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Empty Places

by Slawomir Rapala

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Awakening

Dispossessed at an early age, Aezubah has wandered the world in search of vengeance. On arid mountaintops, remote glaciers and burning deserts he has conquered demons from the edge of creation, wicked sorcerers, and evil kings. As a General, he is beloved of all the warriors who follow him.

But his victories are never final; he goes forth again and again with nothing but his horse, spear and sword, in loneliness and solitude, seeking the treasure that always eludes him: peace.

Through forests and deserts and blizzards unending,
Through wars and the bloodshed unknown before then,
A demon arrived keen on avenging
A Sorcerer’s crime, an innocent death.
— from “The General’s Hymn”

A blue vastness stretched before his eyes when Aezubah opened them again. Then the darkness slowly disappeared and he reemerged into the world. A cool breeze blew through his hair and gently stroked his rugged face.

Air was crispy fresh and filled with familiar smells that his lungs now absorbed with great pleasure. Tall mountains surrounded him, reaching into the sky with their snow-capped peaks as if in defiance of gods. His still hazy gaze followed them upwards into the empty heaven and into the sun that was pinned to it, hanging there through some sort of wizardry, he thought at first.

Thoughts were slow to come back even though the blackness had receded. His ears registered noises and sounds at once familiar and pleasant. There was the whisper of a nearby brook, the neighing of the horses, the hushed and distant conversations of men, the shouts of sentries, and the cries of eagles circling high above against the backdrop of the steep and snowy mountain slopes. Everything was familiar and fresh, like the air he breathed.

He blinked hard to clear his eyes, but though the blackness was gone his vision still remained veiled by a heavy fog that rested upon the whole world.

“He’s awake,” a voice spoke somewhere above him.

Through the mist Aezubah saw several horned creatures leaning over him. Their features were distorted as if they were mere reflections in the stirred waters of an ocean. They were cruel and hideous. His hand moved slightly in an attempt to wave them away. His dry lips moved within the swollen face as he tried to voice a sound.

“What does he say?” one of the Vikings asked, looking at his companions.

“Nothing, he’s still delusional,” another replied, leaning over their bati and listening to his weak breath. “He thinks we’re beasts of some sort.”

The Vikings fell quiet. They were simple warriors and seeing their fearless leader as he lay before them, with no power or will, made them feel uncertain and unsure.

“What can we do?” one of them hesitated a question.

“We wait.”

“Not much time. The Sorcerer and his inhuman acolytes cannot be far behind.”

“We rest the horses for a bit, start moving before nightfall, then.”

“We need him. We need him against the Sorcerer.”

“We don’t know what’s wrong with him.”

“It must be a spell of sorts. The Sorcerer held him prisoner in his ice fortress for two days and did as he pleased. It’s a miracle we managed to free him.”

“And for that we should be thankful. The gods were with us today.”

An elderly Viking approached and pulled on the hides to expose their bati’s tortured body. He placed his ear against the man’s collapsed chest.

“There is still much life left in him,” he said after a while.

“You have to do something to bring him back.”

“This magic is beyond me, as all of the Sorcerer’s magic is,” the aged Viking said slowly. “It’s a disorienting spell, I reckon, a black spell of a demon spawn. I don’t dabble in that.”

“You’re a healer, though.”

The elder warrior sighed, removed the horned cap from his head and ran a rough hand through the thick black hair that was only beginning to be lined with shades of gray.

“There are some herbs I know of,” he said after a moment. “I can use them but I can’t be sure if they will work. The Sorcerer is powerful and his magic is beyond me,” he repeated as he looked back to his companions.

“Do it!” they shook their heads in agreement.

The aged Viking shrugged his massive, armor-clad shoulders.

“The spell will wear off eventually, I should think, all by itself. Black spells like such don’t last long without the Sorcerer to nourish them.”

“We need Aezubah now,” another man replied. “The Sorcerer will seek vengeance. We broke into his ice fortress to free Aezubah. You know he’ll be coming for us in full strength. And there are only a few of us here. We must reach our troops soon.”

“Only Aezubah can withstand Drohen. Without him our troops will perish from the Sorcerer’s magic. We have no wizards and we know no spells. We’re warrior folk.”

“It is said that Aezubah paid in blood for the secret spells he needs to neutralize Drohen’s battle-magic. That he traveled the world in search of the demon in whose black skin the spells were chiseled. That they reached an agreement and mixed their blood as two brothers would.”

“Bollocks,” someone waved his arm.

“He knows the spells, though, ain’t that right?”

“He hates the Sorcerer, too, and for good reasons.”

“Aye,” others whispered.

“Every night he prays for the Sorcerer’s swift death so that his wife and children may finally rest in peace.”

“He’s buried them so long ago, years, I reckon.”

“Vengeance is not bound by the limits of time. It only grows stronger with each passing year. Their graves had long been covered with grass and much water has passed through the rivers of this range, but Aezubah’s hatred still burns as strong as ever.”

“All the more now,” the aged Viking added. “The Sorcerer erased his memory, but it’s not a lasting spell. The memory will come back, maybe faster with my aid, and when Aezubah remembers once more Drohen’s wicked deed, his hatred will be rekindled.”

“You’ll bring the pain back, too,” someone shook his head.

“They are companions that go hand in hand,” the healer replied solemnly.

“Do it already!” one of the Vikings waved his hand impatiently. “Get him well!”

“It’ll take some time to find the herbs I need and to prepare them.”

“You have till nightfall. We can’t risk a meeting with the Sorcerer, not now. His acolytes are too strong and there are too few of us.”

“Look, I think he’s trying to say something!”

The Vikings leaned over their fallen bati and fell quiet, their heads almost touching one another, as they all tried to hear the weak words that passed through his swollen lips.

“Breath of fire...” Aezubah whispered quietly as he gazed upon them with his still unseeing and baffled eyes. “But the stones are still cold... why?”

The Vikings straightened their backs and looked at one another with concern.

“I’ll get the herbs ready,” the healer said finally. “He’ll be fine, you’ll see. Bones will mend, wounds will heal, and the memory will be back. He’s tough as nails, he’ll live through it.”

“I hope he does for the sake of us all.”

“Get to work, all of you!”

They left Aezubah amidst the sounds of the world, resting comfortably on a pile of soft hides surrounded by the mountainsides, by the fast-running brooks and the circling eagles, amidst the neighing of horses, the sounds of warriors passing by, between the earth and the sky.

The darkness was gone and he welcomed the arrival of the sun. Although his body was broken, his spirit was free and he was again in his world, that world from which he was torn away by the wicked spells of the Sorcerer. And although there was much he still did not understand, he remembered now.

He remembered his name and it was a great name, at the sound of which enemies trembled. His name was Aezubah and he was a warrior, the chosen leader of the Northern Vikings of Arynos, a bati of an army numbering in thousands. He would crush his enemy for all he did to him. His bruised face changed slowly as a malicious smile surfaced on his broken lips, twisting hideously his already distorted features.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala

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