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The Living Stone: Invading the Invaders


Borlan took a long drag off his pipe, and blew the smoke in Wardan’s face. He shook his head, waggling his long, rough, dust-covered beard. “You were gone quite a while boy.”

Wardan kept silent, mostly to avoid breathing in the smoke from the stonegrass Borlan smoked inside his tent.

“It took you three hours to scout. We agreed on one.”

Denrick, a wiry young raider on Wardan’s team, said, “You actually gave him four hours, boss.”

Borlan ignored him. “Should’ve only taken you ten minutes.”

Wardan choked back a retort. It took him an hour just to get to the high cliff. He remained stoic in the face of Borlan’s badgering, but only because the old dwarf would lay into him harder if he said anything. The ridiculousness of Borlan’s feigned expectations was so absurd he actually spent more time trying not to laugh, because then Borlan would really get mad.

“What do you got for us?” Borlan said. “You better have found something with all the extra time you took.”

“I found a camp to the north,” Wardan replied. “It was evident from their fire’s smoke.”

“They keep large fires?” Denrick said incredulously. “They must not have Darcats where they’re from.”

“Or they got some damn good walls,” Borlan said, puffing thoughtfully on his pipe. Wardan could practically feel the vibrations from the grinding rocks tumbling around with the thoughts in Borlan’s head.

“I suggest we break camp immediately and head for this walled camp,” Wardan suggested. “We could make it before morning tomorrow if we march through the night.”

“You don’t really think it’s them, do you?” Denrick asked. “That seems way too easy.”

“No, these are mysterious folk, but their kind ain’t good at hiding,” Borlan said. “They’re used to other people running from them.” He shook his head, a perturbed smile on his face. “That’s an arrogance born o’ pride I ain’t seen in a long time. Pity I only seen it in the grat-sucking, water-blooded, scaremongering foreigners.” He took a long drag on his pipe, blowing the smoke out the side of his mouth. He turned back to Wardan. “North of here is all crags and broken land. You have a …”

“I’ve got a path in mind, don’t worry,” Wardan interrupted, fixing the dwarf with an urgent look. “The sooner we go, the sooner we get these cultists taken care of. I won’t let them threaten us like this and get away with it.”

Borlan considered him for a moment. Finally, he nodded and looked to Denrick. “Get our boys and girls movin’, we leave soon as the camp is down.”

The wiry raider nodded to his superior, exiting the tent and shouting out to the other raiders. Wardan was about to join him when Borlan took hold of his arm.

“You look like there’s something else on yer mind,” Borlan said gruffly. “Do you have anything else to report?”

Wardan hesitated. He was unsure now if his encounter with the wanderer was more dream than reality. He had no proof, and the man had not really given him more than a cryptic warning. Was it even a warning? He barely recalled the exact words, something about his path.

“No, sir,” Wardan responded. “I had a faster trip down the rock than I did going up, if you take my meaning.”

Borlan harrumphed. “If that’s all then,” he said releasing him and waving him away. “Go on and get ready, ye can tell me later.”

Wardan felt his stomach sink, as though he had lied about sneaking food from the larder. He left to attend to the breaking of camp, wondering what had given him away.

Rilea’s steps were soft yet swift, her every movement measured for stealth and speed. She prized quiet as much as stillness in her endeavors, as the art of moving unseen was just as much measured by being unheard. The flowing robe she wore, though dull in color and texture, seemed extravagant or even spiritual at first glance. But it became clear to her early on that ascetic robes not only allowed great range of movement but were perfect for hiding treasures and concealing weapons. These things were paramount to the activities of one who survived on the burdens of others as she did.

Her silent charge took her over broken stone, along empty chasms, and under natural archways where standing stone, thrown up long ago, had collapsed onto other such formations or the ridges of the perilous cliffs of the mountainous terrain of the Rivenwall foothills.

Light made its way through her blindfold slowly, and by her calculations her quarry was not far. She had run all day and into the night, giving herself a mere two hours for rest. She had crossed a great span of dead and broken land, but if she was right about what might wait for her, it would give her plenty of time – three or four days – to find a buyer for her treasures and return home.

A peculiar, acrid aroma tickled her nose, and she slid to a halt over a sloping ravine. In the distance, no less than a horizon away, a billowing blue cloud distinct from the swirling grey mass that shadowed the whole world sat above what appeared to be a settlement. She half-grinned as comprehension seeped into her thoughts. There was not supposed to be any settlements this close to the Rivenwall, where so many wretched predators fed on one another in the shadow of an inhospitable mountain range. At least, no Drakvaldian settlements.

It would seem that her quarry was not only unprepared for thieves, but careless enough to make such a dangerous amount of fire. The sheer defiance of these people to the vicious and uncaring world about them gave her pause; this was not the camp of a brilliant goblin warchief or desperate human raiders from over the wall. Whoever kept these flames proclaimed that they did not fear whatever came to overtake them in the night because of their reckless exploitation of their luxurious fires.

These ones were either overwhelmingly mad or had a reason to be so fearless.

Rilea knew the settlement was close to the mountains, but to be this close and to flaunt their presence must have made them tantalizing prey for the Darcats and even rogue dragons. But judging by their continued existence, they had to have unprecedented security and defenses – which she doubted, from what she sensed of them yesterday. Yet there would need to be something that kept them from the encroachments of the wasteland in their base.

Such a secret might be the only thing they had worth taking. As such it would naturally be in the guarded area she noticed. She grinned self assuredly. Their secret might deter other creatures, but this was one predator they would not easily keep out, and one they would be the least prepared for.

