Chapter 16: The Return Journey
Damn it!” roared Billy as he smashed his fist through their room’s door. After he withdrew his now bloody hand he looked through the hole to see the stunned face of Commander Mike Nakai, whose hand was poised ready to knock.
The door collapsed towards Nakai and crashed to the floor, Nakai sidestepping just in time. He walked over the door and entered the room. The three boys and Dawn were all in there, looking rather angry. Billy was wrapping his hand in bandages, Zak was opening nut shells by smashing them with his axe, Trey was sat polishing his sword and Dawn was practicing with her scimitar in the centre of the room. An immensely small man was shooting a candle on the other side of the room from where it stood with a miniature crossbow. Nakai shrugged and pushed the tiny man from his mind.
“What do you want?” asked Dawn as she removed some stray hairs from her face.
Nakai hesitated for a moment then spoke. “I’m sorry about my Lord. He is a rather selfish and uncaring man but he wants what is best for Onlasar.” He hesitated again as if pondering something of huge importance. “Even if we win this battle we will be defeated by the beasts of the west. That is where you head, is it not?”
Trey spoke in a serious manner. “We were. Now we can’t. We will fight here with you and if I live then I will head west. What the others do is their choice.”
“What do you plan to do when you reach that accursed place?” asked Nakai.
“Find and free the slaves, cause widespread chaos, the usual,” Trey replied.
A smile appeared upon Nakai’s face. “I believe you could do it as well. If you don’t get yourselves killed, you four will become great warriors in the future. If we all somehow live through these hard times then it would be a great honour to spar with you.”
“I look forward to that day,” replied Trey. Zak smiled widely at the thought of fighting Onlasar’s finest warrior.
The Commander gave a deep sigh. “Head to the city armoury and take your pick of weapons and armour. Your place is not in this battle but in Lanstiro. I don’t give a damn what my Lord says on this matter, I’m confident in my decision.”
“What! Really, you’re letting us leave. Won’t your Lord punish you?” asked Billy.
“Even he would not dare punish the best warrior in the city who also happens to be commander of its armies just before such an important battle. After the battle if I live then who knows. Now go! Be as stealthy as possible. My little brother, Liam, will meet you there and show you a secret way out of the city. I must go; I have an army to prepare. Good luck.”
“Thank you Commander. I will never forget your kindness,” said Trey holding his hand out. Nakai took it and shook.
Dawn gave a real curtsy, full of respect unlike the one she had given to the Lord. Billy nodded his head to him. All four gathered up their belongings and left the room, Billy slinging his lutar in its new leather carry case over his shoulder opposite his bow despite a frosty look from Dawn.
As Zak passed Nakai he said, “I look forward to the day we cross blades. Until that day, don’t die, I know I sure as hell won’t. I’m not passing up an opportunity to fight you.”
Nakai laughed. “If it is at all in my power I will not die, at least not until I have tested my skill against you.”
With that the group ran off towards the royal armoury. All guards seemed to have been told to abandon their posts and to train civilians instead so getting into the castle was easy. Finding the right door in the monolithic structure was quite another matter but they managed it. As promised, Liam stood by the armoury door, twirling a key in his black nailed fingers.
“Hey,” Liam said as he opened the door. It took quite some effort as the door was a huge slab of stone on hinges. He lit some torches that hung on the walls inside and stepped back so the others could enter.
The room beyond shone with metals. Shields adorned the walls, weapon racks were arranged in aisles, hundreds of master-crafted weapons upon them. Swords, spears, axes, maces, bows, crossbows, daggers, halberds, hammers and some Trey had never even seen before. The back of the room was dedicated to shining armour.
The group stood unmoving, too amazed by the weapons to think straight. “Take your pick,” said Liam in his deadpan tone. This got them to react. The three boys felt like they were in the world’s greatest sweet shop.
