Echoes of Shadow Chapter 9: Glimpses of the Past

“Tell me again what you saw, boy.” Tirrin sat cross-legged across from Kai on the floor of the largest tent in the camp.

“I already told you,” Kai said, legs starting to ache from the uncomfortable position his legs were contorted into and growing warm from the fire between them, “what more are you looking for?”

Tirrin grimaced and looked away.

Isa, sitting off to the side between them, gave Tirrin a sidelong glance, then smiled at Kai. “Do not mind Tirrin. His mind is greatly burdened.”

Greatly burdened by what? Kai thought.

“More like greatly troubled,” Tirrin snapped, looking at Isa. “What you say happened, boy…”

“What I say happened,” Isa interrupted. “I looked into his mind and saw the truth.”

“…is not something I can easily accept. Candris would never have led a slaughter against humans. We need humans.”

“Need us for tribute you mean,” Kai retorted, suppressed bitterness rising up.

Tirrin sighed. “It has been the way of the world for a thousand years. The Engrall protect the Do’vai and they provide tribute from the rich farmlands. Surely your parents explained this to you.”

Kai’s parents had indeed explained the symbiotic relationship between the Engrall and his people, the Do’vai, but they had not painted it in such a bright light. “I know the ways.” The parasitic ways.

“Then you also know that what Candris did goes against our code of honor. There must be an explanation for this.”

Other than Candris being a bloodthirsty monster? Kai thought.

Isa, who had been sipping her tea, raised an eyebrow at him. Could she read his mind?

“I can see images, and sense your emotions and the intention of your thoughts. But if you are wondering whether I can read your mind, no. Even this requires my concentrating on you. Otherwise I would be overwhelmed by the thoughts and emotions of all those around me.”

That revelation gave Kai some comfort and he felt a hint of relief. “Are you going to go after Candris’ men, then?”

Tirrin sighed and nodded. He took a sip of his tea before speaking. “We have no choice. I thought they would go to Drakau but by all reports they went south of here, so that’s where we’re going.”

“You think he’s raiding more Do’vai villages?” Kai asked, a lump in his throat. “Who is in charge now?”

“I hope not. His second in command is Mogar. What do you see, seer?”

“I sense them to the south, as you say, but I cannot tell more than their general direction. Their emotions are…muffled. It is as if I see them through a mist or fog. I have not encountered this before and must meditate on it.”

“Go if you must,” Tirrin said, waving a hand dismissively. “But we shall be gathering to move south soon.”

“I will do what I can.” Isa rose, smiled warmly at Kai again, and exited the tent.

Awkward silence filled the tent. Tirrin cleared his throat. “You’ll soon begin sword training. That is if I can trust you not to stab me in the throat.”

“I’ve used a blade before,” Kai retorted. He wasn’t a child.

“Yes, but by your own account it was the first time and you were…lucky. A warrior cannot rely on luck alone on the battlefield. You must be trained.”

“Why would you train someone who may one day be your enemy?”

“Because I believe every young man should learn to use a blade.”

My father should have been the one to teach me to use a blade, not my enemy. “What of learning to use that?” Kai pointed to a blade-staff leaning in the corner.

Tirrin followed his gaze. He raised an eyebrow. “Once you have learned the basic of the blade I may allow you to train with the blade-staff.”

Kai imagined throwing the blade-staff like a spear. He didn’t picture Tirrin as his target…not quite anyway. Just a generic enemy. A generic enemy of Engrall height and build. The anger from his parents’ death still lingered inside him. “I would like that.”

“You will also begin your meditation training.”

Kai groaned. That sounded like when his mother assigned him homework.

Tirrin smirked. “This will help you focus and become one with your blade.”

That did sound pretty good to Kai.

Gojo chose that moment to saunter into the tent. A fat rabbit hung from its mouth. He set it down at Tirrin’s feet.

“Ah, Gojo,” Tirrin smiled and rubbed his werecat on the head. “You brought breakfast. Would you care to have some, Kai?”

Kai’s stomach growled as if it had heard Tirrin and wanted to make its desires known.

“That answers my question.” He snatched the rabbit up and withdrew his belt knife. He set about skinning it, then ran a spit through it and started roasting it over the fire.

Gojo watched hungrily, and Kai suspected if Gojo were a human he would be licking his lips at that moment.

The smell of rabbit soon filled the tent. His mother used to make rabbit stew when they could find it and it had been a treat for him. The hares of the Do’vai lands ate well and did not possess the gamy taste known among rabbits in more desolate areas to the north or west. “Where does Gojo come from?” he asked.

“Werecats are born in the Dreadlands. To the east,” he explained when he saw Kai’s vacant expression. “I traveled to Nighthold when I was barely a man and ventured forth to capture and tame Gojo. It is a rite of passage for the emperor’s heir.”

“You will be emperor?” Kai asked incredulously.

“One day,” Tirrin said distantly. “When my father dies. Which I pray to the gods will not be soon.” He removed the rabbit from the fire. He sliced off a larger chunk and tossed it to Gojo. “To the hunter goes the spoils.” Then he split the rest between he and Kai.

The juicy rabbit meat melted in Kai’s mouth. He moaned appreciatively.

A horn outside the tent distracted him from the treat. Tirrin stood up abruptly, dropped the rabbit meat and hurried out of the tent. Gojo watched his master go, eyed the discarded rabbit meat and then followed without touching it.

That is a well-trained creature, Kai thought. To ignore its primal impulses out of respect for its master. He was sure it was not fear, for Tirrin did not give the impression of being a cruel man, even if he was an Engrall. He took a final bite of his rabbit and followed Gojo and Tirrin outside.

The warbound soldiers had formed a circle around someone or something, though Kai could not see. “What is the meaning of this?” Tirrin demanded loudly. He walked toward the wall of men and they parted for him.

Kai scampered forward and followed in Tirrin’s wake before the wall of men closed back up. He almost ran into Tirrin seconds later.

“Oba,” Tirrin whispered.

Kai stepped around Tirrin and saw two older men standing there. One, a tall, muscular balding Engrall and the other a shorter, white-haired Engrall with a scar across his face. The tall Engrall knelt and bowed his head. “My prince.”

“What are you doing here, so far from the Obsidian Tower?” He sounded confused, and perhaps worried?

Oba looked up. “I bring grave tidings. The emperor is dead.”

Gasps rose from some of the gathered Warbound, followed by whispered conversations.

Tirrin held up a hand, calling for silence. “Dead?” he repeated. He took a step back. “But how?”

“At the hands of an assassin from the Guild.”

“The daughter of their master,” the white-haired Engrall interjected. He had not knelt.

“Who are you?” Tirrin asked.

“Khadd.” He bowed his head slightly.

“You show a surprising lack of respect for your prince.”

“Forgive me, my lord, but you are not my prince. I was banished long ago.”

“I could not stop her, my prince, though I tried,” Oba interrupted before Tirrin could respond to Khadd. “But that is not the worst of it, I fear. I was framed for the murder of your father and imprisoned. I escaped but I fear the Obsidian Tower is lost.”

“What of Rai’vynn?” Tirrin asked. “Did he not support you?”

Oba shook his head. “Nay, my prince, he did not. In fact…he was the one who betrayed me, and your father. He worked with the assassin, gave her information on the secret passages and framed me even though he saw the assassin. He is now the emperor.”

“That is not his right,” Tirrin said.

Isa approached out of the crowd. “What is the cause of this…”she stopped when she saw Oba. “You.”

Oba nodded to Isa. “It is good to see you again, seer.”

Isa looked at Tirrin. “I sense fear in you. What has happened?”

Oba recapped the attack. “…I barely escaped with my life, thanks to the help of a general and Khadd, who was also condemned to die.”

“Were you pursued?” Tirrin asked, looking out into the dim woods being slowly invaded by the morning sun.

“Not far. Our pursuers gave up. We were given shelter at a farm. We left three days ago and rode to find you.”

“What did the warbinders do?” Isa asked.

“Warbinder Rue watched as I was accused of the emperor’s murder and said nothing.”

Isa furrowed her brow. “That does not make sense. Surely they would have sensed you were speaking the truth.” She stepped forward. “May I?”

Oba smirked. “Just like old times. You may touch me.”

Had Oba and Isa been friends before? It seemed to Kai they were familiar with one another.

Isa stepped forward and placed a hand on Oba’s shoulder. She flung her head back and gasped. Moments later she released her grip and stumbled back. “He speaks the truth, all of it. I sensed a great evil in the throne room.”

“It was colder than I ever felt before,” Oba confirmed.

“I must think on this,” Tirrin said. “We must make for the Obsidian Tower and confront my brother, but first…”

A screech caused Tirrin to look upward. Kai followed his gaze. A shadowy blur flashed through the sky. Kai found it hard to focus on the spot, even with the morning sun shining bright.

“Shadow drake. She’s here,” Khadd warned.

“Who?” Tirrin asked.

“The daughter of shadow and ice,” Isa said distantly. “Filled with fury and hate. The one who killed our emperor.”

Oba, who had set his blade-staff next to him when he knelt, rose and spun it. “She has come for me,” he said.

“To arms!” Tirrinn shouted. “She will find no easy prey here.” He turned and ran for the tent. “With me, boy.”

Kai stared slack-jawed at the shadow drake as it circled. He could see a figure seated atop it. What was she waiting for?

“Boy!” Tirrin shouted.

Kai shook his head and ran to follow Tirrin into the tent.

Tirrin handed a sword to Kai. He held his gaze. “Try not to stab yourself in the foot, lad.”

I did just fine against Candris, he thought, but knew now was not the time to bring that up. Instead, he nodded and took the blade. “Yes, sir.”

The two exited the tent. The rest of the Engrall had armed themselves. Some held bows, while most held sword or blade-staff.

“Archers, fire!” Tirrin ordered.

Arrows streaked through the sky toward the shadow drake, but the drake dove at the last moment and the arrows flew through empty air.

The drake flew low to the ground and snatched an archer up. They screamed as they were carried into the sky and dropped moments later from a height no man could survive at.

“She’s toying with us,” Khadd said. He held a pair of knives in his hands. “Like a hunter stalking her prey.”

Gojo growled and bared his teeth.

“Come and face me, you coward!” Oba roared, lifting his blade-staff and shaking it in fury.

“As you wish,” the woman said distantly. She leapt from the back of the shadow drake and dove toward the ground. A moment before Kai expected her to hit the ground and break every bone in her body she turned into a shadowy mist and disappeared, only to appear behind one of the warbound warriors Kai had yet to meet. She slit his throat and blood spattered outward.

Two archers turned their bows in her direction and fired, but their efforts resulted in the dying Engrall being pin-cushioned with arrows. Perhaps they had ended his suffering a moment sooner.

The assassin disappeared again, this time re-appearing behind the two archers who had fired on her. She held two daggers and plunged them into the back of each man. They both writhed in pain and fell to their knees. She kicked them both over.

Gojo rushed forward, growling, but a shadowy blur slammed into him, bowling him over. The shadow drake was on top of him, biting and slashing. Gojo slashed back and struggled to get off his back.

Oba raced toward her, blade-staff held like spear. Khadd ran at his side, dual daggers at the ready.

This time the assassin did not disappear like before. She held her daggers at the ready and as Kai watched frost spread across the blades. “Do you tire of my games?” she asked as they charged toward her.

The two men answered with steel. Oba thrust with the blade-staff while Khadd circled around to slash with his daggers.

The woman calmly dodged to her left to avoid the thrust from Oba and met the blow from Khadd with her own blades. The frost spread to his blades and when she pushed the blades of her foe shattered. She capitalized on the moment by kicking Khadd in the chest, sending him flying backward with an oomph. He did not get up. She then turned her attention back to Oba, who was now sweeping his blade toward her mid-section. She disappeared into shadow and appeared behind him. She raised her daggers, preparing to stab him in the back of his neck or top of his spine, but Tirrin’s blade-staff blocked the downward strike, allowing Oba to turn. Two men armed with longer weapons than she now faced the veiled woman, who had flipped backward out of their reach.

Kai ran forward, sword raised, hoping to strike the assassin in the back while her back was turned. He felt the same power from before when he had faced Candris flowing through his hands into his blade, causing it to emit a crackling noise. He swung it. A pair of crossed daggers met his blade of power. A shockwave burst out from the impact site, sending Kai and his opponent flying backward and those around them staggering back. Kai struggled into a sitting position but could not stand due to his vision spinning.

The assassin had bowled into Tirrin but avoided being impaled due to him dropping his blade-staff in the face of the shockwave. She rolled to the side and leapt to her feet, barreling toward Oba with single-minded fury. “Enough games,” she said. Oba lay on the ground but lifted his blade-staff in an effort to stop her from stabbing him. She kicked the staff from his hands and, unceremoniously stabbed him in the chest with both daggers, which were now no longer covered with frost.

“No!” Tirrin shouted, struggling to his feet.

Oba gasped and his eyes went wide. He lifted his hands as if to push his assailant away but they dropped to the ground as the life fled him.

The assassin stood and looked around at Tirrin struggling to rise, Khadd lying unconscious on the ground, the other Warbound in various states of lying down or kneeling from the shockwave and lastly Kai. Her gaze lingered on him. What was she thinking? Perhaps she’s wondering what happened when our blades met, he thought.

A screech caused Kai to duck his head instinctively. Her shadow drake flew from where it had been facing off against Gojo straight toward its master.

She leapt onto her drake and it took off into the sky. She cast one last glance behind her as she faded into the distance.

Kai felt exhaustion rushing over him. Isa rushed to his side. “Lie still, you are still weak from using your power.”
 

“I’m fine,” Kai insisted. I still don’t know what that “power” is, he thought. “Help the others.”

Isa nodded and went to attend to Tirrin, who had made it to a knee but still held his head in his hands. Groans echoed across the clearing as the other Warbound nursed similar symptoms.

After several moments Tirrin rose and knelt by Oba. “Oh, my old friend, I am sorry.” He closed his open eyes and looked toward Kai. He shook his head.

What had Kai done wrong? He had only tried to stop the assassin.

“We could have stopped her,” Tirrin said, waving at the sky. “But you had to rush in with reckless abandon. You killed Oba.” He pointed at Kai.

Kai gaped at Tirrin. Why was he saying such a thing? “I…”

“That’s enough,” Isa said firmly, a hand on Tirrin’s shoulder. “He is just a boy.”

“A boy with power he doesn’t understand and used foolishly,” Tirrin bit out.

“Do not misplace the blame, prince of the blood. The assassin is responsible for Oba’s death, not the boy.”

Tirrin gritted his teeth, his eyes locked on Kai. At last he flared his nostrils and looked away. Gather the dead. We will burn them so their souls may float to Etrigan.”

Kai felt tears dripping down his face. Maybe had killed Oba. He rose and ran into the forest.

“Kai!” Isa shouted from behind him, but he did not stop.

 

 

 

 

 

Echoes of Shadow Chapter 8: The Hunt

Chapter 8: The Hunt

 

Thunder passed into the Nightsong Woods and Oba steered him off the main path and into the snow-covered underbrush. The maneuver would leave tracks, to be sure, but he was banking on that. He brought Thunder to a halt and dismounted. He groaned in pain and briefly fell to his knees, but rose and slapped thunder on the flank. “Go, old boy, go. May we meet again in the light of Valhalla.”

The horse snuffed and looked at Oba as if to say he was worried about him.

“Oba waved him on. Go on. Go!”

Thunder trotted away, reluctantly.

Oba found a stick and stuck it between his teeth. Then he withdrew his knife, lay on his stomach in the snow and reached behind him for the arrow. He found the shaft and with his other hand sliced through it. He left the arrow-head in - it was the only thing stopping him from bleeding out. He rose, brushed off the snow and followed the trail Thunder left, not bothering to match the hoof prints but hoping his pursuers would give the trail only a cursory glance and not realize he was now afoot. He passed a tree that stood close to the edge of the trail and grabbed hold. He slung his blade-staff behind him and climbed up the tree, pain spiking with every move of his arms. Then he crouched on a branch overlooking the trail left by Thunder. He unslung his blade-staff. Now he need only wait.

As expected, a dozen mounted Engrall warriors charged down the path made by Thunder a few minutes later.

Oba waited, knees tense and blade-staff clutched in his hands. He ignored the pain in his back but felt blood dripping down his back.

The last warrior approached, seconds away from the branch Oba crouched upon.

Thank the gods for the cover of darkness, Oba thought. He dropped down and landed on the horse in front of the man. Ignoring the surprised gasp and more concerned by the man’s open mouth, Oba knocked the man, or boy, by the look of him, off the horse with his blade-staff. The commotion went unnoticed as the man fell with a muffled thud.

Oba kicked the horse, forcing it to speed up. As he closed on the first enemy, strange thinking of his former underlings as enemies, he held his blade-staff out at neck level. As he passed the razor-sharp blade sliced through the man’s neck, beheading him. Oba switched position of the blade-staff and swung it at the next rider, slicing into their rib and knocking them off their horse. Three down, nine to go. He swung the blade-staff down and lopped off a leg on the next enemies’ horse, causing it to scream in pain and the rider to go flying.

The other eight, hearing the scream of the horse, stopped their horses and turned.

Oba slowed his horse and hefted the blade-staff like a javelin. He hurled it toward one of the riders and it took them right in the chest.

The man flopped to the ground, dead before he landed.

Next, Oba drew his sword. He roared with fury. “Come and get me!” He spurred the horse into movement once again.

The other seven warriors, surprised by the death of their comrades and the ferocity of the single opponent facing them, were slow to bring their blade-staffs to bear upon him.

Oba was on the first man as he leveled his blade-staff. He swung his sword up and sliced through the haft of the enemy’s weapon. Then he stabbed the man in the gut and moved on.

Two blade-staffs came at him at once this time, and he fended them both off while circling around to isolate one of the attackers. Before the man could swing his blade-staff around Oba had lopped his head off. He then kicked the headless corpse toward his former comrade to create chaos before circling around to strike at the second man. He was forced to halt and parry, however, as another warrior charged him from the right. He parried the blow and withdrew his long knife. While keeping the staff at bay with his sword he rode in close and stabbed the man in the eye. He then turned to the original opponent.