The next few miles were easy going compared to the last twenty hours of travel, and the thief found herself at her goal, overlooking the destination from a ridge on the wall itself a mere few miles away. Nestled almost delicately between several stony outcroppings sat a walled complex, more built up than anything she had seen on the surface elsewhere. There were several structures built out of heavy stone clustered about a section where an immense bonfire burned. Even at a distance her keen vision could see men moving about, doing this duty or that. She frowned when she noticed that the wall was indeed guarded, a watch posted along the wall at persistent intervals. However, she smiled again upon further inspection, noticing that no guard was placed along the back wall, and close as they were to the Rivenwall, she hardly blamed them for the oversight.

The perplexing aroma was significantly stronger here than it was before. She inhaled deeply, tasting and analyzing the smell in her mind, translating it between all her senses. She focused the sensation to her eyes, lifting her blindfold and opening her eyelids a mere sliver. The particles that caused the smell danced in the air, made visible to her unveiled eyes. Their drifting waltz spread in all directions from the center, where the column of smoke from the bonfire swirled with the acidic tang.

Her eyes watered from the sting of the light, the searing energy causing her to wince. She shut her eyes forcefully, and replaced her blindfold. Absently she slid a finger across her closed eyelid, and examined it when she reopened her eyes.

There seemed to be no traces of blood this time. She was fortunate; if she had started to bleed, her attempt would have been forced to wait until the next day while she found a dark place to heal her light-burned eyes.

Whatever repelled the other predators was clearly being emitted by the fire. She determined that she would need to get closer to find out what this reagent was and where they kept it. Her cliff was too high for a freefall, so she began climbing expertly down the rockface, her momentum barely affected from horizontal to vertical travel.

Once at the bottom she lost no impetus, gracefully striding over the rocky hills toward the fortress. Soon she had one hand on the wall of the fortress, sensing the vibrations of the guards up on the walls. None moved for her position, she was in their only blind spot.

Rilea’s other hand slipped into her sleeve, to a bracer with wicked wrist blades that hid within. She wanted to make sure she wasn’t seen, and that meant those guards had to be silenced. After all, what would a predator be without her claws?

The construction of the wall, which was made with blocks of shaped stone rather than carved from the rock itself, made the ascent laughably easy for the thief who was used to managing sheer cliffs with her bare hands. The top of the wall was soon under her feet, as she crouched low against the ramparts, surveying her prey. There were ten guards in all, three each on the east- and west-facing walls and four on the southern wall. None of them expressed more than token vigilance, and they could not be faulted if they did not see this coming.

In movements that mocked the most elegant dancer, she crept along to the west wall. The daylight just only meant that she needed to keep moving, as stopping in one place for too long risked her discovery. Once she reached the edge of her wall, she took a deep breath through her nose, taking in the scent of the guards along the wall, noting the displacement of the air where they stood, judging the swiftest path and all the right angles to strike from. But most importantly, she needed to smell the sharp, dire scent of blood, a frightening aroma that quickened her pulse and excited her muscles, driving her to the level of madness necessary to kill in cold blood.

Thirteen steps to the first one. Now six. Now three, two, one. His pulse was still calm, without fear. With a flick of her wrist across his neck, there would soon be no pulse.

The next one was another eight strides. An upward thrust at the base of his skull stopped his pulse almost immediately. Never breaking stride, she met the third as the first one fell, and he turned just as her claws ripped out his throat.

The blood scent was thick in the air now, and the wet warmth on her hands slid down her fingers, sending a chill down her spine. She sprinted down the southern wall, longer than the other, and the strides became meaningless. Each step was in the perfect place as she ran in silence. Every guard she killed, blithely aware of the sound of bodies dropping further down the wall, turned just in time for her to pierce lung, throat or brain. The seventh turned only fast enough to see her blade coming for his eye, his pulse rushing as the claw drove into his skull.

The last stretch opened up before her and her feet barely registered steps. She drifted along the wall, her wrist blade seeming to move in slow motion. The guards, even slower, watched in horror as she overcame them in rapid succession. The last one was barely able to draw breath enough to scream before her upward thrust slammed his mouth shut, her blade piercing straight through the roof of his mouth and into his brain, freezing his face in a mask of fear.

His blood struck her face, and she winced as though it was acid. She guided his body down slowly and removed the blade from his corpse. Slowly, her senses returned as her focus slipped away and she was overcome with sobering reason. She did not regret it, but neither did it bring her any joy. Death was nothing special in this broken world; everywhere one looked life was sucked into the wasteland as the world struggled to keep itself alive. She killed to live, but only if there was no alternative.

The trance of blood was the only way she could do it. It was not her enemy’s blood that incited such focus, but her own. Fear of her own blood was the only thing she had found that could bring her to kill when the face of her daughter was not near enough to give her courage.

Rilea’s awareness returned in full, she crouched low against the parapets, bringing her senses to bear all around. The deafening sound of her heartbeat made her ears less useful, so she once again turned to the vibrations in the stone. She breathed a sigh of relief when the wall felt dead and still. None of her unfortunate victims had made enough sound that warranted suspicion, but eventually someone would come for those guards and her presence would be alerted, if not her whereabouts. That would make her investigation much harder. She needed to find whatever valuable objects or resources she could and be done with this place.

