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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.
Aerol arrived at an important crossing, and three directions presented themselves, either to return to his fortress to the south, where a squat heavily defended structure clung to a curving walkway; head south-east to Warlord Nemea’s civilian dominion behind a series of ramshackle buildings that had not seen any civilians after repeated massacres; or head east to infiltrate the dominion of Warlord Isoc, his most dangerous rival, to see if he had procured a key, or been given one …
Instinctively he knew if he returned to his fortress nothing good would come of it. He’d be harsh with his soldiers, training them harder than ever before, and would remove more apprentices. Some would rebel, and he would spill their blood as he had to when times were tough and pressure had to be applied. There were times when this happened more frequently than he would like, and he hated himself as much as those proud Tekromun who would put their honour and loyalty aside to become treacherous insolent self-serving creatures that needed to be swept off the face of Majesty, if only to preserve the memory of the honour they had.
No, he would not return.
He’d only find more blood at Warlord Isoc’s dominion too, and he didn’t have any clues to suggest Warlord Isoc was in league with Arch Banuk. Unclasping the back of the painting that had been pressed against his abdomen, he was half-blinded by the gem again, but he found himself wanting to look beneath its glare, to the eyes beneath. What did he see in those eyes? He asked himself. Beauty, obviously, but also he saw a need to be fulfilled: a quiet plead for something. It wasn’t rescue. Aerol had no illusions he was living in one of the tales of old. An aura of mystery surrounded the presence of the painting, the beaming gem, and even the beauty of Nemea herself. Questions were being asked, and Aerol couldn’t work out the answers, which frustrated him. No barbarian had ever been able to understand females. Their minds were too complex, and the truth was that there were no easy females: their souls and minds followed habits that were elusive. It made him want to understand; indeed it bothered him immensely that though he was master of barbarism, he could not master these other facets of life, such as females, civilians, or even, he hated to remind himself, the mega-fortress.
By venturing to Warlord Nemea’s dominion, he could try to master two of those challenges, and he needed an escape anyway. It would probably end in bloodshed. Though he could intimidate officials to discover her location, and then sneak into Nemea’s abode, would she take kindly to it? His actions could be seen as a direct attack on Warlord Nemea himself. It was risky, but he liked risky. One thing he did not want was to have to kill her father Warlord Nemea, when he wanted her co-operation, and maybe more.
Despite the growing blackness of night, where even the clouds could not be seen amidst the black featureless sky, which was always slightly different in texture from the ululating rhythmn of chasm that now pulsed below Aerol to both sides of the walkway on his way towards the civilian buildings. In one corner at the top left an orange-yellow light was glowing, evidence of occupation. It was probably a trap to lure in the unwary. It seemed some rogue soldiers may have taken over the civilian buildings that bordered Warlord Nemea’s dominion and were using them to trap the unwary.
Without hesitating, Aerol entered the dark doorway and his preternatural senses kicked in, as his hands slipped along the surfaces of the walls, and he blended in to the composition of the interior. No lights or reflection cast any surfaces or objects visible. It was the sense of feel guiding him around. The air flowed smoothly down the straight corridors, but close to the niches were vacuums where no air flowed, marked by the odd rustles and pings of armed soldiers waiting in silence. They would have already spotted anybody new coming along the walkway, from when Aerol was far away, and they would be expecting him.
To spring the trap, or slip past them unnoticed, towards the civilian squares?
Pausing in decision, he looked down to the painting, which was floating eerily away from him with its light blasting like a sun beacon that announced his position. A few soldiers grunted, and a series of hurried movements signalled their alarm. Still the painting floated in the air, away from Aerol, breaking free of its clasps, and heading towards what now appeared to be the centre of the ground floor. Soldiers stood all around, their weapons held loosely as they stared in awe and wonder at the spectacle, and saw something Aerol had rather they not see: his panicked form seeking comfort from the walls at his back, as he witnessed the sorcery of Arch Banuk.
In horror he saw it continue moving, past the soldiers and growing smaller as it sought exit from the building. In urgency Aerol sprang forward.
