when elves die episode one

WHEN ELVES DIE

by RICHARD POCHE

 

 

All Rights Reserved. No part of this
publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means,
including scanning, photocopying, or otherwise without prior
written permission of the copyright holder. Copyright © 2014
Richard Poche

 

ISBN: 1502710064
ISBN-13: 78-1502710062

 

Cover illustration by
Rick Servande

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Jim and Rick

and rainy days of rolling twenty
sided dice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

 

Special thanks to my editor, Brian
Kaufman, for helping guide a rookie through his first
novel.

CHAPTER 1

 

His black horse seized up the moment they came upon
the orange flames which flickered against the snowfall. Three tents
stood beyond the chromatic hues of the fire, the largest one in the
center covered a stage.

He snapped on the reins and trotted across the
desolate landscape. His horse moved with his body, the longer they
rode together the more the animal became an extension of his mind.
The horse knew instinctively when his rider wanted to turn right or
left. When to speed up or slow down.

Tholan stood shorter than most other barbarians. He
grew his hair long while most other fighters in the region shaved
their heads bald. Tholan made up for his lack of size with
tenacity. He always overwhelmed his foes with unmatched speed and
expert swordsmanship.

The fire started to die down and he dismounted. One
of the tent poles fell over and the tattered tarp revealed several
dead bodies. He recognized the deceased as elves with their pointed
ears and diminutive bodies. But some had their ears either ripped
or bitten off. All had their throats torn open, with a circle of
blood in the snow as their final resting place.

Crude stigmata signs were scratched into some of
their foreheads. Pentagram symbols with the letter “K” cut into the
center. With dead corpses everywhere he stepped, his boots crunched
down on the charred remains of an elf whose tongue dangled from his
mouth. Another lay with a broken off spear stuck in his chest.

With the grace of a lion, he threaded his way to the
stage platform. Four bodies were sprawled out, like a child's
forgotten toys. One of the elves clutched a strum guitar. Another
hunched backward over a drum set with wooden sticks impaled in both
eyes. A singer with her throat ripped open lay on the stage front.
Her skin a translucent white, she had been drained of blood.
Sobbing sounds turned him around. About twenty feet away, a woman
nested her head on the chest of a dead girl. Her cries rose and
then lowered in intensity as he approached. He thought her too tall
to be an elf. As he got closer, his eyes turned to the source of
her grief. The dead girl's skin had the same pale, blood-drained
look as the others.

“What happened?” he asked.

The woman turned around slowly. She gazed at him
with unblinking eyes that shined with tears. After a few moments of
silence, she returned her attention back to the dead girl.

“We were having a service,” she said finally. “They
came upon us so fast. The Killtooths.”

He always thought the Killtooths were a mythical
creation. Supposedly they were a breed of elves that fed on the
blood of other elves.

“We thought we had killed them all last year. They
stayed in the caves up in Shaian. You have to kill them in the
summer when they go into hibernation. There must have been another
group. Another colony that we missed. I had no idea they could make
it this far out.”

“Your daughter?”

She nodded her head.

“She was my heart. That's what she was.”

The woman kissed the girl on the forehead.

“Come back to me,” she whispered.

“The rest of you. You're from the same church?”

“My husband is...Was Diorman,” she pointed to an elf
on the ground who had bloodied stumps for arms.

He had heard of Diorman. One of the leaders of the
church that worshiped the God Pegasin.


Come back to me, Iriedove” she
whispered to the girl again.

“How did you survive?”

“I went to the woods,” she pointed back at the vast
expanse of trees. “I had to pee. I heard screaming and when I came
back it was pure chaos. I tried to find my daughter but I couldn't
with all the elves running and screaming and...the Killtooths
attacking. So I played dead. I laid down next to a group of dead
elves. They found me anyway but...They don't drink human
blood...They can't.”

Looking back down at her daughter, she started to
clean the blood off the girl's face.

“She was always teased for being a half-breed. But
she was the most beautiful girl in the village.”

“She's very beautiful.”

“And she loved to sing. Songs of worship.”

The woman placed her head on the dead girl's chest
again. Her mouth distorted into a bitter smile.

“When a human is bitten by a Killtooth they turn
into...they come back to life as one of them. Maybe she'll come
back. Maybe because she's a half-breed, she'll come back.”

“If she does come back. She's won't be human. Or elf
anymore.”

She shot him an icy glare. Then she looked up at the
white sky.

“Lord Pegasin,” she cried out. “Why have you allowed
this to happen? We have been good. We are a faithful people. We are
a peaceful people. We have spent our entire lives worshiping you.
Singing to you. Praising you. And yet, you allowed this to
happen?”

He looked at the young dead girl. Her blouse had
been ripped away, only the torn sleeves remained. There were
bloodied hand prints along her breasts and thighs. Dried mascara
tears streaked her face and trailed down her nude body.

“Do you think I can live on with these memories?”
she raged with her fists clenched. “Why don't you just kill me? I
don't want to live....I don't want to live anymore. How could you
allow this? We worshiped you!”

She ripped off a medallion that suspended from her
neck on a leather cord. Throwing the religious symbol on the
ground, she spat on it then looked to the sky with hate in her
eyes.

Tholan looked up at the heavens himself. Some fast
moving clouds were coming in from the east. The winds were starting
to pick up and he could feel the temperature getting colder.