Her pulse finally quieted, and she focused on the sounds below the defensive wall. The men spoke rarely, and moved with purpose, even if that movement was lax. These men were not the average rowdy, not desperate bandits, and not cunning raiders. They acted like soldiers, disciplined and focused. More than that, even. The cunning rogue knew the sound of reverence, as she knew a few religious fools in her day, seeing as how she was married to one. These men seemed convinced they were doing holy work of some kind; conviction left no room for doubt, pushing away the reason and curiosity one might normally hear in the voice of a man. Whatever it was they sought to do here, she would certainly do best not to get involved.

She turned her attention to the structures and how the men reacted to them. The one nearest to her position along the west wall seemed to be quite big, but very few of these crusaders gave it much credence. Further down the wall she noticed that many men were coming and going from a somewhat smaller building, but their movements around it were casual. Finally, across the yard, a building that was perhaps larger than the first two combined had many dedicated individuals standing about it, and she hesitated slightly. These ones were the few that might have seen her or noticed her work. Why had they not said anything, even now?

She risked a look around the corner. Lifting her blindfold only slightly, she smirked and shook her head at the apparent luck. The ‘guards’ were robed individuals who stood very still, hands together and heads down. These initiates would not have spoken out even if they had noticed her.

She noticed the building they guarded was marked by a symbol painted over the doorway, a ring of flames that surrounded a black glove, fingers pointed downward. Her face screwed up in confusion; many of the old symbols of gods were familiar to her, but this did not look like any of them. But the glove stayed in her mind, as though it was somehow evocative of a warning in a dream long ago.

She dropped her blindfold back down, her powerful eyes penetrating the cloth so she might view as any other human would. Movement by the first, middle sized structure gathered her attention, and a man who still wore the robes of a novice exited bearing a bundle that she could not ascertain. She watched as he moved, as though she was a Darcat ready to pounce on its prey. The novice broke off a piece of his bundle as he walked up to the fire, and while standing near the flames he tossed the chunk into the inferno. Bit by bit the burden he bore was torn to pieces and fed into the flames.

At first this struck Rilea as odd, but then the smell she had witnessed before began to swell in the air again. Seemingly satisfied that enough was enough, the novice returned to the building with the rest of the fuel, and when he exited the object was no longer in his possession.

Rilea grinned. Whatever kept the animals away, it was in that building, possibly along with any other resources she might get a price for. No, to hell with selling it, she could keep her own village safe for quite some time with that substance, and might even give them enough space to begin the plans for tilling. Whatever else she found; she resolved that no matter the price that this precious stuff was worth way more to her than the gold it might fetch.

Rilea clutched the stone carving on her necklace through the robe, in an almost reverent way. Assessing the safety and surreptitiousness of her maneuvers, she climbed down off the wall and affixed her being to the structure she guessed was some kind of storehouse. She did not want to risk entering through the front door in broad daylight; she was fast but it would be obvious even to the most astute observer. But was there even another way inside? The occupants of storehouses rarely needed things like light and breath, so windows were not always available. But if she was right in her guessing, this was not always the place it was now, and this was perhaps the most useful place for them to put things.

The side that faced the outer wall bore no aperture, but quick inspection of the south side revealed a large window, low enough to climb through. However that side also happened to face the doors of the barracks across the compound, as well as the only entrance from the outer wall, which was heavily guarded. She obviously had other ways out, but they posed a threat now with so many that could look in her direction. What she needed now was a distraction.

A ruckus outside, only audible to her and those close to the gate it seemed, caused the contingent at the gate to bring there attention beyond the outer wall. Cries of “He’s dead!” rang in her ears, and she smiled at the irony. The dead guards she hoped were not found earlier were the means for her to infiltrate the storehouse. One must have fallen over the side of the wall, precariously positioned perhaps after her slaughter.

She did not waste time. Darting around the corner she swung herself in through the open window, blade out just in case. As she thought, no one was inside. The cautious thief whipped around and sealed the shutters quietly, her vision clear even in near darkness.

There were a great manner of useful things laying about in the storehouse, but too many were ponderous to carry or required a container. She helped herself to their extra water supplies, filling her two waterskins from their stacked jugs of the life-giving liquid. The curious bundles she saw being burned were not far from the water, and she paused a moment to identify them.

Her eyes became wide when she touched it. Wood! In such prodigious quantities too! She had seen trees, as she lived in one of the few areas left that could sustain even meager plant-life. But her home could never support enough trees to make this much of the rigid, porous substance.

Also, this selection of plant was very different from what she knew. It seemed to breathe, as though it was still green. The bark had been stripped, but she could feel the sticky wetness of sap along it. Curious about the treasure before her, she dabbed some up with her finger and brought it to her nose. A strange tang suffused the sweet smelling liquid, which only drove her inquisitiveness. Tentatively, she touched her tongue to the strange sap.

She retched almost immediately, as if the sap was rotten. It was, in fact, very pure. The tang was telling now, and she gasped for breath as she fought against the instinct of fear and focus. The sap of these trees was so alive, so desperately alive, that it very nearly tasted of blood.

She dropped the piece she held, the pieces of a greater puzzle falling into relief. These cultists became more vile and wicked to her as she wiped her hand off frantically. Even so, any thoughts she had of killing more of them on her way out were ushered away by the realization of the kind of monsters she was dealing with.

She turned to leave, ready to be rid of these savages, only to be confronted by a woman dressed in crimson leathers, who entered through the window as she had. A sword with a blade as wide as her hip seemed to dance in this woman’s hand, and her eyes related a madness and fervor that quickly drained the blood from Rilea’s face. No word was spoken, and the impossible sword’s flat side came up to meet Rilea’s temple.