By now the horses, either riderless or carrying wounded or dead men, milled around aimlessly, creating artificial moving barriers that prevented the remaining four from striking him at once. He used this to advantage by sheathing his sword and knife and grabbing his blade-staff from the back of his earlier victim. He swung it toward a living opponent but they parried. He tried thrusting in a stabbing motion but they batted it aside. This must be the commander, he thought. Finally, a worthy opponent. “You don’t have to do this,” he puffed out as they circled each other. “I am innocent.”

“You are a liar and a traitor. You killed the prison guards during your escape. We are authorized to kill you, now.” He hefted his blade-staff and prepared to throw it.

Killed? “They were alive when I left. I swear it on my life and after-life.”

The warrior spat to the side. “Your word means nothing to us now.” The warrior drew his arm back, preparing to throw.

Oba braced himself, preparing to evade.

A blur streaked out from nowhere. Blood spurted from the enemy commanders neck. A dagger. The commander dropped his blade-staff, clutched at his throat and then slumped forward in his saddle.

Oba turned his horse, following the source of the throw with his eyes. A lone figure atop a horse, no, not any horse, Thunder, threw back their hood. “Khadd?” he asked incredulously as he recognized the features of his former prison-mate.

Khadd bowed in his saddle. “Aye, friend Oba.” He withdrew another dagger and whipped it underhand. It flew past Oba and made a wet thunk sound.

A glance behind revealed another dead Engrall warrior. Startled into remembering the other opponents, Oba faced the remaining two enemies. They watched him warily from a distance, several wandering horses between them and him. They made no move to attack.

Oba breathed deep and winced, the wound in his back having been made worse from the fighting and now radiating pain. “I take no pleasure in the bloodshed of Engrall. Leave now or suffer the fate of the others.”

The two men shared a glance before dropping their blade-staffs and riding into the forest.

“Smart men,” Khadd observed.

“It’s human instinct to want to survive,” Oba retorted.

“Would that more men wanted to survive.”

“Enough about them. How did you escape? And how did you find me?”

Khadd rode up and removed his dagger from the neck of the commander. “I’m a sneaky rogue, it comes naturally.”

“Judging by your skill with a dagger, I would say you are more than a rogue, and more than you say you are. Who are you really?”

“Just an old man trying to make a living.” He sighed. “But in another life, well, let us say I am one of the few to leave Kaz’radan and live.”

“You’re an assassin?” Oba asked. He tightened his grip on the blade-staff, muscles tensing and preparing to fling it at him if he tried anything. Not that he would be able to stop an expertly thrown dagger. But he could try.

“Former assassin,” Khadd corrected. “I retired.”

“All right. Let’s say I believe you. How do I know I can trust you.”

“You don’t, but I’m the only ally you have right now.” He cocked his head to one side. “Shall we get going, or would you like to tell tales until those two warriors you spared come back with reinforcements?”

Khadd was right. The Engrall would send more - many more, and he was in no shape to fight much longer. “Fine. Let’s get moving. Are you any good at removing arrowheads?”

“Aye. When we get to safety I’ll remove it.”

The throbbing intensified. If I make it that long.

The duo rode back to the main road and headed west. He hoped they would soon encounter tracks from other travelers on the roads to hide their own. They had ridden for a several minutes when Oba felt dizzy. He slowed his horse.

Khadd looked back at him. He opened his mouth to speak but snapped it shut.

Do I look that bad? Oba idly thought. He was sweating despite the cold and the pain was almost unbearable. His hands let go of the reigns and he felt himself falling.

***

An indeterminate amount of time later, he awoke.

A human woman, middle-aged with gray streaked black hair stood over him.

“Where…” Oba croaked.

She held a cup to his lips. “Drink this.”

Oba clamped his mouth shut.

“It’s water,” she explained.

“Drink, friend,” Khadd said from somewhere to Oba’s right. “I’m right here.”

Small comfort, Oba thought as he sipped from the proffered cup. The cold water sliding down his throat caused him to shiver.

“You collapsed,” Khadd explained. “I carried you on Thunder here to this farm.”

“The arrow?” Oba asked between sips. His back still hurt from where he’d been shot but it didn’t burn like it had before.

“I removed it. This kind lady stitched it up and put a salve and bandage on it.”

“I’ve never stitched an arrow wound before, much less on an Engrall, but with five children and a husband I do have experience stitching up wounds.” She offered a smile, most likely to set him at ease. It worked.

“How long have I been asleep?” he asked.

“Two days. You had a fever when you first arrived,” the woman replied.

“And our…”

“Ah, friend, you should rest,” Khadd interrupted, coming to stand behind the farmer’s wife. “Our mutual friend is alive and well. Rest and I’ll tell you later.” He gave Oba an exaggerated look that said “drop it.”

Oba held Khadd’s gaze and gave a long nod of understanding. “Good, I’m glad to hear it.” He looked back to the woman, who watched him curiously. “My friend is right. I should rest. Would you excuse me?”

She smiled. “Of course, dear. I’ll check back in a while. I’ve got supper to prepare.” She rose, buttoned her thick coat, and walked out into the snow.

When the door had fully shut Oba spoke. “What was that about?”

“I didn’t tell them we had Engrall warriors chasing us.”

“Because you were afraid they would turn us away?”

“Or turn us in.”

“Humans hate the Engrall as much as you and I do now. They wouldn’t betray us to them.”

“Perhaps,” Khadd said dubiously.

“Judging by the fact we are still alive, they haven’t found us?”

Khadd shook his head. “I’ve seen no movement on the road.”

“You think they gave up the chase?”

“Why would they?”

“Perhaps they’re afraid to lose more men. Or worried we have more allies in the woods with us.”

“Or they don’t care about you. Or they wanted you to escape.”

“You’re quite the optimist,” Oba observed.

“Being an assassin you learn to expect the worst.”

“Funny, I thought I did that as the emperor’s bodyguard.” Oba closed his eyes. “But I didn’t think broadly enough, I suppose.”

“What did happen? You didn’t tell me.”

“An assassin entered the emperor’s chambers and killed him.”

“You were there?”

“Yes. I fought her.”

“What did she look like?”

“I don’t know. She wore a veil over the lower half of her face. I think she had dark hair. Shorter than me by a head.”

“How did she defeat the two of you?”

“She possessed magic. She could make her blades freeze our weapons upon touching them and disappear into the shadows. She leapt onto a shadow drake before flying away. I thought them the stuff of legend.” A thought occurred to him. “You know her, don’t you? She’s in the Assassin’s Guild.” The last part was not a question and Khadd’s face confirmed his suspicion a moment later.

“Aye, her name is Eriyana. She is the daughter of…the guild master. If he sent her it must have been an important job.” He narrowed his eyes. “Why did she let you live?”

“So the emperor’s son, Rai’vyn could set me up. She paralyzed me and framed me for killing the emperor.”

“She could have killed you and done the same thing.” Khadd stroked his chin.

“Are you disappointed I’m alive?”

Khadd snorted. “No, but it does worry me that she might come back to finish the job.”

“You think she wants me that badly?”

“If the people paying her father want you dead badly enough she may be sent after you. Assuming the emperor’s son planned for you to be executed and cannot allow you to live, that is. Youmay be too dangerous to let live.”

“And that would be why he called off the search,” Oba said, following the former assassin’s logic. “Lull me into a false sense of security while Eriyana comes for me.”

“Yes.”

“We must go. I have to tell Tirrin.” He tried to sit up and groaned as the stitches on his back strained.

“You’re in no shape to travel.” Khadd looked around at their surroundings. “But then, this place is in no shape for us to defend against one such as her…if such a place exists. Let me help you up.” He extended a hand and helped Oba sit at the edge of the bed.

Oba donned his tunic and armor again and strapped on his sword belt. He hefted his blade-staff and then used it as a walking staff as pain made his knees weak. “Ready.”

“Do you know where we’re going?”

“South. Tirrin ranged south to collect tribute. We’ll find his warband in that direction.”

“And can you trust this Tirrin? If his brother betrayed you, how do you know he wasn’t in on it?”

“Tirrin has honor his brother could never possess. He would not contemplate betraying his father.”

“Let us hope you’re right.” Khadd set about preparing Thunder and the other horse for riding. He gestured to Thunder. “Your horse.”

Oba nodded in appreciation and mounted.

Khadd opened the door to the barn, mounted his own stallion and the rode out into the night. Snow had begun to fall, which would mask their tracks.They did not say goodbye to the farmer or his wife - better that they not know where the two were going or when they’d left, in case the Engrall came.

***

Valkerion landed in front of a barn with an open door. Eriyana slid off. Wait on the roof, she thought. The door swinging in the wind with a light emitting from inside had drawn her attention. It was near enough to the Engrall fortress that her prey could have taken refuge. She stepped inside and found it devoid of life. It smelled of horse dung, yet there were no horses present. She strode to a crude cot and touched the straw. Blood. Someone who bled had been here. A wash basin on the other side of the cot held bloody water. “Found you,” she said aloud.

“Who are you?” a male voice asked from behind.

Eriyana turned and appraised the speaker. A balding man with gray hair dressed in the attire of a farmer stood there. He watched her warily. “There was a wounded man here,” she gestured to the blood. “Who was he?”

“I don’t know,” the man said. His eyes flicked to pitchfork leaning in the corner by him.

Eiryana smirked. Do it, old fool. “Where was he going when he left?” The snow outside would obscure the tracks from his horse, but it would not be impossible to track him.

“He left without saying anything to us,” the farmer said. “Honestly.”

The assassin tutted. “I find that hard to believe.” She withdrew her knives. “Let’s get better acquainted and see if your answer changes.”

The farmer lunged for his pitchfork and pointed it toward her. “Stay back, I’m warning you.”

She smiled. Oh this would be fun. She focused on the shadow behind both of them by the single lantern hanging near the center of the barn. She disappeared into the pool of darkness behind her and imagined herself re-appearing behind the man. An instant later her surroundings changed and she was behind the man. She put a knife to his throat but refrained from cutting it. “Now…you are going to invite me inside.”

“Never,” the man rasped.

“Fine, have it your way.” She slit his throat and kicked him forward. Then she turned and strode through the snow toward the house. She knocked on the door.

A moment later it opened. “Keith, I thought you had a key,” a muffled voice came from behind the door. A latch clicked and the door opened.

Trusting farmers, Eriyana thought. She kicked the door open before the woman could try to close it. She grabbed her by the throat. “Where is the man?” She demanded. “The wounded man.”

“I…don’t…know,” the woman gasped.

Eriyana’s instincts told her the woman was telling the truth, but after the humiliation she’d suffered in Kaz’radan she wanted to take her anger out on someone. “Wrong answer,” Eriyana said. She focused her frost magic into her hand and unleashed it into the shaking woman’s neck.

The woman’s neck turned blue and she made a choking sound as the air froze in her throat. The frost spread to her head and her eyes froze in their sockets before it spread down her body. Within moments she was frozen solid.

“I’ve been waiting to do that for a while,” Eriyana said. Now to wait until I can do the same to the masters. She performed a roundhouse kick and shattered the statuesque woman into shards of red ice.

A gasp came from within the farm house. Five children, ranging from a baby to a boy of perhaps ten, huddled by the fire. The older boy stepped forward as if to protect his siblings.

Eriyana hesitated. The children wouldn’t know the whereabouts of her prey. She looked down at the remains of their mother. They had suffered enough, hadn’t they? An image of her mother flashed in her mind’s eye. She closed her eyes for a moment before focusing on the terrified children. “Let that be a lesson to always tell the truth.” Without waiting for a reply she strode back into the storm. Valkerion, to me, she commanded telepathically.

Her shadow drake shot through the snow and landed before her. His wings kicked up a small cloud of the white substance and it billowed around her.

She paid it no mind as she mounted him. Where would Oba have gone? She would find him…not to make up for her “mistake” in her father’s eyes though. No, she would find him so she could return triumphant and one day enact her revenge on the masters.

***

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Echoes of Shadow Chapter 7: Party Crasher

Dobrius eyed the village of Eldar as it came into view. Home, he thought. He looked back at Stormhammer carrying the body of the dead huntsman and forward to Elise who still trotted barefoot down the road. What would the townsfolk think? They wouldn’t need to find the constable - he would find them, most likely.

“What a quaint village,” Stormhammer commented as they neared. “Do you live here?”

“I do,” Dobrius said. “Elise lives at the manor where Bron came from. Eldar is the largest village in the valley.”

“I see.”

“Great, a snobbish machine,” Elise said with a sniff.

Dobrius sensed that if Stormhammer could have cocked his head he would have. “I apologize, Lady Elise, I did not intend to come off as snobbish. I am curious to learn about new places.”

“You called our village ‘quaint,’” she snapped. “That’s judgmental.”

Dobrius put a hand to his face. Don’t pick a fight with the friendly golem, Elise. Besides, it was a bit hypocritical of her to judge him for judging when her family were wealthy and known to look down on less well-to-do families. “Just let it go, Elise. He’s just asking questions. To be polite, right?”

Stormhammer seized on the out Dobrius gave him. “Yes, of course.”

Elise harumphed but remained silent.

A hum of conversation filled the air as they drew closer to the village. Dobrius half-expected to see a crowd of gawkers watching them enter town, but instead he found a crowd filling the street outside of the Jabar Inn. Poepa, he thought, remembering the old man’s arrival earlier that day. He’d forgotten in light of recent events. The crowd hushed as Poepa spoke.

“…ten of them had me surrounded,” Poepa’s voice drifted out through the open door and down the street. “Blades in their hands and fury in their faces. But they’d never faced a gunslinger before. Quick as a hare I pulled out Betty and Lucy and let loose. When the smoke cleared only a single bloody pirate remained. I shot the ground at his feet to get his feet moving and he ran away.”

A collective “wow” drifted up from the crowd.

Dobrius smirked. He swore he’d heard that story every other year for the past ten years. He remembered being six sitting with his pa in the tavern. His smile faded. Back before…well…back before the accident.

“Where is the constabulary?” Stormhammer asked.

“This way,” Dobrius said, leading Stormhammer past the Jabar Inn.  No one in the crowd gave them a second glance. He did notice a strange man wearing a hood leaningagainst the corner of a wall across the street watching them. The man wore a sword belt - an oddity among the citizens of Eldar. They passed directly across from the alley and at the end stood more men. That’s suspicious, Dobrius thought, but continued on his way down Wagon Street to the constabulary. One problem at a time.

The constabulary, an inconspicuous building nestled between old man Revan’s baker shop and Madame Antoinette’s tailor shop, housed both the constable’s office and the magistrates courtroom. Dobrius and Elise ascended the steps and he turned. “Wait here for a moment, Stormhammer. Let me talk to the constable first.”

“A prudent decision,” Stormhammer said.

“Glad you approve,” Dobrius mumbled as he opened the door and stepped inside.

The constable’s deputy, Bryer Kozinski, sat behind the desk perusing paperwork and scribbling notes on pieces of paper. He looked up. “Ah, Dobrius, right?” His eyes fell on Elise and he sat up straighter and nodded. “Miss Van’dar. What can I do for the two of you?”

“There’s been a murder,” Dobrius began. No sense beating around the bush.

Deputy Kozinski furrowed his brow. “A murder? Where?”

“Near the Wall of the Ancients, by Glistening Falls.”

He stood up. “How do you know it was a murder?”

Dobrius suppressed his frustration. Why couldn’t Constable Beeks be there? “Is the constable here?”

“He’s down at the inn. Keeping the peace.”

Sure he was. Probably just wanted to listen to Poepa’s story. “Maybe we should go and speak with him. It’s important.”

“Well now just wait a second,” the deputy said. “How do you know it was a murder?” His eyes narrowed. “Did you do something?”

“What?” Dobrius asked, taking a step backward. “No, I stumbled upon the body. There was a golem…”

“A golem? A golem committed the murder?”

Dobrius sighed. “No. The golem was investigating the murder. He told me…”

“Golems don’t speak.”

“This one does. Elise can confirm.”

Elise nodded. “His speech is quite snobbish.”

Better than nothing, Dobrius thought.

“Where is this speaking golem?”

“Waiting outside.”

The deputy withdrew his pistol and gestured to the door with his other hand. “Lead the way.”

Dobrius opened the door and followed Elise outside. “Say hello, Stormhammer,” he prompted. “This is a deputy constable.”

Stormhammer lifted the body of the huntsman and nodded his head. “Greetings. I am Stormhammer and also a law enforcement officer.”

Deputy Kozinski raised his pistol, hand shaking. “Lower the body, golem and keep your hands where I can see them.”

Dobrius frowned. “Deputy, Stormhammer didn’t kill the huntsman, I told you that.”

“Shush, boy, let me handle this. Drop the body,” he repeated, louder this time.

Dobrius opened his mouth to speak but closed it as Stormhammer set down the body.

“I mean no trouble and will comply,” he said. He raised his hands in the air.

The deputy descended the stairs and checked the body, keeping his pistol out the entire time. He rolled the body over and studied the wounds. “They don’t look like golem attacks,” he conceded.

What would golem attacks look like? Dobrius wondered. “No, they were arrows. He was shot in the back. Ambushed, most likely.”

The deputy cleared his throat. “Do you have any idea who did this?” he asked, focusing on Storhmammer.

“I have my suspicions, but cannot prove them.”

Movement out of the corner of Dobrius’ eye caused him to turn. A trio of golems walked through the intersection of Main and Wagon Street. Now that was strange.

“Well, you just wait here while I go get the constable. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

“Yes, that’s a great idea,” Dobrius said. He started jogging toward the intersection.

“I said wait here,” the deputy called after him. “Get back here, boy.”

“No time,” Dobrius shouted over his shoulder. Something was up and he couldn’t sit idly by. He reached the corner of the two streets and peered down Main Street.

The trio of golems approached the crowd of people. They showed no signs of stopping.

“The golems,” Dobrius shouted to the others. “They’re…”

Screams erupted from the street.

Dobrius whipped his head around.

The golems were smashing into people! Three people went flying and slammed into a wall, while another was thrown to the ground and trampled. People fled in every direction. One man, who ran too close to a golem was snatched up and crushed. Blood pooled on the ground and soaked in, turning the brown ground red.

The deputy ran past Dobrius, saw the scene and started shaking. His eyes went wide. “G…g…golems.”

Stormhammer rushed past without a word and barreled toward the golems.

One golem turned. Its eyes were not blue but red. It charged toward Stormhammer.

