A week of the King’s time had passed since Haryk had passed out on the portal dais deep underneath Cillandar. Bathing, sleeping, and eating were all starting to make up for what felt like a lifetime of grime and gore plastered to his skin. He thought about that moment sometimes when he awoke, surrounded by the King’s guard. Fainting wasn’t something he’d care for anyone to see, and certainly not something he’d admit to. But in this case, after just saving the king, and the other king, and hundreds of Celn citizens and soldiers, after fighting an ancient dragon while being the size of a mouse, and battling against Ket itself floating in a magical bubble on his back, Haryk figured he deserved an afternoon nap. Things like this were typical with Lord Haryk. The fear of a rising tide of demons was within days superseded by a fear of embarrassment.
In his hand, he held a chalice because that is what he requested. Andril, not to be undone, was currently taking a swig out of a serving bowl. It started as a joke, but now Haryk figured he would drink all his favorite brews from a chalice from this day forth. “Mmmm, Dying God Ale, you do not disappoint your majesty!”
Genoran made a little bow, and he held up a bottle to a tall, lean man sitting next to Haryk. He looked out of place there, sitting, as if it wasn’t something he often did. “Commander Fritz, are you sure you wouldn’t humor us and sample some of the best ale our realm has to offer?”
“Thank you my lord, but I am on duty this eve.”
“As you wish, Commander,” said the King.
The vast chamber they now sat in was warm from the glow, despite being open to the breeze. The Cillandar Tower Palace was constructed atop the highest point in Serpent’s Bay. Wind came off the Celn Sea, and wrapped itself in wisps around the structure. Haryk took deep breaths in, smelling both the sweet burning wood, a nice mix of maple and oak Haryk thought, but also the salty air. To Haryk it was the perfect combination. The wood reminded him of nights by the fire as a young Celn lord. The breeze reminded him of his time in the dread isles. Around him sat Andril, the King, and Commander Fritz. Areia had been nowhere to be seen, nor had the King’s jester Hojo. Tahg he figured wasn’t old enough for drink, but the King had told him that Tahg was exploring anyway. Haryk had been having suspicions regarding a little sparrow, which seemed to flutter around the courtyard each morning, and would then appear back in the evening. Having never been past the still waters, the boy wonder wouldn’t stop pointing to every bird, bug, reptile and fish he saw like it was the first time he had ever seen such a creature. Obviously, he couldn’t help himself. Haryk was happy for it, truth be told. He had been grilled again and again by various war councilors since returning through the gateway, and he was done with all the idiot questions. Tahg had the worst of them, and so the repreive gave him more time to do his three favorite things. Now, he just wanted to have some peace and quiet, drink a beer, and talk about what he felt like saying. Andril called it “warrior reminiscing.”
King Genoran beat him to one of his most pressing questions that evening there by the fire. “Commander, will you tell us about what happened at Far Realm? Before Andril, Haryk, Tahg and I arrived?”
Fritz stood up and as he was often want to do. He paced back and forth in front of those he spoke with, the fire flickered around him. Haryk watched his profile move to and fro. His face was heavy in shadow in front of the fire.
“The battle, my king, was not going well. Far Realm was never meant to be a stronghold, nor was it meant to be a base of any Celn operations. It was a pirate town through and through. We just imposed a Celn flag. That’s why Canton came there in the first place. It wasn’t because he was a pirate, Canton was anything but one. The elvish adventurer turned Governor wanted to bring Celn pride to the people of the Isles. And he had. In a fashion as he’d say.”
Haryk added, “With a wry grin over his glass of Alphan ale!”
“Aye,” agreed Fritz. He hung his hands on the inside of his breastplate. His green cloak hung behind him keeping his expression in complete shadow from the fire. Haryk could see the silhouette of his moustache, it’s magnificant curls like cresting waves on either side of his face. Haryk wondered if he hadn’t moved near the fire on purpose. The Commander’s voice was cracking at times as he spoke.
“But those days were long since gone. Canton and I tried to piece together the string of events that had brought the world of chaos to our home in the isles. As you know my lords, I came to the dread isles on the very first vessel after your father that is.” Fritz locked eyes with Haryk. Fritz hadn’t meant it as an insult. Haryk nodded that he understood.
Fritz was now deep in thought. Fritz was a well-respected warrior, and he had lost most of his charge in the most terrible of ways. No one spoke or looked at him.”After a human’s lifetime of adventure, Canton wanted a home. I had a job to do. I left Humbolt in charge there at Far Realm, a costly mistake as we all well now know.”
Andril interrupted his drinking to blurt out, “Yeah, that fucker almost put us all to death! Who’d have saved your asses then?”
“Of course master mage. Nevertheless, I trusted in the men I had placed, and in Canton I knew I had loyalty to crown, as did you your majesty. Many forget that Canton did not begin his official duties upon the sea. He began, as nothing more than an adventurer.”
