SEQUENCE ONE

CHAPTER ONE

The wind whispered, moaning as it passed, blowing the snow as it fell from the heavens. The sky’s frigid soul shattered, scattering as it fell to the ground, freezing the northern mountains into a firm whiteness. Trees lurched like frost-covered giants frozen in a standstill, waiting for the coming of spring, for the coming of the sun and the warmth where all things were alive and well again. Winter came early, unexpectedly, and the northern mountain routes were hardly passable and no merchant caravan would dare travel its rugged path.

Yet, despite the cold, two souls coursed through its treacherous reaches, its lonely twists and winds, through knee-covered snowy landscapes and lonely abandoned outposts. There was no other way, for the trail they followed had the route through the mountain pass, and going around would take weeks off their schedule. The coming of winter was unexpected, as both men didn’t expect an early snowfall, at least not until the next three weeks or so, and yet here came the storm that blew them to a refuge, a cave that they happened upon as the darkness ate the white outside.

“The empire is evil,” the old man whispered that broke the silence between them since that morning.

“Obviously, you are delirious and tired. Why do you say such things old man?” asked the young lad, somewhere around seventeen. He wore winter clothes no poorer than his companion’s. “Are all who live in the empire evil?”

“Maybe – who knows? As far as I am concerned this is a country ruled by evil men with evil desires.”

“And how do you know of this?”

“Because I was a soldier once, served the empire, and fought many battles. I have seen the changes of the government and its effect upon people, particularly the peasants! Soldiers are bled dry ever since the empire expanded and conquered the other city-states. They’re making fools out of their citizens, wasting their money for further conquest that is bleeding this country dry. Do you think we need it? Do you think that people want something like this? The world has changed my friend and soon we’ll find ourselves begging for the mercy of a government that’s supposed to be protecting us. We’ll be like the old gods – dead and forgotten.”

“I understand your plight, sir, but should you judge everyone in the empire? If all of us are evil then that would include you and me! Yet, your cause is noble and I am assisting you. Are we truly evil then?”

The old man was silenced.

“I apologize. Please be rational about these things, though I know you are a scarred man with a bad experience with the empire. Just be reasonable enough to know that there are men like me who have served the government yet look upon people like you with pity. I am here, aren’t I? I took up your cause, have I not?”

The old man nodded.

“Have you lived in the capital by any chance?” asked the young man changing the subject.

“The capital? That’s a laugh! Do you think they let peasants into the capital? The marketplace perhaps and yet even in the marketplace the poor are disrespected, treated like animals. If you would like I shall speak only for myself! But in the eyes of others like me, we speak the truth.”

The old man fell silent after his rant. The embers crackled as the campfire stirred with the passing breeze. The two men drew their cloaks tight. The cave they found offered no comfort from the night cold.

“Where are the gods?” asked the old man in a grim tone. “They don’t answer our prayers anymore. I know you would say that the people pray to the Goddess Empress now, but before her, there were the gods, and they answered prayers. Yes, I remember that time. Do you know that magic slowly wanes in our world because of this? It’s true! This new religion that the empire instigated falters in the miracles that they boast of; their curates cannot even heal wounds. I have seen a man die of an illness that a curate tried to heal. This new religion is false. There is no magic in it!  The temples of the old gods lay in ruins, forgotten over time. You do not believe in the shadows that lurk about in the halls of this empire and the hearts of the politicians that rule. This has become a world where men are gods and all of us are mere pigs for the slaughter!”

“I did not say that I don’t believe in the old gods…”

“Yet you were once a lackey to one of the empire’s officials. It’s the empire that destroyed the old religions. It is the empire that crucified those that survived their religious inquisition!”

“Hold your tongue old man lest the governates hear your words of treason. I pity your remaining years if it would be lived in a stinking dungeon.”

“There are no governates in these deserted lands. I speak of the truth! The government looks only to the lands that they can benefit from, not wayward places like this. This is a dying forest. The magic that once protected it has been long gone. Now there are only dead trees in this place. No one speaks of the gods anymore – no one remembers anymore. We have all forgotten our faith!”

“And what do you call the Goddess Empress and her religion? She is the new god now.”

“She is no goddess,” the old man cursed spitting at the ground. “She holds no power! Her magic is trickery and her miracles are staged! In all my years of living in the empire, I have never seen her raise anyone from death or perform mass miracles unlike the priests of old. Do you know what I think? I think the gods have abandoned us entirely. They’re all gone. To where? Well, your guess is as good as mine.”

The younger man clasped his hands and held it close to his chest and said, “There is truth to your words, yet I’d still be wary if I were you. What if the Goddess Empress hears you? What if you are wrong and she is indeed omnipotent? What then?

“The Goddess Empress has no power over the world!” again spat the irate old man. “She sits on her throne all day while her people do all the work. She can’t hear me. She is deaf to the cries of those beneath her. Or better yet, I hope that she hears me so I can give her a piece of my mind!”

“Pray old man that she doesn’t hear you,” said a voice that came from the darkness outside. “I hear that her anger shakes the world and is unkind to those who don’t have faith.”

From the shadows beyond the mouth of the cave emerged a man dressed in leather garb with a cloak over it. A sword lazily hung by his waist. He carried a knapsack on his shoulder. He had the traveler’s look, with a face unshaven and hair long and unkempt. The big brute stared at the two men who sat beside a lowly campfire. One was old, seemingly near the twilight of his age (or maybe younger if not harassed by the complexities of life), and the other a frail youth that he felt seemed out of place. Both were silenced when he approached. He sensed the fear in the old man. The youth was unfazed.

“You speak as if you have lost your faith, old man. Tell me, why is this so?”

The old man did not utter a word. Instead, he kept to himself and turned his gaze towards the fire.

“These are dire roads stranger. What are you doing out here?” said the younger one with a smile.

The stranger cocked a brow upon seeing the young man’s smile. Unlike his companion, the youth showed no fear even at the sight of a gruffly-looking man with a sword. He let it go and said, “I’m just passing through like you folks. I saw the light and thought I’d head over. May I share your fire?”

The old man snapped at the younger man and said, “Don’t you dare let him near our fire!”

“That is selfish of you old man,” said the younger man. “Like us, he is a traveler, and in these parts, it’s better to travel in numbers than trudging the lonely road alone.” He then turned to the stranger and said, “Please sir, you are welcome to join us, but I dare say if you are here to rob us, then you will find your efforts to be futile. We don’t have anything of value except for water and our rations.”

“Worry not lad, I’m not here to do you harm. May I?”

“Very well traveler,” said the young man motioning for the traveler to join them.

The stranger warmed his hands by the fire. He sat beside the young lad opposite the old. He rummaged through his knapsack and took out three strips of jerky and handed some to his newfound companions. The young man took one; the old man turned his head away. The stranger simply smiled and put back the jerky in his bag.

“You have to forgive Lydon here. He’s in a foul mood since we left Rhyon not long ago.”

“This is a momentary stop for me friends,” said the stranger. “I plan to travel until I reach the river tonight, probably camp and get some rest there in the abandoned outpost. The old ruins south beyond Port Horren are my destination.”

“But the night grows deep. Are you sure you want to travel the night? These parts are home to wolves and naga beasts. Besides, I hear that the old imperial outpost is haunted.”

Azanthriel nodded. Lydon drew his cloak tighter and felt the hair on his nape prickle.

“I have seen many things in my lifetime. I doubt that haunting still scares me, yet, a little fright could jolt me back to the excitement and squeeze a little youthful vigor out of me.”

The old man drew a sour face. The young man tried to get sense out of the words of the stranger. The lone traveler laughed when it seemed that only he understood the joke.

“What is your name, stranger?” asked the young man.

“I am Azanthriel.”

“I am Theymion,” replied the youth.

“Where are you headed?” asked Azanthriel shifting his gaze between the two men.

“To Port Horren,” snapped the old man, “But of what business I have there is none of yours.”

“Yes, none of mine,” Azanthriel assured the old man, “Yet what intrigues me is your conversation earlier. I apologize if I eavesdropped but you have an interesting topic that I see adds warmth to the fire.”

“There’s nothing more I can do about it,” sarcastically remarked Lydon. “And what about our conversation, do you plan on reporting us to the empire?”

“Don’t mind him Azanthriel,” Theymion said as he intervened. “My companion here has many bitter arguments with the world.”

“It is not that I question your faith, Lydon,” said Azanthriel putting down his sack and warming his hands by the fire, “It’s the fact that you are not afraid to voice out your opinions about how the world is and what you believe it should be. It is more of admiration rather than anything else.”

“But it is true! The Goddess Empress is a cold heartless bitch who rules in her ivory throne while people like me suffer! She and her government have no love of the peasant-folk like me!”

“Bear with him Azanthriel. His village up north was decimated by pillagers and slavers. His daughters taken and his wife killed.”

“We that survived went to the station at Gallan,” continued Lydon of his companion’s story, “But the Tribune dismissed us and called us fools. Yes, fools! We were but a lowly bunch of peasants and farmers! Yes, we were fools!” Lydon shook as he remembered the details. No longer was it focused on the men that took his daughters and killed his wife, rather, it was directed at a Legionite outpost and its Tribune. These were his countrymen, the same people who swore to protect those of lower stature, yet they were the first to ignore the cries of those that they were sworn to protect.

“Has it always been like this?” Azanthriel asked grimly.

“Where have you been?” snapped Lydon. “The empire has become a place of tyranny. Again, where have you been?”

“Alone for a very long time,” replied Azanthriel with his eyes fixated into the fire, withdrawn and distant.

“It has been, Azanthriel,” replied Theymion quite grimly. “I couldn’t believe it myself at first. I came from Thadderak. I am a city lad and the stories from the far-off villages never reach our ears. But I found this out first hand when the Tribune did dismiss the cries of Lydon and his fellow villagers. I was a member of Tribune Alariss Valkov’s council. I was appalled by this. I sneaked out of the outpost and eventually caught up with Lydon here.”

“A young councilman,” said Azanthriel as he took a bite of his jerky.

“I am a scholarly man. Graduated early and was recruited by Tribune Alariss himself. He said he saw my potential in politics.”

“Do you believe him?”

Theymion shrugged.

Azanthriel nodded.

Lydon stopped and stared at the fire.

“You are a soldier, Azanthriel?” asked Theymion with a glance at Azanthriel’s sword.

“A vagabond is more like it. I’ve been far across the sea, in the lands of Delkamia and Forhn. Sometimes I’m a sword for hire, sometimes I’m just a wanderer.”

“Ah, the city-states that are now a part of the empire. You are a hero then?”

Azanthriel paused and took a long hard look at the young man. “That word is hard to come by these days.”

“Do you believe it then?”

“No. I’m no hero. They’re all dead. Coin is what drives me young Theymion, not chivalry, not honor or nobleness.”

“I see. For the right price, you will do anything as anyone asks?”

“It’s a job, nothing more, but I don’t kill people for money. I offer protection, advice in the field of battle. Yet if need be I will kill.”

“Ah, then there is honor in you still!”

“There is no honor in killing. There is only the weight of the blade and the blood on your hands. I have experienced many of this and I am not proud of it.”

“I see. Well, if you change your mind, you can travel with us to Port Horren if you want. I hear no objections from Lydon and as you said, it is better to stay in numbers while traveling the road. We could use an armed companion just in case meet undesirables along the way.”

“Your suggestion has merit, Theymion. Very well, consider yourselves armed.” Azanthriel acknowledged with a smile.

They didn’t hear Lydon’s protests anymore, but rather a small buzzing sound coming from an old man who slept while he sat.

“The world is different now,” Theymion quietly said. “The gods are no more. The old ways are almost forgotten. Lydon says that the magic in the world is waning and we are slowly slipping into chaos. I am saddened by this. Long ago the empire was still young and the temples of the gods were scattered all across the region and the lands beyond the seas. People still had the decency to profess their faiths and preach the words of the gods they believed in. Nowadays the citizens are forced to pray to the Goddess Empress whose face has only been seen from a distance and whose magic is suspiciously a sham. Since her rise to power, the empire that my forefathers proudly served has become nothing more but an instrument that feeds the rich and destroys the poor. Do you believe in her Azanthriel? Do you believe in the benevolence of the Goddess Empress as the empire claims her to be? Do you believe in her magic?”

“I have lost my faith a long time ago my friend. Do not ask me of such things for the memory of it brings me pain.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry open past wounds.”

“No harm done,” Azanthriel said as he threw a twig into the fire. “You should follow Lydon’s example, we have a long way ahead of us tomorrow.

The young man nodded and laid himself down.

There was weight in the words of Theymion. He held it with much conviction, with much care that it felt like he wanted the old days back when the gods were still venerated, as this was long before the Goddess Empress. Yet there was something else about the young man that Azanthriel couldn’t put his hand into. He was good at examining people for this was one of his trades in his former life, but Theymion drew a blank in his deciphering of the young man. He let go of the thought realizing the rudeness of his actions towards the stranger that offered him the warmth of his fire.

