Authors: Shawn E. Crapo
The Jindala, now alone and leaderless, raised their spears. The Knights charged again, their battle cries echoing in the ears of the frightened men as they thundered toward them. The ground shook as the Knights neared, causing some of the Jindala to drop their weapons and flee. The remaining spearmen were knocked aside as the horses clashed into their line, and the Knights rode through them, hacking their way to the rear and turning for another charge.
Eamon urged the Knights forward, leading the way through the ranks with deadly strikes from the Serpent’s Tongue. The Knights followed, their weapons slashing and bloodied as they dodged the thicket of spears that were lined up before them. Brynn and Daryth shot from horseback, picking off the attacking spearmen and clearing the way for the charge. The Knights clashed with them again, taking down a dozen more with their second charge.
Seeing their potential defeat, the Jindala began to retreat, dashing through the gaps between the Knights and tossing their weapons to the ground. Eamon called off his Knights, dismounting. He walked boldly before the assembly of surrendered men, looking them over and assessing their will to fight. Their faces conveyed their hopelessness, and the Prince sensed that they no longer had the stomach to continue their mission. They were spent.
“Pick up your weapons,” he said, pointing the Serpent’s Tongue toward them. “Throw them in a pile beside me and do so with your armor as well.”
The enemies complied, stripping themselves of their armor, and placing their weapons together near the Prince. They did so without a word, or any look of contempt. They seemed relieved that the fight was over. Soon, a pile of swords, spears, and armor lay near Eamon, and the men knelt defenseless before him.
“To the North is the city of Gaellos,” he said. “We will march you there. You are to surrender to my army and remain until I return. Do you understand?”
Those who understood the language of Eirenoch nodded and relayed the command to the rest of the men. Eamon commanded his Knights to guard them as he went to search the body of the leader. He was curious as to why the man’s presence had caused such a strange reaction in the Serpent’s Tongue.
He did not see anything unusual, or feel his sword reacting, until he neared the man’s own sword, which had fallen a few feet away. It was a scimitar, similar to Azim’s, but was elegantly decorated in gold and ivory, and bore the symbol of a multi-armed goddess at its cross guard. He called to Azim to identify the symbol.
Azim examined the blade thoroughly, recognizing the icon immediately. “It is Anyar,” he said, “a servant of Imbra. She gave birth to Sulemain, supposedly.”
“I thought Sulemain was a man,” Eamon said.
“He was,” Azim replied. “But it was unknown who gave birth to him. Our legends say that Anyar came to a righteous warrior in his sleep and asked him to father her child. When he was born, she left him with the man and he raised him. Sulemain later became a prophet in his adulthood, after a life of being what we call a Keynakin.”
“What is a Keynakin?” Eamon inquired.
“They were an order of divine warriors, like the Knights of the Dragon. They were the protectors of Khem, defending our kingdom from intruders. The Lifegiver murdered them when he came to power, telling us that they had broken their sacred vows. Perhaps this man was once one of them, but turned against his brothers to save his own life.”
Eamon understood, realizing how important Sulemain was to Azim and his kin. He was still unsure, however, as to why his own sword seemed to react when in the scimitar’s vicinity.
“Strange,” Eamon remarked. “This sword seems to hold some power related to the Serpent’s Tongue. My sword senses its presence.”
“That is strange, indeed,” Azim said. “This may be Sulemain’s sword. That would mean it was forged by Imbra himself as your sword was forged by the Dragon.”
“Then this is an important artifact to your people,” Eamon concluded, then handed the sword to Azim. “You should bear it, my friend.”
Azim shook his head. “I cannot,” he said. “I am not worthy of bearing the Sword of Sulemain.”
“You are far more worthy than its previous owner,” Eamon reminded him. “Even if he was once worthy, then by turning against his brothers, as you suggest, he did not deserve such an honor. It should be yours. Take it.”
Azim stared at the scimitar with wonder, not sure whether wielding it would be his right. Reluctantly, he reached out to grasp its pommel. He felt the sword come to life as his fingers wrapped around it. It glowed with a bright blue light, having been awakened by the touch of a righteous man. He ran his fingers along the blade, sensing its warmth and life. Azim closed his eyes, feeling the weapon’s energy flow through him. It was a good feeling, and Azim was at one with the weapon.
