Chapter Eight

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.

In the Feasting Hall, banging his hands on the table, Aerol commanded sharply:

‘Quiet!’

Silence took over. They had eaten their share of food and drink, and some minds had forgotten their place. Light shone brightly in the room that surrounded the irregular stone slab where his most trusted soldiers ate. There were thirty of them, though two were missing. Aerol had not had time to discover why because of the pressing need to reassure his soldiers what was to be done about the escalating threats of Warlord Nemea.

‘I’ve said it once,’ Aerol said looking at each face carefully, ‘and I’ll say it again: not a foot has been taken within our territories. There is no need for panic. We’ll prepare in our own time to attack Nemea.’

‘Why would we attack Nemea?’ a Manie, a soldier, asked.

‘They have taken something precious to me; something I want back. If I don’t get her back, then I won’t be happy.’

Manie turned away in jealously.

‘Don’t look that way Manie!’ Aerol threatened. ‘You’ve had more than enough females cosy in your pallet, and I’ve treat you more than well.’

‘You would risk all of our lives for this Shifter fem—‘

‘None shall speak ill of Shifters as long as I sit at the head of this table. They are a myth conjured by Warlord Nemea to unite all warlords against this dominion. I’m sure you’ve seen how effective the strategy is. However, the one thing they have in unity, they have lost in mobilisation, so we will pre-emptively strike at Nemea’s heart while the rest are undecided.’

Manie pointed at the map, at the unguarded roads between Warlord Isoc and them.

‘We would leave our dominion unguarded. Females, civilians, and possessions would all be lost,’ Manie said in sadness.

Aerol sat back in his stone slab chair, and prepared for a lengthy explanation.

‘I have failed you all before. My vision, my dream, to enter the mega-fortress was the only purpose we had. There were no certainties we would succeed, but I hoped. When Galouch … when he came to me with a key I thought we had achieved the impossible. It turned out to be a trick, as you know. But somebody wise told me that there are other dreams out there, and some of them are more attainable than others. We all have dreams. As your Warlord, I’m telling you my next dream, and it is bold, but if you hear me out and I succeed then your dreams may come true also.

‘You see the map and how small it is, but you see how large the text is that the apprentices wrote, signalling their fear of the territories possessed by the other warlords. We shared this fear, of the unknown; of not knowing how many soldiers they had and where they were positioned. After having travelled to Nemea I came to see how easy it is for the movements of soldiers and messengers along their bridges. The accessibility allows them to get to any dominion with ease, like the hub of a central spoke. If we conquered that hub, and made it our own, our soldiers could attack in all directions.’

‘We’ve talked about changing dominions before, with the apprentices, and we always come to the same conclusion,’ Heyt said, sitting tall on his stool.

‘We do,’ Aerol agreed, ‘that by seizing another indefensible fortress is suicide, and stronger soldiers would immediately order their soldiers to attack us. It has happened before, many times, and would happen again if we tried it, but rogue soldiers do it all the time and they’re ignored.’

‘This can’t be the only part of our strategy. To take over a fortress the size of our own, and build fortifications, would attract too much attention. No small group of rogue soldiers has attempted it before. Why are you so certain?’ Heyt asked.

Becoming frustrated that he couldn’t explain his plan Aerol grabbed the map in both hands and stared at it.

‘There are three main connecting bridges from the central hub, half of which is owned by Nemea. We would need to take over the entire hub—‘

‘Which risks angering Warlord Acos,’ Heyt finished.

‘If the missives we’ve intercepted are correct, Acos is as inflamed about the Shifter rumours as Nemea, and Warlord Isoc only wants part of their alliance to ascend as the most powerful warlord on Majesty. It doesn’t matter if Acos is angered, or defeated. We take the hub and we defeat two lesser warlords and secure the most advantageous platform. Warlord Isoc will think we’re readying to attack him, and we’ll play this deception. Rogue soldiers by themselves cannot build an adequate fortress in time, you’re correct Heyt, but they can secure it and even provide advance messages back to us on their movements. While the dummy force will travel across the walkways towards Isoc,’ Aerol said using tiptoeing fingers to illustrate his point on the map, ‘the main force will assemble en masse to take over the central platform,’ Aerol said, drumming all of his fingers in a concentrated area.

‘The females, and the possessions,’ Manie reminded.

‘The females and civilians will be armed and will attack with us. If they want to keep our protection, they’ll have to fight for it. They must be made aware that if they do not, enemy soldiers will invade this undefended fortress and do as they please with them. As for our possessions, and your privileges, the same applies Manie. Take them with you, or lose them. What precisely is it you’re afraid to lose?’

