Chapter Twenty-Three: The Sundered Land
They were traveling down the road as the sun hid behind the hills. Ahead of them, they could see the distant lights of the city in the dusk. No others had passed them on the road, but occasionally they heard the sound of hooves far away. They would listen carefully to see if riders were coming, but the horses faded, galloping toward farms or villages that stood away from the road.
Clouds gathered in the darkening sky and faint rumblings echoed in the hills. There was a crack of thunder and they were caught in a sudden downpour. The storm raged for some time, flashing and booming, and then disappeared as suddenly as it had started.
The skies were clear as they went down the road with two miles still ahead of them. Modrus breathed heavily and his stride was slower.
“Shall we rest?”
The king shook his head. “The time for rest has passed,” he said, walking faster, pushing his body with a defiant will, and Efkin had to make haste or fall behind the dead king. “Baragan was a good man. It should not surprise me that he has been slain, for no goodness can survive long in this new world, where only the wicked remain. I do not doubt that all my lords have been killed and their families with them. Such is the way of these dark lords.” The king sighed. “If I had known …”
The skies darkened as they climbed a hill. Modrus paused for a moment, catching his breath. “The prince was strong, but he had a gentle heart. Only a few of his kind are left in this world, and soon there may be none to challenge these dark lords.”
“There are many who will challenge them.”
“They are too late, I fear. An evil has swept over the world while all the nations slept, and so swiftly and vastly it has grown, threatening to bring all lands under its sway.”
“There are powers greater than sorcery,” Efkin said.
“We must gather these powers quickly.” Modrus glanced at Efkin and there was a glimmer of hope in his tired face. His mood lifted as they marched and his stride was swift and sure.
A strange glow caught his eye and he saw in the distance a stream of burning matter that flowed like a river of flame across the land.
“What is this?”
“Mor’s lords have wakened a volcano,” Efkin said. “For what purpose, we do not know.”
They stood a moment staring at the fiery trail that lit the dusk with a crimson glow, and then continued on their way.
Efkin was thinking about the horn, wondering how they would recover it. Modrus said he could get them into the citadel unnoticed with his wizardry, but they would still have to find the horn. He knew it would soon be on its way to Mor where it would be guarded by unimaginable powers. And if they found themselves caught in a melee, escaping the citadel would be difficult. In contrast to Efkin’s concern, Modrus displayed an arrogant confidence that was almost absurd, vowing to slay all who stood in their way. His somber mood had changed and now he spoke constantly, at times ranting as if possessed by madness. “It is foul to wake us!” he would shout in between his mumbled curses. “Have none respect for the dead!” His contempt for all things foul and unjust was strangely infectious and Efkin grew less afraid as the king persisted in his riotous litany. Despite his doubts, he found himself emboldened by Modrus’ defiant spirit, feeling like he could challenge all the lords of Mor and their dark allies. He smiled then, suddenly aware that his fiery words might be a conscious ploy to rouse his fighting spirit, for such is the way of kings in times of battle, but his outbursts seemed motivated by a genuine outrage that could scarcely contain itself.
They came within sight of the city that glowed with bright lanterns of different colors. There were no people in the streets at this late hour, but they heard a noise; a creaking sound, like the sound of wood moaning under a massive weight. They felt the ground shake and wondered at the cause of the quake.
They passed into the city swiftly and quietly, proceeding down a wide avenue toward the strange noise, walking on ground that trembled and groaned, following the broad street to an empty square where a fountain flowed with crystal water. A bronze statue of an armored horseman was centered on the fountain with his sword pointing east.
“Surion,” Modrus said proudly. “Our great captain who defeated the armies of Kel-Ri when we warred with that land many years ago, before we were allies.”
He was about to say more when he turned his gaze up and gasped. He saw a broken tower. And now, far away, another building stood crumbling.
“What is this?” he said stunned.
The sound was louder now and the ground shook and grumbled. And then they were astonished to see great mastodons, high as hills, moving across the square in a large procession. On their backs were huge fortresses made of wood and steel, carefully balanced on a foundation of beams and arches designed to fit the beasts securely. The mastodons pulled enormous wooden platforms that spun on great wheels. A pair of huge iron doors lay flat upon one of the platforms and the wooden timbers bent under the massive load, moaning and creaking as if ready to snap. Modrus stood in disbelief and his eyes widened with terror when he saw one of the mastodons dragging a great golden dome.
“Our minister’s building,” he gasped.