Wardan crouched low behind the jutting stone face that separated his team and him from the vigilant eyes they presumed were already upon them, trying to make out the defenses of the walled fortress three hundred paces north of them. The Raiders had done this sort of thing before, and more than one time they were caught unaware because they assumed no one had seen them. Those unfortunate scenarios also involved mere bandits and thieves, not fanatical cultists.

The four other young people behind him waited patiently on his orders as he took stock of their situation. Loka, Nellik, Grifthilgas, and Denrick were the usual roster Wardan took lead of, the advance team of the Norheim Raiders. Each one was Borlan’s hand picked master of their field. Loka was the fastest runner and possibly the sneakiest person Wardan ever met. Nellik was a brilliantly tactical, and always had a plan even if he didn’t have a good sword arm. Grifthalgas, Grif in short, was like a Dwarven siege weapon all by himself, anything in his hands was capable of killing someone. Denrick, Wardan’s oldest friend, had excellent eyes for detail, and his sling bullets could put a hole in a goblin’s skull from a hundred paces.

Wardan just happened to be Gifted, and only did his best as a soldier to keep up with his friends. Why they let him lead was beyond him.

“What kind of place is that?” Denrick said, poking his head up above their rocky cover.

“That’s a fortress,” Grif said, his voice smooth and low. “Dwarves used ta make ‘em. Must’ve dug it out from the wastes, no more stand like that.”

Wardan shook his head. “Yeah, they haven’t been here long enough to build a place like that. Maybe whatever’s inside they built or fixed, but this place looks ancient.”

Nellik peaked over the wall. “I see what you mean,” he affirmed. “I can just barely make out the blocks from here.” He half smiled, somewhat dreamily. Wardan left him to his thoughts, knowing that interrupting him would only delay the inevitable plan.

“We should keep it for ourselves when we kill these guys,” Loka said, a greedy glint in her eyes. “There’s no point in letting a place so useful go unused.”

“A second base might be nice,” Denrick said, elbowing Wardan. “We should run that by the boss.”

“Let’s focus on getting those cultists out first, raiders,” Wardan reminded them. He looked back over to Nellik. “Nel, got any ideas?”

Nellik returned his gaze, his eyes reflecting a sly sheen. “The main gate’s a joke. We could easily break through. But since the inside is mostly unknown to us and they may have the advantage of numbers, we’ll need to draw them out. Then we cut off their main force and fight them on two fronts.”

Wardan nodded. “Sounds good. Sounds simple, actually.”

“In theory,” Nellik said, the sharpness in his gaze intensifying. “We need a diversion first, or they just stay holed up behind their wall and wait us out.”

Wardan frowned. There were a number of ways they could do that, of course, but nothing that guaranteed their curiosity or animosity. He looked back at the fortress, and noticed the blue smoke swirling up from their camp. His lips turned up as he thought of what these zealots might think of an even bigger fire.

“Loka, signal Borlan to move up to us. We need to talk.”

Borlan guffawed when Wardan told the old dwarf his plan. “You don’t think you are going to get what you’re asking for, do you boy?”

“I was hoping,” Wardan said, sighing. “This should work, if you let me use it.”

“We’re talking about my legacy, son,” Borlan growled, crossing his arms. “No way is it gonna be used in such a … a demeaning way.”

Wardan stood his ground. “If this works, it could mean keeping these madmen away from us and maybe even kicking them out of Drakvald.”

Borlan crossed his arms, and narrowed his eyes. “You do realize that we don’t have the resources to make more. This is not the last of it, but there’s not much more.”

Wardan tried to put on a very sympathetic face. “This is the only bit of it I’ll need. I lament its use in this way as much as you.”

Borlan studied the young man’s face for a short time, before his visage lightened and he nodded reluctantly. “Ye know where it is. Now go do your job. Just see to it that it is not wasted.”

“None of it shall be for naught, sir.” Wardan said, suppressing his smile. “Keep an eye on our position, you might get to see what we have planned.”

A few moments later, he walked back to the other members of his team, a large wooden keg in his arms. Nellik narrowed his eyes and frowned in curiosity. Grif and Denrick glanced over from the pile of kindling they were stacking and stared curiously.

Nellik spoke first. “Is that what I think it is?”

Wardan winked. “It’s a surprise. I hope the fire is ready.”

“Doing the best we can,” Denrick shrugged. “We got what we could from the camp, but we’re not going to last long.”

“As long as it’s good and hot, it will burn as long as we need it to,” Wardan assured him, slapping the keg. “All we need is for them to notice us.”

“What if no one sees it?” Denrick asked, stacking another rotten stick on the pile.

“Then they’ll sure hear it,” Wardan said. “Then they’ll at least notice the other smokestack.”

Nellik’s eyes widened. “I think I know what that is. Now how did you get Borlan to part with it?”

Before Wardan could answer, Leda bounded back into camp. “The others are in position to trap the prey, and a few more will back us up on this side.” She caught sight of the keg. “How’s that going to help? That’s still not enough wood.”

“Appearances can be deceiving,” Nellik told her. “Wardan has done well with this plan.”

“We ain’t gonna make this much bigger, tough guy,” Grif told Wardan.

The young captain hefted the keg. “Light it up, and get to cover or a safe distance. I’ll put this in when you’re all set.”