Stormhammer ducked at the last minute to avoid the enemy golem’s fist, then slapped his fist up into his enemy’s jaw. A crack sounded and their head snapped back and they crumpled to the ground.

The other two golems now turned their attention to Stormhammer.

Deputy Kozinski finally sprang into action. He ran up near Stormhammer and fired at the golems, but his bullets had no effect and the golems paid the strike no more mind than a cow would the flies.

Dobrius followed. He knelt and fired but the bullets only sparked and did not pierce the thick armor of the golems. They’re probably bouncing off its armor, he thought.

Constable Beeks emerged from the tavern and also fired, with the same effect as the deputy. His shooting angered the golems.

One of them turned from Stormhammer toward the constable. It loomed above him.

Blue and red sparks erupted from the front of the golem, followed by a loud bang. The golem stumbled backward.

Poepa stepped out and stood in front of the window, wisps of smoke billowing up from the barrel of both pistols.

A green blur shot out of the open door and Poepa’s steed whipped its tail around and knocked the golem’s feet out from under it.

The golem lay on its back, trying to turn over and regain its feet.

Poepa didn’t give it a chance. He approached and aimed both pistols at its head. “Time to meet your maker,” Poepa said. He didn’t say it with fanfare or flair. Just a matter-of-fact. He pulled the trigger. More red and blue sparks erupted from the impact point and the golem fell still.

The last golem continued to tangle with Stormhammer.

A scream from behind Dobrius caused him to turn.

Elise, whom he had forgotten about in the chaos, was caught in the grip of one of the hooded men Dobrius had seen earlier.

Dobrius took a step and aimed his pistol at the man holding her.

“Don’t even think about it,” one man, who held a knife to Elise’s throat, warned in a foreign accent. “Unless you want her blood added to the pool beneath your feet.” He sneered in derision.

Four other men stood behind the man with the knife. Two held pistols and two held swords.

A bang from behind pulled Dobrius’ attention away from his friend’s assailant for a moment. Poepa stood behind the third golem, guns in hand. The golem slumped forward into Stormahmmer’s arms and was summarily thrown to the floor. He surveyed the assailants. “Out of my way, boy,” he warned.

Dobrius dropped to his knees and bowed his head. That should be low enough, right?

Dual discharges of the pistols sounded in his ears. He looked up to see the two men with pistols falling backward to the ground. Another bang followed a moment later and the two with swords fell.

The last man still held knife to Elise’s throat but now fumbled for his pistol. “Drop your weapon, old man, or the girl gets it.”

“Poepa spat in the dirt. “Lesson number one of being the bad guy,” Poepa began, “is never threaten unless you’re prepared to carry out the action.” He pressed a button on the side of each and a small scope popped out of the top of each.

Dobrius fought the urge to close his eyes. What if Elise got hit?

Poepa took aim and fired.

Thump.

Dobrius turned.

Elise stood still, eyes wide, tears running down her cheeks, blood spattered on her shoulder and hair.

The hooded man lay face down on the ground, blood pouring out of his head.

Dobrius let out a huge sigh, holstered his pistol and ran to Elise.

She gasped and hugged him. Sobs wracked her and she buried her head in Dobrius’ chest “I…I…,” she fell back into sobs.

“I know,” Dobrius said. “I know.” She had to be terrified, first having a knife at her throat and then having two pistols pointed at her and coming within inches of ending her life. He couldn’t blame her.

The townspeople emerged from alleyways and homes and shops along the street. Conversation rose. “Did you see that? Poepa stopped them all,” one voice said. “Is that a good golem?” another asked. “Where’s my mommy,” a young voice asked. That last question brought a tear to Dobrius eye. So many killed in such a short period of time. What would they have done had Poepa not been there?

“Well don’t just stand there gawking,” Poepa said, raising his voice to be heard above the din. “Give these victims a proper burial. And scrap these bastards,” he kicked the foot of one golem.”

“You heard the man,” the constable said. “Get to it.”

The people, spurred into action by both the constable and a legendary storyteller, passed Dobrius and Elise and made their way toward the scene of the battle. Elise remained burrowed in his arms, head against his chest.

“Good fighting, golem.”

“Thank you, sir,” Stormhammer said. “It was my pleasure to fight alongside a legend such as you.” If a golem could express admiration, Stormhammer would have been gushing with it.

“You’ve heard of me?” Poepa asked.

“Oh yes. You’ve passed through Arks Portas many times over the years. I am a deputy constable there.”

“What brings you so far south?”

“Alas the perpetrators of this violence. Though you killed some of them.”

“You mean there are more?” Poepa asked sharply.

“Oh yes. I tracked at least two dozen in this group of criminals.”

“What was their crime?”

“They incited several riots, killed many nobles and raided villages and towns in their path. I was sent to track them and bring them to justice.”

 “Judging by how light-skinned they are, they’re from the Dark Shale, yes?”

“You are correct, sir.”

Dobrius gently pushed Elise away from him and took her hand in his. He turned to face Poepa and Stormhammer.

Poepa appraised the two. “I saw you on the road,” he said, pointing at Dobrius.

Dobrius nodded. “Yes, sir, I was on my way to repair a golem, but when I found him he…” his eyes drifted to one of the fallen golems. “…had no core.” He let go of Elise’s hand and rushed to the golem. “No, it can’t be.”

“What, boy?” Poepa demanded.

“That’s Bron, my golem,” Elise explained, kneeling beside Dobrius.

“Help me turn him over,” Dobrius said over his shoulder to Stormhammer.

The deputy constable golem stomped over and shoved Bron onto its stomach.

Dobrius again removed his turner and removed the screws securing the backplate before removing the backplate. “What is that?” he asked.

Inside, a red crystal, not blue, sat at the heart of the golem. Its light had been extinguished, but it still held a reddish color.

He reached out a hand, preparing to touch it. What would cause the crystal to turn red, and how had a replacement been found?

“Step, back, boy,” Poepa snapped.

Dobrius stopped his hand and looked up. “Why?” He felt an urge to touch the crystal. Just one touch wouldn’t hurt, would it.

With one fluid motion Poepa withdrew his pistols. He pointed them at Dobrius point-blank. “Back up, boy.”

Dobrius blinked and shook his head. Why was he trying to touch an unknown crystal? He stood up and stepped back.

“That’s a good boy.” Poepa holstered his pistols and let out a sigh. “The red crystals are tainted. One touch and you’d be tainted too.”

“Tainted? How so?”

“You’d feel rage. Uncontrollable rage. And hatred. Hatred for everyone and everything. You’d see everything through a red haze.”

“How do you know?” Elise asked. “You sound as if you know first-hand.”

Poepa didn’t respond. Instead he pointed at the deceased golem. “Put the back plate on, then Stormhammer here will dispose of the husk.”

Dobrius replaced the back plate and screwed it into place. Once done it felt like a weight had been lifted off him. He was able to breath fully again. He looked at Poepa as Stormhammer lifted Bron and carried him toward the edge of town. “Where is he going to take Bron?”

Poepa quirked an eyebrow. “Out in the field. He’s going to bury him.”

“Could there be more around?”

“Golems?”

“Or the men with them, yes.”

Poepa stroked his chin. “Stormhammer said he was tracking at least two dozen. Seeing as we only killed five, well, you do the math, kid.”

“That’s a lot of enemies running around.”

“Aye, especially if they attack at once or with more of them golems.”

Dobrius nodded and looked around at his surroundings for the first time. Wounded villagers limped away from the scene while the dead were carried away. The inn-keeper was outside, fretting about the damage to his building, while the constable talked with his deputy. “We should inform the constable of our suspicions. He can gather some more men or something.”

Poepa shook his head. “No, if we go arming an angry mob the enemy will see us coming. We need to handle this quiet-like. Make it seem like we think these were the only attackers. Then we get the jump on them.”

Dobrius nodded in agreement. “That makes sense.” Smoke caught his attention. It was billowing up above the rooftops from the direction of his house. “I need to check on my mother.”

Poepa narrowed his eyes and followed Dobrius’ gaze toward the smoke. “You think she was in danger?”

“I don’t know. But I need to be sure and make sure she knows I’m all right.”

“I’ll come with you,” Elise said.

“As will I, boy.”

The lizard mount growled in what sounded like agreement.

Dobrius led the trio through the crowded streets toward the edge of town. He tried to avoid shoving people aside as the source of the smoke remained hidden and his feeling of dread grew. He turned a corner and there his mother’s herbalist shop sat. Smoke billowed from the broken windows. He ran toward the shop.

“Dobrius, wait!” Poepa shouted.

He heard footsteps behind him but didn’t care. He entered stepping on top of the broken door on his way in. The kitchen lay empty, though pots and pans lay on the ground mingled with broken pottery. A leg of the dining table rested in the hearth fire, causing smoke to billow as the fire licked it. They didn’t have much time before the whole house went up in flames.

“This was recent,” Poepa observed.

A trail of blood led toward the parlor. “Mother!” he shouted. He passed into the small parlor and found furniture upturned and more spots of blood on the floor but no sign of the one he sought. He ascended the stairs and approached his mother’s room. The door lay open. “Mother?” Dobrius asked, slowing. A creak indicated Poepa or Elise, or both, following him.

A moan drifted out of the bedroom.

Dobrius rushed in.

A trail of blood led to his mother who lay on the bed. A wound in her stomach gaped open and soaked her dress red. She moaned again and turned her head toward Dobrius. “My boy,” she whispered. She extended a hand.

“Mother,” Dobrius said, kneeling by the bed and grabbing his mother’s hand. “What happened?”

“Men…came…,” she coughed and spit blood into her handkerchief, “attacked. I tried to stop them but…” she erupted into a coughing fit.

The floor creaked. Dobrius turned and saw Poepa standing there with Elise behind. “Can you help her?” he asked Poepa.

Poepa stepped forward and assessed the wound. He shook his head. “I’m afraid a gut wound like that is beyond my skill, lad. Beyond the skill of anyone in this village.”

“So she’s going to die?” Dobrius asked, swallowing hard.

“I’m afraid so.”

“Dobrius,” his mother croaked. “Listen…to…,”

Dobrius turned his attention to his mother. “I’m listening, Mother.”

“Must…leave…not…safe. He…knows…you’re,” more coughs. “Here.”

“Who, mother? Who knows I’m here? The man who did this to you?”

She shook her head. “No. But…he…wants…run.”

“I don’t understand,” Dobrius said.

His mother locked eyes with Poepa, as if she was noticing him for the first time. “The Destroyer,” she said.

For the first time since Dobrius had seen Poepa he expressed surprise on his face. “It can’t be.”

“Must…go…light…strike…,” she stopped speaking and squeezed Dobrius’ hand tight.  Then she gasped one final time and her grip loosened. Her eyes glazed over.

“Mother?” Dobrius asked. “No, Mother, don’t leave me.” Tears streamed down his face now. He shook her arm as if to rouse her from a slumber. “You can’t die. Please.”

A firm hand gripped his shoulder. “Let her go, lad, it’s too late for her. But we must leave.”

“I have to bury her first,” Dobrius said, hardly able to process what was happening. He had to focus on the immediate task at hand or he feared he would break down.

Poepa sighed. “I’ll help you. But we must hurry, the house is going to be in flames soon enough. He lifted Dobrius’ mother up and carried her down the stairs.

Dobrius followed, sadness mingling with disbelief and sprinkled with sadness. My mother…gone. He pulled his hand away when Elise tried to take it. Not even the distraction of a pretty girl could stop the pain.

The gunslinger carried his mother out behind the house and set her gently on the ground. “I need a shovel,” he said.

 

Echoes of Shadow Chapter 6: The Price of Failure

Eriyana flew over the Mountains of El. Thunder boomed in the distance and lightning illuminated her path, unleashed by the persistent storms that plagued her homeland. Ahead, the dark stone of the mighty mountain of Kaz’radan loomed.

Valkerion streaked toward the hidden entrance to Kaz’radan. He ignored the wind battering against him and showed no fear at the sound of thunder or the flashes of lightning. Of course, if he had shown such signs of weakness he would not be her shadow drake.

A cave became visible ahead and Eriyana steered Valkerion into it and landed.

Two dwarkain slaves approached and attached a clamp to the leg of Valkerion. Then they prostrated themselves on the rocky floor, heads down.

For the drake’s part, he endured the imprisonment with practiced patience. He had been chained from birth and was accustomed to it.

Eriyana dismounted. She paid the prostrate dwarkain no mind and strode toward the exit.

“Ah, the errant daughter returns,” a smug voice said from behind her.

Eriyana stopped and turned, groaning inside. She had hoped to avoid him. “Master Holst,” she replied coolly.

He walked hunched over to her. “Is Valkerion performing to your expectations?” he asked, eying the drake as it was led away to the aviary. His beady dark eyes turned back to her. He stroked his well-oiled mustache.

“He performed admirably at the Engrall fortress. He blended right in and they never saw us coming,” Eriyana said impatiently, a sneerplastered on her face. She did not have time for the Master of Drakes. His deformities disgusted her.

“Good, good,” the man said in his hiss-like voice. “You have grown much, child, into a beautiful young woman.”

Eriyana closed the distance between them and grabbed the broach of his cloak in one hand and put a knife to his throat with the other. “Flirt with me again, old man and the drakes will be feasting on your corpse.”

An angry roar erupted behind Eriyana and she felt something slam into her side. She flew through the air and would have landed and skid across the ground had she not bound herself to a shadow cast by a flash of lightning. She appeared upright across the chamber from the Master of Drakes.

At Master Holst’s side crouched his drake, Drakyrion. The monster would have dwarfed Valkerion. He snarled his teeth and glared at her.

“You forget yourself, princess. Kill me and my drakes shall take revenge, your father be damned.”

Eriyana sniffed. “I don’t have time for you.” She stormed out of the aviary and the dim, damp halls of Kaz’radan embraced her.

Master Holst’s laughter followed her.

How dare he speak to her like that? Her father would hear of his transgression. He would pay. Perhaps he would even let her wield the knife, to feel his blood running down her arm. After she made him beg for mercy.

She strode to the end of the corridor and descended the spiral stairs that led deeper into the mountain. She ignored the other assassins who passed her and exited on the next floor.

As she neared her father’s audience chamber the doors opened. Two men walked down the corridor, whispering as they went. They stopped when they saw her. The taller of the two, a bald man with tattoos all over his body eyed her lazily. “So the prodigal bitch returns.”

Why did everyone seek to antagonize her that night? She added another name silently to her list as she forced herself to keep from challenging the Master of Weapons. Only her clenched fists revealed her anger.

The move did not go unnoticed. “Did I hurt your feelings princess? Shall you run to your father and request the removal of my head again? How did it go last time you did such a thing?”

“I am older now, Master Matic. I will gut you myself, with his permission.” Or perhaps without it.

“Try me, little wolf, and my blades will taste your blood.” He touched the hilt of one of his short swords hanging at his side and licked his lips. “And then I shall follow.”

“And what of you, Master Vlakov? Shall you lend him the poison to coat his blades with?”

Master Victor Vlakov gave her a crooked, yellow smile. “You know me too well.” He bowed. “But do not worry. Only the most painless poisons for you.”

Eriyana snorted. “There is no such thing.”

“How little you have remembered,” he chastised.

“Or never learned in the first place,” Master Matic said. “You never did learn well.”

“Perhaps that reflects on the failing of the teachers,” Eriyana replied. “I have urgent business to attend to, so unless you have something of substance to say to me, move.” She strode toward them but let her hands slip to her knives. If they attacked her she would defend herself, consequences be damned.

No attack came. The masters separated and allowed her to pass between them.

She felt their eyes on her as she went.

“Enjoy your visit. We may be seeing you sooner than you expect,” Master Vlakov said cryptically.

Puzzled but not about to give the man the satisfaction of turning and showing her weakness, Eriyana pushed through the doors into her father’s throne room.

The room stood in stark contrast to the dim corridors pervading the rest of the mountain. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling, torches stood like bright sentinels along the wall and the floor of glass reflected it all. At the far end of the room sat the throne of knives, a throne built from melted knives. Legend said the knives were those of his enemies - the ones who had tried to kill him. Eriyana did not know the veracity of those claims.

Her father sat on the throne, silhouetted by the storm raging behind him through the glass window. He watched her with cold blue eyes as she approached. His face was emotionless. He wore his customary cloak and no doubt wore his black armor beneath. He slept in it.

Eriyana did not expect her father to show emotion. He never had before. Why should killing the emperor bring him any more joy than her past successes? She stopped at the foot of his stairs and knelt, bowing her head. “Father.”

He did not speak.

Eriyana looked up. Why was he silent?

“Father?” she asked.

Her father stood, glaring down at her. He sneered. “I sent you to perform one task, child. One. And you failed.”

Eriyana blinked. “I killed the emperor, as you said.”

“I also told you to frame his bodyguard. What was his name?” He stroked his chin, then snapped his fingers and pointed at her. “Oba.”

“I left him on the floor next to his dead emperor. He will take the blame and be executed.” Why was he recapping her actions in such a way? She had not failed.

“That is what you assumed,” her father said in a deadly tone, silencing her. “You assumed they would kill him and that he would not escape. A true assassin would not leave such things to chance. You were careless.”

“But Father…”

“Oba has escaped,” her father interrupted, raising his voice. “He has escaped and is on his way as we speak to warn Prince Tirrin, the emperor’s eldest son. If he reaches him, if he tells him the truth, our plans could unravel. All of them.”

“Then I will go and kill Oba,” Eriyana said. She would please her father in this.

“Yes, you will. But first you must be punished. Failure cannot be left unpunished.”

Eriyana hung her head in shame. “Yes, Father.”

He clapped his hands and a door along the wall to Eriyana’s left opened. Mischa Gromyko, the Master of Slaves, emerged. Two Dwarkain followed him, each carrying a whip.

“Rise,” her father commanded.

Eriyana did as commanded. She knew what came next. The same punishment which had been doled out when she was six and ever since when she failed her father. She held her head high.

“Such pride in the face of punishment,” her father observed. “You think you know what you shall face,” he gave a devious smile, “but you are not as prepared as you think.” He gestured to Mischa. “Master of Slaves, kindly explain my daughter’s punishment.”

