Chapter 24: Slave Rescue
Holy Sprite!”murmured Billy as he gazed at the blood soaked woman.
She wore a knee length yellow skirt, knee high socks of pink and white stripes, a white tank top and steel vambraces etched with rabbits. Her purple hair hung down her back in a ponytail. In her left hand was a chakram in the design of a deadly periwinkle flower. Another identical one hung at the right hand side of her waist. Her eyes were a fluorescent blue and she had a maniacal smile.
“So, you wanna die?” she giggled.
“Not really,” began Trey but he was interrupted by Zak.
“Bring it on!” he shouted as he readied his axe with an equally insane grin.
“Zak calm down. We’re not here to fight, let alone with a person who killed that thing,” Trey said as he motioned to the Forukk at her feet.
“What do you mean you’re not here to fight? Everyone is here to fight. Fighting is what everyone does. If you’re not here to fight then why are you here?” said the women at twice the speed normal people spoke.
“Why should we tell you?” said Billy.
“‘Cos’ I’m gonna beat you if you don’t tell me,” snickered the woman.
“It’s five against one, we have the advantage,” stated Dawn in her best attempt at calm diplomacy.
“That’s what the Zelo Empire said: ‘It’s one against ten thousand, we have the advantage.’ It never did them any good,” said the woman with a laugh.
“We are heading to Lanstiro to free the people of Pastrino. If you want to try and stop us, we will fight you and we will win,” said Trey.
“Invading the fortress of an army of Forukks with only five kids? You’re my kind of people. That sort of battle might be fun. I’m Lily by the way,” said the woman as she attached the chakram back onto her belt.
“We don’t want to get into a fight. We’re getting in, finding the slaves and getting them out,” Dawn explained tensely. The woman seemed to be getting to Dawn in some way.
Lily laughed hard holding her ribs. “You expect to sneak into the enemy main base, find every slave in a huge area that’s crawling with Forukks, then have a mass exodus back out again, all without being noticed?”
“Pretty much,” smiled Zak.
“Sounds fun. I still prefer a frontal assault though,” said Lily as she began to skip down the hill, heading south. “C’mon. You’ve gotta meet Htaed.”
“Do we follow?” asked Dawn.
“She is strong,” commented Liam. “She’ll be a big help in enemy territory.”
“Agreed,” said Trey.
They followed her along the cliff for ten minutes when she suddenly hopped off the edge. As the group rushed over to the side they were relieved to hear her shout up for them to join her. Peering over the edge they saw a large ledge ten foot below with a small house perched at the right hand side. Grass covered the ledge giving it a peaceful feel.
As they climbed down to the platform, the idyllic scene around them was shattered as they noticed that what they thought had been a fence was really hundreds of pikes circling the lawn, impaled Forukk heads festering at the tips.
“Wait here while I get Htaed,” called the woman as she bounded into the cottage. It was a simple building of carved stone blocks and thin wooden planks covered in a layer of a pale, clay like substance.
A few moments later she jumped back out dragging a giant of a man behind her. His matted black hair rested across his broad shoulders, baggy trousers swayed around his legs in the wind and he wore a torn coat over his bare chest. He had no shoes. In each hand he held a great sword as tall and wide as Trey. His face was hard and scars crisscrossed all of his visible skin.
“What brings such young people out into these forsaken lands?” spoke the man in a soft voice that contrasted with his brutal appearance. No one seemed able to respond. He looked far scarier than the Forukks and his very presence spoke of death and destruction. His calm demeanour and soft voice just added confusion.
Liam finally answered his question. “We go to free the slaves that the Forukks are holding captive.”
Htaed cocked an eyebrow, whether in suspicion or amusement no one could tell. “Come inside to eat and rest. You will not get another chance after this point.” All five teens made no move to go inside the house. They were with two complete strangers who seemed far from normal and were very powerful. Any number of traps could be inside the cottage.
Lily scoffed at the group for their suspicion. “You’re underestimating us. I hate it when people do that. We hate those Forukks so we obviously won’t be working with them and if we wanted you dead you’d be dead by now. We don’t use traps and deception like cowards.”
The group was not particularly reassured but the woman was right, they could have killed them whenever they felt like it and they certainly did not like the Forukks, the skewered heads were a testament to that. Cautiously Trey took the first step over the threshold and looked around.
The whole inside was just one large room. A hammock hung at either end of the room and a plain wooden table sat at the centre between the two. A small fire flickered in the fireplace behind the table, opposite from the door. Other than two old chairs and a cupboard there was nothing else in the house. Once everyone was inside the house became rather crowded. Htaed offered Dawn a seat and Lily took the other leaving all the men to stand.
“I believe we have a lot to discuss,” said Htaed. “We must be quick with words though as within the next few days the slaves will be spread so thin throughout enemy territory that it will be impossible to find them all.”
