Thorlin struggled forward, the marble floor beneath him hard and unforgiving; he felt weak and cold. Blood covered his face and chest, most of it his own. He had tried… tried to protect the Dragonstone. He fought them, but he was not strong enough to do his duty.
Ilerya, Goddess of Light, had to understand and could not condemn his soul to eternal torment; he had tried. His blood-crusted hand clutched for his pendant, the image of Ilerya’s shimmering face emblazoned on the circle of sliver. His groping fingers fell short as one last gasp of breath rushed from his lungs.
* * *
Roland squinted, the bright summer sun blinding him as he walked through golden fields of wheat. He wore a white tunic and leather pants; his armor was packed away in the satchel he carried on his back. His sword rested comfortably on his hip. His steps were light and agile without the heavy armor weighing him down.
A well-worn dirt path came into view. Just a small break in the endless grass, but he stopped and stared at the brown, dusty soil as if it were a snake. He ran his hands through his dark-blond hair, a surge of nervous anticipation running through his body. He was home.
Home. It was a dim memory of safety and warmth. He barely remembered his village. His father died when he was twelve, and his mother, Mira, could not feed all of them. Roland, the eldest, took it upon himself to leave; that was sixteen years ago.
In all that time, the village of Veltin had not changed. Memories came flooding back to Roland as he walked. Everything was the same. The path still ran next to the Cold River inn, and the elders still gathered in front of it, trading tales of times long past. The village even smelled the same, a mixture of green, growing grass and freshly baked bread.
“Ho there, good sir. What brings you to Veltin?” a soft female voice called.
A young woman in an apron appeared from the side of the inn. She carried a large bucket of water that sloshed to the side as she walked. Her hair was jet-black, and she looked familiar to Roland, but he had no name to put with her face.
“I seek Mira, the weaver. And her sons, Thorlin and Daemon,” Roland replied.
“Oh… I am sorry for your loss. If you hurry to the cemetery you might catch the end of the ceremony.”
“Ceremony? What ceremony?” Roland asked, the words coming out in a rush.
“You haven’t heard? It was her son, Thorlin. He was killed.”
“What? How?” Shock washed over Roland, robbing him of his excitement. It did not seem possible. He remembered Thorlin as nothing more than child, barely able to walk. Now he was dead.
“Thorlin was a priest in the temple of Ilerya. Some raiders came to rob it of the Dragonstone. He died defending it.”
“No.” Roland whispered.
“Roland? Is that you?” the girl asked, staring at him.
Roland ignored her, and sprinted through the village, his mind rebelling against the thoughts that raced through it. He should have been here to protect them! A lump formed in Roland’s throat, but he forced the emotions down. Little Thorlin could not be dead, he could not be, it had to be some kind of mistake. Veltin never changed; it was a backwater village, completely unimportant in every way. Who would want to rob the temple of its worthless relics?
Roland stopped, panting for breath at the entrance to the cemetery. Hunched figures cloaked in black stood around an open grave, as a priest of Ilerya stood over it, chanting as he shoveled dirt into the hole. The ceremony was over.
“Mother? Daemon?” Roland called hoarsely.
“Roland!” a tear-soaked voice replied, and one of the black-cloaked figures lifted its head. She ran to him, her arms wide.
Roland felt his chin begin to quiver, and the tears slid down his face. It was his mother. She looked so old. He remembered a vibrant middle-aged lady, with a caring smile and a gentle hand. He barely recognized this hunched, gray-haired woman.
Roland wrapped his arms around her. She collapsed against his shoulder, weeping and sobbing. He gripped her tight, wishing he could give a portion of his strength to her.
“I’m here, mother. I’m here,” Roland said.
“They killed him. They took him from us,” she said, barely able to speak.
Roland held his mother and matched her tears with his own. His chest ached with grief; this was not how he imagined his homecoming. After several long moments he felt something cold and hard come to life in his chest.
“They’ll pay for it. I swear by Eldan, God of Vengeance, that they will pay.” Roland’s hand reached down, caressing the hilt of his sword as he spoke. He smiled mirthlessly as he felt Eldan’s magic binding him to his Oath of Vengeance.
* * *
Roland crouched next to the burned-out fire. The coals were still a little warm. They had missed them only by hours.
“I don’t know what you think you can do. It isn’t as if you’re a Scent Wizard, or a Haldorian Guard,” Daemon said from behind him.
