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Authors: Shawn E. Crapo

the ascent (book 2)

The Ascent

Book Two of

The Dragon Chronicles

By

Shawn E. Crapo

 

Copyright © 2013 Shawn E. Crapo

Cover and Map Art © 201
3 Shawn E. Crapo

www.shawnecrapo.com

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof

may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever

without the express written permission of the publisher

except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I have to give credit where credit is due. If not for all of the fantasy authors I’ve read over the years, this series never would have happened. Thank you all for keeping the genre alive despite the diminishing interest of the general public. We must always continue to live in our fantasy worlds and keep them in our dreams. I must also give thanks to my good friend Kumar Jadhav for assisting me with creating the Radja, a fictional analogue of Hindu/Sikh warrior culture. Also, thanks to Steve Smith for assisting with proofreading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

Khalid stood before the throne of the Dragon in Tel Drakkar. The throne room was dimly lit, with only a few small rays of blue light that filtered in through the broken ceiling above. Around him, sections of wall and segments of columns lie in ruin, their black stone cracked and crumbled. Dust covered everything in sight, from floor to mid wall, and the odor of neglect hung thick in the air. The entire temple had been in the same state of disrepair, having been abandoned and uninhabited for ages, so the throne room’s condition was no surprise to Khalid.

The throne itself was empty, as it had likely been for thousands of years, yet remained unblemished and richly decorated. Its surface was smooth, reflecting the blue light that filled the chamber, and at its corners, various designs of silver, interlaced with purple gems, accented its strangely beautiful design. Something great and powerful once sat upon this throne, and the Sheikh could almost feel its presence as he stood before it.

Khalid was clothed in only a light pair of linen trousers, as he had been since he entered the temple’s grounds. He had felt the unexplainable need to cast away his clothes, feeling that the robes were, somehow, inappropriate for entry into the temple. Despite his lack of garments, however, he still carried the katana given to him by Angus, the blacksmith in Gaellos. Though a well-crafted weapon, it gave the former Jindala Sheikh only a minor bit of comfort as he studied the architecture and décor of the massive throne room, and its empty throne. Its dark and disturbing architecture unsettled him and filled him with apprehension.

Days ago, in a dream, he had been instructed by his Master, Imbra, to travel through the Southern Kingdom and present himself to the Dragon. He was not sure why, but he knew that his Lord had his reasons and, considering the blasphemies he had performed in the past years, he was in no position to resist. All of his life, he had served Imbra faithfully, or so he thought. He had learned through his dreams that a false God sat upon Imbra’s throne in Khem, and that this being had led Khalid and his people into believing that he was their one and only Father.

Khalid himself had served faithfully even though, in the back of his mind, his lifelong impressions of his Lord and Master did not match the reality. Since the God had supposedly appeared in the flesh, he was a different personality than what the Holy books had described. Gone were the scriptural ideals of his benevolence and love; replaced by a cruel reality that did not settle well in the minds of his people. But they followed his oppressive and murderous ways nonetheless.

The Lifegiver, as the false God was known, had bound and enslaved all of the Firstborn, including Imbra and the Dragon, within the Earth. He knew that, together, their power could defeat him. But, lying helpless and unable to take physical form, they were no match for his dark, primordial energy. Thus, the people would be no match for the bulk of The Lifegiver’s army; the Jindala.

They were a people enslaved, compelled to spread The Lifegiver’s word through murder, terror, and oppression. Khalid had murdered with them, following The Lifegiver’s orders to the letter. For this, he was unclean and his soul had darkened. He stood now before the Dragon’s throne to purge himself of this evil, and to rejoin the Firstborn. Through the Dragon, Khalid would be brought back to Imbra, and his path would change for the better. He would be whole again.

Though Khalid now stood before the Dragon’s throne, he was at a loss as to what would come next. Imbra had told him nothing other than to seek Tel Drakkar and present himself to the Dragon. There was no word as to what he would say or do once he arrived, or what would happen. This fact unsettled Khalid, leaving him lost and hopeless, standing before an empty throne in a strange land.

