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Dennis McDonald

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Oathbearer
By Dennis McDonald
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Rated "PG13" by the Author.

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I wrote the first book to a fantasy trilogy before I produced my collection of horror stories. It's in rough draft but the first three chapters are below for you to read and review.

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

           

            The Witch Hunters had found her trail.

            Sundra fled deeper into the thickets and trees of Wyldthorn Forest as her bare feet pounded the forest floor without care of a sharp twig or bur. Desperate, she searched for a path as the shouts of men and the baying of the hounds resonated in the surrounding trees. The forest seemed to be working in league with the hunters to slow her escape. At every opportunity, branches tore at her robe of sackcloth and snagged her long white hair with thorny fingers. A vine bristling with barbs caught onto the hem of her ragged robe. She yanked and tore away a portion of the cloth exposing her long legs.

“Please … goddess … protect me,” she prayed, breathless.

            The fear of the terrible fate at the hands of the Witch Hunters drove her blindly into the woods. Her mother and sister had burned at the stake earlier in the day. Their horrified faces and terrible screams still echoed fresh in her mind. Sundra knew her death would be worse. Let loose by the Witch Hunters, the hounds raced through brush and bramble to find her. In a matter of moments, the dogs would rip her apart with their slavering teeth.

            “Don’t let me … die,” she whispered.

            A wall of thorny bushes scratched her in a dozen places as she pushed through and stumbled into the sunlight of an open clearing. Her lungs burned from the want of oxygen and she paused for a moment to catch her breath. Bent double with chest heaving for air, she spotted a trail on the other side of the clearing. The path provided a possible way of escape, if she could outrun the hounds. Rushing for the opening, her foot tripped over an upraised tree root and she went sprawling onto the leafy floor. A shooting pain throbbed in right ankle as she struggled to get back to her feet. Sundra realized she could no longer out run the cruel fate of the men and beasts pursuing her.  Rolling over onto her back, she stared up at the sky as the hounds grew closer.

            "Dear Goddess Elanna, I offer my soul to you. Please take me to see my mother and sister once again."

            A long shadow fell across her vision.

            Sundra turned her head. A man dressed in shabby breeches and worn leather shirt stood in the trail opening. His long gray hair was tied back, though several stray strands had escaped their binding to hang down in his weathered face. He studied her with steel gray eyes nearly the color of his hair. In his hands was the largest and most magnificent sword she’d ever seen. Sunlight glinted on the steel of the blade as the stranger crossed the distance to her side.

            "Are you going to kill me?" Sundra asked.

            "I’m no Witch Hunter," he said above the baying of the hounds. "What is your name?"

            "Sundra."

            "I’m going to ask you to take an oath. There is not much time so this is going to be quick." The man placed the sword on top of her heaving chest. The blade stretched nearly to her feet and Sundra stared in awe at the span of forged steel. "Do you, Sundra, swear to take the oath to bear the Sword of Balance? In swearing this oath, you must relinquish all bonds of love, emotional and physical, and accept no other. You will carry out the commands of the sword and what it asks of you. You will be the Oathbearer and destined to carry the Sword of Balance until the day it is ordained for you to swear it upon another. Think before you answer, lass. You may suffer a better fate at the hands of the Witch Hunters."

            "I don't want to die," Sundra sobbed.

            The man looked over his shoulder in the direction of the approaching hounds. “Time is of the essence, lass." The stranger returned his gaze to Sundra. “Yea or nay?

            "I swear by the goddess Elanna to bear the Sword of Balance and do what it requires of me."

            From out of his sleeve, the stranger produced a small thin knife and grabbed Sundra's hand. He dragged the blade across her palm leaving a line of blood. Sundra watched in fascination as blood dripped from her wound and onto the blade of the sword. Each drop disappeared into the metal as if absorbed like a sponge.

            "The Sword of Balance accepts your oath," the stranger stated and then whipped the weapon off her body. He took a fighting stance over her prone form and faced the oncoming attack of the dogs. "You get to live."

            Three large hounds charged into the clearing; their coats a glistening black. Slaver dripped from their sharp teeth in white streams. Growling, the canines rushed forward only to find the stranger with the sword stood between them and their intended prey. The first hound died as it leaped at the swordsman. In a flash of steel, he cut the animal in two. The halves fell to the ground beside Sundra, who cringed at the sight of the dog's blood and entrails. In the next moment, another hound was decapitated. The animal’s head rolled end over end to land at the edge of the clearing. The third hound attempted to adjust its charge and back away but could not before the stranger’s sword impaled its body. The animal died with a loud yelp as the blade pierced through its spine and pinned it to the ground.

            "I hate killing dogs," said the stranger as he pulled the blade from the body of the hound. "I had a dog once."

            He laid the sword in the grass beside Sundra and leaned down to examine her ankle. Dressed in the ragged clothes of a tramp; his face bore the weathering lines of many summer suns. The hands touching her ankle were calloused and rough. Flint gray eyes carried a hard edge but held compassion as well.

