, kicked it into the priest, and as they tumbled down, Shrikal stormed over. An overhead chop was sufficient to render the priest unconscious.

“Enough fighting,” Scar yelled. “I don’t want to kill you.”

The Khmerans were unconvinced. Screaming their ear piercing war cries, they attacked. Folgar and Irgesh swept enemy feet out by spinning low to the ground with their legs extended, Mei kicked a scimitar from the ground into her hand, blocked a blow, tilted the tip of her blade, and stepped forwards to jam it into her attacker’s throat, and when crimson spilled over vibrant robes, Scar lopped off more heads. In a matter of moments, all the Khmerans were reduced to beheaded corpses, except the priest. Puffing, heaving, and panting, the Perseverants looked at each other then their surroundings.

A dozen Khmerans lay dead. Blood had soaked the ground. A dead Kulshedran was slumped against a tree. Before anyone had time to speak, more noise erupted from the trees. The remaining Kulshedrans stepped out from the foliage. Some of them were bloody. Scar eyed them, and in turn, they observed his scowl.

“You’re the one set us up to die,” a Kulshedran spat. “You killed our God the way you did Zmaj.”

“They are Dragons,” Munah shouted.

“Peace!” Scar barked. “We will not fight you…the Mireuans, are they dead?”

“What’s it to you,” a woman asked.

Shaking his head, Scar elucidated. “We are trying only to reach Alduheim. We mean to cross into Malababwe, but I, I saw you were fighting, and I know you no longer have Kulshedra’s blessing…I just wanted to help.”

“Well, you did. Now, you can go,” a soldier grunted, gripped his flank, and strained to remain upright.

“We didn’t kill the priest…make him, or her, or whatever heal you,” Scar said. “We’ll go.”

“Wait,” a younger soldier huffed. His peers turned to him. “I…you shouldn’t,” he trailed off.

It was evident he wanted to say more. His brethren shushed him. Scar observed him; he was short, wiry, and had dark hair plastered all over his face. His compatriots went so far as to slap him across the shoulder, intending silence.

“C’mon,” he said, “he’s not…he’s not an enemy.”

“He killed your king!”

“Yeah, well…I didn’t vote for him,” the young soldier said.

“You don’t vote for king,” another smirked.

“Just,” the young one started up. “Scar…listen.” Groans escaped the mouths of the soldiers, but they walked off to clean up the mess, bandage their wounds, and drag the Khmeran priest beneath the cover of the tower. The Dragon Slayer yet eyed the youth while the Perseverants went to offer the Kulshedrans assistance. “Don’t go to Alduheim.”

“Why?”

“The Khmerans have set up a camp surrounding the old castle, and the Nagish and Mireuans are assisting them. I don’t know what’s going on out there, but…I think the Khmerans are up to something.”

“That makes no difference to me. I must reach Labolas and N’Giwah. They are waiting for me to arrive.”

“Well,” the young man scratched his lip with his thumbnail. “You’ve been warned.”

“Can you tell me if Takashi and Shinjuru have allied with Sahni?”

“It’s not that simple…from what we’ve heard, Shinjuru sent troops across our borders. I think he and Takashi want to split Satrone with each other.”

“But Sahni wants as much of Satrone’s lands, doesn’t she?” Scar interrupted.

“Politics is beyond me. We’re just manning this tower to try and keep them all from crossing any further, but it’s become so hard…you saw what those wind warriors did. It’s madness.”

“Well…I’ll kill Naga and Mireu soon enough. Then, everyone can truly be equal, at least in matters of magical prowess….”

Shaking his head and fighting back a smile, the young man said, “You can’t be serious.”

“I killed Kulshedra and Zmaj, the Dragons. I’ll kill them all.”

“I hope you do. Just, um, be careful out there.”

Scar nodded. The young man dashed past him to help his friends. The warrior glanced at the wood line. Munah was right. We need to steer far from these Mireuans and Nagish.

“Hey,” he yelled out. Shrikal looked at him. “Get the horses.” A moment later, they met up on the northern side of the tower. “We’ll head northeast from here.”

“Agreed,” Munah nodded. “We must make haste. If we run afoul more Khmerans, I doubt Sahni will respond kindly to their defeat.”

“I know, but,” Scar trailed off a second. “Freeing people of the Dragons’ rule is more important than what I want,” he said, slowly and with a tinge of doubt.

Again, Munah nodded. After leading their horses into the woods, they veered back towards the Undalayan. Keeping it within earshot was sufficient to guide their way, and by nightfall, they found the glow of torches among twisted branches.

Chapter Six- Scorned again

 

The trees within the village of Butu had been molded by Tiamatish magic. Immense branches were reshaped and intertwined to create homes within the canopy, and even the steps leading up into the foliage were created by bending lower limbs together, forming walkways leading to higher levels, which were illuminated by smoldering torches. While the people under the protection of the Dragon of Earth saw perfectly in the absence of light, refugees from Satrone were abound.

No sooner had Scar and the Perseverants arrived that dark skinned warriors bearing green patterns across their bodies intercepted. Once the travelers explained their reason for intrusion, to hire a ferry bound for Alduheim in order to meet with N’Giwah, they were led to the village chief, an aged woman wearing animal hides. Inside her leafy abode, the group reiterated their benevolent intent, leaving out any mention of Dragons.

“I am to believe that followers of Ihnogupta clad in the robes of Mekosh and traveling with the man who killed Gilgamesh and Zoltek are in my village on a peaceful mission?” the elder accosted. Her twitching brow and sour demeanor indicated more than skepticism. Before anyone else uttered a word, she continued. “It is our belief that the other tribes may war as they wish. As long as no one brings war to my village, I am content to provide assistance, but I believe your travels bode ill for us; certainly the Khmerans, Nagish, and Mireuans will come searching for you, and we will have to kill them for their intrusions.”

“We implore you, please,” Munah started. “We have no wish to create strife in your village. That is why we have disguised ourselves, and that is why we wish to leave your village as soon as possible. We must reach N’Giwah.”

The guards in the canopy hut gripped their javelins tightly. Under the dim glow of a single candle, Scar noted their angry faces, their flared nostrils. The elder was no more pleased than her warriors; she rubbed between her index and thumb one of many beads in her braids.

“Disguise yourselves all you want,” the aged woman barked. “We will not assist you. I suggest you leave before you become an unwelcome guest.”

“Elder,” Scar asked in a calm tone. She looked deeply into his gray eyes, awaiting another plea. He smiled. “N’Giwah is my friend. He is expecting me, and I must reach him sooner rather than later. You are right in believing that opposing forces will come, and for that, I apologize, but I do not believe those forces will be looking for me or these Perseverants. Furthermore, I’ve no doubt that N’Giwah has sent word to Jagongo by now. You must know there are secrets deep within the old castle, and I must help him protect those secrets and share them with those willing to open their eyes.”

“Enough,” the elder growled, releasing her bead to raise her hand in denial. “I will not assist you. If you must reach Alduheim, do it of your own accord. I care not how long it takes you.”

“If the Khmerans attack before my arrival, he may not live long enough to aid in sharing peace across the countries! This is Jagongo’s own blood!”

Shrikal took Scar by the elbow. The guards adjusted their balance, ready to attack. They awaited only orders from their chief. Sighing in aggravation, the giant lowered his head, nodded, and turned to leave.

“Warriors, escort these people from our village,” the elder ordered.

Together, they all marched from the woman’s home, beyond other, darkened huts forged of twisted, leafy limbs, and down steps to the ground. Bugs swarmed incessantly, though the Tiamatish did not seem to mind them.

Marching northwards, out of the village, the foreboding, dancing shadows of tall trees graced the way. A sudden call erupted. The Tiamatish scrambled to the shouts of people demanding protection. Under fires and moonlight, the guards glared at Scar’s crew.

“Leave, now!” one ordered.

“Wait a minute,” Folgar protested.

“What’s happening?” Scar demanded.

“It’s Khmerans,” someone yelled from the darkness beyond the wood line. Most of the armed escorts ran off to assist in fighting off the intruders, yet two of them remained bearing dirty looks. “You brought them!”

“No we didn’t,” Scar argued. “Let us help you. That should prove our good will.” The guards traded a look of confusion. The screams of men and women fighting echoed throughout the village, along with the marching of bare feet over limbs. Tense muscles and sharp javelins proved they were ready to attack, yet they hesitated. “Don’t point those things at us!”

While Scar bickered with the escorts, and some of the men herded children out of sight, Shrikal and Mei darted off to assist the Tiamatish warriors. “Let us help you,” Munah pleaded.

“Fine,” a guard spat and bolted to the west.

Scar and everyone else followed. Running past huge trees and kicking up dead leaves in their wake, they reached the village border where Khmerans and Mireuans struck down the natives. Formations of priests protected by soldiers kept the Khmerans healed, and a squadron of Mireuans wielded winds from their palms to stagger the opposition. The Tiamatish struck back by hurling javelins, slicing with jaw bone weapons, and setting enemies alight with torches.

Shoving his way beyond fighters, some of whom bore strange, bark armor, Scar reached a formation of Khmerans guarding a priest. Beady, dark eyes went wide upon witnessing the Dragon Slayer. Some turned to flee, and so the warrior killed a priest and two soldiers before taking a scimitar across his back. Mei dropped from a branch above, took a Khmeran by the neck, flipped him over her shoulders, and broke his arm. Scar kicked one more out of his way before lopping off heads. Thwangs of javelins embedded in tree trunks resounded.

Spinning about madly to search for their comrades, Scar and Mei noted Shrikal and some of the Tiamatish struggling to keep steel from their skin. Mei darted off to help her friend, but Scar knew that killing the priests was paramount. As he ran into the woods to find them, he saw Kulshedrans among the warriors, refugees; they were striking with short swords and long spears, assisting the Tiamatish.

Movement drew his attention. The brute raised his weapon to block an attack. A gust of wind accosted his eyes. The ground came out from under him, and air was knocked from his lungs when he smashed against a tree.

Struggling to right himself, he saw a man with flowing hair and banded armor charging. The Dragon Slayer rolled over the ground, spun low, and took out the assailant’s legs. The Mireuan toppled over, gasping for breath, but Scar stood, stormed over, and sank the tip of his blade into the enemy’s back. After pulling out, he spotted another formation of Khmerans.

“Damn you, people,” he yelled. “Why must you attack mercilessly?”

Some screamed, brandished their blades, and retaliated. Without missing a step, the giant strode between two, threw an elbow into the face of one, sending it to the ground, and as he stood on top of the Khmeran, he spun to remove the head of another. Then, he went for the priest, who tried to run, but the jungle was too thick, and it was quickly halted. Kicking another enemy, Scar created an opening, caught the fleeing priest by the back of the head, bashed it into a tree, and finally sent it to the ground before parting another head from its body. Dismembering the remaining Khmerans was an easy task; no matter how many there were or how often they struck, the Dragon Slayer’s wounds healed, and he defeated them.

Shouts from within the village continued. He ran about crazed, following the sounds in the hopes of killing off the intruders before more citizens fell. Unfortunately, he came across some dark skinned corpses, smacked his lips in disgust, and crossed steel with another Mireuan. The slant eyed warrior was tough, though. Regardless of their difference in size or strength, the Mireuan hopped in, out, and between Scar’s slashes. Every time he missed, the foreign fighter counter slashed, removing chunks of bloodied leather from the Dragon Slayer’s body. After spinning and delivering a back slash towards the ground, over which the Mireuan jumped, the brute gripped him by the throat and squeezed.

“Why are you doing this? Who sent you?!”

The Mireuan did not reply; Scar’s immense fist was too tightly wrapped anyway. Gurgles and hacks were all the fighter managed before spinning the blade in his hand to strike Scar’s arm. The blade vibrated off the protective gauntlet hidden by the robe, so the Mireuan dropped his weapon, held both hands over his head, and a gale of wind lifted them from the ground.

“Damn your Dragon’s magic,” Scar cursed.

The winds assailed his sinuses. Dirt forced his eyes shut, but he never let go the enemy’s throat, and though they spun through branches and leaves, the winds soon died out. Both men plummeted to the ground whereupon Scar let go the attacker. “Enough,” he grunted, stood, and stabbed through banded hauberk. Enraged by senseless war, he wiped dirt from his face, ran off to part more Khmerans of arms and legs, and finally managed to set the remainder in flight for their lives. Some Tiamatish gave chase.

Observing wounded men, women, and children of varying races and colors writhing painfully on the ground, he heaved a sigh, wondering if the attack had indeed been due to his presence. Two Kulshedrans tended to some of the more grievously wounded. The Tiamatish cheered in victory, yet they hauled bleeding fighters up into the branches. The village elder—surrounded by three warriors—glared at Scar from a railing of molded boughs.

“The sooner I reach N’Giwah, the sooner this all ends!”

She did not reply. Instead, she stepped out of sight. Shaking his head, he looked for his compatriots. Shrikal and Mei, both covered in blood, rose from their knees to walk away from Munah’s corpse. Two Tiamatish and a Kulshedran then walked by. They were carrying Folgar, who was bleeding from his belly. Irgesh was nowhere to be seen. Scar spat at the ground, tore what was left of the robe from his form, and approached his friends.

“Scar,” Shrikal sighed.

“You’re both hurt…see if they will let you stay here until you heal. I’ll go find N’Giwah on my own.”

“Wait,” Mei cried, gripping her flank.

She cringed and staggered, saying something unintelligible; Shrikal held her by the waist and helped her to sit. By then, the chief had descended, and the people of Butu came out to join her. Along with them were the few, remaining Kulshedrans. Scar furrowed his brow, but the aged woman called for everyone’s attention.

“Time and again, we Tiamatish have asked only to be left alone,” she started, gravely. “It is our custom to protect ourselves, to keep war at arm’s length, but the Kulshedrans and the Khmerans have often taken our placidity for reticence…it was our pleasure to give Kulshedran warriors bereft of their power refuge after the defeat of their Lord…and we have always tried to maintain peace by assisting those looking for the same, but now, the Khmerans and the Mireuans have violated our borders one time too many…Scar.”

“They were not brought by me,” the Dragon Slayer growled.

“I am aware,” the chief said and drew breath. Scar relaxed. “They knew we had given these Kulshedrans refuge, and recently, the Khmerans have asked us to betray the trust of warriors without blessings, but we have maintained neutrality…perhaps, N’Giwah is right to bring the fight from our borders and into the lands of savages.”

“You will grant me passage to Alduheim,” he asked.

“You helped us kill the enemy…many more of us would have fallen without your skills and those of your friends. Yes…we will send you up the river to Ch’Nako, and after we tend to our departed, we will march for Osumba and speak to Jagongo.”

“What of my friends,” Scar interrupted. “Those who yet live are wounded. They cannot join me on this mission.”

“Hold on,” Shrikal interjected. “Wounds or no, we will persevere.”

“Persevere after you heal,” Scar argued.

“I’m fine,” Shrikal groaned. He bore serious cuts along his back and arms, but no vitals had been punctured. Mei was a different story; she had passed out from loss of blood. “I must go with you.”

Scar closed his eyes and shook his head, but the chief spoke up. “You two may decide, yourselves, but make haste. You must depart now. Odondo will take you.”

The man called Odondo stepped forwards. He was old, but fit. Much green graced his loose skin.

“I will wait by the ferry,” he said and marched into the darkness.

“Thank you, Chief,” Scar said. “I should hurry…Shrikal.”

“Let’s not waste time.”

Acquiescing, Scar shrugged, nodded to the chief, who nodded in return, and then, he and Shrikal went looking for Odondo. They heard the scorned people of Malababwe make claims that retribution was long overdue. The warrior cocked his lips to the side, thinking about what he’d just witnessed.

“I had hoped to leave this kind of life,” he sighed.

“I know.”

They followed a foot trail to the rushing Undalayan. Odondo had already pushed a ferry into the river. He was checking the rudder and testing the paddles. Before the travelers boarded, they stopped a moment.

“You’re sure you can manage,” Scar asked.

“I’ll live.”

“You might not if there’s another fight. There is no shame in recovering.”

“I know.” Shrikal’s tone was constricted.

“Fine. I won’t bring it up again.”

“Warriors?” Odondo called. “Now is the time to board.”

Carefully, they walked across some limbs molded over the ground, which acted as planks. Upon setting foot aboard the ferry, the old man undid a rope tied to a knobby protrusion, and immediately, they started listing downriver. Odondo compensated by pulling and pushing a long post, which moved the rudder beneath the waves.

In the darkness, through which only Tiamatish eyes saw, they pushed up river. Water swirled about them, frogs croaked incessantly, and once Shrikal passed out, Scar turned to self-reflection. If only I had joined N’Giwah and the others from the very beginning. The Kulshedran warriors might have lived, the Perseverants wouldn’t have died, and N’Giwah’s men wouldn’t be staring down death at every turn…. They must be swarmed by Khmerans and Mireuans by now. He then turned back to Shrikal.

The young paladin was covered in blood. Scar didn’t know how much of it was his. It was too dark to inspect him properly, but judging the gashes he had noticed under the light of torches, he figured Shrikal was incapacitated.

“Odondo.”

“Yes?”

“Let me out,” Scar demanded.

“We are many hours from Ch’Nako,” the old man replied, stunned.

“I can’t put this boy in danger. I’ll go on by foot. Take him back to Butu.”

“You are not the monster we thought you to be.”

As soon as Odondo forced the ferry into some roots by the riverbed, Scar hopped out and took off as fast as possible. It was no mean feat in the darkness, and he stumbled a great deal over roots and through low, thin branches, but he pressed on beside the Undalayan for hours.

Chapter Seven- Reunion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having run for nearly two days straight, the weary Dragon Slayer was relieved to catch a glimpse of campfires in the distance. With the Undalayan far behind him, Scar slowed his gait, hopped over a few, smaller boulders, and covered the remaining distance to a group of laughing Tiamatish. He watched them a moment. Then, he recognized Hija.

Crashing through some bushes, Scar made an inordinate amount of noise, making the Tiamatish jump to their feet. “Whoa,” he called out. “No need for weapons.”

“Scar?” Hija exclaimed. “I doubted N’Giwah, but here you are.”

Her compatriots relaxed and returned to idle chatter, though scant glances were cast his way. Hija and Scar walked towards one another. He extended a hand and smiled. She shook it.

“I’m sorry I worried everyone…I should never have left.”

“What’s done is done. You have killed the Dragons, and though repercussions have caused us trouble, we are ready to cross into Nabalhi,” Hija said.

“Nabalhi?” Scar was taken aback.

“Yes, we are to have a meeting with Sahni.”

“I see,” he furrowed his brow in confusion. “Where are N’Giwah and Labolas?”

“I’ll have someone call them,” she replied and shouted out to her men. One of them wandered off. “They will be glad to see you. So, tell me…what were the Dragons like? Where are they?”

Motioning with his hand towards the logs surrounding the campfire, the two walked over and took seats. By the time everyone quieted down, the Tiamatish warrior returned with N’Giwah and Labolas.

“Scar,” the Kulshedran grinned. The firelight made the wound on Labolas’s face appear more severe, deeper. When he smiled, only half of his face was responsive. “Zmaj and Zoltek are dead.”

“Labolas, N’Giwah, it is so good to see friendly faces,” Scar began. “Well…I suppose I should answer Hija’s question first.” He paused to gather his thoughts and allow everyone a moment to provide their attention. “The Dragons are uncanny beasts. Kulshedra was but a swirl of misty scales resembling a lizardine monster, but Zmaj was a great many snakes all intertwined. Fighting them is no picnic…and their realms, they are unfathomable; words cannot describe them. I doubt any living man can go there, but…it seems I am no ordinary man.” Dubious whispers washed over the crowd. “Now, I hear we are supposed to hold a meeting with Sahni? I saw Khmerans allied with Mireuans attack Kulshedrans and Tiamatish. I ran here from Butu…many died at the hands of Sahni’s soldiers, so you must explain this business of a meeting.”

Labolas and N’Giwah traded a look. Hija stared at her leader, expecting an explanation. A frown creased the Tiamatish man’s gaunt face.

“First, I am sad to say that Jagongo will not be providing assistance,” N’Giwah began. “Due to our peoples’ increased power, Jagongo has made another decision, but this is based on the fact that Vamvos, Hashnora, Shinjuru, Yuroga, and Takashi have united to overthrow Sahni. Jagongo wants to protect her borders in fear of a Slibinish attack, but she has asked Longinus for help, and both of them want to provide safety for the powerless—the Kulshedrans, the Zmajans—in an effort to stave off invasions.”

Labolas then spoke. “Things have heated up between Munir and Donovan now that Zoltek and Gilgamesh are dead. Sirokai has remained silent on the matter, and no one knows if he still supports Sahni. N’Giwah and I believe the best course of action is to hold a meeting with the rana. If she is willing to support Jagongo and Longinus, we all have a better chance at fighting off whomever the enemies planned on attacking after taking Nabalhi.”

“You’re making it sound as though Sahni seeks peace,” Scar interrupted, “but I have seen otherwise. Not two days ago, I felled dozens of Khmerans, and there were Mireuans among them. I don’t see how Shinjuru can be allied with those threatening Sahni, and if I recall correctly, the Nagish and Mireuans are allied to each other. Does this not pose your information is flawed?”

“You don’t think Sahni has considered Takashi a threat,” Labolas asked and prodded at his scar.

“What do you mean,” Scar pried.

N’Giwah answered, “Consider Sahni’s current position. Hashnora is still secretly plotting against Yuroga. Yuroga and Sirokai want to kill each other. Vamvos and Shinjuru want to kill each other. As you said, Shinjuru and Takashi are allied, but Sahni and Shinjuru were allied until the deaths of Gilgamesh and Zoltek. Since Sahni no longer has any allies, she must make an effort to draw support from Jagongo and Longinus while seeming diplomatic with Hashnora. Yes, the Khmerans may have been attacking the Tiamatish, but that has only been a show to gain favor from Takashi and subsequently Shinjuru.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Scar interrupted. “I don’t understand any of this.”

“Just try to understand that Sahni is willing to make peace with the neutral countries in order to fight against those plotting to kill her, and since Donovan and Munir are busy fighting each other, and the Zmajans and Kulshedrans pose no threat, but in numbers can provide the enemy assistance, it has become imperative that she reorganize her alliances,” N’Giwah clarified.

“Alright…I can understand that much,” Scar smiled and shook his head. “So, if our meeting goes well, the Khmerans will stop attacking the Tiamatish and Kulshedrans and turn their efforts against…?”

“Vamvos,” Labolas said. “Now, he hasn’t mounted any attacks on the Malababwen border, but it is believed that after he and his allies defeat Sahni, Malababwe and Closicus are next on his agenda, and if he forges an alliance with Munir, they’ll take the fight to Donovan and secure the entire eastern portion of Tiamhaal, except Balroa, which poses little threat and can easily be surrounded by a naval fleet, especially if Vamvos annexes Satrone and Usaj.”

“This…this is troublesome,” Scar heaved.

“Tell me about it,” Labolas snipped.

“None of that will matter if we can convince Sahni, Jagongo, and Longinus to come together,” N’Giwah added. “And, furthermore, it is likely the Satronian and Usajan governments will lend us support, since without the Dragons’ blessings, they can no longer protect their lands from the Dracos or Khmerans. They need powerful allies, be they ours or our enemy’s.”

“Even if Sahni, Longinus, and Jagongo rally the Zmajans and Kulshedrans, that will still leave the fires burning between Donovan and Munir,” Scar said.

“One step at a time,” Labolas nodded. “We are hoping that Longinus, Jagongo, and Sahni will unite in exchange for your killing Drac and Gyo. If those two tribes lose their powers then Sahni, Jagongo, and Longinus will be willing to provide you with their gems so that you can slay Khmer, Tiamat, and Fafnir. That means seven Dragons will be dead, and seven countries will be united.”

“What happens after that,” Scar pried.

“There is no way to know,” N’Giwah asserted.

“I disagree,” Labolas interrupted. “The next step is taking the fight to Vamvos while Sahni bolsters her ranks with the remaining, powerless tribes. That is if Vamvos is unwilling to make peace with those forces united against his former enemies; he may yet switch sides again….”

“Well,” Scar mused and looked over the crowd. They had been riveted by the conversation, but N’Giwah wet his lips; a stern look creased his brow. “I guess that’s as good a plan as possible; I’d love to kill the Dragons sooner rather than later, and if some of the countries’ leaders hand me their gems without bloodshed, all the better.”

“Good,” Labolas chirped. “Let us hurry then. We’ll get some rest tonight, and tomorrow we move for Budai, the Nabalhian capitol.”

Scar puffed. There was much to consider, and traveling through Nabalhi was going to be a dangerous journey. He didn’t know how Khmerans were going to treat a group of foreigners, but there was no turning back. Dragons had to die, and peace needed to be forged, no matter the stakes or the actions of the past. He watched the crowd disperse.

Some of the Tiamatish crawled into hammocks tied to posts in the ground. Others moseyed into small, wooden shacks. N’Giwah and Labolas remained behind. They seemed to have something more to say on the matter. Scar removed his helmet, wiped his head, and gave them his attention.

“Scar,” Labolas said. The warrior raised a brow in anticipation. “We have to tell you that allies or no, the Khmerans won’t accept you traveling through their country.”

“I was just thinking that.”

“Well…they won’t. All the leaders are afraid of you.”

“Why? I want only to kill the Dragons,” Scar muttered.

“But you have killed two of the world’s leaders,” N’Giwah added.

“Because they wronged me personally; you know what they did to me,” the Dragon Slayer grunted. “I have no wish to kill anyone; I want only the gems, so I can kill the Dragons, and if I can get them without bloodshed–”

“Yes, we know,” Labolas interrupted. “I’m only telling you this because the three of us will be traveling with a group of Khmerans. The rest of the Tiamatish will journey to Osumba, and from there will travel with Jagongo, Longinus, and his court.”

“Won’t that mean we’ll get to Budai ahead of everyone?”

“Yes,” N’Giwah admitted. “There is something we have neglected to tell everyone else, since it does not pertain to them; the reason Sahni has suddenly resigned herself to this meeting is that she wishes you to provide her with Kulshedra’s Dragon gem.”

“What, why, what for?” Scar argued.

“It is supposed to be an offer of goodwill,” N’Giwah snarled.

“The three of us know you need all the gems for your own business, but no one else knows that, and Sahni wants to hold on to Kulshedra’s gem until peace has been brokered, so,” Labolas trailed off. Scar looked at him, eagerly. “Basically, we need to get there ahead of everyone, so that you can hand over the gem. Without it, there will be no talks, and instead, there’ll be three of the world’s leaders ready to do Gods knows what,” Labolas said, gravely.

Scar rubbed his head. I don’t know about this. He looked over to see how the fires made his friends’ eyes twinkle; they needed him then as much as they had needed him months ago. The fate of all humans dangled before them. I can’t disappoint again.

“Does anyone else know that Khmerans are waiting to take us to Budai,” he asked.

“They are aware that we are leaving ahead of them,” N’Giwah replied. “And we are ready to leave as soon as you are.”

“I just ran for two days…believe it or not, I am thirsty.”

“I’ll find you some water,” N’Giwah offered and left.

“Scar,” Labolas whispered. The Dragon Slayer gave his attention and relaxed his elbows over his bent knees. Before the archer continued, he turned to see N’Giwah was out of earshot. “Are you still after the Gods?”

The warrior’s jaw clenched, and he popped his thumbs before replying, “Whenever I think of Mekosh or Silwen, my blood boils, but…it was only the Severe and the Lover that slighted me. I harbor no ill will towards the others, and worse, I am starting to think that men need the Gods. I have traveled long with Perseverants, and they have made some compelling points regarding Ihnogupta. I guess what I’m saying is…I don’t know.”

“Sure,” Labolas breathed, looking at the fires.

“So, the leaders, what do they know? Jagongo must know about the Dragons, but what of Sahni, or Longinus, or anyone else?”

“Well,” Labolas said and relaxed on his hands by leaning back and looking at the starry sky. “Sahni knows you killed something; obviously, we Kulshedrans have lost our powers, and so, too, have the Zmajans, and it seems that in killing Zmaj and Kulshedra, the other tribes have grown in strength. Logic dictates that if Khmer were the one, true God, her power would not have increased from the defeat of other beings…. Jagongo thinks they must be Dragons; after all, how can a man strike down a God, even one as extraordinary as you?”

“So, you don’t know,” Scar smiled.

Labolas shrugged and winced. “It matters?”

“It does to me; if they know I’m killing Dragons that have lied to them and manipulated them for the sake of stealing souls, they may be more receptive to cooperate, regardless of alliances with other tribes, and this is information that can assist in forging new alliances between those at war with each other, those who have last their religion.”

“Yes–” Labolas was saying.

“Here you are,” N’Giwah said. He had approached silently and offered Scar a wooden cup filled with water, which the warrior gulped down. “Will you need a moment to rest?”

Scar stood, stretched his arms over his head, and then rolled his neck. “No…we might as well start off now. The sooner we get this over with, the better for everyone, I think. I mean, there’s little doubt the Kulshedrans wish to keep fighting, and I’m sure the Tiamatish are sick of raids on their borders. Besides, I wish to ask something of Sahni.”

“What,” Labolas pried.

“It is a personal matter,” he replied. “Hey, Labolas?”

“Yes?” he furrowed his brow.

“Where is Artimis? Wouldn’t a dirigible ride to Budai be faster, safer?”

“Sure, if he were here, but he’s still in River Rock. Obviously, it would take days to ride out to Eltanrof–”

“Yes, yes, yes, that’s fine,” Scar interrupted. “I’m just, I’m just tired is all.”

“I did not know that you tired,” N’Giwah stated; a smile played on his ample lips.

“I’ve never ran for two days,” Scar answered, raising a hairless eyebrow.

They all smiled a moment. Then, without saying a word, N’Giwah started walking away. Scar nabbed his galea and followed him to a wooden shack. The archer lazily trailed behind. Inside, a group of thin, long haired, clean shaven people in vivid garb received them.

“These are the Khmeran wagoneers,” N’Giwah said. “Pinter, Yusaf, Aditi, this is Scar, the man who killed Kulshedra and Zmaj.”

“We are pleased to meet you,” each said and extended a hand.

They were all small, lean, with slender hips, and only Aditi had a slight bosom. Scar figured Aditi was the only female, but with Khmerans, it was difficult to tell. After shaking hands, they grew awkwardly silent.

“Our rana, the benevolent Sahni, is most joyful to meet with you, so we must hurry. Forgive my being rude, but you have come much later than we expected,” Aditi announced.

“I know…my apologies. I had other matters to attend to.” Scar trailed off a moment. “But now, I am here. Let us ride.”

They all nodded, stepped from the shack, followed a worn trail out of the encampment, and once the campsite was out of sight, behind some large boulders, they meandered north of the beaten trail, where a carriage with two horses awaited. Upon boarding, Pinter and Yusaf took the reins at the front of the cart, and the others took seats beneath a cloth cover. Small barrels with food and water sat on the wooden floor. N’Giwah took some figs from a crate and ate.

“The ride will take almost a week,” Aditi began. No sooner had she spoken that they started to move. Squeaky wheels forced her to raise her nasally voice. “We will ride directly north, beyond Alduheim, and into Nabalhi. Budai is at the center of our country, but the closer we come upon our capitol, the more amenable our people.”

“Why,” Scar asked.

“Those of us living near the capitol are so far removed from the war front we hold little scorn for the other tribes. As you no doubt experienced in Satrone and Closicus, we also live in harmony with them.”

“Other tribes, you mean?”

“Yes.”

“Unfortunately,” Labolas jumped in, “we might find opposition while still in Alduheim. There are many Khmerans fighting the Tiamatish, and Kulshedran remnants, and, of course, the Mireuans have a stake in all this….”

“Rest easy, Scar,” N’Giwah said. “There will be no need to fight if the Khmerans believe we have been captured.”

“Three Khmerans moving three prisoners of whom one is me? I doubt anyone will buy into that,” Scar scoffed.

“I will cut myself and cover you three in my blood. They will think you wounded,” Aditi informed.

“Cut yourself?” Scar was aghast.

“I am a priestess. I can heal myself.”

“I thought priests could only heal the others,” Scar remained suspicious.

“That was true before you killed the two Dragons.”

“So, you know they are Dragons, Kulshedra, Zmaj, and Khmer…and, well, all of them?”

Aditi hesitated. Her thin brow furrowed, and she fluffed her hair.

“I believe you killed something that could not have been a God, Kulshedra and Zmaj…I would like to believe that Khmer is a Goddess, but now, I do not know for certain, but I do believe in peace across Tiamhaal, as does my rana, so I will do what I must to please her.”

“Fair enough,” Scar snorted. “I can’t wait to meet with her. I only hope this goes better than my meeting with Gilgamesh.”

Scar and Labolas traded a look. For the archer, the memory of losing his father was yet fresh. He raked his teeth over his bottom lip, relaxed into the bench, and closed his eyes.

Chapter Eight- Planning for peace

 

Most of the terrain around Alduheim consisted of grassy hills littered with boulders of varying size. It was not as mountainous an expanse, and the riders maintained passage over some worn trails. All manners of birds flew overhead; Scar liked their colorful plumage, and he leaned way back in his seat to see beyond the cloth covering the cart. The occasional rodent also scurried about from hole to hole, looking for food or hiding from the horses.

Labolas kept drifting off, his head resting on N’Giwah’s shoulder, and the Tiamatish warrior shoved him away, but the archer seemed determined to annoy. The dark, scowling man rolled his eyes as Labolas’s head dropped back onto his shoulder. Eventually, N’Giwah resigned in futility. He crossed his patterned arms over his bare, chiseled chest and turned to look through the back of the cart. Scar noted his preoccupation.

“What is it?”

Aditi looked from him to N’Giwah, who asked, “What is what?”

“I can tell you are troubled.”

N’Giwah finally faced Scar. “As much as I trust our Khmeran friends, here, I do not trust them in general.” He looked Aditi in the eye. “I do not mean to be insensitive.”

“I know,” she mumbled and looked at her feet. She wore leather sandals, and her brightly painted toe nails shone from sunlight. “This is a necessity, however; we are all seeking peace.”

“Indeed,” Scar added.

Little more was said for a time. The archer came to with an overly loud yawn. He stretched his arms, smacked his lips, rubbed his eyes, and turned in the bench to peek out at the green, rolling landscape. N’Giwah glared at him.

“What,” Labolas asked.

“You kept sleeping on me.”

Cracking a smile, Labolas apologized. Then, he wondered after their position. Scar arched a brow, looking to the Khmeran.

“This trail skirts one of Alduheim’s old, lookout towers. By the time we reach it, we will be at the edge of the ancient kingdom,” she replied.

“And you think there we will be patrolmen ready to inspect us,” Scar pried.

She nodded. “My friends will let us know when the tower is in sight, and then we must take precautions. Khmerans have nearly taken control of Alduheim, so we must keep suspicions low.”

“I’ll never understand why people of their own tribes must lie to each other,” Scar said with a frown.

“It is not a question of lying,” Aditi corrected. “We simply do what we must to initiate peace. These warriors have little choice but to believe that their way of life is under constant siege, and it is unwise for our rana to inform every one of us that she is plotting with the enemy, even if it is towards a harmonious resolution…soldiers are to follow orders, but they do not think too well for themselves.”

“But if they’re built to follow orders, the soldiers, that is, then wouldn’t they follow orders to allow us into Nabalhi without persecution,” Scar posed.

“Yes, but that would tarnish our alliance with the other tribes, and we can afford no new enemies, especially ones with access to our territories.”

“Speaking of…is Sahni still allied with Sirokai? I know the death of Gilgamesh must have had an effect.”

“If it did, I am not aware of it,” the Khmeran admitted, furrowing her brow. “He has not sent us any troops. Truthfully, Balroa has been silent since the events beneath Alduheim.”

Scar shook his head, frowned again, and wiped his face. He then rooted around for a cup, opened a water barrel, and drank. A moment later, they all ate fruits, nuts, and passed around a goatskin Aditi said contained sloth wine. Everyone commented on its sweetness.

“What is sloth wine,” Scar asked. Labolas and N’Giwah were also curious; they all turned to Aditi, who explained that sloth wine was fermented in the bellies of followers of Ihnogupta, the Sloth. “What?!”

“Many of the Sloths want nothing more than to do nothing at all; they wish to remain immobile, but fed, and watered, and bathed, and so, in Budai, and some of the other, larger cities, we invite them to live in our palaces. There, they are chained to the walls, and we feed them honey, berries, and a special yeast that mixes with their digestive acids, and when they pass urine, it is harvested and filtered.”

Faces contorted in fear, revulsion, and anger. Labolas and N’Giwah both started raving about the disgusting practice.

“You made us drink pee?” Labolas yelled.

“It is not pee,” she grinned. “The urine is filtered out.”

“Your people are repulsive,” N’Giwah spat. He then gargled water and spit it out, adding, “Next time you offer me anything, you’d better tell me from where it came!”

Scar shook his head comically. He chuckled, too. Before tempers flared out of control, one of the carriage masters indicated he saw the lookout tower. Yet murmuring insults, N’Giwah scratched at the thin strip of hair, which ran from his forehead to the base of his skull.

“Well, no time for trouble,” Aditi mused. “You must all lie down on the floorboards. I will bleed on you to make you appear wounded, and do not move, whatever happens.”

Begrudgingly, they acquiesced. “I can’t believe I just drank sloth piss, and now, this cow herder is going to bleed on me,” N’Giwah grumbled.

They all scrunched down on the cart floor, their limbs intertwined as though they were unconscious, and Aditi produced a small knife with which she slit her wrist. Copious amounts of blood poured onto the passengers. The Khmeran wiped away her tears then threw a blanket over the men and bled on it as well.

Once she figured they sufficiently appeared wounded, she closed her eyes, drew a deep breath, focused on her bone marrow, and allowed the healing magic of Khmer to course from within. The slits on her wrist quickly vanished, and she cleaned any spillage from her body. Just then, the cart eased to a halt. The conversations, which transpired between the wagoneers and the guards at the checkpoint, drew Scar’s attention.

The Khmerans started by demanding papers and an inspection of the cart. One of the wagoneers explained they were Sahni’s esteemed priests. Evidently, the papers checked out, and the guards began their inspection while the wagoneer maintained they were transporting wounded prisoners for interrogation. Surprised exclamations erupted from the guards when they saw Aditi presiding over the unconscious bodies of N’Giwah, Labolas, and Scar.

“That’s the one killed Gilgamesh!”

“Yes,” Aditi replied. “Our rana will be glad to have him behind prison bars, and the other two are captains of their respective tribes; N’Giwah, kin to Jagongo, and Labolas Sulas, the son of the late General Sulas.”

“How in blazes did you manage to capture them?” the guards were astonished.

“Does it matter? We found them fighting at Alduheim’s southern border and defeated them.”

One guard started poking and prodding with a sharp object. Scar felt it along his thigh. A sudden, sharp pain rattled his leg; the guard punctured his muscles, causing him to moan, but he didn’t move.

“They’re alive,” a guard asked.

“Of course,” Aditi snapped. “Her Majesty can’t talk to dead men.”

The guards poked N’Giwah and Labolas as well, forcing them into spasms of agony, but they simply writhed a bit, groaning in pain. “Well…far be it from us to tell you how to transport prisoners, but shouldn’t they be bound?” one chortled.

“To what end,” Aditi questioned. “They are unable to resist.”

“Still,” the guard maintained. “They must be bound if they are to proceed beyond this checkpoint.”

“Then, bind them,” Aditi agreed.

The guards quickly went to work, manhandling the men. The warriors gave no resistance. When one of the Khmerans found Scar’s sword wrapped in a bundle beneath the bench, the priestess came to her feet.

“Put that down,” she warned. “The rana wants the big one’s sword as proof of his capture. You see those gems? They belonged to Gilgamesh and Zoltek, and she wants to see if she can use them against our enemies.”

The guard dropped the sword onto the floor boards and resumed binding the prisoners. Once their wrists and ankles were secured, and in turn, more ropes were added to bind the wrists to the ankles, the guards dusted off their hands, bade their compatriots a good and safe ride, and sent them beyond the tower.

The cart started moving once everything came to a conclusion. Scar waited a few minutes before whispering. The pain in his thigh had already vanished.

“How long do we have to stay like this?”

“Just another moment. Once the tower is out of sight, I will cut the ropes,” Aditi responded.

“The bastard pierced my back,” N’Giwah growled through clenched teeth.

“Poked me in the buttock,” Labolas added.

“I was pierced as well,” Scar grumbled. “N’Giwah, is your wound serious?”

“It might be,” he gasped. “He struck me low, near the ribs. It feels deep.”

Aditi checked him. The guard had stuck him with a dagger between floating ribs where green patterns graced his skin, but there was no way to tell how deeply. There wasn’t much blood, not much fresh blood, but the Tiamatish had started perspiring a great deal. By then, the tower was out of sight, and she deftly cut the ropes with her knife.

“Hold still.”

Her increased powers of healing allowed her to lay hands on N’Giwah’s wound. A mere second later, he felt fine, if achy. The priestess also healed Labolas’s butt, a modest wound. She made for Scar, but he wriggled away.

Liberated and free of wounds, they resumed their seats. N’Giwah immediately washed himself with a wet cloth. The other two followed suit, wiping off Aditi’s blood. The Tiamatish glared at her.

“I understand your anger,” she said, “but we are free to press onwards now, and we should run afoul no more obstacles. Try to keep in mind this is all for a greater purpose.

“Truth,” Scar asserted. “This is not about us or our personal feelings. This is about brokering peace between men and women, all of whom have been manipulated by Dragons. The important thing, here, is to meet with Sahni, so she can be convinced to enact a treaty with Jagongo and Longinus.”

“Hopefully, that’ll be enough to end the fighting in Malababwe, Closicus, Satrone, Usaj, and Nabalhi,” Labolas posed. “That should also slacken the strife in Alduheim, and leave us the opportunity to spread peace into Zetsuru, Jinshuke, and eventually Wuulefroth. In the meantime, you can cut down a handful of Dragons, and then…if everything goes according to plan, we can redirect our efforts.”

“To where,” Scar pried.

“There is no way to tell at this time,” N’Giwah answered. “Let us focus on this goal before planning ahead.”

“We have to plan for everything,” Labolas countered. “Others might attack after Vamvos. We have no idea what Hashnora, Yuroga, and Sirokai are plotting!”

“All of your planning will give you a false sense of security,” N’Giwah retorted. “And then, you will not see the enemy that strikes from the darkness. We must focus on one thing at a time.”

Scar noted the two were not in agreement, at least not regarding the way to proceed. He looked to Aditi. A smile flickered across her face.

“We all want peace today,” she said. “Zoltek was the only one that did not seek peace of any kind. With him gone, it might be wise to just try and finish one thing at a time, allowing the others to forge their own sense of tranquility. I feel I can honestly say that Rana Sahni is willing to help us, but it is difficult to trust any other leader; regardless of what we plan, it is not possible to foresee what they all have in mind.”

That sparked an argument regarding the honor of Longinus and Jagongo. Aditi claimed she didn’t mean to say that they were untrustworthy, but stated that their people in general still provided a threat. To that, Labolas agreed, but N’Giwah’s fury grew. He believed Jagongo had shown nothing but trust, and reminded them that she had even protected Kulshedran refugees, and that it was the Khmerans, who broke that trust.

“Enough, enough,” Scar interjected. “We’ll get nowhere turning on each other. I’m sorry, Labolas. I’m glad you see the bigger picture, and you should continue planning ahead, but for the moment, I’m siding with N’Giwah; let’s just get to Budai and hear what Sahni has to say.” Labolas cocked his mouth to the side. He was about to say something, but stopped in mid breath. “I trust your wisdom, friend,” Scar added. “I know you’ll keep contingencies in mind…in one way or another, you may yet succeed your father.”

“My father,” the archer whispered.

“He was a good man in the end.”

“Yes, he was,” Labolas drew his lips inwards and nodded.

Everyone grew silent. By the time the sun started to set, they had left rolling hills in the distance, and the land was much flatter. Thick, brown grass swayed in the breeze. Before long, a chill in the air forced N’Giwah to root through the supplies. He took a wool blanket and draped it over his shoulders. Labolas was dozing again; evidently, his quilted armor kept him warm enough.

The Tiamatish made a motion of the hand to draw Scar’s attention. “Trade seats with me,” he whispered. “I do not need this one sleeping on my shoulder.”

“Don’t flatter your self,” Labolas countered, his eyes remaining closed. He then yawned. “Riding makes me sleepy.”

Scar winced and shook his head, but he and his friend switched seats. Without saying another word, they gazed in opposite directions, looking at the vast expanse of Alduheim. As the sun disappeared behind sprawling, pinkish clouds, and the winds picked up, Scar began to imagine how the different countries varied in landscape. He was anxious to see Nabalhi. Once curiosity got the best of him, he whispered his interest to Aditi.

“The southern edge of Nabalhi is thick with trees, and there is much rain. Monsoons pour for days at a time. This is not the rainy season, however, but it still rains often.”

“Is it swampy like Malababwe and filled with fruit trees?”

“There are fruit trees, but the ground must be more porous; the water doesn’t lay stagnant like the swamps of Malababwe, but there is much water during the monsoons. Our many mango and guava trees benefit from the precipitation.”

“Sounds nice…how much longer before we cross the border?”

“We’ll cross before morning, I think.”

“Will there be a border patrol?”

“There are two cities along the Alduheim border in Nabalhi. One lies on the Malababwen border and the other on the Zetsuran border; we will be traveling between them where traffic is lightest. Pinter has family in Bondapali, a town between the border cities, but much farther north. That’s where we’re going stop before riding for Budai, and there, you will see many trees. The Vodrayana River also runs alongside it, so don’t be surprised to see many of the tribesmen.”

“Why would there be other tribesmen there,” Scar asked.

“It is a trade town where many Khmerans run ferries up and down the Vodrayana, so it is naturally a peaceful place where many congregate simply to do business and live their lives.”

Once her divulgence ended, she reached for some bread, ate in silence, and yawned. Scar watched her take a blanket. She smiled, trying to find a comfortable position, and eventually sprawled out across the bench with her calves in Scar’s lap. He rolled his eyes, leaned back, and tried to get some sleep.

Chapter Nine- Gods and cows

 

The Dragon Slayer awoke to an obscene noise; it was a long, raspy wail of a sound. As he opened his eyes and rubbed them, he also heard bells ringing, and then the voice of a person berating someone. With an inhalation, a yawn, and a stretch, Scar fully wakened and poked his big, bald head beyond the cart’s cloth covering. A long haired person was lightly tapping a row of cattle with a thin stick. The bells around the cows’ necks jingled while they mooed and crossed the trail. Finally, the cart masters snapped their reins, and the travelers started moving once more.

“What was that about?” Scar grumbled and jiggled his knees to wake the Khmeran.

Aditi chortled before sitting upright. She rubbed her cheeks and looked him in the eye. A smile crept across her dark, little face. She leaned off her seat to have a look.

“We had to stop to allow the cows to cross.”

“Why?” he demanded.

She shrugged her shoulders and huffed then explained that cows were scared, since they represented the benevolent forces of life; they represented Khmer by giving and feeding. The brute’s tiresome stare brought a chuckle from her lips.

“Patanjalis tend the droves of cows.”

“Droves? Patanjalis?” Scar interrupted.

“I am trying to tell you that to tend cattle is to worship Khmer; it is a sacred practice.”

He shook his head in disbelief, but considered that being nice to cows was a better way to worship a Dragon than killing people. Glancing at the others, he noticed that it was mid morning. Then, he felt an urgency and asked for a quick break. The wagoneers obliged, providing everyone ample time to rise and relieve themselves.

Wherever they were, Alduheim was long behind them. There were no more boulders. Instead, ankle high grasses spanned indefinitely and touched the dark, blue horizon. Thick clouds wafted overhead. A worn trail ran due north. The patanjali and his drove were but specks chasing after the edge of the meadows. N’Giwah then brushed Scar’s shoulder with the back of his hand. Everyone boarded the cart again.

A long, silent journey ensued. Feeling a pang in his belly as he sat, the Dragon Slayer eyed his friends; they were eating and drinking. He did the same, and bit into an apple. Relishing the sweet juices while chewing, he found a sense of relief upon consuming the fruit. What is this about? Was I…hungry?

He then remembered Aditi had mentioned reaching a town and wondered over what manner of food was customary in Nabalhi. As the steady squeak and bounce of wagon wheels persisted, his thoughts inevitably returned to Ylithia. More than anything else, the warrior was consumed by the prospect of asking Sahni if there was a way to resurrect the dead. He knew it was unlikely, but wondered nonetheless.

Hours into the ride, N’Giwah drew a bone knife to pick his nails. Wincing, Scar watched him; there wasn’t anything else to do, so he scrutinized the company. Labolas was getting hairy and kept scratching the black scruff on his throat. Neither the Tiamatish nor the Khmerans, however, appeared to grow much hair, at least not as quickly as the Kulshedran. Shaking his head from the monotony, Scar leaned back and closed his eyes to listen to the world, but then he remembered Shrikal. I hope he’s not too angry…I just didn’t want him traveling in that condition…and Mei wasn’t doing any better. By the Gods, so many men and women have died, but then that’s why I’m here, isn’t it? It was then that the burden of his existence shook it him at his core, and he puffed quite loudly.

“What is it,” Aditi asked.

“Nothing…this ride. It is too long.”

“I feel the same, Scar,” N’Giwah said.

“We all do,” Labolas agreed. “There is much at stake.” Everyone gave the archer their attention, but he quieted. They overheard the cart masters talking about their wives. “Look,” Labolas began anew, “once we get to Bondapali, we’ll have a minute to stretch our legs. It’s unfortunate that for now we’re stuck in one place, but we’ve made it this far without killing each other or giving in to ill considerations. Let’s just try to enjoy the countryside.”

“Agreed,” Aditi said. “And we could talk about something other than this war, like…family.”

“Your people killed mine,” N’Giwah spat. The Khmeran huffed an apology, but Labolas maintained that everyone present had kinsmen who killed someone’s kinsmen; that was war. Still, N’Giwah remained moody. He crossed his arms and turned away from them. “Scar, any thoughts on the true Gods?”

“I uh, I don’t know,” he stuttered. “The Perseverants brought to light some interesting points, but I can’t say I have a good feeling about them. I mean, if Silwen was able to show herself to me, should not the others be able to do the same and try to help us?” he paused a moment. “At least, the Perseverants were trying to assist—they led me to you—but Ihnogupta did not show, and Silwen didn’t answer my pleas while I was in the desert…I can’t say anyone needs to rely on them in these tumultuous times, but then…I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

“I have a hard time wrapping my head around this,” Aditi volunteered. “If Khmer is a Dragon, and Scar in fact defeats her, and we lose our healing powers, do we then turn to the other Gods?” Her question seemed rhetorical, and no one tried to reply. “I can’t say I believe that there are real Gods, but if there are, do we then worship them all or choose one? Will we begin fighting over the proper God to worship? What is the point?”

“I don’t think there is one,” Scar interceded. “If there is a point, it isn’t to spend one’s life worshipping a God, I think. No, just try to be good people. Help one another. Forgive one another; you were all manipulated by Dragons, don’t be manipulated by Gods.”

“You didn’t forgive,” Labolas said, unabashedly. Scar looked his friend in the eye. A sudden welling of anger forced his jaw to clench, and he wondered after the archer’s statement. “What I mean is to say that evil people must be dealt with.”

“I agree,” Scar said in a contained tone, “but what I meant was to forgive the tribes in general; I am not slaying Kulshedrans, Zmajans, or Khmerans, and I believe we must carry forgiveness in our hearts; forgive Khmerans for having been ordered to kill Tiamatish–”

“And for killing helpless Kulshedrans?” Labolas interrupted.

“Look, if you want to hunt down someone specific and kill him for killing someone you knew, that’s your business,” Scar rebutted. “I can’t imagine telling you not to. I didn’t mean to start an argument–”

“I know that you didn’t,” Aditi interjected, “and I am growing weary of N’Giwah’s hatred for my people as I am starting to grow weary of Labolas’s–”

“I don’t hate your people,” N’Giwah fired back before she finished. “I hate what they have done, but you must understand that my people are not like yours, nor are they like the Kulshedrans. My people only ever sought peace even if manipulated by the Dragon.”

“But your Dragon ordered them to seek peace,” Scar said. “If Tiamat had ordered them to war, to kill, would they not have done so?”

“Maybe, but that is not the case is it?”

“No, N’Giwah, I suppose it isn’t,” Scar answered.

“So…the countryside,” Labolas said, his brow arched. “Nice, no?”

Silence returned. Scar considered Eternus’s words. He knew that people had been warped by generations of Dragon worship, and so he tried not to judge anyone too harshly, but forgiveness was something far more distant for his friends, for everyone else in the world, and after all, he himself had not forgiven those who personally wronged him. Peace will not be an easy thing to forge. It was going to be a long road fraught with hardships, and he hoped only that the people of Tiamhaal had the fortitude to struggle for it. Ultimately, he expressed a need to accept the wars at their face value, a terrible tragedy, but one that was soon to end, and upon that end, it was imperative to focus on love, joy, and to appreciate the prospect of new friendships.

 

****

 

Bondapali was a thriving city filled to the brim with people walking, goats and cows trolling along, and a great many merchants trading wares in the streets. It was difficult to discern the guards from ordinary people; everyone wore similar garb, long tunics or robes with colorful designs and patterns. Scar also saw the occasional non-Khmeran, there weren’t quite as many as he had thought, but there were a handful of families displaced by the warfront, a few Mireuans and Nagish parading around in their strange armor consisting of steel bands—hauberks and habergeons of various designs—no one paid much attention to his crew.

Some of the children gawked, their dirty faces smeared with food or soil. Frowning, the Dragon Slayer looked out over the ocean of people. Bondapali was certainly a highly populated city.

Thin trees grew everywhere—none of them bearing fruit at the time—shading the soil streets and white homes. The houses and businesses looked similar to the homes of Sudai, but the rooves were more rounded, almost spherical in construction. While birds and insects zipped by, the travelers waited impatiently in their seats for the cart masters to come to a halt. Naturally, they stopped the cart where some cows had left their mess. As Scar hopped off the rear, he narrowly missed a pie, and the flies immediately assaulted him.

“A fine place indeed,” N’Giwah scowled. He raised a hand to his nose. “What a stench.”

“At least we may rest a moment here,” Aditi said.

Beside them was a tall building with shuttered doors. They followed Pinter inside to find a restaurant, but it was so overly packed, most of the people there were eating on their feet. The priest pushed beyond a crowd and disappeared among his brethren.

“Yes,” N’Giwah started complaining, “we get to rest on our feet now.”

“Better than our arses,” Labolas smiled.

Silence washed over the crowd; they had noticed Scar towering over them. Forks clinked upon hitting plates, and children tugged at their parents’ sleeves, pointing to the giant. He smiled sarcastically in return, and that’s when murmurs erupted like rustling foliage. The other Khmerans traveling with the group ignored the diners and forced their way through a line of people only to stand still behind yet more people lined up at a counter.

Shifting his balance and huffing, Scar avoided the eyes of strangers to inspect the atmosphere. There were cloths of every color draped from banister to banister, from post to post. Paintings of cows hung on the walls. Strange, piercing music emanated from sights unseen, yet audible over the chatter of people no longer concerned with the appearance of strangers. A moment later, the smell of spicy food defeated the stench of cattle and perfumed mobs.

“Food smells good,” he commented.

“You can smell it over their stink?” N’Giwah retorted.

“Didn’t you tell me once that Khmerans smell better than Kulshedrans?”

N’Giwah glanced at Labolas, who grinned. Then, he turned back to Scar.

“At least Kulshedran stink is a natural stink,” the Tiamatish said and turned, hiding a smile.

“C’mon, N’Giwah,” Labolas pleaded, giving his friend a smack to the shoulder, but the warrior glared, so Labolas shrugged in futility. “Try to relax. No one’s trying to kill us, and that’s refreshing.”

Scar chuckled. A moment later, their three friends returned with platters of rice covered in lamb and chutney. Everyone looked around as though it were possible to find a seat. Just then, more Khmerans shoved their way inside.

“We can eat on the cart,” Aditi suggested.

“Oh yes,” N’Giwah started up again, “the feeling has only just returned to my rear, and now I can enjoy the hard wood of benches.”

“Just eat,” Scar laughed. “You’ll feel better with a belly full of food. Aditi, what is there to drink?”

“Sloth wine, I hope,” Labolas joked.

Gritting his teeth, the Tiamatish shook his head. Labolas laughed out loud.

“We’ll drink the water we carried,” Pinter said.

Back on the cart, swatting at the flies that too recently rested on feces, the crew ate voraciously. Aditi was the first to finish. When she started wrapping up her food for later, Scar grunted and motioned for it. She obliged begrudgingly. Pinter and Yusaf finished next, followed by N’Giwah and Labolas, and every time they left something on their plate, Scar took it and ate it. By the time he devoured everything, the crew was leering at him.

“It was supposed to be plenty for the ride to Budai,” Aditi puffed.

“Then, we’d best hurry,” Scar advised.

Muttering in dismay, they took back to the road. Many times, they stopped to let cows cross the street, and many times, the cows stopped in the middle of the road to loiter. Scar dropped his head in his hands and fidgeted. N’Giwah noticed his distress and chuckled. The brute cocked an eye at him and frowned, touched his rumbling belly, wiped a bead of sweat from his brow, and returned his head to his hands. The ripping sound of broken wind resonated, vibrating the wood beneath them.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Good Lord,” Labolas grimaced.

