The Ravagers (1993)

The Ravagers

Prologue

A boy watched from a distance as the armies of the dark kingdom raped, pillaged, killed, and destroyed his village, his home and his people. Tears streamed down his face as he ran from the scene. He was the only one—the soul survivor of his people. There was none who remained alive. The dark ones had seen to that. The women were brutalized, the men tortured to death, and the children had been dashed against the walls of the burning huts until they were dead. This, he realized, would be the fate of many villages.

To the swamps, then, he thought. And to the dark forests that spawned terrible nightmares and hallucinations that haunted until death. Once there, he thought, I can search for a quiet solitude…a peaceful sanctuary. I can forget all that has happened and begin anew. What has passed, I will forget.

Turning toward the south, he started to quicken his pace. Soon, he was at a full run. By evening, he had made it to the mountains. Choosing the steepest path, he made a desperate attempt to discourage the scout the armies had sent after him. By nightfall, he’d found a cavern that was sheltered from the view of anyone above or below him. Within, he found a multitude of creatures from which to choose as a meal. None was actually that appealing, but a hungry child will eat anything…and he did eat.

Tired, he collapsed in a heap upon the cold stone floor. There, he slept till the morn, not once waking. He did not know of the kindly old hermit who’d laid the bearskin upon him to keep him warm. Nor did he know of the wolf that had brought in food for him. He only slept and dreamed.

He dreamed horrible dreams. In his dreams, he was back at his village. He was still watching the destruction, the senseless violation of innocence. He was still seeing the evil stare of the monster that commanded those armies. He was filled with the fear. He saw the soullessness of the beast that sat upon that pale horse and it disturbed him.

The scouts were baffled. The thrachna had lost the boy’s scent, but they couldn’t go back without his body. If they did, they would be fed to the draqma. But, yet, their thrachna had lost the scent. It was as if the boy had vanished. Perhaps he’d fallen into a crevice. But they had seen no crevices, and knew better than to believe that. Nor would they believe that the beasts that inhabited these mountains had gotten to the boy. They’d been in the mountains for hours and not seen a single beast.

They held no animosity toward the boy, personally. They didn’t even hold animosity toward his village. They were merely carrying out orders. And orders were orders.

Down in the ruins of the village, the commander of the dark army removed her helmet. She was a dusky woman, well built, with raven hair. Her eyes no longer had a luster to them and she no longer felt emotion. She had not felt remorse for anything she had ever done. Her heart had been turned as dark as her hair, and her soul had been lost years ago through relentless warring.

Though a mere thirty years of age, she seemed to be ageless. Her beauty belied her true self. Beneath the timeless beauty laid an evil heart that served only her masters to the south. No remorse or feeling escaped her. Her words, empty…as empty as her heart.

She was truly and completely soulless. No man could ever posses her. No redeeming force could ever save her. She was already lost.

She had been sent north to put a boy to death, and she intended to do so. Her masters seemed to fear the boy, but she did not. She feared nothing. Not even her masters invoked fear in her heart, but they feared her.

She would continue to hunt the boy down, even if she had to spend the rest of her life doing so. She had to. She could not return to her masters a failure. She would rather die by her own hand than by theirs. They were not worthy enough to execute her. No one was.

To the southwest, her scouts were having no luck of their own. The mountains did their job well, when it came to hiding people. It was as if they swallowed them up like so much nothing. Not one trace could be found of the boy; no, not one. But they could not go back without his body. Their mistress terrified them. She would kill them.

She needed the boy’s body for proof. She had to take it back to her masters. They wanted the lad dead, not just scared out of his mind. And dead, he would have to be. So they continued to search.

As darkness fell, they searched. When there was no more light to see by, they ended their search. Tomorrow might bring them

luck, they thought. Tomorrow…

The boy rose early the next morning, even before first light. He awoke to find himself covered by a bearskin that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Beside him lay the carcass of a deer. In wonderment, he began to search for wood or brush to build a fire with. In the far corner of the cavern, he found what he was looking for, and carried enough forward for a small fire. Once he had a fire blazing, he prepared the meat with a sharp stone he’d taken to use as a knife.

“Sharp stones come in handy,” a voice in the darkness said, causing him to jump, “don’t they, boy?” W-who’s there?” the boy cried out.

“Hush, or they’ll hear you. Then, where will you be? Dead, if they have their way,” the voice said, “here, I’ll come forth so you

know that I mean you no harm.”

A short man, whose beard and hair were matted and unkempt, and who was dressed in sackcloth and furs, stepped from the darkness.

“Well, boy?” he said sternly, “aren’t you going to ask me to stay for sup? I did cover you in the night, you know. Would not do for the promised one to die his death of a cold, now would it? And the wolves brought the meat. We live here together, child. We know every passage throughout these caves.”

“Please, sir,” the boy spoke, still shaken, “I meant no offense. I knew not who you were. Please do join me for sup. You say you know these caves?”

“Yes, lad,” the wild man stated, “we will take you that way so they won’t find you.”

“But I head south,” the boy began.

“Nay,” the old man stated, “you must head west first. ’Tis the only way. The promise cannot be fulfilled if you go south first. They will surely catch you if you go south first. They await you there.”

“Who are ‘they’?” the boy asked, “and why do they wish harm to me?”

