A storm was imminent. It promised to be a bad one. It would rain hard, and with the rain would come death.
Within a grotto, high atop an active volcano, a wizard hunkered over a vision within the flames of a modest campfire, holding back long wisps of golden hair.
Something strange was occurring hundreds of leagues south of the cave. Something catastrophic. Tears dripped from the tip of the wizard’s nose. The omens foretold the return of a devastating power. A power that had annihilated the unspoiled tracts of the Innerworld a few moon cycles earlier. The same power that had besieged Quarrnaine Svelte and her expedition four years ago, but this time it was different. This time, the signs pointed to an absolute apocalypse—a total annihilation of Zephyr, and there was nothing the wizard could do to prevent it.
A cold wind swirled ash into the wizard’s face, burning small holes in the silken robes fluttering about the magic user’s slight frame.
Ignoring the acrid smoke, the wizard leaned closer to the flames, willing the vision to reveal a deeper understanding. Helleden Misenthorpe was at the root of this storm, of that there was little doubt, but there were other participants involved this time. One bigger than the malign sorcerer himself. If this magical storm of doom wasn’t strange enough, there was also something familiar about it. Something that shook the wizard to the core.
The flames burned with more intensity than they had a right to, given the meagre fuel they fed upon. They flared up to singe the wizard’s hair and abruptly went out.
The wizard quickly uttered an incantation to relight the fire, anxious to witness the unfolding storm, but the flames refused to come back. The wizard frowned and chanted again, paying attention to proper enunciation. Next to a divination invocation, a vision spell was the hardest one to enact correctly. The embers flickered with promise before fizzling out again, but the wizard had felt that familiar presence again. It was as if someone had mentally reached out, desperate for the wizard’s attention.
“No,” the wizard bemoaned the unresponsive ashes and made a frantic search of the dank interior. Passing over a pile of tattered tomes and brittle scrolls, the wizard found a grimy vial of green ichor—handling it with the utmost of respect. A little hesitant, but with no time to waste, the wizard thought, why not?
Pulling the cork stopper loose, the wizard shook the vial in an effort to hurry the gelatinous substance from the container. Excruciatingly slow, the ichor dripped once, and then a second time, sizzling as it oozed into the embers.
The wizard replaced the stopper and dropped the vial into a robe pocket. With both hands free, the wizard intoned the magical phrase of vision, pronouncing each word exactly as they had been learned.
At first, the smouldering fire hissed and sputtered, but as the wizard panicked anew, a small flame caught, quickly rearing to engulf the entire pit—threatening to climb out of its confines and onto the stone floor.
The extreme heat forced the wizard back against the cave wall. Concentrating like never before, the wizard drew from an unknown reserve, and the vision reformed within the leaping flames. The scene of a bloody battle waged in virtual darkness, except for the fires burning in the fields around a river and the sporadic bursts of what could only be magic, took shape, but this was not Zephyr.
It was difficult for the wizard to determine where the battle took place; certainly nowhere familiar. Immense birds of prey flitted in and out of the vision, swooping down upon hapless victims and then flying out of sight. Men, women, and small misshapen creatures battled for their lives along the banks of a wide river, against an insurmountable number of red demons wielding tridents and other malicious instruments of death.
The familiar sensation reached through the flames, taking the wizard’s breath away.
Unseen in the background of the image until now, a cylindrical mountain blazed to life. So intense was the illumination that the wizard cowered behind an upraised arm.
The wizard’s raging fire pulsed once in warning—the wizard oblivious to the omen.
The wizard locked onto the compelling pull from within the flames, desperately trying to make sense of what was happening.
The image of the blazing mountain exploded, erupting like a volcano. A visible concussion shot outward, the intensity of the blast obliterating the wizard’s vision.
A violent wind emanated from the centre of the fire pit, stoking the wizard’s flames, a harbinger of the fiery maelstrom that suddenly engulfed the cave.
Scene: Emperor Krakus awaits Helleden's return.
Krakus glared at the tent flaps, daring them to open. His imminent meeting with Helleden Misenthorpe loomed over his head. Word reached him that the sorcerer had come down from his hiding spot on the mountain.
What did the skinny wretch do up there, anyway? Did he spend his waking hours reading those dusty old tomes like wizards were wont to do? Did he preform those strange rituals and sacrifice animals or worse? Did he even sleep at all?
