Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity
by Bill W
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories
The Desolation of Evil
Quickly, Beraut, Kieren and the others crossed over the brief expanse leading out of the dwarfs' realm and regrouped on the other side of the massive portal. King Brolin, who had stayed well within the confines of the tunnel, gave a final wave and began the resealing process which caused the giant door to swing securely back into place. Now, the companions were alone, with no means of retreat, as they stared at the vast emptiness that stretched out before them.
Off in the distance to his left, Kieren noticed what appeared to be a large body of water and was struck by the irony of the tranquility it belied. The teen didn't realize this was Reflection Lake, which had historically been the main source of water for the valley. This mountain-filled reservoir had always provided a never-ceasing torrent of water to the irrigation ditches used by the dwarf farming community, which helped them to produce their abundant crops. It also supplied the steady stream of water to the continually flowing fountain that stood in the main square, which was where the households filled their water jugs for cooking and drinking.
The lake was replenished every spring when the melting snows flowed down the mountain slopes that loomed up behind it, so the dwarfs never worried about it running dry. However, it was hard for Kieren to imagine that this valley, now overgrown and abandoned for over a century, was once one of the most fertile areas in the kingdom.
At this point, Beraut signaled the little company to form-up in a straight line. The wizard then placed Turquinine at the rear of the formation, to help keep an eye on the others. As they began to move forward and cross the desolate sunlit plains, they realized their most immediate goal was to escape the valley and its restless inhabitants as quickly as possible. Everyone, other than Beraut and Qaim, remained wary, but they all continually looked about in every direction for any sign of danger. While performing this surveillance, many of them became aware of what appeared to be thin wisps of smoke or fog meandering across their path. One by one, they remembered the wizard's description of how the spirits would appear to them in the daylight and realized this was what they were currently seeing.
Garreth and Romaric were obviously unnerved by this situation, especially now that they could see the visible evidence of the specters' existence. It also made them very uneasy about the prospect of moving among these shapeless forms. Their bodies trembled slightly as they thought about doing this. No amount of forewarning could allay the trepidations they were now feeling about disturbing these tortured souls.
Kieren, on the other hand, was only slightly uncomfortable about what they were about to do and wasn't nearly as bothered by it as his mates. He recalled the wizard's words, that other than their maddening screams these wraiths could not harm him. He just prayed the others remembered this as well.
'As long as we all keep our earplugs and bindings securely in place,' Kieren reminded himself, 'then none of these spirits can hurt us.'
He kept repeating this reminder over and over to himself and this singular focus kept him moving forward. As he was doing this, he also glanced around at his companions. He just wanted to see if they appeared to be facing any unsettling concerns or struggling with being in this accursed valley. As he studied the movements and actions of the two elves, Kieren began to sense a slight uneasiness and discomfort radiating from them. Since he could empathize with how they were feeling, this gave him another invisible bond with his two friends. He also hoped he might somehow be able to help them deal with their fears.
The warriors, for the most part, didn't seem to be having as much trouble dealing with the valley and its restless inhabitants. They were, however, continually looking around for signs of other potential dangers. Noticing their constant vigilance only increased the amount of admiration and respect Kieren had for them. It also helped to cement the bonds of unity and oneness that had been slowly building between them, since they first came together.
Although the going was slow and difficult, due to the tangle of weeds, briars and dead shrubs constantly grabbing at their clothing or snagging their boots, they plodded on. It did, however, force them to lift their legs slightly higher than normal, in order to avoid becoming ensnared by the dense undergrowth. Even though the travel was difficult, they were spurred on by the desire to extricate themselves from the valley as quickly as possible.
As a result of their eagerness to be free of this haunted vale and the difficult traveling conditions, it sometimes led to the various travelers stumbling. Whenever this happened, the person losing his balance would often attempt to keep from falling by grasping on to the person in front of him for support. In some instances, the traveler behind the unfortunate traveler was able to react quickly enough to grasp his arm or clothing long enough to help keep him upright. Whichever situation happened, the intent was the same – to prevent a serious accident.