Mischa bowed to her father, then turned his calculating gaze upon her. “My slaves will whip you, as in the past, but there are some differences.” He smiled. “The whips are coated with a liquid, courtesy of Master Vlakov, which shall stop your body from going numb during the flogging. This will heighten the sensations.”

Eriyana shivered but said nothing, only glared at him.

“The second part is, in my opinion, the best. You shall be flogged through the halls of Kaz’radan on your way down to the dungeons. The whole guild shall know your weakness and see your shame.”

“As if I care of the opinions of the others,” Eriyana said, chest puffed out to put on a brave front.”

“No? Then you won’t mind them watching as you are tortured before their eyes.”

Eriyana turned her head to her father. “If you wish for me to kill Oba why are you wasting time torturing me?”

“The price of failure must be paid,” he replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “Not even my own daughter can be above the law.”

Her father had always been a pragmatic man. She knew he took no joy in seeing her tortured, though she could not say the same for the masters.

“Remove your clothing,” Master Gromyko demanded. “All of it.” He licked his lips and looked her up and down.

Eriyana sneered at him. Voyeuristic pig, she thought. When I am Lady of the guild I will cut off your dick and feed it to you. She removed her clothing, eyes locked on the man. Let him watch, she wouldn’t let it bother her. She shivered once naked, but otherwise did not allow any other signs of discomfort to show.

“Walk,” he ordered, pointing toward the door she had entered moments earlier.

She turned and strode toward the door at a measured pace. She made it a few paces when Master Gromyko barked another command.

“Now, scum, whip her.”

The first whip struck her back and caused pain to arc up and down it. A second strike followed a moment later. Both Dwarkain, taking turns. Her back throbbed.

She knew she shouldn’t blame the Dwarkain, they were only doing their master’s bidding, but she cursed them silently. Anyone who had a hand in this would die…one day. She had to figure out a way to kill her father first.

The whips made contact again and the pain grew stronger. Her back burned for many moments after each strike. It must be the coating. The result was the pain caused by each strike lingered until the next. It magnified the effect.

Eriyana clenched her jaw. I will not succumb, I will not succumb, she repeated in her mind like a chant. Her knees threatened to give out as pain lanced down her spine into her legs, but she kept going. She focused her thoughts on each step.

She made it through the door and they drove her down the stairs with persistent whipping. She did not look back but imagined her father and Master Gromyko following, the latter with a huge smile on his face and the former with his usual dour expression.

They did not stop on every level but instead went to the ground level. There dozens of assassins were gathered like a crowd at a parade. They watched in silence as she passed.

Blood dripped down the back of her legs and made her feet wet and sticky. She caught herself twice almost falling. A trail of blood. I will bathe in their blood one day. The stones will be covered in a sea of blood.

She arrived at the great hall, the gathering place of the assassins. Even more men and women awaited her in this room, and she heard shuffling from behind as those from the hallway entered.

“Stop,” Master Gromyko said as she approached a wooden torture table. “Turn and face the crowd.”

Eriyana obeyed, turning to face her torturer. She looked past him to her father. He stared at her with indifference. There was no anger there, no hatred, only dispassionate observation. In his mind this was fair punishment for her crime, not torture.

An image rose in her mind of the time she was six years old. She had failed to defeat another student in combat. Her father had ordered her strung up from the ceiling, feet first, and flogged for hours. She had been cut down and left to lie on the bloody stones for days until thirst and hunger drove her to crawl out of the room. Afterward her father had acted as if the punishment never happened. When she asked him about it, he explained that there was no point dwelling on the past once the punishment was finished.

Her father’s voice brought her back to the present. “We are gathered today to witness the first punishment of my daughter as an adult.” He turned his head to survey the room. “Do any object to this?”

No one spoke. It was a test. Any who spoke would be cut down, probably by their own brethren, if not her father.

To the side stood the other four masters. Akelia Savin, the Mistress of Whisperers and the only female among the master assassins, was the only one who had not taunted her. Was it because they shared the same gender? Or was she saving her barbs for later?

“You may commence, Master of Slaves,” her father said after a moment of silence.

Master Gromyko bowed. “As you command, my lord.” He turned back to face Eriyana and snapped his fingers. “Lay on the table.”

The two Dwarkain who had whipped her stepped forward and grabbed her arms.

She pulled away at first. How dare filthy Dwarkain touch her. But they persisted and she cooperated by lying on the table.

The Dwarkain restrained her arms and legs with leather straps. A metal headband was placed over her head, hard pieces of metal poking into the flesh. What was this contraption?

“Behold the ultimate torture device,” Master Gromyko shouted. “Pull the crank.”

The two Dwarkain worked together to turn a crank. The table creaked and Eriyana felt it moving beneath her. Tension gripped her arms and legs at the same time panic entered her mind. Were they seriously going to draw and quarter her? Would her father watch as her arms and legs were pulled out of their sockets and she was torn limb from limb?

“That is only stage one,” Master Gromyko said distantly. “Here is stage two.” He clapped his hands and a clank sounded from beyond Eriyana’s line of sight. A hum rose.

Energy unlike anything she had ever felt shot through her head and surged down her body. She convulsed involuntarily as her blood seemed to burn inside her. A primordial scream echoed through the chamber and it took her a moment to realize it was her screaming at the top of her lungs. She couldn’t stop. On and on it went for what seemed like an eternity. At last the burning subsided and she was left with the relative painlessness of being drawn in four directions at once.

“We call it electricity!” Master Gromyko announced. “It is like harnessing lightning. A very effective torture method.”

A dull chatter broke out among the crowd. It sounded like they agreed.

The smell of burnt hair and flesh filled her nostrils. Tears ran down her face but she refused to beg for mercy. Instead she focused on her hatred. Father, Master Vlakov, Master Holst, Master Gromyko, Master Matic, Master Gromyko, she thought. She repeated it again, Father, Master Vlakov, Master Holst, Master Gromyko, Master Matic, Master Gromyko. Over and over she repeated the names of those who would one day die at her hands as she gritted her teeth and braced for another surge of electricity she knew would come.

The expected hum came, followed by the burning. She arched her back and gritted her teeth, determined not to scream. Instead her agony expressed itself as a loud groan. The pain overcame her and her vision faded to black.

***

Eriyana awoke an indeterminate amount of time later. She lay on stone, not the wood of the torture table, and it was dark. Pain wracked her body, but she welcomed it, as it meant she was not paralyzed or dead. She wiggled her toes and tried to roll over but when her wrist bent pain shot up her arm and she let out a tiny grunt of pain and flopped back onto her back, panting from the effort.

“Have you learned your lesson, child?” a fame voice asked from the corner.

Eriyana jerked in surprise at the presence of someone else in what she imagined was a dungeon cell. She recognized that voice. “Mistress Savin, I wondered when you would come to gloat,” she said in a ragged voice.

“I wanted to see the prodigal daughter fall before I showed myself. I quite enjoyed it.” Eriyana could hear the smile in her voice.
 

Mistress Savin, Eriyana thought, adding her name to the list. “You risk much coming in here with me unrestrained.” Even as she thought that she tried to draw upon her frost magic. Use of magic while being tortured would have been seen as a sign of weakness, but here…she could kill the smug woman if she wished.

A soft laugh came from Mistress Savin. “Oh, child, you are no threat to me in your…weakened state. In fact, even at full strength you would be hard pressed to kill me. Save your strength, rest. Your father sent me with a message for you.”

“Tell me and go, then.”

“He said you have a day to rest, then you must be on your way to kill the one named Oba. He wanted me to tell you that if you fail him again you will not be so lucky to fall unconscious the next time you are tortured.”

Eriyana shuddered but put steel into her voice. “Tell my father I will not fail him.”

 

Echoes of Shadow Chapter 5: Warbound

Kai stood in shock, gaping at the body of his mother and father and their murderer. Blood coated his blade, and his hands. I killed a man, he thought.

The sound of screams and clash of iron brought him back to the present. Everywhere he looked smoke rose into the sky, while people ran in every direction. In the distance, clusters of villagers faced off against bands of Engrall, but they were losing. Women and children raced past where Kai stood, though they skirted around the bodies. None stopped to ask how he fared. Where would they go? To the woods to die of starvation? To the cellars to be burned alive? The Engrall had killed so many already in a senseless raid, what would stop them from killing women and children?

Kai shook his head. He couldn’t dwell on the fate of the other villagers. Nor could he take the time to bury his parents. Run, his father had told him, so run he would. “I’m sorry,” he whispered to his mother and father. To stay would be to die.

He went into the house and used a towel to wipe the blood from the sword and set it on the table. Then he washed his hands in the stone basin, turning the water red. He grabbed a satchel and filled it with fruit and nuts and dried meat, then grabbed a parka and stuffed it in. He snatched up the sword and looked both ways out of the doorway before departing. He set his eyes on the forest to the north. The townsfolk were all running south or west, so the Engrall might not expect him to go north.

Kai walked through the emptying streets of Carth, eyes darting this way and that, ever vigilant. The fighting had indeed moved away from this area. Bodies littered the ground, doorways and windows. A woman had been thrown through a window, her face and head bloody and blood dripping down the wall from where the glass impaled her. Elsewhere the body of a woman and two children, a boy and a girl, sat at the end of an alley. The woman had clearly tried to shield her children in their final moments and failed. Arrows riddled the back of a man, who must have died fleeing or been ambushed from behind. A few Engrall were among the dead, but much fewer than Kai expected. They’re a warrior race, though, he thought. I shouldn’t be surprised they can overcome common villagers in battle.

He stopped at the blacksmith shop and grabbed a shield his father had been working to band with iron. He had finished it the day before and was waiting for the buyer to come. A buyer who Kai had passed two doors down. He also grabbed a pair of knives from the wall where his father displayed samples of his wares. Better to be well-prepared.

He saw no Engrall and arrived at the north gate unmolested. One wooden gate hung by a single hinge, while the other lay in pieces on the ground, from where the Engrall had chopped or battered their way through. Kai took one final look around at his home, his city.

He sprinted into the forest, blade clutched in one hand and the leather handle of the shield in the other. He did not look back. The smell of burning wood, and probably flesh, he couldn’t tell, told him all he needed to know. The Engrall had attacked, cutting down most everyone he had ever known in his life. His mother and father dead at the hand of evil killers from the north.

Tears ran down his cheeks. His legs pumped, carrying him further into the woods, and he pushed bushes and branches away, running faster. Images of his parents filled his head, the times they spent together, the summer days of fishing, and wading in the water near the brook and waterfall. That was all gone now, and the pain wracked his heart, but he had to stay strong, he had to survive.

Jumping down a small bluff, he huddled inside a small nook of dirt and roots. He shivered. The autumn air had a chill to it this evening, and he covered himself with fallen leaves and hid, wrapping his parka around himself.

The Engrall had never been violent when collecting tribute in the past - not after the war hundreds of years earlier when they destroyed the kingdom of Carth and her allies. Snapping back to the present, Kai smelled something different in the wind. He looked up and froze, eyes wide.

Above the bluff stood a large Engrall warrior. A curved blade-staff tapped against several roots sticking out of the bluff. The pale-skinned man sniffed the air, his long black hair fluttering in the wind. Blue cold eyes scanned the forest below the man.

Kai remained completely still, the leaves hiding his entire body. Would the Engrall find him and kill him like all the others in his village? If they were willing to kill mothers and their children, they would have no qualms killing him. He couldn’t think of that, or his teeth would chatter. For one of the first times in his life he had known complete and utter fear and he shook uncontrollably.

The Engrall’s eyes fell upon Kai’s hiding place but he did not react. He sniffed once more before moving on.

Kai let out the breath he had been holding. He would remain for a while longer, to ensure no more Engrall were around, then move on to…he didn’t know where. The village of Riverton lay a a days walk to the west. That would likely be his destination.

***

After an while Kai crawled out of his hiding place, sword in hand and satchel over his back. He heard no Engrall. They’ve probably moved on to pillage another village, he thought. He made his way to the forest’s edge overlooking the village and went to the top of a hill. Thin streams of smoke rose from the ashes of the village. Nothing left for him there. He looked to his right, toward the west. The Cartheron River meandered past Carth, flowing from its source at the foot of the Silver Mountain. He would find Riverton there.

A rustling from behind caused Kai to spin. A four-legged, furry striped creature bounded toward him, teeth bare. A werecat.

Kai shouted in surprise and raised his sword. His hand trembled.

The werecat fixated on him with golden eyes.

Distantly, Kai noticed a man standing at the forest’s edge behind the bounding creature, but he had no chance to dwell on his presence.

His opponent leapt toward him.

Kai lowered his blade, hoping to impale the beast.

The creature landed in front of Kai, short of his blade, and then leapt to the right. It swatted at Kai’s arm, scratching him.

Kai screamed in pain and dropped his blade.

In an instant, the creature was on top of him. It pinned him to the ground and roared in his face.

The boy held up his arms and prepared for the sharp teeth to descend, tearing into him.

“Leave it,” a voice came from behind the beast.

The creature stopped and backed up, not taking its eyes off of Kai.

The main Kai had distantly seen before now strode up to Kai. He was an Engrall. He wore leather armor but no helmet and held a blade-staff upright.

Kai tried to scoot backward. He prepared to kick the man and eyed the blade at his side. Even with one arm scratched he could try to defend himself. He would not go down without a fight.

“Sit,” the man commanded.

The werecat sat and looked up at at the man. Its expression softened as its snarl disappeared and eyes widened and it began to purr.

The Engrall put his hand on the werecat’s head. “Good Gojo.” He looked Kai in the eyes. “Gojo smelled you hiding and followed you here. He smelled blood on you.” His eyes appraised Kai, settling on the sword. “You are no warrior. Who are you?”

“Just kill me already, you monster!” Kai shouted. “Your people killed my family and destroyed my village. Stop talking and finish the job!” He was ready to meet his maker, now.

The man narrowed his eyes. “I did not destroy your village, boy. Nor did my people.”

“Liar!” Kai shouted. “Look for yourself.” He brought himself to a sitting position but a growl from Gojo kept him from standing. He pointed behind him toward the village. “The Engrall burned my village to the ground.”

The man grunted. “I shall see for myself.”

Just then, a group of people emerged from the woods. More Engrall. A man and woman approached.

“What’s this, Tirrin?” the man asked.

“A boy, hiding in the woods. He claims the Engrall destroyed his village.” He turned to the seer. “Can you discern the truth, Isa?”

“I shall try,” a white-haired middle-aged woman began. She approached Kai and extended her hand.

Kai shied away from her.

Her face softened. “Do not be afraid, child. This will not hurt.”

Her words did little to comfort Kai, but he did not shy back further when her cold hand touched his forehead. Unbidden, memories of the battle, more like a slaughter, of his village flashed through his mind. The barrage of images slowed around the scenes concerning his mother and father fighting Engrall and an image of Kai stabbing the Engrall named Candris froze in his mind’s eye.

“Candris,” Isa breathed.

“What of my brother?” the man who had accompanied Isa asked. “What do you see?”

“The Engrall did indeed attack this village,” Isa said in a distant voice. “They were led by Candris.”

“Does he yet live?” the man asked.

Tirrin held up a hand. “Let her finish, Davius.”

“Candris…was slain,” Isa said slowly.

“By who?” Davius demanded, ignoring Tirrin and stepping closer to the seer, as if his proximity would hasten her answer.

“The boy.”

“This boy?” Davius’ face contorted in anger and he glared at Kai. His hand went to his side where his sword hung.

The memory of the strength Kai had felt, and the runes on his sword glowing bright, froze in his mind.

“Yes. I see…power…such power…a blade of old wielded by…I cannot see more.” She removed her hand from his forehead and slumped her shoulders.

The memory faded and Kai blinked. How had she summoned his memories on a whim? He felt the exhaustion he had felt after fighting Candris returning as if he had fought the man all over again.

Davius drew his blade. He snarled. “The boy will die, then.”

Tirrin stepped in between Davius and Kai. “No.”

“Get out of my way, Tirrin,” Davius said.

“Back away, Davius. Your prince commands it.”

Kai could not see Tirrin’s face, but Davius’ was a picture of fury. His hand turned white from clenching the hilt of his sword so hard. At last he gave a reluctant bow. “As my prince commands.” He shot Kai a glare before turning around and sheathing his blade.

Tirrin stood facing toward Davius for a few more moments, then he turned to Kai. “You will come with us.” It was not a suggestion.”

It was Kai’s turn to curl his lip. “I will never go with you.”

“You don’t have a choice. Walk or I carry you.”

“I’m not a child.”

“Then stop acting like one.”

“Am I your prisoner?”

Tirrin’s eyes took on a distant look. “Not yet, if you cooperate.”

“And Davius? He wants my head.”

“He will not bother you.”

Kai doubted the sincerity of his assurance, but fell silent anyway. He glared at Tirrin. He truly had no choice. Go with them…or die. “Fine. But I keep my sword, and no locking me up.”

“We have no prison here,” Tirrin said, stretching his arms wide and indicating the forest behind him. “But you have my word you may keep your weapon,” his eyes fell on the rune-marked blade, “and shall have your freedom if you do not betray us.”

Kai nodded. He would go with them, for now.

“Let’s go. The others are waiting for us.” Tirrin turned and headed toward the forest, Gojo at his side. Isa and Davius followed, the latter reluctantly and not without first shooting Kai a glare.

Kai ignored Davius glare and gave one last longing look toward his village before bringing snatching up his sword and bringing up the rear. He had a feeling he would need to keep his blade close for a while.

The passed through the woods without seeing anyone else. No villagers, no other Engrall, not even any animals except for the birds. After several minutes they reached a clearing.

A small group of Engrall, perhaps three dozen by Kai’s count, sat or lounged around a large fire. Seven tents surrounded the fire in a circular pattern. Two sentries saluted Tirrin as he approached with fist to heart before eying Kai with suspicion.

“This is Kai,” Tirrin said, raising his voice to be heard. The other Engrall fell silent. “He is our guest and should be treated with respect. Belgar, I would speak with you.”

A tall Engrall rose and nodded at Tirrin. “As you command, my prince.”

Davius made to follow Tirrin.

“No, Davius. I have a task for you. Return to the village with a squad of men. Collect the belongings of any Engrall dead and give them proper burials.”

Davius gave a slight bow. “As you command.” He barked out half a dozen names and headed back into the forest without waiting for responses.

