The Scepter of Xarbaal
Brian D. Anderson & Steven Savile
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and should not be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
First Published Longfire Press, NOVEMBER 2016
Cover Illustration Gene Mollica Studios
Copyright © 2016 Brian D. Anderson & Steven Savile
All rights reserved.
Brian wishes to dedicate this book to his wonderful son, Jonathan and his loving wife Eleni.
Steve wishes to dedicate this book to the memories of the writers who made him fall in love with the genre, David
Gemmell, David Eddings and Hugh Cook, and to his partner in crime, Brian, King of Skype...
erhan closed his eyes and took a long cleansing breath.
Drawing deep into his mind, he touched his center – his merkesh. He felt it rising within him, but after only a moment of bathing in its awesome power, he allowed the vibrations to subside. It was not time. Not yet. Soon, though; very soon. And when it arrived, all his many years of training and discipline would be tested to the full. As would his courage and resolve.
The steady thumping of Ragnir’s huge wings fell into rhythm with the beating of his own heart. He ran a hand over her muscular shoulders. Her awesome power never failed to send a chill down his spine. Her flesh – hard as iron, yet still pleasing to the touch – rippled and tensed. She was ready. Ready for battle. Ready to kill. And ready to die if needs be. Without opening his eyes, he leaned forward and placed an ear against the base of her neck.
“Once more, my love,” he whispered. “Then it will finally be over.”
In response, Ragnir’s rumbling growl resonated through his entire body. Yes. Once more. I am ready, the dragon told him, though not in words that anyone save Serhan could comprehend.
He sighed, allowing his mind to fully absorb the peace of the moment: his oneness with Ragnir; the breeze against his flesh while riding high above the ravages of the world where only the Tul’Zahar dared to climb; and finally, the incredible sense of freedom. Up here, he was truly his own master.
The distant clamor of steel and fire dragged him away from the perfection of the moment. He opened his eyes to see the glow of flames reflecting off Ragnir’s deep blue scales, making her appear as if she was wrapped in a cloak of cloudless night sky. He cast his gaze downward. Such a spectacle had not been seen by human eyes in more than three hundred years. Vast oceans of warriors were pitted against one another. More than three hundred thousand of them was his guess. Five mighty nations had sent their best and bravest to do battle.
He tried to make out the individual armies, but after six straight days of fighting, it was impossible to distinguish one from another. By now, the alliance had merged into one massive force pressing forward against the power of King Zemel the Conqueror, ruler of Acharia.
Rings of fire erupted as the battle mages went about their deadly work. Serhan sneered contemptuously. Battle mages. Bah! Half-wit weaklings unfit for the Tul’Zahar, that’s all they were. Even so, King Zemel had found a use for them where other kings had not. But of course, unlike Zemel, other kings were fearful of magic. King Zemel feared absolutely nothing. Not even the Tul’Zahar.
His desire to press Ragnir into a dive and dispatch these pathetic battle mages was strong. The thought of the terror they would know when faced with genuine power almost elicited a laugh. But Serhan knew it would have to wait. The task he was about to undertake was far more important. The battle mages would taste justice soon enough.
He placed the tip of his finger to the large gem set in the pommel of his sword and smiled. The sword had been forged for him, perfectly weighted and balanced for his hand. It had taken a month to fashion, tempered in the crucible of Tul’Zahar’s greatest smiths, and given in exchange for the oath of loyalty he swore to the order. The jewel itself, though, that was a gift from his wife, given when she first discovered that she was carrying his child. Fondly remembering Leona’s aspect, he allowed a small piece of his essence to leave him to create a faint impression of her within its facets.
Ragnir let out a booming huff and shook her head.
“I know, my love,” Serhan said. “I must keep my focus. But this may be our final battle, and I would have her with me.” He patted the dragon’s neck. “After this, we’ll find somewhere far away from the madness. Somewhere my son can grow up in safety without being surrounded by fields of blood.” When Ragnir hissed and whined, he smiled and then added: “Yes. I’m sure there will be plenty of sheep and wild pigs to feast on, too.”
Serhan shifted his eyes to gaze north. There, less than twenty miles away, loomed the ominous black spires of Gol’Naruth – King Zemel’s stronghold. Should the vast forces of the five nations manage to advance that far, that would be the absolute limit of their achievement. They could lay siege for a hundred years and never so much as scratch a single stone of the city walls. These were protected by the magic of the Sulmarian Guild. Not even the mighty fires of the legendary elder dragons – were there any still alive to try – would be able to make the slightest blemish on them. Serhan smiled briefly. It was just as well for him that he would not need to test his strength against such an indestructible defense.
A blast of heat rose up from the battlefield. A small group of battle mages had joined together to form a protective wall of fire around themselves, but inch by inch they were being pressed back by the determination of an enraged foe. Serhan’s keen eyesight could see that bowmen had already decimated the battle mages’ shield bearers, leaving them exposed and vulnerable. Fire could roast a man and was a highly effective defense against advancing soldiers, but it was next to useless against arrows and bolts. Little by little the flames diminished as the archers continued to send forth their deadly attack. Serhan smiled. Good riddance.
Again he cast his eyes toward Gol’Naruth. The heat rising from the battlefield distorted the light, giving the fortress an even more forbidding appearance.
It was time.
Reaching to his belt, he withdrew a small silver horn, the rhylatite infused within making it glow in his hand. He raised it to his lips and blew three times.
The pure, clear call pierced the air in every direction, making all other sounds dull and distant by comparison. He chuckled softly. The king would have undoubtedly heard it too. He would know they were coming.
Three specks approached rapidly from the west. It took only a matter of seconds for him to recognize Drewin, Sadich, and Thradus. Astride their dragons, they drew their blades and held them high in salute. Serhan raised the horn aloft in reply.
Both Sadich’s and Thradus’s mounts were lean, their heads covered in razor sharp spikes, but Drewin’s dragon was broad and powerful – just like Ragnir. Also like Ragnir, it had shed most of its spikes long ago.
They brought the dragons to a halt only a dozen yards away, coming into position in front of Serhan, their immense bodies rising and falling as they trod air to hold their position. The red flame crest was splashed magnificently across their polished black armor. Drewin – second only to Serhan himself in rank – boasted the red sash of the Tul’Zahar. Removing his helm, he shook loose his shoulder-length brown curls, dark eyes fixed on his commander.
Serhan noted the blood soaking Drewin’s arm and spattered on his face. This had obviously been a hard-fought day. “Are you injured badly?” he asked.
He glanced down at his arm and spat. “Goddamn battle mages had me distracted for a moment. I took a crossbow bolt as a reward for my stupidity.”
“Can you continue?”
Drewin threw his head back, laughing. “Are you joking? You think I’d miss my chance of glory over such a small matter?”
Serhan nodded approvingly. He was strong. Almost as strong as himself. In fact, were it not that he had taken the oath two years earlier than Drewin, his subordinate would now be the one leading the Tul’Zahar.
He shifted his attention to Sadich and Thradus. “And how are you two faring? Finding enough mischief?” The pair were brothers, inducted into the order only days apart. Still young, they were known for their practical jokes and spirited nature.
“Enough blood for everyone, for a change,” Sadich replied with a sinister smirk.
“I think the steel in my blade has grown wearier than my sword arm,” added Thradus.
Serhan frowned. “So you left your mounts and fought on foot?”
The pair looked to one another, then back to their commander. It was Thradus who spoke. “Only for a short time. We just couldn’t stand seeing the soldiers have all the fun.”
Serhan shook his head. “The soldiers are here to fight and die. The two of you have far more important duties. Too important to risk your lives over a bit of sport.”
“I apologize,” they replied in unison. But the smiles that lingered on their faces cast doubts on the strength of their sincerity.
Serhan grunted and turned to Drewin. “Have you seen the others?”
He shook his head. “I’m sure they’ll be along shortly.” “They had better be.” He looked to the battle far below. “Each moment’s delay costs more lives.”
As his eyes rose again, Serhan was just in time to catch the brothers exchanging what appeared to be a furtive glance. He also noticed their hands drifting ever closer to their blades. He furrowed his brow, wondering what was going on. Were they really acting suspiciously?
He dismissed such thoughts as nothing more than prebattle nerves. Where were the others? He strained his eyes in every direction, but after more than five minutes there was still no sign of anyone else arriving. He blew his horn once again, but the skies around them remained stubbornly empty.
It was then that he noticed Drewin gradually positioning his dragon to the left – away from his commander’s sword arm. The brothers had also moved and were now sitting slightly above him. His senses instantly sharpened and he allowed the magic dwelling within his merkesh to flow into his hands. Drewin immediately picked up on this.
“Is something wrong, Commander?” he asked, his own hand resting on the pommel of his sword.
“I don’t know,” Serhan replied darkly. “Is there?”
Drewin locked eyes with him for a long moment. Slowly, his mouth twisted into a smile and he gave a mirthless chuckle. “Always the perceptive one.”
Serhan’s jaw tightened. So his mind had not been playing tricks. Something was indeed seriously wrong. Treachery was in the air. “Where are the others?” he demanded.
“Dead,” Drewin replied matter-of-factly. He pointed at his commander. “You are the last.”
Serhan’s eyes shot from Drewin to the brothers and back again. Ragnir, sensing her master’s anxiety, was tensing uneasily beneath him.
“Why have you done this?”
His second-in-command raised an eyebrow. “You ask why? Surely you can’t be serious. You have led us to ruin. You defied our king, stole his property, and have instigated a war that you must have known we could never win.”
“King Zemel is a madman and you know it,” he shot back. “The Scepter should never have been in his possession. It was not meant to be wielded by mortal man. I only did what I had to do.”
Drewin nodded. “Yes. He is a madman. But a powerful one. Even without the Scepter, he would have destroyed us. At least now the Tul’Zahar will endure.”
“And how exactly does killing your brothers do anything to save the Tul’Zahar?”
Drewin’s face hardened and his eyes burned. “It is your fault they had to die. I tried to spare them. But such was their blind loyalty to you and to your folly that they would not see reason.”
“Save your lies,” Serhan spat at him. “You made a bargain with Zemel. And the price was the Tul’Zahar. You are without honor. The only thing that comforts me is knowing that in the end, Zemel will betray you, too.”
“Enough of this talk,” shouted Sadich. “I have listened to this self-righteous bastard for far too long. Let’s just kill him and be done with it.” The song of steel rang out as he drew his sword.