“There is truth to your words,” said Azanthriel before Theymion could close his eyes. “We can only prepare for the worst.”

 

CHAPTER TWO

The land was arid. Crops died because the cold crept in early. Winter wasn’t supposed to come for at least a month or two, yet in the early days of the fourteenth month in the imperial calendar, the cold winds came down from the north. It swept through the unprepared region of Vanar destroying fields of wheat and disrupting inter-city trade. The most affected by the early cold spell was the outlying villages near the trading outpost of Gallan that produced much of the wheat for the cities of Theleus and Marda.

Lydon held the dead straws in his hands and crushed them in frustration. What was he to feed his family now? What was worse was that food was scarce in these parts and there just wasn’t enough for Lydon to save even for his family.

There were seven of them in the wheat field that day. Normally they would sow at this time of the year, except now they had to wear their winter clothes and look upon each other with questions on how to survive the winter without food.

“What do we do Lydon?” asked a young man who tended the fields while his father was bedridden.

Lydon looked upon the young man with the same question in mind.

“The outpost at Gallan!” exclaimed another, an older man yet younger than Lydon’s age. “The empire will help us. Maybe we can ask the Tribune for aid this winter?”

Lydon could say nothing. He was at a loss for words. The villagers knew that he served the empire when he was young and up to a point became the spokesperson for his village when they met with the Tribune at Gallan. But as of late, Lydon learned to despise the empire and its politics. It had left others like him in a state of depression as they tilled the land they owned and gave half of what they sowed as tribute. Little was left for their bellies. Luxury was left to those who were born to nobility or anyone who was imperial. Those who belonged to the conquered states were left to the devices of the Tribunes who handled the affairs of the countryside and not all Tribunes were fair. People of the provinces remained poor and not even fighting for the empire that governed them gave any measurable compensation when a service was at an end. He learned of the politics when his service ended. He received nothing in return for his help.

But still, his companion might be right. The Tribune at Gallan could indeed help them out. He could also be wrong. It was worth a try.

Lydon, along with two other villagers, walked for two days with but a full waterskin and their tattered cloaks to keep them warm. But even the added layers in their clothing couldn’t stop the cold from biting down on their weary skins. The snow fell heavy as they reached the trading outpost at Gallan. Into the outpost, they went and saw that the sudden change in the climate brought about the stoppage of trade. There were wagons, empty of wares, merchants who argued with one another, as the flow of gold was halted, and then there was food that was hauled into the main keep for the imperials to eat.

Lydon clenched his fist and grit his teeth

They begged the guards to let them in the stone keep, to speak to the Tribune for the urgency of their request as dire as it was deadly. No food meant people would starve and die, and if there was no one left to live in a village with no food, then the economy in the region would suffer a great deal.

But the centurion captain was a hard man to convince. He wasn’t even worried at all! They had food, surely, and he wasn’t even thinking of sharing. The group begged some more, but in the end, their words fell into the cracks of closed ears as the centurion captain was swallowed by the shadows of the inner keep. They cursed and spat and were dragged out of the outpost back into the waiting arms of the cold. There was no option left but to go back. They would think of something later besides the warmth of a fire.

The snow abated for the two days they traveled back. They counted it as a blessing, but upon seeing smoke on the horizon to where their village stood, that blessing quickly turned into a curse. They ran as hard as their legs could carry them ignoring the pains of a restless journey. And they saw their village burn. Bodies were scattered bathed in blood; most were males that tried to fight. The females were gone.

Those who died brought down some of their attackers with them. Bodies of a few men in leather jerkins and padded armor lay lifeless with their swords still in their hands.

“The women,” said his young companion. “My mother…”

Lydon’s horrified mind swirled as he made his way to his house that was overturned and empty of his daughters. There, sprawled upon a corner was the lifeless body of his wife all mangled and bloodied. She had fought with a knife. He knelt and cried, as he took his lifeless wife into his arms and cursed the Goddess Empress for abandoning his family.

His faith in the empress was sundered. Now there was nothing for Lydon except to find his children. Maybe the empire could help him; after all, this was an atrocity against its people! Though he doubted the Tribune would help, he had no other choice but to seek their help.

Slavers! The word in his mind ran afoul. He looked in the direction of Gallan with doubt in his mind.

***

The high trees loomed with menacing awe, like withered creatures hunched and wicked, armies of winter lined in a landscape of white. Three figures made their way through the snow-covered land weary of the dangers that lurked nearby. The midday overcast gave no comfort.

Old man Lydon held on tight to the little sack that hung around his shoulder. One of his hands held the hilt of a dagger he kept in a pocket of his trousers. He didn’t see the need for a dagger when he started his journey except for the fact that it was useful for skinning fowls and conies. Yet, as the days passed and the roads became deadlier, he found a certain comfort in owning a weapon that could fend off the undesirables that he would meet. That would have counted the number of imperial soldiers that they met, the Tribunes, and other officials that he would like to skin alive, particularly the Tribune of Gallan that shunned him and his companions. He was lucky to ever escape the centurions that came after them when they sought help in finding the slavers who took the women of his village when his companions assaulted the centurions and were slain thereafter. He was lucky he got this far.

Lydon’s thoughts were interrupted by a hand on his shoulder and his mouth. He was about to flinch when he found that the owner of the hands that intruded was Azanthriel’s. He looked to the big man whose eyes moved in every direction as if trying to find something hidden within the white forest.

Azanthriel motioned for his companions to move down into a crouch. He drew his sword; an ivory hilt blade that looked like what a Legionite officer carried, and readied his stance as if waiting for something to happen. From the corner of his eyes, a figure darted from one tree to another. No sound was made. His two companions hardly noticed anything.

Azanthriel gripped his sword tight. He had seen many such creatures before that could move swiftly and blend into shadows. They were creatures that were left by the otherworldly Phantasmai that once invaded their world; creatures of shadow that riddled the mind with their dark mysteries and malicious intents. They haunted the isolated lands where a few dared to go, sometimes stalking unfortunate souls that unwittingly wandered into their feeding grounds. Azanthriel knew of the likes of these creatures; he fought them once, a long time ago and paid a dear price in doing so. He couldn’t be wrong in these things. He acquired the knack of perceiving such malign creatures during the war, as his senses were keen on knowing such things, supernatural as it may seem, and his hatred for such creatures of the dark beyond fueled his notion to know when one was about.

Three. He sensed one as the aggressor. The other two were to wait for the kill. The light of the overcast day grew dim like the darkness stalked a luminescent hour eating its way to dominance. The malign presence grew stronger. Azanthriel hardened his resolve. He drew a circle around his companions and muttered an incantation.

“Close your eyes,” he calmly said, “And whatever you do, do not look.”

The old man nodded. His hands covered his already closed eyes.

Theymion remained silent with his head facing the ground.

“I know you are there, damned fiends!” Azanthriel taunted. “You ghoul-faced anathemas shall procure no satisfaction in this encounter.”

We know who you are.

The whispers in the darkness made the hair on Lydon’s nape stand. His fear overwhelmed him. His body started to shake.

We smell despair. We smell fear.

“That’s right, you sorry bastards like the smell of fear. Well, you cannot have my companions.”

Azanthriel felt the creatures suddenly falter. They advanced no further.

A presence! A presence we have not felt in a long while. It hides but it is here.

We should leave.

No, if it wanted to interfere then it should have interfered.

Where are you going?

Away! We cannot fight it.

It will not interfere, fool!

I am leaving as well.

Cowards! Then I shall be the only one to take down this kin-killer. His blood shall be mine!

Azanthriel felt only one presence left. He wondered what that was all about. What was this thing that the other Phantasmais were afraid of? He could only speculate.

The world around seemed to slow down. The sound was muffled by an indistinguishable silence that tried to mute reality, to succumb to that being of helplessness and dread – an influence of particular horror that would bend a man’s will. These were the vicious attempts of intimidation that Azanthriel was accustomed to. He was a veteran of the war against these demons a long time ago and had seen many of their tricks and dirty tactics. He knew the enemy well and waited for the attack to come.

From behind him, a shadow appeared. Its face, twisted and distorted, with three eyes gleaming green, a mouth full of wickedly sharp teeth, and reddish skin that bulged with muscles and popping veins. Such was a horror only seen in nightmares! The demon held a long serrated sword that was as black as shadows.

Azanthriel was ready. He was no ordinary fighter, to begin with. He anticipated the swing that the Phantasmai made parrying the enemy’s blade with his own. With an agile move, he twisted his blade into a slant that made the enemy’s sword slide forward. Sparks flew. With another fluid motion, Azanthriel pivoted right and then stepped back disengaging his blade from his enemy. He twisted and maneuvered with a roll against the enemy’s back and emerged on the creature’s left. There was an opening. With a swift movement, he swung his sword from the ground up creating a deadly arc that cut through the creature’s left arm. Green ichor spewed from a wounded left arm. The creature lurched back in pain.

It hissed.

Azanthriel smiled mockingly.

The Phantasmai were creatures of pride. Azanthriel knew this and used it to his advantage. The more the creature got angry, the more it became reckless. He taunted it some more by slapping the flat of his sword against the creature’s face.

“Run, you stupid thing – run like your cowardly brothers who left you alone to die!”

The Phantasmai roared. Its huge carcass extended outwards. It tried to show dominance over its unfazed adversary, but the act was more of a sideshow rather than intimidation as Azanthriel laughed at the failed exercise of dominance.

“Pathetic,” said the proud warrior as he lunged himself forward with the intent of finishing off the demon.

The serrated blade once again came down heavy crashing against Azanthriel’s sword. Their strikes and parries broke the silence that momentarily blanketed the forest. The creature’s wild swing struck a tree creating a loud explosion as its trunk blew in half. Fire erupted from the trunk’s broken half. It came down hard scattering debris of soil and snow upon the cowered figures of Theymion and Lydon. The old man screamed with the commotion that ensued.

The dance between Azanthriel and the Phantasmai continued with the former incessant in his attack. A flurry of blows caught the creature off guard. He suddenly made a feint on the fourth strike that made the Phantasmai dodge to its left. It failed to notice Azanthriel’s blade shift to the left instead of the right. The sword bit hard and an arm fell to the ground. Green blood sprayed like a vicious storm followed by a thundering roar of pain.

The Phantasmai staggered back. The severed limb twisted and crumbled to ash. It smiled realizing that this flesh thing was just like it – a creature of chaos! It was no ordinary Phantasmai, but a surviving slaughterer of the first wave that came through the portal. It was a dreadful life since they were defeated fifteen years ago, forced to prey in the lowly forests and abandoned halls, powers diminished because the portal to its home had closed and its connection to chaos magic gone. Yet, it still had an advantage over humans and thus humans were still easy prey, but that was until it had met a foe more powerful than it was. It smiled knowing that it would die a glorious death!

Legionite! You who have slaughtered the slaughterers! I have heard of you, the resurrected – the beast that claimed the gateway to home. Alas, we meet. It will be an honor to die at your hands.

Azanthriel laughed. His laughter contained malice and murderous intent. His laughter was not human, but bestial – cruel. His eyes burned with the fires of vengeance; his steel sang the song of death. He screamed, or maybe it was a roar, for something in him had changed during the fight and now he lusted for the blood of his enemy. He rushed forward with uncanny speed, so fast that it looked like a blur to the eyes of those who witnessed it, and with a glinting flash, his sword sliced through the thick cold air meeting the Phantasmai’s magical blade with fury. But the force of Azanthriel’s blow was too much for the wounded demon. The serrated blade gave way to the impact and in went his sword burrowing deep into the Phantasmai’s shoulder exiting to the lower part of the torso.

The demon looked at the eyes of death. It looked and saw a certain likeness to its own persona; malice, bestial anger of unrefined fury. There was chaos in the eyes of its death-dealer, and it smiled before falling to the cold ground.

 

CHAPTER THREE

“Should we wait for him?” asked the old man tending to what little of the belongings he had.

“We should,” said the youth that added wood to the fire. “I know it’s close to midday and we should be on our way, but we should wait for him at least. Besides, his things are still here. I doubt he would leave without them.”

“That was one hell of a night! I almost pissed in my pants quite honestly. I never thought I’d see the day when I’d encounter one of those things again.”

“Have you gotten a look at it last night?”

“No… never! I don’t want to look at those monsters again.”

Theymion rested his back against a tree and looked up at the grey sky. His thoughts wandered momentarily and quite absentmindedly he asked, “Are such horrors truly powerful?”

“Powerful? Such horrors are indeed powerful. You say it as you mock them. Those things murdered thousands and thousands more would’ve died if not for the Legionite that closed that damned portal and put an end to the madness.”

“Who was this Legionite you speak of?”

“It’s only a rumor, but it’s a rumor I would want to believe in. The empire has no explanation on why the Phantasmai had stopped its invasion. We all know back then that they came through a portal and if that portal is closed then that would end the war.

