Chapter One

Start at Chapter One

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.

Warlord Aerol sat in his stone chair, which was the only seat. His arms were held outward on each rough slab of cool stone. It was important that he showed his presence in the public openings of his fortress, to instil discipline and watch over the activities of those he ruled, and especially because today wasn’t a usual day.

Aerol’s Mentor, Galouch, had left not long ago to visit notorious sorcerer Arch Banuk, and he had yet to return. Galouch was no fool, but he was dealing with a powerful entity; at least that was what the soldiers and apprentices feared. Aerol would not give in to irrational fear of a being he had yet to see with his own eyes. Rumour and gossip had a way of leading to spiralling out-of-control behaviour.

There was a chance that the idea of Arch Banuk was something concocted by his rivals to dissuade him from taking the march to the mega-fortress, and if that was true then it was prudent to wait and receive actual evidence of the sorcerer, who was supposed to reside in a hut in a small abandoned alcove far to the north, beyond even the mega-fortress, which was based in the centre. Sending an individual skilled in diplomacy and communication, such as Galouch, was wiser and easier than marching their way to the mega-fortress, where enemy soldiers could attack at any moment. Indeed, although the planning up until this moment had been exhilarating, the day when Aerol planned to march itself was fraught with anxiety: it was one major headache that was not alleviated by the fact that Galouch had still not returned.

The anxiety that was perpetuated by the infuriating Tekromun apprentices that were buzzing about in expectation and worry was infecting the soldiers and Aerol himself. The apprentices were a bother anyway, always getting in the way or being a nuisance. They didn’t understand the ‘warrior ethic’ or ‘orders’. Their insolence to him, and loyalty to whatever was inked and set less than a hands-breadth before their eyes, caused Aerol to lose respect for them. Often he left them to their roles, judging them to be without that essential Tekromun character that made soldiers and personalities.

One day soon, after they had entered the mega-fortress, he would have no need of them. Confound Galouch for insisting upon their recruitment and then habitation in separate quarters within the fortress! Their presence tested his patience more and more until today – MF day — Mega-fortress day.

Here they were again, going back and forth with their scrolls of edicts with metal handles that were gold, but without the bright gleam. One such apprentice dropped a heavy scroll and it made a loud clanging noise on the stone. It disrupted Aerol’s calm.

‘Pick it up then!’

The apprentice nodded and nervously bent, reaching down with his arm to grasp one handle. An ethereal wind blasted then through the embrasures, and the scroll ran away from its owner, hurrying towards Aerol’s bare feet. Its smooth cool heavy handle, with rounded knob, touched his big toe and he contemplated it. The scroll’s owner had paused.

Aerol reached with purpose and sat the scroll on his lap, extending his hands to read its large inky black etchings. Of course, the letters made no sense to Aerol, but what did were the minor splashes of blood at the edges of the scroll. Standing up to his full tall height, Aerol’s leg muscles stretched and he towered over the apprentice. With deliberation, he glared at the apprentice.

‘I forget your name, as I forget most of your names, but you have a nervous look about you, one that I distrust.’

The Tekromun apprentice’s painted white face was dripping off, in fact it was oozing from his cheeks, and the apprentice was visibly shaking; a despicable sight to see on a fully grown Tekromun. Aerol’s tolerance for the lack of backbone these apprentices showed grated on him and their growth in numbers had yet to serve their purpose.

The apprentice’s black pupils darted left and right as he shook, and his arms grasped a scroll that was no longer there.

‘Just … carrying … reports.’

‘Was your finger bleeding?’ Aerol asked, with the corner of his mouth raised in triumph.

‘The sorcerer Arch Banuk­—‘

‘What of him?’

‘He is recruiting soldiers from other fortresses. A nearby fortress has suffered an insurrection. That report was from their fortress. Today we received reports that suggest—‘

‘Quiet! I won’t hear any more of your whiny voice. I’ve told you all before about fear-mongering.’

The entire hall stopped: all activity and Tekromun, as if the hall held its breath. A few more scrolls clanged to the ground, and the noise irritated Aerol further. Their clumsiness!