Is that how he always acts? Kai wondered.

“You, boy,” Tirrin said. “Isa will show you around. We won’t be staying here long before heading back to Drakau.” He then led Belgar toward the tallest of the seven tents. Gojo trailed behind.

Drakau, he thought. The Fortress of Dread, the gateway to the Engrall lands. Kai shivered.

“Come,” Isa said. She led Kai toward the fire. “Have you eaten, child?”

“No,” Kai said warily as he sat on the ground. It was evening now, with the sun setting in a few hours, and he had not eaten since breakfast.

Isa grabbed the spit and pulled a chunk of meat off. She offered it to Kai. “Rabbit.”

Kai knew what it was from the smell. He had hunted rabbit for years with his friends. Was she trying to reassure him? Comfort him? Did she think he thought it was human flesh? The Engrall did have a reputation among the low-landers of devouring human flesh. “Thank you,” he said grudgingly, taking the meat and biting into it.

The Engrall around the fire watched him with suspicion, or perhaps curiosity. He had just arrived in the company of their prince, so perhaps they wondered who he was and why he was special.

“Here,” an Engrall with a long scar on his right cheek said. He extended a piece of bread and a mug toward Kai.

Kai took the bread but eyed the mug dubiously. He looked back at the Engrall.

“It’s not poison, boy. ‘Tis ale.”

Kai shook his head. “Forgive me, I forgot my manners. Thank you.” He bowed his head slightly in thanks and took the mug. He was aware of some of the others watching him as he tore a chunk off the bread and took a sip from the mug. Are they expecting me to die?

“What’s your name, boy?” the same Engrall asked.

“Kai.”

Another Engrall across the fire spat. “A low-lander name.”

Kai puffed up his chest and looked across at the man. “Yes, and I’m proud of it.”

“Bah, weaklings.”

Kai felt his cheeks warming. He opened his mouth to respond and an image of him drawing his sword and running the man through flashed through his mind. He closed his mouth. Where had that thought come from?

“Enough of this,” Isa scolded. “Children,” she muttered as she dug in a satchel at her feet.

“Forgive us, Warbinder,” the first Engrall who had offered Kai the bread and mug said.

“What is your name?” Kai asked, attempting to change the subject.

“Vrakon’ka of the Kolakk tribe.”

“Are you all from the same tribe?” Kai asked.

Vrakon’ka shook his head and took a swig from his mug before answering. “No, lad. The prince has warriors from all the tribes in his service.”

“How many tribes are there?” Kai asked. He kicked himself mentally afterward - he shouldn’t be asking his enemy to tell him more about themselves. Though maybe he could use the information against them…

“Three. The Evids,” he gestured to the rude Engrall who had insulted Kai earlier, “the Kolakks,” he pounded a fist on his chest, “and the Trills.” He pointed toward the tent Tirrin had disappeared into. “Prince Tirrin is descended from the Trill tribe. Long ago…”

“That is enough for tonight,” Isa said in a gentle tone that at the same time made clear she would brook no argument. “Save history lessons for another time.” She gazed knowingly at Kai. “We are not in a hurry.”

“Of course, Warbinder,” Vrakon’ka bowed his head in deference.

“Come to me, boy,” Isa said.

Kai took another bite of bread and took a swig of ale, then approached the warbinder.

She held a small leather sack in her hand. It tapered to a small opening on one end. She squeezed her hand and thick fluid came out. “This is an ointment. For your arm.”

Kai started. He had forgotten the scratch from Gojo. His arm chose that moment to begin throbbing, as if the memory had triggered it.

Isa took the ointment in her hand and spread it over the scratch.

It felt cool at first, then began to grow warm. Not uncomfortably warm, but like the sun on a warm spring day shining on it. The warmth subsided moments later and took the pain with it. Amazing, Kai thought.

“You may sleep in my tent tonight,” Isa said.

“Yes, Warbinder,” Kai said, using the formal title he’d heard the others use.

Isa snorted. “That title is only for Warbound. You shall call me Isa.”

“What are Warbound?” Kai asked, curiosity overwhelming him.

“The Warbound are groups of warriors bound through a Warbinder to their War Chief. Individual Warbound groups are called Warbands. Tirrin is the War Chief of this Warband.”

“I see,” Kai said.

“You do not yet understand,” Isa said with a wry smile. “But you will…one day.”

Unsettled by discussions of the future Kai again looked toward Tirrin’s tent. What could they be discussing?

***

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Echoes of Shadow Chapter 4: Condemned to Die

Oba watched as the assassin disappeared into the night. He clenched his fists and resisted the urge to let out another roar. It would do no good. He turned stiffly, the paralytic effect still lingering in his legs, and walked toward the body of his emperor.

The Emperor lay face-down on the carpeted floor, blood soaking the once-brown carpet and turning it a muddy red.

Oba knelt beside his friend. “My friend. I’m sorry,” he said. He removed the murder weapon, a shard of his broken blade, from the back of the Emperor. More blood trickled out. He then turned the man onto his back and closed his lifeless eyes. He placed a hand on his friend’s forehead. “May the blessings of the Creator be upon you.”

The door to the Emperor’s chambers burst open. Rai’Vynn stood there. Several of the Emperor’s advisers stood behind him. His eyes widened at seeing his father lying dead on the floor and the shard of Oba’s blade lying nearby. “Murder!” he shouted. “Guards, seize him!”

The advisers, gaping at the scene before them were shoved aside as half a dozen guards entered. The guards drew their swords once they were free of the gaggle of advisers. They surrounded Oba. Men he was in charge of pointed steel at him him.

Oba rose slowly, glaring at the guards. A few guards took a step back. “I did not kill your father, Rai’Vynn,” he declared. But you had a hand in it, I’m sure of it, he thought.

“The murder weapon lies at your feet, Oba. What other explanation could there be?”

He’s trying to set me up, Oba realized. He gestured toward the open window and the hidden door behind him. “The assassin came through the secret tunnels and left through the window.” He pointed a finger at the window where a cold wind blew through.

“How convenient,” Rai’Vynn said with derision. “An assassin just magically showed up, without being detected, and escaped…how again?”

“On a shadow drake.”

“A shadow drake,” Rai’Vynn repeated. He paused and gave a derisive sneer the advisers could not see. Then he laughed out loud. “Oh, the tales the true assassin tells to absolve himself of guilt.”

The other advisers laughed nervously. Some had once been friends of Oba. Now they laughed or stood silent as the blame for the death of the Emperor was placed on his shoulders.

“I loved the Emperor,” Oba said firmly. “I would never harm him.”

“Seize him,” Rai’Vynn ordered.

Four of the six guards approached him, swords pointed and ready to strike.

Oba raised his arms. Resisting the guards would play into Rai’Vynn’s hands. His innocence would come to light. Darkness met him as he felt a jolt of pain at the back of his head.

***

Oba awoke. His hands met cold stone as he pushed himself to his feet, shivering. His head pounded. Metal bars met his eyes. He turned and found a stone wall behind him. A tiny window let in cold air. His armor was nowhere to be found.

Imprisoned, he thought. Why would they imprison me? “Guard.” he croaked, throat dry. “Guard.”

No one came.

He looked into the cell to his right. A mound of ragged clothing marked another prisoner.

“You,” Oba said, stumbling toward the bars. His body still ached from the battle against the assassin and whatever rough treatment he’d suffered at the hands of the guards. “Can you hear me?” Was everyone deaf in the dungeon?

The prisoner lifted his head and looked at Oba. He was an Engrall man with a long brown beard and green eyes. “Stop speaking.”

“But…”

The man held a finger to his lips and made a shushing sound. “Stop speaking or the guards will hear you,” he whispered fiercely.

Oba fell silent, looking around at the other cells. All the prisoners sat or lay in their cells in silence. He didn’t want to be silent. He wanted the guards to let him out!

“Guard!” he shouted.

The prisoner shook his head and laid it back down on the floor of his cell. “Fool,” he said.

Three guards answered his shout. Two leveled their spears at Oba while the first opened the door to the cell.

“I must speak…” Oba began.

The guard who had unlocked the door approached him and slammed the butt of his spear into Oba’s stomach.

Oba doubled over in pain while surprise paralyzed him. Why had they hit him? “Why?” he asked.

The guard did not answer. He simply slammed the spear into the same place again.

“Any other words to say, prisoner?” the second guard asked from behind the first. “Keep talking and we’ll keep beating you.”

Oba opened his mouth to speak but snapped it closed. No, it would do no good to be continually beaten if he could avoid it. He remained silent.

“That’s better,” the second guard said. “I can’t wait until you’re sentenced, murderer.”

The first guard turned to go.

“I didn’t kill the Emperor,” Oba blurted before he could stop himself.

The second guard arched an eyebrow. “You are a special kind of stupid.” He stepped into the cell and motioned for the first guard to turn around. “We’ll teach you the hard way then.”

Was this how all of the prisoners were treated? With such a callous disregard?  Oba had no idea how the guards had become so brutal.

Two sets of fists began pummeling him. Blows rained on his body, slamming into his groin, legs, arms, his head and more. He fell to his knees and instinctively raised his arms to protect what he could of his head. He could not say how long the blows lasted, nor did he remember them stopping.

He awoke a time later on the floor. This time his hands touched something wet. He opened his eyes. A thin layer of blood coated the stones. He reached up to where a sharp pain emanated from his head. Oh, it was his blood. The door was locked again and the two guards were nowhere to be seen.

“I told you,” whispered the prisoner to whom Oba had spoken earlier, startling him.

Oba, mindful of the reason for the beating in the first place, only nodded. He had brought it upon himself, in a way.

He sat in his cell for an indeterminate amount of time.The tiny window in his cell showed no sky, so he stared at the bars, at the ceiling, at the floor, at the other prisoners. Anything to keep his mind off his predicament. If they truly believed he had killed the emperor there was only one fate that awaited him - death. He had two choices. He could either convince enough people to support him, or he could try to escape.

Oba fell asleep naturally but was awoken by a clanging noise. The guards were back. Here to beat me some more? he thought, not daring to speak.

“Get up, prisoner,” the first guard ordered. He held a pair of shackles. “The Emperor wants to see you. Hold out your hands.”

Oba’s breath froze in his lungs, but he held out his hands. The Emperor? Could he have survived?

The shackles went on and he was led from the prison cell. The other prisoners huddled with their heads down, not daring to make eye contact with the guards.

Oba was led up the steps and through the cold, damp corridors of the Obsidian Tower. He kept his head held high as he walked. To show weakness was to be as good as dead. They passed numerous guards on their path - guards who, yesterday, would have saluted him as the right hand of the Emperor but, now, looked at him with anger, suspicion and hate.

The doors to the throne room swung open at their approach. Oba looked at who sat upon the throne. “No,” he rasped.

Rai’Vynn sat upon the throne, wearing purple robes and his father’s crown. “Bring the traitor to me,” he pointed at the foot of the stairs.

Oba was dragged before Rai’Vynn. He felt like bowing his head in defeat. Yet, he held his head high and gave Rai’Vynn his deadliest stare. Traitor.

A group of advisers stood at one side of the throne. Some looked around nervously, while others glared at Oba or looked fawningly at Rai’Vynn.

A gathering of regal-looking Warbinders stood opposite the advisers. They did not glare at Oba. In fact, they didn’t look at him at all. Just looking at them made Oba feel itchy. Their ability to get into the heads of others was legendary.

Oba sought out Head Mistress Saibinn Rue with his eyes. She stood at the head of the Warbinders and looked toward Rai’Vynn. Why would she be going along with this? Had the whole world gone mad? Could they not see he was innocent?

“Oba Kahn,” Rai’vynn spoke loudly. “You are accused of the murder of my father, and our beloved Emperor, Kulan Gaidian. What do you have to say for yourself?”

Not that it will matter, Oba thought. Rai’Vynn was up to something. Oba feared that no testimony he gave would be believed. Still, he stood straight and dragged his gaze over the advisers and Warbinders alike. “I did not kill the Emperor,” he said firmly. “As I told you before, the Emperor was assassinated by an unknown woman. I believe she was affiliated with the Assassins Guild.”

“Your broken blade was found beside the Emperor.”

“It broke while I fought the assassin.”

“I find it unlikely that an assassin breached the Fortress of Shadows, let alone the Obsidian Tower, without being detected” Rai’Vynn scoffed.

Oba shrugged. “I don’t know how the assassin reached so far without detection, but I did not kill the Emperor!” He pointed toward the group of Warbinders. “Have one of them read my mind. They can tell you I speak the truth.”

Rai’Vynn cast a glance toward the Warbinders but dismissed his idea with the wave of a hand. “I will not further waste their time with distractions. As the new Emperor of the Engrall it falls to me to decide your guilt or innocence.”

Oba glared at Rai’Vynn. Do it, you coward, he thought.

“I find you guilty of murdering my father, the Emperor. the Emperor and my father.”

The room fell silent.

Oba stood silent. He had expected no less.

“The punishment will be death by crucifixion on the morrow. You will be made to suffer, as my father did, before you die. Take him away.” He waved dismissively. The four guards grabbed Oba, dragging him toward the door.

“You will regret this!” Rai’Vynn shouted. “I swear it by the gods. You shall not get away with this. Justice will be done!”

Rai’Vynn smirked. “What’s done is done, old man. You shall be punished for your crime.”

Oba was dragged indignantly down the aisle and through the double doors. He eventually stumbled to his feet and walked as the guards led him, forcefully, to his cell. They removed the shackles and once again threw him in, locking the door.

***

He had only been there for what felt like a short while when the main door to the dungeon opened. Back for more beatings? he wondered.

Instead of the guards from earlier, an Engrall, wearing black armor and a skull helmet, stood in front of him. “Arise, Oba Kahn,” the figure said.

Oba rose and squinted in the dim light. He recognized that voice. “Takris?” he asked.

The figure that Oba believed was Takris did not respond. He slipped a key into the lock and turned it. The lock popped open and he swung the door outward. He then dropped a bundle that had been slung on his back to the ground. “Take these and go. You have a small window of time to escape.”

Oba narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “Why are you helping me?”

“I was there at the Battle of Entrigall. I saw your true heart.”

The Battle of Entrigall. The day the Emperor’s hunting party, ambushed and surrounded by Shado Elvanians near the Blackwoods, had almost been eradicated. Oba had led the Emperor’s guard that day and held the enemy back until General Takris’ forces could arrive. Oba had spent weeks recovering from the wounds he’d received that day, but the Emperor had not received a scratch.

Oba nodded. He believes me. “Thank you.” He didn’t say the general’s name again, not wanting to implicate him further.

The general grunted, turned, and departed the dungeons.

Oba approached the equipment and assessed it. A set of leather armor and a helmet,a blade-staff,a belt,a sword and a knife lay at his feet. He wasted no time donning the armor and fastening the scabbard and knife sheath to his belt. He hefted the blade-staff. It wasn’t his perfectly weighted one, but it would do. He cast a glance around at the prisoners. He could release them, but he didn’t know why all of them were there. He felt that at least some must have been there for legitimate reasons. Oba moved over to the cell where the bearded Engrall had tried to warn him earlier about speaking aloud. He would release just this one. It would then be up to that prisoner if the others were to be released. Oba did not know why the Engrall was imprisoned, nor did he care. With that, he pulled the key from his cell door, and unlocked the cell next to his. The man’s weary brown eyes studied Oba.

“Reckon I owe you one stranger, name’s Khadd. If you’re ever in need of a rogue with specialized skills, I’m your man,” Khadd said.

The thin man stood and made his way to the cell door.

“I should’ve known. A thief! Is that why you’re down here?” Oba said, turning to the exit hallway.

“Ha! More like stealing hearts. The Captain of the Guard didn’t take kindly to me spending time with his girlfriend at the Dove & Blade tavern. Ah, though, she had pretty eyes and…” Khadd explained.

Oba raised his hand.

“Enough! Go on your way. I would suggest you leave this place as soon as possible,” Oba said.

“What’s yer name my friend? I’d like to tell my grandchildren, one day about the man who saved their grand paps,” Khadd said.

The bearded man smiled, took the key, and began unlocking the other cells.

“Oba, we’re not friends. I just felt the need to give you a second chance, something I was given myself,” Oba said.

“Oba, That’s a noble name indeed. Well, Oba safe travels. May we meet again under better circumstances,” Khadd said.

Oba gave one final glance and slipped out the doorway. He had to escape and warn Tirrin of the coup.

He stepped quietly down the corridor toward the dungeon door. How had Takris gotten in without observation? Or had he used his position to intimidate the guards into letting him pass? Had he told them he wanted to beat up and abuse the prisoner?

His questions were answered moments later as he peaked out between the bars of the small window in the door to the dungeon. Three guards lay on the floor. The absence of blood made Oba suspect they were still alive, merely unconscious.

He pulled the door open and looked around. No one was waiting in the wings to attack him. He stepped around the limp bodies and crept down the corridor. The dungeon was in the sub-levels of the fortress which meant he needed to get above ground before he could hope to escape. I could crawl through the sewers, he thought. Hmm. No, I don’t have the equipment to climb the rock face. He would end up falling to his death if he attempted such a feat.

Oba ascended the stairs at the end of the corridor and emerged on the main floor. This was his home - he knew the layout like the back of his hand. He turned to the right and took a servant tunnel until he reached the kitchens. It was night and the fires in the stove were extinguished only moonlight streaming in from a high window illuminated the room. He pushed open the door from the kitchen that led outside, braced himself against the cold air, and headed toward the stables.

The stable boy lay asleep in the corner, curled up in a blanket to keep warm in the winter air.

Oba leaned his blade-staff against a wall and sought out his stallion, Thunder, who lay in a stall at the far end of the stable.

Thunder snuffed as he smelled Oba approach.

As Thunder stood, Oba extended a hand. “One last ride, old friend. Are you up for it?”

The steed snorted in reply. He was ready.

Oba fetched a saddle and equipment and returned to Thunder’s stall. He entered the stall and very quickly had Thunder ready to ride. He led Thunder to the edge of the stable.

The stable boy startled awake. “Hey, who’s there?” he asked, frightened.

Oba didn’t answer. He mounted Thunder and grabbed his blade-staff. Wrapping a blanket around himself, he made a clicking noise and gently kicked Thunder into motion. Snow flew upward from Thunder’s hooves as Oba steered him toward the gates of the fortress. No alarm had been raised…yet. Perhaps he would make it out undetected.