“I was far from where it happened. We were at the frontlines at the battle of Gustus Pass. I was a footman, you see, and we were always the first to fight. Not the Legionites, not the centurions, but we who held spears and wore flimsy leathers, who had nothing more but the courage in hearts to fight an impossible foe. But I didn’t falter back then. I thought of my wife and my children. I fought for them, not for the empire who didn’t even give a damn about its footmen. I had friends who died in that war. There were many of them. But on that fateful day, we saw the enemy weaken. They weren’t the gods of horror and malice that we knew them to be, but mere creatures no weaker than men, and we fought them without mercy. Though we were tired, we lifted our spears and pierced their chest driving each of our own furies into their malicious hearts. They were demons, yes, but that day had turned in our favor and we became the gods of death!

“We heard rumors after that day, that there were Legionites who braved the enemy’s fortress and destroyed the gateway that those damned demons were using. Of course, they were only rumors. It’s either the empire was good at hiding secrets or it never happened at all, but I believe that it did happen, that there were heroes who sacrificed their lives to end an evil war. How else could have it ended?”

“Well spoken,” said Theymion with a clap. “I applaud your bravery, I do indeed, and I honor your fallen comrade if only with a salute to their courage!”

Lydon did what Theymion had done and placed a fist on his chest.

“Do you know what the empire has done after?” asked Lydon in almost a whisper.

Theymion shook his head.

“They dismissed me and left me with but a small compensation for my contribution in the war. They didn’t need me anymore. I could still fight. I could at least do guard duty in one of the outposts. But no – the empire had no need of me anymore. I became poor again. I lost the stipend that could have kept our bellies full during the winter.”

“Is this why you hate the empire so much?”

Lydon nodded and added, “That and the fact that they didn’t even lift a finger to help my village. If it weren’t for you, my companions would still be locked up at Gallan.”

“What if it was the work of the Goddess Empress? What if she was the one who closed that gateway?”

“I doubt it. If it was indeed her, where are the glory and the fame? Why hasn’t the empire revealed this to the public?”

“Good point. Claiming for something spectacular, something heroic could have bolstered the empress’ renown.”

“Yet they remained quiet,” said the old man looking far away. “Some mystery. Who? Why? How? I don’t really care what the empire claims or has not claimed. For me, that rumor of those Legionite heroes is what I won’t believe in. It’s a much better story. It keeps people like me hoping.”

“Maybe the empire doesn’t want a hero?”

“How can it be when the people would have a figure to look up to?”

Theymion rubbed his chin and said, “Heroes are hard to come by these days. I think, for the empire to flourish, its leader should be the one that outshines everyone else. The Goddess Empress is the ruler and no one, not even a story, should be more magnificent than her.”

“Doesn’t having a hero work to her advantage?”

“Yes, that will make the people love her more, and no, because then there will be a figure that surpasses her radiance. The hero can become the people’s new hope. The empire couldn’t downplay that scenario because the event itself is too big to contain. Besides, it wasn’t the Goddess Empress who closed the portal.”

“She’s that demented then?”

“That may be true, then again maybe not her but the people around her. Who knows what goes on inside the walls of the imperial castle? Besides, it’s all just a rumor, right?”

A twig snapped. A startled old man turned to see a figure slowly creep into their camp and sat beside the fire.

“How are you, friend Azanthriel?” asked the youth who offered a strip of beef jerky.

The big man looked at Theymion with distant eyes. He was there, at least his physical self, but his mind was left wandering back to a time when everything else in his life mattered. He was silent only for a moment. He gave a deep breath and exhaled a puff of steam into the air.

“Shall we be on our way?” Azanthriel asked his companions.

“Where have you been?” asked Lydon with a worried look on his face. “Tell me something honestly, Azanthriel… are you a Legionite?”

“That word has no meaning to me anymore.”

“Have you been involved in the last war, the one with those demons?”

Azanthriel looked at the old man and saw some parts of him that stared back. Lydon warranted the truth and he deserved it, yet how could he explain himself properly without giving his past away – a past that he left behind buried in a pit somewhere in the deepest parts of his soul.

Azanthriel simply shook his head and said, “There are things that a man must keep to himself. Whatever my past is, whatever allegiances or dealings and even killings that I’ve made are mine and mine alone. I think you should stop asking me things. Don’t you agree?”

The old man felt the weight of Azanthriel’s words, like a commander giving orders, or a governate enacting an imperial decree. He bit his lips and nodded in agreement.

“Let us give our friend his privacy, Lydon. He did, for a fact, save our lives, and for that, we owe you a great deal.”

“Gratitude is enough, Theymion.”

“Where have you been? You ran away as quickly as you slew that demon. We tried to look for you, at least to offer some comfort, but you were impossible to find.”

“I had to clear my head that is all.”

Theymion nodded and said, “Well, it’s good to have you back. Shall we be off to Port Horren then?”

The three men lifted their belongings and went on their way. One worried about his daughters that were taken by slavers, the other who accompanied them only because he didn’t mind the company, and the third whose mind was preoccupied on how to convince their new companion to join their worthy cause.

***

The day passed; the night began anew. Such was the cycle in the past few days, and ever since that encounter with demons, it was a relatively peaceful journey. They continued on, undeterred by the freezing weather or even by the notion that danger lurked in every corner of the forest, until such that the sight of an old port town emerged from beyond the bend, far below at the foot of a mountain where a vast ocean lay beyond.

They stopped by the side of the path and looked down at Port Horren that bustled with activity. The cold air came down the mountainside sweeping across the valley beneath, slamming against the stone walls of the town, meeting the feisty inland sea. The roads were filled with merchant caravans going to and from the town, accompanied by guards, escorts armed with swords and shields and spears, carrying banners of different houses that belonged to the many imperial trading guilds. Inside the walls were stone buildings owned by wealthy guildsmen and traders. Most were storehouses for wares and produce, but on the far end of the town were villas that belonged to the noblemen and aristocrats of Port Horren. The biggest one was presumed to be owned by the Tribune. It was, after all, the most guarded place in the district. On the icy seas beyond the walls scattered ships of different sizes that were docked or were sailing away. The biggest were four imperial galleons that stopped for supplies. The emblem of the phoenix waved proudly upon their masts.

Azanthriel looked down at the large town and cursed beneath his breath. He didn’t like going to places where he could be recognized. He didn’t like the attention. Even though it had been a long time, there could be someone that would recognize him. It could cause him trouble though he could always fight his way out of it. He didn’t want the empire to know he was back. If so, then people would soon come after him and the vicious cycle of death would begin anew. He didn’t want a war with the empire, not anymore. He just wanted to be left alone.

“Why the sour face?” asked Theymion noticing Azanthriel’s expression.

“It’s nothing,” the big man answered back.

“Well, down there’s where we part ways. I’d like to thank you for saving our lives, Azanthriel. If not for you that demon would’ve eaten me and the old man for sure.”

Azanthriel silently nodded, answering yet not clearly noticing the words of gratitude from his companions, rather his mind wandered in the vast corridors of his memory.

“What do you seek in the old ruins?” asked Lydon taking a bite out of a hard jerky.

Azanthriel’s head turned towards the old man. His eyes were unfocused as the past caught up with the present and memories piled one after the other. A hand on his shoulder brought him back to the cold winter road with his two companions.

“You were lost for a moment,” said Theymion patting the big man on the shoulders. “Should we be worried friend Azanthriel?”

“No,” was all that Azanthriel said.

“Let’s be off then,” said Theymion with his companion Lydon already on his way down.

Halfway, Lydon threw a worried glance upon the lagging Azanthriel and looked to his young companion with silent questions. The young man glanced back seeing the big long-haired fellow looking out into the sea. Azanthriel’s hand gripped the hilt of his sword tight.

“Do you think he’s a Legionite?” asked Lydon in a whisper.

“With that sword, maybe?” answered Theymion matching the old man’s tone.

“It looks like an officer’s blade, but the design looks old. I’ve seen the newer ones, better design on the hilt. It looks ancient.”

“It’s probably an heirloom. Let’s not get into the details, shall we?”

“Still, I’m intrigued. I’ve seen Legionites fight Phantasmai before, you know, during the war, and I tell you that the ones we see today pale in comparison to the Legionites of the Great War.”

“How so? A legionite is a legionite.”

The old man shook his head and said, “The Legionites of old were more fearsome. In my youth, during the war, these beasts displayed fighting prowess, unlike any ordinary man. Even the captain of my battalion feared them whenever one was around. They say that the Goddess Empress gave them such abilities and turned them into emotionless monsters able to fight the Phantasmai horde. I have seen those Legionites in action and I tell you Azanthriel fought like one. By the dark abyss, he just bested a Phantasmai while we shivered on our knees!”

Theymion placed a hand on his chin and said, “I have read of the fierceness of the old Legionites in the archives. They are just people, enhanced by sorcery or not, and they are no different from any centurion that I have met. Still, if what you’re saying is true and Azanthriel is a Legionite of old, then he should be as old as you are! I could hardly find a wrinkle on his face though.”

“Maybe magic?”

“Maybe something else? Whatever it is, we should respect it and leave it alone. Again, he saved our lives, you know.”

“Still, I’m intrigued.”

“Then keep it to yourself old man. We’re nearing the gates.”

 

CHAPTER FOUR

They reached the large town of Port Horren past midday. In front of them loomed a stone wall twenty feet in height with two small towers that guarded the entryway. A large archway with a raised portcullis swallowed in a line of people. Guards inspected merchant caravans that passed through, each man woman, and child, on horseback or not, wasn’t spared as such was protocol and anyone who doesn’t submit was never given entry.

Upon their turn to be inspected, the two guards doing the examination looked to one another with sour faces and asked, “What’s your business in Port Horren?” their tone suspicious and mocking.

“We come to see the Lord Commander,” said Lydon looking down at the smaller guard. “I am looking for my daughters captured by slavers many weeks ago. I wish to know where they were headed.”

“Slavers you say,” said one of the guards as he looked to his companion. “There are no slavers here! The worst you can find here are peddlers and thieves, but they don’t really go far with the Lord Commander around.”

“Can we go now?” asked Azanthriel that stood in the shadows of the arched entryway.

“Well what do we have here,” said the other guard looking at the tower of a man in the shadows. “I’d say a brute! Don’t you think so Brudry?”

“Probably a thief, or a murderer even. We don’t take likely to people like you.”

“We are but weary travelers, good sirs,” interrupted Theymion, “We’ve come to a long way to seek the Lord Commander… perhaps a little token for your troubles?”

Theymion reached a hand inside his inner pockets and cautiously took out three imperial Aureus. He slowly handed the three gold coins to the two guards that greedily stared without batting an eyelash.

“Are you bribing us?” said one of the guards.

“It wouldn’t be bribing at all if it were a gift for the good work you have done here. You have exemplified honesty and prudence in strict adherence to the security of this esteemed town. Why, for all we know, you might even be promoted soon! Take this gift, I insist kind sirs.”

The two guards nodded and one said, “One for each, but there’s one extra to go about and we don’t like fighting.”

“Of course, sirs, how could I be such an idiot?” Lydon once again reached for his pocket, produced another coin, and handed it over to the guards. “Here, sirs. Now let us be off of your hairs so that you can do your work and bother you no more.”

The guards nodded and looked at the trio, wearing smirks like they just won in a game of dice, moving away as if nothing happened.

Azanthriel’s eyes trailed the two guards. Beneath his hood, he wore a face of disgust, with eyes narrowed and a hand on the hilt of his sword hidden beneath his cloak. A hand reached out to his shoulder.

“Let them be, Azanthriel,” said Theymion. “We’re in the town anyway.”

“Greedy men, corrupt guards, if I’d known better I’d say the demons won the war!”

“Corruption is as old as the world, my friend. Maybe where you come from it’s less obvious, but this is the empire, and if you truly haven’t been around for many years, you’d be surprised to find out that even the most honest of men these days can be corrupt.”

“Like you?” asked Azanthriel referring to young Theymion’s move in bribing the guards.

“If I were corrupt, my friend, then I wouldn’t have to abandon my duties with the Tribune. Besides, it’s the only way I know how to get around these people.”

“My apologies, Theymion. My anger gets the better of me sometimes.”

“Worry not Azanthriel, for I think there are still good men out there. We just have to find them.”

“And you said you didn’t have money anymore!” interrupted Lydon who scornfully looked at his young companion.

Theymion smiled, scratched his head, and said, “Eh, well… I was saving it for a situation like this!”

“We could’ve gotten a decent meal some ways back.”

“Well, that was my last money anyway, so if we spent it, then we couldn’t enter Port Horren now, can we?”

“There is merit to his reasoning old man.”

Lydon crossed his arms, gave a pout, and entered the town. Theymion smiled and followed with a shrug. Azanthriel wasn’t far behind, but his eyes wandered beneath his hood, wary of more people like the guards. He walked on with his guard raised.

