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The Living Stone: Raiders and a Thief


Wardan clawed his way up the cliff face, his hands crushing the blackened rock like it was made of clay. He barely felt the crumbling stone as his fingers tore out handholds, pouring dust and sand-like stone down onto his face and hair. He did not even register the jagged rocks scraping at his body through his combat jack and trousers, stone sharp enough to cut up a normal man. No, what did get to Wardan was the wind. The howling gusts screaming across the sheer rock face chilled his blood, and threatened to tear him from his path upward if he so much as lost focus for a moment. He was more than three stories up, with about three more to go it seemed, and while the fall might not kill him he was pretty sure it would leave a mark. He just hoped that this would all be worthwhile.

In the foothills less than a mile from the bottom of his precarious perch was a camp of raiders, impatiently awaiting his return. Well, he knew at least one of them would be impatient about it. Borlan, the dwarven leader of the Norheim Raider Company, would always give Wardan a hard time about his work, whether he thought it could be done better, or faster, or with more effort, or with a dance at the end. Even if he was the most willing, able, efficient raider in the group, as he was told quite often … sometimes even by Borlan.

The grumpy dwarf had always given Wardan a hard time of things, supposedly out of a bizarre ritual of Dwarven affection. Borlan had been friends with Wardan’s father and mother, and they had all been raiders together. Wardan’s father lost his leg on a raid, and Wardan guessed that somehow Borlan felt responsible. Or it could have had something to do with the rivalry between his father and the dwarf, and Borlan was simply taking out the frustration of the lack of closure on the boy. Either way, it had gotten worse when Wardan became Gifted.

He heard a crack, and snapped out his thoughts to see a boulder spinning down the cliff toward him. There was no time to move, and its trajectory threatened to peel him off the rock wall. So instead of trying to avoid it, he steeled his grip on the wall with one hand, set his feet as best he could, and loosed the other hand from its hold, pulling back and balling up a fist. The huge stone bounced off the cliff once more and came hurtling toward him. When it was about a foot away from his face, he punched the earthen missile with all the might he could manage.

A retort like thunder sounded when his fist crashed into the rock, popping it back up into the air over him. It sailed past him several feet away when it came back down. He turned down and watched it carom of the cliff face several times before it crashed into the ground below him. He sighed and stretched his fingers, and shook his head before resuming his climb. A moment later a gale practically pulled him from his perch, tearing his legs from the wall. He grumbled angrily as he readjusted himself, remembering to set his feet better before going for the next hold.

Ten minutes later he pulled himself up onto the top of the cliff, standing as straight as he could with the wind. He let his gaze drift out over the wasteland below, to note all the features nearby. The south laid the Argassa, a field of broken stone that stretched for miles. To the east he could almost make out the fires of Norheim, sitting far on the horizon, and beyond that Cairn Korrodas, the empty mountain citadel of the dwarves. To the northeast was Black Needles, a forest of stony spires that stood in a vast basin said to hold a great lake above the land in the past. To the west behind him, at the edge of the horizon, lay the Dustlands, a desert of enormous proportions, where tales spoke of fire leaping out of the ground and winds that devoured people whole in the space of a few breaths.

To the north was a range of mountains called the Rivenwall. The mountains got their name from their near impassability, as only a handful of raiders had ever managed to either cross or circumvent them. Wardan had no intention of even getting near those mountains, at least not on this excursion. The foothills in their shadow were what interested him. He scanned the base of the great mountains, and directly to the north of his perch he could see the fires of a settlement. He scowled as he recalled the words of the messenger in Norheim: “Join the Destructors, or perish with the land.”

The Destructors were a cult of wastelanders from Torandia, the lands north of the Rivenwall, who believed that the dying of the world was the next step in recreating the Paradise of Everlast, a mythical land that men used to believe all life originated from. In order to prepare for the perfection of Everlast, the current, tainted world needed to be purged of its ‘infection of life’ to make way for the seeds of divinity.

No one in Drakvald or Argassa knew just how they operated but news from Torandia was that they demanded the support of villages along their warpath, or they were sacked, and everyone in the village killed or made to join their ranks. Apparently they had an enormous following in the northern lands, and had amassed enough resources to spread their campaign of extortion to Wardan’s home.

The Norheim Raiders were not about to let them get away with this.

That was the reason he was up on top of a windswept spire, the only reason he had agreed to go on this mission alone. There was no way he was going to let a group of religious thugs have their way with the hardworking men and dwarves of his homeland. With that goal in mind, the Raiders decided to take initiative and do what they do best. A raid was planned on the ruins of an ancient fortress that the cult had taken as a stronghold, but they needed more fieldwork done, and Borlan elected Wardan for the job.

With the position, distance, and surroundings of the Destructor stronghold firmly in mind, Wardan hauled himself over the edge of the cliff and started climbing down. Once he was down he planned to get closer to discover the numbers and defenses the Destructors had amassed.