            "How bad is it?" he asked with sudden tenderness in his voice. "Can you walk?"

            Sundra grabbed the hem of the ragged robe and covered her exposed legs. She wore nothing under the simple garment forced onto her by the Inquisitors.

            "Who are you?" she asked wincing in pain as the man held her ankle and moved it with his hand.

            "Jorn," he answered. "Your ankle doesn't seem to be broken, but it’s swelling badly."

            She looked over Jorn's shoulders. A group of men, armed with swords and dressed in black studded armor, entered the clearing. Their hard faces were red and sweating from running through the woods.

            "Behind you," Sundra spoke softly to Jorn.

            "Let me guess," Jorn's eyes locked with hers. “Witch Hunters?

            Sundra nodded.

            Letting out a weary sigh, Jorn grabbed the hilt of the great sword, and stood to face the new intruders to the forest clearing.

            Sundra recognized one man as Korvin, the Houndsman of her village of Moorshire. He gawked at the butchered dogs with eyes threatening to weep.           

            "Did you do this?" Korvin pointed a finger at Jorn. "Did you kill me dogs?"

            "I do feel bad about slaying the poor wretched animals." Jorn spat onto the ground. "I promise I won't feel such about killing all of you."

           A moment of shocked silence passed between the men.

           Mordun, the cruel Witch Hunter who lit the fires beneath those accused of witchcraft, stepped forward from the group. "Just you against the eight of us?" he asked Jorn.

            “Yes.”

            Unsheathing a large broadsword, he chuckled. "Me thinks you're mouth is bigger then your sword, old man."

            Jorn stuck the point of his sword into the ground and leaned forward with arms crossed on the hilt. "Pretty fair odds to me.” He spat again. “I thought more were coming."

            As if on cue, the group parted and a heavy set priest entered the clearing. Wearing red robes with the symbol of the Eye of the All Father blazoned on the chest, he leaned against a tree to catch his breath. Sundra’s anger rose at the sight of Inquisitor Krellios. He was the one who had passed judgment on her mother and sister and sentenced them to die by burning. She fought the urge to grab up Jorn's sword and run him through where he stood.

            "Is the witch dead?" Krellios asked. "Did the hounds kill her and send her cursed soul to the Inferno?"

           Jorn cleared his throat. “The answer is no. Go find some other innocent girl to put to death.”

            "What?" Krellios asked as his shocked gaze took in the sight of Jorn leaning on his sword. "Who are you?"

            Mordun answered. "It seems this old man has decided to meddle into the affairs of the church. He killed the hounds."

            Krellios pointed at Jorn. "You dare to interfere with the Church of the All Father? This girl bears the traits of the Tainted. She has been marked for death for being a witch! To protect her is blasphemy!"

            "My name is Jorn and you won't be hurting this girl."

            "You are willing to protect a witch?" Krellios snapped back. "By edict proclaimed by the Holy Father, Urmas the Divine, all who bear the traits of the Tainted shall be put to death as a witch. Look at the white hair and the red pupils of her eyes. She is tainted by Chaos!"

            "I think it makes her look rather pretty."

            The priest shook his head "Then you are a blasphemer and a heretic to the church of the All Father. The penalty for such blasphemy is death!" He turned to the Mordun at his side. "Kill him and the girl."

            "My pleasure,” Mordun shifted his broadsword to combat ready. "It is time to send your soul, old man, to the hell it belongs."

            "You first."

           In the space of a heartbeat, Jorn yanked the Sword of Balance from the ground and cut across Mordun’s abdomen. Ripping upward, the blade split the studded leather armor and rendered through flesh and bone. Mordun dropped his weapon and looked down in shock to see his abdomen and chest laid completely open by the blow. Jorn next spun with the blade and the Witch Hunter’s decapitated head flew through the air. Spraying a fountain of blood from its severed neck, the headless body staggered forward and fell to the ground. Sundra felt a warm wetness splash across her face.

            She looked up to see Jorn cutting through the mass of men. Sunlight flashed off the bloodied steel of the Sword of Balance as it slashed a swath through the group. Blood splashed into the air from the lethal swings of the blade. Jorn spun and dead men fell to the ground. After a few moments, the battle ended with Jorn standing in the middle of the clearing surrounded by the butchered bodies of the Witch Hunters. Only Krellios remained alive, his eyes bulged from the fat of his face at the sight of the dead laid around him.

            "In the name of the All Father, don't kill me!" he cried as he turned to flee the clearing. Jorn's hand whipped into his sleeve and threw the little dagger he had used to cut Sundra’s palm. The blade snagged the sleeve of Krellios's robe and pinned it to a nearby tree. Grabbing his holy symbol, the priest began muttering prayers to his god as Jorn walked toward him.

            "Save your pitiful prayers." Jorn put the bloodied point of the sword under the priest’s fat chin. "I’m not going to kill you."

