Empty Places

by Slawomir Rapala

Table of Contents
Chapter 1 appeared
in issue 223.
Chapter 2: Into the Mountain Ambush
part 1 of 2

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.


Six months after Aezubah’s rescue, snow lay thick on the ground as two lonely figures relentlessly struggled to cross the icy ranges of the Arynosian Mountains. Savage gusts of winds raged between the steep cliffs that loomed over them, stinging their exposed faces as they pressed forward, sinking deep into the white down with each step they took in the blinding blizzard. The wind’s tireless song sent shudders down their spines when they halted to catch their breath.

These stops lasted only moments, however, and the two men continued on their way, their teeth clenched and their eyes fixed firmly on the tracks before them. The blizzard raged on just as strong as at the beginning of the pursuit, blinding them fitfully and bringing madness to their weary minds. And yet the men continued to move fast, realizing that the marks would soon disappear under the snowfall. It continued to swarm down from the sky, forming so thick a veil that it was difficult to see further than a few lengths of a sword.

“They separated,” said Aezubah, for he was one of the pursuers, as he knelt to examine the tracks. His face was almost completely lost in the hood of a long fur coat that cloaked his whole body. His eyes were focused and unmoved as he looked to the north. Hatred lurked within his gaze. A vengeful urge, brutally restrained by the sheer power of will and forced to the very bottom of his soul, made his eyes appear even colder than they in fact were.

“The Sorcerer?” his companion asked as he collapsed beside him. Despite his giant stature he was the less resilient of the two, and the hunt was taking a greater toll on even his massive frame. He was much taller and broad-chested than Aezubah. A long mustache and black beard were frozen over his lips, and thin icicles hung from his bushy eyebrows. A horned cap that betrayed his Viking heritage covered his head, and he was clad in fur as well.

“He’s gone ahead with one acolyte,” Aezubah replied. Unlike his Viking friend, his breath was calm and slow, as if fatigue could not lay claim to his body. There was little expression on his face and only his icy gaze betrayed his state of mind.

“And the others?” the Viking’s breath was short. The two men had a long and strenuous journey behind them, over the mountains and through the raging winds.

“They turned north.”

“A trap?”

“I don’t know,” Aezubah rose to his feet and again looked straight into the wind that blew hard from the north. “Could be.”

“This is madness, bati. The Sorcerer knows he’s being followed.”

“Yes.”

“He’s fixing a trap.”

“You can turn back, Mir, go back to the troops,” the Viking bati said calmly without turning to his comrade. “I didn’t force you to come along.”

The tall Arynosian Viking rose to his feet quickly. A flash of anger passed over his frozen face when he spoke over the howling of the wind. “You can’t do this by yourself, you fool!”

Aezubah only shrugged his fur-clad shoulders. They were heavy under the weight of the responsibility he had taken on. The weight of the frost-covered armor hidden under layers of fur did not ease the burden.

He turned to look at Mir. A dry smile lingered on his thin lips. “And that’s why you’re here?” he sneered. “To protect me?”

“For his wicked plotting against my land, the Sorcerer should pay with his head,” the Viking spat. “I want revenge on him just as much as you do.”

“I doubt that,” Aezubah whispered, but the wind stole his words and carried them upward, and Mir failed to hear the quiet remark.

“So what do you think?” the Viking asked as he eyed the tracks before them.

“Drohen and one of his slaves went up ahead while the other five separated here and turned north,” Aezubah repeated. “Could be circling us.”

“How long ago?”

“Not long enough for the snow to cover the tracks.”

“They’re fast, really fast.”

“I know.”

They stood still for a moment, eyeing uneasily the passage that opened up before them. The Sorcerer had gone through the narrow pass and into a dark valley behind it. If they were to keep up they would have to follow soon. The blizzard raged on, the night was coming fast and the wind was only gaining in strength. The passage was already hardly visible, and in a matter of moments it would become too dark to trek through.

“We have to decide, fast,” Mir said. “The snow ain’t letting up.”

“They could be up ahead,” Aezubah said slowly.

“In there?”

“They either doubled back behind us or went over the northern pass. If that’s the case, then instead of falling back they could have hiked over Blind Man’s Ridge and gotten into the valley up ahead to set a trap and wait for us.”

“You know this area?”

“I’ve been here before, yes. Blind Man is hard to cross in wintertime, but they’re fitted with claws. They could have done it, hoping that we’ll think they’re circling us.”

“This could be a trap, then?”

“Either way, they’re close,” Aezubah shrugged. “They’re either coming up from behind or waiting up ahead. We’ll have to battle them soon.”

He unhooked his fur coat and let the flaps fall to the sides exposing the armor-plates that covered his body. He then shook the gloves off and drew the sword from its sheath.

