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The Siege of Zoldex

Title: The Siege of Zoldex

Series: The Imperium Saga: Fall of the Imperium Trilogy, 3

Author: Clifford B. Bowyer

ISBN: 978-0-9744354-6-6

Product Code: BK0009

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 576

Release Date: February 2007

Cover Price: $29.95

Our Price: $19.95

 

 

 

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Book Jacket

 

The war for the Imperium has begun!

A year has passed since the forces of Zoldex first began arriving in Trespias. The time for his conquest has come! The dark Mage has waited long enough. His forces are vast and strong, and he is confident that nothing will stand in his path.

Follow the adventures of the heroes of the realm as they try to preserve the Imperium and confront Zoldex’s forces. Their hearts are true and their intentions noble, but will that be enough to overcome such overwhelming odds?

 This is the continuation of…

 

SOLARA

The mystral warrior finally content with life is dragged back into the conflict, fighting valiantly to preserve the ideals of the man she loves.

 

THAMAR

The dwarven hero embarks on a mission of vital importance that could shift the balance of power in the south. Failure would be devastating, but to achieve success means surrendering centuries of bitterness and prejudice.

 

ADONIS

The leader of ISIA finds himself trying desperately to save lives and prevent the massacre of the people at the hands of the legions of Zoldex. Forced to defend the front lines with little hope for reprieve, Adonis boldly faces the fate of the Imperium as vast armies leave nothing living in their wake.

 

ARIFOS

The Madrew legend returns to the role he thrives on most: hunting and slaughtering the servants of Zoldex. Alone, however, he knows that there is little hope for the future, unless his fellow companions can successfully unite the races against a common foe.

 

WARLORD BRAKSIS

The knight feared lost returns to a realm fraught with devastation. Can the symbol of the Imperium restore order, or is it too late to stop the sinister machinations of Zoldex?

The conclusion of the Fall of the Imperium Trilogy is gripping and exciting. The legions of Zoldex have swept the land, and their conquest is almost complete! The heroes of the realm struggle desperately to seek new alliances to combat the overwhelming forces of their foe. No matter how hard they try, the odds are against them, and the heroes find themselves being pushed back. The Imperium will truly fall, and life will never be the same again.


 

Book Excerpt

PROLOGUE

The merchant schooner, Grelltor’s Pride, sailed through the calm waters; its hull full of armaments to be brought back to its home port of Kramden. Grelltor, the captain of this ship for the better part of a century, glanced up at the Frocomon flag blowing gently in the cool morning breeze. He recalled a time when the flag inspired fear in those that saw it—for it represented the strongest fleet to sail the oceans blue.

Time had a way of changing things, though. His crew was on edge, as they had been since the day they first set sail months before. Euristies, king of Frocomon, had personally come to Grelltor with a mission of the utmost import. The young king feared that since the Empress had been kidnapped, and with rumors of orc migrations in the south, that his own kingdom would soon see the bitter agony of war once more. Uncertain whom they could trust, Euristies dispatched Grelltor to Vohlmuth, a thriving dwarven city in the Mourning Mountains of Falestia that was not widely known to the communities at large.

As a proud Captain of Frocomon, Grelltor willingly accepted the mission along with four other schooners. Grelltor’s Pride was the only ship to survive the voyage. Opening trade routes with Vohlmuth may have been an effective way to keep the arming of the kingdom a secret from potential foes, but in getting to them, one needed to sail through pirate waters and directly past the Island of No Return.

Grelltor did not care about any of this. He remembered the days when the Frocomon fleet was the strongest and proudest in the world. Even though his role at the time had been swabbing the decks and peeling potatoes, he could feel the electric and infectious attitudes of the men on board the mighty warships. Now, as he glanced around, he wondered what happened to the pride and heritage that all Frocomon sailors had been raised with. They had become a broken and defeated kingdom, even if all past indiscretions against the Imperium were allegedly forgiven.

It was not too long ago that the Empress had ordered Admiral Morex and the Imperial Gallies to come protect the vessels of Frocomon from the increasing pirate attacks. He could remember how relieved his crew had been at that development, as if they were not strong enough to protect their own ships and families. All Grelltor could think about was how ironic it was that one of the men responsible for laying Frocomon low and decimating the fleet was now coming back to defend it.

Even then, Admiral Morex was not enough. His ships were lost and the pirates continued plundering every ship they came across. This is what the Imperium apparently did for Frocomon: it made them weak and dependent upon others. If Grelltor had his way, Frocomon would be strong again. That strength would start right here and now, on his ship. That strength could not be needed at a more pivotal time either. Not only were they dealing with pirates now, but also with the venomous amphibiers.

