Authors: Steven A. Tolle
“There is nothing to forgive, friend Turlic, nor are you a coward.” Hailyn said soothingly. “You cannot aid us there, so there is no need for you to come along. Knowing that you will be waiting for us is a great relief.”
“You are kind, Sister.” He replied, adjusting the rudder, his eyes focused on the island growing closer. “I will wait for you for three days. The boat will be ready to sail, night or day. After three days, I will have to return to shore.”
“We understand.” Hailyn said, looking at Jake. “From what you have told us, if we are not back in three days, then it is likely that we are not coming back.”
That thought hung over them as they approached the island, the central cliff towering over them and the soft roar of the waterfall drifting across the lake. Jake could see that the shore was a mix of rocks and sand, with the tree line set back anywhere from a few feet to several yards. He could only see the trees moving in the wind; there was no evidence of anything living on the island.
Turlic turned the boat again, readjusting the sail and paralleling the shore. They followed the gentle curve of the island. After a few minutes, Jake could hear the sound of flowing water. They rounded a rocky point and a sandy beach opened up in front of them. In the center of the beach, a swift moving river cut through it to the lake. Jake saw why they could not sail up the river. There were scattered rocks strewn through it, the water roiling over them, churning white.
When they were still at least a couple of hundred feet from shore, Turlic lowered his sail and went to the bow, dropping a metal anchor. Once the anchor settled on the bottom, he tied off its rope to the bow. The boat drifted a short way, then the rope pulled taunt, holding it in place. He returned to the stern and pulled the small boat close.
“Be careful, Sister Hailyn and friend Jake.” He said as he helped them climb into the other boat. “I do not wish to return alone.”
“It will be as the One wills.” Hailyn responded kindly. “Have faith.”
“I will try, Sister.” He replied with a forced grin.
“We may be coming back sooner than you think, Turlic.” Jake said as he set the oars in their holders. “I doubt this will take us more than today.”
“That I will pray for, Jake.” He said as he pushed their boat gently away. “The sooner we can be away from this place, the happier I will be.”
Jake nodded, and then began to row. He only had to row for a few minutes, navigating as close to the river as he could get, and then they were on the beach. Once the boat slid to the stop, Jake jumped out and helped Hailyn off the boat. He pulled it further on the beach, making sure it was securely grounded.
With the noise from the river masking any other sound, they carefully looked around, seeking signs of movement. After a few moments, Jake pointed towards the river, then up towards the cliff. Hailyn nodded and turned to signal to Turlic that they were moving. Jake drew his sword and started towards the river, Hailyn right behind him.
They reached the river and looked inland. The riverbanks were a jumble of stone, leading towards the cliff, the land rising slightly. Taking a deep breath, Jake embraced his magic while scanning the surrounding terrain, his sword held at the ready. Hailyn stayed right behind him, her power shining brightly.
their way slowly, taking care to watch where they were stepping, trying to maintain footing on the sometimes slippery rocks. They reached the top of the short incline and saw that the river ran straight to the cliff. Jake could see the cliff face ahead through the gap in the trees that the river made, the waterfall covering most of what was visible.
The riverbank was less rocky here, making their passage easier. They moved quickly and soon found themselves clearing the trees and facing the cliff.
Now that they were close, Jake saw that the cliff was more rounded, the edges forward and the center back, almost forming a horseshoe shape. The waterfall fell from the top of the cliff into a large oval-shaped pond, which in turn fed the river. He saw several openings along the cliff face, most natural looking, but some looked as if someone had made them.
He thought grimly.
“What now?” He whispered to Hailyn while continuing to scan the area for danger.
“Let’s follow the edge of the pond to the waterfall.” She suggested. “There may be an opening we cannot see.”
Nodding, Jake started forward again. He was starting to sweat from the tension, despite the cool temperatures, his eyes constantly roaming for anything out of the ordinary. Despite his worries, they made it around the pond without incident.
Jake was trying to see if there was something near the falls when Hailyn pointed. Jake followed her hand and saw a small opening at the base of the cliff, the dark shape partly obscured by the falling water. Jake nodded and began to slowly work his way towards it.
The roar of the falls was deafening, the spray coming off it soaking their clothes. The footing was slippery, making the passage more challenging. There was a small gap in the rocks, filed with water, right before the opening. Jake sheathed his sword, took a couple of quick steps and jumped the gap. His boots slipped on landing and he slid into the cliff face, grabbing the rocks to keep his balance. Once he was secure, he turned and motioned to Hailyn. She made her leap, Jake catching her to keep her from falling. Trading a tight smile with her, Jake turned and headed into the opening.