He ordered them and used his arms to push the stunned soldiers to the side as he chased the painting, skidding to a stop outside, and then running left where it had floated down from a stepped platform with rails. Down a bridge he went, intent on destroying the relic of his enemy, and convinced that doing so may incur the sorcerer’s wrath. Shouts of confusion were heard behind him, but nobody was on his trail – they must have thought he was mad.
‘Looked like Warlord Aerol!’ one of them hollered.
‘Don’t be dim. Warlord Aerol screaming like a madman at this time of night?’ another said.
Their voices receded as he reached the other side, and he caught glimpses of torches everywhere illuminating the spaces between the two main rectangular buildings that stood between the prosperous markets and civilian squares that Nemea’s dominion was well known for. The painting speeded up now, as if it was coming closer to its destination, past rows of civilian abodes and turning a corner. As Aerol’s eyes were fixated on it, his legs, with a mind of their own, stumbled over a step he had missed, and he fell onto his front.
Cursing himself for his panic and lack of focus, he got up, dusting down the front of his legs, which had big bloodied burn marks, and continuing his pursuit. Skidding to a stop at the end of the path, he saw the light enter through the small square lighted aperture of an open-window – one of many that were dotted around the strange deep purple tower. Making his way slowly towards the end of another path of square abodes, he reached the entrance doorway, and a brief push revealed that the brown doors were locked – the doors clinked as if they were locked with a padlock and key.
‘You there? Don’t move!’ an archer popped out of an embrasure straight above him in the tower, and Aerol saw the alarm in his dark green eyes.
‘What do you want?’
‘My painting. Open the doors, and let me have it; it went through one of the windows.’
‘Of all the excuses … wait, are you Warlord Aerol?’
‘That painting is tainted with sorcery, and unless you allow me to take it who knows what danger it could pose.’
‘You are … you’re Warlord Aerol. Your presence here is a violation of all unspoken laws of combat. This is trespassing, and I must ask you to leave, or there will be consequences.’
‘I’m not afraid of the soldiers you’re about to summon with a signal. I will enter your tower, or I will kill trying.’
The archer fired. Aerol’s arms shot out without him thinking and caught it in midair, just a few inches away from his left eye.
‘You’re a good shot,’ Aerol complimented, casting the arrow aside.
Soldiers came from two side-alleys with heavy stomps. One of the soldiers was huge, twice the size of an ordinary Tekromun: a berserker.
‘The arrow was the signal?’
‘No we have other means of signalling assistance,’ the archer revealed. ‘Unless you want to be taken away or killed, I suggest you comply with the soldiers.’
‘It seems a demonstration is necessary,’ Aerol said, with a dangerous tone, as he turned slyly to face the giant form of the Berserker.
‘None have beaten him, Aerol. Even you, an undefeated warlord, can’t hope to prevail. It’s futile. You’re overpowered and outnumbered, and you’ll never get inside this tower,’ the archer whined.
Aerol was no longer listening as he stalked towards the form of the unflinching Berserker, who carried a giant warhammer that he casually held in one arm. Aerol looked up to him, and smirked.
‘What did they feed you? The blood of sorcerers?’
The visor of the berserker’s helmet completely hid his face and expression. Only his body’s movements were Aerol’s cues, and they spoke of a calm inner confidence at disposing of enemies. The warhammer was raised, and the berserker stamped.
‘Berserkers only existed in tales of old, of might and magic. I never thought they were real, but I’d quite like to fight you. I’ve lost everything, and I’m not afraid to lose my life,’ Aerol shouted to the berserker.
The berserker growled, and then hissed. It was already moving to the side and gently manouvering the warhammer, with both hands on the handle of the same length. Aerol observed the silver armour coating every inch of his adversary’s body – the curved pauldrons. The hammer descended.
‘Rrhh!’ Aerol’s legs split to each side on the ground and his upper body pressed against the ground. A second later he had rolled between the berserker’s legs, where he was just in time to catch the steel knee that shook him into the air. The berserker was already swinging the hammer back for a horizontal strike. As the strike came, too fast to perceive, Aerol had already jumped above it, his aspect flying level with the berserker’s helmet, and then above. He landed on his broad shoulders, and with finesse unlatched the helmet, exposing a green face that drooled blood, enlarged eyes, and black bristles over a face. Back-flipping away, Aerol landed again, to the berserker’s confusion.