Grif took out his knife and a piece of flint, and after a few expert strikes, the meager pile of flammables ignited. Wardan nodded and motioned for the others to get away. Grif saluted tersely before collecting the others and herding them away. Once they were far enough gone, Wardan stepped up to the fire and dropped the keg in the middle. Once he was sure it was lit, he took off as fast as he could. He dove to the ground after counting to ten, and covered his head.

The thunderous blast from the explosion shook Wardan’s entire body, and the blast of heat on his back told him he had only narrowly escaped a fiery fate. He had apparently underestimated the power of the keg’s contents.

He stood up, dusting of his singed clothes and looked back toward the blasted remains of the fire pit. He cringed when he thought what that keg might have done in the wrong hands. Turning back toward his friends, he could see their surprise clearly from his distance. Grinning, he loped over to their cover.

“What in the name of the night was that?” Denrick shouted as his captain ran toward him. Grif stood laughing and pointing, amused to no end by the carnage. Loka sat against the rock, rubbing her ears to stop the ringing. Nellik surveyed the damage from the blast, his face a look of dismay.

“Just something that Borlan and I brought from the city,” Wardan hinted.

Nellik raised an eyebrow. “No doubt for celebrating with later.”

Loka looked at him curiously. “Who would celebrate with something so dangerous?”

“It’s not so dangerous when you drink it,” Wardan told her, grinning. “Old fashioned Dwarven ale has a good deal of practical uses.”

Grif started laughing harder.

Loka peered over the stone, and grinned. “Looks like it wasn’t wasted. There’s some activity at the gate. We got someone to look this way at least.”

“Well, all that’s left is to wait and see how interested we made them,” Wardan said, crouching down behind the wall with Loka. The rest of the group followed suit, their eyes on their distant foes as they made their move.

Minutes rich with anticipation wandered past, but the raiders, dedicated to their work, were patient. They would have waited for days if they had to. If it meant the safety of Norheim, all the raiders would have simply waited out the intruders. But soon enough, a large contingent of armed guards poured out of the fortress gate, streaming toward the site of the alcohol induced explosion.

When the curious contingent was out far enough, Wardan raised his sword up high, the agreed upon signal. The fifteen other raiders positioned behind them got out of hiding and began hollering, waving their weapons about and throwing stones toward the cultists. Wardan’s group did their part as well, and Denrick let fly a few sling stones, being careful to hit with only one or two.

The confused guards began to strike back, charging at the raiders. Wardan waited until they were close enough, their bluff nearly complete. It was time for the second signal.

“For the Living City!” Wardan roared. He leaped out from behind his cover, sword drawn and starting the charge. Grif and Loka followed while Denrick started aiming true and Nellik drew his bow, firing with wicked accuracy. The other raiders followed suit, charging out from their cover. The guard was startled by the sudden ferocity, but there were three cultists for every raider, and they stood their ground. Even though the cultists were more numerous, the skill and tenacity of the raiders left them on just about even ground.

Until Borlan’s twenty other raiders began their charge.

Out from behind the stony outcropping much closer to the fortress, Borlan’s group lay in wait, expertly hidden and ready for Wardan’s signal. When the first group had the enemy’s attention, they burst out of cover and closed in on the battle.

The guards were caught completely unaware by the feint. Borlan’s flanking assault charged in ruthlessly, devastating the enemy force from behind. In a few minutes the last of the guards lay dead on the ground. Only a few of the raiders had been wounded, and even they fought on till the end.

“Fine work, raiders!” Borlan cried, lifting his stone maul high. “Now let’s bring the fight to the fort, and see if we can’t teach these bastard sons of Darcats that they can’t just threaten us and get away with it!”

The raiders all cheered, waving their weapons in the air. Wardan looked around, checking on his team. Grif’s weapon had been lost and his hands were slick with the blood of many cultists. Denrick was over with Loka, who pouted as Denrick applied bandages to her wounds. He looked last at Nellik, who seemed to be deducing something. That was always worth investigation.

“What’s on your mind?” Wardan asked as he approached Nellik’s cover.

Nellik glanced up over at the fortress. “It’s just a bad feeling. They should have sent more reinforcements by now.”

Wardan shrugged. “Maybe this was all they had.”

“Which seems a little small, don’t you think?” Nellik said, his eyes piercing right through his captain. “If this is all the guards they could spare, then I doubt very much that this is their full invasion force. They could be sending more, but it is much more likely that the rest are simply elsewhere.”

Wardan frowned as he digested his news. “Regardless, we’ve got to take this fort back from them, especially if there are more camps. This is the first step.”

Nellik closed his eyes, conceding the point. “Then I have a fair idea of what we should do next.”

Wardan considered him. “We’re prepared to charge, that should do it. I don’t think any fancy maneuvers will be necessary.”

Nellik flashed him a smile. “You heard him, Borlan wants to show them we aren’t to be trifled with. We’ll show them alright. Tell Borlan to charge at the front gate, with half the forces. Send the other half along with yourself to the eastern wall.

“There’s no gate on that side,” Wardan argued.

Nellik clapped him on the shoulder. “You, my friend, don’t need a gate to get in.”

Rilea woke to the sound of a heartbeat not her own. She tried to move her arms and legs, only to find them bound tightly. She sat in a chair, her hands behind her back. The room around her was lit, though dimly, and the door must have been behind her because she did not see it.

“A little blind mouse wandered into my storeroom, and I didn’t have the heart to kill it,” a honey sweet wicked voice whispered, closer than Rilea had expected. “I thought I’d play with it a while first.”