Everyone was fearful the impact from the resulting fall might jar the individual's ear protection loose and result in them losing yet another companion. This was something no one wanted to happen, so they were all constantly looking out for each other and doing whatever they could to be of assistance. This only increased their sense of camaraderie and bonded them even closer to one another.
The ensuing hike was tedious and the exercise strenuous, yet they knew they would have to continue this process for at least several more hours. Laboriously, they picked their way across the valley floor and it wasn't long before the muscles in their legs began to burn from having to lift them so high to advance through the undergrowth. As their bodies grew wearier, they began to question how much longer they could raise either leg high enough to continue on. This also caused them to wonder how much longer it was going to take to reach the end of this lengthy expanse.
After a while, Kieren peered over his shoulder and looked back at the side of the mountain, toward the doorway they'd used to pass into this valley. He was hoping to determine how far they had traveled up to this point, but he also wanted to see if he could tell where the opening had been. Upon first glance, he saw the distance was too great for him to identify the archway, but it also made him realize they had gone much farther than he had suspected. This was a very positive and encouraging sign. When he turned forward again, he realized he had to increase his pace slightly, in order to close the gap he had created during his brief investigation. Fortunately, it didn't take long for him to reestablish the proper spacing between himself and Hadwin, who was just ahead of him. The effort, however, had taken more out of him than he wanted to admit.
Catching his breath from this exhausting task, Kieren looked past the bodies in front of him and noticed the wizard scanning the mountains to their right. Instinctively, he did the same, but his vision was not as keen as Beraut's, so he could only see the outline of the mountains against the pale blue sky. Since he had been unable to distinguish any details on the distant slopes, he let his imagination take control of his previously rational thought processes. He now began to envision a legion of the Dark Lord's troops and a horde of his spies roaming the rocky cliffs on the far side of the valley. He believed them to be patiently laying a trap for him and the others to walk into, once they left this dreaded vale. He just knew the Dark Lord's henchmen were lurking there, waiting to kill or capture them, because they had dared to invade his territory.
As the young man slowly began to turn his attention back to his own labors, he continued to wonder if, perchance, Madumda did have guards or spies watching the valley floor for movement. After some careful consideration, however, he began to see the basic flaw in his logic and reasoned his nemesis would have no cause to suspect anyone would try to use this route. Why would he, since the Dark Lord was well aware of the danger this area posed to mortals? If there were troops and spies present in that mountain range, chances are they were on the opposite slope and looking out over the Plains of Asimae, so Kieren finally put the notion out of his mind.
The group had been traveling for several hours when the wizard signaled them to stop. Happily, the contingent began to slow, since they knew it was time to eat. They huddled together on the barren plain and pulled the dwarf-prepared rations from their packs. It was a simple meal that consisted of some dwarfish bread, dried meats and sharp cheeses, along with some stout ale.
The three teens were ravenous, far more than normal, due to the exhausting amount of effort it had taken to get this far. Eagerly, they sat down and began to devour the simple meal. They were nearly oblivious to the wisps of fog drifting eerily over the valley, until Garreth noticed a thin strand of this cloud-like material touch his food, just as he was taking a bite. Suddenly, realizing what that substance was, the elf jumped up and expelled the mouthful onto the ground. He then continued to spit, just to make sure nothing else was left that he might accidentally swallow.
The others noticed Garreth's strange reaction and wondered why he was behaving this way. They didn't even consider the possibility that something might have landed on his food, since there were no bugs present in this bleak place. Not only that, but there was also no breeze to blow something onto his meal, so that couldn't be what was wrong either. Kieren considered the bread Garreth was eating might have been a little moldy, but if that were the case, then his friend was truly overreacting. For this reason, Kieren found Garreth's antics very amusing and it made him crack a smile, as he wondered what was going through the elf's brain.
Once Garreth felt he had rid himself of the unwanted mouthful, he looked around until he spotted the wizard. As quickly as he could, Garreth moved toward him.
"What happens if I eat some of that?" he wondered aloud, while pointing at the thin strands of grayish-white floating haphazardly about. "Can it hurt me? Will that spirit become part of me? Will it make me sick?"