After exploring the room’s contents thoroughly they began to choose what they wanted. Trey decided upon a rather large broadsword, thick bladed near the hilt but gradually growing thinner towards the point. Its handle was wrapped in drake leather and runes glittered upon its blade. It was heavy but Trey was confident that he could wield it. As for armour he chose a thin plate cuirass, plain in design but made from a surprisingly strong metal. Long plated vambraces encased his forearms, forming a hand guard at one end and a curved blade at the elbow. A rounded pauldron protected his shoulders, the metal curving upward slightly at one end to guard his neck. Steel greaves with large tear shaped centres in a black sheen led to leather boots that sported rough metal plates.
Billy chose a fine yew bow carved with eagles and a quiver full of phoenix feathered arrows, a short bladed rapier and several throwing daggers that he hid in his boots, on his waist and up his sleeves. After a moment of thought he also slung a light, single handed crossbow onto his back. He fought his way into a full bodied suit of chainmail then fitted flexible, light coloured leather spaulders, vambraces and greaves. Lastly he found a two pieced plate crafted to look like two hawks in flight that were fastened around his chest and upper back. With the lutar stubbornly strapped to his back he looked overburdened but the weight did not seem to bother him.
Zak kept his axe but replaced his two old swords for a pair of brilliant katana, each with small glowing blue runes that formed the image of a lightning bolt. The cuirass that drew his attention was one that had been shut away inside a cabinet in the corner of the armoury. It was a black metal similar to that which the Forukks wore but whereas their armour was basically designed and poorly made, this was slender and filled with sleek curves and points, giving the illusion of a demonic face across his body. His spaulders were gauntleted hands that grabbed each shoulder, the fingers reaching down his arm as though trying to claw at the leaf patterned metal below them that covered both limbs from fingertip to shoulder. His greaves were no less disturbing as they were a close knit spiderweb of steel, each gap in the metal filled with a smaller criss-crossing of silver threads. Once fully armed he looked easily capable of being some kind of hellish villain from old legends.
Dawn took little other than a bow with arrows as she already had the Heptalli royal scimitar. The clothes she had brought for battle was a many layered robe, each layer immensely thin but she said any arrow fired at it would become tangled before inflicting heavy damage. Based upon what Commander Nakai had worn at the banquet, she selected a delicate, brightened steel chest guard that cut off before reaching her stomach and a single paulder over her right shoulder.
Once everyone had chosen, Liam gave them camouflaged scout cloaks to help avoid enemy detection. He then led them down numerous corridors in silence, much to Dawn’s annoyance as she kept asking him questions which he did not answer.
Eventually he stopped in front of a plain door. Behind it was a small room filled with mops, brushes and buckets. It was a closet. Liam pushed on a broom handle and the back wall slid open.
“A hidden passage in a store room, how traditional,” scoffed Billy.
“Its dark but safe,” said Liam as he started down the tunnel.
“Aren’t you going to light some torches so we can see?” asked Dawn.
“No. I like the dark,” replied Liam as he was submerged into the thick darkness. Dawn gave a frustrated sigh then followed.
Silence and darkness were the only things in the tunnel. It sloped slightly down, leading them underground. Trey was starting to get accustomed to the absence of all but the sound of their heavy breathing and footsteps when the tunnel ended. Trey heard metal rungs clatter then the slow groan of old hinges followed by a dim light. After a brief climb up the ladders they found themselves in a cellar with only narrow slots near its roof providing light. A few crates and barrels occupied the room, other than them, it was empty. At the far end of the cellar, dusty stairs led to a large door that opened into an equipment shed. Trey guessed they were in one of the many farms outside of Onlasar’s walls. Shears, sickles, rakes, wheelbarrows and other useful farming items littered the walls.
“All farmers and other folk who live beyond the city’s walls were taken to the castle like everyone else,” explained Liam as they walked through the deserted farm. Even the animals were gone, taken to a secure location within the city.
“You can get back to the desert by following the main road. You’ll have to find your own way to your deaths, as that’s where you are heading,” said Liam as he pointed towards the main road to and from the city.
“Cheerful as always,” muttered Billy.
“I have to go back to the city. I hope your deaths are quick.”With that he walked back towards the farm.