Drewin raised a hand in an attempt to stop the inexperienced youth, but it was too late. Serhan was already reacting. Thrusting his left hand out, a bolt of blue lightning sprang forth from his fingertips, striking Sadich squarely in the chest. With his right hand, he freed his own sword and leashed the bolt to the tip of the blade. Sadich’s eyes shot wide. Before he could make any kind of defensive move, the lightning exploded, shredding his breastplate and throwing him completely from his mount. As he plummeted toward the distant ground, Thradus cried out his name. Both he and the riderless dragon then went into steep dives in pursuit his brother.
Serhan unleashed another bolt, this one aimed at Drewin. But his treacherous second-in-command would not be taken off guard so easily. He had already raised a defensive ward. Only a few tiny sparks made it through the shimmering disk of light – not nearly enough to cause any real injury.
Serhan urged Ragnir to dive hard left. As they dropped, he drew in more power, casting ward upon ward around both himself and his dragon. Blasts of fire and lightning at his back told him that Drewin was close behind. Faster and faster they swooped. The battlefield below was now coming up fast. With the wind roaring in his ears, he was forced to grip the saddle horn tightly to remain mounted.
When they were a mere fifty feet from the earth, Ragnir let out a thunderous roar and leveled off. With the enemy army directly below them, Serhan felt two more waves of magic attacking him from above, though this time they were not coming from Drewin’s direction. He looked up and to his left. Sadich’s dragon had apparently caught up with him in time because he was now back in its saddle, his face contorted with fury. Both he and Thradus were sending multiple spears of silver light raining down at Serhan. But it was an undisciplined, hit-or-miss assault fueled largely by their anger, and his wards were more than adequate to protect him from the few that did find their target. Those that missed, however, were causing chaos on the field below. Spear after spear of light shot past him to strike unsuspecting soldiers, ripping their bodies apart like wet parchment.
“Climb!” Serhan shouted.
Ragnir’s wings pounded with unimaginable strength, lifting them well above the battlefield again in no time at all. But rapid as their ascent was, more attacks from the brothers continued to pepper him. Their dragons may not have been anywhere near as powerful as Ragnir, but they were far quicker and more agile. In mere moments they had managed to circle around to be positioned above and to his front, all the while continuing their seemingly useless assault against his wards.
They’re trying to keep my attention, Serhan realized. His eyes desperately searched for Drewin, eventually spotting him only fifty or so feet above and to his back. As fast as he could, he sheathed his sword and began drawing in yet more power. Wards against magic were a simple thing for someone of his experience, and Drewin understood this as well as anyone. Serhan concentrated on shaping the more complicated wards that would counter physical attacks. One minute. That was as fast as he had ever created one. Would he be granted that long this time?
The ominous thudding of large wings approaching quickly spelled out the futility of such a hope. Ragnir let out a roar of agony as talons sank into her tail. Serhan drew his sword again and took a swipe at Drewin’s mount. His blade found flesh, though only enough to cause a minor wound. Ragnir spun sharply, ripping her tail free from the other dragon’s grip and almost throwing Serhan from the saddle in the process.
He knew he needed to get higher. But the brothers had ceased their magical attack and were concentrating on closing in. Growling with anger, Ragnir flew straight at them. Unwilling to face the enraged dragon head on, the pair split left and right, allowing Serhan to pass straight between them. For a moment he thought he might be able to get high enough to manage an escape, but then another cry of agony came from deep within Ragnir’s throat. Twisting around, he saw that Drewin’s dragon had one of his mount’s rear legs clenched tightly in its maw. Held back by an almost equal weight, their ascent immediately slowed to virtually nothing. The two smaller dragons had been given the opportunity they needed. They dived in from either side to grab a wing each of Ragnir’s firmly in their claws, twisting hard to inflict maximum injury.
Serhan rose from the saddle and prepared to charge at Thradus, but it was too late. Their deadly work already done, all three attacking dragons simultaneously released Ragnir. Desperately she pounded the air, but her wings were now too badly damaged for any chance of flight. Clutching at the saddle horn as they dropped, Serhan braced himself for the moment they struck ground.
Ragnir’s broken wings continued to beat furiously, at least slowing their descent sufficiently to save them from a truly devastating impact. Even so, when contact came, it was still hard enough to rattle every bone in Serhan’s body. But there was no time to worry about that. Sharply aware that they were well behind King Zemel’s lines and completely surrounded, he jumped clear of Ragnir and was ready in an instant, sword in hand. His eyes darted back and forth, seeking attackers. But the enemy soldiers nearby were already backing away. No one among them was fool enough to challenge a Tul’Zahar and his dragon, even when they were so obviously wounded.
Ragnir’s tail was riddled with deep gashes and both wings hung limply, broken in the middle. Her back leg had been mangled beyond healing by Drewin’s dragon. After blowing out a guttural breath, she limped forward to meet him.
“I’m sorry, my love,” Serhan told her. He drew in what little power he had remaining and used it to ease the dragon’s suffering. She lowered her massive head, pressing it into his chest while moaning softly.
It was a short respite. The ground shook as the three traitors landed a few yards to his back. Even though his wards were still in place, he knew there was no way for him to fight them all successfully. He spun to meet his enemy with rage-filled eyes.
“Don’t be a fool,” warned Drewin. “It’s over.”
“Face me, you coward,” Serhan challenged. “Or has the king taken your courage as well as your honor?”
Drewin sneered. “To face one as accomplished in single combat as you is not an act of courage… Commander. It is rank stupidity. No. I think it would be much better if you just throw down your sword.”
By now, Thradus and Sadich had urged their dragons to the left and right. Cruel little smiles appeared on their faces. He read it as eager anticipation. There was a certain kind of warrior who savored the killing to come. They belonged to that breed.
Serhan glanced down at the jewel that held the aspect of his beloved wife. “Very well, I will submit,” he said. “But only on one condition.”
“And what is that?” asked Drewin.
“Find a way to spare my family.”
Drewin heaved a weary sigh. “I wish I could help you. I truly do. But King Zemel has plans for them. The boy in particular.”
Serhan’s grip on his sword tightened. He squeezed his eyes shut for a second. “I see.”
There was nothing else left to debate. All he could do now was go down fighting and die with the honor expected of a Tul’Zahar commander.
The sinews of his powerful legs tensed. He could hear the dragons creeping in on either side of him. Drewin, on the other hand, maintained his position further back. Shrewd as always.
In a blur of speed, Serhan ran left, straight toward Sadich. Startled by this unexpected assault, the young dragon reared up, throwing its rider momentarily off balance. Before the creature could lower its head to offer a defense, Serhan dived low and rolled. Sadich twisted in the saddle and thrust his blade downwards, but Serhan easily avoided the strike. An instant later, he was back on his feet. With a grunt of satisfaction, he brought his sword hard down on the young man’s shin. The razor sharp steel sliced effortlessly through armor, flesh, and then bone. Sadich instantly dropped his weapon, a wail of agony bursting from his mouth.
Serhan stepped in to finish the job, but just as he raised his sword, a mighty swipe from the dragon’s talons struck him in the center of the back. It was like being hit with a battering ram. The sheer force sent him flying more than ten feet through the air. As he thudded back down onto the ground, violent spasms of pain gripped him, and he could feel blood already soaking his back. Only the superb craftsmanship of his armor had saved him from being ripped to shreds. Gasping for air but with sword still in hand, he somehow struggled onto his side.
Sadich had fallen from the saddle and was writhing on the ground, his lifeblood spilling over. The dragon, seeing its rider’s distress, was standing over him defensively.
Serhan cast his eyes over to the right, wondering why no attack had come from that flank yet. It was quickly explained. His beloved Ragnir, though severely injured, had her jaws clamped tightly around the other young dragon’s neck – a fatal grip from which it would never be able to struggle free. Thradus could see the inevitability of this and was scrambling to dismount, though not fast enough. With a sharp flick of her head, Ragnir flung the lifeless dragon contemptuously aside with Thradus still clinging atop it. She then turned her attention back to Serhan. With wings dragging and limping even more heavily than before, she started toward where he was lying.
Serhan opened his mouth to cry out a warning, but before he could utter a sound, Drewin’s dragon leapt forward to seize Ragnir from the rear. First its talons sank into her back; then its jaws clamped down around her muscular neck. It was a similar deadly grip to the one Ragnir herself had used only moments before. And like the young dragon, there was no escape for her either. Had she not been in such a severely weakened condition, she might have stood a fighting chance. As it was, she had none at all.
Unable to bear the terrible sight, Serhan closed his eyes and let out an anguished scream.
He attempted to rise, but it felt as if his back had been shattered by the dragon’s blow. Helpless, he could only lie there and desperately tried to shut out the sound of Ragnir’s death cries. When they finally ceased, something inside – a final acknowledgement of her bravery perhaps? – compelled him to look over at her ravaged body. Blood glistened across her beautiful scales, shimmering in the glorious sunlight and for one precious moment seeming to be so alive still, despite the fact that her eyes stared lifelessly into oblivion.
“This is your own fault,” said Drewin, sliding down from his saddle.
A short distance away, Thradus was knelt beside his dead dragon, frantically trying to use his healing magic to restore her life.
“Tend to your brother instead,” ordered Drewin.
The young man straightened his back and wiped his face. His gaze then fell on the fallen and helpless figure of Serhan. Springing to his feet, he ran headlong at him, eyes blazing with vengeful intent. Drewin moved swiftly to block his path and wrap restraining arms around his body. Thradus struggled and twisted violently for several seconds in an attempt to wrench himself free, but Drewin was far stronger and held him easily.
“Sadich is dying,” he shouted, forcing the youth to look at him directly. “Go help him. Serhan will suffer for what he has done. I promise you that.”
Slowly Thradus calmed and was allowed to pull away. After casting one more hate-filled glare at Serhan, he hurried over to tend his brother.
Drewin loomed menacingly over Serhan. “Well fought, Commander,” he said. “The others didn’t last for more than a few seconds. But I knew not to underestimate you, even when outnumbered and taken by surprise. A pity Sadich and Thradus weren’t as careful.” He shrugged. “Oh, well. The inexperience of youth.”
“Do what you came to do,” Serhan growled, lifting his chin to meet the eyes of his one-time friend. “I don’t care to hear your treacherous voice.”
Drewin shook his head. “Defiant to the last. But you’re right. There is no need to prolong this.”
After muttering a few words, his hands began to glow with a faint blue aura. He reached down and touched Serhan lightly on the forehead. The effect was immediate.