These green-skinned and armored warriors were more devastating than anything that Grelltor had ever seen before. They were relentless in their attacks. Even if their ship were destroyed, the amphibiers would take to the sea and strike from below. They needed to be killed to each and every last creature in order to claim a true victory. With the amphibier weapon, though—those damnable blasts of red energy that lanced out across the water and destroyed anything that they touched—very few ships had managed to face the amphibiers and live to tell the tale.

Rumors spread to every port along the eastern seabed that the amphibiers were invading Aquatica. Grelltor was not certain of the validity of such a claim, but if it were true, then the attack had apparently been in the works for almost fourteen months now. Perhaps that was true, and if so, that was why the amphibiers only patrolled with one or two vessels at a time. Grelltor did not like to think about what would happen if an entire amphibier fleet sailed upon Frocomon. Very few would survive even the first skirmish. That thought was nearly unbearable.

“Captain!” a cry came from the crow’s nest.

Grelltor glanced up and followed the pointing arm. A ship had been sighted. Grelltor lifted his optical enhancers and turned the knob gently to focus on the approaching vessel. It was smaller than them, but also much swifter, for it was gaining quickly. It only had two masts compared to his three, but he was certain that they did not have nearly as much cargo in their holds.

“What is it, Captain?”

“It’s not the amphibiers,” Grelltor commented. After he said it, he noted that those near him seemed to relax considerably. “They are not showing any colors at all.”

“Pirates?”

“Could be,” Grelltor said. “Better to be cautious than to get caught with our pants down.”

“I agree,” the first mate chimed in.

“Better get down to the cargo hold and start passing around the armor and weapons. If they are attacking, let their cutlasses meet claymores.”

“You heard the Captain, to the cargo hold!”

Grelltor continued watching the ship as it closed the distance between them. It could definitely be a pirate ship, but it was not the White Squall, the flagship of the dreaded Kor. That in itself was a relief. Other pirates may be rough, but at least they would stand a chance.

Two young sailors ran up with armor for the Captain. Grelltor raised his arms and let them first put the steel chainlink mesh in place, and then fasten the breastplate over it. When he had been with the dwarves, he asked them to specially design this particular suit of armor for him. The breastplate was silver with the image of a drelenkin, the most fearsome creature of the deep, intricately crafted into the front. Grelltor placed a helmet with two webbed wings to the side over his head and fastened it below his graying beard. If they were a threat, they would learn that this was one ship that still had some bite left to it.

“Captain, they are raising a flag,” one of the sailors said handing the optical enhancers back to him.

Grelltor glanced through and winced as his fears were realized. It was indeed a pirate ship. The black flag with a skull and crossbones was being sent up to the top of the mainmast. They were still two days away from Kramden, but Grelltor was determined to get the armaments back to King Euristies safely. His king was depending upon him.

Lowering the optical enhancers, he placed it in a small leather satchel by the helm. Glancing out as his crew, he raised his new finely crafted dwarven sword in the air and cried out: “For the honor and pride of Frocomon!”

“For Frocomon!” the crew cried back.

“For King Euristies!”

“For Euristies!” they cheered again.

“All hands to battle stations!” ordered Grelltor, shouting.

The first mate stepped forward and repeated the order, then directed the sailors along the sides of the deck to prepare them for boarders. Archers were lined up as the first line of defense. A single catapult rested on the aft of the ship, and was now being prepared for the oncoming battle.

As Grelltor surveyed the deployment of his men, a frantic cry was let out. He glanced back just in time to see a steel ball splash harmlessly into the water off of their port side.

“Get that catapult ready!” Grelltor cried out. He had been in enough battles at sea to know that their opponents would be making minor adjustments and would soon hit their mark.

As if his thoughts were prophetic, a steel ball came crashing down and splintered his ship’s mainmast. Even if they survived this skirmish, it would take them a lot longer than two days to reach Kramden now.

“Where is my catapult?” Grelltor yelled.

“It’s no use, sir!” came a reply.

“What?” Grelltor demanded.

“Part of the mast landed on it. It will no longer function!”

“Archers!” Grelltor ordered and watched as sailors with bows and arrows rushed to the aft of the ship and prepared to unleash a volley at the quickly approaching pirate vessel.

Grelltor walked back and stood directly behind them. “On my signal,” he said. The ship continued to close in and he could see archers on the pirate ship with their bows ready as well. “Steady.”

The only thing of any satisfaction that he managed to see was the fact that his crew was far better armored and armed than the pirates. Many were topless or wearing little more protection than leather, whereas his own crew was now fully armored and armed with the best that the Vohlmuth dwarves had to offer. Even if the crew of Grelltor’s Pride failed this day, the pirates would know a bittersweet victory.