Several feet away Aerol landed with a practised crouch, and thought about the berserker’s appearance.
‘Are you an abomination of sorcery? You don’t even look Tekromun!’
The berserker didn’t listen and charged.
Aerol ducked and sent an upward palm strike straight at one of the weak spots he had seen earlier, below the abdomen, unprotected by thicker larger plates of armour. The armour around his attack smashed outward and the berserker stopped still, his charge blocked. A ringing noise of the armour clinking on the ground belied the silence as they all witnessed the shocking spectacle.
Blood escaped outward from the attack, and the berserker went to one knee, one arm holding his hammer. The berserker’s green face looked as if it was being pinched inward, and the blood drooling from its mouth reeled inward too. Veins broken and thinned, the armour fell off and clattered, and all that was left was a Tekromun, staring in bewilderment at Aerol.
‘Ha!’ Aerol said, bringing his leg down in a downward kick, and his heel crashed into the back of the Tekromun’s head, sending him forward to the ground. ‘You can’t be allowed to live …’ he said, preparing for the killing blow.
‘Stop!’ a shrill voice female said.
Aerol was about to ignore it and kill the berserker anyway.
‘Warlord Aerol, I command you to stop!’ the same voice said, with more authority.
His palm hovering above the back of the berserker, Aerol stopped, and looked around. The female hanging out of one of the open-windows, closer to the fight than the archer, was familiar. Dark blue eyes, an oval face, and that same oval gem on her forehead, but she looked a bit different from her likeness. Her cheeks were still curved, but narrowed as they faded to a thin jaw with small lips. The pleading look in her eyes was still there, but it was different, filled with urgency. On her head was a ceremonial twin-cone hat, which Aerol thought looked ridiculous.
‘Daughter of Nemea – I sought you, at least before I experienced difficulty.’
‘No stranger, least of all the evil Warlord Aerol, may enter this tower, my residence.’
‘Then I suppose it doesn’t matter if I kill him.’
Out of the corner of his eye, and further left on the curve of the tower, Aerol saw the archer knock back a new arrow.
‘Kill him and Nemea shall do everything within its power to make life difficult in your dominion, and we have more assets at our disposal than you think, even if we don’t have soldiers.’
‘That’s clear,’ Aerol said, looking at the downed berserker but thinking about the flying painting.
‘Tell your archer to relax his bow, or else I won’t come quietly.’
‘Come quietly? Gangel, lower your bow, for Majesty’s sake!’
‘But Lady Nemea—‘
‘Do as I say!’
‘Lady Nemea – a strange title.’
She sighed.’What are you doing here Aerol? Is it your wish to steal me away to one of your brothels, for the pleasure of your barbarians?’
‘You know I wouldn’t come in person for my soldiers. No, I come because we need to talk. I came across a painting, somewhere I did not expect it to be. You have answers for me.’
‘My painting … it was you who brought it. Guards, open the doors and admit him.’
‘Lady Nemea, he is a ruthless barbarian, of the worst variety. Look, if he can do that to Aggressor—‘
‘Gangel, you’ve opened your mouth enough times, and it isn’t necessary. I can see what Aerol is capable of, but if you have no faith in Aggressor or me, then I think you are in the wrong.’
‘My Lady,’ and Gangel inclined his head in subservience.
Aerol smiled broadly and took long strides to walk past the open doors. Just as he was about to cross the threshold a guard interposed himself between Aerol and what was beyond the door.
‘That is unwise. I would have thought today’s lesson was enough,’ Aerol said.
‘Lady Nemea is a very special Tekromun. It would be a mistake to cross her, or harm her. I hope you understand,’ the tall broad guard said in a deep voice.
‘And your name is?’
‘I see. Move!’ Aerol’s eyes glared with that whiteness that struck terror into so many and even Brute moved backwards in apprehension he wasn’t able to conceal as well as he intended.