“What’s to discuss?” asked Billy. “We know what we are doing. The only question is will you help us and that only needs a one word answer.”
“If you think it is that simple then you really will need help. Five children cannot invade an enemy fortress and hope to survive.”
“We aren’t children, we’re young adults,” stated Zak. “Anyway, Lily looks only a few years older than us and if what she says is true, she can survive anywhere.”
Htaed looked thoughtful for a moment. “Lily is… special. She is a lot older than she looks.”
“Whatever. We’re still going whether we stand a chance or not,” Trey concluded.
“We aren’t going to stop you. We are just saying that you need a distraction while you sneak around,” Htaed said.
“Yep! Me and Htaed are gonna kick some Forukk butt while you lot scurry around like mice,” chirped Lily, barely containing her excitement.
“Anyway, eat up and rest for the remainder of the day. Once the morning comes we will set off. Lily and I will knock on their front door while you go around the back.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Trey as he held out his hand to the warrior. Htaed shook his hand, the coarse appendage fully encasing Trey’s, then they began to eat the strange food that had been placed upon the table while they had been talking. As they rested, Htaed filled them in on his plan and discussed all that he knew of the Forukks and of the city itself.
The early morning sun breached the wall of clouds that constantly obscured the sky just enough to appear as a waxy blotch in the far distance. Twisted birds that may once have been owls glided over the landscape, returning to their nests with the coming of the light. Silent shadows moved through the roaming mists that surrounded Lanstiro. Slowly they began to meet up around a black barked tree that stood in solitude at the centre of an open patch of ground.
“Are we all clear on what we have to do?” asked Trey as he adjusted the black cloak that he was wearing over his armour. The whole group other than Htaed and Lily were wearing the shadowy cloaks that Htaed had tailored with a grace and speed that stood at odds with his powerful build. Shrouded in darkness, the group could move with the stealth that shining armour could not provide.
Each person nodded in unison, nervousness and determination playing across Trey, Billy and Dawn’s faces while Zak and Lily looked like they could barely contain their excitement. Liam just looked emotionless as always. Htaed looked off to the distance, his eyes unfocused.
“We will travel together for another five minutes then Lily and I will move to the main gate while you find your own way in,” said Htaed.
“Are you sure you’ll be alright just marching up and knocking on their front door?” asked Dawn, concern edging into her voice.
“We’ve faced worse,” shrugged Htaed.
“Yep. They don’t stand a chance!” chirped Lily.
The group moved on through the marsh lands that surrounded the last mile around the tainted fortress that was Lanstiro. The closer to their destination they came, the more barren and harsh their surroundings became. Then as suddenly as it had engulfed them, the fog ended. A mere fifty foot in front of them stood Lanstiro, towering over the group like a monstrous nightmare. Its walls were shielded with black iron sheets that were firmly fitted to the thick stone of the original structure and an uncountable amount of sharpened metal spikes rose from its surface like static hair. Its upper peaks jabbed out toward the heavens like daggers. Forukks patrolled the walls, crude crossbows swaying lazily as the creatures marched back and forth like guard dogs.
“Wait here while we get their attention,” announced Htaed as he and Lily strode off toward the huge, skull encrusted doors of the outer wall. The teens obeyed and watched from the edge of the mist.
The two warriors reached the doors without hindrance. Forukk guards gathered above the gate but made no move to attack. Htaed knocked on the steel-plated wood with such force that dents appeared in the metal and the sound reverberated throughout the ghostly structure. Without warning an arrow shot from the battlement aimed right at Htaed’s chest. Without even looking up he deflected it with a flick of his wrist.
“Come on out and try to end my life, you lowly dogs!” Htaed boomed.
With exaggerated slowness the doors began to open. All was silent as the door eased open then stopped half way. From inside ten Forukks swaggered out growling fiercely at their guests.
“They’re underestimating us. I hate it when people do that!” snapped Lily as she leapt forwards to meet the Forukks. She threw the chakram in her right hand and it struck the lead Forukk in the throat. She slashed at the next Forukk as they met then span around, grabbing her other chakram from the Forukk’s corpse as she tripped another creature then severed its head.
Htaed had followed up behind Lily. Three Forukks bounded at him with weapons at the ready. With one horizontal cut all three fell to the ground dead. The last four Forukks were killed just as quickly.
The fortress door fully opened and a stream of monsters came out to face the two warriors. Well over a hundred surrounded them.
“They’re still underestimating us,” shrieked Lily.
“Not for long,” sighed Htaed as he motioned to Trey and the others to go.
With a vicious roar from every Forukk present, hell broke loose.
“He’s given the signal,” informed Trey to the others. “Let’s go.”