The archers aboard the pirate ship unleashed a volley of arrows. Several sailors with long shields raised them and deflected the wooden assault, but many others fell screaming. Grelltor grimaced once again at how weak the people of Frocomon had become. As a boy, he had once had an arrow lodged into his shoulder close to his neck, and still he had raised his sword to fight for his captain. The world had changed.

“Fire!” he called out and watched as three rows of sailors unleashed their volley of arrows into the midst of the pirates. He took slight satisfaction as many of the pirates faltered backwards or fell with blood seeping from their wounds.

The ship continued alongside of them and Grelltor knew that they were about to be boarded. “Swords!” he cried out. As the word left his mouth, pirates started to swing across from their ship to his along ropes fastened to their masts and rigging.

His men may have been better armored, but whatever leverage they gained in armaments and protection, they lost just as much in skill to the swift and crafty pirates. Before Grelltor could even return to the main deck to challenge his first foe, he saw his ship covered in the blood of his crew.

Grelltor was enraged. He held his shield, also adorned with the symbol of the drelenkin, in one hand, and his claymore in the other. He slammed his shield into the face of a man on his right, and then jabbed his sword in, piercing the pirate in the chest. “Push them back!”

With his first foe vanquished, Grelltor sprang into a group of three pirates and swung his sword in increasing arcs until the trio dropped to the deck with fatal wounds.

He felt a stinging pain in his back and turned to see a pirate jabbing him with a spear. With one swipe of his sword, the wooden shaft was shattered, and with another, he brought his sword up leaving a gaping wound across the pirate’s sternum.

Wincing, Grelltor lowered his sword and then pulled the head of the spear from his side. The pain was excruciating, but he knew that it could have been even worse, if not fatal, had he not been wearing the chainmail mesh. Tossing the spear tip aside, he picked his sword back up and growled as he looked for another foe.

As he scanned the battlefield, he could see that his men were beginning to hold their own. The pirates had come on swift and strong, but the crew of Grelltor’s Pride was indeed pushing them back. That was when he started to hear the pirates chanting a single name: “Scar.”

Grelltor searched for this unknown foe and watched as a man garbed mostly in black with light gray boots and gloves, golden shoulder pads, and silver plating woven into his officer’s jacket, stepped onto the part of the deck nearest him. He had light brown hair that was long and flowed freely in disarray. A similar hue wrapped around his smiling face in a full beard, though it was closely cropped to his face. That smile, though, and the look in his eyes, were what got to Grelltor.

All the way across the deck, he could see the sternness in the greenish-blue eyes; an intensity as if the pirate was doing the one thing that he was good at. He was nothing more than a killing machine that needed to be stopped.

As Grelltor sized up his foe, the one he presumed was the pirate leader, he watched the man swiftly spin around and drop half a dozen sailors in his wake. He had a single scimitar that was thicker than a cutlass, but moved just as swiftly, and cut far more deeply in the skilled pirate’s hand.

The Captain killed two more pirates as he walked towards Scar, never taking his eyes or his focus off of his target. If he were to die this day, then this pirate would be joining him. Standing mere feet from his target, Grelltor cried out: “Scar!”

The man looked up and bowed slightly as if he had been a gentleman and accepted a duel of honor. He then grinned again as he raised his scimitar and stood ready to strike.

Grelltor stepped forward, wincing again as the pain from his wound sent jolts through him.

Scar paused and lowered his sword. “You are wounded,” he said. “I will accept your surrender. There is no need for further bloodshed.”

“How gallant,” Grelltor spat. “The only further blood shed will be your own.”

“This will not be a fair fight,” Scar protested.

“Since when did pirates ever care about being fair?” Grelltor growled as he lunged forward and brought his claymore swinging down.

Scar raised his sword and deflected the blow easily. The shield then swung across in an uppercut and slammed into his jaw. As the pirate’s head snapped back, he fell to the ground. Rubbing his chin with his hand, Scar glared at the elderly Captain. “Don’t say I didn’t give you a chance.”

“Don’t worry, scum,” Grelltor replied. “You’ll find that some of the Frocomon seamen can still hold their own. We weren’t always prey to your scavenger ways.”

Scar rolled backwards and then flipped straight up, landing on his feet. He stepped on the head of his sword and raised the hilt up, where he grasped it and raised it to defend himself again. As soon as he did so, he began grinning again, though this time his teeth were covered with blood and a stream of it slowly escaped from the right side of his mouth and flowed into his beard.

Grelltor stepped in, swinging his sword in several quick feinting motions to try and force Scar to commit to a particular tactic. The pirate did not take the bait, though, and easily deflected each move, not leaving an opening for the seasoned Captain to take advantage of him again.