“They be the Hounds of Helledes,” the old man replied, “and they do not wish you harm, they wish you death. They are an evil lot, and seek to cast the world into darkness. As long as you live, you threaten them.”

“But I head for the swamps,” the boy insisted, “surely they won’t look there…”

“Boy,” the old man interrupted, “they would catch you before you could make it there. Helledes is betwixt you and the swamps. That is beyond their lands, and they would kill you ever afore you could reach your swamps.”

The boy bowed his head. He hadn’t thought of anything more than the swamps, and now they were beyond his grasp. Those who were after him stood in his way. His plight was hopeless, or so he thought.

“I am lost,” he mumbled, “I cannot escape them. My only hope lies to the south. Now I cannot even reach it.”

“Boy,” the old man stated, “did you not even hear me? I only said that you couldn’t go there now. I did not say that you could not go there later. You must go there, just not yet. You must go west first, then north. These caves run to the west. Beyond, they open to the lands of the wizards of Carapatha. You must learn from them, my boy.”

“But what lays to the north, that I must go there?” the boy asked.

“When that time comes,” the old man replied, “you will know.”

They ate in silence from that point on. After they finished, the boy began to ready himself for his journey. The bearskin, the old man said, was a gift, a blanket to keep him warm in the months to come. Thus, he rolled it up, and using fresh sinews, tie it into a bundle so it would be easy to carry. The boy took just enough of the deer carcass to see him through the journey ahead of him. The rest, he left for his lupine benefactors and the old man.

When he had finished, the old man began to lead him deeper into the caverns. The inky darkness they now penetrated, aided by a single torch, was nothing compared to the tales he’d heard of the great wells. It was said that any who’d ventured into them had never come out. There were rumors that many a soul had even fallen to their deaths from above the wells.

At times, the boy would cast a glance to the side and notice that the floor of the cavern seemed to stop just beyond the light of the torch. His guide seemed undisturbed by this newfound discovery, and continued to move on as if driven onward toward some unseen destination. Of course, the old man was driven onward. But it was by the desire to see the boy safely to the Great Sandy Desert, where destiny had fated him to go.

Back at the ruins of the village, the dark she-devil awaited news. She was the one they called Nemesisia. Though that had not been her name at birth, it fit her now like the armor she now wore. Coram Curuch had molded her such. He, the bent and bloody one, was the overlord of the Hounds of Helledes. She was their commander, and they were her wolf pack.

The boy’s name, though meaningless to her, was Bran. His fate had been the reason she had ridden north. He had been, or so her masters thought, sent to destroy the Helledes. In their black hearts, they wanted to stop him. Yet fate, it seems, cannot be stopped. They could kill him, but they could not forestall their fate.

Indeed, fate is a cruel master and its plans are always set in stone. Never can it be outwitted. And it was not fate’s plan that the boy, Bran, would come to harm. No army would destroy him or put an end to fate’s plans. Fate would protect its chosen warrior, and protect him well.

Within the caverns, Bran and his guide had turned northward on their path. Up till then, they had been headed west. But, somewhere along their path, the old man had turned into a tunnel that headed north. He explained to Bran that death lay on west. There were great wells that blocked the rest of the western corridor. Besides, the boy’s destiny lay to the north and west with the wizards of Carapatha.

Their course slowly turned back to the west, and soon enough, they were looking out over the land of Carapatha. It was such a beautiful land. Lush greenery grew everywhere. It was nothing like Bran’s own lands, which had to be worked in order to grow anything. This was paradise!

But where was the Great Sandy Desert? Bran turned to the old man.

“Where is the Great Sandy Desert?” he asked in surprise.

“This is a part of it,” the old hermit replied, “or was until the wizards settled here centuries ago. They changed it to appear according to the hearts of those who enter. If you be wicked, it is a great parching desert. If you be good, then it is an unearthly paradise. We be good people. So we see it as it is, a paradise.” “So it isn’t really a desert?” Bran asked.

“ Yes and no,” the old hermit stated, “it is. Then, again, it isn’t. You will understand more when you have spent time here. I cannot explain it to you. All I can tell you is that this is the Great Sandy Desert, or at least it once had been. It still is if your heart is set upon doing evil. Not even the cities exist in the minds of those

whose hearts have gone black.” “And I?” Bran asked.

“If they come here looking for you,” the hermit said, “they will not find you. They will die in the Great Sandy. You are quite safe here.”

“Thank you, old man,” Bran stated sadly, “you have been kind in bringing me here.”

“Fare thee well, boy,” the old man replied, “fare thee well and save the land from the evil you have witnessed.”

Bran watched the ancient hermit vanish back into the cavern. A deep pang of regret and sorrow overtook him. He knew well that he would never see the old hermit again. Something told him that the hermit was walking into a trap. He just knew that his pursuers had found his scent again and had followed it into the cavern.

Indeed, the thrachna had picked his scent back up. It had followed him into the caverns, but had failed to turn and the scouts had lost one to the great well just beyond where the cavern split. Its master had also been lost to the dark expanse of the well. All winced in pain as they heard the splat of flesh upon the dry, hard rocks in the inky darkness below. They slowly backed away from the edge of the well and turned around, heading back toward where they had just come.