An alarm horn cut through the silence of the snowy night. Prisoner escaped. Shouts came from the walls and fires were lit. The gate of the fortress started to close.

“Hya!” Oba shouted, urging Thunder on.

Either his voice or his rapid movement caught the attention of the archers on the wall. The first pair of arrows slammed into the snow nearby as Thunder raced toward the descending gate.

Oba hugged Thunder tightly, his eyes on the gate. Come on, old boy, he thought.

Thunder closed in on the gate. The pointy steel spikes prepared to pierce the snowy ground. They would either make it or slam into the gate, probably breaking several bones in the process.

Oba resisted the urge to close his eyes. Instead, he guided Thunder to a gap between two sets of vertical metal bars that would burrow into the ground in moments. Thunder picked up speed…and passed through the gap. Oba let out a heavy sigh.

Outside of the high, thick walls of the fortress the winds were fiercer, and freezing cold bit through Oba’s armor. Even the blanket offered little protection.

Arrows continued to rain down, this time blown by the wind. But these were Engrall archers, accustomed to shooting with the wind. Oba knew he was not yet safe. That thought was reinforced a moment later by a sharp pain in his shoulder. He grunted and his breath caught. He’d been shot in the back.

Thunder continued across the plateau. The first bridge was too snow-covered to catch fire, but it could be covered with ice. He slowed and walked across the bridge. Oba wanted to urge Thunder back into a run, but he knew what dangers awaited when crossing bridges at night during the in winter. They reached the next plateau moments later, and Thunder broke into a trot.

Shouts carried on the wind caused Oba to turn and look behind him. The action caused a sharp spike of pain and he was only able to look long enough to see figures riding in pursuit. There were too many for him to fight in the open. He had to reach the forests. Once there, he could either hide and evade them, or prepare an ambush. I’m coming, Tirrin. I shall not pass away until I have fulfilled my duty to your father.

Within the shadows of a tree hid a figure, watching as Oba road off into the night. Khadd wouldn’t let his new friend get away that easily. There was definitely adventure afoot! He smirked and vanished into the night.

 

 

 

 

Echoes of Shadow Chapter 3: The Waterfall

The rays from the afternoon sun blanketed the vast fields of wheat and barley as Dobrius passed by on the road. He whistled the tune of “Old Man Henry” as he walked, twirling a twig of wheat between his teeth.

The Van’dar farm, his destination, came up on his left. It was one of the largest farms in Jabar Valley, covering most of the northern region and butting up against the Wall of the Ancients. Dobrius looked longingly at the Wall in the distance. Oh, how I would love to go beyond it, he thought. But that was impossible, of course. Or so his mother told him. “I forbid you to leave,” she would always say. He would counter by telling her how unfair it was, then stalk off to shoot pumpkins.

Dobrius turned down the dirt path leading to the main farmhouse. He was halfway down the path when a screech caused him to turn around in surprise.

A figure, covered in tan clothing with a cloth mask and dark-colored goggles shielding his face, rode a reptilian creature with green and brown scales down the highway. His cloak whipped in the wind behind him as the creature waddled at a surprising pace. The reptile made a hissing sound as it leapt over a boulder. Old man Poepa and his trusty “steed”.

Poepa turned his head and took a long look at Dobrius. Then he raised a hand and gave the lad a two-finger salute.

Dobrius nodded in return and followed Poepa and Rose, Poepa’s lizard, with his eyes until a cloud of dust concealed them. Oh to be free like him, Dobrius thought. The stories Poepa told of the outside world always packed the Torgath Inn as he sat in front of the fireplace rocking in an old, creaky chair. He didn’t come often, about as frequently as the merchants from Arks Portas or Durango, and he didn’t bring physical wares to trade or sell, but he brought an invaluable currency - stories. I best be hurrying. I don’t want to miss any of Poepa’s stories. He turned his attention back to the matter at hand.

He approached the door to the large farmhouse at the center of the Van’dar farm and knocked. No one came to the door. He knocked again, louder this time.

“I’m coming!” a voice shouted from within. A moment later the door swung open and there stood Elise, the angelic-like girl he dreamed about. Her dark brown hair was tied back and flowed behind her shoulders. Her bosom heaved in the dark blue dress she wore. She put her hands on her hips and gave him a distinctly non-angelical stern look, green eyes boring holes into him. “Dobrius al’Kar, what are you doing making such a racket at this time of day?”

Dobrius snapped his gaping mouth shut. Maintain eye contact, he thought. No need to make her angrier. “But…but,” he stammered, “it’s afternoon.” He pointed to the sun in the western sky.

“Exactly. I was enjoying a nice cup of tea until you started banging on the door.” 

“Who is it, Elise?” a female voice came from further within the house.

Elise turned her head. “Just Dobrius, mother. I’ll be back in a minute.” She turned back to Dobrius, stepped outside, barefoot, and shut the door behind her. “Thanks for playing along,” she said.

Dobrius gaped at her. “Oh…I…you’re welcome,” he said. I thought she was serious, he thought. One could never tell with women.

“What do you say we get out of here?” she asked, winking at him before breezing by.

“Well, um, I have work to do.” Dobrius touched his tool belt and turned to face her. “One of your father’s golems needs repairing.”

Elise continued on her path down the steps of her home. She twirled her dress and gave him a sly look. “I’ll come with you.”

“Uh…” He looked, hurriedly, down her body and stared at her feet. “You’re not wearing shoes.” He met her eyes.

She cocked her head to one side and gave him a no-nonsense look. “I grew up on this farm, Dobrius, I can walk barefoot around it if I want. You can protect your city-slicker feet if you want. I’m not as delicate as you believe.”

Oh, don’t worry, I don’t think that, he thought. But all he said was “I know.”

“Well what are you waiting for? Let’s go. Which one is it?”

“Bronson, over in quadrant three.”

“Old Bron, eh? What’s this, the tenth time you’ve fixed him?”

“At least.”

Elise shook her head. “I keep telling father to get rid of the old hunk of rust, but he doesn’t listen to me. ‘You’ll understand one day, Elise, when you grow up, that you don’t just throw things out when they stop working,’” she said in a deep voice, mocking her father.

Dobrius cleared his throat. “Yes, well…fixing your father’s golems helps keep a roof over my head, so I really don’t mind.”

Elise blinked. “Oh, I forgot about that.” It was her turn to study Dobrius’ feet.

“Poepa just passed by,” Dobrius blurted, hoping to change the subject away from finances.

“Oh?” Elise asked, perking up.

Dobrius puffed up his chest. “Yep, he was heading toward town. Want to come with me, after I fix Bron?”

“Of course!” Elise said, twirling again in her blue dress and ending facing the direction of the third quadrant. “Let’s hurry or we’ll miss half his stories.”

“You’re talking to the best mechanic in the valley,” Dobrius boasted. “We’ll be done in flash.”

The two trudged through the field of knee-high wheat toward the barley fields. That was where the golems would be working at this time of year. Indeed, they exited the wheat and beheld the mechanical work-men.

The golems towered over men, standing ten feet tall. Their ancient gears ground, groaned and whirred as they wielded massive rakes to hoe andchurn the soil in preparation for planting. Their blue eyes glowed in their metal skulls as they focused on their task. They did not pay the newcomers any mind.

“There’s Bron,” Elise said, pointing toward an immobile golem near the center of the work crew.

Dobrius nodded. “Thanks.” Sure, he would’ve figured that out himself - Bron was the only golem not moving - but he appreciated her trying to help. She would make a good wife in a couple years when she turned eighteen. She’ll probably marry some rich merchant’s son, he thought. That would be fitting for the daughter of one of the wealthiest families in the river valley. She was practically royalty, or at least what Dobrius assumed royalty was like - the river folk didn’t have kings or queens. He knew only what he’d heard in Poepa’s stories.

They approached Bron, and Dobrius circled him once while Elise looked on. “What’s the problem this time, big guy?” He made note of the hanging head and the limp arms. He froze when he looked in the eye sockets. They no longer glowed. “That can’t be,” he said.

“What is it?” Elise said.

“His eyes. They aren’t glowing.”

“But they always glow, don’t they? Even if the golem is broken?”

Dobrius could only nod.

“Then what does that mean?”

Dobrius didn’t answer. He removed a tool from his belt, a long, thin rod of metal shaped like a crowbar but with a special cross-shaped head on one end. He fit the head into a matching design on the back of Bron and turned the rod several times. A screw slowly retracted from Bron’s back and fell into Dobrius’ hand. He repeated the measure four times, then he dropped the screws to the ground and removed the back plate. Dread gripped his heart at the thought of what he suspected he would find.

“His core is gone,” Dobrius said, his voice deadpan.

“Gone?” Elise repeated. “But how?”

“I…I…” Dobrius had never been trained for this eventuality. The core of a golem couldn’t be removed, every mechanic worth his salt knew that. To even try to remove the core from a golem would result in the person being killed by a jolt of massive energy. He’d seen it happen to another boy during his apprenticeship. “I don’t know,” he admitted, backing away from the golem.

“You can’t just leave him here like this, his back exposed,” Elise reminded him.

Dobrius shook his head.

Elise came and stood in front of him. She put her hands on his shoulders and shook him. “Snap out of it, Dobrius. You’re the mechanic here. Now is not the time to panic.”

He looked down to where one of her dainty hands gripped his shoulder. I wish she would keep her hand there forever, he thought fleetingly. But, she was right. Deep down he knew she was right. But still…who could have removed the core without dying? “We have to go town. Tell Master Martin.”

Elise nodded. “Now you’re thinking.” She smiled, clearly trying to reassure him. “I’ll go with you.”

Dobrius nodded but something caught his attention before he turned around. Footprints. Big footprints. He pointed. “There.” He didn’t wait for Elise and went toward the footprints. He knelt and ran his hand around the edge of the first print. Something had walked up to this point, stopped, and then turned and walked back the way it had come. “These are golem footprints,” Dobrius said. “But they came from…” he lifted his eyes. “The forest.”

“Could it be a lumber golem?” Elise asked.

Dobrius shook his head. “A lumber golem would have no business leaving the forest.”

“Then what kind do you think it was?”

Dobrius met her eyes. “I don’t know, but I intend to find out.” He rose and headed toward the forest.

“Dobrius, wait!” she called. “What about going back to town?”

“No time,” he called back. “These footsteps are fresh. I don’t want to lose the trail.”

“What are you going to do if you find it?” she asked.

“Find some answers, hopefully,” Dobrius said. “One way or another,” he muttered to himself. He fingered the hilt of one of his pistols, safely holstered and hanging from his belt.

He passed the forest’s edge. A rustling from behind caused him to turn. Elise had hiked up her dress and was following him, barefoot. Fool girl, he thought, not daring to share the thought aloud. “Go back home,” he said, half plea, half order.

“I’m not letting you go off alone to get your fool self killed by some rogue golem. I’m coming and that’s final.” She reached where he stood and let go of her dress, then put her hands on her hips. Already her feet were covered in dirt. She paid them no mind but instead glared at him, as if daring him to tell her again to turn back.

Dobrius sighed and turned back to the tracks. “Okay, you can come with me.”

“How nice of you to allow me to accompany you,” she said sardonically.

He bit his tongue. Fool, he thought again, this time, referring to himself.

“Give me your knife,” she said.

He quirked an eyebrow at her.

She widened her eyes and motioned to his belt. “Give me your knife. Please.”

He sighed and withdrew his skinning knife from its sheath. He flipped it and caught it by the blade. He extended it toward her hilt first.

She snatched it from his hand with delicate precision and proceeded to grab the bottom of her dress and slice through the fabric.

He gaped. That dress was worth a month’s rent for his mother and him. “What…” was all he could blurt out.

She paid him no mind, but continued slicing. Ribbons of blue fabric fell around her like a wreath. When she was finished, she handed the knife back to him, hilt first. “I can’t exactly go tromping through the woods in a dress now, can I? The last thing I need is to be getting snagged on tree branches and end up tripping. Or do you want me to get hurt?”

He swallowed, shook his head and took the knife from her, re-sheathing. Women, he thought. He turned back toward the trail.

They walked through the woods in silence. Dobrius kept his eyes on the giant tracks that he felt sure could only be created by a golem. As they went, he could hear a water fall. “We’re near Glistening Falls,” he said quietly, looking back at Elise.

She merely nodded impatiently, legs covered in dirt and…was that blood?

“You’re bleeding,” he observed.

She looked down and gave her leg a dismissive glance. “It’s nothing. I’ve had worse climbing trees behind the house. Keep moving.”

Several minutes later the tracks led them to Silver Lake, the destination for the water that flowed down the Glistening Falls from lakes high in the Barrier Mountains. Dobrius halted. The tracks disappeared behind the waterfall. “Stay here,” he hissed.

She stepped forward, as if to follow him.

He pointed at her and then the ground and put on his sternest expression. “I mean it, Elise. Stay here until I can be sure it’s safe.” He softened his expression. “I just don’t want you getting hurt.”

“How chivalrous,” she said before rolling her eyes. “Fine, if it will assuage your concerns and help you better focus, I’ll stay here.”

I wish she would have decided to do that before we entered the forest, he thought.

Dobrius withdrew his pistol, checking to make sure all three barrels were loaded. Then sliding his short sword from its sheath, he crept toward the waterfall. There must be a cave back there, he thought.

Indeed, when he reached the damp stone next to the waterfall he found a pathway leading to a cave hidden behind it. He had never ventured to this part of the woods, so he was unfamiliar with this particular cave, though he knew they were a common feature among waterfalls throughout the river valley. He followed the path into the cave.

It was gloomy, as expected, but as his eyes adjusted to the darker conditions he noticed a blue glow coming from further in the cave. Could that be the missing core? he wondered. He crept down the damp stone corridor toward the source of the light. He came to a corner moments later and peeked around.

A golem stood over a body, its blue eyes gleaming in the darkness. It appeared to be looking down at the body.

Dobrius could not tell whether the person was alive or dead. Nor did he care. This monstrosity needed to be stopped. He stepped out from around the corner and pointed his tri-shooter at the golem. “Stop right there,” he ordered.

The golem’s head jerked up. “Oh, hello,” he said in a mechanical voice.

Dobrius stared in shock. Golems weren’t supposed to speak. Yes, they possessed the capability to speak, but they never did. He cleared his throat. “Is that…are they…dead?” he asked, trying to keep his voice from cracking. A shiver ran up his spine as he tried to remain steadfast and brave.

The golem looked down again. “Yes, I am afraid all life signs have ceased from this man.”

“Did you kill him?” His finger rested against the trigger.

“Of course not,” the golem actually sounded surprised. “I was following some persons of interest when I happened upon this body hidden behind the waterfall.”

“A likely story. How do I know you aren’t lying to me?”

“I swear on my maker,” the golem said, putting a fist to its chest.

Dobrius snorted. “I don’t know who your maker is, so that does me a fat lot of good.” He paused. “What’s your name?”

“Stormhammer.”

“I haven’t seen you around here, Stormhammer, and I’ve seen all the golems in the river valley at least once. Where are you from?”

“Oh, I’m not from here, sir. I journeyed from Arks Portas. I’m a constable there.”

“A constable? Like upholding the law and stuff?”

“Of course. You don’t have constables here?”

“We do, but they’re human, not…mechanical.”

“I did think it odd the golems here served in the fields.”

“One of the golems had its core removed. Do you know anything about that?”

Stormhammer’s eyes narrowed, the light diminishing. “No, but I suspect it to be the work of the criminals I am following.”

“Who are these criminals?”

“They are murderers and thieves down from the Dark Shale. They serve…well…I don’t know who they serve. But I tracked them here.”

Dobrius removed his finger from the trigger of his pistol and holstered it. He slid his sword back in its sheath. He tipped his head up. “Mind if I look at the body?”

Stormhammer took a step back and gestured. “Be my guest. What is your name?”

“Dobrius.”

“It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance, Dobrius.”

“Yeah, sure,” Dobrius said dismissively as he approached the body. Who knew golems would speak so properly? He and Elise would get on swell. Dobrius knelt down. “Can you shed any more light? Or light a torch or something?”

“One moment.” Stormhammer’s chest plate slid aside with a whir, revealing his blue core which was protected by a clear glass-like material.

Dobrius shielded his eyes for a moment, then studied the corpse. “A huntsman,” he said. He touched the broach on the man’s vest indicating he belonged to the Order of the Stag, the woodsmen and hunters that protected the forests from poachers, hunted for food and kept the river valley safe from dangerous predators. “How did you die?” he asked the corpse, knowing he would receive no reply.

“He received multiple wounds to the back. They appear to be caused by arrowheads, though I could find no evidence of arrows within the cave. He bled to death.”

Dobrius took Stormhammer’s word for it, judging by the drying pool of blood beneath the body. He didn’t recognize the man, but then there were dozens of huntsmen and he didn’t often venture far into the woods to meet them. He stood up. “We have to head back to town and tell the constable what we found.” He hesitated. “Can you carry the body?”

“Certainly,” Stormhammer said. “Though we would be contaminating the crime scene.”

“Well, by the time we got back, coyotes or wolves could have gotten to him, so we either need to bring him or one of us needs to stay and stand guard.”

“I believe it would indeed be prudent to bring him.” Stormhammer bent down and lifted the huntsman. “Lead the way, Dobrius.”

Dobrius and Stormhammer exited the cave.

Elise, still in the spot where Dobrius had left her, laid eyes on Stormhammer and screamed louder than the waterfall from behind which the duo had emerged.

Dobrius held up a hand to assuage her fears. “It’s okay!” he shouted over the din. “He’s friendly.”

“He’s carrying a body!” Elise shouted back. She took a step back.

Dobrius sighed. It wasn’t what it looked like. “He’s on our side!” He continued walking toward her.

She didn’t back up any further, but she didn’t take her eyes off Stormhammer either.

For his part, Stormhammer had stopped several feet away. “I do believe I have scared the young lady.”

Dobrius rolled his eyes and looked over his shoulder. “What gave it away? Let me handle this.” He continued walking until he was a foot away from Elise. “Listen,” he whispered, “he’s a constable from up north and he’s investigating a murder. He didn’t kill that man.”

“A constable? A golem as a constable?” Elise said, doubt heavy in her voice.