She whipped her head in the direction of the voice, to see the woman in crimson leathers sitting in another chair barely four feet away. Focusing on her details through the blindfold, she made out that the woman had a patch over one eye and brown hair that was short and neatly trimmed. The smell of blood and steel haunted her, and the madness behind her eye sent chills all over Rilea’s body.

“We will play a little game now,” the woman said, standing up. “It’s so easy to play. I ask you a question and you answer it. If you give me an answer I like, I’ll put a notch on the wall. If your answer fails to amuse me, I’ll break a bone for every notch.” She grinned eagerly. “And there’s so many bones to break.”

Rilea remained silent. This woman was decidedly demented, and there was no guarantee that a true answer would satisfy her. Still, she remained calm. There was no reason to fight at this point. She needed to wait until the time was right.

“So little mouse, what is your name?” The woman asked, stroking Rilea’s cheek.

Rilea barely twitched. “Rilea.”

The woman grinned again. She walked over to the wall, dug her fingernail into the stone and scratched a notch. The blood-curdling screech of her nail on the stone was almost too much for the sensory augmented woman to handle.

“That’s better,” the woman cooed. “Your poor mousey ears must be so sensitive.”

Rilea steeled herself, taking a deep breath. She dulled her hearing as much as she could, but still dreaded the next question.

“Rilea is a beautiful name,” she said. “Do you want to know my name?”

“Your name is scum for all I care,” Rilea said without thinking, remembering what she found in the storeroom. She knew what her words would bring, but she knew now that any answer would bring pain.

The woman laughed. Rilea was shocked when her nail dug in for a second scratch. Even dampening her senses as much as she could, the sickening screech made her ears throb and head pound.

“My name is Kessina,” she said absently. “But you can call me scum, if it makes you feel better.”

Rilea couldn’t tell is she was being serious, but her head ached too much to try and read the woman’s intentions.

“You’re a fast killer, Rilea,” Kessina continued, gazing dreamily around the room. “You managed to get up to the wall with no one catching you and slew all the guards at once. You must do it a lot,” she said, and snapped her eyes down at her prisoner. “Are you Gifted as well, Rilea?”

“You could call it that,” Rilea groaned, her head feeling ready to split.

“You dare belittle the power that Everlast has bestowed on you, rat?” the woman roared, putting her face right next to Rilea’s. “You were chosen by paradise, and you think these powers are a curse?”

Rilea winced from her close proximity, her hot breath seared her face and filled her nostrils with the scent of death. She dared not to say anything, but could hear the woman’s pulse rising.

“I’ll teach you to see your blessing!” Kessina hissed, clenching one hand into a fist and drawing back, aiming for her ribs. Rilea braced herself, wondering how much more a broken rib would hurt and prayed she did not bleed.

“Lady Kessina!” a voice cried from behind Rilea. The door behind her opened up, and she sensed that a man stood in the frame.

Kessina glared at him. “What do you want, soldier?” she growled. “I’m in the middle of interrogation.”

“The heathen raiders are here,” he explained. “Their men are at the gate as we speak!”

Kessina considered his words, and relaxed her arm. “It seems you are lucky little mouse. There are hounds at the door, and their baying is far more interesting than watching you squeak and squirm.” She picked up her sword that was leaning against the wall. To the man she said, “Keep an eye on this one, she might try to get away, and I’m not done with her yet.”

“Before you leave, answer me this, Kessina,” Rilea demanded. “Where did you get that wood from, with sap so alive that it smells of blood?”

Kessina grinned. “My, but you do know how to find the right treasures, my little thief.”

“They are not treasures,” Rilea said, emotion gripping her voice. “They are sacred, and must not be disturbed.”

“It sounds like you already know where we found them,” Kessina said sweetly. “You might even know where we can find more, then.”

Rilea’s throat seized up, the horror of her situation becoming much more clear. Kessina walked away, and the guard stepped back outside and closed the door. Rilea felt her blindfold grow wet as tears of anger and fear rolled down her cheeks.

Wardan approached the wall, hearing the sounds of battle from around the corner. Nellik’s plan made sense, but Wardan didn’t much care for letting other people fight while he snuck around; that was Loka’s favorite job. But he just had to wait a little longer and he would be fighting right alongside his comrades.

“At your will, captain,” Nellik said, standing with the other raiders not far from the wall.

“Just stand back,” Wardan said, waving them away. “I don’t know how sound this wall is. The whole thing might come down on us.”

Nellik nodded and motioned for the other raiders to back away. They all moved back another twenty paces or so, and Nellik followed suit.

Wardan turned back to the wall, and set is mind to the task. If he placed his strike carefully, he could do it in one punch. He looked around the base of the wall, and found a minor crack just to the left of the center. It was somewhat risky, he could break easier here but there was more of a chance that he would be buried in stone. He did not need that twice in one day.

He looked back to Nellik and the other raiders. Nellik nodded, his faith giving Wardan a little boost of confidence.

The Gifted captain leaned back, winding up for a punch. He stopped just before swinging, an idea slipping in at the last moment. He stood back several paces, and drew his sword. He would never break the wall with his blade; he’d snapped it doing less. But if his plan worked, he’d need to be ready right away.

Wardan ran at the wall, charging right at the crack and ramming his shoulder into it at full speed. His dash sent him right through the wall, and he stumbled through a cloud of stone dust on the other side. He barely made out a building to his left, and could just see the front gate, where several guards more what they figured were left fought against the force at the gate. A few of the soldiers stared at the man who just ran through the wall.