It was then that they encountered the hermit. Yet, as they tried to lay hold on him, the old man erupted into flames. As he burned to ash, his strange laughter rang through the caverns. When he was gone, the scouts could only stand and stare in awe. Never had they seen such a sight. Not once had they had a prisoner escape by such means.

After a brief moment, the scouts resumed their search. Again, the thrachna picked up the scent of the boy and took lead. This time, it took the same path the hermit had come from. To the Great Sandy it headed. Into the desert that would swallow them all…

I.

Village after village was put to the torch, the people put to death. Nemesisia allowed her male troops to do as they pleased. These people meant nothing to her. The screams fell upon her deaf ears like so many whispers upon the wind. She reveled in watching the men burn at the stake. She cared very little about the women, they were whores anyway, or so she believed. Who would care if this were the total annihilation of a people? She was doing what she was sent to do.

She took personal pleasure in leading the children to the thrachna. She took pleasure in feeding them to her pets. Indeed, she was a person with no feeling…except cruelty. Her sadistic glee found its release in watching them all die.

Why should these inferiors be allowed to breed? That was her question. If she could just wipe them all off the face of the earth, then, she would have accomplished what she had been sent to do. There shouldn’t be any left to breed. They didn’t deserve to live.

The outlying farms and homesteads were the easiest prey of all. There weren’t enough souls on and around them to put up a decent defense. It was all too easy. She was making too quick of time. Then, she faced the great city of Shaethar. Its massive walls gave her the barrier she’d wanted. This was a worthy opponent.

Shaethar stood majestic above the plains of Colfar, in the very center. The villages had been its source of food. The farmers had been vital to its existence. But, the kings had not been foolish enough to not set up great storehouses where provisions could be kept. And those storehouses were full. A siege could last for years, even decades, and they would not run out of provisions.

So Nemesisia turned her armies to the east, hoping to rid the land of the infestation that these people dared to call farmers. To her, they were more like lice. They crawled and sucked the life out of everything in her eyes. They were an infestation, a disease. They weren’t farmers; they were primitive excuses for slaves.

They were happy serving their monarchs, and that made her disgusted. How could they remain loyal to soft, foppishly effeminate nobles who were wrapped up in the running of the state? Did they not know that their betters had no clue? And exactly what armies were going to come and save them? Their naivety disgusted, no, appalled her. There were no armies coming to save these wretched creatures.

But, she was wrong. There was an army, no, there were five armies coming toward her. They all depended on these peasants for their sustenance. And there would be yet another, one which did not need these people to survive.

Right now, there were only five. The best soldier each city had to offer headed each one of those armies. And they were more than enough to keep Nemesisia’s armies busy for a few years. But she was sure that she could break them as she had done so many other armies. And she would try.

Even as the armies drew closer to her, their kings sent forth riders. To the northern, western, eastern, and southern border towns they rode; to spread word that armies were needed. The kings hoped that those to the south still existed. Each city was vital to them; each ally a great need. If they could surround this dark army, they could hold it at bay. They were certain that they would not be able to defeat it, but at least they could stop it for a short duration.

Nemesisia did not see the riders that rode southward. They had wisely taken routes that lay hidden from her view. Yet, had she seen them, she wouldn’t have given them any concern. She’d not seen any cities on her way through the southlands, why would they head there? What would they be searching for?

But there were cities to the south; along the border she’d crossed. They were just spread out over the entire expanse of it, and could easily be passed without being seen. Of course, the southern border lay across a hilly expanse of land and hid much from the view of the invaders. A great army had watched them as they came into the lands, an unseen army that had been watching them since before their first massacre. These were the Border Guard. Even as the riders made their way south, this massive army headed north in its entirety, leaving the reserve guard to protect the border.

A great war had begun. The fate of a land was about to be decided. Yet, neither one of the participants knew what the outcome would be.

“Where are those scouts?” Nemesisia demanded, “where is that boy they were sent to bring back?”

“They haven’t returned, your lordship,” a nervous voice replied, “that could only mean that they haven’t yet found the boy.”

“Roch,” she growled, “they waste my time with their incompetence. I should’ve sent better warriors to catch the boy. Now, we are behind in our work. This siege will come to naught if he is not caught and destroyed.”

To the west, the scouts came out onto the Great Sandy Desert. They’d heard tales of this place. Supposedly, there were cities out here in this desolation. But no one had ever come back from its interior. No one could ever confirm their existence. Nomads that wandered in from this wasteland never said anything. They seemed as quiet as they were deadly. Even the masters of the Hounds left the nomads alone.

But, to find anything in the Great Sandy would be a feat worthy of a true warrior…and the scouts were determined to prove that they were true warriors. And so, into the desolate wastes they began to ride. The desert would claim yet more vile men and beasts for its own. Again, the hungry sands would devour them and no trace would ever be found.

As the scouts headed into the desert, a deep sense of foreboding came upon them like a wave and tightened its grip upon their hearts. As they continued to venture deeper, their mounts began to get jittery. The thrachna even seemed to become antsy and shy at anything that seemed to move. Yet there

was no wind. All was calm. Too calm…

Bran had no trouble finding his way to the nearest city. He was unconcerned, now, about his pursuers. They were just a bad memory as far as he was concerned. They no longer existed. All that existed to him was this mirage that was his reality. This paradise had worked its charm upon him. Now, he was ready to meet his hosts.

