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The Iron Warrior

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  • The Iron Warrior

    The Iron Warrior
    An Adventure of Fist La'brau

    by J. Wade Harrell


    A lone figure sped across the lonely steppe with his wavy copper hair and tattered cloak trailing. Fading behind him was the mystical keep Ith’l, perched precariously atop a towering butte that overlooked the hills of the unsettled north and across the expansive plain of relentless breezes. Its stalwart wall and stout turrets framed the ancient castle against a dim morning sky.

    Upon a golden mare he blazed a straight trail toward the coast skirting the northern edge of Olgothia. The animal moved with unrivaled grace and incredible speed that no other breed could ever match over such a course. Ith'lian horses were rare and renown for their endurance.

    By nightfall he had reached the forests of Kavelon and the mare needed rest, so he stopped for the night. He dismounted and laid out his bedroll then sank back lighting a fat cigar he pulled from his cloak. He was tall and burly and when the moon struck his ruddy face it exposed his handsome square features, his brushy copper colored beard, his curly hair, and his vibrant emerald eyes.

    After vivid dreams of an old man with a bleached staff of whom he had many distant memories, he was awakened by a sound. He scrambled to his feet and looked to the west. Against a moon-tinted sky there were strange creatures with awkward draconian wings and crooked arms and legs dangling with nasty talons soaring his way. He stared for a moment puffing on the smelly cigar and counted six but there could be more in the darkness. Their appearance brought back old memories of the realm’s dark past where he fought against Shadow and its dusky denizens of death when Discord raised the dead into unlife conscripting necrotic armies into its service.

    "Discord," the ruddy Fist La’brau muttered.

    Deep inside he knew these creatures served that most foul circle from the realms of Shadow and he knew that he had to get to the coast quickly. Whatever hesitation he had about the mission he now felt more compelled to continue it. He picked up his bedroll and packed the golden mare that glistened in the moonlight and set out after only a few hours of rest but it would have to suffice for there was no time to tarry.

    An old cobblestone road appeared and weaved gracefully through the forest sprawled across the undulating terrain. Then there was a crossroad and he knew he was about a days ride south of Gleaming Harbor. Though there was no immediate sign, he felt that the minions of Shadow were on his trail seeking to interfere with the mission he halfheartedly undertook. With urgency he rode eastward anticipating the shore over every hill. The road became narrower and less traveled as it traversed rugged hills, through towering pines, and past a handful of tiny farms. Upon an exhausted horse and with a tired body he continued at a brisk pace toward the coast he needed to find soon before the bizarre creatures overtook him.

    As he topped each hill he anticipated the glistening sea of Perixan to come into view beneath the late night moon but it evaded his anticipation. It wasn’t until about an hour before daybreak that the glimmering appeared. The forest gave way to a coastline of grassy dunes that dropped off a small chalky cliff onto a rocky shore where there was a mound of gray mist hovering over a small bay. He was certain he was at the correct location but there was nothing of note along the lonely shore. He had expected a small hamlet or even a small farm but there was nothing but a small inlet covered with a thick mist.

    Then a bizarre sound came from behind him. It was a sound that he recognized. They hissed and shrieked while giving off a flapping noise similar to the constant furling of a sail in high wind.

    Minions!

    For a moment he wondered if the mission he undertook was worth the pain. Certainly he felt obligated when he got word that his old friend, and something of a thaumaturge, was said to have been parted with his most valuable possession, his staff. Without his rod, Raladur was virtually mortal and could not travel across the realms or defend himself being left marooned in some distant land.

    On several occasions, Raladur had saved Fist’s life; therefore Fist felt he had no choice but to offer his sword in the service of the staff he so needed though he despised the role thrust upon him.

    Fist looked over his shoulder toward the odd mist. He was told there would be one who would meet him at the coast though he was not given any details. He feared his mission was doomed to failure for the coast was uninhabited.

    He reigned the horse around and gouged its flanks directing it over the grassy dunes and down the chalky cliff. Fist pulled hard on the reigns to stop the horse short of the layers of still vapor. Across a field of boulders there was the thick mist and from within the sound of crashing waves echoed. He heard evil creatures flapping and shrieking over the undulating dunes, getting closer by the moment.

    Fist dismounted and jogged across the rocks, hopped from boulder to boulder, then entered the mist where he might foil them. There came a sound from the direction of the sea like a creaking that Fist could not discern. He found a spot between a few boulders where he would wait to ambush the minions of Shadow under the cover of the mist. There he waited.

    Several strenuous moments passed and there was no sign of the minions and it was the pause that allowed him to reflect on his decision that had taken him into the dreaded position of serving as one of Mann’s heroes. There was a horrible noise that broke the silence and he knew his loyal mare had been slain by one of the harrowing creatures. Fist gripped his sword and slowly dragged it from the leather sheath. The sound and smell of death produced a flow of adrenaline that fueled his muscles. He flexed and poised himself to launch into the fray. In the eerie silence the creaking resumed from the mist.

    The first shadow appeared and he swung a baneful blow that split the creature’s belly spilling its entrails onto the rocks and the corpse fell into the cold spray behind him. A second creature soared toward him flinging its tail and a weapon with a spiked ball on a chain. The claws, the tail, and the weapon unleashed a flurry of attacks directed at him but Fist flung himself aside and dove into the water. He escaped an onslaught for a moment but he knew the smell of the blood of their slain brother would lead them toward him soon. Fist heard the creaking again and it was even louder but what could be in the water that was causing the strange noise? He sensed a movement in the mist figuring he was about to be confronted by more than one of the minions.

    Then there was a sound he least expected. A clanking noise then what seemed to be the voice of a man shouting but whisked away by the sound of the crashing waves in the mist. Fist could not help turning and looking behind him then he heard the sound of a voice again and perhaps even more than one shouting back and forth. Those noises were soon drowned by the screeches and hissing of a mass of Shadow minions coming even nearer, a horde of them that would mean certain death should they all come upon him at once.