He was panicked and his rapid-fire approach gave Beraut little time to answer him, so the wizard merely smiled and shook his head. He felt that should be a sufficient response to assure the lad none of those things would happen. Relieved, but looking slightly embarrassed after noticing everyone else was gawking at him, Garreth went back to finish his lunch.
The entire party soon devoured an adequate amount of food and found the meal to be completely satisfying and filling. Now that they had taken care of their physical needs, which included rest and food, the various members of the party looked forward to getting underway again. They were still a little tired, but even more anxious to get free of the valley. With that in mind, they watched and waited for the wizard to give them the signal to form up and start moving again.
To their chagrin, Beraut was consumed with searching the distant mountain range, so Kieren decided to study him as he did so. Eventually, the wizard turned toward the teen and indicated with hand signals that it was either raining or snowing in the mountain range, although Kieren couldn't see that for himself. He knew Beraut's vision was far superior to his own, so he merely nodded to let the wizard know he understood. Beraut seemed pleased by his acknowledgement and turned back to continue what he had been doing.
A short time later, the wizard finally indicated it was time to move on. Using more hand signals, he let the companions know he wanted them to head in a more northeasterly direction, which would take them farther away from the mountain range he had been studying. Kieren was puzzled by this deviation, since he knew they would need to get to the mountain range Beraut had been observing in order to enter the backdoor to Treblanc. The only explanation he could come up with for this slight change in course was that the wizard must have noticed something that troubled him. Although the teen couldn't imagine what it might have been, he felt it must be serious enough for Beraut to take this precaution.
'What could Beraut have possibly detected that would cause him to do this?' Kieren wondered. 'Had he spotted some enemy activity or another threat in that direction? If he had, it would explain why he would find it more prudent to move farther away from those distant slopes, in order to avoid detection or a confrontation.'
After thinking about this briefly, the young man decided it might be best if he didn't ponder this further. 'He had inadvertently caused a gap in the line while he was doing so and now needed to catch up. Whether there was something there or not, he was determined to follow the wizard's directions to the letter. During the brief time they had been together, Kieren had learned Beraut seemed to intuitively know what to do next, so he would trust his mentor's judgment.
They had only traveled a couple hundred more paces when Kieren began to notice the presence of a large, gray mass looming up in the distance in front of them. At first he thought it was just an extremely large rock formation jutting out of the valley floor, but it didn't take him long to change his mind. This was due to the fact that he noted this outcropping seemed to have a fairly regular geometrical shape to it, with only some minor irregularities. Since this was the case, he found it unlikely that it would be a normal geographical feature, although there was still a slim chance it might be possible.
Even though this unknown feature didn't have perfectly square corners or one definite shape, Kieren couldn't envision it as being naturally occurring. However, knowing Beraut would never endanger them needlessly, and seeing the wizard was taking them directly toward this place, Kieren assumed it wasn't anything to worry about. As he continued to wrestle with this puzzle, they gradually drew nearer to the location. Suddenly, it dawned on him what this was. It was the decaying remains of buildings and all that was left of Thorley.
As they moved closer to this ghost town, Kieren's eyes darted from place to place, as he tried to absorb as much as he could about what lay before him. Fascinated, he tried to determine what this city must have been like in its prime, especially when the people of all races were wandering its streets and alleys. He was beginning to see some patterns among the fragmenting shells of the buildings and was starting to visualize how these structures would have looked when they were inhabited. This, in turn, gave him a sense of what a bustling place this must have been.
Even though the roofs of each of the buildings had collapsed and some of the mortar had crumbled with the passage of time, Kieren knew this must have once been a vibrant community. The collection of walls that still remained intact showed this place had been meticulously designed and constructed. The main street ran basically east to west and the town was wider in that direction than it was north to south.
The wizard continued to guide them forward until they were traveling along this cobblestone roadway, which was once the primary thoroughfare for this community. It appeared Beraut was planning to use it to make their journey a little easier than it had been up to this point, even though it still wasn't ideal. The pathway was cluttered with varying amounts of debris, including the skeletal remains of those that had died on that dreadful day. There were also a few scattered brambles sprouting out of the pitted roadway, but it was still a much easier route to travel over than the open fields.
