Chapter 3 appeared in issue 80.
Table of Contents
Chapter 4 : Seal The City
The sun hung low, right over the distant horizon, as its rays illuminated the waters of the Lake of Dead Men. The only sound to be heard was the gentle lapping of the waves as they came together as one against the shoreline. There were no boats on the distant waters, and the seagulls were coming in fast, their outlines already a little more than dark silhouettes against the brightening morning.
Lord-General Johannassen Khabriel watched the sun glint off the armor of his men like tiny diamonds on a blanket. Four hundred men, torn to shreds and ripped to pieces, made the word carnage seem inappropriate. Along the coast, the blood of his men soaked the ground so much, it seemed no power in all of creation could ever wash it away. Sweat dripped underneath his armor to wounds he could feel but could not see. The pain was only mild considering the massacre he had just witnessed.
Johannassen Khabriel was considered one of the greatest pupils of war and tactics to ever come out of the academy in The City. His legacy had been built on assurances that his mental capabilities could out maneuver any man on a battlefield, be it with a sword or with an entire army before him. It would have been a monumental task for any man to overcome the odds he had faced this early dawn.
Now he hid in the shrubbery that led to Sydowen Forest. Running into the dense wood was clearly an option, but the enemy kept him in one place, pinned to the large tree at his back like one of those dolls voodooists used to cast their spells against their enemies. Despite the early threat and occasional arrow that was fired his way to keep his courage modest, the Lord-General was loath to leave his men behind. Remy Neverfolt had died to save him. The arrow would have been a mortal hit on the Lord-General’s heart, if not for the young man’s courage to fling himself in front of the mark. Remy Neverfolt had died before he had hit the floor, his left eye punctured like a balloon.
For a moment, the Lord-General considered surrendering. It might prove the best option for a continued life. But something in his gut told him that was not the best course of action. An enemy foretold to conquer his land would make an example of him, not a prisoner.
Cringing, he let his flail drop to the soft, dark ground. It took much effort to take his helmet off. He let that fall, too. He took a moment to inspect himself for the first time. His armor was punctured in several different places, his lifeblood dripping in rivulets to the tree’s roots. He tried to draw his sword, to communicate with his home, with his queen, but could not. The pain in his left arm was making him lose feeling in his fingers, and his grip was more than tentative.
He sat in silence after taking his gauntlets off to ease the pressure in his hand, when he heard the enemy make its move. At first, he thought it was the wind, and then the waves from the nearby lake. It was almost too late when he realized it had been the twang of a bow and the zipping noise was an arrow heading in his direction.
He let his instincts tell him what to do and he dropped to the ground with a hard thud. He wondered how he would ever get off the ground again. The arrow sank half into the tree right where his head had been. It took a moment before it stopped twanging and vibrating.
There was movement to his left, and then he heard movement to his right. They were flanking him! He wondered again if the enemy knew he was alone. And the thought entered his head again, how could he have been defeated so easily?
Rolling on to his stomach to avoid another two arrows, he raised himself to one knee. The enemy almost had him completely surrounded. If he were going to die this day, then he would have to warn his queen, his beloved queen and love of his life. There was a sharp pain in his chest and for a moment he thought he had been hit. He half expected to find himself slumping over on the spot.
But then he realized it was the sweet bitterness of a love not ever returned. A love so great it would rival all the fires of the world put together, only to be doused by the waters of indifference. She belonged to another. And it was this thought that made him gather his strength, his hubris, and strike out against his enemies.
How he had survived the massacre was beyond him, but he would never fall victim again. With a reserved strength surprising even to himself, he drew his sword and ran into the trees immediately behind him.
He might as well have been a gazelle being chased by big cats in the south, beyond the ragged mountains that separated the world in two. The enemy’s shadows closed in around him and he felt the noose tighten around his throat. He turned to face them and swung his sword. Light flared the length of the blade as it exploded in to the guts of a creature so hideous it was right out of myth... and shadows.
The Lord-General flinched for a second and quickly turned to face another of his pursuers. The creature lunged back a step, realizing that the weapon being used against it could hurt it. It was all Johannassen Khabriel needed. Years of training men in arm-to-arm combat prepared him for this battle of life and death. The creature shrieked as the Lord General lunged forward, pressed in close and severed it from head to waist.