Serhan saw a flash of brilliant white light… then utter blackness.
* * *
Consciousness returned once again. How many days he had been held, he could no longer tell. The stench of urine and feces mingled with the odor of burning coals. Sweat and blood blurred his vision, but he did not need sight to know where he was.
The slow groan of the iron door followed by a thud of heavy boots told him that it must be time once again. Time for more pain.
“I must say I’m impressed. I never imagined anyone could hold out for so long.”
It was Drewin speaking. Serhan never had any trouble in recognizing his treacherous voice. He wanted to reply, to curse him as a coward, but his throat was too dry and swollen.
“I thought you’d like to know that the allies are now in full retreat.”
Serhan turned his head. He could make out only the misty outline of Drewin’s body. A few seconds later, he felt a cup filled with water being lifted to his lips. Much as he wanted to spit the liquid back into the man’s face, his thirst was too great. He couldn’t help but gulp at it greedily. A cool rag then cleaned his face and eyes. Drewin smiled down at him and took a step back.
Seeing the traitor filled him with uncontrollable rage. He struggled violently against the chains securing his arms and legs to the rough wooden table, ignoring the pain caused by both the injuries suffered in battle and the days of relentless torture that had followed.
“Calm yourself, Commander,” Drewin said. “I’m here to help you.”
“Save your lies,” he croaked.
Drewin put the cup against his lips once more, and again he drank. But this time he was able to hold back from swallowing the final mouthful and spat it back full in the face of his betrayer. It was only a very small victory, but it felt good nonetheless.
Drewin calmly dried himself, seemingly unmoved by the display of contempt. “I understand your anger,” he said. “And I believe you when you say that you don’t know where the Scepter is hidden. Unfortunately, despite my assurances, the king does not. He still thinks you do.”
“And if I did, do you think I would tell him?”
“No. I am certain that you would not. Regardless of how long they torture you, you will say no more than you choose. But I also believe you would be more helpful if you were properly motivated. Perhaps if your wife and child were to be set free?”
Serhan turned his head away. He could still see his wife’s face. And their son, Baylin, only five years old. The image of his raven curls, green eyes, and innocent features was too much. He did his best to choke the tears back. “You’ll kill them both anyway,” he muttered. “No matter what I do or say.”
“Oh no,” Drewin retorted. “They will live. Even if you refuse his offer, the king will see to that. What you get to choose is the manner in which they live.”
For the very first time, Serhan felt his resolve weakening. The hell King Zemel would put his family through was unimaginable. The door opened again.
“Look,” said Drewin. “Your son is unharmed.”
Serhan heard tiny footsteps entering the room. Slowly, he turned his head back. There stood Baylin. He was gazing up at him, his tiny face twisted in confusion.
Immeasurable sorrow washed over Serhan. It was harder than ever to keep his tears at bay. “Are you hurt, son?” he asked.
Baylin shook his head, but said nothing.
“And your mother?”
“She’s… she’s with the king,” he replied, his voice uncertain and meek. “They told me she has to stay there until you do something for him.” He took a small, nervous step forward. “Will you do it, father?”
Serhan looked into his child’s eyes and forced a weak smile. “I need you to be brave for me. Can you do that?” Baylin nodded.
“Then no matter what happens, just remember that I love you.” He twisted his face to one side. It was impossible to contain the tears any longer. “Take him away and then do what you must.”
Drewin sighed. “I’m afraid it’s not that easy. I was sent to give you the king’s offer. Should you refuse, I am to kill you… while your son watches.”
Serhan clenched his fists and stifled his sobs. He would not die sniveling like a coward. “Then do it,” he commanded. “Do it quickly.”
After a lengthy pause, Drewin pulled a dagger free and placed the point directly over Serhan’s heart. “I was to make you scream and wail first. But even I have limits.”
Serhan looked up and nodded. “For that, at least, I thank you.”
Drewin nodded in return. “Farewell, Commander.”
He leaned in, and the blade sank deep. Serhan gasped just once, and then went rigid.
As the light of life faded, he could hear the whisper of his son’s cries.
blended in perfect harmony with the wind as it whistled he chirping of crickets and the lonely calls of wolves
through the pine needles high above the ground. From this lofty position, a lone shadow watched patiently. He had been there for two days, his eyes fixed resolutely on his target, never moving a muscle and never tiring. With only soft leather shoes and a thin pair of black cotton trousers to cover himself, the chill air bit sharply at his exposed flesh. But he did not shiver. Nor did the thought of a warm fire and a soft bed enter his mind. His focus was absolute, and his will could shatter steel. The mane of jet-black hair hanging down to his shoulders was tied into rows of tiny braids and bound together at the tip by a single onyx bead. A dagger fastened to his belt was his only weapon. This was to be a killing of a quick and quiet nature, and a sword would only weigh him down. In any case, should he find himself in unexpected need of such a weapon, he knew he could always claim one easily enough from the dead.
The small cabin just a hundred feet away to the north stood dark and unoccupied: a hiding place for rogues and bandits that was seldom used and – out of necessity – difficult to find unless you knew where to look. He had watched small animals enter through the broken windows, scavenging for whatever scraps might have been left behind. On one occasion a black bear had lumbered up to use the rough corner of the building to scratch its massive back. He had seen them all come and go. But they had not seen him. He had to ensure that no one did. Not until it was too late. That demanded a level of control few possessed; to be so utterly in command of your own body as to move soundlessly, lost to the naked eye. He was patient. He was fast. But most of all, he was deadly.
The jingle of steel and the hiss of voices reached his ears. They were still some distance away, but his hearing was unusually keen, as it was with all of those who belonged to the Dul’Buhar. This ability had been a gift from their king and was a secret they guarded jealously. Their physical prowess was legendary, as was their skill in combat. But no one knew the full extent of their powers, nor were they allowed to ask. Doing so meant death.
After several minutes, six torches appeared in the darkness to the east where the trees thinned and the ground became rocky and uneven. The assassin’s eyes penetrated the night and looked closely upon the faces of the men. At once, he knew. The one he was waiting for had arrived.
Six men would be easy enough to dispatch. Particularly if they were the sort of sell-swords commonly found in the employ of merchants and lesser nobles. Though truth be told, he had almost been hoping for a greater challenge.
This particular noble – Lord Yelsing – must have earned himself some very special interest. General Kirlon had handed him this assignment personally, insisting that it warranted his immediate attention. It didn’t matter in the slightest what the lord had done to merit a death sentence, but it was unusual for the Dul’Buhar to be sent on such a mundane mission. Normally, a small group of soldiers would have been considered more than sufficient to handle things of this nature.
As the target drew closer, he took note of the sell-swords’ weary steps and sagging shoulders. It took them several attempts to force open the cabin door before they filed inside. Only a few minutes later, the windows glowed from lamplight.
He waited for another hour before descending from his perch, leaping with uncanny agility from branch to branch in complete silence, then dropping the final ten feet and landing lightly on the balls of his feet. Drawing his dagger, he crouched low and moved forward. The fool hadn’t bothered to post a guard at the door. Not that it would have done him any good, even if he had.
While easing closer, he kept a close watch for any shadows moving in the windows. But all was still and quiet. He took a moment to reassess his approach and position. Something wasn’t quite right. It was way too quiet. Men who had traveled to the point of fatigue would certainly fall asleep easily enough. But even when sleeping, they were by no means silent. Yet no hint of snores or groans reached his ears, nor any of the other sounds familiar to him from a life spent in a camp filled with warriors and soldiers.
With all senses on high alert, he crept cautiously onward. Upon reaching the cabin, he immediately ducked beneath the window and closed his eyes to further enhance his hearing. Still not a sound from the sleeping men reached him; only the scuttle of mice, the wind, and the music of the forest. His grip on the dagger tightened.
The unnatural silence was suddenly broken.
“There’s no need to sneak about,” called a voice from inside. “I know you’re out there. Do come inside.”
Springing upright, he backed away a few paces. Almost no one should have been able to hear his approach. Even one of his own would have had difficulty. But the fact was, whoever had called out had heard him… or at least knew he was coming.
“Are you going to stand out there all night?”
He took a few seconds to think. He had been betrayed. That much was without doubt. But by whom? And to what end? With no other course open to him, he walked to the door with determined strides and pushed it open.
Sitting at a table over to the left was his target – Lord Yelsing, elegantly dressed in a black satin robe stitched with interlacing patterns of gold and white. Beneath this he wore a finely tailored white shirt with polished silver buttons and matching pants. His black leather boots were clean and unmarked, for all the world looking as if they had never so much as touched the ground before. An elegant, goldhandled sword hung from his belt. He was slightly built, with close-set eyes, a hawk-like nose, and a prominently jutting chin. A mop of curly golden blond hair fell loosely to his shoulders.
“Finally, a face to put to the name,” said Yelsing, wearing a friendly smile. “Akiri, I believe? Am I right? Please tell me I am. I will be quite disappointed if you are not.”
Remaining on the threshold, the assassin scanned the rest of the room. To his right, a pile of ruined furniture had been shoved carelessly into the near corner, together with a heavily blackened iron stove that had toppled over and was clearly no longer of use to anyone. But it was what lay further back that captured his attention. His jaw tightened, and he realized that this situation was far beyond anything he had anticipated.
The bodies of all five guards were piled like firewood against the rear wall. From these, an untidy trail of blood droplets led directly to the table Yelsing sat at.
“Well, are you him or aren’t you?” the lord pressed, though his tone remained cordial.
He nodded. “I am Akiri.”
Letting out a sigh of relief, Yelsing resumed his seat. “That’s good to hear. It really is. I was afraid you might not be and that I had failed on my first attempt. You see, this is all very new to me.”
Akiri was rarely unsure of himself, but the relaxed and rather odd manner of this young noble gave him pause to think. The man appeared remarkably unconcerned about being face-to-face with a dagger-wielding assassin, though judging by the pile of bodies he had created, there was likely a very good reason for this. Until Akiri knew more, he decided that caution was his best approach.
“You clearly knew I was coming,” he said. “But do you know why I am here?”
“Of course,” Yelsing replied. “Or at least, I know why you think you are here. You believe you are here to kill me. But nothing could be further from the truth.” He looked around and twisted his lips, as if tasting something bad. “A dingy place, I’m afraid. Ill-fitting for a night such as this. But what can one do?”
Akiri scrutinized him more closely. There was something unnatural about the man. Just as this thought was forming, the light from a lantern hanging from a beam overhead caught the man’s eyes. In spite of their blue color, they were reflecting blood red. Almost at the same time, he realized that Yelsing was not breathing.