Passing the threshold, Aerol saw that the foyer had a seating area around a fire, beneath a wall covered with abstract dark paintings. His eyes looked down the narrow corridor, in all the dark spaces beyond the obvious, for places where enemies could ambush him. Pleased with his assessment, he took the steps a few at a time, and made his way on the curved staircase on the left to the upper rooms, scanning with his eyes as he went. On the landing at the next level, which was only one floor up, he was met by Nemea.
Dressed in loose sashes that exposed her curves and lean flesh, Aerol was intoxicated. Her eyes looked upon him disapprovingly.
‘What did the painting look like?’
‘You …’ Aerol struggled for words.
She nodded, and made her way to the room where the painting had entered from outside, with a cue as if to follow her. She almost had to duck her twin-cone hat to enter the arched entrance. Aerol paused and took stock of a gnarled gargoyle attached to the stone wall of the interior of the tower outside her room. It regarded him as if it was in pain, with its arms and legs contorted.
The junk you find in Nemea.
‘I suggest you take a seat. We have much to discuss. But before you do, close the door.’
The room was a bedroom, and it was cramped, with candles littered all over a curved table that took up most of the room. Strange twin-cone or single cone hats were everywhere, some being lit from inside by candles. An ornamental sconce hung from the ceiling, casting illumination.
‘From the outside, it’s obvious somebody of importance resides in this room. You need to dim the illumination.’
‘Is this how you speak to strangers? It’s no wonder the entire of Majesty is afraid of you.’
‘They’re not afraid any more,’ and Aerol looked at her again. ‘I was outmanovered by a sorcerer.’
She looked at him in sympathy.
‘You went up against Arch Banuk. What did he do to you?’
‘What else – he entered the mega-fortress, found a way in even. It was my time, my chance to change things–’
‘Ha, ha, ha,’ Nemea threw her head back in laughter. ‘Entering the mega-fortress was your dream Aerol, but it is not shared by all warlords, or Tekromun generally. The mega-fortress was likely built by sorcerers and is entered by sorcerers.’
I can’t believe it. She’s right. I never created a key to enter the mega-fortress. It was Arch Banuk. I only thought Galouch had handed me the keys on a plate. Instead he used them to lure me into a trap because he knew what I wanted above everything else.
‘How do you know Arch Banuk?’
‘We were lovers, once.’
‘How can you love a sorcerer?’ and Aerol’s hackles rose that the female he still was intensely attracted to could have been so close to his enemy.
‘You’re getting tense. I can sense it. Calm down.’
Benefiting from her awareness, Aerol calmed his nerves, but his anger was still present.
‘Should I repeat my question?’
‘Just listen. We were both special. We both had special abilities. It made sense for us to be together, but we had a disagreement and he abandoned me.’
‘How can I trust what you’re saying?’
‘You can only trust in the truth, and that is what I offer Aerol. Did you ever wonder why you were such a great warrior? Did you think it was your training?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. We were talking about you and Arch Banuk.’
‘And I’m answering your question, but to do that you have to trust me. The berserker you killed outside was not an ordinary Tekromun and my soldiers know this too. He’s what we call a Shifter, a Tekromun with unusual abilities. None outside my service know about Shifters. Soldiers and warlords, including my father, cannot be allowed to know. If they did, they would fear us and hunt them, just like they would to sorcerers.’
Seeing how his hands joined together in contemplation, and feeling the energies running through them, at that moment, Aerol realised what she had just said.
‘I’m a Shifter?’
‘Of course. I suspected as much when I heard about your warrior skills, but I didn’t know for certain or if they were just the boastful masculine-filled rumours I associated with warlordships.’
‘It makes sense – my strength, my speed, my senses, and instincts. I’m a hyper soldier, but what are you?’ Aerol demanded.
‘I’m not a sorcerer. It’s obvious you fear sorcerers.’
‘They are my enemies; there is a difference.’
‘Whatever you say. Berserker’s shifting abilities were aggression, size, and strength. Yours you have just told me. Mine are, quite literally, an ability to shift objects and materials.’