Once inside, their powers lighting the area, Jake drew his sword again. He saw that the opening led to a rough tunnel that ran deeper into the cliff. He wiped the moisture from his face and moved forward.
The tunnel rose and fell, as well as made several turns before it opened into a large chamber. The crashing of the falling water echoed in the chamber, filling it with sound. The chamber was about a hundred feet wide, with a tall ceiling that formed a rough dome above them. Jake could make out several openings around the edges of the chamber. However, one thing pulled his attention towards it.
Against the far wall of the chamber was a coarse table of stone. It looked about six feet long, standing on a single pedestal that was built on a small rise. It was not the shape or condition of the table that drew him to it; it was the fact that it was glowing softly in a pale white light. He exchanged a surprised look with Hailyn, and then started towards it.
When they got very close to it, Jake felt his magic suddenly surge, his aura flaring brilliantly. He did not do anything; it simply increased in intensity. While he was processing the sensation, Hailyn suddenly gasped behind him. Jake spun quickly and saw her power shining brightly as well. However, she was staring at her wrist. Jake saw that the runes on her bracelet glowing in the same pale light as the table.
“Jake, I can feel it pulling at me.” She said, eyes wide. She moved closer to the table. When she put her hand on it, the runes flared, a quick flash of silvery light. They faded back to a soft pulsing glow when she removed her hand from the table.
“The sword was here; I know it.” She said, eyes glowing with joy. “I feel like the bracelet is calling to me. I think it can lead us to the sword.”
“Is it close by?” Jake asked.
Hailyn concentrated for a moment, and then shook her head. “I got a sense of a great distance, towards the north. It is not close.”
“Then let’s get out of here.” He said, stepping away from the table, motioning back the way they came.
“That I cannot allow.” A sinister voice called out behind them.
They spun around and saw a figure move into the chamber from one of the other openings. As it came into the light, Jake felt fear rise up unbidden. The figure was man-shaped, standing around six feet tall, and powerfully built, its muscles ripping as it moved.
Jake knew it was a demon, but he had not seen one like this before. This one seemed like a demon he would have pictured back home. It had a human face, with flowing dark hair, but the
same jet-black eyes as the other demons. It had sharp claws at the end of its fingers and a deep reddish color to its skin. Surmounting its head were two slightly curling black horns.
“I have not seen a cleric in many years.” The demon said, its dark power suddenly surrounding its body. It pointed at Jake. “I have never seen one like you, though.”
“And you won’t again.” Jake said as he stepped forward and attacked, launching a blast of power at the demon.
The demon staggered back from the blow and counter-attacked. Jake deflected the attack, feeling the demon’s strength. He was a little surprised by it; it was the strongest he had faced since Creatos.
But between Hailyn and me, it doesn’t stand a chance.
He thought confidently.
As if reading his mind, Hailyn moved off to his side, giving her a clear shot at the demon. Before she could attack, the demon moved sideways, tilted its head back and let out a strange, high-pitched call. It echoed throughout the chamber, reverberating down the passageways.
As Hailyn struck, a blazing beam of clerics’ fire lashing at the demon, Jake attacked as well. The twin blasts of power slammed into the demon, knocking it down, its form sizzling and burning, a cry of pain escaping from its lips. But before they could finish it off, more demons began to flow into the chamber from the other openings.
They were mostly Imps, but there were several of the female demons like the ones at Kersant. Behind them came a twin of the demon they were just fighting. Demon fire came streaking in at them from all sides, forcing them to defend. Before they could try and run, the demons cut off their escape route.
The fury of the demons’ power forced them to give ground, Jake feeling the dark energy breaking through his defenses, burning him. He clenched his teeth against the pain, but he could not keep the demons’ fire completely away. Hailyn, standing next to him, was also being pressed, her power shining, but she was not faring much better. The chamber seemed to shake from the clashing explosions of the conflicting powers.
Driven back step-by-step, Jake began to despair. He did not think of how they could get out of this. The overwhelming nature of the demons’ attack prevented him from countering, forcing him to focus on defense alone. Even that was not sufficient enough.
Retreating, they were forced back towards the table. When they were almost on top of it, they entered that invisible bubble of power they felt before. Jake felt his power surge and Hailyn’s aura became almost blinding. The runes on the bracelet flared to life again, outshining both of their powers.