Manie threw his hands up in frustration.

‘Become too attached to your position, and you cease to be a soldier Manie — you become a parasite. Soldiers fight, or they are killed. In these circumstances, under direct threat from at least three close enemy warlords, nobody and nothing is safe.’

Manie looked at him defensively, perhaps hiding injured pride.

‘What if Isoc and the other warlords expect you to attack Nemea? After all, it is where Lady Nemea is, and she is who you want, Warlord Aerol?’ Heyt asked.

‘No, the lesser warlords won’t allow Warlord Isoc to land his troops on their hub. Isoc will attack or defend the main way and they’ll attack their shorter way, hoping to pincer us. It won’t take us as long to mobilise. It is logical, as you ask, to assume Warlord Nemea will fear attack from us.’

He has Gangel and Brute, but what else does he have up his sleeve?

Despite what she told me, even I can’t justify the future and what it holds.

‘We’ll rely on speed. The rogue soldiers and the dummy force, even if they fail, will serve as useful distractions,’ he reasoned.

 

***

 

The enemy soldier’s arm was extended while Aerol held his hand in a lock, controlling the movement of the soldier through application of pain. The soldier was balancing on one bent leg – the other had been hacked away, but not by Aerol. The desperate slit red eyes of the Tekromun were wet with tears, and yet the stubborn set of his jaw told Aerol everything he needed to know about how much more breaking he had to do. The golden and black headdress of the soldier told Aerol he was a captain.

‘I’m not letting go,’ Aerol repeated again.

‘My Warlord Nemea will never bow to a vicious barbarian like you.’

‘Nemea is a scheming vindictive warlord, not unlike an ancient aristocrat. And his victory is far from assured. As with your life, it is on the cusp of change. One slight tilt here, and …’

‘Aaahh!’ the captain screamed.

‘Talk and you lose nothing. You can’t fight anymore. Just look at your hacked away leg. As for your honour, you forfeited it when you ambushed my soldiers.’

‘Your soldiers were in disguise, secretly plotting an attack. We saw their, ooh—‘

Aerol’s clawed fingernails raked the forearm of the captain.

‘So you sprung the trap, did you? You weren’t under orders?’ Aerol drawled.

‘Warlord Nemea ordered us to be especially alert to suspicious goings on. I drew his attention to a large group of rogue soldiers. At first he dismissed it, but unwilling is disappoint my warlord, I had the buildings investigated, and when my Tekromun were killed I knew—‘

‘Commendable, to say the least, the way you took it upon yourself to hack them to bits, as they later did to your leg. Where was your honour there?’

‘There is no honour in rogue soldiers, or hiding as them. There is no honour in war.’

‘I saw the way you butchered them, from afar. That savage relentless persecution of Tekromun you thought were beneath you. It’s practised, which means you’ve done similar to civilians. I don’t like that. It gives me a bad feeling about your character, and if I get a bad feeling even about my own soldiers, I feel compelled to solve the problem.’

Aerol twisted the captain’s arm, and he howled, turning away.

‘Now we’ve covered our feelings for one another, let’s get to the crux of the matter. Where is Lady Nemea being held? My soldiers could not find her in her tower, and even searched the civilian squares. Has she been taken to another dominion?’

Aerol shook the arm impatiently.

‘I don’t know. I’m just a captain. I don’t have the ears of my warlord,’ the captain cried.

‘That’s okay, I believe you,’ Aerol reassured,‘Next question: where is your army camped?’

‘I can’t tell you.’

Poking his head close to the Tekromun, he said: ‘You will tell me, or I will raze your city to the ground in anger, if I cannot find your army. All buildings shall be set alight. Nothing shall survive. I will have victory, at whatever cost; my Tekromun stand to lose everything in this conflict. You can change that. Just tell me where they are, and I will ease your suffering and that of your beautiful city.’

‘You’ll take everything anyway.’

‘Better taken, than destroyed,’ Aerol said.

‘Spare me,’ the captain pleaded.

‘No, I can’t spare you. You so willingly dispensed death upon the innocent as your duty, is afraid of a little thing called death. It’s my oath, to myself, never to allow scum to live. I can toss you into the chasm, if you prefer. It’s your choice over your destiny, and it’s your choice over the fate of your city. If you don’t choose I shall choose for you.’