***

The bay was lined with ships. Most were merchant vessels that traversed the cold channels of the northern seas. The snow abated and it was business as usual in the port’s market. Some of the merchant caravans had just come in looking for their own places to set up shop.

Azanthriel parted ways with his companions, as they were headed to the town hall, and he to the local tavern. The sign on the front said The Flying Fish. He entered and ordered a meal from the tavern keeper who in turn readily acknowledged him.

There were a few tables occupied that morning. One, in particular, was a minstrel with a lute that lay on the table in front of the broth that he was eating. He looked a decent man, young, though his clothes looked worn out and almost tattered, yet the man had bearing even if he looked more or less like a pauper. His eyes played between his broth and Azanthriel who sat across. He finished his meal and walked to the table across with his lute in hand.

“Music while you eat, lord?” the young minstrel asked.

Azantrhriel looked at the stranger. A serving maid brought his food.

“I’m sorry friend but I don’t have a coin to spare,” said Azanthriel dismissing the minstrel. “I am no lord either.”

“Ah but I give it freely, sir.”

“In return for what stranger?”

“You tell me your tale upon this visit to Port Horren.”

Azanthriel rubbed the stubble on his chin, looked at the young minstrel, and asked, “And what tales do you expect from me?”

“Why tales of adventure in the great lands of the empire and beyond of course! Stories of chivalry, courage, and honor, against impossible odds and life-threatening dangers! You know what I speak of, friend.”

“Indeed I do, but those are the adventures of such the likes of imperial centurions or the heroes of old. I am no warrior nor am I a hero. I am but an individual who is hungry and would like to eat.”

“Not a Legionite?” asked the confused minstrel. “You surely look like one.”

Azanthriel suddenly fell silent. Does this stranger know anything about him? He was uncomfortable with the mention of Legionites and honor and the empire. Such were the things that he wanted to forget for in his lifetime those words were but troublesome.

“Ah, I see,” said the minstrel as if realizing something. He sat on the empty seat in front of Azanthriel. “You were once Legionite, were you?”

Azanthriel’s brow crossed and his face hardened. He said, “You, sir, are sitting in front of me uninvited. Whatever I was, whatever I am is no business of yours. Now run along or you will regret sitting on that chair uninvited.”

“No offense meant friend,” said the minstrel quite jovially. “I am just a curious tale-teller and your bearing says a lot! We don’t get many travelers around here these days. Tell you what, I’ll pay for your meal and we’ll call it even. Deal?”

Azanthriel looked at the young man, studying the minstrel’s features and the clothes that he wore.

“You are a rich man, a son of a lord, or a Tribune maybe, or a king, yet you hold a dear secret that will affect the world in some way, even change it! Am I right?”

The minstrel laughed.

Azanthriel’s hand rested on the hilt of his sword.

“If I were indeed a nobleman I would agree with you,” spat Azanthriel, “But looks can  be deceiving and you have read me wrong my friend.”

“Really?”

Azanthriel remained quiet as the minstrel took out some coin and gave it to the innkeeper who in turn acknowledged the payment. The innkeeper smiled as he saw the gold in his hand. The minstrel lifted his hand and showed both palm and back to Azanthriel. With a swift stroke, the minstrel produced another coin out of thin air. He lifted it and spun it on the table. The coin twisted and rotated. It wasn’t stopping.

Azanthriel looked to the coin and back at the minstrel.

“Not only are you a liar but a bad conjurer as well. I hate sorcerers. Give me one reason why I shouldn’t draw my blade and gut you.”

“Because you can’t, Azanthriel son of Bertheus, Lord of House Valhalarion, once king of Aquillous,” said the minstrel as he placed a hand over the still spinning coin, “You will help us reclaim what is ours.”

A flash of steel blurred from beneath Azanthriel’s cloak. The glinting steel made an arc but with the blink of an eye, the intended target was gone. The blade struck air. The silver coin started to slow into a stop face-up showing the head of the Goddess Empress.

Azanthriel stared at the face of the coin. He cursed beneath his breath.

“For your troubles,” the minstrel’s voice echoed in parting.

Azanthriel’s head snapped to a surprised innkeeper who approached with a bottle of wine.

“Where is he?”

“Pardon my lord?” the innkeeper asked, confused.

“That minstrel, where is he?”

“My lord, you are the only one in my tavern.”

Azanthriel looked around to see empty tables. He swore that there were others seated there before. He swore that he saw them eat and drink and talk amongst themselves. Were they really there?

“Sorcery!” he spat.

He sheathed his sword to the relief of the tavern keeper. He returned to the oddly interrupted meal, ate with one hand on a spoon and the other on the hilt of his sword.

***

“What? That’s preposterous!” exclaimed Lydon throwing a fist in the air. “And you call yourselves centurions! Why can’t you help me? Why?”

“You are not a citizen of this town, old man,” said the centurion.

“But I have information that the slavers have passed near here. I only seek information. Any information about my daughters, please sir, I beg of you.”

“Get out old man! You are a nuisance. Be gone or I’ll throw you in the dungeons myself.”

“Is that how you treat those you are sworn to protect?” asked Theymion who could no longer bear the arrogance of the centurion Lord Commander.

“We are sworn to protect the lords of this land and all who occupy its territories. As I said, you don’t belong in Port Horren, so go about your business and leave. I am not a hunter or an information gatherer ready at your behest.”

“I only wish to find my children you brute…” screamed Lydon who was about to lunge at the sitting commander. His companion quickly interceded and pulled back the old man who was in turn brought to the ground by several guards in the room.

“Throw them out of town!” said the angry commander slamming his hands on the table. “Be thankful that I am in a good mood or it is the dungeons for you two!”

The guards did so as they were told dragging the two weary travelers who could do nothing but protest. Out of the drab centurion office, they were pulled out and into the muddy streets of Port Horren. Passers-by stopped to look at what the commotion was all about.

“We are decent men!” screamed an angry Lydon as he snapped to his feet and wiped the grime off his face. He retrieved his skullcap from the mud.

Theymion was slow to rise. He too wiped the mud from his robes and face. A crowd gathered: some on a wagon, merchants probably, some locals carrying baskets of fish and vegetables, and some in lavish carriages cocking eyebrows and wearing smirks on their rich clean faces.

Theymion turned to see a familiar face, a traveling companion that he thought he would never cross paths with again.

“What has happened to you?” asked Azanthriel helping Theymion to his feet.

“Damned centurions!” answered Lydon. “They are supposed to be helping folks like us, yet simple information they wouldn’t give. We asked kindly but they were rude enough to throw us out. Me, an old man, a peasant true, but still a man! Now I am left with no dignity at all.” He pointed a fist to the centurions that looked at him with smirks and said, “I was once a footman of Adaratha you damned pigs!”

“It’s a shame,” said Theymion, “The Empire that claims to uphold justice and righteousness are the first ones to turn a blind eye to those that need it. Is it true, Azanthriel, that the realm is ruled by bigots and greedy men?”

“How dare you!” said an angry voice from the entrance of an adjacent building, the office of the town’s Tribunary. Out came the Tribune of Port Horren’s local office. He was old; a fat man who showed the luxury of his lifestyle by the fancy jewels that hung on his body. He stopped upon seeing the big man who stood beside two peasants. He recognized Azanthriel’s blade soon enough. He stared in wide-eyed disbelief. Fear gripped his heart.

“Impossible,” said the fat old Tribune. “You’re not supposed to be here!”

“Ah, captain Semius, or what is it now, Tribune Semius? This is a pleasant surprise!” said Azanthriel with sarcasm in his tone. “I see you now serve provincial lackeys. If I were you I’d be wise enough to help these people – or I will do to you what I did to the commanders in Argath. But then again, you are Semius… coward true!”

Tribune Semius stood shaking. He looked like a helpless old seventy-year-old man who has seen nothing but horror in his life, and maybe he has, for the nightmare he thought was gone had suddenly emerged right before him. It was something that his men haven’t seen before.

“Lord Semius, do you want us to get rid of this brute?” asked the Lord Commander.

“No, you will die! I tell you will die! What is it that they want?”

“They want to know the whereabouts of the slavers your grace.”

“Then by the Goddess Empress, give it to them!”

“By my lord…”

“Do as I say Commander Lurin! Do as I say!”

“As you wish, my lord,” said the Lord Commander, who turned towards the three visitors and said, “The slavers are going to the northern reaches, two days ride from here passing the abandoned outpost of Aiun. Three if you walk fast enough. The Vashaan camp awaits there.”

“See, you fools know!” snapped Azanthriel who spit on the ground.

The guards tightened their grips on their swords. The Tribune stood frozen. The guards advanced, slowly drawing their swords. They were halted soon enough by Semius who finally found his voice.

“Stop, all of you, or you will be doomed! You will not win against him. Leave this town Azanthriel! We do not want to taste the evil that has tainted your hands. I beg you. To the north! Go to the north and leave us be.”

“You didn’t do anything to stop them, Semius?” asked Azanthriel with a wicked smile.

“The slavers have done us no wrong!” said the Lord Commander.

“Being a slave is wrong. Would you like to become a slave?”

The Lord Commander wanted to advance and plunge his sword into Azanthriel’s chest, but like a true soldier, he followed orders and stood his ground.

“Pray that I don’t pass this way again you fat fool,” said Azanthriel to the sweating Semius, “I would be happy to rid the world of the likes of you.”

Semius started to catch his breath. It looked like the old man would faint.

Azanthriel nodded to his companions. They headed to the north exit out of town with the curious stares of people and the frightened gaze of a man who knew what he was truly capable of.

***

The loud sound of the river was a welcome to the travelers who washed the dirt from their faces and hands. A low campfire roasted captured game. There was a break in the winter sky that day and the sun that brought its warmth was a welcoming sight against the coldness of the winter morning. By sundown, they camped by the riverbank. Roasted fowl was ready for their complaining bellies.

“Why did the commander fear you Azanthriel?” asked Theymion.

“Is it important?”

“Not really. But I am deeply curious as to what kind of man you are to insight fear even to the Tribune of Port Horren himself.”

“I am a man who has seen and fought many things – killed many things. I do not wish to elaborate on my history simply because I want to forget about it. My past is not worth telling.”

Theymion nodded with a smile feeling the weight of Azanthriel’s words regarding the man’s history.

There was something about the youth that made Azanthriel shiver. He couldn’t read Theymion. This bothered him since the first time they met, yet the youth didn’t give much to worry about. Still, there was a voice in his head that told him to be wary; to be on guard for things may not appear what it seems.

“Will you help us then?” interrupted Lydon. “Help me at least, get back my daughters? I have no coin to pay you, but I only have what is left of my life, in servitude to you, should you help me in this task.”

Azanthriel thought hard and long. He stared into the eyes of the old man looking for an answer. He knew he wouldn’t get anything in return and the service of an old man would be more of a liability than an asset. He hadn’t done anything like this in a long while – a very long while – and the whole hero business was something he left behind many years ago. Would he be the man he once was or the bravo that tried to forget his past?

“Servitude is a great word Lydon, one that will likely make your life more miserable than it is now. Yet, I admire your bravery and your honesty. You were not the fool I mistook you when we first met.”

Again there was another pause. Azanthriel rubbed his chin as Lydon waited eagerly.

“Very well then,” answered the big man, “I shall help you.”

“I thank you, sir,” humbly said the old man who fell to his knees and bowed kissing the ground before his savior.

“You don’t need to serve me,” he added. “Your family would need you more.”

“Why?” asked Theymion. “I thought that you wanted to be left alone?”

“There are things I’d rather not answer, Theymion. Leave it at that.”

“Ah, maybe a hero you once were?” said Theymion proudly.

“That word… it doesn’t mean anything. The night grows deep. We must rest if we are to travel early.”

His two companions agreed. They slept without watches.

***

By morning they continued on their way. The snowfall was light and the airless cold. A day had passed since the incident at Port Horren, yet Azanthriel couldn’t get past the thought that Semius could send his centurions after him. The cat was out of the bag and he expected the Tribune to tell the governates of his return. But what concerned him the most was the fact that there was a line drawn between the rich nobles and the peasants as exemplified by the maltreatment of his companions in Port Horren. And even though Theymion explained that he was a former councilman, the young man was shunned because Theymion was with a peasant. The townsfolk, the rich merchant, and the well-to-do traders paused at the spectacle. No one dared help them. Some were even smiling. What he saw was far from the attitude of people in the old days, before the rise of the empire, before the war with the Phantasmai. But even during the war, men helped men and there was no rich or poor – there was only the war. Have men become complacent and greedy? The Phantasmai were defeated, but from their wake rose a new form of a demon in the guise of the empire.

“You have been in the free lands, haven’t you, Azanthriel?” Lydon asked that broke Azanthriel’s thoughts.

“You’re in a talking mood today,” Azanthriel replied.