            "Oh, bless the name of the All Father," Krellios gasped as tears poured down his cheeks.

            "Kill him!” Sundra shouted as she rose and stood on her good ankle. “He murdered my mother and my sister!"

            "Don't listen to her," Krellios said. "To kill an Inquisitor would send your soul to eternal damnation."

            "Forget your religious prattle, my soul is already damned." Jorn pushed the point of the sword against Krellios’s throat. "I’m giving you a message instead. You tell his arse-holiness, Urmas the Divine, he has been marked for death by the Sword of Balance. We are coming to kill him. Now repeat it for me."

            "You want me to tell the Holy Father he is marked for death by the Sword of Balance," Krellios said as he winced from the pain of the sword. “You two are coming to kill him.”

            "Correct." Jorn lowered the sword and pulled free the dagger pinning the Inquisitor's robe to the tree. "Just give him the message." His boot caught the Inquisitor in the buttocks and sent him sprawling into a thorn bush. "Now run away like the pig you are before I decide to do what the girl wants."

            Krellios struggled out of the thorns and fled into the woods.

            "He deserved to die," Sundra said.

            "He will, but not by my hand." Jorn sheathed his sword and crossed to her in the clearing. "Can you walk?"

            "A little, I think"

            "Put your arm around my shoulder and I will help you."

            "Where are we going?"

            "Not far."

            Sundra reached out and leaned her body heavily against his shoulder. Jorn was strong and stout for a man of his age and held her weight with ease. She hobbled along beside him as they picked their way along the trail through the forest. She did not speak, though she wanted to ask him many questions. Instead, she remained quiet and concentrated on stepping over tree roots and around thorns and branches. After a time, she heard a brook running and the occasional snicker of horses. They came out of the forest onto the grassy bank of a running stream. Two grazing horses were tied to a tree stump.

            "We are home," Jorn said as he helped her up to the side of the stream. "Put your ankle in the cold water. It will help keep the swelling down."

            Sundra set down and eased her hurt foot into the running stream. The icy water began to take away the fire from the twisted ankle. Jorn crossed over to the first horse, patted the animal's neck, and then reached into a saddlebag and pulled out a set of clothes.

            "I brought these though I wasn't sure what size you wear." Jorn tossed the garments down to the ground beside Sundra. “I hope they fit.”

            "You knew you were going to find me. How is that possible?"

            Jorn smiled. "You will learn many things are possible to one who carries the Sword of Balance."

            Sundra looked through the clothes Jorn provided her; a white blouse with full sleeves, leather pants, and a hooded cloak of gray.

            "You better get out of your robe and change into riding clothes," Jorn said. "We have to be leaving soon."

            "I can't in front of you."

            "I'll be over there tending to the horses. I will keep my back turned while you change. Just tell me when you are done."

            He turned and bent down to examine the hooves of the horses. Sundra quickly stripped out of the ragged sack cloth. The sun felt warm on her bare flesh.

            "You know why those men were hunting me, don't you?" she asked as she tore a piece of cloth from the ragged robe.

            "Was it because they’re religious zealots who couldn't think past the nose on their faces?" He answered over his shoulder without looking at her.

            "It’s because I’m Tainted." She dipped the cloth into the stream and washed the dried blood from her face and arms. "My white hair and red eyes are the marks of a witch, so they say."

            "Are you a witch?" 

            "You mean do I fly around on brooms and cast evil magic spells?" Sundra slid the leather breeches over her legs, wary of her hurt ankle. "Of course not. The Taint gives us some powers. My mother was a great healer. My sister could read the thoughts of others from time to time. I am told I have the power of second sight, to be able to see things in the future."

             "You stated earlier your mother and sister were dead?"

            "They were burned at the stake." The image of her mother and her younger sister being immolated before her eyes flashed in her mind. Grief settled like a heavy stone into her heart as tears welled into her eyes. I’m alone now, but alive, Sundra told herself as she laced up the front of the breeches and grabbed up the white blouse. The goddess granted me another chance at life. She must have some purpose for me. Sundra bowed her head and prayed. I am your vessel, Elanna, and I thank you.       

            "Why does this church hate you so much?" Jorn's strong voice broke her train of thought.

            "Their book of faith demands followers to destroy all witches. Over the last few years, the Church of the All Father has grown in power spewing forth its lies throughout the land. The Holy Father has ordered his Inquisitors and Witch Hunters to scour the countryside looking for those who bear the Taint of Chaos. Hundreds of innocent women have been sent to their death by fire."

            "How did you escape?"

            "I managed to slip out of the shackles before they could drag me to the stake," she answered as she buttoned on the white blouse across her ample breasts. The fit was tight and she left the top two buttons unfastened. "I fled into the forest." She tied the gray robe around her shoulders.

            "How old are you?"

            "Seventeen summers." Tearing another piece of cloth from the discarded robe, she tied back her long white hair. "You can look now," Sundra said as she stood slowly and smoothed out the wrinkles in her clothes.