‘They’re at the north-west side bordering the bridge that connects to Warlord Isoc. They know something is afoot.’

‘How many?’

‘Seven hundred, not including any reinforcements from Warlord Isoc.’

‘And Warlord Nemea?’

The captain shook his head.

‘Never!’

‘Warlord Nemea, or your wife?’ Aerol posed.

Two of his soldiers brought in a female who hit at them in her struggle to break free.

The captain looked up, and cried anew.

‘The western tower, parallel to Lady Nemea’s.’

‘You may not have been told, but it’s where she is, isn’t it?’

The captain nodded gently because he was now unresponsive.

Aerol grappled and then snapped then Tekromun’s arm cleanly off.

‘Soldiers, he is yours,’ and his soldiers tossed away their weapons and unleashed a series of vigorous punches and kicks to the captain. They had lost brothers and husbands to this captain. Civilians had proudly volunteered to disguise themselves as rogue soldiers, among his veteran soldiers, and they had died at the hands of a captain who was expert at dealing out punishment.

Regarding the group of two dozen soldiers standing by, commanded by Heyt, he ordered them:

‘You are to attack the north-west force bordering the western connecting bridge. Send small groups to the main civilian squares. I shall head to the western tower alone. Warlord Nemea shall not be expecting me. Do not cross the bridge to Warlord Isoc’s dominion until I order.’

‘And what of Warlord Acos?’

‘Command the second army to begin attacking immediately. We can’t hesitate until we’ve taken the whole hub. It’s do or die!’

‘Yes, Warlord Aerol.’

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Chapter Seven

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.

As Aerol watched the fire burn and burn, the sorcerer sagged, his body a heap of ash bones and peeled skin. His face was no more. A stench came from him, unlike which Aerol had ever smelt. It could have been the sorcery robes. Who cared?

Between the waves of flames, Aerol saw a small purple form. Having lost his senses, and having no awareness of his soldiers’ presence, he was surprised to have been momentarily awakened by the form. It walked awkwardly around the fire, and Aerol had his head down to regard her. So his daughter lived. Those innocent dark blue eyes were large, cute even, and were set on an elongated head. There was a gaping hole underneath her abdomen, uncommon and larger than a belly button. Already she had grown three feet.

‘My daughter.’

‘Father!’ she cried, jubilant, and with hands stretched wide to embrace him.

He bent down and lifted her up into his arms, and kissed her cheek.

‘What’s your name? Did your mother name you?’

‘Merish.’

‘Merish …’

Aerol held her tightly, cuddling her snug naked form, knowing he held something precious; a legacy not just of his body but of his new adventure with Nemea. She had been right after all – there were more dreams out there than the occupation of the mega-fortress.

‘What happened to your mother?’

Aerol looked at the fluid marks, now hidden under the sooty timbers, ashes, and scorch marks.

‘She was taken by soldiers – Warlord Nemea’s soldiers. There was a mean Tekromun called Brute, who forced her to stand up.’

‘They didn’t try to take you?’

‘Mother told me to hide behind the pillar when she sensed them come; they didn’t see me. I was scared,’ she admitted.

‘Don’t be scared. Father is here now. I have to find your mother, but I can’t put you in danger until you’ve grown. It’s not safe out there. Even with my soldiers, there will be those who fear you. And yet, I must also save your mother. I have to send you somewhere safe. I regret doing this, but I must take you Underground. There will be somebody to trust, among them, I hope.’

Aerol put her down.

‘Father, I’m scared again. What will happen?’

‘We’ll take you to your Auntie, or Uncle, and you won’t see me for a bit, but I will return,’ and with that he kissed her forehead, picked her up and put her on the ground facing away from him.

‘You will have to not search for me. You’re highly intelligent, for a tyke, and you will learn quickly. I will return for you!’

Leading her towards the dilapidated buildings, he took a shortcut that would take them far down into interconnected series of platforms that were closer to the chasm. One look back revealed nothing but emptiness and despondency in the air where he had left the pillars. The domed tower had now slipped out of view.

‘The Tower of Banuk … Banuk Crossing: a place of bad memories even more now.’

‘What did you say?’ Merish piqued.

Aerol marvelled her at curiosity and intelligence.

Step by step they went lower, past abandoned areas with loose pieces of rusting armour. Sometimes there were clothes and rations, which they would scavenge when they could, but much of it had rotted away. A few passages through windows led inside darkened buildings, more so because the light of day was running out again and Aerol did not want his daughter’s safety compromised.

