Iron Sorcerer – Episode 4: Craven

They didn’t get very far the first day out. There were only a few hours left of daylight, and Kelvin insisted on stopping at a particular spot, somewhere protected by overhanging rocks, to avoid being seen by any patrols. They didn’t speak much. Each fell into a role as they made camp. Kelvin started setting up wards around them, while Locasta checked their surroundings for signs of anything dangerous.

Trax started the fire. He wasn’t usually careless building a fire pit, but either he was tired from the day, or tired of Locasta’s behavior, and he dumped a pile of dry sticks into a cleared circle, and breathed flame onto it. It made Kelvin stop and stare.

Trax shrugged. Kelvin raised his eyebrows and went back to what he was doing. Locasta returned, sat down cross legged by the fire, and began her evening prayers. She said them quietly, but not so quietly that the others couldn’t hear, her words still firm and strong.

“Oh Great One, today in your strength I helped to defeat a mighty roc. Today in your strength I traveled far in search of Craven. Today in your strength I have found the way to it, and shall soon bring it home. Thank you for your strength.”

Kelvin didn’t raise his eyes this time. Locasta ignored him as well, took a stick from the pile Trax had made and began whittling at it with a hunting knife she had on her belt. They enjoyed the fire for a while, each resting their own way. But eventually, Locasta caught Kelvin eying her. She was hoping he would start asking questions. She enjoyed seeing his cocky smile disappear.

“So, who’s Jinn?” Kelvin said eventually. Locasta’s smile faded. That was the last thing she had expected him to catch on to. “That is the name on the blade, right?” He continued.

“Yes.” Locasta set the stick down. It had taken on the shape of a stretched out dragon. She held his gaze, but offered no further information.

“So, does he have your blade?”

“Yes. I left it buried in his chest.”

Trax spoke up before the following silence swallowed the evening. “You said, Kelvin, that you were familiar with the champions of Dragonhelm. Are you not familiar with how they are chosen?”

“Well, one hears rumors,” Kelvin said with a shrug, trying to shrug off his shock at Locata’s words. “We’ve heard that there are difficult trials.”

Locasta snorted, but Trax continued.

“They are raised in preparation from their very early years to take part in the trials,” Trax explained. Locasta began spinning the knife in the dirt on its point. She thought she should be proud to hear Trax recount what she had gone through, but she couldn’t raise her eyes. “When a trial is called, any of the trainees between the ages thirteen and eighteen are released into a nearby forest or canyon, and there can be only one to make it out again.”

Kelvin nodded. “I’d not heard all of that, but I’m not surprised.” He watched Locasta dig a hole into the dirt with the knife. “And what about you, Trax? Were you left outside as a hatchling to see if you could survive the elements and be worthy of living as a dragonblessed?”

Trax responded quickly. “They leave us trapped in our nest with no food and no way out, until one of us eats all the others.”  Kelvin went pale, but Locasta huffed.

“Stop teasing him, Trax, he can’t tell when you’re joking.” Locasta said, cleaning off her knife and resheathing it. Trax showed his teeth and laughed his hissing laugh. “He’s joking,” Locasta repeated to Kelvin, who was still looking terrified. It took him a moment to return to a more normal shade.

“And you?” Trax asked. “Where are you from?”

Kelvin started poking at the fire. “I’ve lived in several places. None of which cared if I was the strongest, or could kill everyone of my rivals, or anything, really.”

“You’re a healer, and an amazing fighter. I sincerely doubt that.” Locasta said.

“No, it’s true. My parents died when I was very young, so I started scrounging where I could. I learned to fight from some monks I ran into when I was a teenager, same with the healing.”

“So you’ve always been a scavenger.”

“I’ve always made my own way, survived on my own strength, yes.” Kelvin bared his teeth at her when he smiled. Locasta simply narrowed her eyes and took a deep breath. There were always those that because they followed their own chaotic rules that they were stronger. Perhaps they had faced dangers, overcome obstacles, but they were all happenstance. Nothing could match the carefully planned training and honing that bred the iron wills of the champions of Dragonhelm. The weak ones were not worth getting upset about.

“I’ll take the first watch,” Locasta said, standing up and heading out into the now dark plains around them.

 


 

The next day they caught sight of Gerard’s trail, the hint of footprints on a creek bed. A few hours later, Trax caught his scent, and they traced him to a set of three craggy hills that stood out against the flat landscape like the three fingers of a claw.

“We could circle around wide, see if we can spot him hiding in the hills,” Kelvin suggested.

Locasta laughed. “We’re not here to capture him. Besides, I’m sure he’s already seen us coming.” She headed for a rise of ground not far from the hills, planted her spear in the ground and yelled. Her voice carried well across the plains. “Iron Champion! Come and prove your mission has succeeded!”

The sun was directly overhead, and beat down ruthlessly. Trax sat down beside Locasta and curled his tail around his feet. He leaned back a bit and raised his face to the sun. Kelvin paced behind them.

“He won’t join us until you sit down,” Locasta said, pulling her knees up.

