Chapter Five

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Read this chapter and provide Alex James with feedback. Contact or write a comment, and choose your prize from the lists. It’s one prize for one winner. However, if you read all eight chapters you are entitled to an additional prize from the list on Chapter Eight, if it is provided by Alex James, or by permission of the authors/contributors involved in the prizes. The prizes may change to reflect new contributors or an improved system.

There will be eight chapters in total of my WIP Great Barbarism: Arch Banuk and the Mega-Fortress. I’m not sharing a complete story yet.

They lay, wrapped in blankets and content. It took nearly an hour after he had awoken before the consequences of his actions tonight had sunk in, and the prospect of change hung over him like a dark cloud. Civilian life beckoned. Family life beckoned. What a fool he had been!

And yet, on the other hand, he had not had a choice. It was the only path that offered any hope; hope to get back at Arch Banuk and personal hope away from the worries of barbarism. A few things spun around in his mind. Something Nemea had said about entry into the mega-fortress being his dream. Did this mean only he thought he was locked in a cycle of barbarism, and that this wasn’t the truth acknowledged by all outside his dominion? Such an oversight of all Tekromun galled him.

Can’t they see they are trapped?

The other thing that troubled him was whether he would have to choose to leave Nemea and hunt down Arch Banuk just as Arch Banuk had chosen the mega-fortress over Nemea.

Nemea moved out of the blankets quickly, before Aerol, while he lay down thinking about things. She looked out of the window and immediately knew something was wrong.

‘You look troubled?’

‘Marks on the outside of the tower; Gangel was watching us last night.’

‘He feared I would harm you.’

‘You’re missing the point. He’s left tracks heading away from the tower. He’s betrayed us, with another Tekromun.’

‘Brute,’ Aerol knew instinctively.

Nemea looked at him in respect.

‘They pledged never to leave the tower unless under orders.’

‘They’ve gone to your father,’ they both said at each other in unison.

Aerol sat up and realised the urgency of the situation now.

‘We’re dealing with a few things: jealousy and my father knowing the truth about the Shifters. My father will never accept that you came here tonight and took away his hope for an heir that he could control.’

‘The secret is out then,’ Aerol said, resigned to the fact. ‘But what interests me is how you know. There are no marks I can see out there, and I’m observant,’ he said, rubbing his hands on the ledge next to where she anxiously rubbed hers.

‘Being a Shifter with my talents means I can feel the environment acutely. Every surface, every building, and every object is a part of me. Thoughts and feelings can change things quickly.’

‘But even a small painting?’

‘The painting was far away, too far away. I didn’t even know if I wanted it back, but it annoyed me that he had it. You still don’t trust me.’

‘I don’t understand you,’ he corrected.

‘You’ll see soon enough what I can feel and do. It doesn’t change the fact that we need to leave.’

‘We’ll return to my dominion. We’ll be safe there.’

‘And if my father allies with Warlord Isoc?’

Aerol shrugged.

‘I don’t fear warlords and soldiers. I’ve fought them all my life.’

‘Nevertheless, I have a bad feeling about this turn of events.’

‘Of course you do, it’s only natural. You’ve lived here all your life, I assume, and now things are changing and you’re worried, but you only need to put your trust elsewhere and you’ll be safe. Put your trust in me,’ Aerol said, holding out his hand.

‘Yesterday I would have thought this course of action to be unwise.’

‘Yesterday I was a killer-warlord. Today I’m a Shifter, like you.’

Her hand hesitated in the air.

‘What about the other problem?’

‘The tyke?’

‘She’ll be born shortly. I can already feel her.’

‘That is worrying. We’ll have to safeguard her on the way to my dominion. It won’t be as easy, but with us both protecting her, we have hope. Do you trust anybody else here we can bring?’

‘You mean apart from Gangel?’

‘It seems we have both been betrayed by those we trusted most. Friendship is a complex thing, but so is love it seems. There is no room for anybody but us in our escape. When the question is asked: who cares for the tyke growing inside of you, the only answer is Aerol and Nemea.’

She leant forward and kissed him, gently at first and then she dug her tongue in and did it more passionately. They were one, and Aerol’s hand grabbed her wrist, just as hers massaged his head.

 

***

 

Aerol spent most of his time trying to catch up to Nemea’s preparations and frantic whispers to her maids. Something was happening, and it was as if the maids knew trouble was afoot. The guards and soldiers had been kept out of the loop because it wasn’t clear whether they would side with Nemea or her father, the warlord. Oblivious, the guards stood sentry outside, while some were sweeping away the bloody mess Aerol had caused yesterday night with the berserker … the berserker that still lived, Aerol reminded himself.

Nemea ignored him during this period, and questions arose in Aerol’s mind about his unborn daughter. He didn’t even know how long it took for tykes to be born, having never taken interest in such trivial details before, knowing they would never apply to him. Would their daughter possess both his extreme talents and her mother’s? And how did Nemea even know it was a daughter and not a son – was it her mysterious Shifter abilities?