“I wondered the same thing. But, oddly, I believe him.”

“He didn’t show you a badge?”

“I didn’t ask,” Dobrius said, feeling a bit foolish.

Elise glared at him for a few moments, then peered around him and directed her fiery gaze at Stormhammer. “I don’t trust him.”

“He’s done nothing to hurt us,” Dobrius argued. “He could have killed me in that cave, but he didn’t. Let’s at least see him to town and let him talk with the authorities there.”

She sighed and crossed her arms over her chest. “Fine. But if we end up dead, Dobrius, so help me I’ll make the underworld even worse for you.”

“Yes, dear,” he said without thinking. Why did I say that? I’m not courting her. He wondered if his face was as red as it felt.

Elise gave him an odd look, but said nothing, only turned around toward the way they’d come.

Dobrius faced Stormhammer and beckoned to him. “Let’s go,” he said. He then walked ahead of Elise.

“Oh no you don’t,” Elise said, laying a hand on Dobrius’ shoulder and spinning him around. “I don’t want to be the first victim of the monster. You stay behind me.”

He refrained from sighing. He felt as if that was all he’d spent that day doing. He gave a slight nod. “Of course.” M’lady, he thought.

Elise led the way through the woods. Several minutes later the trio exited near the same field Dobrius and Elise had been at earlier.

Something seemed off. Dobrius took a mental count of the golems. “Bron is missing,” he said.

“He was broken,” Elise observed. “Where would he have gone?”

“Who is this Bron?” Stormhammer inquired.

“A broken harvester golem,” Dobrius replied absentmindedly. “Elise, I guess your father must have come along and carted him back.” He left out the fact there were no cart tracks, but there were footprints leading toward the road.

“I see no evidence of a cart in the vicinity,” Stormhammer said, poking a cart-sized hole in Dobrius’ speculation. “There are, however, footprints consistent with a golem’s heading toward the road.”

“Thanks for pointing that out,” Dobrius said dryly. “Come on, let’s see where he went.”

They followed the footprints of the broken-not-broken golem to the road. There they merged with the tracks from regular foot traffic and were lost. Dobrius checked the other side of the road but the tracks did not continue. “North or south,” he said. “Take your pick.”

“I would say considering the fact we must take this body to your village, and your village is to the south, we should go south,” Stormhammer said.

“That’s logical, I guess,” Dobrius said. Where the heck is that golem going,, and how is it moving without a core?

 

Echoes of Shadow Chapter 2: Lightning and Iron

Kai hefted the wooden bucket from the town well-spring. Water splashed out onto his boots as he struggled to keep his balance. Edwin the baker, who was tending his bread table across the way, motioned to him. The large, round-faced man with kind eyes and a thick beard lifted a basket of bread from the table.

“Lad, your mother is expecting an order of my finest woodland dough. Think you could deliver this to her?” Edwin asked.

Kai shuffle-stepped with the bucket and set it down next to the large oak bread vendor table.

“My da is expecting me to return with the water for his forge barrel.” Kai said.

“Ahh, lad, `twill only be a hop, skip, and a sprint to your home. You’ll be back to the forge in no time. I’ll even watch your bucket for ya!” Edwin said. He patted Kai on the head, ruffling his dark-brown hair.

Kai sighed and decided his father could wait another few minutes while he took on this perilous quest. “Alright!”

The boy took the basket full of freshly-baked bread and sprinted down Vendor Way. The street was filled with the Season Spring merchants and many local villagers shopping for wares.Weaving in and out of small crowds along the vendor corridor, Kai waved at his best friend, Dantis, as he ran by. Dantis was three years older, and prided himself on being able to drink at the ripe old age of sixteen.

“Kai! I've some new Rune marbles to show you! Da got them on his trade run last night!” Dantis yelled.

Dantis rolled out some leather goods on a table, and quickly plucked up a leather bag that held Rune marbles.

“No time!! On an errand!” Kai yelled back.

Of course, he had no time to spend on idle children games; he was a knight with a mission. He would not fail the king in his perilous quest to deliver the royal treasure. Although, he did wonder if Dantis did come across a gold-flecked Rune marble. Onward Kai ran, sliding and crawling under amerchant cart which carried large cages filled with chick birds. The cart's wheel was stuck in the middle of the street because of a few loose cobblestones. Its driver shook his hat at Kai and told him to `git'.

Kai passed Market Row, where a lot of farm merchants were set up to sell their crops. His mission had taken him through many roadways, and this of course was the most crowded of the streets. Ansol Hobarr tossed him an apple. The lanky, elderly man smiled and waved, standing behind a set of wooden boxes filled with delicious apples and fruits from his orchard. Food for his journey; of course he would need it! Such honorable people lived in the confines of the kingdom. Kai quickly stopped and saluted Ansol then, just as quickly as he had entered Market Row, he exited the packed street. Kai stopped on Belto Bridge overlooking Crystal River. A squat, elderly man dressed in many rags stood holding a fishing pole. It was Lokos, the town story-weaver. In fact, it was said that Lokos was the oldest man in the entire city. Some said that the old man was there before the city had been built, and that he'd had a little cottage on Crystal River when it was a forest. Yet Kai wondered how that could be, since the city itself had been built over three hundred seasons past. Lokos nodded knowingly, his white, unkempt hair ruffling as a slight wind blew.

“Another quest, eh, lad?” Lokos asked.

“Aye!” Kai answered excitedly.

Lokos eyed the shiny, red apple in Kai’s hand. His lips smacked, and he almost seemed to drool.

“Ahhh, an Ansol apple, red and crisp, the taste sweet like honey. Tell me, lad, interested in a trade? A tale for that delicious gem you have there.” Lokos said.

The old man set down his fishing pole next to his empty wooden fish bucket. Kai felt a surge of excitement. A tale from Lokos was worth more than a bucket of apples. Yet, his quest would be long, and giving up his food supply might hinder his ability to survive in the harsh conditions his journey might offer.

“Good trade!” Kai said.

The boy handed the prized apple to Lokos, who rubbed it across his tattered brown sleeve. The old man’s wrinkled and weatheredface came to life as a smile appeared, revealing a set of perfect white teeth.

“What a beauty!” Lokos said. The apple disappeared into the old man’s robes, and with that Lokos sat down next to his fishing bucket.

“Let’s see…” Lokos said. The old man rubbed his chin, then arched his left eyebrow. “Ah yes! Before there were kings who ruled the land, before there were Engrall, before the Dwarkain and Elvanians, when the landwas young, there existed beings known as the Titans. These beings stood as tall as the tallest trees of the oaken forest. They were stronger than the strongest mountains made of stone. These Titans protected the forests and the mountains from the evil Under Dwellers. It was said that when the Lightning One came to our world, he recruited the Titans to aid him in battling Typhon, the Lord of Shadows. During this conflict, some of the Titans became tainted by the dark magics of Typhon. The battle lasted for years. The Titans facing off against their own kind until the last battle on Crystal Mountain overlooking Shardath where the Lightning One was mortally wounded by Typhon. When the dust settled from this final battle, only five Titans remained. These were the untainted ones and they had sent Typhon back into the abyss. It was said the Titans carried the Lightning One’s shattered body into the heavens, and were never seen or heard from again.”

Kai was lost within the tale, itself for such information would aid him in future missions. He would have to remember it later and tell his friends.

“I thank you, story-weaver!” Kai said. He bowed deeply, and then was gone sprinting across the bridge onward to his ultimate goal.

Running down a dark and gloomy alley, Kai found himself confronted by Killer. How had he forgotten this was Killer's lair? Killer stood at the end of the long alley, the gate leading to the castle a mere forty feet away. Killer's red eyes glowed, his enormous white teeth gleamed from the shadows. Kai was so close, he risked it all and charged the creature! He came to a halting stop right in front of...the old hunting dog. Killer regarded him with tired, weary eyes and licked his hand. The boy scratched the old dog on the chin and smiled.

“Old Killer, such a formidable opponent, yet I know your weakness.” Kai smiled. He pulled a bit of beef jerky from his belt pouch.


Killer's eyes widened and his tail wagged. With that, Kai handed the piece of meat to Killer, who gobbled it down.

“Take care, ole boy!” Kai said.

The creature was defeated, and his goal lay ahead.The palace gates loomed before him as the heroic knight stepped through the gigantic metal doors, and was greeted by the queen herself. Her long raven-black hair and gleaming blue eyes were the prize jewels of the entire Kingdom. Kai held out the basket of baked goods as reality returned to him.

“Well done, son, record time and you didn't lose any loaves!” his mother said. She took the basket filled with baked goods and set them on a wooden counter. She turned around and saw the serious look on Kai's face. She smiled and cleared her throat.“Oh, I'm sorry, Sir Knight; your reward for such a valiant effort.” She said, pulling a baked cherry-chip cookie from a jar on the counter.

“Nay, my Queen, I could not accept such a reward, for the task I took was not as dangerous as I thought,” Kai said. He bowed before her.

“Very well, I suppose I'd better not let it go to waste. I'll eat it myself,” his mother said.

Kai snatched the cookie from her hand and smiled. “On second thought, the trek back to the war front will be treacherous, and I will need my strength.”

With those words, Kai sprinted from the house and went back the way he had come. 

The large wooden doors of his father’s smithy opened and Kai stepped in with the large bucket of water.

“Let me guess, Edwin had another secret mission for the Young Knight?” his father asked.

Kai lugged the bucket full of water into the forge room and set it on the stone floor. He shrugged and nodded, giving a grin to his father.

“As long as it was successful and your quest to aid the King of Ancients was completed,” his father said.

The brawny man had long, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, and he was wearing a smithy apron. He pulled his large smith hammer from the table and walked to the forge.

“Yes, Da, mission accomplished,” Kai said, lifting the bucket again.

His father slammed his hammer down on a piece of heated metal. Sparks flew with each hammer blow, the red-hot metal bending to his will.

Kai entered the forge area carrying the bucket of water. The leather cap that covered his shaggy, brown hair, slipped a bit as he struggled with the bucket, spilling some of its contents on the stone-cobbled floor.

Kai’s father arched a brow, watching his son. A grin slipped across his stubbled mouth. “We’re needin' that water in the barrel, lad, unless you're going to clean the floor.”

Kai grunted and lifted the bucket, dumping the rest of the water into the large oak barrel.

“Sorry, Da,” Kai said.

“It’s fine, lad. Come see the blade I‘m working on. One day you’ll be ready to start forging,” his father said. The hammer bounced across the heated metal a few more times. He used metal tongs to dip the strip into the barrel of water. Steam hissed and a searing, squealing sound filled the forge area.

Kai peeked over the edge of the barrel, watching the water swirl and bubble from the heated strip of metal which was now forged into a double-edged blade.

“Fine piece, worked my own blood and sweat into this one. The Rune etched in that one is

for the Lightning One, the god of Warriors,” his father said.

Kai’s eyes grew wide, and a large smile revealed pearl-white teeth.

“Da, I know who that is. Thor is the Lightning One!” Kai smiled knowingly.

“That’s right lad. Thor, Ancient Lord of the Lightning Dance, father of the Warriors.”

The boy’s eyes studied the blade within the barrel, mystified by the mention of Thor. His father had read from the Book of Tales after supper many times, and Thor was his favorite tale. Thor and the battle of the Titans. The mystical spear, forged from the Godstone, had felled the Army of Titans that sought to destroy the lands. Jodan pulled the blade out of the water and wiped it clean. The blade shimmered and gleamed as the light of the forge leapt from it. The Rune seemed to glow a bit, as Jodan wrapped the blade and set it on his work table.

“Time for supper, lad,” his father said. He rounded the work table and ruffled the boy’s hair. Suddenly, a large bullhorn sounded outside, followed by feet pounding on cobblestones and yelling people. He grimaced. “Damn. The Engrall are here too early. Kai, stay here,” he commanded. He grabbed a large sword from the wall and pulled it from an ornate sheath. The blade hummed as he pulled it free.

He pushed the door to the smithy open and looked out into the street for a moment. He turned back to Kai. “Lad, you lock this door once I leave. You don’t open it for anyone. If I don’t return, find your way out of town until the Engrall leave. Do you understand?”

Kai cringed in fear but nodded. “Da, what about Ma? Let me go with you! I can fight.”

His father shook his head. “No, son, it’s too dangerous. Stay here. I’ll check on your ma and bring her back here.” He turned and exited into the street, the door slamming behind him.

Muffled screams and yells echoed into the smithy. A thundering sound erupted and the ground shook. Kai approached the door and reached for the lock. Then he stopped. “No,” he said. “Thor wouldn’t hide in a smithy.” He opened the door and stepped out into the street.

Several people ran by in a panic almost trampling each other.

Kai spotted his father across the way next to Edwin, who clutched the hilt of his war-sword and looked off into the distance. Kai knew Edwin was a veteran of the Old Wars.

 

“…not making much sense,” Edwin was saying as Kai approached. “Why would they be coming for tribute this early in the season?”

 

Kai’s father peered down Vendor Way toward the large stone gateway that led to the outside of their city. Then he noticed Kai behind him. He spun, eyes wide. “Kai!” he scolded. “I told you to stay inside!”

Kai shrunk back for a moment. Maybe following his da had been a mistake. But he puffed up his chest, trying to be brave. “Da, Thor wouldn’t back down from a fight. Neither would a true knight.”

“You’re not…” Jodan stopped and shook his head. “Fine, I don’t have time to drag you back inside. Come on!” He turned back to Jodan. “Best you gather the militia and meet me at the mayor’s dwelling.”

 

“Will do. Be safe, friend.” Edwin said.

 

Kai’s father turned and sprinted, dodging and weaving through the crowds of panicking people. Kai struggled to follow. 

 

Kai spotted city guards attempting to fend off armored Engrall with sword and shield.

Unfortunately, they were no match for the blades of the Engrall and their heavier armor. The Engrall dispatched the city guards with ease, and then set their sights upon people who had stopped to gawk at the battle.

 

Kai and his father kept moving.

They raced down an alleyway and emerged across from their home. The door was open. Oh no, Kai thought.

A figure wearing red and black armor flew backward into the street. Kai’s mother followed.

His mother held two curved blades which Kai had never seen before. Runes on the steel glowed.

“More of that, if you’re wanting some!” Tyrissa smiled. She kept her eyes on the enemy and did not see Kai or his father.

 

The armored Engrall made no sound. It brought its sword up in an arc stance and then rushed toward Kai’s mother.

 

Kai’s mother planted her feet and twirled her twin blades, ready to meet the oncoming Engrall. The heavy curved blade of her foe met her own, causing sparks to fly as they struggled.

“Tyrissa!” Kai’s father shouted. He rushed toward where the two clashed.

Kai stood frozen, watching the battle.

The Engrall, at least twice as large as Kai’s mother, pushed forward, knocking Kai’s mother back. The red, glowing eyes within its helm mocked her.

She rushed in again, this time with a flurry of jabs and slashes. The Engrall met each move with parries. They danced together for several moments until she scored a strike beneath an armor plate under his arm.

The Engrall dropped his blade.

Kai’s mother brought her blade to the Engrall’s neck and sliced. The battle ended as the limp body of her enemy fell to the cobblestone in a heap of armor.

Kai’s father reached her. He lent her a hand and helped her stand. “Tyrissa! You could have gotten yourself killed!”

Kai ran up as well and hugged his mother. “Ma! How did you learn to fight like that,” he asked, pulling away.

His mother looked him in the eyes. She seemed sadder than he had ever seen her. “That’s not important, Kai. You have to run.”

“No, I won’t!” Why did no one believe he could fight?

 

His mother opened her mouth, probably to scold him, when movement caught her eye.

Three more Engrall in red and black armor, these without the glowing eyes, appeared with their blades at the ready.

 

Kai, his mother, and his father turned to face the trio. Kai picked up the blade from the fallen Engrall. At his touch, the Runes lit up.

Kai’s mother looked at him, startled, before turning back to their foes.  She blew a stray hair from her face and gripped her blades tight. A wicked smile slipped across her sweaty face.

 

 “Come then, dance with ole Tyrissa!” she yelled.

The three Engrall advanced, spreading out. One came straight toward them and the others moved to encircle them.

Kai’s mother did not give them the chance. She leapt into the air and soared toward the lead Engrall.

He raised his sword and their blades clashed.

Kai held the sword from the fallen Engrall with two hands. He felt awkward wielding such a large blade. He watched as one of the Engrall warriors targeted him. He raised his blade sideways and braced for impact.

The Engrall warrior swung his blade and slammed it into Kai’s blade.

Kai went flying backward from the force of the blow. His hands burned and his arms ached. He struggled to get up.

The enemy raised his blade high, preparing to strike Kai as he lay on the ground.

A blade poked through the chest of the Engrall as he was stabbed from behind by Tyrissa.

His mother held Kai’s gaze.  She mouthed the words “I love you.”

Movement behind her caused Kai to break his gaze. “Mother!” he shouted.

His warning came too late. The long blade of the first Engrall warrior that his mother had clashed blades with stabbed her in the back.

Her eyes went wide and she gasped. The blade retracted and she slumped to the ground.

Kai’s father, was to Kai’s right, standing over the corpse of an Engrall warrior. He turned at the sound of Kai’s scream. “No!” he roared. He rushed toward the final enemy warrior and swung with wild fury.

The enemy tried to parry the blows from Kai’s father but they came too fast.

Jodan slashed the enemy in the leg.

The Engrall stumbled and fell to one knee.

Kai’s father wasted no time executing him with a stab through the chest. Then he dropped his sword and knelt beside his wife. He took her hand in his.

“At least…got…two,” Tyrissa rasped.

 

    Kai stepped up to his father and mother to get a better look at the wound in her chest. The blade had pierced through the right side of her chest, opposite her heart. But she struggled to breath, likely because her lung had been pierced.

 

“Don’t move. I’ll carry you in the house. We’ll get you patched up in no time,” Kai’s father said, though the note of worry in his voice was clear to Kai.

 

Kai’s mother laughed, then coughed up some blood.

 

“You’re not a good liar, my love,” she said, seeming to regain her strength for a moment.

    Jodan knelt, cradling his wife in his arms. Her eyes locked with his. He caressed her pale face, wiping away specks of her blood.

 

“Don’t…don’t let them…take the boy. If they find out who…” she coughed again. “They’ll…take…him.”