“You should not have eaten all that,” Aditi chastised.

“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” Scar agreed, frantically. “Now, where is there an outhouse?”

They stopped in front of a large home, an immense tract of land giving rise to myriads of groves. Scar fled from the cart, nearly knocking over citizens. In a thicket of underbrush, the pale warrior, who was paler than usual, squatted to relieve his agonies.

From his viewpoint, he noted a reflecting pond in front of the house. A golden statue of a cow was its crowning glory, and behind the cow, stood the giant home, a three story monstrosity long as several barns. Khmerans darted about hurriedly, servants of the master of the house. He saw them rush between ornate pillars, which supported a veranda. Once done with his business, he returned to the cart.

“So, uh, how long till we reach Budai,” he asked, nonchalantly.

They stared holes in him, but the wagoneers took off again. It was rather late in the day, and as lazy clouds cluttered the sky, the group of weary travelers gave in to exhaustion, thus leaving Scar with his thoughts. He tuned out the squeaky wheels and far off moos, thinking about Ylithia. His meeting with Sahni was nearly at hand, and though he expected no good news, he held his breath for just the hope of seeing his sweet lover’s face.

Chapter Ten- Bound to a promise

 

 

 

 

 

 

The riders awoke when the wagoneers shouted something unintelligible. Upon rubbing their eyes, the group of travelers looked beyond the cart to see it was mid morning. They figured the next city was close by. Rolling, wilted meadows steadily sloped uphill, and the aroma of rain was heavy on the wind; cloud coverage provided a dreary view.

From the crest of the slope, Budai was visible, a sea of white and gold buildings. The cart masters kept pace down a bumpy trail and beyond travelers on foot, on horseback, and in other carts. Citizens traveled to and from the capitol of Nabalhi on business, and most all of them had livestock in tow; the Khmerans kept cows, goats, and chickens, and their odor overpowered the scent of rain.

“Good, more stink,” N’Giwah grumbled.

Dismissing the surly Tiamatish, Scar’s group nodded, smiled, waved, and mumbled greetings to the citizens of Budai. Though some cast dubious glances at the foreigners, the fact they rode with Khmerans was enough to stay their hands. Scar was glad of that and said as much to the priestess. Aditi reaffirmed that Khmerans were a peaceful people, but N’Giwah scoffed.

“Just smile for Sahni, alright?” Scar begged.

Slowly, N’Giwah parted his lips, revealing a lunatic’s contained grin. Labolas laughed, and the others snickered. A moment later, they were moving down stone streets; the wagon wheels squeaked and clacked, drowning out the ceaseless chatter of a fretting populace.

Budai was beyond thriving. Hundreds of thousands of people of all tribes rushed beyond the group. There were numerous Khmerans in colorful garb, Fafnirians wearing tunics and breeches, but there were also Nagish and Mireuans, who wore either steel armor or puffy clothes. Some Scultonians also walked the streets of the city; they wore very dark robes, gray and black, which accentuated their gray skin and purple eyes. Scar even saw Zmajans, who wore black leather, and Bollans, who although wore the colorful robes of the Khmerans, stuck out like sore thumbs due to their pitch-black, skin tone.

Among the tribesmen, Scar also noted two knights wearing black armor. They stood, facing each other; the motion of their hands indicative of conversation. Further down the street, there was a man wearing a gray tunic secured by a red sash. He was of an undetermined tribe. Paladin maybe? The warrior wondered. They certainly are. By some trinket stalls, a group of disheveled people wearing ratty furs jumped up and down like madmen.

Apart from the myriads of people, Scar saw long, rectangular, reflecting pools, immense buildings lining the streets—all of them were white with round rooves—and numerous shops and stands, where peddlers sold wares; it was a cluttered metropolis where even performers entertained for coin. It was a sight for the eyes and a treat for the ears, but it was a detriment to the nose. Mixed in with delectable perfumes were odors of animals, sweaty people, and spicy food.

Though innumerable groups traveled wide streets, carts stayed mostly in the center of the road, which was laden with dung. Horses trotted up and down the right or left sides, and foot traffic rushed along the extremes of the street; everyone had learned how to stay out of everyone else’s way, which was almost miraculous. Then, the sky opened up, and immense drops of rain pelted the city. Like a steady waterfall, the cacophony of rain obliterated everything else, including the smells.

“That’s a lot of rain,” Labolas yelled.

“This is nothing,” Aditi shouted back.

Within seconds, huge drops permeated the cart’s cover, and everyone was drenched. N’Giwah ran fingernails through his strip of hair, but drops dribbled down his face. Scar felt the cold on his scalp; rubbing the water away was an impossibility, so he dug out a blanket from their supplies—it, too, was drenched—and draped it over his head and shoulders.

Looking out and over the heads of his compatriots, the Dragon Slayer watched city folk run their errands unaffected by the downpour. Frowning, he wondered how far away Sahni’s palace was. After crossing two intersections and catching a glimpse of the complex transit system, a tall, rounded building came into view. From his perspective, he was unable to see its entirety, but it looked to be a tower. Then, he saw another one.

There were fewer people milling about the area as the street had narrowed. He turned around to have a look behind, and saw the same constructs; immense, white towers lined the street and atop them stood round rooves of gold, but they had peaks; they looked like round cloves of garlic. Budai held a majestic, regal essence, even during a downpour.

Inneshkigal, the impregnable palace, had been a sight to behold back in Tironis, and the aqueducts of Closicus were magnificent in stature, but Aviliya Hana, the palace of life, was just as spectacular. Once the wagoneers turned the cart ninety degrees and came to a halt, Scar poked his head from the cover to witness the splendor that was Sahni’s home. Aviliya Hana reached towards the heavens and stretched more than a thousand yards in both directions. Walkways and verandas spanned the architecture. Stunned by the sight, Scar was oblivious to his friends.

“Hey,” Labolas yelled into his ear. “Get out, you moose.”

“Sorry, I, it’s just…so big.”

All six of them jogged from the cart to find shelter beneath a walkway. There, Scar noticed far fewer citizens and many more guards; palace guards were easily recognizable. There were no women among them, just thin men denoted by wispy facial hair. They wore white turbans and carried twin scimitars held in place by blue sashes. Golden tunics of puffy silk covered slim figures, and the fierceness of the royal guards was enough to send a shiver through even Scar’s spine.

Aditi approached a tall man. They conversed quietly for a moment. The guard, a scowling warrior, cast a glance Scar’s way before nodding. Aditi then turned to face everyone.

“Ramir will lead us into the palace,” she said.

“This way,” the guard barked.

The group followed Ramir under cover of the walkway to a white door. He pulled it open, but didn’t hold it for anyone. Beyond the door, Scar noted a lavish room awash in gold; the walls were gold, the carpet was gold, golden vases and statuettes were set amidst colorful flowers on wooden tables, which lined the room, and paintings of cows were neatly set a dozen feet below the vaulted ceilings. Drapes of various colors hung from ornate posts, which supported the flamboyant arcades. Candles and lanterns sparkled against the glorious setting. Ramir hurriedly continued past scores of servants all dressed in blue; the group was led beyond several twists and turns. Eventually, they reached a vast room, a space large enough to be a home in itself.

Sitting on a pile of silky cushions was a man child wearing a puffy, golden, silk robe. The square jawed individual was neither young nor old, but the gaudy jewelry about her neck was sufficient to identify her as Rana Sahni; she ate fruit fed to her by half naked boys and girls, royal servants kneeling all around. Some of them fanned the rana with huge, silk fans mounted to thin, wooden handles. A great portrait over fifty feet in length hung on the gold wall behind her. As everyone came to a stop, just yards from Sahni, more guards spilled in from adjacent rooms, which were separated by shiny drapes.

“Rana Sahni, Aditi and the priests have returned with Scar,” Ramir stated, dryly.

Aditi, Pinter, Yusaf, and every other Khmeran averted their eyes in respect. Glances passed between N’Giwah, Labolas, and Scar. Obliging to custom, they lowered their heads for a moment.

“You have all done well. Thank you,” Sahni said.

“Thank you, Rana,” Scar replied.

“I trust my priests have informed you of my request.”

“Yes,” he answered, raising his eyes to meet hers. “I understand you desire a Dragon’s gem as a sign of peace.”

“I desire Kulshedra’s gem as a symbol of good will, but talks of peace are far from determined.”

“We have come a long way for peace,” N’Giwah interrupted.

“Who is this who dares to speak so informally?” she demanded.

“My apologies–” Aditi intervened.

“I have come before you as you have asked with my trusted friends; N’Giwah, kin of Jagongo, from Malababwe, and Labolas of Satrone. We mean no disrespect, Rana,” Scar stated. “I had been informed, however, that you were already set to meet with Jagongo and Longinus, and that all you asked of me was my Dragon gem.”

Sahni’s jaw clenched. Her brow furrowed. The servants gazed at her, fear in their eyes, and the guards reached for swords. She then smiled, and everyone calmed down.

“I am certainly ready to talk, yet I sense that you are withholding,” the rana claimed.

A sneer played across Scar’s visage. He shrugged, smirking, indicating her assertion truthful. Silence hung in the air as the two eyed one another.

“I,” the Dragon Slayer trailed off. His compatriots glanced at him. The priests glared at him. “I’m sorry…we’re getting off to a poor start. Here,” he said, slowly revealing his sword. He then pried the purple gem from his blade. Ramir stormed over to snatch it away. “I offer you Zmaj’s gem because my lover’s soul belongs to Kulshedra, so I must keep his gem with me.”

Suddenly, the guards were in an uproar, demanding obedience. Labolas and N’Giwah argued back, though they doubted their own claims that Scar was sincere in his offer. One of the guards took Labolas by the arm, and he jerked away.

“Peace, everyone, peace, please,” the giant howled over the commotion. “I’ll be honest; I have heard words that since Khmer is the Dragon of Life, she may be able to revive my dear Ylithia. Gilgamesh’s men killed her…and that is why I killed him in return. You want peace, Sahni, and I want to believe you, but too recently, the friends who suggested you might help revive her were killed when your soldiers, along with Mireuans, razed Butu. Much blood has been spilled, yet I offer you a Dragon’s gem in good faith…what I want is immaterial to forging peace.” He shook his head, frowning. “I…I am here diplomatically, and so I hope you still hold a meeting with Longinus and Jagongo in exchange for Zmaj’s gem, but I must know if Ylithia might be returned to me. Please, understand that I simply cannot hand over Kulshedra’s gem….”

The entire room had remained quiet while the Dragon Slayer spoke. Even the rain had ceased. Sahni nodded slowly; all eyes were upon her. N’Giwah looked a contained storm. Labolas fiddled with the scar on his face, thinking about the Khmerans that had nearly killed him.

Finally, Sahni huffed, and looking away in a tiresome fashion, she spoke. “For generations we Khmerans have battled with the Kulshedrans.” She eyed Labolas, pausing. “Gilgamesh, and Horthomesh before him, did slay my people in the name of peace. Those animals wanted only to take Alduheim for unknown reasons. Now, I have heard that there is proof regarding this business of Dragons, yet I remain skeptical, but Dragons or no, Gilgamesh and Zoltek are dead; peace is just before my eyes, but there is so much to discuss with the leaders of countries…as for you….”

Scar arched a brow. All eyes moved from Sahni to his. Shrugging with a frown, he awaited more. The rana handled the purple gem of Zmaj. She held it aloft and the light gleaming through windows near the ceiling reflected off its facets.

“I cannot help you.”

Gritting his teeth, the warrior took a long inhalation, hate welling in his chest. Labolas moved towards him, but Scar raised his hand dismissively. N’Giwah whispered something to the archer, but before they conferred with Scar, Sahni spoke again.

“I sense your pain,” she muttered. “I will accept the gem of Zmaj as an offer of good will, and I will confer with Longinus and Jagongo, and N’Giwah, you have my apologies for the attacks on Malababwen soil. I will send orders to halt the raids immediately.” She flicked her wrist, and one of her guards ran out of the palace hall like he was on fire. “This business of revival, however…I must say that whether Khmer is Goddess of Life or Dragon, there is no way to bestow life unto the dead. As you said, your lover’s soul is gone, perhaps trapped in the gem, but what you require is knowledge surrounding the secrets of death…not life.”

With his lips turned inwards, the Dragons Slayer looked to his boots and slowly nodded. “Then, there is nothing to be done?”

“There is nothing I nor Khmer can do….”

“I’m listening,” he breathed.

“I will tell you this; in order to secure peace, I must thwart Munir of Sudai, Donovan of Eltanrof, and Vamvos of Wuulefroth, but Takashi of Jinshuke is allied with Shinjuru of Zetsuru, and I have allied with them to keep my people safe. Furthermore, keeping them as allies has enraged Vamvos; I have lost him as an ally, and he will surely turn on me along with Takashi and Shinjuru in due time. Before I can deal with them, I must destroy Donovan. That will return support from Sudai, so you see, that brings me to my personal request.”

Tonguing his teeth, Scar tried to keep the alliances straight in his head; Sahni was providing illogical information—that both she and Vamvos had allied with their enemies to keep from fighting each other. Breaths were held while the rana’s proposition was pondered. In the end, he didn’t really know who was allied with whom, but he looked to Labolas, who nodded. The warrior then returned his attention to Sahni, figuring his compatriot capable of sorting out the details later.

“Should you accept, I will tell what you must do to reunite with your loved one; understand, I am uncertain of whether or not she can be returned to you, but if you are resolved to see her again, I suggest you travel to Eltanrof and slay Donovan. Once he is dead, you may kill Drac if you wish; that is not my concern, but with the boy’s death, Munir will support my struggle, and his alliance to Hashnora will have a beneficial effect upon my country.”

Labolas started rubbing the scruff on his face. Rather than speaking, he nudged Scar. When the Dragon Slayer eyed him, he gave another nod.

“Alright,” Scar said. “I’ll agree to head straight for Eltanrof if you can elucidate upon this business regarding Ylithia.”

Sahni nodded nearly imperceptibly for a few seconds. “You must seek out a man called Kiechiv; he is a Scultonian living in Balroa. I do not know where, but I know his name; they call him a necromage, one who communes with the dead.”

“I thought all Scultonians had power over the dead,” Scar interrupted.

Sahni glared at him, but he remained unaffected. “Yes…but you must find Kiechiv or you may as well give up on your dream of love.”

“Understood. Thank you for your kindness.”

“Once Donovan is dead, you may return to me, and I will return to you the gem of Zmaj; I have come to understand that you are on a quest to purge our world of Dragons. You must understand that is something quite difficult to accept—that all of our Gods are Dragons—yet I choose to believe that Kulshedra and Zmaj were Dragons…and that Khmer might be as well, since I hold her gem…. If we achieve some form of accord between Nabalhi, Malababwe, Closicus, Sudai, Satrone, and Usaj, I will also give you my gem, the gem of life, and my dear bow, Pranayama, as a symbol of peace, respect, and hope. If you fail to kill Donovan or betray my trust in anyway, I will make it the goal of Nabalhi and her allies to destroy you, Scar.”

“I,” he said but stopped to glance at his friends. He thought about having betrayed them for love. “I wouldn’t dream of it, Rana Sahni. You have been gracious, honest, kind, and helpful. You have my allegiance.”

“Excellent. Be gone, then; you have your mission.”

With that, the servants returned to their duties. Ramir began rushing Scar’s group out. By the time they meandered through the hallways and set foot outdoors, steam assaulted their sinuses; thin swirls of mist wafted over stone streets. The priests conversed with the guard while Scar regrouped with his friends.

“You swore allegiance to her?” N’Giwah was in disbelief.

“They were words,” Scar murmured. “I don’t intend to betray her, but you must understand my love for Ylithia.”

“We get it,” Labolas interceded, “and we have a plan. There’s no need for us to wait for Jagongo or Longinus; let the leaders make their peace talks. We’ll head for Eltanrof, though I dread advancing on King Donaghe.”

“Donaghe?” Scar was perplexed.

“That’s his family name,” Labolas said, flatly.

“Ah…so, what is the best way to handle the Dracos?”

“The Dracos are monsters,” N’Giwah heaved. “Though it has been our luck to be removed from them, they have spilled onto our borders from Alduheim on occasion…along with Kulshedrans.”

Eyes wandered to the archer. He chewed his lower lip, pondering a course of action. Aditi and her friends approached, disturbing his ruminations.

“Scar,” she chirped. “You were so eloquent. I think that went about as well as one could expect. I had no idea you were such a devoted man, though. I hope that you can find some resolution regarding Ylithia…those Scultonians are quite, eh, odd, but their power might be of use to you. This business with Donovan, however–”

Wincing, Scar waved her off. “I don’t think it wise for you three to involve yourselves beyond perhaps helping us out of Nabalhi absent conflict. Labolas, N’Giwah, and I will figure a plan to kill Donovan; she called him a boy, though. I mean, he’s not a child, right?”

“Ole’ Donnie’s in his early twenties,” Labolas replied.

“Um, all right,” Aditi said. “So, you don’t want our help?”

Scar turned to Labolas, who said, “Let’s find a place to rest for the night. We’ll discuss everything there.”

Chapter Eleven- A fool’s honor

 

Having purchased a modest room for a night, the crew argued passionately over the proper course of action. Scar wanted nothing more than a straight ride into Eltanrof to fight Donovan. He knew all too well the might of Draco warriors, so he attempted to convince his comrades to let him fight alone. Admonitions fell on deaf ears.

Labolas, being Kulshedran, believed himself safe to travel into Donovan’s territory, but Khmerans and Tiamatish were certain to be cut down, so Aditi proposed they travel in disguise through Malababwe and then south through Sudai. Labolas agreed, but N’Giwah wanted no one else to travel into his territory; he expressed doubt regarding Sahni’s promise to end the attacks on his borders, but Aditi remained adamant that Sahni was trustworthy, yet in an effort to maintain harmony between them all, Scar proposed they simply travel along the Malababwen border south through Alduheim and into Satrone. From there, he wanted to send the priests back to Nabalhi. They vehemently protested, adding that Scar required their presence to pass through Alduehim unscathed. An agreement finally solidified; the group of six was to travel into Satrone and then Sudai, and from there, to a town bordering Eltanrof called Noslala at the base of the Dracstag mountains separating Sudai from Eltanrof.

It was said that war waged heavily all through the mountains. Many raids from both sides fought to command a strategic trail that cut between two, live volcanoes. Munir staged attacks on Draco soil from Noslala, and Donovan fought back from Fontsborough. Labolas claimed it was a suicide mission; six people had no chance of fighting through the trail and clashing swords with Donovan, but Scar figured that since the young king was a hothead, who had taken the crown by killing his father, an open challenge to face the mighty Dragon Slayer, the man who had felled Gilgamesh and Zoltek, had to be met with honor.

Everyone agreed, and so as they journeyed ever south through the wilting cities of Satrone, they spread word that Scar was challenging Donovan. Two weeks of travel passed slower than a tree reaching for the Heavens, but word of the challenge did spread, and by the time the travelers rode through the sandy expanse of Sudai’s Bakhuar desert, messages from both Donovan and Munir were received.

One letter was an invitation to the city of Bakhuh; the Sultan of Sudai wanted to meet the brazen challenger and lend his support. The letter from Eltanrof was a simple warning; Donovan claimed to rip Scar apart with his bare hands if he was able to make it through the Dracstag trail. One, balmy night in Bakhuh, by the light of oil lamps, Scar and his friends met with Munir in a smoke bar that had been converted into a bunker.

 

****

 

Dozens of Gyosh soldiers clad in reinforced leathers surrounded Scar and his men. Firelight danced all around the tavern’s interior, casting wicked shadows. Soldiers puffed from hookahs and whispered to one another regarding the arrival of Scar and his crew. After having been offered seats at a long table, the weary travelers waited for the esteemed Munir; tension hung in the smoke filled room.

“Stand for Sultan Munir Sadat,” someone called out.

Everyone’s attention was drawn to the stairs at the back end of the establishment. Gyosh soldiers slowly filed down the steps. Among them was Munir, an unimpressive man, short and chunky, wearing a white bandana that covered his left eye. A jagged scar was visible beyond the cloth. On his hip—held in place by an orange sash—was a curved blade, and its pommel held a peculiar, orange gem.

Once the men cleared the stairs and made their approach, Scar noted there were no women among the soldiers, just tall, lanky, hairy men with bushy beards. Unlike Munir, whose short, black hair sprung wildly from his head, the soldiers wore open face cowls as protection from the desert sun. Finally, Munir reached his seat, the only cushioned seat in the bar, and before sitting, he adjusted his red, silk doublet over his paunch. Scar stared into his beady eye.

“Welcome to Bakhuh, Scar,” Munir said, taking his seat. “It is an honor to have the warrior who has slain Zoltek before me.”

“The honor is mine,” Scar replied, stoically.

“You show respect. That is good,” the sultan said, turned to one of his own, and snapped his fingers. Immediately, a feast of smoked meats, stewed vegetables, and fresh juices was served. Scar’s friends wasted no time in devouring the delectable meal. “Eat, Scar. Dine with us.”

The warrior nodded, stuffed some chicken down his gullet, and thanked the country of Sudai for a fine reception. “I am here because I received your letter.”

“I know, but we will speak of war after pleasantries have been exchanged,” Munir said and snapped his fingers again. Men started playing wind and string instruments. Scantily clad, young men and women strode from darkened corners and began dancing to the melody. “We are a country rich in culture, you see? We have tried to extend our benevolence beyond our borders, but our enemies have revealed the ugly soles of their boots to us in return; Gilgamesh, who dared to ally with the barbarians of Eltanrof, Zoltek, who claimed that only Zmajans have the privilege of walking the world, Hashnora, and his false claims of future events, all of them an affront to peace and civility. Our only allies in times of war have been the Khmerans, an honorable people, who respect life, but of late, Sahni has made poor decisions, yet I understand that the rana must do as is required to protect her borders, but the raids on Malababwen soil are an act of war.”

“At least you acknowledge the Tiamatish for their tranquil ways,” N’Giwah said.

A scowl worked over Munir’s face. His black eye twinkled by the light of flames. Silence washed over the room.

“You have our apologies, Sultan,” Labolas interceded. “I’m sure N’Giwah didn’t mean to speak out of turn.” While Munir’s expression softened, N’Giwah sucked his tongue. “Please, Munir, let us hear more of your wisdom.”

“Thank you, Kulshedran; it is good to see someone knows his place,” Munir spat. Scar tried to remain calm. It was evident the rumors of Munir’s temper rivaling only that of Donovan’s were accurate. “Sahni…she has come to realize her errors, and her cunning is respectable to have secured your aid, pale warrior. Yes, Donovan must be defeated, a resolution I have been unable to enact; the Dracstags are a formidable barrier, and we have no navy to attack his ports. Furthermore, due to our previous ceasefire with Gilgamesh, I had been able to march troops through Satrone, but with his death, the Dracos have annexed a portion of the country, thwarting any surprise raids, so it is good that we have all met here tonight.”

Labolas’s brow furrowed. Scar turned to him. A look passed between the two, and the warrior knew his friend feared the implications.

“Well, all of that is the business of rulers,” Scar breathed. “I am here to report that Sahni requests your aid, and in return, she has commissioned me to defeat Donovan. We have spread word of a challenge, knowing that he is a fool; his temperament cannot allow him to decline my challenge—his people would turn on him—but he is fearful, and calls us to brave the trails through the mountains before facing him. Upon his death, you will no longer have the Dracos warring at your southern border, so there will be no need to march troops through Satrone, and instead, you may return to spreading your…culture.”

Gritting his crooked teeth, Munir said, “You dare to imply orders for my people?”

“I dare to imply that your wisdom and ferocity is best spent against powerful enemies and not the defeated people of Satrone, Usaj, or Eltanrof, but it is certainly your will, which spreads across the southeastern expanse. I am here—as you can plainly see—to speak on behalf of the rana and kill the Draco king; Sahni is all but ready to mount attacks upon her enemies, but she is far too weak to win without your aid. I will defeat Donovan for her because that is her offer of good will to you. I hope you can respect my directness.”

The Khmeran priests fidgeted, offended by the claims of Sahni’s weakness, but they knew Scar was simply stroking Munir’s ego. The sultan was a veritable madman and almost as treacherous as Zoltek. Breaths were held for a moment, but once again, Munir relaxed in his seat. He then laughed.

“They told me you were fearsome, Scar. I did not know you were also shrewd; you try to sway me, manipulate me with words…something you must have learned from your time with that Fafnirian,” the sultan sneered.

Scar’s friends turned to him; the stony look in his eye indicative of ruthlessness. Though he was on the verge of crushing Munir’s fat face between his hands, he smiled a contained grin.

“You have seen through me,” he admitted. “You have my apologies for offending you and my respect for foiling my plots. Nevertheless, I am here to kill Donovan, and I have come to see you because you have sent for me.”

“Yes, yes,” Munir reveled in his own cockiness, licking his greasy lips. “You also learn your place quickly, but I see that Sudai’s graciousness is lost on you; that is immaterial. I will allow you to travel with my Solar Hand, the most powerful worshippers of Gyo, and I will join you, if only to see Donovan fall. Rest tonight…tomorrow morning, once Gyo graces us with light, we will ride for the trail, and we will burn our way to Fontsborough.”

The sultan snapped his fingers one more time; the musicians cleared out, the dancers cleared out, servants quickly cleaned the tables, and the soldiers returned to chatting. Scar and crew observed the speedy efficiency of the Gyosh. Labolas glanced at Munir and caught a malevolent twinkle in his eye.

“You may find your way out, Scar,” the sultan heaved and stood from his seat. “I wish I could say it has been a pleasure,” he sneered and added, “but I can say this has been most constructive.”

“Yes. Let us kill your enemies. After that, we will hope for friendship.”

The two nodded. Munir was then escorted back up the steps. Labolas practically dragged Scar out of the building. In the chilly night, and marching across a sandy extent to reach their cart, they passed several tents. Chatter of men and women resonated over the wind. The scent of tobacco graced nostrils. Upon reaching the cart, some distance from glowing torchlight and surrounded by old, sandstone homes, Scar and his crew congregated under the glow of a half moon.

“He is an animal,” N’Giwah spat. “I wanted to tear him apart right then.”

“Rana Sahni had warned us of his brutish behavior,” Aditi said. “All that culture speak is an affront to us, who truly believe in peace.”

“Quiet, quiet,” Labolas intervened. “Listen, he’s going to kill us.”

“What?” the Khmerans were aghast.

“He’s right,” Scar sighed. “He wants to help us only until Donovan is dead, right?”

“Yes,” Labolas nodded, effusively. “The Solar Hand is powerful beyond belief, or they were before the deaths of Kulshedra and Zmaj; I can’t imagine how strong they are now. To send them with us and for him to join…there is no other reason but to kill us; he wants Satrone and Usaj, and should he conquer those people, and those of Eltanrof, he’ll march on Closicus, Malababwe, and Nabalhi.”

“You have a plan?” N’Giwah interrupted.

“Not yet, but I’m working on it,” the archer trailed off.

“The plan is to cut his fat head off his body as soon as Donovan is dead…maybe even before Donovan is dead,” Scar breathed. “That Fafnirian…how dare he–”

“I know. I thought we were about to go war in that tavern,” Labolas shook his head, desperately. “But words are words. You played him well.”

“There is a problem in killing that worm,” N’Giwah admonished. “Sahni expects his assistance. If he is killed, she will not be able to fight her enemies, and she may turn on my people…and your people, Labolas, and perhaps others; she may have to bow to Takashi or even Hashnora. You remember how she threatened him.”

Scar nodded and winced. “She did promise our deaths were certain if I betrayed her.”

“You’re right,” Labolas said, rubbing his face. “However, Munir’s cousin, the next, oldest male, will be able to take the throne.”

“Even if I kill Gyo,” Scar asked; a furrow on his brow.

“Well,” the archer gave way to ruminations, “without the power of Gyo, they may no longer be willing to lend Sahni assistance, but they’ll no longer be a threat to anyone, nor will they be under siege if the Dracos have also lost their blessings, but there can be no delay between the deaths of Drac and Gyo; you must kill them both as soon as possible, unless you intend to kill Munir on the trail, kill Donovan, kill Drac, and then simply hold on to Gyo’s gem until after having returned to Sahni. The Gyosh will remain powerful, and Munir’s cousin, Bashar, will lend Nabalhi support.”

“I don’t intend to return to Sahni anytime soon,” Scar said.

“Why?” Aditi exclaimed. “You have promised to assist us!”

“I am assisting you, but I must see Kiechiv. I will kill Munir tomorrow, and then I will kill Gyo…then, I will travel alone to Fontsborough and kill Donovan and Drac. From there, I will go and see Artimis; I hope he can take me to Balroa.”

“Have you lost your mind?” N’Giwah barked. “We are in this together. You will not leave us again.”

“Friend, please; there is much the five of you must do. Khmerans, you must return to Sahni as soon as possible, perhaps even now, lest you fall to Gyosh hands. N’Giwah and Labolas, you must also try and rally the fallen people of Tiamhaal; they must help to fight the blessed tribes in order to restore balance,” Scar claimed. “Once Drac and Gyo are dead, who knows how the tables will turn…what if striking them down truly gives Hashnora foresight? What if he already knows the future?”

“Damn it, he’s right,” Labolas grumbled. He then addressed the others. “Scar can take out Munir and the Solar Hand all his own…he should even be strong enough to take out Donovan with ease, though keep in mind that his power will increase as well.”

“I know,” the Dragon Slayer frowned. “This is my burden…and my will to slay these Dragons is unrivaled; I will kill these men by myself.”

“It is unwise for us to leave you now,” N’Giwah stated. “If we leave without your help, we may be killed by these heathens on our way back north.”

“No, they won’t have any powers after Gyo’s death, but we will,” Aditi argued.

“That’s true,” Scar said. “And besides, you should ride west into Satrone. The Kulshedrans are good people.”

“That is debatable,” N’Giwah countered.

“All the tribes are good and bad,” Labolas huffed. “We’ll be safest if we leave now.”

Pinter cleared his throat. “I don’t think we’ll be going anywhere tonight.”

They looked from him to the distance. The Gyosh had patrols moving throughout Bakhuh on camelback. Scar’s crew fidgeted in aggravation; they were not guests of Munir, they were unwilling puppets.

“Well…we can still march with the Solar Hand tomorrow, and kill them in the mountains,” Scar suggested.

“That’ll make it impossible for us to travel back into Sudai,” Labolas rebutted. “I agree, though; we should kill them, and then you can fight Donovan while we try to ride into Usaj.”

“That won’t be an easy task,” Aditi stated. “We will have to wait for the death of Drac or the Dracos will kill us before we cross the border, and even in Usaj, we may yet fall to the hands of the Zmajans. We should hide in the mountains while Scar fights Drac. Once the beast is defeated, you must return to us, Scar.”

All eyes were on the brute. He tried to reason out a course of action. If we all survive the Solar Hand, my friends will be safe. Then, it is just a matter of fighting Donovan and Drac.

“Yes, you’re right, Aditi. I will kill Drac and return.”

“Alright, it’s settled,” Labolas sighed. “Let’s try to get some rest.”

“I’ll keep watch,” Scar volunteered. “I do not trust these Gyosh.”

The travelers started erecting a small tent. With the use of cloths and some thin, wooden poles, they extended cover from the back of the cart and made a cozy, little refuge. Moments after everyone fell asleep, N’Giwah approached Scar.

“What is it?”

“I was just thinking about something Munir said,” the Tiamatish looked concerned. Scar arched a brow. “He spoke ill of Hashnora—that his claims to foresee are false—yet Sahni insinuated that Munir’s association with Hashnora was to be beneficial to her plans for fighting Vamvos.”

“And I thought she and Vamvos were allied at one time against the wind or water people….”

Shaking his head and wincing, N’Giwah added, “I fear for us…not our safety, but….”

“As you said too recently; let us handle one thing at a time, lest all our planning keeps us from seeing the enemy who strikes from darkness.”

The earth warrior turned away as he patted Scar’s shoulder. Then, he crawled back inside the cart. The giant sniffed once, rubbed his head, and looked up to the clear and star speckled sky. Who is planning what here?

Chapter Twelve- Finding Edin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At first light, Scar watched a battalion of Gyosh soldiers make their approach. Behind bearded men wearing turbans and reinforced, leather armor, were some thirty men and women wearing yellow turbans. Orange sashes held swords in place over white, silk doublets. A terrible heat was already in the air.

“Ready your men,” a soldier ordered Scar.

“Right.”

As the soldiers marched due south, towards the base of the Dracstag Mountains, the other thirty men and women, all of whom towered over Munir, stopped in cadence to leer at Scar’s crew. The Khmerans quickly dismantled their makeshift camp, stacked the supplies onto the wagon, and started to board.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Munir barked.

“We’re coming with you,” Labolas answered in disbelief.

“Leave the cart and horses; you won’t brave these trails with those pack mules.”

“Tell us what to do,” Scar heaved.

“Fall in line behind the soldiers. The Solar Hand will take the rear.”

“Fine,” Scar replied. “You heard him. Let’s go.”

N’Giwah glared at the sultan, who kept his eye focused on the Tiamatish. The Khmerans looked to the ground, and Labolas and Scar acted aloof. By the time they reached a polite distance from the soldiers, the terrain inclined steeply over rugged limestone. Scar’s crew was perspiring profusely.

“When do you want to attack?” Labolas whispered to Scar.

The brute turned around to glance at the Solar Hand; their eyes betrayed a malevolent ferocity. “Soon. This trail must bend through those cliffs at some point.”

A rocky landscape was difficult to traverse, but the Gyosh were unhindered as though their feet, their knees, were designed for mountainous travel. Puffs of dried dust whipped away from the soldiers’ march, and by noon, they had all climbed into the lowest of peaks. Cliffs and mesas spanned the view in a panorama of sandy colors; buff, beige, and light browns.

Scar expected the Gyosh to break for rest, but they trudged on like men possessed; they feared not the sun, nor the treacherous, arid environment. Unfortunately for Scar, the heat was burning his scalp. He glanced at his compatriots; Labolas drank a great deal of water, N’Giwah kept flinging sweat from his head and face, and the Khmerans hid beneath their cowls. There was such an eerie silence causing pangs of uncertainty throughout the slog. None of the soldiers spoke, no desert birds cried, only bugs zipped by; some of them gnats, which assaulted the eyes for moisture. Worst of all, the occasional far off scream indicated people warring in the distance.

Once the sun was at its zenith, the heat became unbearable. All of Scar’s men staggered and stumbled, but the Solar Hand didn’t snigger at their weakness, nor did they provide sympathetic words; they were automatons designed to press onwards.

The Dragon Slayer wondered about their powers. Labolas had mentioned they commanded burning lights, but to what end and how much more potent they had grown since the defeat of the Dragons, he didn’t have a clue. His ponderings were cut short when the sound of marching grew louder. From around a craggy hill, more Gyosh soldiers trod towards them, and once the two battalions were close, they all came to a halt.

“Thank the Gods,” Labolas heaved and plunked down.

The ground itself was uncomfortably warm, but Munir and the Solar Hand stomped past him and the battalion to meet with someone from the other group. Words were exchanged. Scar strained to listen.

“They are speaking of the Dracos,” N’Giwah elucidated. All eyes were upon the dark warrior. “They are saying that Donovan has sent three of his generals with thousands of men to head us off. The Draco king certainly wants us all dead before crossing the mountains.”

“That might prove to us beneficial,” Aditi said.

“I’m still not certain about this,” Yusaf admitted. “Sahni needs Munir’s support to fight Vamvos.”

“No, she just needs me to kill Slibinas,” Scar corrected.

“Besides,” Labolas interjected after pulling a canteen from his mouth. “We’ll never make it out of here alive if we don’t kill Munir, and Khmerans will grow more powerful following the deaths of Drac and Gyo.”

Scar nodded, but he wasn’t really paying attention. He looked up into the pale, blue sky. There were no clouds at all, and the entire extent of brownish hills and distant peaks looked inhospitable. There were no plants in their vicinity, the glaring sun was excruciating, and wavy heat distorted everything in the distance.

“March!” Munir howled.

Due to the tightness of the corridor—scarp cliffs had everyone corralled—the battalions exhibited some difficulty in maneuvering past each other. After a momentary struggle, during which Scar and crew were once more sandwiched between the Gyosh standard and the Solar Hand, they began another quiet trek. Haggard breaths quickly shot forth from Scar’s crew, but they maintained pace; two hundred yards before them, hide boots stomped the ground, and less than a hundred yards behind them, hide sandals made barely a sound.

Pinter kicked a rock, cried out, and stumbled to the ground. The other priests quickly helped him to his feet. He appeared to sprain his ankle on a loose stone, but Khmerans were quick to heal, and a second later, they were hiking in cadence again.

“How are you two faring,” Scar asked his friends.

“Just so damned hot,” Labolas said.

N’Giwah remained silent, but he gave a nod to indicate he was fine. It was then that Scar wondered after the effect dead Dragons had upon the Tiamatish; not long ago, the dark warrior had been able to mold stone with a touch of his hands. I wonder if he can do more now…he certainly doesn’t seem worried about his safety. Scar glanced at the priests. Unless their heads come off, they’ll be alright, but what about Labolas? The two shared a look, but nothing was said.

Hours of plodding beneath the brutal sun and ever upwards through rougher terrain and more, loose stones provided the Dragon Slayer ample time to mentally review his plan. He knew that once they reached a place where the standard battalion was out of sight, he had only one chance to strike down Munir, but then he needed time to pry the gem from Ereshkigal, the sultan’s blade, and work it into his own, and during that time, not only was the Solar Hand poised to strike back, but the soldiers, overhearing the commotion, were going to backtrack and inspect the incident, and even if Scar’s group had a chance to flee or fight, he still required time to kill Gyo and return to lend a hand. The uncertainty gnawed at him, but there was no other option; they all stood a chance of dying against thousands of Dracos, and even if they survived the hazardous trail to defeat Donovan, Munir wasn’t going to let them live. I must do this quickly.

He clicked his tongue, rolled his shoulders, and popped the joints of his thumbs with his index fingers. Both N’Giwah and Labolas recognized his display; the archer drew a breath, and the Tiamatish scratched the strip of hair on his head. Another hour of marching passed in monotony. Then, the unmistakable clomp of more troops sounded. Munir called out to halt once more.

As the soldiers all relaxed for a short reprieve, the oncoming masses of Gyosh from the southern cliffs appeared—injured soldiers wearing bloodied gear. They made allegations that the Dracos outnumbered them three to one. Eyeing them as they spoke, Scar glanced at the Solar Hand, their winces indicative of disinterest. He leaned over to speak with N’Giwah.

“I’m going to attack soon,” Scar warned.

“I am ready when you are.”

“Listen,” Scar continued. Labolas and the priests drew closer. “I’m going to act tired; I want you all to do the same. I’ve no doubt slowing our pace will enrage Munir, but the soldiers ought to remain marching in cadence, so I’m going to throw a fistful of dirt in his face, cut him down, and steal his sword. I’ll need time to pry the gem from it, and I have no idea how long my fight with Gyo will last.”

As his crew’s faces twisted with concern, the Dragon Slayer peeked at the enemies. They were stoic; a hatred for Dracos gave them an iron will. A sudden rumble accosted the very ground, but the Dragon Slayer and his crew were the only ones disturbed by the event. Scar leaned over to N’Giwah, ready to ask about the oddity. Unfortunately, Munir approached. He stood before Scar’s group, tapping his foot.

“What can I do for you, Sultan,” Scar asked.

“Khmerans, you are priests,” Munir trailed off.

“Yes,” Aditi obliged.

“Tell me…has Khmer’s power grown?”

“Well, certainly, but I–”

“Heal my wounded soldiers,” Munir demanded.

“I am sorry, Sultan, but there is no way to heal someone who is not Khmeran.”

The pudgy man’s dark face creased in a malicious glower. Whatever notions he had in mind took precedence over the minor quake. He stepped closer, invading the priestess’s personal space and slightly turned his head to stare. The two began to argue; Munir called her a liar, and she tried to maintain her uselessness, but N’Giwah slowly crouched to fiddle with his boots. He dug his fingers into loose soil, closed his eyes, turned his face to the sky, and took a deep breath.

All eyes were on the argument, even Scar and Labolas attempted to placate the ravenous man, but neither the standard soldiers, the wounded ones, nor the Solar Hand had the courage to approach the sultan, who by then was frothing at the mouth. He spat insults, made wild allegations that Khmer was an evil Dragon, and that Sahni was a trickster, but N’Giwah was working his powers. No longer able to stomach the swine-like sultan, he allowed the sand and rocks to crawl up his forearms, up his shoulders, over his feet, and up his legs.

He stood, suddenly shouting at Scar. “Now!” The Dragon Slayer’s eyes went wide as everyone turned to the Tiamatish warrior; he was nearly covered in sandy stone, and when he threw his hands overhead, a barrier of limestone formed around Scar’s crew and Munir. “Cut him down, Scar!”

The brute needed no more incentive; he kicked Munir in the chest, and when the sultan bounced of the stony barrier, Scar maneuvered the blade off his back, spun it, and cleaved the Gyosh in half. Though shouts and screams erupted from the others beyond the barrier, there was no way to thwart N’Giwah’s magic. Scar immediately pulled Ereshkigal from the sultan’s bloody corpse, pried the orange gem loose, and forced it into his great sword.

 

****

 

Pressure wracked Scar’s body. A piercing whistle rattled his brain. His muscles pulled away from his bones, and he struggled to breath, to open his eyes, but there was such a glare all around him. The ringing in his ears subsided, and as his vision cleared, he witnessed an expanse of something akin to glowing, orange terracotta; light spilled from the cracks in the ground, and above him, a low sky of golden fire sparked and crackled.

What are you that defiles Edin?!” a raspy voice demanded in a tone like raging infernos.

Whipping about in an effort to behold the Dragon, Scar caught sight of shimmering, gold scales; a snake-like body undulated from within the oppressing sky. “I am Sarkany, the Dragon Slayer!”

There is no such thing!”

“There is. I am here to cleanse the world of your kind, Dragon.”

You are but a fool, a machination of the Gods.”

“No! I am more than that; I am the harbinger of change. Prepare yourself, beast, your end draws near.”

He doubted himself, though; apart from a clawed foot of gold scales poking from the burning sky, he had not seen the entirety of Gyo. Scar gripped his blade tightly, regulated his breathing, and spread his feet for balance. A gout of flames large as a home exploded from overhead. There was no way to dodge, and cringing, Scar braced himself for an early demise, yet there was no heat, no impact, only a blinding flash. Once it subsided, he witnessed something miraculous; there was a sparkling barrier surrounding his form; it was the same as the power Gilgamesh had wielded during their duel.

What’s this? You manipulate the powers of my brethren? How?!” Gyo thundered.

“I don’t know,” Scar whispered in disbelief. Could it be? He gazed at the glowing gem of Kulshedra, and taking a long inhalation, he focused on a minute vibration, which flowed through his entire being. From it, he forced his attention upon his armor, and the steel plate from his chest expanded, unleashing more plates until he was covered as Gilgamesh was. Confidence filled his bones. “Come at me, Dragon. Show me the might of Gyo!”

His voice was unfamiliar to him, metallic. Another burst of flame from the sky forced the warrior to shut his eyes.

Let us see how you handle the sun itself,” the Dragon raged.

A maw protruded from the flames; it was a strange beast with thick whiskers, a mammalian snout, and a bushy beard, yet the razor sharp teeth bearing down upon the warrior parted; Gyo unleashed another gout of flame. Closing his eyes, Scar ran forwards to strike the Dragon’s maw. No sooner had his sword vibrated in his grip from the impact, that Gyo curled upon himself and swiped his tail. The blow sent Scar, barrier and all, sailing and skidding. Reaching out at the hot ground to halt, the Dragon Slayer scrambled to his feet in time to see the great, shining Gyo swimming towards him. Spinning to the side, Scar clipped the beast’s opened mouth, cutting through his cheek.

Gyo hissed like hundreds of exploding geysers, yet he curled his serpentine body again, gripped the man in his rear talon, thus shattering the barrier in a glimmering display, and immediately started an ascent into the flaming sky. It was evident Gyo was a fiercer Dragon than his brothers, Zmaj and Kulshedra, and Scar feared the flames raging over Edin. Fighting the pressure from a speedy flight, he braced his boot against a massive thigh, slashed as he twisted his body, and sliced through golden armor. The injury near the Dragon’s abdomen halted the beast for a second, and Scar capitalized by thrusting his blade deep into the wound and twisting. The Dragon dropped the warrior, and he plummeted back to the terracotta.

Looking up, he saw only flames. “Where are you, Dragon?!”

From landing on hand and knees, he righted himself and spun around in time to receive another gush of fire. Unable to erect a barrier in time, the agonizing heat charred his skin, but before severe injury was done, Gyo took him by the legs and flew just above the ground, scraping the warrior along the way. Such rage and fury welled from within the giant, he screamed and jammed his blade into the ground; the act freed him from the Dragon’s grasp, but as Gyo flew over him, he struck him across the helmet with his tail, and once more, the Dragon of the Sun vanished into the sky.

The bladesman staggered about, panting, waiting for his body to heal, waiting for the Dragon to reappear. A tingle accosted his spine, and he looked up to see spread jaws ready to end him. With a mighty, war cry, Scar focused on the power of Kulshedra; an explosion of energy propelled him and his blade ever upwards, through the monster’s palate, through his skull, and as the once ferocious Gyo crumpled like wet rope, Scar careened from the sky amidst shattered scales and into the mass of golden mist swirling away from the dead Dragon.

Writhing around the disintegrating innards, Scar felt the pressure of Edin’s rupture. With the beast dead, and its soul entering the gem, the whole of the Dragon’s realm shattered, leaving Scar in a heap.

 

****

 

Gasping for air and struggling to come to his feet, Scar rolled around the dusty ground. He saw flashes of blue sky, dark, leather leggings, some robes. A hand reached out, and as he took it, sounds exploded into his ears.

“Scar, Scar, get up!” Labolas was frantic.

His friends were in shock to see him wearing strange armor, but the blade—along with the fact that he had vanished from sight a moment earlier and suddenly reappeared—was enough to identify him as their leader.

“Where are they?” he demanded.

“The Gyosh,” Aditi asked. “N’Giwah is still holding them at bay.”

Glancing around, he noted that a stony wall yet surrounded them, but the Gyosh on the other side screamed bloody murder. “People,” Scar shouted. Witnessing what looked like a man of stone, he took a moment to catch his breath. “Gyosh warriors! I have killed Munir, but I have also killed Gyo, the Dragon of the Sun. You must heed my words; I am not your enemy. I am the enemy of Dragons, and you must listen to me!”

His friends looked at him, but their expressions were that of wonder, amazement, anxiety; he shook his head, swallowed, and added over the yelling, “Surely, you must understand that your warriors on the battlefield have also lost their blessings. The Dracos will slaughter them all if you do not let me go and face Donovan. I implore you. I am not your enemy. I am the Dragon Slayer, and you must allow my friends to speak with you.”

He stopped pleading for a second, long enough to notice the sound of rapacious men subsided. The Gyosh remained argumentative, though, making claims that death was due in kind, but there remained only a hint of hatred in their voices. Scar and his crew all traded glances.

“I don’t suppose you can make a hole in your wall so I can talk to them,” Scar asked N’Giwah.

The rocky warrior took a breath. He closed his eyes, and a circular opening manifested. Scar approached it to look upon fatigued, scared, and angry faces. They stared back at the armored man. Most of them were quiet. Others still argued and demanded blood from the background. A few begged for their kinsmen beyond the Draco border.

The giant relaxed, allowing the armor to peel away from his body. Upon completion, only the steel on his chest and gauntlet remained.

“Will you listen to me? There isn’t much time. I must fight Donovan to save your warriors on the battlefront.”

“Speak, speak,” some shouted back. Again, others bickered with their compatriots. “Out with it or die,” a member of the Solar Hand demanded.

Hurriedly, Scar explained that he was not working for Sahni, but had helped her in exchange for peace between Nabalhi, Closicus, and Malababwe. “We must all unite against the Dragons. They have lied and manipulated you all for eons. I am here to end these wars, and while I will cut down any who stand in my way, I have no desire to harm those who strive for accord. I beg of you; elect a new leader, unite with the people of Usaj and Satrone, march to Nabalhi and demand peace with Sahni, Longinus, and Jagongo. My friends will help you; we are agents of peace; we are the demise of the Dragons!”

Some hollered back that he was a madman, that there were no Dragons—that he had assured their death—and they intended upon him the same.

“Damn it, people, listen to me,” Labolas yelled. “I once felt as you do. Scar killed Gilgamesh, but then he killed Kulshedra, the Dragon, and all of your powers increased while we lost ours. He then killed Zoltek and Zmaj, and again, you grew more powerful while they lost their blessing. Let him kill Donovan and Drac, and you will have nothing more to fear. I promise you, we are working towards peace for everyone; we must wrest ourselves free from these Dragons, and only then will the nations of Tiamhaal end the ceaseless wars. Are you not tired of fighting everyday, of your brothers and sisters falling to the hands of enemies?”

The Gyosh agreed they were, but they had no trust for Scar or his men. Killing their sultan had been a devastating blow, and heeding the words of enemies was tantamount to treason, especially enemies blathering about Dragons.

“Mighty, Gyosh warriors,” Scar hollered. “I ask you only once more; let me journey through this trail and into your enemy’s country. I will do to them what I have done to you, but if you do not bow to reason, I will force you to bow to my blade.”

He then focused on the power of Kulshedra, and again, the warrior clad himself in seamless, plate mail. “You cannot defeat me, and I do not want to kill you, but I will if that is the only way to reach Eltanrof. Now, heed my friends’ words; they will guide you towards peace.”

Quiet murmurs washed throughout the crowd. Many of them felt listless from the loss of their blessing, and as their resentment waned, they began questioning Scar’s claims. The warrior turned to N’Giwah and nodded. The Tiamatish allowed the debris to fall from his skin, revealing a skeptically arched brow.

“As a sign of good will, we will lower this barrier. Speak to my friends. They will guide you,” Scar promised.

N’Giwah did minimize his stony creation to a circle of roughly waist height. Some of the soldiers fiddled with their weapons. The Solar Hand looked the most fearsome and ready to strike, but Scar pointed his sword at them.

“You use your voices, not your blades. I must go and kill Donovan now, or too many of your kin will die by Draco hands. What say you? Are you ready to talk?”

“Please, warriors,” the archer added. “I am Labolas Sulas, son of the late General Sulas, who killed himself after revealing he knew of the Dragons. This is N’Giwah, kin to Jagongo, who has witnessed the Dragons beneath the stones of Alduheim, and these Khmeran priests are here only to secure aid in spreading safety and tranquility across our troubled lands. Stay your swords. We have plans of action in order to unite against the evils in this world. Will you speak with us? Are we not all here to bring an end to mindless murder?”

The Gyosh became more contained. Some of them still quarreled. Others claimed paladins had been spreading similar lies from time immemorial, yet the initial rage and hatred had quelled. Scar glanced at Labolas, who gave a simple nod and tightlipped smile, so the Dragon Slayer danced on his feet, hopped over N’Giwah’s wall, and took off at full run past scores of bereft soldiers, who only gaped in the face of uncertainty.

Chapter Thirteen- What prayer may come

 

It was nearly morning by the time Scar reached an ominous precipice. He stood by the edge, looking down into the darkness. Shaking a bit at the knees—he didn’t like heights—a frown creased his face after spotting intermittent bursts of orange lights. The war cries of Draco soldiers echoed across the land, and with their cheers, the ground shook.

He squatted for balance and safer observation. Hundreds of feet below him, remnants of Sudai soldiers tried to battle the oncoming swarms of barbarians in kilts. The death of the Dragon left the people of Sudai in a poor state; they fought back with their blades, but gouts of flames and balls of fire coupled with thousands of swinging weapons decimated their forces.

I have to get down there, Scar thought. He had already ran past two battalions of injured Gyosh and skirted scarp walls of brown stone to avoid conflict, yet the battlefield was far beneath him. Biting his lip and searching for a way down, the Dragon Slayer hopped over loose boulders and stout bushes; avoiding the natural trail in the Dracstags prevented variance with the Gyosh, and he had no intention of wasting time bickering with frightened, angry men, so he jumped down the side of a steep decline, landed on a flat expanse, rushed beyond a smooth mesa, and at the base of a thin, pine tree, he jumped down another dozen feet. The earth shook then, and a rumble worked through the mountains, an awful belch of a sound.

Wiping his head, Scar looked to the east; a spray of lava gushed from behind a distant cliff. Billows of ashy smoke covered the eastern skies. A volcano. That’s what’s been shaking the ground…I’d best be careful. Running in a westerly direction, the warrior continued downhill towards the field of battle. Echoes of shouts and cheers bounced off the cliffs; Dracos were nearby, chasing their enemies through the treacherous terrain.

“Damn it,” Scar grumbled. “I don’t want those people to die.”

Puffing, he rushed southwest, down a barely visible mountain goat trail, and spotted the impact of a ball of fire. It exploded in a bright array twenty feet to his right. Hiding behind a small hill, he watched shouting men and women cross swords. A beaten, Gyosh squadron clashed with frothing Dracos; the flame haired, orange eyed, branded warriors of Eltanrof fought like dervishes, crushing their opposition.

“Stop it! Stop fighting,” Scar shouted. He emerged from his post, ran into the mix, and knocked over warriors of both tribes. Hundreds of soldiers continued fighting, and members from each side attacked the pale giant. He easily parried a few strikes, found a pocket, rolled into it, and focused on the power of Kulshedra to animate his armor. “Stop it!” he howled again, utilizing a burst of energy from his palm to floor dozens.

“I am Scar! I have come to fight Donovan! Stop fighting each other!” Some of the Gyosh took off for safety. More Dracos assaulted him with immense hammers, wicked axes, and swords and shields. Exploding flames rendered the scene hellish, and scores of sun worshippers hit the ground, scrambling to put out their flaming attire. “Dracos! Gyosh! I have defeated Munir and Gyo, and now I am here to fight Donovan!” He head butted a muscular Draco in the face, kicked down a Gyosh, and unleashed another burst of energy to halt more barbarians. “Damn you, people. Can you not see you are fighting for nothing?!”

Some Gyosh shouted insults and turned their curved blades on Scar. The Dracos were no more receptive than their enemies and did the same. Clicking his tongue in disgust, the bladesman rushed to the south, towards the tail end of the barbarian formation.

“Yes! Turn your weapons on me! Let the Gyosh take flight! I am Drac’s enemy!” His declaration was sufficient to draw the fury of orange eyes. Several gouts of flame washed over his form, but apart from the brightness, which momentarily blinded him and stole his breath, his armor absorbed the modest heat. “I will continue cutting you down unless your leader fights me!”

True to his word, he cleaved one Draco, stepped back to deliver his pommel into the belly of another, thrust to impale a third, and then twisted his blade to knock the injured into his kinsmen. Finally, he held out his left palm to send another handful of fighters to the rocky soil.

“I challenge your leader! Where is he? Show yourself!”

“You will fight me!” a growling, female voice replied.

“Call off your dogs, and let the Gyosh flee; they are but shadows without the blessing of the sun. I am your challenger!”

Unable to see beyond the masses of hulking skirmishers, Scar only hoped the Gyosh had flown the trail, but over the whoops and hollers of his enemies, there was no way to be certain, yet the kilted warriors staid their weapons. They parted like ocean waves, and a fat, burly woman with scars on her face, and brands down her arms, strode towards the armored giant.

“What is your name,” Scar asked.

“I am Gilda of Pinewood, follower of Drac, and General of the Third Battalion,” the woman replied in a reverent tone.

“I am Scar, slayer of Dragons, and I beseech you; let the Gyosh run; they are defeated. Their sultan is dead by my hand as is their Dragon Lord. Now, I’ve no wish to kill you, but–”

“Silence, you fool! You have challenged, and I have answered!” Gilda affirmed. She spun the mace in her grip as her soldiers cheered. “You want to save the Gyosh maggots? No, they will die as will you!”

She charged immediately. Scar blocked her swipe, and grumbling to himself as he heard the opposition continue to battle, he stomped on her booted foot, elbowed her across the face, and allowing her to fall, he shot another burst of energy into her ranks.

“Stop fighting,” he demanded, but his warning went unheard.

Gilda came to her knees, threw a spear hand at her opponent, and a flash of fire extended from her fingers like a blade. Just then, the earth shook; the distant volcano erupted again. Struggling to keep his footing, Scar staggered back, raised his blade, and brought it down with his body weight. Though Gilda blocked with the steel shaft of her weapon, the potency of the blow knocked the mace from her hand, and his blade cut into her collarbone. She hollered in agony, but unrelenting, Scar kicked her in the chin, and she flew back, her neck broken. In dismay, he observed the ferocity of her soldiers flare anew, so he high tailed it southwards as balls of fire and arrows struck his backside, the ground beside him, and even more sailed beyond him.

“Idiots!”

Displaying a degree of compassion for his foes, he tried to lose them amidst a thicker grove of pines. Unfortunately, the sun was rising. Haze from volcanoes shrouded the light, yet it was bright enough to see an armored giant crash through wispy trees. More arrows and flames struck branches. Some trees even caught fire, but the attacks posed little threat, so, cursing the wrath of Drac, Scar continued downhill, tripping and falling down a steep descent. Coming to his feet, he looked back to see another volley of projectiles hurtling through the sky.