“Volkar,” he hissed.
Yelsing chuckled with mild amusement. “How odd that you would know the proper name for what I am. With all those rippling muscles and such a grim demeanor, I wouldn’t have guessed you to be the educated sort. Far more the slash-and-grunt type. But you’re absolutely correct. I am a volkar. Though most people call me a soul shredder.”
Rapidly, everything that Akiri knew of the volkar passed through his mind. Once human, they had bound themselves to demon spirits in order to gain power and immortality. They survived on the souls of the living, consuming them at the precise moment of death. Volkar were strong, fast, and extremely deadly. Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to bring this creature here.
“You should understand, Akiri, this is the first time I have killed for gold. I usually kill for survival.” He flicked his wrist and cocked his head. “Though occasionally for sport as well, I must admit. So forgive me if I appear to be a trifle awkward.”
“Who sent you?”
Yelsing held up his hand. “I will get to that, so please be patient. But don’t worry. My instructions are very clear, and they most certainly include allowing you to know who sent me.”
“Speak then, and let us be done with it.” Akiri’s eyes shot across to the pile of bodies. He would need to make it over to them before attempting anything else. If what he had learned from his studies was true, there were few ways he would be able to kill this creature. Without a sword, he would not stand a chance.
“Such a serious and sober fellow,” Yelsing said, smirking.
“I would tell you to take more joy from life. But as yours is about to end…”
He waved a nonchalant hand before continuing. “In any event, I am first to explain what your death will be like. I have no personal experience with this, but I see the faces and hear the screams of my victims. Many of them beg for death within the first few seconds. I can only imagine the terrible agonies they must feel. So that is what will happen to you, I’m afraid. And when it does, I am then to ask you if you would care to plead for your life. But from one look at you I already know that you won’t. Good man. Very brave.” Akiri was losing patience. But he needed to know more. He took a small step toward the bodies.
In an instant, Yelsing was on his feet with his blade drawn. His once friendly countenance was now dark and foreboding. “Not yet,” he warned. “Or I will end this right now.”
Akiri halted, his expression blank, but said nothing. Clearly wary of this, Yelsing remained standing, his eyes fixed on his intended victim. After a moment, he sighed.
“Of course, you are impatient to discover who sent me. Very well.” He let the silence hang between them. Akiri studied him in those few seemingly endless seconds before Yelsing finally said, “I presume you are acquainted with General Kirlon Galliani. He was very keen for you to know that he is the instrument of your demise. Also that his brother can now rest in peace.” He shook his head. “This man must hate you with a genuine passion. The effort it took just to find me must have cost him a fortune. On top of this, my price to come all the way from Malistad was considerable. I can’t imagine there is much gold left in his coffers by now.”
Akiri nodded. “So you expect me to bargain for my life by attempting to bribe you? Is that it?”
“In all honesty, I was unsure what might happen. I am no assassin, but some of my past victims have offered me gold in exchange for their lives.”
“And did you ever spare any of them?”
Yelsing’s eyes suddenly glowed violet. His lips parted to reveal teeth that were now a row of needle-like fangs. “My victims have no hope. And no amount of gold can save them.”
“Then I shall save myself by using other means,” Akiri told him.
His confident words acted as a goad to the volkar. The creature leapt forward with such incredible speed Akiri was only just able to step aside in time. Not that this gained him much of a breathing space. Despite the powerful force of his momentum, Yelsing was somehow able to pull up almost on the spot. He spun around, one arm extended, his hand curled into a vicious-looking claw. Ducking beneath it, Akiri made a rapid dive over to where the pile of bodies lay. In a single fluid motion, he pulled free one of the dead men’s blades and swung back to face his adversary, slashing in a tightly controlled sweep. Steel found flesh and sliced a deep wound across Yelsing’s chest.
Too low, Akiri thought.
Crimson fluid, far too thick to be human blood, oozed down the front of Yelsing’s shirt. He dabbed at the wound, staring in disbelief. “I have not seen my own blood in a long time,” he remarked, almost with a laugh. “A very long time.” His eyes flashed from violet to red, and with a movement faster than any normal person could see, he freed his own blade.
Akiri’s sight, however, was far beyond that of a normal person, and so was the speed of his reactions. After parrying the attack, he planted his foot into Yelsing’s stomach and sent him crashing back into the far wall so violently that the ancient and half-rotten timbers shattered like delicate glass. Driven completely through to the outside, Yelsing landed hard in an untidy heap several feet away from the shack. Even so, he was on his feet again in an instant.
Akiri sought to press home any advantage he might have gained, swinging his sword in a flurry of strikes. But Yelsing had recovered from the surprise of being faced with such a worthy opponent and was skillfully blocking each of his moves. The action calmed as they circled each other warily, feigning attacks without either giving so much as an inch of ground. Then, almost as if at a given signal, both threw themselves into renewed assaults.
Akiri’s face was stone and his movements sheer perfection – a result of both the power of his order and the many years of intense training. Yelsing, though skilled with a blade, was relying heavily on his preternatural speed and sheer strength. With each new strike, his blade came closer to its target.
The initial wound he had opened up would normally have been enough to ensure victory. Blood loss would soon weaken a human opponent; but Yelsing was not human, and the wound had already closed. Even so, signs of frustration were now clearly showing on his face. His next attack was wild, though it came at a speed that would have overcome most swordsmen. To Akiri, however, the strikes were haphazard and clumsy. Spinning left, he saw an opening and thrust six inches of steel between Yelsing’s third and fourth ribs.
As he tried to yank his blade free, Yelsing lunged forward, spitting and snarling. In a sudden change of tactics, the volkar dropped his weapon and seized hold of Akiri’s face, his steely fingers exerting unbelievably fierce pressure. Akiri reached for his foe’s wrist, but he had barely lifted his hand when an intense pain, the like of which he had never imagined possible, ran like a raging river through his entire body. It was as if his blood had been turned to molten lead and his skin was being peeled away a layer at a time.
“You don’t cry out,” mused Yelsing. “You are indeed a prize. Had I known, I would have come for less gold.”
Akiri dropped to his knees. No matter how much he tore at Yelsing’s wrist and hand, the creature’s hold was unbreakable. He could feel his strength – his very life – draining away. The pain was all-consuming.
“Yes,” hissed Yelsing. “You are powerful. I can taste your soul’s sweet nectar already. I am going to enjoy you.”
Only the extreme discipline of Akiri’s training kept him from losing consciousness. From the corner of his eye, he spotted Yelsing’s discarded sword on the ground just a few feet away. This was his last hope. Letting out a feral scream to help muster every bit of his remaining strength, he heaved his body hard backward.
His movements had been slowed by the attack, but they were still sharp enough to catch Yelsing by surprise. Confident his victory was already complete, he could only gawk in utter astonishment as the opponent he imagined to be on the point of death suddenly pulled himself free and rolled over to snatch up the fallen sword.
Akiri saw the confusion fast fading from Yelsing’s eyes. He had only a heartbeat of time in which to finish things.
“Die, abomination!” he shouted, swinging the blade at Yelsing’s exposed neck and slicing all the way through in one vicious but satisfyingly clean cut. The volkar’s head rolled from his shoulders and landed on the earth with a dull thud. As though in a bizarre refusal to accept what had happened to it, his body remained stubbornly upright for several seconds before eventually crumbling to the ground.
Akiri watched grimly as the earth all around became soaked with thick crimson blood. He tossed the sword beside the body and backed away. Everything he had learned about the volkar told him that the beast was dead. Removal of the head or heart were two sure methods of killing such creatures, but there was only one way he would be totally satisfied that it would not somehow return to life.
Quickly, he gathered together some wood from the broken furnishings and splintered cabin wall to build a pyre, on top of which he placed the head and torso. After sprinkling the oil from the lanterns liberally, he lit the fire. In less than a minute, the flames turned bright green and began to hiss. Akiri watched without expression as the volkar was completely consumed.
Satisfied, he took a minute to search the cabin before making his way back through the trees to where he had stowed his equipment. After putting on a pair of leather pants and a shirt, he attached his sword to his belt and headed east. With his rapid pace eating up the miles between himself and the main army camp, one name echoed repeatedly in his head.
General Kirlon Galliani.
ot wishing to announce his return, Akiri made a point of avoiding the camp’s sentries – something he found disturbingly simple to achieve. It was an issue he resolved to deal with in short order.
He had deliberately timed his arrival for late in the evening, when the men would be fully occupied and far less likely to notice him. Flickering lights from a multitude of fires cast a soft glow over the countless rows of tents immediately ahead. The sound of music, the laughter of prostitutes, and the loud boasting of drunken men brought a heavy frown to his face. Battle was imminent, and in his mind, distractions like these were far from wise.
A sultry young woman approached from behind a nearby wagon. Bare breasted and face painted in the style of Hultria, she sauntered toward him wearing a seductive smile.
“Don’t you look fierce,” she said, her voice dripping with the promise of pleasure. “I bet I could put a smile on that sour face of yours.”
Akiri shoved her aside without even bothering to look her in the eye. He heard her spit and curse, but paid it no attention. Even if he had been in the mood to bed a woman, she was not the type he would have chosen. He grudgingly accepted that they had their uses, but the idea of their presence in camp just before battle disturbed him. He knew that he could not expect most men to live without pleasurable company for long periods, but he was different – he was Akiri, leader of the Dul’Buhar. His seed was not spent without careful consideration. The women who shared his bed were of a certain quality, chosen specifically for him by the king.
The Dul’Buhar encampment – a mere dozen tents – was set to the west, well aside from the others. This was where the true virtue of the army resided. Here, the only sounds were of swords being sharpened, armor being repaired, and men in training. No one could slip into this area unnoticed. Not even Akiri.
A lone sentry – all that was needed to keep them secure – pressed a fist to his chest in salute. Akiri returned the gesture without pausing and strode straight toward the largest tent pitched in the very center. Inside stood a round table with a variety of maps and books laid out where they could be easily read. To the right lay a simple cot and three large trunks in which he kept his personal belongings, to the left a plain but well-constructed desk. Lamps hung from a hook in each corner, with another placed in the middle of the table.
Sitting down at the desk, he drew a sheet of blank parchment from a drawer and began writing. A man entered just as he finished. Although short in stature, the newcomer’s broad shoulders and narrow waist gave him the illusion of height. His head was shaved clean, as was his face. The long blade at his side bore the black onyx of the Dul’Buhar on its hilt.
