SWORD & FIRE PROLOGUE
V O L . ID Y N A S T Y
“Now and then.
The friction between time present and past. The ambition of a legacy envisioned flush against the weight of a dynasty inherited. At this cogent juncture, the destinies of men are oft defined.
At the end of the Age of Peace, this was such a moment.”
(Seer Tomrin, the TrueHeart)
The Darkness of Rasi Laua
A tortured scream shook the heavens.
Hungry flames licked the last remains of the legendary stronghold that had housed the Shneyti’s rulers for thousands of years. The ravenous blaze provided the only light, as the cries of the tortured and dying reverberated in the freezing night air. A moonless sky looked on, eerily devoid of stars. It seemed that even the heavenly bodies were ashamed, and Hector joined them in wishing he could hide from the madness.
The rank stench of terror and death wrought by sword and fire clawed at his nostrils. Hector rubbed his nose and his burning eyes. Clouds of acrid smoke rose from the torched dwellings of the vanquished, casting a ghoulish shadow over this once proud and ancient tribe. According to the tales, the People of the Frozen Tundra, or Shneyti in the Common Tongue, had walked the land since antiquity, but they would do so no more.
Hector’s mouth curled down in a snarl of disgust. Along with the warrior horde that had secured this notable victory, he was now expected to stand aside and allow the Priests of the Overlord to perform their gory task. With a lust for blood, the depraved holy men scoured through the remnants of the last battle—the Shneyti’s brave but futile stand. Performing their cruel act on the foe’s wounded and their terrified women and children, for none were spared, the Priests then dispensed the same treatment to the fallen: impalement followed by disembowelling.
“Zlatan demands judgement on his foemen,” the Overlord of the Zhuns had often intoned, speaking in the third person as was his habit. “To prevent Zlatan’s foemen from re-entering the cycle of rebirth, his soul must be speared first and afterwards, eviscerated. Likewise, his females and his offspring. Only then will he be forever banished, damned to the endless salt fires of torment. Never to return to defile the land.”
Hector dropped his eyes. A demented ritual, he grimaced. A deranged rite.
The priests swarmed over their victims like flies over a carcass. In their hundreds, garbed in black robes soiled with the red of the slain. Their faces twisted in bedevilled glee illuminated only by dancing firelight—swollen red eyes against albino skin, gnashing yellow teeth in wide split mouths. Giddy, ecstatic shrieks of perverse delight made mockery of the desecrated.
Hector shivered. He would never grow accustomed to such depravity. This post-battle cleansing was too much to bear. War was one thing; this was something else entirely. The Shneyti fought bravely. They do not deserve this. His knuckles tightened around the hilt of his blade. Not the females and the young. Hector swallowed his disgust. Resisting the urge to turn his weapon on the priests, he sheathed it instead.
He turned to watch his fellow warriors. Grim-faced, their bronze bodies spattered with the blood they’d spilled in conquest, their mislike for the albino priestly class was likewise palpable. For different reasons, mind. Since the Overlord had initiated this heinous cleansing rite, the victorious warriors were denied the spoils of war.
Hector simply wished to flee the insanity. If I could grow wings, I would fly away, he closed his eyes. Far away. To the Southland of the small people … where my flower blossoms and my sweet…
“The Great Master calls for you, Hector,” a youthful voice cut his thoughts short.
Hector opened his eyes and the face of the messenger came into focus. The young warrior’s expression was a tight mask. The mask was typical, for a warrior never betrayed his thoughts or feelings. That his countenance was tight, spoke of something else. There’s no bloodlust in his eyes. He does not revel in the carnage. Do I see disquiet?
“The Great Master will slay the Shneyti King shortly,” the young man explained. “Zlatan demands the presence of the generals and you too.”
Hector felt his jaw tighten before nodding once. He’d been stripped of his rank a long time ago, when his transgression cast a shadow over his reputation, soiling his standing before Zlatan. In these battle conditions, however, the Overlord treated him on par with the generals—a show of trust that was met with widespread discontent. Would that he’d let me be.