After checking that the enemy’s attention was elsewhere, the group scurried from the mist to the imposing wall. They could not brush up against the stone for extra cover as sharp spikes protruded from it at every angle. They skirted the wall until they found what they were looking for.
About three quarters the way around the fortress was what Htaed had told them to look out for. Out of every spike that covered the black walls, only one had a crimson skull shoved onto its end. This was the sign of a secret entrance according to the giant man. How he knew no one could guess but it was the only chance they had.
Unluckily for the teens, the skull was near the top of the outer wall, with no purchase to grab other than the sharpened metal. Zak volunteered to climb up first and pull the spike that was actually a cleverly hidden lever. He very soon regretted this choice. Every spike had an edge like a razor and while they were effective for climbing the wall, Zak’s hands soon became a bloody mess despite his plate-backed gloves and his sandals quickly disintegrated.
The others watched in horror as Zak neared the lever. Blood dripped down from his cuts, splashing the ground below him. He reached out with a shaking hand, grabbing the lever and slowly pushed it up. A small section of the wall opened up and snapped to the side like a mousetrap. Zak only just avoided being crushed by flipping off of the wall and landing roughly on the floor next to Dawn. From that height it was a miracle that he had survived the fall, let alone avoided breaking any bones. Trey was sure that if it had been anyone else then they would have been too slow to escape the trap.
Zak shouted out in pain as he held his left leg. Dawn inspected it and announced “It’s sprained.”
“Looks like we’re all going to have to climb up to get inside,” Liam pointed out.
“You saw what happened to Zak. Even without the fall he got all cut up. If we try then we’ll be half dead before we even get inside,” argued Dawn. “I have slight healing abilities but we won’t have time to fully reform the skin. Even that is pointless though as I couldn’t use my healing powers when my own hands are damaged. It’s not like I can effectively heal myself.”
“I can.” Everyone turned to Liam. He shrugged under the attention. “I learned to heal my own wounds so that I would never have to rely on others.”
“Could you heal us too?” Trey asked.
Liam shook his head. “I’ve never tried to heal others. I suppose that I could probably heal Dawn’s hands to the point where she can help the rest of you.”
“It’s the only way,” sighed Trey. “Zak, you ready for another climb?”
“No,” he replied to everyone’s surprise. He had never shown fear, weakness or even common sense. He was up for anything. “We won’t be able to hold our weapons once we’re up. Yes, Liam and Dawn can heal us but then they will be too drained to fight. We lose either way.”
“We don’t have any choice!” snapped Billy. “Stop moaning and just get on with it.”Without waiting for a response Billy began to climb.
After the shock on Zak’s face passed a new respect for Billy entered his eyes then he too began to climb. Liam followed them both without a word, leaving Trey and Dawn at the bottom. Trey began to climb but stopped when he realised Dawn was not moving. She looked terrified as she watched blood come down around her like rain.
“Are you coming?” asked Trey. She shakily looked up at Trey, then at the other boys and finally at the entrance. “Don’t worry. Sure it hurts but it’s the only way. Its either carry on forwards or give up and go back.”
Dawn made a sound that was a mixture of a laugh and a sigh. “Trey, I’m not scared of pain. I’m kind of afraid of heights,” she stuttered with an embarrassed look.
Trey thought for several moments before holding out his hand. “You have nothing to fear. We’re all here for you.”
Still looking unconvinced but not wanting to look weak she accepted his hand. She would have held on longer if they both did not need two hands to climb.
“Just don’t look down,” said Trey with a hiss of pain that he tried to turn into a nervous laugh. It did not seem to help.
It took less time than they had expected for them all to crawl into the tunnel. Once inside it was a tight fit, especially for Zak with his huge battle axe and dual katana. Luckily it was a very short tunnel that led to some kind of storage room. There was just enough space among the various boxes for all five teens to fit inside the room. There was no sign that the room had been used recently.
Liam sat crossed-legged and began to trace his index finger along the cuts of his left hand. After a few minutes he swapped hands. Once he was finished he wiped away the blood. There was not the slightest of marks upon either hand.
“What did you do?” Dawn all but gaped. She grabbed his hands to examine them thoroughly. “The skin should at least look raw. It looks like you never even had any wounds.”
Gently taking hold of Dawn’s shredded hands, Liam began to repeat the process. At the girl’s prompting he started to explain. “Most healers speed up the body’s natural regeneration, forcing what would take weeks to heal to take only minutes instead. The damage is still there for the most part. I…sort of…reverse the wound.”
“That shouldn’t be possible,” Dawn muttered. She studied her first hand in amazement. “It just doesn’t work like that.”
“If you say so,” Liam commented blandly. His hands continued to move smoothly but sweat beaded on his pale forehead. As soon as Dawn’s hands were unbroken skin once more, she set to work on patching up the others while Liam slumped against a crate to recover.