“Ah, Gradis,” Akiri said. “I’m glad you’re here.”
The man saluted and approached the desk. “Did all go as planned?”
“No. As a matter of fact, it did not,” Akiri replied, though without allowing any hint of the anger burning inside to show through. “I need you to gather three men and post them outside my tent. Instruct them that all those seeking to enter must first be disarmed. No exceptions. Should anyone attempt to force their way inside while still carrying weapons, do not kill them. Merely restrain them, then turn them away.”
Gradis looked at him with confusion, but did not question the order. After saluting again, he hurried away to carry out his commander’s wishes.
Akiri read carefully over what he had just written. Satisfied, he reached into the desk and removed a stamp bearing the king’s crest. After thoroughly inking this, he pressed it to the bottom of the document, just below his signature. It was done. Justice would be served.
Pausing only to retrieve a small dagger from one of his chests and fastening it to his belt, he left the tent. As he stepped through the flap, he saw that the three men he had ordered Gradis to gather were already taking up position.
The scale of King Zemel’s army was immense and the camp vast. At more than two hundred thousand men, it was a force designed to crush the enemy in one fell swoop. Nearly all of the tents accommodating the soldiers were identical in both shape and color, the only exceptions being those belonging to high-ranking officers. This similarity had caused many a man to become lost if he wandered too far away from his unit. But Akiri knew every inch of the ground. He knew precisely where to go, even though the walk to General Kirlon’s tent took him quite some time.
Two guards were standing at the entrance, and on seeing Akiri’s determined approach, they both noticeably stiffened.
“You cannot go in,” said the soldier on the right. He sounded nervous – unsurprisingly so, given whom he was addressing. “The general is not receiving anyone right now.”
“You will stand aside and allow me to pass,” Akiri told him, retaining a calm and even tone. “I am the commander of the Dul’Buhar. General Kirlon cannot refuse me an audience. Should you choose to hinder me, you will pay for it with your lives. Am I understood?”
He had no desire to carry out his threat. He knew they were merely doing as they had been ordered, but he would not be stopped.
The guards glanced at one another and then back to Akiri. After a brief but tense moment of inner conflict that was reflected clearly in their expressions, they each took a single step away from the entrance. Akiri nodded approvingly and pushed open the flap.
Inside was far more lavish and comfortable than the sparse furnishings of his own tent. Several plush chairs surrounded an elegant mahogany dining table, while the bed at the far end was draped with netting and dressed in the finest silk sheets and wool blankets. A desk roughly the same size as his own, though infinitely more decorative, stood in the far right corner. Behind this sat General Kirlon, while two of his lieutenants were sitting in chairs facing him.
In his early fifties, the general was overweight by at least thirty pounds and far too out of shape to be of any use in a real fight. His round face and flat nose was accentuated by a scalp almost totally devoid of hair, giving his head a ball-like appearance. An unblemished complexion denoted a man well able to afford the luxuries needed to combat the ravages of wind, sun, and cold.
His narrow set brown eyes popped wide on seeing who had entered. “Commander Akiri,” he said, quickly regaining his composure. “I was not expecting you.”
“Of that I am certain,” Akiri responded. “But now I think you should ask your men to leave.”
Fear instantly struck the general’s face. “I think it is you who should leave, Commander. You have no business here.”
Akiri moved closer, forcing Kirlon to shrink back in his chair. “I think you will find I do have business with you.” With ominous deliberation, he unfolded the parchment and placed it on the desk before taking a step back.
With trembling hands, Kirlon picked up the sheet and began to read. Ashen faced, he silently handed the document over to one of his lieutenants – who, after a thorough inspection, passed it on to the other. Without speaking, both men rose to their feet and drew their blades.
“You would sacrifice the lives of your men?” Akiri asked contemptuously. “The writ of execution is valid. You are a traitor and have attempted to assassinate a member of the Dul’Buhar. Your sentence is death. And I am here to carry it out.”
The two lieutenants eyed Akiri nervously, but he made no move to draw his weapon.
In a sudden show of defiance, Kirlon leapt up from his chair, eyes ablaze. “You lie! You have no proof of this! Begone, or I will have you put in chains.”
“As you well know, General, I have complete authority in these matters,” Akiri responded calmly.
He turned his head to face each of the other men in turn. “And you know this too. My word is all the proof that is needed. You can either sheathe your swords and leave at once, or ignore what you know to be the king’s law and try to stop me. I promise you that regardless of your choice, the outcome will still be the same.”
Akiri saw the doubt in their eyes. Though he was absolutely correct in everything he had said, General Kirlon was a powerful man. Only the king boasted greater wealth and influence.
“Stand your ground,” Kirlon ordered. “Or I will see you both beneath the executioner’s axe by morning.”
“And should you choose to stay here, I will save him the trouble,” added Akiri. “The two of you are blameless, but this is your final warning. Go now.”
The older of the two made a weak attempt to square his stance. “This matter should be brought before the king,” he said.
Akiri shook his head. “A poor decision.”
The dagger appeared in his hand before either of the lieutenants could blink. With deadly accuracy, he thrust the blade directly into the older man’s heart. In one continuous blur of movement, he then seized hold of the second man’s wrist, forcing his sword violently upwards. The look of absolute horror on his victim’s face froze in place as his own sword was used to slice open his throat. Neither man had been able to so much as move a step before meeting their end. Together, and with almost military precision, both fell to their knees and then to the ground as the life drained from their bodies.
Kirlon could only stare in terror at the men he had been relying on to save him. His features collapsed. “Please. I’ll give you anything. Anything you want. Gold… jewels… just name it.”
Akiri regarded him coldly. What a pathetic specimen he was. To think this sad excuse of a man commanded others. “You can offer me nothing I desire,” he told him. “If you have prayers you wish to offer to your gods, you should say them now.”
Kirlon’s eyes darted around the tent, desperately seeking an escape route. None was available. He could possibly try to rip a way out through the canvas behind him, but it was obvious that Akiri would kill him long before he was able to accomplish this. His voice turned to a whine. “I can give you your freedom. Yes – that’s it! You are a slave of the king, are you not? I can convince him to release you.”
Akiri could not help but laugh at the suggestion. “You think cheap insults will save your life? I already have all the freedom a loyal servant of King Zemel could ever ask for.”
“If you do this, the king will surely have you executed,” the general sniveled. With legs that no longer seemed able to support his weight he staggered back, collapsing clumsily into his chair.
The bitter smell of urine filled the tent. Akiri sneered down at the now openly weeping man. What he was about to do was a service. Not only to the king, but to all those who had been forced to follow Kirlon’s orders.
“My life is, and has always been, in my king’s hands,” he said. “He may take it if he so wishes.”
The ringing of steel as Akiri drew his sword was like a melody heralding Kirlon’s end. He lightly touched the general on the shoulder with the tip of the blade. “Look me in the eyes and face your final moments as a man. Meet your gods with honor. It will be swift and painless. You have my word.”
After the briefest of pauses, Kirlon slowly raised his head and held his gaze. Though he continued to tremble, he was managing to sit up straight. Akiri gave him a respectful nod. At least in the end, the man had found a measure of courage. The steel passed through his heart and out again in the blink of an eye. Akiri had already turned away and was opening the exit flap when he heard the thud of Kirlon’s head striking the desktop.
He paused to address the two guards outside. “Arrange for General Kirlon’s body to be delivered to his family,” he instructed them.
Shock and anger blazing across their faces, the pair rushed inside the tent while Akiri walked calmly on.
Back at the Dul’Buhar encampment, he carefully cleaned his equipment, then washed away the dirt and grime from his body. There were still a few hours to pass until dawn, so he would rest now. The coming day was sure to be eventful. The three men on duty outside his tent would see that none of Kirlon’s captains attempted anything rash while he slept. Some would certainly take the general’s death hard. Kirlon had surrounded himself with lackeys and sycophants, most of whom were only serving the king in order to ensure their position and gain favor with Kirlon and his family. Dealing with them might prove to be an altogether different matter; though it was one Akiri felt he was more than capable of handling.
He lay on his cot and closed his eyes, clearing his mind. Sleep always came easily to him. His discipline and confidence of his place in the world made it possible to leave behind all unwanted thoughts and emotions – the very kind that kept others awake at night and robbed them of their courage. But his courage never faltered. Nor did his conviction. He was Akiri. And that was enough.
The morning brought with it all that he expected. He had barely opened his eyes when there was a commotion outside his tent as angry voices demanded entry, followed by loud shouts of protest as his men insisted that they must first be disarmed.
Akiri rose and quickly donned a pair of leather pants, heavy boots, and a loose fitting shirt. He had only just finished fastening a dagger to his belt when the tent flap was flung wide and three furious looking men stormed inside.
One he recognized immediately as Captain Freidris Galliani – a cousin to General Kirlon. The other two were strangers to him, though their demeanor and expensive clothing suggested strongly that they were either related to Kirlon, or at least nobles aligned with him.
He moved behind his desk and took a seat. “What do you want, Captain?”
“You know good and damn well what I want,” he bellowed. “Your head on a pike. And I’ll have it by the day’s end.”
“Is that right?” Akiri deliberately shifted his tone, his words taking on a dangerous quality. “So you have come here in order to make threats against me. I am sure a man in your position is well aware of how inadvisable it is to threaten the Dul’Buhar. Neither I, nor any in my order, serve under your command. And I have no time to suffer fools. So speak your business quickly and be gone.”
“Speak my business?” Galliani repeated, his voice shrill with rage. “My business is to place you under arrest.”
Akiri raised an eyebrow. “Under whose authority?”
“The king’s, you dolt. You will surrender yourself to me now.”
Akiri leaned back in his chair. “I assume you come bearing the king’s seal.”
The two men locked eyes. Galliani’s face was bright crimson, with veins bulging prominently from his neck and forehead. He slammed his hands down on the desktop. “You murdered General Kirlon and two of his lieutenants.
Are you fool enough to think you can escape unpunished?”
“General Kirlon was sentenced to death,” Akiri said evenly, unmoved by the captain’s display of temper. “He attempted to have a member of the Dul’Buhar assassinated. The writ was sealed and carried out. There is nothing more to say on the matter. As for the two lieutenants, they directly interfered with the execution of the writ. Their deaths were unfortunate, but unavoidable.” He waved a dismissive hand. “If there is nothing else, you should leave now.”
