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1. The Stranger - Forging Plans
Kroll was in the dungeons, his sword on an enchanted anvil. Glowing green shavings flew off as he sharpened it. The green glow made his iron-armour appear in stark relief.
Behind him growled the beast he had forged.
The most highly trained warrior of Kroll’s Army had been melded with the Berserker-armour. He was no man or beast: he was now a Berserker, a monster bred to lead Kroll’s Elite Berserker Company into battle.
The Berserker roared, yanking and heaving at its chains. It would have broken free if it had not been for the connective green spell that bound the chain-links together.
Kroll was finished. He stalked towards the Berserker, and lifted its cumbersome grey-boned skull, which had tusks to either side.
The Berserker growled threateningly. It was imbued with such destructive power and pain that it was virtually unstoppable. The only thing that made it obey was the promise of blood, which it could attain by wiping out Kroll’s enemies. That and the sharp staff set into its outer grey-boned spine, which made the Berserker spiritually dependent on Kroll for its life.
‘You have done well. You have shown everyone your might and vigour. However, you are now a Berserker. Your explosive force is ready to be unleashed upon the world. I free you of your chains that you may feast upon the blood of my enemies.’
Kroll raised his heavy sword with two hands, and cast it down onto the chains keeping the Berserker attached to the stone wall. The Berserker screeched and yelled ferociously, waving its impressive grey-bone armoured arms and white claws.
One more chain was sliced into pieces by Kroll’s unbreakable sword. The bindings were cut. The Berserker roared, raising its head at the black orifice in the ceiling above.
‘Go!’ Kroll goaded.
The Berserker used its strong arms to propel itself upwards, along the slippery stone wall.
Kroll kept his sword held out to the side, while green glowed along its length.
‘Go, my creature!’
This time you shall be my secret.
Kroll remained seated in his iron Throne. His iron-armour felt heavy and sharp after all these years, but he still felt strong.
In came Darius, one of his most intelligent dignitaries.
‘Magnificence, the seizure of assets has been reported as successful. Every Petty King or Queen has been disposed of, and all treasure is now under our control. Their greedy influence is now at an end. It seems the meetings to discuss their prominent positions worked. They were lured in by the promise of greater power.’
‘But did every Petty King and Queen attend?’ Kroll’s deep voice rumbled in his armour.
‘We don’t have a register of every Petty King and Queen,’ Darius admitted. ‘However, we do have a register of every King and Queen we have disposed of,’ Darius informed, on a more pleasant note. He took out a scroll, opened it, and started reading the names.
‘How many have been disposed of?’ Kroll interrupted harshly.
‘In total three thousand…’
Kroll smashed his heavy iron fist onto the implacable arm of the iron chair, making a noise that shattered the semblance of the air.
‘There are more than three thousand Petty Kings and Queens out there! They didn’t fall for the bait! You call this successful?’
Darius was known for his cunning and his ability to stay out of Kroll’s wrath. This was pushing it.
‘To rid the world of three thousand is still a success, and overnight as well.’
‘And what do you suggest for the others?’
‘We could go to war?’
‘I can’t afford to leave the Temples unguarded. Ravaging the country will do no good; the Petty Kings and Queens will fall through my clutches…’ Kroll lamented, tightening his iron fist for emphasis.
‘We may have to release the Berserker,’ Darius suggested helplessly.
‘Last year that failed.’
‘Nothing can kill a Berserker. It must have been an accident last year. If magnificence trains and forges another one…’
‘The Berserker is good for specific targets, be they large or small. Every Petty King and Queen is too general a target.’
‘We could bribe them with wealth.’
‘It won’t work. Too many of them have their own sources of wealth and their own discreet systems of trade and now they will distrust us.’
‘The bandits!’ Darius exclaimed.
‘They are a problem as well, I am aware of this.’
‘No, they can help us. Put a bounty on every Petty King and Queen and they will hunt them down and kill them.’
Kroll put his finger-armour to his chin and pondered. The bandits could not be trusted to return the treasure unless they were accompanied by a few trusted officials. They could be promised a very small share; a share much smaller than that currently owned by the Petty Kings and Queens. It would supplement Kroll’s forces if the bandits agreed, and it would narrow down the number of Petty Kings and Queens significantly.
‘Yes, and ensure they return most of the treasure by sending a few officials with them; officials who can defend themselves,’ Kroll agreed.