Khalid scanned the throne room nervously, awaiting some kind of sign that would suggest his next action. Throughout the chamber, there was nothing; no signs, no clues, no men or women present. There was nothing but rubble, the throne, and a large mirror that was attached to the wall behind it. From his side of the throne’s riser, Khalid could only see the grayish layer of dust that covered it, and for all he knew it was shattered and useless. Still, he felt the need to find out.

Khalid stepped onto the throne’s riser, glancing at the ornate chair as he passed by. From up close, he was able to make out various symbols and strange writings, none of which he understood. There were pictograms of warriors in battle, strange winged creatures that breathed fire, and men dressed in horned armor. He felt drawn to the carvings; as if he knew somehow he would eventually grow to learn their significance. But, for now, he would accept them as they were; mysterious and unimportant at the moment.

Khalid stepped in front of the mirror, using his hand to wipe away enough of the filth to see his face. He stared for several minutes, seeing himself sadden at the sight of his own image. His eyes were puffy with days of unrest, his hair disheveled and matted, and his beard unkempt and knotted. He reached out again, wiping away more dust, extending the clean area to cover the whole of his body. As the image became clearer, his shame deepened.

He was no longer the handsome, dashing young thief he was thirty years before. Through his years of sloth in the service of The Lifegiver, he had allowed his body to undergo a massive change for the worse. He was fat, soft, and looked every bit like a lazy, entitled Sheikh should.

He felt a lump rising in his throat, and his heart sank in sorrow. Tears welled up in his eyes as he sulked at his own image. He allowed himself to weep, covering his grotesque face in his hands, his body convulsing with his sobbing.

“What have I become?” he asked himself. “How did this happen?”

He knelt, afraid to see his own reflection. He no longer recognized himself, and the feeling was devastating to his already damaged soul.

Khalid,
a deep, commanding voice spoke in his head—or so it seemed.

Khalid turned quickly, scanning the throne room for any sign of who had spoken. There was nothing but darkness.

“Who’s there?” he shouted.

It is I, the Dragon
.

“Where are you?” Khalid asked.

I am here. But I do not have the strength to commune with you this way for long. You must sit upon the throne and enter my realm.

Khalid glanced at the throne again, unable to overcome his fear. “I cannot,” he said, “I am afraid.”

You must, my friend. Do not fear. I have welcomed you into my temple, and have no desire to harm you in any way.

“I fear myself,” Khalid sobbed, “and I am shameful.”

Fear not, Khalid, I have been watching you as your Father has. I saw how you rescued the children in Gaellos.

“You saw?”

I see all that happens in my land. You were very courageous. You saved those children from execution, and have begun a rebellion in the South.

“The Thieves’ Guild?” Khalid asked. “I saw them fight the guards. Was it they who freed the city?”

Yes, the Thieves’ Guild has eliminated the enemy presence in Gaellos and liberated the city. It was all because of you, and your courage. You are a hero, Khalid. You saved my children. You have redeemed yourself. There is no need for you to be shameful.

Khalid lowered his head in sorrow, thinking back at the life he had led. “I have done so many things in my life to be shameful for,” he explained. “One single act cannot make up for that.”

It was not a single act, Khalid. You started a whole chain of events that led to insurrection. Gaellos is free. Even now, the men there gather and lie in wait for the Onyx Dragon to lead them to victory.

“The Onyx Dragon?” Khalid inquired. “Who is this Onyx Dragon?”

He is my son. He has always been my son, since the beginning of the line of kings.

“He has always been your son?” Khalid asked. “What do you mean?”

Throughout history, when the lands were in danger, I have fathered sons among the daughters of Kings. These offspring have been the warrior Kings of legend. They have all been known as the Onyx Dragon, all the way back to King Daegoth II.

“I know that name,” Khalid exclaimed, “He ruled Eirenoch during the time of Sulemain, the first Prophet of Imbra.”