“So you refuse to surrender yourself?”
Akiri stood and leaned forward over his desk. Even when bent at the waist like this, his towering frame meant that he still met the man’s stare eye to eye. “I surrender myself only to the king’s authority. And as you have come without this, I will remain where I am. That you grieve the loss of your uncle is the only reason I am prepared to forgive your mistake in coming here in such a manner. But do not test my patience any further.”
His aggressive posture was enough to force Galliani into taking a hurried step back. “This isn’t over, dog,” he snarled. He stormed out of the tent, closely followed by the other two men.
Gradis entered a few seconds after their departure, wearing a deeply concerned expression on his face. “Do you think he’ll return?” he asked.
“Possibly,” Akiri replied.
“It was wise to disarm them. Another death in that family at your hands could make things complicated.”
Akiri frowned. “I care nothing for their politics. And so long as I am Dul’Buhar, I have nothing to fear from the House Galliani. Let them shout their fury at the sky. Kirlon’s execution was just. They can take the matter to the king if they so wish.”
“And I am sure they will,” Gradis said. “I know you well, Akiri. You refuse to acknowledge that there is more to life than what is simply right and wrong.”
Akiri allowed an uncharacteristically impish smile to touch his lips. “Yes, my friend, you know me far better than most. But I am not so blind to the ways of nobles that I do not see the danger I am in. The Gallianis will appeal to the king for retribution, but it is unlikely they will receive it. King Zemel is not a man who bends to the will of his court. They bend to his. And he is wise. He will see the right of my actions. This is not the first time I have been forced to deliver justice to a powerful noble. There is no difference here.”
Gradis shook his head. “I fear you are wrong. The House Galliani has blood ties to the king.”
“I am aware of this. But the king gives the Dul’Buhar authority in these matters for a good reason. You should trust in this.”
“I do; but men like Freidris Galliani are not to be underestimated. He may be a pompous ass, but he is not stupid. This is not over.”
“It is for now,” Akiri told him. “I have far more pressing duties to attend to at the moment. How do things stand in the field?”
Gradis nodded sharply. “Scouts have reported that there are fifty thousand men massed five days’ march to the south.”
“Are our commanders mobilizing?”
“Not yet. The news of General Kirlon’s death has caused a delay. But I suspect it will be resolved soon enough.”
Akiri crossed over to the table where a map of the region was spread out. After studying it for several minutes, a satisfied smile appeared.
“I know that look,” said Gradis. “What do you see?”
Akiri knew him to be a fierce warrior and intelligent in most matters; in the field he could not hope to have a better man beside him. But Gradis was never able to grasp the entirety of a battle situation.
“Send word to General Laronso that I need to see him,” he said.
Gradis saluted and hurried off.
General Laronso was one of the few men outside the Dul’Buhar that Akiri held in high regard. Though not a warrior himself, he had a keen intellect and a disciplined nature. The soldiers under his command were second only to the Dul’Buhar, and so far had never tasted defeat. He promoted men on the strength of their worth in battle or their intellect rather than on their wealth and position. At least half of his captains and lieutenants had no claim to noble blood at all.
Akiri spent a few more minutes examining the map before leaving the tent to join a few of his men in a small area they had set up as a practice yard. For the Dul’Buhar, constant training was a way of life. Combat, however, was only a part of their routine. One needed to be far more than just a skilled fighter to attain acceptance into such a select order. Members were also considered to be among the brightest scholars in the entire kingdom. Proof of this could be found in the fact that those who were too seriously injured in battle to return to duty were often given key positions in Zemel’s court as advisors and teachers. For Akiri the thrill of combat was undeniably the aspect that he loved most of all. In a world where status and rank very often placed lesser men over far better ones, it was the only thing that was undeniably honest and fair.
The men greeted him with boisterous shouts and applause. They relished the chance to test themselves against their esteemed leader. To best him would be a great accomplishment – although thus far not a single one of them had ever managed to do so.
An older man overseeing the training gave Akiri a respectful nod. He was tall – as tall as Akiri himself – and bore the powerful shoulders normally seen on a blacksmith. Though not an official member of the Dul’Buhar, he was a legend among its soldiers. Even at his advanced age, few of them would be able to best him. He had been Akiri’s first trainer, and after the Dul’Buhar was founded with Akiri as its commander, he had been asked to assist in keeping the men sharp and proficient. It was a role he had fulfilled superbly.
“Borlon,” Akiri called, raising his hand in greeting.
The man eyed him critically for several seconds. “You are looking soft, Commander. It would seem you have been neglecting your training.”
“Perhaps you would like to step inside the circle and see how soft I’ve become.”
This suggestion was greeted with hoots of approval, but Akiri was not serious in his challenge. Both of them knew that these days he could beat his former trainer with relative ease.
Borlon spun around to glare at the men. “Back to it.
Quickly now, or you’ll be telling people how you were pummeled by an old man.”
Akiri snatched up a pair of leather gloves from a nearby table. “They are anxious to march, I think.”
“Indeed they are,” agreed Borlon. “Idleness is not good for a soldier. Though I hear you have been anything but idle yourself. Is it true? Did you really execute General Kirlon?”
Akiri nodded. “He hired a volkar to assassinate me. I was in the right.”
“A volkar? He must have been in quite a state to have gone to so much trouble.”
“He wanted vengeance for the death of his brother.”
Borlon huffed a laugh. “You killed his brother too? Then the Gallianis will truly be out for blood.”
Akiri tightened the wrist straps on his gloves and began to stretch his shoulders and legs. “A house of fools.”
“Most assuredly, but rich fools. I hope you haven’t bitten off more than you can chew.”
“You sound like Gradis. I can handle the bloody
“I hope you’re right. That head of yours would look terrible on a pike.”
Akiri grinned. “You worry too much.”
“And you don’t worry enough.”
Akiri spent the next hour in hand-to-hand combat with his men. As always, no one could come close to besting him. He found it invigorating, and could easily have continued well into the evening, but the sight of Freidris Galliani returning halted any further recreation. This time he was with two fully armored soldiers and carried a pair of iron shackles.
“This looks serious,” remarked Borlon.
Freidris stalked toward him, his mouth twisted into a sinister smirk.
“What do you want now?” Akiri demanded. His men were already forming a protective barrier in front of him. He quickly waved them away.
“I have come to place you under arrest,” Freidris announced. He swept a hand across the group of Dul’Buhar glaring at him. “And should any of you interfere, you will be summarily executed.”
“I have already warned you, Captain,” Akiri snapped. “Unless you have –”
Freidris pulled a parchment from his pocket and held it out. Akiri instantly recognized the royal seal of King Zemel across the top. Snatching the document away, he tore it open.
“As you can clearly see,” stated Freidris, his smirk returning, “this is a warrant for your arrest. Signed and sealed by His Royal Highness.”
Akiri re-read the warrant. It was indeed valid; and no matter how much the Galliani family desired revenge, they would never dare to forge such a document.
Freidris handed the shackles to the soldier on his right. Akiri’s men instantly started forward.
“Stop!” Akiri commanded. “This warrant is legal. You will do nothing to dishonor the Dul’Buhar. Am I understood?”
The men snapped to attention. Though remaining obedient while Akiri allowed the soldier to apply the restraints, it was easy to see their muscles twitching repeatedly as they struggled to restrain themselves.
Freidris leaned in close to whisper in his prisoner’s ear. “I will be the one who kills you. If it costs me everything I possess, it will be me.”
Akiri did not react, even when one of the soldiers shoved him forward roughly.
Freidris led the way, taking obvious pleasure in the astonished looks they received as they wound their way through the camp. To see the mighty Akiri in chains… it was almost too much to be believed.
Throughout the humiliating march, Akiri showed no sign of fear or anxiety. Even when he was thrown inside a caged wagon, he retained faith that King Zemel would see the honor of his actions and allow him to return to duty.
And if not…
If not, in due time, death was a guest that all men must host.
or three days, the wagon holding Akiri crawled steadily north. Throughout this time, Freidris refused him even the smallest morsel of food or water, offering instead only a spiteful diet of curses and threats. But if he was hoping to weaken and demoralize his prisoner, he was in for a big disappointment. Akiri had endured hardships that Freidris Galliani could scarcely imagine, and it would take far more than harsh words and a few days without food to break him. His mind was disciplined not to anger or allow any trace of fear to surface. For most of the time he simply sat in the center of the wagon with legs crossed and eyes closed, not uttering a sound.
It was mid-morning when they eventually arrived at a small country manor just off the road leading into the capital city of Gol’Naruth. Twenty armed men – mercenaries, from the look of them – were waiting near the front door. Akiri wondered if Freidris might be such a fool as to kill him here without a trial. That would be in complete defiance of the king’s law and his own right as a Dul’Buhar.
The manor was modest for what it was, though still a palace to the eyes of a man like him: single story and of simple design, no doubt built from local timbers. Most likely it was used as a hunting lodge, as opposed to the minor lord’s residence. To his right, Akiri could see a stable big enough to house perhaps a dozen horses, while to his left stood a smaller building that probably served as a guard shack.
As he neared he saw a tall woman, who looked to be in her midlife, emerge from the building. Even the distance couldn’t hide the gray hairs and craggy lines of age around her eyes and mouth. She moved with the grace and poise of a true noblewoman. In her youth she must have been something to behold, he thought. Even now, after a life welllived, she was remarkably attractive.
“Is this him?” she asked in a feminine yet commanding tone. “Is this Akiri?”
Freidris dismounted and bowed low. “Yes, mother. This is him.”
She approached the cage, her eyes boring into him. “Do you know who I am?” she asked.
“Aside from being Freidris Galliani’s mother – no, I do not,” he replied coldly.
“I am Carlotta Galliani. Matriarch of the House Galliani. As I understand it, you have killed two of my kin. My sister is suffering badly because of you already. When she learns of Kirlon’s death, I fear for what she might do.”
She paused, but Akiri said nothing. “Have you no defense to offer?”
“My Lady,” he said, giving her a respectful nod, “I am not answerable to you, or to your house. I am the commander of the Dul’Buhar. If I am to be charged with a crime, only the king can be my judge.”
Carlotta sniffed contemptuously. “Dul’Buhar indeed! I have never understood why King Zemel allows you so much license. You are slaves, after all. Not like proper soldiers. You run around thinking you are untouchable.” She moved in closer, a wicked smile on her face. “Well, my friend, you are not untouchable. Your time has come, and I will show you what power really is.”