‘You’re worse than a sorcerer,’ Aerol accused, remembering Arch Banuk’s ability to construct and deconstruct matter.
‘Do you believe me now when I saw we were in love?’
Aerol nodded minutely.
‘What about your disagreement? Were you conspiring with him to defeat me?’
‘Don’t be silly. Arch Banuk didn’t see anybody as being capable of standing in his way. He uses Tekromun, disposes of them, and then forgets about them. It’s the way he thinks and acts. I don’t understand it, but it seems his sorcery gives him arrogance. There was a time, ten years ago, when he saw me as his equal, and we would discuss how we would overcome all obstacles, defeat all warlords, and create a kingdom. It was immature, now that I think on it, but at the time I was so filled with the shock of love and companionship, which I had never experienced before; it seems most Tekromun can almost sense that I’m different even when they don’t have proof.’
‘What happened?’ Aerol asked gently.
‘Over time, eight or nine years ago we began to drift apart. He saw giving me attention as a burden, and didn’t want to be responsible for me. Sticking to the rules of this tower, of Nemea, frustrated him. Arch Banuk wanted something more, and he strove to find it in the mega-fortress. Unlike you, he didn’t dream about it, he coveted it like a possession and a symbol of his supremacy over all Tekromun.’
‘I never told you I dreamed about the mega-fortress.’
‘Word gets around Aerol. Your dream was the dream of your entire dominion: how you would set them free from the chains of their poverty and give to them respite. But you didn’t understand that the mega-fortress isn’t what you want it to be just because it’s different. When I spied on Arch Banuk’s activities, I was led to believe it was created by sorcerers or higher beings than Shifters or Tekromun. I was scared; he scared me. When he caught me snooping among his possessions, he left me, eight years ago, and took with him the painting that returned. It seems the painting was enchanted, the way it arrived through the open-window.
‘Pathetic as I was, I tried writing him letters, but he never replied. I was heartbroken. Over the years I completely forgot about him, until a month ago when he visited. I didn’t want to admit him, but he could enter of his power, and force me to listen to him, as he did. He told me he was leaving the plane of this existence and that he wished me well. It seems I was the only one who he really had known in a personal capacity.’
‘Did he say anything else, about the mega-fortress?’
‘Of course not, his secrets had always been his own. He forbade me from coupling with other male Tekromun though.’
And there it was: the sorcerer’s weakness.
Aerol smiled broadly.
Nemea leant forward and slapped him across his cheek.
What did I do? Oh … now I understand.
‘You are unable to hide your desire, Warlord Aerol.’
‘And there we have it: the return to formality,’ Aerol snickered.
‘Why did you really come here?’
‘To rid your painting of its sorcery.’
‘That’s impossible. Nor I, or you, are a sorcerer.’
‘But we’re both Shifters, and you may know more Shifters …’
‘What are you suggesting?’
‘We ally together, and defy Arch Banuk.’
‘I’m sorry. I don’t mean what you keep thinking,’ Aerol protested. ‘Arch Banuk’s weakness is you. As long as I have you, I have him. Our talents together could combine to expose the sorcerer, or even enter the mega-fortress.’
‘You’re cute when you dismiss your desire. I see vulnerability in you, Aerol. Your weakness is also Arch Banuk’s. Do you deny it?’
Nemea moved towards him then, and pushed his chest. Using her light touch she manipulated him towards her neat clean dark red pallet, and pressed herself on top of him. Aerol didn’t know what was happening, but he was under her spell and his talents did not know how to respond.
Aerol leant down, and his mind seemed to connect with hers at the same time as their heads were close.
She was fed up of being abandoned and ignored by Arch Banuk. She wants to get back at him, and I’m the ideal tool. Is she aware that she’s also my tool?
In the heat of proximity, their glands awakened, and clothes were pushed aside. There was warmth and comfort at first, and then sweat permeated their bodies.
The arch of her back was shadowed on the wall to the right, and Aerol wondered what strange functions Tekromun were capable of. They were joining, and he was getting back at Arch Banuk. He may yet make the sorcerer listen to him.