“We really don't have time to give your daughter a
proper burial. The snow will cover her body. Protect it from
the-”

His voice trailed off. He did not want to bring up
the topic of scavenger forest animals digesting what remained of
her loved ones.

“I have no place to go,” she said. “We were supposed
to go to the next village and set up a revival. I have nowhere to
go and nothing to live for. My husband is gone. My daughter is
gone. I have nothing now.”

The woman turned her back to the Barbarian.

With nothing more to say, he started to walk
away.

“Wait,” she said.

Tholan kept walking. He did not want further
involvement.

“I know who you are.” The woman's face now a picture
of delirious hope. “You are Tholan the Feared. You are an assassin
for hire.”

“How do you know?” Tholan stopped in place, now
interested.

“I remember you. Our village elders hired you four
or five years ago. We had a chief in our town that was abusing our
people. He was a brutal man. They hired you to take care of him.
His name was Rodius.”

“Rodius,” he said. “Yes. I remember.”

“I have thought of you for many a night since then.
How you saved the day when no one else would.”

“Because they paid me.”

“I have no money,” she said.

Tholan turned back around. He called his horse over
and mounted the animal.

“But I can offer my body.”

“In exchange for what?” Tholan dropped off the
horse.

“I want you to go to the caves of Shaian and kill
the lot of them.”

Tholan paused for a beat as he looked over at the
carnage.

“We could set fire to the rest of the bodies,” he
said. “Otherwise carrion will come and feed on what is left of
them.”

“There's nothing left of me!”

The woman twirled around in a pirouette of
grief.

“I cannot help you,” he said as he turned his back
toward her once again.

Her bloodcurdling scream startled him as it reached
a volume he would never have expected. Nor did he expect her to be
racing toward him at supernatural speed.

Her jaws snapped at him, saliva dripping from her
fangs. Holding her back by her shoulders, he could see the bite
marks on her neck.

Unable to get close enough to bite him, she spat
into his face.

Her sputum burned like acid. He pushed her hard and
she fell on her back. Screaming like a psychotic banshee, she
bolted back up and attacked again.

He half-hoped that by taking out his long sword she
would back down.

Screaming, she kept coming. He pierced her heart
with one upward stroke.

Silence.

Her face, which looked so demonic an instant
earlier, faded into a serene calm. Her black eyes turned back into
a slate blue.

Tholan extracted his blade and laid the dead woman
on the ground.

He broke his own code. He only killed for money.

Tholan took another look at the dead bodies. He
noticed that a lot of them still had their purses and money bags. A
small bounty there for the taking.

He decided against sifting through the valuables of
the dead. Already tardy, he did not want to anger his new
employer.

Ravalynn. The Dark Queen.

He couldn't help but look back at the dead elves
again as he left. A group of friends and family that lived
together, ate together and worshiped together. Now they died
together. He wondered what it would be like to belong to a
community of people, whether it be elves or humans. To have people
to whom his life mattered and would avenge him if he were
murdered.

He reminded himself that he did not make it this far
by having compassion and clemency. Sentimentality is for the weak,
he told himself. Friendship is for the weak.

The weak and the dead.

That is how he earned the name Tholan the Feared.
The solitary figure coming down the mountain with a sword in
hand.

The assassin of the snow.

 

CHAPTER 2

Xavian waved his dagger around and stabbed at an
imaginary dragon. His battle-cry filled the air as he somersaulted
off the top of the wagon. Short and slender, Xavian had a mop of
brown curly hair that invariably got into his eyes. His
non-imposing physique aside, Xavian dreamed of fighting legendary
battles and having his fellow elves speak of his exploits in hushed
tones of reverence.

“Unhand that damsel, you beast!” Xavian pointed his
knife at the large, sleeping wolf.

Jamben opened one eye and his tail thumped the
ground in annoyance. Not amused by the young elf's antics, he
rolled over and went back to sleep.

“I said unhand her or you shall suffer a most
humiliating defeat!” Xavian went through a series of movements,
pantomiming blocks with his dagger as he pirouetted away from an
imaginary enemy's strikes.

“Careful there, Big Bad Barbarian,” said Zinna.

She had long legs for an elf. Her light brown hair,
partially covered with a headband, fell all the way down to her
waist. Her eyes were bright green and sparkled with mischief. Only
two summers older than Xavian, she joked that they were centuries
apart when it came to maturity.

“That dagger might hit your legs,” she laughed. “And
then people will think that you cut yourself shaving.”

Xavian jumped back atop the wagon and swung the
knife around.

“How dare you mock Xavian the
Brave!” he said, puffing out his chest
.
I may come back and save you one
day. Save the town of Graceonna and the entire tribe of elves. I
will then gladly accept your tithings, your praise and your young
damsels. One day. Yes, one day, I will save all of you. Just
wait!”

He somersaulted again from the top of the wagon and
landed on his feet, swinging the dagger around. But he misjudged
his momentum and fell face first into the dirt.

“Sorry, buddy.” Zinna howled with
laughter. “But you have a
loooong
way to go.”

Xavian got up and dusted himself off. Then he looked
to the left to make sure Kelroar didn't see him. He would never
want to be embarrassed in front of his mentor. The man and warrior
he had so much wanted to be like.

But Kelroar no longer stood in front of the church.
Zinna noticed Xavian's concern and followed his eyeline to the
empty street.

