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First, thanks to all of you who have offered your critiques of this story. They have been both encouraging and helpful. A word of caution for Chapter 5 . . . there is some violence in these pages. It's certainly not gratuitous, at least in my opinion, but at the same time, I didn't want to simply whitewash over the grim reality of what this really is, a war. So, the bottom line is, I hope no one's offended. As always, be brutal in your feedback. I can certainly take it and, in my opinion, it's the only way to improve. Thanks again for all your help.
As Aticor stepped from the forest edge into the clearing, the frown that held fixed to his face fell slowly into a scowl. When he had awoken, sprawled on the forest floor earlier that same morning, his memory had been lost in a fog with only the broadest outlines showing against the thickening clouds. He remembered turning his back in defiance of Avid, swearing his allegiance to Kaol, and then little else. Now, as the Crindel emerged from beneath the canopy of Ethalion’s great forest, there was no forgetting his fate; he was staring it in the face.
Directly in front of him hundreds of rows of staggered wooden pikes stood in the barren earth as if they were the only crop fit enough to grow, and each one angled sharply out to face the surrounding forest. Farther in, behind this obscene garden, an earthen rampart rose sharply against the sky, cresting at twice the height of a Crindel. Finally, even beyond the wall and in the exact middle of the open field, stood the keep, a single tower of black stone. It was still unfinished. The whole structure was surrounded by a crude, wooden scaffold, and a series of ropes and pulleys continued to hoist large blocks to the tower’s top. Even so, the tower eclipsed the tallest of the nearby trees.
Aticor took in the whole of the scene with little interest until, at last, he found what he was looking for, a thin, worn trail winding between the pikes and leading to the single break in the wall. There was no gate to be seen, but on either side of the passage two Kasyk sentries arrayed in leather armor and armed with spears stood watch. Aticor drew a measured breath and stalked around the clearing to the worn trail.
The Kasyk sentries saw him at once. There was a quick exchange between them, and then one of the Kasyk rushed forward to meet the Crindel.
“Hold!” The Kasyk’s voice rattled in his throat and his words rasped from his lips, as if speaking was somehow painful. Aticor paid him no mind and took another step forward.
“HOLD!” The Kasyk hissed again, lowering his spear and almost touching the bladed end to the Crindel’s chest. Then, for the first time since coming to Ethalion, Aticor smiled.
The attack came quicker than a fly’s wing. Aticor grabbed the spear with one hand and the Kasyk’s neck with the other. For less than a moment a low gurgling came from the Kasyk’s throat, but then Aticor twisted his hand, there was a splintering snap, and the Kasyk’s body went limp, his scaled neck twisted and broken.
Aticor dropped the lifeless body and looked back to the Kasyk still standing at the wall. His attack had come so suddenly that the second sentry was only now rousing himself to action. Aticor balanced the spear in his hand and threw, piercing the Kasyk through his chest and pinning his body upright against the earthen wall. Aticor looked down at the dead Kasyk lying at his feet, and then started again for the rampart.
As he reached the wall, Aticor kicked his foot against the pinned Kasyk’s chest and ripped free the spear. Then, letting the body of the impaled guard collapse to the muddy earth, he walked through the gap in the wall.
On the other side of the rampart a low clanging echoed through the enclosure, the sound of an alarm announcing the Crindel’s arrival, but this ringing was soon lost to a hoarse shout coming from Aticor’s right. He turned and looked. Three Kasyk were sprinting from the nearby guard house, the first brandishing a long sword high above his head. Aticor squared his shoulders. As the sword fell in its fatal arc he ducked, spinning around and cutting out the Kasyk’s feet from under him with the spear shaft. The gray-scaled guard fell to his back. Aticor was on top of him at once, plunging the spear-blade through his stomach.
In the next instant the second Kasyk, this one wielding an axe, had reached him. Aticor was already back on his feet and waiting. The Kasyk swung the axe straight down, ready to cleave the Crindel’s head in two, but as the blade swung Aticor raised the spear shaft over his head, catching the handle and turning the axe aside. The heavy blade dug into the earth, and before the Kasyk could recover, Aticor swung back the spear, cutting the Kasyk’s scaled throat with the blade.
The third Kasyk was almost on him. Aticor balanced the spear in his hand and threw at this final assailant. The spear found its mark, piercing the Kasyk through the chest, dropping the ashen sentry to the ground before he could manage another step.
Aticor looked over his work, a half-smile returning to his face, until another shout from farther inside the enclosure arrested his attention. A mass of Kasyk armed with axes, swords, and maces rushed from the center of the fortress to join the attack on the Crindel. Aticor knelt to the ground, picked up the sword of the first Kasyk, and strode forward to meet them.
Near the front of the charging horde, Dolos sprinted forward with the rest of the Kasyk, the black blade of Orth’iln still sheathed across his back, but as his eyes fell on the figure before him the leader of the Kasyk stopped. The rest of the Kasyk horde, however, continued rushing onward, with one of them running even ahead of the others, distancing himself from the mob.
