His footfalls ghost-like, his legs blurred through the undergrowth, whipping up a trail of dust, grass and leaves. The wind carried his all consuming rage, a spicy scent, as his power grew within him. He channeled that rage, into his power, for his power grew best when stoked by his fury. No day before this had ever kindled this new level of rage, and he thought no day might ever again. No matter how monstrous, how unforgiving, how demanding he was, the only father he had ever known, the High King of Avalon, Fagan the Cruel, Firelord and Master of Caer Caleban, was dead and Cuculane had loved him. The thought stung his eyes, blind though they were, and tears streaked his cheeks, but they did not stop his progress; nothing save Death could. As his eyes burned with restrained tears, he thought of how differently today had started.
Cuculane was on his way to the western tower, striding in his war-gear to partake of a training exercise with the king's Red Guard. His normally dour mood was buoyed by the idea that he might be allowed to become a member of the king's personal defenders and bodyguard. These were twelve of the king's finest warriors; masters of numerous weapons and sorceries arcane, they were chosen from thousands in the kings army. Each had to best one hundred of his battle-brothers and many perished for this considerable honor. Then each potential recruit would be forced to battle each of the Red Guard in single combat. Only if he could go undefeated against them, would he, as a graduation exercise, face them all. Today, Cuculane was prepared to graduate. The thought made him smile, inwardly at least.
As a member of the Red Guard, he could wear the anonymous red armor, fully covered and able to be hidden in plain sight. Then everyone might forget his shame, his failure of birth, his slavery to the kingdom. That he was a noble, but born of the Ur-Selig Court. Surely this would silence the whispers. This is an accomplishment that could not be denied, could not be claimed, as so many of his successes were, a matter of mere chance. He would meet in the King's private training arena in the far tower and the king would preside over his inauguration or his defeat. There was the potential for a fatal injury but the Queen, having made his armor reassured him. There was no better mage-smith in the kingdom.
His new armor and weapons were a gift from the Queen, upon his eighteenth day of birth ceremony and he wore them with great pride. Their craftsmanship had stood him in good stead during his Quest Year. After his return, his war-gear was cleaned, repaired and returned to him, as good as new by the armor-technicians, fresh with new qubar coatings, new protection wards and plated with the family colors of red, black and white. He could not see these things, vision was denied to him, an accident of his birth, he was told. But he was blessed with other forms of awareness, so his lack of vision was only of limited concern most of the time.
As he came to the final bridge between the castle proper and the king's personal tower, he heard the sounds of combat and the sounds of conjured flame sizzling through the air. An unexpected explosion tore through out one of the tower walls and a terrible beast is blown free, afire, and it screams, a sound so terrible, the staff in the castle proper flee, wailing in terror. The monstrosity screams all the way to the ground, nearly a half mile from the castle.
Cuculane opened himself to his surroundings, the wind spoke to him, smoke told him of the enemy, their scent strong within it. The ground, rumbled and in that rumbling, he knew their numbers, their speed, their weight and their power. Sorcery, crisply scented, cinnamon sparks, telling of the flames cascading through the air incinerating everything in their path, everything except these horrors. The flames screamed their frustration, as the creatures simply refuse to burn. They glowed as metal heated but did not die, at least, not at first.
The flash of brightswords sang out to him, their rune-etched blades singing a song of devastation, each clang of defense or swish of offense, each unique, each telling of their ballet of death and triumph. But their songs were too few, the enemy too strong; this was not the song of impending victory, this was the song of defiant resistance against overwhelming odds. Was that even possible? This was the Red Guard, the twelve of them could clear thousands of Men under any circumstance, no matter what the field of battle. They should be unstoppable.
With his senses tingling, their information producing a world unseen by most, Cuculane pulled his spear into a two handed grip and sprinted across the causeway. Suddenly, the door on the other side flew open, blasted off its hinges. The door split into dozens of ironwood shards narrowly missing Cuculane, who easily sidestepped them, and a member of the Red Guard, Guardsman Prethos, from his sword-song, was backing out of the explosion cloud.
His bright-sword flashed furiously, its flaming edge hungrily consuming chunks of the creature, creating sparks flashing against its steel-hard paws. Half the size of a horse, with the agility of a tiger, this creature screams caused Cuculane to stop in his tracks, involuntarily. He had encountered these hexapeds before, even killed them during his Questing, but these were four times as massive as any he even knew existed, each step spoke of their density and physical power. Each of these terrors weighed six hundred pounds comprised of dense bone, armor plate stronger than steel, with teeth so sharp and jaws so strong, they could bite through the axle of an automobile. Through the open door, Cuculane could hear dozens of the creatures surrounding the high king and the Red Guard.
During the struggle, Guardsman Prethos pushes the creature back with an enchantment. The very wall, taking on the shape of a great hand, clutched the creature and squeezed it in an attempt to crush it. The wall trembled from the strain and the creatures screams seem to destabilize the sorcery. But it held long enough. Prethos was already focused on another spell, this one was not one normally cast in combat, because it required expansive gestures.