            Jorn turned around.

            "By the gods, lass, you are a sight for an old man’s eyes," he remarked, adding. "I have a pair of boots to go with the outfit but you’d better wait until your ankle is better before wearing them."

            "Thanks for saving me from the witch hunters. I owe you my life." She looked down at the ground. "I have no way to pay you back except with my body. It is the only thing I have now."

            "Lass, I am much too old to concern myself with the flesh of one so young. Besides, it was not I who saved you." Jorn handed her reins to one of the horses. "It was the sword. I am only the instrument through which the sword works. You are sworn to the blade now which means you and the Sword of Balance must become as one." He lifted her up into the saddle of her horse. "You do know how to ride?"

            "I do." Sundra answered as she took the reins of her horse.

            "Good." Jorn slid up into the saddle of his own mount.

            “The Church of the All Father will come after us.”

            “I know.” Jorn replied and pulled his horse around. "We will follow the stream northward and away from these woods. You have many questions, I’m sure, but all will be answered over time. For now we must ride."

            "I do have many questions but may I just ask one."

            "Ask me then."

            "In the clearing you gave Krellios a message for the Holy Father that we were coming to kill him. How do you plan to slay the most powerful religious leader in the land? He is protected by an army of priests and mercenaries."

            "I am not going to be his assassin.” Jorn heeled his horse in the side and rode ahead along the bank of the stream. He called back over his shoulder, "You are."


CHAPTER TWO

 

 

 

 

            On horseback, Jorn led the way along the banks of the brook which eventually fed into a slow moving river. Through out the afternoon, Sundra followed the old warrior with her mount. She studied him as he rode ahead and noted he constantly scanned the land around them for possible attack. Riding alongside the winding river, they saw no one except a few peasant women washing clothes in the muddy water. They paid no mind to the two riders. Jorn kept a leisurely pace with the horses and Sundra soon began to realize they weren't running or fleeing from danger, even though the church surely hunted them by now. He seemed to be biding his time until he found some sign or inclination on where to go. She patiently followed behind him as the afternoon wore on. The ride became more like a summer's day excursion then an escape from death and violence.

            After a while, Jorn stopped his horse and turned around in the saddle to look at her. "Do you have any idea where we are?"

            "Are you lost?" Sundra asked surprised.

            "To be lost, I would need a destination in mind. I don't have one yet."

            "You don't know where you’re going?"

            "I don't even know what land I am in."

            "Nermania," Sundra answered. "It was once the Kingdom of Nermania but that was before the church came to power and usurped the monarchy. It’s just Nermania now."

            "I traveled farther north then I realized. Do you know where we are in Nermania?"

            Sundra sighed. "Being raised in the small village of Moorshire, I never strayed far from my home. When you bear the traits of the Tainted, you don’t often leave the relative safety of one’s hearth. I think the river we’re riding along is named King's River, but I’m not sure."

            Jorn didn't say another word but turned back in his saddle and rode ahead.  When the afternoon finally waned toward the oncoming dusk, he stopped his horse and slid out of the saddle.

            "We sleep here." Jorn pointed up the bank to the ruins of a small millhouse built by the riverside. The rotted and broken wooden mill wheel still rested in the water. Shutters on the windows of the main building hung open and dark as crows cawed and roosted on the wood tiles of the millhouse roof.

            "In there?" Sundra asked with a look of concern across her face "I don't know."

            "Why not?" Jorn took the reins to her horse.

            "I don't like rats," Sundra answered as she slid gingerly from her saddle and stepped lightly onto the soft ground.

           "Half the countryside and every Witch Hunter in the land are looking for us now," Jorn chuckled. "It won't be rats that’ll kill us, lass."

            "I know. I just don't like rats. I wouldn't be able to sleep in there if there are rats around."

            "Fine," Jorn resigned and waved his hand. "We will sleep outside the mill in that patch of grass on the hill and pray it doesn't rain tonight."

            "Thank you."

            He led the two mounts up the bank and tied the reins to a nearby tree. After unsaddling the horses, he left them to graze. Sundra watched him tend to the mounts and waited until he finished.

            "I’m hungry,” she said.

            "I’ll go find some firewood and then we’ll have something to eat." He picked up the Sword of Balance in its sheath and belted it to his hip. "Don't wander off."

            "I’m just going down to the river's edge to wash the dirt and sweat out of my hair."

            Jorn nodded and entered the forest beyond the banks of the river. Hobbling on her good ankle, Sundra limped down to the water wheel of the mill where rain had collected in its buckets. She undid her cloak and untied her white hair. Bending down, she put her head in the cool water and scrubbed the dirt from her locks. Afterwards, she sat upon the bank and squeezed rain water from her hair as the dusk darkened and the first pin-points of starlight pierced the azure curtain of the sky.

            The sadness and grief she suffered earlier in the day returned. She missed her mother, Mari and her little sister Nella. My life has changed on this day. I’ve lost my home and family forever. I’m along except for one old warrior with a sword.