Without missing a beat, he turned and slammed the pommel into another unsuspecting creature. The sword had enough magic to stun the creature for a second, even without the blade. It went down without a cry.
He would have stayed to fight, but the ranks were closing around him swiftly. He took several steps before a sea of swarming shadows closed in around him. They thronged around him, snarling and biting at each other like a pack of hyenas. It took him a moment to realize what exactly it was that he was seeing.
The shadows had the faces of men, distorted miens caused by magic not seen in the world for hundreds of years, and the bodies of twisted animals. Their essence was made completely of shadows. Some of the bodies twisted and contorted as they mixed and shared their corporal bodies with each other. At times, they had no real shape but resembled a lightless mass.
The sight was enough to take his breath away. How could any army of man ever defeat something made of shadows and magic? He wondered for a second if The Guardian was enough to fight off this threat. And then he knew what he had to do.
He would have to sacrifice himself to get proper warning to the queen and her mistress of magic. He pressed his back against a tree and took several, large, arching swings to keep his enemies at bay. He would have one shot at this, and that would be it before they would swarm over him.
As they fell back before the steel of his blade, he gave a yell full of pain and vigor, born from a man giving himself to one last desperate act, he slammed his sword into the hard ground before him. Sparks flew in every direction. He twisted the blade with all his might, until the steel gave way with a loud snap. Then the unexpected happened.
The world burst and was filled with blue fire. Lines of liquid fire cracked the forest ground like a spider’s web, and then everything went white.
* * *
The tears flowed like an endless waterfall, falling to the bottomless pits of her pain. She knew they would come. And it didn’t bother her that the other woman was there to bear witness to her silent woes and visual shakes. Her mother would have called her weak. She was acting unbecoming of the family name. But there was no pride left in her just now to really care. It was during these times that her mother had said, “A person can only call himself strong if he has strength during the face of adversity. This strength I speak of makes a queen.”
She wrapped her arms around herself, and steadied herself. And then the tears and sobs stopped, almost as if her wells of bodily fluids had run dry. She knew then and there that she would no longer cry for her dead father. He had lived a long life, a fulfilling life and now it was her turn to try and do the same amongst all the chaos that was surely coming her way.
Turning to face Ellen Pinto Roe, she wiped the last trails of tears from her face. The witch stood behind a podium, silently reading pages from a black, leather bound book. She stood before The Book of Dreams and she gingerly turned the yellow pages. The pages were getting old and tattered.
Joleen Zelonis sat on a stone bench, wearing sleepiness like a cloak. The room they had come in was completely made of hard lined block of stones. The four walls around her connected to the stone flooring like one giant sheet of cement. Against the four walls stood four, empty shells of complete full plate armor, loaded with as much gear and weapons that a full knight could carry. Their empty helms stared back at the queen, as if awaiting commands. It was largely rumored that The Guardian could set those figures in motion at a word. In the center of the room, like two morbid companions, lay open the sarcophagi of The Prophet of Dreams and The King of the Valley of Death.
Both men looked at peace in their eternal resting places. They looked like the friends they had been. They had been childhood friends. The bond they had shared had lasted through wars, destruction, and through the creation of The Lake of Dead Men. When her father had married her mother, The Prophet of Dreams had been there to sanctify the holy matrimony.
In return, the king had made the crazy man his right hand man and advisor. When all the lords of the Council raised uproars over the appointment, it had been her father who had stood up for The Prophet of Dreams. He had proclaimed, in no small words, that the matter was not open to debate.
The Prophet of Dreams had always looked crazy in life, with his wild hair and wandering eyes. Now, in death, he looked sane.
Her father on the other hand, looked older than she thought he had been. With his hands clasped over his stomach, he looked like one of those monks from the mountains that trained in the snow with only a single robe to cover their bodies. His frail body belied the size of the man that had ridden at the front of one of the greatest armies in the world.
Oh, father, she thought. I will try to make you proud. If there was ever a time that I should resemble you, let it be this day, when I stand before the lords of The Council. Especially Wolfgang Neverfolt. That man is a brute that revels in his heritage despite his sharp ears.
“My lady,” came the other woman’s soft plea, “We should turn our attention to the matter at hand.”