“Where did he go?”

“I think he went inside,” said Xavian. “You know. It
is confidential stuff they're talking about.”

“Maybe he'll leave us,” Zinna said. “Why should he
be burdened with two orphaned thieves.”

“He won't leave us. He's a man of his word. What he
says, he does.”

“But he never says much.”

“He's probably talking about strategy, getting more
information from the church elders. That's what adventurers do.
Warriors don't go into the wilderness blind. Kelroar will figure
out the best strategy, prepare and then complete the mission.”

“You talk about him as if he can do no wrong. He
wants to go to the mountains. The Wilmorn Mountains, no less, and
find some crazy ass cleric that has disappeared. Who cares? This
tribe can do with one less holy man ranting and raving about
Pegasin.”

“This is not just any cleric. It is Zanfire the
Brazen.”

“I don’t believe in any of that stuff,” Zinna
said.

“He has healed the sick, cured the blind, and made
cripples get up and dance! And if Kelroar thinks he is worth
finding and saving, so be it.”

“No man or elf has a direct line to the Gods. That
includes Zanfire and whoever else.”

“I've heard him speak. His words touched my heart
and stoked my warrior spirit. He inspired me to become a hero to
the elves that I'm destined to be.”

Zinna stuck her finger in her mouth and pretended to
gag.

A group of four teenagers, all dressed in ragged
tunics came up to the wagon. They stroked the marble siding and
marveled at the posh looking interior with silk cushions.

“You never seen a wagon before?” Zinna asked.

“Are you guys with Kelroar the Champion?” the
smallest of the teens asked.

“Why yes. And you can talk to that guy to join his
fan club.” Zinna nodded over at Xavian.

“You guys work for him?”

“We fight
alongside
him,” Xavian said,
sticking his chest out. “Call it an apprenticeship.”

“Yeah? What's so special about you?”

“Kelroar is an excellent judge of character. He saw
something in me that he saw in himself many years ago.”

One of the teens reached down and tried to pet the
wolf. Jamben greeted the gesture with a guttural growl.

“Don't do that. Jamben doesn't like to be petted
like a dog. He's a soldier on duty. You show him respect.” Xavian
bowed in the direction of the wolf.

Zinna rolled her eyes.

“We heard Kelroar was half-man, half-wolf,” the
smallest one asked. “We saw him walk into the church with the
elders. Can't really tell from far away.”

“Can't tell what?” Zinna asked.

“If he has, you know, wolf qualities.”

“Your grasp on history is correct,” chimed in
Xavian. “A sorcerer named Davroar conjured him up. Used a dead
barbarian and a dead wolf and cast a spell to fuse their fighting
spirits together. He wanted to create a master race of fighters. A
tribe of warriors with the intelligence of man and the ferocity of
a wolf. Or maybe it was the other way around. I forgot.”

Finally the biggest of the bunch chimed in: “So
what, does his shit get stuck to his ass because of his fur?”

The four boys laughed until they saw Kelroar exit
the church.

“Why don't you guys try asking him yourself?”

The teens scattered in different directions as they
saw the large warrior trudging straight toward them.

“You shouldn't brag so much,” Zinna whispered.
“Kelroar said to lay low, so we lay low. Here you are showing off
every time you get an audience.”

“I can't help it. I have plenty to brag about. I was
an orphan, a thief, a nobody. Now that I am with Kelroar, I am
somebody. If it weren't for him, I'd be dead. And this whole
village would be slaves under Dark Queen rule. Or maybe something
worse. Maybe killed by dragons. Or captured by humans for use in a
carnival. They'd throw us in pit with wild orcs and watch us get
ripped apart for their entertainment.”

“I wish I was a part of his entertainment,” Zinna
said as Kelroar approached with the cleric Ricmorn. Kelroar's
muscular arms popped from under his sleeveless armor.

“He's a warrior and a champion,” Xavian said. “He's
above that sort of thing.”

“No man is above this sort of thing,” Zinna offered
as she lowered her blouse to show off her cleavage.

Xavian went into a mock stare.

“That's a weakness I'm working on myself,” he said
as she punched him in the arm.

 

Ricmorn carried a large brown satchel and walked
with a hitch in his step. A light blue hood covered his bald head
and he did not have any eyebrows. His gray eyes peeked like slits
from their puffy chambers as he appraised the young duo.

“Watch,” whispered Zinna as she anticipated what the
two men would say to them. “We're going to have to go through the
mountains of Wilmorn and rescue some half-baked cleric who has
probably been eaten by dragons by now.”

“Sounds fun to me,” Xavian said. “I mean where else
do you have to go? You can work in a tavern and slave over tables
or you can have adventure!”

“Who do we have here?” Ricmorn extended his hand
toward Xavian.

“Xavian the Brave”, said the young elf whose facial
expression quickly changed from a smile to a frown as he felt the
sweaty palm of the cleric.

“And what is this?” Ricmorn stared at Zinna’s
breasts without shame.

“I'm Zinna,” she said, looking over at Xavian as if
to say 'see what I mean?'

“Do exercise the utmost of caution,” said Ricmorn,
snapping out of his lustful train of thought. “The mountains of
Wilmorn are filled with all kinds of treachery and danger. Some are
legends and myth. Others are all too real. There are thieves. Orcs.
Crazed hermits and sorcerers. But you are in good hands with
Kelroar here.”