           Tears filled her vision and she wiped them away. She took in the view of the two moons of Guya, Elanna, the greater, and Morna, the lesser, rise above the horizon and take their place of glory in the night sky. She remembered the song of Moonrise her mother taught her when just a child and sang the words with a haunting sadness. When done, she said a prayer for the soul of her mother and her sister.

            "You sing beautifully," Jorn spoke from behind. "What was the song?"

            She turned to see him standing in the growing shadows of the dusk. "The Song of Moonrise. It is an offering to the spirit of my sister and my mother."

            Jorn nodded up the hill where a small campfire flickered in the space behind the abandoned mill. "I've started a fire and there is food to eat." He reached down and helped her to her feet. "It is terrible you lost your mother and sister to the burning."

            "They died by fire, but it gave me the strength to escape and flee into the forest where you saved me. I think the goddess has given me a second chance at life. I believe my destiny is to rid the world of this cursed Inquisition.”

            “Your destiny is to bear the Sword of Balance and to do what it requires of you. You serve the blade, not your goddess.”

            “I feel their purpose is one and the same.”

            “Who can say?”

             They didn't speak again until they sat by the fire. Hungry, Sundra accepted the beef jerky and hard bread with a slice of cheese Jorn offered her. She sat staring into the flickering light as she ate.

            "Did you ever have any family?" She asked breaking the silence.

            "I had a wife and son." His gray eyes looked into hers from across the fire. "Once."

            "What happened?"

            "They also died."

            Sundra shook her head sadly. "There is too much death in these times; too much sadness and hate."

            "Aye, but you are proof there is beauty as well, lass. I heard it tonight as you sang your Song of Moonrise."

            Sundra turned her head up to look at the two moons shining brightly in the night sky. "So what do we do? Just wander around the land until we figure out where we’re going next?"

            "Yes." Jorn tore off a piece of jerky and chewed upon it. "At time, the sword is like the needle of a compass. It will point to where you need to go. You just have to be patient."

            "I hope the Church of the All Father is so patient."

            Jorn chuckled. "I don't think patience and tolerance are virtues this church preaches."

            Sundra looked beyond the fire light towards the dark woods atop the nearby hill. Tall trees stood black against the starlit sky, and the air resonated with the sound of crickets. "Tell me about this sword I’ve been sworn to."

            Jorn put aside his food. Grabbing up the sheath by his side, he drew the blade with a ringing sound. Its steel shimmered in the light from the fire and the two moons. He stabbed the point of the blade into the ground so it stood on its own.

            "This is the Sword of Balance," he said returning to his meal.

            Sundra studied the weapon in the dancing firelight and sensed power emanating from its metal as if a great arcane energy slept within the forged steel.

            "How did you come to own it?"

            "You don't own the Sword of Balance, it owns you," Jorn answered. "When I took the oath to carry the sword, I was like you, my family slain and nothing else left to live for. My predecessor passed the blade to me and now it is my turn to pass it to you."

            "Who forged it? Where did it come from?"

            Jorn's pointed to the hilt of the great blade. In the firelight, several engraved images were visible on the handle and pommel. He reached out with one calloused finger and touched an engraving of a rune.

            "The sword was forged a thousand years ago by a people called the Tyrkanians whose culture has fallen out of time and history. They were well advanced in the skill of forging metals and enchanting them with great magic but, as they were gifted with such great knowledge, they were also torn apart by it.” He moved his finger to another raised engraving. Sundra realized the history of the sword’s forging was etched into the hilt. “Their culture swung back and forth between war and conflict by those who wished to use their knowledge to gain power and rule others. The governing council of this lost nation decided to forge twelve powerful swords for the hands of their most honorable knights. With these weapons, law and order would be maintained and peace would be restored through out the land. The Sword of Balance is one of those blades of legend."

            "So what became of the Tyrkanians?"

            "This is where the history becomes vague and uncertain. Something cataclysmic happened to the land and the twelve swords of power were lost. Only the Sword of Balance remains to this day, performing the duty it was enchanted to do millennia ago."

            "What duty is that?"

            "To restore balance to a world unbalanced."

            "Balance? I don't understand."

            "There are two forces at work in the world. One is the force of Law which maintains order and function to existence. The other is Chaos which provides uncertainty and violent change to the world. These forces are constantly in conflict with each other, as it should be. When the world shifts too far toward one side or the other, law or chaos, then Guya is unbalanced, and the fate of the world is threatened. The Sword of Balance was forged to bring balance to the world."

            "One sword to do all that?" Sundra said shaking her damp hair toward the fire.

            "I suspect it is the Inquisition and the church of the All Father that has drawn the sword to this place. As an Oathbearer, the sword will guide where you need to be. Its purpose may seem a mystery at times, but eventually it will reveal itself. I feel that something is wrong and out of balance in this land." Jorn put aside the sword. "Enough history lessons for tonight. I need sleep. You will find as you get older that sleep is a much more valued commodity."