That is correct. And by the marriage of Daegoth’s daughter to Sulemain, our kingdoms were at peace for thousands of years, until The Lifegiver came and upset the balance. He has waged war on the entire world, and enslaved the spirits of the Firstborn. I felt it was time for me to bring back my namesake, to protect my land and, ultimately, The Great Mother. And so, many years ago, I went to Queen Siobhan of the Northern Kingdom, and she later gave birth to Eamon, my son.

“I see,” Khalid replied.

It is Eamon’s duty as The Onyx Dragon to protect these lands. He is the only hope I have to save The Great Mother. The Lifegiver steals more of her power every day, and she is dying. If her spirit continues to weaken, then there will be no hope for survival. Not for her, The Firstborn, or the mortals who inhabit this world. The Lifegiver will lead us to our doom.

“Yes,” Khalid agreed, “I see that now. But I still do not understand who he really is, or where he came from.”

The Lifegiver is nothing, Khalid. He is the chaos that existed before the Universe was born. Everything you see around you is part of the Universe, and thus, part of the Creator. The Lifegiver is the opposite. He is darkness and chaos, and his Universe is the same.

“I think I understand,” Khalid muttered. “He is the negative, the void. But how did he cross over into this Universe?”

Your Sultan, Tyrus the Blackhearted, was the conduit. He is, or was, the product of the two universes at the same time. He was born here, many thousands of years ago, and through dark magic, learned the secrets of matter and energy. Through this knowledge, he was able to project himself into the void between the two universes, and create a bridge between them.

“This knowledge is strange to me, Dragon,” Khalid said, shaking his head. “But I know that if I am to aid in this struggle, then I must learn all I can. I am willing and eager to do so, and I will live by your guidance.”

I know you will serve the Firstborn to the best of your abilities. And I know your determination is strong. Sit upon the throne, Khalid. You need not fear. I will make you whole again.

Khalid swallowed, mustering the courage to step onto the riser again. The stone felt warm and comforting this time, as if the Dragon’s spirit was infused within it. It calmed him as he stepped up and approached the throne, his bare feet absorbing the warmth as it spread throughout his body. He turned, placing his hands upon the armrests, and sighed. With one last look at the dark room around him, he sat, leaning back against the warm, black stone.

Within seconds, he fell into blackness.

 

Jodocus watched his apprentice, Farouk, gather herbs in the forest near Morduin. The former Jindala Captain seemed to enjoy the task, smiling and laughing to himself as he discovered many of the small plants that were detailed in the tome he carried. It was a book that Farouk cherished with all of his heart, and one that he never went anywhere without.

Jodocus had given him all the materials he would need to become a Druid; tomes, herbs, collection tools, and even a supply of minor spells that he would need for protection and healing. Druidism was a discipline that Farouk had longed for his whole life, having grown up in a land that discouraged anything that involved the natural world. It was not until Farouk had arrived in Eirenoch that he discovered his love for nature, and his wish to preserve it.

Jodocus had offered him this life after Farouk was injured in battle by a Defiler, an extra-dimensional creature that drew the life force from everything around it. Farouk, having rebelled against his master, The Lifegiver, led his men in battle against his former allies and the terrible beast that traveled with them. As a result, Farouk had been caught by the Defiler’s attack, and had lost much of his ability to fight. The injury had cost him his career as a warrior, but only served to encourage his love of living things. Jodocus sensed this love in him, and believed in his ancient heart that Farouk was meant to be a Druid.

He was right.

Farouk’s natural affinity for learning, and using the power of The Great Mother, was impressive. Never before had Jodocus sensed his level of ability in anyone he had ever met. This man, who came to Eirenoch to conquer, had turned out to be the greatest candidate for an apprentice that the old Druid could ever hope for. Farouk’s mastery of the discipline came quickly, and it was quite obvious that he would be an adept in no time.