To both combatants, the battle around them seemed to vanish as their focus narrowed intently on each other. To them, all that existed was this battle and their opponent. The two warriors were both highly skilled, and wound up impressing each other. There was more to Grelltor than an injured old Captain who was too stubborn to admit when he was defeated, and there was more to Scar than a brash and cocky pirate.

Their battle continued on for several minutes. Grelltor was starting to slow down. His movements were becoming sluggish, and he was having trouble deflecting the younger pirate’s advances. That this sluggishness might be due to his age never even entered his mind though, for he was certain that he had lost too much blood and his life was draining from him, just as life seemed to have drained from the people of Frocomon.

Seeing his opponent starting to slow down, Scar frowned as his thrusts were weakly deflected. Moving swiftly, he dodged behind one final lunge by Grelltor and brought the pommel of his sword slamming down on the nape of his neck, an area unprotected by the layers of armor that the Captain was wearing.

Grelltor crumbled to the ground, his eyes blurring and consciousness fleeing him. His last memory was of Scar bending over to taunt him. 

*   *   *   *   *

Scar bent over and gently touched the Captain’s neck to make certain that the man was still alive. “Rest now, for you are too noble a warrior to not live to fight again another day.”

Seeing that the Captain had lost consciousness, Scar stood up and surveyed the battle. His forces were clearly winning, and now that the captain had been defeated, those that were still fighting seemed to lose their spirit and will to go on.

“Kill them all!” one bald-headed pirate laughed.

“No!” Scar called out as he pushed the pirate aside. “We are not butchers. If they have surrendered, then we shall accept that surrender without further bloodshed.”

“But, sir,” the bald-headed pirate protested.

Scar reared back and launched a punch at the man, sending him backwards with blood spurting from his nose. “This is not open for discussion.”

The man on the ground was clutching his nose, glaring at Scar; his eyes seething with hatred.

“Who speaks for the crew?” Scar asked.

The first mate stepped forward, a line of blood dripping from his scalp. “I do.”

“What is your cargo?” asked Scar. “Do not try to lie, for if you do, we will feed you to the sharks.”

“We are transporting weapons and armor to King Euristies in the war effort,” the man replied.

Scar stared at him for a moment in contemplation. He stepped forward and examined the suit of armor the first mate was wearing, and then glanced down at the sword on the ground. Lifting it up, he checked it for weight and balance. “This is a magnificent sword.”

“It was built by dwarves,” the first mate offered.

“That would explain it,” Scar said. “Dwarves pay close attention to their craft. Far superior to anything a human blacksmith would ever forge.”

The slight at humans turned more than one head as a few pirates gathered around the bald-headed man. None of the pirates seemed too pleased with his putting down their own kind in favor of dwarves, or any race for that matter.

“Garthe,” Scar called out, glancing back at the bald-headed pirate. “You will go down to the cargo holds and collect half of the armor, shields, and swords.”

“Half?” snarled Garthe, unable to believe what he was hearing.

The look of shock on the first mate’s face closely resembled that of the pirates.

“Yes, half,” Scar replied. “Frocomon is facing the amphibiers, just as we are.”

“They could use these weapons against us, though!” Garthe protested.

“Do I have to remind you again?” Scar asked with a threatening glare on his face. “This is not a discussion.”

Garthe stared at him, holding his gaze for a tense moment.

“Do as he says, Garthe,” a feminine voice said from behind him.

Garthe continued holding Scar’s gaze and then replied: “Aye, Captain.”

The woman behind him was quite striking. She was five feet and six inches with flowing golden blonde hair and light blue eyes. Her smile widened the moment she saw Scar and she licked her lips, admiring the man. She was wearing a loose fitting white ruffled shirt with black pants. She also had knee high black boots and elbow long black gloves. A pair of black leather straps intersected her shirt, each with a matching scimitar fastened to her back. A pair of daggers was also visible in her boots, as well as two throwing knives at the end of her gloves. The lavender sash around her waist also concealed several throwing knives, but none were visible.

 The woman identified as the Captain stepped forward and grabbed Scar, pulling his head to hers and passionately kissing him. Several of the pirates began laughing, others cheered. As she pulled back from the kiss, she wiped her mouth clean of the blood and looked at it on the backside of her gloves. “I hope that the man that did this to you, my husband, has been slain?”

“He will not trouble us again,” Scar cryptically replied.

The Captain watched him for a moment, her eyes narrowed to silently question what he meant by that. Then for the sake of the crew, she smiled and laughed. “I have never seen a more vicious or bloodthirsty pirate, my love.”

Scar bowed politely, grinning. “Alixia, you honor me with your praise.”