He heard Nellik signal the charge, and wasted no time charging in. The first guard he found stood his ground, readying his sword to block Wardan’s way. It was a well executed parry, but it dawned on him that he should have dodged instead as Wardan’s blade sliced right through his, cutting down through his shoulder. Two more men rushed to meet him, and they thrust with the coordination borne out of weeks of practice. Wardan merely swept his sword across, brushing their strikes away like they were blades of grass. He followed through on his momentum with a punch that picked the first man off his feet and bowled him into his friend.

About this time, Nellik and the other men came pouring through the gap in the wall, charging up to their captain’s position and engaging the guard. Nellik stood back, firing arrows with strategic efficiency.

“Wardan! We have this covered, go do some real damage elsewhere!” Nellik shouted.

Wardan nodded, disengaging his latest foe. The persistant guard started to give chase, but he toppled over an instant later with one of Nellik’s arrows stuck in his chest.

Looking around, Wardan took note of the structures within the wall. A barracks, a storehouse, and some kind of temple were before him. The barrack would likely be empty, and the storehouse could wait. The temple would likely be the best place to start. He ran over and barged in, looking for a fight.

Within the main chamber there stood dozens of people in heavy robes, facing the opposite wall, their hands together. An altar stood where they all looked, where a symbol similar to the one above the door but made of a black metal rested. Not one of them moved at his noisy entrance, and their stillness gave him pause. There was a wicked feeling in the air that set the hairs on his neck on end. He approached one slowly and tried to look at the person’s face.

The woman beneath the hood had her eyes closed and her mouth moved in silence. Wardan stood confused for a moment when he felt something familiar at the altar. Where did he know this from?

He recalled the wicked red light from his dream, and shivered as he felt the air in the room filling with something more than air.

Whatever was going on, he needed to put a stop to it. Sword in hand, he approached the altar. Lifting his sword above his head he brought it down with as much force as he could muster on the unholy artifact, shattering the brittle metal.

A high pitch keen rippled through the air, and a sickening feeling wracked Wardan’s body.

“Oh dear, you figured it out. I suppose our meeting will have to wait. I can’t let the Nameless Fool’s new pet get away with this insult, can I?”

Wardan shook his head, the voice still echoing inside long after it was gone. A cacophony behind him grabbed his attention, and he turned to see all of the robed figures fallen to the ground. He couldn’t say what had just transpired, but he was sure he did the right thing.


There was only one door out of the main worship chamber, and it led to a hall that stretched in both directions. To his right a startled young guard drew his sword nervously. Wardan stood in the middle of the hall and shook his head, waving a finger at him.

The frightened guard dropped his blade and fell to his knees.

“Smart,” Wardan said. “What are you doing in here, anyway?”

The guard looked to the door not far from where he knelt. Wardan walked up to the door, taking his eyes off the prostrate guard. The guard started to crawl away, hoping to escape the man before him. Wardan gently but firmly placed his foot on the man’s leg, a quiet reminder of his fate. The guard stopped moving, obedient of Wardan’s silent command.

He pushed open the door, revealing a dark room with nothing in it but a chair, a woman bound in ropes sitting upon it.

“Who’s this?” Wardan asked, and the woman perked up immediately.

“She’s … she’s just a thief we caught in the storeroom,” the guard stuttered.

Wardan frowned. “Are you alright, miss?”

She said nothing. “You can trust me,” Wardan said, grabbing the guard by his tunic and dragging him into the room with him. The raider captain took a better look at the woman, who kept her slick black hair in a ponytail and had a red blindfold over her eyes.

“Here let me get that for you,” he said, reaching for the blindfold.

“Please don’t!” she said, twisting away from him.

Wardan blinked. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“I can see you just fine, leave it there,” she insisted.

Wardan scoffed. “You can see fine, huh? What color are my eyes, then?”

She looked right at him, her mouth a smirk. “Your eyes are green, your hair is red, and you need a shave.”

The raider captain laughed. “Very well then, I won’t touch the blindfold.” He took out a small knife and quickly cut her bonds.

“Thank you raider,” she said, rubbing her wrists and getting to her feet.

“Call me Wardan,” he said, reaching down and slugging the guard unconscious. “We’re just here for the Destructors, but there’s no reason you can’t come along when we’re done, miss.”

“It’s Rilea.” The woman reached into her voluminous sleeves, and pulled out a set of wrist blades, strapping them to her arm. “I’ll be fine on my own, but I will help with these cultists before I go.”

Wardan noted the hint of anger in her voice. If he didn’t know any better this thief had a damn good reason for being here. Still, he nodded, leading her out of the room. Together they left the temple, exiting into the courtyard.
The battle had spread further as the raiders pushed in, and Wardan very nearly walked into the swinging blade of a fellow raider. Rilea peered around, as though searching for someone in particular. Wardan wondered what happened to her that she needed a blindfold to cover her eyes. Even more interesting, how did she see so clearly through it?

Her head snapped to the left, and Wardan followed where she seemed to look. It was actually fairly easy to see what she noticed, a single cultist, dressed in flashy red leathers and wielding a broad, long sword, stood at the front line of the fighting. Her devastating sword cut deep into the raiders’ ranks, and her movements were swift and sudden, contorting her form in distracting and erratic ways. She was impossible to catch and hit like a boulder rolling down off the Rivenwall.

“Looks like I’ve got my job,” Wardan said, striding toward the cultist and engaging from the eastern side, where the raiders he led in still fought and gained ground. He cut a swath through the ranks of the cultists, making his way to the red-clad woman.