Puffing and groaning, he took off to hide behind a hill. Damn it, I can’t stay here. They’ll just keep coming. From there, he ran into a thorny thicket, swatted bushes with his sword, and stomped over to a precipice. There was a rocky hill below, but it wasn’t too far a leap, so he braced himself, took a running start, and cleared twelve feet, over more bushes, and crumbled against solid stone. Unable to gain footing, he slid and tumbled all the way to the base, and out of harm’s way.

Struggling to stand again, he glanced back. “Safe for the moment…I hope they keep looking for me, though, and ignore the Gyosh.”

He also wished Labolas and the rest had influenced the others, but screams of war echoed across the landscape. I’ll never be able to live with myself if my friends die. Scar clambered up a grayish hill to score a glance. Like a stampede, remnants of wounded, Sudai soldiers fled. Mercilessly, Dracos gave chase and slaughtered them. Shaking his head in consternation, the Dragon Slayer skulked beyond the underbrush, between larger pines, and ever deeper into enemy territory.

After an hour of trudging, the earth shook yet again. From his vantage point, it was impossible to see the plume of smoke rising from the mountains, but the shade provided by an obscured sun indicated the Dracstags were raging. Eventually, an arrow bounced off his armor. He spun around to see an archer fumbling with another one; a useless attack. The projectile sailed towards him, but he side stepped, freed from impact.

Rather than fighting, he made for an overhang. From there, he safely observed Fontsborough; a large town comprised of cabins, several tents of sewn hides, all manner of horses, carts, barrels and crates, and barbarians marching around the perimeter. Some spotted him, shouted, and pointed; their ranks swelled.

“Hold your weapons,” Scar bellowed. “I have come to challenge your king. No one else has to die today!”

His statement resulted in flaring tempers. Hundreds of savage fighters charged up the hills, shooting fires. Shrugging in wild incredulity, the warrior fled east, away from the trail inhabited by even more barbarians, and rounded a boulder to find a patrol. The men and women shouted before attacking.

“Crap,” he heaved.

Spreading his feet for balance, he stepped into the first attacker. She was flipped head over heels. While she crashed to the ground, Scar cut through two more, punched another in the face, and bolted off to the south to avoid both the formation climbing the trails and the patrol giving chase. The Dragon Slayer cleared one last hill before tumbling down into the edge of Fontsborough. He crashed through a slat fence and a goat scuttled away.

“Donovaaan!” he howled. “Donovan! I am here! Fight me before your people die!”

Shrugging off the strain of falling, he saw a small group of Dracos marching towards him. They were coming slowly, and the tall man at the center looked somewhat placid, but before giving himself fully to scrutiny, arrows struck his back and fires exploded around him, sending dust and debris into the air.

Gritting his teeth, Scar started to run towards a horse cart, but the tall man raised his hand overhead. His entire arm caught flame, and a thick plume of fire sailed into the sky where it exploded into a sparkling array. Tiny flames wavered and fizzled out, blowing away to the east. The Dracos ceased their onslaught, so Scar studied the man; he was very tall, nearly seven feet, and he wore his reddish hair in a goofy, bowl cut. His baggy, orange eyes, and enormous chin gave the impression of stupidity; the man looked a lumbering ape covered in heated brands. Bushels of red hair grew from his muscular chest and broad shoulders.

“You’ve come ta’ fight, eh,” the man asked in a calm tome. “Yer’ Scar, the devil what’s killed Gilgamesh an’ Zoltek?”

“And Munir,” Scar replied and relaxed to allow the plates of his armor to recede. The man arched a red brow, noting the power of Kulshedra. “Are you King Donovan?”

“Aye, Donovan Donaghe, the toughest kid in town,” he grinned to reveal a gap between his top incisors.

Scar took a breath and gauged the Dracos. They had flocked to the scene. The men and women were practically stacked upon each other, ten and twelve deep, and encompassing the two warriors poised for battle. Even adolescents were present.

“Just you and me,” Scar asked.

“Aye…jus’ you an’ me.”

“Listen, I came here to fight, and I have no intention of backing down, but I must explain what’s at stake here.”

“Certainly,” Donovan agreed. “Every dyin’ man deserves a final prayer.”

“Yes…well…I have come on behalf of Sahni to kill you.” The crowd booed and shouted insults in reply, but Scar and Donovan simply leered at one another. “It is an act that is supposed to secure peace, but then, I wasn’t supposed to kill Munir, however, as you no doubt have heard, I am here to kill Dragons. By the death of Gyo, Dragon of the Sun, your powers have increased as have those of the other tribes, and upon the deaths of Dragons, those in their worship lose their blessings, but this is not without value; once I have killed all of the Dragons, peace might rule over Tiamhaal, so I ask you to give me your Dragon gem…the gem you use to commune with Drac.”

All the while, livid Dracos continued their verbal assaults, but Donovan raised his hand to manifest flames again, and warriors quieted after the resulting explosion of power. “You’ve spread word that all the Gods are Dragons,” Donovan said. “An’ if that’s true then that means when Drac is the only one left, we Dracos will be unstoppable.”

“W-ah, well,” Scar stuttered. “I don’t know if you’ll be unstoppable, but–”

“Be quiet!” Donovan demanded. “Ma’ rule over the entire world with ma’ people exacting the law of the land is the only road ta’ peace. Now, Dragon Slayer, you want ma’ gem…come an’ wrest it from ma’ hands.”

The men surrounding Donovan flew the coop like frightened rabbits, and the king charged into Scar, bright flames radiating from his entire body. The blast blinded the warrior, and the king’s weight took them both to the ground, where he held a fiery hand over Scar’s face, searing his right eye shut. The bladesman bucked his hips, nabbed the Draco by the hair—mounted him as fires burned through black leather—and twirled his sword to skewer, but Donovan spat flaming breath.

Scar howled and stumbled away. The king instantly went for a double leg take down, but Scar animated his armor with the power of Kulshedra, and Donovan bounced off steel; his rump struck the ground, and he grabbed his head. Fires assaulted Scar’s vision when he went for a deathblow. Donovan fought back with detonating fists of flame, causing Scar to see stars. In a state of frenzy, the armored giant swung his sword, and spinning about, one of the blows caught the king across the thigh. He went down, screaming.

“Damn it, Donovan. You would set the world on fire for your own gain?”

“What king wouldna’ want his people ta’ reign supreme?” he fired back, sprayed flames from his hands, and charged again.

Scar caught Donovan in a headlock as he advanced, fell backwards, driving the Draco’s head into the ground, let go to climb his opponent, and smashed his pommel into the back of the king’s head. Taking a breath, Scar stood and stooped over, snatching a fistful of bloodied hair. Scrambling backwards, he spun the enormous man, struck him in the belly with the great sword’s guard, and let him fall.

Howling and chanting for their king, the Dracos demanded blood. Fueled by rage, and the power of Drac, Donovan obliged by exploding in a radiant barrage of fires. Scar scampered away, sent the king back to the ground with a blow of Kulshedran energy, and focused on the power of Gyo. His sword gleamed with waves of yellow, undulating light.

Shaking his head and wincing behind his helmet, Scar charged. Donovan opened his maw to unleash flaming breath, but the brute raised a flashing, blue barrier; it was enough to derail heated plumes. Upon closing the distance, the warrior spun, and a lustrous ray parted the king from his head. The man’s flames sputtered and died, leaving a Draco corpse heaped upon the ground.

Everyone shouted and assaulted Scar with fire, but he quickly erected a spherical barrier over his form. Hastily, he searched Donovan for his gem, but he wore only boots and a kilt, and the gem was not in his sporran.

“What? Where is it?” He gasped, frenetically looking around. There was only the backside of flames held in place by his barrier. “It isn’t here….” Biting his lip, he guessed that either one of the generals had to have it, that it was hidden in Donovan’s camp, or that it was safe in Eltanrof’s capitol, wherever that was. “Get off of me!”

Following his mighty shout, Scar forced his barrier to expand rapidly, thus knocking the opposition away, but he had no clue on how to proceed, so he picked a direction and ran. Without the loss of their powers, the Dracos, numbering in the thousands, were a mighty force, and though Scar’s eye had healed, it had healed shut, and he fretted over any more body parts suffering a similar plight. His only option was to unleash repeated bursts of energy into the crowds and attempt to flee. Unfortunately, Draco after Draco attacked, and the Dragon Slayer had no choice but to cut them down with shining blade.

So many fiery impacts exploded around Fontsborough that it went up in flames. Horses pulling blazing carts scattered, men and women ran, even children attempted to find cover. Though Dracos were immune to flame, thanks to the deaths of the other Dragons, the town was not; smoke and fire obscured vision. Everyone was hacking and coughing, arguing, screaming death for the man who killed King Donovan. Even livestock neighed, bleated, and cackled.

“What have I done?” Scar growled. “Gods, now would be the time to reveal yourselves!”

They did not, however, and Scar ran right into the side of a burning cabin. Fumbling around, he found the door, and busted through it when several fighters struck him with blades. Inside, he witnessed the furious faces and hateful, orange eyes of enemies. He took a chin in hand and crushed it, punched someone, elbowed another, and staggering off, he tripped over a low table, which shattered under his weight. Burning wreckage fell from the ceiling; the home was collapsing, so he slaughtered the fanatical fiends, and peeking out from the doorway, he saw only flames and scrambling barbarians through wisps of smoke.

“They don’t see me,” he puffed and pulled away from the opening. Gnashing his jaws and smacking the side of his helmet in an effort to form a cogent plan, his thoughts raced. “I can’t go back out there without having to kill them, and I can’t hide in here forever. Gods damn this plan! There are children out there.” A loud crack broke his machinations; the ceiling caved in, smashing down all around him. He formed another barrier to keep safe, and beneath the debris, he knew he was obscured from sight. “But they’ll eventually find me once the town burns down.”

A tiny sound drew his attention. Someone was coughing and sobbing; it sounded like a child. You must be joking. The sound grew louder, a child was crying for its mother. Daaamn it…Dracos fear no flames, but this kid might be trapped under wood or die from smoke, or worse, they trample it while looking for me. In a fit of anger, Scar rose from the wreckage, kicked chunks of smoldering rubble, and prayed for rain while he threw broken furniture around in an effort to find the child.

It was nearly impossible to see anything through the smoke and flames, and the screams of murder bellowing over raging fires made it difficult to discern the direction from which the cries came, but after toppling an armoire, he saw a tiny girl wearing a yellow sundress; she was so small and terrified. Her eyes were streaming with tears as she looked up at the warrior. Her stringy hair was a mess, and she coughed hysterically.

Scar retracted his armor then knelt beside her. When he reached for her, she recoiled. He hesitated, but reached again.

“I won’t hurt you. I’m Scar,” he whispered into her ear. Something cold struck his scalp. He looked up in shock. Through the smoke, he was unable to witness dark clouds amassing overhead, but the sky opened up with such a deluge of rain, he thanked the Gods, scooped up the little girl, and strode from the blazing home. “Where are your parents?”

He had the girl under his left arm, and looking to her expectantly, arched his brow, but she didn’t reply, so he glanced around. They were partially hidden by the downpour, smoke, and steam; no one was in their vicinity, so he set the girl down. She immediately clung to the tattered straps of his armor.

“Where’s your mommy and daddy?” he demanded. She just looked at him, her hair pasted to her face, her dress soaked; she shivered uncontrollably. Grinding his teeth in deliberation, he spotted a group of men. He was going to call to them, but considered what might happen if bad people found a little girl. “What should I do? What is your name?”

She remained silent, clutching his armor. Shaking his head, fighting back tears, he wondered if her parents were even alive. Perhaps I just killed them. Hunkering against the cabin as the rain continued pelting the sloppy ground, Scar tried anxiously to reason out a plan.

“I can’t leave you here, and I can’t trust these people…but…but I can take you with me,” he declared, looking into her eyes. “How does that sound? I can take you to my friend Artimis. He lives in River Rock…do you know River Rock?” She nodded. “Oh, you do? Do you like it there?” She nodded again. “Good, good. We can look for your mommy and daddy once we’re safe.” She shook her head and cried again, burying her face in his armor. “They’re dead, aren’t they…?”

With no logical alternative, he scooped her up, rounded the south edge of the cabin, spotted a horse shaking water from its mane, and dashed through clouds of smoke. He climbed into the saddle as the beast bucked, but managed to nab a rein, squeezed its flanks, and turned it to the south, where he galloped off towards the rainy horizon. The little girl squirmed in his lap, but she never let go his armor, so he sheathed his sword over his shoulders, wiped the rain from his eye, and cradled her while riding for River Rock.

Chapter Fourteen- A soul is earned

 

 

 

 

 

 

The mysterious deluge had passed, leaving immense puddles on the road. Able to view the position of the sun, Scar chose a direction he thought ultimately led due south, where he believed River Rock was. Eventually, he came to a road marker, a post in the ground with three, ratty slats pointing to different directions. He frowned after taking notice that none of the names read River Rock. He looked to the little girl. She was sound asleep.

“Well,” he mused, glancing at the paths. One trail led back north to Fontsborough, one led southeast, and the other, west. “Guess it’s Addelborough.”

They rode southeast for hours. Dusk settled in, and Scar relaxed. So close to Sudai, the terrain was yet dry and rocky; hearty bushes lined the trail. Some trees near the horizon gave the impression of dark figures lying in wait. What sort of mess have I gotten myself into? Scar pondered as he rode onwards.

At the moment, he knew the girl was his priority; after all, the Gods had acknowledge his plea and sent rain. Guilt yet gnawed at him. He thought about compromising the peace talks. Donovan was dead as Sahni had wanted, and she stated she didn’t care if Drac was killed, but the deaths of Munir and Gyo were sure to be thorns in her side, especially since the Dracos retained their powers. Scar hoped that Longinus had arrived before word spread that Munir had fallen. He’s a follower of Fafnir, Dragon of Speech, he might somehow convince them all to work together. If not…I might’ve just gotten us all killed. No. The priests knew there was no alternative but to kill Munir…this mess with Drac, though, this is…this is bad.

He also hated leaving his dear friends in the untenable position of rallying the former worshippers of Gyo, and with the Dracos at full force, Labolas and the crew were unfit to survive a battle. He needed to help them, but the girl stirred, breaking his concentration. She jumped, no doubt finding herself in a strange place with a strange man, but looked up. Scar smiled at her; the moonlight was sufficient to reveal his terrible visage. Softly, she sobbed, so he held her tightly.

“I’m sorry…we’ll get to River Rock soon, and my friend, Artimis, can help us. He’s a Draco just like you, and he has dogs. Do you like dogs?” He tried being congenial—it wasn’t exactly his strong suit—and thinking back to Ylithia, and how they wanted a child, his heart grew heavy.

Her muffled cries didn’t let up. Scar shook his head, and looked around; having only one eye made it difficult to spot anything from the right, but something bright caught his attention. From down a bend in the road, he saw a torch coming out of the ground; since he was downhill from the bend, it had been impossible to see the glow until the traveler carrying it came above the line of sight. A moment later, Scar noticed more figures. Apart from one person on horseback towing a wagon, three others, trailed behind.

“Ahoy,” he called out.

“Ahoy, yerself’,” a raspy voice replied.

“I’m a traveler trying to reach River Rock.”

“Then, yer’ goin’ the right way!”

“Good. Thank you,” Scar said. Once they were closer, and they noticed how large he was, they started to slow. “Don’t worry…I am Scar, but I am not seeking to harm anyone.”

“Word ‘round Addelborough is ya’ was ta’ fight our king,” the old man said. “Didja’?”

“I did…and I killed him, but I have no intentions of killing anyone else.”

“Mm-hm,” the old man trailed off and muttered to his compatriots. “Well…if ya’ killed him, ain’t no way we can take ya’.”

“As I said, I wish you no harm…as a matter of fact I am hoping to beg for some food and water.”

They had come upon each other by then. The old man on horseback carrying the torch was towing some covered supplies in a tiny wagon, and what looked to be his family, two, middle aged men and a younger woman, accompanied. In turn, they scrutinized the crying girl in his lap.

“What ya’ got there,” one of the men asked in a strained tone.

“A casualty of war, I’m afraid.” Scar admitted. “Her parents are dead, and I couldn’t leave her with…strange men. I am taking her to River Rock, where I hope to track down her family.”

Murmurs of disapproval passed between the old man and his kin. They claimed a right to one of their own, but Scar threatened them with death if they so much as reached a hand. Then, he demanded food and water for her. Tentatively, they obliged. He instructed them on their way, but remained still, making sure the travelers stayed their course while the girl drank and ate. A moment later, as Scar’s stomach rubbed against itself, the girl finished gnawing on dried fish and started to squirm.

“Do you have to potty,” he asked. She looked at him, fear in her eyes. “It’s okay,” he chuckled. “I have to potty, too.” Together, they slid off the horse. Scar walked her to one side of a large bush. “I’m going to go here. You can go there.”

He rounded the bush and relieved himself. A second later, the girl ran over to him and clung to his knee. He picked her up, climbed back on the horse, and off they went towards Addelborough.

Riding into a Draco town seemed a poor plan, and though he yet cringed at the unknown fate of his friends, a little girl’s safety was far and away more important. Furthermore, having seen other travelers clinched his decision; he veered off the road in order keep from attracting unwanted attention. By the time the morning sun rose, he had rounded the town and found another marker, which pointed to River Rock, but the sign also stated that it was a two day ride.

Checking his supplies, he knew there was enough food and water for the girl, but wondered after his own needs. I have never had to eat or drink, but these feelings must certainly be thirst and hunger. What is happening? I am also tired.

His thoughts then turned to Shrikal. Though the young paladin was probably fine, he was someone built to persevere; Scar knew he also needed to do the same, and wondered if a prayer to Ihnogupta was in bad taste. Upon looking at the little girl, he realized it didn’t matter, and silently begged the God of Perseverance to see him safely to River Rock.

Hours under the sun passed by in monotony. He continuously asked the girl for her name, but she never answered, so he started talking about his life. Avoiding gruesome tales of battling Kulshedrans and Zmajans, he spoke of his friendship with Labolas, N’Giwah, Ylithia, and told her of Othnatus, and how it was a fine place full of good people of all tribes. The girl never spoke, but she looked at him with less fear until she fell asleep in his lap again.

Once the sun reached the western edge of the sky, and streaming clouds lit up like fire against the opaque mountain range to the north, a chilly wind blew. The rustling needles of numerous pines resonated with hoots and chirps of wildlife. It was so calm under the palatial Heavens, a chill ran up Scar’s spine. He suddenly felt kindled from the top of his head; a warmth that rolled down his sternum and swirled about his midsection forced him to recollect something.

Whatever it was started out cluttered, like a half forgotten dream. Then, it took shape like vortices of blackness, and he realized he was recollecting a feeling, something outside himself, yet intimately attached. We are Eternus, the Dragon of Time, but you are more human than I had expected. It was a concept.

Scar looked down at the girl, he took a deep breath and examined the sparsely grown meadows around him, the swaying pines, the chilly wind, the vast sky, and the faces of his friends and his enemies washed over his mind’s eye; it was as though they were there before him, alive. He smelled them, heard them, felt them, and then he knew a great secret was about to reveal itself, but as he waited anxiously, trying to breathe, whatever the mysterious feeling was, it slowly vanished, as did the sun, behind thick clouds, and then there was only an empty darkness.

Moments drifted by during which Scar had no thoughts in his mind. The inner silence was both relieving and unnerving, but all the strange feelings he had experienced vanished, and in their place were a sore rump, an empty stomach, and a parched throat. Blinking, he noticed how dark it was. Musical crickets played into the night, and he groaned wearily.

Drifting, and barely able to keep his eye open, he decided both he and the horse needed some rest and water. After stopping and tying the mount to a pine, he set the girl down next to a rock. She watched him check the supplies. Feigning a smile, he gave her dried fish. While she ate, he poured some water into his hand for the horse. Eagerly, the beast lapped it up, causing him to sneer in revulsion from an enormous, sloppy tongue. He then passed the canteen to the girl. After she had her fill, he gave the horse a little more, and finally, he emptied the last drops down his dried throat.

Plopping down on his butt, Scar removed his sword, rested his back against the tree, and let his chin droop to his chest plate. It wasn’t very comfortable, but he was so tired, he almost passed out. The girl squirmed onto his lap. By the time she was at ease and still, sleep possessed him.

 

****

 

“Sarkany…Dragon Slayer, welcome home.”

Scar opened his eyes. He was sitting on a small, roundish platform. Around him and above, swirling blackness wavered from intricate patterns. In the distance, there were other, similar, grayish pillars growing from billowing, dark vortices. Squinting, Scar realized two things; his eyes were fine, and there were fewer platforms. They were also farther away than he remembered. Finally, he stood, and also noted that the ground beneath him didn’t span so far as he recalled.

“Eternus, I have killed Gyo, but I was unable to find Drac’s gem.”

“Peace, warrior, in time, you will find it.”

“But my friends are dying! If I don’t kill Drac now, the leaders might not come to an agreement. You must tell me what to do!”

An inaudible wail accosted the warrior like a vacuum in his belly. As his eyes went wide, and he struggled to breathe, his heart skipped a beat. Eternus was rooting about his body, his mind.

“What is this?”

“What is what?”

“No…now is not the time to discuss this matter. You have something far more important.”

“What, the girl? I…I couldn’t just leave her.”

“No…one who loves must place the needs of others before his own, but there is something else.”

“Damn your riddles, Dragon,” Scar interrupted. “Tell me what to do. I know you know things; tell me, where is Drac’s gem?”

“Silence your thoughts. Meld with that eternity, which spans behind the sky. Your answers are there.”

My answers are there, he scoffed, mentally. “I’m going to River Rock. If I can speak to Artimis, he might not only keep the girl safe, but he might also reveal the location of Drac’s gem. Once the Dragon is dead, I can go to Balroa; I’m sure you already know what I’m planning…will it work?” Eternus gave no reply. The lifeless terrain, the speckles of gray pillars amidst the bleak void, brought unto Scar a sense of singularity, solitude. The lack of answers made him irritable. “Dragon…will it work?”

“There may be a way.”

Such relief washed over Scar, he smiled and sighed. Something drew his attention, and he turned.

 

****

 

Awakened by a crack, Scar took an inhalation and opened his eye in time to see a shadow looming over his feet. Someone or something was behind him, so he rolled right, covered the girl with his arm, and looked up to see a dagger coming for his face. He caught the assailant’s arm, but movement from his left drew his attention; someone else was coming. Grunting, he flung the person with the dagger into the oncomer and stood to gauge the situation.

Under the light of the moon, and standing in front of the girl as she clung to his leg, he saw two men—their tribe indeterminate—they scrambled from their hands and knees and attacked again. Wincing in displeasure, Scar kicked the first man, sending him bouncing off a tree trunk, and the second attacker, he took by the face, punched him in the breadbasket, and dropped him like a sack of dirt. As the man wheezed and moaned, the Dragon Slayer stomped down on the first attacker’s arm, breaking it. The insurmountable agony forced a scream from his mouth, and that shocked the little girl, who also screamed, but stifled it with both hands.

Rather than tending to the child, Scar grabbed the stranger by the collar of his tunic. He then tossed the man, who yelped in pain, into the other. All the while, the little girl cowered by a bush. Scar glanced back at her. She was shivering, but safe, so he returned his leer to the men.

After popping his knuckles, he questioned them in a tiresome tone. “Who are you…who sent you?”

Whoever they were, they weren’t skilled assassins. The one with broken arm yet writhed on the ground, grunting and groaning. The warrior picked the other up by his throat, letting his feet dangle helplessly as he slowly squeezed the life from him. Choking and gurgling, the man pulled a dagger from his tunic, stuck himself in the belly, and twisted. Mysteriously, he died instantly.

Scar let him fall to the ground. “Well…can’t have you doing the same thing,” he said, approaching the one with broken arm. To prevent another suicide, Scar took the man’s wrist. Pleas for mercy fell on deaf ears. A distinct snap was followed by a whiny yelp. The injured man swooned, but Scar shook him and demanded answers. “Why are you after me?!”

“We’re not after you,” the man blubbered.

“Then, who are you? Why did you attack? You want the girl…is that it?”

“No, not, not the girl,” the man choked. “It’s…it’s what you can, can do!”

“Oh,” Scar asked, gripping him by the jaw. “What can I do?”

“Ya-you s-set them in motion.”

“What does that mean? Who do I set in motion?”

“The Dragons!”

Tears streamed from the man’s eyes, but Scar was curious. “What about them?”

The man just shook his head vigorously, trying to suppress moans. Scar shook him again, grabbed him by his broken wrist, and wrenched. The man screamed bloody murder.

“You’d better talk! Your friend killed himself over whatever he thought I’d get out of him, but I’ll make you wish you were dead if you don’t tell me what the Hell is going on!”

“I can’t! I don’t know what’s going on. We, we, we were told to attack you.”

“Who told you? And how does attacking me have anything to do with I can do to Dragons?”

“Ah-hah-hah-hai don’t know,” the man sniveled. “Please. Let me go.”

“Wretched swine,” Scar spat. He looked to the child. Her hands yet covered her mouth, but her eyes were wide and wild. “Fine,” he muttered. “You can go.”

Before standing, he manhandled the individual, searching him for food and water, and recovered a canteen and small knapsack, so he rolled the dead man as well, and found the same. Silently thanking the Gods for more supplies, he started to approach the girl, but stopped. Turning around, he demanded again who it was that had sent them.

Struggling to right himself, the man replied, “The Light Bearers.”

“The Light Bearers,” Scar murmured. He wracked his brain trying to remember from whom he had heard that term. Then, it popped in his head; Borta had claimed Light Bearers attacked Balroa. “Hashnora is plotting something!”

“I just follow orders,” the man cried.

The giant studied him. He wasn’t Bakunawan, or at least, he didn’t look like any Bakunawan Scar had ever met, neither did the other man. Stranger still was their red sash; he ad seen them in Nabalhi, but having had his fill of displaying violence before an innocent child, he dusted himself off, scooped up the kid, placed her on the saddle, watered the horse, and climbed on to journey into the night.

Chapter Fifteen- Orange eyes

 

It was early morning by the time Scar reached the peat. A light pattering of rain kept him rather cool. Holding the reins with one hand, he stroked the girl’s wet hair with the other. She slept a great deal.

I wonder who those men were, and if they weren’t Bakunawan, what were they? Were they paladins? Gazing at the cypresses, which dominated the flora of the region near the river, Scar attempted to orient himself. Since Artimis didn’t live in River Rock, but outside the town’s border, he kept his eye open for anything familiar. He then saw two hills and both were flanked by two cypresses. Due south of them were some large boulders, which he recalled seeing months ago, so he veered to his left, but made certain the horse avoided knobby knees protruding from the soppy ground.

Tufts of wiry, brown grasses grew in rows. I think he’s somewhere around here. Yes…all this looks right. At a slow canter towards a thick grove of cypresses, where Scar believed Artimis’s barn lay ensconced, the horse suddenly fell over, squealing, and both riders flew into the slop. The girl shrieked in terror, but Scar begged her to keep calm. He looked her over; she was dirty and wet but fine; the horse, however, was suffering conniptions. They both scrambled over on hands and knees to find the mount had stepped into a watery pocket beneath the sediment; its hoof had vanished beneath the muck, and its leg was clearly broken.

“Calm down, ole’ gal. Calm down.” He used his bare hands to scoop away some of the dirt, and once the vacuum released, he slowly pulled the horse’s leg free. It backed up awkwardly, keeping the injured leg raised. Fright and pain were evident from the horse’s erratic blinking. “Oh…you’re not going anywhere, are you?”

Taking a breath and standing, the giant frowned to the girl, who walked to the horse and petted its other leg. She gazed expectantly into her protector’s eye. Sighing, the warrior clicked his tongue and inspected their surroundings. What should I do? If it were just me, I’d leave this thing, but, he let his thoughts trail away; the girl obviously needed him to keep the horse safe, so he rolled his eye, took hold of the reins, and slowly walked back to the road where he stopped and stared towards the horizon.

“Come here,” he heaved and stopped to pick the girl up. Then, he helped her to scramble onto his shoulders. She wrapped her tiny arms around his forehead. “Got a hold of my big head?”

She didn’t answer, but she was still, so Scar trudged on down the road, figuring River Rock had a stable hand to look after the mount. About an hour later, wheat crops danced beneath droplets of rain, goats bleated, and farmers and traders laughed and joked. Clouds of smoke wafted away from the rooves of homes, but the actual town was yet a distance away.

Scant glances from the few men and women outdoors made him nervous, but a willowy, young woman wearing her auburn hair in several braids lifted her dress a bit to stomp through the crops and to the road. Scar halted a polite distance from her and feigned a tightlipped smile. The woman’s burning eyes looked him up and down. Then, she looked to the girl, and then over to the horse, and finally back to Scar.

“We need help. My horse fell in the peat,” he said.

“What were ya’ thinkin’, takin’ a horse inta’ the peat?” she barked and stormed over. She immediately nabbed the horse’s leg for an inspection while Scar muttered a poor excuse. “Ya’ canna’ put a poor mount such as this through peat. Are ya’ daft?”

“Well…I’m sorry, but it wasn’t too long ago that a friend of mine and I rode horses through this same peat to reach Artimis’s barn.”

“Aye, an’ a fine pair o’ idiots ya’ made, eh?”

“Excuse me?” Scar was in disbelief and fought to hold back a smile.

“And you?” the woman asked the girl. “Didna’ ya’ tell ‘im different?” The little girl wriggled, so Scar helped her down. She rubbed her smudged face with the back of her dirty hand. The woman pulled a handkerchief out and stooped over to clean her up. She then righted herself and scowled at the brute with her fists on her hips. “So, what’re ya doin’ here an’ with this kid?”

Shaking his head, he gave a scanty explanation regarding the battle in Fontsborough before adding that he was simply trying to find Artimis. Then, he begged for the horse’s aid.

“I don’t have any money or anything,” he shrugged.

“Well, give her ta’ me. I’ll have her patched up. See that house? That’s me da’s place. I can take us in fer’ a moment; the little girl looks the worse for wear. What’s yer’ name, eh, deary?” Naturally, she didn’t answer. “What didja’ do to her?”

“Besides feed her and keep her safe from the soldiers? Nothing. She just won’t talk.”

“An’ ya’ think takin’ her ta’ that madman, Artimis, gonna’ do her any good?”

Growing tired of the woman’s accusative demeanor—she was standing there tapping her big foot—Scar claimed he didn’t know what else to do. “Look, lady–”

“Lady?!” She pointed a knobby finger at him. “I’m called Gertrude!”

“Okay! Gertrude,” Scar snickered. “Listen, I’m just trying to see my friend; I think he can help me track down her family. She said she’s been to River Rock….”

“I thought ya’ said she didna’ speak.” The lass was more than skeptical; she was genuinely dubious.

“She doesn’t,” Scar grumbled. “But ask her.”

So, Gertrude did ask, and the girl nodded. After more questions regarding family, and receiving no answers, the fiery woman bade them follow her to her dad’s house. It was a slow walk as the girl was minuscule and the horse was wounded, but minutes later, as some older gentlemen eyed the trio from a flat rock on which they sat, they reached the home.

“Sit tight,” Gertrude barked. She shoved the door open, entered, and yelled at someone. A dog then scampered out with tail tucked between its legs. Much clamor resulted after Gods knew what was knocked over, and then she finally poked her head out into the rain. “Well, come in!”

Shrugging in an animated fashion, Scar and the girl crossed the threshold as Gertrude moved beyond them to tend to the horse’s leg. The modest abode held some wicker chairs, a long, dining table, and there were three cots lined with straw and pelts in the corner. The warrior helped the girl onto a chair before checking his supplies. He gave her some water before he, too, slaked his thirst.

“Is any of this familiar to you,” he asked, but she shook her head vigorously, the way children do. “I’m sure the horsie will be fine….”

Sighing, he walked over to a smoldering pit at the center of the home. The smoke rose towards the opened roof. A few drops of rain fell from the beam overhead and sizzled upon striking embers. With a clamor and obscenities, Gertrude reentered, claiming the horse wasn’t quite as badly injured as she had thought.

“So, she is fine,” Scar pried.

“Aye, but listen, yas’ canna’ get ta’ Artimis by horse at this time o’ year.”

“We’ll walk,” Scar smiled at the girl. “I’ll walk; you can still hop on my shoulders.” She grinned to reveal missing teeth then bit her lower lip, so Scar patted her head and moved her wet hair from her forehead. “You can have the horse,” he said to Gertrude, “but we need to reach Artimis now. There is much at stake.”

The woman nodded for a long moment. Scar watched her dash around the home to pick up pots and various food items, which had been strewn about the floor. Then, she pulled a cloth from a crate, dunked it in a water bucket, and started wiping down a counter near the fire.

“Look,” she said, abruptly. “If ya’ head back up the road, there’s a place with two hills.”

“I know,” he interrupted, and she fired such a glare in his direction, he stopped talking.

“Ya’ve got ta’ stay on the grass, hear? If ya’ don’t, what happened ta’ the horse’ll happen ta’ you. Got it?”

“I get it.”

She looked from Scar to the girl and winced. “I wish you wouldna’ take the poor lass, but…I suppose you ain’t a bad man, are ya’?” He shook his head. “An’ that Artimis is sheep shite crazy, but I know he’s a good man, too. My da’ says he went crazy after his family died, so…let me give ya’ a few coins fer’ the horse, an’ you two can be on yer’ way.”

“No need. We’ll go see him now. Thanks.”

“Sure ya’ don’t want no money?” She squinted at him. “How’s about a bite ta’ eat, eh?”

“That, we will take,” he grinned and sat down at the table before motioning to the girl. She slid down from the chair and tottered over. Rather than taking her own seat, she stood by the giant, staring at him, so he picked her up and sat her on his lap. Gertrude placed two bowls of porridge in front of them, and they dug in. “Do you have clean water?”

“Aye.” Gertrude returned with tin cups and filled them. The three of them ate in silence. Then, the young woman asked about Fontsborough. Scar explained he had been traveling with friends from Sudai in order to bring Donovan a message, but claimed that things had gone awry. “An’ what’s Artimis gonna’ do fer’ ya’? Fly that cowhide bird again?”

“Hey, now, don’t belittle that bird. It got me safely to Tironis recently.”

“I heard,” she smiled, causing her eyes to crinkle. Scar found her manner cute when she wasn’t inculpating. “I also heard you were set ta’ fight Donovan. Whatever became o’ that?”

“Word travels fast,” he trailed off. “We should go. Thank you for your hospitality.”

In a matter of seconds, he’d swiped up the tot, stuck her on his shoulders, and ducked out of the door. It was still sprinkling, and old Dracos outside the house were chatting, so he nodded to them on his way to the road, but Gertrude chased after him, her dress hiked.

“Hey, now! What ain’t ya’ tellin’ me?”

“If you’re that curious, come with me to Artimis’s place,” Scar huffed. His quick strides were so long, the woman had to jog to keep pace, but she did. One of the men yelled at her, so she spun around and told him to stuff it. “Shouldn’t you finish your housework?”

“What do ya’ think I am, a maid?” she shrieked.

“Calm down. I just–”

“I want ta’ know what’s goin’ on in the world. I hate bein’ stuck in that home, on that stupid farm.”

“Well, you’re safe out here. Isn’t that enough?”

“No, it ain’t, an’ I want ta’ know if ya’ fought Donovan! If that means I gotta’ follow then I’m followin’!”

Scar stopped short, turned to look at her, and groaned. “I don’t want any trouble, alright? Please, go home.”

Stubbornly, she placed her fists on her hips again and glowered. Scar looked to the sky and shook his head. He then started walking again, and a moment later—the Draco lass trailing beside him—they reached the hills and took to the broken rows of grasses that sprung through the peat. Once more, he stopped, begged her to go home for her own good, and again, she henpecked.

“By Drac! Go home, woman!”

“I will not!” she stomped her foot like a child.

Grumbling, they walked beneath the shade of cypresses, and as the scent of molding wood crept from the boggy sediment, larger drops of rain fell from boughs. They were thoroughly soaked by the time the immense barn was visible. Dogs barked, announcing strangers, and Artimis rounded the corner.

“Hey, whoa, wait a minute,” the portly Draco called out. He rubbed his hands on his tunic, observed the travelers, and the smile previously plastered to his bearded visage gave way. “What’s going on, Scar?”

“Uh,” the warrior hesitated. “This is Gertrude.”

“Aye! He’s supposed ta’ tell me what happened ta’ Donovan now!”

Scar looked from her to Artimis, who pursed his lips in wonder. “What happened to him, and who’s the tyke, and where the Hell is your eye?”

Scar knelt and placed the girl onto her feet. When he stood, she clung to his armor and buried her face in his leg.

“I don’t…can’t you see us in first?” Scar demanded.

“Yeah, of course, of course, follow me,” he replied and motioned with his head.

All of them walked around the barn and to the opened doors. Dogs started barking again, but Artimis yelled at them, and they hushed. He then offered seats on crates and barrels.

“Place looks as good as always,” Scar mumbled.

“Aye, now,” Artimis started, looking askew at Gertrude, who yet glared at the pale warrior. “What’s this about Donnie, and where’s Labby?”

“I don’t know how much to reveal with her here,” Scar winced.

“An’ what’s that supposed ta’ mean?” she crowed.

Scar rubbed water from his face, ignoring the woman. He then sat cross-legged with his back to a crate. The girl crawled onto his lap. “This is Artimis. He’s a bit rough, but he’s a nice man. Bring your dogs over here. I think she likes dogs.”

Obliging, Artimis asked who she was, and so Scar tried to explain the situation. He began with the peace talks between Sahni and the others, and how he killed Munir and Gyo. Both Artimis and Gertrude were glued to his words. The little girl petted the dogs, but didn’t leave the warrior’s lap.

“I figured a Dragon must’ve died,” Artimis said.

“What’s this nonsense ‘bout Dragons?” Gertrude growled.

Shaking his head from wear and tear, Scar mumbled what he knew about them and what he was doing. He then added that Drac was a Dragon, and that he had intended to kill him as well, but that things took a turn for the worse in Fontsborough.

“Which brings us here,” Scar stated. “Donovan didn’t have his gem. I need to know where it is, but I didn’t want this one getting up in arms,” he said, cocking his head towards the woman. “And now, I have this girl, who won’t talk, but I asked her if she knew this place; I think she might have family here, but I don’t have time to help her like I want to; I need to kill Drac to help my friends, and I need a ride to Balroa. I’ve come to learn that a necromancer on the island might be able to bring back Ylithia.”

The Draco lass was initially insulted by Scar’s comment, but as more and more was revealed, she began to wonder just what was truly happening in the world. Artimis and Scar were serious about Dragons and peace. Rather than hollering at them, she remained quiet.

“So, Donovan’s dead,” Artimis asked. Scar nodded slowly. “He’s the one got your eye or Gyo?”

“He did,” Scar puffed.

“Wow…. Well, look,” the pilot said, cautiously. “If that gem weren’t on him then it’s probably in the castle, and I’d wager there’s a fight going on about who gets to wear the crown. You see, Donnie’s sister, Alice, is really next in line, but their ma’s still alive and kickin’, and she’s recently wed some fancy noble, so they probably want the crown, too.”

“I don’t really care about any of that,” Scar interjected.

“You should,” Artimis glanced at the girl, but continued. “While they’re bickering over who gets to take charge o’ Eltanrof, the Dracos won’t be fighting anyone; with Munir dead and Gyo gone, there’s no beef with Sudai; Usaj and Satrone are trying to figure what to do about their leaders, and if Sahni, Longinus, and Jagongo are coming together then everything’s looking good, eh?”

“Are the two o’ yas’ fer’ real?” Gertrude was incredulous.

Having forgotten she was there, both men looked at her and nodded. “Certainly,” Scar breathed. “It’s difficult to believe, I’m sure, but I am the Dragon Slayer, and the Gods you all worship are actually Dragons, and, to boot, the Gods worshipped by paladins are real Gods.”

“B-but…that canna’ be!” she shook her head, frenetically.

“It bes’ alright, lass,” Artimis said in a joking tone. “So,” he added, turning back to Scar. “Who’s the kid?”

“A casualty of war…I found her in a burning house in Fontsborough after killing Donovan. I didn’t want to kill the Dracos—this mess isn’t their fault—so I hid and found her. I couldn’t leave her there…we know what men are capable of.”

“Aye,” Artimis nodded. He walked over to them, kneeled, and touched the girl’s head. “Ya’ talk, sweetie?” She didn’t. “I had a little girl about your age. She and her mum passed some time ago…illness. Her name was Leena. What’s your name?”

“Mindy,” she said in the tiniest voice.

“Well, Mindy, that’s a right pretty name,” Artimis smiled. “I have something for you, Mindy. You stay right there, okay?”

She nodded and turned to look at Scar. Her big, bright, orange eyes were on the verge of tears. He stroked her hair and told her her name was pretty. Gertrude also sat next to them and held the girl’s hand. Artimis returned, moments later, clutching something.

“Here you go, gal,” he said, offering a tiny horse made of sewn burlap and filled with chaff. “It was Leena’s favorite, but she wants you take care of him. His name is Rusty.”

Mindy took the toy horse and placed it to her mouth. She closed her eyes and grew still. Scar locked eyes with Artimis; an overwhelming sadness had him on the verge of his own tears. He motioned for the Draco to come close.

Whispering, Scar said, “I can’t take her where I’m going. This girl needs a home, a family.”

Artimis backed away and nodded. “Aye…listen. I’ve no problem looking after her, and I can certainly get you out o’ Eltanrof, but I can’t reach Nabalhi with the dirigible.”

“No…I need to reach Balroa.”

“You need to make sure Labolas is safe and that Sahni and the others made their peace talks,” Artimis rebutted, sternly.

Scar shook his head. “By now, they’re dead, or safe outside of Eltanrof; I need to know if I can bring Ylithia back. I’m sorry, but that’s my priority. I had feared for the other tribes, but since you say the Dracos won’t fight until they’ve a new king or queen, I have to find Kiechiv. Please, you, you must understand.”

Artimis plunked down on a barrel and rubbed his cheeks. Then, he exhaled in a mock dramatic fashion, which also caused his lips to vibrate. He even looked to Gertrude, who had the countenance of a woman astonished.

“Bet you didn’t know we were this daft, eh girly?” he chuckled.

“Girly! Why you!”

“Now, calm down, sister,” Artimis laughed. “I don’t need your da’ setting my barn on fire, so how’s about you keep quiet about all this, huh?” While she huffed and rhythmically tapped her foot, the pilot looked back to Scar. “I’m not sure leaving the others behind sits right with me….”

“Nor I, Artimis, but you said it yourself; we can’t fly to Nabalhi, and I don’t know what kind of escape route Labolas might have taken anyway. They could be anywhere if they haven’t been killed by now.”

Everyone grew quiet. Scar mentioned that the priests and N’Giwah were certainly strong enough to survive. Artimis agreed and suggested that powers or no, their Kulshedran friend was more than capable. Finally, the chunky Draco clapped his hands.

“Take a ride with us to Aldurstun,” he asked Gertrude.

“Why, what’s there,” she asked, skeptically.

“What is there,” Scar added. “That’s the port town from which Labolas and I came to you.”

“You have to purchase a ride on a boat, a caravel at least, to brave the oceans if you wanna’ reach Balroa. Not only is it a long trip, but there’re some strange winds that whip around that island.”

“I don’t have money for that.”

“I’ll loan you some dough, sod. Don’t worry. So, what does everyone say? Wanna’ fly?”

The look of weary doubt on Gertrude’s face was priceless. Mindy looked at Scar, who shrugged, and Artimis stood and rubbed his palms together. Rather than waiting for a reply, the chunky Draco started hopping around his barn, opening the double doors, retracting the roof, and inspecting his contraption.

Chapter Sixteen- An old surprise

 

A crow’s flight from River Rock to Aldurstun was a quick ride, even in the rain, and after soaring over the cypresses, the peat, and the rocks speckling the Barness, Artimis tugged a rope, which opened a flap at the head of the bird. Some of the artred gas escaped, and he brought the vessel down to a clearing beside some pines. After securing it, they all strode into town.

Mindy held the hands of both Dracos as Scar walked in front. Her little horse was firmly secured against her hip by the sash over her dress. When he checked behind him to watch them skip her over some puddles, she landed, looked to him, smiled to reveal her missing teeth, and then ran over to hug his leg. He tousled her hair, chuckling.

“Did you like flying?”

She nodded profusely.

“Still ain’t much fer’ talkin’, eh,” Gertrude asked.

She shook her head. Everyone laughed, and she buried her face in Gertrude’s dress, so the woman picked her up and cradled her as they walked beyond scores of people. Since Aldurstun was a port town, and a trading hub, there were more than just Dracos. Scar saw many, Kulshedran laborers, a handful of Zmajans, plenty of Fafnirians, and one Slibinish family, denoted by their stature, pallor, and cascading, blonde hair.

“Last time I was here, we bought horses from someone named McCormick, I think,” Scar volunteered.

“Ah,” Artimis sniggered. “That ole’ fart probably gave you some fussy mounts.”

“He certainly did….”

Moseying beyond homes, goats, chickens, and small shops, they reached the town square where people chatted, ate, bought food and trinkets from stands, and kids played in the overflowing fountain. The rain had persisted far south of River Rock, yet it was but a sprinkle. Children jumped into puddles, causing the splash to strike adults, who were quick to wield sharp tongues. A group of kids ran circles around Scar and his friends, they even begged Mindy to play, but she clutched Gertrude’s shoulder and hid her face.

“Scat, ya’ little varmints.” Artimis yelled at them as a joke, and they ran, screaming and laughing. “Been a while since I set foot in this place….”

He looked around. The gray, puffy clouds rolling across the sky gave the dark, brown buildings an oppressive glint, especially since they were wet, but the jovial nature of the city was quite the contrast. Eventually, they left the square and skirted the docks. Bells rang, men heaved and hoed, pulling ropes, dock workers laughed, or grumbled, or both, and past the docks was The Broken Barrel, the tavern where Captain Valiant had gone to reclaim his land legs not too long ago.

As he stopped to glance at the building, he noticed that nobody was really looking back at him as they had normally done. Do they no longer fear me? Don’t they know I killed Donovan? Perhaps, word has not had time to spread.

“Scar,” Artimis called. He gave his attention. “We going in or what?”

“Yes, yes, sorry…I was just thinking.”

Leading the way, the Draco pushed through the swinging, double doors and held one open for the lasses. After them, Scar entered. The interior was as he recalled; stools at the bar filled by boisterous men, chairs and tables where families enjoyed food, a warm fire at the center of the establishment let smoke rise up to and beyond the hole in the roof. As a cheery girl with freckles across her nose and cheeks greeted and showed them to a seat, Scar noticed someone at the bar.

Though the man’s back was turned, there sat a withered, old fellow in perhaps his late eighties. The coot wore a blue coat, and a white, peaked hat that pushed cotton hair down over his droopy ears. It was Captain Valiant, and as always, he gulped down cheap liquor and rambled on with a shrill voice about sailing, whether the people around him listened or not. Upon taking his seat, Scar pointed to the bar with his nose. Artimis looked back, and returned his eyes to the warrior, shrugging.

“Captain Valiant, the crazy codger that sailed us here from Ithlica. I was just thinking of him…wonder what he’s doing now.”

“What kind o’ ship does he sail,” Artimis asked.

“It’s a little sloop; nothing that’ll reach Balroa…right?”

“Nah.”

The freckled lass returned with cups of water. Scar and his friends ordered some smoked fish. Nodding jubilantly, the waitress then suggested some chicken noodle soup for the tyke.

“I can have chicken doodle soup,” Mindy asked Scar.

Everyone had a chuckle and Scar replied, “Certainly, and one chicken doodle soup.”

Before scampering off to the cook, the waitress commented that Mindy was adorable. Dodging drunken patrons, she made for the bar, rounded it, and vanished behind a door. As Scar returned to idle chatter, Valiant vacated his stool, stumbled two steps one way, three another, hiccupped, wiped his frothy beard, and started his way out. The warrior turned away; in an effort to remain surreptitious, he hid his face with his hands.

“Hey-oh!” Valiant chuckled. “Ain’t you the fella’ I sailed there from Ithlica?”

Shaking his head, the warrior winced and looked at the elderly kook. “You must have me confused with someone else.”

“Ain’t no one else twenty feet tall an’ bald!”

“Okay, yes, it’s me,” Scar laughed. “How are you, codger?”

“It’s Captain! Valiant o’ the mighty Piranha!”

“I think ya’ mean, Valiant, Captain o’ the Piranha,” Gertrude corrected.

“That, too!”

“Have a seat, old man,” Artimis invited.

“No, aw, damn,” Scar muttered, but Valiant pulled a chair from an empty table and plopped down.

He smacked his lips a few times—his milky eyes swimming over the scenery—and asked after their business. Scar explained they were looking for a large vessel in order to reach Balroa.

“Well, thas’ great,” Valiant grinned and slapped the table. “I jus’ started sailin’ under the Onger Tradesmen. That hunnert’ coins I made from sailin’ you fella’s put me o’er the top, an’ so I bought a schooner, the Piranha. It’ll get ya ta’ Balroa an’ back!”

“Oh,” Scar said, rolling his eyes. “Um, well….”

“When are you leaving,” Artimis asked.

“Firs’ thing tomorrow morn.”

“And how much would you charge for passage?”

“Well…since I’m a jus’ tradin’ nowadays, I guess passage for a right, mighty fella’ such as Scar could be made free…reckonin’ he heaves the riggin’.”

Artimis and Gertrude looked to the warrior. Before he made his mind up, the waitress returned with food. Steam rose from the soup, and Gertrude warned Mindy to wait for it to cool. Scar poked a finger at his fish; it was a little less cooked than he had anticipated.

“Well, what do ya’ say?” Valiant hollered.

Cringing, the brute considered the proposition. If I work, I won’t have to borrow money from Artimis, and I’ll be keeping busy, so….

“First thing tomorrow, huh,” he asked. Valiant nodded while smacking his lips. “And this schooner…it’s not like that raft you captained before?”

“Hey! Weren’t nothin’ wrong with the mighty Shanowa.”

“That’s debatable,” Scar chuckled.

“Never mind that! The Piranha’s brand new—built ‘ere in Eltanrof—she’s a mighty, fine ship. Ain’t no way no one else gonna’ let ya’ ride free, now is there?”

“No…I guess not. Alright, old man, I’m in.”

“Great. Meet me at the docks tomorrow. Be there before sunrise.”

The aged coot stumbled out of his chair, grabbed a hold of the adjacent table, righted himself, and staggered out of the tavern. By then, everyone at the table had nearly finished their food. Scar asked Mindy if the soup was good. She nodded and smiled.

Gertrude then mentioned she was certain her father was worried about her. Artimis agreed, but Scar had been adrift in his own thoughts, wondering about whether meeting Valiant at such a time had anything to do with the will of the Gods.

“About done,” Artimis asked.

“Hm?” Scar raised a brow.

“Eat up, mate.”

“Oh, right,” the warrior smiled, ate his fish in three bites, emptied his cup, helped Mindy to the floor, and readied himself for the hike back to the dirigible.

Artimis dropped a few coins on the table then hitched up his kilt. “We leaving you here?”

“No…I’ll walk back with you.”

The four moseyed out of the establishment. It was getting late, and the sun—still hidden by rain clouds—had meandered over to the western skies. The clouds looked like orange-gray puffs of cotton as they floated by, propelled by modest winds. The rain had slackened to less than a sprinkle, and since orange rays occasionally broke the oppressing veil, the weather was very pleasant.

Darkness settled before they reached the outer perimeter of Aldurstun. The night was serene and silence was only interrupted by the croaking of unseen frogs. Mindy fell asleep in Scar’s arm before they reached the thin grove wherein the dirigible was tied. Artimis unbolted the I-loops, which held the ropes bound to boughs and trunks. After Gertrude climbed up and took a seat, Artimis climbed and stopped half way up. Scar maneuvered the girl to hand her over, but she woke.

“C’mon, lass, Uncle Arty’s got ya’.”

She grabbed a hold of his tunic, but turned around to notice Scar wasn’t coming. Once she and Artimis were aboard, and he hauled in the rope ladder, she started crying. Gertrude tried to console.

“I wanna’ go with you,” she yelled to Scar.

“I know, honey, but I’m going somewhere dangerous. Uncle Arty and Aunty Gert will take care of you until I come back.”

Scuffling to pull away from the Dracos, she ran to the vessel’s railing, crying, and still calling out for Scar. “It’s not fair! I don’t want to stay here. I want to come with you.”

Shaking his head, Scar grabbed a cleat on the side of the vessel, braced himself, and clambered up to support himself with the railing. He reached over and patted her head. She took hold of his arm.

“Mindy, I need you to listen to me,” he whispered. “I have to go for just a little bit to a place filled with bad people.”

“Like my parents?” she interrupted with a sob.

“No, honey…I don’t know what happened back at your home. I….” he took a long breath to steady his emotions. In truth, he had no idea whether it was he who had killed them or if they died from the resulting carnage. “I’m sorry they got hurt, but I promised to keep you safe, and that means you can’t go to Balroa; it’s too dangerous, but I’ll be back before you know it. Stay with Arty, play with his dogs, and hey, you have to look after Rusty and our horse; I’m sure Aunt Gertrude will need some help.”

“That’s right, Mindy. I canna’ look after her all alone. Won’t you help me?”

Mindy nodded, wiping her tears with Rusty. She then handed him to Scar. He took the toy and gazed into the little girl’s, teary eyes; the offering of the toy was enough to moisten his own eye.

“I’ll keep Rusty safe,” he said. “You be good, okay?”

She nodded before burying her face in Gertrude’s bosom. Scar heard her muffled cries. He glanced at his friends and gave a half-hearted shrug of resignation.

“I’ll keep an eye on her, pal,” Artimis promised.

“An’ I’ll be there ta’ make sure she’s cleaned an’ fed!” Gertrude barked.

“Hey, I know how to raise a child.”

The two then started an argument about what little girls needed. Scar chuckled. They’ll be fine. He dropped to the ground and took a few steps backwards. All three stood at the rail. Artimis lifted Mindy and told her to wave. They all did so for a heartfelt moment.

“Hey, Scar,” Artimis called.

“What?”

“Catch.” The Draco tossed a brown object, which jingled upon Scar’s reception. “Use as much as you need, but try to buy me some artred ore, I’ll need to refill the Plume.”

“You got it. Goodbye, Mindy.”

“Bye-bye!”

Scar stayed to watch them lift off. Artimis emptied some burlap sacks of rocks to lighten the vessel. The little girl never looked away. Moments later, the winds heaved them out of sight.

Chapter Seventeen- Seadogs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Heave, ho, heave, ho, hey, hey-alay.”

“Heave!”

“Heave, ho, heave, ho, hey, hey-alay.”

“Heave!”

“My girl, she waits, she waits patiently.”

“Your girl, she waits, she waits for the sea.”

“My girl, she calls, she calls to the sky.”

“Your girl, she calls, she calls with a cry.”

“I said, heave!”

“Heave, ho, heave, ho, hey, hey-alay.”

“Heave!”

“Heave, ho, heave, ho, hey, hey-alay.”

“Heave!”

“I work, and I sweat for barely a meal.”

“We pant, and we starve; it’s no big-a deal.”

“I drink, and I fight for me merry friends.”

“We punch, and we kick until the day ends.”

“But heave!”

“Heave, ho, heave, ho, hey, hey-alay.”

“Sail!”

“Heave, ho, heave, ho, hey, hey-alay.”

“Sail!”

“Chorus, give rounds!”

“Aye-aye!”

“We fight, and we sail, and we blow through the storm.”

“We sail, and we fight, and we hope towards the shore.”

“We fight, and we sail, and we beat down the swarm.”

“We sail, and we fight, and we’ve seen all the horror.”

“And what keeps up going?”

“Heave, ho, heave, ho, hey, hey-alay.”

“Heave!”

“Heave, ho, heave, ho, hey, hey-alay.”

“Heave!”

“Our girl, and our dog, and a good meal or drink.”

“But that’s not ‘nough to keep Davey Jones at bay.

“So we work, and we slave, and we don’t make a stink.”

“In the end, all we do is wait for the day.”

“What day?”

“Our!”

“Day.”

“That!”

“Calls away.”

“The!”

“Brave.”

“Men!”

“Of the sea.”

“Heave!”

Two days of nonstop shanties had Scar humming along with the sweaty pirates. Since cleanliness aboard a vessel took precedence, he used some of his free time to scrub the funk from his armor. The recent fights had left his gear in less than immaculate condition, but the many sailors aboard where kind enough to show him how to repair the damage. Whenever night came, he went around lighting the lanterns mounted to posts, and during the day, gazing out at the endless, bouncing, blue expanse, he strove to work for his passage. Beside the men, he tugged ropes, hauled crates, swabbed decks, and napped below deck in a rope hammock just the same as every, other, salty seadog.

Captain Valiant only occasionally came from below deck to make sure everyone was pulling their weight. Humbly, he hailed or at least nodded to every sailor before vanishing. Every time Scar made to chase the codger, someone stopped him, demanding he climb the shrouds, or help adjust the sails. Working wasn’t overly difficult, but learning all the terms was; he didn’t know a mainsail from a foresail from an outer jib, but he kept pace, and the sailors respected him.