“Actually, I am part of the Haldorian Order,” Roland replied in a detached voice, as he calculated how long ago the raiders had left.
“You expect me to believe that? That you left Veltin and they just let you in the Haldorian Guard? You protected the King?”
“No. Mostly I just hunted down criminals. They only let the veterans guard the King.”
Daemon shook his head and walked away to lean against a tree. Roland did not know why he had permitted his middle brother to take the Oath of Eldan and come along. Though they shared the same impressive height and thick muscular frame, it was apparent to Roland within moments that Daemon would not be able to defeat a kitten in a fight.
Daemon strode around with a puffed-up chest and a chip on his shoulder. He was a bully, plain and simple. One who used his size to intimidate others, from the way he acted Roland guessed that he had never had to truly fight anyone.
A rotting, brown-green hand burst from the soil at Roland’s feet. Its nails clawed deep into his calf, tearing out a chunk of flesh. Roland yelped, leaping back, and drew his sword. Daemon stared in wide-eyed amazement.
A decaying human figure pulled its way from the soft earth. Another hand thrust up next to it. Roland felt a shiver of fear run down his spine. What manner of men were they chasing?
Roland slashed at the walking corpse, and a thick, putrescent liquid sprayed through the air. The creature did not seem to feel the wound. It moaned a low, throaty gasp. Roland stepped back, fear churning inside of him.
The monster surged forward. Its hands slashed toward Roland, the broken, brown nails deeply scratching his arm. Roland snarled at the monstrosity, and swung his blade at its neck with all his strength. The creature’s head flipped through the air, rolling away.
Roland turned to face the other ghoul. Daemon had it pinned to the ground, as he swung a large rock at its head. The revenant’s teeth snapped at Roland’s brother, and its hands clawed at him. Roland ran forward, thrusting his sword into the monster’s chest. He stabbed it again and again, as Daemon pounded its skull with the rock.
The creature stopped moving, it magical life finally torn from its body by their efforts. Daemon continued to bash the monster for a few minutes, grunting and snarling like an animal.
“What manner of beast is this?” Daemon said after a long while, his voice stuttering as he gasped for air.
“A necromancer’s work,” Roland said, trying to keep his voice calm. He could not let Daemon see how much the creatures had shaken his resolve.
“Necromancers? But they’re just stories, told to frighten children.”
“Daemon, look at them! What else could it be? Help me don my armor. I have a long dagger in my pack you can carry. We have to be ready for anything.”
* * *
The next evening they lay face down in the underbrush, staring down at the raiders’ camp. There were fifteen of them; ten wore black armor, the others wore the robes of some priestly sect.
Daemon had remained silent the entire day, just staring into space and fingering the hilt of the long dagger. Roland was worried about him.
“We’ll wait until nightfall to attack,” Roland whispered. “Once some of them have gone to sleep, that is when we’ll make our move.”
“Are you suicidal? We are outnumbered eight to one.”
“We came for vengeance. If you can’t do your duty, then return home like the petulant child you are.”
Daemon’s eyes flashed angrily in the half-light of the setting sun. His hand darted to the dagger’s hilt in an instant.
“What did you say? You didn’t even know Thorlin. He was my brother; he was just some forgotten stranger to you.”
Roland snarled at his brother. His hand slipped down to the hilt of his sword. Could he even defend himself against his brother? What was Daemon going to do?
“My, my, you two are certainly the worst Seekers I have ever seen,” a raspy voice said from behind them.
Roland jumped to his feet, his sword drawn before he even had his balance. Daemon was right behind him.
“I am right, aren’t I? You two have declared yourself Seekers of Vengeance. I can feel the stink of Eldan rolling off you. Next time, if there is a next time, perhaps you should be a little quieter when planning your ambush,” a robed figure said, his arms crossed in front of him.
Roland rushed forward. His sword reflected the light of the setting sun as he thrust it toward the man. The blade hit something hard and bounced away, almost vibrating from his hand.
“You don’t think I would come up here without taking the proper precautions?”
Roland screamed, hammering his sword downward into the man’s shoulder. The blade exploded when it hit the man’s hardened flesh. Shards of metal shot in every direction.
Roland groaned as the pieces of metal tore through his arm, and pinged off the metal of his armored torso. The man’s fist followed the shards, smashing into Roland’s chest; he flew through the air, slamming into the ground.
“I also cast some offensive spells, but I guess you figured that out. Are you going to play the hero too?” the man asked Daemon.