His new companion, however, found her own way to the goal. With grace and agilty, she wove and dodged her way through the main body of the cultists, taking a more or less direct path to the gate. Cultist guards fell in her wake, throats slit or guts cut open by her deadly claw bracer.

They both reached the woman warrior in moments. When she noticed the two new arrivals, her face contorted in fiendish glee. “So much blood! So many bones to break! I haven’t been so thrilled in months!” Her eyes narrowed and her smile seemed to grow more twisted. “You are not chaff like the rest, are you boy? I can’t wait to hear your ribcage break!” Her sword lashed out for him like the tail of a dragon.

“Lady, if you manage to break any bone of mine you deserve a medal!” He made his point by blocking her blade with his arm, feeling the vibration but not much else. Her eyes grew wide when he did not collapse on her strike, and by the number of raiders strewn about the ground he guessed she had a good reason to expect that outcome. He countered with his own blade, swinging a wide arc at her midsection.

Somehow her legs were suddenly high up overhead, and her booted foot came crashing down between his eyes. His world spun from the well placed kick, and he stumbled back, still trying to figure out how she had moved that way. Loka was fairly flexible and if she tried that move she wouldn’t be able to walk for a week.

The woman’s impossible sword flashed out at him and he barely had time to dodge it before it came again, driving him away. Again and again her heavy blade whipped out like it was weightless in her hand, setting Wardan back on his heels. He dared not try to parry her swings, his sword barely held together under his own strength. Her momentum was building, and a strike in the right place might imbalance him and he would never be able to retaliate.

In a sudden shift of direction, her blade caught Wardan’s face with such force that it tore a scratch in his normally impervious skin. The force of the blow sent him spinning to the ground, and even if he wanted to parry her next strike, he couldn’t as his sword had somehow left his grip. Her eyes mad with bloodlust, her blade raised high over her head for a strike that was definitely going to ruin his day.

It was then that she doubled over, surprise and rage etched in her face. Rilea stood behind her, and three tiny blade tips piercing through the leather around the crazed woman’s stomach.

“Careless bitch,” Rilea hissed. “This is for all the groves you destroyed!”

A curious smile appeared on the woman’s face. “Who cares about groves? We will make the world again with the glory of paradise!” She turned with the claws still protruding from her belly, ripping her own stomach out and swinging viciously at Rilea, so stunned by her insane maneuver that she barely missed dodging a strike that would have cut her skull in half.

She was not fast enough to avoid having the tip of the blade tear her blindfold away.

Rilea screamed in pain as the light burned at her eyes. She placed her hands over her face, and dropped down to the ground writhing in agony.

Wardan expected the psychotic woman to follow suit with her stomach cut open, but watched as her wounds knit themselves together with a sickening slurp.

“That’s quite the gift,” Wardan said.

“You are an excellent specimen as well,” she said, raising her sword again. “Too bad you must die.”

Her blade came crashing down, but Wardan was in a better position now. Instead of going for his sword and parrying, he simply launched an uppercut right into her blade midswing. There was an ear-splitting crack, and her weapon crumpled as his fist slammed right through it and into her chin. So strong was his punch that she was lifted right off the earth, and sent flying off into the crowd of raiders.

He heard some cheers from the raiders’ side, but paid them no mind, and they charged past him to the ranks of the cultists. Considering the pace at which the raiders were pushing the cultist warriors, he wouldn’t make it back to the front line before the fight was over. He instead stepped over to Rilea’s spot when they had passed, where he thought she was crying. He reconsidered when he didn’t see her sobbing, and noticed that what he thought was tears was blood pouring from her eyes.

“What the hell? Rilea, what happened?” Wardan asked, putting a hand on her shoulder.

“The bitch caught my blindfold with her sword,” she said through her hands. “I was only uncovered for a second, but that’s all it takes.” she explained, reaching over for her blindfold, which she had no problem finding. Wardan guessed that she was gifted as well, and she had more than one way to see.

“Can you walk?” he asked.

She seemed disgusted by his words, and she shrugged off his hand and removed her hands from her eyes to replace her blindfold. For just a moment, Wardan made out her very beautiful features through the dried blood on her face.

“I don’t need your help.” She stood up, and readjusted her bracer. “I need to leave, I’ve wasted enough time as it is.”

“I can’t let you go, I’m afraid,” Wardan said firmly. She regarded him with confusion. “You seem to know what they were doing here, and my boss would like to hear the account you have to give on these freaks. I’m sure you understand, the safety of our home is at stake.”

At first she seemed ready to run right then and there, but her stance changed when she reached up and put a hand to her chest. Her fingers closed around something beneath the fabric of her robe, and she seemed to pray silently. “Fine, Raider Wardan. I’ll stay, but only if you can spare a few men to help me with my problems. Fair is fair.”

Wardan grinned. “That’s it? You saved my life back there; I’ll see to whatever you need myself.”

She smirked again, bemused. “Touching, brave warrior, but I must warn you that I already have a family. I hardly need another one.”

Wardan snapped his fingers. “Drat. I guess I’ll just court one of the dwarven women that have been giving me eyes.”

Rilea laughed at the unexpected joke. Wardan guessed by her expression that she rarely enjoyed such frivolous activity. Not many people did, he guessed. The wasteland had drained the spirit of most for far too long for there to be much humor left in the world.

He couldn’t help but think that Rilea’s delighted laugh made that wasteland much more bearable.

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