    He waded through the water and the mist then his gaze landed upon a dark shadowy form standing in the fog of twilight. Another minion dropped from nowhere and Fist swung his thick blade severing a dark muscular leg and sending the minion screeching into the mist wildly. Broader shadows approached and he knew there was a host of them. Possessing braveness that bordered foolhardy, even he knew that standing to fight would be folly.

    With a hunch and barely able to control his desire to dive headlong into the fray, he turned using his bottled energy as he bolted, striding over the tops of boulders then he leapt into the briny sea and saw the angular figure of a dark colored ship anchored in the water where the strange voices continued. He sloshed through the water ignoring its resistance and the minions seemed to have lost him for the moment.

    The outline of the ship began to show more detail. It was a very good sized sailing vessel but was constructed with a dark timber forming angular patterns along the length of the hull. The railing seemed to have unusual geometric designs and the ship had a very high fore and aft deck. On the side of each of those two decks was a bizarre wheel and there was a curved prow with an elaborately crafted figurehead.

    For a moment he halted when he saw the bleak vessel.

    “Shadow,” he sighed thinking he was forced into a trap.

    Above, dark figures moved in random directions seeming to home in on his location withiin the thick mist. He backed deeper into the water and it was still only waist deep. The fog began to glisten as the realm was awakening from its slumber when the warm rays of the sun began to reach over the horizon.

    “Hail, ye on shore,” a voice boomed from the dark ship.

    Fist turned and saw through the mist a lone figure leaning over the railing.

    Shrieking, hissing, and flapping of multiple creatures came closer and the voice from the ship did not sound like it was emitted by the throat of beings that served Shadow. It sounded wholly Mannish though with a peculiar accent.

    Once he made his decision he plunged through the water that did not seem to gain depth as he approached the ship; a ship that amazingly was able to sail in such shallows.
    “Hail, ye aboard ship,” Fist called while controlling his rush of energy charged by the fray. “May I board?”

    “Aye,” the deep voice called back and soon a rope ladder as dark as the ship’s timbers was hurled over the side of the vessel.

    Fist reached the ship and using his heightened might, he ascended the rope mesh wondering what lay in store for him on the deck. He looked over his shoulder and saw no sign of the mass of minions that seemed to have mysteriously disappeared or turned away from some unknown reason.

    Fist reached over the rail and hauled himself onto the deck and stood upright breathing hard before the man who invited him aboard. He was tall and wore a suit of mail of silver and gold with a plumed helm that partially covered his face. His steel blue eyes peered through the slits and a bushy mustache hung down the sides of his mouth to his jawline. One hand was upon the handle of his long slender sword that hung at his side.

    Fist nodded with due respect pushing his soaked wavy hair out of his face. “I thank you for your hospitality. I am Fist La’brau.”

    The warrior nodded in return and relaxed his sword arm. “I am Gravas Gardmann, we have been awaiting your arrival.”

    Fist raised one bushy red eyebrow and cocked his head in wonderment. “How do you know me?”

    “The captain said we were to pick you up here. How he knew is his business.”
    Fist held back any more information not knowing what was afoot.

    “Let us get you dry and introduce you to the others,” Gravas said.

    Overhead, there was a pinkish glow in the mist -- a mist that did not seem to be lifting as the sun continued to rise upon the realm. above the roofs of the cabins and over the forward and rear decks a pale mist clung and all around the dark ship a lighter mist swirled.

    Fist looked around briefly but saw no one else aboard except a statuesque man at the helm atop the poop deck partially obscured by the bizarre fog.

    “This way, Mr. La’brau,” Gravas said holding a hand toward the forward deck.
    In a cabin just forward of the main mast there was a sliding door that Gravas pushed aside and within there was a table where seven men sat with wide-based tankards. Each man wore dissimilar armor and seemed to be strong hardy men but not sailors.

    Gravas said something to them in a strange tongue.

    “Fist, meet my companions, the Warriors Seven,” Gravas said.

    Each man eyed Fist with melancholic gazes and issued a mild nod.

    Gravas introduced each one by name but Fist being wet and not good with names, only remembered a few titles. There was a bearded brute named Olar the timberjack, a man with a bushy drooping mustache named Elzahn, and a dark skinned hammer-man called Berylode.

    “Before you get ill let us get you out of those wet garments,” Gravas said.

    Fist hesitated. “Those creatures are likely gone by now. Perhaps I should be going my way.”

    Gravas seemed a bit perplexed. “You really should stay and dry yourself out and hear the captain before you make a hasty decision to depart us. Your presence is most desired.”
    Fist gave Gravas a crooked squint. “So you say? I have important business nearby that I cannot miss.”

    “Then you must very well remain aboard to fulfill that meeting,” Gravas said.

    Fist was suspicious that the ship was a construct of Shadow sent to disrupt his mission and he desired to leave but something inside him also made him wonder if the man he was originally to meet was one of the ship’s warriors or the captain.

    Fist eyed the seven men at the table and sensed something odd about them.

    A pale red lantern cast an eerie glow upon their hard-lined faces.

    “If you follow me to the aft cabin you will find dry towels and clothing.”

    Fist wondered if something more sinister lurked for the ship itself seemed odd with its dark wood and strange mist. However, the men aboard seemed genuine and not as denizens of Shadow so he decided to open the door at least out of curiosity.

    In the other cabin there were towels and racks with simple clothing. It seemed a harmless cabin so he closed the door and stepped inside then changed into the light seaman’s clothes. One thing Fist did not part with was his sword belt which carried his heavy sword and scabbard, a big knife, and a few pouches with various items. He pulled on a pair of light leather boots that were a little snug for his feet and walked back to the forward cabin where the seven sat silently with Gravas.

    Fist marveled at the detail of their armor and how there seemed to be few weak spots to penetrate and they each had a helm sitting on the table all from different ages and empires. On the chest of each warrior was a symbol of a dark crimson raven with wings spread afar. Their capes were brownish-gold and heavy.