“Amphibiers!” a pirate cried down from the deck of the pirate ship, the Sea Splitter.

Scar ran to the bow and leaned over, spotting two of the unmistakable amphibier vessels. “There are two of them.”

“Grab what you already have and let’s move out,” Alixia ordered.

The two remained on the Grelltor’s Pride as they hurried the rest of their crew back to their own ship. Scar glanced over at the first mate and saw the fear and unasked question in his eyes: What about them?

“Shall we take prisoners?” Scar asked.

“No, my love,” Alixia said sternly.

“The amphibiers will not leave prisoners alive. Leaving them in this condition will surely mean their deaths.”

“Then they will assist us by delaying the pursuit of our foes,” Alixia decided.

Scar glanced back at the first mate, a look of sorrow and apology on his face. He then tossed the claymore back to the man and bowed. “May you die well.”

  The first mate stared at them incredulously. He could not believe that the pirates were just leaving them to be slaughtered. In desperation, he tried whatever he could to survive long enough to see another day. “What if we joined you? Became pirates?”

Scar studied the man for a moment and could see the desperation in his eyes. As he turned his gaze on Alixia, he watched her shake her head no.

As the two returned to their own ship, Scar grasped Alixia’s arm and could feel the tension inside of her. “Damn Zoldex and his armada,” she swore under her breath. Pulling away from him, she walked up to the bridge and began shouting out orders to the crew. The Sea Splitter quickly got underway, putting distance between themselves and the approaching amphibiers.

Scar watched the ship in the background and felt sorry for the men who would not be returning to their families this day. They had been doing nothing more than their duty and looking to protect their loved ones, and now they would find little more than death and failure. Even if the Sea Splitter had not found them and attacked, he doubted very much that the Grelltor’s Pride could ever outrun the amphibiers, even on her best day. That one fact was little comfort when he heard the screams of the sailors in the distance as the amphibiers boarded the ship and slaughtered every man that had been left standing.


 

CHAPTER 1

 The two cloaked men cautiously walked up the cobblestone path in the dead of a stormy night. The rain was pounding down upon them, drenching them through and through. Both felt a chill like they never had before, for the rain was so cold that they thought that the path would turn to ice under its steady barrage.

They knew that it was time to leave. They had been in the port of Hartris for several months enacting repairs to the Reliance, but the seasons were changing. The weather was getting decidedly colder, and both men had heard stories of harsh winters that would freeze even the oceans.

Only in the highest peaks of Falestia had either man ever heard of the phenomenon known as snow, but from the stories of those working desperately to prepare for the winter, neither wanted to be around to experience this firsthand.

Lightning lanced across the sky so brightly that the two men had to stop for a moment to readjust their eyesight. Neither wished to remain where they were for long. When the lightning flashed, they could see eyes all around them in side streets and windows watching them. The owner of any one of those pairs of eyes could decide to attack them at any given moment.

One of the men tapped the other on the shoulder and pointed to a tavern that was lit from the inside. He yelled out something, but the rain was pounding so loud that his words were lost in the storm. His meaning was clearly conveyed, though, by his beckoning finger and then his advance upon the small building.

It was called Dead Man’s Drift, a name that the taller of the two men did not particularly like the sound of. Just like everything else he had seen since arriving in Hartris, the tavern looked broken down, unsavory, and old. As the two men stepped inside the door, they drew the attention of dozens of patrons, none of which were human. There was one common facet in each of their eyes: treachery and deceit. They were all ruffians that appeared willing to slit their own friends’ throats if it meant earning a coin or two.

The two men scanned the room, searching for their quarry. One of their sailors had told them that they had seen a human in this very tavern the night before, and though he was highly intoxicated, he told stories of the Seven Kingdoms and mighty hunts that he had been on with his brother. If someone from the Seven Kingdoms was here, then that was of interest to Admiral Morex.

He and the Captain of the Reliance, Harnell, had ventured into the stormy night on the eve of their departure. They wished to find this man and speak to him. If he wished to return home, then he would be welcome aboard the Imperial flagship. After all, Morex was certain that in the time since their flight from the pirate ship, White Squall, the Imperium had gone to war and every individual with battle experience would be needed for the Imperium to survive the months and years ahead.

Harnell nodded towards the bar and Morex followed his gaze. There was indeed a human sitting there, though the Admiral could see that the man looked as if he truly belonged exactly where he was.

As they approached him, Morex studied his features. He was wearing pieces of what was once finely crafted red and silver armor. Most of it had apparently been lost, and what remained was charred and dented. Beneath the remnants of the armor was a spotted leather vest with a light orange-beige tinge to it, and torn leather pants. A red cape was also hanging in tatters down the man’s back.