Akiri regarded her steadily. “If you intend to kill me, you should get on with it.” His voice was flat and emotionless. “This cage holds me only because I allow it. As do these shackles.”
She gave a mirthless laugh. “Do you take me for a fool? I am not about to risk the standing of House Galliani by murdering a Dul’Buhar dog. No. First you will be judged. And I promise you now that you will be convicted. Only then will you die. But of course, feel free to escape if you can. That would save me no small measure of trouble.”
“I have no need to flee. I trust in the wisdom of my king.”
“You do that,” she mocked.
After a final lingering stare, she turned back to her son. “Feed him and give him proper clothing, Freidris. We wouldn’t want King Zemel to think we are animals when he arrives, would we? After all, our prisoner does hold the rank of commander. Even if he is just a slave.”
“Yes, mother.” After casting Akiri a malevolent glare, he followed her inside the house.
The realization that the king was coming brought a brief smile to Akiri’s face. All would be well soon, and then he’d be free to return to his men.
The four soldiers who had escorted Freidris were gathered in a tight group by the front of the manor, while the sell-swords wandered aimlessly. Such men were undisciplined. Beatable. Their courage lay in numbers, and they possessed no loyalty beyond the coin. Akiri wondered why the House Galliani even bothered employing such riffraff. Surely they could count on better?
A short time later, a young servant girl brought him a loaf of bread, a hand-sized piece of dried meat, and a flask of water. She returned shortly afterwards carrying a brown cotton shirt, a pair of trousers, and leather boots. One of the soldiers ordered him to put his hands through the bars so that he could be unshackled.
“Get dressed,” he ordered, once Akiri had been freed.
He was still stripped to the waist from the combat training with his men. Carlotta was indeed wise not to let the king see the most senior member of his prized Dul’Buhar half-naked and bound like a common thief; this would certainly be viewed as an insult and considerably reduce their chances of gaining the vengeance they sought. There was another good reason why he remained unshackled, even after having put on the clothes provided. It seemed Carlotta was doing her best to tempt him into making a bid for freedom. But he would not even consider such an action. Should they have attempted to murder him, that would have been different. He would have shown the Gallianis exactly why the Dul’Buhar were so feared. But even after doing that, he would still have sought out the king to explain himself. He would never run like a coward.
Carriages continued to arrive throughout the day. Several were escorted by spectacularly adorned guards and servants: a common practice when a family wanted to flaunt their wealth and status. Some were occupied by generals who had come from the camp, while others were nobles unknown to Akiri. By sunset, a total of ten carriages had arrived. Akiri smiled at the thought of so many haughty lords and ladies crammed into what to them must have felt like such a tiny place.
The king himself arrived astride a magnificent black steed just after sunset, his thick black locks bouncing across his broad shoulders in time with the horse’s cantering gait. A thin gold circlet resting on his brow held the hair well back away from his face. He wore an elegant purple shirt with gold stitching and polished black buttons, together with matching pants. Though this attire was clearly fit for a king, it also looked to be comfortable and well suited for travel.
Ten royal guards surrounded the monarch, each carrying a silver-tipped spear and a longsword at his side. It was a small escort for a man so powerful, but King Zemel did not need protection. His command of magic meant that he could cast down anyone who might be so foolish as to accost him on the road. Stories of his ability had fallen into legend throughout Acharia.
After an hour had passed, King Zemel emerged from the house alone. He paused outside the door for a moment before approaching the cage. As he drew close, Akiri lay face down on the floor with arms outstretched.
“You have caused quite a stir, Commander,” the king remarked in a surprisingly lighthearted tone.
Akiri rose to his knees, eyes downcast. “I apologize,
Your Highness. It was not my intention.”
“I know Kirlon was a fool, but did he deserve death?”
“His crime allowed for no other punishment, Your Highness,” he said, then related the events that had led him to execute Kirlon.
“Yes, the volkar. I heard about that. After such a betrayal, I suppose you were only doing your duty.” Zemel rubbed his chin.
“It has been many years since I have seen you, Akiri.”
“It has indeed, Your Highness.”
“Your reputation has grown. And I hear your men are loyal only to you. Is this true?”
“No, Your Highness. Their loyalty lies with you. I have earned their respect, but it is your will they live to enforce.”
“That is good to hear,” he remarked thoughtfully. “And as for yourself… are you not afraid of what may become of you?”
“I trust in your wisdom, Your Highness. If you determine I am in the wrong, then my life is yours to take.”
Zemel nodded. “That is the answer I expected.” He turned to beckon over the guards. “Bring him,” he ordered.
He set off back inside while the guards unlocked the cage. They escorted Akiri through the front door and into the main foyer. Trophies boasting of many successful hunts decorated the walls, along with the bows and slings used to kill the creatures. Doors along both sides led to the other rooms of the house, and a double door at the rear opened into a spacious dining hall. In the center of this room stood King Zemel, flanked on either side by the various nobles. Carlotta Galliani was standing immediately to the king’s right, and her son to his left.
After approaching, Akiri bent down onto one knee and lowered his head.
“Stand up, Commander,” ordered the king.
Akiri obeyed, but did not meet his monarch’s eyes.
“You see, Your Highness?” mocked Freidris. “Such is his shame, he can’t even bring himself to look at you.”
“To look the king in the eye without permission is a challenge to his authority,” Akiri retorted. “Being the noble you are, I would have assumed you’d know this.”
“It is My Lord,” snapped Carlotta. “You will address my son as My Lord…. slave.”
“As you wish, My Lady,” replied Akiri, with no hint of deference.
“Look up, Commander,” said the king. “I would have you look me in the eye.”
Akiri raised his head. The king was wearing a heavy frown, a complete contrast to the smug smiles that both Carlotta and her son were displaying. As for the five generals present, there was barely concealed hostility in all of their looks. Akiri’s reputation and authority had earned him several enemies amongst high-ranking officers, though none had the power or the courage to do anything but whisper curses and shoot him contemptuous glances.
For now, all the other nobles present wore impassive expressions. The nobility learned from an early age to hide their feelings so as not to reveal their intentions. It was all a part of the power game.
“Commander Akiri of the Dul’Buhar,” King Zemel began ceremoniously. “You are accused of the murder of General Kirlon Galliani, Lieutenant Jutzi Marko, and Lieutenant Bernart Scotz. That they all died by your hand is not in dispute. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Akiri bowed. “Your Highness, I was simply carrying out a legal writ of execution. The two lieutenants attempted to interfere with this and were killed in the process.”
“A writ you issued yourself,” jumped in Carlotta. “Without trial or evidence. You murdered those men in cold blood. I demand justice.”
“You demand nothing!” roared the king, the power of his voice causing the woman to cringe. “Be silent, or I will have you put in chains.”
Carlotta lowered her head and took a hasty step back. “Please forgive me, Your Highness.”
Satisfied for the moment, King Zemel turned his attention back to Akiri. “Why was it necessary to execute him? What was his crime?”
Akiri repeated what he had told him outside, this time adding the events inside Kirlon’s tent. “According to the laws Your Highness has written, I was well within my rights to execute General Kirlon,” he concluded. “His treachery allowed for no other course of action.”
Zemel gave him a lengthy stare before asking: “Tell me, Commander, why would General Kirlon want you dead?”
“He blamed me for the death of his brother, Your
A royal eyebrow rose. “Did you kill him as well?”
“No. He took his own life.”
“After you stripped him of his honor,” added Freidris, unable to hold his tongue.
The king shot him a warning glance, then gestured for Akiri to elaborate.
“He defied a direct order and led his men into a trap – one that any competent commander would have easily detected. Twenty of his men died as a result. When I learned of this, I took away his rank and had him sent to the supply lines where he could do no more harm.”
Zemel nodded. “I see. And as a result of this disgrace, he took his own life.”
“That is what I have been told, Your Highness. Whatever the case, General Kirlon blamed me for his death and sought vengeance by hiring a volkar to kill me. I heard this directly from the creature’s lips. There was no doubt of his guilt.”
Carlotta stepped forward timidly, not speaking until King Zemel nodded his permission. She then turned to Akiri. “Are we supposed to simply take your word for this? You have no proof. Why should anyone here believe a word you say?”
“My Lady,” he replied. “My word is all the proof I need. I am unable to bear false witness. No Dul’Buhar can.”
She waved his promise away contemptuously. “So you say.”
“So says King Zemel,” he retorted. “We cannot lie from the moment we swear allegiance to the king and to the order.” He paused, expecting to hear the king confirm this, but his monarch remained silent. “Our mandate gives us absolute authority in matters of military law. This alone should be enough… even for you, My Lady.”
Carlotta glared at him hatefully. “Your mandate does not give you the right to commit murder.”
“Enough!” declared the king. “Leave, all of you. I will speak with Commander Akiri alone. Then I will render my decision.”
Carlotta opened her mouth to protest, but a sharp glance from Zemel kept her silent. Tight lipped, she joined the other nobles filing silently out of the room. Only one, a short thin man, remained behind. He wore an elegant silver satin robe bearing the crest of the House Kortain. His long silver hair was tied in a loose braid and fastened at the end with a blood red bead.
“Do you know this man?” asked King Zemel.
Akiri shook his head. “No, Your Highness.”
“This is my most trusted advisor, Lord Jerimea Kortain. He is here to observe you.”
Unsure how to reply, Akiri simply bowed and returned his attention to the king.
“What is the first thing you can remember?” Zemel asked.
Akiri thought for a moment. “Training with Borlon.”
“And how old were you at the time?”
“Eleven, I think. Though I am unsure. I might have been a little older.”
“Odd that you cannot remember anything of your life before that,” mused the king, glancing across at Lord Kortain.
“Are you certain he cannot lie?” the old man asked.
“Absolutely. The spell that binds him to me will not allow it. No one is supposed to know this, though I suspect that bitch Carlotta somehow does. Remind me to have her killed before I return to Gol’Naruth.”
Lord Kortain smiled. “I will indeed. And her son?”
Zemel rolled his eyes. “Oh, yes. Him too.” He turned back to Akiri. “Is it true you are loyal to me?” “Completely,” Akiri replied.
Zemel paused for a long moment, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “Humor me now. What if I told you that you had children? Would that change things for you? Would you want to be free to be with them?”
“No, Your Highness. I am more valuable to you where I am.”
“I see. And if I were to told you that I intended to have your children killed?”
Akiri thought on this for only a second. “I would assume that you have just cause to do so. It would not be for me to question the matter.”