The sword had accepted him.
“I will wield it,” he said, “if my Lord Imbra wills it.”
“I believe he does,” Eamon said, clapping his friend on the back. “I know you will bear it with honor.”
He then went to the rest of the Knights to gather them up. It was getting late, and the sun was beginning to hang low in the sky.
“We will march these men to Gaellos,” he said, “then we continue to Bray.”
One thousand commoners of Khem crowded the vault of The Lifegiver’s great pyramid, naked and pressed together like cows to the slaughter. They wept in terror, aware that this would be their last day on Earth, and many of them had succumbed to the point of falling to the floor. Around them, the Enkhatar stood, menacingly bearing their sharpened spears to keep the commoners at bay, poking and prodding at them to press them closer together.
The Prophet looked on with pleasure, licking her lips in anticipation of The Lifegiver’s appearance. Though a vile and ghastly event was about to take place, the imminent screams of agony that would echo throughout the chamber filled her with excitement and lust. Such were her ways.
She regarded the Enkhatar with discontent, as even she was uncomfortable with their presence. They were the creatures of nightmares; inhumanly tall, armored in brutal black iron plate that was adorned with spikes and blades, and they emanated an aura of absolute darkness that terrified those around them. They were The Lifegiver’s elite warriors, and their appearance alone signified the evil of which they were comprised.
As the prophet glared at the terrified crowd, she reeled in delight at the pools and smears of blood and waste that littered the chamber’s floor. The stench filled the room, pushing the cruel Enkhatar into a fury of ecstasy. They growled in pleasure, delighting in the torture, and it greatly increased their ferocity. Such vile nature pleased the Prophet, and the terror the Enkhatar caused would only serve to enhance the effectiveness of the ritual that was about to take place.
With a thunderous boom, the vaulted ceiling of the chamber suddenly shook. The Prophet knelt immediately, and the Enkhatar hissed as they did so as well. Metal ground against metal as the ceiling split into four sections and opened. Light spilled into the chamber, brighter than a thousand suns, and the people fell to their knees in horror.
“Behold!” The Lifegiver’s voice boomed from above like a chorus of demons. “I have come to you, my children.”
The Prophet watched as the people shielded their eyes from the intense light. Some of them crouched over in repentance, begging for mercy from The Lifegiver’s wrath.
“I have called you all here as my servants,” he continued. “People across the sea continue to defy my word. They blaspheme against me by worshiping beasts and false Gods. I have driven these Gods away and sealed them in my Earthly prison, never to return. But their servants must be turned from their path.”
The people wept, huddling together in terror. Their fate was sealed, and the realization fell upon them. They were doomed.
“I will give you all the power to spread my word,” The Lifegiver continued. “You will show them the way or send their souls to rot with their masters. I have spoken.”
The Prophet closed her eyes, feeling the power of The Lifegiver fill the chamber as the ritual began. The Enkhatar fell silent, their bodies still as statues. Suddenly, the light disappeared, replaced by an eerie red glow that imparted The Lifegiver’s wrath. Lightning shot down from above as the divine being lowered himself into the chamber, and the people screamed in terror at his appearance.
He was darkness incarnate. Though vaguely human in shape, The Lifegiver was a mass of shadow and dark energy that swirled around with blinding speed, accompanied by the howling of a fierce ethereal wind. Wisps of darkness surrounded him, and his mass appeared as a man-shaped void that absorbed every ray of light around him.
“Come to me, my children,” he growled, spreading his shadowy arms to absorb the life of his people.
The crowd screamed in agony as their souls were forcefully ripped from their bodies. Their bones cracked and twisted, and their skin shriveled tightly around their broken limbs as they writhed in pain. The Enkhatar howled their enjoyment, reveling in the people’s anguish, and the Prophet howled with them. She watched as the commoners’ souls swirled around The Lifegiver’s form, disappearing into his darkness, never to return. As the last mass of living energy was absorbed, black energy began to leech from the growing darkness, striking out at the flailing bodies below. It swirled around each of them, penetrating their dying bodies.