“I have to apologize for the way I acted a while back. So many things going on in my mind that have caused me to act poorly.”

“So not worry old man. I haven’t taken offense in your actions.”

“That is good to know,” said Lydon with a sigh of relief.

“As to your question, the answer is yes, I have been to the free lands across the seas.”

“Is it true then? Can it still be reached?”

“Yes.”

Lydon’s eyes brightened. He had only heard tales of the free lands, the kingdoms of far away that the empire had a hard time reaching. He wanted to be in such a place where the rich and the poor were treated equally. He heard that the free lands offered such! Once he was disheartened realizing that if the empire couldn’t reach it how could he? But now it was different, for Azanthriel had been to such lands and his hopes in reaching it might as well be in his grasp.

“Do you wish to go there?”

Lydon nodded enthusiastically.

“Why?”

“The free lands are untouched by the empire. I have heard that the people there are treated equally no matter what kind of lives they live.”

Azanthriel paused. His eyes were distant.

“There is a kingdom across the eastern seas, through the dangerous Seas of Kolemekus where none dare sail, except for a few of course who are either brave or foolish enough to face death. The kingdom is called Arumn, well protected from the empire’s reach by the storms and the monsters that ravage the only way to get to it.”

“Can’t ships go around to get to it?” asked Lydon.

“The storms, for some reason, go surround the islands where the kingdom is located. There is no way to go around. To get to Arumn you have to sail through the storm. I know of a few who tried sailing through it. They were big imperial galleons and warships that braved the rough seas. They were never found again. Arumn is in the free lands. Do you wish to gamble your life for freedom, Lydon? Are you willing to take such a sacrifice that you would do anything to escape the empire?”

Lydon paused long and thought hard. The price for freedom was an expensive one, but he was determined to be rid of the empire, to escape its clutches, to live a life he and his family deserved. Yes, he was willing to make that sacrifice especially now, in this age of uncertainty. Yes, in his heart he wanted to be free from the chains of the empire.

“Yes, friend Azanthriel. I will brave the storms just for my family to survive and live freely.”

“Very well then. There is a way to get to Arumn that only a few sailors know of this. Only a caravel or a ship of smaller size can make this trip because it involves maneuvering a plotted course avoiding the dangerous waters. It’s called the Kamirr run named after the famous pirate D’Elgio Kamirr. I have seen it done before and I can say I have been to Arumn and back unscathed.”

“They say that the Seas of Kolemekus is protected by Talamedius, the god of the ocean and storms, and he favors Arumn for some reason.”

“And where did you hear that Theymion?” asked Azanthriel looking at the young man with an inquisitive look.

“Oh, somewhere I think. It’s all just rumors anyway. Is Arumn friendly to imperials like us, Azanthriel?”

He paused momentarily before answering. “Some speak imperial tongue well, but their language is not that hard to learn especially if you plan on staying for a long while. You’d be surprised to know that there are imperials in that area; most of them refugees who are sick and tired of living under the laws of their landlords. I sailed with some of them when I wanted to get out of this pigsty of a country. The king of Arumn welcomes all refugees fleeing from the empire. There is still the politics of men in Arumn though, as it is not as sweet-smelling as the stories about are, but at least their laws are lenient and favor mostly equality.”

“That is good to hear,” Lydon said smiling like a child. “Can I ask how my family can get there?”

“To the west of the Vashaan camps is the port city of Indigos. Look for the small ship called Braver the Second and its captain Stellan Von. He owes me a favor. Tell him: the green fires of Nekura have come. He’ll know that I sent you. Tell him you wish to sail for Arumn and he will grant it.”

“What does that mean?” asked Lydon scratching his head.

“Ask him and he’ll happily tell you.”

“Isn’t Nekura a legendary sea dragon?” asked Theymion.

Azanthriel stopped dead in his tracks. His head turned with his eyes looking back. His hand instinctively to his sword; his muscles tensed. He sniffed the air behind him.

“What is it?” asked the old man feeling the tension as it rose in the air.

“Men, many men,” said Azanthriel as he faced the opposite direction. “They caught up with us.”

“Who?”

“The centurions at Port Horren, I think.”

“Really?” snapped Theymion with two hands on his hips, “Now that I didn’t expect… really.

“What do you mean by that?” asked Azanthriel, confused.

“Nothing. How many men do you think they are?”

“I don’t know, but they are many. You should hide yourselves.”

“But these are just men, Azanthriel,” said Lydon holding out his dagger. “They’re no demons. I still can fight!”

“Not with that,” replied Azanthriel with half a smile looking at the old man’s rusty dagger. “Over there by that large tree with its overgrown roots, hide there. I’ll lure one over so you can get a sword. And you, young politician, how skilled are you with a blade?”

“Never held one in my life,” said Theymion with a smile, “But I can easily bore them do death if you wish? I am a politician after all!”

Azanthriel gave a sharp chuckle and said, “Quick, hide yourselves and be ready. I’ll try to get as many as I can. If you see we are outnumbered, we retreat further into the woods!”

“What about you? Are you prepared?” asked Theymion referring to the last incident after the fight with the Phantasmai.

“I’ll do what I can. Chances are you might have to run from me as well.”

 

CHAPTER FIVE

Lord Commander Lurin was a man who had seen many battles, most against the lesser armies of those that the empire invaded. They were battles won with steel and blood. He led squadrons of men who looked up to him for leadership. Yes, that’s what he was – a leader of men – brave men who would die for him. His pride was invincible, as invincible as the thought that the empire was invincible, unconquerable, and that he too was invincible on the battlefield.

His squad of his well-trained centurions tracked down the three violators of the law that threatened a poor old Tribune to death. Of course, he really didn’t care about the Tribune, but being a kiss-ass to Semius had its rewards. He wouldn’t be Lord Commander if it weren’t for Port Horren’s Tribune. He told his men that they sought vengeance on the man that caused the Tribune’s heart to fail. Vengeance, so he claims, but deep in his heart, he knew it was a lie. In fact, he cared less whether that fat bastard died or not. The real reason was the thrill of the hunt, the excitement to an otherwise boring life of frontier guarding and pitiful town watching.

Through the forest, they trudged, thirteen with swords and pikes, thirteen angry men who wanted some action, who like their commander were bored and listless. The cold air didn’t stop them from advancing. Their footsteps had a purpose. They stopped at a distance with the Lord Commander looking beyond the trees at a figure that ran towards him. It was one of his men, a scout that had trailed the ones they were after. The scout stopped in front of Lurin and took a knee with a fist on his chest.

“Lord Commander, they’re not far from us. We can overtake them if we take the eastern pass.”

Lurin nodded and waved off his scout. The young man acknowledged the nod and went the route of the eastern path.

Lurin smiled as he faced his men. His decision of continuing their pursuit up to late last night was a good one. The lack of sleep didn’t bother his men. The thrill of the hunt kept them awake. With a hand on his sword, he said, “We’ve caught up, men, and we will be relentless in our pursuit. Leave none of those bastards alive and avenge our Tribune Semius. They will rue the day they spit on the face of the empire.”

His men grunted in response. Soon they will have a taste of action again. Soon their bravery shall be rewarded when they return to Port Horren with their heads.

Lurin wondered who this Azanthriel was. He wondered why the Tribune feared this stranger. He had heard of what happened to the commanders at Argath, about the bloodbath and evil that defiled their bodies. That was years ago when he was still a young man. This man couldn’t have perpetrated the deaths of the commanders. This man should be old by now. He heard it was a demon! Could he be wrong? Somehow, that thought brought him a shiver. But no, he wouldn’t be intimidated by such a thing – he was a Lord Commander after all!

They sped on, their footsteps echoing their passion for the fight. They sped on with one man suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of doubt in what they were doing.

***

“Are you afraid, old man?” Theymion asked his companion.

“Of course I am,” said Lydon sternly, “But my anger towards our pursuers surpasses my fears. I knew many centurions before and they were men of honor. They are also dead. I guess the brave never really grow old.”

“Are we doing the right thing?” Theymion asked the old man. “I don’t see us winning this one. If Azanthriel is right then at least there’s a squad of men out to get us, and if they get us, it’s the dungeons for both of us.”

“And what of Azanthriel?”

“I’m sure they’d want him dead. Are you not thinking of running?”

“Where will we run, Theymion?” asked Lydon holding the dagger close to his heart. “To tell you honestly, I’m tired of running. If I still had my youth I’d be holding a sword and be standing right beside Azanthriel, not hiding like a cowardly animal. I’m grateful that he agreed to help us – help me, get back my daughters.”

“I understand, but we have to survive this first before we can go on saving your daughters. Surely you can fight, there’s no doubt about that, but up to when? After you kill one or two? What about the rest? What if Azanthriel is slain and there’s more to fend off?”

“Why are you all of a sudden concerned about my welfare?”

“But I’ve always been concerned about your safety,” assured Thymion. “Why do you think I’m here?”

Lydon nodded. His silence was somewhat an apology that Thymion accepted. The young man had a point and Lydon questioned whether he would come out of this encounter alive or not. But he had every trust in his companion who had an uncanny way with the sword. There was something about Azanthriel that the old man saw, a glimmer of hope, and for Lydon, that was something he was not going to just let go of. Maybe Azanthriel could change the empire, and then again maybe not, but even though that path was uncertain, Lydon knew there was still hope for his daughters.

 “I trust Azanthriel will not fail us – will not fail me. “ Lydon said with utmost certainty.

 “That is good,” said Thymion with his words having a deeper meaning. “He is proving to be more than the hero that we expect him to be.”

Lydon looked at Thymion curiously. He felt that the young man wasn’t talking to him at all but to someone else. Shrugging off that thought, Lydon said “I don’t know if we could call him that, we don’t know of the man’s history after all. But I am quite sure that he is more of a man than those that pursue us.”

Thymion looked at his companion blankly and said, “Of course, of course… that he is.”

***

Azanthriel stood in the middle of a clearing with his sword drawn. His eyes were closed, his mind feeling his surroundings. His thumb crawled through the guard of his sword feeling the etched emblem of the phoenix, the crest of the empire in the old days before it was changed to a dragon. He took deep breaths. He focused to calm himself. He felt the beast within awakening, rising to consciousness as bloodshed would begin anew. He had no other choice. He had to fight. He had to spill blood or they would just keep on hurting him, hunting him until he couldn’t run anymore.

He smelled their scent in the air. They were close. His face hardened. He smelled them coming close. He sensed their eagerness to fight. He also sensed their fear.

The movement came from the trees beyond. He counted nine at least, moving as fast as they could from tree to tree, trying to be stealthy though careless in all accounts. He knew there were more of them probably hiding, stationed behind trees somewhere far, unseen, with their arrows drawn and fingers itching for the release. It really didn’t matter to Azanthriel. He knew they were of lesser qualities compared to his skill with the sword. He sized them up in Port Horren. They were trained. The callous on their hands proved it. Maybe they were good with the sword? But one thing he knew was certain; they were not ready to die.

The twang of a bow he heard at a distance. The arrow shrieked in the air cutting a path straight to Azanthriel’s chest. But the big brute was too agile for his size and with a quick move he easily ducked into a roll evading the attack. He crouched with his sword at the ready. Several more flew by with bows released echoing from the trees beyond. The arrows hissed like snakes in flight. One was swatted away and one flew by harmlessly, but one scraped the surface of Azanthriel’s leather sleeve creating a hole that exposed wounded skin. He looked at his sword arm where the graze was. A scratch no doubt, but a hit nonetheless. A few more inches and that arrow would have buried itself in his arm.

He smiled. His grin was wide. The sight of his own blood excited him. Azanthriel wasn’t himself anymore. He succumbed to the beast of battle. His mind raced with scenarios of tactics and maneuvers. His enemies would not leave this forest alive.

 “Coward scum of Semius!” Azanthriel screamed into the forest. “Pray hard that you survive my blade!”

And with that, the centurions bolted out of the trees and charged into the clearing where Azanthriel waited for them.

Lord Commander Lurin barked out orders as they charged. Nine men split into groups of three, with two that flanked Azanthriel on both sides and a third that waited for the kill.

An ordinary soldier would panic in a situation where the odds were against him, but not Azanthriel. He had seen too many wars and had fought too many battles in his lifetime. He had seen all the dirty tricks and maneuvers that an opponent could dish out. He laughed at the enemy’s tactics.

Azanthriel lunged to his attacker on the left, batting away the incoming sword and kicking the surprised centurion back against the others. The two centurions weren’t quick to their wits and thus couldn’t avoid their incoming companion. In the heat of the confusion, Azanthriel ducked to a roll and moved to his left away from the third group that waited in the middle. With a swift turn, he found himself facing the other group that flanked him. He swung his sword in a low arc and cut through the thigh of the nearest centurion. The young man’s face grimaced intensely followed by a cry as the gaping wound spewed out blood. But the attack didn’t stop there for Azanthriel’s blade was already on a downward swing that cleanly cut the centurion’s arm severing it. Down went the youth, a bloody mess.