“Thank you,” Kelroar said.

“Inside you'll find various meats,” Ricmorn heaved
the satchel onto the wagon. “Beef and boar. You have quite a trip
ahead and you'll need plenty of nourishment. There is wild boar the
further up you go and they should suffice nicely if you run out of
food.”

Kelroar took his seat atop the wagon. He reached
over and grasped the reins on the stallions.

Ricmorn turned his attention from the young people
back to the barbarian.

“I pray that you find our brother. I pray that he is
okay. The Lord Pegasin will bestow his blessings upon you.”

Kelroar looked to his young charges.

“Let's go,” he said.

The two teens climbed into the wagon. Kelroar
snapped on the reins and the horses galloped forward.

“You will do the tribe of Kevfire proud!” Ricmorn
waved goodbye.

Jamben jolted up, yawned, and followed the
wagon.

 

The chalk colored castle looked like a tombstone in
the sky. Tholan knew what it looked like from his nightmare. That
is what unnerved him about this job. For all his warrior code and
ethos, supernatural elements gave him pause because he had such
limited exposure to it.

How could Ravalynn communicate with him
telepathically? She appeared to him in a dream, telling him of the
pain she saw in his eyes. A pain she understood.

He heard of the Dark Queen's legend. How she could
find you in your thoughts. Expose secrets that you did not know you
had.

“You have nothing to fear from me,” she said,
wearing nothing but a snake around her neck. “Unless you fear
pain.”

He awoke in a cold sweat.

“Magic,” he whispered to himself. “Damn it all to
hell.”

Directions to her castle sat on his bedside table.
The Dark Queen required his service.

Tholan found the quiet of the forest unsettling.
There were no sounds of insects, birds, or other animals which
would lessen his sense of foreboding. A haunting silence surrounded
him. Even the wind had no noise as it brushed over the grass and
leaves.

Tethering his horse to a pole, he approached the
castle. The main gates were decorated with carvings of goblins
attacking elves. Large torches fired up instantly as he stepped
closer. The flames lit up knockers made of onyx stone. They were
carved in the shape of a crow's head.

Tholan reached for the knocker but the gates opened
on their own. He could feel someone watching him. He looked at the
windows and saw only darkness.

An old lady appeared to greet him. Wearing all black
with a veil over her face, she shuffled forward in small steps.

Tholan saw that her veil concealed a rotting
travesty of warts and boils. At least one hundred summers old, the
woman moved feebly but with purpose. Candlelight from the wall
reflected in her eyes.

Eyes that had the patience of the dead.

“Tholan the Hunter?” Her voice rasped like sandpaper
over stone.

“Of course.”

“The Dark Queen requires that you remove all
weaponry before you enter her chambers. It is for her safety.”

“Unfortunately, I cannot comply,” he said. “Tholan
does not unarm himself... for his own safety.”

He heard the sound of nails scraping on stone. There
were two tiers in the castle foyer. Killtooths emerged on the
second level, surrounding him. With yellow eyes full of malice,
they looked ready to pounce with jaws filled with sharp teeth. They
had lizard like wings attached from their elbows to their waist.
Tholan counted twenty of them but he could take them all on if need
be.

As long as he had his weapons.

“There's more of them,” the old lady said. “In case
you're wondering.”

“I came here in good faith,” said Tholan. “From far
away. Too bad we cannot do business.”

Tholan turned back around. Before he could take one
step, the old lady appeared in front of him.

“The Dark Queen means you no disrespect,” she said.
“But please reconsider. Fifty thousand gold pieces. It is just our
rule. That no one be armed in her presence. We have had, shall we
say, incidents.”

“Fifty thousand?” asked Tholan.

The old lady lifted up a satchel. She reached inside
and dropped some of the coins to the floor.

The gold pieces shined in the darkness.

“You will have no incident here,” he said.

Tholan removed his sword from its sheath and a
dagger from his boot, laying them on the ground.

“Anything else?” she asked.

“No,” he replied.

“Hold your arms out please.”

Tholan paused for a few seconds and then
complied.

“Sorry, but we have to be sure.”

The old lady frisked his body with agonizing
slowness. Her icy fingers moved across his belly, thighs and
buttocks. He stiffened as he felt her scarred and calloused hands
move across his groin.

“You are one built barbarian,” she hissed. “Ravalynn
always had exquisite taste.”

Satisfied, she walked ahead of Tholan. He followed
warily, keeping an eye on the Killtooths who were watching his
every move. One of them spat in his direction. The others shrieked
and hissed.

The old lady inserted a large skeleton key into the
lock, turned it six times, then opened the door. She stepped aside
as Tholan entered the private chamber. It had a large window in the
back with a slab table in the center.

The door slammed shut behind him.

Tholan walked through the chamber listening to the
echo of his boots. A large vase sat in the center of the room. Made
of marble, it stood about seven feet tall.

“The biggest urn you've ever seen right?”

Ravalynn emerged from the darkness. She had the kind
of body men often dream about but never see. Wearing a dark blue
dress, her ample cleavage covered only by a necklace of marble
pendants. Her jet black hair took on a purple hue when she stepped
into the moonlight.

“I collected the ashes of my soldiers that were
killed by the elves last summer. The elves of Kevfire. They came
into my caves. Torched my creations.”