Upon the plains, Nemesisia was screaming at her most devoted lieutenant in anger. She was growing impatient with the scouts she’d sent out, and now was threatening to send more scouts out to seek the ones who were already missing. If she could only find them! They might have the body of the boy! Then, she could raise it above her head and show these savages that resistance was futile. She could defeat the lands if she only had the boy’s body.

“Your lordship,” came the answer, “they will return. If they do not, then I will send a detachment to search for them.”

“You do that, Roch,” she demanded, “and do it soon. I want no glory hogs riding back to Helledes and stealing the prize that is rightfully mine. I will not be destroyed by the likes of those dogs! Never! Never, never, never!”

“Yes, your lordship,” came the obedient reply, “immediately.”

Roch wondered why she had ever joined with Nemesisia in the first place. Being drawn to the woman was one thing, but one could never be her lover. And that had been her intent. She’d thought that when it had been said that no man could ever have the tall, dusky woman that it left it open for a woman. But that wasn’t true either.

She only found herself riding into battles with Nemesisia and doing her bidding. There was no love in the raven-haired woman’s heart, only hatred and bloodlust. Not that battle didn’t hold its own charm for her, but Roch needed more. So she sought companionship in lust with the men. But it wasn’t the same. Her heart belonged to her commander, a woman whom she would never be able to possess.

II.

Days passed in the Great Sandy Desert very slowly. So slowly, it seemed, that even the lizards grew old in just a day and it seemed to take forever to reach any distance. The harshness of the sun dried a man out so quickly that his skin would crack and the water-deprived blood would ooze out like thick, river mud. Its deep scarlet color was a stark contrast with the steel gray of their chain mail, which was now so hot it was almost intolerable. Had it not welded itself to them in the first few hours of their presence here, they would’ve gladly took it off and rid themselves of its fire.

Their dry, parched lips had peeled and repealed long ago and continued the process over and over again as they continued to ride. They seemed to get absolutely nowhere, no matter how far they rode. Their stomachs growled with hunger as they fought to keep their stores from vanishing. Their water was already low, and their morale had gone a long time before that. They were desperate men on a worthless mission.

The thrachna was the first to die. The ravenous men could no longer contain themselves. Their hunger gripped them like a beast about to devour it prey. They stripped the carcass of all its meat, leaving only bones. Only after it had died were they no longer afraid of it. Yet, what sustenance it provided would also soon vanish.

When it was gone, they found that their hunger burned worse. As their horses died, one by one, they—too—shared the thrachna’s fate. Then, as their comrades dropped, they also became sustenance. Then, there was but one left. No food, no water, no mind left—only a drive to find. But to find what? His mission had long since been forgotten. But he had found his way back to where he’d started.

But had he really left that point? He thought he had, with what ability he had left to think. Indeed, he could remember—or had that been an illusion, too?—marching out into the desert. In the haze, he could recall the order he’d given to do so. But his mind had been stripped of all reason. He was no longer a man. He’d become a savage, a beast.

To the east, Roch sent forth a small contingent of men to search for the missing scouts and the boy. The order was to execute the scouts and reclaim the boy’s body for their commander. Thus, they headed west…to the mountains. Two thrachna accompanied them on their quest. Unsure of what they would find, they took careful precautions not to act as the scouts had.

In the cavern, they scouted every passage. They, too, soon stood at the edge of the Great Sandy and looked out upon its barren wastes. Their attention was particularly drawn to something just a ways in front of them. They were filled with nausea ass they watched the horrid sight.

They watched as the last scout, no longer aware of anything, sat gnawing on his own useless leg. Around him, lay the bleached bones of his comrades…including the thrachna. Yet, there was a thrachna and a master missing. One of the archers, unable to bear any more of the scene, loosed an arrow and put an end to their comrade’s suffering.

They stood and silently watched as the bones and their comrade now crumbled into dust, gone forever, leaving no evidence for them to carry back with them. Yet, they had learned that the scouts had not found the boy either. There had been no body of a child in the scattering of bones. There had been no trace of what had driven them to their deaths either, and the one who’d still been alive moments ago had been in no condition to tell them anything.

Perhaps there would be some clue back in the great well they’d seen in the other passage. Perhaps, too, they could find something in the desert its self. The captain gave orders to a division to enter the desert, while he sent another small division back into the cavern. He, along with the division that was left, remained at the mouth of the cavern and watched as their comrades rode off into the dunes of the haunted desert.

Hours passed and the division that had gone into the desert did not return. It was as if they’d simply vanished. The other division had returned with news that the other thrachna and master had been at the bottom of the well, and they’d brought proof of their heads and battle armor. Beyond that, they had no clue what had happened to the scouts or what had driven the commander insane.

All they knew was that they’d been at the entrance of the cavern, the only entrance, and had not seen any sign of the division they were now missing. It was as if the desert had swallowed them. They’d already ridden the entirety of the high mountain passes in the area and knew that there were none that led into the desert before them. All the passes led north and south and had easterly outlets, but had no westerly outlets. There was no other way out, but their lost comrades had not returned.

They withdrew into the cavern as the sun began to set. They didn’t know what kind of creatures roamed the desert after dark, and weren’t about to find out. They set up camp just inside the cavern, and began to bed down. Their captain, Orykthys, took first watch.