It took longer than Trey had hoped but eventually everyone was ready to continue. Trey, Billy and Zak’s hands were still sore though while Dawn and Liam were weary from their work. They would have to suffice. No more time could be wasted.
They cautiously climbed down a ladder that led from the room they had entered to a much larger storage room. This one had been used recently.
“So, how are we going about all this?” asked Liam to no one in particular.
“I haven’t worked out the details yet but I think we should split up and search. We can cover a bigger area that way plus we have less chance of being discovered. We are all competent in a fight so we should be fine,” said Trey with forced optimism. “Stay safe and we’ll see each other when every slave is free.”
“You realise that there are so many flaws in this plan that it can’t possibly work,” sighed Liam.
“Like what?” asked Zak.
“Like where do we meet up, how long we have until we meet up, how to find our way around, where to get food and water, where to sleep-”
“Okay. We get the point. The plan is a little sketchy but it’s all we have. We’ll meet back in here at sundown with anyone we’ve freed. Sound good?”
“Not really,” complained Liam.
“Dibs on the castle!” said Zak.
They exited the storage building then separated, heading out to search their individual areas.
Like so many times before, Trey followed his nose. Clinging to the shadows he was guided forwards by the smell of cooking food. It was the only pleasant smell in the thick air that stank and seemed to clog the airways. The putrid scent of the Forukks clung to everything like tar.
Other than a few Forukks guarding various entrances to the uniform dark stone buildings that surrounded the inner castle and a few hurrying humans, Trey saw nothing of note. The city almost looked to be a warped parody of Pastrino but with fewer buildings. Each was an imposing, dark grey stone that could withstand catapults as easily as the black walled fortress at their heart.
As he had expected, the smell led straight to a kitchen. As far as he could tell there was only one door into the building and that was being watched by a grumpy looking Forukk armed with a barbed whip. Through the open doorway Trey could see Mrs Masli, the owner of a grocery shop near to Trey’s house, peeling potatoes. She wore dirty rags that hung from her in every possible place.
The Forukk on guard began sniffing intently at the air, its body tensing up ready to attack. Then its muscles relaxed again as it seemed to recognise whatever it was that it had smelled. “It’s you again is it?” the Forukk growled. “You smell different. Have you been stealing the Master’s smell in a bottle again?” it said in a gruff voice.
Trey stared at the Forukk in confusion. He had been told by Htaed that Forukks could identify people via smell but he had never met this one to his knowledge. Whatever the reason, Trey did not have time to ponder it. The Forukk knew he was there and a mistake in scent would not keep him safe for long.
Trey stepped forwards out of the shadows, testing his luck. The Forukk’s gaze settled on him and for a second it seemed complacent with Trey’s identity. Then realisation struck it. That second was enough for Trey to dash in and lunge his blade into the Forukk’s chest. It gurgled and growled as Trey removed his sword, then it fell to the ground without another sound.
Mrs Masli had dropped her knife and the half peeled potato in amazement. “T-Trey? Is that you?”
“Mrs Masli.” Trey nodded his head respectfully. “Sorry I took so long. Do you know anywhere I can hide this guy?” he asked as he pointed towards the Forukk.
She seemed stunned as she studied Trey. The lazy appearance and carefree attitude had disappeared. He had killed a Forukk in one strike when the Pastrino guards had struggled to even defend themselves. Now he looked like he had aged many years. He was no longer a boy but a man. She snapped out of her musing then signalled to a nearby pantry door. Trey dragged the body inside.
“Do you know where all the other slaves are?”
“No,” replied the woman. “We were all separated. The leaders of this place chose certain slaves for certain jobs. Me and some of the others were thrown into this kitchen.”
“You mean there are more in here?”
“Yes. The slaves prepare all the food for everyone inside the city other than the masters so there are lots of us here. There’s also lots of guards,” she said with a shiver.
“No worries. Point me in the right direction and I’ll do the rest,” Trey announced with a smile. “Do you know where the northern warehouse is?” The woman nodded. “Go in there, second floor and wait for me, Billy or Zak. Or two people you won’t recognise, a stunningly beautiful girl and a guy dressed fully in black. Anyway, I’ve got to go.”
Without another word they both ran off in opposite directions. Trey noticed several faces he knew from Pastrino, slaving away in the kitchens. He also saw several guards, both Forukk and human. He could not just run in and fight them all; he needed a distraction.
Finding an empty closet he took from his bag Garvel’s Nimula book. Flicking hurriedly through the pages a certain spell caught his attention. He prepared himself for the mental strain then chanted the words inscribed on the page. There was a small puff sound and lots of smoke. When the smoke cleared Trey smiled at his own genius. Stood before the boy, scratching it’s backside, was a monkey.