    The rickety sounds of anchor chains being pulled and the yard being lowered rattled the ship’s timbers and Fist knew that the vessel was preparing to leave the cove.

    “I see you are all dry now, Mr. La’brau,” Gravas said dryly. “The captain would see you at this moment, if you would.”

    Gravas stood and pushed the sliding door back to reveal the bright mist and then there was a thud as the sail caught wind, a wind that Fist could not feel in the mist as he stepped outside. Fist leaned as the ship seemed to turn and move away from the shore propelled mysteriously for there was hardly a breeze. The mist seemed to travel with the ship as it turned and surged forward. Gravas showed Fist across the main deck forward to where there was an odd looking door on the wall beneath the forward deck to which on the sides was mounted one of the massive wheels. The door had a look of a sorrel coat of a horse but with a smooth metallic sheen.

    Gravas knocked on the door and within seconds, it slid open and inside the captain stood in the rear of his cabin that was awash in a rose hue of light that shined brightly out of the doorway. The brilliance poured forth and nearly obscured all the fine furnishing in the room that bore a myriad of hues seen nowhere else on the ship.

    The captain stood upon a colorful rug and was clearly not Mannish. His features looked more like one of the Olden that Fist had read about in books of legends. He was a tall pale man with slanting eyes and a tapered jaw. His reddish-gold hair was lighter than Fist’s and it cascaded with elegance down his shoulders being held back by a blue circlet. He wore a light colored tunic and his feet were shod with fine sandals laced to his calves with silver cords.

    “Come inside,” the captain bade.

    Fist stepped forward and the door closed leaving the two alone in the scarlet chamber.

    “I trust Gravas made you comfortable,” the captain said looking straight ahead and through Fist.

    “Aye,” Fist said beholding the simple garments.

    “Have some wine.”

    The captain held out a shiny goblet of silver and Fist stepped forward. He took it after a brief hesitation then took a healthy drink.

    Sighing with satisfaction, Fist spoke. “Where do you hail from?”

    Before the Captain replied, Fist realized the captain was blind but yet he was quite comfortable in his surroundings.

    “I come from no place like you have ever heard of. In fact, I do not come from any place near what your folk refer to as the Twenty-One Realms.”

    “I haven’t heard that term in quite some time,” Fist said recalling his old mentor, Raladur, uttering the phrase nearly a decade ago.

    “Shadow, perhaps,” Fist said trying to see a reaction in the captain.

    “Shadow?” The captain paused. “I serve no faction humanity contrives. I have a much higher calling than that. If you will have a seat I will explain to you everything you must know to fulfill the mission.”

    Fist obliged the captain and sat in one of the cushioned chairs.

    “This mission, does it concern the same mission I pursue -- concerning the fate of Raladur’s staff?”

    The captain seated himself behind a table and with his distant blind gaze he answered. “Yes, the staff Zola’shlat. Raladur is an old friend who once aided me. Though may causes and his are incomparable, I believe that his work is instrumental to the harmony of the Twenty-one Realms. If he does not regain his staff, his powers are weak and the balance will tilt in favor of those who will destroy all that is known in the universe you call Palamarr.”

    “You know much, captain.”

    “I have long sailed the sea between the worlds though yours is a distant one. This day we sail a different sea.”

    Fist was confused by the captain’s words but nevertheless, they shared the same goal.

    “And what of Gravas and the Warriors Seven?” Fist asked.

    “The Warriors Seven also known as the Warriors of Limbo are some of the fiercest fighters you will ever find. Their only weakness is they do not have a leader or a cause. Hence, they will attach themselves to anyone with a cause to fight.”

    “I thought Gravas was their leader.”

    The pale captain shook his head. “Gravas summoned them forth and is one of the few that speaks their language and yours. He is a fine warrior who realizes the importance of this matter. However, you will lead them into battle, Fist. These men are fearless continually brooding on their past defeats. When slain, they are reborn remembering their losses and their pain.”

    “What do we battle?”

    “One called the Iron Warrior. The details you will discover tomorrow. Now we must rest.”

    * * * * *

    The dark ship moved with great speed across the lonely Eastern Sea in what seemed only to be hours over the tumultuous waters that would have taken weeks for most ships. A great range of mountains arose suddenly before them through the shroud of the ship’s mist. Something about the ship seemed to bend time itself and then the mist thinned and the sky overhead seemed almost airless with many stars twinkling in broad daylight. Breathing was difficult and it was cold.

    It was the world’s rim, the great outer edge of the realm where all laws of nature ceased and the axioms of Limbo emerged. The ship found a gap between the mountains and sailed off the edge where the disturbed water fell straight down into the black void below. The ship’s mist thinned in the bleak region as merely a faint aura. The realm of Siernod was a massive chunk of earth floating in the invisible sea of Limbo on which the dark ship now glided. An imaginary plane extended into what seemed to be eternity as Siernod gradually faded from sight.

    The whole upper hemisphere was flooded with all sorts of stars, galaxies, nebulae, and other cosmic objects. The dim sun was high overhead while the airless sky was ebon-black. The journey was all to silent lending an eerie feeling as the ship moved with incalculable speed across the Sea of Limbo.

    Fist and Gravas stood at the railing marveling at the strange environment.

    “How did you come by this mission, Mr. La’brau?”

    Fist appeared to think for a moment. “When Raladur was captured by the warden of Shadow, I traveled at once to his brother’s secret castle, Ith’l. Ralabin has many prisms he consults and he was able to determine that Raladur was alive. Ralabin told me that I had to find the staff his brother calls Zola’schlat that the warden had far separated from Raladur. I wanted not to take this mission as I long to live a simple life.”

    “Why did you?” Gravas inquired.

    “Being the world’s greatest swordsman comes with a price.” There was a hint of arrogance in his voice.