They paused for a rest, and Aerol showed his daughter how the tops of buildings lowered like two giant staircases beside them, leading towards the setting white sun that was shrouded by orange clouds that looked like a giant eye.

‘Majesty watches our movements, and writes of this day, for times ahead.’

‘What is Majesty?’

‘It’s the surface, the Underground, the sky, and the chasm. It’s everything we hold dear – the balance that gives rise to thoughts, feelings, and … life.’

‘I want to live on Majesty.’

‘You are on Majesty,’ he clarified.

‘But I want to live there,’ she insisted.

‘You will,’ Aerol capitulated.

There was no victory with the tyke.

Oval islets of chasm opened on the flat mostly covered surface ahead. A secluded doorway at the bottom, led to the Underground. Aerol remembered well to avoid it. In all his life, he had not been Underground, but many soldiers had. It was not a place to remain long, but it could hide the hunted. The challenge would be to find somebody he could trust, perhaps somebody who was also hunted or had reason not to be seen on the surface. Rumours had abounded that one who went Underground never returned, which was nonsense of course. If it was true, then he would never see his daughter again, and she could be in great peril. The only way to know was if he stepped inside with her.

‘We’ll have to be brave Merish,’ he said as they landed on the last great step close to the door.

‘That doorway is dark,’ she said.

‘It is, and it’s a secret what is beyond it. Even father does not know.’

‘It must be a puzzle.’

‘Yes, yes it’s probably a puzzle. Are you good with puzzles?’

‘I am. I’m good at working things out. I worked out that you like Mother lots and lots. I worked out that you are strong and big and angry.’

Aerol knelt beside her, and held her hand.

‘We’ll work this puzzle out together, shall we? That way, we can both understand it.’

‘Yay,’ she said, jumping up and down.

Already moving forward and about to breach the surface, a part of Aerol’s mind was screaming in protest. What was he doing? Had he lost his mind?

 

***

 

They were spinning around fast. Aerol felt disoriented and he worried how his daughter felt. She didn’t look happy, in fact she looked anxious as she bit at her index finger.

‘It’s okay, the spinning is slowing down.’

They stopped, in a corridor of darkness. Feeling with walls with his left hand told him it was wet sludge: moist, thick, glutinous sludge.

‘Eww, father, I don’t like it!’

It was amazing. Merish was emulating him. A bubble of happiness lifted in his heart.

‘Let’s continue and see what we find.’

Left and right were Tekromun sleeping or appearing drained of energy. It was a nightmare. Aerol wondered if this was where all those who fell into the chasm ended up. It certainly was another dimension. There was so much unhappiness and suffering. Once or twice, one would get up and grab at Aerol’s robes or try to seize his daughter, before he swatted them away or threatened them. Down every corridor the story was the same. They were in a maze of misery, lost.

‘There is nothing here,’ Aerol lamented. ‘There is no purpose. We have to go back.’

His instincts had gone haywire. A white noise blocked out all sensory input, and he couldn’t make sense of his surroundings. There were no landmarks or points of reference. Everywhere looked the same. He couldn’t share his grief with his daughter. Glancing at her, he saw that she wasn’t troubled. In fact, she was in contemplation.

‘Just a bit further, and watch out for the fighters down in the tunnel.’

Puzzled, Aerol glanced to the left where a massive opening emerged, as if the corridor, and many other such similar corridors, had been sliced away to create a massive spherical area, or arena. On a thin slab, naked Tekromun males were fighting, while groups of males and females watched and gossiped.

Underground society.

None had noticed them, and Aerol hid his daughter behind his body as he continued to the complete part of the corridor that hid them from view.

‘Turn right,’ Merish said. ‘There she is.’

Chapter Six

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.

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.

‘Huhh!’

‘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.’

‘Arrgghh!’

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.

‘Granite?’

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.

My female!

My child!  

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.

 

 

 

Chapter Five

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.

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.’

 

Chapter Four

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.

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.

‘Move away!’

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.

‘Urrghhh!’

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?’

‘Brute.’

‘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.’

Slap!

‘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.

Aerol exhaled.

Nemea gasped.

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.

 

Chapter Three

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.

Aerol had failed to enter the mega-fortress, and that didn’t mean another key couldn’t be found; maybe one had been left and forgotten about. Galouch had said something about there being many keys. Galouch … the traitorous, filthy, pitiable and cowardly … grrrrrr!