“That was exactly what I wanted,” said Genoran. Haryk knew his propensity, like his father, to find good men and place them himself. He figured he and Andril after a fashion had been selected too.
Genoran took over the story a bit, happy to speak in memoriam about his friend, Governor Canton. “His friend, Portia, the thief, became a captain herself, she was instrumental at Ferroun’s Station and again in Host Bay. L’amour, the bard, we lost, his death upon the sands in the Crown’s Isles. Others were not so lucky, but that is the way of the life of a pirate. Canton understood that. I remember the night I sat and studied the details with him, the signs I had been given. I was specific, even if I hadn’t known entirely what was to come. There was something about Far Realm, I told him. I needed him there. To watch. To monitor things. He was retired. I told him I knew that.”
“Far Realm is the key to the isles,” Fritz continued. “You placed the right man for the job, my King! And Canton knew you well enough to trust you.”
Haryk couldn’t help himself. He thought back to that fateful night, the night of the pub crawl, when he, Andril and the others had gone from prison, to saviors. But not without the fight of their young lives. That was the first time they had fought a Ketian uprising deep under Far Realm. Haryk smirked wondering who gets to say they did that twice. “I still remember that night, the elf walking out as if he knew exactly what would happen. Exactly. Even he seemed to be surprised.”
“That was the night we met, Frank,” said Andril. “And the night we were first visited by Abraxas.”
“Areia told me the tale,” said the King. “Even then, The Seeker was looking for his heroes.”
No one said anything for a few moments. Finally, Genoran continued, “That night unfolded as prophecy said it would. At first, I thought it was nonsense, but I was glad I was wrong. I was glad…glad she was right.”
All there knew who she was, and no one spoke. The fire crackled before them, snapping sap deep in an oaken log and sending an ember against the stones of the hearth.
“So what happened?” Asked Andril, changing the subject.
Fritz cleared his throat. “It began the same as at Ferroun’s, in Silver Shore, First Isle my lord. By the time I arrived at Far Realm to reinforce as best we could, the mountain was still clear. On griffonback we approached from the south, and I then learned that not all had been normal. Far Realm had been the same. For on occasion, deep under the mountain, fissures erupted foul smoke that the citizens had been smelling for weeks. For several days and nights, throats burned and eyes seared. Within only a few hours of my arrival, ash was beginning to fall over the island from small plumes of smoke that came up through the canopy and wafted on sea breezes. And then, like a black tide, the Sara’shin ships were sighted. Bloated, silent, they anchored themselves off the reefs.
“Were the cannon effective?”
“Nay, my Lord,” the dark ships anchored outside the reefs, too far for cannon fire to reach. Somehow, they knew where we couldn’t reach them.”
“Like you all here, we had run-ins with Saras’in units in the past, so we held back, waiting to see what they would do. The plan was to bring them into the shore line, where our forces, buoyed by the Ata’ numbers, could attack them in the foilage. For this was how Ulua defeated them on Greycloud. Their ships, as I said, were too far at anchor for bombardment. We dared not risk sending out ships inside the reefs while they blockaded. Several scouting parties were sent. Canton and I watched and monitored, directing troops. We heard occasional battle cries from skirmishes under the jungle canopy. But then one of our scouting troops failed to report back.”
“Creeping near the shore, I saw the enemy massed, preparing for a quick assualt on the citadel at our backs. I made a decision then. I myself led a force to the beaches, to throw the invaders back into the sea.”
“And that’s when we saw what they had done. Below their ships the Saras’in slaves had hacked the coral, making tunnels that their single keeled vessels could now sail through around our cannon fire! I saw the crawl of wicked Sasser ships navigating themselves through the reefs that ringed the island. Like a black snake upon the water, the entire force could now land, unimpeded by our cannon! Then, like slugs over gravel they moved onto the beaches with stealthy endurance, hundreds and hundreds of them, unimpeded.”
Even then, our goodly number, the men and women you entrusted to fight my lord, stood resolute. I came down the line, preparing our troops for the assault on the enemy. I sent a scout back to Canton. He was waiting for reinforcements from…from Commander Taryn.”
“But they didn’t come,” said Genoran flatly. “The Lords of Areia’s Landing, along with Captain’s Portia, Taryn, Mesilla and Bolvist, and myself. We chose to sail to Host Bay. To eliminate the Host herself.”
“And a goodly decision it was my lord!” Said Fritz. His expression was masked by the shadow from the fire.
“Aye,” said Genoran, knowing that it had come with a great sacrifice. “We left you at Far Realm. We left you on your own.”