Lord Kortain nodded approvingly. “It is exactly as you said. How much does he know about his past?”
“You heard him,” answered Zemel. “Training with Borlon is his first memory.”
“Ah,” said the old man, raising a finger. “But what he is able to remember and what lies deep within may be very different.”
The king considered this, then nodded. “Akiri. What do you know of your family?”
“Nothing, Your Highness. It was forbidden for me to know. The Dul’Buhar is all the family I require.”
“Very good. Even so, it might interest you to know that your father was the leader of the famed Tul’Zahar.”
This time Akiri was unable to conceal his shock completely. He had learned of the Tul’Zahar during his early studies. They had betrayed King Zemel and waged war on him. It was because of their treachery that the rebellion they were still trying to put down had continued for so long.
“I sentenced your father to death for his crimes,” Zemel continued. “And his blood runs through your veins. So I ask you again: Are you a loyal servant to your king?”
“I am, Your Highness,” Akiri affirmed. “And should you wish me to pay for the wrongdoings of my father, I will gladly end my own life.”
The king waved his hand. “No. Your father has already given any blood that was owed on that score. But you do carry his burden, Akiri. He stole something very precious to me and hid it away. I have searched for many years to recover this item, but to no avail. Now at last, I have discovered a way and want your help in retrieving it. Do this, and you will have paid your father’s debt in full. You will also have provided a great service to me.”
“I am at your command, Your Highness. Tell me what I must do.”
The king smiled warmly and produced a small black stone from his pocket. “Do you know what this is?”
Akiri looked closely. “It appears to be an oath stone, very much like the one I swore on when I was inducted into the Dul’Buhar. That was the first time we met.”
“It more than just looks like the stone you swore upon, Akiri. It is the very one. Within this lies the source of your bond to me and the magic that gives you extraordinary strength and speed. As long as this is in my possession, you are in essence my slave. You cannot lie. Nor can you betray me. But it is also this very same stone that will prevent you from completing the task I am setting.”
Akiri furled his brow. “I do not understand.” He was already aware of the source of his power and of the oath stone’s magical qualities.
“Do you not want to know what it is I seek?”
“I assume you will tell me when I need to know.”
“Indeed.” The king looked searchingly into his eyes. “I wonder… does it not seem odd that I was so close at hand? You executed General Kirlon only three days ago, and yet here I am.”
“I did not give it thought, Your Highness.”
“Of course not. You are trained not to question me. Why would you ever dream of such dissent? But now, I want you to consider the situation. I need to know if you can guess what has brought you here before me today.”
Akiri closed his eyes and gave the matter careful thought. He stood absolutely still and silent for several minutes. Then, when he had what he considered to be a solution, he opened his eyes. The king was waiting patiently.
“You have it then?” Zemel asked.
“I cannot say for certain, Your Highness, but my instincts tell me that you knew of General Kirlon’s plan to assassinate me in advance. Your lack of surprise at the events
I related when we spoke outside suggests this to be true. As did your statement that you had already heard of the volkar’s involvement. If you were indeed previously aware of these facts, then setting up this trial must have some hidden purpose. Regardless of the House Galliani’s wealth, you would never allow them to question your law that states it was my duty to act as I did. Nor would you have provided them with a warrant for my arrest. Not without a reason I am unaware of. Finally, that yourself, together with sufficient nobles to form the proper number of witnesses, were all close at hand suggests that you timed this meeting precisely. You wanted them to see me accused so that they might spread the word throughout the court.”
Zemel raised an eyebrow. “And why would I do all this?” “Because you intend to find me guilty,” Akiri replied.
“Yes, I do,” the king admitted. He then smiled. “You are absolutely right of course. Right in every respect. I knew that fool Kirlon would attempt to have you killed. His overblown ego would not allow him anything else. And I knew that you would do your duty when he failed. But I promise you that there is a very good reason behind all this subterfuge.” He nodded to Kortain.
The old man stepped forward and produced a scroll from within the folds of his robe. Unfurling the document, he held it up so that Akiri could see the drawing of a magnificent scepter heavily bejeweled with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. The handle was etched with strange symbols, and the top crowned with an eagle’s claw clutching a black egg that, assuming the drawing was to some kind of scale, must easily have been the size of a man’s fist.
“Do you recognize this?” Kortain asked.
Akiri shook his head.
“It is the Scepter of Xarbaal.”
“I have read about it, My Lord,” Akiri said. “It was carried by the Syrizian god of death.”
“What else do you know about it?” Kortain pressed.
“Very little. The legend says it was stolen by the King of Syriz a thousand years ago. It drove him so mad that in the end his own children killed him in his sleep and hid the Scepter away.”
“It is more than a legend,” corrected Kortain. He rolled up the scroll and placed it back inside his robe. “The Scepter of Xarbaal really does exist. Your father stole it from the king, and this is what you must now recover for him.” Akiri furrowed his brow.
“You object?” asked Zemel.
“No, Your Highness. It’s just that the Scepter of Xarbaal is said to be dangerous. Too dangerous to be wielded by mortal man. I fear only for your safety.”
“Legends are often exaggerated,” the king said, dismissively. “I wielded this Scepter myself. With its power I attempted to bring peace to this troubled land, but your father was corrupted by my enemies. He stole it and hid it away from me. Because of his betrayal, we have been forced to endure a never-ending war. I want you to help me bring peace at last.”
“Just tell me what I must do,” Akiri said, bowing his head.
Zemel drew a breath. “I have recently discovered that your father passed the Scepter on to his brother, Tuvarius. Only he knows of its location. Unfortunately, he is being protected by King Lanmar of Galfaria. I need you to gain your uncle’s trust and find out where the Scepter has been hidden. Once you discover that, you must retrieve it and bring it to me. On your return to Acharia, report to your Dul’Buhar training garrison and await my summons.”
“It will be done,” said Akiri. “I will leave at once.”
“I’m afraid it will not be so easy,” Zemel told him. “Tuvarius is far from a fool. He will know very quickly if you still have any connection to me. Should that happen, then all this business of bringing you here will have been for nothing. The only way to succeed is if you are truly separated from my power… and from your own. This will leave you vulnerable of course, but it is the only way you will be able to get close enough to him.”
“How will this separation be achieved?”
The king held up the oath stone. “I must release you from your bond. Once done, all the strength and power that you receive from this stone will vanish. You will become a normal man, possessing only the gifts with which you were born.”
The idea of losing his bond with the king – and with the Dul’Buhar – was devastating; far more daunting than the prospect of merely losing his strength. While still considering the consequences, Akiri realized that he had been staring at the floor for an uncomfortably long time. He lifted his head to meet the king’s eyes with firm resolve. “I will carry out your will, Your Highness. Regardless of the cost.”
The king took a step forward and placed his hands on Akiri’s massive shoulders. “You will be richly rewarded for your service. This I swear.”
“I would ask only that once the Scepter is in your hands, I am allowed to once again take my oath and return to my duties with my men.”
“Should you succeed, I will grant you far more than that,
Zemel gave him a fond squeeze before backing away. “What comes next may be unsettling, and what follows, even worse, but I trust you can endure.”
Akiri steeled himself and nodded. “I will, Your Highness.”
Fully extending his arm, King Zemel held out the oath stone in his open palm. “Jarduun Malakar!” he shouted, his voice booming like thunder.
The oath stone rose and hovered just a few inches above the king’s hand. Akiri felt an odd warmth penetrating his flesh, saturating him to the very core. Zemel then pulled his hand sharply back, and in a puff of dust, the suspended stone vanished.
At once, the warmth became a searing heat. His body stiffened and his eyes were blinded. Mercifully, this lasted for only a matter of seconds. As his sight returned, the pain subsided. But a moment later he found that his legs could no longer support his own weight. He fell hard to his knees. Every muscle in his once powerful body had been completely drained of strength.
“This condition will last only for a day or two,” Zemel assured him. “Though your former powers will not return until you once again swear on the oath stone, you will still retain the strength of a normal man. And with your many other skills, that should be enough.”
Akiri wanted to respond, but instead fell over onto his side.
“Bring the fools back in,” the king told Kortain. “Let’s get this over with.”
As the line of nobles re-entered, Akiri could hear the shocked whispers at seeing him lying helpless on the floor. Carlotta and Freidris came to the fore. The smug grins on their faces filled him with anger. They would get what they deserve soon enough, he consoled himself, remembering what the king had in store for them before departing the manor. For now, though, they were savoring their imagined victory.
“I have found Commander Akiri guilty of murder,” Zemel announced. “The penalty for this is death.”
Freidris smiled viciously. Akiri could tell that he was already imagining himself dealing the fatal blow.
“But I have taken into account his loyal service,” the king continued. “Therefore, I will be merciful. Commander Akiri is to be expelled from the Dul’Buhar and exiled from my kingdom.”
A loud gasp flew from Carlotta’s mouth. “But, Your Highness!” she cried out.
Her outburst drew a furious glare from the king, but she pressed on regardless. “A member of my family has been murdered, and yet his killer is allowed to live. How can this be?”
“You will hold your tongue,” snapped Zemel. “Or I will have it cut out.”
The threat was sufficient. Carlotta regained control and lowered her head.
The king continued. “As you wish to have retribution, Akiri will endure thirty lashes at the hands of Lord Freidris. This is the end of the matter. The sentence will be carried out in the morning.”
Rough hands pulled Akiri to his feet and dragged him outside, then tossed him back into the cage. He could feel a little of his strength returning, but not enough to do more than roll over onto his back. As he did so, a voice sounded.
“Just because the king has given you mercy, don’t think you’re going to escape justice.” It was Lady Carlotta standing beside the cage. “And after Freidris has beaten the hide off you tomorrow, I’ll see that you receive it. Count on that, dog.”
Akiri managed a weak laugh, which from the hissing curse spat at him, only served to infuriate her further. He smiled, imagining the look of surprise and horror on her face when the king unleashed his wrath upon her and her whelp. Still, he knew he should not take her threat lightly. She had clearly set something in motion with the intention of ensuring his death.
He closed his eyes and allowed sleep to take him. There was nothing else to be done for now. He needed to recover his strength. Without that, even walking away into exile would be an insurmountable obstacle.
That night, his dreams were troubled. Strange, disfigured faces shouted out from the heart of a raging inferno.
Do not seek the Scepter. Flee, or you will die.
But even in a dream, he would not bow down to fear. He was Akiri. Flee? Never. He would find the Scepter, and then rejoin his brothers… and his king.