            Sundra ran her hand through her tangled long hair. "I would trade that sword for a good comb right now."

            Without saying a word, Jorn stood and crossed to where the saddle bags laid on the ground. He returned offering her a sleeping blanket. She took the blanket and noticed he held something else wrapped in a silk cloth.

            "For you." He placed the object in her hand..

            Removing the silk, Sundra discovered a woman's comb in the shape of a swan. A line of small gems ran along its neck.

            "Where did you get this?" She asked looking up at Jorn. “It is the most beautiful comb I’ve ever seen.”

            "It belonged to my wife, Breena. It is yours now."

            "Oh no, I couldn't take such a gift."  Sundra offered the comb back.

            "Just promise on the next moon rise you will sing a prayer to my wife and my son." He closed his hand around her fingers, and smiled. “I would like that.”

            "The goddess teaches to never refuse a gift from the heart." Sundra took the comb and passed it through her white locks. “I promise to honor the souls of your wife and son with the next moon rise.”

            Placing down his sleeping blanket, Jorn stretched out on his side. His gray eyes watched as she ran the comb through her hair. She counted to one hundred strokes and stopped. Wrapping the comb back in its silk cloth, she looked across to see Jorn had slipped into sleep. In the shifting light of the fire, the wet tracks of tears glistened on the old man’s face.

 


CHAPTER THREE

 

 

            His Holiness, Urmas the Divine, the head priest of the Church of the All Father, padded down the stone corridor that led to his secret inner sanctum deep inside the Basilica of Light. He didn't have much time before his personal bodyguard, Craggan, would be bringing Inquisitor Krellios to him. He needed answers first before his audience with the fool priest.

            Flickering torchlight cast shifting shadows on his thin face as he stood before the door and reached into the folds of his robes to produce a single iron key. He placed the key into the lock and turned it causing a resonating click to echo in the corridor behind him. Beyond the door were the chambers of his inner sanctum where his darkest secret resided. Hidden away from the prying eyes of the rest of the church, existed the source of his real power over the multitudes of the faithful: his own personal demon.

            Literally.

            Urmas entered the secret chamber and shut the door behind him. The small room beyond was lit by low lamp light. In the center of the floor, the runes of the summoning circle waited with its taboo symbols inscribed in black script onto the stone. The walls were painted a deep black and the air smelled dimly of sulfur and brimstone. To one side of the summoning circle, a small pedestal stood with two candles in brass holders and a great goblet of silver. Urmas lit the two candles with a long matchstick and took up the goblet from the pedestal as he whispered the ancient unholy summoning chant. The candles grew brighter as their flame intensified causing shadows to sway upon the blackened walls. Urmas continued his chanting as he took a knife from his robes and cut his finger. Blood dripped into the silver chalice. He stepped forward and placed the goblet in the center of the summoning circle.

           "I call upon thee, oh great Belephor, to come before me as I summon thee," Urmas shouted as he stepped back out of the protective circle upon the floor.

           A sudden blast of roaring heat followed as a column of black smoke rose out of the center of the silver goblet. As it gained height, it transformed into a swirling cyclone confined to the borders of the summoning circle. From the midst of the twisting smoke, a hideous hunched form emerged. Towering over Urmas, the demon looked down upon him through the black mist with hateful red glowing eyes. Long claws of obsidian scratched at the stone floor of the summoning circle.

            "Who dares to summon Belephor from the fires of the Inferno?" The demon asked with a voice that sounded like deep thunder.

            "I, Urmas, have summoned thee."

            "Oh, it is you …." Belephor’s red eyes narrowed upon seeing the Holy Father. “…the great hypocrite.”

            "Silence, demon, I have no use for your tongue other then to tell me what I need to know. You predicted one day a powerful witch would destroy this great church unless I act and change destiny. I have set up the Inquisition and sent out Witch Hunters to gather all those in the land marked by Chaos. Many have burned at the stake. Today, I received a troubling message. A witch escaped her fate upon the pyre. Is she the one that you foretold me about?"

            "She is." Belephor answered with the hint of laughter.

            A sudden fear shook the Holy Father. His rise to power within the church had been due to the aid of Belephor. From the beginning, the demon warned him about a young witch sealing his doom and destroying everything he worked so hard to build. Fate could be changed, but only if he acted first.

            "Tell me of this witch."

            "She is naïve and untrained, but she has a powerful weapon."

            "What weapon?"

            "A sword of great power forged long ago. If she learns to wield it, you will be in great danger."

            "How do I counter this fate?" Urmas asked desperate for the answer.

            "Her weapon is the Sword of Balance, one of twelve swords of power forged and carried by the great defenders of a lost kingdom.” Belephor’s eyes burned a brighter red. “But there is one more sword."

            "One more?"

            "The thirteenth sword forged by a secret cult of Chaos worshippers in the shadows unknown by the wielders of the other blades. It is the Sword of Oblivion and it can counter your fate."