‘You are all to return to your chambers, and await Galouch; he’s the reason I even allow you to set foot in this hall. Otherwise, you’d be in the other buildings, out of my sight.’

‘Times are changing Aerol,’ the same apprentice whined, ‘and new battle techniques must be sought to gain advantage over the other warlords.’

‘Times are always changing, and it seems the more they change the more they stay the same. It’s one group of enemies, cowards, and incompetents replacing another. I will speak to Master Galouch about this and I will order him to give me a new summary of your efforts.

‘Besides, why is there blood on this scroll, and what is your name? I find your excuses insufficient.’

‘Kun Arc Abh, Warlord,’ and the apprentice bowed extravagantly. Black moist rectangular holes were visible where paint had covered his cheeks.

Aerol appraised him more closely, marking his ribbed purple robes, which were the highest quality robes to be taken in the guest rooms. Even Galouch’s robes had more smears on them.

‘An uncommon name. Are you using the right paint? Your face should not be leaking over my stone floor.’

Aerol took a few predatory steps forward, to squeeze some answers out of him, but his movement did not perturb Kun Arc Abh, and he was no longer shaking. A crease at the edge of the Kun Arc Abh’s mouth almost hinted at a smile, and the black pupils were clearer now as a dark blue, now that Aerol was stood less than three feet away. Aerol’s hackles were raised, and his own adrenaline surged a bit, warning him that he was going to do something violent to the apprentice.

The hall was still with silent anticipation, and all Tekromun apprentices feared the worst, stood as they were blocking the light through the windows.

Yeeeey!

A sudden cheering from outside alerted a few of the Tekromun to a bridge, and Aerol’s eyes moved off from the apprentice before him to Galouch approaching at the head of an armed group of Aerol’s soldiers.

They’re back.

‘Out of my sight, now!’ Aerol hissed and walked around the apprentice to receive Master Galouch’s reports.

Master Galouch was receiving congratulations, waving back to saluting and uproarious soldiers, but he was still a bit away on the bridge and Aerol was unsure what could be cause for celebration. Perhaps there was no sorcerer after all. Arch Banuk was an idle rumour concocted by his rivals to dissuade him from taking that final assault towards the mega-fortress. Maybe it was time to prepare the army, and ready for his success. Aerol clenched his hand and stroked his muscular breastbone with his wide knuckles. Though his body felt that burgeoning hope, there was still a feeling of unease within him, at not knowing what exactly was happening and the fact that events were rushing by slightly faster than he found to his liking.

Galouch’s short unassuming appearance came into sight, and he was highly recognisable among the soldiers he walked in front, having darker purple skin and appendages dangling down from the back of his bald head. His mismatched black pupil eye and milky white pupiless eye beamed at Aerol, but Aerol knew something was amiss, right at that moment. Galouch’s twenty fingers held onto something wrapped in a sack, and he was subconsciously caressing the object – it could be the object of congratulations.

What was wrong Aerol could not pinpoint. His exterior expression was of success, happiness, and relief but he was less animated, as if he had seen a ghost and then afterward decided not to feel life within. The day had been perplexing. Aerol walked away from the window and went down the steps to greet Galouch and shake hands at the point where the bridge reached the wide open buildings of his fortress. Galouch was pleased to have made it to the platform, and shook Aerol’s hands and bowed formally as he liked to do.

‘My … friend, Aerol. I come with tidings.’

‘Make yourself comfortable, and then join me in the hall.’

‘No! No! This can’t wait. I will tell you now. We’re talking about the fate of the surface, after all, and indeed the fate of Majesty as a whole.’

‘Are you sure? Something is wrong, Mentor. I sense it in your demeanour.’

‘I’m just frightened. Great changes are upon us, and to a Tekromun schooled in comfortable surroundings, it causes me anxiety.’

‘Hmm, if you say. Come then, and I’ll have the hall cleared of all of your apprentices. They’ve caused me consternation today, and I won’t have them ruin my peace any longer.’

‘I’m sorry to hear of your troubles with them Aerol, but they have been invaluable in coming up with information on the enemy’s whereabouts.’