“They assemble in the Shneyti King’s hall,” said the messenger.
Hector held his gaze. He sensed something different about the young man. Could he be as I am? he thought to himself. Is he free from the Master’s spell? Waving disdainfully at the butchery around them, Hector scowled and said, “I too do not approve.”
The muscles in the man’s jaw clenched and he cleared his throat. “We do the Master’s bidding.”
Hector put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “What is your name?”
The warrior flinched and shook off Hector’s hand, his eyes darting this way and that, anxious that others were watching. “Once Hector the Fearless,” he hissed defensively. “Now, Hector the Disgraced.”
Hector sighed within himself, but tipped his head at the man’s perception of him. Foolish, I am. I’ve exposed him. “I act out of turn,” he said, rueful. “Only remember this. Be true,” he tapped his own chest. “Be true to the voice that speaks in here.”
The young man spat on the ground despite his eyes softening momentarily.
Hector turned and made his way to answer the Overlord’s command. If the young man is free of the Master’s spell, perhaps there is hope for my people yet.
Upon arrival, Hector stepped into the Shneyti king’s hall, and held his breath. It was quiet and well insulated from the chaos outside; its ancient stone walls padded with layers of fur. The air, thick with the scent of pine woodsmoke, immediately caught his nose and offered some relief from the stench outside. Dancing firelight from several braziers made the large chamber almost seem warm and hospitable. Hector exhaled slowly. All twelve generals were present, along with an equal number of warriors, and before them, towering above even the largest, stood Zlatan.
The Overlord’s permanent scowl tightened, registering Hector’s arrival. He sucked in air through his sharpened teeth, relishing the macabre scene of carnage and bloodshed his insatiable lust for glory had procured. His pale-yellow skin glowed and his pulsing red eyes glittered with a pride few men ever tasted. If indeed he was a man. Where warlords and tyrants had failed for millennia, he had now triumphed. Now, Zlatan alone ruled Rasi Laua. He alone was Ruler over all the conquered tribes of The Pride Land. His victory would now confirm the prophecy of old and uphold his claim of divinity.
In truth, Zlatan’s triumph over the last great tribes of Rasi Laua had only been a matter of time once he’d bespelled the terrible fire-breathers. Even Zlatan’s mastery over the lesser beasts that stalked the land had not prepared Hector for what was surely the darkest of black magic. The monstrous flesh-eaters loomed twenty feet in the air when reared on pillar-like hind legs. With a coarse armoured hide impenetrable to man’s swords and spears and arrows; with savage, slashing claws and hooked, razor-sharp fangs as long as a man’s forearm, inferno-hot fire rained from their molten gorges. As if in one with Zlatan’s capricious will, the fire-breathers did what he bade them. Monsters of his cruel imagination, Hector had concluded. Enforcers of his unbridled ambition.
The conquest of the once-mighty Shneyti was over with a swift ruthless that defied sense and reason. Dishonourable, was Hector’s judgment of it. An unfair contest.
The twenty hellish dregos under the Overlord’s charm torched through the Shneyti’s mounted forces as if they were twigs in a raging bonfire, scorching their woolly beasts like brittle garments in a blacksmith’s furnace, melting their great tusks and bones, and the mighty warriors who proudly bestrode them, as easily as candle wax. The infernal heat of the fire-breathers’ wrath seared through the stronghold’s thick walls, fissuring massive gaping cracks. And once cooled, it allowed Zlatan’s warriors to assail the stronghold and torch the Shneyti city.
Zlatan’s rasping timbre broke the stilted silence. “Soon the time will be ripe for Zlatan to cross the Great Spears and conquer Dwan Gona,” he said. “Victory this day portends our future triumph. A Great Cleansing of the South. With the destruction of the halfman, Zlatan will usher in a New Dawn,” he proclaimed in twisted certainty. “Zlatan, the Slayer of Rulers, will crush the maggots infesting that accursed bung heap. Zlatan will purge the land of impure blood and the foul halfman, and shower all the land with his pure-seed. This is Zlatan’s destiny.”