There were only twenty men aboard, including Valiant and himself, and of the remaining eighteen, there was a cook, a bookkeeper, who apparently needed to run an inventory check of all the supplies and trade goods on a daily basis, a navigator, a boatswain, a helmsman, and the rest were deckhands. Surprisingly, they were mostly Fafnirians, but there were two, Slibinish brothers, some Dracos, and one Zmajan. Scar had tried to learn of their take on current events, but no one seemed to care about Gods or Dragons, or kings or pawns; they were working to feed their families, and that was the end of it.

After another day of toiling under a hot sun, Scar retired to the galley for smoked fish, or grilled fish, or fried fish; it was always fish, and after fish was a rest in the cabin. A time or two, he played cards with the men, and since he kept scratching his brow, they thought he was bluffing; not that it mattered much since he wasn’t very good at their particular game. By the fourth night, he’d lost nearly twenty coins, so he started challenging the sailors to drinking games and arm wrestling, and by the fifth night, he had made back his twenty and thirty more.

Apart from working, laughing, drinking, eating, gambling, and enjoying the salty air, there wasn’t anything else to do. The Fafnirians read a lot, and the Slibinish brothers kept their swordsmanship sharp, but Scar liked to gaze out at the open, blue sea. The motion of the vessel rocking over the waves gave him a sense of peace and plentitude. Sailing the ocean was unlike sailing around the coast; it didn’t matter where he looked, there was no land, just endless blue, and when the sun rose or set, the brilliant yellows, oranges, and reds, melded with the sea into a glimmering purple until the sun vanished, leaving the sloshing of waves resounding through blackness.

In a way, it reminded him of Eternus’s realm, the edge of the world, and so he recapitulated his life. The eternal Dragon had claimed that in Scar’s world, Dragons had to be killed, the singular reason for crafting a warrior, but he was created a man, and he felt and thought like a man, and he wanted, and hated, and feared like a man, but he also loved like a man, and he missed his sweet Ylithia, and he worried about his friends, and Mindy.

Grinding his teeth, he fretted over the repercussions resulting from the death of Munir, but he also knew Longinus, being a Fafnirian, was going to convince the others that a united front was the only course of action. No doubt the emperor has a silver tongue; if Sahni hears him out, everything should be fine, but I just don’t know if Labolas and the others made it to safety, and if they did, they’ll have learned I killed Donovan. They made it…they must have made it. I know Labolas, he’ll focus on what’s important, and N’Giwah is far too determined to be swayed by emotions. The Dragon Slayer’s thoughts soon vanished, and he retired to the cabin for some sleep.

One morning, after rolling out of his hammock, he rummaged through his pack, and found Rusty. He pulled the toy out and looked at it when one of the sailors walked by. He quickly stowed it, but not in time.

“Well, that was cute,” the Fafnirian said.

Smiling, Scar replied, “It belongs to a little girl. She gave it to me for safekeeping; a promise I’d return from my trip.”

“I’m still not sure what you’re doing here.”

“I need to meet a man called Kiechiv,” Scar said, scratching his brow.

“Never heard of him, but be careful with those Scultonians.”

“Why? I have known a few, and they have been nothing if not honorable.”

The man shrugged and went about his duties. Scar, tired of the menacing itch on his brow, found a Draco, who was shaving his beard by a mirror. He was a chiseled, branded man wearing only breeches.

“Mind if I have a look?”

“Go fer’ it, mate,” the man replied, rubbing off the remains of cream with a wet towel.

Scar knelt to look at himself. There were tiny hair poking from above his eyes, black ones. He touched them before turning to the Draco.

“Are these eyebrows?”

“Looks like it,” the man snickered.

“I have never had hair before…except my lashes, some of which are gone,” he said, rubbing his seared eye.

“What happened to ya’, anyway?”

“I fought a Draco, actually.”

“Didja’ win?”

“Took his head right off.”

The man laughed heartily and slapped Scar across the shoulder. Shrugging, the warrior left the seadog to his own devices. On the deck, he found the Fafnirian boatswain, a short but stocky man with curly hair. Upon receiving his duties, he went to work to the music of more shanties.

Two more days passed in a similar fashion. Finally, to the south, a handful of ships came into view. The sailors claimed they were other trade vessels as denoted by the colorful flags. Beyond the ships was a brown haze that stood an indeterminate height; it didn’t reach the zenith from his vantage point, but whatever it was looked to be thousands of feet tall. He asked, and a sailor explained it was the death wind, the strange, dark wind that circulated the whole of Balroa.

“Is it dangerous,” Scar asked.

“Just to vessels. It’s like a sand storm, but whatever it is what blows about is smaller than sand, see? Like dust or something.”

“Why’s it dangerous to vessels?”

“It blows pretty rough and makes the sea choppy.”

“Ah…so, how long ‘til we reach it?”

“We’ll make dock by evening.”

Scar nodded and went back to work. Every so often, he had to step around one of the cats that rode aboard the vessel. He’d been told they kept the rats away, which scurried aboard when docked. The warrior didn’t care much for cats, or dogs for that matter, but like the men, they worked for their food.

Hours later, after the trade ships passed the Piranha, the sky grew dark and ominous. A gritty wind forced the sails to whip in a portentous fashion; they smacked at the masts and dust peppered the crew. Beyond the haze, a dark formation appeared. It was the shore of Balroa, and through the darkness stood a massive structure. Other shapes before the structure caused Scar to squint. A moment later, he realized he was looking at vessels docked at a port.

Acrypha was not only a bustling, Scultonian, port town, it was the capitol of Balroa. King Sirokai presided over the island from his castle, a place called Magnum Mortis. The sailors spoke of the capitol as a frightening, bone-strewn valley of death; the bastion sprung from a monstrous necropolis, which rose from the valley. Apart from that scanty description, Scar didn’t know what to expect, but as he drew ever closer, more and more of the grim city was revealed.

Vessels of all makes were wrecked over stony protuberances miles from the strange, dark docks. Debris floated around the Piranha. Scar and the crew worked together, heeding the calls of the boatswain, to maneuver the ship safely between the rocks. Past the obstacles, the city’s port was comprised of bone, stone, and mortar, and the ships that safely treaded the treacherous waters, rowed towards slips.

Eventually, sailors docked the schooner, and old Valiant came up from below deck. “Fine job, ya’ salty sea hands!”

“Aye!” the men howled.

Scar nodded and glanced around to make certain they were done tying the boat to bony cleats. The structure was so alien he felt a need to stare. Gray men creased with blue patterns wearing drab clothing of grays, black, and white moved to and from ships.

The Scultonians were as odd a people as the Bollans when it came to physical appearance. They all had purple eyes and white or grayish hair; few had black locks. Their lips were also black or dark gray; they looked sinister, but a handful of young boys came to greet the crew. With a shrug, Scar ran below deck to grab his stuff. Passing some of the sailors, he nodded or feigned a smile.

Up the steps, beneath the swirling, dark skies of Balroa, Scar met with Valiant. “I thank you for passage, old man.”

“Pleasure’s mine, chum. I take it you’ll find yer’ own way back?”

“Aye,” Scar smiled. “I’ve much business on this island. First, I need to find a way to the castle. I hope to meet with Sirokai, but if he isn’t willing to see me, it’s off to the taverns and pubs.”

“I hear that!” Valiant laughed. “Headin’ to one o’ those, meself’.”

“Before I hop off this ship, can you tell me where I can purchase artred ore?”

“Don’t you worry ‘bout that, sonny. You give me fifty coins, an’ I’ll make the arrangements ta’ have it sent back ta’ Aldurstun.”

“And you’ll send word to Artimis?”

“Sure will.”

“Alright,” Scar said, looking his old friend up and down. He dug the coin out and handed it over. “I’ll see you.”

“See you, too, friend,” Valiant smiled and smacked his lips.

Walking slowly along the port, passing the many Scultonians, who gave the giant scant looks, Scar kept his eyes glued to the architecture. The bones, which looked to be loose ribs, femurs, and indiscernible, round bones, had a grayish tint, and they were rather large, too large for the bones of men. He wondered after their origins, but beyond the docks were homes, square homes comprised of similar bones. They were flat rooved, and stacked atop of each other, like the homes in Satrone, but they were all dark, gray, blackened, and truly horrifying. Furthermore, since the entire island was ensconced in semi-darkness, torches burned from within hollowed sconces rampant throughout the structures.

Men, women, and children trudged up and down steps, across dusty streets, and did their best to attract visitors. Scar staggered around, his body still trying to anticipate the bobbing of ocean waves. He stopped for a moment to take a deep breath and steady his limbs when he had a sneezing fit from the dust.

“Buy some bracelets, Sir,” a young boy asked, displaying grim trinkets.

“Not right now, kid,” Scar said, moving past him.

The warrior jogged down the road, wiping grime from his eye, when he was seized by coughing fit. The debris swirling from sporadic gusts entered his sinuses and throat, irritating his lungs. He then heard the boy chuckle.

“How ‘bout a cloth mask then?”

Scar turned to see him peddling a piece of black cloth. “How much?”

“One copper is all, Sir.”

Nodding, Scar dug out the money and paid for the cloth. He tied it over his nose and tucked it into his leather cuirass. It helped tremendously, so he gave the boy’s shoulder a squeeze of camaraderie, and the kid ran off to pester the next tourist.

Back to the road, he marched towards the larger structures looming over the docks. Stairs of bone covered in ages of dust led him well above sea level, and finally, after some turns in the road, he came across various intersections, but there were wooden signs indicating the locations of businesses. He made a mental note of a tavern, and decided that was as good a place as any to start questioning the people of Balroa.

He found the pub flanked by two establishments, a seamstress and a tanner, and above the tavern was an inn. Entering through an opened doorway, the sound of laughter and chatter brought the warrior a sense of familiarity; it didn’t matter which town, city, or country he visited, taverns were all the same, a jovial respite from the exhaustion of the world. Certainly, everyone gave him a squint, a leer, or a grimace, but Scultonians weren’t known to be unfriendly. There was an air of mystery surrounding them, especially when tales of their foreboding cities reached the mainland, but like the other tribes of Tiamhaal, they were accepting of differences, and to them, the Dragon Slayer was quite different. He strode to the bar, took an empty stool, lowered his mask, and waited for the barkeep, who was Bakunawan; a silvery woman with slanted eyes, faint features, and pale, gold hair.

“You want tea?” she yelled.

“Uh…yes. Tea is fine.”

“This is good tea, has much alcohol, you look strong, so I make your tea strong!”

Without missing a beat—she moved like greased lightning—she artfully poured steaming tea from a kettle then added a yellowish alcohol from a glass jar. She pushed it over to the warrior, and demanded three coins. She didn’t take her hand from the ceramic cup until after Scar paid.

Removing his mask, he sipped the beverage. It was warm, but aromatic and bittersweet. Further inspecting his environment, the giant noticed a hearth in the far corner; bones were inlaid surrounding the interior, but most of the structure was comprised of dark stones. The walls and ceilings were the same, but in place of a wooden frame—as was customary practically everywhere else—was a bone frame; enormous, straight bones supported the building, and the establishment was bustling with people of various tribes, though most were Scultonians.

Strange to see a Bakunawan here. I thought they didn’t get along with each other.

“Just come ashore,” the man next to scar pried. He had a gritty, raspy voice like Munah and Borta. “Never seen someone like you around; you’re not Slibinish, are you?”

“No,” Scar replied. “I’m Scar, the–”

“The one killed Gilgamesh,” the man interrupted. “They say you’re not from this world.”

“That would be silly…I’m just a bit different.”

“Uh-huh…sure.” The man nodded and sipped from his cup. “Whatever you say, but I hope you’re not here to fight Sirokai.”

“No. I’m on a peaceful mission,” Scar sighed. The patron gave a look of skepticism. “I know…word spread I killed the other rulers; Gilgamesh, Zoltek…Munir, they were cold savages, though.”

“That gives you a right to kill them?”

“They had it coming, and thanks to their deaths, many more people will live, but listen, since we’re friends now, can you tell me how I can request an audience with Sirokai?”

The Scultonian arched a brow, laughed, and turned away to finish his beverage. Shrugging, Scar looked to see if anyone else was interested in his visit to Balroa. Numerous, purple eyes were upon him, but everyone turned away as soon he returned eye contact. Eventually, he waved to the barkeep.

“You want more tea? You hungry? Order the cabbage, they sailed it in from Eltanrof. It’s real good.”

“I’m fine,” he answered, but as he opened his mouth to ask her a question, she darted off to serve another patron. “Hey, barkeep!”

“What you want?”

“Where is the castle?” Everyone looked at him, but he avoided their gaze. “I’m trying to meet the king.”

“You crazy or something? Nobody just meets the king,” she laughed.

The patrons were just as amused. Wincing, Scar huffed through his nose, placed a few more coins on the counter, and tapped them with another coin to make a loud, metallic clink. That honed the barkeep’s attention.

“You for real?” she demanded, dubiously.

“Do I look like I’m playing?”

She swiped the coins and stuck them into her apron. “What you want with the king?”

“I just need to ask him a question, or send him a message; can you just tell me where the castle is?”

“Sure, sure,” she smiled, making her cheeks dimple. “You leave here, you make a right. Take that street—it’s called Black Street—north to Grave Road. You make a left there then another right to Castle Way. It’s real easy. You can’t get lost, but the guards patrol there, so you be careful not to start trouble.”

“I’m not here to start trouble. Thanks.”

She nodded, so he mumbled goodbye to the Scultonian drunk, nodded and gave a tightlipped smile to anyone else looking his way, and stomped out of the tavern.

Chapter Eighteen- The brooding prince

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Castle Way led to an immense bridge comprised of bone pillars protruding from a tributary that spilled out to the sea. Patrolmen wearing bone armor and skull helmets stood guard before the spanning structure, but dozens of citizens walked freely on and off the bridge. Though everyone gave Scar a glance of wonder, no one stopped him from crossing towards the monstrous castle in the distance.

Passing the inhabitants of Acrypha, Scar noticed only those not of Scultonian heritage wore masks for protection. Whoever the various tribesmen were, they wore fine clothes, or shiny armor, and they all moved with a regal bearing. Safe to assume these are delegates from other countries. Someone who looked either Fafnirian or Kulshedran—with the face cloths it was impossible to distinguish—walked by, giving Scar a nod. Then, he saw a tall figure coming towards him; a person wearing black armor and crowned helmet, an obvious Paladin of Severity. The person stopped suddenly.

Scar rolled his shoulders, wondering if a fight was in the making, but he kept stride, walked beyond the paladin, who turned to watch the Dragon Slayer go by, and skirted the rail to avoid knocking over a family of Tiamatish. He then watched the figure move on. Continuing towards the castle as the environment grew darker and the flames of torches along the bridge burned brighter, the warrior finally stepped off the bony platform to inspect two rows of guards.

The formations maintained two lines some fifty feet apart, and while their morbid gear gave them a terrifying appearance, their short spears were strapped to their backs. The soldiers guarded the only entrance into the castle, at least, the only entrance Scar saw from his position, an entrance built of a stony arch with a cobbled walkway that led to a raised, bone portcullis. Behind the archway, three, spindly towers reached towards the cloudy sky. While it was night, no stars or moon broke the veil of the death wind swirling overhead, but several torches lit the way, and Scar walked beneath the archway; soldiers atop a bridge between parapets marched unenthusiastically.

The cobbled street led to another entry, one that was crafted to resemble the large, menacing maw of some unknown beast, something like a goat skull without horns. Flames burned from its eye holes, and more guards stood on either side. A strange man wearing a gray tunic and a red sash eyed the warrior. He was leaning inconspicuously against the outer wall, but when they made eye contact, the man eased away from the stonework, stuffed his hands in the pockets of his trousers, and slinked away, out of sight. Squinting, Scar grew curious; the man had been dressed like the people who attacked him in Eltanrof, like the people he saw in Budai. Turning around to see if anyone else had paid attention to the stranger, the bladesman saw only inanimate soldiers; they were like statues, so he wandered off in the direction the man had gone, but found himself corralled by parapets and a high wall.

He clicked his tongue, popped his thumbs, wondered to where the man had vanished, and then made back for the way into the castle. The foyer was an extensive room if bland. Scultonians weren’t much for fancy décor, apart from the numerous, scary skulls crafted into the walls, but their opened mouths held flames, which provided an eerie, malevolent glow throughout the castle. Servants and guards wandered through—some of them sweeping or dusting the grime prevalent in Balroa—so Scar sauntered towards a closed door at the far end of the room. A thin, Scultonian woman wearing a shiny, black, silk robe smiled once he drew close.

“Greetings, warrior,” she said.

“Well met. I am hoping to arrange a meeting with your king. I am Scar, a friend of Balroa.”

“I know who you are. One has vouched for your honor.”

“Oh?” Scar wondered if she meant Borta; he was the only Scultonian Scar knew, apart from Munah, who was no longer a Scultonian nor living.

“Come.” The woman opened the door and motioned with her hand.

The two walked down a purple carpet through the donjon. Many stairwells on both sides of the room led up through a vaulted ceiling, and many more led down into the bowels of the island. Soldiers stood around, chatting with one another. Often, they gave Scar a nod; the castle was at ease.

The carpet ended before seven steps, which led to immense, open doors. The throne room lay beyond the doors, and numerous servants rushed by; they were coming and going from other rooms. The warrior tried to get a peak at what they were doing, where they were going, and saw a kitchen, a dining room, and more stairwells. Finally, they both stopped in front of two chairs. They were unremarkable excepting the fact that they were crafted from bone, and each was cushioned with purple silk. Scar turned to the woman with an expectant look.

Nodding politely, she said, “Wait a moment. Verouvir will want to speak to you.”

Rather than asking after the mysterious name or word, Scar watched the woman traipse up a set of stairs. Taking a deep breath, he glanced at those walking by and gave a nod or smile. Minutes later, as he shifted his balance to and fro, a Scultonian wearing a suit of bone and steel plate approached. The armor was inlaid with golden quilling, and so beautiful, Scar failed to notice the man wearing it.

“Good to see you again,” the man said in a gravelly tone.

“Borta! It is you,” Scar chuckled as he noticed the patterns of blue on his friend’s face.

“Yes…but that is not my real name, you see? I am Verouvir Akalabash. Sirokai is my brother. I am the Prince of Balroa.”

The two clasped wrists. Scar remained slack-jawed after letting go. Borta smiled briefly.

“Why the mystery,” Scar inquired.

“I could not have let on that I was the prince; Gilgamesh would’ve grown suspicious and relations between our countries would surely have a suffered a blow, yet I needed a way to enter Alduheim, and so my brother claimed I was his foremost scholar and sent me to Satrone.”

“Gilgamesh is dead now,” Scar said, looking away. “Much has happened since those days at the old castle…I have learned of my origins, and I have come here for two reasons.”

“Oh?”

“Yes…first and foremost, I wanted to speak to your brother to hear his take on current events. You see, with the deaths of Gilgamesh and Zoltek, and the deaths of their Dragon Lords, the Kulshedrans and Zmajans are no longer killing each other; they are working for peace, well…at least the Kulshedrans are, but that brings us to a meeting I had with Sahni. She and Sirokai are still amicable,” Scar asked. Borta nodded, so he continued. “Good. She asked me to kill Donovan to end the fighting between Sudai and Eltanrof, and to provide her with the alliances she needs to keep her borders safe. On top of that, Labolas and N’Giwah enticed Jagongo and Longinus to forge an alliance with Sahni; the entire strategy was to secure peace across the southeastern countries, which is wonderful, but I had my own agenda—to kill all of the Dragons, thus providing balance across the world.”

“Killing the Dragons has had the opposite effect, though.”

Scar nodded, miserably. He glanced at some of the passersby; they didn’t appear to be eavesdropping, and Borta wasn’t concerned anyway, though he was frowning.

“Yes…to some extent; it looks as though killing one Dragon empowers the people following the others. No doubt, you’ve noticed that.”

“I have.”

“At any rate, I’m hoping your brother is willing to hand over the gem he uses to communicate with Scultone. When we were in Alduheim, and I spoke of gems used to commune with Dragons, you claimed no knowledge of the fact,” Scar said, eyeing his friend.

“I was not aware that the gem in question was the gem lodged in Skullcrusher until recently.”

“Skullcrusher?”

“A sacred hammer passed down to the eldest son. We believe it to be an ancient relic used to defeat the Dragons. Now we are aware it is far more than that.”

“Hmm,” Scar mused and pursed his lips. “You know…it seems that every gem has been lodged inside a weapon or piece of armor. I wonder if those were all artifacts used in the wars. Do you recall in Alduheim the man who killed Drac?”

“The warrior with the lance?”

“Yes. There, he placed a red gem inside it, and as you can see,” Scar said, turning to show the sword on his back, “they all fit within my blade. It has thirteen holes; one for each gem.”

“So, you require all of the gems?”

“They are instrumental in killing the Dragons. I recently killed Gyo and Zmaj, and like when I killed Kulshedra, their souls entered the gem…besides, placing the gem inside my blade brings me to the Dragon’s realm.”

“Interesting, but,” Borta trailed off. Scar gauged him; he looked pensive. “If the gems hold the Dragons’ souls then how have they returned to influence men? When Drac died at Alduheim, did not his soul enter the gem?”

Scar’s face twitched in shock and wonder. “An appropriate question. I am unsure, but I do not recall Drac disintegrating when the soldier killed him.”

“The Dragons have disintegrated when you killed them,” Borta asked; a wave of uncertainty flashed across his brow. Scar nodded. “Fascinating. There is so much we do not know….”

“Truth, but I was wishing to discuss these matters with Sirokai; I am glad to be talking with you instead, as you have seen the irrefutable proof.”

“Indeed, so tell me more of your plans.”

Scar explained what had happened on the way to Eltanrof. He also added that he was unable to find Drac’s gem, but clarified Artimis’s claims of the Eltanrof hierarchy. He ended his explanation, stating that he had come to ask for Scultone’s gem without bloodshed, and finally explained that he was the Dragon Slayer, a creature forged only to bring peace to the world.

“And if we cannot hand it to you,” Borta asked after a brooding moment.

“I have no wish to kill anyone. Neither you nor your brother have done me wrong. Your country has not attacked anyone. I am only asking for the gem.”

“If you kill Scultone, we will lose our blessing, and the other countries will grow stronger.”

“Yes…and I had hoped Drac would be dead and the Dracos powerless by now, but I have failed to deliver, and I will not subject your people to harm, but I must have that gem,” Scar heaved. “However, I do not wish to receive it at this time….” Borta arched a brow. “I said there were two reasons I came here…you certainly recall the Paladin of Mekosh, Ylithia?”

“Word was you two were in love, but Kulshedrans killed her.”

“Yes…and that’s why I killed Gilgamesh, but someone suggested I might ask Sahni to bring her back to life; I yet hold Kulshedra’s gem, and as we know, the souls of those defeated by worshippers of a Dragon go to that Dragon; Kulshedra has her soul, but I have his, and so we wondered if she could be returned, but the rana said she was unable to help…she then suggested a man named Kiechiv.”

Borta’s ears twitched. Frowning, he took a long inhalation. He then paced.

“You know of this man,” Scar pried.

“They say his power rivals that of my brother; he is perhaps the most talented necromancer, but he is a madman…a twisted man. When my grandfather ruled, he banished Kiechiv from the castle; this was, oh, nearly eighty years ago. I don’t even know if Kiechiv lives, but if he does, there is only one place he will be.”

“Where?”

“There is an islet off the eastern coast. He used to live there.”

“I must see him,” Scar said and placed a hand on Borta’s shoulder.

Nodding, Borta returned a sad smile. “I cannot imagine the death of a lover, and I have some questions that man might answer as well, if he lives…I will take you to him.”

“Truly?!”

“Yes, but we must leave immediately. No one must know I have gone to see him, lest I arouse suspicions. I’ll spread word that I have taken you to the shrine of death; it is an old mausoleum said to bless those who unwaveringly worship Scultone; nonsense if you ask me, but it won’t raise doubts.”

“And what of your brother?”

“Leave Sirokai to me,” Borta sighed. “You there,” he called to a servant. “See Scar to the kitchen and prepare him food and drink.”

The Scultonian nodded and took Scar to the kitchen. While a special meal of fried shark was prepared, the warrior sat at a table in the adjoining dining room. He then ate and drank to his heart’s content. A while later, Borta returned to give a simple motion of the head.

He took them through a tower and out of the castle. By the light of torches, they walked to a short dock etched from a flattened and smoothed boulder. Three, small ships were tied to the stone. The Scultonian climbed into one and Scar followed. Without saying a word, the prince undid the ropes, took a paddle, handed one to Scar, and they started away.

Though the winds were gusty and the sea was choppy, their boat was comprised of long pieces of wood, which were nailed over one another, thus when one board twisted, the others compensated. Scar praised the craftsmanship.

“It is a Slibinish design. They have vessels called dragon ships….”

“From where does this wood come? Are there trees here?”

“There are some,” Borta replied. Once they were a ways out from the castle, the prince stood to unfurl a sail. It was reinforced by a network of ropes. “The trees here are wispy things, but we have been trading with Eltanrof for ages; they provide us timber and soil, and we provide them steel.”

“I see….” As Borta struggled with the tiller, the winds flurried. Debris sprayed the men as did the sea. Squinting, Scar tried to guess where they were going, but through the darkness, he saw nothing, so he turned to his friend. “Do you see in the dark?”

“To some extent,” Borta sighed. “Only the Tiamatish truly see in the dark, but Scultonians and Bollans aren’t as hindered as the rest of the tribes.”

“How long will we be at sea?”

“We won’t truly be at sea. I’ll just skirt the shore then sail around the rocks. We’ll arrive by morning. In the meantime, I’d like to know about the Gods.”

“What about them?”

“Have you not had more contact with them?”

Scar wracked his brain, trying to remember if he had told Borta of his meeting with Silwen. He thought that he did, that perhaps, back at Alduheim sometime after witnessing the memory of Dragons, he and N’Giwah had openly spoke of it, but he wasn’t sure.

“There is not much to say,” Scar finally replied. “Apart from speaking to Silwen, I have no direct contact with them, but recently I prayed…I saved a child from a burning home, and the Gods sent rain to keep us safe, but which God? I do not know….”

“What of the Dragons?”

“Which?”

“The dead ones…what did they look like?”

“Oh…well…Kulshedra was a great, misty beast—hard to explain, really. It was just, I don’t know, swirls of mist that resembled scales. Zmaj was like a bunch of serpents all intertwined, and Gyo was an immense snake, but he had legs, like animal legs, and his face was sort of like a lion, but longer.”

“How strange…I wonder what Scultone looks like,” Borta breathed.

Scar shrugged. The darkness was unnerving. Nothing more was said for hours. The squeaks of the vessel coupled with gusts of wind and sloshes of waves drowned away even thoughts. The warrior closed his eye and rubbed it with the heel of his hand before wiping some grime from it. After an hour or so, the wind carried the sound of chatter and laughter; they were not too far from the docks, and Scar made out the shapes of vessels. Tiny spheres of torchlight glowed through the opaque darkness of the death wind.

Chapter Nineteen- Gift of death

 

It was much brighter near the islet off the coast of Balroa. The death wind had not as much of an effect that far from the mainland, and by the time the sun rose, the men had slid the boat onto a sandy beach, and pulled it out from the water. Taking a breath, Scar removed his cloth mask; there was no dust in the area, just rocks and bones.

“Up that hill,” Borta said, pointing and catching his breath, “there is a cave. If my memory serves me correctly, we’ll have to wind our way through, but I believe Kiechiv will be hiding away somewhere in there where the sun shines through a large opening.”

“Can we not march around the surface until we find a large opening then?”

Borta furrowed his brow. “No. It would be a deadly drop down from there. This cave leads far beneath the sea, understand?” Scar popped his thumbs and rolled his shoulders. “One more thing, call me Borta if you have to call me at all.”

“Whatever you wish.”

The men jogged from the shore and into the rocks. There was a steep incline that led them to a craggy path between larger boulders. The islet had fewer bones, and as a whole, it was much grayer than the mainland. Bristly bushes grew everywhere, and birds scattered from their leaves when the men drew near. After hours of trudging higher and higher through winding paths around jagged stones, they broke for water and rest.

“Tell me,” Scar began, “how did your brother take the news of Dragons?”

“Surprisingly well; I told him what I saw, what you said, and we spoke at length about what we’d been taught all our lives. He even invited some paladins to the castle. It is, however, Scultonian nature to remain aloof…isolated, and we certainly wish an end to the wars, but since our father passed, and Sirokai took over, we have not had much of an opportunity to push for peace, so things have moved rather slowly.

“Before the deaths of the Dragons, we were forging an alliance with Donovan, Gilgamesh, Longinus, and Jagongo, and as you know, we were loosely allied with Sahni, but we had never met with her. I do not know how much you know of Balroan history, but our father died only recently, and he was…less diplomatic than my brother.”

Scar nodded and asked his friend to continue. Borta agreed to speak as they hiked. He took the lead. The warrior followed behind, enjoying the sights. Streaks of white painted the sky so far above them. No lower clouds floated by, and the air was somewhat still, yet there was a feeling of vastness.

The prince explained that his father had been much more dependent upon Scultone’s advice than his brother, and that while the Dragon of Death was tolerant of Kulshedrans and respectful of Khmerans, he didn’t trust the Bollans or the Bakunawans. That, coupled with the ever rising threat of paladins, had led the former king to cut Balroa off from the rest of the world, but Sirokai conceived a plan to promote accord towards the island, and that plan had involved assisting Gilgamesh in defeating Zoltek, yet he wanted no part in fighting the Khmerans, and since Satrone was closer than Nabalhi, Sirokai had lent his support to Satrone by sending a scholar to aid in researching whatever it was that had all the kings and queens up in arms; hidden knowledge at Alduheim.

“You,” Scar said.

“Yes. What better way to test the honor of a king than by sending a prince posing as a peon?”

By that time, the two were steadily treading downhill. Loose rocks tumbled noisily into a dried basin below them. At the foot of the basin, they crunched over splintered bones. Puffing and sweating, Borta plunked down on a long bone, which served them as a bench. There, they ate some bread, drank, and conversed a little more.

The prince further revealed his surprise regarding Gilgamesh’s actions. First and foremost, he had not known of Scar; word of the Ghost of Zmaj turned Kulshedran champion had not yet spread to Balroa back then. Secondly, after learning of Scar, he knew Gilgamesh had not been truthful regarding the secrets of Alduheim, and witnessing Silwen only clinched his doubts about the Kulshedran king.

“So, you did see her, Silwen?”

“Admittedly, I had trailed you that night in the forest; my brother needed to learn what it was everyone was after, and Gilgamesh thought you were of key importance. I couldn’t afford to let you out of my sight…when the Goddess appeared to speak with you, my faith in Scultone wavered, but I thought maybe he was a God, too.”

“I remember you arguing with the others. You were making claims that kings were more interested in strutting their egos than working for peace.”

“I still feel that way. To think about the secret in Alduheim; it certainly was something, which might have hampered the possibility of world peace as much as it might help, but that is up to them…the rulers.”

“You are one of them.”

“I am a figurehead, and I do what my brother asks. I suppose, in our own way, we are also more concerned with our safety than world peace,” Borta sighed. “At least we don’t assault the other nations or those who have lost their blessings.”

Scar was silent a moment, but then he asked, “Did you tell your brother about Silwen?”

“I keep no secrets from Sirokai. Everything changed after the events at Alduheim; I had proof that real Gods existed. Then, I had some proof that those we worshipped were Dragons, but neither concepts were enough to change the world, yet you and the others decided to take matters to Jagongo, a prestigious woman, and I believed I needed to return to my brother and push for a meeting with her as well, but by the time I made it home, we had learned that Gilgamesh had gone mad, that you had betrayed him, but then you killed him and Kulshedra, and word spread that it was he who had betrayed you.

“My brother then decided it was best to side with whoever was ready to strike a blow upon Usaj rather than deal with Gods and Dragons, but by the time we were ready to send troops to Eltanrof, word reached us that Zoltek had fallen. Then, we noticed how much more powerful we all had become. Now, many of my people have begun to praise Scultone, but there are as many who see that Scultone must be a Dragon. Neither I nor my brother have made claims of this as it could be dangerous to tell people that we’ve been worshipping a Dragon, but if word continues to spread that there is a man among us who kills Dragons, and if there is proof of your actions, then perhaps things may resolve themselves.

“To that end, we await the peace talks in the north. If Sahni, Jagongo, and Longinus forge a treaty, we will lend them our support. You have also killed Munir, and the people of Sudai, along with the Kulshedrans and Zmajans, now have little choice but to side with either Dracos or Khmerans and the others…had Drac fallen as well, things would be different…and maybe, should a wise Draco take the throne, we can yet see peace in the southern regions, but there is something bothering me….”

“What is it?”

“Well, we have never trusted the Bakunawans, and now, they are certainly stronger, and Hashnora has forced alliances between Shinjuru, Sahni, Yuroga, and to a lesser extent Vamvos. If Sahni allies with Jagongo and the others, then Hashnora and his ilk will attack Nabalhi; I believe the only hope is for the defeated people to side with Sahni, but they may be reticent if Eltanrof continues to attack them.”

“The people of Sudai are in a bad position because of me,” Scar attested. “Things didn’t work out the way I had intended, but Munir was going to use the Solar Hand to slaughter us. N’Giwah and Labolas saw it, too, so we struck before they did; it saved us, or rather, it should have saved us, but I failed to kill Drac…. I have a friend, a Draco; he claims that Eltanrof will stay out of the wars until they have a new ruler.”

“Let us hope that new ruler is a wise one. One of two things must happen for Sirokai to lend his support; either Drac must fall, so that the Dracos side with Sahni, or the new ruler must decide it best to join her. If Drac doesn’t fall, and the new king or queen joins with Hashnora, I believe war will flame anew around Alduheim…. Come, it is not much farther.”

Scar tried to figure out why the fighting might start up again. Sahni is currently allied with Hashnora; a Draco alliance with Hashnora would be an alliance with Sahni, no? He asked Borta as much during the trek through the basin. The prince explained his assumption.

“It has not had such an effect between Nabalhi and Wuulefroth. Hashnora, Shinjuru, and Takashi will offer the new ruler of Eltanrof Sudaian territory, and perhaps even parts of Satrone and Usaj in exchange for wiping out the Khmerans. You see, without the Dracos, Hashnora and the others lack the resources and strength to defeat Sahni if she allies with Longinus, Jagongo, and the defeated countries. As a matter of fact, that alliance will probably also reunite Sahni and Vamvos.”

“Ah,” Scar exclaimed, “but with the Dracos as an enemy, the combined forces of Jagongo, Sahni, and Longinus won’t stand a chance without support.”

“Especially if Vamvos attacks from the north while the new, Draco ruler attacks from the south, and the others attack from the west.”

“What a mess….”

Beyond the basin, they marched back uphill, rounded a wide mesa with rings of bones throughout its strata, and as the sun started to set, Borta stopped before a thicket and rubbed his nose. Then, he pushed through the brambly foliage, which grew from the base of a giant slab of stone, but Scar stopped him. Instead of walking through the bushes, he took his blade and reduced them to twigs.

The prince smiled. “This is it….”

Amidst the debris, against the stone, was a darkened opening large enough for a man to enter. “Down there?”

“Yes.”

“You said it’s below the sea,” Scar said, a tinge of trepidation in his voice.

“Yes, we will delve down very far.”

“Is there water down there?”

“There might be…I have never actually been inside,” the prince said and shrugged.

Scar nodded. If this man is in there, and he can bring Ylithia back, it’ll be worth the danger. I just hope we don’t get caught by the tide or something. The warrior looked at Borta, who was unconcerned.

“Alright…lead the way.”

The Scultonian nodded, took a knee, and then lowered himself into the hole. Scar followed in behind, and a moment later, they were both blinded by darkness. Borta grumbled something about a torch.

“No need,” Scar claimed and focused on the might of Gyo. The blade in his hand wavered with an undulating, yellow radiance. The light washed up and down the steel. “A little trick I learned.”

The prince was in awe, his eyes squinting and his mouth agape. “You, you command the power of the Dragon?”

“Evidently, I have a way of tapping into the gem. I don’t know if I only need the stone or if I need the Dragon’s soul, but as it stands, I have the powers of Gyo and Kulshedra.”

“Astounding….” For a long moment, Borta was lost in the ripples of light working around the blade. Then, he sort of shook his head, took a breath, and meandered deeper into the caves. “Let’s be careful down here.”

“Of?”

“I…I have heard stories.”

“Of?!”

Borta stopped to say, “I heard the dead walk these caves. Probably nonsense, but if Kiechiv is as powerful as I have been told…well, one can never be too cautious.”

“The dead? Like when you reanimated that Kulshedran?”

“Mm…maybe, or maybe there is something else.”

Frowning, and moving his blade about to inspect his surroundings, Scar figured whatever was down there, if anything, was sure to fall to his might, yet images of ghastly figures bedeviled his mind. The two walked noisily through narrow passages formed by solid stone. Further in, the left wall gave way to a seemingly bottomless chasm. Both kept their back against the rocky formation as pebbles or pieces of bone careened into oblivion.

At times, they saw cones of dusty sunlight cut through the darkness. There were crevices in the rocks above them, which allowed light to penetrate the subterranean span, but daylight was quickly dwindling. Scar fretted when he heard something like a sloshing river.

“What is that?”

“Probably the ocean.”

“Is it beneath us or above us?”

The Scultonian slowed, and ignoring Scar, he craned his neck to have a gander overhead. A little light was coming through the ceiling. The warrior slowed his pace as well. The area they had reached was flat and quite spacious, and as they stomped about to gain their bearings, the metallic clank of Borta’s armor bounced off the distant walls.

“This looks like a spring,” the prince said.

Scar furrowed his brow and scrutinized the blackness around them. Doesn’t look like there’s been water here for ages. His sword shone brightly enough to illuminate everything within a hundred yards, but the ground vanished somewhere beyond, and no walls were in sight. Furthermore, there was no water on the ground. With a shrug, he watched Borta, who chose a direction and started off.

Squeaks drew Scar’s attention as he followed; a clutter of bats flew by, spooked by the men. The pungent scent of bat droppings soon assaulted the nostrils. The Scultonian was indifferent, however, and kept moving. Before much longer, they reached a wall. The prince ran his hand along it, looked up, around, and then to Scar.

The warrior arched a brow questioningly, but the Scultonian rolled his purple eyes in a tiresome fashion. He then walked a few steps to his left before stopping abruptly. They almost bumped into one another, but after puffing and getting out of their respective paths, Borta backtracked, keeping the wall to his right. Shrugging subtly in slight irritation, Scar figured his friend had no idea where they were going. Well…it isn’t like I have a clue….

What felt like an eternity later, the wall curved to the right, and once more, the sound of water echoed, but the travelers were moving up an inclined path, so Scar relaxed. The new leg of their journey forced them to move single file for a time. Walls on both sides were craggy, and something in the matrix sparkled from Gyo’s light; it looked like steel flakes or granules. Inadvertently, Scar sent Borta stumbling; the Scultonian had halted while Scar was dithering.

Turning with a scowling visage, Borta yelled. “Pay attention! One would think you have never traveled before.”

“I’m sorry. You’re alright?”

“Of course,” Borta grumbled.

“Why’d you stop?”

The prince took a long breath before leaning aside. Scar looked beyond his friend. Most of a human skeleton sat on the ground. Surrounding the bones was ancient camping gear; a satchel, a rusty canteen, a rusty hatchet, and remnants of a rolled, hide tent. After looking at the refuse, the giant glanced at Borta and shrugged.

“I need to see something,” the prince mumbled. He knelt next to the bones, took one, rolled it in his hand, tossed it, and stood. “Starved to death after breaking his leg from a fall.”

“You can tell?”

“I can,” the prince replied, dryly.

Borta then started off again, crushing some of the bones beneath his heavy boots. Scar jogged up behind, but kept a polite distance. He waited for elucidation regarding the odd conclusion, but the man said nothing.

“How did you know,” Scar finally asked, like a child unable to fight his curiosity.

“Hmph…the power of Scultone allows me to do more than reanimate the deceased; I catch a glimpse of the essence as it leaves the corpse. That man’s last thoughts were a jumbled mess of self-pity; he cursed himself for not paying attention while hiking the rocks above us, and he fell…matter of fact, I believe he fell from here.” The prince stopped and pointed up. It was dark out, but about a hundred feet above them, purplish sky was visible through a crack in the rocks. Straining from fatigue, he added, “I saw that after he fell, he tried to move, but the pain in his limb was insurmountable, and though he had water for a week, he had food for only a day, and he believed no one knew he was here. He was helpless….”

“Interesting,” Scar mused and pursed his lips. “Do you know what he was looking for?”

“I only sensed he wanted food, help…he was…desperate and delirious.”

The two looked upon one another for a second; the way Gyo’s light reflected over Scultonian armor was mesmerizing. Then, Borta turned and continued up the path where more and larger crevices lined the ceiling. The further they went, the greater the difference in temperature, humidity, and pressure. The immense opening over them forced cool wind to circulate just above their heads. Voices of sailors in the distance were audible; they were yelling, but it was impossible to tell if there was trepidation or merriment in their tone.

“I think we are going the right way,” Borta said.

“Oh…good. For a moment, I wasn’t sure if you knew what you were doing,” Scar joked.

“Mm…cute.” The prince started off again at a brisk pace. Scar had no trouble keeping up, but he had grown hungry. He sipped from his goatskin, which didn’t settle his tummy. “Over here!”

As Scar drew closer, his light revealed roughly hewn steps leading up to the surface. Borta scrambled up and vanished from sight. Once the warrior made his way out from the cave, he found his friend sitting against a rock; jagged stones dozens of feet tall surrounded the pit from which they crawled. He also sat down to rest.

They were in a cool and dry area. Many bushes lined the rocky site. It was quite dusty, but there were no visible bones. With no danger present, the Dragon Slayer canceled out his magical light, leaving everything eerily calm and quiet, peaceful, even.

 

****

 

Scar opened his eyes, awestricken by the light. It was morning. He had drifted off into a black sleep. Squinting, he looked for his friend, but didn’t see him among the circular area. After a laborious effort, he managed to his feet and rubbed his numbed rump. Borta then came out from around one of the stones.

“You’re up,” he grunted.

“Yes…I guess I slept all night,” Scar mused.

“We’re in luck. Follow me, there’s a path over here.”

“A moment,” he replied and motioned with his head for Borta to go.

The warrior relieved himself then wandered over to where his compatriot had found the trail. Borta was already yards away. Scar forced himself down the trail, sometimes sidling in order to traverse the narrow corridor created by the proximity of the boulders. His girth snapped and crunched dried brambles. Minutes of huffing, puffing, and groaning later, the brute forcefully pushed past the final rock to find the prince gazing at a home comprised of bone, sticks, and stones.

They had reached another clearing, and it was also surrounded by many, rough boulders, and there were just as many dying bushes, but there was no pit or chasm in sight, yet there was a structure hundreds of yards away. Scar walked up to his friend and took his shoulder.

Looking back to Scar, he said, “This must be it.”

The warrior moved closer to the house. “Hello!” His voice echoed. There was no reply. “Anybody home?!”

Still, no one answered. The travelers glanced at one another. Scar frowned and shrugged in baffled resignation and jogged to the home. It was a small construct, maybe eight feet tall and twelve deep, but dark. There was only one opening; it was really more a hovel than a home, and surrounding it were loose bones, stone bowls, scraps of leather, and broken twigs.

“I’ll look inside,” Borta said. Maybe someone used to live here, but I doubt if they’re still here, Scar thought. The prince stepped from the hovel with a stoic expression. “There is a pot of water in there and preserved food, but–”

“What are the two of you doing?” an unfamiliar voice demanded.

Scar looked up and over to find an ancient Scultonian wearing tattered, gray clothing standing amidst the rocks. He was a thin man with loose skin and white hair to his waist. Even with his dirty, bushy beard, he looked far from frail, yet he must have been in his eighties. Borta joined Scar to gape at the man.

“Are you Kiechiv,” the prince asked.

“Who are you?” the old man scowled.

“My name is Borta. I am a mercenary. This man hired me to find you.”

“Peace, old man,” Scar added. “I only came to ask Kiechiv a question. Are you him?”

“Hmph,” the man snorted, derisively. “Of course I am…but what are you? You’re not Slibinish….”

“He is a friend of King Sirokai’s. Is that enough,” Borta asked.

“Anyone can say that,” Kiechiv spat. “What do you want? Out with it, so I can say no and get back to my work.”

“Alright,” Scar smiled. “Rana Sahni said you might be able to give life back to my dead lover.”

Kiechiv laughed openly. He braced himself against a rock to keep upright. After coughing and wiping his eyes, he shook his head.

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“How in Hell should I know?” Scar fired back.

“Look,” the old man started. He glanced between the two men below him. “Raising the dead is one thing, but giving life back is a complicated matter.”

“I don’t care how complicated it is.”

“Alright…do you have her soul, so I can put it in a body?” he scoffed

“Well…I have the soul of Kulshedra, and he had her soul, so maybe?”

Kiechiv’s face turned grim; he frowned and furrowed his gray brow, squinted, and chewed his bottom lip. “That’s why things have changed…how many are dead?”

“How many Dragons,” Scar asked.

“Whatever they are….”

“Three; Kulshedra, Zmaj, and Gyo.”

“Who are you, really?”

“My friends call me Scar, but I am Sarkany, the Dragon Slayer.”

“Mmm…Scultone has mentioned there is much death nearby,” the old man mumbled. He then rubbed his hands together. “Who was this lover?”

“Her name is Ylithia. She was a Fafnirian I loved…still love. Gilgamesh’s men killed her to lure me out of hiding.”

“And now you come with the souls of three Dragons…? Interesting.”

“I have the souls of two,” Scar corrected, “but I did not bring them for you to play with; I just need to know if you can give me back my love, and what you need of me.”

The old man laughed again. His odd behavior made both Scar and Borta tense. They passed a look of skepticism.

“Listen,” Scar started.

“Give me her soul, give it here,” Kiechiv interrupted as he started to climb his way down to them. Scar walked over, shocked by the coot’s nimbleness. A moment later, he pried the gem from his blade and placed it in the man’s calloused palms. “Look at it glow, look at it swirl, my, what a thing….”

Arching a brow, the warrior reached for it, but Kiechiv twisted away, like a starving animal with a morsel, and brought the gem to his eyes. They sparkled from the light.

“I see her in there,” he whispered. “There you are, little Ylithia, Paladin of Mekosh, eh?”

Growing angry, Scar had to take a breath to steel his nerves, yet Kiechiv’s ramblings insinuated the possibility of reunion. “Alright, old man, hand it over.”

“Yes…yes, of course. Here. Take it.”

Once received, he stuck the jewel into his blade. “Now what? You obviously know what you’re doing.”

“Well, of course I do, you petulant child!”

“Easy,” Scar chuckled. “Where do we go from here? I, I can’t express my, uh….”

“Hush,” the old man turned away and shooed his hand at the warrior. “Her soul is there. Many souls are there. There are probably many souls in each gem, and each God has a gem…?”

“They are Dragons.”

“People worship them, so they are also Gods.”

“They’re not the same as the real Gods,” Borta intervened.

“Eh? Who’re you?” Kiechiv grumbled.

“I told you, I’m Bo–”

“Enough, the both of you, now listen!” Kiechiv demanded. “You must bring something of her…a bone, a lock of hair, her blood from her armor…something, anything of the sort. The rest I can make on my own, and there are preparations. I’ll need, yes, oh, ew, and that, too. What are you still doing here?!”

Scar, gazing at the coot, started to raise his hand, but he shrugged against his will. “I’m, I’m going. Thank you. I’ll be back with her hair then, right?”

“Yes, yes, yes, go, go, go.”

Scar and Borta looked to each other in total disbelief, but that bewilderment soon turned to unbridled glee. As the friends walked back towards the rocky trail, Scar exploded into teary laughter.

Chapter Twenty- The long haul

 

The unfathomable joy of resurrecting Ylithia made Scar giddy. For a while, the warrior was unable to stop smiling, and his cheery attitude swayed even Borta. As they sailed back to the castle docks, the happy duo discussed the benefits of Dragon’s magic. While it was deemed a necessity to vanquish the beasts, it was indeed a shame that other arrangements were impossible.

“Truthfully, a world wherein men and Dragons coexisted would be a sight to see,” Scar said.

“Agreed.”

“Yet it seems they wish only to have men kill one another, so that they may return to this world, and we both how that ends; power covets power, and the Dragons would not stop their tyranny.”

“You’re probably right.” Borta was pensive as he tied the vessel to the rock. “Although, I must say, Scultone has not sent us to kill anyone.”

“Hm…neither has Fafnir nor Tiamat, but they do keep the souls of their defeated enemies, and unless men cease to worship them, that won’t change.”

“An interesting point; can people stop worshipping Dragons, and if they do, what is the outcome?”

“We may never know. How do we even convince people to stop worshipping them?”

Borta simply frowned, mentioning paladins had made some strides to that effect. Scar shrugged and gauged his compatriot; bags beneath his purple eyes left a grave appearance. The Dragon Slayer considered the possibility of breaking the worship of Dragons, yet he knew Eternus wanted all the beasts dead in this particular reality, so the warrior wondered about other planes of existence, and whether or not it was possible to experience them. Biting his lower lip, he followed the prince back inside the castle, and to the throne room, where servants welcomed their return.

“Let us rest tonight,” Borta stated. “Tomorrow, we will take a ship to the mainland.”

“You’re coming with me? Are you not needed here?” Scar was awed.

“My brother can handle our country on his own,” the prince replied, dismissively.

He then instructed a servant to see to his guest’s every need. An older man approached while Borta vanished up some stairs. Arching a brow, the warrior let the prince be, knowing he was an odd person, and followed the old man up another set of stairs to an immense if barren room. There was a large bed constructed of a stone frame and topped with pelts and pillows. Beside the bed was a small table with a platter displaying sweets, cups, and a bottle of bluish liquid.

“Enjoy your stay,” the servant said and bowed his head. “Should you need anything at all, call for any of us. Lunch will be served in two hours in the dining room.”

The man then backed out of the room and shut the door. Scar sat on the bed to ponder his next move; a bit of dust wafted form the pelts. He knew it wasn’t his place to make suggestions, especially to the Prince of Balroa, and when he was granting free passage, but he wanted to return to Othnatus as soon as possible, and planned to ask for a ship ride around the eastern coast of Tiamhaal to Ithlica. Figuring such a trip was going to take the better part of two weeks, and perhaps more, he resigned himself to relax for the moment. It was yet early, and tomorrow was a long way away, so he snacked on the pastries and poured himself a cup from the bottle. It smelled alcoholic, but tasted quite different from the liquors he had previously imbibed; it was sweeter and somehow thicker, almost syrupy.

Thinking of all the things he was going to say to Ylithia upon her revival, he had overlooked how the people of Othnatus might feel about exhuming a corpse, not that it mattered much; he even considered doing it in secret. He lied back, contemplating arriving in the town by nightfall, and sneaking into the hartgrove, but before formulating any kind of a plan, he drifted off.

A dreamless sleep was cut short by a knock on the door. He rolled out of bed, and answered. It was lunchtime, so he rubbed his eye, stretched his limbs, and plodded to the dining room. Borta was absent, and he recognized only a few servants, but they treated him cordially. There were other guests there, diplomats from other countries, and even paladins.

Conversations revolved around Scar and his defeating the other rulers. The representatives wanted to know if he was going to kill anyone else. The paladins wanted to know if he was going to kill the other Dragons. Rather than feeding the fire, Scar claimed he was trying only to follow the advice of benevolent rulers such as those of Balroa, Closicus, and Malababwe. To that end, he stated he was soon to leave for a meeting with Longinus, not that it was true, but if he did sail to Ithlica then a stop in Genova before returning to Balroa was not out of the question; more familiarity regarding the plots of kings was likely to earn him a handful of gems without bloodshed.

Eventually, unable to contain themselves, the paladins asked after the Dragons. They said they knew he had defeated some of them, and they wanted to know how, where they were, how they had survived, and of course, what they looked like. Mumbles of disapproval from the diplomats concerned Scar, and he tried to explain that so far as he knew, there were other realms of existence, and that he traveled to them by using the gems each leader owned, the gems they said allowed commune with their deities. He then added that whatever more there was to know, it was not his place, as a guest of Balroa, to divulge potentially inflammatory information.

The Paladin of Severity, a dark skinned man who sounded Tiamatish, pounded his fist on the table, demanding Scar tell the truth, but among them was also a Scholar of Sobriety, an old, pasty woman, wearing tattered hides, and she placated the group by stating that there was a time and place for such a discussion, but now was not that time, and that it was sufficient that someone in the world was able to alter the course of progression by eliminating the unfathomable and destructive powers of Dragons. Her statements were met by an angry rebuttal from the diplomats, so Scar excused himself, saying he had to make preparations to leave for Closicus.

“Well that was a close one,” he muttered as he made his way back to his room.

Plunking down on the bed with a belly full of food, he closed his eye. First, I need to retrieve a lock of Ylithia’s hair; seeing her corpse, though…that’ll probably be strange. After that, I might venture into Genova after all; I need to know how things went with Sahni, and if everyone is alright. Assuming things are swell, I’ll need to get back here, which means I’ll probably need to hire another ship for transport, and then…then, Kiechiv will do whatever he does to bring her back. I wonder if she’ll be back right then and there, and if she’ll truly be the same.

Either way, once she is with me, it’ll be time to retrieve Scultone’s gem, but should I kill him then? I promised Borta to wait until the death of Drac. This won’t be easy….

 

****

 

True to his word, Borta woke Scar the following morning. He had left his royal armor behind, and wore instead the customary, gray robes of his country. From the docks of Acrypha, they sailed towards the mainland, and as the warrior had asked, they did indeed plot a course to Ithlica. During the excursion, Scar asked Borta every question imaginable.

“Did you tell Sirokai about Kiechiv?”

“No.”

“Oh,” Scar frowned.

“This may be one secret I need to keep…at least for now.”

“Sure. You know, I just realized, though, you didn’t ask him anything, Kiechiv, I mean.”

“He answered every question I had without my asking.”

“I see, and after all this comes to a head, will you help me acquire Scultone’s gem?”

“Only if Drac is defeated first,” Borta sighed.

“I may have to kill him before returning to Balroa then.”

The prince stoically eyed his friend, so Scar patted his shoulder and left him to meander about the cutter rigged ketch. Offering up his newfound sailing skills, the giant was quick to make friends with the Scultonian seadogs. The sails and rigging differed between the ketch and the schooner, but the similarities in operation were sufficient for him to assist without hindering their momentum.

During his free time, he fished off the bow or played cards with the sailors. They were more lively than Valiant’s crew, but also easier to offend, and while Scar kept free of arguments, the men brawled amongst each other on a regular basis. Mostly, Dracos threw fists and elbows in reply to harsh suggestions given by the Scultonians, but they knew better than to invoke their fiery magic. Leaving one such scrap, the pale giant went below deck to find his friend sitting cross-legged against the wall.

Borta had always been a quiet fellow. That hadn’t changed even over the course of days of sailing the wide, blue oceans. Failed attempts at idle chatter were always met with short answers and prolonged stares.

 

****

 

Over two weeks later, due to some rough weather, the crew pulled into the harbor. The port town was as drab as he recalled, yet the joyful Fafnirians greeted foreigners amicably. The sea hands all made for the pubs and taverns, claiming the women of Ithlica knew their way around a solid, oak mast. Scar and Borta slogged over the stone streets to a hardware store instead. There, they purchased a pick and shovel from a balding, fat man. Naturally, the procurement required some haggling. Afterwards, the travelers bought horses from a young stable hand, which also required haggling.

“I have not spent much time in your country, Borta, yet I must say,” Scar huffed as they traversed the streets to another establishment. “There is something about Closicus that I simply enjoy. It is…like home.”

Leading their stalwart mounts by the reins, they made their way to stands and stalls to purchase camping gear and dried food. During their brief visit, everyone—from Fafnirians to fallen Zmajans—nodded or smiled or gave a greeting to everyone else. The cordial custom of Closicus was praiseworthy, and even Borta agreed there was something to be learned from good-natured people. Finally, as the sun reached the zenith, they trotted west.

Riding over the cobbled streets, which crossed through the country, petals of every color floated amidst the hard winds of a Closic Spring. Far-reaching meadows stretched out towards the horizon, gently touching the sky. The tapestry of swaying, green grass, vibrant flowers, and fluffy firs, melding with the deep, blue expanse provided an unforgettable experience. Scar took in such great gulps of aromatic air, and all the time, he kept his mind focused on his love.

Hours into their journey with only the galloping of hooves to accompany them, they left civilization long behind. Darkness was settling over the land, and the long shadows of firs growing beside the road shivered from sporadic gusts. To their right, where the grasslands rolled downhill, they spotted a riverbed. There, they made a campfire, fished for their dinner, and caught a few hours of sleep beneath a starry sky.

The following days were spent in quietude. Beneath billowing clouds threatening rain, the riders witnessed the gorgeous serenity of the countryside. Every once in a while, Scar asked after Borta’s family, or his thoughts regarding other rulers, or if he enjoyed venturing into other countries; short answers were always given, but he was surprised when Borta asked him about Ylithia.