    The sun slowly sank into the late evening position, there appeared something strange below. Fist and Gravas peered down into what would be a sea if one was visible. The crew, who was made up of men like the captain and the helmsman, seemed to work in a more urgent manner. The billowing sail was turned and the rudder cranked which sent the ship veering to the starboard side.

    “Look,” Gravas said pointing ahead.

    Fist stared into the darkness. Ahead of the ship there was a great swirl like a massive drain and the ship creaked resisting its force. The crewmen shouted to one another in a language Fist had never heard but nevertheless they were doing everything possible to keep the ship from being swallowed by the massive vortex. The sea below them showed shimmering ripples of blackness and the dark craft lurched up and down over them while it was drawn downward forcing Fist and Gravas to hold firm to the railing.

    The reddish-brown door slid open and the captain stepped outside buttoning an amber coat about himself. He appeared concerned but calm as he approached the railing.

    “It appears we have encountered a breach in the Sea of Limbo,” the captain said staring into oblivion. “Such occurrences are usually catastrophic.”

    The captain appeared relaxed.

    “You seem confident,” Fist said.

    “I am not confident, I merely understand my fate.”

    The crew worked hard to alter the course of the ship and after many heart-pounding moments, the ship veered away from the pull of the strange whirlpool in the mysterious sea and continued on its path through the seemingly infinite void.

    “I require your sword,” the captain said as soon as the ship was on a safe course.

    “I know that,” Fist said. “That is my whole purpose here.”

    “You misunderstand me. I need to take your sword with me to my quarters.”

    Taken back, Fist retorted, “I am not one to part with my blade, captain.”

    “I assure you, you shall have it back by the time we encounter our destination.”

    Fist hesitated then pulled the sword from his scabbard and gave it to the captain.

    Fist slept lightly that night awaking every hour but had finally drifted into a good slumber when a bell tolled lowly waking everyone on board. Fist leapt from his hammock and made his way to the deck where everyone gathered. There was what appeared to be a realm before them but much smaller than Siernod. In fact, it appeared to be no larger than a very small kingdom. It was dark and lifeless having rocky cliffs and craggy outcroppings. Dark water dropped off the side of the bleak realm into Limbo and there the dark ship sailed right into the middle of the mottled sea. As they cruised well into the realm, it remained cold and dark. Heavy clouds dangled twisted and writhing but giving only a spattering of rain in large stinging drops.

    Fist was amazed at how quickly they had traveled from one realm to another.

    “This ship travels swiftly,” Fist said.

    “Aye,” Gravas agreed. “Or perhaps it is not confined to time as you and I know it or maybe we slept longer than we realized.”

    Fist shrugged. “Such talk disturbs me, Gravas.”

    Ahead there was land but it was a rocky unwelcoming shore as the ship sailed with its time bending speed. The vessel’s bizarre mist returned slowly and the view of the realm disappeared and the ship stopped off a rocky point where waves crashed heavily sending cold spray upon the deck.

    The captain called a meeting of the Warriors Seven, Gravas, and Fist inside his colorful cabin. There he served them the sweetest wine they had ever tasted as they stood around the outside wall drinking from shiny silver goblets.

    “It is time, men,” the blind captain said. “As I told you, the enemy is the Iron Warrior who has possession of the staff Zola’shlat. The great wizard Raladur was travelling to Siernod to meet his brother who is exiled there at Ith’l in the pearly sphere when he was ambushed by a warden of Shadow and a host of minions. Raladur failed to escape and is parted from his staff. Raladur may only return if we can retrieve it. I only know the Iron Warrior has a stronghold on which sits a dark tree. The way is guarded by terrible creatures. Your objective is to make your way upward to his keep and take the staff and return it to the ship. You may likely have to slay him to do so.”

    Fist nodded. “We shall slay the Iron Warrior and take back Raladur’s staff.”

    “If you are not successful,” the captain continued, “Mr. La’brau’s realm will be weakened and that host you call Shadow will gain foothold there and tip the balance heavily in their favor and thus eventually threaten all of Palamarr. They will consume the entire twenty one realms until all of humanity is lost in this sphere.”

    Fist felt a chill run down his spine at the thought of Shadow once again threatening Siernod as they had in the past. The captain seemed hesitant to use the vocabulary he was familiar with in referring to the powers of Palamarr but nevertheless, the point was well made.”

    “One last thing before you depart,” the captain said looking blindly toward Fist.

    The captain knelt to the side and opened a chest and pulled out his battle sword. He stood and handed to Fist.

    Fist looked upon it and he noticed there was a symbol carved on the blade and it was of an origin unknown to him. It was angular and inscribed inside a circle.

    “A rune?” Fist asked.

    The captain nodded. “It will help you in your fight against what is ahead.”

    Fist accepted it and sank it into his scabbard.

    “Find the castle of the black tree. Confront the Iron Warrior and take back the staff.”

    “Is that it?” Fist asked.

    The captain nodded. “I can tell you no more.”

    The captain led them outside onto the mist covered deck and the eight men descended the rope ladder into a boat waiting for them in the shallow water that was fashioned out of the same black-brown wood. With its oars they made the short jaunt onto the rocky coast awash in waves and there they found themselves on a narrow rocky point where the mist ended. The narrow way led to a crude shore in the bleak land. The tromped along the uneasy narrow strip of jagged rock toward the land that stood upon a plateau that overlooked the shore. Outside of the ship’s mist, the realm was more visible though it had a thick atmosphere chilled and wet. When they reached the mainland they stopped staring at what was in view.

    All along the cliff-side there were huts made of some sort of dark bamboo and twisted creatures scurried back and forth between the huts and the sea by way of rickety ladders and bridges. They communicated with some sort of speech but they were too far away to hear them.

    “Perhaps they have a clue we could use,” Gravas said looking back at the Seven.

    The seven had little to say for they were ready to fulfill their purpose -- to battle. Together they groaned and nodded.

    “The worse that can happen is we have to fight them,” Fist said.

    They continued along the side of the cliff toward the huts until it was obvious that they were spotted. The creatures stopped doing their normal activities of hauling up fish and clams from the sea and they amassed together pointing at the intruders to their bleak realm.