To Cuculane, the wind spoke of a barrier, something that would be between him and the king, the formation of a Gulgan; an impenetrable wall meant to keep anything within it trapped. And everything outside of it, safe. You would cast a Gulgan, when you know there is no hope, and you were buying time with your life. Finishing his spell, he turns back to the hexaped, who has shaken off the last pieces of wall and had scrambled back toward Prethos, who having taken the creature's measure and freed from the task of spell casting, brings his sword down fully on the skull of the leaping creature. The blow does not stop the mass of the monster from crashing down on Prethos.
Inside the tower, the battle song has changed. Fire flows freely around the room engulfing everything, the Red Guard and the king are combining their sorceries, each of the songs merging together, creating an ensemble of sounds, a waterfall of flame. The creatures fell back, as if this were unexpected and they seemed to be, thinking, considering their plan of attack. Then as a unit, they creatures howled. The Gulgan shuddered, and Cuculane was knocked off his feet even behind its' protective energies. Getting up, his nose bleeding, he listens for the flame song. He hears nothing but the cinders bemoaning their fate and the fate of everything around them. Prethos rolled the dead behemoth from his body, having been momentarily pinned by its bulk, and rose to his feet.
"Run my Prince, think well of us, for today, we failed the High King. But I will do what must be done," and with that he took the blood of the creature on his sword and drew a blood-rune on the wall of the Gulgan, a rune of destruction, black forbidden magic. Inside, there is movement, both from the creatures and from the Red Guard. The howl of the beasts disrupted the flame magic and killed several of the Red Guard. The king rose to his feet, holding his great spear out in front of him, its three prongs alight with its mightiest magic. "It is ready, my king," whispered Prethos as he fell to his knees. "Run boy, I have never seen the likes of these things, ever, and I have lived three hundred years in Avalon. If this is what the future holds, we are no more. Tell them, leave or perish."
The ground rumbles again and Cuculane is aware of the numbers, two dozen of the creatures still live, but less than five of the Red Guard and the king remain.
I know you can hear me. There is not much time left. We are all spent, but if these creatures get loose in the castle, Caer Caleban is finished. Whoever struck at us, decided to start at the head. They hope to break our spirit. Don't let that happen. The creatures gather their courage. Of all my children, you my stepson, were the only one I trusted. Save our people. Avenge us.
There was a flash of light. Cuculane did not see it. But the sound was the purest sound he has ever known. He knew he would never forget it. Then there was a blast of withering heat, an explosion he felt even through the barrier of the Gulgan. Then nothing.
* * *
Cuculane ran through the forest, a ground-eating lope only matched by gazelles, he could hear the hexapeds out in front of him. All pretense of stealth behind them, the beasts screamed as they lead Cuculane's own hell-hounds through the forest at breakneck speeds. Cuculane moved with feline grace, gripping his spear ahead of him, leaping clear of the brush and landing on the other side and listening. The sword on his back was only of arm's length but with a blade so sharp, it could slice through the trunk of a tree with ease; he feared it would still not be enough.
Cuculane's armor barely moved, and made nary a sound, even at his full out run. It was comprised of a mesh of qubar chain and ceramic plates that were light but strong and did not obstruct his movement. The armor would deflect a longbow or a bullet with equal facility. His legs were relatively lightly armored with only a warded mithral mesh to protect them. A silvered hobnail boot with a raised knob and a protective sole would keep him safe from the razor grass of his family's keep in Avalon. He wore no helm, it interfered with his super-acute hearing.
His eyes were dark, strange pools of liquid blackness, with no irises, and no vision. Their lack of vision did not prevent him from knowing every step, every tree, every blade of grass, each whispered to him its location, its temperament, and submitted to his will, moving aside if possible, warning him if not. Each step was sure, powerful and propelled him to greater effort. Listening to the wind, it still spoke of the tragedy of King Fagan's death, spreading it from tree to tree, each shuddering with the news before passing it to the next one. Cuculane heard their whisperings and remembered...
He woke up covered in a fine rock powder, in his mouth, on his skin, in his hair. He had been unconscious for only a few minutes, but it was long enough. The wind screamed at him, berated him, consoled him. He strode into the center of the court and found thirty of the six legged armor-plated monstrosities strewn about King Fagan's body.
The nearby trees extolled the horror of the creatures landing within them, burning with awful fire and lying dead beneath them, at least a score or more. The castle walls wept chips of stone and bemoaned to Cuculane where the creatures were blown through them with such force, people on the other sides were killed by shrapnel. The air was alive with the screams of terror, pain, and suffering.
Kneeling, he touched the High King, held his hand and felt the life leave him. King Fagan, Firelord of Caer Caleban, High King of New Avalon fought valiantly and his body showed the signs. He had invoked his balfor armor and its black, ensorcelled, stone covered his body from head to food. Not that it mattered, the creatures tore slashes through it as if it were little more than a delicate foil, leaving deep and terrible gashes all across his body, a lesser man would have died seconds after receiving any one of them.
The Gulgan contained the explosion destroying only the tower, every living thing within it and then itself. Without it, the entire castle and the city surrounding it would have been destroyed. There was no way this many enemies could appear on the grounds of the castle... unless they had help.
Thaddeus Howze © 2010, All Rights Reserved