Watching his Ruler and Master, Hector ground his teeth to control the chill that prickled his flesh. Within the next cycle, Zlatan would march his Horde over the great mountain range of the south bent on destroying the small people of the vast Southland. Maggots he calls them. Hector grimaced knowing that his betrayal of the albino giant, started those long years ago, would now reach completion. The line is drawn. The time is coming. I must warn the small folk.
The Overlord scowled at his prey. Before him sat the stoic Shneyti king and his trembling queen, both hunched in their thrones made of wicker and fur. And between the Overlord and his quarry, the Shneyti’s heir, Pollo. Brave he stood. Strong. Tall. His eyes like flint. His knuckles pulsing around the shaft of his battleaxe. He said not a word, but raw defiance framed his comely features. Pollo the LongReach, he was called. The tribe’s finest warrior, his ability with an axe in the Frozen Tundra was renown.
Zlatan almost smirked. “You will die a swift death for your courage, young pup,” he taunted, as he loosed his blades from the leather straps on his back—two cruel five-foot-long scythes that he wielded with blinding speed and terrible ferocity. “You will try to honour your king and sire, but will only serve to confirm his humiliation.” With unblinking eyes, the Overlord beckoned his foe.
The Shneyti heir knew the stakes. Only defeating Zlatan in one-on-one combat would alter his father and mother’s fate. Pollo attacked with great suddenness, like a man who knew he needed gods-luck to prevail. His roar reverberated through the night air, and the firelight licked at his swinging blade.
Hector held his breath, admiration stoking his heart, and for an instant, he joined the heir in hoping for the impossible. Reach long, Pollo. Oh, that your blade would strike true.
Zlatan met the incoming axehead with the scythe held in his right hand. The sheer power behind his parry dislodged the heir’s footing and his vain hope. Sudden fear flashed across the Shneyti warrior’s eyes and before Pollo could recover his balance, Zlatan cleaved the man’s weapon arm at the elbow.
The Shneyti heir screamed in agony and clutched at his maimed appendage.
Quick as a snake, Zlatan dropped his own blades and wrapped his giant hands around Pollo’s throat. Hefting his foe clear into the air, as a rivulet of red showered the man’s dangling feet, Zlatan laughed an empty laugh. “You showed courage, young pup, but you offered no contest.” And with that, he ripped out the man’s windpipe.
A moment’s hush was cut by the Shneyti queen’s cry. When her king held her quiet, only the gurgling, choking sound that emanated from their son’s body met the inrushing stillness.
Hector watched Zlatan drop the body to the floor and lick the blood from his fingers. Brutal. Ruthless. He could only marvel at Zlatan’s great power.
The Overlord sucked on his teeth, leering at the dead man’s mother. The stricken woman lay traumatised in the arms of her king. Her jaw slack with shock, her eyes waxen with terror.
It’s not over yet, Hector shook his head.
“Come,” Zlatan clapped his hands together, signalling for his holy men.
The pitiable mother screamed when three priests emerged from the shadows and lifted her son’s mutilated body into the air.
Chosen from amongst the Zhuns because, like their Master, they too were born without pigment in their skin, the priests relished their macabre role. Squeals of delight punctuated the frigid air as they spread the heir’s stiff legs wide before bringing him down onto a flame-hardened stake with savage force. The sickly ripping of flesh and crunching of bone was so unearthly, so gory, even battle-hardened Hector felt his stomach roil.
As Zlatan’s holy men gutted the impaled Shneyti heir, the Master’s eyes remained transfixed on the wretched queen. The woman’s head shook uncontrollably and Hector knew the Overlord was aroused by the grisly spectacle. To his own chagrin, he knew the Warlord and his base appetites well. Too well. Marked by his black-heart, I am, he cursed. Likewise complicit in his list of countless abominations.
“We-we beg for mercy,” the defeated Shneyti King stammered, his voice broken and quavering. The man had slid from his throne under the weight of his queen’s grief. Bowed on one knee, he held his wife and queen, trying in vain to shield her from the Slayer of Rulers looming over them.