Bandits and Petty Kings and Queens needed to be dealt with. There was a greater threat out there that could kill a Berserker. Before Kroll combated that threat he needed to be rid of his usual enemies, who were growing in strength and number.
‘I want every Petty King and Queen immediately hunted. Their manpower, assets, trade routes, and goods will be targeted and brought to the attention of our soldiers without delay. If you need to conduct a survey prior to the hunt then do so, but be sure you don’t allow our intentions to be clear to them, else I shall be immensely angry. This can’t fail! Put the bounty out at the same time, through our other channels to ensure they have no forewarning of our incoming attacks. Secrecy is essential. We don’t want the Petty Kings and Queens to forget to conduct business as usual because they fear too much for their lives.’
Darius was astounded at Kroll’s solution.
Two good minds could solve much.
King Wencelet walked out of his timber hall, and folded his arms, surveying the mounted detachment that was stampeding fast up the hill towards him. They were his men, all twenty-four of them. He didn’t possess many soldiers or loyal men, couldn’t defeat his neighbours in combat, or have hopes of conquest. In fact it was why he was a Petty King, he reminded himself.
The banners of the soldiers were then relaxed, and they saluted their King.
‘We have brought a messenger with us,’ Heriot spoke, the Captain and his most loyal soldier.
‘Come in and keep warm. I shall speak to this messenger.’
They made their way into the timber hall. The men un-strapped their armour, and lay down their possessions, keeping warm by the fire of the hearth. King Wencelet could see them rub their hands together, and cast grateful glances towards one another.
They are my men!
‘King Wencelet, my name is Trimmodol, and I come with tidings.’
‘Tidings from whom?’
‘I come on behalf of Kroll.’
‘Everybody comes on his behalf. Where did you actually come from?’
‘I am not at liberty to say, but I come to make demands. Your treasure and all of your possessions are to be seized and taken to the Temples. I am not asking this of you, this is a demand.’
King Wencelet gazed at the other man; short, and clad in black leather.
I could crush him.
‘I don’t have any possessions. I am a Petty King for a reason.’
‘Kroll the Magnificent knows Petty Kings and Queens live off their riches. How else would they even have been elevated to their position?’
The impudent man was taking off his black leather gloves, as if ready to dispense punishment.
King Wencelet put his hand on his sword’s hilt, and manoeuvred his belly so that it was facing the smaller and younger man.
‘Are you going to conduct a search? I consider this timber hall to be my property. Trespass on my property, and I shall take matters into my own hands!’ The King threatened, glaring at the official … or messenger, whatever he was.
‘You will set the treasure before me, or Kroll will take action.’
‘Kroll does not own all treasure!’
‘He does now,’ the young messenger stated.
There was a pause as King Wencelet pondered whether to gut the messenger and hide the evidence of wrongdoing.
This demand is a step too far and I’m not going to submit my treasure. I’m a pauper next to the wealth Kroll possesses. He’s encroaching upon our sovereignty one step at a time. Is this a step too far?
The King sighed.
‘Heriot, provide this man with the treasure he desires,’ he commanded his loyal soldier, before Heriot abruptly disappeared behind him.
Unexpectedly, a painful thud in the King’s lower back shocked him, and blood gushed out of his mouth. In Heriot’s hand was a dagger with blood pasted onto it.
His men had drawn swords, but not to defend him. They surrounded him, along with Heriot, falling in line behind the messenger, who had a rather uncompromising look on his face.
King Wencelet collapsed on all fours, his vision becoming blurry.
‘Was this for greed?’ he grunted.
He moaned and fell onto his chest and stomach, losing consciousness. A black glove grew larger in his vision, falling to cover the last images of his prized timber hall.
Darius beheld his Magnificence, absorbed as he was in the recurring crystalline flashes emanating from the palm-sized seeing stone he grasped.
He sees so much, beyond what our eyes can see. It scarcely seems possible that the world has so many gates and portals into dimensions that cannot be seen or accessed by mortals.
Is he really a tyrant?
Having known about the temples and soldiers that were present everywhere, it was hard to see how Darius could not have seen this earlier. Conquest and control were all his Magnificence sought and his raids on the petty kings and queens were the first tangible evidence he had gained, apart from the tome he had brought with him.
How much further will he tighten his control over the realm? Am I, and by extension, all mortals, potential targets of our ruler’s omnipresent sorcery? He has ruled for two thousand years of what could be seen as peace and stability, but the winds are changing now, and what Magnificence was satisfied with is no longer enough.