“All I know is that we loved each other very much,” Scar smiled. “I believe that Silwen did indeed cast a spell on us both, but it is not a spell I regret. For a while, I was angered that she was taken from me; it appears Silwen wanted me to fall in love, so that when Ylithia died, there was no alternative for me but to kill the Dragons.”

“Would you not have killed them if you had never met Ylithia?”

“Who is there to say?” Scar heaved. “I know that she was at Alduheim because Mekosh sent her, and he sent her to kill me. Without Silwen’s interference, I would probably have killed her, and then…then, perhaps, after learning that I had been betrayed, I might have run off or done who knows what.”

“Her death was accidental, though, was it not?”

“Was it? I wonder…it was no more an accident than Gilgamesh sending those men to track me down at the precise time than it was accidental a storm had kept me from returning home in time to save her. If I am to understand life, or the will of the Gods, it matters very little what is an accident and what isn’t. It is my duty to kill Dragons; I was crafted to do so, but how I do it, how I feel about my life; that is up to me….”

“I am not sure I understand.”

“I’m not sure I do, either,” Scar chuckled. “What I do know is our love was real, my passion for life is genuine, my compassion for others is sincere, and my determination to help this world find some meaning outside of killing itself in the name of Dragons posing as Gods is absolute.”

“Yet you spend so much time to bring back your lover.”

Scar glanced at the prince. His reserved expression gave no inclination as to the meaning, the emotions behind the statement.

“I am not a machine made to kill Dragons. I am a man, who is capable of such, and much more. I refuse to be but a tool, a means to an end. I will enjoy this life, and everything it offers me, for I do not know how much of it I have been granted….”

Borta squinted and slightly pursed his lips. Nothing more was said for a time. Both men simply faced forwards, driving their steeds tirelessly. After a time, as the sun started to set, and an orange glow filled them with warmth, other, Fafnirian travelers approached, hailing the duo with friendly tones, but they were in such a hurry that there was little time for chatter. A simple how do was sufficient—that, followed by claims of wonderful weather.

Thick clouds eventually swallowed the sun. The outskirts of Othnatus, especially in the dead of night, were totally silent. Hooves struck the travel-worn path with dull, flat, and repetitive clops. The darkness coupled with swaying of riding lulled the friends into a state of somnolence. In the distance, silhouettes of trees became apparent, yet the men barely kept their eyes open.

“That should lead into the hartgrove,” Scar mumbled, pointing towards the north.

“Can you find her grave if we enter from here?”

“I don’t know; the woods are large and thick.”

“Maybe you should ride into town. I’m sure your friends will want to see you,” Borta counseled.

“Maybe…but I am not sure I can face them.”

“A word of advice….”

“Mm?”

“There comes a time in everyone’s life when only friends can lift the spirit. Scultonians may worship death, but in life, we seek solace from one another.”

Scar looked at his companion. Borta stared back. His expression was shrouded by darkness, yet his emotions penetrated the shroud. Scar’s jaw clenched; he considered the prince’s words, and after recalling the wonderful days of hard work and cheery, communal lunches within the hamlet, he decided it was best to approach his old friends with an open heart.

“Thank you.”

From the natural trail, they soon crossed back over the cobbled road, which ran from Genova to other, major cities. Beyond the street was another trail leading directly into the farmsteads just outside the town. Passing slat fences, Scar looked at the dark masses of cabins and barns.

Thoughts and emotions welled from within the Dragon Slayer’s deepest recesses, and when he saw the moon’s reflection over Lake Grekka, he nearly cried. Since Othnatus was built around the southern edge of the lake, where the elevation was slightly higher, the riders edged up the subtle incline and over the road. Everything looked the same as he had left it; shops and homes lined the single trail into town. Outside of Curval’s, they dismounted and tied their horses.

Barely a glow cracked through the tavern doors and shuttered windows. Taking a breath, Scar entered the dimly lit establishment. There were stools at the bar at the far end, tables with chairs along the interior, and booths at the side walls. It was as nice and clean a place as he remembered. At the counter, he looked to Borta, who nodded. Scar rang the bell.

It was a long moment before a disheveled Milvena stumbled to the counter. She rubbed her face. Her eyes were but slits, indicating her exhaustion. When she realized who was standing on the other side of the bar, her mouth fell agape.

“Scar?!” she ran around the counter and hugged him, tightly.

“Milvena,” he heaved. “It is so good to see you.”

“My, you’re back,” she cried. “Who is this?”

“A friend. His name is Borta.”

“Hello, welcome to Catfish Curval’s,” she mumbled. “What’s brought you back? You look worried. Is everything alright?”

“No…I,” he trailed off and looked away. She finally let go of him, and stepping back, she tried to fix her hair while gazing at him. “I have come to…um…this is difficult.”

“Just explain it to her,” Borta grunted and took a seat at a booth to allow them a moment of privacy.

Milvena glanced at the Scultonian for a second then looked back to Scar. “What?”

Taking her hand, he helped her to sit at a stool. “Listen, I have found a way to bring Ylithia back from the dead.” The Fafnirian was skeptical, looking at Scar askance. Her eyes darted about in confusion. “There is a man in Balroa, who is capable of reuniting a soul with its body, or…I don’t know, with another body. It is complicated, but after I killed Kulshedra, I took his soul, and he has hers, so this Scultonian can bring her back to me.”

The implications of resurrection stunned the woman. She stammered some nonsensical questions for a moment. The warrior tried to calm her.

“I just don’t understand,” she gasped.

“I am not sure I do, either,” he admitted. “It doesn’t matter, though. I have come to retrieve a lock of Ylithia’s hair; this man has need of something of her….”

“Wait a minute,” Milvena scrunched her face in revulsion. “You’re going to dig her up!”

Nodding, he said that was his intention, and that he was going to sneak into the grove to do just that, but that his friend had persuaded him to go about it in a less gruesome fashion. “I don’t feel right exhuming anyone’s body in the dead of night, and yet I can’t ask anyone to take part in this, but there is a chance to bring back my love. I came here to see you first. You welcomed us with open arms once; I was hoping to be received as such again….”

“Scar,” she whispered and touched his wrist. “What can I say?”

“You don’t have to say anything. I just needed someone to know what I was doing. I am not a monster. I am a man, a man in love, and I will do anything to see my love again.”

“Of course. Should I get someone for you?”

“No, not yet; let me go and handle this affair. When I return, I would very much like to see everyone. You are my family, and I want you all to know what it is that I am doing.”

She only nodded in reverie. Without saying another word, Scar touched her shoulder, stood, and nodded to Borta, who walked outside. Scar joined him. They untied the horses and rode through the town, beyond Scar’s old home, and into the overgrown trails that led deep into the hartgrove. Riding through thick bushes and beyond low limbs, it was early morning by the time they reached Ylithia’s grave. Both men stood in admiration of the armor marking the site.

Before Scar had left for vengeance, the townsfolk built a wooden mannequin with which to display the fallen paladin’s armor, and there it stood—the black armor of severity. Since Ylithia had left her helmet in Alduheim, a shroud was placed over the mannequin’s top, and between the gauntlets was Ylithia’s sword, its tip buried in the soil.

“Are you ready,” Borta asked.

Borta’s voice made him jump, but he caught himself and nodded. They worked tirelessly to heave dirt out of the ground. Once they reached the casket, Scar looked at the prince. Borta nodded, so the warrior opened the lid. A foul smell crept forth, and seeing the violin lying on top of the sheet, which covered the young woman, Scar cried tears of grief and hope.

Gingerly, he removed the instrument. Then, he unwrapped the sheet. The dried, rotting face of the once beautiful Ylithia was too much to bear. Scar leapt from the casket, heaved, wretched, cried, and felt ashamed of his reaction. Borta touched his shoulder, consoling him.

“I am used to such things,” he said. “I will take her hair for you.”

Scar was able only to nod; he wiped his face and mouth, silently apologizing to his beloved. He also assured her that soon they were going to be together again. Without looking, he worked himself to his feet. Borta quickly cut a lock of hair with a knife, wrapped the sheet around the body, and handed Scar the memento. He took it and nodded resolutely before replacing the violin, closing the lid, and finally covering the casket once more.

Chapter Twenty-One- The Emperor of Closicus

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emerging from the woods with Borta, Scar saw children ran around Othnatus, playing, tugging at each other’s clothes; they were laughing, unhindered by the worries of adults. He let a bitter-sweet smile play across his countenance. Cheerfully, the kids started pestering the riders.

“I remember you,” a small boy said. “You helped Dario chop down all those trees.”

“I certainly did. Now, I am here to pay my respects.”

“How much are they?”

Laughing, the warrior explained that he meant he had come to see how everyone was faring. Outside of Johannys’s shop, Jordana was speaking with other citizens; Rothbert and Cormaire were chuckling about something. Then, Johannys came from his shop to join them. Squinting and shading his old eyes from the sun, he suddenly pointed, and the others turned to witness the giant astride his mount.

“Hello,” the warrior greeted. “I am glad to see you all again.”

“Scar! What are you doing here?” Jordana exclaimed.

“I…well, I, I came to say hello, and to say that I am sorry for my hurried flight.”

“You’ve nothin’ to apologize fer’, mate,” Cormaire said. “That good fer’ nothin’ Gilgamesh got what he deserved.”

The others agreed. Glances were cast between the riders, and the reticent look on Scar’s face inspired questions regarding current events. He quickly explained his recent tribulations, but assured them that he was now on a peaceful mission.

“I also believe I am able to bring back our beloved Ylithia,” he added.

“How is such a thing possible,” Rothbert asked.

“It is difficult to explain,” Scar said and paused, frowning. “There is a man in Balroa, who says he can do the impossible. I am on my way back to see him now, but first, since I’m in Closicus, I intend to pay the emperor a visit.”

Scar’s friends were shaken by the mention of a possibility of returning someone to life. Suspicious glances were cast at Borta, but he averted his eyes. Cormaire stroked his chin while Rothbert wrung his hands.

“You are going to see Longinus,” Jordana asked, breaking the tension.

“They say he’s working towards ending all the wars,” Johannys said.

Praise for the noble emperor was given. Scar agreed that he sounded like a good man. A moment of silence ensued, after which they asked their old friend to stay for the evening. Declining, he apologized for another hurried exit.

“There is not time for rest, I am afraid; I must try to see Longinus and hurry back to Balroa. Once Ylithia is with us again, we will work with all the kings and queens willing to listen to reason, and I hope one day soon, everywhere in the world will be as a great place as Othnatus.”

They thanked him for his candor and sincerity then wished him the best. Rothbert and Jordana agreed that if Ylithia was indeed returned to the living, both she and Scar were welcome back to their empty home. After a solemn nod teaming with hope, the travelers rode west towards Genova. Enroute, Borta mentioned a plan to see Longinus without deliberations.

“Will you reveal your identity?”

“No,” Borta said. “There is a better way. I will write a letter from Prince Verouvir, explaining that you and Borta are on a special mission. I’ll mail it from Genvoa’s post office, that way it will be delivered the morning after our arrival. We’ll stay the night in the city, and once the letter has been delivered, Longinus will send someone to find us.”

“Clever.”

The days had grown longer in recent weeks. Several hours of quiet riding persisted, and by the time clouds settled overhead, it was late in the evening. Left with his thoughts, Scar wondered about the emperor, what he looked like, how admirable a man he really was, and mostly, he hoped for news about Labolas and the others.

 

****

 

The following morning, after cleaning up their makeshift camp miles out from Oralia, the duo observed the splendor of the aqueduct, how it snaked around, over, and behind the hills surrounding the capitol, and the rest of the Closic Empire. Only a handful of trees speckled the horizon. With the early sun shedding a glimmering yellow to light their way, the riders ultimately witnessed Genova’s walls emerge from around one last hill.

Two guards in chain mail joked with each other, while another one inspected the line of people trying to enter through the main gates. Scar noted the guard’s efficiency; he waved people on foot through a smaller gate immediately, but he checked the saddle pouches of horses, and thoroughly inspected carts before allowing them through the larger entrance. About a dozen people entered the capitol ahead of Scar and Borta, and before they made it beyond the guard, three more had walked up behind them.

“Busy here today,” Scar commented.

“It appears so,” Borta said, dryly.

Genova was almost as crowded as Budai; people of all kinds, all ages, all statuses, ran or rode from one side of the city to the other. The people who walked kept mostly to sidewalks, raised walkways beside the cobbled streets, which butted up to the businesses near the entrance. Since Scar and Borta had ridden in through the main entrance, they trotted past the sidewalk and to an intersection.

Upon inspection, there seemed no rhyme or reason to the way the people used the road. Scar simply eyed the hectic scene. It was like no one had the time to take a breath; everyone zipped by one direction or another, and all of them chatting, shouting across roads, or muttering to themselves. To make matters worse, there were as many people running over the cobbled streets as there were people riding. Then, someone yelled at Scar to move his horse.

“Well, you’ve been here before. Lead the way,” the warrior said.

Borta arched a brow then motioned with his head. He deftly rode his mount between people and towards the sprawling buildings. Scar attempted to follow, but his horse stepped right in front of an old lady, nearly sending her to the ground. He leapt off to apologize, but she hit him with her shoulder bag and scuttled off. Shaking his head, he nabbed the reins, and walked. Once he forced his way through several, more people, he spotted his friend waiting impatiently beside another sidewalk.

“You seem to be over thinking it,” Borta smiled.

“Maybe we should walk….”

“You can do better than that. Get back on your horse.”

Nodding, Scar hopped back in the saddle, and following the prince over the streets, he did his best to relinquish control, and allow the horse to do what it knew to do best, move. There was no need to anticipate traffic as he had thought. So long as he moved with the flow, there were no collisions, until Borta cut down an intersection to their right. When Scar tugged the reins, and his horse turned, it slowed, and a man who was running where he wasn’t supposed to be, collided with the animal’s rump and tumbled to the ground.

“Sorry,” Scar shouted over his shoulder.

The further they rode from the entrance, the less traffic cluttered the streets. He then had the time to inspect the beauty of tall, stone buildings. They had a gothic look; old, gray stonework, steepled rooves, and many arches supported walkways from one building to the next. There were even walkways suspended over the streets. The tensegrity of the arch was simply amazing, and Scar enjoyed watching the effectiveness of such a structure and how people used it.

Slowing to halt, the riders dismounted outside a towering if narrow building. The sign above the door showed various names and professions; it was an establishment, which supported different shops on different floors, and beyond the open entry, through which several people entered and exited, was a lobby.

A cheery, heavy set man greeted everyone from behind a counter. He was selling finger foods to those running errands. On either side of the counter, stairwells led up to other floors.

Borta maintained the lead, and they bumped their way past people up two flights of stairs to a general store. Only a dozen or so customers waited impatiently next to a counter. Two, teenage boys lazily read from lists, which detailed the items people needed. A couple of the customers, Scar and Borta included, needed few items, so they helped themselves.

At the counter, a young girl took a look at the ink, parchment, and quill Borta carried. She called out the price, and then Scar suggested a lower one. She smiled at him, but her eyes were steely. She shook her head, so he shrugged in futility. Upon the completion of their business, they left the store, and meandered up three, more flights of stairs to a restaurant.

The greeter showed them to their seats. It was a quiet and refined place alight by flames of candles. Of all the patrons, Scar was the only one in armor. A moment later, an older gentleman dressed in finery asked what they wished to eat. Scar asked for beef stew, and Borta ordered lamb. Before the food arrived, the prince quickly scrawled his letter as Verouvir. The letter stated a matter of urgency, and that the two were awaiting reply while staying at a modest bed and breakfast.

After devouring their meal, they paid, left, lazily stomped down the stairs, mounted their horses, and made for the post office. Borta maintained that Closicus showed exemplary service in the field of communications. When they arrived at the spanning office, Scar was witness to dozens of men and women sorting mail for destinations all over Tiamhaal. The prince handed his letter to an old woman, who dropped it in a box for local, outgoing mail. He asked if it was to be delivered the next morning; a perfunctory nod was her promise.

From the post office, they slowly made their way to a bed and breakfast called Dothan’s Dead Tired Den. Inside the immense, block home, they found an old Scultonian. His hair was long and gray with some white strands throughout. Little blue streaked his loose skin. Standing from his rocking chair, his glimmering, purple eyes flashed with recognition.

“Borta!”

“Dothan, it is good to see you.”

The two clasped wrists, and Borta made introductions. The business owner was a distant relative, too distant for royalty, but a good man, and he offered the weary travelers a free stay. Borta declined special treatment and paid full price.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” Dothan laughed. The prince only shrugged, so the innkeeper turned to Scar. “He’s always a barrel of monkeys, isn’t he?”

“I’m sorry?” The warrior scrunched his face in confusion. Between fits of coughing laughter, Dothan explained that Borta was always somber, even as a boy. “But what is a barrel of monkeys?”

“It’s an expression, boy!”

“I see….”

As Dothan led them up a set of carpeted stairs, he called out to someone named Lorna. Then, he stopped in front of a door. Before opening the door, a young, gray lady with curling patterns over her arms came from around a corner. She carried fresh linens.

“Hi, I’m Lorna,” she smiled. “Hey, Ver, long time.”

“Eh, yes. Please, enough with the pleasantries,” Borta said.

“I don’t understand,” Scar chided. “You obviously picked this place because you wanted to be with family, and now that they’re here, and smiling, and happy to see us, you get persnickety?”

The smile playing on Scar’s lips was enough to bring a round of laughter from the prince’s relatives. Borta explained he didn’t want anyone to know who he was, and they replied that there was no one else staying with them.

“Is business bad,” Scar pried.

“Bad? No, not at all. People come, people go, but we mostly serve other Scultonians, and this past week we’ve had a dry spell,” Dothan explained.

“That’s fine, Dothan, Lorna; I am but weary,” Borta claimed.

“Sure, sure,” she chirped and opened the door. “I’ll get the beds ready.”

She was quick and efficient, fluffing the sheets out and tucking in the corners to cover the mattresses. Furrowing his brow, Scar approached a bed and touched it. Grinning from ear to ear, Lorna stared at him.

“What is this?” he raised a brow in wonder.

“That’s a bed, silly,” she chuckled.

“I, I know…of what is it made. It feels like a big cushion.”

“Well, that’s it, isn’t it? That’s a big cushion. You’re probably used to sleeping on pelts and straw, right?”

“Yes…or the ground, but I don’t understand,” he trailed off, looking at Borta, who had his back turned. “I slept in the castle; there was nothing like this there.”

“These are Fafnirian design,” Dothan admitted. “You can’t deny they know about comfort.”

“I see,” the warrior mumbled. He eased his rump onto the mattress, and then bounced a bit. Pursing his lips, he nodded in approval. “Alright…I think we have something, here.”

Chuckling, the Scultonians informed their guests that there was plenty of food in the kitchen, that dinner was made every evening at seven, and that breakfast was at nine. Once all the finer points were delineated, the prince explained that someone from the emperor’s court was going to come by the following day. He expressly stated that his name was Borta, and that Verouvir was certainly back in Balroa.

“Understood,” Dothan nodded.

“Well, we’ll leave you to it,” Lorna added.

“Hold on,” Scar said. “I have never been here before. If you’re not busy, will you show me around?”

“I’d love to,” she cheered. “Come on. Let’s head out now before it gets dark.”

As Scar glanced at Borta, he saw the prince nod, so he let Lorna take him by the hand. She practically dragged him down the stairs and out the door. There were a few hours of light left in the sky, and before he asked what there was to do, she pulled him up the sidewalk, blathering nonstop about the shops, the performers in the town square, the music, and everything else.

“I like the string instruments,” she said, “but they’re great when the drums start banging, too, and over there, you can get some kind of fluffy pastry called a gannesh. It’s kind of sweet. Do you like dogs?”

He hadn’t a chance to answer. “A man sells Briards from that house. I like dogs, but those are ugly.” They dodged others coming and going, but she pulled him one way and then another. “Birds are nice, too, but the squawkety kinds, they get on my nerves. Just all hours of the night, squawk, squawk, squawk, squawk, squawk, you know?”

Before turning a final corner to reach the square, music danced on the wind. There were indeed many performers of all tribes and ages. They played various instruments, and though there were as many varieties of music, each ensemble stayed on their own edge of the way. Amidst the musicians were dancers, and jugglers, and mimes. The square was quite large, but it wasn’t overcrowded. Scar made an attempt to comment, but Lorna had yet to take a breath.

First, she dragged him to a woman selling snakes. Then, she pulled him to a man selling jewelry. Next, she darted over to a paladin of perseverance, who was able to twist his body as though it was made of rope. Without time to really enjoy even one performance, Scar resigned himself to the tugging and yoking of Lorna’s short attention span, and all the while she blabbed about why she liked what she liked, and why she didn’t like the rest. They ended the evening with the purchase of some fried meat on a stick and an overly sweet drink for which Scar did not care.

On their way back to her home, she pointed out the paladins of sloth that came every night to sleep on the trash left by patrons of the town square. They were mostly wiry creatures, who upon choosing a position, remained in an eerie state of immobility. Wincing, Scar glanced at them under what little light remained. One man, an old, dark man, slowly looked up.

It was a strange look, and it held Scar riveted, but as he twisted his neck to maintain the leer, Lorna pulled him around a corner, and the spell was broken. What the Hell was that? Suddenly, his ears popped, and he realized they were surrounded by the murmurs of everyone else leaving the square at the same time. They were sharing their thoughts, and his escort was still talking, but for that moment he had stared at the old man, there had been nothing; no sounds, no thoughts even of his own.

“So, what was your favorite part,” she asked once they reached her door.

As he opened it, he said, “I guess I liked the music best.”

“Which one? There were four groups tonight. One, I could tell was Draco, and not just ‘cause of their eyes, but you can tell by the music. The other was Kulshedran. The Fafnirian group is always there, ‘cause obviously, they live here, but the Draco group, I don’t think I’ve heard before. Do you like Draco music? I like Draco music….”

She just kept talking, but Scar touched her wrist, said he was tired, and that he had business with Borta. They thanked each other for a fun night, and the warrior bolted up the stairs, huffing and rolling his eyes.

Inside the room, Borta asked, “How was it?”

“Good Heavens, she never shut up, not to breathe, not to eat, not to drink. I can still hear her rambling on,” he joked.

Borta chuckled and shook his head. “Get some rest. I suspect we’ll need to be up early.”

“Yes…goodnight.”

 

****

 

Both men rose the next morning at the same time. The sunlight gleaming in through the windows coupled with the sounds of hurried citizens was enough to wake even a bear from hibernation. Plodding down the steps, they walked to the kitchen. It was too early for a prepared breakfast, but that didn’t stop them from rooting through a pantry and finding some grains.

They ate in silence at a small table. Lorna found them, and took their emptied bowls to a counter. She greeted them and they mumbled back.

“So, I was thinking, if you’re in town again this evening, we can head out to the market. I need to pick up some fruits, vegetables, and fish. We’re almost out of food. Grandfather’s making mutton for supper, but after that, we’re out of meats, and everyone loves fish. I like grouper. The freshwater bass is great. Have you had trout? There’s some wonderful trout the fishermen bring in fresh every evening.”

“Lorna,” Borta interrupted. “That will be all. Thank you.”

“Thank you, Your Highness,” she gave a mock curtsey and left.

The prince widened his eyes and shook his head in desperation.

“She’s fun, I’ll give her that much,” Scar smiled.

“Be serious a moment.”

“Sure.”

“The emperor will recognize me as the scholar, who went to Alduheim. I believe Marlayne will also be present unless she’s off on an errand. In either event, I will suggest Sirokai wants to personally invite him to Acrypha. Once I have a sense of his plans, we will ask after his meeting with Sahni.”

“And about my friends.”

“Certainly.”

An hour or so drifted by, during which Lorna performed her housekeeping duties. Dothan eventually stumbled in with a cup in hand. He greeted and offered local spirits. Both men declined, yet it had no effect on the old man’s chipper attitude. Upon voiding his cup, he started cooking sausages over a wood stove. The scent made mouths water.

Borta and Dothan had only a morsel, but Scar devoured everything, drained a cup of freshly squeezed juice, and excused himself to use the indoor toilet, which presumably allowed the waste to fall far below the city into a sewer. When he returned to the kitchen, he found a man and woman had joined the company. They wore fine robes of silk, and their manicured fingernails were indicative of aristocracy.

“You must be Scar,” the woman said.

“I am. Are you from the emperor’s court?”

“Indeed, we are. We received your prince’s letter this morning and wasted no time. If you’re ready, the esteemed Longinus will receive you on behalf of Balroa,” the man said.

“We are ready,” Borta grunted.

The four exited the bed and breakfast to find a horse drawn carriage. Climbing on back, everyone got comfortable. It wasn’t a covered cart, so they were able to observe the long strands of clouds painted way up high in the blue canvas. The delegates ordered the driver to move, and as they started off, Scar enjoyed the sight of sweeping rooves; it was as though he was immobile, and it was the city, which passed him by.

Several turns and twists down the cobbled streets ultimately brought them to Karthinogyn, the emperor’s palace. The guards didn’t so much as stop the cart for inspection, so they passed beneath a giant arch, rounded a fountain, and when the driver yelled, the horses came to a halt. Scar stepped off first to find a sprawling garden teaming with roses, orchids, and fruit trees. A path of red clay carved through the sod and to a portico supported by ornate pillars.

Beyond the portico was an entrance guarded by two, armored men carrying spears. The group of four walked into a lavishly decorated corridor. There were as many flamboyant vases, paintings, tapestries, and statuettes as Scar had ever seen. From a juncture, the delegates turned left, and they spilled into the throne room where Longinus and his wife awaited, along with a handful of guards wearing leathers posted up by various doorways.

There was no mistaking the emperor. He stood a modest height, and had only a trimmed ring of gray hair. He was an older and pallid Fafnirian, but he wore a mantle of leopard fur over fine silks. His wife was dressed in a similar fashion, a middle-aged beauty wearing cosmetics to augment her looks. Both of their hands were absolutely laden with sparkling rings.

“Greetings,” the emperor said. “I am Longinus Calligeus, and my wife, Renaulda.”

“A pleasure,” she smiled.

Before Scar uttered a word, or the delegates made introductions, the emperor was seized by a coughing fit. He turned and pulled a kerchief from a pocket within his mantle. His wife’s brow furrowed in concern, and as she reached for him, he raised a hand, stuffed the cloth, and apologized to his guests.

“I have been sick these many months, yet…no. Marcus, Kathryn, leave us.”

The delegates did so. Scar eyed Borta, but the prince was staring at the emperor.

“Your illness brings me sadness, Your Grace,” Borta sighed.

“It is nothing, but please, allow me to sit.”

His wife gave a tightlipped smile as her husband eased his creaking bones into the comfort of the padded throne. There was an odd moment of silence, wherein Scar wasn’t sure what to do or say. He simply looked around the decorated walls. What brilliant light there was came from reflecting mirrors adjusted to augment the sunshine, which also reflected off golden statuettes. He waited for formalities, yet there were none. It seemed everyone was a friend among friends.

Clearing his throat, the emperor spoke. “I understand the Prince of Balroa has urgent matters to discuss. I’ve heard he is a noble man, and his brother is quite the honorable ruler. Furthermore, you are Scar, the one they thought was supposed to be King of Alduheim…I am sorry to hear you were cajoled by Gilgamesh.”

“Thank you,” Scar said. “I am not a jilted bride, however; I had never a desire to rule a kingdom…all I want is a life of plentitude.”

“Good…that is most good.” Again, he had a coughing spell. He wretched and heaved into his kerchief, and again, his wife cringed. He reached out and patted her wrist before motioning for her to sit. Scar saw clearly her worried countenance. “Do tell me,” he strained, “what can Closicus do for Balroa?”

“Sirokai has invited you to Acrypha. My Lord wishes to speak candidly of supporting Closicus. Word has reached our ears that you have had peace talks with the other countries. We were once supporters of Satrone and Nabalhi; things are different now, and our removal from the mainland has brought us apprehension,” Borta explained.

“I see.”

“My duties are only to provide a personal invitation and ask after the results from your meeting.”

“And what of this one,” Longinus asked, looking to Scar. “You traveled from Balroa with the man who felled Gilgamesh, Zoltek, Munir, and Donovan.”

“You have heard?” Scar interrupted.

“This is Closicus, friend, you have lived here. You know we are a talkative people,” the emperor smiled.

Scar was unsure what to make of the old Fafnirian. He was obviously ill; the bags under his eyes were dark and heavy, and he was scarcely able breathe, yet there was something threatening about his penetrating gaze.

“I have to tell you,” Scar began, “I killed Munir because he was going to kill me, my friends, and the priests of Khmer. I don’t know what Sahni had planned, or what she thought of the sultan, but he had no intentions of peaceful negotiations. I was supposed to offer him Sahni’s support, and to her aid, I was supposed to kill Donovan. Now, I am in the dark. My personal plot was to kill Donovan and Drac in an effort to curtail Eltanrof’s power, and its people, along with the Gyosh, the Kulshedrans, and the Zmajans were going to bolster Nabalhian forces, but with the death of Munir and Gyo, and the fact the Drac yet lives, my plans have been altered.”

“To what end?”

“Well…I don’t know, but I met,” he stopped and looked at Borta. “I met the Prince of Balroa, and I have learned the Scultonians are a noble people. There’s no doubt you know of what transpired in Alduheim, so you must know I’m killing the Dragons, but in killing them, people lose their blessings, which not only weakens their militaries, but it also strengthens the opposing tribes; true equality can only be made once all the Dragons are dead, and I hope you can agree that they must be killed as they have lied and manipulated people for eons; they wish to steal souls in order to again walk the earth.”

“Mm, I,” he stopped to draw breath and cough. “I am aware. Marlayne has informed me of such.”

“Is she here? I would like to say hello,” Scar said.

Longinus shook his head, wiped the corners of his mouth, and said, “She is on her way, though. After our meeting, I had her stay behind with the others in Osumba. She and your friends should arrive soon.”

“They are safe then?” Scar was excitedly hopeful. “I was afraid something terrible had befallen them after the events in Sudai.”

“They are safe,” Longinus assured. “Listen carefully.” Scar nodded. “I am quite aware of everything that’s been discovered since Marlayne returned from Alduheim, and I have had eyes and ears on you, so I know of your plots and plans. I know we have been manipulated by sinister forces, I know you wish to destroy these forces, and I applaud your righteous efforts. I, too, wish for peace.

“In Nabalhi, we spoke with Rana Sahni and Queen Chief Jagongo; we have exchanged pertinent intelligence. The three of us are making all efforts to help Satrone, Sudai, and Usaj establish a new bureaucracy. The next step is to influence the nobility of Eltanrof; I had not anticipated such a turn of events—Donovan’s death. I understand the original plot was to provide Munir with territory from Eltanrof in exchange for support against Vamvos, but this can still be achieved, however, lacking the blessing of Gyo, aid is diminished.”

“It shouldn’t matter,” Scar interjected. “When the time is right, I can kill Slibinas, thus weakening the people of Wuulefroth.”

Nodding as he used his mantle to dab away the perspiration forming on his face, Longinus said, “Good. If the Dragons can be defeated without the deaths of men, so be it. That is my wish.”

“And mine,” Scar nodded. “And Balroa’s, if I may.”

Borta gave a solemn nod. Longinus pursed his lips and drew a haggard breath.

“Good. Jagongo and Sahni are of the same mind, so tell me where you go from here.”

“Well…I suppose I must defeat Drac; that is the condition under which Sirokai will grant me the gem to defeat Scultone. Once those two are defeated, I must retrieve the gem of Zmaj from Sahni, and I believe she will provide the gem of Khmer, though I wonder if she will hand it over after the death of Slibinas; that is a term I can accept. I also hope that will be enough to entice you and Jagongo to hand over your respective gems,” Scar said.

The emperor rubbed his chin in deliberation. “With all those Dragons dead, Hashnora and his allies will undoubtedly become stronger than ever before.”

“I know…normally I consort with my friend, Labolas, over these matters. He understands the machinations of rulers. I do not.”

“My, what humility,” Longinus smiled. “I think you understand better than you know, yet you keep secrets….”

“What?” Scar was shocked.

“I know why you went to Balroa.”

“To try to revive my lover,” Scar said, squinting.

Nodding slowly, the emperor added, “I just wanted you to know I know.”

Snickering, Scar said, “That’s fine. Yes, I have my personal agenda apart from these matters of Dragons, but I am first and foremost here to kill the beasts.”

“Even if you must kill Scultone before Ylithia is resurrected?”

Shrugging, Scar admitted he was doing everything possible to revive her first. “It has been of no concern, though, there has not yet been a pressing need to kill Scultone; Balroa is honorable. I will deal with that Dragon when I can be sure there will be no tumultuous repercussions, and besides, I have been promised Scultone’s gem upon the death of Drac.”

“In that event, I can arrange for Drac’s gem to be brought to you,” Longinus informed.

“How?” Scar was perplexed.

Amidst another fit of coughing and wheezing, Longinus stated that while a benevolent country, Closicus had remained safe and protected for hundreds of years due to its extensive intelligence department. “If you thought General Sulas knew everything there was to know about the affairs of countries, you have been fooled.”

Smiling, Scar thanked the emperor for his candid reply. “Then, I have been fooled, Your Grace. Nevertheless, I hope that now you have been assured of my intentions, and if you see it fit, tell me what you wish of me.”

“Make your way back to Eltanrof by sea. Dock in Aldurstun as you have done. There, you will receive the gem of Drac. Kill the beast, go to Balroa, resurrect your lover, and—my apologies, Borta—kill Scultone. By the time you are ready to speak to Sirokai and ask for the gem, I should be there as well.”

Scar turned to his friend. “Does that sound good?”

“I cannot speak for my king in this matter, but I believe your orders will be well received.”

“Excellent,” Longinus cheered and coughed. “Then, all is settled. After Scultone has been killed, I will hand over the gem of Fafnir, and then you may proceed to Malababwe or Nabalhi; the choice is yours from there on. In the meantime, we kings and queens will do what we must to foster an alliance, and I hope that such a benevolent force will help to sway even our enemies into a peaceful resolution. Finally, before you go, there is someone with a bone to pick with you.”

“Oh?” Scar furrowed his brow.

Longinus waved his hand to one of the guards standing at a doorway. When the guard vanished up a set stairs, Longinus chuckled. His wife took his hand into her lap. Borta and Scar traded a glance. When the guard returned, a tall, familiar, young man was trailing behind.

“Hey! Shrikal!” Scar laughed and ran over to him.

The boy grinned from ear to ear. “I can’t believe you left me like that!”

“I had to; you were injured, and look at the mess I’ve brought upon myself. I couldn’t live with myself if I was the reason my friend had died.”

“You must have more faith in me and Ihnogupta. I have persevered.”

“As have I. I am glad you’re well.”

“Thank you. So, to where are we off? Who is that? What happened to your eye?”

“I, uh, that is Borta, my friend from Balroa, and we are off to Aldurstun to retrieve the gem of Drac, yet more of my friends are arriving soon.” He turned to Longinus. “That is what you said, right?” The emperor gave an aloof nod. “Then, tonight we spend a night at Dothan’s Den, and tomorrow, we journey to Ithlica to sail to Aldurstun. As for my eye…Donovan seared it shut, I’m afraid.”

“My…well, perhaps we can fix that once we rest. I must admit that I am excited; I have never sailed before. Borta, was it? I am Shrikal. I am happy to meet you.”

The paladin approached with an extended hand. Borta eyed him and shook.

“He does not talk much,” Scar said.

They all smiled. Longinus and his wife expressed their satisfaction upon worldly matters, and blessed Scar and his friends. Without another word, the trio left the emperor’s palace to return to Dothan’s Den.

Chapter Twenty-Two- The best of friends

 

Shrikal helped Scar to sit at the table in the kitchen. Lorna looked at them, her hand over her mouth. Borta stood behind, also curious over the proceedings. The paladin asked Scar to move his eyes.

“You can move both. That means there is no damage beneath the lid.” Using his index and thumb of his left hand, Shrikal spread the skin of Scar’s eyelids as far as possible. “There is a bit of space between them. Can you see any light?”

“I can.”

“Good. Hold still. This is going to hurt. Lorna, prepare a clean cloth, please.”

She nodded and left the table. The paladin pulled a small knife from a pouch, asked Borta to keep the eyelids spread, and pulling the skin from the eye with one hand, he neatly sliced the lids apart, causing a trickle of blood to run from Scar’s eyelid. The warrior grunted, but remained still.

“Keep blinking,” Shrikal instructed. While Scar blinked, the paladin dabbed at the blood. A moment later, the skin healed. “How is that?”

“Everything’s so bright out of that eye, but I can see. Thank you!”

“Wow,” Lorna admired. “That was really something. Where’d you learn that?”

“Oh…my mother was an apothecary,” he replied, solemnly, but then he smiled. “There is much time before everyone else arrives…are we going out?”

“We absolutely are. I told Scar earlier, I have to go the market. He’s big and strong. He can carry everything,” Lorna answered.

“I am not a mule,” Scar jested.

“You will be today. Is your eye good? How’d it heal so quickly? I never seen anything like that. Is everyone ready? Come on, Borta!” She reached out to grab him, but he shot her a malevolent look that stopped her short. “Oh, excuse me, Mister Snippety!”

“I require time alone. Go, have your fun,” he hissed.

“Fine, fine, fine. C’mon, Shrikal, Scar.”

The Scultonian lass started her way out of the kitchen. Scar asked Borta if he was alright. He nodded, so Shrikal and the warrior left the prince to ruminations. They met with Lorna just outside. Immediately, she started rambling about the items she required. The men followed a polite distance.

“Tell me,” Scar said to Shrikal. “What of Mei and Folgar?”

“They have recovered, yet I do not believe they will fight again. They are good, strong paladins, but their wounds…they were grievous. I am but glad they survived.”

“As am I. What of Irgesh?”

The young man shook his head. Keeping stride as Lorna practically jogged all the way to the tower with many shops, Shrikal commented on the busy streets. Scar asked him how he liked the capitol, and he said he always loved spending time in the city.

“That’s right,” Scar smiled. “Ylithia and I met you here when Onger gave us transport. How is it that a paladin, and a former Zmajan, has come to know Closicus?”

“What do you mean, former Zmajan?” Lorna howled over her shoulder.

“Zmaj has fallen,” Shrikal said. Then, he whispered. “People still don’t get it. I’m sure she believes Scultone a God.” Scar nodded, but asked him to explain his life so far from Usaj. “My parents had never truly accepted Zmaj as the All God, but one doesn’t simply speak out in public against Zoltek, or one didn’t. Anyway, we all attempted to move to Malababwe, where people such as ourselves are welcomed, so long as they repudiate evil ways. You have seen the Zmajans; they are not evil people, they simply know little outside of bloodshed, yet that is because the country spreads only hatred.”

“Stop flapping your gums, you two,” Lorna interrupted. “C’mon, already!”

Smiling at the fact that she, of all people, told them to stow it, they chuckled and followed her beyond the lobby to the stairs. Few shoppers milled about due to the hour, yet they still had to wait for lingering customers to clear the way.

“Where was I,” Shrikal asked. “Oh, yes, during our excursion, we were beset by bandits. Only I, my mother, and older brother survived. When we reached Songal, a small settlement east of the jungle, my mother started working as a healer. She quickly learned their medicinal herbs and even found new ways to heal boils, neutralize poisons, and so forth.”

“What of–” Scar was saying, but Lorna forcefully took his wrist and pulled him into a shop. “Hey!”

“Hold this,” she barked, forcing a basket into his hand.

While she paraded him around, stuffing items into the basket, he asked after the paladin’s brother. Shrikal deliberated.

“He was never the same after the attack. While I learned to persevere, he fell to vengeance, returned to Usaj, and joined the military. I don’t know what became of him after that. I asked around in various cities, but no one knew.”

“And your mother?”

“She lived out her life in peace.”

“But you are so young. When did you become a paladin?”

“Scar!” Lorna bellowed.

“What?” he laughed.

“Give me the basket, so I can pay.”

He did, and returned his attention to his friend. “Did they find you, or did you seek them out? How does one become a paladin?”

“I don’t know the details for the others, but I had always felt a need to rebel against authority, and after living amongst the Tiamatish, and seeing with my own eyes that both tribes held great power, I began to doubt the truth regarding Gods.”

The Scultonian made for the exit and called out. Behind her, they meandered up two floors to a shop that sold house wares. She stuffed the basket back into Scar’s hand before throwing linens at him. Shrugging and moaning in exasperation, a smile worked across his face.

“Yes, my mother died when I was still a child. I was fourteen. I am nineteen now, and I have followed Ihnogupta for five years. Upon my mother’s passing, I started traveling with traders, and we helped a group of Perseverants. I asked about their ways, and they told me a similar story you heard when we traveled with Munah, that a man can find peace and happiness amidst strife, and I had strife, so I journeyed with them into Closicus, and here to Genova; there is a meeting grounds for Perseverants in the northwest quadrant of the city. No one here bothers us as long as we don’t bother them.”

When the paladin finished recounting, Lorna dragged them from the shops to the markets. In a sea of people shouting about fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats, the lass tugged them one way, inspected the produce, haggled, and purchased everything she wanted, which she stuffed into another basket, a basket she forced into Shrikal’s hands. Begrudgingly, he took it; a wince upon his face. Concluding her business, she skipped towards the square. The warriors traded a look of fatigue.

“Plenty of money left, what with Borta paying for your stay. Let’s get some sweets!”

“Lorna,” Scar started.

“Come on, pleeease?” she begged with pouting lips and puppy dog eyes.

Laughing, he acquiesced. She clapped her hands, and darted off to purchase pastries, which they ate while watching a play performed by a Fafnirian, stage group. It was a story about doomed lovers, which hit home for Scar. The actors chatted with their fans after the conclusion, Lorna included.

“So, you were saying,” Scar muttered to Shrikal.

“I don’t know anymore. What was I saying?”

“Something about the Perseverants here in Closicus, and speaking of, how do you know Longinus?”

“Oh, well,” he trailed off, glancing at their friend.

She was grinning widely. Satiated from entertainment and good food, she was ready to return home and help her grandfather clean the rooms and prepare dinner. It was a slow walk back to the bed and breakfast, but Shrikal remained silent. Meanwhile, Lorna went off on a tangent about cats, that she liked them, had always wanted one, and that she fed the strays, but that Dothan was allergic.

Inside the home, the warriors had a moment to themselves. Since Lorna and her grandfather were busy, and Borta was nowhere to be found, they talked more in the kitchen, regarding Longinus and his acceptance of paladins.

“He is not what he seems,” Shrikal stated. “He has long suspected there is something amiss. Even he doubted the fact that only one man can talk to God, and that such business would require a gem. He confided in the Perseverants when he was child, back when his father still ruled, you see? I’ve even heard his mother was a follower of Silwen. She openly rejected her deity just to consummate her love with Linus, yet I have heard she still worshipped secretly.”

“Really?”

Shrikal shrugged. “What I do know is that Longinus has given the Perseverants his blessing to share their knowledge, if surreptitiously. You’ll recall we met during my pilgrimage?” Scar nodded. “I was actually searching for you on behalf of the emperor. By the time you made it to Closicus, word had spread that Khmerans attacked the Tiamatish at Alduheim, and since he knew that Zoltek had hired you, and that you had turned on him on the orders of Gilgamesh, he wanted to know what you had learned from the old kingdom.”

“I had no idea….”

They heard the front door open. Someone had entered, and Dothan greeted them. One voice was familiar; Labolas complained he was exhausted, dirty, and hungry. The two leapt from the kitchen table to greet the new arrivals.

“Hey!” Labolas cheered, his palms displayed.

“Glad you’re safe, friend,” Scar chuckled and shook his hand. “Marlayne, you look as lovely as ever.”

“Hm, flattery,” she smiled.

“Well…this is Shrikal.”

“Greetings,” he smiled.

“Lovely teeth,” the archer joked. “Alright, might we have a seat?”

“Sure, of course,” Dothan said, shooing everyone to the common area; a large room alight from candles.

The old man plunked down in his rocking chair, nabbed a flagon from a stand, and sipped away. Lorna stomped down the steps, offering food and drinks while everyone else found a seat on the couch.

“Where is N’Giwah?” Scar blurted.

“He had some business with Shamara,” Marlayne said.

“Did you see her? How is she?”

“She’s well; lot’s of fight left in her old bones.”

“Good. Labolas, I’m sorry to have left you the way I did; I never suspected Donovan would not be carrying his Dragon gem.”

“Eh, everything worked out, I suppose. The Gyosh were angry, but they listened to reason. I think they were ready for another leader anyway, but the loss of their blessing was something that shook them to their core, and honestly, had N’Giwah not displayed such power, they probably would have attacked.” He then thumbed his scar, adding, “It was no easy feat, dissuading them from a fight; once Dracos flooded in from the southern border, we had little choice but to flee, and I managed to persuade a few soldiers to open their eyes.”

“What of the priests?”

“They returned to Nabalhi,” Labolas said and yawned. Lorna distributed drinks and sliced sandwiches before ordering her grandfather to help her prepare dinner. She then chastised him, claiming they were behind schedule. “Everything went well, I think.”

He then deferred to Marlayne. “Sahni agreed to stop attacking the Tiamatish. Longinus agreed to unite the people lacking in government; with a democracy as we have here, they can elect their own leaders.”

“Longinus was elected?” Scar interrupted.

“Of course, but then, among Fafnirians, the one with the greatest blessing has the silkiest tongue.”

They took a breath, passing glances from one to another. Scar decided to divulge his fight with Donovan, rescuing Mindy, and finally, he revealed he was headed back to Balroa to revive Ylithia. Marlayne winced and looked away, implying the man had lost his sanity.

“Sahni was right, then,” Labolas asked.

Nodding, Scar said, “Yes. Borta took me to see Kiechiv.”

“Borta?” the two exclaimed.

“I thought he vanished,” Labolas said.

“I had heard the same,” Marlayne admitted.

“Well, he’s here…somewhere. I’m sure he’ll turn up by dinner time. Anyway, Kiechiv said that if I bring him a lock of her hair, which I have, he can pull her soul from Kulshedra’s gem and revive her.”

“That’s unfathomable,” Marlayne gasped.

“Maybe, but with Ylithia in my arms, there is no stopping me, and we might adopt Mindy, maybe, if we can’t find her family, that is,” Scar added.

Admiration and good will was expressed. While Labolas had never met Ylithia, he knew what she meant to Scar, and he stated his desire to help in any way. Marlayne was glad to hear that such a thing as revival was even possible; she had been unaware Scultone possessed that ability.

Suddenly, Labolas cocked his head to the side. “Wait a minute.” He slipped off the couch and practically bumped noses with his friend. Scar recoiled. “You’ve got eyebrows! When did that happen?!”

Laughing, Scar explained that they simply started growing in after he left Aldurstun. During the following weeks, thick, black eyebrows filled in nicely, giving him a much friendlier appearance. Lorna interrupted their amusement. Dinner was ready.

The kitchen table was too small to seat so many people, so they moved everything to the dining room. Borta had snuck in from somewhere; he helped to carry dishes and silverware.

“Well, hello, old friend,” Marlayne said to him.

“It is good to see you again.”

“I’m Labolas, mate,” the archer said, shaking hands.

“Well, it’s a grand thing everyone knows everyone,” Dothan cheered. “Eat, drink, chatter away.”

As the food was enjoyed by all, Marlayne asked after Borta’s vanishing act. He blew her off, saying he had received special errands from Sirokai, which required isolation. They then spoke about Kiechiv; his erratic behavior, the promise of reviving Ylithia, and the possibility of saving souls formerly owned by defeated Dragons.

Lorna excused herself to clear the table while they continued chatting. Dothan poured himself more spirits. Marlayne pensively tugged at her ear lobe.

“The Dragons keep the souls of those defeated by their worshippers,” she started. “What happens to those who die of natural causes? Do their souls go the Dragon they worship?”

“What is all this nonsense?” Dothan grumbled. “This talk about Dragons is maddening!”

“There has been word that those we think are Gods are actually Dragons,” Borta said, peevishly. “I believe it.”

The old man stammered some insults regarding paladins. Shrikal chuckled, adding that there was much regarding worship people did not understand. Rolling his eyes and drowning his confusion, Dothan begrudgingly let them continue.

“I don’t know where those souls go,” Scar admitted. “Shrikal?”

“It is a sound assumption that they do go to that Dragon.”

“How do they get inside the communion gems?” Marlayne huffed.

“All I know is that when I put a gem inside my blade, I am transported to that Dragon’s realm. When I kill the Dragon, it evaporates, and its soul goes inside the gem; Kiechiv said he saw lots of souls in Kulshedra’s gem, so presumably, all the souls a Dragon captures, however they are captured, are contained in its own soul, which I retrieve,” Scar elucidated.

“That would mean that if you kill all the Dragons, you have the souls of everyone who has ever died and did not worship a true God,” Labolas exclaimed.

Looking to Borta, Scar said, “That was the implication.”

“Can you imagine?” Marlayne was shocked. “Bringing everyone back from the dead…is there such hope? Is it the right thing to do?”

“I do not know,” Scar breathed. “That is not a question for mortal men…what I do know is that I must bring back Ylithia. She was stolen from me…as many others certainly were from other people…but, I,” he took a long breath and looked everyone over. Marlayne’s cold, blue eyes twinkled by candlelight. “I must do this. Unlike the rest of you, I have not had a full life; I was placed here only months ago, and to kill the Dragons, but now I have had the experience of friendship, and love, and I would like to have that love again before I am made to vanish as mysteriously as I was made to appear….”

Labolas grasped Scar’s wrist and gave a tightlipped smile. His green eyes penetrated Scar’s and brought a sense of solidarity.

“Will you vanish when all the Dragons are dead,” Shrikal asked with a tinge of sadness.

“I believe so.”

“Yet you will kill them all despite this,” Marlayne pried.

He nodded while looking at his empty cup. Shrikal fidgeted in his seat, Marlayne and Borta exchanged a glance, and Labolas redid the strap holding his hair back. Finally, to relieve the tension, Scar revealed they were ordered by Longinus to return to Ithlica to sail to Aldurstun.

“He said that someone will have Drac’s gem, so I will slay the Dragon, and then we will go back to Balroa and see Kiechiv. I don’t know what the rest of you have planned, but you are welcome to join me and Borta.”

“I’m in this to the end, Scar,” Shrikal said.

“Well, I’m not missing out on making history,” Marlayne puffed.

Labolas sort of shut his eyes, smiling, and shrugged nonchalantly. Scar smiled back and nodded.

“So, that’s it? You’re up and off?” Lorna shouted.

Bewildered by her attitude, Scar looked around. “Are you talking to me?”

“Forget it,” she chuckled and shuffled out of the room.

“I think she took a shine to you,” Dothan said. He panted, working himself from the chair. “I don’t know what sort of mischief you’re up to, all of you, but Borta, be careful.”

The prince nodded stoically. Labolas yawned, which made Marlayne yawn, and they excused themselves to find Lorna and their room. Scar watched them go, his chin in his hand.

“We should turn in and rise early,” Borta suggested. “It is a long ride back to Ithlica.”

“And a longer sail to Aldurstun,” Scar added.

Chapter Twenty-Three- The King Killer

 

The group of five paid for a cart ride through the Closic countryside. Only days later, they arrived in Ithlica. From there, they proceeded directly to the docks to find a ship willing to sail around the coast to Aldurstun. It had taken Marlayne all of ten seconds to convince a Slibinish captain to allow them a ride on her dragon boat.

The vessel was quite different from the designs to which Scar had grown accustomed. The ship’s navigator also used something called a lodestone to keep her bearings. Rather than remaining near the coast among the shallows, the band of female sailors, all of whom were tall and blonde, sailed out into the open sea in order to allow both the strong current and heavy wind to speed their journey.

Looking at the forecastle, Scar asked after the implication of the dragon head. “This is why these vessels are called dragon ships? I rode on something similar not long ago, but there was no design such as this.”

“Yes,” the captain barked. “It’s a dragon ship ‘cause of the dragon head. What a strange question!”

Chuckling, Scar said, “Is there a reason the Slibinish chose to model ships after Dragons?”

“How in Hell should I know?”

“I just thought maybe the Slibinish were aware of something….”

The ornery lass cocked a brow at him before returning to her duties. While payment was enough to transport passengers without delving into their business, it was clear that the captain and her crew had little patience for the travelers. Labolas chuckled and shook his head before whispering to his friend that the Slibinish were no closer to believing the world was influenced by Dragons than anyone else.

Very little of their mission was shared during their trip. No one trusted the sailors, and since they were enemies of the forces to whom the group was allied, they made sure to keep to themselves. Polite conversations revolved around sailing, traveling, and exploring the world. The women revealed that exploration was what the Slibinish way of life was all about; since most of Wuulefroth was frozen and inhospitable, they often left their homeland in search of an easier life.

Three days later, by evening, they docked at Aldurstun. Bidding the women a safe journey, they found their way to the Broken Barrel to relax and have a meal that consisted of something other than fish. It was in the middle of a late supper that a waitress provided Scar a small piece of parchment.

“What is this?”

“I dunno’,” the orange eyed lass shrugged. “A fella’ dropped it off days ago sayin’ it was fer’ the King Killer.”

“King Killer,” he asked, furrowing his brow.

“Everyone knows you done kilt’ Gilgamesh, Zoltek, Munir, and our Donovan, not that I mind much, but that’s what we’ve taken ta’ callin’ ya’.”

Arching a brow and wincing to his compatriots, Scar asked them if he needed to be more cautious in his movements throughout the world. Dismissively, Labolas told him to read the parchment. It bore an address and time.

“That is where we will meet the person holding Drac’s gem,” Borta whispered.

“So, there is nothing to worry about?”

“That is not what I said.”

Labolas then interjected. “There is no way of knowing whether or not that is the original arrangement.”

“What?” Scar was perplexed.

“The original carrier with the original note could have been compromised by those loyal to Donovan,” Marlayne said.

“Or even those loyal to whoever is line for the throne,” Borta added.

“So, this is a trap,” Shrikal asked.

“I will go alone,” Scar asserted.

“Don’t be stupid,” Labolas chastised. “We’re all going, and we’ll post up around the area to make sure you’re not ambushed.”

“As if it mattered,” the warrior scoffed.

“Donovan almost did you in,” Borta snipped. “You are not invulnerable…should your head come off, well…just let us help you.”

Nodding, he agreed there was no need to take unnecessary risks. After their meal, they moseyed out to the docks. Away from the ships, where night workers moved crates and pallets by the light of mounted torches, Labolas found an area of stacked, emptied crates. Atop them, he sat cross-legged, his bow in his hand. Borta, Shrikal, and Marlayne wandered around together, asking the workers after employment. In the meantime, Scar waited on a dock adjacent the slip where he was instructed to meet. Chatter from sailors was audible.

Sitting, he let his feet dangle over the water and enjoyed the sound of lapping waves. It was quite dark around him, but each slip, whether a ship was tied or not, had a tall post with a lit torch. The orange glare illuminated a dancing circle.

A fisherman wearing heavy waders walked into the circle of light across from Scar. The man pulled something out from a bundle he had strapped over his shoulder, so Scar came to his feet, observing the man. His profile was to the warrior, and whatever was in his hand was ensconced by shadow.

“New bait,” the man bellowed. “You can catch the biggest fish with this.”

“Is that what I’m after, big fish?”

“The biggest fish in Eltanrof.”

“Bring it over,” Scar said. “I want to see.”

Obliging, the man walked out from the light, yet his moving form remained visible. A second later, the fisherman wandered beneath more light to hand the warrior a small, wooden box, a tackle box. Scar eyed it then the man.

“Longinus says hullo’,” he said and slinked out of sight.

Scar looked around, and saw no one else, so he slowly opened the container, and there it was; a gem like a ruby glowed intermittently. It was the size of a fist, and fit perfectly inside one of the holes of Scar’s blade, yet it was not the only gem. There was another, a purple one. Zmaj’s gem? Then, it has been taken from Sahni. I wonder if that means she’s on board with everything we’re doing, or perhaps it has been stolen. Well…never mind that.

He forced Zmaj’s gem into his blade before taking Drac’s gem. “Alright, Dragon, I’m coming for you….” The warrior animated his armor, took a breath, and cringed while jamming the new gem into his sword.

 

****

 

Pathetic creature, you are a fool, damned to burn in the eternal fires of Vulgate.” Drac’s roar was a horrific, rolling thunder.

Gasping and panting, Scar struggled to right himself. He witnessed a hellish sky. Ash and smoke clouded overhead, and a reddish glare broke through cinder laden air. Heat stole the warrior’s breath, and once he made it to his feet, he scanned rivers of lava, gouts of fire, charred stone, and mounds of ash.

“Alright, Dragon. Just show yourself, so I can kill you.”

Insidious laughter erupted from all over; it bounced off distant volcanoes before nearby explosions of fiery lava resounded. His ears rang, and his vision blurred, but he steeled himself, gripping his blade and hunching forwards.

A tingle at the base of his skull aroused a need to turn. Spinning about, Scar received a tail whip to the head, which sent him bouncing off the dusty rock. He slid towards bubbling lava, but quickly rolled away. The beast of fire, a towering Dragon of red and orange scales alight in smoldering fires, opened its beaked maw to unleash blazes. The brute raised a barrier in time to behold the flames sputter over a sphere of energy.

“Oh,” Scar coughed. “He’s strong!”

