by Slawomir Rapala
|Table of Contents|
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
|Part 2 of 4|
Edrastos sighed and twisted his head to look toward the snow-capped summit of the Treacherous, now clearly visible through the clouds and the scattered morning mists. The face of the sun finally peered from behind the mountain and its light reached the resting assassin. Light reflected off the snow that cloaked the summit and its intensity hurt Edrastos’ eyes. He closed them for a moment and wiped away the tears gathering in their corners.
That was when it came. He heard it coming and jerked his body backwards, up the slope, but his booted feet slipped on the loose gravel. A heavy arrow penetrated the thin chainmail that the assassin wore beneath his shirt and pierced his breast. A painful grunt escaped his lips as he clutched the long black shaft and gazed at it with bewilderment.
What a brilliant marksman, he thought looking back towards the distant thicket from which the missile was sent forth. In this last moment of his life the assassin could not but wonder at the murderous skill of his invisible slayer. He gasped once more, his hands clutched a handful of air and then he ceased moving altogether, his body motionless on the slopes of the mountain...
* * *
Aezubah did not bother climbing the slope of the Treacherous to check whether or not the Biyackian assassin still breathed. His aim had never failed him, and the perfect silence that followed the musical sound of the released bowstring assured the ageing General that his foe would not escape. He turned on his heel and slowly descended to the lower portions of the Treacherous, retracing his steps through the scarce thicket.
While stealing after the assassin he had moved quietly, making no more noise than a breeze. Now, with the enemy dead, he abandoned caution in favour of a swift descent. Branches slapped him along the way, but, in his pensive mood, he did not care to move them aside. His forehead was creased and his gaze gloomy.
Aezubah had not expected Biyack XIV to seek him out among the highlanders. For eons their breed had dwelt amidst the unreachable summits of the Lyonese Dreary Mountains, and the ancient Dynasty had never been able to subject them. They were highly mobile and remained hidden for most of the year, emerging only prior to the snow covering the slopes, to gather meat for the long and harsh winter that was soon to follow.
A dangerous folk they were, too, warlike and vicious when defending their homesteads. However, Aezubah had underestimated the King and his Underworld allies. It must have been their spies that found him after such a long time. Wretched dogs!, the General spat with disgust. For far too long they had tormented him in the dungeons of Reele that he could forget their ways. And now they were set on his trail once more by the wicked King who greedily clung to life by dark magics and refused to let go of old hatreds.
A bitter smile surfaced on Aezubah’s lips as he made his way through a small opening in the thicket. He was not much different from the ageing monarch, having himself performed many vengeful deeds. Though he had burnt Reele years ago, his thirst for vengeance was not quenched, either. The two years in the dungeons, most of which was spent under the whip of the primitive brute Maalodobrie, demanded further punishment. Not many things would more please the ageing General than being able to have the wicked King at a sword’s length.
A quiet clamor alerted him suddenly to someone approaching and he wheeled around, snatching at his sword at the same time. His gaze took in the small clearing he was crossing and then focused on a thick cluster of bushes he thought had moved. A gust of wind perhaps, but Aezubah had not lived this long by disregarding such warning signs.
His eyes narrowed and his hand gripped tighter at the onyx-bound hilt of the broad weapon. Highlanders seldom ventured out into the slopes of the Treacherous, believing the mountain to be of particularly unpredictable temperament, prone to sudden weather changes and such. Another assassin, perhaps?
Slowly Aezubah stepped back without shifting his eyes away from the suspicious clump of growth. The bush moved again, a loud rustling was heard, and finally a man thrust his head through the thicket. His eyes searched the opening and locked with Aezubah’s. The General’s sword slipped out of its sheath with a menacing whisper as he watched the stranger emerge from the bush.
Aezubah stiffened and caught his breath at the sight of the man’s gigantic frame. The stranger must have stood at least two heads taller than he and, being twice as broad at the chest, he easily dwarfed the General, who was not undersized by any measure.