He had long blonde hair that was uncombed and clumped together in places with mud. A beard almost as long and untended spread from his face, obscuring his cheeks and lower neck. As Morex sat down next to him, he could see that the man’s eyes were drooping and clouded, as if he had not seen a day without alcohol in a long time.

To his right, a woman was clutching him tightly and protectively. Morex had never seen her type before, and could not identify her species. She was thin and frail, more so than even an elf, though she shared their pointed ears, and had an intoxicating beauty about her that was quite alluring. Her skin was a golden-yellow that seemed to radiate and leave a slight glow all around her. Her hair was a thick forest-green shade that flowed over her shoulder and down to her chest. The only thing the lovely creature was wearing was a loose-fitting white garment that one could almost see through.

The blonde-haired man did not even look at Morex as the Admiral studied him. He was focusing solely on his drink, and then leaned back and took a big swig. Slamming the glass down, he glanced up and called out: “Barkeep!”

Morex glanced over at the creature behind the bar. Not only did he have two heads and four arms, but his skin was also a thick lavender hue. One of the heads turned to peer at the blonde-haired man, and nodded quickly when he saw that another beer was needed. Two of his arms sprung into action as he was assisting another patron, and then he slid the mug of ale down the bar until the red-armored man caught it.

“Thanks,” he replied as he leaned back and took another swig of his ale.

Morex leaned forward and tried to see the man more clearly. From the inflection of his voice and the wardrobe beneath his armor, he would guess that the man was from Dartie. A hunter.

Captain Harnell tapped Morex on the shoulder. As the Admiral leaned back, he bent forward to whisper to him. “We should do this and get out of here.” He then lifted his eyes to focus Morex’s attention.

The Admiral followed the subtle gaze and spotted several creatures that also were like none he had ever seen, but they were watching the humans closely. Their bodies were all covered in white fur with extended snouts like a dog’s, and pointed canine ears atop their heads. They were all wearing a variety of leathers and armor, but the one thing that their wardrobes all had in common were the strings of ears that hung around their necks.

Morex nodded to Harnell. He certainly did not want their ears added to the necklaces. Reaching over, he tapped the blonde-haired man on the shoulder. There was no reply to his attempt.

The woman beside him leaned back and shot an evil glare at the Admiral. She did not know who he was, but she definitely did not like the fact that he was trying to interrupt her time with this man.  She then snuggled closer to him and started twirling her finger in his hair in little loops as she gently began to kiss his ear.

 “Excuse me,” Morex said, again with no response.

The woman leaned back again and grinned deviously at him, as if she had the warrior under some kind of spell.

“Excuse me,” Morex repeated more forcefully as he grabbed the man by the shoulder. “I hear that you are from the Seven Kingdoms.”

The last part of the statement got the man’s attention. He turned an angry glare at the Admiral and tried to hold it, but belched and then began laughing as if it was the funniest thing in the world.

“A Dartian Hunter, perhaps?” Morex continued.

“What do you know about it?” the man challenged, his voice only slurring a little.

“I too am from the Seven Kingdoms,” Morex said. “Dartais by birth.”

The man tried to focus on the admiral as if searching his mind for a memory of some kind. As the woman behind him reached over and started caressing his chest, he raised his hand and shooed her away. “Not now, I’m trying to think.”

“Humph,” the woman snorted as she crossed her arms, looking annoyed.

“My name is Morex,” the admiral replied. “This is Harnell.”

Harnell nodded slightly in greeting.

“I know those names,” the man said as he rubbed his bearded chin in contemplation. “You are an Admiral?”

“I am,” Morex replied. “And you are?”

The man stopped to think, as if he had not heard his name in a long time. A tear started to flow from his right eye and his hands began trembling. “My name is... Boudie.”

Morex glanced at Harnell, who merely shrugged in return. Neither could fathom why the large man was starting to break down. “Can you tell us how you came here?”

“I came with…” his words trailed off for a moment, and then he choked back the tears as he continued, “my brother.”

“Your brother?” Morex asked.

“Yes, Drew,” Boudie identified as he wiped his eyes of any tears.

“Why did you come here?”

“We heard from an elf about this land. She told us about how an evil horde swept through and devastated everything. We felt that if we came here and found a way to stop them, that we would be heroes.”

“You are a hero,” the woman whispered in a melodic tone into his ear. “You are my hero.”

Boudie shot her an angry look and then returned his gaze to the Admiral. “We failed.”

Morex watched as he took another swig of his ale, downing the entire glass in one gulp. Slamming it on the bar, he called out to the two-headed purple-skinned barkeeper again, who quickly sent another mug sliding down the table.