Although they were now able to move a little more freely, the party still continued to creep along. This time it was due to the fact that they were busily checking out all of the sights around them, as well as trying to avoid stepping on any bones. It was definitely not due to how difficult it was to travel, because it was much easier than the valley floor. As the companions passed over what remained of the paved roadway, they were hurriedly investigating what they could see of the exteriors. They also did their best to see into the interiors of the various buildings that lined the street beside them.
Suddenly, Kieren remembered what Beraut had told them about Thorley – that it had been in the midst of their Festival of Thanksgiving when the Specter of Death struck them down. Frantically, he looked about to see if he could locate any of the booths or bazaars that had been set up for that evening's festivities. After finding nothing of that nature, he wondered about it briefly, before realizing the materials that would have been used to construct such temporary structures would have decayed ages ago. Only the structures made of stone and mortar had survived the many years that had passed since that dreadful night and the effects of time had taken its toll on those as well.
As he followed the others, Kieren also glanced down some of the side streets that crossed their path. Almost immediately, he recognized a number of these alleyways were now blocked by the accumulation of rubble from collapsing walls and roofs that had toppled over in that direction. After seeing this, he deemed it fortunate that the main street had not been as badly afflicted. If that had been the case, then it would have made traveling on it much more difficult for them and Beraut might not have chosen to use this path. Kieren was glad that hadn't happened, because he definitely wouldn't have wanted to miss out on seeing what was left of this community.
Luckily, Kieren was still paying enough attention to his fellow travelers to recognize that Beraut had brought them to a halt. Wordlessly, the wizard signaled them to crouch and remain still, as he lifted his head to scan the heavens. It appeared to Kieren that the wizard was watching the sky between their present location and the mountains they seemed to be avoiding. Even though he didn't know what the wizard was looking for, it seemed as if Beraut expected to find something there.
After searching the horizon for several long minutes, Beraut suddenly spun around and motioned the little band to follow him through one of the gaping archways that opened off of the main street and into one of the crumbling buildings. Once they were beyond the doorway, the wizard positioned each one and had them crouch down, so they were within the shadows cast by what remained of the walls. He then indicated to them that they were to remain motionless where he placed them until he signaled otherwise.
Even though they were unsure about the reason Beraut was taking such a drastic precaution, they did as he directed. Since they had previously been told that only spirits inhabited this valley, each of the companions wondered what was forcing them to hide out in this fashion. Although they were curious, none of them dared to move even a solitary muscle, except for breathing of course. As they knelt in the shadows, Kieren wondered how long they were going to have to stay there in this fashion, but he wasn't about to complain. He reasoned it must be something truly terrible that the wizard had spotted, if it could even seek them out in a place such as this.
'Did Beraut hear something that alerted him to this danger or did he see the threat when he was scanning the distant mountain range,' Kieren wondered. Since Beraut did not require earplugs, he could have discovered it either way.
'Is it possible that Madumda could have conjured up another phantom to patrol this ancient graveyard?' Kieren asked himself next. 'Could the Dark Lord have created something that would warn him if anyone tried to approach from this direction? If so, would it find them and what would it do if it did?'
These questions were all passing through his mind, as he tried to figure out what they were hiding from. However, it wasn't long before Kieren had the answers to the myriad of questions that filled his hyperactive mind. As he remained motionless along one of the interior walls, the area suddenly became dark. It was almost as if the sun had been blotted from the sky, but then after a few agonizing seconds of this blackness, it suddenly became light again. Kieren, as well as some of the others, wondered how this could be, since it happened too quickly to have been caused by a cloud passing overhead. Painstakingly, the teen began to lift his head so he could peer at the sky above him.
While he was doing this, Kieren was extremely careful not to make any sudden movements. He didn't want to do anything that might be detected, because he didn't want to give away their location. He was afraid if that happened, then he might jeopardize the safety of everyone who was with him.
As his face slowly lifted skyward, he was eventually able to peer out of the roofless shell of the structure he was in. After searching the heavens for what seemed to be an eternity, the room suddenly began to grow dark again. The difference was, this time Kieren saw what had cast such a gigantic shadow, but he could scarcely believe his eyes.