“You eat them for dinner,” Tholan said. “They are
protecting themselves.”

“Whose side are you on?” Ravalynn said.

He felt her eyes penetrate into his thoughts. His
soul.

“The side that pays me.”

“And you took your damn sweet time to get here. You
were supposed to be here days ago.”

“There was a blizzard. I had to camp and wait it
out. And I saw the end result of your last siege. Your creations
devoured a group of missionaries. I can only guess they were of the
Kevfire tribe.”

“Indeed,” the Dark Queen said. “And you will assist
me in exterminating their race.”

 

CHAPTER 3

The Dark Queen led Tholan into a chamber lit only by
a wall-mounted candelabra.

A large onyx colored, liquid filled sphere stood at
the center of the room.

She waved her hand in a circular motion over the
sphere. The liquid inside the globe vortexed into a kaleidoscope of
dark colors; black, purple and dark blue.

Tholan shuddered as the liquid coalesced into a view
of the mission camp massacre he stumbled upon earlier.

He saw the body of the woman he killed. Hyenas and
ravens picked the flesh away from her snow covered limbs.

“You showed mercy,” the Dark Queen said. “You were
instructed to leave no witnesses-”

“I killed the only survivor.”

“Only after she attacked you,”
she
said.

Tholan watched as that scene replayed on the
globe.

“She had suffered enough.”

“You showed compassion,” Ravalynn said. “The Tholan
of a few years ago would have never entertained such thoughts. A
barbarian that embraces pity?”

She wiped her hand across the globe again. The
sphere vortexed into a purple liquid before coalescing into a scene
from a burning village. Tholan recognized his younger self in the
scene. He sliced down elf after elf with sword and dagger. The
screams of his victims grew in volume from the sphere as it
replayed various events from Tholan's barbaric past.

“This is you at your best.”

Tholan's lips parted as if he were about to say
something but the words did not come. He could only watch in awe at
his ferocious younger self.

“I have seen a great many hunters and killers,” the
Dark Queen said. “No one in history has had your resolve, tenacity
and ruthlessness. Yet you changed over time. The thrill of your
kills was replaced by a bottomless need for money. You didn't
realize that it was this lack of need that made you powerful. You
took what you wanted but then reduced yourself to a man who only
needed. You became...a servant. A servant to the highest
bidder.”

Tholan turned his back on the sphere as it replayed
scenes from his dealings with rich men. He became their hired help.
Their slave labor.

Cries of agony grew louder from the globe. He
covered his ears with the palms of his hands. Convinced that his
senses were playing tricks on him, he closed his eyes as tightly as
he could.

“You can pretend that all of this never happened.
But you can't undo what you did. And you should be proud of all the
pain you inflicted. Why you aren't begs the question. Why weren't
you proud of who you were? What killed the merciless Tholan of the
past? Who killed this great warrior who felt no pity?”

He turned around to look at her. She untied her
dress and the silk cloth made no noise as it fell to the floor.

Light from the candles danced across her bosom as
the Dark Queen approached him out of the shadows. She ran her hand
across his chest as she circled around him like a shark.

“Money makes you weak,” she whispered. “When you
were killing those people...Taking what you wanted...That was real
power... That fear you saw in the eyes of the enemy. Do you
remember what that felt like?”

The Dark Queen turned Tholan's head back toward the
globe. The sphere revealed all the violence he inflicted in his
world as she spoke.

“The power was in the killing of the men who hated
you. The power was in the violation of the women who thought they
were better than you. The burning of villages that never accepted
you. But for some reason, you gave in to their rules. You became an
assassin for hire. A utility for anyone willing to pay your cheap
price.”

“What do you want from me?”

“I want to know if the old Tholan is still in
there.” The Dark Queen traced her forefinger around the Barbarian's
heart. “Or was he killed without the use of a sword? That is what
Carella does to the men under her rule.”

“The Princess?”

“She is the bane of all of your problems,” she said.
“Her rule has been one where the men have become weak. Men who
relinquish their own desires for the sake of women. All you know is
that you need money to gain favor of women. That was the spell she
cast on you.”

“I have never encountered her. Only seen her once or
twice from afar.”

“She doesn't have to meet you to cast her curse. It
was done incrementally. You have the sword. But she and the women
under her rule...Have their beauty.”

The Dark Queen removed her bra and stood before him
with a seductive smirk. Running both hands through her lush black
hair, she twirled around slowly.

Tholan's gaze took in all of her perfection; her
breasts, the diamond piercings hanging from her navel and ears, the
raven tattooed on her lower back.

“Do you see what is happening? Who has the power
now? Your sword? Or my beauty?”

On “beauty” she pressed herself against his
chest.

“This is my power,” she whispered into his ear.

Feeling weak, he turned his attention to the globe.
He watched a scene where he took down three barbarians who attacked
him outside a tavern with steel maces and clubs. Tholan broke all
of their necks with his bare hands.

“That was one of the greatest nights of my
life.”

“You can become that barbarian again.” The Dark
Queen pulled away from him and ran her hand over the sphere
again.

“This is Carella's castle, Wandacove. It is heavily
fortified, as you might expect. She has the most highly trained
archers at the castle windows.”

The sphere showed bowmen shooting down enemy
invaders from afar.