Using this surge, Jake sent a blast of power, a cobalt wall of might, into the mass of demons. His magic knocked the weaker ones down, while the others staggered back. Hailyn directed a large bolt of swirling yellow and white fire into the demons, several Imps exploding to ash when it crashed
into them. Jake followed with another attack, destroying one of the female demons, its final cry of agony filling the chamber. The demons continued to attack, scattering around the chamber to make them less of a target.
“You attack and I’ll defend!” Jake shouted over to Hailyn. She nodded, her face a mask of concentration.
Filled with the power of the Light, they fought on. Jake deflected the demons’ fire while Hailyn destroyed the demons one by one. Jake did not know how long the battle raged, but he could feel exhaustion creeping up on him when the last Imp was destroyed. He saw that Hailyn was swaying as well. By then, they were left facing the two male demons and a remaining female demon.
Reaching over, Jake pulled Hailyn close. Leaning on each other, they continued to fight. They rapidly destroyed the remaining demons, striking down the last one when it turned and tried to flee.
In the sudden silence that followed, Jake fell to his knees, his power winking out and his skin raw from the burns he received. With his ears still ringing from the explosions of power, Hailyn knelt down next to him, her hand on his neck. Jake felt her power flow into him, healing his wounds. When she finished, she gave him a wane smile, and then collapsed.
His body trembling from exhaustion, he forced himself to cradle her body and pick her up. He wanted to be off the island in case there were still demons present. He staggered towards the tunnel that they came in, Hailyn held protectively against his body.
Turlic waited on his boat, worry gnawing at him, staring towards the small boat on the shore. They had been gone for several hours and his imagination was filling his mind with a series of equally horrible fates that could befall those two.
I am not a man to face such things.
He thought bitterly.
A sudden flash of movement on the island caught his attention. He tensed, waiting for some terror to appear. To his relief, he saw Jake come stumbling out of the tree line, carrying Hailyn. He saw Jake trip and fall to the sand, spinning his body to avoid landing on Hailyn. He tried to push himself up, but fell back, unable to rise.
Moving quickly, Turlic cut the rope attached to the anchor and raised his sail. He directed his boat towards the shore.
This is something that I can do.
He told himself.
The port of Far Southern was busy in the early morning light as Dominic rode Shadow down the main street towards the local garrison. The warm ocean breeze at his back, blowing off the waves and heading inland, brought with it the harbor smells of salt, fish and garbage. Along with the cries of the gulls wheeling overhead, the traders and merchants were already at work, their conversations and negotiations lending a constant buzz of noise echoing off the walls of the buildings. Moshanna rode beside him, with the four clerics and ten soldiers, their long spears angled up and the spear points catching the sun, formed up behind them.
Four days earlier, they had been taken to the harbor in the capital. Awaiting them was a sleek trading ship, with twin masts and a rakish bow, called the
. Its captain, a supremely confidant man named Brelis, struck Dominic as a man who was not above skirting the law if it was profitable to him. Brelis had a roguish air about him, impeccably dressed in fine clothes, incongruent with a working ship’s captain. However, Commander Farrious, who had accompanied them to the dock, told him that the queen made a personal request to Brelis to carry them south.
As soon as they had loaded the horses in the holds below deck, the ship had unmoored and slipped from the harbor. Once on the open sea, the ship caught the wind, rising and falling as its bow cut through the waves, picking up speed. Dominic had joined the captain on the bridge after they left the harbor, standing at the stern, watching the shore slowly shrink on the horizon behind them.
“Have you ever been to sea, my lord?” Brelis asked, a smile playing on his dark face as he watched Taric run to the side rail, heaving. Several of the soldiers were already at the rail. “You seem to have more fortitude than some of your companions.”
“I have seen things that would upset the stomach more than some waves, Captain Brelis.” Dominic replied, turning towards him. “It is simply a matter of training and discipline.”
“Please call me Brelis, my Lord Demonhunter.” The man said with a laugh. “Would you care to make a wager on whether discipline will help you if we run into one of the storms that can rise in the south at this time of the year?”
“Forgive me, Brelis, but you have the look of a man who would go looking for a storm just to win that bet.” Dominic said. “I think I will keep my coin.”
Brelis laughed loudly. “I must say that I like you, my lord. This should be an enjoyable trip.”
Despite his seemingly jovial demeanor, Brelis ran a tight ship. His sailors hurried to obey his commands and he was not above telling Dominic or anyone else on the ship what to do, expecting to be obeyed. He kept a constant watch on their navigation, checking his charts against their speed and direction to track their location. The ship sped along day and night, keeping the shore just beyond the horizon.