Joleen Zelonis merely nodded as she rose to her feet. “You are correct. Does the book have anything new that might help us?”
The other woman nodded. “There are new pages appearing, as we thought there would be.”
Ellen Pinto Roe stepped aside as the queen reached the podium. Joleen Zelonis stared at the book for a long time before she could bring herself to touch the book. As soon as her skin came in contact with the yellow pages, words started to appear. It would be the same pages Ellen Pinto Roe had just read.
“So what will I read in the text this time?” She asked The Guardian. The other woman accepted the invitation and came over to stand next to her queen.
“It speaks of someone who will betray the queen, my lady,” offered Ellen Pinto Roe, “and of Addigo.”
So there it was. This was the third time Addigo was mentioned today. She read the passage that offered a glimpse into the future.
And Addigo will fall through the waters, full of despair, his arm and leg injured and his heart broken, for the only son he has shall now be perished.
“Does it state where he is?” asked Ellen Pinto Roe.
Joleen Zelonis read the next set of lines out loud for the other woman to hear.
Lost in darkness, he will search for his first love to find his soul. Outside the tower of the Wizard’s conclave, he will find himself when he awakens.
“So he will come to you?” asked The Guardian. Her voice carried the authority so many respected in the silence of the room. Joleen Zelonis never wanted to be at the other end of this woman’s ire.
“I appears so,” replied the queen. “It will be strange seeing him after all these years.”
“How do you think the Lord-General will take the news?” It was a question that was on the queen’s mind, as well. It was no secret who was responsible for Addigo’s self-imposed exile.
A lump caught in the queen’s throat, as she read the next passage. “Listen to this.
And the most powerful man in the valley of life will turn on his most beloved.
“How does my queen feel about the news?” asked Ellen Pinto Roe.
Joleen Zelonis could not figure out what part of the news the witch was speaking about. “The betrayal or Addigo?”
“Both,” said the Guardian.
“I don’t believe the book is speaking of the Lord-General.” Joleen Zelonis knew the ambiguities of following prophecy too closely or taking it to literally. “The book could be speaking of someone else.”
“So what happens now?” asked The Guardian.
“Many years ago, we decided that after the death of my father, life was going to change for us,” she said. “But we also knew that after the death of The Prophet of Dreams, life was going to change for the world. When The Prophet of Dreams died, we knew we were half way to the prophecy being fulfilled. Now it has been completed.
“We must prepare the bodies to be buried. Everyone knows that burying the bodies together might keep the prophecies from coming true. It is the reason why my father will not be laid to rest with my mother.”
At that moment, Ellen Pinto Roe’s sword flared to life, the pommel giving off a bright blue light that illuminated the chambers in an eerie glow. Joleen Zelonis could feel the magic flowing through the blade even at this proximity.
“I will not let the Lord-General betray you,” she stated as she burst into motion. “Not for Addigo, nor for anyone!”
Joleen Zelonis had to yell over the buzz in her ears and the magic of the sword gathering force around The Guardian. “He will not betray us! The book must speak of someone else. He loves me too much... even over his own brother!”
Ellen Pinto Roe reached into an unseen pouch and pulled a hand full of sand. She poured it into the palm of her other hand and both women watched as the magic of The Guardian came to life. The sand did not spill between her fingers, but swirled like a mini-tornado. The sand seemed to gather life before them, coalescing into something unseen and unknown. The sand never really stopped swirling, but Joleen Zelonis could see a man forming in the palm of Ellen Pinto Roe’s hand.
“It’s the Lord-General!” exclaimed the witch. “Something is wrong!” Before anything else could be said, the sand stopped moving and the magic ended. Joleen Zelonis could literally feel the life of the world drain for an instance before the sand fell between the other woman’s fingers.
“I must go to the aid of the army!” It was as excited as Joleen Zelonis had ever seen the other woman become. It was a frightening experience.
* * *
The world went white for a second, and then the Lord-General’s vision came back slowly. He half expected to be run through by teeth, claws, and fangs. He was sitting in exactly the same spot where the sword’s magic had knocked him back, flat on his rump. All around him, creatures lay slain by the blast of the sword. Trees had been cleared in a thirty-foot circle.
The sword was still buried half way into the hard ground, half of its length broken and crumbling to dust. It would be a monumental task to fix the damage that had been done to it.