“Her soldiers are strategically placed around the
castle according to their various skill level. Novices are placed
at the rear but even they can be dangerous. The castle entrance is
blocked by the best wrestlers and swordsmen in the land. Carella
has the best in everything. But with my army at your side we can
defeat them with willpower, fire and hate.”

A spell book appeared in the globe. The book opened
on its own, the handwritten contents fading on tattered brown
pages.

“That book is called the Arcanscape,” Ravalynn said,
her voice inflected with a sense of wonder. “It contains spells
that will allow me to create a whole new world. A world where
warriors like you no longer have to slave for dollars. A world of
order where the ruthless eat the weak.”

The Dark Queen waved her hand over the globe.

“And a world where barbarians are duly rewarded,”
she said.

The sphere revealed Tholan surrounded by lovely
young women. He sat on a throne of gold while one girl massaged his
shoulders. Another fed him grapes. Three other women performed a
strip tease while two more girls stood on opposite sides of him,
waving fans.

She circled her hand over the globe again. The black
sphere showed a large number of elves descending upon Wandacove. A
lot of them holding candles and appear to be singing a song.

“Every seven years, Carella comes out from the
castle and greets her followers. It is a two day festival of music
and she delivers a sermon. Every elf of the Pegasin religion will
come and make their pilgrimage there. It is then we shall strike.
They will be at their most vulnerable.”

“That's a lot of elves.”

“You take out the soldiers first. Eliminate their
army and the rest of the population will not even raise their
weapons.”

The door opened and the veiled old lady dragged in a
blindfolded, hog-tied elf. He struggled against the woman's grip
but she tossed him in with practiced ease.

The elf scrambled to get up. He rolled and shifted
his body sideways. Somehow, he managed to stand up on his knees as
the old lady ripped the blindfold off.

The elf's eyes darted around the room. His facial
expression turned from one of confusion to terror as he looked up
at Ravalynn.

The Dark Queen's eyes shifted into crimson slits.
Saliva dripped down the side of her mouth as she licked her lips.
She opened her mouth and revealed a pair of dagger-shaped
fangs.

The elf fell sideways. He caught the eye of Tholan
as he lay on the ground.

“Hey!” he yelled. “Don't let her do this! Do you
know what she is? She's a demon. They are all demons here!”

The Dark Queen ripped into the elf's neck with a
repressed hunger.

Her victim gurgled and convulsed as she sucked away
his life force. Elven blood had not touched her tongue in ages. She
moaned in delight from the taste.

 

Tholan turned his attention back to the dark sphere.
He put his hand on the globe.

The sphere revealed a hairy, muscular barbarian with
a deeply creased face.

“That's Kelroar.” The Dark Queen moved behind him,
wiping blood from her lips and licking it off her fingers. “He is
going to be the biggest obstacle you will face in the siege.”

“He's ugly.”

“That ugly thing is the best killer in the
land.”

“Not anymore,” he scoffed.

“Now there is the cocky Tholan that I fell in love
with watching,” she said as she pressed her naked chest against his
back.

His body shivered with pleasure as she wrapped her
arms around him. She then whispered a sequence of words into his
ear. They were words that Tholan would not understand even if he
heard them clearly.

It took only a few seconds for him to collapse under
her spell.

 

CHAPTER 4

The old lady dragged Tholan’s unconscious body to
the center of the dark chamber, his feet leaving a trail on the
dusty floor.

She carelessly dropped him to the ground and the
barbarian bounced off the floor with a meaty thud.

Lighting the candles one by one, the old lady gazed
upon the statue of a minotaur-like figure. It stood about eight
feet tall with horns curling out from the side of its head.

She bowed her head in veneration for several minutes
before returning to the body of Tholan.

With strength that belied her age, she picked the
barbarian up by his shoulders and heaved him on top of the altar,
laying him flat. The old woman then ripped open his tunic,
revealing his bare chest.

Tholan’s head lolled to the side and back again.

Ravalynn stepped into the room. She glided past the
old lady and stood above Tholan.

The old woman removed a goblet from the altar and
raised it above her head. Whispering a prayer, she placed the cup
down next to the barbarian.

Ravalynn raised a dagger high above her head. She
looked down at the barbarian's exposed chest and murmured
indecipherable words. Her chant grew louder until it reached a
shrill pitch that could freeze blood.

She closed her eyes and lowered the dagger, blindly
tracing the edge of the blade from Tholan's neck down to his
chest.

The old lady dipped her thumb into a vial of oil.
She applied it to the barbarian's forehead and chest, making a
circle and crossing it through in both places.

The candle flames blew out as the statue began
vibrating. The old lady looked on in awe as the sculpture began to
glow, illuminating the room in a purple light.

“Witness,” Ravalynn whispered into Tholan’s ear.
“The consequences of failure.”

The barbarian's eyes remained closed but his head
rolled from side to side.

The Dark Queen raised both of her arms to the side.
Tilting her neck back, her eyes rolled over white as if she were
becoming possessed.

Tholan’s head shook violently as if he were fighting
a desperate battle in his mind.

Moments later, he sprang up and screamed at the top
of his lungs.

Tholan’s eyelids fluttered and he dropped back down
on the slab. Sweat now soaked his tunic and his body writhed as if
it were on fire.

“There, there,” Ravalynn said. “That is only what
happens if your mission is met with failure. I have found fear to
be a great motivator.”