As he watched his apprentice, Jodocus suddenly sensed a familiar presence. Something in the forest knew he and Farouk were there, and projected a great sense of curiosity. The Druid felt it. He looked around to the trees, scanning the mottled green and brown mass of foliage with a trained eye. When he spotted the source of curiosity, he smiled, knowing how much Farouk would enjoy sharing the experience.

“Farouk, my friend,” Jodocus called out to him. “Come. I have something to show you.”

Farouk looked up from his herb gathering, sitting his basket on the ground to go to his mentor’s side.

“What is it, Jodocus?” he asked.

The Druid pointed off into the forest, singling out a large oak that overshadowed the other trees around it. “There,” he said. “What do you see?”

Farouk follow Jodocus’ finger and squinted, looking closely for the source of the Druid’s excitement. He saw only trees, some ginseng, and various weeds. There was, however, a massive oak that stood in the center of his view. It seemed different somehow, as if it didn’t belong there. He focused, examining every detail, desperately trying to decide why it seemed strange to him.

“I see a tree,” Farouk replied. “An oak, to be exact.”

“True, true,” Jodocus said. “But what is strange about it?”

Farouk looked again, summoning every ounce of attention he could muster. He looked at the tree’s bark, its leaves, and the crown of roots that poked above the ground. He then looked to the leaves, seeing them hanging still from their branches. At last, he realized why the tree didn’t seem right. The whole thing was completely still. Though the trees and other foliage around it were moving in the gentle wind, the oak itself was impervious to it. It stood unmoving among the mass of other life.

“The tree does not move in the wind,” Farouk said.

“Correct,” Jodocus replied. “Do you know why?”

Farouk thought for a moment, unable to come up with an answer. “No,” he replied, “I do not.”

“Wait and watch,” the Druid instructed, crossing his legs and stirring the soil with his staff.

Farouk stared at the oak, seeing only its stillness. There was nothing else. “I see nothing, Jodocus,” he said.

The Druid reached out and touched Farouk’s shoulder, imparting a small amount of his magic to his apprentice. “Watch carefully,” he said. “Concentrate on seeing the tree, feeling it.”

Farouk focused his thoughts on the oak, straining to see into its soul, reaching out with his mind to feel its presence. He began to smile as he finally realized why the tree was still. Its spirit was leaving, and that spirit was becoming visible to him.

A faint, green mist was emanating from the trunk, swirling around in a vaguely human shape. Farouk looked closer, concentrating harder and focusing on the shape that was beginning to emerge. The mist began to coalesce, taking on the shape of a woman, translucent, green, and beautiful. She was small, slender, and moved with the grace of the wind itself. Farouk smiled as she emerged fully, and timidly hid behind the trunk of the oak.

“She’s beautiful,” he remarked. “Who is she?”

“That, my friend,” Jodocus explained, “is a Dryad.”

“A tree spirit,” Farouk finished him.

“Very good. Do you know why she has appeared?”

Farouk thought again, and then said, “She knows we are here, and she is not afraid. She is curious.”

“Yes,” Jodocus said, “the Dryads are always curious. They investigate everyone who passes through the forest and especially near their oaks. Mortal men cannot see them, unless they choose to make themselves seen. But as a Druid, you will be able to see them with practice.”

“I am intrigued,” Farouk said. “I have never seen anything like it. Are they friendly?”

“Not usually,” Jodocus explained. “To us, they will remain neutral. To other men, they may be neutral, as long as the men do not disturb the forest. They may also be a nuisance, however, playing tricks on them or tripping them with roots. But, if anyone tries to damage or otherwise upset the forest in any way, they can be dangerous and hostile.”

“What of the Rangers?” Farouk asked. “Do the Dryads ever interact with them?”

Jodocus shook his head. “No,” he said, “the Rangers protect the forest, and the Dryads respect them for that. They may on occasion help the Rangers if they are in trouble, but never directly. The Druaga, on the other hand, are different.”

“They can see the Dryads,” Farouk reasoned.