Arch Banuk had never possessed a great fighting force, relying on a few mercenaries in their brief encounters with him. Mostly he had thrived because he had made excellent use of the fear and rumour of his power. And so as Aerol drifted towards his fortress, it was not with apprehension. He half hoped the arrogant sorcerer would be there so that he could rip him apart with his bare hands, and catch him out at an unexpected moment, but would Majesty be as kind to deliver such.

However, the rounded small ‘fortress’ was abandoned, and uncared for. Ornaments of value were strewn everywhere, as if the place had been ransacked, but who would have dared come when the sorcerer was in his prime? Aerol did not know. Raising his feet to step over the carelessly smashed vases, painting frames, and mirrors, he made his way to a secluded room at the back, ducking under an overhanging arch that was much too low for even a Tekromun of average height.

Here, the walls were painted with a slick red … blood. So the sorcerer was not only arrogant, ambitious, and power-hungry; he was sick, perhaps insane too. Where had the sorcerer found the blood? Who had he killed to attain it? No single Tekromun, if the blood was his own, would be able to store as much blood, and spilling it would reduce them to a sagging heap. Balancing to step into the centre of the secluded room, in front of a wide seating bench, Aerol’s hand brushed against the wall, and he made it to the space. Looking at his bloody fingertips, he wouldn’t be surprised if the blood was a curse but then reminded himself that any mythology of sorcerers wouldn’t necessarily be true.

He looked everywhere, pulled the seating bench up, ripping it from its fixings, and opened cabinet with rapid eagerness. At one point he removed a painting that still hung and behind it was a brown bag, with no keys inside. It must have been the same bag Galouch had told him had held all the keys. Somehow the sorcerer must have found a means to take them with him, or destroy them. The chasm was good for getting rid of unwanted items, and Tekromun now that he thought of it. It wasn’t likely he would have found evidence of murdered Tekromun to paint these walls if they had all been thrown off the edge.

The texture of the bag was rough and made his fingertips feel funny, or was that just the blood? He threw the bag back in the small square hole, and drawing his fingernails on the unbloodied section of walls, started a spark. Then, he dragged his long fingernails with force amid many sparks, and flames were conjured, lighting the area around the square hole and the painting, which he now noticed was of a Tekromun who looked very much like Arch Banuk, but it was only a likeness and not an exact portrait. Flames burst around the edges of the gilt frame and held the painting in its grasp.

‘Your legacy left a fire in your wake, and then that fire held you in its grasp and would not let go.’

The picture began to peel amid sooty marks. Aerol stamped onto the white-painted face of his nemesis, and his foot went through the painting and the wall behind, hitting something solid.

Peering into the space where the sorcerer’s face had been was another section of the fortress. It must have been crafted of sorcery because he had seen and catalogued the exact dimensions of the building before entering and there was no way the concealed dark space beyond could have expanded beyond the main wall without him noticing. Cautiously, his arm moved into the dark space and closed around something hard and rectangular. Feeling around with his hand more and it made contact with a cool protruding object sticking up from the surface of the rectangle. By now, he was convinced it was a smaller framed painting, and it was: another portrait, and of a female whose beauty took his breath away.

Her light purple skin made her features clearly discernible. Dark blue eyes shone from the face like gems, beseeching him. She held a metallic symbol – a standard of a sun with rays attached on an irregularly shaped stalk. On her head was the protruding emblem he had felt before – a dark blue oval. Had Arch Banuk been looking for a bride, or was she some relation? It was clear he had hidden this painting, so that nobody would find it, and Aerol understood why. The emblem was of Warlord Nemea, and this must be his daughter. If an enemy happened upon it in the sorcerer’s room, it could start a war. Warlord Nemea would see it as evidence of a direct threat or planned invasion against his dominion.

Holding the painting against the hard muscles of his abdomen, Aerol pondered.

Warlord Nemea had been an utter fool as long as he had been alive. His dominion had survived because it had been smaller, squashed as it had been between two larger dominions who fought aggressively over the surface. He had not had need of any military ambitions, other than for basic defence, and some say his civilian squares were teeming with objects of value. Looking around at the tacky gold and silver smashed or knocked over around him, he inferred that the sorcerer must have visited and returned, selling the objects in return for favours, food, or goodness knows what else a sorcerer wanted.

But the daughter … any male would seek such beauty. Those supple cheeks, and slender shoulders with bones visible. Inside, Aerol shuddered with delight at seeing her. The way of the warlord was to take the females he wanted, but he had never seen value in any female — this one he wanted to hold and treasure. His enemy’s painting too.