    Fist led the way and stopped about thirty paces from the mass of odd creatures that eyed them suspiciously. Several had crude spears which they used to take fish and some had short curved knives. Their skin was green-black, stretched over frail skeletons, warty and wet. They wore loin cloths about their waists and their angular skulls were capped with stringy hair along a central ridge. Their eyes bulged wildly black and their toothy mouths were always agape and dripping.

    Fist had no inclination if they could understand Mannish speech but he gave it a shot.
    “We mean you no harm.”

    Fist waited for a reaction.

    They stared suspiciously hissing more at Fist’s words. The put their spears forward in a defensive posture.

    “We have no reason to fight you,” Fist said.

    They hissed more then gravely utterances came from the crowd that Fist thought sounded like some broken Mannish words but he could make no sense of them.

    The crowd parted and the dark denizens made way for a shadowy form coming from behind. he was taller and cloaked and in his right hand was a long jagged trident.

    Fist eyed the hooded figure who appeared to be one of the slimy beings but healthier.

    “Good day.” Fist said.

    After a pause, he gave a response Fist could not understand.

    “Wot you want ere?’ was the guttural broken response from the creature. It was obvious he could not enunciate all of the Mannish alphabet but he spoke a distant dialect of the language with the queer mouths they had.

    “We seek a castle with a dark tree,” Fist replied. He had no idea if the slimy folk were protective of the place or if they even had any knowledge of it but it was worth a try.

    The creature grumbled. “Me, Krok.”

    Fist replied, “I am Fist. These are Gravas and the Warriors Seven.”

    He hoped the introduction would warm things up.

    The one called Krok retorted seeming to claim the ground they stood on then cursed the intruders threatening with his trident.

    Fist was perplexed but prepared to confront them if necessary reaching casually with his right hand and rubbing the pommel of his weapon beneath his cloak.

    “Very well. We shall leave your village but we still seek the black tree. Tell us where such a tree is and we shall be away swiftly,” Fist replied.

    The creature stood still for seven tense heartbeats. He then raised his trident, pointed it inland and looked toward a tall cliff that loomed in the realm’s thick air. Staring closer they could see that the cliff rose high into the lowerings of the black-purple clouds writhing as if the sky was in pain and dipped into the lower atmosphere with tendrils seeking refuge from the hell that must lurk above. Atop the cliff was an odd shaped structure but it was to obscured to tell what it was.

    “Shwortzbommer,” the thing muttered. “Go.”

    “We thank you,” Fist said.

    Fist, Gravas, and the Warriors Seven left the area of the cliff-side huts and made their way directly inland over the lifeless rocky ground interspersed with strange red plants, thin stalked with heavy heads.

    “I smell Shadow,” Gravas said.

    Fist nodded in agreement. “Those creatures may be sending us into a trap.”

    The land rose steadily for an hour until they came within clear sight of a massive cliff that stretched in both directions until it faded into the thick air. Along its base was crumbled stone the same jet color as the shafts of rock that towered upward.

    “There,” Gravas pointed to their right.

    Fist squinted and in the gloom he saw something that looked like a staircase. He led them toward it and soon they were standing at the foot of what proved to be a crazy winding stair of chiseled stone ascending the cliff. In places their were banisters and in places there was nothing rimming its edge. The stair had many landings at random heights as it cut back and forth across the jagged rock then spiraled upward as if the stair maker had no plan for the gothic structure.

    Fist tested the first step suggesting it was probably the only way up the cliff that was formed by rugged basalt mixed with faceted onyx. The rest followed him as he ascended. It was narrow and perilous wet with the thick air and slippery with the accumulation of greasy moss that thrived on its surface. They came to a square landing where they all assembled before continuing their upward trek.

    Fist nodded and led the way. The steps were worn and slippery being about two shoulder widths wide. It clung to the cliff as it rounded a protrusion of rock then a bold shriek cut through the atmosphere high pitched at first then lowering stinging their ears for two heartbeats. For three it quieted a moment then it tormented the men who stopped and wrench their faces in pain.

    Fist detected the shadow coming from above then he drew his sword. Diving from the clouds and through the gloom was a huge raven, dark with blazing crimson eyes. It’s black-violet beak was stretched open singing its deafening song a third time while a red tongue waved within.

    The huge bird zoomed straight toward them. Fist cocked his sword and swung it at the beast as it glided just over their heads with its taloned feet thrust at them. His sword bit deep causing the creature to shriek again. Other blades swung missing their target but one of the Warriors Seven was grabbed by the talons and the bird rose over the land below. Once away from the cliffs the raven let the screaming warrior go and he plummeted to his doom onto the rocky plateau.

    Gravas cursed.

    The raven circled and returned, legs extended and eyes scowling.

    “Volyroh!” Fist hollered, being the name of the old Daggenite god.

    Fist stood in its path then at the last minute with his panther like reflexes he dodged then flung the broad blade in the bird’s swooping path. The steel sank deep and the remainder of the Warriors Seven ducked and swung their blades also. The bird shrieked in pain sending out a deafening noise and it glided out of control with its wings flapping frantically. The raven struck the cliff, squawked in pain, and then spiraled down the rocky wall.

    The eight men gathered themselves and in silence resumed their ascension.

    Gravas was steely eyed watching for the next peril. Olar, Elzahn, Berylode and the other three bore melancholic looks on their faces.

    They came to another landing.

    “I’m sorry for the loss of your companion,” Fist said.

    “No worries,” Berylode said in his deep voice. “Once we all perish we shall be rejoined to fight alongside one another again.”

    Fist raised an eyebrow contemplating the odd nature these warriors from diverse backgrounds shared.

    The stairs zig-zagged back and forth then a level concourse led across the side of the cliff so high the ground was hardly visible. The concourse pierced the rock for forty paces through a tunnel then emerged on the other side and an angular patterned balustrade protected the entire length.