Now that his helmet and the seeing stone had been raised so that his eyes appeared as if they beheld Darius, His Magnificence gave no sign that he knew or could hear Darius’ thoughts, yet his still unnerving posture seemed to look past Darius, seeing into and then through the core of his being.
Kroll wore an old iron great helm that was dented and rusty, presumably because he liked to cling to his old warrior ways, but Darius had done his research into the matter, or what research he could get away with without questions being asked. His armour and his heavy two-handed sword Forever Sword were worn and used because he apparently believed the elixir of life on his body was being protected. For some unfathomable reason, Magnificence would not replace it for newer and stronger armour. Perhaps he thought his sorcery could make up for his disintegrating armour, or somewhat compensate him. However, it was reasonable to assume he would deliberately want to wish his enemies to gauge his armour and then underestimate him, which was something Darius was not willing to do.
The tyrant was hidden and elusive to most mortals. Maybe he thought he could command more respect if he wasn’t seen to be intervening personally in mortal’s lives, though it could also hint at cowardice. Rumours from his enemies suggested he was afraid mortals would see his face and he would be recognised as mortal or weak. Darius had an inkling that it had more to do with Kroll’s departure from his youth, thousands of years ago, when he was famous or earlier when he had suffered much mistreatment at the hands of the Ancient Sect of Desert Alchemists.
By keeping his great helm, he was comfortable. It had a single horizontal band for a visor, which seemed to radiate a detached emotionless regard or a self-loathing so deep it had twisted his inner-self into spiritual deformity that could not be revealed. Either way, Magnificence was not known to have ever taken off his helmet.
What I am about to do, might not end well, but questions must be asked if there are to be answers. My days of being an amateur historian are over, and I need real evidence from Magnificence himself, if I am to learn the truth. The truth, after all, may yet save all mortals from further tyranny.
For all Darius’ boldness, his body’s physical processes were betraying him. His bowels and bladder were pushed forcefully by something unseen, as if willing a release. His heart palpitated with violent tormenting thuds, while his skin had a sheet of sweat plastered onto it, sticking his body to his clothes.
The entire room seemed to shrink, as if eyes or phantom presences were watching and closing in on him. The chamber was stifling with suffocation, with poor illumination hiding away the luxurious patterned tapestries and carpets, and the frescoes Darius remembered seeing last time could not even be seen at all in the growing darkness.
The figure of his Magnificence shuddered, and then broke free from the seeing stone, and Darius almost choked. He summoned a courageous breath, before swallowing deeply, and prepared to give his reports; and ask his crucial questions.
Kroll retracted his battered armour-hand from the seeing stone.
‘Magnificence, I have several reports,’ Darius spoke solemnly.
‘Speak!’ Kroll commanded.
‘The bandits have done well. They have taken the bounty seriously against the Petty Kings and Queens. There is open warfare in the land, but most of the Petty Kings and Queens have been dealt with, and we have recovered substantial treasure, which we have collected at the Temples. The good news is that with the deaths of many bandits during these raids, their promised share has dropped dramatically.’
‘Excellent,’ Kroll hissed.
‘The customary hunt for the Blood Warrior has commenced as well, I thought I would just notify you.’
Kroll nodded and then inquired:
‘I assume all is proceeding as planned?’
‘The Blood Warrior is not yet dead, but his choices imply that he soon will be. The land is all but rid of your enemies, Magnificence.’
Kroll nodded in satisfaction.
‘Magnificence?’ Darius broached, a worried look wrinkling his forehead.
‘There have been rumoured sightings of a monster in the land. The High Mages have done their utmost to reassure the acolytes and townsfolk that the monster is the Berserker. Is it true, Magnificence?’
‘It is true,’ Kroll confirmed.
‘May I ask why he has been forged?’
‘I have my own reasons.’
‘And what is the target?’
‘He will lure my true enemies out. Now I have eyes where I did not before. Those responsible for the death of the Berserker last year must be found and destroyed.’
Darius nodded in agreement, then he rifled through the bound book he was holding, searching frantically for something.
‘Darius, is there more to report?’
‘There was this ancient tome that had me worried. It details the Prophecy and the Blood Warrior. It also has information about a Stranger. It is foretold that a Stranger will come at the end of time and will create a system where he may control … time. The similarities between these texts and the world we live in are remarkable...’
‘Pass the tome to me Darius!’
