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 hair. What the wizard saw was unsettling. Something strange was occurring hundreds of leagues south of this cave, something catastrophic. Tears dripped from the tip of the wizard’s nose, having had visions of this type of destruction before. The omens foretold the return of a devastating power. One that had annihilated the unspoiled tracts of the Innerworld, a moon cycle 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 the ashes of the fire into the wizard’s face, burning small holes in the cream-colored, silken robes fluttering about the magic user’s slight frame. Ignoring the acrid affect of the smoke, the wizard leaned closer to the flames, willing the vision to reveal a deeper understanding of what was happening. Helleden Misenthorpe was at the root of this storm, of that there was little doubt, but there were other participants involved this time. Bigger than the malign sorcerer, himself. That was unsettling. If this magic storm of doom wasn’t strange enough, there was something also very 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 meager fuel they fed upon. They flared up to singe the wizard’s hair, and then suddenly went out. Stunned, the wizard quickly uttered the proper incantation to relight the fire, anxious to witness the storm unfolding, but the flames refused to come back. The wizard frowned, carefully chanting the words again, paying particular attention to their enunciation. The embers flickered with promise for a moment before fizzling out, but not before the wizard felt the familiar presence again. It was as if someone had called out, desperately trying to get the wizard’s attention. “No,” The wizard bemoaned the unresponsive ashes, and made a frantic search of the dank interior walls for something to use as an accelerant. 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 impatiently 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 without thinking about the consequences, dropped the vial into a robe pocket. With both hands free, the wizard incanted the magical phrase of vision, careful to pronounce the words exactly as they had been learned. At first, the smoldering fire simply hissed and sputtered, but just when the wizard began to panic, a small flame caught, quickly rearing up to engulf the entire fire pit, threatening to climb out 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 wizard spells, 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 vicious looking instruments of death. The familiar sensation reached out though the flames, taking the wizard’s breath away. “Silurian?” Was all the wizard had time to say. Unseen in the background of the image until now, a cylindrical mountain blazed to life. So intense was the illumination, the wizard was forced to cower to keep from going blind. The raging fire in the cave pulsed once in warning, but the wizard was 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 suddenly exploded, blowing the top off the peak like an erupting volcano. The visible concussion shot outward, the intensity of blast obliterating the wizard’s vision. A violent wind emanated from the center of fire pit, stoking the wizard’s raging flames, a harbinger of the fiery maelstrom that suddenly engulfed the cave.
Scene: We finally get to meet Helleden
Helleden wasn’t as patient as a man of his age might suggest. At four hundred and fifty odd years of age, people would think he would have the patience of a glacier. The people suggesting it to him would be wrong. The people suggesting it to him would be dead. Coming down from his mountain stronghold had taken him the better part of the day, but he was in no in a hurry. The Kraidic Emperor could wait. Spread out before him, at the base of the last foothill leading away from this particular crag in Zephyr’s Altirius Mountain range, were the countless thousands of his minion horde—creatures of all shapes and sizes, bearing weapons of all descriptions, the most common polearm being a trident that his shock troops employed. Beyond the writhing throng, a tarpaulin town was erected around a large, central pavilion, all flying the black flag of the Kraidic Empire. Helleden wasn’t a big man by any standard. His wan skin and sunken face cast him sickly beneath a head of long, stringy, brown hair. Black robes, piped in crimson runes, fluttered about his sparse frame. For a reputed brute, he was small, but his strength wasn’t measured by his size. His strength lie in his arcane knowledge. With the demise of the Soul, a satisfying event he masterfully orchestrated with the help of his close associates, he had become the most powerful being known—and, unlike the Soul, he was free of his fetters. The battle upon the Dead Plain had gone more or less according to plan, but it hadn’t done so without a cost. The Morphisis would be missed. His master, the Soul, had been so fixated upon having Silurian enter the mystic river, that it hadn’t counted on the wretched leader of the Group of Five overcoming one of its pets. Nor had the Soul counted upon Helleden intervening in its battle with Mintaka, drawing upon the combined power of the combatants