Orykthys was not a young man, nor was he completely loyal to Nemesisia. He had been at the top of his game once, but had fallen into disfavor rather rapidly when that bitch had come along. He couldn’t see what was so wonderful about her. She was a bit of a Prima Donna and not very well liked. The only admirable thing about her was her prowess in battle.

He couldn’t remember ever seeing any other female warrior fight as well as she. It was almost seductive, the way she reveled in the bloodbath. He almost loved her for that, but not quite. He almost wished that he could lure her into his tent. Then, he’d make her grow up. He would show her what other ladies already knew. Indeed, he lusted after her.

As it continued to grow darker, he began to realize that the division he’d sent into the desert would not return alive…if they returned at all. He began to plan the morrow as he drifted in and out of lucid consciousness. Then, just as he was about to lose all consciousness, one of his men came and relieved him. It was the witching hour when he made his way to the tent of one of his female warriors. Tonight, he thought. Tonight, he would seek release in one of his underlings. But, someday…someday, he would find it in Nemesisia. He vowed that he would, soon…

Bran sat in his bed, safe within the city of Paraxys. It hadn’t been far to the gates after he’d left the cavern, so he’d settled on it as his new home. For now, he was their honored guest. They were his esteemed hosts, and soon, he would meet one of the wizards. There was much to be done. Too much, in fact, for him to even imagine.

He relaxed easily. He was truly safe now. The scouts could not get him here. Protection against them was everywhere. He fell asleep and dreamed. Tomorrow was a different day.

The desert had claimed more. Its hunger knew no relief. Its thirst spread to those who trespassed into its inner wastes. The days blazed hot and unbearable. The small division that had been sent to probe its mysteries and search for the child—if possible— had fared no better than their late comrades. They had been a bit smarter, though, and it seemed as if they might accidentally pierce the interior and make it safely to the other side. But night brought no relief.

Night was just as cold as the days were hot. During the day, they burned with hunger and thirst. At the same time, they peeled and dried out. Their skins cracked, releasing the rich crimson ichor that was their thickened blood. At night, their blood seemed to freeze within their veins. They no longer had the protective cloaks that they’d been issued, nor the thick iron chain mail. They’d rid themselves of these shortly after they’d set forth.

Yet, they were being watched. The nomads had found them, and seemed to be waiting. But, for what? To attack? This was their home, and they had intruded upon the nomads.

Kythry, the lieutenant over the division, muttered a prayer to some god that the rest had long forgotten ever existed. He was not a completely evil man; he just chose his path carelessly. He had allowed his friend, who had been killed in a battle early on and was now long dead and almost forgotten, to corrupt him and convince him to join the Hounds. At that time, the Hounds were nothing more than an elite army that defended their country, Helledes. Now, they were something less honorable and yet he remained.

His faithful companion, Barga, rode beside him. How he envied her. She was so loyal and yet fearless. She fought as well as he! May the gods be kind to her, he thought, as he glanced over at her. She had always been there for him. He had never strayed from her side, nor she from his.

Now, they were riding to their deaths and she didn’t seem to be afraid. She didn’t even flinch. Perhaps she didn’t know. By the gods, he was tired. He was so tired…Suddenly, everything fell apart. The nomads attacked. He watched as his division fell around him. Yet, for some unknown reason, it seemed as if the nomads were trying their hardest not to hit him or Barga. It was as if they wanted two prisoners.

Then it was over. He and Barga were surrounded and alone. His sword, now too heavy for him to hang onto, fell from his hands. His wounds, though massive were not enough to kill him. The nomads had seen to that.

A thousand devils now jabbed him with tridents, or so it felt to him. He looked over at his lover. She was unharmed. Good, he thought, they have decency enough to be kind to her.

As the nomads carried the two prisoners away into the night, Bran was somewhere in a dream of his yesterdays—when his mother and father were still alive. Back in the cavern, Orykthys was having his way with another of his female underlings. And back on the plains, Nemesisia was finding that she was caught in a bad place.

Within the caverns, the walls came alive. No one had noticed the statuary that seemed to line the walls, and now, they were coming to life. But they weren’t really statues. Nor were they made of stone. Their skin was hard and scaly, impervious to swords, but it did not make them invincible. They were known as the hellbenders. Though they had another name, no human tongue could utter it, so they became hellbenders…even though they did not resemble the little salamanders that shared the name.

They were cave-dwelling creatures, human in appearance to a certain point. And scaly! Thick, horn-like scales covered their bodies. Their eyes were enough to terrify even the most courageous of men, glowing like embers as they stared at the soul within. Demons, some called them. But they were the inhabitants of the deepest caves, blending in with the stone.

Orykthys came out of a tent in time to witness the walls coming alive. He mustered enough courage to call his men into retreat, but didn’t have time to escape death’s grasp himself. Only one of them would make it out alive, but she would not be the same. It was her screams, unknown to her, that had awakened them. She had been their call to attack, and it had been her tent that Orykthys had come out of shortly before his death…

Out into the desert she ran, blindly. She was in pain. Her body was in ruin; her mind, a mess. She had not seen anything that had been taken place. Her tears kept her blind. Yet, she felt not sand, but grass beneath her feet. She didn’t smell the death, but rather the fragrance of life wafting up from the delicate flowers somewhere in the darkness.

