The Dark Wizards

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The Relief of Frybur - Part 1

Groad awoke from the terrible dream and cursed the fact that he had ever allowed himself to take the small Valacian whelp along with him on his quest to obtain the wondrous Eldritch Blade. She had been more of a burden than help, and now she was dead, imprisoned for eternity inside one of those cursed crimson gemstones.

He was elated that the mission had been successful, yet still there was a gnawing sensation of dismal failure. He had difficulty dissipating the pleading expression of horror on Turpane’s face from his waking mind. He tried to console himself with the thought that she had left him no choice in the matter, and that he had done everything possible in his limited capability to help her.

Groad was slightly less bothered by the knowledge that he had been forced to kill Zarkas. He was convinced that Gu Shora had not only informed him in a subtle manner during the fray to use the Eldritch Blade’s scabbard as a form of defense against the Eldritch Blade itself, but also of the fact that Zarkas had wanted to die. For a renowned weapons-master he had fought rather poorly against his former student. Groad knew that Zarkas had been capable of faring much better in battle than he had revealed to the Dark Wizard. It must have been an extreme insult and embarrassment to be plucked from Dakur’s magnificent kingdom to serve under the likes of Maggoth.

In retrospect, Groad also surmised that the insults that Zarkas had spouted were merely a means of riling him enough to overcome his reluctance to do battle against an old friend. Without his heart in the fight, he would not have stood a very good chance of survival.

If the matter was not so serious, Groad might have found the situation almost humorous. After all, who else has ever been obliged to kill their very own best friend twice?

The third thing that frustrated Groad’s jumbled mind was the thought of how the Thonatian had used him. This Beetor or Kronos or whatever he wished to call himself, if he yet resided in Frybur, would be second in succession to experiencing the wrath of a highly irate Son of Zemth. The purse for the zin-za still held top priority.

Although the man from Yarsi had told the truth about the Eldritch Blade, Maggoth’s confusing remarks had been disquieting enough to provoke Groad’s fury. The sensation of anger within his breast grew all the more stronger as his return journey brought him closer and closer to Frybur. If necessary he would do more than just shake the small bald man until his bones rattled to extract the complete and unadulterated truth.

Groad massaged his eyes with his knuckles whilst trying to recap the events of the past few days. He smiled thinking about how he had managed to outsmart the Dark Wizard. He wished he could have seen the look on Maggoth’s face when he found the antechamber void of any Kithian warrior. He even fancied that the sorcerer might have imagined that he had vanished into thin air.

The actual truth was that whilst Maggoth had been attempting to bargain with Groad, he had simply used the Eldritch Blade to slice through the mortar that held one of the antechambers large base stone blocks in place. He had gotten the idea when he remembered how easily the magic sword had penetrated into the floor of the larger chamber.

Four carefully placed cuts around the blocks periphery, a hefty heave, and the black stone slid away to reveal Groad’s path to freedom.

Once outside he had simply pushed the massive black cube back into place, and then rushed down the keep’s outer steps hoping that he would make it to safety before the Dark Wizard managed to deduce his method of escape.

The plan had worked perfectly. Groad had made it back through the strange barrier and to the tethered stallions in almost half the time it had taken him and Turpane to reach the keep.

Tying Coar Rel’s steed behind his own, he had ridden as if a horde of bloodthirsty demons were on his tail. When his own animal was near to exhaustion, he had climbed upon the smaller mount.

For a day and a half he rode non-stop, alternating from one horse to the next, until neither he nor they were able to travel any further. Exhausted, he had fallen into a troubled and tormented sleep.

In the morning he wearily rolled up his bedroll. He felt slightly guilty that for the first time ever, he had not scattered the necessary twigs about his sleeping area. He had had barely enough energy left to tie the horses to a tree before collapsing onto his simple bed.

He was now still a good two days travel from Frybur and his stomach was telling him that it needed a decent meal. Reaching for his bow reminded him not only that he now possessed the Eldritch Blade, but also sadly of the fact that he was forced to leave his own severed sword in Maggoth’s keep.

Although the Eldritch Blade was a fine replacement, his own sword bore many nostalgic memories. It had belonged to his grandfather, Ragor, and had been given to Groad by his father at the honourary feast and ceremony celebrating his passage into savden almost twenty five cyclans ago. Since then it had saved his life many times and taken more than a few.

Turpane, Zarkas, his body armour as well as his own sword, had been the price for obtaining the Eldritch Blade, but hopefully the mystical sword would now bring him that which he desired more than anything else in life or death - the highly honoured and coveted Golden Sleep.

Groad replaced the bow. Breakfast would have to wait. He removed the Eldritch Blade from between the straps of his saddle and carefully unsheathed it. The bluish luminescence was not as conspicuous in the harsh morning light, but still clearly visible. He found himself being strangely overcautious of the mystical weapon, realizing that it could be just as dangerous to an unskilled person wielding it, as what it would be to an enemy. The smallest amount of pressure on the blade would cause serious harm, perhaps even mortality.