As this lone Kasyk reached Aticor, his sword raised and ready to swing down on the Crindel, Dolos’s rasping voice broke over them, “Stop!”
At once the charging mass of Kasyk responded, each stopping where he stood. Even the single Kasyk, already close enough to level his attack against the Crindel, checked his violent swing before it could begin. Aticor, however, paid no heed. Spinning on his heels, with a light swing of his sword, he cut through the first Kasyk’s scaled throat.
A shout rose at once from the ranks of the Kasyk, but still no one moved closer to Aticor as none of them dared disobey the words of Dolos. Aticor looked down at the stained blade of his sword, and wiped the dark blood of the Kasyk across his sleeve. Another low growl echoed through their ranks, but before any could be drawn into action, Dolos emerged at the head of the column.
“Who are you?” each word from the massive Kasyk spit painfully from his thin mouth.
“I am Captain of the Crindel of Kaol, second only to Kaol himself, and like him, I am your master and you will obey me.”
Dolos looked quickly behind him as the muted voices of the horde rose again, but the leader of the Kasyk already knew Aticor’s words to be true; even apart from his reasoning, the instinct given to each of Kaol’s creation for obedience resonated at the words of the Crindel.
“On your knees,” Dolos’s voice rattled in his throat. One by one the Kasyk behind obeyed, sinking down to the mud. Aticor looked over the bowed horde, the smile at the corner of his mouth turning once more into a snarl of disgust.
“Meeerrrcccyyy.” Dolos hissed, his own face almost touching the ground.
Aticor slid his sword through his belt and bent his eyes to the bowed head of the Kasyk leader, “Get up. I can’t afford to kill you now.” Dolos obeyed at once, rising once more to his feet.
Aticor continued, “Show me the keep.”
Dolos made no answer. Instead, he turned and started toward the center of the enclosure and the tower. Aticor followed and, as they walked, the Kasyk kneeling before them shuffled aside to form a path.
Aticor looked about him. Inside the earthen walls of the citadel and beyond the guardhouse there stood row upon row of wooden shelters lining the road toward the tower. Undoubtedly these served as barracks for most of the Kasyk and any who chose to join them.
But even as Aticor remarked the many buildings, Dolos came to a crest in the road and, for the first time, Aticor could see the whole tower and appreciate the magnitude of the keep. The black stone walls ascended into the sky, forcing the Crindel’s head straight back to take in its full height. It was surrounded by a skeleton of wooden scaffolding, and at its top several Kasyk moved about the wooden planks attending to the latest block just hoisted to its zenith, carefully angling the black stone into place. On the ground before the tower, two lines of Minotaurs strained against a pair of thick ropes, fighting to keep the colossal block of black granite in the air. On one side of the tower stood a low, long building of black stone, connecting to the base of the keep. A half dozen chimneys rising from the roof of this structure belched oily black smoke into the air.
Aticor could do little to hide his reaction to the tower. As his eyes took in the whole of the structure, his step instinctively slowed and his mouth parted slightly. Dolos perceived this almost at once and so, like Aticor, he stopped at the crest of the road, but instead of looking to the tower, the Kasyk’s eyes turned instead to the awe-struck face of the Crindel.
Aticor perceived the change in Dolos almost at once. He quickly turned back on the Kasyk leader, “What’s that building joined to the tower?”
“Our forge,” Dolos rasped.
“Show me the inside.” Without answering, Dolos turned once more to the tower and started again down the worn road, this time with Aticor at his side. In mere moments the two reached the heavy stone door at the far end of the forge.
“Is this the only way into the tower?” Aticor asked, never turning his eyes to Dolos. The Kasyk nodded, and then pulled back the stone slab. Aticor entered first.
Inside the low building the constant ringing of hammers falling on metal echoed off the walls and pierced the Crindel’s ears. The hot air tasted stagnant, and the dirty, black smoke lingering in the air filled his lungs with every breath. Just inside the door, piles of swords, axes, and maces lay littered across the ground, barely distinct from the heavy shadows filling the long room, but further inside the building the darkness gave way to the warm orange glow of fire and metal. By this light, Aticor could see at least a dozen of the Kasyk, each robed in a leather apron, relentlessly hammering the fire-softened metal into shape. Aticor stopped as he entered the halo of light.
Dolos kept one step behind, “On your knees,” somehow the Kasyk’s voice rose even above the chorus of hammers. Slowly the ringing subsided until the sound of a single hammer remained. Dolos stepped in front of the lone transgressor. The soot-stained Kasyk smith lifted his eyes to Dolos, and then immediately looked back to the metal he was working, his falling hammer never losing its rhythm.