They had arrived at Far Southern late last night, but were forced to wait outside the harbor until the harbormaster arrived just before dawn. The harbormaster stood next to and directed Brelis as he maneuvered the
to the dock. Once the ship was moored, Brelis’ sailors began to lead the horses from the holds while Dominic’s party gathered their equipment and supplies.
“I will wait for you here, my lord, to return you to Danelias.” Brelis told Dominic as he prepared to disembark. A grin crossed his face. “The queen is paying me handsomely for my time, so there is no hurry to return.”
“I will try to remember that, Captain Brelis.” Dominic replied, shaking his head. “I would not want to do anything to shortchange you.”
They were headed to the local garrison to gather some additional supplies and a water wagon. The area where Parshalthia was located was barren and hot, with little water available. The water wagon carried enough water to take care of their and the horses’ needs. It would slow them down, but Moshanna told him that they could not make it to Parshalthia without it.
Dominic glanced behind him. Sergeant Stonebuilder, the Queen’s Guard in charge of the other soldiers, was riding behind Taric and Halana, the young female cleric, with a frown on his face. Stonebuilder had not been happy when Dominic had told them, before they left the ship, that Moshanna was his second.
“My lord, I must protest.” He had said. “You cannot put a traitor in charge of us. He has no honor.”
“Sergeant, I am in command, placed there by the queen herself.” Dominic had responded, fixing the man with a steady stare. “Moshanna is my second and you will obey him. If not, I will take your men and leave you behind. You can explain to Commander Farrious or the queen why you refused to accompany me as you were ordered.”
Stonebuilder had sat there in stony silence, finally nodding his head. “It will be as you say, my lord, but I do not have to like it.”
Dominic shook his head as he turned forward.
The Aletonians and their honor.
Moshanna needs to find a way to clear his name.
They rode up to the local garrison’s fortress, a squat building made of the same red stone as the rest of the buildings. It was located next to the wall that surrounded the town, near the main gates. They stopped the horses under an area designed for
shade, open but covered by a thin thatched roof. Dominic sent Stonebuilder inside to arrange for the water wagon while the rest waited.
After twenty minutes, Stonebuilder came around from the rear of the building, driving a wagon pulled by four horses, with two very large wooden barrels mounted in place of the wagon bed. At Moshanna’s command, one of the soldiers tied off Stonebuilder’s horse to his own.
“Are we ready, Sergeant?” Dominic asked.
“We are, my lord.” Stonebuilder stated
“Then let us begin.” Dominic said, spurring Shadow forward.
As they passed through the town gates, heading west, the paved road transitioned to a hard-packed dirt road. The land ahead of them was a rocky desert, the soil a monotonous pale brown, with jumbles of red and light yellow rocks rising from the ground. The road they traveled on extended into hills that seemed to go on forever. Except for some greenery near the coast, the hills were largely barren of plants.
As the morning passed and the sun continued its rise in the sky, the temperature began to rise as well. Everyone was soon sweating, the soldiers burdened with their armor and the clerics with their robes. Dominic noticed Taric, his face bright red, start to sway slightly in his saddle as they rode. Halana, riding close to him, handed him a waterskin and encouraged him to drink. After he had drunk deeply, she reached over and clasped his hand, her form glowing in power. When she released her power, his face was less flushed and he straightened in the saddle. He leaned close to her and said something quietly. She let out a soft laugh and patted his hand, a large smile on her face.
Dominic saw that Moshanna had followed his gaze. They shared a look, both slightly bemused. After Halana had used her healing to help Taric with his seasickness, they had become inseparable on the ship. They were always together, often just the two of them, talking quietly, their interest in each other obvious.
“Are you sure this isn’t why Jonas sent you with me?” He had said to Taric on the third day at sea. “Maybe he was hoping to see you married off.”
Taric had flushed bright red, embarrassed. “It is not like that, Dominic. Halana is a skilled healer and she is simply teaching me new techniques.”
“I thought clerics were supposed to tell the truth, Brother.” Dominic replied, cocking an eyebrow. He clapped the young cleric on the shoulder as Taric sputtered, trying to figure out a response. “Just make sure the mission is finished before you decide to run off together.”
By mid-day, they halted to water and rest the horses. They ate a quick meal, sitting in the shadow of their horses and refilling all of the waterskins from the wagon.
“This heat can easily kill you.” Welsen, one of the Aletonian clerics, told them all as they prepared to mount. He and Quilian, the fourth cleric, were both older men, each having served with the army. “Until we grow use to it, we all must continue to drink water. Everyone should be consuming at least a skin an hour.”