“We hope to see you again,” called Dawn as she waved goodbye. Liam just carried on walking.
“Fine!” she snapped angrily. She turned and stamped off down the road. Trey, Zak and Billy quickly followed.
Luckily it was the same road that they had came to the city by so they hoped that the sandspeeder was still at the desert’s edge. Minutes passed by and soon the distant yellow line on the horizon became a huge sea of sand. They retraced the path through the desert that they had taken earlier in the week. The speeder was still there, but it was not alone. Three more sand speeders surrounded the royal speeder they had used. One stood at either side then one at the back. The only way not blocked was back towards Onlasar.
Yellow robed figures stood on guard around the area, all armed. Trey counted twenty although more could have been out of his view. He considered abandoning the speeder and finding their way through the desert on foot. He was sure that Dawn would know the way. That idea was dropped though as Trey realised with dread that they had been spotted.
Dawn looked like she would run at any second. Fear laced her features. Only her pride kept her feet rooted in place. She was not scared of the robed figures; she feared returning to her caged life.
“Damn!” she muttered as the Heptalli approached. A crimson clad figure marched at the head of the warriors. Thinking of something else to say or do yielded no results; the only thing that passed through her lips was another “Damn.” She bit at her lip subconsciously with worry, drawing blood.
“Why do they have their weapons drawn and have really angry looks on their faces?” asked Billy.
Dawn was silent a moment then answered. “I was meant to be gone less than a single day; I promised I would only take you to the desert’s edge. Instead I have been gone for six days, alone with three young men who are absolute strangers.”
The Heptalli warriors had reached them now. Two continued past them to guard the rear. Both sides were guarded by grim faced men while another two took their place at the front. All had their weapons pointed at the boys. The red robed Heptalli approached them and stood at the group’s front in between the two warriors already there, face to face with Dawn. It was her mother, Rose, the Heptalli Matriarch. Her face was carefully composed but her amber eyes glared daggers.
The ensuing silence was so loud it was almost deafening. Everything was perfectly still. Trey would have thought time was frozen if it was not for the sharp pain in his back where a spear pressed against him. The void of sound rolled on, Trey wondered if anyone would ever speak, he certainly was not going to and no one else looked ready to either.
“Aah, family reunions are always so touching. How have you been Mrs Rayin? Now it’s a funny story we have to tell you, or actually it’s not funny but it’s certainly entertaining, depending upon your disposition towards interests-” The unwanted ranting was cut short as the guard behind Zak bludgeoned him across the head with the hilt of his scimitar. Zak collapsed to the floor unconscious, blood soaking into the sand.
Trey flinched as he watched. They were deadly serious. None of the Heptalli batted an eyelash as the sand around Zak’s head turn red. Zak had managed to break the silence at least. Now things suddenly started as if the event had been somehow paused until that moment.
“What have you to say?” demanded Dawn’s mother to the girl before her in a harsh tone. When Dawn gave no answer her anger seemed to rise. “You broke your promise, abandoned your royal duties, ran off with three total strangers who could have had any intentions in mind and had the nerve to steal and abandon our finest speeder!” Dawn cringed at every point that was stabbed at her. She still did not give a verbal response to defend herself.
“Do you not care for your tribe? Your family?” stipulated the Heptalli leader.
“I do!” shouted Dawn. Now she looked furious too. Trey and Billy cowered at the sight of the enraged women, as did even the guards. “A better question is do you not care for your own daughter, your own blood?”
“How could you even insinuate such a thing! You have been given all you could ever need and have always been treated with honour and respect,” Rose almost snarled.
Dawn scoffed angrily. “You know I don’t want that life. I want to be treated with love not honour and respect. I want to explore the world not stay in the same desert my whole life. I want to earn people's’ respect not have it handed to me on a silver platter because of some stupid title I don’t even want.”
“That is the way we work. It has been the same for hundreds of generations; you cannot forgo the destiny given to you at your birth. It is the way of the Heptalli.”
“So the way of the great Heptalli is to be trapped in a cage for eternity.”