“When we got here,” Boudie continued, “we were so confident and certain that we were invincible. After all, not even dragons could stop us! What could an evil tyrant do?”

Morex just listened, nodding at the appropriate time so that the hunter would continue his tale.

“But we were wrong. We didn’t even find the leader, only some of his minor minions. They were like demons, stronger than anything either of us had ever faced.”

“Demons?” Harnell asked to clarify as he leaned closer to the tale.

“Even the smallest of them were taller than I, with muscles so large that they would put a giant to shame,” Boudie said, his eyes drifting back to the horror of the moment. “Their skin was a deep devilish red, with horns like that of a minotaur, only larger, jutting from their heads. Their mouths were fanged like that of a koxlen, and their eyes were ablaze.”

Harnell and Morex exchanged a glance as Boudie began shivering from the memory.

“When we saw them, we rushed in to fight them. They were marching with a legion of the dead. Madrew—like the elf we had met, dwarves, and numerous other creatures we could not identify. We fought our way through them, only to find these demons anxiously awaiting our approach.

“My brother broke through the lines first and charged right towards them. I called for him to wait, but he had always been impulsive. He never even reached them. One of the demons just raised his hand and closed his fist, and I watched as my brother began burning and crying out in agony. They flayed the flesh right off of him and left only his scorched bones behind.”

Boudie’s trembling grew worse and he clutched his ale with both hands, bringing it to his lips and downing another mug in its entirety as if the ale would deaden his feelings or help him to lose these memories.

“How is it that you escaped?” Morex asked.

Boudie jutted his thumb back to indicate the woman behind me. “Lyen saved me.”

Morex glanced at the woman more closely, not certain he understood how one such as she could have intervened in a battle such as the one Boudie was describing. “How?”

“She is a rootark,” Boudie said as if that explained it.

“I do not understand,” Morex said.

“Her people are one with nature,” Boudie said. “We had come across them earlier in our travels and stopped some others that were attacking them. When we explained why we were there, they told us that we were the heralds of the gods, the champions of the land that would push the horde back to the devilish plane from where they came.”

“But how did she save you?” Morex asked directly.

“Rootarks have some uncanny abilities. As I was on the battlefield, a hand came up from under the ground and pulled me. The grass began swirling around me as if it was quicksand, and I was dragged down. I thought that it was some kind of trap and was certain that I was dead, but Lyen created a hollow pocket in the ground and we were able to breathe. We then traveled underground for some time, and when we returned to the surface, we were many days’ travel from where we had been.”

“Impressive,” Morex said approvingly, gaining newfound respect for the creature. “What happened then?”

“Nothing,” Boudie said. “I’ve climbed into a mug of ale and have not yet climbed back out.”

“At least you can admit that,” Morex said as he watched Boudie take another swig from his ale. “What are your plans?”

Boudie looked at him curiously as if he did not understand.

“Where are you going from here?” Morex stated.

“My brother is dead,” Boudie replied.

“Yet you still live,” Morex said.

“Without my brother, I am nothing,” Boudie said.

“You are a hero,” Lyen repeated as she whispered into Boudie’s ear. “Never forget that.”

With the words, Boudie’s eyes drooped again and he stared at his ale one more time.

“You came here seeking adventure,” Morex stated, “and found it. However, even now, your own homeland is besieged.”

Boudie glanced up for a moment, but then just shook his head and lowered his gaze again. “Without my brother, there is no adventure.”

“One hundred thousand orcs are marching on the land, and that is only the beginning,” Morex said. “My information is old, and much worse may already be transpiring. The Imperium needs all the help it can get.”

“I would not be help,” Boudie said. “I am nothing without my brother.”

Morex glanced back at Harnell and then stood up. “I understand your fear and reluctance. We will be leaving at the first light, hopefully beating the chill that will soon claim this land. If you change your mind, come to the docks and find the Reliance. You will see that we would be quite anxious to have you join our cause.”

The admiral watched the hunter for a moment, and then reluctantly pivoted and walked away, returning to the storm outside. There was nothing more that he could say. Boudie would either find them in the morning, or he would not. Either way, they could not risk delaying their departure any further. 

*   *   *   *   *

 Lyen watched as the two hooded men returned to the storm, and then spotted the four grell standing up and following them. The white-furred creatures’ intentions seemed clear; they were going to kill the two travelers from her lover’s homeland, something that would make the somber Boudie even more disconsolate if he learned the truth.

She was not certain what the best solution was. He seemed willing to remain behind, with her, but he was no longer the man she first had met. However, if she told him about the grell, and he went to fight to help the two travelers, then he would be more like the man she fell in love with, but perhaps would wind up leaving her. Her emotions were conflicted, but in the end, she knew that she had to do what was right, even if she was the one that would be hurt. 