Standing and looking outside, he saw in the distance, at an intersection between the abodes, soldiers conversing in conspiratorial positions, and pointing towards their tower. Something was happening fast, and it wasn’t just concerning their preparations to leave – the treachery had done its work and Warlord Nemea had put plans into action immediately. They could waste no more time.

Aerol turned and stormed out of her bedroom, impatiently side-stepping maids on his way to where he could hear Nemea’s voice, but he saw her twin-cone hat, and strode towards her.

‘We have to leave! Now! They’re gathering soldiers at the end of the street. We don’t have time for all this pointless bickering and collecting of possessions. If we don’t make our escape now, it’ll be too late.’

Her mouth was open in shock, but her disapproving eyes castigated him for his impolite demands.

‘Please, Lady Nemea,’ he corrected, ‘my instincts are telling me we need to move, with haste. Otherwise, blood will be spilt, and for naught if we don’t even escape.’

‘My Tekromun will be in danger!’ Nemea said, with the awful truth of it dawning on her.

‘Many will be harmed on this hunt for us and our daughter, which is why it’s so important we are safe. I know you know these Tekromun, but things have changed and they would be forced to turn on you if we stayed to protect them. I can’t speak for what would happen to our daughter.’

Silence. All the voices whittled down and the female Tekromun listened to Aerol as if seeing the reality of what would happen unless they acted immediately. No more fidgeting or considerations over possessions. He had their attention.

‘Good, now I have your attention. Soldiers are coming, and we need to leave now. Lady Nemea shall say her goodbye, on this landing, and then we leave.’

With anxiety, Aerol thought of the soldiers even just outside who could join with those preparing to approach. Danger was closer than he dared want to believe.

‘You told me it was our baby.’

‘It is, isn’t it?’

‘You would care for her?’

‘Of course, if she survives!’ Aerol roared, and everybody surrounding them flinched back.

Nemea nodded.

‘We are leaving. I won’t see any of you again. I’m sorry, but it’s for our own safety. Do not send assistance because we will mistrust it.’

Aerol took her hand and led her to the back of the tower, navigating over chests, under a poorly placed archway, and then to a crooked window at the top of some steps in a back room. Pushing her and guiding her through the window, he told her to drop.

‘It’s a great height Aerol, and—‘

Aerol leaped onto the window ledge, grabbed her whole body, and jumped into the air. There was a gasp as Nemea held her breath, and then Aerol’s muscular legs adapted by bending to land, and then he was running with her held in both of his arms, trying not to shake her too much. Her arms were wrapped around his neck, and she was looking at him with an adoration that almost distracted him.

His legs bounded across the gravelly mounds on the surface, past civilian Tekromun and all the way to the civilian buildings he had seen before. A market had been erected that he had to pass, but his stampede caught the attention of everybody. The dark red fabric Nemea wore was comfortable and warm as he made his way to the stepped platform where his exit was. Unfortunately a group of soldiers stood there, and as he spotted them, Brute and Gangel jumped down from the stepped platform, having seen them before.

‘They’re there!’ Gangel pointed.

‘That cowardly weasel!’ Aerol said. ‘They were blocking the exit and looking for us.’

‘Put me down. I can deal with them.’

Opening his eyes in surprise, Aerol let go of her, and she stood up to her full height, and filled the space in front of him. Raising both arms into the air and closing her eyes, she was meditating. Aerol also liked to meditate to channel his power.

The soldiers came towards them, all armour and aggression surging forward.

‘I can deal with them—‘

‘Quiet Aerol, and let me focus.’

An ear-shattering noise caused Aerol to clutch his ears. The soldiers stopped and their eyes looked about in worry, to the stepped platform and then to Nemea. They knew some power was afoot. The stepped platform unhinged itself from the platform they were on, and amid extremely loud unnatural noise it moved dangerously over the soldiers’ heads, and crashed onto the platform where they stood. Pillars of ground thrust upward in front of the soldiers, and blocked their sight of Nemea. While dust flew sideways in waves from the stepped platform that was now a bridge to the next bridge, Aerol used force to test how sturdy the new bridge was. Nemea was still erecting pillar after pillar, both in front and at the end of the street they had just emerged from.

‘Nemea, we can cross,’ he said and held out his hand.

She regained awareness, and her black pupils looked huge in her dark blue eyes. She took his hand, and they were running across the stepped platform. Half way across, the platform bucked under their weight, and they both stopped, seeing that the attachment was weak.

‘You go first! Quickly!’ Aerol said.

There wasn’t time to argue, and she ran, even while holding her dark red dress to her legs.

His acute perception picked out Gangel on the main platform behind the pillars, on the ledge, knocking an arrow in an advantageous position. Aerol’s eyes narrowed. The arrow was let loose, but balanced as he was on the ledge, and concerned for the stability of the bridge, Aerol didn’t move.