    Fist was the first to step into the darkness and he was the first to see their next obstacle. It slithered black with glowing slanting eyes. It hissed and bobbed its head.

    His sword flew out of its scabbard within his hefty hand and poised to attack the giant serpent. Gravas lit a brand and tossed it onto the floor then pulled his shiny sword.

    Olar, Elzah, Berylode, and the others pulled their weapons and charged toward the snake.

    Fist’s sword bit into the snout and all the other blades hit the scaly hide of the massive creature at various points as they all attacked it. The serpent retracted with lightning speed then struck again with equal velocity. spear-like fangs sank into one of the warriors who cried out in valor as he perished in the jaws of the beast that retracted again.

    “Against the walls!” Fist called out inside the shade of the tunnel.

    The serpent returned for another victim with its flicking tongue sensing the heat of another prey. The serpent’s head turned toward Elzahn then it struck. Elzahn while extending his sword which caught the soft spot between the bones of the lower jaw and dark blood poured down on him. Olar who was standing next to him dealt a mighty chop with his battle axe at the base of the skull. The giant snake hissed, its body writhed in spasms, and the others joined the fray finishing the black serpent with bloody gouges then Fist plunged his blade through the crown of its skull.

    Fist marveled at how easily his sword had been slicing and plunging though the beasts of Shadow, sinking deep into flesh and piercing through bone. Its blade was ever-sharp and delightfully balanced. He mused at the rune and pondered its effects on the sword that allowed him to swing it with such precision such that he felt invincible.

    He looked over the railing and the ground below was not visible; it was as if he was peering into oblivion. Looking up, the keep’s outline was vivid and gaunt with knife-like towers embedded into the basalt cliff.

    The stairway led higher with a square spiral ascending the final stretch. They panted as they climbed with their armor rattling all the way. Fist was colder with perspiration soaking his leathers and his wavy hair.

    Finally they reached a large landing before the huge gates. The keep with its sharp corner spires was built into the cliff rather than on it. Huge semi-glossy stones chiseled hard were laid one upon another to construct the walls and towers and there was a steep pitched roof within covered with what appeared to be a massive slab black hair. The gates were made of a bizarre substance like wood but shiny and hard like steel. It bore a large grain like the bark of a tree and was banded with mottled iron and sharp spikes.

    Fist and the others approached the door and there seemed to be no one manning the towers or the gates. They tried everything they could do to open the doors but there was no means to penetrate the walls.

    “It appears that we were sent here on an impossible mission,” Gravas said.
    Fist pulled a cigar from his cloak, put it to his lips then and ignited it with tinder from his fire-box. He puffed then removed the cigar and belched out gray smoke as he eyed the door.

    “There must be some way, guys,” Fist said.

    “Has it not been obvious to you that this is why Olar the timberjack is here?” Olar himself said.

    Fist glanced at the bearded warrior who held the immense axe in his hands. It was so huge it looked impossible to wield.

    “If you think you can chop that door down, get to it,” Fist said stepping backward.

    Gravas chortled. “I should have thought of that myself.”

    Olar raised his axe and stepped toward the door. He pulled it back over his head and took three heavy steps and lowered the hefty axe head at one of the dark doors. There was a thunderous noise and the door splintered like nothing Fist had ever seen. A gaping hole about three feet wide and ten feet high emerged as Olar pulled his weapon from the woodwork.

    “No wood is safe from Olar,” Elzahn said uttering the first words Fist could recall since he met the man.

    It was almost as if it was expected by the others when a strange noise came from within the courtyard. Clicking and clattering could be heard and clopping like light horse hooves upon pavement. Then the creatures emerged. They were the size of large dogs but they were buggish things with six legs and arthropod bodies. Their many faceted eyes shone in the bleak light that bombarded them through the clouds. Huge mandibles reciprocated and Olar was taken before he could react when one of the rust colored creatures leaped onto him and pinched his neck thin. Olar fell as the creature feasted.

    Fist attacked the next one as they began to pour through the gate. He struck a leg severing it, showering them all with the viscous substance that erupted. It shrieked and Fist cleaved another leg as it advanced, backing Fist to the edge of the stairs. The thing fell forward off balance and his strong overhead stroke cleaved its hard-shelled head in half.

    Gravas and the Warriors Seven, of whom five remained, were fighting four other of the creatures. They downed them and more were continuing to scuttle out. Fist joined in and slew another and they did not stop fighting until no more continued to flow out of the mouth of the keep’s courtyard but in the process, one of the warriors was pinched about the waist where his entrails fell onto the stone and there he died.

    Gravas counted and noted they were missing one for only Elzahn with his huge sword, Berylode the dark man with the massive hammer, and another pale warrior named Rahd with two curved swords remained. Gravas assumed the other one must have fallen off the landing during the final fray.

    The five proceeded forward through the jagged opening, Fist first, Gravas right behind, then the remainder of the Warriors Seven. The courtyard beyond was lifeless and the top of the cliff bore the basalt marbled with onyx stone. A broad stair led up to a platform in front of the keep whose bizarre doors were massive. The tree the denizens of the bleak realm stood before the tree called Shwortzbommer in the center of the platform. It was broad spreading with a thick trunk whose ridged bark shimmered in the strange inky light from the clouds and upon the gnarly limbs dangled the most bizarre fruit Fist had ever seen. Like glistening metallic eggs of blackish-purple they hung all around the tree whose small violet leaves rustled in a breeze that was undetectable. It seemed ancient and unholy representing the fruition of the powers of Shadow.

    The windows and arrow slits of the gothic keep glowed with a dark smoky purple and it thumped, or was that his heart? There were dark gray statues of armored knights, two heads taller than a man all around the circular ominous veranda staring at the tree with snarling half-human faces.

    “Dare we?” Fist mused as he puffed from his cigar that had made it through the last fray.
    “Onward,” Gravas agreed.