Awesome muscles rippled beneath the man’s pale skin, which must have been untouched by the sun for years. A set of dark eyes burnt within a square face that was bound by a mane of black hair carelessly thrown over his shoulders and cascading in thick waves down to the small of his back. Steel armour covered the man’s torso, thick metal plates shielded his forearms and thighs. In his hand he wielded a heavy sword that was at least twice the length of Aezubah’s.
Having emerged completely into the opening, the stranger took another two strides towards the General who stole along the edge of the thicket, cautiously keeping out of the reach of the man’s long blade.
“You are the man they call Aezubah?” the stranger demanded, his voice rolling over the small clearing like thunder.
“I am,” the General returned, his trained eyes studying the man before him, trying to ascertain whether or not he was indeed as dangerous as his stature suggested.
Presently, the stranger straightened his back, and said in a somber voice: “I am Athanasios, High Captain of the Third Cavalry serving under our most noble and loving King, Naluu the Great.”
“A madman,” Aeuzbah whispered upon hearing the name of the last King of ancient Azmattia, a Kingdom that long ago had been buried beneath southern sands.
“And I am here to kill you,” the stranger finished as he lifted the heavy sword, its tip pointing at Aezubah.
The General did not move upon hearing this, only his sword-wielding hand again gripped the hilt tighter. For a moment he wondered whether he had enough time to draw an arrow, but he abandoned the idea. His short antler bow was stashed away in the quiver along with a dozen or so deadly missiles and was carelessly strapped to his back.
The thought flashed through his mind but disappeared just as quickly, especially as in that same moment, the madman sprang forward, hurtling like a monstrous hurricane and roaring at the top of his lungs.
Aezubah felt the earth shake beneath the giants’ heavy feet, but did not step down nor did he quiver at the sight of this mountain of muscle and steel rushing towards him. A cold-blooded fencer, the General waited for the giant’s falling blade and then parried it with ease, though his arm nearly stiffened from the awesome power that carried the blow. The skillful block threw the giant off his stride and sent him head first into the thicket, but he managed to stop before falling to the ground. He wheeled around with a snarl and swung the sword again, forcing Aezubah to retreat beyond its reach.
“Halt!” the General exclaimed, seeing that the stranger was readying for another blow.
The madman launched his body forward without a reply. Roaring like a wounded beast, he swung blindly once and then again, driving Aezubah to the edge of the clearing. Here the General avoided another strike by sliding beneath the giant’s steel-clad arm. Seeing an opportunity he slashed the exposed flesh at the back of the madman’s thigh and jumped back to view the effect. But the gash, though seemingly long and deep did not seem to harm the giant at all.
With viper-like speed he turned on his heel and swung the sword again, this time aiming to sever his foe’s head. Aezubah, though caught off guard, managed to avoid the long blade once more. He sprang back with an oath, reaching for his long hunting knife at the same time. As soon as his feet touched the ground he hurled the blade forward. It soared through the crisp air with terrible precision, shimmering for a moment like a falling drop of dew, then struck the giant just as he turned.
Such strength was behind the thrust that the blade wedged itself whole in the side of the man’s neck and only the wooden handle remained visible, still quivering after the flight. The madman grunted and dropped his heavy weapon. Slowly he sank to the ground as if overcome with tremendous fatigue. There he lay, gasping for air, his eyes wide open and searching the sky.
Aezubah sighed with relief and wiped the sweat away from his face. Though he knew himself to be a better fencer and much quicker than his unexpected foe, the stranger’s mere strength was frightening. With his blade still unsheathed he cautiously approached the giant and stood over him. Though the wound was mortal, the man still breathed. The knife-handle moved up and down to rhythm of his heart. His gaze was not pained, nor was it glossed over with the veil of death. Not even a drop of blood seeped out of the terrible gash. Aezubah stared down at foe, his eyes wide open with bewilderment and his sword hanging over the stranger’s broad chest.
“You cannot kill me,” the madman gasped.
“I’ve got a double-edged blade that says otherwise, so you best watch your mouth, stranger,” the General advised.
“Do it then,” the giant whispered with difficulty for the knife buried in his neck obstructed his voice. He wheezed as he spoke. “Do it,” he repeated. “Kill me.”