            "I must have it. Where is it?"

            "It fell into hell a thousand years ago and stays down here with us."

            "Bring it to me."

            "To perform such a task, I will need more blood then the paltry drops you have given me."

            "You shall have it."  Urmas turned to leave the summoning chamber. "Wait for my return."

           

            The Grand Cathedral served as the main worship hall in the Basilica of Light. High stained glass windows, portraying various saints, stretched upward to the arched ceiling overhead. Sunlight shone through the crystal ceiling, creating rays of golden light to illuminate the place of worship. Behind the altar, rose the magnificent marble statue of the All Father, with hands outstretched before him, welcoming all believers to his church.  In the shadow of the great statue, Urmas waited by the cold stone as a door opened on the other side of the hall. Two men entered.

            Side by side, the two could not look any different. Craggan, his personal guard, was a tall warrior with long red hair and muscles bulging under his studded leather armor. In contrast, the man walking beside him was the fat priest Krellios, trying hard to keep up with the long strides of the bodyguard.

            Urmas stepped from the shadows and cleared his throat. At the sight of the Holy Father, the priest ran forward between the empty pews and fell to one knee. His shaking fingers made the sign of supplication.

            "Your Eminence, it is such an honor," Krellios sputtered as he kissed the ring on Urmas's finger. "All praise the name of the All Father."

            "Stand priest, for I wish to speak with you." Urmas ordered.

            "Yes your, Eminence."

            "I have heard word a witch escaped the fires that you prepared for her. How did this happen, Krellios?"

            "She had help, your Eminence. She was saved by a vagabond looking man with a magnificent great sword. He said his name was Jorn."

            "One vagabond with a sword killed all of your men?"

            "Yes, it is only by the grace of the All Father that I was spared."

            "The All Father is merciful, indeed." Urmas turned to Craggan. "What do you know of this vagabond swordsman?"

            "I've heard tales from the south lands of a ragged swordsman who carries a blade fit for a king. Others have tried to take the sword from him. All died trying."

            "Why is he here interfering with the holy mission of this church?"

            Krellios kept his head bowed as his voice quaked with fear. "Holy Father, he said you were marked for death by the Sword of Balance. He and the witch girl are coming to kill you. Forgive me, you're Eminence, but that is what the blasphemer said."

            "It’s all right, Krellios, you’re just relaying a message." Urmas spoke next to his bodyguard. "Craggan, I want you to rally your best fighters and hunt down this vagabond and the witch who would dare to blaspheme the church of the All Father. I want them both dead, especially the witch. Bring the sword to me. Do you understand?"

            "As you wish," Craggan bowed his head and put his fist to his heart.

            "Leave Krellios with me. We have much to pray over."

            Craggan turned and walked away through the cathedral; his boot steps echoing on the marble floor.

            After the doors closed behind the powerful body guard, Urmas said to the priest beside him. “You see, Krellios, the problem is solved.” He reached down and helped the obese man to his feet. "Would you like to take a little tour of this beautiful church?"

            "I would be honored, you're Eminence."

            "Then come with me and I will show you secrets of this basilica that I have only shown to a chosen few." Urmas waved his arm. "Tell me what you see when you look at this great cathedral?"

            "I see the promise of heaven. It is beyond words to describe."

            "That it is." Urmas nodded. "But did you know that there is also the promise of infernal damnation here, Krellios?"

            "Hell, you're Eminence?"

            "In the dungeons, deep below where we stand, the Inquisitors are torturing and killing blasphemers. That is what I would call damnation."

            "Thou shall not suffer the blasphemer to live," Krellios quoted from the Book of Prophets.

            "So it is written." Urmas replied. "What would you do if I told you I was the greatest blasphemer of all?"

            A look of shock crossed the sweating face of the priest. He hesitated before he spoke. "It cannot be. You are the Holy Father and the Divine Light by which the All Father speaks."

            "So they say." He touched the shoulder of the priest's robes. "Follow me."

            Urmas led the way through a door opening to another great hall in stone.  Beyond stretched a long hallway where rows of tall marble statues lined both sides of the hall.

              "This is the Hall of Fathers," Urmas announced as he closed the door behind Krellios. The priest took in the sight of the statues with eyes wide with amazement and reverence. "Here are all the graven images of the twelve Holy Fathers who have served the church before me. We will walk in front of them so you can get a better look."

            As they proceeded down the hall, Krellios walked beside Urmas. They paused in reverence before the stone faces of each statue. A large book bound in lead rested in the marble hands of each

            "What is the book they’re holding?" Krellios asked breaking the profound silence of the chamber.

            "Each Holy Father writes a book of their reflections on the faith of the All Father." Urmas replied and added, "Have you never seen a greater collection of fools in your life?"

            "I don't understand, you're Eminence."

            "I call this the Hall of Fools. These were nothing more then pompous priests who paraded about praying to a god they knew did not exist. Oh, they wanted to believe, but each one knew, there was no All Father to save them."