Fritz did not respond directly, but continued on with the story. “We trusted to your judgment Lord Genoran, but at that moment, having called for a massive force to meet me at the bay, for the assault. I had no way of knowing reinforcements were not coming. Canton and I knew that we couldn’t hold the Sarasins more than a few days. But we thought by keeping them off the shore, we’d delay their advance, making them sitting ducks for reinforcement cannons from the sea. That was the plan. And it was a goodly one. But then, just before leading the assualt… that was when she struck.”
“Let me guess,” said Haryk. “A very very large blue dragon.”
“She was massive, like a flying fortress on wings, and she was not alone. We counted six of her kin, all of which were formidable in their own right. Together, they flew in upon us. They used their wings and like a hurricane, the winds blew the jungle foilage aside, ripping the plants out of the ground like a child rips out a weed. Our position, there in the jungle canopy was exposed instantly as they hovered above us, blasting us with their weapons. So many. So many of my men. My women. Massacred. I could not spot the shore, nor could I tell my position. Scattered, I hoped that there might still be a few captains that had survived. The creatures flew off, having taken virtually no damage from our forces. And then, clearly coordinated, the black robed Sarasin’s silently advanced through the jungle. We were exposed, wounded, and greatly depleted. I had no choice but to call for a full retreat.”
Genoran breathed in deeply. He raised his cup silently. “For the goodly folk lost that day, Commander.” All drank in their honor as was Celn tradition. Fritz shadowed head bowed. Genoran exhaled contentedly after a full swallow. “The Saras’ins are not like anything we have ever encountered. By the time we realized what we were up against, much of our forces were unprepared. This was not your fault Commander. It was mine.”
Fritz seemed to know better than to say anything. Haryk knew that one of the unspoken rules of the fireside chats was honesty before allegiance.
“I had tried to communicate it to the others, what I had seen at Ferroun’s Station. The way in which the Sassers, like insects, moved together as one. But with the dragons attacking from above, and the bombardment ineffective, my forces were soon decimated. The ships beached themselves, sending wave after wave of fresh troops. I had no choice but to pull back. I called for a full retreat, back to the citadel. There, I had kept our backup force, the Ata’ahns. I also hoped to rendezvous with Canton and several dozen of his best pirate mercenaries, loyal to the crown and good fighting folk.”
Fritz came away from the fire and paced before a weapon rack near Genoran. The King spoke what they both knew. “The natives were led by Ulua, their princess. For years she searched for her tribes, believing they had been annihilated by the Host. But we had found a number of them and after helping her to free them from captivity, she agreed to a treaty with Cellinor at last. Canton had entreated her to come to Far Realm as the Sara’sin forces began to threaten the isles. She accepted. They chose to come and fight alongside us. My father had ordered Canton to have them remain in the citadel as a last resort. He did not want to see an elimination of their people in order to defend a Celn position. I never dreamed the battle would come that close. There were other tribes from the isles, but they would not unite with us. Not until Canton and I showed them Thrak’s token that is!”
Andril spit out his brew in shock, “Thrak Yak with his motherfucking sack! You have to be joking me!
“Is that how the halves came to the fight your majesty?” said Haryk, equally in shock. His mouth fell to the floor in disbelief.”
“Aye, it is no joke gentlecelns, and if Canton had not been there to speak, the token would not have mattered anyway. Thrak had given it to me after Ferroun’s station. He told me he was now “king” of the island nation of half-men. I thought he was telling stories, perhaps what he meant lost in translation. When our steeds brought us to the halves though, I remembered the token. He wasn’t joking! Thrak Yak with the Sack is a king indeed.”
“Borindin’s bleeding gums!” Bellowed Haryk. “I’ll have to give that green bastard a royal kick in the ass when I see him again! What happened next? Now I have to know!”
Genoran smiled. He looked only to happy to tell, “They would not have joined us! Even with the token. There had been too much bad blood between the Celn incursions into their lands, the land right battles, the skirmishes and piratry, even slavery, which my father forbid of course. Cantons’s words, Thrak’s deeds, that is what united us. We would not be sitting here right now. But that is a story for another day. And I do not have the heart to tell you now how Canton made us whole in that moment. But I do so swear that in his memory, no goodhearted folk of my realm will ever be considered anything but whole again.”
“What happenedd Fritz, after your retreat?” Asked Andril.
“Running up to the citadel, that is when it happened.”
Fritz stopped pacing. With his hand he walked through his memory forming shapes and figures. “Fire and brimstone. A quake of sea and land. The mountain exploded from within. We watched as the temple at Far Realm fell into a great chasm, swallowed by the very mountain it had rested on! Ulua and her entire force, my remaining troops, swallowed into a great hole. Then, a sea of molten rock sprouted from the crevices the quaking made. The island had turned into Ket itself, covered now in great plumes of ash and smoke.”
“Is that all?” Asked Haryk.