“No… No.” Daemon stuttered, dropping the dagger.
Roland rolled to his feet, barely able to catch his breath. The thick steel of his breastplate had a hand-shaped dent in it that was crushing his chest.
“Seize them,” the man said.
Black-armored figures appeared and pulled Daemon’s hands behind his back and threw him to the ground. Roland staggered to his feet, swaying from side to side. He could not let the men take his brother.
Something hit him in the back of the head, and he dropped to the ground.
“You two have made my life so much easier. I was despairing of ever finding a Haldorian guard. And then his brother too. The bonds of blood are strong. I could not have asked for better sacrifices. Galnath will be pleased.”
Another blow struck Roland; he felt blood dribble down his chin from a split lip. The world blurred, and grew dark.
* * *
Roland’s eyes jerked open and the pain hit him. It was a deep, throbbing ache that covered most of his body. The scratches on his arms were inflamed and puffy, streaks of red ran up his arm, and the wounds were badly infected. He could feel the heat of a fever in his body. His armor was gone, and he was stripped to his small clothes.
He was laying on a hard, cold surface, in a dark, apparently empty room. His eyes strained to see, but the darkness was absolute. He rolled to his stomach, gingerly feeling the floor around him. His fevered imagination pictured giant, cavernous holes that he could stumble into and fall forever.
Suddenly a door opened, blinding Roland; at first he thought it was the light of the sun, but he soon realized it was just a torch, and two guards.
“Look at the Haldorian. A pitiful little thing,” The man holding the torch laughed.
Roland smiled to himself on the hard ground. It was good to be guarded by idiots. They were predictable.
“He don’t look so tough,” the first guard said as he walked forward, aiming a kick at Roland’s head.
Roland caught the swinging foot, twisting it until he heard the ankle snap. He grabbed the man’s sword, and stumbled to his feet. His legs were weak and felt watery, but there was no need to let the other guard know that.
“Where is my brother?” Roland asked through clenched teeth.
“Across the hall. But you’ll never get to him.” The guard rushed toward Roland, dropping the torch as he ran.
Roland parried the man’s clumsy strike and riposted with a lunge that tore through the man’s neck.
“What’s going to stop me?!” Roland asked the now-dead man.
Roland shook his head, he needed willow bark tea; his fever was making him act strangely. He moved across the hall to the cell there. It was a struggle to hold the sword and the torch while he lifted the bar that held the door shut.
“Come on, Daemon,” Roland called.
“Roland, what’s happening?” Daemon sounded groggy and tired.
“Come on!” Roland said, handing him the torch.
Roland forced himself to move, his weary legs protesting his commands. As they moved forward, they discovered that the dungeon was nothing more than a long corridor that slowly angled upward. Cells lined the walls, but no passageways branched off, and there were no other guards.
“I don’t like this place; where is everybody?” Daemon said.
Roland did not see the point in answering his brother. There would be time for questions once they succeeded in escaping from wherever they were. Up ahead, the hallway ended in a massive, iron-bound door.
Roland took a deep breath and swung the heavy door outward. The sight that greeted him took his breath away. The door opened into the center of a huge amphitheater, lit by a gargantuan bonfire at one side.
The amphitheater floor was covered in grass. Men dressed as guards formed a circle nearby, around something in the center. Looking between the guards, Roland could see the wizard from the hilltop, who stood next to the massive bones of a dragon.
Hundreds of men and women looked down on them. They all wore thick, woolen robes and held long, metal tubes with lit candles on top of them. A murmur ran through the crowd as Roland and Daemon emerged. Roland realized they had no chance of escaping unnoticed.
“The wizard has the Dragonstone! He killed our brother!” Daemon’s voice dripped with anger.
“For justice!” Roland screamed the ancient battle cry of the Haldorian Guard as he ran forward, his blade flashing in the bonfire’s light. There would be no escape; he would die with honor. As he ran, he was aware of the irony of his words: justice and vengeance were very different things. That was the first lesson every Haldorian learned.
Roland’s sword met a guard’s weapon, and Roland spun, slamming his foot into the man’s knee. The guard screamed and fell as his leg bent unnaturally. Daemon then thrust his torch – his only weapon – into the fallen man’s stomach, and his blue robes ignited within seconds.
“Stop them! But do not kill them! The ritual is nearly complete and Galnath will be hungry.”