Dolos never spoke. In a single motion he drew Orth’iln from over his shoulder and swung the blade down through the smith’s anvil, cleaving the metal block in two. The Kasyk smith glared back up at Dolos, lifting his hammer as if to land a final blow in the skull of the Kasyk leader, but as his eyes fell on Orth’iln, he slowly knelt to the ground, bowing his head.
Dolos glanced sideways at Aticor. The Crindel’s face held unflinching, “Was that display meant for him or for me?” Aticor’s voice was flat. A low growl rose in the throat of Dolos as Aticor continued, “Take me into the tower.”
Dolos stepped across the low room with Aticor at his side until they came to the far wall and another stone door. Once again the Kasyk leader pulled back the heavy slab, and Aticor stepped into the darkness. Dolos grabbed an unlit torch hanging by the open portal and disappeared back into the armory, returning a moment later with the torch ablaze. It was by this light that Aticor saw the inner workings of the tower for the first time.
The inner walls of the stone keep curved, turning the floor into a massive circle with a spiral staircase winding round the inner wall like ivy. These stone stairs circled the wall three times before finally leading through the ceiling to the next level of the tower. Aticor followed them all the way up with his eyes, turning on his heels to keep the stairs in view, but careful to hold all his features icy still.
When the staircase eventually ended, Aticor lowered his eyes once more to Dolos,
“I would hold council with your lieutenants and the leaders of our allies. Have them gather here at sunset. Now, go.”
Dolos bowed his head and slowly backed from the room, hiding the snarl as it spread across his face.
In the great room of the tower, a crowd of Kasyk gathered near the center of the floor. They stood uneasy, none staying still for too long before shifting his weight or pacing across the width of the room. They had been waiting for the better part of an hour.
Around the Kasyk, other creatures restlessly waited: a half dozen of the Minotaurs huddled together, a handful of Chimeras sat on their haunches, their snake-head tails slinking from side to side, three Gryphons, each taking turns to stretch wide their wings, and finally a single wolfhound, stalking around the inner wall of the chamber, the lone Knowing Animal in the room.
At the center of them all, never moving, stood Dolos, nearly a head taller than any of the Kasyk in the room. For the past hour, his yellow, slatted eyes held transfixed to the top of the spiraled stairs, as if by his will he could make the Crindel appear.
The noise in the room built by gradual degree, from silence, to whispers, to open voices, until finally, one of the Minotaurs bellowed wordlessly into the air and stepped toward the stone door.
“That’s enough,” Aticor’s words fell over the room. At once there was silence as all eyes turned upward to see the Crindel descending from the upper floor of the tower. He walked slowly, carefully measuring each step, allowing all those gathered below enough time to put aside any harbored thoughts of rebellion.
As he neared the bottom of the stairs, Aticor stopped again, still standing high enough above the gathered horde for all to see him, “The sun has set on Ethalion for the last time!” Aticor’s voice filled the room, “When it rises again, it will bring with it the dawning of a new age and a new world. The time for the Kasyk has come at last!” Almost at once, a hoarse cheer rose from the crowd.
Aticor waited, letting their voices die once more into silence, “You’ve prepared yourselves well, and many in Ethalion have already joined us. Count yourselves among the lucky few, because tomorrow, any who still refuse us, will answer with their lives!”
Again a cheer rose at his feet, and the cruel smile edged once more across Aticor’s face, “Most of the Mythenes have already recognized this truth, but where are the Centaurs?”
The Minotaur still standing by the door lifted his voice in answer, “The Centaurs are dogs!”
“And then we’ll treat them as such,” Aticor turned his eyes directly to the Minotaur, “If they refuse us, we’ll trample them under foot and leave their bodies as carrion.”
Another cheer rose, carried by the bellowing of the Minotaurs, but even before they were done, Aticor turned to the wolfhound, “And of the Knowing Animals, the wolfhounds alone have joined us. Even so, they’ll bring death to any who resist us, animal or Mythene alike.”
The lean, gray-furred wolfhound bowed his head to Aticor, “We will do all that you command of us, but you should know there are many Knowing Animals who would still join you.”
“If they would join us, then where are they now?” Aticor snapped back at the Wolfhound.
“They were prevented by Cairwyn, leader of our Council. They all live in fear of him.”
Aticor’s voice softened, “Then they fear the wrong creature. Tell me wolfhound, you aren’t afraid of this Cairwyn?” the Crindel sneered his words as he spoke.
“The wolfhounds will protect our own, as we’ve always done, regardless of the whims of a lion.”
“And what’s your name then?”
The matted, gray-furred dog bowed his head again, “I am Jagan, chosen leader and representative of the Knowing Wolfhounds.”
The cruel smile returned to Aticor, “So Jagan, if Cairwyn were dead, what would your animal brethren do then?”
“The Knowing Animals would join with the Kasyk, but Cairwyn is a --”
“He is nothing,” the Crindel’s voice fell to a whisper, “and you will leave this lion to me.” Without another word, Aticor turned and ascended the stairs, disappearing once more into the upper reaches of the tower.
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