There was an inexplicable feeling, an urgency of which Scar was painfully aware; his barrier was too weak to hold back the flames of Drac, yet the Dragon was relentless. His barrier popped and sizzled from the blinding gush of fire. Tiny strands of blue energy flickered between the warrior and his enemy’s onslaught.

What do I do? What do I do?! Clueless and hopeful, he focused on the gem of Zmaj. Purple lightning arced over his sword, and he sent the energy through his own barrier. The resulting collision sent him flying backwards, but a thick bolt erupted through Drac’s breath, and impacted upon his beak with such force, it knocked his head back.

Storming forwards like a ravenous tiger, Drac lunged with his leathery wings pinned to his sides. His long neck provided him the advantage, and he made to snap at Scar, but the warrior leapt several feet into the ash laden air by the power of Kulshedra. With his feet spread, and his sword pulled back, he focused again on the lightning of Zmaj; a destructive bolt ripped through the air and knocked a horn from the Dragon’s head.

Roaring with fury, Drac’s flaming eyes went wide. He reached out a claw to snatch his prey from the sky. Though he was powerful, his strength failed to crush Scar’s armor, and so the warrior capitalized; staring holes into his enemy, the Dragon Slayer grit his teeth, focused on the power of Gyo, and thrust his shining blade into Drac’s eye just as his claw erupted in fire.

Both were wracked by unimaginable pain, yet Drac let go the man. Scar crumpled on the ground. Perspiration ran down his skin, behind the armor, but impending doom him forced him to draw upon all his resolve, and he sat up in time to roll beneath another tail swipe. He slashed at scales, but missed; the Dragon’s attack had only been a diversion to bide the time required for an aerial assault.

“You can’t run from me, Drac!”

Scar wasn’t shouting empty taunts; he groaned, honing the power of Zmaj. Firing bolt after bolt of purple lightning from his blade, he chased the Dragon’s flight, running over mounds of cinder and jumping over pools of lava. Each, electrical attack whizzed off behind grayish clouds, but the array of bolts drew closer and closer to the beast, and finally, lightning tore through a membranous wing.

The Dragon quickly lost altitude. It cut a lazy circle amidst smoke, and skidded a landing a hundred yards from Scar. Cinders fluffed out and wafted away. Smiling to himself, the brute relished his victory. He charged at his opponent full-bore, but Drac unhinged his jaws to unleash a virulent flame, which hid his true attack; he pawed a glob of lava, tossing it at the armored giant.

The impact took Scar to the ground. He rolled around in agony, yet the molten stone was stuck to his armor, and the heat scorched the skin of his abdomen. Hollering in absolute anguish, he was unable to dodge Drac’s bite. The Dragon raised his head and shook like a feral dog, rendering the warrior unconscious.

 

****

 

There was nothing but blackness, deep and hot. Then, there was motion. Scar dreamed of the sea; slowly it rose, and, waned, and tumbled, but it was hot, and the water turned red. Unable to look away from the searing sun, he shut his eyes, and screamed.

Such rage and fear overwhelmed the warrior that he shouted himself awake. Wherever he was, the heat was painful. A red glare revealed nothing familiar; sinewy walls undulated all around, and the soft ground kept moving, rolling him onto all sides. Grunting and groaning, he rammed the tip of his sword into the wall to steady his balance, but gravity shifted, and he went reeling into the opposite wall.

“I’m inside him! He has swallowed me!”

Scar was seized by animal fear. Shouting and screaming, he focused on all of his powers, and as he slashed, and twirled, and staggered around in a ferocious craze, arcs of lightning busted holes from Drac’s stomach, yellow fires scorched soft flesh, and potent blasts of energy kept the ensuing heat at bay. Though terrible, guttural sounds spewed from sights unseen, Scar maintained his mad assault until the Dragon grew still, and the warrior had cut himself free of a vanishing belly.

All that remained of the fiery beast were wisps of red smoke and charred scales. Scar plunked down on hot stone, utterly bereft. Sputtering fires coalesced around the red gem, and when Vulgate came apart at the seams, bone crushing pressure battered the brute.

Chapter Twenty-Four- A smiling face

 

Grumbling as he slowly came to, Scar immediately felt sharp pains all along his abdomen. His back was tight, his head hurt, and all of his muscles and joints were stiff. When he reached to touch his face, he also opened his eyes.

Squinting at first, bright light from the window obscured his vision. Something was looming over him, so he blinked. Once his vision cleared, he saw a tiny, smiling face.

“Mindy?”

She bit her lower lip and nodded, perfunctorily. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine.” He struggled to sit up, but the pain was overwhelming, and he collapsed onto the bed of pelts and straw. She took his wrist. “Uncle Arty says you’re not supposed to move.”

“Uncle Arty? Wait, where am I?”

“At Arty’s home!”

“Oh…how did I get here,” he asked, touching her face. Then, he saw her lustrous, green eyes. “Mindy….”

“We brought you here, obviously,” Marlayne said.

“What happened?”

“Mindy, why don’t you go help Labolas make some tea?”

Heeding Marlayne’s suggestion, the girl skipped out of the small room. Scar finally caught a glimpse of everything. He was sprawled out onto a make shift bed. Bare, wooden walls surrounded him, and light from a single window illuminated his surroundings.

“By the Gods; why am I in so much pain?” Scar rubbed his head and scrunched his eyes shut.

“None of us know, except to say that Drac gave you a beating, yet you survived. Once you reappeared, you collapsed, and that magic armor wore off, so we strapped you to a horse and dragged you all the way here,” she explained in a sincere tone.

While the Fafnirian looked at the warrior’s bandages, Scar wracked his brain, trying to relive his fight with the Dragon. He remembered being wrung about, and then he recalled cutting himself free.

“So, I was unconscious for days? Why didn’t you leave me in Aldurstun?”

Smiling, she said, “Don’t be daft. In your state, you’re vulnerable to an attack by enemy forces. Who knows who’s after you; Paladins of Severity or Hate, scorned Zmajans and Dracos, Sahni’s enemies; we brought you here in the hopes of a safe recovery.”

“How long has it been?” he puffed.

“Four days…you’ve healed nicely, although I’m not sure you’d agree….”

“What do you mean?” he was alarmed.

“You suffered some terrible burns. As best as I can tell, though, whatever damage is plaguing you is internal, so don’t tax yourself. Just relax for another day or two.”

“I usually heal much quicker.”

“That’s what the others said,” she was pensive, and wincing, she moved a dark lock of curly hair behind her ear. “I’ve been wondering about the repercussions resulting from dead Dragons.”

When she took a breath to collect her thoughts, Scar interjected, “There is not time to waste. I must go and see Kiechiv. Where is Borta?”

He made to sit up, but Marlayne placed a hand on his bare chest. “You can wait another two days! Borta is in the barn helping Labolas modify the dirigible, and here’s Labolas and Mindy now; they brought you something to drink.”

“Hey, friend,” Labolas cheered. He placed a wooden tray next to Scar, took a small cup, and when Marlayne helped prop the warrior up, he handed him warm tea. “Don’t strain yourself. You seem to be healing slower–”

“I told him!” she interrupted. “I’m trying to explain that I believe killing the Dragons is weakening his body.”

“That’s preposterous,” Scar spat. After taking a sip of tea, he shook his head. “The death of Dragons has nothing to do with me or my abilities. This is disgusting!” he added, licking his lips.

Labolas and Marlayne looked at each other. An awkward silence prevailed. Beyond them, Mindy was running her fingers along the length of Rusty’s tail.

“I took care of him,” Scar said to her. She walked over and placed the toy in the warrior’s hand. “Thanks.”

“Well, look,” Labolas started. “Just try to drink some tea. Shrikal says it has healing properties. I’ll make you something simple to eat, soup or something, and if you can drink and eat with relative ease, we’ll discuss your traveling to Balroa, but try to understand; if something happens to you along the way, you’ll never bring Ylithia back, and you’ll never deliver us from Dragons.”

Nodding, he resigned himself to their ministrations. The adults then pulled Mindy out of the room, leaving Scar to tea and reflection. Exhaling, and struggling to sit up with his back against the wall, he rubbed his face. Then, he sipped his drink, an herbal concoction of sour taste.

“I’m just badly wounded, that’s all. It will take some extra time to heal such serious wounds, but, but I’ll be fine soon.”

After finishing his beverage, he rolled onto his side, placing the toy horse before his face. No sooner had he closed his eyes that he fell asleep. Moments later, barking dogs woke him.

Groaning and stretching, he noticed he felt much better. His headache had passed, and his mind wasn’t so foggy. Let’s see if I can stand.

Taking a breath, he pushed himself from the pelts, crawled onto hands and knees, and using the wall, he righted himself. The linen over his waist slipped off, and he found himself wearing only his sub regalia and bandages. A sudden loss of blood darkened his vision and he swooned, but it quickly passed.

Dogs continued barking, so he glanced out the window. It was getting dark, and cool winds caressed his skin. From his viewpoint, he saw only cypresses. Their wispy boughs swayed, giving the impression that the world was both coming and going.

Shaking his head, he mumbled, “I have to pee.” The thought of walking outside, however, was overwhelming, and he thanked the Gods when he noticed a chamber pot by the foot of the pelts. “Ah, much better.”

A door stood only a dozen feet away, but shuffling to it proved an arduous feat. At the door, he leaned his forehead to the wall beside it. Opening it drew the last of his strength, and he allowed himself to slide down the wall and onto his rump. Fortunately, Shrikal walked in just then.

Laughing, the young man chastised him for straining himself. “Now, you know what I was going through when you left me.” Nodding, Scar admitted he intended to persevere. “Observe a little sloth, friend. I think a state of lethargy will do you well.”

The paladin placed a tray next to the pelts. Then, he helped the warrior back to the bed. On the tray, Scar noticed another drink and a bowl of soup.

“Eat. You’ll feel better. Then, get some more rest, and we’ll see how you’re doing.”

“I am doing fine,” Scar argued.

“Sure,” Shrikal grinned.

Rolling his eyes, the brute admitted he didn’t want to be alone. “Tell me about what happened after I passed out.”

While Scar carefully spooned tomato soup into his mouth, Shrikal stated the Dracos had been overly affected by the immediate loss of their great power. “I stayed watching over you, and the others rushed off to get a horse. We knew it was evident to the townsfolk that you had killed Drac; one minute they were excitable, and the next, they were drained. Before they recovered, we had you strapped and covered with some sheets. As soon as we had you out of town, Marlayne and I checked your injuries.

“Your skin had melted to your armor; that’s why your belly hurts so much. Apart from that, you look fine, but there’s no need to press yourself so hard. You may yet have some internal injuries.”

“I see…well, thank you.”

The paladin shrugged. “Artimis wants to do something to that contraption of his. If I understand correctly, he says there is a way to enlarge the compartments that hold gas, and with more gas, he can travel farther. Borta is helping him.”

“Has he said anything about Scultone? How is Artimis?”

“Don’t worry so much. I know you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders, but as I have stated numerous times, we are all here to help you.” After he took Scar’s bowl, he pushed the cup closer. “Drink. It is fabras tea. My mother used to give it to warriors after a battle. It is supposed to increase blood flow to the muscles to speed recovery.”

“Thanks again,” Scar muttered.

The young man shrugged, indicating it was little trouble. “For the time being, just focus on recuperating. I think you’ll be fine by tomorrow morning, and maybe, the day after that, the dirigible will be ready for a trip to Balroa. I should very much like to see Ylithia again….”

“Yes,” the warrior smiled. He finished his tea and relaxed. “Then, we can all fight for peace across this troubled world.”

Shrikal patted his friend’s shoulder before leaving the room. Scar was once more left to his thoughts. Drac was by far the most powerful Dragon. I can’t imagine how strong Scultone will be, and then I have to fight Slibinas? Perhaps, if I can get a hold of Khmer’s gem first…although, I’ll have to kill her to have her blessing, I assume, but if I can augment my healing abilities, Slibinas and the others might not be such a threat.

 

****

 

“Sarkany.”

“What is it?”

The deepest of blackness enveloped the warrior. He tried to open his eyes, but he was unsure as to whether or not they were open. Squinting, he looked around. After a moment, the view of Eternus’s realm cleared.

“Alignment has changed its design. What we are is a constant flux, changing, adapting, evolving.”

“What are you trying to tell me?”

“What you call the world is merely a concept, no different than you or I, but concepts are made to change over the course of time.”

“More riddles,” Scar scoffed. “Can you for once speak clearly?!”

“This is no riddle, and yet it is a surprise.”

Scar puffed, and grinding his teeth, he gazed out into eternity. Whatever the Dragon was saying was nonsense, but the warrior knew Eternus spoke sincerely; the unfathomable creator of everything was trying to tell him something.

“I don’t understand…do I need to do something?”

“You must make an effort to check your emotions. Humans and Dragons alike have brought misery unto themselves by seeking offense to the impersonal self. I tell you this because you are on a path towards destruction.”

“I am on a path to kill the Dragons,” he argued. “You made me in that vein. What other choice do I have? Besides, these people need me now. I can’t stop, and I don’t understand why you are insinuating that I should.”

“I said no such thing.”

“Damnit, Dragon! Just speak plainly!”

“The designs of the world, the designs of absolutely everything, even concepts you cannot conceive, are revealed to everyone and everything upon touching the abstract. To do this, you must quell your rage, your sorrow, your joy.”

“Why?! To what end?”

“There is no way of telling.”

“Then, why are you wasting my time,” he asked in a constricted tone.

“Time is never wasted, but the change you are creating is a direct corollary to your thoughts and actions. If you are not careful, you will find yourself dead….”

“Find myself dead?” Scar was flabbergasted. “What are you saying?”

Something like a wind or a vacuum sipped the warrior away.

 

****

 

Suddenly, he was awake. Moonlight gleamed in from the window. Scar sat up and realized he felt even better than before. Exhaling, he stood and stretched his arms overhead. After a few twists and turns, he found his body yet ached, but the pain was far from grave; mostly, he was but stiff.

I wonder if anybody’s up. He plodded from the room. A corridor with three, other doors led to a set of stairs. Holding onto the railing, he carefully walked down, found a kitchen, and rooted around for something eat. He settled for stale bread.

Something like a knock from outside drew his attention. It sounded like stones being struck together. He attempted to ignore it, but there was something about the noise; it demanded his attention, so he shambled out through the back door.

An ominous form loomed dozens of yards away. Squinting, Scar thought it looked like a man standing beneath the shadows cast by the cypress canopy. Suddenly, it strode out into the moonlight. White beams reflected off black steel. A Paladin of Severity marched towards the warrior.

Spreading his feet for balance, Scar took a breath, and when the knight swung its sword, the warrior stepped in to grab the enemy by the wrists. With a spinning and wrenching motion, he stole the blade from the attacker, shouldered him back a step, and then sliced horizontally, but the assailant offered no resistance; the sword went through him like air.

What?!”

There was nothing there. There was no paladin, and Scar held no sword. He looked at his empty hands in complete bafflement and a tinge of fear crept up his spine.

 

****

 

“Argh!” Scar screamed himself awake. “That was a dream?”

Looking around, he noticed it was early morning. He had slept for several hours, and apart from being scared out of his wits, he was fine. Quickly, he stood and ran out of the room. Downstairs, he found Borta.

“What’s wrong?” the Scultonian was puzzled.

“Nothing…I, I just had a strange dream. It’s nothing. What, uh, what are we doing?”

“Gertrude has come by to make breakfast.”

“Oh…good. I’m starved.”

Borta’s eyes twitched a bit, but he caught himself and feigned a smile. Both men entered the kitchen. Mindy sat in Gertrude’s lap, eating a bowl of grains while Artimis placed sausages on everyone’s plate.

Smiling, Scar took a seat. “How is everyone?” They all said they were fine. Gertrude was happy to see he was in one piece. It was then that the warrior saw that she and Artimis had dark eyes. “So…now that Drac is dead, how are the Dracos faring?”

“Evidently, Longinus set some plans into motion and is trying to establish a form of democracy here,” Artimis answered. “Whatever’s happened with the gem has derailed their original plans for succession, so there are as many people happy about Closicus’s intervention as there are people upset.”

“I meant, how do you feel without the Dragon’s power?”

“Oh…well, I was never much a follower o’ Drac, but I must admit, I felt something like a drain when he died, but I also feel like I’m clearer, ya’ know?”

“Aye,” Gertrude added. “Somethin’s definitely different.”

She squeezed the girl, and they looked at each other, grinning. A wave of happiness had washed over the three Dracos, but Scar wondered after possible instability across Eltanrof.

“How are you, mate,” Labolas asked, interrupting Scar’s internal intrigue.

“Ah…I’m much better. In fact, after breakfast, I will be ready to get my gear in order and board the Plume. How long will it take to reach Balroa?”

“Can’t take the Plume to Balroa, I’m afraid,” Artimis said. “You know the death wind surrounding the island is too strong. We’ll fly to Port Tristin in Closicus, and from there, you’ll have to sail back to the island.”

“Well…another voyage,” Scar mused. “You must be happy,” he elbowed Shrikal.

“I admit, I do like sailing…perhaps, when this is all over, I may become a sailor. It is good, hard work.”

They chuckled. Everyone was in a fine mood, and after eating, they took a moment to converse. Nothing of war, or Dragons, or death was mentioned. They just talked about the weather, crops, people in their lives. Scar very much appreciated the candor and sincerity. I hope one day soon, everyone can sit around a table, and regardless of their country of origin, they may talk and eat together as friends without worries of war.

Chapter Twenty-Five- Artimis and the amazing Plume

 

Flying from River Rock to Port Tristin was a wonderful reprieve from fighting. Scar healed nicely as they soared over rivers, greening plains, towering trees, and rocky hills. To everyone’s delight, Artimis brought the Plume down at the docks. Just about the entire town gathered around to witness the spectacle.

Marlayne questioned Artimis regarding the scene. He answered that it was necessary to drum up business, and claimed that with enough interest, not only was he hoping to entice investors in order to build more dirigibles, but that once everything was over, he intended to make flying as natural a mode of transportation as carts and horses. Gertrude maintained he had lost his marbles. Borta seconded the sentiment, but Scar, Mindy, and the rest enjoyed the thought.

“Alright, Scar,” Artimis started. “Take your crew, and find yourselves a right team of sailors. Gerty, Mindy, and I will regale everyone with the prospect of flight.”

Wincing in mirth, Scar shook his friend’s hand, bid Gertrude safe travels, and hugged Mindy. “You keep an eye on those two, honey. I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Bye-bye, Scar,” she chirped, hugging him around the neck.

He hopped off the side and waded through flabbergasted city folk. Marlayne took the lead then. Fortunately, among the Fafnirian traders and sailors, there was a group of Scultonians looking in amazement from their brigantine. It was an immense vessel with innumerable deckhands of various tribes interspersed.

“Hey,” Shrikal suddenly shouted and ran across the docks.

“Hey, yourself!” an inked woman shouted back from the shrouds.

While Marlayne chatted with members of the crew cleaning the hull, and Borta lent his support, Labolas took Scar by the elbow, saying, “It’ll be our luck if they’re sailing to Balroa.”

“Between Marlayne and Borta, they will be convinced,” Scar replied. He then looked at Shrikal, who was chatting with a young woman. She was short and wiry with light eyes and short, dark hair. What scanty clothes covered her, revealed a toned and colorful midsection. “He seems to know someone on the crew.”

Pursing his lips, Labolas nodded. Shrikal dashed back over with a grin on his face. A chuckle escaped his lips, and his eyes were bright. Scar tried to fight off a smile.

“Who is she? She’s cute.”

“That’s my friend, Atsuko, formerly Nagish, now a Paladin of Perseverance.”

“Nagish with dark hair,” Labolas asked.

Formerly Nagish,” Shrikal corrected.

“Right, so…yellow hair is a mark of Naga?” Scar mused.

The archer had a look of perplexity. Scar and Shrikal both shrugged. By then, Marlayne and Borta walked over.

Labolas chuckled upon noticing her smile. “Persuaded us a ride, did you?”

“I did,” Marlayne replied. “However, it’s going to cost us, and they’re not sailing directly to Balroa, and they’re not sailing today.”

“When are they going,” Shrikal asked.

“The morning after tomorrow,” Borta groaned.

“Hm,” Scar frowned, pensively.

“I know you’re in a hurry, friend,” Labolas consoled, “but at least we have a ship. We can relax for a few more days. Judging by Shrikal’s shite eating grin, I’ll bet he has some catching up to do.”

“Well, I,” the paladin giggled.

“No shame, go and get her!” Labolas laughed.

Scar nodded, and Shrikal ran back to the ship to see his friend. “Well, gentlemen,” Marlayne interrupted. “I suggest we find ourselves a room for the night.”

“Scar,” Borta said. “They first want payment, which is the sum of five hundred coins.”

“Five hundred coins?” Scar and Labolas exclaimed.

“It’s one hundred for each of us,” Marlayne revealed.

“Listen,” Borta demanded. “Let us give them what we can afford after purchasing our room. I promised them extra coin upon our arrival…being a servant of Sirokai, I persuaded the Scultonian captain to accept extra payment from the king’s coffers.”

“Good, good. Marlayne, where should we stay,” Scar asked.

She looked over her shoulder. Shrikal had boarded the ship. Smiling to herself, she suggested a small inn away from the docks, where rooms were cheaper. Scar then stated he was going to see if Artimis was staying in the city and for how long.

“No sense in paying for a room if I can sleep aboard the Plume with the others,” he commented.

“I need a bed,” Labolas said, flatly.

“Agreed,” Borta added.

“Alright,” Scar nodded and took a breath. “I will check with Artimis and see what he’s going to do.”

Leaving them to force his way back through an even thicker crowd, Scar climbed into the dirigible. While Artimis captivated everyone with the mention of ease and convenience of flight, the warrior took Gertrude aside and asked after their plans. She didn’t know what Artimis had in mind, but expressed her need to sleep in a bed. Mindy wanted to sleep on the Plume, though, which brought Gertrude to exasperation. She stormed off to pull Artimis from the mob.

“Bed or no, I have a few days before I have to leave,” Scar said to Mindy.

“Are you going after bad people again?”

“No,” he smiled. “I’m trying to…find a friend of mine.” He considered explaining what he meant, but he remembered having told her that Ylithia died, and thought that might arouse some unanswerable questions. She might want her parents brought back to life, and I don’t even know if that’s possible, and if it is…how can I get their hair or bones, and who were they, anyway? He smiled again. “No more fighting for a long time, I hope.”

She clasped her wrist over her tummy and sort of turned back and forth, a look of expectance on her tiny face. Gertrude came back then.

“The oaf says he stayin’ put; doesna’ want anyone ta’ harm this stupid thing!”

“That makes sense. I should stay here, too. If you want a bed, the others are renting a room in the city.”

“Aye,” she huffed. “Well, Mindy, you see these two donna’ do anythin’ daft. Now, give Aunty Gert a hug.”

They squeezed each other before Gertrude disembarked. Scar saw her join the others. They walked off, melding into the crowd. Glancing back to the brigantine, he wondered if Shrikal needed a message. In the end, he figured everyone was to meet on the boat anyway.

“Well,” he sighed and extended his hand. Mindy took it. “We might as well see what Tristin has to offer. Artimis!”

“Aye?”

“We’ll be back before dark!”

“Aye-aye!”

He led Mindy off the vessel and into the city. It took a modest effort to push and shove beyond the innumerable spectators, but they walked hand in hand towards a paved street, which led into the heart of a small, shopping district. From hardware stores to local grocers and taverns, all manners of establishments lined the roads near the docks. Past the shops was an immense placard displaying a layout of the city. A plethora of streets converged at the center. The two made their way there.

Tristin, like many, Closic cities, had a lively plaza filled with musicians, performers, and peddlers. Mindy rode on Scar’s shoulders, her eyes taking in the sights and colors. She enjoyed the jugglers, who were dressed in suits of green and red. They tossed various objects to one another.

Swarms of people moved freely from one performance to another. Most everyone dropped a coin or two into a hat, on a blanket, in the palms of children. Scar handed Mindy some coins to give out. The jugglers thanked her, and one of them gave her a little, red ball. It felt like polished bone.

After beholding an eerie show played by expressionless, Scultonian musicians, all of whom banged various sized drums, they bought some sweets. Next to the treats stall was a row of more stands, displaying various games. Children waited impatiently for their turn to throw darts, or pick a card, or find a ball under a cup. Scar told Mindy to try, but she shook her head.

“How about a little rest, then,” he asked, and leaning his head back, he managed to see her nod. “Okay. See that fountain?”

“Lions,” she said.

“That’s right.”

A white, stone monstrosity sculpted to resemble lions on their hind legs and facing the cardinal points was surrounded by a squat, squared wall. Water sprung from opened maws, causing ripples in the clear pool. Several coins lay on the bottom.

The two sat next to many others, too tired or too full to continue exploring the plaza. An old, Fafnirian woman asked after Mindy’s name. Scar told her, and she smiled to reveal nothing but pink gums.

To the warrior’s surprise, many people were chatting about Artimis’s display. Some said it was madness. Others claimed it was the future. Many believed it was a great way to transport goods, but some argued the goods weighed the ship down, keeping it from a speedy flight.

“That Artimis fellow knows how to make it work for him. Surely, he can teach others,” Scar said.

“How does it fly,” one asked.

“How does it come back down,” another demanded.

“What can it carry,” someone else pried.

The warrior did his best to provide answers, explaining he had ridden on it various times. A handful of citizens were riveted by the possibilities. Eventually, he had to excuse himself; the sun had meandered behind the western edge of the city’s rooves, casting long shadows. He bid everyone a good evening, and trudged back to the Plume.

By nightfall, Scar found Artimis alone on the dirigible. He was sipping mead from a bottle, which he offered to Scar. Accepting it, he gulped a swig of sweet, honey wine before handing the bottle back.

“Can I have some,” Mindy asked.

“No,” the adults exclaimed simultaneously and laughed.

“Looks like it quieted down,” Scar said, relaxing against the railing.

“Aye, sure did get a few nobles interested.”

“No doubt. Everyone was talking about it in town.”

“Good,” Artimis grinned. “I don’t suppose when this is all over you wanna’ pilot one o’ these things…?”

Chuckling, Scar admitted he did not. “I’m used to flying, but I am not cut out for all that. Piloting one and flying people around, I mean.”

“Heh, heh, hey Mindy,” Artimis smiled. “You shoulda’ seen that bloke when I first flew this thing; he nearly wet his trousers.”

“Okay,” Scar sighed. He looked to Mindy. Her eyes glimmered under moonlight, and the missing teeth of her smile belied innocence. “It’s true. I was scared.”

She laughed before sitting against some crates to play with her horsie. Scar looked from her to his friend. Again, they passed the bottle back and forth.

“My wife and I dreamed of owning a whole fleet o’ these things. We were gonna’ rent ‘em out or even sell ‘em to traders and whatnot. Bah, what a damn waste.”

“Waste,” Scar asked upon seeing his friend cringe.

“Such sweet, caring lives cut short by an illness.”

They avoided eye contact. Taking a breath and wiping alcohol from his beard, the former Draco made to offer Scar another drink. He waved it off.

“Here, give me your hand,” Shrikal said. A moment later, he helped Atsuko onto the vessel. “See? It’s just like a ship. Oh….”

“Wow,” she said, looking the rigging over.

“Hey,” Artimis said, dragging the word out. “You trying to impress your lady friend?”

“I uh, well,” Shrikal stammered, rubbing the back of his head.

“It’s alright,” Atsuko smiled. “I am impressed.”

Scar laughed out loud. “So, how do the two of you know each other?”

“We met years ago,” Atsuko replied. “My grandmother was the one who bestowed upon his skin the trial of perseverance.”

“It’s true,” he smiled. “The process makes people ill, some even die, but I lived through it, five days of needling, and then Atsuko helped me regain my health.”

“After that, I went off with a group to handle some business in Qing Sho,” she stated.

“What kind o’ business,” Artimis pried.

She shrugged, indifferently. “I just started sailing with Captain Rook six months ago. I’m glad to be a part of this quest in whatever way.”

“You should join us permanently,” Shrikal suggested.

She and Scar traded a glance, and he said, “Ihnogupta probably has you doing something already.”

“Maybe,” she chirped.

Clouds rolled in, obscuring the moon, and under what little light gleamed from torches around the docks and other ships, they grew quiet. The surrounding chatter and laughter coupled with sounds of waves striking hulls, clanging bells, and distant barking provided an awkward moment. While Mindy closed her eyes and curled on her side, Artimis offered his bottle around. Scar took a swig, but neither Shrikal nor Atsuko imbibed.

“So, you two gonna sleep aboard that ship? What’s her name, anyway,” the pilot asked.

“She’s called the Bony Grin,” Atsuko replied. “And yes, there’s no sense in this one staying anywhere else, right?”

When she looked at Shrikal, he smiled involuntarily, bringing another round of laughter from Scar and Artimis. “Look, it’s not, I,” he said.

“Relax.” The warrior nudged the paladin. “You two look good together. Anyway, we’d join you on the ship, but we need to keep this thing safe for the time being. Why don’t you go, uh, enjoy each other’s company?”

“Um, Atsuko,” Shrikal asked.

“Yeah, in a minute; I want to see how this thing works.”

Artimis obliged her with a rundown of the mechanics. She was doubly impressed by the pilot’s ingenuity, so he suggested she and Shrikal become owners of their very own dirigible. Scar believed it a good idea and even suggested marketing the contraption to Onger, who unquestionably wanted a fleet of dirigibles for both passengers and deliveries.

“You were thinking of sailing anyway,” Scar said. “Why not sail the skies?”

“Sail the skies, huh?” Atsuko grinned. “Why not? Let’s go talk about it….”

She gave a motion with her head to Shrikal, so everyone gave a halfhearted wave goodbye. The paladins wandered off the Plume and out of sight. Mindy was asleep, so Scar decided to catch some shut eye, too. Artimis pulled some wool blankets from the crates to make everyone more comfortable. The girl mumbled something unintelligible as Scar helped her onto a blanket, but when she said mommy, he felt a pang of grief.

“All you can do is make sure she’s happy from now on,” Artimis said.

Chapter Twenty-Six- Voyagers

 

 

 

 

 

The morning of the watery leg of their journey, Artimis, Mindy, and Gertrude waved goodbye to their friends. The former Draco claimed he had found investors and wanted to start contracting workers to build new dirigibles right away. They sailed off into the sky, leaving Scar and his crew to board the Bony Grin.

It was going to be a long haul to the eastern shores of Wuulefroth. Captain Rook, an aged Scultonian, was transporting people and resources both to and from the frozen lands. Many of the sailors were Slibinish. Scar tried to learn about their homeland, but they were reticent. Marlayne explained that word of Drac’s defeat had spread, and since everyone knew the King Killer, they were reluctant to make friends with someone likely to rob them of their powers.

“Be glad we were even accepted aboard this ship,” she said.

“I don’t see any reason to reject us; they have paladins working alongside them.”

“Yes…I suppose, but they already know those paladins.”

“I guess I should prove myself, huh?” he smiled.

Prove himself he did by working the rigging, swabbing decks, and entertaining the crew with feats of strength. He lifted anchors over his head, he wrestled three and four men at a time; he even snapped an oar in half with his hands. During his down time, he played card games, drinking games, and won some arm wrestling matches, and his accepting attitude won him the respect of most aboard the vessel.

One day passed, and then two; one, windy morning over the choppy sea, he found Marlayne and Labolas in an animated conversation. They were facing the eastern skies. Foreboding, gray clouds had amassed in the distance.

“Hey,” he called out.

“Oh, Scar, good, you can settle this,” Labolas huffed.

Marlayne winced; the look of displeasure was not lost on the archer, but he motioned for Scar to come near. Once he arrived, Labolas explained that Tiamhaal needed a central ruler after their plans came to a head. Marlayne maintained that dictatorial power only corrupted and bred elitists, who were certainly going to wield their nobility against a disparaging, working class.

“What?” Scar was baffled.

“I didn’t say there should be a dictator,” Labolas argued.

“What else can a central ruler be?!”

“How–” Scar managed before Labolas yelled over him.

“A central ruler can still be held to a democratic standard! Listen, if a high king is present only to ensure that the other kings don’t tread over other territories, there won’t be any issues regarding corrupt politicians!”

“Given that a high king has final say on all matters, he can do nothing but extend his orders over everyone, thus bringing about an age of strife and poverty,” Marlayne argued back.

“I–” Scar tried, but he figured they were so involved, it was best to sneak off.

Below deck, he shook his head, wondering if Labolas had turned to find him gone. By the light of lanterns, he pushed between sweaty men and women to find his hammock. Relaxing for a moment, he shut his eyes, and allowed the gentle sloshing of waves and creaking of wood to lull him to sleep.

“You should be more careful,” a raspy voice said.

He opened his eye to see Borta. “Of what?”

The prince looked around. “You never know if there are agents seeking to do you harm.”

“What do you mean?”

Borta exhaled and winced. “Scar, I know you’re fighting for a good cause, but you told me Donovan wanted all the other Dragons dead to gain more power, to rule the world. You don’t think he is the only one who feels that way, do you?”

“So, what are you saying? I shouldn’t fall asleep?”

“Perhaps not without someone watching you. Where is the boy? He seems to dote on you.”

“I think he’s doting on Atsuko,” Scar chuckled. Borta remained stoic. “You never lighten up, do you?”

“I am laughing on the inside,” he smiled.

Scar laughed loudly, drawing a bit of attention. Someone in an adjacent hammock grumbled to lower their voices.

“Well, I guess you’re right…I was even attacked on the road by those strange people. I still don’t know who they were, but they seemed to want me dead, something to do with what I can do to Dragons, which means whoever they were, they knew about the beasts,” he said and yawned.

“I cannot begin to imagine, but…listen…if you do want to get some rest, I’ll keep an eye on you for a moment.”

“Thanks.”

They chatted a bit about Sirokai, what aid he was to offer Eltanrof with the loss of their king and powers. Borta said the first step towards a lasting peace was helping them to crown a just ruler, someone open of mind. Eventually, the warrior passed out, but he awoke refreshed a short time later, and the two wandered into the galley for some grub.

Back above deck, they ate jerked beef and sipped from beer steins. From the portside, they saw gray and brown cliffs and peaks. Water sprayed over sharp rocks protruding from waves. The mountainous coast of Closicus was miles away, but the brilliancy of the day allowed the two friends to drown their worries with breathtaking views of a moving world.

“How’s the beer,” someone asked.

They turned to find an athletic-looking, Scultonian woman. Her hair was black and in braids that wrapped around her head, framing her angular face.

“It’s good,” Scar replied.

Borta glanced at her then at Scar. “I have to speak to Marlayne,” he said and left.

The lass watched him go. “I’m Etra.”

“Scar,” he said, extending a hand. “Firm grip.”

“Been sailing nearly fifteen years,” she smirked.

“Nooo, you can’t be a day over twenty,” he chuckled.

“Please,” she sighed. “I’m thirty two.”

“Well…I, uh, guess you’re a fan of the sea.”

“I just love to watch the tapestry sail by. Look,” she said, pointing to pelicans. “You can see everything from this ship. Sometimes, I just lose myself. I forget that there are people working behind me, people warring in foreign lands, people starving at home.”

“Etra,” someone called. They both turned to find a large Bakunawan. He was muscular but definitely fat, a bear of a man with a silvery fu manchu. “There’s some dry rotting boards on the third deck.”

“Oh, I’ll get right on it,” she said and smiled to Scar. “See what I mean?” Then, she waved and traipsed away.

The man maintained a leer. Scar arched a brow. Unconcerned, he turned back to the distant cliffs. A moment later, he heard the man waddle off. Wonder if the Bakunawans have something against me.

He spent the remainder of the day in reverie. By nightfall, soft rain sprinkled the crew, but the winds remained light, and working the jibs was an easy task. A Scultonian boatswain kept an eye on him for an hour or so, but after providing only one correction, he finally left the brute with the others.

Sailing upwind required some serious effort, and by the time Scar was exhausted, the rain came down twice as hard. Swabbies ran about, deftly maneuvering around the rigging. One of them started wrenching his mop out over the forecastle.

“Damned rain,” he said, walking by Scar.

“Tell me about it.”

“Another day north, an’ it’ll turn ta’ sleet,” he yelled over the whipping of sails.

“Sleet?”

“Ya’, you know, frozen water!”

“No, I know what sleet is,” Scar laughed. “It gets much colder just a day north?”

“We’ll cover about a hundred or so miles in a day with winds like this, but you wait an’ see. This storm’s gonna turn the wind an’ set us down at about five hundred miles in a day!”

Puffing water from his lips, Scar shrugged. The man nodded, sopped up more water, and ran back to wrench it out over the side. Hours later, the storm did worsen; blue lightning tore across the sky. Thick, ropey bolts flickered from clouds to the sea, bringing back images of fighting Drac, however, the gorgeous reflection illuminating the raging waves was less threatening than magical.

It was in the middle of roaring thunder that Scar felt a hand on his arm. He turned abruptly to see Shrikal. Atsuko was with him.

“Why don’t you take a break?” Shrikal offered. “We’ve got it from here!”

“Sure,” he hollered back, stepping away from the rigging. Wiping water from his eyes, he watched the two work in unison; they let in to the stem head between chocks placed on either side of the knight heads. Between them, and two others, they had all the sails under control, so he walked off to the stairs, where he bumped into Labolas and Marlayne. “You two getting cozy?” he joked.

“Hardly,” she laughed.

“What?” Labolas frowned.

They all passed a befuddled glance. It was morning, and although the rain clouds prevented extravagant radiance, it was bright enough to see the look of confusion on Marlayne’s face, and the comical expression of indignation upon the archer’s countenance.

“You’re not exactly my type, Labolas,” she said, pushing wet hair from her forehead.

The archer stuck his fists on his hips. “Well, you’re not my type either, but still….”

“Still what?” she snipped, furrowing her brow.

“You didn’t have to say it like that,” he replied, shaking his head to the Heavens.

“Ah, well, you see…you don’t have what I’m looking for in a partner.”

“Oh…ohhhh,” he chuckled. “You mean I don’t have the kind of fancy you like to tickle.”

Scar shook his head in mock desperation. “What are the two of you doing?”

“He wanted to see how bad the storm is,” she answered.

They all glanced towards the eastern horizon. The ominous cloud cover spanned indeterminately, giving everything a hazy, gray look. Another flash of lightning crackled. Thunder boomed a second after. Then, a gust of wind rocked the ship, and they stumbled to maintain their footing.

“It’s getting pretty bad,” Scar said.

“That it is, mate,” Labolas smiled. “I must admit, though, it is a wondrous sight.”

“Listen,” Scar started. “Borta intimated there might be danger aboard the ship.”

“What?” Labolas yelled over the sounds of sailors, thunder, and crashing waves.

“I said there might be some dangerous people aboard this ship!”

“What makes you think that,” Marlayne asked.

Shaking his head, Scar explained what Borta had told him about people seeking the power of a single Dragon. “It’s possible someone here has it in for me.”

“Like who?” she was surprised.

Labolas, however, touched his scar, nodding. “You’re right, anyone here could be an agent of evil; did someone say or do something?”

“No. I’m just done in, and I want to get some rest, but I’m, I’m nervous, so I was asking, if you’re not doing anything, just check on me while I doze.”

“You got it,” Labolas said and patted his shoulder.

“I’m actually sick of this rain. I’ll follow you below deck,” Marlayne added.

They stomped down the steps and commiserated in the cabin. Under the wavering light of lanterns, they both noticed a level of distress within the other. They maintained eye contact for a moment.

“Have you perchance heard of anyone plotting to remove me from the picture,” Scar asked.

“Can’t say that I have.”

While the warrior stretched out in a hammock, she leaned her back against a post and crossed her feet then flapped out the bottom portion of her robe. Water amassed under her shoes.

“To be honest, I’m not overly worried that someone’s going to kill me in my sleep; I think I’ll wake in time to stop an attack, not to mention that if someone really wants me dead, they will probably just poison my food.”

“They may already have, and you might be immune; you’re a strange creature, Scar….”

“Yes, but anyway, I’m more worried about getting us all kicked off, so if I can get everyone’s support, and you can all just keep your eyes and ears open for dissonance, I’ll rest easy.”

She reached over and patted his head. He turned to her, fighting back a smile.

“I’m glad we’re friends,” he mumbled.

“I as well, you big galoot. I still think about everything we’ve been through; riding across Tiamhaal, meeting the Tiamatish, fighting the Khmerans, witnessing the Dragons…meeting Ylithia, learning of the Gods, my…what a journey this has been.”

“And it is far from over, but soon, I will take down Scultone, and then we’ll probably move for Slibinas, though I must say, I might need help.”

“What do you mean,” she asked, pursing her lips.

“Drac nearly killed me; there’s no two ways around that fact. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the Dragons are getting more and more powerful. That means Scultone will be stronger than Drac, and once I best him, Slibinas will be even tougher, so I was thinking about convincing Sahni to let me fight Khmer before Slibinas; even if she just gives me the gem, I can wait until after I’ve secured Slibinas’s gem before tackling the Dragon of Life, and then immediately going after the Dragon of Ice.”

“So, the Khmerans will retain their powers until just before the Slibinish lose theirs; it’s a solid strategy,” she mused, “but I’m not convinced Sahni is the virtuous sort. Labolas and I have been discussing her stake in all this. While we’re certain that Longinus and Jagongo are solid rulers of valorous repute, Sahni has been nothing but vicious regarding her perceived enemies; she wanted Munir’s support, after all, not to mention all she’s done to the Tiamatish over the years.”

“I know…it’s possible she’s plotting against the others, waiting for the moment when her allies are of no more use to her, and it’s doubtful she can enact any kind of assault without the blessing of Khmer, but still…I have to try. Say, do you know if she gave me Zmaj’s gem, or was it stolen from her?”

“Zmaj’s gem?”

“The fellow who gave me Drac’s gem, I assume he’s a thief, he also gave me back Zmaj’s gem. Obviously, the man is an agent of Longinus’s, but if there was no agreement between he and Sahni, she might view the act as discordant. I mean, she may already regard me a threat, and if I appear before her, demanding the gem of Khmer….”

“I see. Well, it won’t do any harm to ask for it, I think. She did agree to pass it to you after the death of Slibinas, so you may have to slay that Dragon first. Are you afraid of the Dragons?”

“What? No!” he chuckled, looking at her in mild offense and disbelief. “I am worried, though; they are…their power is beyond words. Without the ability to wield Kulshedra’s power, Gyo would have killed me, and I just can’t recover quickly enough on my own. If Scultone or Slibinas are stronger than Drac, it’ll be my demise, and then what?”

They remained silent. Then, Marlayne suggest he rest. A moment later, the warrior was dreaming of scenic meadows, rolling hills, and his sweet Ylithia.

A few days later, after the storm’s passing, Scar’s crew ate and relaxed among the sailors. Though the galley was a tight space, there were several, small tables available. Etra, Atsuko, and Chernish, a large, self assured man, joined them in conversation.

He was a strange looking fellow. His eyes were very dark blue, and his skin was ashen, but he wasn’t gray. Borta asked him after Vamvos’s reaction to the treaty created by Longinus and the others.

“He is a wise ruler,” Chernish began. “He is respectful of power of any kind, even that of a united front formed by peaceful people, or people without a blessing. Logic dictates that he will withhold an attack upon Nabalhi if Sahni has the backing of other tribes. To the best of my knowledge, the nation of Wuulefroth has forever been at war with Zetsuru and Jinshuke, that Hashnora has united them is discomforting. Sobriety demands their concord is based on something existential; I believe he only wishes to protect the Slibinish way of life.”

“Sobriety?” Scar whispered. “Are you a paladin?”

Smiling, he admitted he was a Paladin of Garnabus, the Sober, which shocked the warrior, since the man wasn’t wearing hides. “My perspective on the matter of Vamvos and his behavior is based upon hours of meditation.”

Expressions of confusion went around the table. Chernish never stopped smiling. He rolled up the sleeves of his purple tunic before running fingers through his short, gray hair.

“Why have you meditated on Vamvos,” Labolas finally asked.

“As Captain Rook’s treasured confidant, and this ship’s chief mate, it is imperative I know the plots of rulers. Commerce is based on needs and wants, and while everyone is at war, and especially now that such tumultuous changes have been enacted, it is my duty to plan ahead for a most prosperous and safe voyage. Besides, why do you think Rook was easily convinced to allow all of you aboard?”

“I though it was her silver tongue,” Scar joked, indicating Marlayne, “and the promise of Sirokai’s riches.”

Laughing, he stated that money held great sway, but that he also wanted to meet the Dragon Slayer. Conversations then drifted to the Dragons. Scar relayed his battles with the monsters. Etra was spellbound as was Atsuko. Eventually, Labolas steered the conversation back to rulers.

“Consider that Vamvos’s only enemies are Takashi and Shinjuru, yet the three countries have never openly invaded one another, at least not during their respective reigns,” Chernish said. “There was a time, many years ago, when their forefathers fought, but over the past thirty years or so, they have at least been amicable; this is in part due to Sahni’s reinforcement of security along her borders, and since she and Gilgamesh were fighting over Alduheim, the Slibinish have engaged their efforts towards new relations rather than engaging in war amidst other, warring tribes.”

“I’m not sure how accurate that is,” Labolas derided.

“Oh?” Chernish touched his bearded chin.

“For a time, Sahni was at war with Vamvos’s enemies; she and he were allies. There have been several instances of Khmerans and Slibinish moving across Nabalhi to attack Mireuans, and it was due only to their allegiance with the Nagish that they drove the opposing forces back. What I want to know is what caused dissention; Vamvos allied with his enemies, supposedly to attack his own ally, and his ally also allied with her enemies, the same enemies, purportedly to remain safe from attacks; this can only mean that the Nagish’s and Mireuans’ allies, in this case, Bakunawans, have somehow tipped the scales in their favor. We know Hashnora is plotting something,” Labolas stated.

“Do you know anything about that,” Etra asked Chernish.

“We have never sailed to Qing Sho,” he whispered.

Then, he relaxed into a quiet reverie. Etra leaned over to Scar during the interim and asked about his plans in Balroa. He explained he was looking for a friend.

“A woman?”

“Yes,” he smiled. “Why?”

“No reason…you just look like you’re both excited and sad. I figured it must be a woman. We’re the only ones capable of confusing men so,” she laughed.

“Hey,” someone called. They turned to see the fat Bakunawan again. “You got work to do,” he said to Etra.

“Geez, Fong, I’m chatting with Chernish.”

“Yeah, well,” he looked to the chief mate. Fong had a set of beady eyes, always squinting like his cheeks were too pudgy to open his eyes fully. “She’s got work to do.”

The chief mate shrugged indifferently. Grumbling, Etra got up to leave. Fong watched her go before turning his leer onto Scar.

“What?” he snipped. The Bakunawan said nothing, turned, and waddled out of sight. “He’s pleasant.”

“I think he doesn’t like Etra talking to you,” Atsuko commented.

“Me?” Scar furrowed his brow.

“He must like her,” Marlayne mused.

“Jealousy,” Chernish said. “What a strange desire to control that which does not belong to us. It is a form of greed, I believe, and you are dealing with greedy beings,” he said to Scar. The Dragon Slayer gauged the man. “The Dragons are greedy for souls, for power; they will stop at nothing.” He then looked at Marlayne. “All of them.”

Frowning, she nodded. After that, they broke to sleep, or work, or pass the time in less congenial fashions.

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven- The wrath of jealousy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A strenuous few days passed, but come one, crisp morning, as a chilled wind rattled bones, the Bony Grin docked within the trade city of Faaltosk. Scar was assisting the sailors in transporting crates off the vessel when a gray skinned crewman asked him to follow. Shrugging, the warrior obliged.

They walked beyond innumerable sailors, nearly all of them Slibinish. The hearty people of Wuulefroth worked diligently aboard their boats, transporting trade goods; commerce by way of ship was a staple among the ice people. All along the docks, as cold gusts whipped the furled sails of anchored vessels, he was witness to the hard life of pallid traders and explorers. In front of a tapestry of green, rolling hills, and turf homes, men, women, and young adults moved crates and barrels, scrubbed barnacles from hulls, towed rigging, forged nails, and cut and transported lumber.

Before he knew it, Scar was corralled between immense crates and stacks of planks. He turned around to see the Scultonian who had asked for him to follow. Behind him was Fong and three, more Bakunawans. The Scultonian simply walked away, disappearing behind the supplies.

“Oh, I see,” Scar muttered. “You want to talk to me?”

Fong’s eyes suddenly shone. Scar recalled Hachi doing the same thing. As the corpulent Bakunawan spread his feet into a back stance, he raised a fist over his head, and placed the other before his chest. The others spread out to block the escape route.

“I don’t want to fight,” Scar said. “Just tell me what you’d like, and I’ll be on my way.”

Fong dashed forwards. He was surprisingly quick, and when he threw a fist Scar’s way, the warrior slapped him across the wrist, parrying the blow, but was immediately flung face first into a crate. Thick, powerful hands secured Scar’s shoulder and chin, so he placed his boot against the crate and pushed back with all his might. Both men stumbled backwards and crashed onto the wooden dock.

The other Bakunawans stormed over while the warrior struggled to right himself, but Fong had his arms wrapped so tightly around Scar’s throat, and his legs held his hips immobilized, so when the others started striking him in the face, belly, and groin, he was defenseless. Grumbling, he pulled his knife from his belt and jammed it into Fong’s elbow. The man screamed, and though he didn’t let go, the wound weakened him enough for Scar to pull his right hand free. He punched straight into a sailor’s jaw, pulled his blade from his assailant’s arm, and drove it through another’s foot. Then, the rest brandished their hatchets.

“Enough of this,” Scar howled.

He rammed the side of his head into Fong’s, which dazed the fat man enough for the Dragon Slayer to capitalize. Unfortunately, as he wriggled free, he received a hatchet to the collarbone; the pain was insurmountable, but he locked his fingers around the attacker’s hand and tugged forcefully, sending the opponent reeling into another; they all tumbled over. Finally on his feet, he kicked a wiry Bakunawan, snatched one over his head, and threw him into the one who had just pulled the knife from his foot.

Scar’s feet went out from under him, and he slammed back into the wood. Fong leapt, turned horizontally in the air, and fell elbow first into Scar’s belly. Unfazed, he wrapped his limbs about the sailor’s girth, and by applying pressure to the carotid artery, he attempted to choke Fong out. To his dismay, a hatchet struck him across the knee.

“Damn you people.”

He growled and thrashed, but Fong didn’t pass out. Instead, he bit into Scar’s exposed bicep and tore a gory chunk right out of his arm. Possessed by fury, the warrior let go his opponent’s neck, and made to jam his thumb in his eye, but the sailor blocked, while someone else hacked into Scar’s ribs. Frothing at the mouth, the giant twisted his body; he and Fong rolled a few times, but the pale giant managed to mount him from behind. Snatching a fistful of silvery hair, he smashed the Bakunawan’s face into the dock planks repeatedly. Two others tried to stop him by securing his arms, but the brute reached up, took them by their chins, and clenched his fists, breaking teeth from their mouths.

Coming to his feet, panting, he scrutinized the scene. One Bakunawan was unconscious. The other two moaned, holding their mouths, and Fong was wheezing, but scrambling away.

“Oh no you don’t, you fat coward.”

He reached for Fong’s ankle, but the Bakunawan shrimped free, threw a mule kick, rolled backwards, and came to his feet. It took the light worshipper a second to compose himself, during which Scar adjusted his balance. He jabbed, but the heavy man ducked, and hooked a fist right over the extended arm, thus jarring the giant’s chin. The warrior wrapped his hands behind his enemy’s head to pull him in, but again, Fong slipped out by dropping to his knees and drilling the brute right in the pickle.

Forced back by a low blow, he tried to drop an elbow onto Fong’s head. Once more, the sailor seemed to know what was coming, and he dove forwards, scooping the warrior up by his ankles. He slammed backwards with such force that a slat broke beneath him. Tucking and rolling on his side, Scar pulled free from his assailant’s grip, snatched a hatchet from the ground, and slashed at fatty throat. While it was evident the Bakunawan conceived of such an attack, he was off balance, and managed only to deflect the edge, yet it struck him across the cheek. Without mercy, Scar raised a knee into flabby belly, grasped another fistful of hair, and sunk the hatchet into Fong’s skull.

Lying back to catch his breath, he watched puffy clouds lazily move across the sky. After a moment, he rolled onto all fours. Resting his head on the dock, he took a deep breath, and pushed himself erect, wondering if perhaps his body had yet to heal fully from his fight with Drac.

“I hope you got what you wanted,” he muttered and stumbled back for the Bony Grin.

Great, now I’ll have to explain all this to Captain Rook. I knew this would happen. I knew this would happen. Damn it. As he plodded, he noticed errant glances cast his way. Nobody gave a second look, though; Slibinish were known to be quick to brawl. Once he reached the ship, he pushed through his own crewmen. The boatswain was among them, ushering villagers onto the vessel.

“Hey,” he called out.

“What? What happened to you?”

“Can you send for the captain? I was attacked.”

“Sure, mate. Sit tight.”

The Scultonian mumbled something to the passengers, who were eyeing the bloodied warrior. After the boatswain vanished, other sailors gawked, asking after his troubles. He just shook his head and claimed everything was fine. Moments later, Captain Rook walked down the plank to meet with Scar. Chernish and the boatswain trailed behind.

“What the Hell happened?” the captain demanded.

“One of your crew asked me to follow him, and I did, right to into an area out of sight. He walked away when Fong and his ilk showed up. We fought…and I killed him. The other three are still alive. You can find them over there,” Scar answered, pointing to the distant stacks of crates.

“You killed Fong?” Rook grunted.

“Didn’t have much of a choice, but I think you should call that sailor; he’s the one led me into the assault.”

Chernish looked concerned, and so did the boatswain, but Rook remained steely. His creased visage was fierce, disbelieving. He removed his tricorn to rub a hand over his cropped, white hair.

“Who led you astray?”

“I don’t know his name. He’s just a sailor. I have seen him around,” Scar trailed off.

As they spoke, more and more crewmembers stopped their work to look and listen. Rook argued that none of the Scultonians sought him any harm, and the warrior vehemently protested. He then had an insight and demanded to have Etra present.

“She has nothing to do with this,” Rook barked.

“You’re wrong. Fong was always shoving her away whenever we spoke.”

“It’s true,” Chernish said.

Rook turned to his friend and motioned with his head. The paladin walked off.

“Alright, we’ll see what she knows,” Rook sighed. “Hey,” he yelled to his crew. “Get back to work!”

Frightened, they heeded their captain. While Scar and Rook maintained eye contact, the many workers along the docks slowed for a glance at the commotion. Eventually, Chernish returned, flanked by Etra, Shrikal, and Labolas. Etra spoke to Rook, telling him about Fong’s behavior.

“Fong isn’t the one who led Scar away,” Rook said. “Who is this Scultonian?”

“I don’t know,” she claimed.

“Who are Fong’s Scultonian friends,” Labolas asked her.

Rook shot him a malevolent glare, but the archer remained stoic.

“Well…I guess he works with Kagar a lot. They eat together all the time,” she finally said.

The captain snapped his fingers at Chernish, who ran off to find Kagar. “Scar,” Rook said, “we’ll hear what Kagar has to say, but be warned, if I don’t like what I hear, you’re all off my ship.”

“I know,” he replied. “It’s why I asked for you right away.” Rook spit a glob of mucus at the ground before placing his hat back on his head. The chief mate returned with the Scultonian. Scar eyed the sailor. “That’s him.”

“Speak,” Rook growled.

“What do you want me to say,” Kagar asked.

“Don’t play with me,” the captain sneered, snatching his man by the collar of his tunic.

“I, I told Scar to help me move some crates of cloth,” he stammered. “He said he had business to handle, and he walked off. I don’t know where he went! I swear!”

Rook let go to glare at Scar. “Well?”

“Oh, what sense does that make? My whole purpose for being aboard your ship is to go to Balroa!”

“Don’t lie to me!”

“To what end?!” Scar demanded. “Think, man; I didn’t even know we were sailing to Wuulefroth until after Marlayne and Borta secured our transport! I have no business here. I have done nothing but help this crew to the best of my abilities. He asked for my help, so I followed him,” he yelled, pointing.

Chewing his bottom lip, Rook’s purple eyes darted around. “Chernish! Go get the wounded sailors, and bring them here. We’ll see what they have to say.”

The chief mate agreed, nabbed Etra and Labolas, and wandered off to where Scar had pointed. Some ten odd minutes passed during which Rook repeatedly yelled at his men to keep working. When the three returned with the injured, Labolas handed Scar his knife. Etra displayed the hatchets.

“Fong and the others certainly were after Scar,” Chernish affirmed.

Stomping over to inspect the Bakunawans, Rook bowed his head to reason. His friend added that Scar didn’t kill the other three, only Fong, but the captain then wondered why Scar was uninjured. He explained his healing capacity, and even offered to show it by cutting himself. Rook nodded, so the warrior slit his forearm, and within a matter of seconds, the scratch healed over.

“They tried to kill me,” he declared, “and he set it up,” he added, pointing his nose at Kagar.

“Well,” Rook asked the culprit. “Speak now, or I’ll have your tongue.”

The accused clenched his jaw rhythmically. His chest heaved irregularly, and he wiped perspiration from his brow.