 

***

 

On his way to Warlord Nemea’s dominion, he had been going to pass the mega-fortress so thought he would try again, taking the long walk across the hated platform to look up towards the height of the palatial fortress, and make his demands.

Enough feeling of the unfairness of life, hatred of his trapped circumstances, and the suffering shared by his Tekromun brothers were sufficient.

‘You sorcerer, who acted selfishly, in your need to seize power and leave the world trapped into poverty: shame on you. Each time I shall come here, and speak with extreme vehemence. The surface itself shall never forget. You, who has cowardice to run from a fight, decided to make use of treachery and trickery to enter the mega-fortress, and shall never be forgiven or forgotten. The battle over the surface has not ended. In my veins runs a passion you have not extinguished in your success, and the time will come again, if not in my life then in another’s who has remembered the truth, when they shall wreak vengeance upon you and execute you with great pain and torture. Until you kill me, I will insult you. Until you kill me, you have never won the right to occupy the mega-fortress!’

Silence responded, and there was nothing – no movement, answering call, or noise whatsoever, but for his own exhilarated breaths.

 What did Arch Banuk do inside? Did he plan the ruination of all life, twisting everything to his malevolent desire? Nothing had yet changed. And Galouch was there too, but would he let Arch Banuk have his way?

An intense feeling of warmth and … presence emanated from the painting he had clipped to his belt. It was like a warm weight beaming with intensity, and he clutched at it to view the painting of the beauty of Nemea, wondering why he was drawn to her again at this time. The dark blue eyes still drew his gaze, but the dark blue oval above her dreamy eyes was glowing, and now sparkling white. Aerol had a good memory for how things appeared, and he didn’t recall the gem on her forehead glowing; indeed it had been dark blue like the colour of her eyes.

His thick forefinger and thumb was pressed onto the surface of the painting as he peered closer, but this did not deceive him: the glowing was not an irregular quirk of the painting so much as something elemental, like sorcery. It was three dimensional, as if communicating with something external of the painting, and Aerol was spooked.

Looking up again at the expressionless mighty palace of the mega-fortress, with its brown marble and golden edges, he stared at the open-windows high above the entrance archway before him, and wondered.

Some sorcery trick of Arch Banuk’s, but for what purpose?

Aerol’s fine senses then detected tremors tingling his feet and realised they must be powerful originating from far away to affect the massive sparkling platform he stood on.

Night was falling now, and the dark purple blankets of clouds rested to hide the beams of the two white suns, and Aerol was comforted by the change in weather, feeling protected under cover of darkness, as long as he held onto the shadows, yet the gem on her forehead still shone, bright as the mid-point, as when both suns crossed, one over the other, and blasted their full force upon Majesty, making the surface sparkle with splendour and repeating the cycle of barbaric bloodshed or plotting that would follow, much as the day before.

Moving the painting around, shaking it even, did nothing to snuff the flame of its force, and Aerol now pointed it away, a light to guide to him in the darkness, as he decided the mega-fortress wasn’t responding, and he moved to walk and continue his journey. And with that thought came the realisation that he had a few choices: to think about how to find a key to the mega-fortress, seek out Nemea to see if she had some answers; after all a painting of her had been in Arch Banuk’s hut; or to return to his fortress. If he did return he would not be sharing his failure to find a key with any of his soldiers, and the painting he would keep to himself.

Like the torch of a sconce he moved the intense beam of dark blue light, which was shaped like an oval cylinder that pierced the darkness in all directions, and reflected when he positioned it against the marble of the platform he stood on. Tactically it was foolish to make his presence known, but there was a strong part of him that didn’t care, and that wanted to be found; to fight, die, and seek blood to release his frustration with the state of life on Majesty after his defeat.

 

 

Chapter Two

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.

When the small army returned, it was with crestfallen faces, weighed down by heavy helms. Aerol walked at the head of the company, trying to keep his head raised and boldly face whatever future remained, but the truth was that he knew it was all over. His great ambition, and dream, to enter the mega-fortress was not the only thing that kept his soldiers loyal and united, but it was what gave them hope and battle fervour. They were content fighting for him and put aside his violent attacks, but now Aerol would witness upheaval from factions within his fortress, and much blood would be spilt. He hated it when that happened. No Tekromun with a heart could take pride in it, but when they did go against him he saw them as enemies without any moral scruples, and he had to put them down immediately. He could never stand the sight of the stupidity behind their eyes. This is what he was walking back to.