‘They have also instilled and spread fear among my soldiers, and I do not like that. Soon, it’ll be time to remove them from the fortress, so they can live in the outlying buildings.’

‘They have been helpful, but I think they may feel offended by your dismissal of them; some feel they have done you great service.’

‘This is why you are my Mentor, Galouch. Your counsel and wisdom are boundless.’

Inside, Aerol abruptly swept his palm outward and his Captain of the Guard communicated the orders to the seventeen other guards, some of which were hidden, to clear the hall with their physical mass and spears. There was no resistance and that insolent apprentice from before had disappeared. In the light of events, Aerol had quite forgotten he had nearly spilt blood within his own hall. It would not have been the first time.

 

***

 

Galouch stood opposite Aerol’s seated form, as was acceptable, and delivered his tidings. For a moment a haunted expression flitted across Galouch’s face and Aerol caught it in passing and tried to read him.

‘What have you seen?’

‘Arch Banuk,’ Galouch whispered.

‘The soldiers celebrate your return, and think this is a good omen … You have a trophy too …’

‘In a moment, Warlord.’

‘It’s “Aerol”, remember. There is no need for formality. None can hear us in this emptied hall. My soldiers will make sure of it. In fact, you don’t even seem to recognise me.’

‘I was … taken aback … by the sight of the sorcerer.’

‘Surely he can’t be that formidable?’Aerol said.

Aerol raised a shoulder and pushed his back upward as he leaned his arm muscles on the stone, preparing for Galouch’s report.

Galouch looked towards the northern exit, where the light was setting, and looked far away, in a direction that left no doubt as to where he was looking. It concerned Aerol.

‘It’s okay. You’re safe now, and you’re here. Please continue.’

‘The sorcerer is as dangerous and evil as everybody feared.’

Everybody as in my soldiers, your apprentices, or our enemies?’

‘All of them. I spent some time with Arch Banuk, and felt his presence. It was like the chasm itself.’

‘Oh stop! You’re beginning to sound like those delusional hopeless Tekromun hanging about the corners. It’s not like you.’

‘This Arch Banuk is ambitious, and seeks the mega-fortress as you do. If you don’t destroy him, he’ll get there first. This that I hold,’ and Galouch carefully unwrapped the greasy cloth, ‘is a key to the mega-fortress, constructed by the sorcerer himself. He can construct and deconstruct matter on the surface, which makes him adept at navigating our structures.’

Lo and behold there was a black horn-shaped piece, curved and about the half the length of Aerol’s forearm, but just as thick. Sooty flakes were peeling off it, and in the spaces without the flakes were glittery faded gold marks. Its shape could easily fit into the lock of the same shape in the mega-fortress’ door.

Aerol sat up and edged forward in his seat. Could it be? He reached out his arm to touch it, and then retracted it and held his thumb and finger on his chin in speculation. No such key had ever been known to exist, so its presence now, on this day, of all days, was suspicious. Yet, when he thought about it, a sorcerer of Arch Banuk’s ability, as Galouch related, could make something of its like. Its value was immense to Aerol’s campaign to enter the mega-fortress. The key could raise morale, and ensure they weren’t force to batter on the doors, or lay siege onto, the mega-fortress without any hope to entry. Of course, many groups of warriors and lesser warlords had attempted to enter or breach the mega-fortress. None had succeeded. But they had not been Warlord Aerol, whose rise to warlordship in the changing times of Majesty made him, his soldiers, and his fortress significant forces for any armed group of soldiers to contend with.

‘How did you get it?’

‘I took it,’ Galouch said quickly.

Aerol was still looking at the horn, or key, and wasn’t paying attention.

‘This opens up possibilities for us, Master Galouch; a great many possibilities. The army must be prepared immediately, before sunset.’

‘Wait, my Warlord, Arch Banuk has created many such keys. It’ll be a race to get there, and we don’t even know who’ll make it first. With his sorcery powers he could travel in ways we do not understand.’

Aerol looked up into Galouch’s eyes.

‘You really do fear this sorcerer, but I do not. My need to enter the mega-fortress takes precedence over any such fear I could have. It should take precedence for you too. Where is your composure? Did the sorcerer threaten you?’

‘I took his key, but saw he had many keys. We spoke a bit.’

‘Well, what did he say?’

‘He said …’

Galouch took an anguished breath.

‘He said … many things about the future of Majesty. He has plans, and has prepared well. He’s been watching you for a while and respects you the most of all the warlords, but he also sees you as a rival. He wanted to recruit me as an apprentice. I refused. To be clear, I didn’t so much as take the key as he gave me it; handed it to me even.’

‘You tell me this now? This is highly suspicious. If he has that many keys, he could give them to anybody in return for favours, and he could build an army fast. We can’t hesitate; we must prepare the army for the final assault. You were right, Master Galouch: this sorcerer does pose a threat to us.’

‘But … but … my Warlord … what if it’s a trap?’

‘The entire situation is a trap, and one that we can’t avoid. Inactivity is as dangerous as activity. With superior force, battle tactics, and warrior ethic we have always triumphed and we will again. No one sorcerer can prevent the tide of history. The past will end, and the future will hold great possibilities for change.’

‘My Warlord, you sound just like him.’

Galouch looked terrified, as if lightning had come down and electrocuted him. Aerol didn’t understand what that sorcerer had done to bewitch Galouch, but they would fight him as they had fought everything else; it was the only thing they could do.

 

***

 

The mega-fortress rose before them: a rectangular edifice with shimmering gold edges; resplendent during the day time; and the rare brown marble was carved with such architectural skill that curved the soft edges of the buttresses and closed decorative dark brown archways. Aerol had only ever seen it from a distance, as a shining fortress promising hope; a dream to one day pursue. Now that moment was here, and he led the victorious soldiers across the massively wide platform towards the mega-fortress.

The chasm itself could not be seen; the platform was so wide; and it felt like they were all truly on a proper surface rather than one composed of narrow walkways and bridges surrounding access to squat fortresses and makeshift fortifications. Aerol’s sandaled feet stuck to the polished sparkling platform, and it made him wonder why the bridge towards the mega-fortress was so wide. Maybe it was at one time the centre of civilisation, but if so it must have been half a century ago.

His father had possessed a keen interesting history, among other things, and had told Aerol of the days of mass starvation, brutality, and poverty that existed before the rise of warlords and protected civilians. Times had improved, or so his father had told him, years ago. There had been no mention of a golden age of Tekromun. Master Galouch, though younger than his father, was well-read, and had collected a series of texts and drawings, but suspected many of them were fictional. They had covered tall tales of heroism and woe, but had not thought to add any geographical history, perhaps because the tales were incomplete or the times too difficult to construct a meaningful story. There had been heroes and villains in these stories, and Aerol had often been struck by the clear boundaries between these characters: the hero revered and in love and the villain evil and alone.

Aerol had more often than not identified himself as the villain. His determination and isolation from civilians meant he had to lead a life of autonomy, battle meditation, and training. He had to live the life of the warlord because none other were good enough to take his place, or kill him. Sometimes the choices he had made so long ago pained him, but as time wore on they became increasingly fleeting and his purpose became crystal clear. Now was one of those times when he felt his purpose rising, filling him with destiny and he gloried in it.

The army halted, but the mass of bodies continued to rustle in apprehension. A few helmets still had rusted blood painted on them; others had blood that hadn’t dried as easily. Their grim countenances were lighted with wonder, and Aerol turned back round to behold the splendour of the mega-fortress, which rose far higher than he had thought. It must have been one hundred and fifty feet tall, and probably the tallest structure on Majesty. Aerol’s hands tingled with excitement as he beheld the reality of being dwarfed by something majestic and … perfect. Its solid surface had no dents, blood stains, greasy smears, or structural deformities inflicted by the abuse of warfare.

‘This,’ Aerol turned around to explain, ‘is perfection, and something to aspire to.’

‘I agree,’ an unrecognisable voice boldly uttered.

Aerol regarded the newcomer floating down from the air gradually, and knew it must be the sorcerer. Tens of valuable shiny rings almost hid his fingers from view and a medallion was stuck to the centre of his dark sorcery robes. ‘I cleared the path for you, sorcerer?’

‘You did do my dirty work.’

Arch Banuk rubbed his hands of imaginary dirt, but real dirt fell from his hands and then evaporated in mid air, leaving smoky residue rising from the platform, which now seemed sullied.

‘I’ve never seen you before, but I have a feeling we have met.’

This last was said in challenge as Aerol moved his body fully facing the sorcerer and seeing his face. Arch Banuk had a vacant deathly expression that had long since ceased to acknowledge Tekromun. Pale pink skin with red freckles was an odd appearance for a Tekromun … pale was often a sign of ill health or age, and the freckles had never been seen on one. Those dark blue eyes … Aerol had seen them and not long ago.

‘Of course, Kun Arc Abh – Arch Banuk.’

‘I had hoped even an uneducated brute like you would be able to rearrange the letters. I was mistaken. Your strengths lie elsewhere.’

‘I may not be a master of letters, but I am a master of sight, reaction, and instinct, and they can tell me as much.’

Aerol’s soldiers cheered at his words from behind, offering support and attempting to intimidate the sorcerer. They jeered, throwing chinks of loose armour, small boxes of survival food, and even broken arrow shafts. All such landed away from the sorcerer, as if an ethereal force-field surrounded him, making him invincible. The soldiers paused in confusion, and a newfound respect for the sorcerer’s abilities was growing by the second.

Was it terror Aerol now felt bubbling around his core of existence, the terror of the unknown?

‘Before I enter the mega-fortress, you must be dealt with.’

Aerol raised a mighty finger, and his soldiers arranged themselves in a circle around him, those crouching positioning axes and in the back ranks pointing spears forward. With his hand held to stop their assault, Aerol walked forward to challenge the sorcerer.

‘It’s my warrior skills against your sorcery skills. Which will prevail?’

Aerol circled the sorcerer predatorily, but Arch Banuk didn’t move an inch. Instead the sorcerer showed a slow superior smile. Jumping into action, Aerol squatted and sent a side fist at the sorcerer’s mid, but it missed!

The sorcerer was standing further away, and his dark blue eyes blinked in malevolence. An unearthly white grey mist was conjured and it sped towards Aerol, causing his eyes to sting, and he lost where the sorcerer was.

‘Quick, protect Warlord Aerol!’ the soldiers said, and they converged en masse towards Aerol.

Rubbing at his eyes, Aerol tried to remove the stinging sensation but he couldn’t and his eyes wept.

‘I’ll get you sorcerer.’

‘You have seen too much,’ was the reply.

The soldiers stomped around Aerol, and gazed aimlessly about the receding mist, and a few of them focused on the mega-fortress, which rumbled with activity, gently and then with increasing tremors. A few of the lighter soldiers tripped or were toppled over. Pushing through his blurred sight, Aerol regained his sight, but his eyes were still sore. Bright yellow light broke around the edges of the closed decorative archway – the main entrance before them – and then the arch filled with the light, causing them all to shield their eyes and fall over with the overwhelming tide. The ground continued to shake, though Aerol remained crouched with his arm held over his eyes protectively. Ahead of him an obscure figure moved away with its back often to the soldiers, with a bundle of cloth, holding something. It was close to the bright yellow light now, and discarding the cloth, it held aloft the black horn.

The key to the mega-fortress! It’s Galouch … he’s going … to save us.

But he was twenty feet away, and Aerol couldn’t enter. The horn spewed golden sorcery; the likes of which had only been seen in the chasm at those rare times at night.

Pulsing with the sorcery, it spread and connected its tendrils to the bright light and rebounded, causing the metal of the soldiers’ armour to spark and ignite. The soldiers yelled in alarm and frustration; they couldn’t see anyway. Aerol, not wearing any armour and with his sword covered by his scabbard, managed to stand and walk forward, despite the lights sweeping by him. Steadfast, his sandals clomped towards the back of Galouch, only ten feet away now. Galouch turned around then, his mismatched eyes beaming with delight and what appeared to be wondrous delusion.

‘Is it working?’ Aerol yelled.

Within eight feet, and Aerol noticed the gleam in Galouch’s eye falter and he began to worry. Was only one Tekromun meant to enter? Perhaps Galouch mentioned something about a rule in how the key was used. Then, five feet away, Aerol paused as the obvious ‘impossible’ truth hit him. Galouch had betrayed him. It had been apparent all along and he hadn’t wanted to believe it. Indeed, he had to see it to believe it, and now he was furious with himself.

The plasma softened from the horn, and the bright light subsided, and daylight noon made itself visible again, given back by the void of glare they had been exposed to.

‘Why?’

Lowering the horn, Galouch relaxed, and his features were at peace.

‘Times of great change are not for wise Tekromun such as me, Aerol. Peace, tranquillity, contentment, and the familiar are what I yearn for. You wanted an end to the times of barbarism, and so do I. I tire of battle strategy, combat, and bloodshed. You have always been a bold Tekromun, willing to take chances and progress, fighting your way through enemy after enemy to have your freedom. But those who are bound to you likewise suffer your courage.’

‘Suffer my courage? You spineless –‘

‘Do not judge me Aerol,’ Galouch said, placating him. ‘Not all Tekromun are warriors.’

‘I never asked you to be a warrior. I only asked you to fight for something, and to stand by me. Instead you gave up, succumbing to cowardice. It’ll be a mark on your soul for the rest of your life. Think of all of us Tekromun who will suffer, as we did in the past. The ambition to enter the mega-fortress will vanish, and so will bravery and purpose. We will stagnate and murder one another. You selfish fool!’

Word after word, Galouch looked like he had just had a piece of his soul taken from him, and his posture slumped until he crouched like a humpback. The misery on his face was unmistakeable.

‘WHY DIDN’T YOU TALK TO ME? YOU THINK THAT SORCERER CARES ABOUT WHAT YOU WANT?’

‘Arch Banuk said he would give me what I wanted. He promised me peace, study, and the teachings of sorcery. For the sake of knowledge and enlightenment, we Tekromun cannot pass up such gifts.’

‘Excuses, excuses,’ Aerol shook his head in disbelief. ‘Arch Banuk is a side of Tekromun nature best left hidden, locked away even. Instead you’ve given him the key.’

 

***

 

They stood looking at the curved hole on the right door of the closed archway, which spewed bright gold magic from the horn’s recent penetration, and now that the soldiers came to, they began to stand and collect themselves into a fighting unit. Aerol waved them over, while Galouch hunched guiltily close to Aerol. Though Aerol knew they had been betrayed – that Galouch had opened the door for the sorcerer and not him to enter, they still could not see Arch Banuk, and were confused at where he had gone.

The Tekromun soldiers arranged themselves in a unit, and waited for Aerol’s orders. They had recovered from the bright light, but whether they had recovered their wits was debatable. The daylight of noon was still bright, though it appeared dim compared to what they had witnessed.

Aerol’s eyes darted everywhere, but he saw nothing of the sorcerer, and neither did his soldiers. Seeing them collect themselves well gave him pride in his training. He had taught them discipline and inner strength, and it had worked, at this most trying of times. They were his tools to utilise at his will.  He was pleased that he had brought a smaller army too. More and they may have panicked and returned to the fortress, which would not have been good enough. There was safety in a group, but in masses there could only be panic.

Pausing, Aerol listened. One of the soldier’s feet slipped, and a glance at Galouch’s cowering form looking at the same movement convinced him the sorcerer was there.

‘Reveal yourself, sorcerer!’

A whistling wind jumped upward from the soldiers, who were blasted apart from one another, in disarray. The win span like a vortex of sorcery and bounced onto the ground before Aerol. A few skipping feet were heard, but Aerol didn’t have time to watch Galouch as Arch Banuk materialised before him like a dark malevolent shadow, hiding the hastily rearranging soldiers from view.

Arch Banuk walked away from them and towards Aerol, as if he maybe had a worry they could stab him in the back at a moment’s notice. Despite Aerol’s terror, this gave him hope. The sorcerer was mortal after all.

‘My soldiers cleared the way for you, killing loose bands of bandits and soldiers, and defended all the way here, but did you really fear you could not make it here yourself?’ Aerol asked.

Arch Banuk was close now, very close indeed, and his robes lightly touched Aerol’s thick bare muscular leg, which made him feel like recoiling.

‘The touch of my sorcery even, when it isn’t even in action, and you shiver in revulsion, barbarian. How amusing. Of all the warlords on Majesty, I respect you the most for the way you inspire loyalty among your soldiers and for your ascent into warlordship. I wanted you here to see my victory over you.’

The sorcerer stopped. He turned his head around, while his robes and his headdress fluttered in an ethereal wind.

‘So this is an act of humiliation, all for your benefit. Why else would you have wanted a witness?’

‘For the strongest Tekromun faction, or at least the faction under the strongest leadership, to witness my ascent into the mega-fortress is no little thing. It’s not about humiliation: if I wanted humiliation I would have stripped your dominion of its resources, incited treachery, or planted an antagonist. Your reactions suggest to me you believe me to be an antagonist, but it is not my choice.’

‘You have been the cause of treachery,’ Aerol said looking at the closed archway door, ‘and you have humiliated me through it. You trick me like an antagonist, and you threaten to take away Tekromun glory for your own ends. Don’t tell me the buildings aren’t grey!’

Arch Banuk held up high a stern finger in the air and stood still. Mist radiated from his body, obscuring the light and how it reflected around him.

‘Intent and result are clearly two different things, barbarian. You think I say something about you, when actually, my actions speak about myself. My ascent to the mega-fortress represents my ascent beyond the inferiority of Tekromun life and behaviour. I must correct you in this.’

Aghast at such evil, Aerol struggled to contain his incredulity, and shook his head.

‘How did you become this … sorcerer?’

‘That’s not for you to know.’

‘One day, I may find out why.’

‘Or you may not. Years will pass, and you will most likely perish. Any attempt to undo me and I will smite you and your soldiers down like a bolt of chasm. I have no more time to talk. The mega-fortress beckons.’

‘Galouch, the coward, has already entered,’ Aerol contradicted.

Arch Banuk slowed his walk, without deigning to look Aerol in the eye.

‘You thought I needed one of those keys to enter. It was all an illusion, barbarian, and a part of the act. For somebody like me, a locked door is no barrier.’

‘Soldiers, prepare to attack!’ Aerol ordered in a heavy breath.

He pointed at the sorcerer’s back.

‘Unwise, barbarian,’ and Arch Banuk turned fully.

From his palm a blast of magnificent bright yellow light ushered and sent Aerol and the soldiers reeling. While his soldiers were content to beat blindly in their struggle, Aerol was not, and feeling the sparkling surface with his feet, he created a mental image of the sounds he heard and navigated towards the source of the light, which was like a pinched smaller emanation. While he held his hand over his eyes, his other hand swayed with controlled aggression to beat at the sorcerer: his arm made contact!

The light dissipated, to be replaced by a thick mist all around. Aerol’s visions returned. The sorcerer’s robes were there, like a shimmering black material loose from the main close-fitting body of robes he wore. This material was pitch black and otherworldly as it floated away. Aerol sought to grasp it, and his arms reached out wildly. A bumbling soldier’s back bumped into him, and he blinked and exhaled. The black robe was gone.

A bright shimmer outlined the edges of the huge archway, and a trembling began. It was happening again. Aerol felt dwarfed by the mighty mega-fortress again, as he was about to behold the opening of the door, which occurred after entry this time. His hands clenched, and bitterness clouded his reactions as he allowed himself to succumb to the inevitable failure. His soldiers beside him, fatigued with the light and the extraordinary circumstances, fell to their knees amid a clatter while others desperately shielded their eyes and leaped into a prone position.

Majesty would never be the same again.

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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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