The moment he felt the stone give under his feet and hands, he knew nothing good could come out of what followed. Unable to react in time, his grip was torn away from the wall by the wind. He twisted in the air trying to get the leverage to reach the wall before he hit the ground, and then he heard the crack. He whipped his head up to see what it was, and groaned as half the top of the spire broke away and tumbled down after him.

It was not looking to be the best start to the week.

Wardan felt heavy, like his clothes were full of sand. At the same time, he sensed he was floating, as though he never hit the ground. When sight returned to him, he instinctively held back a gasp of surprise, as to do so would mean he would inhale a good deal of water.

The warrior had never seen so much water before! He looked in all directions and could see no trace of land or light, much less the spire he fell from. He was about to start moving – anywhere to find a way out – when a bright light came from the distance, wicked and red, blazing its way toward him. He barely made out a face of sinister glee in the middle of it before it was upon him. It was just about to overcome him when another light, green and silver, cut it off and reflected its trajectory. This one had a face too, somehow benevolent, but sad as well. It turned to look right at him, and smiled with just a hint of smugness.

When it spoke, it felt as though the water itself was speaking to him: “Well? Keep swimming! You’re almost there!”

Wardan cut powerful strokes in the water, desperately trying to push himself up through the dark water. With every swing of his arms he used more air, but the surface felt so near. He felt his hand breach the surface …

And he woke up, the sound of a large stone shifting just above him. His back ached, and his head throbbed, but he smiled anyway. He had the strangest luck sometimes. The raider figured his impact made a deep enough crater to keep the rockslide from crushing him, burying him instead. He wondered how long he was out, if his comrades had come looking for him.

The rock shifted away completely, and Wardan was no longer smiling, being able to at last see his rescuer. A worryingly large dragon stood above his would-be tomb, pushing away the boulder with its massive head. It looked down at him and grinned, showing dozens of teeth the length of Wardan’s hand. He had the strangest luck sometimes.

“Hey, you alright?” the beast asked him.

Wardan blinked. What was he supposed to say here? Should he feign injury to find a moment to escape or retaliate? Or maybe he should say nothing and just try to make a break for it? Perhaps this was some kind of trick, or even a hallucination.

In the end, he simply said, “I’m fine, thanks for asking.”

The big dragon chuckled, sounding incredibly human for a moment. “Fine, you say?” It looked away, to something outside Wardan’s view. “D’ya hear that? Says he’s ‘fine’, like dropping that far is ordinary.”

“Well it’s no surprise that he is ‘fine’,” said a man at the edge of Wardan’s crater. He stepped over to the edge, where Wardan could see him. He cut a strange figure, wearing a long coat of white over a green tunic and tan breeches, topped with a wide brimmed white hat sitting on long, gray hair. In one hand he held a short staff, crooked and warped, and he leaned on it as he bent over the edge. “Wardan is far from ordinary.”

Once again, Wardan blinked. This was becoming a very strange day. “Do I know you, sir?” he asked.

The man smiled, a soft warm expression that seemed out of place against the clouded sky, but at home perhaps anywhere in existence. “I don’t believe we’ve met, nor were we supposed to meet, but it is clear that we are in perhaps a position to meet.”

“He says hello,” the dragon explained, gaining a wry look from the man.

Wardan pushed himself up to a sitting position, testing his legs before climbing to his feet and reaching for the closest wall. He was interrupted when the dragon’s forepaw came down and plucked him by the back of his jack from his personal crater and gently lifted him to the surface.

“I guess you are still in one piece,” the dragon said, looking him over. The creature leaned close enough that Wardan could count the silver scales lining his nostrils. “What are you, made out of rock?”

“Flesh and blood, last time I checked,” he responded, trying not to let the dragon’s closeness unnerve him. The creature’s front leg was as big around as his torso. He was stronger than most but a normal dragon could still overcome him in a fight, and this dragon looked much healthier than the wayward beasts that scavenged by Norheim. Its scales were bright and reflective, not dulled and plain like scale he had seen on dragonhide in the past. And was it just him, or was the dragon’s breath cold instead of hot?

But somehow, even being so close, this dragon seemed different. He had fought off dragons infringing on Norheim’s territory more than once, and had even helped to slay one. Those dragons were frantic and savage, just beasts trying to survive and happening to do it in someone else’s backyard. He pitied them, hating to punish them for simply trying to carve out a living in this blasted world.

But this specimen needed no pity. This was a majestic creature, powerful, strong, with eyes that shone of intelligence and charisma. He acted so calmly, so assuredly that he didn’t even need to be threatening to instill a sense of fear. Though truly, if Wardan felt anything now, it was simple awe, raw inspiration that brought him a sense of being truly beyond what he could be himself.

This was a dragon.

Seemingly having completed its inspection, the dragon nodded. “Well, it’s nice to meetcha. Call me Arithar.”

“Well … well met, Arithar,” Wardan said, half smiling. He’d never asked a dragon its name before, and never really thought they had names. “I am Wardan, of the Norheim Raiders.” He turned to the man who was just coming from the other side of the rubble. “And you, friend?”