“Hey little guy. Go cause some chaos for me,” Trey said as if addressing a small child.
“Don’t patronise me, jerk,” replied the monkey in a gravelly voice as it opened the door and headed down the hallway.
“S-sorry…” called Trey weakly.
A series of bangs and shouts alerted Trey that the decoy was working. He leapt through the door and headed straight for the main kitchen area, directing any slaves he found where to go and dispatching the few guards not distracted by the monkey. He got there in no time and after a brief encounter with a particularly ugly Forukk he sent every slave on their way as quickly as possible. Not one had seen his mother since their arrival.
“I’ll catch you up in a minute,” he called after them. A smile crept onto his face as he eyed the various barrels filled with nocuous ooze that Trey guessed was suppose to be food for the slaves.
As Trey set to work on his plan he could hear some of the distraction still within the building. “That monkey just slapped me!” came a distant human voice.
“It wasn’t a slap. You couldn’t tell a good right hook even when it hits you in the face, idiot.”
“Agh! It bit my finger.”
Billy cursed for the third time as he slowly waded through the marsh he had gotten himself into. He had been told by a messenger slave he had met that over two dozen slaves were working in the drowned fields to the far west of the fortress that were walled off separately. A gate just big enough to fit a cart through connected the fields with the main city.
Expecting a field like the rice fields back home, Billy had stupidly went to be the hero without thinking. Now he was up to his waist in thick, slimy water with not a single slave in sight. To make matters worse the bugs around him seemed to have taken a liking to him, biting at his exposed flesh whenever they got the chance.
He was about to give up and turn around when he heard the sound of sloshing that was not being made by himself. Someone else was wading through the water, just ahead of Billy by the sound of it. He stopped moving and listened.
Billy was an excellent hunter. He could tell that whatever was moving through the water was large and wore armour just from the sound of the water. It was a Forukk. He would bet his life on it. Removing his bow from his bag he attached a white feathered arrow and aimed in the direction the sloshing was coming from. Slowly he pulled back the string until it would go no further then released.
There was a satisfying twang then a deep gurgle, closely followed by a splash. Billy investigated his handy work and found that a second Forukk had beaten him to it. He quickly put his bow away and pulled out his crossbow. The bolt fired. It shot into the creature’s eye.
After recovering his ammunition it was not long before he found where the slaves were working. The area of the field was not very large but the plant that was being harvested was twice the size of a normal human. They shot up perfectly straight and narrow like bamboo but their outsides were a dull gore colour.
Because of their large size, the Forukks that guarded the slaves stayed around the edge of the field rather than struggling through the narrow gaps. This gave Billy the opportunity to pick them off at a distance. Granted they were tough up close but an arrow to the head dropped them well enough. By the time all of the guards were alerted to Billy’s presence only four remained.
He was thinking it was easy pickings until one came from behind him and bludgeoned him across his ribs. Rolling back to his feet he narrowly dodged another attack. In one swift motion he drew a small dagger from his sleeve and threw it towards the monster. It glided through the air gracefully like a swan then dug deeply into the leathery skin of its neck.
Billy had just enough time to turn and draw his sword before the still living Forukks reached him. He parried one blow but was caught by a second one across his shoulder. There was a flurry of attacks and a Forukk fell. In exchange Billy received a deep gash along his arm. The larger of the two remaining Forukks lunged, sending Billy under the water.
Looking up weakly, Billy coughed and tried to get to his feet but failed. By now the slaves had formed a ring around the fighters. The two Forukks towered over him, readying the finishing blow, cold anger in their eyes.
As the jagged blade came down it went astray as one of the slaves tackled the Forukk. Billy’s blurry vision honed in on the slave. Horror hit him. It was his Uncle Charley. Desperately Billy tried again to get to his feet and help but his body would not move. His Uncle gave him a look that said ‘Don’t worry’ as the Forukk swung at him. In seemingly slow motion his body fell into the water a pace away from Billy.
Like a ripple, the slaves around them began to shout in outrage at the creatures. Then as one they surged forwards in crazed rage. Three fell immediately to the Forukks’ blades but the sheer mass of humans pulled the creatures down. The slaves grabbed anything that they could from their small harvest knives to stones. One even took Billy’s discarded sword. Five more splashed into the water without rising again before both Forukks went down.
Billy’s mind was a blank. It took him a few seconds to realise he was being pulled to his feet. Around him stood the slaves and despite the death that had happened mere moments before, a new hope shone in their eyes.
“We’re guessing you have a plan, young Billy,” grunted the slave that had helped him up. It was farmer McGill.