Darius did as was commanded.
Kroll searched the pages of the tome with amusement. Most were unaware that he had authored most of the books available in all Temples. Those other authors had to approach him to have their discoveries recorded because he controlled the printing presses. This particular tome was not one he had authored. It was a tome dating back over two thousand years ago, called The Prophecy. Kroll thought he had eradicated every such tome, but it appeared some still existed.
‘What worries you about this tome?’
‘It is ghastly if the world were subverted to the will of one individual.’
‘You speak too boldly Darius,’ Kroll spoke, not really paying attention to the pages his eyes purportedly scanned. ‘Have you told anybody else of this?’
‘No, Magnificence, I thought it would be best to show it to you.’
‘Have you found anything else that perturbs you?’
‘Since when did I assign you the role of investigator, Darius?’
Kroll’s steel gaze fell upon the weak demeanour of his dignitary.
Darius looked hesitant and terrified.
There was a brief pause. Kroll summoned green ethers around his fist. Darius knew something was afoot and panicked. He ran, stumbling and hastily grabbing his dark-blue robes in an attempt to regain his dignity and escape with his life intact.
‘Rraah!’ Kroll roared, sending a luminous green blast from his fist. It crashed into the opposite iron wall, causing metal splinters and deadly shards to rebound.
‘Aaah!’ Darius screamed in pain as he continued his rush to the staircase leading out. The shards had sliced into his leg, which he clutched while limping.
Kroll had missed!
He promptly stood up from his iron Throne in pursuit, but awkwardly slipped and then fell down numerous long iron steps. On the tiled iron floor, he laid supine and gasping in exhaustion, shock even.
I’m a mess.
Failure to eliminate one of his subjects would soon be the talk around all Temples. Darius wasn’t even a sorcerer.
Up in his Grand Observation Tower, Kroll was studying the stars. There were scopes everywhere, positioned directly at the heavens. The transparent glass above gave him a sense of peace and security. There was such space available to him here.
The next frontier is the stars.
His heavy armoured arms were folded. After two thousand years of rule he had grown wearisome and weak. The sorcery he had used to make himself immortal was wearing thin, and the muscle he had grown in his youth was gradually degenerating. There would come a day soon when he would not be able to wear this armour. He hated weakness. It would make him a despicable sight, and his enemies would multiply. He could not hide in the shadows either, could he?
In the centre of the Grand Observation Tower was a seeing stone, placed on a plinth.
He strode towards it and grasped it, closing his eyes and breathing heavily, allowing the aura to travel through him.
Mountains and mass lakes passed through his mind. Deserts, rocky cliffs, and great exotic forests passed. Tremendous seas, islands, and grassy farmland appeared. They were all marked by his Temples. He had conquered all. The seeing stone could not allow him to look further, beyond this world and everything...
He needed to reach further, to escape the confines of his mortality and ascend. No sorcery he could muster or practice had yet led him there. He was the Grand Mage of the Kroll Order of Mages. Nobody knew more than he did of sorcery. It was not even enough to achieve his dreams of conquest. He wanted to battle again to feel the energy of his youth.
The adventure must continue.
There must be a way.
He would hire free-riders if he had to. He would hire anybody who could make his dreams come to pass. Ten thousand years ago, kings and leaders of every generation sought immortality, and they hired people to find it for them. It had never been enough in the past, so why would it be for him?
I forged the Forever Sword and the Berserker. I founded the Orthodoxy. I have ruled this world for two thousand years. I am striving to control every aspect of life on this simple world and it’s not enough!
What was it that Darius had told him a few months back?
‘There are those who believe that the Desert Alchemists can do things with their sorcery that we could not dream. They possess arts that are often unconventional and always stigmatised. They are shunned by all apart from those who are desperate. If you want to make further gains with astrology then I suggest approaching them, Your Magnificence.’
Darius knew little, though since the destruction of the Berserker last year Kroll was willing to reconsider his words.
I must have missed something. What is the unknown factor?
Could it have been the Desert Alchemists who destroyed the Berserker? They were the best equipped group that could cause problems.
Alchemy, why did I keep it in the Orthodoxy?
He retracted his hand from the seeing stone and the stars above blinked innocently, as if wary of his future plans.
The Desert Alchemists must be the unknown factor. Therefore, they are who I need to discover who destroyed the Berserker. Then they must be eliminated, but I can’t eliminate them unless … unless I modify the Orthodoxy...
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