Both women’s anger had calmed into a mellow sadness. Dawn’s mother turned and addressed everyone. “We are all going back to the village and will discuss matters with the wisdom of the Elder. Load the prisoners onto a speeder.”
“Prisoners?” said Billy.
The warrior in front of him picked him up and slung him across his shoulder. Another did the same to Trey and the still unconscious Zak. They were dumped into one of the normal speeders while Dawn and her mother entered the royal speeder. Five guards stood around the boys. The driver had yet to climb aboard.
As Trey looked around the speeder he noticed something was out of place. The wheel used to steer the sand vessel was already occupied. Leant against the controls was Liam. He half heartedly nodded his head to Trey then pulled a lever. The speeder juddered slightly and started forwards, startling the warriors aboard. One warrior stood near the edge of the speeder fell off into the sand.
To everyone’s surprise, Zak leapt to his feet and tackled the closest warrior over the speeders side. Following his example, Trey pushed another off of the edge while Billy punched one in the face causing him to stagger backwards and into the sand below. The final guard was prepared and had a spear at Zak’s throat within seconds.
“Finally,” shouted a small voice from somewhere on Zak. “I haven’t had any action for ages.”
Pux jumped onto Zak’s shoulder, swung himself onto the spear, ran along its shaft, vaulted into the air and kicked the Heptalli in the nose. This achieved nothing other than to extremely surprise the man at the sight of a finger sized being.
“You are a very small man,” stammered the guard in confusion.
“Well done,” said Pux in an immensely patronising tone. He sighed then in one swift movement cut the man’s beard off with his sword.
This seemed to greatly annoy the man as he drew his own sword. Before he got a chance to swing he was punched in the face and sent hurtling overboard by Billy.
“I was just starting to enjoy myself,” moaned the Yuxova captain.
Liam had turned the craft and now it was about to pass the royal speeder that Dawn and her mother occupied. The Heptalli warriors were in a state of confusion. Liam seemed to know how to drive the vessel. Things were looking good until Trey realised a problem.
“Dawn!” he shouted. Trey could see the girl push her way to the side of her speeder but the two vehicles where many feet apart and one was gaining speed every second. The speeders would only be adjacent for a few brief seconds.
“Jump!” Trey roared over the shouts of the warriors that surrounded them. Dawn hesitated for a instant but by then the two speeders had passed. Still she leapt forwards in the hopes that she could make it.
She was going to fall short; there was no doubt about it. She was just about to land face first into the sand when someone grabbed her hand and swung her towards her goal. Painfully she hit the side of the speeder, knocking all the air from her lungs. She looked up with tear blurred eyes and saw Trey grasping her hand, trying to pull her aboard with all his might. More hands reached down and she was hoisted onto the deck.
Before she got a chance to thank the three boys, Dawn noticed Liam stood at the piloting wheel, which was strange, but stranger was the fact that in his hand he held a black ball the size of a man’s fist. A strand of string protruded from the top that was ablaze with a small flame. Without any warning he threw it towards the speeder Dawn had just escaped from.
Just before Dawn had finished thinking what a pointless idea it had been, the royal speeder disappeared in a ball of fire and a crash of thunder. A wave of monstrous sound hit her, followed by a blast of immense heat. The force was almost enough to knock her from her feet. As the smoke cleared, only splintered wood remained.
Dawn dashed to the speeder’s edge holding back tears. The Heptalli ships were now fading into the distance but the smoke and flames could still be seen clearly. She collapsed to her knees and tears streamed down her paling skin.
Trey and Billy rushed to her side when they noticed she was distressed. Zak would have done the same but he still was not fully coherent after the blow to his head.
“What are you playing at?” roared Billy at Liam. “That was Dawn’s mother you idiot.”
“They attacked you and took you as prisoners. They were enemies,” replied Liam calmly, his logical approach infuriating.
“That’s still no reason to blow them up. We only needed to escape.”
“That’s why I targeted that speeder. It was far faster than ours. They would have caught us up and captured us again.”