One swing! The other centurions gasped at the sight. None of them had seen such a feat, not even from their centurion commanders. What was this monster that they were up against?

 “Don’t stand around like fools! Attack!” ordered the Lord Commander as he tried to act unfazed though there was hesitation in his voice.

Four more came from the trees behind him. They were the four archers that hid from the trees. They threw away their bows and drew their blades. They charged screaming, hoping that the additional numbers might intimidate the opponent. They were wrong.

Azanthriel maneuvered himself behind two centurions that were surprised by the speed of the big man. In a flash, one centurion saw the glint of steel and the color of red gushing out his torn breastplate. The other centurion took to offense seeing an opening from Azanthriel’s swing, but his downward arc was easily parried. The centurion, an older and more experienced fighter, withdrew his sword and maneuvered to his left thinking that his enemy would eventually go the opposite direction. He thought that he could make an opening in such a move. Much to his surprise he saw Azanthriel pivot in his direction and block his attack that came from below. Down came a fist that slammed hard against the centurion’s face, like a hammer smashing through flesh. There was the sound of bone cracking. The old centurion fell to the ground unconscious.

Azanthriel swiftly picked up a fallen blade and withdrew into the forest. He heard the Lord Commander’s order to give chase. Predictable fools. With twists and turns, leaps and rolls, he managed to sneak the sword into the waiting hands of Lydon who hid in an overgrowth that camouflaged their whereabouts. Azanthriel made a stealthy move in the other direction, up an incline where a natural path was formed with overgrown roots creating a makeshift wall. The path could fit only one man.

Lurin and his centurions stumbled through the thick forest not noticing that they were trudging deeper into unfamiliar territory.

Azanthriel had the advantage of surveying the area beforehand and he knew where to go and make a stand.

The Lord Commander stepped aside to let his men pass. Each one lined up like ants and made its way into the narrow opening. Lurin scoured the area and tried to find another way around the dense foliage. Seeing that he and his men had to go around to get to the other side of the path, it suddenly dawned on him that Azanthriel might have had the advantage all along! He came to the realization that it might be a trap. He tried to call his men back but they were swallowed by their own lust for battle and could only hear their own brave cries.

From within the thick overgrowth, Lurin heard the ringing of steel and the scream of voices. His men, three who stayed behind, looked at him with questioning eyes. He looked back at them. He realized that like him, their courage waned every time the sound of steel echoed in the distance and a scream was silenced thereafter. One step back, then another, and another, until Lurin noticed his men were a few feet away from him. They wanted to go.

The cries of men in pain and the furious clashes of steel resounded no more. All that was left was a moment of silence and the heavy breathing of men that felt the heaviness of their armor and the swords that they held.

From within the path came footsteps running out, running towards a group that waited with uncertainty, with weapons drawn yet held so lightly, and with pale faces that had lost the will to fight on.

“Ready yourselves!” commanded Lurin but his voice lacked the sternness of his leadership. There was doubt. His men heard it in his words, felt it in the air. He now realized why the Tribune feared this man. The Tribune, he remembered, was dead and should be avenged! He dug deep into whatever courage was left in him and said, “He killed our Tribune, men! Such a beast must be put down! Stand with me and fight this monster!”

That was a lie! The Tribune died because of the pain in Semius’ chest. Lurin was there. He saw it. He lied to himself. He lied to his men. His words were supposed to inspire. He was Lord Commander after all! But no centurion has ever faced real monsters these days, not when the empire held everything and everyone. The monsters of the old world were gone. The light of the Goddess Empress assured him that.

He whispered her name. Beads of sweat ran down his face. Deep inside, he called for her. Goddess Empress. Goddess Empress. He tried to be brave. His hands trembled. He knew she was with him – or was she? He didn’t feel anything. There was only the fear from within.

The sound of steel falling to the ground made Lurin turn. He looked back, two remained. The other ran. He was thinking of doing the same thing.

The footsteps slowed to a walk. The monster drew near. Lurin and his remaining centurions readied themselves. What they didn’t expect was the fury of an old man that had the advantage of surprise. Down came glinting steel against the back of a centurion who expected his death would come from his front.

He fell. He felt the pain and heard the words in an old man’s voice that said, “That’s for none of your help, you cowardly bastard!”

The other faced Lydon with an expression of surprise. He was the tracker amongst them, the scout, yet despite his skill, he failed in noticing where the others hid. He was careless. He realized that his mistake caused the failure of their hunt. He saw the old man had a firm stance and knew how to handle a sword. Still, this was not the man that they hunted, rather an old man who the centurion thought he could overpower. He raised his sword and screamed with the intent of intimidation. His sword came down. His opponent though was more seasoned than he was and what he met was an unfazed old man that parried his attack.

Lydon felt the blow ripple in his bones. He parried the attack nonetheless with two hands on his sword. There was still some strength in him. Adrenaline rushed through his body. His anger for the centurions stoked the fire of his will to fight.

Lurin was about to help his centurion with the fight against an old man, but the crunching of leaves and threading of footsteps made him turn around. He saw his adversary walk towards him with a bloodied sword.

Azanthriel walked out the path with red splattered all over his body. His eyes were bloodshot and not his own. He had succumbed deep into the lust for battle and at that moment he was a beast that hungered for the death of his enemies. He heard Lurin’s heart as it beat like the trampling of horse hooves amid a stampede. He saw the eyes of his enemy stare at him with horror. In his heart was the thrill of the kill. The beast had taken over, the slaughterer of friend and foe, the demon heart that thumped, pounding in excitement, and with a smile Azanthriel leaped with his sword raised for the kill.

His scream punctured nerves.

Lydon and his opponent stared at a maddened Azanthriel open the Lord Commander with one mighty swing!

Lurin’s sword shatters upon the blow of a greater weapon. He stumbled on the ground and clutched his broken breastplate that bled from the inside. His head spun in all directions. His vision blurred. His breath was short and sharp… and then he was still.

The scuffling of feet and the crunching of leaves echoed in the stillness of the moment. The last of Lurin’s centurion scampered away. He left his sword and his mind on the ground. “Monster!” he screamed, “The Tribune was telling the truth!”

Lydon took a step back as Azanthriel inched towards him. The big man’s eyes told the old man that more of the carnage was on its way. He pleaded. His voice was coarse and his hands trembled. For the first time since they met, he was truly scared of the man that he thought was his hope in getting back her daughters. “Azanthriel!” he called again, but his blood-soaked companion was deaf to his cries.

Azanthriel.

She called.

My lord, please… enough.

Her voice soothed him. The beast cried, roaring and thrashing, trying to conquer his will. There was still one more to slaughter! But that voice, it was much too powerful, and the beast within his heart receded. Then silence. The man was still.

“Did you hear her?” asked Azanthriel. Tears trickled down his face. “Did you hear her?”

“Wh-who?” returned the trembling old man.

“Her! I heard her. She calmed the beast.”

 

CHAPTER SIX

There was a hush that came over the encampment, a calmness that lingered with anticipation. The soldiers were restless. Some couldn’t sleep. They huddled in warm campfires speaking in hushed tones. Others twisted and turned on the ground where they lay. One of them didn’t want to sleep. He was anxious for the morning to come; anxious for the fight, to fight the beastly foes that terrorized the countryside. He stood atop a mound looking at the enemy’s camp across a barrier.

His thoughts were interrupted when he noticed footsteps from behind.

“How do you expect to sneak up on the enemy when you can’t even sneak behind me?

“I wasn’t trying to sneak,” answered a dark-skinned woman. “You can’t really see the enemy from here, you know.”

“I don’t need to see them,” replied the captain. He still wore his armor and was ready to fight. “I just need to know where they are. These bastards fight without honor, cannibals and all, that’s why we have to outsmart them – fight them without seeing! We should know how to fight in the dark.”

“The high captain will disagree with you.”

“The high captain is a fool. He’ll get this army decimated. “

“Please tone down your voice,” pleaded the dark-skinned woman. “I don’t want to be in the middle of a scuffle between the two of you again. He’s in command, you know that. You’re father’s orders, remember?”

He was silent, thinking of what she said, knowing that no matter how foolish the order was, it still came from the general and that foolish old man was his father’s right hand. He couldn’t do anything about it. Yet, his men knew who to follow, even though he was the youngest of the captains, no matter what the high captain thought of him, his men would still look him to him before following any order.

“Is it because I am young?” he asked looking over his shoulder. “Do they belittle me because of my youth? Have I not proven myself worthy time and time again?”

“Could be they’re just jealous,” she said with a chuckle.

“Fools,” he spat.

“Come,” she said taking his hand “There are still a few hours till dawn. Take off that armor and pleasure me,” she added with a teasing smile.

“I won’t let anything harm you,” he said quite convinced of his words.

“May the gods protect us all.”

They walked hand in hand through the dimly lit encampment. His men nodded as they passed. Another battle was to begin in the morning. His men were tired but they had to defend the borders of Aquilous. They had to keep their kingdom safe.

The couple was about to enter his tent when the shriek of a man broke the silence in the encampment. It came from the other end. Men drew their swords and spears, carried their shields. Some wore their armor. Others did not. Chaos ensued.

He saw his men look to him. Even though he had no clue of what was going on, he hardened his face and gave commands.

“To shields and spears!” roared his voice above the noise of panic.

His men were quick to their weapons. They formed the inner circle with shields and spears in front, swords inside. Their faces tensed – all twenty of his battle-hardened men and women formed a wall that was ready in every corner. He stood outside the wall with his own weapons ready.

“Gods help us,” said his lover.

“Gods guide us!” answered the rest in unison.

An unholy roar came from the ranks in the outskirts of the encampment. Streams of magical light came from the priests of the gods that blasted away the unknown foe. The ensuing bedlam came with more screams. It seemed as though the magic of the priests were not enough to stop the enemy.

The ground below him crumpled with a fiery burst sending him and his men hurtling through the air. They landed hard. He groaned as he rose. On the spot where they once stood was a hole that spewed forth fire. From that hole emerged an armored hand followed by a figure that stood nearly ten feet in height. Its armor still dripping with red molten lava and in its hand was a wicked sword. This was not a Temorran, those beastly barbarians who knew nothing but war. This creature was more menacing than their flesh-eating adversaries. This was something new that they haven’t seen before.

“We are Phantasmai,” said the creature. Its voice was cold and inhuman. It brought fear to those that heard it. “We bring death.”

His centurions charged. They attacked with fury. Their efforts were futile as one by one they fell to the creature’s enormous flaming blade.

He was trained for battle, trained to face men that held swords and spears like him, honed for battle against the rival kingdoms that wished to conquer them. He would never falter. However, the sight of the creature incited fear. He felt the evil presence that made the hair on his back stand. He knew of fear, he embraced it, and knowing fear made him stronger. That was how he was trained: fear until you can’t fear anymore. He recalled his training, and with every ounce of fear, he saw from the creature he accepted, until slowly he felt himself again. He saw his men being slaughtered. The fear vanished. Now it was anger.

He charged, methodically, waiting for the creature’s strike, rolling beneath the fiery beast’s attack to make a strike of his own. His sword made an awful sound as it broke against his enemy’s superior armor. He caught the back of the creature’s hand. He was swatted several feet away. He slammed hard against a supply cart.

The world spun around him, but just before he lost consciousness, he heard her scream as the creature held her high by the neck and started to squeeze

“Help… Azanthriel…”

He heard her gurgle. Darkness took over.

***

Azanthriel woke up screaming. His hand instinctively reached for his sword. He swung wildly hitting nothing. The past gave him a nightmare. No matter how hard he tried to forget, it always caught up with him.

The sound of a lute filled the air. The sound of the river was no more. He readied himself gripping his sword tight. He recognized the music. It was a song that his mother used to hum to him as a child.

Upon the darkness of the forest emerged a cloaked figure playing the lute. It walked without noise like its feet didn’t touch the ground. He looked at his companions. They were still asleep, unbothered by the music. The figure came closer to the firelight. Its face was revealed to be a man, or what looked like a man, for the features were perfect and near beautiful in every way.

“The blade is not necessary young Azanthriel,” said the man. It was the minstrel.

“You!” said the big man through his teeth. “Are you one of them? Are you a demon or a hunter of the empress? Are you to take me back?”

“No, Azanthriel,” the minstrel that played his lute, “I am neither Phantasmai nor any demon that haunts your dreams.”

“Then why are you here? Why all this mystery? What is it you want with me?”

“I need your help. You will help us will you not?”

“What are you minstrel; wizard, an imperial spy, or a lowly charlatan out to make quick coin? You play a song that reminds me of my past. What do you know of it?”

The minstrel laughed and said, “You are amusing indeed, Azantriel. I am not any of those that you speak of, and that song – well it just came to mind.”

The minstrel smiled.

“Enough of the riddles minstrel and tell me who you are!”

“My name is Myrnnon.”