The Dark Queen ran her hands over his eyes.

“But see yourself as the victor. And you will not
fail.”

Tholan’s body went lax. His breathing became more
measured.

“I give you, Tholan.” The Dark Queen addressed the
minotaur-like statue. “He was the finest warrior in all of
Darksbane. He will retrieve the book of Arcanscape so I can restore
you to power. I will be the conduit for you to once again rule this
rotten earth.”

The candles burned off then on repeatedly as the
statue rocked back and forth.

“Tholan has murdered hundreds. He has given
lifetimes of grief to thousands. He will serve you well.”

 

Tholan’s body levitated off the slab.

Excited, the Dark Queen moved to the side of his
body and raised her dagger.

“I beg of you to possess his spirit,“ she said.
“Make him like he was. Heartless. Ruthless. Strong.”

She sliced the dagger across his chest. With expert
precision, she cut and carved the symbol of a pentagram into his
flesh. His blood dripped into the goblet.

The purple light grew brighter then faded out. The
statue stopped shaking.

After a moment, the candles flickered back to
life.

Tholan's eyes opened when he dropped back down on
the slab. His eyes adjusting to the dim light, his chest throbbed
in pain.

The barbarian looked down at his scarred pectorals
in confusion.

“I performed surgery on your spirit,” she said.
“Sympathy and compassion no longer reside in your heart. I cut all
of that poison out of you.”

Tholan sat up wearily and stood on his feet.

“You are once again Tholan the Feared.”

The barbarian gave her a searching glance. Still
confused, he walked over to the mirror at the side of the altar.
His tunic could now barely restrain the increased size of his
biceps and shoulders. Tholan marveled at his reflection and flexed
his rejuvenated muscles.

“You are as you once were,” she said. “A born again
butcher.”

The Dark Queen walked behind him and fingered the
scarred pentagram on his chest. No bleeding, no recent evidence of
what she had done. He would bear her cross of darkness forever.

“You will grow even stronger over the coming days,”
she said. “You will be able to fight for hours. Run for miles at
top speed. You will be impervious to pain. You will be
unstoppable.”

Needing no further encouragement, Tholan let loose
with an ear-splitting battle-cry.

 

 

CHAPTER 5
Zanfire the Brazen looked twenty years older than his actual age. A shock of white hair capped a face that bore wrinkles like a long forgotten raisin. Pale blue eyes matched the color of his ministerial robe and some elves joked that he looked like a walking snow cone.
Ten years ago, Zanfire took the religion of Pegasin to another level. He converted most of the Kevfire tribe within two years of his ascendance to the high priesthood. They called him Zanfire the Brazen because his words took the privileged royalty to task for their exploitation of the elven folk.
But the elves wanted miracles not words. Zanfire discovered that he had an ability to give the elves what they desired. He made a spectacle of healing the elven blind, deaf and ill. Detractors accused him of merely being a successful sorcerer. But his followers knew otherwise. Zanfire did not cast spells, they said. He had a direct link to the heavens.
But when Zanfire's wife became sick, his healing powers faded. He could only watch as she withered away from a disease which had no name. Immune to his healing touch, the disease claimed her life as well as his gift.
Zanfire began drinking heavily after her death. Elves who became aware of his alcoholism referred to him as Zanfire the Wasted. Humiliated after failing to heal a blind elf at a revival, Zanfire's popularity dwindled.
He privately cursed his God Pegasin, wondering what sin he committed to have his heavenly gift taken away.
Zanfire had six bottles of liquor left. He hoped that the village of Turnbane had a tavern where he could purchase some beer sight unseen before his next performance.
Turnbane also had the reputation for having the toughest elves. He wanted to recruit some of their best fighters to give Graceonna some additional elf power.
He stumbled in the dark with a half empty bottle. Zanfire wanted to drink just a little more to get what he privately called his “happy buzz.” He reached a stream and started to walk across a thick log to reach the other side. He slipped on the wood after a few steps, dropping his bottle into the moving creek.

Damn it all to hell!”
Zanfire looked ahead and saw that the campsite's fire was out. All were asleep in their tents. That's where he needed to be. But whenever he closed his eyes, all he could see was his wife. Then he would cry rather than sleep.
Heavy hooves approached from the west. He knelt down on the log and waited for the intruders to pass.
Black stallions raced by. They were not of his camp and the darkness prevented him from seeing who their riders were. He waited until they were out of sight and then trotted back to the camp.
Zanfire saw Carella and Iangold in front of one of the tents. They spoke in hushed tones, so he sneaked around the bend to eavesdrop on their conversation.
He marveled at how Carella's blonde curls shined like summer wheat in the moonlight. Heart-breakingly beautiful, her voice sounded like sweet music. Her brown eyes were a mercurial pool of emotions. They sparkled with life and light.
He hated Iangold. Tall and gangly for an elf, he came from a wealthy family. He played down his moneyed origins by dressing in peasant clothing and keeping his hair long. Zanfire did not like his type and saw through the disguise.

He is an old fool,” Iangold said. “He is going nowhere and taking us with him.”

I was once on the wrong path,” Carella said softly. “But Zanfire guided me to the right one.”

You are blind,” Iangold argued. “He's irrelevant. You perform the miracles. He sits back and watches. And your miracles are not miracles. They are spells from the book of Arcanscape.”