“Y-yeah,” stammered Billy, still slightly shook up from his uncle’s sacrifice. He forced himself to calm down then continued. “Head to the outer storehouse, second level. You’ll be safe in there for now-”
A roar that shook his very soul thundered from behind him. Billy turned to see one of the giant Forukks that Lily had told him were called Nis’Forukk, stood within arms reach of the boy. Again their stealth surprised him. For something so gigantic to get this close through water without him hearing was unbelievable.
“Run!” Billy bellowed to the slaves who were frozen in fear. This, accompanied by another hellish roar from the Nis’Forukk was enough to get them moving.
“What about you lad?” shouted the farmer.
“I’ll take care of this guy. Go on without me and I’ll catch you up later.” They both knew this was a lie but there was no time to argue.
Unluckily for Billy, one of the slaves still had his sword and he was running low on arrows. He bent down and grabbed one of the Forukk’s blades. It was far bigger and heavier than Billy’s own sword but it would have to do.
“Bring it on!”
The darkness was soothing and the gentle drip of water hitting the ground was the only noise that entered Liam’s ears. He ran his fingers along the damp rock wall as he walked deeper into the mine. The whole effect was ruined in his opinion by the torches that bathed the tunnels with flickering amber light.
He had found out about the mine while he was searching through the fortress’ blueprints that he had found within the castle’s near vacant library. He had a knack for being in plain sight without being noticed. He had easily snuck inside and stole any documents that had looked useful. Other than a sole librarian, the vast book archives were devoid of life.He had travelled with Zak at first but once inside the castle their paths lay in different directions.
By the looks of it, it was a coal mine. Coal to fuel the Lanstiro war effort.
From around the corner came voices. Human voices. Liam sighed, “So much for a rest,” he muttered as he edged towards the turn.
He peered around the corner but it was just another deserted tunnel. The dynamics of the mine must cause sound to become deceptive, he guessed. He would just have to keep walking forward until he bumped into someone if he could not use his hearing.
Minutes passed by without any contact. The talking continued, keeping the same volume whichever direction Liam turned. Then a new sound began. Faintly at first then growing in volume. Tap, tap, tap. The steady rhythm was really starting to bug him. He picked up his pace figuring the quicker he found the miners, the quicker they would shut up.
He had been walking for over half an hour and had not found a single living creature. No guards, no miners, nothing. He was about to turn around and leave when a transport cart rolled into view, full to the top with coal. It squeaked along the dusty metal tracks past Liam with seemingly no way to propel itself forwards.
After it had squeaked out of view, Liam changed direction and followed the tunnel that the cart had come from. This tunnel was just a long straight line, no corners, no curves and no pathways leading from it. Just the same craggy walls all around him with the occasional torch spreading light through the darkness.
Without warning the tunnel opened up into a small chamber where two men stood talking while tapping away at the rocks with bulky pickaxes. There were no other tunnels leading out of the chamber. The two miners did not seem to notice the new arrival. Strangely, the section of wall where they worked was stone with carved patterns decorating its surface. Traces of the natural rock still covered the slab in places. Liam stepped into the chamber and the miners finally acknowledged his presence. Their talking stopped and their pickaxes were lowered to their sides.
“G’day mate,” greeted the miner to the right in a strange accent.
“Are you here to rescue us?” asked the second man in a high pitched voice.
“Sure,” said Liam. “Are there any other slaves down here?”
“Naa, just us two.”
Liam shrugged. “Fine. Follow me,” he sighed. As he turned to leave, one of the large boulders next to the exit exploded. When the dust cleared a Forukk stood in the place where the rock had been moments before. There were several crashes behind him closely followed by a storm of dust. Liam looked around to see himself and the two miners surrounded by ten Forukks.
“A trap. How unexpected,” said Liam dryly.
The miner with the foreign accent stepped forwards and a green glaze began working its way up his body. His footwear changed from tattered work boots to fine shoes, his baggy and torn trousers into shining greaves. This change from rags to grandeur took mere seconds until the glaze reached his head. The man’s short untidy hair shrank into his head until he had no hair remaining. Pale skin tanned in an instant. Mr Xion stood before Liam with a complacent grin on his face. Liam did not know this but even so, he got the idea that he was facing a very unpleasant man.
“Where are the miners?” asked Liam, not sounding surprised or intimidated by the fact he was surrounded.
“They are well protected so don’t you worry,” said Xion in mock kindness. “I moved them as soon as I knew you were coming. Two warriors banging on our door looking for a fight for no reason seems like a good distraction tactic to me,” he laughed. “I feared that others might have honed into this location too but apparently I was wrong.”
“Are you going to kill me or just stand there talking all day?” asked Liam in a bored tone.
“I’m not going to kill you. It’s far more fun to slowly torture you until you lose your mind. I do so hate children after all. Call it venting if you will.”