He breathed in, and heard the arrow whistle close to his head. Gangel had missed.

Nemea stepped onto the main bridge, and was breathing heavily, bent over.

Aerol took lithe steps across and then slid down the bottom to join her. Gangel was knocking another arrow. Aerol decided to yell over to him.

‘A fatal miss archer!’

In his peripheral vision, he saw the arrow, from an unexpected direction. Nemea held out her hand and caught it just before it had embedded in Aerol’s neck. As she held it there, she looked seriously at Aerol.

‘Gangel and Brute are Shifters too. Watch yourself.’

‘Thank you, I will from now on.’

They proceed across the bridge to the main crossways of walkways, but something at the end of their bridge blocked their progress – the giant form of the Aggressor. They were nearly half way across the bridge when Nemea told Aerol Brute and Gangel were behind them too, cutting off their return to Nemea’s dominion.

‘How strong are your Shifters?’

‘I can handle Brute and Gangel, if you can handle Aggressor?’

‘I’ve handled him before …’

Aerol approached the berserker, glancing behind every so often to see Nemea’s approach towards the Shifters who had been her allies. She began to raise her arms again, as if summoning demons.

This time the berserker, armoured again as if last night had never happened, had his hammer held low and he shook with the vigour of what Aerol imagined was bloodlust. Aerol stretched his palms in front of him as he strode to enter the confrontation.

One fell sweep of the massive hammer took up more space than Aerol expected and he was forced to lean backward at an awkward angle he wasn’t used to. He pulled a ligament, and cried in pain before he collapsed on his back, in agony. The berserker’s form blocked the daylight above, and he adjusted his grip habitually, as if in expectation.

In such paralysing pain, Aerol did not know how to react to save himself from the berserker. The pain was blinding him and robbing him of his strategy. Still he sent a kick straight at the berserker’s calf. The greaves splintered off, but the berserker still stood, as if the ferocity of Aerol’s attack had been expected, or his attack was weakened by his reduced mental faculties.

The hammer was raised, like a dark grey building block ready to drop, and Aerol wondered if he had finally met his end, at the hands of one not unlike himself. Tensing his back against the bridge, Aerol managed to control his body next to the environment, and moved out of the way, but the bridge next to him was smashed into non-existence and both sides snapped to head downward into the chasm. The berserker’s weight caused him to drop right down, with a brief snarl escaping through his visor before he plummeted like a figure. Aerol wrestled to gain traction on the edge of the bridge as his legs dangled. A brief spurt of pain erupted, and both hands felt like they had let go … but they hadn’t. A few fingers still clung to the disintegrating edge. Vision became blurry, but just then a light purple form appeared above and with incredible strength, levered him up onto the bridge. Gasping with exertion, he fell to his knees, with one hand searching behind for the source of his back pain.

‘You nearly went. The great Warlord Aerol, fallen into the chasm, with me as his witness.’

‘Brute and Gangel?’

‘Easily beaten. I knew about their talents long before I recruited them. I turned Brute’s axe against Gangel.’

‘Did you kill them? I don’t think you would have.’

‘You’re right, I didn’t, but Gangel has a few critical chest wounds as punishment, and Brute nearly slipped off the edge. I warned them if they ever showed their faces before me again I’d kill them, and I intend to next time,’ she said with resolve. ‘Then I heard an eruption of sound and saw you dangling from the edge.’

Aerol looked behind at the transformed three-feet upper step on the side she had jumped from.

‘You surprise me, with your creativity and athleticism.’

‘This is no time for compliments.’

‘There is no time for anything. Be on your way. I’m paralysed. Save yourself.’

‘What kind of fool talk is this, and from you no less?

‘I can’t move yet. I must meditate first, and there is no time. Those sounds you hear are soldiers’ footsteps. They are rallying for an excursion across this bridge.’

A strange sound was heard, as if something had warped into existence.

‘They can’t jump now, so we’re safe. It’ll take time for them to acquire the materials to move a force of soldiers across the gap.’

‘Okay.’

Aerol took three deep breaths, and closing his eyes, began to channel his adrenaline down his back, until he located the area of pain. Breathing out in concentrated bursts, he tightened his fists and wrenched his entire upper body back and to the right. His heart was beating with a hammer of force.

‘Impressive control over your body, Warlord Aerol. Where to now?’

‘To our left lies my dominion. I know a shortcut we can take to avoid my fortifications and the busier routes that lead to it. It’s a crossing – formerly a highly contested area, but it’s quiet now. We’ll be safe.’

 

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About Alex James

Alex James is a freelance editor, proofreader, author and book reviewer who has a passion for science-fiction and fantasy! His writing focuses on the themes of alienation and empowerment and is inspired by his experience with Asperger Syndrome. Other sources of inspiration include Star Wars, R Scott Bakker, Isaac Asimov.

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