    Fist and the others ascended the platform and walked toward the tree. The ancient plant gave off a bone-chilling radiance and they were reluctant to go very near for it seemed to bleed their warmth slowly and steadily.

    Fist noticed his sword was slightly aglow and it was warmer than the surrounding air as he clung to it. As he stepped forward, the leaves began to rustle on the tree as if it was uneasy about his presence.

    “What must we do to call this iron warrior?” Berylode boomed. “beat his door down?”

    Fist shrugged. “The timberjack is gone. If he guards the tree, perhaps we should threaten it and see if he shows up.”

    “It just might work,” Gravas said. “Shall we cast lots to see who attacks the tree?”

    Fist shook his head. “I shall.”

    Fist cocked his sword but with the first sign of a threat the ground shivered and the statues came to life. There were six of them, terrible and menacing. They moved slow but their size was frightening.

    Berylode wasted no time. He charged one with a battle shout and smashed it with his hammer. The lumbering statue cracked into numerous pieces, tried to hold itself together, but a second blow pulverized it.

    Fist sprang into battle realizing they could not wait for Berylode to crush them all with his mighty hammer. He and the others confronted the stone giants avoiding their devastating blows with care. Fist attacked strategically chipping stone from the legs of his opponent. Damage was slow going but his superb swordsmanship kept him in the fight. He was quick on his feet dodging the deadly blows then retaliating with surgical strikes that continued to weaken one of the legs.

    At last, the leg shattered at the knee sending the stone giant to the ground floundering and shouting in a cavernous voice non-human roars that echoed off the walls of the stronghold.

    Fist turned his attention to another where he saw the dark skinned warrior shatter another stone defender while Elzahn and Gravas held off one apiece with Rhad assisting. While Fist kept the stone being turning and avoided its repetitious blows, he chipped away at another knee. His blade remained sharp in spite of striking the hard stone, sinking into it, and chipping shards with each solid blow. He dodged, attacked, dodged, and attacked. He heard the quake behind him as Berylode shattered another. He heard Elzahn scream in pain. Charged with energy from the fierce battle that flowed through every vein in his body, he delivered a fierce blow that downed his opponent with another severed leg.

    Gravas fought boldly though his sword was doing little to weaken the last stone giant. Elzahn lay motionless upon the dark paved stones of the veranda. Berylode was closer to the stone giant Gravas was fighting than Fist and he darted to it with his hammer raised overhead. Just as he met the stone thing, the giant smashed Gravas with its massive stone mace sending the steely eyed warrior tumbling across the paved stones coming to rest against the black tree.

    Berylode delivered the final stroke breaking the stone giant into five pieces then he helped Fist finish off the ones with severed legs then they checked their losses.

    Elzahn’s skull was crushed and had died an instant death. Gravas appeared to be fading with blood oozing from his mouth and nose. The other warrior, Rahd, had taken a stone sword through the chest and lay crushed under a fallen stone.

    Instantly their attention was drawn to the keep. The doors creaked, screeched, and sent forth an ear-splitting grating noise as they began to swing inward. Fist and Berylode stared until the doors were fully open then the keep spilled out an inky vapor, writhing and swirling.

    Something shined within and then it lumbered forward rattling and clanging like a warrior in a full set of plated armor. He was nearly as tall as the doorway being taller than two large men one upon the other.

    When he stepped into the gloomy light, he appeared as a huge giant fully armored and with his face obscured by the full helm that he wore. Large gauntlets covered its powerful arms that held a massive battle axe. More dark vapor seeped from the helm and the thin eye slits glowed with a pale purple radiance.

    Fist twirled his sword and checked the edge which had dulled a little but lacked the nicks and chips that it should have had. The swelling rage from the battle with the insect creatures and the stone giants fueled him for further fight to deliver vengeance on those who opposed him.

    Berylode held the haft of his hammer straight before him with the head resting on the ground.

    The Iron Warrior approached and the ground shuddered with every step. The two warriors charged their final opponent who vibrated with a low pitched buzzing noise then it swung the axe swiftly downward and caught Berylode before he could react. The dark skinned warrior’s hammer was cleaved through and the axe buried itself down through the shoulder into the center of his torso.

    Fist boiled with rage at the sight of his fallen friend and he delivered a fierce blow to the armored giant’s thigh but this leg blow as as high as he could comfortably reach. The sword lopped off a piece of metal on the armor but the blade did not penetrate through the iron suit. Pain shot through him at the landing of the dull blow and then a cold sensation flowed up through the sword, into his arm, and through his body. He winced and knew he was attacking a creation of Shadow.

    The giant warrior swung his axe with a strike intended to decapitate Fist but his quick reflexes allowed him to duck and the blade sliced through the air inches above his head. Fist rolled forward and shoved the tip of his sword into a crease in the groin area. The blade penetrated the crease about a foot deep and a metallic roar blasted the veranda indicating Fist had managed to at least irritate the one known as the Iron Warrior.

    Gravas appeared dead and Fist knew he alone was fighting against the powerful iron guardian. With graceful steps he kept the guardian moving and guessing. They traded blows with Fist’s chipping away trivial pieces of metal and the giant just missing Fist and chunking up the pave stones. It struck with thundering force each time and Fist knew it would be difficult to evade forever; he had to find a weak spot.

    The chinks within reach were few and most of the vital regions were too high to reach. He was tiring but the armored giant moaning like a steel banshee kept attacking with the same intensity and strength. Each blow came closer and after a hundred of them Fist knew soon one would land.

    He spat. He cursed. He summoned every bit of reserved energy he did not know he even had. His throat and lungs burned as he could not suck in enough of the cold air to refresh his body. He stumbled fighting bravely onward then finally fell from exhaustion from all the fighting. Fist was not one to give up but he was not much afraid of death either.

    “Take me, you wretched fiend,” Fist said hoarsely.

