eBook Publisher: Double Dragon Publishing
/Double Dragon eBooks, Published:
Double Dragon Publishing, 2011
Fictionwise Release Date:
* * * *
The armored giant's single eyelid rasped shrilly as it slowly lifted.
The lid was more like a crescent-shaped visor for the otherwise blank, barrel-shaped metal helmet that formed the giant's head. As it opened to a slit, a brilliant ruby light came into view, forming a curved line, hairbreadth thin, but still of near-blinding intensity.
A narrow beam of the light then shot outward from the apex of the curve. It slanted downward from the head, widening slightly as it fell to play upon the body of the man. A voice clanged out from within the massive helmet:
"You failed me, Captain. Your life is therefore forfeit to me.
"Please, no, Commander!" the man in the beam gasped. He trembled violently from both fear and pain. Beads of sweat sprang into being across his brow. "I did everything I could!"
In response to his plea, the slit widened fractionally. The beam became more intense. The man stiffened, whimpering in his agony. Sweat soaked his clothes, ran in rivulets down his face. His exposed flesh grew ruddy as it began to broil.
"Don't destroy him, Commander." This plea came from one of a line of men standing at rigid attention behind the stricken one. Like him they were clad in simple uniforms: tunic and trousers of a dull grey, their only embellishment the small triangles of silver metal on their left breasts.
"You defy me, Captain Eagal?" the ringing voice of the giant demanded.
The man addressed took a step forward. He looked up at the black metal-clad figure who towered above him. "I present reasons, my Commander, why his story should be heard," he bravely returned. "Captain Nadur is a fine officer. He is as brave as any of us. His loss would be a waste."
"Very well," said the giant. The metal eyelid screeched again as it slid down. The beam was cut off, and the one called Nadur breathed deeply in relief.
"Tell me then, Captain, exactly what you did," the voice ordered. "The entire truth."
"We did as you asked, Commander," the man said, his voice gasping as he breathed in cool air. "I led a party to where the ones called Sons of Nemed lived. Their fortress was abandoned. We tracked them across the island to the eastern shore. We found some ships in a bay there, but others had clearly sailed. I ordered Captain Eagal to take three ships to scour the sea to the east. I took three more ships and rounded the isle to search out into the western sea."
"And you discovered nothing, Captain Eagal?" the giant asked.
"No, Commander," that man hastily supplied. "Not a single vessel did we sight."
"But you, Captain Nadur, you did find a ship."
"Yes, Commander. A lone ship. From the shape and the type of sail, we're certain it was one of theirs. We pursued. We were closing..."
"And then it got away," the commander finished, hammering out each word.
"We didn't let it escape us," said Nadur. "Not exactly. It--it vanished. It entered the great barrier fog."
"And you didn't follow it in there?"
"What good would that have done?"
"What good?" the giant thundered. "Coward. You've lost my best chance to have them. I might have learned how they survived the plagues and poisons we used upon them and defeated a Fomor host five times their size. I might have wrung from them the names of those who helped them. Most important, I might have discovered from them where the Departed Ones are. Do you realize what such knowledge would do for us? To find Them. To gain their magic skills. It would make us a power in the world again!"
"I know, Commander," Nadur said miserably. "I understand. But what could I have done? Entering the fog would have been no help. We would only have vanished, as has every other vessel that has ventured into it."
"Legends say there is nothing beyond that barrier," put in Eagal. "It's the edge of creation. An abyss. Nothingness."
"Tales for children," the giant boomed. "The possible gain should have been worth any risk. I will not give up because of your failure. I want every ship out, searching the whole sea in every direction from that isle. More of these people's craft could still be out there. And I want a ship to probe that fog!"
"Do you mean mine, Commander?" Nadur asked.
"Not yours," the giant answered.
Its metal eyelid lifted, this time opening a wide crack. A thicker beam of crimson light shot down to bathe the captain.
Nadur's head was thrown back as his body went rigid, spasming in pain. His mouth opened to vent a gasping cry of agony. His grey uniform burst into flame. The flash of blazing energy enveloped him, consumed him. In an instant Nadur had become a pillar of fire, filling the room with a red, lurid glare, starkly revealing the panicked faces of the others who flinched back.