 

“I won’t. And you’re his mother. You’re to be rememberin' that, love.” Kai’s father said.

What does she mean by that? Kai wondered. Of course she was his mother.

 

She reached up with a trembling hand and touched her husband’s cheek. “I…know,” she breathed.

 

Jodan nodded and another tear trickled down his cheek.

 

“Don’t…be…sad. I go…Vahalla. Love…you,” she said. Her eyes drifted to Kai, including him in her statement.

 

Jodan leaned down and kissed his wife’s lips as her lungs heaved one final time before becoming still. He closed her eyes with his fingertips. “Kai…” he whispered.

“I’m here, Father,” Kai said. “I didn’t mean…I didn’t want her to die. I’m sorry, it was my fault.” He hung his head in shame. He should have been stronger, faster. If his mother hadn’t had to save him she might still be alive.

His father rose and stepped up to him. He put his hands on Kai’s shoulders. “Lift your eyes, son.”

Kai lifted his eyes and met his father’s.

“It was not your fault. The Engrall decided to invade. Never forget that.”

Kai nodded, though his father’s words did little to comfort him. If only I had stayed at the smithy, he thought.

“Follow me,” his father commanded. He led Kai into the house.

Pieces of wood littered the floor where the counter had been. Clearly Tyrissa had struggled with the first foe before taking it into the street.

 

   Kai’s father walked into the bedroom and lifted the top of one of the bedposts. It popped off. He withdrew a key and replaced the top of the bedpost. Then he knelt before an old chest and inserted the key, turning it. He lifted the lid, revealing pieces of dust-covered armor and battle gear bearing the scratches and dents of war. He readied himself for battle, donning the armor, pulling two daggers from the chest, and sheathing them in each boot. He turned and his eyes seemed to burn with a fury Kai had never before witnessed. He exited the bedroom in silence and walked out into the street.

Kai followed, casting one last glance around his home. They would rebuild once the Engrall were repelled, wouldn’t they? He stopped once he arrived outside.

His father stood a few meters in front of him. Across the street stood yet another Engrall warrior. This one held a blade-staff, a staff with a gently curving black blade on the end.

“Candris,” Kai’s father said, his tone that of a curse word.

“Ah, the old war hero yet lives!” Candris said.

“Why are you doing this?” Jodan asked. He gestured at the bodies of the four fallen Engrall and his wife. “Take your tribute and leave us.”

Candris laughed. “Foolish old man. The time for ‘peace’ with your people is over. A new emperor rises in the north and he has no place for your…inferior…race.”

“You were once a hero, Candris. What happened?”

“I became enlightened,” he replied. “But enough talk. This ends here, war hero!” He advanced toward Jodan, blade-staff spinning.

Kai’s father looked behind at Kai. “Git, boy, now!”

Kai stood paralyzed. If he left, his father could die; but if he stayed, his father could be distracted and die. He could not move. His eyes were locked on the Engrall Candris.

“Kai!” his father shouted.

Kai did not move.

His father turned and lifted his sword in time to block the descending blade of Candris’ blade-staff.

Candris lifted the blade up and the butt of the staff slammed into Jodan’s stomach.

Kai’s father stumbled back but did not drop his sword.

Candris thrust with the blade-staff, using it like a spear.

Kai’s father side-stepped it and sliced down, knocking the blade into the dirt. He then elbowed Candris in the face.

It was Candris’ turn to stumble back, dragging his blade-staff with him.

Jodan pressed his advantage, swinging his blade and aiming to decapitate Candris.

Candris brought his weapon up in time to block the strike. He pushed Jodan back.

“Enough of this,” Candris said. He withdrew a pipe from his waistband, put it to his lips and aimed it toward his opponent. He blew and a dart flashed out, striking Kai’s father in the neck.

“Ah!” Kai’s father exclaimed, lifting a hand and removing the dart. He looked at it. “Poison,” he said before the sword fell from his hand and he slumped to the ground.

“Father!” Kai screamed.

Candris ignored the scream of the boy and advanced on his father. “Let us not take any chances.” He hefted his blade-staff into the air, preparing to slam it down like a woodsman’s axe.

Kai leapt into action and raced to stand above his father’s prone body. He hefted the sword he’d picked up earlier. Candris’ blade met his. Kai felt a strength deep within ripple outward, filling his entire body. The hairs on his arms stood up and he felt as strong as a hundred men. The Runes on the sword glowed brighter than ever, but Kai ignored them. He focused on the man who had condemned his father to die. He roared in anger and heaved.

Candris’ blade shattered. He was left with only the staff portion. “Impossible,” he whispered, eyes going wide.

Kai showed no mercy. Anger clouded his vision. He killed my father. He thrust with his blade and it slid through the bone and muscle of Candris like a butcher’s knife through a slab of beef.

Candris gasped and howled. His eyes rolled up into his head.

Kai removed the blade and kicked Candris, causing his corpse to fall backward onto the dusty ground.

Kai stood shaking, blood on his hands, death all around him.

***

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Echoes of Shadow Chapter 1: Shadowfrost

The mountain wind snapped Eriyana’s cloak as she surveyed the fortress below. Her breath would have billowed around her like a cloud if not for her veil. She paid the cold no mind. Distant guards patrolled the snow-covered battlements, silhouetted against the setting sun and oblivious to her presence atop the cliff. She patted her shadow drake and waited for the signal.

A light materialized from one of the towers. A torch. The signal.

She pressed her heels into the side of Valkerion. Go. He waddled forward and started to freefall toward the ground. Valkerion leveled out after flying below the ground level and surged through the ravine. He turned down one corridor of stone and then another, taking a silent, meandering approach toward the Fortress of Shadows. The darkness of ravine reminded Eriyana of the tunnels in the Mountains of El.

They flew beneath several bridges as they went. Bridges that could be used as choke-points in the event of an assault, or burned as a last resort. But the bridges would not be burned this night, even as the fortress came under attack from an unexpected enemy.

They reached the base of the fortress and Valkerion flew straight up, so close to the building that Eriyana could have extended her legs and brushed the cold stone with the tip of her boot.

Straight as an arrow they went, hidden by the shadow cast by the tower in the dim light of evening. They flew above the walls and landed atop the tower. The torch continued to glow there, the flames struggling against the wind, but there was no one around. Eriyana dismounted and approached it. She picked it up and thrust it down into the snow. She lifted her eyes to the Obsidian Tower at the center of the fortress. Better to go on foot, she thought. Not even Valkerion could hide in the wide open area around the Obsidian Tower whilst the sun still shone and she could not wait for night. She had an appointment to keep. Hide and await my call, she ordered Valkerion.

Behind her, Valkerion lay down and faded into the shadows, obeying her telepathic command.

Eriyana spotted a hook lodged at one edge of the roof. A rope extended from it and drooped over the edge. She approached and looked down. The rope led to a window. As if I need a rope, she thought. Nevertheless, she would need to conserve her energy for the fight to come, so she jumped off the roof and caught the rope, using it to swing into the tower.

Once inside, she crouched, listening. No light illuminated the room, but her eyes adjusted effortlessly. Growing up in darkness has its advantages, she thought. Ornamental armaments and several paintings hung from the walls of the circular room. A trap door in the center of the room provided the sole way out. She approached it on silent feet and lifted it, straining for any hint of breath from the space beneath. There was no one there. She slipped through the opening and descended the wooden ladder. She stopped at each landing as she went. Odd that no torches illuminated the tower. They jutted from the walls like sleeping gray sentinels. Had the ones who summoned her extinguished them intentionally, or was this tower always dark?

After pausing at several landings, one of which led to the battlements, Eriyana drifted to the ground level. A closed wooden door stood in front of her. Eriyana tried the handle. Locked. No matter, she thought. Keeping her hand on the handle, she drew upon the magic within her. Cold many times that of the outside air flowed from her into the handle. Instantly it turned white and brittle. She pulled, it snapped off in her hand. She tossed the broken handle toward the wall where it shattered with a tiny ting like a chime blowing in the wind. She pulled the door open slowly using the hole left by the removal of the handle and peeked around the corner.

The courtyard stretched out before her, snow having mixed with dirt to form a brown, well-trodden mush. She need not worry about her footprints being noticed. She looked around at the walls to the left and right and the squat buildings scattered around

the Obsidian Tower. The sun had continued its nightly decline and shadow covered the doorway in which she stood. Could she run straight down the path? She had no choice, assassins never missed an appointment. She never missed an appointment.

Eriyana closed her eyes, took a deep breath and focused on the power within her. The shadows wrapped around her like armor, banishing the small remnant of cold she had felt, and comforting her. She held a hand in front of her face. Only inky blackness met her gaze, her hand concealed by darkness. It was time. She stepped through the opening and shut the door behind her. Then she crept toward the tower. Although she could not be seen while her concentration held and she remained in the shadows, she could be heard, and the archers of the Engrall were not to be trifled with. Many assassins had tried, and failed, to breach the Fortress of Shadow through the centuries.

When she was perhaps one hundred feet from the entrance to the tower she froze.

Two guards stood next to the heavy wooden doors. They wore thick leather chest armor and held their spears upright at their sides while shields peeked over their backs. They each wore a scabbard housing a sword on their right side and a morning star hung from their left. Fur hats, fur-lined boots and thick pants completed their outfits. One of the guards grunted.

Royal guards, she thought. Unlike the ordinary soldiers on the battlements, the royal guards were highly trained. She would not be able to slip past them. She crouched and rolled back her right sleeve. There, attached to her arm brace, was her dart shooter. She silently pulled the slide back with practiced movement, activating the internal gear mechanisms to add tension, and a dart entered the firing chamber. She aimed for the neck of the guard on the right, taking into account the wind speed, and pressed a button.

The dart shot through the air and pierced the guard’s skin. He lifted his hand to his neck but did not let out a sound. He slumped to the ground as the paralysis from the poison took effect. One of Master Vlakov’s special concoctions, it was the fastest-acting poison known to the Guild. The guard would strain to scream in agony in vain as the poison stopped his heart over the next twenty seconds.

Without waiting, Eriyana pulled the slide back again, loading another dart. She took aim at the neck of the second guard.

He turned his head to look at his fallen comrade.

Eriyana fired.

The second dart found its mark and the second guard dropped silently to join his partner.

Eriyana stood, rolled down her sleeves, and strode toward the doors of the Obsidian Tower. She did not bother to hide the bodies. Her work here would be done soon enough. She pulled open one of the heavy oak doors and slipped inside, closing it gently behind her and dropping the shadow armor.

No shouts of alarm or cries of warning came. Odd that no more than two men guarded the entrance to the Obsidian Tower. Her contact must have pulled many strings to make that happen. A pity, she thought. She longed to feel blood coursing down her wrist as she slit the throats and stabbed those who stood in her way.

She heard voices in the distance, down a hallway to the right, but her target was at the top of the tower. She ignored the grand staircase to her left which spiraled up into the darkness. First torch on the left, she recited in her mind. Twist it to the right and pull toward myself. She approached the proper torch and twisted it to the right. The flame extinguished. She pulled it toward her. A grinding sound rumbled in the wall and she released the torch.

The wall depressed and slid to the side, revealing a secret passage. Eriyana took one last look behind herself and slipped inside. As before, her eyes adjusted instantly to the dark. A few seconds later the door slid shut with a crunch.

A staircase lay before her, mirroring the official one. A servant stairwell, perhaps? It would be the unfortunate servant who ran across her in the darkness. She ascended the stairs, choosing haste over silence. Round and round she went, passing landing after landing and climbing the spiral stairs until arriving at the last landing.

Male voices came through the stone to her right. She pressed her ear to the stone.

“Am I making the right decision, Oba?” the first speaker asked.

“Your Eminence, the Shardis are abominations. For Rai’Vynn to dare suggest we…I cannot even speak of the act…it is heresy.”

“Careful, Oba,” the first speaker warned. “That is my son, and the crown prince, you speak of.”

“I do not serve your son, Eminence. I serve you.”

The first speaker sighed. “A fact you never fail to remind me of. What did I do to deserve such loyalty from you, Oba?”

“It is not for you to earn my loyalty. It is my honor to serve you. My life before yours.”

Eriyana peeked through a hole in the wall. A man in robes with a top-knot sat cross-legged on the floor, his back to the wall. A small table sat in front of him. He sipped from a cup.

“Have you summoned Saibinn Rue?” the sitting man asked.

The target of his question, a man in full Engrall armor and with a red tassel sprouting from his helmet shook his head. “I requested her presence, but she did not respond. I thought it odd.”

“She is probably preoccupied with more pressing matters. Training warbinders cannot be easy.”

Oba scoffed. “It cannot be any harder than training warbound.”

The first man laughed. “A feud I fear shall never be decided, Oba. You should give up trying.”

“I…”

A knock came at the door.

Oba frowned and turned toward the door, placing a hand on the hilt of his sword.

“Who is it?” the seated man asked.

“Tis I, Rai’Vynn,” a muffled voice came through the heavy wooden door.

“Ah, we were just speaking of you. Enter.”

The door opened and a man entered. He wore no armor, only a pair of brown leather boots and a heavy tan tunic, with a scabbard hanging from a belt. He gave Oba a cold look before breezing past and smiling at his father. “You look well, Father,” he said.

“Gromm root tea soothes the ache in my bones, my son. What brings you to my quarters at this late hour?”

Rai’Vynn cast a dark glance over his shoulder at Oba, then looked over his father’s head toward the hole which Eriyana peeked through. “I have some unfinished business to discuss.”

The first part of the code word. This was her contact. Now to wait for the second part. She found a lever on the wall to her right and prepared to sidestep and pull it down.

“Can it not wait until the morning?”

“No, Father.”

His father waved at him. “Then speak your mind.”

“I wanted to say goodbye. May the light of the ancestors shine upon you.”

Oba took a step toward Rai’Vynn. “What did you say?”

Rai’Vynn looked back toward the wall Eriyana hid behind. “Only that the darkness comes.” He smiled. “I have a council meeting to attend.” He turned and walked toward the door.

The second part of the code. Eriyana pulled the lever down. The mechanism engaged and the wall slid aside. She stepped through and withdrew her daggers.

Oba stepped in front of him. “How dare you threaten your father?” he asked, raising his voice.

“It was not a threat,” Rai’Vynn said softly. “I would attend to your king now though, brute.”

Oba turned and spotted Eriyana. “Assassin!” He withdrew his sword from the scabbard hanging at his belt and held it two-handed with the tip pointed toward her.

Rai’Vynn opened the door and slipped out.

Eriyana paid Oba no attention. She thrust her daggers toward the emperor. Easiest kill in a while, she thought.

The emperor leapt up and spun, kicking Eriyana in the chest and sending her stumbling backward.

Spry for an old man, she thought. I should have expected something like that. He was no match for her, though.

Oba stepped in front of the emperor. “Run, your Eminence.”

Instead of running toward the door, the emperor ran to the wall where a blade staff hung. He pulled it down. “I will stand and fight beside you, old friend.” He pointed it toward Eriyana.

Oba looked back toward the emperor.

Eriyana took that opportunity to lunge toward Oba, daggers ready to pierce his neck.

Oba lifted his blade in time to parry the dual daggers. He swiped his blade in a counter-attack with the speed of a serpent, causing Eriyana to leap back. His reach was too long.

Eriyana circled around to Oba’s left, looking for a weak point in his armor to exploit.

Oba watched her in turn, his face scrunched in fury.

The emperor skirted the edge of the room, blade staff pointed in her direction.

Enough of these games, she thought. She would not allow a lowly bodyguard to delay her further. She concentrated and felt the hilt of each dagger grow cold. Clouds of condensed water vapor wafted from the surface of the night-forged blades as they grew colder. She lunged again.

Oba lifted his blade as he had before. Their blades met. Only this time, a crackling sound came from his blade. Frost formed on its surface. Oba furrowed his brow.

Eriyana pushed.

Oba’s blade shattered. Pieces flew outward and fell to the floor. He wore a shocked expression.

Eriyana wasted no time. She withdrew a small packet from her pouch. She tossed it toward Oba and slashed it as it flew. Silver powder bombarded Oba’s face.

He coughed and tried to wave the powder away, but, an instant later he stiffened.

Eriyana crouched and swept Oba’s legs out from under him.

He landed with a thud and a grunt. His eyes remained open but his body was immobile.

She leapt to the side as the emperor’s blade staff pierced the air in the spot she had just vacated. Make it look like murder by the bodyguard, Rai’Vynn had said in his letter, along with a heavy bag of gold. That had a the need for paralysis powder instead of outright killing the bodyguard. It had to look like an inside job. She didn’t care what the reason was. She spotted a long piece of Oba’s sword and rushed toward it, sheathing her daggers along the way. She picked it up and turned to face her target.

The emperor wasted no time checking on his bodyguard. He attacked with a flurry of stabs. Eriyana dodged the staff with ease. He may have once been a formidable warrior, but old age had made him weak. She clutched the shard of Oba’s sword and sought a shadow. There, the emperor’s own shadow. She concentrated and envisioned herself appearing in the shadow he cast. She unleashed her power and the scene changed before her eyes. The emperor’s back was turned toward her now.

Eriyana thrust with the shard, stabbing him in the lower back and thrusting upward.

The emperor froze as the shard severed his spine. He gasped as it pierced his lungs and heart.

She left the shard inside of him and he crumbled to his knees, the staff falling with a clatter to the floor.

Come to me, she ordered. Eriyana picked up the staff and replaced it on the wall. Then she withdrew another packet of powder and broke it above Oba’s body. The antidote, white instead of clear, rained down like snow on the bodyguard’s face. It would still take a minute for the antidote to take effect. She took that moment to lean down and whisper in his ear. “How does it feel to know you killed your emperor?” she asked. “The one you were charged to protect. Such a shame.” She stood and smirked.

His arms twitched as he fought for control of his body. His eyes bulged.

Eriyana smiled, walked to the secret entrance and pulled the lever to close it.  Then she went to the window and threw it open.

Full night had fallen and Valkerion hovered outside the window, camouflaged wings flapping. He came closer to the ledge.

Eriyana leapt off and landed on her drake’s back. Fly us home, she thought.

Valkerion turned away from the window and flapped his wings, gaining momentum.

A roar of anger, pain and anguish followed her into the swirling wind.

 

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