“They named you after a god?”

The minstrel laughed. There was power in his laughter. He stopped with a stern face and said, “I am that god.”

Thunder crackled off in the distance. Then a deafening silence overwhelmed everything. The sound of the lute was gone. Azanthriel readied himself for an attack.

“I don’t believe in the gods anymore or any other power that stirs in the faiths of men. The gods are dead, and maybe you haven’t heard, but there is one who rules over the empire, and she is the only god recognized by the people.”

“A false goddess, one created by men. You are too tensed Azanthriel. Even though you possess something that could rival the fiercest of men or the strongest of beasts, what can you do against a god?”

“Come here and I’ll show you.”

Myrnnon just smiled.

“Men created a god that could rival you and your kind. You are a forgotten lot, just like the ages of long ago, and whatever you do, the people will not remember you anymore. To them, this new god is a more terrifying one! Now state your business lest I swing my sword upon you.”

“You will not,” laughed the god as he replied with certainty. “You cannot!”

“How sure are you?” angrily asked Azanthriel.

“I know so. I know you from the inside out. I was there the day you were born. You were destined for great things Azanthriel. I gave you a gift – your prowess on the battlefield – to be my champion when the time came. Unfortunately, that time never came. The coming of the Phantasmai was unseen even by us. The fates of men changed the day they came; yours most of all.”

“Then why have you abandoned us?”

“The rise of the Goddess Empress was unexpected. Even I, a god of the upper hierarchy, never saw that coming. I cannot explain how that happened, but I tell you Azanthanriel, we never abandoned you. It was mankind that abandoned us.”

“Why pester me then?”

“I need your help. I wish to reclaim what is rightfully belongs to the gods.”

“Which is?”

“This world. This reality. Everything will fall into chaos if the balance of the natural order is tipped.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why? Stop pretending like you don’t care Azanthriel! The world is slowly slipping into chaos ever since your Goddess Empress had taken control.”

Myrnnon put down his lute and sat on the ground.

“Her rise to power has unbalanced the natural order in the universe,” the god continued, “She is unnatural. Her coming vanquished one form of chaos but replaced it with another. Don’t you see the things that are happening? Her influence has fed chaos in the hearts and minds of her people. Greed and the lust for power drive the lords of the land. I have seen the outcome if this empire rules the world. It is not a pretty sight.”

“And why haven’t you taken back the world from her?”

“Reverence! We cannot take it. It has to be given freely. Prayer is what powers our influence, yet the politics of men have created lies that made us less of who we once were. Do not be misled though for we are still as omnipotent as the time that we bore consciousness. We cannot bear to destroy our own creations you see. It is not in our nature.”

“Not in your nature? Legions fell against the Phantasmai and you did nothing! Your ‘creations’ called upon you but you didn’t answer! Why?”

“They didn’t call for us. The people of the Pentavara Reach were blinded by a woman that could perform godly miracles. Reverence to the gods slowly waned because of this. Some of us have become powerless to aid you. Some have turned their backs because you chose her over us. The people called for your Goddess Empress and thus you have your Goddess Empress. I know what happened to you that day and what they did to you. If you called upon me then I would’ve come.”

“I call to no one!”

“Yes, you were the bold one. Aid meant nothing to you. You were braver than all of them. The daring Legionites, powered by the magic of a human goddess! You succeeded, truly, but at the cost of your soul. A pity your human goddess couldn’t help you when you really needed it.”

“You will not talk about her like that!”

“Indeed. But wasn’t your Goddess Empress the one who did nothing as they imprisoned you just because you survived that war? She locked you up in a dungeon because you were unnatural. Shouldn’t you be the hero and not them?”

“Damn you!” spat Azanthriel. “And where were the gods when my father needed you? Aquillous fell and you did nothing. You left him dying – you left him to rot!”

“Ah, but I was there. I gave your father a choice, to live the remainder of his life scarred, or to wander my halls in the afterlife. He chose the latter, young proud warrior. Listen Azanthriel, we follow a certain rule and that is we should not meddle in the affairs of men unless we are needed. To bend the rules means bending the celestial order of the universe. We created these rules and thus we must follow them.”

“Should we follow rules even if those rules meant the destruction of the world?”

“Yes. If rules were not followed, then chaos would reign. Indeed, mankind swims in the vastness of the ocean of chaos, but always your head is kept above water. Mankind was meant to be resilient. That is the way we created you so that you can push back the chaos that lurks in the deepest parts of your soul. You won the war and pushed back the Phantasmai, have you not? You survived the squabbles of your politicians and united the kingdoms into an empire! Men and your resilience! I am but a proud creator. But then again you have your weaknesses. Your lords have succumbed to the lust for power, to the chaos in their hearts.”

“Tell that to someone who cares,” spat Azanthriel.

“Be careful where you thread, Legionite. I am not a god without a temper.”

“Then smite me down, O sky lord, and be done with my misery. I lost everything when the Phantasmai came. Do you think I care now what happens to me?”

“You lost everything because you chose to ignore us. You are the faithless one, Azanthriel, even to the god that your kind created, even to that human goddess that you so despise! You did not call for us. You did not call for her. You believed only in yourself! Your faithlessness has made you the bitter man you are right now. Do not blame the gods. We have given you as much free will as possible. Blame only yourself and your pride.”

Myrnnon sighed and said, “I feel betrayed, Azanthriel. Most of the gods do. Mankind has turned its back on us even after the things that we have done, the miracles that we have created for all of you to prosper and grow. But we don’t hold it against you in whatever path you wish to thread. All we ask is reverence returned.”

Azanthriel digested the words of Myrnnon. The god was pleading. He rubbed his chin and asked, “Why choose me for this task? I can do nothing to influence the empire. I am no longer a Legionite. I am a pariah. Demon blood pumps in my heart. I am a slave to the bloodlust of the beast!”

“It’s not your fault that you became a pawn to chaos. I am saddened that the very country you chose to defend betrayed you. I can do nothing to stop that burning desire of battle inside of you. What the Phantasmai did to you was wrong, yet in a way, it gave you an edge over all other men.”

“I am tired of doing battle. I seek solace.”

“I can give it to you, or rather, I know of one who can tame the beast from within, but that is only if you help us.”

“Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, eh? No, not as long as the heart of the beast resides inside of me. There can be no solace for a man who bears the burden of blood lust. My curiosity is itched though. Tell me, who is this person you refer to?”

“She has already called to you. You have heard her reach out.”

Azanthriel stared wide-eyed at the god and said, “What have you done to her?”

“It was of her own free will that she reached out from beyond the grave. She knows your plight. This is the solace that I offer.”

“You can bring her back?”

“Maybe. Her soul doesn’t linger in my domain though.”

Azanthriel hesitated and said, “Such a thing would be unnatural though. She is dead and I have accepted that fact. Yet…”

“It’s worth a try in preventing the chaos within you. Remember, unlike us, the gods who find only oblivion in death, mankind has the choice of being reborn into the world. It’s the gift we gave you. Maybe you can see her in the ruins if she permits it. Anything is possible in the world. Will you help us then?”

Azanthriel sheathed his blade, shook his head, and said, “You need a prophet, Myrnnon, not someone like me.”

“But you have already have chosen that path, Azanthriel. It is the hero’s path; the path of redemption. I will ask you again soon. Your aid is necessary because your destiny is tied to the heavens. Now wake up, it’s almost dawn.”

Azanthriel opened his eyes and snapped to his feet. He saw the forest. He heard the sound of the river. He saw his two companions were still sleeping. The campfire burned its last and the darkness broke. The sky was still overcast and the chill remained in the air. In his mind stirred the dream that felt so real that he questioned himself if it really happened. The words of Myrnnon lingered, about his purpose, about the help that was needed of him. He didn’t want to help them; he didn’t want to help anyone but himself. This help that he offered Lydon was something that he had to do for the moment, something that would pass the time on the way to the next city – something to stretch his muscles with. There was nothing more than that. He was no hero. Not anymore. Yet the irony was that he felt like his old self, full of bravado and bravery, and somewhere inside it felt good. But he held it back because it was of no use to the world he now lived in. It just wasn’t him anymore. He was running and for the moment, escape was the only answer.

He walked over and awoke his companions. It was time to take to the road again.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

Ten days they traveled, through the thick snow-covered forests of the north, pass the abandoned outpost of Aiun, and at last, they reached the valley where they saw the large tents of the Vashaan camp. Here, black market trades and shady dealings often occurred. Here, the lowliest scum mingled with the richest of traders often enough to strike a deal that led to sword fights and death. This was a dangerous place.

The three men entered with caution. Azanthriel lowered the hood of his cloak and kept himself at the back. He didn’t want to be recognized. He didn’t want to attract unwanted attention.

They saw a large number of hawkers, shady characters, all bearded and dirty, with wares that ranged from the finest weapons and oddest of armors to the rarest of gems. They were all for sale. This was the Vashaan camp, untouched by the realm because of politics and greed, protected by the lords of the southern lands who gain commission from black-market trading.

Eyes trailed their movement. Azanthriel noticed the guards of the camp look their way. They were untrusting brutes that safeguarded the merchants and their wares. They were paid well enough to keep nosy people out of black-market affairs. Two camp guards started to shadow the three companions.

“Two goons follow us,” Azanthriel said softly enough for his companions to hear. “They don’t trust anyone in these parts especially newcomers. Follow me, but don’t look in their direction.”

The three made a turn around a line of carts where fanciful textile from the far reaches of Muradoon and Kislak were sold. Thin-eyed easterners called out, showing their goods with outstretched arms egging for the wealthy to buy. Within the bedlam of traders and buyers, the three blended and were gone.

The guards in pursuit scoured the area. They invaded private tents and turned over baskets and jugs that would fit a human being. Merchants watched with furious eyes but could do nothing. The guards found nothing.

Azanthriel and his companions outmaneuvered their pursuers. With the help of the big man’s experience in stealth and guile, their efforts were rewarded.

They found themselves standing in front of another entrance where two armed men, swarthy and menacing, stood with their big scimitars at their side. They looked at the trio intensely.

“Business?” one of the swarthy-skinned ruffians asked.

“Yes,” answered Theymion holding a pouch that produced a chinking sound.

The two brutes looked at each other and grinned.

A soft breeze made its way through the thin mazy streets filled with rich clad buyers and more shady characters. This was the second tier of the camp – the slave quarters. Azanthriel and his companions followed several slavers dragging slaves like they were pigs. The slaves glanced his way. Their eyes screamed for salvation. Such a sight sickened him. Part of him wanted to free his sword and cut the slavers. His hand edged to his blade concealed beneath his cloak. Not yet, he said to himself knowing well that it would jeopardize their rescue of Lydon’s daughters.

The three companions entered the quarters of the slave traders where men, women, and children were sold to the highest bidder. Each tent had its own unique set of slaves. They stood on a raised wooden platform, chain-like rabid dogs. Most of them were innocent folks from peasant villages scattered throughout the realm.

The sight of this sickened Azanthriel. No person should be sold to a price and be owned by other men. The realm knew of this and did nothing. He realized that they were busy playing their games and have turned a blind eye to the cries of those that needed them. He wondered why the Goddess Empress could ever permit such atrocities. But then again such an atrocity had already happened to him. He remembered the chains, the damp dungeon, and the fact that the empire betrayed him when it should have embraced him.

Long gone were the glory days when a newly formed empire defended its people from the demons that haunted the world. People forget. They were conditioned to forget and thus the heroics of the past, the bravery and honor that men upheld then were simply erased. What they had now was an infection of bigotry and false truths. Like the gods, the world had simply forgotten what it was like to live with honor.

But why should he care? He was no hero or lord that protected those who could not protect themselves. Here stood a man scarred by the same institution he defended, whose body and soul were devoid of life and instead were replaced with a vengeance, left for dead by the country that he died for. The realm can do whatever it wants to do as long as he was left alone. This task that he agreed to do for the old man was one last act of kindness. After that he wouldn’t care anymore – he wouldn’t believe anymore. Besides, he feared that the beast inside of him would destroy many of the innocents, the peasants, and those who couldn’t protect themselves.

They entered the largest tent in the quarters. In this tent, they sold the most exotic of slaves, mostly women used by rich men for their richly desires. Inside was a chaos of finely clothed men and their servants. They raised their hands upon the calling of the slave master standing on a platform hailing bids on women. Most of them were almost naked covering their bodies with their arms, humiliated and fearful of their life after.

“Andrea, Terea! My children!” screamed an emotional Lydon.

The crowd stopped bidding. The slave master’s attention was on the old coot shouting from a corner.

“Damn it!” muttered.

“I see we have an interested buyer,” said the slave master, a large bearded man with a long scar that ran a straight line across his face.

Andrea and Terea looked to their father and burst into tears. They could do nothing. The chains on their hands and legs hindered their freedom.

“Free them now you murderous bastard!” screamed a furious Lydon who advanced through the crowd waving his blade high in the air.