No enemy soldiers dared attack them on the way back, having been displaced with metal on the way, but a number of interested parties did approach to ask them of the outcome of their great march. A few curses from the soldiers or glares from Aerol were enough to send them away, and they ran off to share the morale raising news with their leaders. Whether they would stills see Aerol as a threat would be debatable. For eleven years Aerol had been a mighty warlord that none but the foolish would attack, but after this demoralising failure, this crushing defeat at the hands of a sorcerer, there would be fools aplenty to massacre. Aerol wondered how much pleasure his own soldiers would take in dispensing the punishment necessary to remind their enemies they were still a major force.

If only Aerol had one single soldier he could confide in or trust then it would make all the difference: one of them whose loyalty and mindset he could rely on to grow his fortress and his forces, but instead cruelty, physical prowess, and intellectual acumen were needed.

It was dark and gloomy now, with the light having dimmed, causing the sky to go a dark bluish colour. It looked heavy, and it matched Aerol’s heavy heart. The main body of the army followed Aerol to the fortress’ openings, but several of the ranks to the left and right broke off and went left to the series of squat dilapidated structures attached to the fortress proper, where they went to meet their families. Aerol didn’t stop them.

When he entered the fortress, he found his chair and sat down with a sigh. A bold apprentice walked in, heedless of the soldiers’ attitude, and came towards Aerol.

‘Warlord Aerol, I require your signature for these edicts.’

‘I can read. What do they mean?’ Aerol asked, only half-listening.

Exhaustion had taken precedence.

‘They are to announce a new election for a Mentor to lead all of us.’

‘I’m your leader,’ Aerol said and waved him away.

‘I’m afraid we need a leader who understands us, but only your signature carries any weight. All other Tekromun are diminished or subjected to your will. You must understand the need.

Aerol stood up and swiped the back of his hand against the apprentice, who was sent sliding back across the floor. The edict clanged and rolled away. Several surly soldiers entered the openings, as if to see what was afoot, and a few concerned apprentices peered around the leftmost corner. Aerol stooped and picked up the apprentice by the robes.

‘Soldiers, there are new orders. The apprentices are attacking the sovereignty of this warlordship, and are seeking to usurp our positions with scrolls and edicts. Take this apprentice, and take the rest, and shove them over the edge, in ceremony. Do it ahead, where I can get a full view of their demise.’

The soldiers didn’t hesitate and homed in on the apprentice, who Aerol shrugged off. Aerol stalked towards the back of the fortress, where the square windows looked out upon a bleak and desolate bridge to the north, where Galouch had arrived to cheers earlier in the day. The bridge was now occupied with the clatter of heavy soldiers as they spat orders at the hunched apprentices in their white face paint and robes, shoving them and wrestling them towards the centre of the bridge. Both sides were purple masses of soldiers, poking and prodding the mass of frightened apprentices with weapons.

‘This is Great Barbarism, and for those who do not understand the military way of life, the “warrior ethic”, there is no time to abide by them.’

Aerol said to himself, and then raised his arm to the Guard Captain, and then slammed it down upon the ledge of the window, causing it to crumble and fall apart. White robed Tekromun were forced off the bridge by the metal spears and axes of the Tekromun. One by one they screamed as they were sent spiralling down towards the abyss of chasm, which could not at this moment be seen. The darkness above stretched to cover the scene, and yet the soldiers had been late lighting the scones anew.Dozens at a time dropped, and still the soldiers bullied their way onto the bridge. Shouts of alarm came from the other end of the bridge; protests against this unseemly violence against Tekromun who weren’t even soldiers.

The apprentices had infuriated him long enough. Their leader had.

The cries of alarm died down, and the last few apprentices were cast away. An unnatural silence followed as the soldiers returned to their posts within the fortress, or went to the eastern outbuilding where the families were housed. What would their families think of today’s madness?

Aerol’s heart beat rapidly, and he couldn’t find comfort or solace in the silence, in the extension of the opening hall that looked north, upon the dead he had showed no mercy. He needed to get away from the fortress proper, and turned back south within to do a turn west and north to get out of the main opening hall where his.

It was all Arch Banuk’s fault. No, he shouldn’t blame anybody for his actions. His actions were normal for the times they were in, even if they were considered extreme. But if he had been allowed to enter the mega-fortress, or chanced to attempt to enter it without the sorcerer then maybe he could have changed life for all of them and earned reprieve for soldiers and families. There was a chance for a better life and he would use any means at his disposal to achieve it. Tonight, or tomorrow because he was too tired, he would chance to enter the mega-fortress alone.