Aezubah cursed and thrust the sword downward, piercing the man’s armour and the flesh beneath it. The giant grunted in pain and curled into a ball, but the General leaned against the hilt of his sword and felt it run the man all the way through, exiting out his back and sinking into the ground.
The stranger swung his arms, trying to gather Aezubah into a mighty embrace, but the General staggered back in time. Breathing hard, he watched his bewildering foe struggle to free himself from the blade that pinned him to the ground.
“If I can’t kill you, the least I can do is keep you off your feet,” Aezubah muttered with anger, unable to understand the nature of his peculiar enemy. He strode off away from the clearing and sought out a heavy boulder, many of which littered the slope of the Treacherous. With a great deal of effort he managed to drag it back to the clearing, finding his foe still imprisoned by the sword’s length. Though powerful, the giant could not find a decent grip on the blade that pinned him.
Shaking his head in disbelief, the General pushed the boulder to the man’s side. Disregarding him completely, he hoisted the rock up to the level of the giant’s chest and rolled it onto him. The stranger grunted painfully again and swore profoundly, blasting Aezubah and sending him to hell.
The boulder further pinned him to the ground with its sheer weight and rendered any thought of escape impossible. The General backed away to examine the peculiar binds. He shook his head again as he encircled his foe and studied both wounds, either of which should have killed the giant instantly regardless of his strength.
There was not even a drop of blood, however, and the man, although in pain, seeemed in perfectly good condition otherwise. Quickly he was regaining the strength lost due to the trauma caused by the blows and soon he was even able to speak much better. Presently, after a final attempt to free his bound frame, the giant swore and looked at his captor with anger.
“You can’t keep me here forever,” he snapped.
Aezubah walked around and stood facing him. “Forever has a suddenly strange ring in my ears,” he smirked. “It’s a long time when you’re dead, as obviously you are.”
“Am I dead, Aezubah?” the giant mocked him. “I breathe, don’t I? You can feel my heart beating beneath the armour.”
“But you don’t bleed and you don’t die,” the General shook his head. “Whatever creature you are, you have more in common with the dead than the living.”
“I am a man like you.”
“No, that you’re not,” Aezubah shook his head again and studied his prisoner more closely. “What did you say your name was?”
“I am Athanasios,” the giant lifted his chin defiantly.
“And you say you come from Azmattia?”
“You do realize that Azmattia no longer exists?”
“Of course!” the man grunted. “What do you take me for, a fool?”
“I’m leaning towards a different opinion,” Aezubah crouched beside the imprisoned giant. “That you’re mad.”
“Mad?” Athanasios scoffed. “You’re the one talking to a corpse.”
“Yes, it is strange,” Aezubah frowned. “Stranger still is the fact that the corpse is talking back to me. Who are you?” he demanded.
“I told you already.”
“Then either you are mad or you lie,” the General shrugged.
“I have no feud across centuries. In this day and age, though, many men wish me dead. One of them is Biyack the Cursed, wretched dog, whose last assassin I slew this morning on the slope of the Treacherous. His ties with the Underworld are well known to me. Given that, what do you expect me to believe: that you are a resurrected warrior of Azmattia, or that you are simply one of Biyack’s demon-spies whom he calls forth from the Underworld with his wicked spells?”
Athanasios’ face flushed with anger and he jerked his head forward, stretching his necks so that his bulging veins nearly exploded.
“How dare you accuse me of such ties?!” he demanded and there was so much sincerity in his thundering voice, that Aezubah instantly believed him.
“You flush easy for a man whose blood can’t be drawn,” he remarked with a grin.
“There is blood in my veins,” the giant scowled. “But it is bound by dark magics to course throughout without ever leaving my mortal frame.”
“Dark magics, you say?” the General questioned. “So you are a prisoner to someone other than me?”
Athanasios did not reply immediately. He quieted down and his giant frame seemed to shrink. A sudden gust of wind blew over the clearing as a heavy rain cloud spread its dark edges over the blue canvas. The General looked up with a frown, wondering at the abrupt change, but paid no further heed to it and directed his attention back to the giant.
“There is much you don’t understand, Aezubah,” Athanasios shook his head finally.
“Enlighten me. I have time.”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala