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 reached the crossing. Aerol remembered the place well. Much slaughter had been here, and much of it at his hands. Measures had to be taken to consolidate his dominion, twenty years ago, and the price had been worth paying, if only to stop the relentless attacks. Despite this, the crossing was not a source of warm memories for him. There had been death and blood spilt everywhere. Hordes of armies felled through sheer physical brutality. There had been few tactics in those days, only the superiority of muscle prevailed, and iron. There had, at one point, been so many bodies piled upon one another down a downward bridge, Aerol remembered, that he had later ordered fire-explosives to be planted to rid them of the bridge and send it to the depths below, where it would never return.
Nemea was having contractions now, and Aerol laid her flat on the ground. A great bulge protruded where her flat stomach had been, and Aerol ripped the material away, massaging the sweat slicked bulk and navigating around the belly button.
‘I’m embarrassed Aerol. Please, give me some space.’
‘I don’t understand. It doesn’t come out of your belly?’
‘Some … space,’ she pleaded. He left her beneath the stalwart pillars that supported hexagonal structures, and wandered towards the centre of the crossing. Ahead was the edge, above the chasm. To his left, was the curved walkway leading to his dominion. He noticed how easy it was to simply pass into it, and mulled over the idea of erecting some kind of gate or barricade to ward away any who ventured in this crossing, even if few ever did. There were always rogues, after all, or enemies.
To his right were a series of dilapidated buildings with dark windows. They looked squashed, but had been one of the sources of attacks. Aerol walked towards the edge, passing over twenty feet of featureless platform, to gaze into the ululating black chasm, its altered reality fabric reaching up and grasping at the air level with him.
Strange … it has never been this active, or high.
In fact, it continued to ascend, until a dome-shaped mushroom ascended out of the chasm, rising higher and higher amid Aerol’s awed stare.
This can’t be. It’s impossible.
His first thought was that it was engineered by an enemy hoping to attack his dominion. Was he seeing the wrath of Warlord Nemea?
Still the dome rose, on a thin grey supporting structure. It looked increasingly like a tower. The dome was large and black, and a wave of mist surrounded it; mist that had not been there before. What he was seeing banished all thought. It was unprecedented, what was happening. Only in myth had such strange things occurred.
The tower stopped rising, but it was now over a hundred feet above Aerol, and as far away from him on the surface. There was no way even he could leap towards it and hope to scale it. Peering through the mist, he saw a portal behind a thick balustrade, on a balcony. The door opened, and a bright light shone out, causing him to blink. The light grew, its beam intensifying, until Aerol had to shield his eyes from it. It was coming close now, and his heart raced. Then it stopped before it reached him, and the familiar painting was before him, of his Nemea.
Disbelief came, amid his pounding heart, and then an avalanche of anger.
‘You!’ he yelled, and grabbed the painting. His grip crushed the painting and his beautiful Nemea folded forwards. The frame snapped, and the bright gem, along with the painting, slipped out of his shocked hands, to dwindle away into the abyss.
In front of the dilapidated buildings, was Arch Banuk, or an outline of him – he didn’t look real but became more real as he walked forward and scrutinised Aerol as if his sight was poor. The outline was pale blue, and its edges were frayed.
Those dark sorcery robes covered most of him, but an odd turban covered his head. His gait was strange too, as if he had walked the chasm with those ethereal legs.
‘This time, you’re mine!’ Aerol said.
Hands folded behind his back, Arch Banuk circled Aerol as he did the same to him, and eyed him with a hungry appetite.
‘I underestimated you, Warlord Aerol. I saw a clever brute before, but only that. I now see a Shifter adept at seeking weakness in all enemies, be they mighty sorcerers or pitiful Tekromun civilians.’
Aerol cracked his knuckles with a flick of his wrist.
‘You may have entered the mega-fortress, but you’ll pay for what you deny my Tekromun.’
‘You speak as if entering the mega-fortress is your right, and that any privilege to be gained will align perfectly with your purposes. It is a false dream, barbarian, bordering on delusion.’
‘You speak of delusion!’
Still they circled one another and their insults were more profound.
‘You made a mistake coupling with Nemea. She is mine.’
‘You don’t even care for her.’
‘She is my tool, and none other can use her.’
‘She’s only your possession.’
‘Your Shifter coupling will result in an abomination. Even now, I suspect Warlord Nemea will want to hunt and destroy you, and will do whatever it takes to see an end to your dominion.’
‘You think lecturing me will change my mind. I can deal with Warlord Nemea, and Warlord Isoc. I’m the greatest Warlord Great Barbarism has ever seen.’
‘So you are, while you live.’
Aerol struck, but missed. Desperate, he attacked again and again with his fists, using techniques that would have crippled an ordinary Tekromun, but Arch Banuk was immaterial, or he wasn’t fast enough to land a blow on him. Close to the edge, Aerol was spending most of his energy, spinning, kicking, hammering down, and throwing hooks and uppercuts. None of it worked, and his mind was bringing up strategies on how he could penetrate the shield.
The sorcerer suddenly materialised behind him and Aerol was pushed with substantial force forward, and off the edge. Still, his reflexes gripped the edge with one arm, and his situation became perilous. At that moment, he had a thought of what would happen to Nemea and decided he could not fall, whatever happened.
‘Sometimes I get tired of those who try so hard to succeed. There is so much pressure, expectation, and energy; and all for naught.’
Those deathly dark blue eyes regarded him, watching Aerol’s struggle to bring up his other hand, with no expression.
‘Your oaths of loyalty are broken, promises thrown away, and minds fickle. You end up becoming exactly what you vowed not to become, simply for the sake of survival. It’s morally corrupt and selfish, and yet, trapped on the surface you have no choice. You’re stock of material, raised only to fight, change, and then die with all your self-worth torn away. You don’t even know who you are at that point, and it’s no wonder why; there is nothing left of your spirit.’
‘Who are you, really?’
‘I know this because I was once one of you, but I detested it. I would self-harm and hide in the shadows like a pitiful wretch, but inside I knew the truth. I observed how treacherous Tekromun could be, just like your friend Galouch and my partner Nemea. Every time I observe it again, it sickens me, and a cure must be provided; indeed it is my responsibility to administer it.’
Aerol’s second hand stretched far enough and he caught onto the edge.
‘Here, take my hand.’
‘You’re not going to let me die?’ Aerol asked.
No longer immaterial, Arch Banuk grabbed Aerol’s right arm, but as he did so a torrent of burning fiery pain blasted over his forearm. It scored ripples in his skin, but he couldn’t even see the fire. In horror Aerol watched his skin sear off, until it covered the front of his forearm and then it arched around the sides.
‘Your punishment – your cleansing. It is wrong to corrupt a female of such integrity for your own purposes. It’ll be a scar to remember me by, and warn you not to trifle with beings of pure spirits.’
Aerol was dumped onto the platform.
He’s material again. Now is my chance.
‘I’m afraid Nemea has already had her punishment.’
‘What?’ Aerol asked.
He was still regaining his stamina, and carefully coming out of his crouch while he held his burnt forearm.
‘You were quite taken by my tower, but it served my purpose; you were distracted.’
Ferociously, Aerol ripped across the air and yanked the sorcerer’s head backward, removing his turban to reveal a bald freckled head. One hand chopped down and cut off the sorcerer’s breath, while the other dragged him with speed towards the spot underneath the pillars, where Nemea had been. There was only a patch of fluid there now. What had he done, vaporized her?
He spun and backhanded the sorcerer, and it made a slapping noise. The sorcerer was unconscious, his eyes closed. His soldiers from the dominion stood ahead of the walkway, before the large building with a jutting front next to it. There were two dozen of them, and they looked on with utter shock written on their faces.
‘Wood, now!’ he screamed at them.
Seeing the killer frenzy look he gave them, they rushed off and brought together enough wood.
‘Fire explosives?’ he asked.
They shook their heads.
One threw a piece and he caught it.
Gathering the wood together into a pile around the fluid patch, he picked up the sorcerer and sat him upright against the makeshift structure and then scraped the granite and wood together until the sparks lit a fire. The fire caught and spread quickly across the pyre, but Aerol would not rest, beating at the sorcerer’s visage until it was bloody, unrecognisable, and senseless. The sorcerer must be dead, but it wasn’t enough. The image of the detested sorcerer had to be eroded, and made to be seen distorted and punished for its crimes.
The flames blossomed around the sorcerer, and Aerol’s arms were grabbed from behind by his soldiers to take him out of the fire’s enthusiastic reach. Tears raced down his cheeks but the only thing he felt was blind hate, and numbness.
‘None will ever speak of sorcery again,’ he said, without knowing if his soldiers had heard.
It didn’t matter.