            A look of total shock twisted Krellios’s face. "The words you speak are …"

            "Blasphemy," Urmas interrupted. "Oh yes, I know."

            "Holy Father, is this some kind of test of my faith?”

            "Quit blubbering, Krellios. I have no desire to test your faith." Urmas stopped at the end of the hall where an empty stone base stood. "Look here. This is where my own statue will rest soon. I've already posed for the sculptor. They tell me it will be here in a few days." Urmas stepped up on the base and posed. "Won't I look pompous and important, too?"

            "If you say so, you're Eminence."

            "It is too bad my image has to set in the same hall as these charlatans." Urmas stepped off the stone base. "I have one more secret to show you. Follow me."

            Urmas led the priest out of the Hall of Fathers. Through a maze of more winding passageways, he followed the Holy Father until they reached a torch lit hall with an iron door at the end.

            "I have risen to the Head Priest of the most powerful church in the entire continent of Bythandor." Urmas removed the iron key from his robe. "Beyond this door, I am going to show you how I did it."

            "This is such an honor, Your Eminence.”

            "Welcome to my secret chambers," Urmas turned the key in the lock and opened the door. “Now tell me again how you failed me today.”

            "I’m so sorry I couldn’t prevent the witch from escaping. It is a stain upon my service to the church. It is only by the mercy of the All Father, I’m still alive."

            "A fate I will soon remedy."

            "You're Eminence?" Krellios asked with a look of confusion.

            "You’re going to die a horrible death for letting the witch escape." Urmas drew the dagger from his robes and pointed it toward Krellios.

            The priest's face went white as he stepped back away from the door. "I thought we were going to pray to the glory of the All Father?" Fear began to show in his pig-like eyes as his voice stammered.

            "Prayer won’t save impotent fools like you." Urmas showed a cold smile. "Just keep stepping back through the door behind you."

            "But what of the mercy of the All Father?" Krellios stepped back from the dagger Urmas pointed toward him.

            "Lies." Urmas responded.

            "The Holy Texts of the Prophets?"

            "More lies written by a set of idiots who had gone insane in the heat of the desert."

            "The All Father himself?" Tears were forming in the eyes of the priest.

            "A false god, I’m afraid." Urmas forced Krellios back toward the door of the summoning room. "You will soon witness the real power in the world of Guya, Krellios. For evil not only exists, it will one day rule over all."

            "The words you speak are-"

            "Blasphemous," Urmas slashed the knife cutting the front of the priest's robe. Krellios staggered back in fear through the door of the summoning room. "Isn't that ironic? The Holy Father is the greatest blasphemer of them all!"  Urmas brandished the dagger once more forcing the priest to step farther into the room. "Turn around, Krellios, and greet your new god."

            In fear, Krellios turned to look behind him and gazed upon the form of Belephor. His eyes opened and nearly bugged out of his skull at the sight of the demon waiting within the circle of protection.

            "By the All Father … dear God, protect me!" Krellios screamed in total shock while he grabbed at the holy symbol around his neck.

            "To me!" Belephor bellowed as he stretched out his clawed hands.

            Urmas shoved the fat priest with all of his might and sent Krellios staggering forward into the protective circle on the floor.

            "Nooooooooo!!!!" His terrible scream echoed in the summoning chamber.

            Krellios tried to run, but before he could escape, the black claws of Belephor reached out and sunk into his wide chest. A ripping noise followed as the priest's entire upper body was torn apart by the hooked claws of the demon. Crimson blood, flesh, and organs erupted outward from the chest of the priest and were swept up into the swirling cloud of black smoke enveloping the form of Belephor. The demon devoured the body of the priest before Urmas, who watched with no emotion.

           "You have your blood offering, demon. Now bring me the Sword of Oblivion!" Urmas shouted.

            "As you command," Belephor's voice boomed. In a flash of magical energy, a huge greatsword of the blackest ebon appeared in the demon's hands. "The Sword of Oblivion, master."

            Urmas stepped forward and held out his hand. "Give it to me."

            As Belephor handed over the sword, his red eyes narrowed. "I often wonder who is more evil, me or you."

            "I am." Urmas answered as his hand wrapped around the hilt of the massive dark sword. A surge of power and strength passed through his body as he lifted up the offered blade. In a sudden blast of heat, the demon disappeared leaving Urmas alone to study the weapon. The obsidian sword had a blade of darkest metal entwined with red glowing glyphs of angry red fire. Though it looked too large for any man to wield, the sword felt light in his grip. He lifted it easily and swung the black blade through the air. The weapon howled in anger as it cut a swath through the smoke in the room. As he swung the sword, to and fro, more power raged through his body.  Maddening power, unlike any he had ever known before. With a blade like this in his possession, he could become a god. No one could stand in his way or dare to threaten him now.

            His mad laughter filled the room.

 

 

 

 

 


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