“Yippee,” said Liam without a hint of emotion.
The three shadows on the wall moved out of view indicating the patrol had finally moved on. Dawn slipped from her cover then scurried behind the next building. She repeated this process as she slowly made her way forwards, always keeping the column of slaves she was following in sight.
The slaves were a sorry looking group, even compared to other slaves that Dawn had spotted. Every one of them was covered from head to toe in black dust. The only visible colour through the dust was the white of their downcast eyes. Many coughed constantly where they had inhaled too much of whatever substance coated their bodies. There were about thirty in all, guarded by only four traitor humans. Easy pickings if Dawn had a plan, which of course she did.
Stealing a long length of thin steel wire from a workshop, she stealthily raced ahead of the column and began to build a small contraption from bits and pieces she had found. When she had finished, it took the shape of a two foot high catapult. She tied one end of the wire to its lever, placed a small rock onto the firing arm then ran about thirty yards further up the road. Hammering a wooden stake into the ground she curved the wire around it then ran off at a right angle across the main path the slaves were travelling along. She ducked into another side alley then crouched in the shadows and waited.
Dust began to rise in the sky above the building Dawn hid behind and the sound of shuffling feet rose above the distant sound of squawking birds. Her muscles tensed and she wrapped the wire tighter around her hand, keeping it low to the ground to avoid detection. Her fingers were starting to turn blue but she did not have time to alter her grip.
The first guard entered her view. She counted to three then pulled the wire tight. The guard fell flat onto his face with a horrible crunch as his nose hit the ground. At that same moment the wire pulled the catapult’s lever and triggered the arm to throw the stone. Just like she had planned it flew forwards and hit the guard at the left side of the column, smacking him in the temple. He too collapsed to the ground, a faint trickle of blood running down his face. Neither guards were dead but they would be down for a while.
The two remaining guards drew their swords and advanced down the alley that the stone had come from, expecting another attack. When there was no trace of an attacker they cautiously inspected the catapult. Dawn had already pulled the full length of wire back to avoid the guards following the wire to her position.
Dawn readied a smooth, circular stone and threw it as though she were skimming stones on a lake. The stone soared through the air and hit a precariously balanced pile of rubble that was once a second floor to the building forming the right side of the alley. It hit a rock at the pile’s base but it did not cause the rock to fall.
The sound attracted the guards’ attention and they looked up. Quickly, Dawn threw another stone with all her might, not bothering to aim, relying solely on luck.
Lady Luck appeared to be on her side as the stone crashed into the same spot as its predecessor, knocking the rock from its place. The guards screamed and tried to run as a chain reaction moved through the rocks, causing the full pile to cascade down upon the guards’ heads. When she was sure that no other guard had been alerted, Dawn stepped out of her cover and moved to the front of the slaves who were frozen in place, unsure what had happened.
Dawn made sure she had all the slaves attention then announced, “You’re free now. Take what weapons you can find then make your way to the large storehouse at the outer wall. Let’s go.”
Without warning, a sharp shuriken shot through the air from a nearby rooftop, its destination: Dawn’s chest. She dived out of the way and scanned the roofs near where it had come from. Nothing.
She turned around to recheck her surroundings and nearly leapt from her skin. Stood face to face with her was a tall, slender woman wearing a suit of tight fitting leather. At her side hung two long, curved knives.
“You shall go nowhere, little girl,” purred the woman in a strange accent. “I could have killed you many times by now but I wanted to see what you could do. You are smart but against my blades you are nothing. Even fully armed you are as vulnerable to me as that day by the river.”
“That was you!” shouted Dawn, fear and shock replaced by anger. “How dare you watch me while I bathe you pervert.”
She grasped her scimitar and swung at the woman. Despite the fact that she swung at point blank range, the assassin still managed to dodge the attack then deliver a vicious kick to Dawn’s gut. Dawn staggered back until she touched a wall. Two shuriken sliced through her robe at either shoulder, embedding themselves into the wall. Blood began to soak the material around the shuriken where the metal had also pierced her flesh.Dawn tried to move but the shuriken firmly pinned her to the wall. Her shoulders burned at the effort.
The assassin placed one of her knifes to Dawn’s throat and smiled. “Now, you shall die. It is the victim’s right to know the name of their killer. The last thing you hear will be the name of the person who stole your soul from its earthly bonds. Black Rain.”
Footsteps echoed through the corridors as a hardened warrior walked around the castle, greeting anyone he met with a few words, never stopping to talk. One would think it was an officer or noble, or at least a mercenary but it was not; it was Zak.
The teen walked through the castle like he belonged there so no one questioned his presence. He was hiding in plain sight and the enemies he greeted casually were none the wiser. He had even redirected several slaves to the storehouse within earshot of guards who figured it must be official business so they should not get involved.