He watched horrified as the procession revealed more devastation, wheeling forward with sections of towers and mansions.
“Why have they done this?”
“These men prepare for war,” Efkin said. “Those iron doors will be turned into a thousand swords, for their army is more than a million strong. The gold will be used either to buy more needed materials or adorn their own dark cities.”
Modrus held his gaze on the procession, watching the huge mastodons advance with booming steps that sent tremors across the land, unaware of the priceless wonders they dragged behind them, obeying the dark will of their masters whose purposes they served.
“Those doors once stood at the threshold of Abann, the most beautiful of all estates in Khad-Amryn.” Modrus turned away from the marching beasts and lowered his head. “If I had known the evil that would befall us, I would not have listened to those wise fools who counseled me to bargain with these men so that we might end the war.”
Efkin felt pity for the king. “Other lands have been sundered in this way,” he said. “Yours was not the first and will not be the last.”
Modrus watched the great mastodons advance like mountains that moved, one behind the other, the shells of broken buildings flanking their path as they marched down the street.
“Is this how it ends?” The king wept.
Efkin put a hand on the king’s shoulder to comfort him and was at once startled when he felt the brittle bones that were masked beneath his false body, remembering that his fleshly appearance was an illusion.
They stood for a moment in silence, dwarfed by the huge platforms that passed overhead with giant wheels spinning and rattling. Efkin glanced up at one of the wooden fortresses and, through a square opening, saw several men looking down on them. He could not discern the figures clearly, but one appeared to wear a crown that glinted in the moonlight.
“Who is the one with the crown?” he asked.
Modrus looked up with surprise. “If he wears a crown, he is the governor.”
“Are we near the harbor?”
“Yes, it is less than a mile from here. They will board great barges and take their spoils away to Mor.”
Efkin stared up at the crowned figure. “He has the horn. I can feel it near.”
“I do not doubt it,” said Modrus. “He would not let another take it. He will personally deliver his greatest prize to his masters in Mor.”
The two scrambled toward the mastodon. Efkin stared up at the fortress that stood perched on its back, guessing those inside had climbed a very long ladder or employed other means of reaching the wooden structure.
“There is no way up,” Efkin said.
Modrus turned his gaze on the fortress. “Then we shall make a way.” The wizard-king extended his hand and suddenly a bridge of light spanned the gap between the street and the fortress. With a gesture, Modrus altered their appearance so they were clad as soldiers. “We must be careful that no eyes spy us entering. Hurry, the bridge fades.”
They hastened up the bright path that was like a ray of sunlight and Efkin marveled at the powers this wizard-king possessed. He wondered how many others of Khad-Amryn were gifted with such talents that would impress the elves.
They reached the fortress and made their way along a ledge, keeping low as they passed beneath lit portals so they would not be seen by those inside. Then they found a dark opening, which they stepped through.
Modrus quickly illumined the darkness with a glowing hand and they were at once surprised to find they were standing in a small barracks where several men slept. They stepped quietly and went through a door, then made their way down a narrow corridor toward a din of voices.
“I think I hear the governor,” said Modrus.
They entered a wide space where soldiers stood idly at the walls and three men looked out a portal, overlooking the broken kingdom. The tallest had a jeweled crown upon his head and wore a pale robe. He spoke to the man on his left who wore the black armor of Mor. In a grey cloak at his right, stood the man who had stolen the horn.
The soldiers noticed Efkin and Modrus, but were not alarmed by their presence. Fearing the governor would know they did not belong here, the two quickly merged with the soldiers. They hid amidst their numbers while he talked with the armored man.
“How I despise that one,” Modrus whispered. “Governor Lokus. He was once an honored member of our senate, but his loyalties turned when Mor seduced him, offering him great power and a place in their new order. He was a valuable tool whose influence they used to gain the confidence of the citizenry. He and his masters have brought ruin to this land. I must wonder, though, if these dark lords will honor their agreement with him when his role has been played.”
“I cannot predict what his fate will be,” Efkin said, “but I know of others these lords have slain when their work was done.” He looked at the two men beside the governor. “The one in the grey cloak stole the horn. The other wears the armor of Mor. Do you recognize him?”
Modrus looked at the man in the black armor, searching his memories.
“He is Saos, one of the nine.”
“There were nine lords who came to this land years ago when the other nations gathered against us. Saos may have been left to oversee the governing of this kingdom.”
“He is one of Mor’s lords?”