to create his biggest maelstrom yet. Over eighty percent of southern Zephyr now lay beneath black ash. By timing his power draw, Helleden had effectively sapped the Soul of its power at the same instant Silurian rose to use the Soul’s own power against it. The ensuing demise of the mighty being had blown the top of Iconoclast Spire into the atmosphere to rain death upon those fighting on the Dead Plain. As well as his plan had worked, something strange had occurred during the tumultuous climax. He had felt a foreign presence within the Soul’s cavern, probing. He should have been elated to have seen the end of his master, and indeed to have been the instrument Silurian Mintaka’s demise. The swordsman that had been a burr in his britches for many years—him and that blade of his. Together they lay buried beneath hundreds of thousands of tons of blasted rock, but that news offered Helleden little solace. There was something familiar about the foreign presence that he couldn’t quite put a name to. It left him wanting. Two massive, red demons, carrying large tridents, left him at the edge of the Kraidic encampment, his reputation alone enough to clear a wide swath through the rabble. He focused on the great tent looming up before him, its perimeter surrounded three deep, by huge, fur clad warriors. The Emperor was notoriously fierce. He had had ambitions on Zephyr for many years, but the Zephyr’s disciplined army had kept the warring kingdom at bay. Until now. Helleden needed the Emperor and his men. With the devastation caused by his latest firestorm, Zephyr’s military might had been eradicated. The combined push of his demon horde, and the Emperor’s savage forces would be enough to route any forces remaining to the crippled kingdom. Deploying Kraidic forces in strategic outposts to ensure no insurgence took place behind them, Helleden’s forces were set to continue their conquest south. Once Zephyr fell, the rest of the civilized world would open up before Helleden. He knew the Emperor wouldn’t be happy being left behind as peacekeeper, but when he confronted the brute with that option or his life, Helleden was sure the boor would capitulate. If the threat wasn’t enough to convince the Emperor, he could always employ the Sentinel to bring the man around.
Emperor Krakus paced about his palatial tent, awaiting his audience with the sorcerer, the one referred to as the Stygian Lord. He stroked his graying, brown beard resting upon his massive breastplate; the gleaming metal exposed between the opening of his fur hide cloak. He sweated more than the temperature called for, he knew. Rumor reached his ears that Helleden would demand he remain behind to act as the sorcerer’s rear guard. Sorcerer or no, Krakus wasn’t about to deny his legions their chance for battle and the spoils of the southlands. If that was what Helleden had mind, he had another thing coming. Krakus looked to the naked women sprawled upon the fur blankets of his travel pallet, and scowled. Even they weren’t enough to lift his spirits. With a snarl, he ordered them out. They looked up at him questioningly. When they didn’t move fast enough, he roared, “Now!” They jumped with a squeal, quickly wrapping themselves in whatever cloth they could find and bolted through the tent flaps. A series of whistles sounded outside the pavilion. On the far side of the tent sat an enormous man. The grim look on the red beard’s face matched that of his father. Karvus absently patted the colossal battle-axe set on the table before him. Several rings twinkled upon sausage-sized fingers as he patted the large heads of two massive, black dogs. Krakus stopped in front of his son. “Who does this sorcerer think he is? Telling Krakus the Kraken what he can and cannot do?” If Karvus thought the question was anything but rhetorical he didn’t show it. Krakus shook his head, not for the first time. “If he even begins to waggle his fingers in my presence, I’ll shove them up his arse.” The tent flaps parted, causing him to jump. Immediately the dogs were on their feet, heads low and fangs bared, growling. Karvus issued a command and they settled down again, but their attention never left the newcomer. A black bearded Kraidic warrior stepped in carrying a large war-hammer, his girth no less than the two men in the tent. Dropping to a knee with the large metal head of his weapon resting on the black throw rug under his feet, he looked to the ground. “Helleden comes off the mountain, my Emperor. He will be here shortly.” Krakus looked less than pleased. “How many?” “His self is all, my Emperor.” “He comes alone? Into my camp?” “Seems the way of it, my Emperor.” Krakus turned away and started pacing again, the kneeling man’s presence forgotten. The man swallowed and dared look up. His gaze fell on Karvus, who mercifully dismissed him with a nod. Karvus got to his feet to retrieve a flagon of wine from a central table laden with food and drink. He would have to pour his own drink now, since his father kicked the women out. Resuming his seat, he drank in silence. Watching. He had never seen his father so preoccupied. Even when those misfits known as the Band of Five, or something