The beam shut off with a metal clang as the eyelid slid down again, covering the incandescent ruby eye that had projected it. The last flames flickered out. A blackened pile of smoldering bones, was all that remained of Nadur's body.
The metallic voice echoed out once more, tolling the words ominously:
"Captain Eagal, as Captain Nadur's friend, I am certain you will want to take on this task for him. And if you think to disobey me, please remember his rather fiery end."
It was soon afterward that sleek ships of grey metal were gliding out between vast, open doors set into a sheer wall of rock.
Above the rock rose a spectacular pinnacle, like a tower of ice whose smoothly polished sides reflected sharply the bright stars in the clear night skies. The massive structure stretched some thirty stories above the dark sea and the fleet emerging at its base. There was a score of ships now. As they cleared the rocky islet on which the tower sat, the ships divided to move off in all directions. They slid away across the black surface, drawing lines of fluorescent wake behind them.
High above, within the tower, the black giant stood alone at an immense window, looking down at them.
"Someday, we will find them," the metallic voice rumbled from within the helmet. "Someday our most ancient enemies will face Balor again."
And down below, Captain Eagal stood on the stern deck of his ship, staring back at the tower as it receded into the night.
"Look well at our Tower of Glass," he said to a young seaman beside him. "It's likely the last time you'll ever see it.
"You don't think there's a chance we'll return from the barrier fog, Captain?" the seaman asked.
"No. Thanks to Commander Balor, we're almost surely as doomed as those other poor fools who went into it."
He turned and looked past the ship's bow, toward the dark, unknown skies to the west.
"I wonder where they are now," he said musingly. "That is, if they're even still alive."
The wooden ship drifted silently, wraithlike, through the fog. The thick, billowing grey-whiteness surrounded it, hiding all but the tiny patch of ocean that was close about its hull.
It was a seagoing vessel of the simplest kind. Small, wide, and shallow-drafted, it had a single mast with a sail now hanging limply in a breeze so faint that it barely fluttered in the heavy cloak of fog.
Scattered upon its deck were human figures lying huddled or sprawled, apparently asleep. Only at the stern tiller was one man awake, steering the vessel before what wind there was and keeping up a vigil.
He was a young man of massive form, wide, tall, and extremely muscular. His wiry, long hair was braided loosely at his back. His head was a rectangular block, with thrusting jaw, jutting brows, and broad nose that made his mouth and eyes seem small.
It was he alone who saw the peculiar light.
It popped quite suddenly into view some distance off of the ship's port side--a faint, silvery glow bobbing in the fog.
"Finally," he murmured. "Something. After all these days!"
He did not hesitate in turning the ship's bow toward it, his face brightening with hope. As he did, the faint breeze strengthened slightly, puffing out the square of sail. The craft began to glide slowly forward, heading for the light.
But the light drew no closer. It seemed to have some power of movement of its own, staying always the exact same distance ahead, bobbing on through the fog.
The young man stubbornly kept his ship's bow pointed after it.
"Oh, strange light," he murmured as if addressing it, "we are out of water and food now. We're getting near our end. You are our only hope. If you're not just some creation of my weary mind, I pray to you to please lead us somewhere."
For a long while it seemed his plea had gone unheard. He played a game of tag with the moving light, still never coming any nearer to reaching it.
Then, abruptly, the ship burst free of the fog. It tore out through a sheer high wall of the grey-white, drawing out streamers of cloud that clung like shredded cloth for a few moments before fluttering away.
In an instant's transition the vessel was gliding across a smooth and blue sea under a clear daylight sky. Those sleeping upon the deck began to stir, lifting up, opening eyes, blinking around them at the wondrous, bright scene.
There, not far ahead, lay a shoreline of gleaming gold sand and shimmering green hills. A glistening fortress sat perched upon the brow of one rounded hill like a jeweled crown. But the most amazing sight lay closer to the ship and the startled gazes of its passengers. The young man at the tiller, especially, stared in wonder at the thing whose glow he had so long followed, its true nature now strikingly revealed.
It was no ship or natural creature of the sea that moved along only a spear's throw before the prow. It was a huge and horse-drawn chariot-of-war, riding over the wave-tops as if it were on dry land!
* * * *
* * * *