“We will all do as you say, Brother.” Dominic ordered.
They reached to the main north-south trade route in the late afternoon. After another short break where the clerics checked on the condition of both man and horse, they turned south. The road, if it could be called that, was lightly traveled.
“There is not much, if any, trade with the people of the Southern Wilds.” Moshanna announced as they headed south. “I was assigned to the garrison here for some time when I was a soldier. While not much is known about their customs, they are a tribal people, constantly warring with each other. Some in the north had headed south, hotheads looking for adventure and clerics going to spread the message of the One or just to attempt to understand the southerners. Few ever came back. We may run into bands of the Wild men as we head south. Unless they outnumber us, they are likely to scatter. While a fight is unlikely, we must stay vigilant.”
As the sun set in the west, they stopped and made camp, finding a suitable place a short way off the road. As night settled over the hills, the temperature began to fall. After a day of oppressive heat, the relatively cool night felt cold. Some of the party began to shiver and wrapped themselves in their sleeping blankets.
Dominic set the soldiers’ schedule for watch with Stonebuilder, checked on Shadow, and then went over to sit next to Moshanna.
“What can we expect going forward?” He asked.
“We should be able to make it to the road that leads to Parshalthia tomorrow.” Moshanna replied quietly. “I have never been there, but I was told that it is only about a half-day ride to the ruins from there.”
Dominic nodded. “Do the Wild men travel there? Should we expect to have contact with them?”
Moshanna shook his head. “I doubt it. From what I know of them, they tend to stick to the trading route, raiding those unfortunates that venture too far south. I am more concerned about coming across the demons and their followers.”
He glanced over towards the clerics, who were sitting near the wagon. “We only have four clerics. We must make sure that they are protected or we will surely fail. I would recommend that we assign a soldier to each. That will only leave us and five soldiers to maneuver, but we need the clerics whole and fighting, if we face the demons.”
Dominic considered it, and then nodded. “In the morning, I will have Stonebuilder task his men to protect the clerics.”
They broke camp in the early morning, riding out as the sun was rising. As the day passed, the heat rose and was as brutal as the day before. Traveling through the rocky terrain, the route would sometimes lead into small canyons that produced enough shade to provide a small measure of relief from the harsh heat. Despite the relative comfort of the canyons, Dominic refused to stop to rest while in them. He preferred open ground where they could see their enemies coming.
In the late afternoon, as they were cresting a hill, Moshanna halted the column and pointed down along the path. In the distance, through the heat shimmer rising from the ground, Dominic saw a small group of men running from the rocky outcroppings that lined the route ahead. He could just make out what looked like light-colored armor on the men and long wooden spears held in their hands. The group turned south along the route and, constantly looking back over their shoulders towards the outcroppings, continued to run.
“Wild men?” He asked Moshanna.
“Yes.” Moshanna replied as he studied the outcroppings ahead. “They appear to be fleeing from something and I don’t think it was us.”
Dominic nodded, having thought the same thing. He turned and spoke to the rest of the party. “We are continuing forward, but remain alert and ready. The Wild men appear to be running from something, so there is likely danger ahead. If attacked, we will charge through the ambush, then wheel around.”
They rode forward, the rocky outcroppings a ragged maze of red and gray stone. The soldiers held their spears at the ready, the clerics glowing in power while Dominic and Moshanna drew their swords. As they entered the area, a palatable tension had gripped the group, eyes scanning the rocks for peril.
Except for the sounds of the horses and the wagon as they moved, the air had gone still. In that stillness, Dominic heard the faint sounds of movement amongst the rocks. He tried to locate the position of the sound, but it faded away. There was a brief moment of quiet before Taric cried out as he launched a blast of clerics’ fire. “Demons!”
Out of the rocks from both sides of the route, six Imps came leaping out, bodies surrounded by their power. Taric’s blow struck one of the demons, slamming it back into a boulder. The other clerics began to fight with the demons, deflecting the attacks while the soldiers lowered their spears, surging forward.
Right behind the demons came at least fifteen of their followers, howling and charging forward. Dominic wheeled to face the ones on his side of the route while Moshanna leapt from his horse, moving forward, sword ready, more comfortable fighting on the ground.
As Dominic charged Shadow into the group coming out of the rocks, a wide wave of clerics’ fire streaked past him and slammed into the men. The half-men in the group exploded into ash, but the others moved forward unharmed. Dominic rode directly into them, sword swinging. He caught one with a stroke to the
head, the man crumpling to the ground, then deflected a swing from another’s sword. Shadow ran another down, his hind legs kicking out.