stupid like that, had forced the Emperor to withdraw his troops, Krakus hadn’t been this upset. Karvus was but a boy then, but he remembered it well. The Emperor, his father, had backed down from a fight. That was not the Kraidic way. “Who is this sorcerer anyway? Does he drink wine? Or eat? Anything?” Krakus muttered more to himself than Karvus. He spun on his son. “Well?” Karvus shrugged, taking a big gulp from his goblet. Wiping his lips on his wrist he said. “I imagine he must. He is not dead. Is he?” Krakus glowered. You could never be sure with sorcerers. Shaking his head, he muttered. “If he doesn’t mind himself, he may end up dead.” The raucous noise of Kraidic camp life fell away outside the pavilion. The silence thundered the implication. Helleden approached. The tent flaps pushed in again. The same man entered, taking a knee. “My Emperor. The sorcerer stands outside.” The dogs were on their feet, snarling. This time Karvus let them. He had attached heavy chains to their spiked collars that were in turn lashed to an iron stake driven into the ground. Stretching the tightness from his neck, he stood, his mighty weapon in hand. “Let him in, you fool.” Krakus demanded. “Yes, my Emperor.” The warrior pulled aside a flap and issued orders to unseen warriors outside. Flanked by two Kraidic pikemen as big as Karvus, Helleden Misenthorpe strolled into the pavilion and stopped when the pikemen motioned him to do so. Krakus straightened to his full height, taking in the gaunt sorcerer, the man’s slight body clad in black robes festooned with crimson runes. For someone with such a reputation, the sallow-faced man wasn’t intimidating at all. It was all Krakus could do not to laugh. He looked at his son. Karvus didn’t seem amused. “You are a brave man to demand an audience with me.” The Emperor declared. Helleden raised his eyebrows in response. “Where is your entourage?” Helleden shrugged. “Nobody demands anything of Krakus.” The Emperor said, his face becoming redder by the moment. Helleden dipped his head. Was the sorcerer being flippant? To the side, Karvus clenched and unclenched the haft of his battle-axe, shifting his weight from one foot to another, ready to spring. The dog’s licked their slavering jaws, tugging at their leads. Krakus watched Helleden’s fingers, each digit adorned with multiple rings. Some of the inset stones appeared to burn of their own accord. “What is it you want? Be quick about it. I have important matters to tend.” When Helleden moved his hands together to intertwine his fingers at his waist, Krakus tensed. Karvus took a step forward, but Helleden never looked his way. His thin lips parted, revealing a set of perfect, white teeth. “I want you.” Krakus blinked. “Me?” “Your army, really. What you do with yourself is not my concern.” Krakus’ eyes narrowed. “If you think I’m holing up in this forsaken realm while your, your…” He searched for a more despicable term, but came up short. “Your demons enjoy the southern spoils, you are sadly mistaken.” “Am I?” Helleden’s stoic face tilted ever so slightly to one side. “You are the mistaken one, Emperor.” “What?” Krakus spat. “I ought to—” Helleden’s calm voice cut in, “Do as you are bidden.” Karvus stepped closer to the sorcerer, ready to split his head. The dogs, at least half the man’s size, strained and snapped their yellowed teeth, saliva dripping. Krakus swallowed. He knew what he ought to do. Nobody spoke to him like that. If it had been anybody else, they would have already found their head on the end of a pike. The sorcerer’s calm unsettled him. “Have you not always desired to rule Zephyr?” Helleden’s deep voice sounded, deeper than one would expect from an average sized man. “I have given it to you.” Krakus trembled, but not with fear. “Given me what? This? It is nothing but rubble.” Helleden raised his thin eyebrows. “It is Zephyr. A mighty kingdom. Respected by most. Feared by the rest.” “Bah! A once mighty kingdom. You have seen to that. ‘Tis nothing but charred rock and ash. I may as well go back to Kraidic.” Helleden nodded his head. “If that is your wish, but your army stays here.” Karvus took a big step toward the sorcerer, bringing him within reach of the insolent man. The two pikemen tensed. Helleden turned to look him in the eye. His hands slowly untwined. Nothing intimidated Karvus. He tensed his arms to ready his swing, but his father’s voice stopped him. The dogs pulled on the stake so hard it began to shimmy free of the earth. “Karvus, no!” An uncomfortable silence settled over the tent. Helleden gave the son a little smile, and turned his attention back to the Emperor. “You have until this time tomorrow with your decision.” He looked back to Karvus, and walked from the tent. The two pikemen went to block him, but a subtle shake of Krakus’ head stopped them. Helleden’s black robes fluttered about him as he passed through the flaps, disappearing into the night.
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.” “Alone?” “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—” “Try, dammit!” 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.”
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