There in the air above them, circling slowly over-head, was an enormous bird, which was far larger than anything Kieren could have ever imagined. If he hadn't seen it with his own eyes, then he probably wouldn't have been willing to believe something so enormous could even exist. The young man judged the gigantic feathered creature could have snatched up a soldier, even one as large as Turquinine, in just one of its massive claws. No wonder the wizard had acted nervously as he moved them in here to hide.
While Kieren was pressing his body against the wall, lost in his thoughts, something grabbed a hold of his arm and totally startled him. Instinctively, he spun toward it, in an attempt to ward off this unseen foe. For a few agonizing moments he forgot about moving slowly to avoid detection, because he didn't feel he could afford that luxury right now. This could be another foe that Madumda had created specifically to keep intruders out.
Although it took him a few seconds to realize what had grasped his arm, Kieren soon understood it was only Qaim. The aignx was quivering from fright and seeking what protection the young man could offer. Kieren was deeply moved by his new friend's complete terror and ran his hand very slowly over the aignx's furry torso, in an attempt to comfort him. As Kieren was busy trying to soothe Qaim's apprehensions, he was also attempting to deal with the feelings he harbored about what he had just seen. He was probably just as frightened as Qaim, since he couldn't imagine anything that could possibly stand against that monstrous bird. He felt Beraut would also be hard pressed if it came to a confrontation, even using magic.
As the teen continued to stroke the aignx tenderly, Qaim suddenly threw his arms around his paladin's chest and clung to him tightly. This unexpected and constricting grasp slightly hindered the young man's ability to breathe, so Kieren had to pry the little fur-ball's hands apart and make him relax his tenacious grip slightly. Once again this forced Kieren to move more than he wanted, but he was forced to do it, if he didn't want to suffocate.
By the time Beraut finally signaled that all was clear, Kieren had managed to get the aignx to completely release his bear hug of terror. This eased the teen's temporary distress and hadn't caused him to do anything that had attracted the gigantic bird's attention.
Even though Qaim no longer clung to Kieren's chest, he still continued to keep a tight grasp on one of his protector's arms. At this point, it didn't appear that the aignx wished to become completely separated from the teen. This, in turn, made Kieren wonder why Qaim always seemed to cling to him, instead of one of the fierce warriors. However, he didn't have much of an opportunity to pursue this thought further, because Beraut was now waving them forward. This caused them to form up and set off once again.
Following the wizard's lead, the entire party wandered back into the open street and each individual instantly scanned the air above him, almost in unison. Although they found no trace of the monstrous creature that had just frightened them so badly, they needed no further encouragement to get underway again. They all wanted to do nothing more than to distance themselves from the enormous beast that apparently guarded the valley and escape from this current location as quickly as they could. A few minutes later, they reached the city limits, where the main thoroughfare came to an abrupt end. At that point, the tangle of weeds and briars seemed to sprout up in its place, seemingly going on forever.
Once more, the members of the little group had to lift their legs quite high, in order to make their way through the intertwining sea of worthless vegetation. They once again discovered their progress to be slow and tedious, due to this arduous task. This time, however, they had an even greater reason to hurry forward and didn't concern themselves with how difficult their journey was.
After a few minutes of traveling like this, Kieren noticed that Qaim wasn't clinging to him any longer. Baffled by this sudden shift in Qaim's behavior, Kieren looked around and searched for the aignx. After a few hectic seconds, he finally located his fury friend and saw that Qaim was now walking beside Beraut. From what the teen could tell by watching the pair, the aignx and the wizard seemed to be engaged in a conversation. That's when he remembered that Qaim didn't need to use earplugs either. It is also what made it possible for Beraut and him to communicate with each other without having to rely on reading lips or using hand gestures.
Out of habit, Kieren pointed this fact out to Garreth and Romaric as well. They also seemed intrigued that the pair seemed to be engrossed in a conversation. As they watched this going on, Kieren began to wonder exactly when Qaim had left his side, because he couldn't remember ever feeling the aignx loosen his tenacious grip on his arm. Kieren was also curious as to what the two were discussing, but seeing he had no way of finding that out, he decided it best to just put it out of his mind.