The guards surged around Roland and Daemon, encircling them in a ring of pointed steel. Roland hacked at them as he would hack at tall grass; they were not trying to kill him, but he was under no such constraints. The weakness of a few moments ago was forgotten, as the battle joy came upon him.
Blood covered his arms and chest as he sliced a path through the men. Fists and cudgels pounded into his bruised and tired body, but he ignored them. He did not care if he survived, as long as the wizard was destroyed. Daemon appeared to be of like mind, staying only a step behind his brother, guarding his back with a club he had taken from a fallen guard.
The wizard was chanting in a harsh, occult dialect. Arcane energy was flowing past Roland to the wizard. Roland did not have the gift of Sight, but even his untrained senses could feel the sheer power that the mage was controlling. He had to stop the man before the spell was completed.
Roland forced himself through the screaming mob of the guards, who also could feel the power building and seemed to be elated. The crowd in the amphitheater cheered and shouted as if it were a mere gladiator performance. Roland’s sword thrust into the neck of the last man in front of him, and blood showered the ground.
Roland stumbled as he broke free from the mass of men. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Daemon, bashed to the ground. Roland hesitated, half turning to help his brother. But the wizard was more important. Roland sprinted forward.
His blade pierced the wizard’s back just as the energy the mage had drawn into himself pulsed outward. Roland was thrown through the air by energy, slamming back into the crowd of guards.
The energy moved over the ground in waves, washing over the dead men, and the bones of the dragon. The watching crowd grew silent, as if they were waiting for something. The dead bodies on the ground pulsed and throbbed with unnatural light, glowing a deep, brilliant green. But they were mere sparks next to the mystical fire enveloping the massive dragon bones, which were blinding in their shimmering luminescence.
The dead guards’ bodies began to rise, twitching and jerking to standing positions. Their heads hung to the side, as if they had forgotten how to hold them up. The bodies stood like statues carved by an insane sculptor.
“You were too slow, Haldorian! Galnath lives!” the wizard gurgled from the ground at Roland’s feet.
The massive bones now rose into the air, forming the shape of a dragon. Where flesh should have been there was a thick film of green energy. The beast roared and suddenly rushed into the crowd, chewing and gouging the spectators.
“Galnath! I command you to stop! Those are not your sacrifices!” The wizard clutched the Dragonstone as he screamed.
The huge dragon paused in midair, and spoke in a strange, rumbling voice: “You think to command me? I am Galnath the Great! I have destroyed empires! What are you to me? And now, I am Galnath, Lord of the Dead. Kill all the humans!”
The undead guardsmen turned at the dragon’s command. Their weapons raised high, they attacked their former comrades, leaving pools of blood and gore in their wake.
Roland stared, his mind blank. The battle joy had left him, and he felt every one of his cuts and bruises. His fevered brain threatened to rob him of all reason. He fell to his knees… it was too late.
“Haldorian, you have to stop him! I can’t control him,” the wizard demanded.
“Look upon what you have unleashed, wizard! How can I stop that thing?”
“The Dragonstone. Break it!” The wizard gasped, as he held the fabled item out to Roland.
Roland stared at the man for a moment, and then let out a horrendous scream as he spun, throwing all of his remaining strength into one massive blow. His sword smashed straight through the stone, shattering its clear, crystal surface, and continued deeply into the weakened wizard’s heart.
The green energy rushed into Roland, passing through his body. It felt like it was tearing him apart, unmaking who and what he was, but it only lasted for a few moments.
Then quiet once more engulfed the unholy grounds. The surviving onlookers had fled. The remaining guards stood silently, dumbfounded. Roland fell to the ground, twitching.
“Roland!” Daemon yelled as he ran forward, dropping to his knees and cupping Roland’s head in his lap.
“We did it,” Roland said, wondering if he was going to die.
“We did. Do you feel it? Our oaths to Eldan have been appeased.”
Roland stopped. The oath was gone; it was like a vise that had clutched his head was now removed. He smiled at his younger brother. “Vengeance… and Justice… have been served.” *
About the Author: Alva J. Roberts (pronounced Al-Vee J. Roberts) lives in Western Nebraska with his wife and two dogs. When he is not writing, he works as librarian. He writes in all genres of speculative fiction but his passion is writing fantasy. He has had varying degrees of success. For a current list of his publishing credits, please visit: http://alvaroberts.weebly.com/.
Story copyright (c) 2010 by Alva J. Roberts
Illustration copyright 2010 by Walter Simon
Website: Click here