He was slow to get to his knees, but the sound of more creatures heading his way made him move quicker. He hoped his plan would work. He placed his hand on the pommel of the sword, took a deep breath, and gave a prayer to anyone that would hear him, hoping that the magic of The Guardian worked.
“To The Guardian, I ask for aid,” he said breathlessly. “The army has been destroyed! I am the only one left! Seal The City!”
A disembodied voice answered his call. It was the sound of Ellen Pinto Roe’s voice. She truly was a powerful witch.
Find your way home. I will seal The City then.
Without another word, the Lord-General retrieved his broken sword and stumbled past the damage wreaked by his sword, including beasts he had felled. He took several steps amid a shower of arrows. With any luck, he would make his way without taking any more injuries. The enemy feared his magic now, and the wide berth they gave him showed they respected his ability as a warrior.
With any hope, he would be at the edges of his city within the hour.
* * *
The two women stared at each other in the silence of the room, the ringing in their ears caused by Ellen Pinto Roe’s magic already faded away. The gravity of the situation slowly sank in. And then the nightmare Joleen Zelonis was going to live out in the next few months hit her squarely in the chest.
“The nightmares are coming true. They are all coming true!” was all she could say.
“My queen, prepare for the worse.” The Guardian waved a hand before her and a bowl coalesced out of the stone itself. “We are left with an entire city and only the home guard to protect us.”
A stream of clear, blue water from some unseen source filled the bowl. It filled half way and then Ellen Pinto Roe began her work. She reached for more sand, and then raised her hands over her head and began to chant. White light arched over her, tracers of magic left behind by the moving motion of her hands. Ellen Pinto Roe’s eyes looked white for a second, and Joleen Zelonis stared at the power being displayed before her.
“Prepare to evacuate thousands of people in the next three hours, my lady.” Ellen Pinto Roe’s booming voice seemed to come from somewhere else. “I must prepare to seal The City.”
Joleen Zelonis unconsciously reached for the sand in the bowl. Ellen Pinto Roe stopped her before she could shift it between her fingers. “Isn’t there some other way to do this? Half the people will be left to the wolves if we seal The City as you have suggested.”
“My lady,” replied Ellen Pinto Roe, “I cannot do anything without your orders. I would seal it now, but the Lord-General needs to be at your side, and we cannot hope to survive without him. As for sealing The City, we must. We have no army, a city to defend, and the wolves are already at the gates.” The wolves are at the gates was an old saying used to describe the arrival of an opposing army on a battlefield. “If you wish it, you can command me to hold myself in check, but I can only recommend that we do as I have suggested.”
So it was to be a quick decision, a rash decision. Her mother and father always instructed her to never make any decisions rashly. They acknowledged that sometimes it couldn’t be helped. But it was these decisions they were quick to point out, that brought most kingdoms and rulers down. The trick was to think about the actions she would make as a ruler and to take out all emotion from those decisions. It was only then you could think clearly.
This was a decision that would haunt the dead queen for many nights following, in the back of her wagon, in the dead of the night, surrounded by guards and common folk alike. She forced herself not to feel a thing, if anything to at least meet one of the requirements set by her parents, before she could speak.
“Seal it, then,” she said, and wondered whose lives she had just ended. “Let us pray The Prophet of Dreams can guide us safely through.”
Without another word, Ellen Pinto Roe turned away from her queen. She walked over to one of the suits of armor and made some quick gestures. “Brother of Darkness, awake and protect your queen from any that would cause her harm.” Red dots of light flared to life where none had been before. The helmet swiveled to one side and then to the other. The gauntlets flexed as if a person with stiff muscles was suddenly underneath.
Joleen Zelonis didn’t like the prospect of being left alone in the chamber with the newly animated thing.
“I shall return,” stated Ellen Pinto Roe. Blue dots of fire were dancing in the air behind her. They were quickly forming into a portal. “We are leaving when I get back.”
And then The Guardian left in a flash of light and fire, leaving the Dead Queen alone with her animated guardian, two dead men that were the best representation of a past everyone was leaving behind, and her thoughts of doubt and insecurities as the next ruler of the Valley of Life. She couldn’t help thinking that soon it would be a valley of death.
Copyright © 2004 by Julian Lawler III