Slowly, the people began to rise once more, their expressions of fear replaced by masks of hate and eternal agony. The darkness rebuilt them into twisted human shapes, repairing their bones, and strengthening their shriveled flesh with The Lifegiver’s power. They were still human in shape, but black, twisted, and horrifying in appearance. Though seemingly alive, they were now a horde of soulless creatures that would feel the pain of undeath for all eternity, and spread that pain like a plague upon the Earth. Their fates were sealed, and their souls were damned.
The Prophet had a word for creatures like these, a word that she had learned as a child in her homeland. It was a word that struck fear in the hearts of men; warrior and sage alike.
Khalid awoke in a massive cavern within the Earth. All around him, the rocky walls reflected a reddish glow, with intermittent flashes of blue that indicated some force that he could not immediately see. Before him, the floor dropped away to the depths below. Khalid, though curious, was afraid to look over the edge, not knowing what may lie there. He crouched on the floor, gathering his courage, willing himself to go forward. But his courage was outmatched by his uncertainty, and he was unable to move.
He did not understand how he arrived in the cavern; the last thing he remembered was sitting down on the Dragon’s throne. He had fallen asleep, and then had awakened here. Those events were enough to paralyze him with confusion, and he could do nothing but stare at the cavern’s floor.
, the booming voice spoke again, this time with more substance behind it.
Khalid stood, fearful. “Dragon?” he asked timidly.
Yes, Khalid. It is I. You may call me by my true name, Dagda. I will allow you this, if it pleases you. Come to the edge of the cliff. I want you to see me as I am.
“I am trying, my friend,” Khalid stammered, “but my legs will not move. I think they are more frightened than I am.”
They will go where you want them to.
“Yes, yes,” Khalid replied. “Here I come.”
With a concerted effort, Khalid stepped forward. Though his legs resisted, he was able to slowly work his way toward the cliff’s edge, step by agonizing step. When he finally reached the drop off, he peered over the edge, looking down into the abyss.
The Dragon lay prone in his true form, immense, black as night with shimmering, onyx scales, silver horns, and giant, bat-like membranes stretching between the joints of his front legs—or arms, as they were. The Dragon was bound in silver threads that shimmered blue with some unknown energy, allowing for only his great, horned head to move freely. He looked upward at Khalid, struggling to see the man as he stared down at him. The Dragon’s head was huge and scarred, marked by eons worth of divine battles against the forces of darkness. But, despite his ragged appearance, there was a great sadness in his eyes. A sadness that Khalid could feel within himself.
“You are imprisoned,” Khalid noted. “The Lifegiver did this?”
Yes, Khalid, it was The Lifegiver. Your Lord, Imbra, suffers the same fate, along with the rest of the Firstborn. We are trapped within the Earth and powerless to help our children. You must free us.
“Me!?” Khalid exclaimed. “How in the Hell am I supposed to do that?”
The Dragon cocked his head, almost seeming to smile as he regarded the now humble Sheikh.
It is within your ability to do many things you would not have thought possible. You are stronger and more able than you think.
“On that opinion,” Khalid said, “I choose to remain dubious. I am just a man. Not a very good man, at that. Even before I swore allegiance to The Lifegiver I was nothing but a thief.”
No, Khalid, you were not a mere thief. You were a cavalier of sorts. One who stole from the powerful and helped those who had no choice but to eat scraps and steal bread. You are a good man at heart. I know this. Imbra speaks highly of you, and I trust his word.
Khalid stood silent, not sure how to take the Dragon’s opinion, or the word of Imbra. “I am honored by your words, great one,” he said, “but I have no faith in their truth.”
I understand, Khalid. But know that I see all. As I look at you now, I see a man filled with guilt and remorse. These things are not present in a man who is inherently evil. You feel shame for what you have done. Admitting shame is a form of honor. You have showed your honor, and you are worthy of righting everything you have done wrong.
Khalid sighed, sitting on the edge of the cliff, having faith that the Dragon would not let him fall. “I must be purged of my sins,” he said. “That is the only way I can proceed with whatever it is you need me to do.”