He would have to constantly remind himself not to run his thumb along the edge of the blade to test its sharpness; a practice he was accustomed to doing with his own sword after a bout of serious swordplay.

He looked about. He had a marvelous new plaything that he simply had to test. He almost wished a marauding band of Artanian cutthroats would happen upon him, but the possibility of such a fortunate occurrence now was highly unlikely as he was more than a day’s ride back across the Kithian border.

He eyed Coar Rel’s stallion for a moment, but then looked elsewhere, ascertaining that he would probably still need its services in the long journey back to Frybur.

He wished desperately to examine the sword’s power on something animated, but eventually opted for the gigantic tree under which he had spent the night.

He circled the tree, studying the base as though it were an opponent. He struck the flat of the Eldritch Blade against the trunk. There was a dull clang, similar in sound to a normal metallic sword. He inspected the place where the sword had made contact. There was no unusual damage. This was a good sign. He would be able to use the flat of the blade to deflect large hurtling objects; a ploy that Zarkas may or may not have wanted to use against the spinning battle-axe.

Groad next thrust the sword horizontally into the centre of the tree’s trunk. Whilst keeping the flat of the blade in a vertical position, he released the hilt. It fell to the ground, the blade attached slicing through the moist wood interior as though it was composed of nothing more than thin vapour.

He withdrew the blade from between the thick roots next to the base of the tree where it had now swiveled into an upright position. Groad imagined that if it were not for the sword’s hilt, the blade would undoubtedly have sunk unhindered to the very centre of the planet.

It was now time for the main test. Stepping closer, he shut his eyes and moved the sword in a horizontal arc across the trunk. He had wanted to see if it was possible to sense the moment, maybe experience just the slightest fraction of resistance, when the blade passed through the enormous bulk of the tree.

Nothing! There had been nothing; not one iota of traction had been felt.

A short while later, as Groad was contentedly placing the Eldritch Blade back in its scabbard, a sudden gust of wind toppled the enormous tree on top of Coar Rel’s favourite steed.

Groad tethered his war-horse a short distance from the zin-za’s cave. He did not wish to repeat the unpleasant experience of almost being thrown from his stallion again. He removed a clay jar containing lamp oil from one of his saddlebags.

The oil was normally used to help start a fire whenever the available kindling contained excessive moisture.

Using his dagger he cut a few lengthy tufts of dried grass which he bound tightly to the end of a long thick stick. Outside the cave he poured some of the oil onto the dried grass, and using a flint ignited the makeshift torch.

Zin-zas are not only renowned for their ferociousness and stupidity, but also for their bad hygiene. The bresk* pens in Bryntha were more inviting than the stench that assaulted Groad’s sensitive nostrils as he entered the gloom of the cave. The remains of devoured creatures lay scattered all about the place. He had to tread gingerly for fear of stepping into one of the many large heaps of zin-za excrement that lay unevenly distributed across the floor of the cavern.

He became angry with himself again for inadvertently killing Coar Rel’s mount. It could have served as an excellent meal for the one-eyed brute, and made the task at hand all the more easier.

If he was lucky, the zin-za may have only recently partaken in a decent feeding session, supplied by the reluctant Fryburian’s, and was now contentedly snoring up another appetite.

Unfortunately, this was not so. The orange flame of the torch reflected back across the darkness, mirrored from what could only be an enormous menacing eye; an eye that was staring straight at Groad.

Both Groad and the zin-za had apparently become aware of each other at just about the same time. The zin-za, which had been sitting with its back against the far wall, rose to its feet. It gave a blood-chilling roar and began to advance on Groad, the single horn that protruded from its forehead scraping against the ceiling of the grotto.

Groad could only make out an enormous black shape with a single fiery coal for an eye. He truly was the finest of warriors. Numerous battles had forged his nerves into wrought-metal. He knew well that to turn now and flee would be fatal. He had entered this cave with a purpose. The time to fulfill that purpose was now.

With uncanny calmness he threw the oil jar into the path of the advancing shape. The clay vessel shattered, splattering a large pool of oil into the path of the advancing beast. Then, with a deliberate thrust he pitched the burning torch into the oil. It immediately ignited with a blinding flash, illuminating the whole interior of the cavern. The zin-za recoiled, covering its eye with a huge hairy paw.

Groad smiled, not so much from relief as from sheer pride and arrogance that his scheme had worked perfectly. Being predominantly a nocturnal creature, Groad had known that the zin-za would be sensitive to any form of bright light. The flames would keep the beast at bay long enough for him to study its movements, thus determining the best way to dispose of this dumb obnoxious creature.

Once the initial burst of white light had receded, the flames subsided to an even yellow luminescence. Groad removed the Eldritch Blade from its sheath on his back and, with both hands firmly on the hilt, raised the sword into an offensive position over his right shoulder. The zin-za becoming accustomed to the light slowly lowered its paw.

Flames separating them, the adversaries studied one another by the flickering glow.