“Yes, indeed,” Jodocus replied. “And they have been known to fight alongside them if the need arises.”

“I have no doubt the Dryads are formidable in battle,” Farouk remarked.

Jodocus nodded, smiling. “Yes,” he said, “especially when they command the trees to attack their enemies.”

Farouk began to respond, but was cut short by a wave of Jodocus’ hand. The Dryad had turned to the two of them as they were speaking, and was now headed in their direction. She walked toward them gracefully, her shimmering green form a mesmerizing dance of natural beauty.

She approached Farouk, who stood frozen as she leaned in closer. “What is she doing?” he whispered, trembling.

“Do not fear,” Jodocus replied. “She is only examining you. She wants to see what kind of man you are, and if she can trust you. She knows me, and is curious as to the nature of my new apprentice.”

Farouk said nothing, but remained still as the Dryad reached her hand out to place it over his heart. She slowly moved her fingertips over his chest, tracing the designs on his robes. He felt her energy flowing through him as she touched him, feeling it permeate every corner of his soul. The Dryad’s energy seemed to meld with Farouk’s own, sharing in all of the experiences of his past life, delving deeper and deeper into his consciousness. Finally, her expression changed to one of great admiration. She then looked into his eyes and smiled.

“She knows what kind of man you are,” Jodocus said. “She knows how you retained your honor even when in service to the darkness. She is impressed.”

Farouk returned her smile as she slowly backed away. He watched her closely as she removed the shimmering cloth that wrapped her body and raise it above his head. The cloth drifted down over him, wrapping him in its warmth, and falling against his skin. Farouk’s heart raced, his body numb with the energy that the cloth imparted to him. It then disappeared into his skin, becoming a part of him. The Dryad smiled again, and slowly faded from sight.

“What did she do?” Farouk asked.

“She has given you a new power,” Jodocus said. “She believed that you were ready for it.”

“What has she given me?”

Jodocus laughed, patting Farouk on the back. “She has extended you the power to become one with the trees,” he said, “so you may be better protected from the enemy. It will greatly enhance your ability to become unseen in the forest. She must believe that you will have need of it in the future.”

“How do I use this power?” Farouk asked.

“You will use it the same way you use all of the powers you have gained. You need but focus and will it to happen.”

Farouk nodded in understanding, realizing that using the powers of the Dragon and The Great Mother was as simple as having a thought. The process applied to everything, Jodocus had explained. Will it, and it will happen. All that is required is the strength to believe.

It seemed simple enough.

“Come now, Farouk,” Jodocus said. “There is much damage on the island that is ours to repair. The Dragon has given us these powers to maintain the balance of the island, and we must oblige him. It is time to begin your first communion. Are you ready?”

“Yes, my friend,” Farouk replied, eager to begin his duties. “I am ready.”

 

The Knights of the Dragon rode at full speed across the open valley. Eamon led the way, his sights set on the company of Jindala in the distance. The enemy numbered only fifty or so, with one man on horseback, and a handful of archers. They would be easy prey and only a small detour in their route.

Having left the bulk of their army in Gaellos, the Knights and their Lord had headed south toward the coastal town of Bray. Along the way, Brynn had spotted the Jindala on the horizon and the chase was on. They had fled when they saw Eamon and the Knights charge them, but the distance between them was quickly narrowing.

Realizing there was no escape; the Jindala had stopped running and arranged themselves in a wall formation. Their leader, an armored man of elegant dress, took his place at the front of their lines, awaiting the inevitable conflict. He held his sword out in front of him, and his right hand was in the air in a neutral gesture.

His signal told Eamon that the company would not make the first move, but would await whatever outcome. Either the group was on a diplomatic mission—as it were—or was in the possession of a precious cargo. The Knights were eager to discover which.

As they neared, Eamon slowed, motioning for the Knights to stop.

“Why are we stopping?” Angen asked. “We could ride them down easily.”