That is not necessary, Khalid. But, if that is your wish, then I will grant it.
Suddenly, the Dragon drew in a deep breath, his tethered body struggling against its bonds. Khalid leaned back, fearful and unsure of what was about to happen. When the Dragon had filled his lungs, he let loose his fiery breath. Khalid was engulfed in flames, and fell back flailing and screaming in pain. He writhed and squirmed as the flames spread over his body, rolling from side to side to try to extinguish them as they purged what evil remained in his soul.
The Dragon watched the cliff’s edge and listened to Khalid’s cries. He felt sadness at causing the man such pain, but he knew that Khalid’s torture would be short-lived, and he would emerge renewed, ready to walk the Path of the Dragon.
The captive Jindala were marched forcefully to Gaellos, pushed to run at a quick pace in order to reach the city before nightfall. The seventeen remaining captives arrived exhausted, some of them collapsing from fatigue when the group reached Gaellos’ walls.
At the city gates, a group of guards greeted the Knights. Though not subjects of Eamon’s rule, they regarded him with the same respect they would their own ruler.
“Well met, my Lord,” the guard Captain spoke. “You and your Knights are welcome here.”
“Thank you, sir,” Eamon greeted him. “I trust my soldiers have been behaving.”
The Captain laughed, “We appreciate their presence here,” he said. “They provide security against another takeover, and they’re not bad company.”
Eamon dismounted, clasping the Captain’s hand. “We have brought more company,” he said, pointing to the captured Jindala. “Soldiers of the Lifegiver. But I don’t think they’ll be too much trouble.”
Among the guards, a man stepped forward to address Eamon, bowing in respect before speaking. “My Lord,” he said. “May I ask in what direction these captives were traveling?”
“To the South,” Eamon replied. “They were after one of their own who fled in that direction. Why do you ask?”
“I believe the man they seek is Khalid,” the man replied. “And he is responsible for starting the rebellion in Gaellos.”
Brynn recognized the name. Khalid was the Jindala whose nose he had smashed in Taryn. “Khalid, you say?” he asked the man.
“Yes, my Lord,” he answered. “There were children held captive in the town square. They were imprisoned as leverage…to make up for the lack of a larger force. Khalid freed them. I don’t know why. I know he was a high ranking member of the enemy force, but he seemed like a good man.”
Eamon turned to Brynn in question. “Khalid is the man who led the assault on Taryn?” he asked.
“Yes,” Brynn said. “It has to be.”
He looked to the man. “What did he look like?”
The man thought for a moment, recalling the man’s appearance. “He was rather short,” he said. “Somewhat heavy. Gray hair and beard. Strange looking nose.”
Brynn laughed. “That’s him,” he said. “I smashed his nose in Taryn before I let him go. But I don’t understand. What would prompt him to release the children?”
“I don’t know, my Lord,” the man answered, “but he seemed determined to do so. We helped him kill the guards, the Thieves’ Guild and I.”
“What’s your name, sir?” Eamon asked.
“Angus,” he answered. “I am the town smith.”
“Well, Angus,” Eamon began, “your bravery is commendable. You are an honorable man, and you have my respect. But, tell me, did this Khalid say where he was going?”
Angus shook his head. “Not exactly,” he said. “Only that he was going south. I got the impression he may have been traveling to the ruins in the mountains along the Southern Shore.”
“Tel Drakkar?” Eamon asked.
“I think that’s what they’re called,” Angus answered. “I don’t remember.”
Eamon turned to his Knights, his eyes lighting up with curiosity. “Erenoth went there, as well,” he said. “The Dragon called to him and told him to go there. I wonder if these events are related.”
“It is possible,” Azim said. “I know Khalid. If he has somehow lost the will to follow The Lifegiver, then he would likely seek a way to undo his wrongs. If the Dragon is Imbra’s brother, than he would go to him.”
“He murdered the Mordumarc!” Brynn insisted.
“The Defiler murdered them,” Azim corrected. “Khalid, like my brother and I, was under The Lifegiver’s spell. If I know him as well as I think, his actions here at Gaellos were an attempt to redeem himself.”