Groad was a mere third of the enormous height of the zin-za. For him to deliver a quick and certain death it would be best to wait for the brute to stoop down to grab him. This would bring its neck within swords-length of the slicing arc of the Eldritch Blade.

It was only now that Groad saw the collar. A large thick metal band surrounded and protected the vulnerable area around the zin-za’s neck.

Groad had no idea as to whom or what could have been brave or foolish enough to place such an article upon such a creature. If they had taken the opportunity to do it whilst the beast slept, why had they not simply used the same convenience to dispose of the brutish animal and gain a vast sum in gold?

There was no more time to ponder these facts. The initial shock caused by the sudden conflagration had passed, the zin-za once again advanced. It bent forward, both arms outstretched towards its next meal.

Groad ran forward and the zin-za’s paws closed on air. Standing between its arms and chest, Groad swung the Eldritch Blade at the metal collar. The mystical power of the sword would allow the blade to pass through both metal yoke and neck-bone with equal ease.

It did not!

There was another blinding flare as the cutting edge of the Eldritch Blade made contact with the collar.

The flash was not the usual sparking effect caused by metal on metal. This burst was bright blue in hue and resonated with a low humming sound. In an instant Groad comprehended that the collar had been made by similar powers to those that had been used in the construction of the wondrous Eldritch Blade. In that same instant the zin-za folded its arms, crushing Groad against its hairy chest. The sword was pinned between himself and the zin-za. For a fleeting moment Groad felt relieved that it was the flat of the blade he was being squeezed against and not its edge.

The pressure was immense and increasing. The brute must surely release him in order to gain a better grip. At that moment he would be able to slice at its heart or other vital organs.

This was not to be.

Still pinning him to its chest with one arm, the zin-za placed its huge paw over Groad’s head and forced it backwards. There was a snapping sound and immediately the sensations of pain and pressure in the areas below Groad’s head ceased to exist. He realized with nauseating horror that the snapping sound had come from his own neck. It had broken under the zin-za’s incredible force; severing the main nerve that regulated all his bodily functions below.

He wanted to shout one last warrior’s yell before the inevitable darkness took him, but he was having difficulty just trying to breathe. It took every ounce of his concentration just to force air in and out of his lungs.

The small creature against the zin-za’s chest had ceased to struggle, so it grabbed it with the free paw and held it at arms-length. An instant later there was a clanging sound and Groad knew that the mystical sword had fallen from his limp grip. The flat of the blade had obviously struck the ground.

Groad’s head drooped to one side. The zin-za mimicked Groad, studying him.

A red tear welled in Groad’s eye before sliding down his cheek. He had a strange desire to feel pain. If only there was just the slightest sensation of physical pain.

Pain, like all emotions, was a symptom of life. It was something to be grasped and savoured. To feel pain was to taste the sweetness of life.

He had been obsessed with death, now at last it was about to obsess itself with him; possessing him like a coveted jewel or mystical sword.

Groad knew that there would be no glory in this at all. Death was coming for him in a smelly cave; brought to him by one of the dumbest brutes upon the face of Baltrath. He had failed to remember the important lesson that he had learned so long ago in Grimwald forest; a lesson he had ironically sworn never to forget. Never be overconfident or underestimate your foe’s capabilities. Now here he was in the exact same predicament as what his friend had been; only he did not have any saviour with a bow to show him the same mercy that he had once bestowed upon Zarkas. Not only was he not going to obtain the coveted Golden Sleep, but as Zarkas had once feared himself, he would be bashing on Dakur’s golden gates for all eternity.

Groad thought about what Turpane had said to him on that night under the Artanian stars, and he knew the small Valacian girl had spoken the truth.

“You live life to die, when you should be living life to live. Why can you not just enjoy the gift of being? Being alive! Breathing, smelling, eating, drinking, loving, hearing, feeling, tasting and seeing the things around you. The sky, the trees, the mountains, the flowers!”

Another crimson tear ran down Groad’s cheek as he wished he could be lying on a high hill between an ocean of fragrant blooms, feeling the warmth of sunlight on his face. It was a strange and foreign desire for a Kithian warrior, yet to Groad it now seemed more important than the Golden Sleep itself. Why had he never taken the time to do such a simple and yet profound act?

If he had had more time to ponder on his sudden demise, his thoughts would probably have drifted to his family in Bryntha.

The reason he was not contemplating on this particular matter was unmistakably simple.

Groad was dead!

A short while later the zin-za emerged from the cave. The meagre meal he had just consumed had only pricked his appetite. He was delighted to find a large war-horse tethered to a tree close to its lair. It would take a long time for its belly to digest the enormous feast.

Later still, as the brute lay sleeping, a small bald man without any fingernails crept into the cave and picked up the Eldritch Blade from where it had fallen. He found the sword’s scabbard and a saddlebag filled with gold amongst a very large pile of freshly picked bones. He sheathed the blade, slung the saddlebag over his shoulder, and walked calmly out of the cave smiling.

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