The crowd parted. Some amused, some irritated. Seven large bravos emerged from the sides bearing large scimitars and broadswords. They had blood in their eyes and wide grins on their faces. They advanced towards the hysterical old man. It seems as they haven’t seen any action in a while.

Behind Lydon came the screams of people. They gave a wide berth to a man waving his sword. Azanthriel moved forward passing the old man. There was a burst of hideous laughter inside of him and it called for blood. It wanted to come out but he held it back. That fury! He looked over his shoulder to the old man and said, “Grab your children and run at the chance for there will be blood and this place will be a scene of bloody murder!”

The crowd panicked and scampered.

The slave master’s thugs were surprised by the emergence of their unexpected foe. They charged creating panic inside the tent.

Steel met steel. Sparks flew. Azanthriel swung his sword arching low, scraping the floor that sped upwards to meet the ribs of the first thug. The enemy was only halfway in swinging his blade. The thug fell to the ground writhing in his own blood.

Two more came forward. They swung their blades clumsily arching in different directions. Azanthriel made a step back, a feint to his left, then thrust his sword forward piercing one on the. The armor cracked. The goon screamed as blood flowed profusely.

The wicked sound of laughter was heard. It rose above the screams of people in panic. Azanthriel smiled and faced another.

The other goon, quite as big, carrying a broadsword, could hardly believe his eyes. Two of his fellows were down and dead. Fueling his rage, he swung his sword sideways slashing relentlessly. The attack was wild. He saw the glint of steel. His attack was parried. The big thug never knew what happened next.

Azanthriel withdrew his blade and spun it onto the opposite side. The attack was swift as it was brutal beheading the thug in an instant.

Four were left standing. They chased Azanthriel throughout the large tent, screaming angrily, taunting to no avail, but little did they know that their opponent was already plotting their demise.

Azanthriel had split them up, divide, conquer and kill, and with each that followed him, one fell lifeless on the ground. The chase of blade and fury went on for quite a while until only one thug was left standing. He was the smallest amongst the seven.

Azanthriel stood and aimed his blade at the last thug standing who could not believe one man could down six brutes!

The last of the bravos turned and made a mad dash to the exit.

“Wait you fool!” cried the slave master who was all that was left.

“You’re all that’s left, slave master. It’s a pity that you won’t see another shimmer of gold in the afterlife! Come here so I can kill you.”

The once arrogant whelp pissed in his pants, dropped the keys to the chains that bound the slaves, and made a mad dash out the tent. But the slave master didn’t make it outside. He instead fell to the ground gurgling in his own blood with a sword impaled on his back.

Azanthriel knew that more would come in this place of thieves and cutthroats. More would be attracted to the chaos and take advantage of an opportunity to seize the slave master’s business. More for the kill! He retrieved his blade from the slave master’s back and smiled.

Something fought inside the big man. He forced himself to stop, to halt the urge to fight some more until there was nothing else to fight. But the demon heart was strong and it laughed at him with senseless mockery! Azanthriel fell on one knee with both hands clenched, teeth grinding and eyes weeping. Beads of cold sweat ran down his skin. It was a painful battle.

Just when he was about to give in, he heard her voice once again… the voice that saved him once or twice, he doesn’t really remember. She was the one person that gave him peace; she was the one person that gave him hope. She saved him even from beyond the grave. He remembered her voice. He calmed his mind and focused. Her face appeared. He wept. She would be his anchor against his own demon heart – she would be his salvation! Within his mind, the laughter slowly died. The rage that took control was no more. He was Azanthriel once again.

With haste, Lydon and Azanthriel freed the slaves. They were grateful for this. The former Legionite realized that they were missing one of their fellows.

“Where is Theymion?” asked Azanthriel.

“Who?” replied Lydon, “I know no one by that name. It’s only you and me here!”

Azanthriel shot back a look of confusion. Outside came the cries of angry men.

“We have to hurry, there will be more coming!” said the old man in a panic.

They all hurried to the other side of the tent where an exit waited. Outside they saw several horses that belonged to the slave master and a wagon that was a temporary prison.

Azanthriel saw a brazier burn by the corner. He kicked it aiming towards the tent. He tossed a jar of oil afterward. The big structure quickly caught fire. The others made it to the horses and boarded the slave wagon. I would now be their ride to freedom.

The sound of hoofbeats burst into the midday chaos of hawkers and buyers. Azanthriel led the escape of thirteen female slaves and an old man who fulfilled his oath by finding and saving his daughters. He used the chaos to his advantage by freeing some more slaves along the way. Slavers were put down; guards were unable to swim through a strong current of panicked people.

Freedom! The group managed to flee the Vashaan camp without the loss of life. Behind them, tents burned. People rushed in different directions. The clashing of swords was heard amid the screams of anger and panic. It was a disaster much to the liking of Azanthriel and his companions.

They traveled for days, further west away from the Vashaan camps and the enemies that pursued them. Sometimes they stopped to hide while Azanthriel plotted out an ambush that felled more of the thugs that followed them. Finally, the bravos of the Vashaan camps stopped their pursuit and turned back frustrated.

Chains were broken and tossed away. The women exchanged smiles realizing that they finally achieved freedom. Most of them have lost their families. All they had left was each other.

“I can never thank you enough, my friend,” said a teary-eyed Lydon.

“Go now to Indigos and find that piss-poor of a friend of mine. He’ll help you and your daughters.”

“What about the others.”

“Most would rather stay. They’ll join you until you reach Indigos.  Some would come with you and start over in Arumn.”

“And you?”

“I’ll get by. By the way, are you sure that we traveled with no one else?”

“Quite sure,” assured Lydon as he nodded, “Although I have to admit, sometimes it felt like there was someone else who watched us when we camped during the night. It gives me the chills just remembering it.”

“Ah, well, enough of that,” said Azanthriel as he shook Lydon’s hand. “Be well, old man.”

“May you one day find peace, friend Azanthriel. Gods be with you,” he finally said.

They rode off with the sun setting in the west, to the port city of Indigos – to hope. He rode the opposite direction, to where he was supposed to be, to the old ruins where she died.

***

The embers crackled. A fowl roasted on a spit. The sound of a whetstone scraped on metal echoed. Footsteps crunched on the soft snow. The man that sharpened his blade focused his eyes on the stranger that approached.

“I see you have been successful,” said Theymion emerging from the darkness.

“I see you aren’t around when it matters the most,” replied Azanthriel with his sword pointed at the young man. “Who are you really? Or should I rather ask, what are you?”

“I am your friend,” said the young man. He sat on an outcrop by the fire and said,  “Myrnnon was right in trusting you.”

“And you are like him?”

“Yes,” answered the young man casually, “I am Epheneyus…”

“The trickster,” Azanthriel answered sharply. “I know the lore.”

“Yes, as I am the messenger and the bringer of dreams as well. Don’t forget that part. People forget that part.”

“So you and Myrnnon used me.”

“Nay, Azanthriel. We pushed you in the right direction. We knew you could help us, and indeed you have, starting with this task that you have successfully accomplished. A splendid outcome indeed! I applaud your bravery – your heroic efforts. We would never use you. You just needed some encouragement. Lydon’s story sufficed. This world needs heroes once again Azanthriel, and by divine will it must be so. We have chosen you, placed you on that path once again, to redeem yourself from what it is you are now.”

“And what am I now?” asked Azanthriel as he continued sharpening his blade.

“A shadow of your former self; a broken man, at least that’s what I see. Be not offended by it. I know you are a man worth redeeming.”

“Is Lydon and his daughters one of your lackeys?”

“No. They are indeed victims of the greed of men. You have done right in aiding him. It is your destiny to help this world once again.”

“To help you gods, you mean?”

“Something like that. In helping the world, you help us. As I said, it is your destiny.”

Epheneyus smiled. Azanthriel frowned.

“Damn you! There is no such thing as destiny! I write what is to become of me. No god or demon would tell me otherwise. Go back to your halls and rot. Never again will you use me, trickster – never again!”

“We are a kind lot, Azathriel, at least me and Myrnnon. But our patience wears thin these days. If it were the other gods who were here, they would’ve smitten you right where you sit. I, on the other hand, am a god of reason and respect. I truly respect your opinion and thus will leave it at that. We have already shown you the path and you have already taken that first step. The world needs back its heroes Azanthriel, and the world shall see what marvels you can do.”

“Haven’t you heard, the Legionites are dead.”

“Not really. One of the true Legionites still lives.”

“I am a cursed man, trickster god. No good will come out of me. Only bloodshed.”

“Perhaps, friend Azanthriel. But you have controlled the beast, surely that is a good sign?”

“Why do you care? You are a trickster. Heroes and the likes are your foes.”

“On the contrary, I am a big admirer of heroes! The legends of old do me no justice.” Epheneyus shook his head and continued. “There is always a need for heroes. What is a villain without an anti-thesis? Where is his own hero? Both of us share a common enemy. Villains thread in your empire, unfazed and untouchable, and this new religion has only brought unrest to the people. Lies have been spread and countless more join in the revelry. Heroes have become villains these days to survive. The line between good and bad has been blurred. Bring back the honor that once was a part of you – that was once part of this world. Stand righteous, Legionite! The world needs heroes once again.”

“There’s something you’re not telling me,” said Azanthriel with doubt behind his words. “I can smell it in you!”

“I am telling you all that there is to know. That is all we want, our place in the order of things returned to us, the world free from the villainy of crooked people. We want to be venerated again, Azanthriel.”

“What about the Goddess Empress?”

“We leave that all up to you. I’m sure you will know what to do with her. After all, she is your family.”

The forest was once again silent. Embers crackled, floating and disappearing. The sky was clear with scattered like diamonds. A comet passed by; an omen of things to come.

“Damn you,” Azanthriel muttered. “Damn all of you.”

Azanthriel gazed up to the stars. There was doubt. He despised the empire that imprisoned him, that betrayed him and made him a wanted man. Yet there was truth to what Epheneyus said. In the age of gods, there were heroes and the people knew what they were fighting for. In the old days there was only good fighting evil and this made men legendary. The world has changed since the war with the Phantasmai. Now there was only a grey area where once it was black and white. Could he still fit the word hero? Could he still become the man he once was?

He turned to the road, to that lonely path that led back home with memories of happier days. But those images faded slowly and now all he saw was a darkened way paved with uncertainty.

 

AFTERWORD 

If you’re reading this, then you’ve reached the end of episode 1 of The Forever Blade Sequence. I would like to say welcome to the start of an adventure!

I am a man who grew up in a world of dragons, magic, and monsters, at least that’s what I tell myself when I pause for a moment and leave the real world behind. The Lord of the Rings and Flight of Dragons got me going when I was young; Dungeons and Dragons bolstered in, and since then I was always on an adventure. There were many of whom I had an adventure with Elric and his doomed life, Caramon and Raistlin, Conan, and the best duo I had ever happened to chance upon, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser!

I too wanted to lead a party of my own adventure, into my own world with my own set of magic tricks. Thus here you are, with me in this adventure. I should say this is our adventure – yours and mine! When I ended writing it, you started reading it, and thus the cycle of such things begins. It’s a grand quest, a story that will fill your belly as you take a sip of mead and relax against the warmth of a fire. We are here, in this tavern of heroes, knights, and sorcerers, and priests of gods, where dragons walk about the hallways and the shadows lurk with dark workings at hand. The tavern is called Fantasy and I serve Sword and Sorcery!

I tell the tale of a man called Azanthriel. Of course, you’ve met him. He’s the one with the demon heart. He’s the man the empire wants. He also calls upon you to follow him, to read his adventures, his trials, and pains – his victories. His is a tale of betrayal and redemption, of many battles against magic and overwhelming odds, against armies of darkness – against himself. His name first appeared in multiple sessions of tabletop role-playing games. I often played him courageously, sometimes stupidly. He’s one of my favorite characters. He is me in a way. After many failed attempts of writing short fiction and hoping publishers would read my work and eventually publish it, I sat down one day, during summer, and listened to Azanthriel as he told me his tale.

I emailed The Sundered Faith to publishers, its first version, a short story, and one that didn’t get any traction. So I thought to myself that since many others are doing it, why can’t I? And so I did, after several drafts, here it is, a novella, a tribute to Sword and Sorcery and the wonders of Fantasy in its many forms. It’s not important if I succeed or not; what matters most is that you’re reading it, you’re sharing this story with me, and that you agreed to take up your sword and shield, your magic wand, and go on an adventure with Azanthriel.

I hope you liked it. I hope you have enjoyed it. There will be more to come, soon I hope, for now, I’m imagining and writing a lot! It doesn’t stop.

I have my tools ready. Rest and recuperate for the night. I’ll stand watch. I’ll wake you up when the next adventure comes.

 

M. A. Del Rosario, August 19, 2014

COPYRIGHT © 2014 BY MARK ALDWIN DEL ROSARIO