A gentle hand reached out and touched her. She jerked herself to a stop and flailed out, striking blindly at the intruder.

“No, child,” a gentle voice calmly spoke, “I do not mean to do you any harm. I am here to take you to the healer. He will make you well. Come.”

She was Fayana. She had been forced into service. Her brothers had died years ago in battle, and she had been the last child in her family. She had never wanted to be a part of the Hounds, but they had threatened to kill her family if she refused. Now, she was free. There would be no more worries of men forcing themselves upon her, no more serving their evil. She knew that the masters of Helledes had already executed her family, so what was the use? She couldn’t go back now. She had to take the path now offered to her.

In the same city she was now being led to, Bran lay sleeping. His dreams were no longer troubled, and he no longer dreamed of the horrors he’d witnessed when his village had been destroyed. Now, he dreamed of happy times, memories of long ago. The healer had seen to it that this would be the case. And he would see to it that Fayana would have no trace of all that had happened to her. It would all be as if it had never happened…

Kythry opened his eyes. He lay on a travois behind his horse. Sitting upon his horse was Barga. The nomads no longer treated them as prisoners. Even more perplexing was that they were no longer in the desert…or were they? He couldn’t tell. All he knew was that he could smell the sweetest fragrances, as if they were going through a field of wild flowers. His hands were no longer bound, and had he been able to, he could’ve moved about. But, he was too weak.

“Easy,” a voice came to him, “you are among friends. We wished only to destroy those you commanded.” “Why?” he asked weakly.

“You would’ve all been executed once you returned to your master, anyway,” the voice returned, “your’s was a suicide mission. The boy you sought is protected here. This is the garden of the gods. To those of evil intent, it is a barren waste that drives them mad. Even to those who are among evil, it seems to be a

desert. But, like you, they can survive it.”

“But why didn’t you kill me, too?” Kythry demanded.

“Because your heart was not in your mission,” came the reply, “you were not evil. We heard the prayer you breathed. You still believe in the good. They did not. They only sought the end of all that was good.”

Kythry settled back on the travois and rested in thought. He’d known, by the gods, he’d known. Nemesisia was a treacherous witch. She couldn’t be trusted. But, then again, neither could the masters of Helledes. They were a shady lot, always coercing new recruits. Seemed the families of those recruits disappeared, never to be seen again as well. There were the occasional rumors, which died when those who’d actively spread them vanished.

He was relieved to be out of her service. Hell, he was overjoyed to be through with serving the Helledes. He rued the day he’d even joined the Hounds. He’d had reservations, even then. Something told him that he was making a mistake. But that was all over now. Those he thought had wanted him as a prisoner had freed him. He chuckled at his naivety. But it had been born out of old tales of such things; tales mothers in Helledes would use to keep their children scared into submission. He could even still hear his own mother.

“I’m gunna call on the nomads of the Great Sandy Desert,” she would threaten, “an’ I’m gunna lettum have ya. They’ll keep

ya till yer nuthin’ but a crispin in their fire.”

But he had to love her. No matter what she threatened him with, he had to love her. After all, she was his mother, and she did teach him to worship the ancient gods of his people…even if they didn’t themselves. That was probably why he took up with Barga. She reminded him so much of his mother. Yet, by the time they met, him mother had been dead for years.

Beyond this scene, another figure stealthily made her way toward the Great Sandy Desert. She had finally gained the resolve to leave behind the woman she loved and go out into the unknown on her own. She’d given up hope of ever winning Nemesisia’s affection, and so Roch had decided to make her exit. The boy, she knew was a lost cause. He’d escaped her former mistress’ attempts to kill him, and now, she was going to do the same. Let the warriors fight this war. She was no warrior. Nor was she from Helledes.

This was not her affair. Nor had it ever been. She had come with some hope of something she now knew never existed. Broken hearted, and dejected, she rode away into the dark. Now, she sought the boy herself, though for a different reason…

Nemesisia was too enthralled in making plans for the siege to notice when Roch left. The girl had been a nuisance to her anyway, and her loss wasn’t detrimental to the cause. Nor were the absence and possible loss of the scouts and the divisions she’d sent in search of them. They were incompetent. They were threats to her, but then, everyone was. Even that pip named Roch. She had been a distraction from the very beginning.

The only problem now was that she didn’t have anyone to yell at. Roch had been the buffer between her and the rest. Now, there was no buffer. She would have to scream at the nearest soldier when things went awry, that’s all. She could only hope that she could dispose of them if they objected.

With a growl, she flashed an evil glare in the direction she supposed roch had headed. Damned, that’s what the whole lot was; damned. They were all sons of vranacks, each and every one of them. They were worthless.

III.

Time passes quickly when you’re at war. You seem to lose track of time. In fact, time seems to stand still at times. Perhaps it’s because of all the activity. Or, perhaps, it’s because your mind is on what is at hand rather than the workings of time its self. Whatever the cause, more time seems to pass by than you know. And when it does, you can only wonder where it went.

Indeed, time seemed to stand still out on the plains where Nemesisia sat in siege of the city of Shaethar. Sadly, her hair had begun to turn gray and her skin had begun to wrinkle; the stress of it all had long since begun to show, and she had quit caring. As long as the people had hope, she could not win. As long as the boy lived, she would meet defeat.