“Alright,” he sighed, avoiding eye contact. “I didn’t know what it was about. Fong just asked me to lead Scar somewhere out of sight. I figured he wanted to rough him up. I swear…I, I didn’t know things would turn out this bad.”

Nodding, Rook walked up to his sailor and invaded his personal space. Though Rook was a short man, he was squat, powerful, and when he delivered a gut punch, the sailor dropped like a sack of dirt. Rook then smashed the heel of his boot into the man’s hip, before finally ripping him from the ground.

“To the brig!” He flung him into others, who took him and ran below deck. The captain leisurely approached the giant, and sniffed once. “Alright, mate. Sorry my crew behaved so poorly. Unfortunately, you cost me five sailors, and you’ll be paying for ‘em one way or another.”

“I am sure I can convince Borta to make restitution on my behalf. Will you be so kind as to allow me to keep passage?”

“Aye, get aboard and get to work.”

Scar nodded, and as he ran back aboard the brigantine, Rook once again yelled at his men to get back to work. Rather than engaging his friends, the warrior got busy loading supplies from Wuulefroth for transport to Balroa. By the time night settled in, and most of the deckhands went off to look for a night of romance, Borta walked up from the cabin.

“Trouble follows you around,” he remarked.

“What can I say?”

“To think they wanted you dead over a woman,” the prince trailed off to gaze out at the black sea.

“The heart wants what the heart wants, I guess.”

Borta snorted. Stretching his limbs and rubbing at his belly, Scar smiled and asked after his friend’s appetite. They moseyed on down to the galley for a bit of grub, where they ran into Etra.

“I’ll find us something hearty,” Borta said, leaving them.

“I’m sorry about Fong,” she said.

“Me, too; I didn’t want to kill him.” An awkward silence passed between them, though everyone else was drinking and singing. “Had he given you trouble before?”

“Not directly,” she replied, looking away. “He was never mean to me. He used to buy me things whenever we docked, but I always let him know I wasn’t interested in him…that way, you know? I have a rule; don’t get involved with people you work with. I didn’t think you were someone I worked with, so I figured I’d take a chance.”

“What do you mean,” he asked, slightly tilting his head.

Smiling and taking his wrist, she said, “I think you know what I mean.”

“I have someone, Etra, otherwise,” he grew quiet.

“Scar,” Borta called.

He turned to look. His friend held a large plate with roasted meats and vegetables, which he placed onto a small table. Then, he looked back to Etra.

“I know you have someone,” she said. “I just, I like you, too, and I wasn’t going to make it public or anything, but I guess Fong picked up on my intentions and got insanely jealous. For such a nice guy, I never expected him to act like that, though.”

“Maybe things just got out of hand,” Scar sighed. “Listen…I appreciate your friendship, but….”

“But you’re not interested in spending the night with me…are you?” she interrupted.

Smiling, he admitted that he was, but that love trumped lust. “I can’t betray my Ylithia.”

“She’ll never know.”

“I will.”

“If you ever change your mind, Scar,” she smiled and batted her eyelashes.

He gripped her shoulder in camaraderie before making his way to Borta, who just nodded. Scar braved a glance to where he had left Etra, but she was no longer in the galley. Finally, he took a seat. I certainly hope this is all the trouble I encounter.

“Thanks, so, we shove out tomorrow morning,” he asked.

“That is what they are saying.”

“Hey, there you are,” Labolas yowled.

“Labby,” Scar cheered. “Any word from Rook?”

“No, everything seems fine. You shouldn’t be so trusting,” he said, pulling out a chair.

“What was I supposed to do? A crewman asked me to help; no one could have foreseen that…foreseen….”

“Foreseen?” Labolas echoed.

“I think Fong was capable of seeing the future…at least in a manner of speaking.”

“Oh,” the archer asked, snatching a roasted carrot from Scar’s plate.

Borta looked at each in turn, yet he was preoccupied with the state of his beer stein. When he left to have it filled, Scar explained his statement—Fong was somehow privy to Etra’s intentions, and he was able to predict most of the attacks during the scuffle.

“So, you think these Bakunawans really can see the future?” Labolas arched a brow.

“I don’t know to what extent, exactly. I mean, whenever I’m fighting, I can guess an opponent’s moves—I think any experienced fighter can—but Fong seemed to be one step ahead of me, and if I weren’t the Dragon Slayer, he might have won.”

A flicker of surprise flashed over Labolas’s face. “You don’t say.”

“Well…I’m over exagerating; they did work me over pretty good, though.” The archer smiled at his friend’s reply. “Oh, that’s funny?”

“I uh, it’s your expression, and the fact that you’ve bested Dragons, but here you are thinking that some fat guy almost did you in.”

They shared a chuckle. Borta returned a second later with a beer for his friends. They thanked him in turn, but he gave a simple shrug of indifference.

Taking a breath, Labolas voiced a thought. “Since we’re here, we should compose a letter to Vamvos. We can explain our business, asking for a meeting in Closicus.”

“Why would you do such a thing?” Borta hissed.

“Considering what Chernish said, I’m inclined to believe he is not a bad person. He was once an ally of Sahni’s; there’s no reason for him to decline an invitation to peace with Longinus, Jagongo, and the new ruling bodies; such an alliance also weakens Hashnora’s power. Being Scultonian, I expected you to be on board with my idea,” Labolas replied.

“Don’t be foolish,” the prince barked. Labolas’s brow twitched as he pursed his lips in shocked offense. “Vamvos is our enemy. Even if he agreed to a peace talk, he is certainly shrewd enough to act as a double agent, bringing back word to Hashnora of our endeavors. Besides, he has thrown his lot in with the enemy, and we soon move to defeat his Dragon; what benefit is there to inviting him to Closicus?”

“Well, as I stated, I think he’s a decent ruler. There is no way to know that he wishes anything more than to protect his country, and if Scar can take Slibinas’s gem without bloodshed, all the better,” Labolas argued. “Do you not want Scar to take Scultone’s gem without bloodshed? I propose we invite Sirokai to this meeting as well.”

“Out of the question!” Borta slammed his fists on the table.

“Alright,” Labolas was aghast.

“Damn, Borta,” Scar remarked.

“Apologies,” he heaved, looking away, “but I will not tolerate brokering peace with Vamvos.”

“I was unaware you hated the Slibinish,” Scar said.

“I don’t, but if you want my continued assistance, you and your friend will drop the matter…excuse me,” the prince grunted and left.

Scar and Labolas looked at each other; they’re surprise was blatant. “Maybe you should hold off on that letter,” Scar suggested.

“Do you need his help so badly?”

“More than you know, I’m afraid….”

Chapter Twenty-Eight- A heart of stone

 

Weeks had passed since the events off Wuulefroth’s eastern coast, during which Scar and his crew were witness to a dreadful hail storm, but the seasoned sailors of the Bony Grin were unhindered. They navigated the treacherous waters straight to Balroa. By the time the death winds came into view, Shrikal joked that Scar was more fit to sail than fight, and that his healthy skin tone was proof of such.

The warrior had only ever been pale, but his skin had in fact darkened over the course of their travels. Though he was far lighter than any Kulshedran, he was yet darker than the Slibinish. Half in jest, Scar claimed that he was like a baby, and being less than a year old, he had simply required time to tan.

When Marlayne asked after his meaning, he reminded her that he had only come into existence just before he joined Zoltek’s soldiers. That led to a scant explanation regarding his origins, yet he omitted his contact with Eternus, stating only that he had been fashioned by unspeakable forces in order to destroy Dragons. She snapped at him, claiming such a thing was simply so farfetched, it bordered on the impossible.

“It makes no difference,” Borta commented. “He is here to kill the Dragons. That is enough.”

The Scultonian took the lead once they docked in Acrypha. The first order of business required Borta to lead Rook to the castle. Chernish accompanied them. Shrikal bid Atsuko safe journeys before joining the rest as they paraded down the grim streets of Balroa’s capitol. The foreigners kept their faces covered with cloth to prevent dust from entering their sinuses.

Under the light of torches, an hour of walking through the immense, bony city passed. They crossed over the bridge, moseyed beyond rows of guards, and stepped beneath the maw-like archway. Inside the keep, servants welcomed Borta’s return, and they were quick to offer the crew food and drink.

“Have a seat in the kitchen. They know to prepare whatever you wish,” Borta ordered.

“Where are you going,” Rook asked.

“To get your money!”

Scar chuckled as his friend marched down a set of stairs. “You know, before I met others, I thought all Scultonians were stiff.”

“No, just our Borta,” Marlayne laughed.

“I ought to charge him a jerk tax,” Rook joked.

They sat at a long table in the dining room adjoining the kitchen. Chandeliers provided a wavering ambience, and the streaks over the wood finish implied servants had recently wiped away dust. When the cooks offered their services, everyone agreed on lamb. For drinks, Scar and Labolas asked for ale, Shrikal declined alcohol, and the Scultonians asked for phantasm; when it was served, Scar saw it was the bluish drink he had tried during his first stay in the castle.

“Why is it called phantasm,” he pried.

“Why is ale called ale?” Rook fired back.

Smiling with incredulity, Scar only shrugged. Moments later, when succulent lamb was served, Borta stormed in with a silvery chest in tow. It was not a large container, no bigger than a pony keg, but when he dropped it onto the table, its heft was made evident. Rook pushed the lid open. Inside were numerous pieces of jewelry and even loose gems.

“This is worth what?” the captain demanded.

“At least two grand in gold coins.”

The captain removed his hat and held it before him as he looked up to the ceiling, obviously making calculations. Chernish leaned over and whispered something to him. They muttered back and forth for a moment.

“Where’s King Sirokai,” Rook eventually asked.

“It is four in the morning. He’s asleep,” he barked, taking a seat to eat.

“And who exactly are you that you can just go and grab this kind of loot in his stead?”

The prince looked up from his plate. Everyone was staring at him.

“I work for the king. That is all you need to know.”

Rook laughed openly and agreed. He then made a toast to new friends, crazy adventures, and a prosperous future. In the middle of scarfing down juicy meat, he asked after Scar’s plans.

“I’m just here to pick up a friend. We’ve some business with the king’s court, and then I have to visit some people in Nabalhi.”

“And this is all regarding Dragons, eh?”

“In a manner of speaking; I guess since Chernish is a paladin, you have probably heard all kinds of stories….”

“That I have, that I have, and I must say, if all this business of slaying Dragons is real then I wish you the best of luck. I can’t say I like the idea of these craven beasts manipulating people against their better judgment.”

Conversations drifted to Rook’s plans. He was giving his crew a few days to relax before sailing to Usaj. There, he planned on having his ship refitted for sails and rigging.

“The Usajan shipwrights know a thing or two about sails,” he said.

“Usajan? You mean Zmajan,” Marlayne corrected.

“They can’t really be Zmajan anymore, can they? Zmaj, the Dragon, is dead, right, Scar?” Rook chuckled.

Shrugging, he nodded.

“I kind of like it,” Shrikal said. “I was Zmajan before I became a paladin, and now, Usajan.”

“I suppose that makes me Satronian,” Labolas added. “We do refer to it as the Satronian government, after all….”

“Wow,” Marlayne mused. “With all the Dragons dead, we should rethink how we refer to ourselves; fun to think of myself as Closic.”

Scar smiled. “Look at us; a Closic woman, a Satronian man, an Usajan, and three, um, Balroans?”

“Sounds right to me,” Chernish snickered.

They started joking about the other tribes. Shrikal laughed at the thought of having to call the wind and water people Zetsurans and Jinshukese. Labolas called out Wuuls for the Slibinish, and Scar added Eltans for the former Dracos. Borta just shook his head. Once fatigue settled over full bellies, the prince asked the servants to see everyone to a room.

With smiles on their faces, they thanked their visitors for joyous conversations and led them out the kitchen, through the throne room, and up flights of stairs. In a hall called the guest wing, where more servants swept, they showed each their respective room. All alone, and with a mighty yawn, Scar stretched out on a soft bed, and within a matter of seconds, he was sound asleep.

He came to with a scratchy throat. Coughing, he rolled over and squeezed his eyes tight. Then he noticed it was rather warm. When he opened his eyes, he also noticed voices from far below. The early morning supper with his friends popped in his memory, and a chuckle escaped his lips. After standing out of bed, he scratched his rump, peeked out the window to witness a murky day, and plodded out of the room.

“Hey.”

“Are you ready,” Borta asked.

“Sure.”

The prince’s eyes were a bit baggy. He looked a little disheveled, too; Scar saw the back of his hair was matted. Evidently, he woke up only recently and had come looking for the warrior, who then asked after the others.

“I just got up,” he grumbled.

“Okay,” Scar shrugged.

They trudged down the torch lit hall to another door. Borta knocked a few times. Marlayne mumbled something incoherent. As they kept on walking, the Scultonian pointed to another door, so Scar banged on it.

“I’m up, I’m up,” Labolas yelled.

Shrikal poked his bald head from his room. “Morning, or…nooning, I should say.”

Shaking his head in amusement Scar arched an eyebrow. “How did you sleep?”

“Better in a bed.”

By the time Borta knocked on Rook’s and Chernish’s door, Labolas had joined the group. “Today’s the big day, eh?”

“It’ll take us a while to reach Kiechiv’s home,” Scar replied. “Probably, tomorrow’s the big day, but I am excited.”

The archer smiled at his friend. Rook came stumbling out from his room; he was trying to put his tricorn on his head, but judging by the creases and folds, he had slept with it on, so he punched the inside to fluff out the top.

“There we are,” he said, driving it on with a twisting motion.

A moment later, Chernish and Marlayne joined everyone in the hall. Some servants walked by, smiling. Borta rubbed his face and said something to one of them. The young man ran back the way he came.

“Come, let us have breakfast,” the prince yawned.

In the kitchen, they found silver platters of scones, tarts, and buns. Everyone helped themselves to treats and tea. Then, Chernish asked if they had a moment to spare in order to be seen off. Heaving a sigh of exhaustion, Borta rolled his eyes.

“Of course, friend.”

“Well, you don’t seem too happy about it,” Marlayne snipped.

He shot her a wicked glare, causing her to laugh. Kindly, she patted his shoulder.

“You are unaware it is deadly impolite to reject an invitation,” Chernish said.

“You mean for Scultonians,” Scar pried. He nodded. “You didn’t seem to mind blowing off Lorna,” he said to Borta.

“When?” he snapped.

“When we were in Genova,” Scar said, looking him askance.

“Oh, that. That was different; she didn’t invite me, she tried to grab me and take me with you. I call that deadly impolite,” he said, and hid a smile by stuffing his face.

Having concluded gnoshing, everyone marched from the castle to the docks. Along the way, they passed scores of people. Scar saw a woman of an undetermined tribe wearing a gray outfit with a red sash. Taking Borta’s arm—the prince seized up with an expression of indignation—the warrior pointed with his eyes and asked after who she was. Once he pulled his arm free from the giant’s grasp, he said he didn’t know everyone in Acrypha by name.

“Is she some sort of paladin?” he demanded.

“I don’t think so.”

“Who,” Labolas and Shrikal asked.

Chernish and Rook also turned to look.

“Her, I, she’s gone. This is the fourth time I’ve seen someone dressed like that. They have all been rather slippery as well,” Scar stated.

No one knew anything. There’s something going on, the warrior thought. Even if these people aren’t paladins, they don’t look like any particular tribe. She didn’t look Zmajan or Fafnirian, but who knows? Maybe they’re a different kind of organization, a new one.

Past the bridge, the debris in the air forced the foreigners to cover their faces. Numerous civilians jogged across the road, running their errands. A gray boy was shouting about states of affair in Eltanrof. He stood by a post. Beside his feet was a stack of parchments weighed down with stones.

“Have they chosen a new ruler,” Marlayne asked her friends.

“We can grab the ledger on our way back,” Borta replied.

“Hey, it’s your friend,” Labolas said to Shrikal.

“Atsuko?” he called out.

She was running towards them. “Hey, yourself. What are you all doing?”

“Just here to see everyone off,” he smiled and hugged her.

She stood on her toes to kiss him then said, “Oh, all right. I was just running into town to buy some nails, but it can wait.”

They reached the bony slips in silence. Everyone turned to face one another; dozens of ships lined the panorama. Behind them all, the vessels stood like oil paintings against a moving backdrop of brownish air.

“Labolas, Marlayne, and Shrikal,” Rook said, slowly. “I thank you for your hard work and good will. Borta, you paid up handsomely. I hope you put in a good word for me with the king, and thank him on my behalf.” The prince nodded. “Scar…I think we’re square.”

“I’m sorry about what happened in Wuulefroth.”

The captain raised his hand, and frowning, he shook his head, dismissively. “Like I said, we’re square.” He then smiled. “Good luck with the beasts.”

“Be well, friends,” Chernish added. “My life has been made richer in your presence.”

“Sail swiftly,” Scar said.

“Goodbye,” Marlayne added.

“Keep your wits about you,” Labolas told Chernish.

Shrikal was too busy kissing his friend to pay them much attention. When they pulled their faces apart, he waved to the Scultonians. Then, Atsuko waved to Scar and his crew before dashing into the city to find nails.

On their way back to Magnum Mortis, while Labolas gave Shrikal the business and joked about cutting Atsuko’s lips with his sharpened teeth, Marlayne stopped by the Scultonian boy to grab a ledger, but she wasn’t able to hold it open and read it as she was also holding a cloth to her face. Borta took it from her. He scanned it, saying that among the news of multiple tribes losing their blessing was an article regarding Closicus, and the emperor lending his wisdom to help the struggling government of Eltanrof; Longinus promised to help keep the Dracos’ borders protected if the new ruler lent support against a future attack on the soil of any of the united countries.

“So, they don’t have a new king or queen yet,” Scar stated.

“If Longinus is already involved, it doesn’t matter who takes the crown,” Marlayne said. “The people of Eltanrof need support, and it’s wiser to accept Longinus’s aid than Hashnora’s or anyone else’s.”

Discussion revolved around the likelihood of who was to take the crown. One of them stated it was going to be Donovan’s sister. Someone else said it was more likely her mother. Scar didn’t pay much attention. He was more concerned with seeing Kiechiv.

By late evening, they reached Borta’s sailboat. The servant they saw in the hallway when they first rose had been waiting. He gave out satchels with rations and helped them pile in before wishing them a safe trip.

Scar and Shrikal took hold of paddles. Borta manned the tiller about an hour out to sea. The water wasn’t overly choppy, neither was the wind extraordinarily potent. Another hour of sailing passed then two. Everyone was in a fine mood.

“It is fun to spend time together without the pretense of fighting Dragons, isn’t it,” Scar asked.

“I certainly look to the day when all the countries can be as peaceful as Closicus, or Balroa, for that matter,” Marlayne commented.

“It looks promising,” Labolas added. “It might not be today or tomorrow, but this is a wonderful time to be alive and among fine company.”

“There is still much to be done, and even more once all the Dragons are dead,” Borta said.

His morose demeanor brought them all down for only a moment. In an effort to cheer everyone up, Labolas let out a fart. Shrikal fired one off in reply, and that was followed by a round of laughter.

“Must you all be so juvenile,” Marlayne pretended to chastise them, yet her tone belied amusement.

It was pitch black before they left the coast of Acrypha. Scar offered the light of Gyo to guide their way, but the Scultonian stated he saw well enough, and that he used the moon’s glow to navigate. Looking up, the moon itself was not visible, but her glow shone through the death wind. The prince added that beyond the death wind, the islet was visible at night.

True to his word, Borta rammed the shore. Scar and Shrikal hopped out to drag the boat free from the tide. He then held his blade overhead, and it ignited with a wavering radiance.

“Now, I can use this thing,” he laughed.

Everyone was mesmerized by the magical light, but the prince demanded they begin their journey through darkened caverns. It was a much easier trip than their first endeavor; Borta knew the way. They made no wrong turns and stopped only once to eat, drink, and catch their breath. The morning sun also aided them as swaths of light cut through the cracked ceilings, revealing dusty air. Late in the morning, fatigue set in, and they camped in the same, corralled expanse the explorers discovered their first time through.

Among an aria of birdsongs, the travelers ate and drank. Using their packs or clothes for a bit of comfort, they sprawled out onto the rocky ground, and passed out.

 

****

 

Scar stood before a Paladin of Mekosh. “I have seen you before….”

He tried to get a look at his surroundings, but somehow, his attention was diverted, trapped by the ominous figure. The knight, whoever it was, didn’t so much as stir. Moonlight reflected off filigree.

Who are you? What is this?”

He heard the figure exhale. Its breathing became erratic and overly loud. Then, mist poured forth from the shadowed slits of the helmet. White puffs shout out like frozen breath.

Answer me!”

Scar raged and tried to step forth, to grab hold of the figure, but he was glued to the ground. He wasn’t even able to look at his hands or move his eyes; everything was just present, or rather what little was revealed was all there was to witness.

I’m dreaming again…but what kind of dream is this?”

Suddenly, the figure before him fell apart like shattered glass. The armor never hit the ground. It simply vanished, leaving only a misty swirl.

Are you Mekosh?” Scar whispered.

The mist lurched forwards, engulfing the warrior, who was unable to move, and with a pang of fright, he took a deep inhalation. Mist entered his mouth, his nostrils, his sinuses, and his lungs, forcing him to expand with such pain, he screamed.

 

****

 

“Hey! What is it? What happened?” Labolas was clearly spooked.

He was staring wide eyed at Scar. Then, the giant noticed everyone was looking at him. He wiped his mouth and stood up.

“Nothing; I had an odd dream, nothing more.”

“That was some shriek,” Marlayne said.

Chuckling, he apologized. Labolas and Shrikal both maintained their gaze upon him. He eyed one then the other.

“It was nothing, but if I have awakened everyone, we might as well get a move on.”

They agreed. It was just after noon and quite warm. Borta took the lead again, maneuvering beyond sharp rocks and brambles, and moments later, they reached the clearing where Kiechiv lived, yet something was amiss.

Scar dashed over to a Tiamatish corpse. Vultures squawked and flew away. The carcass was mostly eaten, yet dark skin graced with green patterns was unmistakable. A dozen yards from the corpse was another one, heaped against the side of the hovel—a bony dagger in its rotted grip. Then, as Scar looked to his left, horror struck him at his core. Something like a painful vibration rattled his bones, and he slumped to his knees. His friends came to him, placing their hands on his shoulders. A gray figure was bent over; most of the body was encased by stone as though it had been molded clay.

“Kiechiv?” Scar whispered.

Borta inspected the corpse by lifting its face. The old man’s eyes were missing, and his throat was slashed.

“What has happened?” Scar gasped in a faltering tone. Labolas started to say something. “They killed him!” The warrior raged and forced himself to his feet. He ran around, searching like an animal crazed. There was another, Tiamatish corpse hanging from jagged boulders, dead. A bony axe sat on the ground. “Jagongo did this!”

“Don’t jump to conclusions, Scar,” Labolas yelled.

“Jump to conclusions?! Look around you!”

They tried to placate him, to no avail. He shoved past the archer, nearly knocked over Marlayne, and forcibly pulled Borta from the corpse. He knelt to look over the dead Scultonian, and looking up to Borta, he demanded he use his powers to find out what happened.

Exhaling, the prince obliged. He touched the back of Kiechiv’s head, which was little more than bone and loose hair. A second later, he removed his hand to look at Scar.

“Well?” He demanded. Borta shook his head. “You see? Oh, Gods, what I!” He stumbled about, gripping his head as tears flooded him. His stomach wrenched and churned with the realization that his sweet Ylithia was forever gone, and finally, he brought both hands to his mouth in an effort to stifle a whimper. Marlayne touched his back. “Get off of me,” he growled. “Jagongo…Tiamat! Raaargh!”

In an inconsolable fury, he tore away from his friends, scrambled up the jagged boulders, and started climbing his way to a plateau.

“Scar!” Labolas called.

“Where are you going?” Borta yelled.

“Come back, Scar,” Marlayne pleaded.

Shrikal, instead, took off after his friend and scurried up the rocks. The others were incapable of such a feat, and they pleaded, and they begged, but the warrior was a man distraught, truly mad, and he ran with all his might.

“Where are you going?!” Shrikal demanded.

“Where do you think?!”

“I think you’re going to kill Tiamat!”

“You’re damn right!”

“But Scar,” the paladin huffed. He staggered over a loose stone, yet maintained pace with the giant. “You don’t have to go alone. Let’s figure this out!”

“There is nothing to figure out. I am sick of figuring out!” He stopped to stare at his friend. The look in his eye brought a sense of utter dread unto the paladin. “Go back to the others. I alone with kill them!”

“Who? Scar, wait!” he called, but the warrior took off again. “The ship is the other way!”

“I don’t need a ship! I’ll swim there!”

Deciding that his friend was simply too angry to abide by reason, Shrikal followed all the way to a cliff. Hundreds of feet below them, waves slapped pointed rocks. Scar took a breath, and closing his eyes, he lifted his face to the hazy sky.

“Scar,” Shrikal pleaded. “I am your friend, and I am with you to the end.”

“You don’t–”

“Shut up! Just, shut up!”

Scar turned with a look of incredulity. Shrikal was grinding his teeth.

“Stop telling me I don’t need to come! I do! I must! That’s what friends do for one another! They do not let them go off on their own to do Gods knows what! We are in this together!”

Tears stung both their eyes. Slowly, the warrior nodded.

“Good,” the young man said. “Now, there’s probably a better way to do this. Let’s get the others–”

“This is my fight! I won’t tell you not to come, but I am going off this cliff, and I’m stealing a ship. No more piddling around. The Dragons and their ilk have ruined what little life I’ve had time and again. This ends now. No more planning. No more diplomacy. No more good will…I see it now…what he was trying to tell me.”

“Who?” Shrikal was perplexed.

“Mekosh. They must be dealt with, and with a hand of severity.”

Scar took two steps back, nodded to Shrikal, who shrugged in disbelief, and dashed forwards before leaping from the cliff. With wide eyes and clenched jaw, he careened ever downwards, the wind rushing up his nose. With a mighty splash, he sank into the darkened waters of Balroa, yet he pushed and kicked, and when he broke from the frigid waters, he saw his friend a dozen feet away.

“You’re crazy!” Shrikal said.

“I am resolved!”

Swimming against the undulating force of the sea, Scar had little choice but to relinquish pieces of his armor. His boots sank. His pauldrons washed away. His chest plate and gauntlet were left behind, but his hardened gaze locked onto the western horizon. With all their might, two friends pushed their bodies to the limit.

Chapter Twenty-Nine- The voice of sobriety

 

An unholy retching resounded. There was only a dark swirl overhead. Confusion worked through Scar’s mind. Then, the weird sound occurred again, demanding his attention; when he looked, he saw an immense, mangy wolf before him. Its gray tongue protruded, and its eyes looked in different directions. Scrambling back into the water, the giant spotted a Scultonian atop the rotting creature. Beside him were two more.

“I guess we found ‘em,” one soldier said to another.

Trying to comprehend the situation, the warrior scrutinized his environment. Obviously, I swam to a rocky shore and passed out. Shrikal was sprawled out a dozen feet away, his feet wet from lapping waves. Groaning as he struggled to right himself, he noticed then it was rather bright, if hazy. Finally, he was seized by a sneezing fit, resulting in gales of laughter from the three soldiers astride their grim mounts.

“C’mon, Scar,” one of the soldiers extended an armored hand. “Borta sent us ta’ find you and the boy.”

“What?”

“Yeah, he come back to the castle all flustered. He said you ran off. Then, your pals suggested you were crazy enough to brave the sea.”

“Oh, right…right!”

The realization that Ylithia was forever gone struck him again. A painful hole in his guts felt like his entrails were pulled out, but then he wondered if defeating more Dragons might increase the powers of someone like Borta, or Sirokai, someone powerful enough to perform the impossible.

“Hey, what’re you doin’? C’mon, now. Let’s go,” the soldier demanded.

“You expect me to ride that dead wolf?”

“It’s not a wolf. It’s a vargr, and it can’t hurt you.”

“It stinks.”

“Look,” the soldier grew intolerant, “we was ordered to pick you up, now get on, and let’s go!”

Scar walked over to Shrikal and shook him. The paladin slowly awakened and asked after their location. The warrior only guessed they had conked out as soon as they hit the shore somewhere near Acrypha.

“Who are they?” Shrikal was aghast.

“I don’t know. Borta’s men, I guess, come on.”

Containing their ambivalence, the friends mounted the vargrs and held on to their rescuers’, plated armor. The soldiers yoked on reins, spun the deathly beasts, and rode down the shore at an uncanny rate of speed. In an effort to keep their noses clear, and repel the putrid stench of death, Scar held a hand over his face, and Shrikal wrapped his toga over his. Wherever they were, not only was it extraordinarily dusty, but night settled over the land before the glows of torches broke the veil of darkness; after plowing over rocky terrain, the soldiers finally halted between a tower and a long, rectangular, low roofed building.

“Off here, mates,” the soldier ordered. “Follow the walk to the tower. There’s a hallway leads directly into the castle.”

The soldiers rode off for the long building, which had an immense opening at its far end. The wretched howls of more vargrs emanating from the structure made the friends cringe, but they strolled down the stone path to the tall, bony tower, entered, followed the light of skull shaped sconces down the austere hall, and popped into the throne room from the end opposite the one Borta had taken just days prior, the end leading to the private dock.

“There isn’t anyone here,” Shrikal mumbled. Frowning, Scar looked around. The two met eyes. “No need to be embarrassed….”

“Embarrassed?!”

The warrior’s accusing shout drew the attention of a servant, an old woman. She walked over, asking after their business. Scar relayed they were brought in by the soldiers. Nodding profusely, the hook nosed woman shuffled off.

“I am not embarrassed,” Scar mumbled. “I was, am, upset by what I’ve witnessed, and I wouldn’t even consider speaking to Borta or anyone else, but…I recall what you said before we jumped, and the fact that you jumped, well…maybe I do need a little more patience.”

“A little more trust in your friends,” the paladin smiled. “No man needs to go through life on his own. Let’s confer with everyone and reason out the best course of action.”

“There you are,” Marlayne yelled, coming down from stairs. “What the Hell did you think you were doing?!”

“I,” he trailed off.

As the Fafnirian reprimanded him for his rash and calloused behavior, Borta and Labolas descended. Everyone yelled over everyone else, and all of them berated him for his outburst. While they understood his feelings, they felt spurned by his repudiation of their feelings on the same matter.

“It is my love that has been taken from me,” he argued.

“She is not the only one you love, nor was she the only one who loved you,” Marlayne said with firmly pointed finger.

“She’s right,” Labolas declared. “You abandoned your friends once. You promised not to do so again, but here you are; every time something doesn’t go your way, you feel it necessary to give in to your rage. There are other ways…you might trust us enough to express how you feel….”

“I,” he sighed. “I had not considered that.”

“And you,” Marlayne growled, turning her finger towards Shrikal. He stepped back, looking around. “You just chased after him!”

“I didn’t have much of a choice.”

“Leave him alone,” Scar’s smile belied acceptance. “I’m here mostly because of him. I know the rest of you wanted to chase me as well.”

“Yes, well,” the Fafnirian waved her hand about, dismissively.

“Enough, everyone,” Borta started. “You are back. Good.”

“How did you know?” Scar interrupted.

“We knew you were foolish enough to try and swim for the mainland, so we ran back to the boat. Since it was too dark to see anything at the time, I sailed back here and sent the guards to patrol the shores. Even you aren’t strong enough to swim away from Balroa, and had you survived, the southeastern shoals are the only place to wash ashore,” he said with an arched brow. “The vargrs are quick, so you haven’t lost much time. At any rate, you will take a ship back to Aldurstun. It leaves now, so you had better hurry.”

Furrowing his brow, he looked everyone over. “You are not coming?”

“I am needed here…I hope you understand.”

“I’ll be staying as well, I’m afraid,” Marlayne added. Nodding, Scar agreed that was wise, that no one needed to endanger the fragile peace for which they were suffering. “I’m staying because Longinus is due to arrive soon,” she clarified. “Otherwise, I would be going with you.”

“At least you have me and the boy,” Labolas smiled.

Shrikal rolled his eyes. “Where is this ship,” Scar asked.

“The docks, obviously,” the archer snipped.

Shaking his head and wincing, the warrior maintained eye contact with the prince, who stated there was a trade ship docked by the name of Cloudrunner, a Draco vessel. Labolas added that it was easy to spot, and that enough time had been wasted. They said their farewells, wished each other good luck, and made claims to reunite before long, yet Scar remained still, leering at them.

“Scultone’s gem,” he finally said.

“Don’t you want to find out who sent the Tiamatish,” Shrikal asked.

“Of course, I do! Still…the deal was for you to speak to Sirokai, and hand over the gem upon the death of Drac,” he said to Borta.

“Yes,” the Scultonian nodded. “That was the deal, but things have changed, have they not? I can try to get it for you, but I must wait for my liege’s meeting with Longinus to conclude. You will return after visiting Malababwe, true?”

“I suppose….”

“In the meantime,” Borta added, looking to the archer, “don’t do anything to jeopardize the emperor’s good will.”

“We will see you soon, Scar,” Marlayne smiled.

Nodding, he said, “Alright; I must maintain my sobriety…there is more at stake than my love for a woman. I am here to help you all secure peace.”

Even though his words were sound, his stern expression, heaving chest, and clenching jaws indicated a man on the edge of an abyss, the edge of madness. The archer’s brows raised and lowered as he pointed towards the exit with his eyes. Begrudgingly, the warrior took a deep inhalation and began the march from Magnum Mortis.

“That’s the spirit,” Labolas cheered, giving his friend a pat on the shoulder. “Now, c’mon, I know where the ship is,” he added, jogging past the giant.

The journey from the castle to the docks seemed to Scar only a few steps. His mind was a swirling chaos, barely staying emotions. At the docks, they met the Cloudrunner’s captain, a pudgy woman covered in heated brands. She was a friend of a friend of a friend, who knew Sirokai, and had agreed, for a hefty sum, to sail the passengers to Aldurstun, no questions asked. Aboard the caravel, they were all shown to hammocks in the cabin. Shrikal went right to sleep.

“Two weeks to sail, and Gods knows how long to reach Osumba,” Scar grumbled.

“Hey,” Labolas whispered. “Let me first say that I’m very sorry about all this.” Immediately, the warrior wept, burying his face in his hands. “I know…but listen, as soon as we dock at Aldurstun, we’ll ride to River Rock, and take the Plume into Malababwe.”

Wiping his eyes and taking a breath, Scar stated he was happy to see Mindy again. His friend told him to keep it together for her sake, but that for the next two weeks, he was free to rage and weep as much as he liked, as much as he needed. The warrior then demanded to know what Jagongo had to gain by killing Kiechiv, how she had even known where to find him, and who else was to benefit from such a travesty.

“It is clear he was killed to keep me from having Ylithia brought back to life!”

“I think you’re right,” Labolas nodded. “Let’s trace this back to the beginning. Sahni claimed he was capable of working his magic to revive Ylithia. She knew about him, and she sent you after him. She must have known–”

“Wait a minute!” The warrior came to his feet. His eyes were fierce, twinkling from torchlight. “Could she be the one behind this? Is this reprisal for killing Munir and Gyo?!”

Labolas shrugged. “There’s a strong possibility that is the case.”

“But why send Tiamatish? How? There is no way to do so without Jagongo’s permission, is there?”

Shaking his head, his friend remained uncertain. “It does seem unlikely. Sahni had no benevolent relations with the Tiamatish until recently, so it’s safe to assume they are reticent in serving her, but that doesn’t mean Jagongo sent them either. They could have been a rogue squadron, even mercenaries for hire, or possibly, they were an auxiliary force lent to Sahni for causes she kept secret. Besides, the knowledge we’re missing is who killed them. Kiechiv may have killed on or two of them, but that–”

“With his power, I’m sure he did kill them. By killing even one, he can animate the deceased and sic him at the others. They probably suffered mortal wounds before slitting his throat,” Scar replied, plunking back down into the hammock.

“Okay, well that’s fine, but still…in retrospect, I should have asked Borta to check their corpses. Perhaps there was a way to know who sent them.”

Scar furrowed his brow. “You’re right. He knows how to read the dead’s final thoughts….”

“Who is he,” Labolas asked, dryly.

“What?”

“Borta, who is he, really?”

Fidgeting with his fingers, Scar looked to the floorboards. He experienced an internal struggle, a dilemma; he wanted to tell his best friend the truth, but on the other hand, he didn’t want to betray Borta’s trust.

“I know who he really is,” he finally admitted. “He asked me not to reveal his identity, though, and I have no desire to be disloyal….”

“Knowing who he is might help me unveil who is behind this attack.”

“Is there another way?”

“Sure,” the archer said, scratching the hair on his throat. “I can contact some of my father’s associates and wait to hear back from them. They might know about a small group of Tiamatish traveling to Balroa.”

“Well, do that then. Send a letter to Borta as well asking him to check the corpses. We all overlooked such a maneuver, but if he can shed light on this matter, we’ll know what to do.”

Labolas agreed. They grew silent, afterwards. Each reclined in their hammock, waiting for sleep to descend, and for two weeks to drift on by.

Chapter Thirty- A thing greater than ourselves

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A bleak journey from Balroa to Eltanrof brought Scar no solace. He tried to press Labolas for a solution, one that allowed him the luxury of killing enough Dragons to empower the Scultonians to a point where others were capable of performing a resurrection. The archer believed it was possible, yet he maintained a need to continue serving Sahni’s plans. Scar wondered if those plans were still in effect.

“For now, we should proceed as if they were; Sahni told you to return upon killing Donovan,” Labolas stated as they walked from the docks to the Broken Barrel.

Due to the extremely early hour, the tavern was mostly empty, and a heavy set woman showed them a seat before taking their orders. Slumping into a cushioned booth, the sojourners eyed one another by the dim light of candles.

“Shouldn’t we go to Malababwe?” Shrikal interjected, rubbing at the short hair growing on his head.

“Well,” Labolas tapped his scar, musing. “Let me send those correspondences. I’ll try to find out if anyone knows anything about the states of affairs. We need to know whether or not Sahni is out for your blood, who those strange people are you’ve been seeing everywhere, and who those Tiamatish were.

“You know, the more I think about it, the more inclined I am to believe that this is some sort of plot engendered by Hashnora. Not only does he gain by turning you against Jagongo, but an act of war against her provokes everyone who has been united. Let’s assume that Jagongo did not send them, that they were hired men; Jagongo will argue innocence, yet the possibility still creates dissonance within the united forces, and if you were to buy in to the ruse, thus going raving mad and cutting everyone down, the allied front shatters, leaving Hashnora with little resistance and Sahni at his mercy.”

“You make it sound as though Hashnora is the mastermind behind everything. It suggests he really can see the future,” Scar proposed. “Do we know anything about him, his country, or what he’s plotting?”

“We are going to find out.”

The warrior dropped his face into his hands. Clanking plates brought a moment’s respite. Upon smelling succulent pheasant, his stomach growled, and he devoured the bird. Eating and sharing rounds of ale with Labolas, he momentarily forgot about their predicament. Noticing that Shrikal partook of no spirits, he asked why. The paladin revealed that no followers of perseverance imbibed alcohol or used drugs of any kind.

“Didn’t you make that tea that helped me to heal?”

“I did,” he smiled, dubiously. “You drank it, though. I didn’t.”

“So you don’t take medicine either,” Labolas pried.

The young man shook his head. The other two shrugged and ordered more ale. An hour later, as the sun started to rise, they meandered through the city, bought quill and parchment, and stopped at the town square by the fountain, where Labolas wrote a letter asking his father’s contacts to shed some light on their tribulations. Then, he offered Scar the quill to write his letter for Borta.

“I…I am unsure of what to ask.”

“Just be sincere. Express how you feel,” Shrikal said.

Nodding, he agreed, and wrote his thanks for friendship before asking Borta to check the corpses of the deceased. He ended it mentioning he was staying with Artimis until a return letter was received. Upon completion, they found a courier, paid the young man, who appeared rather displeased with the trio, and finally, they marched to the stables to rent horses from McCormick.

“We’ll have them back without rudders hitched to their arses,” Labolas joked.

“Mm-hm,” the aging Eltan nodded.

The archer noted he wasn’t as jovial as he had been months ago. He asked about business as a boy saddled the mounts. McCormick said everything was fine, but he gave Scar a tiresome look. Finally, as the travelers hopped into their respective saddles, he added that he was conflicted; the Gyosh had lost their powers, but the people of Sudai were supposedly joining the forces of Closicus, which made him question how his people felt about endangering themselves for those same forces.

“You’re referring to Longinus asking everyone to come together in an effort to fight Hashnora and his allies,” Labolas asked. McCormick nodded while rubbing his bearded cheeks. “Well…let me say this; since the Kulshedrans and Zmajans are joining forces with Longinus, Hashnora has nothing to offer your people, yet he must ask them to fight while surrounded by enemies. Even if you don’t agree with Longinus, even if you have hatred for the Gyosh, consider that joining Hashnora means fighting enemies along your border. Hasn’t there been enough, senseless death?”

“You think Longinus won’t send us out ta’ fight? My idiot grandson is already talkin’ ‘bout scrappin’ with the Slibinish; those book nosed Fafnirians won’t raise a sword against Hashnora. They’ll make the people without powers fight first,” he spat. “This is all thanks ta’ him an’ killin’ Drac an’ Donovan!”

“Everyone was already fighting before I raised my sword,” Scar said. “At least now, there is a chance for peace. What did you have before I started killing Dragons?”

“You and your talk o’ Dragons,” the Eltan accused. “I’ve half a mind ta’ keep those horses an’ throw yer’ coin back in yer’ face!”

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

The stable owner chortled, giving Scar a derisive look. Then, he chuckled, and finally, he leaned back, supporting his girth against a post while he let out a belly laugh. Labolas tapped the warrior’s shoulder, motioning for them to ride out. They bade the stable owner farewell before trotting down the dirt road to the center of town.

Amidst dewy, wooden homes glistening from golden rays of the morning sun, many eyes of all colors fell upon Scar’s, troubled countenance. Lost in thought, he and his compatriots squeezed their horses’ flanks and galloped past scores of men and women in vibrant kilts and dresses. The haggard faces of former Dracos were indicative of their knowledge that it was the Dragon Slayer who had not only felled their king, but robbed them of their powers.

Riding out of town down the damp trail flanked by leafy bushes, they soon came alongside an extent of the peat, which had accumulated over centuries of the nearby river’s cresting. Under a sky quickly clouding, they reached the River Barness and followed it over rocky hills surrounding River Rock. Skirting the town’s perimeter in silence, they occasionally leapt over slat fences, scaring the sheep of farm owners. Beyond the farms, and back on the trail, Labolas cut between the stones and cypresses marking the path to Artimis’s barn.

He grew cautious and pulled back on the reins, pointing out that their way was perilous for the horses. Everyone made careful not to veer from the tufts of brownish grasses. As always, dogs barked once riders broke from the shade of cypress boughs. Artimis came out from his barn; he held a bloody cloth to his hand.

“Oi, you’re back,” he cheered, but he recognized there was no woman among them. “Things didn’t go as planned, eh,” he asked, morosely.

Everyone dismounted and tied their horses off. The Eltan received his guests, led them into the barn, and yelled for Mindy. She tottered in and ran to Scar. He picked her up and gave her a big hug.

“No, I’m afraid things did not go as planned,” Scar said. He pulled Mindy away, and as they left the barn, talking about her stay with Artimis, the others told of recent transgressions. “How’s Uncle Arty?”

“He’s always busy now. He’s building a new digi, diribigible?”

“Dirigible,” Scar chuckled. “And Aunty Gert?”

“She was here a lot, but she went to her da’s home to check on Princess,” she smiled while they circled the barn.

“Who’s Princess?”

“Our horsie!”

“Oh, right. Her leg is all better now?”

“Mm-hm,” Mindy nodded. “Are you back for good?”

They stopped. Scar took a knee and held her shoulders. Smiling sadly, he pushed strands of copper hair from her face.

“I’ll be here for a while. Labolas, Shrikal, and I are waiting for some letters. When we get them, we’ll know where to go and what to do, but until then, you and I can do anything you want to do. Say, do you know if anyone found your family?” When he asked, she looked down to the ground, and chewing her lip, she shook her head. “Well, that’s okay, I’m your family, and so are Artimis and Gertrude. How does that sound?”

She smiled, so he patted her head, hugged her, and stood up, extending his hand. They walked around a little more, speaking of learning to read, write, and count. She also helped Artimis keep his tools clean, and she helped Gertrude with cooking and washing clothes. Finally, they reached the barn’s entrance again, where the Eltan was sucking his bleeding knuckles.

“Tools get away from you?” Scar joked. Waving his hand apathetically, he revealed he had smashed his hands between splintery boards. “That is a shame. Anyway, I suppose everyone is all caught up. I hope we’re not imposing.”

“Imposing?! Don’t be daft. While the three o’ you are here, you can all help me build the frame for my new vessel,” Artimis laughed. “So…you’re alright, lad?”

“What can I say?” he shrugged. “I have to do what I have to do, but we’re going to try to learn what happened, and what I can do to,” he stopped short and looked at the little girl, “to fix the situation.”

“Sure.”

“Mindy, honey, go play with the dogs for a second,” Scar said. Once she darted off, he turned to Artimis. “She said you haven’t found her family.”

“That’s uh, not exactly true, but some fibs are made for children,” the pilot replied, dabbing his hand with the cloth. “I found her uncle, but he’s not the sort o’ bloke you want her going off with, right?”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s a drunk, always getting in fights, can’t keep a job. I figured with my big, empty house and Gertrude always coming around, she’s better off here. Plus, when all this is done, you’ll be around.”

Scar looked to Shrikal and Labolas. They knew there was a strong chance that wasn’t the case. With the death of all the Dragons, the warrior was to return from whence he came.

“Right,” he smiled. “I’ll be around.”

“In any event,” Artimis started, “We’re all doing fine here.”

“I heard. Mindy also said you’re building a new vessel.”

“Aye, got a pence for her, and the fellow commissioned the dirigible is excited to start trading from coast to coast. Before too long, I imagine the sky’ll be covered by men poised on the winds. O’course, what I need is labor; need to run into town and hire a few blokes.”

They all agreed it sounded promising. After chewing the fat about lesser concerns; crop yields, weather, and local politics, they closed up shop, made for the dining room, and ate a late dinner by candlelight. Once Scar put Mindy to bed, he decided to get some rest himself.

There were no dreams for the warrior that night, just a deep, black sleep. Upon waking to a hearty breakfast of hash browns and smoked ham, Scar sat with Mindy to help her learn to read. By lunchtime, Gertrude barged in. Artimis caught her up, and she apologized to the warrior for his tribulations.

“I am saddened and angry,” he admitted, “yet there is much to be done. My friends have taught me, however, that whatever it is I must do, I don’t have to do it alone. I just hope we hear back from Labolas’s contacts soon.”

“I’m sure it won’t be much longer, a day, or maybe two,” the archer said.

“Enough time to come with me to River Rock and hire some help,” Artimis added.

“An’ buy yerself’ some clothes,” Gertrude joked.

Looking himself over, he realized that not only was he shirtless, he also had no shoes. “That’s true. We should stock up and resupply for whatever lies before us anyway.”

Labolas agreed, yet Shrikal stated that good will and determination were all a man needed, especially if he commanded the support of fine friends. To that comment, Gertrude henpecked, claiming he was a dirty, smelly boy in shredded clothing. Everyone shared a laugh, but agreed that after lunch, a flight to River Rock was mandatory.

Like an extended family, the party of six rode the winds over cypresses and rather than landing outside of town, the pilot opted for a boisterous display. He circled River Rock three times, shouting to all the gawkers. Eventually, Gertrude tired of his performance and snapped at him.

“Alright! I’ll take us down,” he laughed. To the dismay of some and the joy of others, the portly Eltan touched down in the middle of a trafficked road. Judging by people’s remarks, they had all heard that he was expanding, and that others were interested in flight, so he took the opportunity, regaling the young and the old regarding the benefits of flight. “You all get out there and buy what you need. I’m gonna’ convince a few o’ these strapping, young lads to work for me.”

Shaking their heads in mock desperation, Scar and his friends waded through the masses and first approached the local grocer. There, they purchased smoked meats and dried fruits for their trip. Gertrude then led them to a distant relative, a seamstress, who sold Scar and Mindy various articles of clothing. The warrior was unconcerned with fashion, though, so he was reluctant to purchase kilts and settled instead for some breeches and tunics.

“I’ll need steel if I’m going to wield Kulshedra’s power,” he snarked.

“There’s a smith somewhere around here,” Labolas replied. “I need to find a fletcher as it is.”

He gave the warrior a strange look. Scar wondered if Labolas missed Kulshedra’s magic. There had been a time when he didn’t carry arrows; somehow, his magic created them. The look passed when Gertrude demanded Shrikal buy new clothes, too.

“I really don’t need them. I can sew a new robe when it is necessary.”

“Your friend didn’t wear a robe,” Labolas grinned. “No…as I recall, she wore some skimpy clothes that revealed her pert, little body.” Scar chuckled, but Shrikal frowned in obvious displeasure. Labolas shrugged then patted the young man’s shoulder. “I jest, but you are here. Buy something!”

Begrudgingly, Shrikal purchased short breeches, which revealed his skinny legs and bony knees. He also bought new sandals and a laced doublet. When their barbs regarding his lanky figure subsided, they marched back through the sunny streets of River Rock.

In the distance, they saw the crowd surrounding the dirigible yet growing. Children sat atop their parents’ shoulders for a better look, and aboard the vessel, Artimis was running around with others, presumably showing them the rigging and whatnot. Much laughter echoed across the town.

Shrikal pointed out a smith’s shop after they had rounded a restaurant. There, an aging woman with extraordinarily dark skin tried to sell Scar ring mail, but it didn’t fit. He settled for plated, riding boots and a plated vest. It was crafted with many straps and buckles, which not only served to fit men of various girths, the straps also ran behind removable, steel plates, which covered the vitals. The woman stated it did well against spears, but was shite against maces and other weapons designed to smash. Finally, they made it to a fletcher, where Labolas bought arrows before reconvening outside the shop.

“Well, it’s gettin’ late,” Gertrude said. She picked Mindy up, smiling. “Yer’ gettin’ so heavy, deary, but seriously, let’s go an’ get that dummy ta’ fly us back. I need ta’ start dinner if this one’s gonna’ keep growin’.”

“Agreed,” Scar feigned a smile. “I am starved.”

“I could eat,” both Shrikal and Labolas said.

It required a modest effort to shove through the mob of slack-jawed peasants. Aboard the vessel, Artimis introduced Sol and Draig, two, young men willing to work towards a changing future. The pilot bid everyone a good day, threw sacks of dirt from the vessel to lighten their load enough to catch the wind, and off they sailed. Along the journey, Artimis, showed the boys how everything worked, but before new knowledge soaked in, they arrived.

“I’ll tie us off, lads,” Artimis said. “You all go inside and get ready for dinner. Me and the boys are gonna’ talk shop!”

The sun had already set behind the grove of cypresses, and inside their friend’s abode, Gertrude dashed about, lighting candles and yuclid lamps. She and Mindy meandered into the kitchen while the fellows sat at the dining table. Laughter bled in from the kitchen, yet Scar was brooding.

“We’ll have news soon,” Labolas mumbled.

“I am but worried over what it will be. The news, I mean,” Scar answered.

“No use speculating,” Shrikal said. “Let’s just appreciate a little relaxation while we can take it,” he added, fiddling with the laces on his new shirt.

“It’s cute on you,” the archer joked.

Wincing, Shrikal rolled his eyes and peered out the window. It was totally black, and the chirps and clicks of crickets and frogs were audible. After the fellows traded yawns for a moment, Mindy and Gertrude brought in a huge pot filled with beef stew, potatoes, and carrots. The little girl set the plates before Gertrude served everyone. The men dug in like it was the first meal of their lives.

“For Vulgate’s sake! Chew yer’ food, Scar,” she barked.

“Sorry,” he muttered, juices running down his chin. Mindy giggled and handed him a cloth. “Thank you,” he said, wiping his mouth.

Artimis clomped in and joined them. The young lads followed him, sat down, and started devouring the scrumptious dinner while the pilot blathered on about bee’s wax and how it sealed the artred gas inside the sewn leather balloon.

“No talk o’ work at the dinner table, boys,” Gertrude chastised.

“Geez, who died and made you queen,” Artimis snipped.

“Stow it an’ eat!”

“Aye.”

They were all delighted at his expense. Upon the conclusion of dinner, while Shrikal helped the ladies to clean up, and the others belched their praises, Scar withdrew from the table, made for the living room, and plunked down on an immense couch.

Looking at the shelves of old books, paintings of mountains, rivers, and castles, he started thinking about his role in the world. I know I need to kill these Dragons, but what about those dreams of Mekosh. I was ready to strike down everyone and everything, and now I’m sitting here on my arse after enjoying a meal with friends. If only the world was like this for everyone all the time, but unless I collect these souls, people will keep fighting, rulers will continue plotting behind closed doors, and so what if I do collect all the souls? After that, I’ll probably just vanish, and rulers will continue to plot and connive. I should focus on the best way to bring Ylithia back. If she’s resurrected, at least this will all be worthwhile for me, but then again, just delivering the people from Dragons is a valorous deed.

Mindy hopped onto his lap, surprising him. She forced a book into his hands. Gazing imploringly, she asked for him to read to her. The massive, leather bound book was entitled, The Adventures of Larson and Garrett, and started with a story about a boy saving his hometown from monsters. After the boy and his friends saved their town, they lived a happy life together for a few years, yet there were a great many more pages within the book.

“Sounds like these kids are caught up in something bigger than they are,” he remarked.

“How big,” she asked.

“That is not what I meant,” he smiled. “I mean, sometimes there are things that are more important than what we want. Sometimes, people have to make sacrifices in order to fight for the greater good, the benefit of everyone else’s lives. I have to believe that is what we’re doing, what we’re trying to do…do you understand?”

She shrugged indifferently. Smiling and petting her head, he admitted life was confusing, and that all he wanted for her was to be a happy child with a bright, peaceful future.

“I’m happy when you’re home.”

“And I am happy being home,” he said, looking back to the paintings. The castles reminded him of Alduheim, which brought back the memory of traveling with Ylithia and living together in Othnatus. “Go wash up, and we’ll get you to bed, honey.”

She nodded and tottered off.

Chapter Thirty-One- The secret ravelings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few days drifted by in relative peace before a knock on the door ensued. Scar and Labolas had risen only moments prior, and the sound of birdsongs was yet on the morning air. Labolas left the living room, leaving the warrior to wait impatiently. When the archer returned, he wore a puzzled look.

“Well?” Scar demanded.

His friend plunked down next to him on the couch and tapped a letter against his palm. They exchanged a glance. With subtle deliberation, the Satronian peeled the parchment, unfurled a document and read it out loud.

“There is no information regarding the group of Tiamatish, but there are claims that Sahni is consorting with a rather secretive group. People wearing red sashes have been spotted going to and from Aviliya Hana.”

“And,” Scar pried.

“And that’s all it says.”

“I was expecting more,” the warrior barked. He stood up abruptly then paced a bit. His friend maintained a leer. “What kind of contacts are these? This letter answers nothing!”

“Well, I wouldn’t go that far; we know those people you saw are up to something. That’s a start.”

“But what?”

“Relax. I have more letters coming. Besides, we also know Sahni is consorting with these people–”

“More proof that she has little intention to fight for peace,” Scar interrupted.

“What do you mean?”

“The two that attacked on the road claimed to have been sent by Light Bearers.”

“You did not tell me that.”

“It crossed my mind that they may have been lying. Now, I wonder….”

They were quiet a moment. The archer thumbed his scar. The warrior let out a hiss of aggravation.

“C’mon, Scar. Let’s get some food in our bellies. You know once Artimis wakes up, he’ll force us to plane wood, or braid rope, or Gods knows what.”

Heaving a groan of exhaustion, bordering on desperation, the giant stretched his neck, followed his friend into the kitchen, and lit the wood stove. Moments later, they scrambled eggs and melted some cheese over them. Having made plenty for the whole household, they served up several plates, set them on the dining table, and commenced eating quietly.

When Artimis came down from his room, he praised the scent of a cooked meal and dug in. Next, Mindy joined them. Scar complemented her voracious appetite. Then, the Eltan joked, saying she was getting portly as he.

“Long as she doesn’t grow a beard, she’s fine,” Labolas chuckled.

“Girls don’t grow beards!” she snipped.

“No, they certainly don’t,” Scar smiled.

After breakfast, Artimis gathered them into the barn, where he kicked the boys awake. Labolas told them food was on the table, and they sped off like cats chased by a hound.

“They seem like good help,” Scar remarked.

“Aye, a fine pair o’ lads. Sol’s da’ is a carpenter, so he’s good with measurements and cuts, and Draig’s a bright boy all around,” Artimis replied. “Now, get that post, square the end then get the hand drill. I need holes all throughout it, spaced eight centimeters apart.”

“Bullocks,” Labolas griped, but he shuffled off.

“Scar, I need you to bend these boards while I nail ‘em to the frame.”

“Got it.”

“Shrikal, you like persevering over difficult trials; braid me some rope!”

By the time the lads returned from breakfast, the bottom most outer portion of the keel was nailed in place. The scent of saw dust was heavy, and while the pilot cursed and puffed, and the boys mopped beads of sweat from their faces, Labolas drilled more holes in more posts, and the paladin finished a stretch of rope long enough to wrap around the barn. Around lunchtime, Gertrude showed up with turkey sandwiches, which everyone ate too quickly to enjoy the care with which she made them, and, of course, she let them know as much.