Zlatan sneered, his lip curling in menace, revealing his sharp yellow teeth. “Your men fought bravely, Wondupo, and for that, Zlatan will let you die last. But first, Zlatan will purge your female, and you will watch so that your humiliation is complete.”
“O Great Lord,” the Shneyti Ruler pleaded; his face streaked with dirt and tears, his copper skin blanched with dread. “You have slain my army, massacred my people, butchered my children and desecrated my firstborn before my eyes. Please, I beg you for a quick death,” his voice warbled. “Not for me I ask, but for my Queen. Have mercy.”
Zlatan bared his teeth, indignant. “What is mercy but the ramblings of a craven? You dishonour your ancestors with such a cowardly plea. Your people have wielded great power for ages upon ages, now you must be subject to a judgement of greater power. That is the only law of this frozen land. One you should know well,” Zlatan spat the words out. “After this day, there will be no more recollection of your people.”
Licking his lips with a tongue blackened by ink-craft, Zlatan nodded to Vellon, his Chief General. The big broad-shouldered man with an ugly battle-scarred mug stepped forward. Growling in his gravelly voice, he barked out orders from a mouth partially hidden behind a dishevelled thatch of dirty whiskers.
Four warriors jumped into action, delirious with excitement at being called upon. Two grabbed the old King and two the Queen, wrenching them apart from one another.
“Mercy,” cried Wondupo again. “Mercy for my helpmeet.”
“You will taste Zlatan’s judgement,” the Overlord answered in disdain. “You will first watch your helpmeet impaled and gutted alive and then, you will share the same fate.”
Pinning Wondupo to the floor, the warriors forced his head up in expectation of the gory spectacle to come. With strong, cruel hands they stifled his last desperate struggle, bridling his kicking and pleading. Breathless from exertion and terror, the old king could only whimper as the other pair of warriors lifted his shrieking queen into the air as the priests drew near.
Standing next to the Chief General, Vellon, of a rank and status he once held, Hector winced. War, combat, killing was one thing. The law of survival and conquest. Torture and butchery was another beast entirely. Hector had no stomach for it. He closed his eyes and tried to shut out the ear-splitting screams of horror that flayed him. Everything within his own being condemned him. His blood flows in your veins. You are the Overlord’s spawn.
As his whole body shuddered at the truth, he felt his hand tighten around the hilt of his scythe, and not for the first time, he considered cleaving the head from the shoulders of the monster who’d sired him. Although he refused to believe the claims of the Overlord’s immortality, there was sufficient evidence to support the tales. The despotic tyrant’s length of days without aging, his virility and unfailing haleness, his insatiable lust for all things … facts that cajoled even the stubbornly sceptic Hector to cede the man might indeed be a god in human form. A hideous, beastly god.
The only thing that kept him from giving into temptation and testing the veracity of the legend was the flock he protected. Hector the Fearless cared little for his own wellbeing. Death would permit me to escape this madness forever. However, he alone stood shield over the women in his harem. And if he dishonoured himself in blatant treachery, those he offered safe harbour would be shared amongst Zlatan’s senior warriors, to be ravaged and ruined.
His tired eyes searched the dark firmament visible through the smokeshaft in the thatched ceiling, vainly seeking a reprieve from the air now redolent with the sour odour of sweat and horror and despair. He felt a painful breath judder out of his body. Unable to lose himself in the night sky pregnant with snow, Hector swallowed the bitter taste of bile in his mouth, as the Shneyti queen’s agonised screams faded at last. Her king, the once dignified Wondupo, had long since gagged on his own vomit.
Loath to soil the memory of his beloved, not wanting his thoughts to dwell on her in such a setting, Hector couldn’t help himself. She embodied his salvation. Needing to escape, there was only one way to do so. His thoughts coalesced around the image of Adelina that he always kept stored in his memory. Do you thrive, my flower, love of my life? Have the small folk been good to you? To you and our angel?
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