And the boy, though no longer a boy, did live. He had long since left the wizards of Paraxys and gone north. Then, using paths that bypassed Helledes, he had drifted south to the swamps.

Every so often, another would join the small army gathering behind him. None were of the lands he had once called home, but they joined him nonetheless.

There, he roused the barbarous swamp dwellers to join him. Finally, his army now complete, he marched back north. Up into Helledes, he rode, laying waste to their evil kingdom and cutting off all Nemesisia’s aid. All troops were now engaged in fighting the invader, the boy they had tried to kill, and defend their homes. Those from the swamps were set free upon the lands of Helledes. While Bran carried out a swift and terrible justice upon the masters of Helledes, the barbarians from the swamplands ravaged the land. Yet, they were kinder to the people than the Hounds of Helledes had been to Bran’s people.

Helledes lay in ruin after he moved on. Their masters were no longer alive, their puppet kings were dead, and their armies no longer carried a threat. Their cities had been razed to the ground, and their crops destroyed. They had been conquered and enslaved. The cities were empty, but the temples—once neglected and ignored—now held a place of honor. The destruction that had visited the cities had spared the temples.

The line that guarded the border parted and let the conquerors through. Bran stopped where his village once stood and laid flowers from the garden of the gods upon the barren ground. He had remembered. He now kept his promise. Then, without hesitation, he urged his army on.

The swamp dwellers had affixed the heads of the Helledes masters and kings upon spears. These, they marched at the front of the procession to let all know that Helledes had fallen. One had to admire the barbarian mind, for it knew how to instill fear into the minds of an enemy. And Bran was relieved; knowing that these barbarians were his allies…not his enemy.

Beside Bran rode Roch. She rode there proudly, unlike her days with Nemesisia when she was maltreated and unappreciated.

Though she had not found a lover, she had found a friend. She was truly happy, and it showed in her eyes.

She had trained under the wizards as well, becoming as Bran was. She had missed the chance to be his lover, Fayana being there first, but realized that she hadn’t missed out on becoming his friend. To say that she did not find a lover would be a lie, but she did not find one in him. Her lover, a young sorceress, had met her upon the street that first fateful day she’d arrived in Paraxys. It was this same sorceress that now accompanied her and her new commander into battle.

A great cheer went up as the great army passed through each of the southern cities. Cheers greeted them as they continued going through the cities along their route northward. Word spread ahead of them that Helledes had fallen. People began to gain hope that they would see the end of the war, and the armies already engaged in battle with Nemesisia renewed their attacks and counterattacks with unequalled vigor.

It was all starting to fall apart for Nemesisia. Her war had begun to play its hand against her and there was a new threat added to her worries. The rumors of her masters’ fall had her concerned. Not that there was any love lost, but she had no one to win the battles for. She had no one to give her orders…

She had no one to give her orders! No one to threaten her with death if she didn’t succeed! No one to control her…mind! She had been freed! Or had she?

But what if the rumors proved to be false? A scream filled her ears. Silently at first, then growing louder. She wasn’t sure if it was just her, or if everyone else could hear it until those around her turned and looked at her in wonder. It was then that she realized that her mouth had fallen open in a scream, and that all could hear her.

She fell to her knees, the pain growing worse as Bran’s army drew steadily nearer. The power that had controlled her was no more. The pain of its grip was being replaced with her own thoughts. And the pain was now her own, no longer something inflicted from outside.

But that pain worsened, and the drone of her own thoughts seemed so foreign. She looked up, her eyes pleading, in time to see the procession of heads as they came into view. Fear overtook her, and she mounted her horse and fled. The Hounds found themselves without a commander as they faced Bran’s massive army. They were now caught between two forces with nowhere left to go.

They knew they would not win this war. They had already lost. But, they would fight to the death. They had no choice. They could only do as they had been trained to.

Bran led the charge. The barbarians who had led the procession just minutes before, stood where they had been halted and held the gruesome reminders high above their heads with pride. The battle was as much a massacre as had the Hounds’ attack upon the villages. When it was over, not one Hound remained alive.

Nemesisia, now free and terrified, rode blindly into the wastes to the north. Her memory drove her on, half-crazed, to a place where she felt sure she’d be safe. Safe from the dead eyes of her dead masters, and safe from the Hounds. Now, she was no longer Nemesisia. She was…she couldn’t remember her own name! They had stolen her name from her!

But she was finally free! Wasn’t that what truly counted? She wasn’t sure any more. Her thoughts were a jumble of buzzing words, droning like a thousand hornets inside her head. Thinking hurt.

She gave her horse free rein. She no longer cared where she was going, just as long as she was not at the battle that she left behind her. Her original destination no longer mattered. She was tired. She wanted to rest and forget. She wanted…

The horse took her north, then west. She had long since fallen asleep in the saddle, and no longer knew what was going on around her. Into the lands of mist, it galloped. Then, turning west, it headed into a mountain pass that cut across the mountains and took it into the Great Sandy Desert’s northern region…where the lands of mist intersect with the desert below. The horse continued on west, until it had reached the western side of the pass, then turned back south. It headed straight into the desert interior without hesitation.