That evening, Scar helped Mindy with her addition before reading another chapter from The Adventures of Larson and Garrett. During that portion of the story, the protagonist had grown into a young man and helped an old warrior slay a werewolf. Scar didn’t know what a werewolf was, but Gertrude claimed they were ancient beasts—part man and part wolf—they hunted people during full moons. Mindy got a little spooked, but he assured her there were no such things as monsters.

The following day, when Artimis, Shrikal, and the boys left for River Rock, and just before they sat down for a late lunch, another courier dropped by with a second letter. It stated that Hashnora started moving troops into Dosvetyulia, and that among his own tribesmen were Slibinish warriors. The message brought Scar a pang of uncertainty.

“Well,” Labolas gave in to ruminations, “There was a time when Yuroga and Hashnora were allies, but my father always contended that Yuroga was aware of Hashnora’s true intentions.”

“Which are?”

“I’m trying to remember if he told me anything specific. The Bollans don’t leave their territory often; they don’t see well in the daytime, probably from living underground for so long, or maybe that’s just part of Bolla’s blessing. Either way, they have never openly attacked anyone, but unlike the Tiamatish or Fafnirians, they don’t welcome other tribes, however, you’ll recall I told you Nagish attacked Khmerans by utilizing their subterranean passageways, so it’s difficult to discern who is allied with whom.”

“Does that letter state whether Hashnora is attacking them? Maybe they’re just using more passages to attack Sahni.”

“It’s possible. The letter doesn’t say one way or the other.”

“I am disappointed by the lack of information your contacts have provided.”

“As am I, but they’re friends of my father, not mine, so they’re not giving me all pertinent details.”

“And none, which can help me decide on a course of action,” Scar interrupted.

“Keep your pants on. I sent an anonymous letter to Vamvos as well. Despite Borta’s odd warning, I want to know if he is willing to have a meeting with the allied forces. If he is then perhaps we can learn about Hashnora’s intentions. Assuming he is behind the attack in Balroa, we’ll know who to strike.”

“You know, I remember Borta telling me that Light Bearers attacked Balroa, and that somehow, it was tied in with Yuroga’s plots. He called her an evil, witch queen.”

“Yes, she’s a master of poisons, and to be completely honest, I have no idea what Bollans are capable of, what kind of strange magic they wield, but I don’t believe she was ever a true ally of Hashnora, neither was he of her, though, but again, you see how both have an ill intent towards Balroa…I wish I knew more about Sirokai,” Labolas said, cocking an eyebrow. “And Borta….”

“I do not wish to betray his trust. He has been most kind to me.”

“I know.”

With the workers out of the house, Scar and Labolas helped Gertrude and Mindy clean up. The willowy lass had a penchant for cleanliness and order, and like a whirlwind of brooms, mops, cloths, and buckets of water, she tore through the living room, dining room, kitchen, and bedrooms. She only stopped to bark orders to lift a chair, move a table, fluff a blanket, or rearrange pelts and straw. Finally, when everything was immaculate, Labolas sauntered off to shave his beard, so Scar took Mindy outside to play swords with some thin, cypress sticks.

It was a pleasant day, not hot, but sunny and windy. No bugs bothered them, and as they smiled, and joked, and played, Artimis’s dogs danced about, yelping like they were part of the team, cheering on the warring duo. Once the sun started to set, they threw smaller sticks across the yard. All the dogs fought over flying twigs before returning them to the hand, which tossed them.

“Come on inside, the both o’ yas’,” Gertrude called. “It’s time fer’ supper!” No sooner had they walked in through the kitchen that she chastised them for tracking in dirt. “Go wash up, while I sweep this mess back outside!”

“It’s my fault,” Scar chuckled.

“Yer’ damned right it is; yer’ the adult. Ya’ should know better.”

“Okay….”

They passed an amicable look. She placed her fists on her hips and exhaled, making her lips vibrate. The warrior mused over the display; it was something Artimis did when he feigned exhaustion.

“Anything I can do to lighten your load?”

“Aye, take the pot o’ stew out ta’ the dinin’ room. I’ll be right in with forks an’ bowls.”

Upon setting the table, a freshly shaven Labolas walked in holding Mindy’s hand. Gertrude fluffed out her dress, pointed to where she wanted everyone sitting, and finally served up the meal.

“Where’s Uncle Arty,” Mindy pried.

“He’s out. Eat. He’ll be back by the time ya’ go ta’ bed.”

Chowing down proved a pleasurable experience. Again, Scar praised the event; eating as such brought back memories of communal meals in Othnatus. He longed for peace, but his blood boiled, and the dualism within him brought a degree of tension he was unable to shrug off.

“We’ll know something soon enough, friend,” Labolas consoled.

“What? I didn’t say anything,” Scar remarked, staring at his empty, wooden bowl.

“Ya’ donna’ need ta’, lad,” Gertrude said. “Yer’ anguish is plain as sunshine.”

“I’m sorry, I….”

“There’s nothin’ ta’ apologize fer’. Ya’ know, Artimis an’ I been talkin’ ‘bout ya’, an’ what yer’ tryin’ ta’ do fer’ all the people in Tiamhaal, but what good is fixin’ erryone’s troubles if it consumes ya’?”

He looked at Mindy. Her emerald eyes seemed to sparkle by the light of candles. She looked so sweet, happy, and innocent.

“I believe the wound is yet too fresh,” he replied, “but I am not consumed. This little girl brings me great joy.”

The tyke grinned, revealing a permanent tooth coming in, and he reached over the table to pat her head. A second later, there was a knock at the door. Labolas excused himself. When he returned, he joked that the courier, which had been the same lad from previous deliveries, deserved a hefty tip.

“Mm, let’s hope he brought something we can use.”

“Well,” the archer said, unfurling the document. He read it first to himself. “Jagongo is sending troops into Dosvetyulia.”

“And?”

“That’s all.”

“This is ridiculous,” Scar grumbled.

“I agree,” Labolas frowned.

“What’s the matter,” Gertrude asked.

“I’m just not getting the kind of full responses I expected from my father’s men, but back to the letter–”

“How do we even know it’s accurate?” Scar howled.

“I trust this man; I actually met him a few times. He’s an Usajan, believe it or not.”

“Usajan,” Gertrude pried.

“Um, yes, rather than Zmajan, since Zmaj is dead.”

“You know, we call you Eltans now,” Scar smirked, “but back to the letter. So what it if is true? So what if she is sending troops into Dosvetyulia?”

“It means that she may well have sent troops elsewhere, but it still doesn’t tell us if she’s ordering attacks, or scouting, or perhaps even enticing Yuroga to join the allied forces in order to fight the Bakunawans and Slibinish.”

The warrior shook his head in frustration before rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. While his eyes were still closed, Gertrude ladled more stew into his bowl, demanding he eat.

“I am not hungry.”

“Donna’ be daft,” she smiled. “Fillin’ yer’ belly can empty yer’ mind.”

“What does that mean,” Mindy asked.

“It means, when somethin’s’ troublin’ ya’, just eat an’ be happy. No sense worryin’ about what ya’ canna’ deal with. Eh, Scar?”

Looking from the girls to the hearty potatoes, carrots, peas, and shredded beef, he decided it was sound advice. “Still,” he said, smacking his lips, “I’d rather wait to hear back from Borta. What he can tell us about the dead Tiamatish will certainly point us in the right direction.”

“First of all,” his friend started, “it’ll be weeks before the letter reaches him, he, or someone he knows, gathers the information, and mails it back to us. I’m all for waiting patiently, but there are still some questions I need answered.”

“Such as what?” Gertrude intervened.

“It doesn’t matter. They are not answers that pertain directly to Scar’s troubles, but rather, matters that deal with secretive states of affairs; alterations in trade, the movements of troops, legislations within other territories; all of the answers I need, I need in order to stay on top of what happens after the Dragons are defeated as well as predict the repercussions of defeating those who prevented our efforts in Balroa.”

“I thought you said there were no monsters,” Mindy said to Scar.

“Oh, uh, well, I don’t think the Dragons are monsters, I guess.”

She turned from him to Gertrude with an inquisitive expression that made them all laugh. Labolas then jumped in to say a history lesson was in order, so he educated them with stories of how the Dragons and their creatures attacked and enslaved people thousands of years ago, and how they were defeated with the help of God. Then, he revealed that Scar came and proved that there were actually eight Gods, and that they helped drive the Dragons from the world, but that the Dragons were not dead; they were still tricking people into maintaining their own slavery.

“So, you’re like a hero trying to make the world a better place,” she asked with a twinkle in her eye.

“I wouldn’t go that far, sweetie. I am just a man trying to do the right thing, like Labolas, and Shrikal, and Arty and Gert, too.”

In the end, they decide to wait for more information before attempting a plan of action.

 

****

 

The next day, while Shrikal, who had recently shaved his head, was outside exercising and teaching Scar how to stretch properly, a young lad arrived on horseback. The warrior thanked him for his delivery. When the paladin walked over, they read the information. Labolas’s contact claimed that an angry sect within Malababwe preferred action to peaceful chats. In addition, it stated that Sirokai had not been seen for many months, but that someone else in Balroa has been collaborating with Sahni.

“Perplexing,” Shrikal remarked.

Wincing, Scar replied that spies and governmental officials led surreptitious lives beyond his understanding and temperament. Shrugging at each other, they burst through the front door and found Labolas passed out on the couch in the living room. Shrikal sucked his finger and dug it into the archer’s ear, making Scar cringe.

“Oh, oh, oh!” Labolas jumped up, rubbing his inner ear. “What the Hell?”

Scar shoved the letter into his hands. Frowning, he read it over.

“Hm…say, Scar, what did you see in Magnum Mortis the first time you got there?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I know you met with Borta, who had been in hiding, but was Sirokai present?”

“No. Borta said he was off on official business of sorts.”

“Borta mention the type of business?”

“I really don’t remember.”

“He, uh, he isn’t Sirokai, right,” the archer asked in a tiresome tone. Scar shook his head. “But they work together very closely, so it’s safe to assume he’s more than a scholar, probably a counselor of some kind, maybe even a family member.”

Labolas kept looking Scar in the eye, but the warrior remained expressionless. “What difference does any of this make,” Shrikal pried.

“Tough to say, yet I’m certain he knows something. He knew Kiechiv, right?”

“No. He knew who he was, and where he lived, but they had never met,” Scar answered.

“I wonder why he knew.”

“It matters?” Scar huffed.

“Everything matters. Alright, well, leave me to think!”

With that, Labolas plunked back onto the couch. Scar and Shrikal exchanged a look. Neither of them had seen their friend distraught. He looked truly confused if determined.

“Say, why not grab Mindy? I’ll teach you both some excellent exercises,” the paladin smiled.

“Sure….”

The three gathered outside to witness the young boy’s feats. He did push ups on his finger tips, laid back to lift his feet, head, and arms, contorted his body in all fashions, and taught them the proper way to perform various jumps. Though Scar and Mindy practiced reluctantly, they enjoyed their time together. Ultimately, Artimis gathered everyone for dinner, where they laughed and joked at the pilot’s expense.

“So, uh, you and Gerty,” Labolas started. “You two been getting friendly?”

“Aye, what of it?!”

“Isn’t she a little young,” Scar asked.

“She’s in her early twenties,” Artimis beamed.

“Ain’t ya’ like fifty, pops,” Draig asked.

“Pipe down, you twit! I’m forty one!”

“Good for you,” Scar said. “What do you think, Mindy? Should Uncle Arty and Aunty Gert get married?”

She nodded, drawing another round of laughter. Suddenly, a banging on the door resounded. “Hey, must be a courier,” Labolas said, coming to his feet. When he returned, he read another letter, one from Vamvos. “Well, he is willing to support Longinus in an effort to rally the people without powers, but it also says he has no intention of fighting Hashnora. Evidently, he doesn’t trust Sahni or Jagongo, but he doesn’t say why.”

“Is that good news or bad,” Artimis frowned.

“It’s good that he wishes no harm against the people without blessings,” Shrikal said.

“Agreed,” Scar added.

Grumbling, the archer said he wished he knew more. Abruptly, he left the table. The rest of the crew continued enjoying their supper. Artimis then dragged the boys back out to the barn. Shrikal decided to join them while Scar put Mindy to bed. Then, he sought out his friend.

“Scar,” the Satronian gazed up from the couch. “Look,” he added, pointing. All of the letters were laid out on a small, low table. The warrior eyed them, but he wasn’t able to guess what was called of him. He shrugged involuntarily, looking at the archer. “Don’t you notice they’re all written by the same hand?”

“Oh.” Upon closer inspection, it was evident that the same person had written each message. “What does this mean?”

“It means someone intercepted all of my letters and wrote what I have to assume are false replies!”

A welling of hate, anger, and scorn churned the warrior’s stomach. “What do we do now?”

“I don’t know…I just don’t know.”

Labolas slumped back into the couch, twirling a lock of hair around his finger. Silence consumed the dimly lit room.

Chapter Thirty-Two- In desperate times

 

Labolas gathered everyone, except the boys hired by Artimis, into the living room to show the letters. Eerie shadows danced about as candle flames wavered. Scar paced around while Gertrude chewed her fingernails.

“You’re certain these are all written by the same hand,” the pilot asked, scrutinizing two letters.

“They obviously are,” Scar shouted.

“Keep yer’ voice down,” Gertrude admonished, “donna’ wake the child.”

He eyed her then his friends. Shrikal took a look at the letters as well and concluded Labolas was correct. After returning them to the table, he stepped back, causing floorboards to creak.

“What does this mean,” he asked.

“It means we can’t trust any information I received,” Labolas sighed.

“Then, we should simply go to Malababwe and have words with Jagongo. We must believe what we’ve witnessed and proceed from there,” Scar argued.

“I agree that we must speak to Jagongo, but we must trust her word rather than seek a fight,” the archer maintained.

“How can you say that?” the warrior hissed. “None of the letters said she was behind the attack, so if we assume these statements are false then she must be guilty.”

“Why would anyone want us not to believe that she was behind the attack,” Shrikal asked.

“Good question,” Labolas said, scrunching his lips. Noticing that Scar was on the verge of an explosion, Artimis took his wrist and motioned for him to sit. Once he sank into the cushion next to Labolas, his friend turned to him. “The letters don’t point to Jagongo’s guilt or innocence,” he said, slowly, “but whatever is going on, is misdirection; for all intents and purposes, if we start second guessing everything then we have to second guess that whoever wrote to me wanted me to notice the handwriting.”

“Now, you’re just being ridiculous!” Scar claimed.

“No, I’m not,” the archer fired back. “If this person wants us to go and start a fight in Malababwe, what better way to do it?”

Shaking his head in consternation, the warrior admitted that the entire affair was beyond his comprehension. “I’ll trust whatever decision you make, so make one. Tell us what to do.”

“It’s too dangerous for us all to fly out to Osumba,” Labolas began, “this person, or people, perhaps, are trying to spur us into some convoluted events; they want us all up in arms, threatening the peace Longinus organized. That much, I believe is evident. I also believe we’re being watched; how else could my correspondences have been intercepted?”

“That means they also know we’re here. Are we in danger,” Artimis asked.

“We must proceed as if we were,” Labolas replied. “Listen, this is what we’ll do; Gertrude, you take Mindy back to your house tomorrow morning. Artimis, you continue working as though nothing is out of the ordinary. Scar and Shrikal, you two ride to Osumba. I’m going to stay in River Rock.”

“We don’t have horses,” Shrikal interrupted. “We gave them back to McCormick yesterday.”

“Besides, we need to reach Jagongo as soon as possible; we should fly,” Scar pointed out.

“I second that,” Artimis added. “The roads may also be dangerous, and if someone’s keeping watch on my house, I shouldn’t stay here, nor do I want Sol and Draig caught in the crossfire.”

“Well,” the archer nipped his upper lip nervously by puffing out his jaw, “the only other option is to send the boys home. You’ll have to postpone working on the new dirigible in order to fly Scar and Shrikal to Osumba, but then I can stay here and keep an eye on things.”

“Look mates, that’s fine by me,” the Eltan said.

“Are ya’ daft?” Gertrude intervened. She stomped over to grab a hold of his sleeve. “Ya’ don’t need ta’ be puttin’ yerself’ in danger.”

“Oh, calm down, lass. I ain’t in any danger. We’ll do what we did in Tironis,” he gave a wink to Scar, who nodded. “Only thing is, the Plume won’t be ready for flight until I put a new coat o’ wax over the hides, but we can knock that out tonight, and then send the boys home. What matters right now is finding out who’s behind what, and if Labolas says this is the way to do it then that’s what we’ll do.”

“How am I supposed to figure out what to do in Osumba,” Scar turned to the archer.

“You’re a smart man, Scar. As long Shrikal reins in your anger,” he added, looking at the paladin, “you can seek an audience with Jagongo, or better yet, N’Giwah, and just gather information. That’s all you’re doing. When we know where to strike, you can kill them all, unless you’re thinking about peace and forgiveness again.”

The warrior’s face contorted in wrath for a second, but he quickly cooled. Though Labolas was throwing his own words back in his face, he knew the man had a point.

“I had said that we should forgive the people, the tribes in general, for being manipulated, but I also said that the evil men behind these plots need to be removed, and I can think of no better way than cutting their lives short.”

“Alright, so we have our plan; Gertrude and Mindy get to her house for safety. I’ll keep an eye on things here, as I believe people are in fact watching us, plus I hope to hear back from Borta and Marlayne, so that just leaves you three, since the lads are going back home.”

“I have to add something,” Shrikal jumped in. When they gave their attention, he continued. “I think it’s best to land in Songal. It isn’t far from Osumba. We can speak to some people I know there before contacting your friend. In fact, we can invite him to meet us there.”

“Who’s this bloke ya’ know, Scar? Is he trustworthy?” Gertrude was near desperation and her eyes darted between the warrior and Artimis.

“He’s as good a friend as Labolas to me. If anything at all is going on in Malababwe, he’ll know.”

“Don’t forget he’s related to Jagongo,” Labolas mentioned.

“You said it yourself,” Scar heaved. “We must trust someone. Who else is there?”

“Agreed,” the archer nodded.

“Great, let me get that coat o’ wax in place, and then we can be on our way,” the pilot said.

When he left the room, Gertrude chased after him. The three friends remained behind, puffing, sighing, and rubbing their heads, faces, or necks in an effort to keep calm.

“Labolas,” Scar asked, gravely. “If your letters were all intercepted then how will Borta, to whom I wrote, or Marlayne, to whom I did not even know you wrote, receive our words? Is it not safe to believe that those letters, too, have been intercepted? What if these people have written different letters to our friends, pretending to be us?”

“By Ihnogupta,” Shrikal breathed, sitting on the table.

“Oh no,” Labolas sighed. He pulled the leather strap from his hair to rearrange his coif, but gave up half way through. Scar was eyeing him, stoically. “I had not considered that. Well, it doesn’t matter at this point. As you said, we have to believe what we’ve seen, so just get to Malababwe and speak to N’Giwah. In either event, I’ll be here to receive the letters, and maybe, with any luck, I can piece all this together.”

Scar nodded, squeezing his comrade’s shoulder. “If anyone can….”

“Just promise me you won’t kill anyone without knowing for sure they’re behind this duplicity.”

“I promise,” Scar vowed.

“What do we do for now,” the paladin asked.

“Get ready for the trip, and just leave me to ponder.”

Looking at a candle on top of a bookshelf, Scar turned to thoughts. Who knows what will happen, when I’ll be back. I can’t believe this has turned out to be so troubling, and what of poor Mindy? Now, I leave her again? Should I wait until she wakes to at least say goodbye? Will she and Gerty be safe? He looked to Shrikal, who managed a weak smile. Maybe, I should ask him to keep an eye on her. He’ll bark at me, but….

“Shrikal?”

“Yes?”

“Will you stay with Mindy and Gertrude?”

The young man snorted in disbelief and shook his head. He gave Scar an askew look of incredulity, yet a tinge of respect and admiration belied his countenance.

“If it’ll put your mind at ease, I will, but only if Labolas thinks you can handle gathering information on your own…you did promise to ascertain the truth before fighting.”

“Scar,” Labolas started, but the warrior came to his feet; his eyes were fierce.

“I have already lost a loved one, and a chance to have her back. I can’t lose Mindy. You must understand that, and we both know you’ll be too busy searching for answers.”

“True, but you don’t know the people in Songal, and you may not receive the answers you’re looking for. Not to mention the fact that if we’ve received misinformation, Jagongo, Longinus, Sahni, Vamvos, and who knows who else have all probably been deceived. Truthfully, I should be the one going with you, but I just can’t. I must know who’s behind all this, and I have to start by keeping tabs on that courier. Understand, we sent our letters from Aldurstun, so I need to begin my search there.”

“Then, I must remain behind to watch Mindy,” Shrikal said.

“That may well be the case,” Labolas conceded, “but all is not lost. Scar, you can still travel straight to Osumba. You won’t have a pleasant reception, but if you can track down N’Giwah, you’ll be able to learn something.”

“Should I write to you?”

“Absolutely not. Just go, and trust your instincts.”

“My instincts are what got us into this mess,” Scar groaned.

“Don’t beat yourself up….”

The Dragon Slayer took a deep breath, rolling his shoulders. An interminable silence passed, broken only by the creaking of rafters. No one spoke for a time, leaving matters as close to settled as possible. Eventually, the warrior left his mates. Outside, approaching the barn and crunching twigs underfoot by the light of a waning moon, uncertainty clouded his heart.

In the barn, under the light of yuclid lamps, he witnessed the three Eltans working feverishly to coat the artred balloon. They used immense horsehair brushes secured to shafts, which they dipped in buckets of yellowish wax. Then, with long strokes, they covered the entire construct.

“They’re splashin’ as much wax all over the barn as they do the leather,” Gertrude commented. Scar turned to see her sitting on crate, petting a dog. “What’d yas’ all figure?”

“I’m going alone. Artimis will simply fly us over Osumba. He has some packs that open up, allowing me to leap from the sky, so…he won’t be in any danger.”

“An’ hows’ will ya’ come back?”

Her eyes were puffy. He knew she had cried while he spoke to the others, yet he smiled before sitting beside her.

“Let me worry about that. You worry about Mindy. Oh, by the way, Shrikal needs to stay with you to keep an eye on you two. Labolas will be looking into the courier and whomever else, and Artimis will be back before you know it.”

She snorted, giving a sad smile, which she fought back by chewing her lip. “I canna’ believe this is what I found fer’ leavin’ me house an’ chasin’ you down that day when you stumbled on over with Mindy on yer’ shoulders.”

“I told you to stay home where it was safe,” he said, smiling back at her.

“Aye….”

 

****

 

Birds announced the coming of morning with various whistles and songs. None of Scar’s crew had so much as a wink of sleep, and as Artimis sent the boys home, and readied the vessel for flight, Gertrude brought Mindy into the barn. Scar sat with her, trying to explain that unexpected events had arisen, and that he had to leave right away. Pouting as her eyes teared, she stared at the ground.

“Oi, deary, donna’ be sad,” the Eltan lass said. “I’m needing help with Princess fer’ a few days, an’ Scar an’ Uncle Artimis’ll be back before ya’ know it. ‘Sides, Shrikal will be stayin’ with us, too.”

“Yeah,” the young man smiled. “I can teach you more jumps, and stretches, and you can teach me how to take care of horses.”

“How does that sound,” Scar asked. Too young to feign a smile, the girl just shrugged. “Look…I’m sorry, Mindy, but how about I bring you back something nice from Malababwe?”

“Like what?”

“Oh, uh, I don’t know….”

“How about a new doll?” Labolas suggested. “You should see the toys the Tiamatish girls play with. They’re really something.”

“There, how about a new doll?” Scar offered.

“Promise,” She asked, wiping her nose with her hand.

“Use a cloth, honey,” Gertrude reprimanded.

“I promise. I’ll be back soon and with a new doll just for you.”

She hugged him around the neck, so he patted her back, and as he stood, Gertrude took her. By then, Shirkal was all set to follow her home. Artimis unfurled the rope ladder from the Plume. They all bid one another a safe journey. Scar then climbed into the dirigible, and waving to his friends, he was carried away, over the barn, past the cypresses, and ever north, towards the Dracstag mountain range; winds whipped all around him and his comrade.

“Do you think everyone will be safe,” the warrior asked while looking over a brownish, fleeting landscape.

“I do,” Artimis replied after a moment’s hesitation. Scar glanced at the pudgy pilot. He was tugging some ropes, trying to secure them to a post when they caught each other’s glance. “You can’t worry about them right now.”

“I guess you’re right.”

The wind continued buzzing about their ears. Distant clouds seemed stationary, painted against a blue backdrop. Below them, they saw canopies, farmsteads, homes, gawking travelers, and the worn trails, which wormed throughout Eltanrof.

It wasn’t long before fatigue settled in. Artimis plunked down on a barrel he had placed on the deck in order to keep an eye on their bearings with a degree of comfort. Scar sat down amidst the crates and sacks of dirt. He wanted to say something, talk just to break the spell of anxiety, but his thoughts were disconnected, meaningless. Unable to reel them in, or perhaps unwanting, he let them drift by; they were but clouds in the sky at the mercy of the wind.

“Oi, wake up mate,” Artimis said, poking Scar in the hip with his boot.

“Hm? Oh, I drifted off,” he mumbled, wiping his mouth.

“Aye, but I need a little shut eye myself, so I’m sorry to wake ya’, but someone has to keep this thing on course. You remember what I taught you?”

“Sure. I’ll just wake you if there’s a problem.”

“Fair enough.”

They switched places. Upon sitting on the barrel, the Dragon Slayer rubbed his eyes. Then, looking to the east, he saw a clear sky gracing the tops of green canopies. To the west, tall clouds spread their puffy forms into a single, indefinable blob; it was something like a stationary, ocean wave of cotton. Relaxing his chin in his hand, he shut his eyes and took a deep breath. Having the wind rush into his sinuses and dry his eyes was most displeasing, and coupled with the crankiness of being awakened, he was irritable.

“What am I supposed to do?” Thinking back to the eight statues of the Gods beneath the rubble of Alduheim, he wished for a clear-cut solution, a plan. “Maybe, N’Giwah will know something….”

For hours, the morose giant gazed at the open expanse. Once he saw the endless sea of golden sand, he knew they were over Sudai. Looking to his rear, he watched the receding, jagged peaks of the Dracstags. They wafted ever away, growing opaque against a darkening sky, and to the west, as the sun set behind thick clouds, a purplish panorama reminded him of his sailing days.

It has certainly been a strange life, a strange gift. I have seen much in matters of beauty, love, strife, the complications of men’s spirits, and the Dragons, such strange creatures, and the Gods, personified by the powers of mankind. It is hard to believe that men have been tricked by the Dragons. It is hard to believe that Eternus created me to change things, but then, in a manner of speaking, that is why he created everything, to see how change and experience come to pass. Are we all but pawns? Are we not all equal then? From the smallest insect to the most monstrous of Dragons—and who knows what other creatures may exist in other realms—it seems to me we all have a role to play, for better or worse, yet I ache to share my experiences with Ylithia, and I can bear no harm come to Mindy, nor my friends. Damn it, N’Giwah…I need you to know something.

Chapter Thirty-Three- Sacrifice

 

Three days of nonstop flight passed by. Both men had taken turns sleeping or steering over rugged, rocky hills, worn trails, green meadows, booming towns, and rolling farmsteads. Beyond the jungles of Malababwe, nearing the higher elevation south of Wuulefroth, Scar slid the parachute pack over his shoulders.

“You want me to fly right over Osumba,” Artimis asked.

“Preferably the outskirts; I do not want to give the citizens the wrong impression.”

“Well that’s it up there,” the pilot pointed.

The warrior peeked over the keel. In the distance, he saw a multitude of dark men and women with green patterns gracing their skin. What little hide they wore to cover their modesty was also a comfort in the blistering heat of Malababwe.

Speeding over the veldt, an extent of short, beige grass speckled with green, wiry bushes rampant throughout, he witnessed grayish rocks among the environment. Men and women darted from the rocks and bushes. Near the horizon, boulders were coming into view. To the giant’s surprise, there were scores of animals dashing across the hard packed trails surrounding Osumba. Hunting parties were chasing game; gazelles, elephants, giraffes. The hunters threw javelins, fired arrows, or rode zebras, and from their backs, they tossed heavy nets to halt their prey.

“Alright, Artimis, this is it.”

“Be careful, Scar.”

“You, too; fly straight back if you can.”

With that, the Dragon Slayer, hurled himself from the Plume, plummeting hundreds of feet from the sky. Cool winds rushed into his face, forcing his eyes shut, yet he made an effort to spot the ground, and judging it was time, he pulled the pack’s strap, which unfurled the cloth held within. The impact nearly yoked his shoulders out of their sockets, but with a degree of control, he managed to land safely next to a small pond. Quickly, he stuffed everything back into the pack, slid it back on, and started marching towards the city.

The ground was solid, and absolutely teeming with grasshoppers, flies, beetles, and butterflies. The bugs were of various colors and sizes, and most of them fled his plated boots. Trudging uphill to a trail, he saw a small group of people noticing his presence, so he waved. The dark warriors traded glances, but held their weapons in repose.

“Osumba is just up ahead, right?” he yelled out.

“It is. What business have you there, King Killer,” one of the taller, more muscular hunters asked.

“I am not too fond of that name, but I am here looking for my friend, N’Giwah!”

Everyone waited until he was closer. Once on the trail, he slowed his gait. The hunters were a group of three males, two of them only adolescents, and two females, both young. The oldest man was the tallest, obviously their guardian, and all of them were perspiring profusely, Scar included; he was actually panting from the heat, and his scalp was on fire.

“Hello,” he said after they were in range for moderate tones.

“What do you want with N’Giwah,” the tall man was reserved, skeptical.

“He is my friend. We fought together at Alduheim and traveled the countryside. We are trying to seek peaceful resolutions in this troubled world. I must see him if he is in Osumba, and if he is not there then I must learn of where he is.”

The younger Tiamatish huddled closer to their leader, who replied, “What made you think he is even here?”

“That’s the trouble, I’m afraid; I don’t know that he is, but this is your country’s capitol, so I thought this was the best place to try to contact him. Someone must know where he is, and if they do not, I must still seek an audience with Jagongo.”

The hunters traded worried looks. “Jagongo is dead.”

“What?”

“Why are you really here?”

“I, I told you. I am being truthful at that, but what happened to Jagongo?”

“We do not know, nor would we tell the likes of you, and by the way, from where did you come?”

“A friend from Eltanrof flew me here in a vessel called a dirigible,” Scar answered, wiping sweat from his face and flinging it to the ground.

The taller man muttered something to the others, and they started walking away, down the trail. “You are the King Killer, and here you are not two days after our Queen Chief’s death, yet you say you are seeking N’Giwah in Osumba, and he is there; how did you know that?”

The man spread his feet and puffed out his chest. Scar wondered if he was about to attack, or perhaps wield his magic, so he turned his palms out and backed away a few paces.

“I am not the King Killer. My name is Scar, and I am just as troubled by Jagongo’s death as are your people. Now, I have no wish to fight–”

“Who said anything about fighting?” the man barked, “and you are the King Killer; how many have you killed now?”

Shaking his head and sighing, the giant ground his teeth while pinching the bridge of his nose. He rattled his brain, trying to think of the best method for diffusing the situation. When nothing came to mind, he simply looked at the warrior before him; a chiseled, ebony, statue with flowing, green patterns.

“Yes, I killed some rulers, but I am also a friend of the allied countries; Closicus, Nabalhi, and I have even fought off Khmerans and others from Butu; I am supporting the countries without leaders as well; all I want is a word with N’Giwah. Please, tell me where I can find him.”

The man looked out into the distance, where the blue, cloudless sky met the tannish grasses. Tiny, black specks circled overhead, and countless insects swarmed both men. They scoured for moisture of any kind, leaving Scar no choice but to swat at the air.

“Well…if you’re not going to help me, I must continue down this path on my own. Good day to you.”

The brute started to walk around the hunter. “Hold,” he said, begrudgingly, “you must understand my position….”

“What position is that?”

“I am Orubu, a tracking instructor for the older boys and girls. My duty is their safety.”

“Okay, Orubu, but I have no ill will towards your people, much less children. They are not in any danger from me.”

“Not from you, perhaps, but from what you represent, what follows you; death.”

“Now, that isn’t fair,” Scar shouted, but he quickly checked himself. “I fight to deliver all of mankind from the Dragons’ oppression, yet I do not harm those unwilling to fight.”

“Killing the Dragons weakens the people of that country. Killing Tiamat weakens us, and my people are fighting for peace.”

Sighing, Scar stated he had not the time for a philosophical debate. “I am not here to fight. I am here to speak to my friend, to heed his advice, whatever it may be. Someone is making trouble for the allied front, and I have come to believe that Hashnora is behind this, yet–”

“Funny you should say that.”

“Say what?”

“That Hashnora is behind the trouble brewing in my country.”

“I believe that is the case,” Scar grumbled, swatting at more flies.

“I believe you are wrong. Hashnora understands how the Khmerans’ minds work; he knows Sahni is our enemy despite her treaty.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Come, follow me into the city…I will take you to N’Giwah.”

“Thank you.”

The two walked up the trail for a long time. His heavy armor grew so hot, heat waves wafted up from the steel, and his feet were burning up. In an effort to rally his thoughts, Scar tried to question the tracker on current affairs, but he maintained that N’Giwah held all the answers. At a higher point on the road, the Dragon Slayer held a view of Osumba.

It was a city comprised of rounded, gray, stone huts, which from the air he had thought were boulders. Wondering from where so much stone came was a useless feat. While there were some rocky hills nearby, and all around their surroundings, there were no mountains, yet he knew Tiamatish people molded stone with their magic.

Orubu nodded to his brethren. Many of them traipsed about, smiling, until they saw Scar. They were tending livestock, coming in from hunting, carrying slain game, or going out to hunt or trade with other towns. There wasn’t much in the way of crops, but various fruit trees were bearing colorful treats of all shapes and colors.

“We are not far. Your friend is in hiding, I am afraid, so we must be cautious. I will first take you to my corna, where you can rest and enjoy some shade and water.”

“Corna,” Scar pried.

Orubu said that was the name of the stone huts. The constructs were everywhere, yet they were placed strategically; larger ones were erected in a close-knit fashion surrounding the city’s exterior, but smaller ones were sporadically placed deeper within. Most of them had colorful designs crafted from some sort of paint—those indicated a business—yet others held strange patterns or glyphs, and families were huddled outside of them, conversing, watching children play, playing musical instruments. A line of warriors suddenly gathered, halting Orubu and Scar in their tracks.

“Get away from him,” a familiar voice growled.

Among the formation of toned warriors, all of whom brandished weapons as townsfolk scattered or entered their abodes, was Hija. She was staring holes through Orubu, so were her friends, some of whom Scar recognized from Alduheim. The giant looked to his newest acquaintance. His dark face was seized by a passing tremor.

“Come over here, Scar,” Hija demanded.

“What is going on?”

“Get away from him. I will take you to N’Giwah.”

Immediately after she spoke, Orubu drew a knife and made to slash at Scar, but one of the men from Hija’s formation threw his javelin, piercing the attacker, who fell to the ground as people gasped and shrieked in horror.

“What is happening?” the Dragon Slayer demanded.

“Quickly,” she heaved, practically pulling him from the scene. The rest of the warriors swarmed in an effort to block him from the view of others, yet his towering stature rendered the effort useless. Finally, they stopped before an immeasurably long corna, one with many entrances, and a flurry of people all coming and going. “Over here.”

They all moved beyond an abundance of tables seating gawking diners. It was a sort of communal, eating hall. Awaiting an explanation, the brute heard only laughter and hunters speaking of their recent adventures in the wild, yet some grew silent after his appearance. The scent of cooked meats and vegetables was heavy on the air.

“Sit, Scar,” N’Giwah said.

The warrior turned to see his compatriot, who was already seated. An empty plate with only a residue of grease lay in front of him. Before Scar had a chance to infer recent events, Hija motioned for him to sit across from their leader.

“The look on your face invites me to believe you are surprised to find us here.”

“N’Giwah, you must tell me what is happening,” Scar pleaded, removing his pack to have a seat.

Food and drink went around as the dark skinned warrior wet his ample lips. He clasped his hands before his face, and nodding slowly, he held Scar’s baffled gaze. After a moment of contemplation, N’Giwah spoke.

“You did not receive my letter.”

Shaking his head, he said, “I received no letter, true, but what has happened? Orubu said Jagongo was dead, that he was leading me to you, and that Hashnora is trying to unite Malababwe against Sahni, but then he tried to kill me!”

“There is a faction of men here, who believe such things, that Jagongo was ill suited to rule our country. I wrote you and Labolas a letter asking for assistance, yet you have come here alone and without direction, but all is not lost. Yes, Jagongo has been killed, and our new ruler is a puppet heeding the advice of Hashnora.”

The giant fidgeted in his seat. His eyes darted about the vast, open room. No one was paying attention to N’Giwah’s group, but a few, dark eyes passed over his form. There was something about their leer Scar found discomforting.

“Listen to me,” N’Giwah whispered. “After you killed Donovan, I fled with the priests to Nabalhi, and from there, I journeyed to Ch’Nako. Jagongo journeyed with us, spreading word that we were all part of a new alliance, one fashioned to strike at our enemies by banding together. As many of us were concerned over friendship with Khmerans, but when remnants of the Gyosh forces came to our country along with Kulshedrans, and Fafnirians, everyone started to see the wisdom in forgiving the Khmerans for following their Dragon’s dictums.

“Unfortunately, a charismatic man named M’Biti brought word that Hashnora joined forces with Vamvos, planning to overthrow Sahni, and his claims were that we were next. He blamed Jagongo’s weakness and readiness to forget Sahni’s attacks on our soil for Vamvos’s proposed actions, and when he revealed that Hashnora had no ill will towards the people of Malababwe, and had never had such, he managed to garner support for his new movement; he wanted to remove Jagongo from her seat of power, join Hashnora’s and Takashi’s forces to ally with Vamvos, and defeat the Khmerans.

“Apparently, a deal was reached—once M’Biti gained enough followers—to shake hands with Hashnora, and begin moving into Nabalhi. I then sent for you and Labolas, but you never showed. Some of our spies said that you were traveling back and forth from Balroa, and I knew why, but remained silent on the matter. I thought when the time was right for you, when you finished your personal business and killed Scultone, you would come, but there has been no word of the Dragon’s death, so we came here to speak with Shamara and Jagongo, but that was over a week ago.”

Scar interrupted him then, explaining his troubles in Balroa. He also added that Tiamatish men had waylaid his efforts. His conclusions were that M’Biti’s men, and not Jagongo’s, must have been behind the attacks, but he then revealed the tribulations regarding Labolas’s letters.

“Then, someone must have intercepted your letter as well,” Hija said to her leader.

“Someone must have,” he muttered, looking at his empty plate. He sipped from a cup before continuing. “Well, I am sorry about Ylithia, Scar, but we have our own plight, and since you were not here to help then, I must ask for your help now.”

“Of course. I came here for your help as well, so let us work together and see this mess to its end.”

“Yes. The first thing we must do is defeat M’Biti, but his successor must be a supporter of Longinus, not Hashnora, yet that will likely open Malababwe to attacks from Vamvos. I think that much of M’Biti’s claims was true.”

“I’m not so sure. Labolas thinks that Vamvos has no interest in attacking Malababwe, although, now that we know his information was erroneous, perhaps I am wrong. I must admit, I am beyond confused, but tell me, do you have a plan? Are we safe here?”

“We are not safe, and judging by your story, I am inclined to believe that M’Biti’s forces wanted to draw you here, to their territory, alone, which means it was they, who deceived Labolas, but Hija, and my warriors, are here to reorganize our people, and with your aid, we can storm M’Biti’s corna. We must remove him and his ilk, and we must place our own ruler on the seat of power. This is the only way.”

“Who will replace M’Biti?”

“I cannot tell you,” the dark skinned warrior frowned.

“Alright…I understand; someone that Hashnora is unaware exists.”

“That is correct.”

“And what of attacking M’Biti? Won’t that endanger the city? Surely, there are many people here who will be injured.”

“Don’t worry,” Hija said, forcing a tight lipped smile. “We won’t barge through the streets slaying our opposition, but this is why we need you….”

The warrior thought back to Orubu’s death; it certainly contradicted her statement, yet he knew she was genuine. “Just tell me what to do.”

“We will leave the city,” N’Giwah said. “M’Biti’s men are already looking for us, so we must hurry.”

“Especially now that Orubu has been killed in broad daylight,” Hija sighed.

“Yes, that is unfortunate, yet I assume there was little choice,” he asked.

“He attacked first, not that the guards will care.”

“Some of them will, those loyal to Jagongo, yet we must leave soon. After we leave, there is no doubt that guards will hunt us down. It is unfortunate that we must slay our own kin, but we must if they do not listen to reason, and then we will march to Lake Inigri, to the east, from there, we follow the northern hills, which are treacherous; only the maddest of hunters travel those hills as they are teeming with lions.”

“Lions?” Scar was shocked.

“Yes, but they are no match for you, right?” N’Giwah smirked.

“No…I don’t know, probably not, but where do we go from the hills?”

“The hills will lead us around to the northern edge of the city, that is where M’Biti lives, so that is also the part of Osumba where most of his supporters live, and the fewest of ours. We will help you enter, but inside, you will be alone against the strongest of his warriors; they should be of little concern to you if you can use the Dragons’ powers, though. Kill everyone, but…you must promise me one thing,” he paused, holding Scar’s gaze.

“Tell me.”

“You must bring his Dragon’s gem to me, and I must give it to our new successor; it is required for a right of initiation, which must be performed before this person can usurp rulership.”

Scar sat back and thought for a moment. He didn’t believe there was a need to slay Tiamat just yet, even though he wanted to increase Scultone’s power. Furthermore, N’Giwah’s proclamations meant that Hashnora was in fact behind Kiechiv’s death, if through M’Biti, which also allowed them a return to Eltanrof upon the conclusion of N’Giwah’s plot. Planning an attack in Qing Sho will certainly be Labolas’s next move. Looking back to his friend’s dark eyes, he smiled.

“You have my word. I will slay M’Biti, but after that, we must confer will Labolas. Obviously, Hashnora must be killed sooner rather than later. With him out of the picture, Longinus’s efforts should go unopposed, and then I can start collecting the remaining gems. Your people may give me theirs as a final token for my tribulations.”

“We have to go,” one of N’Giwah’s men said. He had walked over from a round opening within the corna’s farthest wall. “The guards are questioning people outside.”

“Be quick,” Hija said, coming to her feet.

Scar and N’Giwah nodded to each other. Then, they all filed out from the dining hall. Outside, the sky was growing dark; they had only a few hours of sunlight left, so they maintained a speedy walk towards the southern edge of the city. Innumerable men and women were clustered in groups. They were speaking about the attack, and some of them looked Scar’s way, yet his compatriots forced him down a trail, where a dozen men gleaming with sweat pointed javelins.

“Stand aside,” N’Giwah barked.

“That one killed a man. She must be tried,” a man wearing a leopard fur about his shoulders ordered.

“You are mistaken,” N’Giwah shouted back.

“Stop,” Hija, said, placing her hand on his shoulder. “Yes, I killed Orubu. I will go with you without conflict.”

“Hija,” N’Giwah yelled.

“No, my friend, I must do this. Everything will be all right,” she then turned to the guard. “Detain me. I won’t resist.”

“A wise decision,” the guard captain agreed.

Scar’s wide eyes glossed over the scene. “You’re going to let her go?”

“She is doing this for us, for our efforts,” N’Giwah whispered with a heavy heart. He gave her a fierce look while the guards dragged her away. “We must carry out our plan if we hope to see her again. Come.”

 

****

 

The crew reached the lake by nightfall. There, they rested without even a campfire. Croaking frogs kept Scar awake all night; he was unable to stop thinking of how Hija let herself be captured for someone else’s actions, but by first light, everyone rose to resume their march. Hours later, they reached the hills.

“Tracks here,” one of the women said. “The lion’s den may not be far.”

“Mm, let us avoid them at all costs,” N’Giwah answered.

“I thought you wanted me to kill them,” Scar said.

“Only if they get in our way. There is no need to harm them otherwise.”

Frowning, Scar shrugged indifferently. He watched as the group dug their fingers into the soil, allowing it to creep up their limbs. Some of them placed their hands on thin trees; their skin turned to bark, and then, they held rocks to their vitals. Their molding magic created stone plates for protection. All of them left their joints uncovered for better mobility before ultimately moving forwards.

“A shame this Dragon’s magic will be lost; I always found it rather fascinating,” the giant mused.

“Yes, there are many who agree, yet it seems it is a tool always used for war.”

Puffing sweat from his lips, Scar scowled, complaining of the heat. N’Giwah looked up into the sky. Malababwe’s arid regions rarely held cloud coverage, and the insects swarmed unceasingly.

“We will find some shade soon.”

They pressed onwards through what were essentially small mountains with little vegetation. Rodents scurried to bolt holes, and immense birds rode thermals far overhead. A snake slithered by, and lizards performed push ups from atop stones. A moment after rounding a craggy hill, which looked to have been pulled in half by inexplicable forces, a muffled growl resounded.

A lioness crept from her belly as her tail flicked. Scar drew his sword. An ear piercing whistle followed, which nearly sent the brute to the ground; one of the party had unleashed the sound in an effort to frighten the cat. She fled, bounding behind bristly bushes.

“Good, we will be safe for a time,” N’Giwah commented. “The lions spook easily, but she will warn her family, and they will attack if we do not hurry.”

Picking up their pace, they practically ran through the hills. Rocks were kicked in their haste, but they were a fit bunch, agile, and by sunset, N’Giwah claimed they were safe from beasts. Treading downhill, over a hunting trail denoted by broken javelins and shredded, hide armor, they left danger long behind them, and started moving west. Scar held a hand over his eyes to block the golden rays of an evening sun.

“I see people out there,” he said.

“Yes, I am certain they also see us, but they will be inside their homes when we reach the city perimeter.”

“Unless they’re guards searching for us,” someone mentioned.

Scar raised a brow, looking to N’Giwah. He shrugged as though it mattered little. Jutting his chin out, he pointed and resumed marching.

With nightfall came mosquitoes. They didn’t bother the Tiamatish, who were covered from head to toe in their strange, magical armor, so Scar also animated his Kulshedran steel, which drew glances. When the form of the first corna grew visible in the dead of night, N’Giwah halted his men.

“Alright, listen, Scar,” he spoke in hushed tones. “Wait here until you see a flaming javelin fly. Once you do, run for that building. We will do our best to draw the guards away from the King Chief’s hut, so when you arrive, make directly for it.”

“How will I know which one it is?”

“It is the only with peaks, three of them, fashioned as symbol of Tiamat, the God of nature, wisdom, and sanctuary.”

“And there will be guards within?”

“Unfortunately, yes, but they should offer little resistance to you.”

“And the gem?”

“Will be lodge in the shield of Tiamat, an enormous, turtle shell; it is probably hanging on the wall behind the throne.”

“Understood…be careful.”

“Hold on,” N’Giwah said, placing a hand on Scar’s upper arm. “Once you have it, make for this spot. We will return here ahead of you.”

He nodded, perfunctorily. His friend smacked him gently on the shoulder, and took off fast as a lion. The others followed, and they were out of sight in a matter of seconds.

Scar ground his teeth. He was nervous; not for his safety, but for that of his friends. So far as he knew, N’Giwah’s plan was to attract attention without fighting, draw the guards from M’Biti’s corna, run through the city, and circle back towards the hills. If this goes off without a hitch, they shouldn’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes, but once beyond the city’s exterior, they will have to engage the guards. Well…hopefully deaths will be cut to a minimum.

His eyes went wide when an orange glow soared through the air. Instantly, his muscles contracted, and he was racing as fast as possible towards the radiance. From the javelin, which had erupted into a flaming shaft, he cut to his left, raced beyond two, squat cornas, and on his right, a hundred yards away, stood a slightly taller, and much longer, building. Three, stone points were molded from its roof, so the warrior moved to a rounded corner, looking for the entrance. Instead, he found a hole about chest high, and peeked inside. Dozens of warriors were grabbing various weapons and shields; an entire squad fled the hut, though.

“It’s him,” one man yelled.

“Oh, they spotted me,” he cursed under his breath, drew his sword, and dashed around to the front of the building.

The entrance faced the city’s center, and blocking his way were stony fighters, who were pulling their hands away from the corna’s exterior. Engaging the power of Kulshedra, Scar knocked a handful into the dirt by way of rippling energy. He hopped over them, utilized Gyo’s light over his great sword, thus illuminating his surroundings and blinding the defenders, and finally slashed at the opposition.

Two fell with a single, horizontal blow. More were pulling an old man from a bed of animal pelts. Since the building wasn’t large or lavish, and held only the one egress, Scar easily strode forwards, hacking into flesh. Blood painted the walls, but the Tiamatish were fearless; they reared back before hurling javelins and spears, yet their modest efforts simply bounced off the Dragon Slayer’s armor.

“Stand aside! I am here for M’Biti. No one else needs to die.”

Three guards stepped in to attack. They slashed with stone khopeshes, dealing little damage to Scar’s steel. He retaliated by kicking one in the stomach, shattering the weapon of a second, and with his free hand, he knocked the rest over with Kulshedran magic. M’Biti and four others stayed huddling against the far wall, behind the throne—a wicker seat padded in lion furs. The gleaming, gem lodged within an immense, scuted shell drew his eye.

“Damn you, King Killer. You have come for me as well?” the old man yelled.

His loose skin and wiry physique shook with rage, making the many, small bones, beads, and stones in his hair and beard jingle. The guards quickly shielded him as he placed his hand to the wall, covering his figure in stone.

“You have joined Hashnora. You have forsaken peace, and worst of all, you sent your men to kill Kiechiv.” Holding his ferocity at bay, the Dragon Slayer stood still. The guards, on the other hand, started inching to their right, pulling their leader with them. “I can’t let you leave…you have taken from me, and you have taken from your people.”

“You are mad! I have done nothing to you, and my rule here is an affront to you and your treacherous ways. Hashnora has shown us the light. We know what the Khmerans are plotting, and that silver tongued devil; his words pour like honey, but Longinus wants us enslaved as the other, powerless tribes. That’s why you’ve come to kill me and take my gem.”

What is he saying? The warrior eyed the Tiamatish. Their jaws clenched, their chests heaved, and their muscles tensed, ready for action. He took a step, pointing his blade.

“Lies…all lies… Hashnora has tricked your people and placed you here, a puppet for his command. Flee, leave your King Chief! I offer you life, but him…under his orders…a treasured life has been lost.”

Doubt flickered over the guards’ faces. They gave each other furtive glances. M’Biti looked to them, noticing their faith in him was slipping like sand in an ever tightening grip.

“What are you doing? Don’t just stand there! Kill him!”

“This is your last chance,” Scar warned. “The way out is right behind me. The rest of your lives…your friends and families are waiting for you, but him…? He is a worm, a simple, foolish, old man under the boot of Hashnora.” The warrior hurriedly looked to his rear. Others were coming to their feet, or their hands and knees, ready to fight or flee. “Yes, run. I will not strike you down, even though your man, Orubu, tried to kill me. It isn’t your fault,” he sighed. “Hashnora, he’s the one, he’s your enemy, and mine.”

When the guards behind Scar made for the door, M’Biti’s guards shrugged, dropped their weapons, and fled. The old man chuckled in futility.

“This is what I get for siding with my enemy’s enemy—abandonment. Fine, warrior, strike me down, a simple, foolish, old man, who wanted only his revenge against the likes of that cow herder,” he derided, “I wanted only for my wives and children to live in a world free of deceit and oppression, but I will tell you this; if you let me live, let me flee, I will tell you it was not I that ordered Kiechiv’s death, no….”

Gnashing his teeth and clenching his jaw, Scar wondered if the man knew something, if whatever he was going to say was the truth. Furthermore, he knew that N’Giwah and the others were likely fighting by the hills, and he wanted to lend his assistance.

“Choose your words carefully, M’Biti. If I am not convinced, I will kill you.”

“And if you are convinced, you will let me go?”

“Yes,” he hissed.

Nodding slowly, the stone covered king said, “Sirokai ordered his death.” Scoffing, Scar called him a liar. “I speak the truth,” he yelled, a tremble of fear in his voice. “Hashnora said that his death would bring you here. We waited for you, but you came looking for N’Giwah, and he was here because he wanted help stopping me from taking the throne. All of you are fools, chasing your tails like mongrel muts, but Hashnora sees the future of your world; you are killing kings and stealing gems, so that you alone can rule us and bring back the Dragons!”

“You understand nothing.”

“I understand that I have been played…I was supposed to be able to kill you. Light Bearers were supposed to be here, anticipating your maneuvers….”

They remained staring at one another. Scar wondered how much of the information was true. Probably none. Hashnora has convinced these people, somehow, that he is their savior, and I their enemy, but I can’t let him go…he must be slain to ensure a just ruler, a brave ruler seeking peace, and not war. I hope I’m doing the right thing.

“Well, there you have it…I am leaving now. I am leaving the country. You will never see me again.”

The old man started creeping from the corner. Slowly, Scar turned to watch him go by, but with glinting blade, he slashed, removing the king’s head from his stone graced body. Self-hatred made his stomach churn; he detested lying, killing those unarmed.

“Well,” he breathed, “it had to be done. I can live with this.” After taking a look at the carnage; the bodies of men and women, broken weapons, blood spattered walls and bedding, he turned his leer to the shield. Walking past the throne, he reached for the country’s symbol of worship, a tool once used to defend against the Dragons, and rather than prying the gem from it, he nabbed the whole thing from the wall, snuffed out his blade, secured it to his back, and skulked from the corna. “I don’t see anyone….”

He stepped into the chilly night. It was nearly pitch-black as Osumba housed none other than Tiamatish; there were no torches. Following his friend’s instructions, he fled from the city, thundering over the veldt. For minutes, he ran and ran without a thought in his head, yet a consuming feeling nagged at his heart. He slowed his pace once the hills grew apparent, yet he saw no one. A moment later, someone called his name.

“It is I,” he responded. “M’Biti is dead. I have the shield,” he said, holding it overhead.”

A figure came jogging from behind a boulder. “Well done.”

“N’Giwah, I,” he stopped himself.

The Tiamatish walked over as his crew also emerged from their hiding place. “You have done the Tiamatish a great service tonight, my friend,” the warrior cheered. “Let me see it,” he said, taking the shield and running his hand over it. Scar deactivated his armor. “It is a fine piece of craftsmanship…. What is it? You seem troubled, yet you have single handedly saved my country.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. It was your men, your cunning that allowed us a victory tonight, and Hija…if she yet lives, her sacrifice made all this possible.”

“Mm…that is true. Is that what’s troubling you? Hija?”

“No, well yes, but no; M’Biti mentioned something, and it is likely but one of Hashnora’s lies…but he said that Sirokai ordered Kiechiv’s death.”

“The Scultonian wizard?”

While they spoke, the others gathered around to witness the shield. They joked, and cheered, and clapped, thanking N’Giwah and Scar for a swift victory. They also praised two people who had fallen to the guards.

“You know what? It doesn’t matter. I am sure you have much work to do, and I must return to Eltanrof. Labolas needs to know what’s happened here, and I’m sure he’ll want to arrange some kind of meeting for whoever this new king is. Besides, Longinus also needs to know…as a matter of fact…no, it’s nothing. I am glad this over for now, but when the time comes, I must have that gem.”

“I’d give it to you now if we did not need it ourselves.”

“I know,” Scar smiled. “Thank you. I’ll see you again soon. We’ll probably meet up in Alduheim.”

“I thought you wanted us to travel together,” N’Giwah squinted.

“I did, but….”

They remained looking upon one another. “Like old times, eh?” N’Giwah chuckled. “But listen, for safe travels, don’t go through the hills, keep Osumba to your right as you head south. Once you reach the lake, follow its southern edge to the east, and from there, march south. Beyond the forest, lies Ch’Nako. Carry this with you, and ask for Dhera, she is my sister, and she will guide you safely.”

N’Giwah handed him a woven trinket. The friends then embraced, whispering sweet biddings before the Dragon Slayer wandered south into the night.

 

 


The Dragon of Time Two, Dragon Slayer

With the death of Kulshedra, Dragon of Truth, it has been revealed that Scar, the mercenary, is in fact Sarkany, the Dragon Slayer, a creature fashioned for the sole purpose of purging the Dragons from the world of Tiamhaal, yet such a thing is not so simple. Kings and queens yet war amongst one another. They, too, lie, connive, and coerce, and so, Scar and his friends must find a way to persuade those few, benevolent rulers to band together. In the midst of peace talks and dead Dragons, those still in the worship of the beasts grow more powerful. Some of them even doubly praise their oppressor in an effort to wield more magic. Now, united with his friends, Scar sets his gaze upon a hopeful horizon, but is strength in numbers sufficient to keep the Dragons from completing their machinations?

  • ISBN: 9781370193714
  • Author: Aaron Dennis
  • Published: 2016-11-17 20:05:18
  • Words: 106471
The Dragon of Time Two, Dragon Slayer The Dragon of Time Two, Dragon Slayer