He was not sure where he was going but whichever way he turned he seemed to find the odd slave here and there doing various jobs. He knew from some slaves he had met that many had been taken to the Masters’ private sleeping quarters. He had gotten sketchy directions and was heading in what he hoped was the right way to find the living quarters of the Lanstirian nobles.
Testing his luck, Zak asked one of the guards which way the private quarters were and the man answered with next to no suspicion. Zak had to backtrack fifty yards then turn left and continue down that corridor until he reached the end, then turn right followed by the first left.
Zak smiled to himself, knowing that he was in the right place. It was a huge square room with dozens of elegant oak doors lining the walls. He was about to open the first door when a faint scream came from behind a door three quarters the way around.
Within seconds Zak was at the door. He tried the handle but it would not budge. He tried to kick it down but the oak stayed motionless and Zak jarred his foot. He sighed then readied his axe.
He swung the double bladed head at the door and splinters shot out. Another swing followed by a kick and the door was open, or to be precise there was a hole in the door large enough to step through.
The room beyond was fairly simple. There was a double bed, a wardrobe, a desk, a cabinet and two shelves. Zak did not focus on any of this though. In the far back corner cowered a young girl and a fat man stood over her, tugging at her arm in an attempt to force her to her feet.
When Zak had smashed the door down the fat man had turned to glare angrily at him, mild surprise showing on his chubby face. His walrus like moustache twitched slightly. The girl remained crouched, her eyes covered by her hands, crying silently.
“How wude!” exclaimed the man. “You can’t just come and thmath down my door, you thupid thod.”
“What?” asked Zak, forgetting the scene before him as he chuckled at the man.
“If it’s all wight with you, I have a thmall lithp.”
Zak openly laughed then shook his head to calm down. “What are you doing to the poor girl?” he asked as he motioned to the girl who had stopped crying and was now looking up at Zak with wide eyes.
“It’s none of your buthineth what I do with my thlaveth,” said the man, his face becoming flushed.
“Let her go,” said Zak in a low, dangerous tone.
“Don’t talk thuch wubbith. Who are you to owder me awound? Leave me now. Oh, and thend thomeone to wepair my door.” The man turned his back to Zak and focused his attention once more on the girl.
The man had just managed to pull the girl to her feet when Zak knocked him on the head with the end of his axe. The man collapsed onto the bed, releasing the girl from his grasp.
“I hate people like him,” muttered Zak as he picked up the unconscious man and carried him to the door. “Wait here a minute,” he told the girl. She nodded and he left the room.
Zak carried the man across his shoulders like he weighed nothing despite his size. He strode off out of the private quarters and headed towards a place that he had been told to avoid at all costs: the Forukks’ barracks. He knew that he had found the right section of the fortress by the smell that seeped through the gap under the door. Slowly he eased opened the sheet metal door and entered.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. It was a long, narrow room with nothing but hundreds of ragged mats that lay everywhere without order. Only half a dozen Forukks currently
occupied the room, all of them grunting loudly in their sleep. Zak silently headed towards the closest Forukk and placed the fat man down on the mat beside the monster. As a finishing touch he draped the Forukk’s arm over the man then positioned the man’s hand firmly onto the Forukk’s rear.
Zak laughed to himself as he left the foul smelling room and jogged back to collect the girl. She was stood exactly where she had been when he had left. She fiddled nervously with her fingers, her eyes darting around the room. Much of the tension faded from her body as Zak re-entered.
“Are you hurt?” he asked in a gentle tone. The girl shook her head slightly.
“You think you can walk alright?” This time she nodded her head.
“What’s your name?” asked Zak, determined to get her to talk.
She looked into Zak’s eyes. “K-Kelly,” she murmured in a soft, faint voice.
“Good. Now Kelly, how old are you?”
She answered quicker this time with more confidence but still spoke in a weak voice. “Twelve.”
“That’ll do. Come on, we’ve got to get out of here.” He moved to leave the room but the girl did not follow. “Come on,” Zak said again, this time grabbing the girl’s hand and dragging her out of the door. Kelly blushed wildly at the contact as Zak towed her towards the fortress’ main entrance.
Zak turned a corner and suddenly shot back around, pressing his back against the wall. Walking towards him along the other corridor was a tall, dark haired man who fit the description of the Lord of Lanstiro. Around him were two large human warriors, two grizzled looking Forukks and a small, scrawny man who looked like an assistant or scribe. Even Zak was not crazy enough to attack the enemy leader in the centre of his own castle, surrounded by his guards. Not without backup anyway.Zak was about to go the way he had just came when he saw a squad of ten Forukks marching towards them from that direction. “Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place,” he muttered as he tightened his grip on his axe and the now shivering hand of the girl.