*   *   *   *   *

Morex and Harnell hurried down the cobblestone path. The storm had seemed to intensify, and neither of them wished to remain about the streets now that they were finally returning to their vessel. This entire continent beyond the Forbidden Regions was one that they found completely unmanageable, what with creatures they never even knew existed, atrocious weather, and now demons and legions of the dead. The sooner they set sail and put this land behind them, the better.

Lightning lanced through the sky again, and Morex caught a glimpse of something moving behind them. He turned and watched for a moment, but his eyes had not yet completely readjusted. Then he saw a blurred image leaping through the rain and slamming into him.

Morex was upon the ground, the growling white-furred creature above him. He could feel the warmth of its breath as its long snout lowered to his neck and tried to bite him. No matter how hard he struggled, he could not dislodge the creature. He tried to call out for Harnell, but his voice sounded muffled as the creature applied pressure.

Then, without understanding what was happening, the creature was suddenly gone. Morex could breathe again although he could not see. A melodic voice whispered into his ear: “Breathe steadily and you will be fine.”

That was the first time Morex realized that the rain was no longer pounding on his face. He was no longer on the cobblestone streets, but under them. “You saved me?”

“I saved him,” Lyen replied as the two returned to the world above in a swirl of the ground, and felt the rain pelting down upon them once more.

Morex strained to see, but had trouble doing so. He could hear growls and grunts, and knew that a fight was ensuing. Just then, one of the white-furred bodies flew through the air and landed by his feet. Its head was limp: its neck had been broken.

A loud scream pierced the night. It did not sound like a cry of pain, but more feral, as if the monstrous roar of a wild creature. It was a cry of defiance, but also one with an underlying tone of anguish.

Morex strained his eyes, and with another bolt of lightning, could clearly see Boudie for a moment, swinging his leg around and knocking a creature down. By his feet were two other white-furred attackers.

“It is over now,” Lyen informed him. “The herald has triumphed. He is a champion again.”

Morex watched the rootark and could see both the pride and worry in her heavenly features.

Boudie stepped through the dark and approached them as if he knew exactly where they were. “Harnell is dead.”

Morex tried to study the man through the pouring rain. He seemed much calmer, as if he had suddenly sobered up when he was called to action. He wondered if through the tragedy of the loss of one of his greatest officers he would gain the services of a mighty warrior. “He will be missed, and honored.”

Boudie reached forward and held his hand out to Lyen, who grasped his hand and snuggled into him. “You did well in saving the Admiral.”

“I did it for you,” she replied.

“Then you did well in saving me,” he said.

“Does this mean you will join us?” Morex asked.

“If you will still have me,” Boudie said.

“Gladly,” Morex replied.

Lyen turned away and tried to pull her hand free. Neither man could tell with the rain pouring so hard, but her eyes were wet with tears.

“I have one condition,” Boudie said.

“Name it,” Morex beckoned him to continue.

“Lyen is to join us if she so chooses.”

 Lyen turned, studying Boudie for a long moment. She then leapt into his arms and hugged him tightly. “I do choose it,” she cried happily.

“Then she is welcome on board my ship,” Morex replied.

“Come, we shall collect my gear from my room and then I shall escort you back to your ship. Make sure there are no other altercations.”

“What about Harnell?” Morex asked.

Lyen stepped into the night. “I shall bring his body to you for whatever customs you would have. He will be waiting for you at the ship.”

“You have my sincerest appreciation,” Morex bowed.

“Come,” Boudie said. “This rain is growing chilling, and I do not think I should have another ale to warm my bones.”

Morex nodded his agreement. He had seen people try to overcome the effects of alcohol before. This journey would be a long one, and he was certain it would be quite difficult for the hunter, but he was taking a step in the right direction. By the time they returned to the Seven Kingdoms, he was confident that Boudie would have kicked his drinking habit. 

*   *   *   *   *

The red-skinned creature, no larger than a fairy, flapped its bat-like wings and watched the entire skirmish. The hunter did well in killing four grell, but still was not ready to face his master again. Through a mystical spell, the sharbrim could understand the dialogue of the humans. He now knew that the Madrew had resurfaced in another land, something that was of particular import. He would need to follow these humans and learn more before he reported back.

The sharbrim smiled as it thought of the rewards it would receive for uncovering the renegade Madrew. He only hoped that he could find Arifos, the one Madrew that had been able to confront his master and claim a victory. That would substantially raise his station in life. No more spying, but actually having servants of his own. Then the name of Skoog would be well known and admired throughout the realm.

The sharbrim liked the thought. With a sparkle of silvery light, Skoog vanished as if he was never there, and continued his silent pursuit.

 


 

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