Which I am using for good.”

Good for what, exactly? We've given up everything to follow this joker. I'm in a forest with beetles flying up my ass. Going where? Going to convert a village full of savages to believe in Pegasin?”

You knew what you were signing up for,” she said.

I did not know he was this bad,” Iangold said. “I can smell the alcohol on his breath from the back of the pew. We're following a crazy man on his way to hell.”

Stop it,” Carella interrupted. “He drinks to medicate himself. He thinks no one cares about him or anything else and he may be right. But despite all of that, he still tries and puts himself on the line. That is the type of person I want to be. I cannot hide in a castle for the rest of my life and-”

Shhh...” Iangold interrupted. “Did you hear that?”
Carella turned around and looked into the dark.
Zanfire stood perfectly still, hiding behind the tent wall. He heard a rustling of leaves on the ground but thought it came from the arguing couple.

Probably a rabbit,” Carella turned her attention back to her boyfriend.

You are taking on burdens and sacrifices that you don't have to,” Iangold said. “We can travel to other parts of Darksbane. We can go to Brelynn and spend weeks in the luxury castle there. Or we can go to the Isle of Petben, dance on the beach and eat their delectable sea food. There is a whole world out there ready to be explored.”

I do not want a life of ease and comfort,” Carella said. “When I was sick and dying, Zanfire came and healed me. Something happened that night when he laid hands on me. I heard a calling. A voice that told me I was destined for something bigger than myself-”
Carella stopped in mid-sentence when she saw the two black stallions emerge behind Iangold. The loud whinny of the horse distracted her boyfriend from the Killtooth who tackled him to the ground.
Iangold's eyes widened like silver dollars as he tried to push the vampire elf off.

Help!” Carella screamed.
Iangold moved his head to the side to avoid the Killtooth's bite. Saliva dripped into his face and the guttural growl of the beast made his heart pound with panic.
The blonde princess sprang into action. She grabbed a handful of dirt from the ground and mumbled a hasty spell.
The beast squealed in pain as she threw the mud into its eyes.

Tell everyone to hide!” Zanfire emerged from behind the tent. “Stick together!”
The cleric had a dagger in hand and pounced on the blinded Killtooth.
Pulling back on the beast's ear with his left hand, Zanfire sawed off its head with his right.
The gurgling squeal of the Killtooth brought a chill to his spine.

The hell?” Gurkain, one of the stagehands, sprinted out of his tent holding a wooden club.
He never saw the Killtooth that jumped down on him from the tree. It latched onto his back and bit deep into his neck.
Gurkain bellowed in pain as he fell to his knees. He dropped his club as blood squirted from his wound.

Gurkain!” Carella screamed.
Distracted by the princess' cry, the Killtooth jumped off Gurkain and raced toward the blonde girl.
Carella sprinted for her life through the trees. The vampire elf flew from branch to branch, following her into the forest.
The princess ran for what seemed like miles. No longer hearing the Killtooth swinging through the trees above, she stopped to catch her breath.
The Killtooth jumped down from a branch and pushed Carella to the dirt. Then he held her down by her wrists, snarling in her face.
Carella twisted under his grip as she felt his member swelling against her thigh. His yellow eyes glistened with lust and hate.
Her nostrils filled with the hideous stench of his breath. She wanted to scream for help but gagged instead.
His slimy clutch unbreakable, the beast licked Carella's neck with its scaly tongue. His saliva burned, making her eyes water in pain.
She heard a battle-cry and then a “snikt” sound. Warm blood splattered across her face as the the grip on her wrists loosened.
Zanfire stood above her with a bloodied knife in one hand and the Killtooth's head in the other.
Its neck now a geyser of crimson, Carella pushed the now headless beast off her.
Without a word, they ran back to the campsite.
Gurkain's wife, Thorilove, pressed a rag against her husband's neck. He tried to speak through gurgled breaths but she put her finger to his lips.

Don't talk,” she whispered.

Are there any more?” Zanfire yelled, eyes darting around the camp.

Don't think so,” Iangold said.
Scared faces emerged from the tents. Soon the entire group of missionaries had gathered around the bitten victim.
Satisfied that there were no other Killtooths around, the cleric turned his attention toward Gurkain.

Can you heal him?” Thorilove looked up at Zanfire with tears in her eyes. “Please.”
Zanfire knelt down beside Gurkain. He gasped at the amount of blood streaming out of his old friend.
He laid hands on the man's forehead. He remembered a time, long ago, when Gurkain came to him with a life threatening fever. Zanfire healed him with one touch.
But now...

Can you heal him?” Thorilove asked again, the hopeless look on her face breaking Zanfire's heart.
When Zanfire had the healing spirit, he could feel the magic in his body. He could feel heat welling in his hands and a warmth in his chest.
He pressed his hand on Gurkain's forehead and felt nothing.
Blood bubbling in his throat, Gurkain's breaths became shallow. Staring into Zanfire's eyes, his body jerked one last time then went limp.

Gurkain!” Thorilove clutched her husband's tunic. “Gurkain! No!”
Zanfire's legs trembled as he tried to stand up. He could not meet the eyes of Gurkain's widow.
He wanted to walk to the end of the horizon and fall off the earth.
Carella took him by the arm and shepherded the shaken cleric back to his tent.

We can't raise the dead,” she said.