Seemingly shaken from a thought in the distance, he turned and smiled politely. “You can call me the Wanderer. I don’t have a name.”

“Wouldn’t it be ‘wanderer’ then?” Wardan asked, feeling clever.

The man seemed to appreciate that. “Not really. Wanderer is a title I have given myself, as it is an adequate description of my tendencies and disposition. A name … is something quite different. But that’s not important to you, is it? No, you are far more concerned with the fanatics that seek to overrun your land.”

Wardan narrowed his eyes. “How do you know about that?”

“Many know of them,” the wanderer continued, dismissing Wardan’s suspicion. “Norheim considers this land still to be its charge, as it has for many ages, even when it was once the great kingdom of dwarves and men. If you are one of her raiders, anyone who threatens Drakvald’s people is your enemy.”

Wardan nodded, conceding his point. “So, the two of you saw me falling and came to my aid?”

“Mostly morbid curiosity on my part, but the wanderer insisted that you would be alive,” Arithar said.

“Well, that was kind of you,” Wardan nodded his thanks, and turned to leave. “My comrades are expecting me back soon. I need to tell them what I learned.”

“Just one more thing, Wardan,” the wanderer said, stepping forward. “You are certain of your path now; that I can see.” His eyes became sharp and inquisitive, and he placed both hands on the crook at the top of his walking stick. “But when the road diverges, do you take path of least resistance to get merely where you were headed? Or will you tread the trail less traversed, to find what you may over a new horizon?”

Wardan furrowed his brow. It seemed an innocent enough question. But the way he asked it gave the raider an uneasy feeling, as though his answer had some weight in the greater scheme of things.

Suddenly, the wanderer shrugged, his visage softening. “It’s just something to think about, for whenever we may meet again.” He motioned for the dragon to follow, and began walking away, to the west. The large beast nodded once to Wardan and caught up with his companion, falling into stride behind him.

Wardan believed in many things, but he did not believe in fortune telling. Yet somehow, this man’s cryptic words affected him, made him unsure of what to do next. He stood for a moment, pondering what to make of it all, or if it had not been some strange dream.

“Well? What are you waiting for? You’re almost there!” the wanderer shouted back to him.

Something about the way the wanderer said that made Wardan look back at him, trying to figure out where he had heard something like that before. In the end he shrugged

Rilea kneeled low to the ground, placing a hand to the stone. Even though a thick scarf covered her eyes, she could make out every crack and crevice on the rock face. They called her heightened senses a Gift, but without that scarf she would practically be blind, her sight overloading her mind. She could control all the others easily, but her sight was so powerful that covering her eyes did nothing to inhibit her vision. After all, her eyes were not the only thing she could see with.

She concentrated on the stone, focusing her sense of touch. The tiny vibrations in the earth resonated with her skin, and she closed her eyes. She trembled as the tremors crept across her body. She could feel all of the land around her, and the movement translated all across her skin, creating a tactile map of her surroundings from the tremors. With her eyes closed, she could see the tremor map on the back of her eyelids. Soon, every creature that walked within several miles was traced by every step it took. With some effort, she could discern numbers, direction, speed, and if she concentrated hard enough, the species might even be determined. In dangerous times like this, the skill was a useful tool for self preservation, but she had a more proactive uses in mind.

She smiled as the subtle vibrations reached her fingers, telltale movements of what she sought. She had heard of the men that had invaded from across the Rivenwall. Word had it they had already been out as far as Norheim, but she doubted anyone would try to anger the dwarves on purpose. She had made a point of not interacting with the stout folk in her business, as dwarves had very harsh methods of dealing with those who took what did not belong to them.

Rilea did not think of herself as a thief, but just another kind of predator. If she could get away with it, why should she not take what she needed? Furthermore, the least dangerous creatures in the world were still far more pressing a concern than one woman getting what she needed.

She could tell these men were confidant of their security – all the easier to be surprised, she thought – by their careless pace. They were obviously not used to others trying to infiltrate them, letting the wastes and mountains dissuade would be interlopers. This worried her somewhat; loose security meant nothing worth taking. That was when she discovered a very tight group of them, perhaps as many as forty, all surrounding one area. These ones held their ground, alert and reactive, standing guard over … what?

The possibilities made her smile. What, indeed?

She stood up from the stone, opening her eyes and casting her gaze to the heavens. She could see it still growing lighter, little by little, but it was starting to slow. That meant it was late morning, and they were still quite a distance over the treacherous foothills. If she was lucky, she could be there by the next morning. That would leave her four days to return. She was going to have to be quick. If they did not have what she needed, there was not enough time to search elsewhere. She grasped the tiny stone carving on her necklace and prayed for good luck, marching across the dust and stone to the settlement in the foothills.

This story is the property of Tyler Clapp, Author (AKA "Cael") Copyright DarkFireGraphics.com