No one would know what the confused Amazon would’ve seen had she been awake; for as her horse galloped on, she slept a troubled sleep. Her memory had begun to return, causing her nightmares. She could remember the decimation of her people, leaving her the sole survivor and the slave to her masters. She could remember the spells they breathed to bind her to them and to take away her soul, keeping it captive so that she would do their bidding without question. They had left her empty, almost mindless, breathing contempt for those she conquered because they felt the contempt, and without emotions other than pure hate.

She remembered her homeland, far to the south and east of the swamps. It had been an independent amalgam of tribes who fought amongst themselves when they weren’t fighting beside one another. They interacted in a mercurial way, never really bonding, yet never really repelling. They were bound in a fluid relationship, flowing between love and hate…peace and war.

She remembered her mother. The queen of her people, and commander of their tribal war band…that was her mother. Proud even in the face of death. Her fierce independence kept her from the slavery that her daughter would face. If the gods only knew, they would bring her comfort.

It was then, in her sleep, that she remembered the gods. Their benevolent guidance led their servants to victory. How long had it been since she’d made sacrifices to them, or even been allowed to do so? How long had it been? She couldn’t remember. It had been too long, that’s all she could admit, too long.

When she awoke, she was no longer on her horse but in a bed. It had been ages since she’d been afforded such a luxury, but now she was her own person. She was weak, but she wasn’t afraid. She didn’t know where she was; only that she was safe.

She raised herself up on her elbows just long enough to look out the window that opened to the outside world beyond her room. Beyond, she could see a bustling city with a bazaar and temples more grand than she’d ever seen. She could see that her room was not far from the city walls, and beyond those walls laid vast fields of wild flowers and meadows of tall grass and shrubbery of all kinds. In the distance, she could see trees; forests of them.

As she lay back upon her pillows, thoroughly exhausted, she began to believe that she had died and gone to paradise. She was still weak, too weak to really care. All she wanted right now was to rest. And ass she drifted off into slumber once more, she began to let it all go. Once asleep, she began to dream of her mother and

sisters. This time, the dream was a happy one…

Thalgar stood outside, tears in his eyes. He had brought her back, whoever she was, and given her back her life. He’d done the same for young Bran and the Hounds that had been brought to him. He had even done more for the young women, Fayana and Roch. Yet, in all his days, he had never seen one such as this. Sure, he’d heard of them; but never encountered them. To him, they had almost been a myth.

But, now, one had arrived within the garden of the gods. The prophets had been right once more, and an Amazon warrior had come to their fair city. And what a mess she’d been! She’d been delirious with fever, and her words had been incoherent. She’d been placed under some sort of spell, and her soul had been separated from her…though not destroyed. She had been made a slave without any way to resist. It was a first.

His associate approached from behind.

“How is she?” the woman asked.

“She’ll be fine, Ellyana,” he replied quietly, “she’s a strong one. Though, I must admit, the loss of her soul had a strange effect on her mentally.”

“It did, indeed,” the woman replied, “but will she be able to readjust?”

“In time,” he stated, “in time.”

He turned to go. And as his gaze brushed her, Ellyana could feel him touch her mentally. She shivered with excitement and smiled. He smiled back at her, and then left. Ellyana stood there a while, enwrapped in the feeling of his caress. He loved her and it was evident. They shared their lives and their work. They even shared their home. But they did not share their surnames.

They were a couple in every way. Yet, they had never married. They’d had children together, but never made their bond official. But things such as that did not matter here. This was a refuge for wizards and the garden where the gods came to play. It was a desert, but it had its own magic. They had done nothing. The desert did all.

This desert was a living creature. It had proven its self to be such long ago. It hungered, it thirsted, it desired, and it hid. It devoured all that was evil, causing madness to overtake its victims. It showed its true nature to those who intended evil; hiding all that was good about its self in an attempt to protect those it loved. And it did love. It loved those who were lost or alone. It loved those who fought for the common good. It loved those who were the last of their people and needed its help.

Ellyana knew this all to be true. None were allowed to find the cities unless the desert loved them. Those who lived in the desert were extensions of its personality. Though the wizards were from the outside, and the gods merely visited from time to time, the rest—the nomads, the healers, the hunters, the rangers who rode the western mountain border, and even the hellbenders in the caves that led to it just to the east—were a part of it. They were its expressions of emotion. Some primitive, others complex, but all were emotions of some kind. And often, they were sent beyond the borders into the world beyond.

It sent them forth to reawaken the lands beyond, but the lands slept too soundly. In its despair, it sought to discover the reasons for the lack of response. So it sent others to discover the whys. Then, when the Hounds had ventured into its domain, it knew. Evil had covered the lands. And that evil had created monstrosities such as the thrachna and the draqma. Now, it knew all it needed to know. Now, it would begin to build another army to destroy these evils and send it forth to heal the other lands. It would build upon the foundation it had begun with the boy, and the young man he had become would join with this young woman it had welcomed.

If it had been able to, it would have smiled. But it was forced to smile through the healers and the nomads. It was happily scheming against the evil that held its siblings prisoners. And how it schemed! It had made its decision. Soon, it would send forth its newest army to join the one that now finished the first mission. Soon, the world would be united again. Then, there would be but one kingdom, an empire that encompassed the whole of the

lands. And all men would be one with the lands…

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