 

***

 

When he arrived at the mega-fortress, despite being fatigued beyond measure, he was able to adapt his processes and discipline his mind to carry on, well into the night. The sparkling surface felt hard, and the dark walls of the mega-fortress were now implacable. The windows’ patterns were eerie and ghostly, instead of magnificent and coloured with reflecting light.

A few whistles and hoots caught his attention, but they were from far away. There was always somebody else about, but none came too close to the mega-fortress, especially after they had learnt of what had happened.

Aerol crept towards the huge archway, and traced the edge of his finger against the hole that was supposed to house the key. If there was even a black curved hole in the first place, then why was it here if a key wasn’t necessary? It didn’t make sense, unless it was just a creation of Arch Banuk’s. The lock had always been there, as long as Aerol had been alive, but how long the sorcerer had lived for and how long he head been creating matter and crafting trickery was not known.

A concentrated thrust against the door did nothing, and when he lightly touched the outer brown marble of the walls, despite their cool texture, he didn’t learn anything new. Climbing was a particular skill he had, but the texture was too smooth and slippery to climb, and the windows above were simply too high, nearly thirty feet above.

He found himself wandering around the edges and looking up, but from the sides and the back the mega-fortress was even less welcoming, as if it had its back to Aerol and hid its main features for the front entrance and windows. The windows, ledges, and strange protrusions beside the window ledges could scarcely be seen from the sides and the back. On a few occasions he wondered what those protrusions were and where they came from. Perhaps they were something sorcery related. It was unassailable, by individual or army. Only sorcerers could enter, or those sorcerers wished to enter, and Aerol wondered if he had been a complete fool to think otherwise. His misplaced dream had resulted in unnecessary bloodshed and the building of hopes that were disappointed.

He collapsed to his knees, being no longer interested in appraising the mega-fortress. His body faced north, as he kneeled behind the back of the mega-fortress, away from his fortress and everything he knew. Strangely, he could sense his fortress from afar and it felt small and insignificant, as if the foundation of all his achievements and his progress through life were trivial compared with the greater forces out there. There were warlords aplenty, but he could deal with them. Mysterious buildings and sorcery were things he had never had to or dreamed of contending with before, and he found himself out of his depth.

I wonder if Galouch felt the same way, before he joined Arch Banuk. Did he feel small and diminished, crushed by events?

 It may not explain his betrayal. Aerol wondered what had really happened in Arch Banuk’s fortress, or at least where he was rumoured to reside. That’s when Aerol decided he would quite like to find out. First he lay down supine, and shut down his mind and the psychological processes that took their toll. Hands clasped before him, he slept in the midst of the burgeoning darkness, sheltered by it and unwilling to face the light.

In his last moments awake coursed a feeling that it was not over yet, and that there could be answers to be found at Arch Banuk’s fortress.

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*This Chapter Two (C2) code is valid until April 1st 2018, and can be used by winners or passed on to friends or family to be used.

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.

Chapter One prize list

1.*1 discount code for 20% off proofreading services at www.alexjameseditor.co.uk
2. The Antpod Faction by Alex James (2nd edition) – ebook – .mobi, .epub, .pdf, or Smashwords coupon
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* This Chapter One (C1) code is valid until April 1st 2018, and can be used by winners or passed on to friends or family to be used.

Chapter promotion – introductory post

Readers:

I’m going to share some of my new writing, on my website. I might post a chapter a week. Each time I post there will be a prize list at the bottom. If readers contact me and give me their feedback on the chapter or comment on the post with feedback they will be able to choose their prize for that chapter. It will be a single prize for each winner and an additional prize, from past lists or depending on prize availability, to winners who read all eight chapters and supply feedback on them. The prize list may change for each new chapter depending on new contributions from authors or an improved model.

Authors:

I’m looking for fantasy authors to donate a free copy of their ebook to me to add to the prize list. I won’t need too many prizes/ebooks, and perhaps no more than a dozen in total. I’ll see how it goes. I can add a clickable link that you supply on the title of your book in the prize list to lead to a destination of your choice that will provide more information about your book to readers. If the winner chooses your ebook they may read it and leave you a review. I already have my own prizes for the first chapter but if you want your ebook as a prize in the first chapter or any chapter you can request it to be so. Potential fantasy authors are free to contact me at any time during the weeks to donate a free ebook.

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