No matter. Krakus the Kraken be cowed by the sallow-faced, finger-wagger a second time. No one told an Emperor how to handle his affairs. Not if they preferred their head where it was.
He looked over at the hulk of Karvus lovingly whetting the edge of his colossal battle-axe. Krakus had never seen one anywhere near as large as his son’s. He doubted anyone else could even swing the beast. He should have allowed his son to dispatch the pasty freak yesterday. It would have spared him a sleepless night.
He didn’t plan on losing sleep tonight. The guard had been tripled around his pavilion. His elite shock troops had taken over the responsibility of escorting the sorcerer through the fortified camp.
Karvus’ hounds lay restlessly by his side, occasionally snarling for no apparent reason, perhaps unsettled by the close proximity of more of the demonic hounds surrounding the pavilion. It would be good sport watching the robed malcontent try to cast his witchery fast enough to deal with a pack of dybbuk hounds.
The emperor smiled at that. He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. He couldn’t wait to see the pompous spell-caster grovel. If Helleden begged hard enough, perhaps Krakus would allow him to serve in his personal bodyguard. With the sorcerer as a protector, who knew what an emperor with Krakus’ ambition could achieve?
When the tent flaps parted marking the entrance of one of Karvus’ shock troops, Krakus almost yelped.
“What is it, man?” Krakus barked.
The man dropped to a knee upon the entrance rug, a nasty looking cudgel in hand. “My emperor, the sorcerer has entered the camp.”
“Nay, my emperor.” The man kept his eyes to the mat.
Krakus frowned at the unanticipated response.
“No? Who else? How many?”
“Just one, my emperor.”
“And? Who is this second person? Another sorcerer? A guard? A whore? What?”
“A demon, sir.”
Krakus swallowed. Helleden’s army were all demons of one persuasion or another. The big, red, trident bearing ones were the worst of the lot, but his own shock troops were their equal. One, by itself, shouldn’t prove to be too much of a concern, though the morose tone of the man on the carpet suggested otherwise.
“Obviously a demon, you buffoon. So, what of it?”
The man, a seasoned warrior, looked up into the emperor’s eyes, fear evident in his own. “This is no ordinary demon, my emperor. It is huge.”
Krakus shrugged. He had enough muscle to deal with a huge demon.
“It’s huge? Is that all?”
“Nay, my emperor. I can’t explain it, but—”
The man lowered his head. “It seems to shift about. One moment it is behind the sorcerer, the next it is beside him, and before you blink it is on his far side.”
Krakus scowled. Surely Helleden must know he can’t intimidate a man such as he. “The wretch is playing with your mind, you fool. It’s an old sorcerer’s trick to distract you from concentrating on him. Now get out!”
“Aye, my emperor.” The man rose and rushed from the tent.
Karvus’ bulk rose slowly, battle-axe in hand. The dybbuk hounds jumped up, instantly alert. Karvus grunted a command to settle them.
“I will see to this magic man.”
Krakus looked at him with wide eyes. “No. You remain here with me.”
Karvus glared at his father. He thought he saw a trace of fear in the emperor’s eyes. He slumped heavily into his chair, scowling. He would have to do something about that.
From the Chapter named after the picture: SADIE
Walking across blackened farmland, the unlikely trio espied the high hills southeast of their position, marking Lake Refrain, still another day and a half away.
Passing outlying farmsteads, their optimism that Millsford might have survived the widespread devastation of the sorcerer’s wrath quickly waned. The absence of human life around all the burnt-out farm houses and collapsed barns did little to sway their mounting despair.
By midday, the desecrated wooden palisade that until recently had protected Millsford on its two landlocked sides, stretching from the Madrigail River’s eastern bank and running north to meet up with the southern shore of the Canorous River, came into view. From their vantage point on the far side of the mighty Madrigail, the burnt and shattered sections of wall had done little to shield the citizens within.
Millsford Road crossed the Madrigail on the back of an arching stone bridge, but the dilapidated state of the bridge gave them pause. Half of the stone structure lay scattered beneath the river’s surface, the tumbled stonework creating rapids in the river.
“Enough t’ floor ye,” Olmar said, shaking his head at the devastated span. “I be thinkin’ we’d best wade across.”
“Aye, you could use a bath,” Sadyra said. Before Olmar could reply, she vaulted up the side of the ruined bridge and agilely skipped across the blasted remains, effortlessly hopping gaping holes. Reaching the far side, she called out, “You two coming anytime soon?”