Eamon pointed toward the enemy company, showing the veteran soldier what he saw. Among the Jindala was a woman. Eamon had not seen her during the charge, but she was clearly there, in the center of the formation. The Jindala were protecting her.

“I wonder who she is,” Brynn said as he saw the woman himself, “and why she is traveling with the Jindala.”

Azim rode to the front, squinting to get a better look at the woman. He scowled when he made out her garments, red silk robes with golden adornments, a red and gold crown, and a veil that covered the lower half of her face. He knew those garments well.

“A sorceress,” he spat, drawing his sword. “She is just as vile and unclean as the rest of them. Cut her down.”

Eamon took another look, and then turned back to Azim. “Are you sure?” he asked. “We cannot make a mistake and kill an innocent woman.”

“I am sure, my friend.” Azim replied. “A Jindala woman in these lands is only here for one purpose; to reinforce the soldiers with her magic. Besides, her robes are those of the Ka’ha’di, handmaidens of the Prophet. Were she not a sorceress, her presence would still be a threat.”

“If she were an innocent woman,” Wrothgaar added, “she would likely be the one on the horse.”

Eamon drew his sword. “Then she dies with them,” he said, riding closer to the enemy company.

He closed the gap somewhat, pointing the Serpent’s Tongue at the leader in challenge. The leader slowly rode forward, prompting Eamon to meet him in the middle. Eamon obliged, closing the distance cautiously, urging the Knights to stay back until he charged. He gave Daryth and Brynn a quick glance before he picked up his pace, signaling them to be ready with their bows.

The leader met him in the middle, his dark eyes piercing and cold underneath his gold and black helmet. He wore no faceplate as the other Jindala did, and his turban was red instead of black. The robes he wore were also of red silk, like the sorceress, and were trimmed in gold. Despite his elegant appearance, the sword he carried was that of a veteran warrior, decorative but highly functional. Strangely, the Serpent’s Tongue began to vibrate as he approached.

“We have no quarrel with you, Prince Eamon,” the leader said in Eamon’s tongue. “We merely seek one of our own who has fled to the South. He is a criminal, and is armed and dangerous.”

“Then he is my friend,” Eamon replied smugly. “This is my land, and you are not welcome here.”

The leader laughed. “This is Queen Maebh’s land,” he said, “and she has signed a treaty. We are surely welcome here. You, however, are not. Your kingdom lies to the North. You are outnumbered, my friend, and outmatched. Leave now, and we will let you go in peace.”

Eamon laughed. He turned away, nodding to Brynn and Daryth. Then, spinning his horse around, he thrust the Serpent’s Tongue into the leader’s gut, pulling himself closer to glare into the man’s eyes.

“When you meet The Lifegiver,” he hissed, “tell him I’m coming for him.”

Eamon withdrew his sword and raised it in the air as the man slumped and collapsed to the ground. “Attack!” he yelled, leading the charge into the Jindala ranks.

Brynn and Daryth both fired, sending their arrows into the front line of spearmen as the Knights clashed with them. The Jindala dropped their spears as their comrades were knocked into the air.

The sorceress immediately raised her clawed hands to cast a spell, her face a twisted mask of hate. Lightning sparked between her fingers, crackling in the air and running up and down her pale, bony arms. She growled as she finished her spell, sending a bolt of energy toward the Prince as he cut through the human barrier. Eamon thrust the Serpent’s Tongue out in front of him to block the spell. It bounced off harmlessly, discharging into the ground with a thundering clap.

Frustrated, she reared back to cast another spell, her red silk robes billowing with the gathering of magic. Her face contorted as she uttered the words of the spell, and the dust began to blow around her. Then, an arrow struck her in the throat, silencing her and sending her back several steps. She angrily clawed at the shaft, choking and gagging in an attempt to breathe. Daryth fired a second arrow, catching her square in the forehead and silencing her for good. She fell to her knees, pitching forward into the dust.

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.”

 

 

Chapter Two

 

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.

Wight.

 

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.

Khalid
, 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.”