    The fifteen foot tall giant paused. Why he did, Fist did not know. Perhaps he was savoring the deadly blow. Maybe he no longer saw Fist as a threat. Fist leaned against the tree beside Gravas who was limp so they could die next to one another as brothers in arms. As soon as his back touched the tree, the guardian roared its metallic mantra and swung the axe toward Fist. Fist fell to the side but the axe struck a lower limb severing a small branch with one of the dark egg-shaped fruits.

    The fruit and the section of branch whirled across the veranda and landed hard. The fruit shattered open and spread a plasma-like substance across the stones that immediately erupted in a blackish-purple flame.

    Fist shuddered. He had seen such a flame before when he fought his way beneath the city of Hironhirjn and destroyed the anvil and forge of Shadow burning with the cold bleak fire.

    Fist detected another axe swing coming and somehow fetched an ounce of strength coupled with a far-fetched idea. He pushed himself onto his feet and darted toward the dark fire and felt the thud of the axe land behind him pelting him with shards of stone. He raised his sword and when he reached the flames which he had trouble looking upon with his Mannish eyes, he stabbed the flames with his blade. Holding it in the fire as long as possible, being chilled by its negative forces and threatened by the approaching giant, he removed it at the last possible moment and hurled the weapon at the attacking guardian.
    The sword tumbled end over end as it whistled through the thick air. A spiraling trail of black vapor and a stream of the fragments of the flame were left to vaporize in the air and the sword landed point first. It struck a tight seem between the chest and abdomen and buried itself to the hilt.

    The Iron Warrior was consumed by blackish flame that quickly coated it with a thin shell of smoking ice. It roared in anguish and wrath but was immobilized by the effects of the ill-branded sword. It flexed belting out its unholy noise and fell backward onto the stones. The black fire burned without consuming the metal but all the life within was vaporized and the glowing eyes diminished.

    Fist looked toward his friend Gravas whose body he was about to move away from the evil tree but he saw the steely eyes slowly open.

    “Fist,” Gravas mumbled with a faint smile.

    “You live, eh?” Fist said.

    Gravas smiled. “I do not give up my life as easily as the Warriors Seven. I have only one such as you, Siernodite.”

    Fist gave him a drink of water and washed the blood off his face. After a while the warrior perked up a bit still noticeably in pain. Gravas managed to stand though crookedly and look upon the fallen guardian.

    “Quite an amazing feat, my friend,” Gravas said with pain in his voice.

    The flames subsided and Fist walked over to the fallen creature and wrenched his sword free. It was cold, even colder than any block of ice he had ever handled. It’s blade was awash in a vaporous purple haze seething like a slow burning flame. He sheathed it quickly not comfortable with the cold feel of death and decay in his hand.

    “The staff must be in the keep,” Fist said determinedly.

    He walked up the short flight of steps with Gravas limping behind. Fist stepped into the cold chamber, dark but with several odd braziers dangling by thick chains burning with purple and crimson flames. Angular windows added a gloomy glow to the dais that was situated at the back of the mostly empty keep. Upon it something shone. Fist and Gravas strode across the chamber and up the onyx steps that led to the rounded platform. Atop it was a sculpted onyx plinth with two metal rings spaced about a pace apart and fastened to the top of the plinth by iron stakes embedded into the plinth. Hovering magically through the two rings there was the staff known to its owner as Zola’shlat. It was a common looking stick mostly very pale, straight and thicker at the top end with finger like protrusions grasping a stone that glowed with the whitest light ever seen.

    Fist’s heart pounded. Three thumps and a deep breath later he envisioned the old man standing in some dark shadow in some far away realm without his staff. He allowed himself to realize that Fist was now crippled like an eagle with a broken wing. Fist stared a moment then he grabbed the thicker end and carefully removed it from its suspended position. It was the warmest thing he had felt since he arrived upon the dreaded realm.

    Gravas marveled at the staff and Fist held it before the embattled warrior.

    “You are a worthy man, Gravas. Touch the staff.”

    The warrior stared gravely at Fist. After a few moments of pondering Gravas placed his bloody hand upon the pale wood then wrapped his fingers around its girth. The steely eyes of the warrior widened with pleasure as the warmth of the staff seemed to seep into him and his bruises and cuts began to fade.

    “I feel much better,” Gravas said removing his hand but with a strange look on his face. “I feel it was improper for me to touch it.”

    Fist nodded in realization. “Perhaps.”

    The keep suddenly began to rumble and from some glistening form high overhead, a wide shaft of eerie shadow slowly descended to toward the floor where there was a huge rune that Fist had not noticed.

    “I think it is time for us to go,” Gravas said.

    Fist nodded and they trotted down the steps, across the room, and out of the keep whose doors slammed with thundering force behind them.

    “The Iron Warrior is gone,” Gravas mused as they looked over the courtyard.

    “And the stone giants are erected again,” Fist added.

    It was as if everything was reverting to its prior condition.

    “Let us make haste before the outer gate repairs itself,” Gravas said.

    The two men bolted across the veranda staying clear of the stone giants and they leapt through the jagged opening in the outer gates that seemed to be growing smaller. They ran away noticing that neither the beasts they had slain nor the corpses of the Warriors Seven were any place to be seen.

    They bounded down the stairs making their way back to the bizarre confines of the dark ship that awaited within the mist.

    * * * * *

    The anchor chains rattled and the yard clattered. Wind filled the sails with a thump and the strange ship began to drift across the gray sea. Fist stood against the railing of the forecastle staring into the mist that accompanied the ship while gnawing on a stub of a cigar.

    “Your mission was quite successful, Mr. La’brau,” the voice of the captain said behind him.

    Fist turned slowly. “Not until Zola’schlat is back in Raladur’s hands.”

    “Something bothers you still . . . Raladur?”

    Fist nodded. “I fear for him. When I saw the staff, it brought back many old memories. The staff is part of him.”

    “You just now realize that?”

    “In a way, yes,” Fist said.

    “Do you have any regrets?”

    “Only that I hesitated whether I should do this.”
    Last edited by Peacemaker; 09-01-2011, 10:30 AM.
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