They had only been traveling like this for about an hour when the wizard brought them to another unexpected halt. As soon as this happened, the others hurriedly looked toward Beraut to see if he was urging them to take cover. Instead, they discovered he was pointing toward the Citadel Mountains, off to their right. Puzzled, Kieren looked in that direction and expected to see the enormous bird gliding toward them for the kill, but the beast was nowhere to be found. Confused, Kieren decided to investigate the area more carefully, until he figured out what the wizard wanted them to notice.
This time when he turned his attention in that direction, Kieren observed the fairly large gap in the mountainside. Even from this distance, he could discern it was a large natural pass that bisected the never-ending expanse of mountain peaks and led from the valley to the plains that lay beyond. This made the young man wonder what he might find there now, if he should happen to travel in that direction. Unfortunately, he was not allowed any more time to consider this further, because Beraut was waving to get their attention again.
Obviously, the wizard had decided they had spent long enough exploring this feature and now urged them to continue on, by pointing toward the quickly descending sun. Everyone quickly understood what this simple gesture meant and eagerly followed the aged wizard as he moved even farther away from Thorley. They continued on like this for many more minutes before they were finally forced to stop, when the last rays of the sun began to fade from the sky. It was here they would have to make camp for the night.
Beraut quickly moved from individual to individual and signaled where he wanted each of them to bed down. He planned to position the warriors so they formed a protective ring around the three teens, as an additional precaution. This was aimed at protecting Kieren from any other possible dangers that might arise, even though no one could imagine what they might be. This time, however, it wasn't quite as simple for Beraut to get everyone to do as he wished. Regrettably, the lingering effects of the boys' feud had made them hesitant to move closer to each other, as he wanted them to do.
After the wizard signaled where he wanted them, Kieren seemed fine with the arrangement, but Garreth and Romaric balked. The wizard wanted them to lie down next to each other, with Kieren in the middle, but the elves weren't ready to do that yet. When they didn't immediately do what he wanted, the wizard made it clear he wasn't about to coddle them or give in on this point. Even though he understood why they were being so reluctant, Beraut took a menacing pose to let them know he wasn't about to put up with this foolishness any longer.
The boys instantly recognized the wizard's demeanor meant he wasn't to be trifled with at this time. Reluctantly, they gave in to his demands and did as he requested. Each youngster felt it would be easier and more prudent to comply with his wishes, rather than to face his wrath. Once the teens began to settle in, Beraut went about placing the remainder of the party. When the wizard turned back to observe the effect a few seconds later, he was again displeased with what he saw.
The trio was not in the order he had placed them, with Kieren in the center. Instead, Garreth and Romaric had moved off to one side and left a slight gap between themselves and where Kieren had placed his bedding. This mild form of defiance infuriated Beraut and he was not about to let it pass. He was livid, but he knew screaming at the boys would do no good, because they wouldn't be able to hear a word he said. Therefore, he forcefully grasped the two elves by the arm and signaled them to move their bedding apart. As soon as they did that, he then motioned Kieren to move his blankets in between them. Grudgingly, everyone did as he was ordered, because the wizard made it clear he wasn't about to leave until everything was exactly as he wanted it.
The elves obviously weren't happy with this arrangement, but they knew better than to defy Beraut a second time, so they slowly began to settle into place. They continued to maintain a slight distance from each other, at least for a while. After doing this for several minutes, they simultaneously began to realize how foolish they were being and eventually began to let down their guard. They didn't move as closely together as they normally would have, but they didn't try to stay away from one another either.
Now that everyone was where the wizard intended for him to be, Beraut encouraged the travelers to dig into their packs and locate something to eat. As they sat in the rapidly growing darkness with each of them, except for Qaim and Beraut, in absolute silence, they consumed their dinner. While they ate, they let their minds wander over the events of the day, until the final rays of sunlight disappeared and the moon came out from behind the clouds. This sent a soft, silvery light down upon their location and now gave them a new, and quite magnificent, distraction.