“Yes,” said Modrus. “I recall now that he was the vilest, most treacherous sort of man I had ever met. His guile is subtle and he is quite an accomplished sorcerer. I think it will be difficult for us to escape.”
Efkin was almost in a panic, for he knew Mor’s lords were versed in the dark arts and possessed terrible powers. Then he glimpsed the horn in Lokus’ hand and the sight of it shining palely in the gloom brought him new hope.
“The horn,” he said excited.
Modrus glanced across the room and his eyes widened with awe when he saw the white horn. “What strange thing is this?” he said astonished. He stared a moment at the glowing horn, then turned his gaze away, afraid the soldiers might notice his interest.
“The horn is not of this world,” he said. “Our enemy must not acquire it.”
“We may have to take it by force and make our escape.”
“Unless he drops it in a clumsy collision with two soldiers,” said Modrus. “I may be able to create an illusion, a false horn for him to pick up while you acquire the real one.”
“Possibly, if we get closer and I concentrate, but you must take the horn quickly while he is stunned.”
“When we reach the harbor, we will make our attempt. If we succeed, we can escape when no one is watching us.”
Modrus paused. “If we are caught, we are doomed.”
“My ship cannot be far,” Efkin said. “We may see it at the harbor, for I expect my friends have realized the horn was brought to this land, aware of its ties to Mor.”
“I hope we will see this ship, for I fear nothing else will save us if we fail.”
Efkin smiled. “Have no fear; I have more than once found invaluable aid from strange and unexpected sources.”
“I do not doubt that you have, elvish one.”
The fortress continued on its path through the city. Buildings shook under the mastodon’s massive steps and some of the damaged ones fell crumbling into rubble. Modrus looked away from the ruins, careful to hide his anguish from the soldiers.
“We are near the harbor,” he said.
Efkin nodded and they advanced, moving slowly toward the governor. They came as close as they could stand without attracting attention and halted at a portal where some soldiers stood. Their eyes were on the governor as they waited for the right moment to make their move. Suddenly, Harbinger was humming at Efkin’s side.
“What is that sound?”
“My sword croons when demons are near. There must be some demonic presence in the ruins we are passing.”
“Demons?” Modrus said aghast. “In Khad-Amryn?”
“It is most likely trapped inside a jewel,” Efkin said. “But we have more urgent problems.” Efkin gestured toward the governor and Saos who approached, seeking the source of the crooning.
The governor’s eyes were intelligent and cold. His face, though lined with age, had a youthful appearance and a pleasant mien that masked his wickedness. Behind him, Saos stood wrapped in an aura of malice, eyeing the soldiers closely.
The governor looked at Efkin and glanced at his sheath. “Your sword,” he said, extending his hand. Efkin drew the blade and handed it to him. The governor brought the sword to his ear and smiled. “Extraordinary!” he said with apparent delight. “Saos, you must hear this.”
The dark lord took the singing blade. “Where did you acquire this sword?” he asked.
“A merchant in Nojor sold it to me,” Efkin said.
The dark lord paused, tracing his finger along the sentient blade as the crooning faded.
“I do not think so,” he said with a grin. “There are no swords of this kind in Nojor.” He stepped forward and Efkin met his cruel gaze. “Indeed, there are no such swords in any of the lands of men.”
Efkin was about to grab the horn, but at that moment the governor withdrew behind Saos to stand circled by his guards.
“I sense you are not a man,” the dark lord said. “How many others are with you, elf.”
Aware he would be slain if he did not act at once, Efkin stole a sword from the soldier next to him and fled the chamber.
“Seize him!” cried the governor.
The soldiers poured out of the room, swords ringing from their sheaths, chasing after the fleeing elf-lord. Modrus tried to hide in their ranks, following a group out of the chamber, but Saos halted them.
“You will stay here and guard the governor,” he said. “This elf has not come alone.”
Lokus emerged from the throng. “There are more elves?”
“Possibly,” replied Saos. “Though I do not sense elves are near.” He cast his cruel eyes upon the warriors and, when his gaze fell on Modrus, he paused a moment. “There is something here, a presence I have felt before.”
Modrus feared the dark lord would see through his disguise, but did not turn his eyes away.
“What sort of presence?” asked Lokus.
“I feel as if an old enemy has returned.”
Saos paused. “I do not know.” The dark lord made his way out of the chamber. “Guard the horn with your life. My masters would not be pleased if it were lost.”
“Where are you going?” the governor asked.
“To slay the elf.” Saos drew his sword and strode away.