The metal blade, cautiously kept close to his body and hidden in between the furs, had not yet frozen to the scabbard, although everything else in this world seemed to have succumbed to the terrible frost.

Mir followed Aezubah’s example without saying anything more, drawing his massive double-edged Viking war axe from beneath his cloak. Two average-sized men would have had trouble wielding the weapon, but the giant Viking picked it up with ease and swung it casually over his shoulder as they stepped closer to the dark mouth of the passageway.

Night was falling quickly and the narrow pass was disappearing in the thickening darkness. Heaps of snow already blocked the entrance and made it difficult for the two warriors to follow into the dark tunnel. It was quiet, the wind not having as much strength here. The snow still fell from the sky but sluggishly now, slowly covering their clothes and faces as they looked up and around. Daylight was fading altogether. They could hear the savage wind howling somewhere above their heads, in a distance.

They moved cautiously now, one step at a time, without a word. The only sound to break the silence was that of the snow under their heavy boots. Aezubah, walking in front, stopped suddenly and raised his sword-wielding arm in warning.

Mir halted immediately and glanced around in search of enemies, his battle-axe ready. Nothing broke the silence. The Viking gazed questioningly into the expressionless face of his companion. Aezubah’s solemn eyes carefully studied the rocks on both their sides, the narrow pass behind and before them, and the empty sky above.

“What...?” Mir whispered into his ear.

Suddenly, demonstrating tremendous strength, Aezubah grabbed the Viking’s shoulder and pushed him hard against the rocks of the passageway wall, while pressing his own back against the frozen cliff on the opposite side. Just in time, too, as a quiet snarl echoed above them.

Several giant figures leapt from the sky, landing softly on massive dog-like legs and digging their claw-fitted feet deep into the snow. Quicker and more powerful than any living beast, they reached with monstrous arms into the gathering darkness. Razor-sharp claws sliced the air where the two warriors had been standing only a moment before.

Not finding the soft flesh they expected, the creatures pulled back with a series of surprised grunts. Their bloodshot eyes quickly scanned the passage in search of prey that could not be far. Beastly snarls grew louder as their long muzzles moved in all directions in an attempt to sniff out the hidden prey, just as the Sorcerer had taught them back in the ice fortress where they were bred, reared in cages, and fed human flesh since being brought into the world. Their nearsighted eyes were useless in the snow and gathering darkness, but with their magically-enhanced sense of smell, they had little need of them.

A fraction of a moment later, Aezubah sprang away from the rock to which he was clinging, charging at the beasts before him, naked sword in hand. At the same time, but without his usual Viking war cry, Mir raised the heavy axe over his head and brought it down with a savage force that could easily have matched that of his foes.

With a bloodthirsty song preceding it, the blade ran forth to meet the nearest beast. It upset the snow floating quietly in the air and tore into the elongated skull of one of the Sorcerer’s acolytes. The creature grunted painfully, stunned by the sudden attack. Its small metal cap could not protect it from the savage blow; the blade tore into its skull and into its primeval thoughts.

Even before the monster’s pain-filled grunt faded, muffled by the darkness and falling snow, Aezubah struck with his sharp blade, delivering a lethal slash to the exposed throat of the second of the acolytes. Blood squirted out of the terrible gash as the beast slowly sank to its knees, its glassy eyes fixed on its destroyer.

Sickening warmth filled the air as thick blood gushed out of the two dying creatures, staining the snow red all around them, a cruel shade against the pure whiteness of the frozen world.

The attack lasted only a moment, and two of the beasts had already tumbled lifeless to the ground before their comrades could move their magically-enhanced muscles. Yet within a heartbeat, the well-trained killing machines hurled their hideously deformed bodies forward, encouraging one another with quick and angry snarls.

Mir had not even had the time to withdraw his weapon from the beast dying at his feet when a heavy mountain of muscle tackled him and sharp fangs snapped dangerously close to his face. Mir barely managed to grab the loose skin on the back of the acolyte’s dog-shaped head and hold it at a hand’s breadth away from his face.

With a screech of hate, the beast pulled the Viking closer, so terribly primal in the sheer power it possessed, clawing at his chest with the sharp nails of its powerful hind legs. Snarling into Mir’s face, spitting and foaming from its snout, it tore through the man’s fur coat with ease and within moments reached the metal plate that covered his torso.

Long yellow fangs loomed dangerously close and the Viking had to use his whole strength to keep the snapping muzzle away from his throat. The monster’s hot and disgustingly sweet breath was nauseating. He felt the sharp claws denting the armor plates on his breast with each blow.

Breathing heavily, Mir rested his head against the rock behind him, shoved one of his powerful arms beneath the monster’s long chin and pushed its head away from his own. Muscles tensed beneath his clothes, thick veins bulged on his neck and threatened to burst, but he held on.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala

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