Billy looked like he was going to shout some more but Trey interrupted him. “Everyone calm down. Fighting won’t help anymore. It’s too late to argue now.” Trey placed a comforting hand on Dawn’s shoulders. “If we mess up here, many more people will die. We need weapons like that black ball. What was it?” He felt heartless just brushing Dawn’s pain away like that but he was scared of failing and losing his own mother.
“Onlasar’s military alchemists designed it. They named it a Boom- Ball. It’s filled with powder that explodes when fire touches it,” answered Liam.
“What about Dawn though?” said Billy, not forgetting his anger.
“She’ll live,” replied Liam bluntly.
Dawn looked like she could take no more. She rose to her feet then ran straight to the sleeping area below the deck, her head in her hands. Rage contorted Billy’s face. He moved to deliver a punch to the pessimist’s face but Trey managed to hold him back. Zak did not have that problem. His fist connected to Liam’s face, sending the boy back into the railing. Blood trickled from his lip and his eye looked like it would swell. He licked away the blood with slow deliberation.
“Thank you,” said Liam. He actually sounded sincere. It was not that he was thankful he was been punished, rather he was thankful for receiving pain.
“You should be kinder to her,” Zak said as he walked away. “She likes you more than I do, and you’re much less harsh to me.”
“You hold a giant axe on your shoulder almost all of the time,” Liam pointed out. “She doesn’t.”
“But she’s female,” Zak added. “That alone should scare the hell out of you.”
The day passed by in an awkward silence. Tension was high and everyone stayed in their own little areas. Dawn remained below deck, Liam stayed at the wheel while Billy sat at the fastened down table toying with his knives. Zak lay in the middle of the deck staring at the sky and Trey stood at the prow gazing out into the distance deep in thought. Pux was the only person been constructive. He had found a wild lizard and had begun training it as a new steed for himself. Bo-bo stood by his side, aiding his master when possible.
Trey absentmindedly watched the endless dunes of sand zip by as he contemplated their predicament. He was getting nowhere. Just as he was about to retire to his makeshift bed he noticed something on the horizon that was out of place. At the current distance he could not be sure what it was but the speeder was hurtling towards it at a great speed so he would find out soon.
It was black and about the size of a human. It certainly was not a Forukk even at that range. As the speeder came closer to it Trey realised it was a robed man. The speeder was heading straight for him. Trey was about to call out to Liam to avoid the figure but then he caught a glimpse of its face.
The being was tall, taller than a good sized man by a full head. It seemed rather thin but Trey could not be sure because of the heavy looking, void black robes that it wore. Its head was hooded but when it looked up it revealed its face. It was a smiley face. Not to say a normal face that was smiling. An actual bright yellow, black featured smiley face. All in all it was like a cross between a painting Trey had once seen portraying Death and a stretchy yellow smiley faced man Trey had once won at a fair.
Its emotionless eyes met with Trey’s. An entire conversation that involved no words or motions that lasted an eternity took place inside Trey’s head. In all this time his heart did not beat once. In reality their eyes only met for a second before the speeder ploughed through the otherworldly being.
There was no sound of impact. Trey ran to the back of the speeder to see if there was a crumpled body or to prove it had all been in his head. He was not that lucky. Stood in the same spot was the strange being. It was in the exact same position other than the fact its head was turned a full one-hundred-and-eighty degrees. Its surreal face still staring at Trey. As it faded into the distance he noticed both Billy and Zak stood by his side staring out at the being.
“What the hell was that?” asked Billy.
“I was hoping it was a figment of my imagination,” answered Trey.
“If so you have a really vivid imagination,” added Zak.
A strange fear bit at Trey’s heart. It was not like facing the Forukks or almost dying. It was a stronger feeling but at the same time not as terrible. He breathed deeply and tried to calm himself. His energy felt drained.With his last amount of strength he pulled himself over to his bed and draped the thin cover over himself. He felt tired like never before in his life but sleep did not come. Nightmares still plagued his brain though he knew he was awake. He could do nothing to dispel them. It was going to be long night.