Alhena and Olmar looked at each helplessly. There was no way either of them were about to replicate the archer’s path.
Alhena sized up the rapids created by the fallen bridge rock, thinking to himself how he hated getting his robes wet—they took forever to dry. Sadyra’s shining face, watching them from across the expanse, ruled out the thought of disrobing.
Beside him, Olmar sat upon the riverbank, removing his huge boots. The sailor then shrugged from beneath his tunic, unlaced his sweat stained shirt and pulled it over his head. Rolls of Olmar bounced and hung over the man’s tightly cinched, leather belt. When he unclasped the buckle, Alhena feared the earth would move beneath their feet.
A piercing whistle sounded across the river. Sadyra stood with her hip stuck out, two fingers in her mouth and a mischievous look on her face—clearly enjoying the spectacle.
There was no way in hell Alhena was about to disrobe now.
Olmar, in his altogether, spread out his tunic and wrapped all of his belongings in it, except his cap and massive warhammer. Turning to Alhena, no humility evident in his beaming jowls, he said, “here Pops, take this.”
Alhena wasn’t given time to respond as Olmar thrust his burden into his arms.
“Now, get on.” The great mass of human flesh bent his head and shoulders to the ground.
Flabbergasted, Alhena backed away a step. “What the? You want me to climb on your head?”
“Me ‘ead? No, Pops. Git yerself on me shoulders, and be quick about it. Don’t want lassie over there ‘avin’ a conniption.”
Sadyra sat upon the far bank, laughing like she was being tortured with a goose feather.
“But, but…it’s okay, I will swim. Don’t you worry about me. I’ve crossed bigger water than this, let me assure you,” Alhena said, thinking back to his plunge into Lake Madrigail with Rook Bowman.
“Bah!” Olmar grunted, straining to hold his pose, his face brushing the ground. “Ain’t you I’s worryin’ about. I’m hopin’ yer t’ keep me stuff dry, is all.”
Swallowing the little pride left to him, Alhena hiked up his robes, exposing his bone white, stick legs. Sadyra’s wolf whistle gave him pause. Straddling a naked man’s neck was the last thing he ever thought he’d find himself doing, but as the mountain known as Olmar waded out into the current, he appreciated the fact that, other than the lower hems of his voluminous robes dragging upon the water’s surface as the river depth reached Olmar’s triple chin, the majority of his own clothes remained dry. Had it not been for the woman rolling upon the far bank in tears, he might even have enjoyed swaying above the water’s surface on the shoulders of a giant.
Olmar only stumbled twice. On the second occasion, Alhena thought for sure he would be thrown into the cold river, but the sailor steadied himself on his well-versed, bowed-legs and laughed heartedly, himself caught up in Sadyra’s hysterics as she watched their progress.
Once upon the far bank, Alhena immediately retreated, red-faced, to a safe distance down the road to allow Olmar some dignity.
Sadyra, however, gave the unabashed sailor a thorough once over, before she dragged herself to her feet and said through another round of laughter, “I’m glad I took the bridge. By all appearances, that water is colder than it looks!”
Unfazed, Olmar took his time drying himself and getting back into his clothing, his white skin riddled with goosebumps. “Och, lassie, ye be a real peach. ‘Tis a good thing yer mam ain’t here seeing ya behave like this.”
The unbridled merriment the two younger ones shared was replaced by the somber realization that Millsford, like The Forke and Madrigail Bay before it, had been annihilated by Helleden’s firestorm. Only a handful of the stone structures still stood beyond the toppled city walls, their interiors gutted by fire. Farther along what had once been the main road, another collapsed row of walls surrounded the largest stone structure in the city—the baron’s manor. The edifice, originally three stories high, had fallen in upon itself. Not a soul stirred within the ruined city.
“Where is everybody?” Sadyra wondered aloud, turning in circles, not quite sure what to make of the destruction.
Alhena swallowed, his breaking heart. The devastation went on forever. He shuddered to think about the state of the capital of Carillon and Castle Svelte, praying that King Malcolm had somehow survived the maelstrom. If Zephyr’s monarch hadn’t…
Tears rolled unabashedly down Sadyra’s face as the finality of what they witnessed hit home.
Alhena’s heart broke even further seeing how deeply it affected her. He was about to go to her, but Olmar loped over and scooped her from her feet like she was his little girl. He held her against his massive shoulder, patting her back ever so softly. “There now, Sadie dear, it’s alright. Let it out. Olmar’s got ye.”