Kelvin sighed, and plopped down into the dirt beside Locasta. Another few minutes or so passed, and then a shadow appeared beside one of the hills.

“Who is that?” Though Locasta’s voice had resonated loudly, this voice boomed and echoed. “Who comes to challenge my mission?”

“Come closer and I’ll tell you,” Locasta answered.

The voice replied with an loud laugh that resounded from the rocky hills behind him. “You must be from Dragonhelm, no one else would be so cocky.” The shadow started moving towards them, and solidified into a craggy man, clad in scaled armor, with a long sword at his side. A jagged scar ran the full length of his arm.

Locasta stood up, planted her spear again, and stood as tall as she could. “I am. I am in training to be the champion of Stonehaven.”

“Ah, and I’m to be the completion of your training?” Gerard’s tone was light, almost jovial. He stopped about thirty yards away from the group, and considered the trio.

“That depends. I have been sent to see if you’ve completed your mission. Is that Craven?” Locasta motioned to the sword at his side.

“What is this?” Kelvin asked, rising to stand beside Locasta. “I thought you were the champion of Stonehaven?”

Locasta ignored him. Everyone else ignored him, too.

“Have you come for the sword or for me?” Gerard asked with a sigh.

“I’ve come to ensure that the sword makes it home. With or without you,” Locasta answered. Trax finally reacted to that, coming out of his enjoyment of the sun, and looked up at Locasta.

“I thought it would be a bit longer before the Stone Dragon sent someone to find me. I guess you were just too eager to contain.”

“You underestimate how important Craven is to the Stone Dragon. Are you refusing to come back with us?” Locasta began to step forward, and readied her spear. Trax rose to his feet.

“I’d like to see how well you’ve been trained,” Gerard answered. “But this is no longer a concern of mine.” He turned his back on them, and started walking back to the hills.

Locasta quickened her step. “Then I will make it your concern. The sword is coming back to Stonehaven.”

Then a lot of things happened at once. Kelvin raised his hammer, and launched himself from the small rise towards the two champions. Trax started to go after him, but stopped when he heard the flapping of wings, and saw the shadows rush along the ground past them. Looking up, he saw three small wyverns that were being ridden toward Locasta and Gerard. Then dozens of people began to appear all round them, all yelling and waving weapons above their heads.

After taking in the situation, Trax shot forward towards the Locasta and Gerard, outpacing even the flying wyverns, and plowed into Locasta. As they tumbled across the ground, Locasta stabbed her spear into the dirt to slow them down.

“What?” she asked. When they landed Trax’s wings had unfurled and he was crouching over Locasta, who had landed on her side and was half covered by wings.

He answered in draconic, so he could quickly explain that this was a trap, and that somehow the people had stolen wyverns for their own use. Locasta pushed her way through his wings and looked up as the wyverns began to circle Gerard. He seemed to be aware of them, but was more focused on Kelvin, who was charging him, hammer raised.

“You take high, I take low?” Locasta said. Trax nodded, and they jumped back into action.

Trax launched himself into the air after the wyverns. The first rider wasn’t expecting an attack from the air. Trax pulled him from the wyvern and let him fall to the ground. The wyvern screamed and wheeled away, tearing at his saddle as he flew. The others noticed the attack, and one turned to retaliate, as the other dove towards Gerard.

Locasta screamed to him. “Gerard, jump!”

Locasta barked out another word in draconic, and the ground rose up beneath him, tossing him into the air. He leapt over the heads of the attacking crowd, tumbled twice when he fell but was up and running right after.

Locasta crouched and set her hands flat on the earth. Large cracks spread across the ground from her hands, and a massive tremor rippled towards the attackers. Half of them stumbled and fell, and the others were kept busy trying to stay on their feet, distracting the attackers just long enough to allow Gerard to return to the crowd.

Gerard stepped into the throng of attackers slowly. He took his time looking them over, lightly dodged a few attacks, and then swept into one long stroke with Craven. Two of the attacking crowd fell bleeding onto the broken ground. Others rushed him, two and three at a time, but no one came any closer than Gerard allowed. He left a swathe of fallen bodies as he made his way toward Kelvin.

Kelvin changed course away from him, barking orders at those still standing to go after Locasta instead. Trax tried to shout her a warning, but was interrupted by the last remaining wyvern and rider that plowed into him from the side. They spiralled together into the ground. Kelvin led six of his crew, surrounding Locasta as she began to stand up, a bit weakened by the spell.

The first hit, from a club, barely phased her. She batted away another strike from a staff, but that opened her up to two more blows from behind. Her stony skin could only protect her from so much, and she fell to one knee. Trax lost sight of her within the crowd. He managed to land on top of the wyvern while throwing the rider several feet away. Using the wyvern as a platflorm Trax launched himself toward the knot of people that were still swinging away.

Before he could reach them, a growling shout erupted from the center of the knot, and a booming clap of thunder exploded out from the area, knocking all of the attackers away. The few that got up only made it to their hands and knees to crawl.

Locasta was still on the ground, leaning heavily on her spear, and breathing very shallow. Trax reached her a few moments later, and crouched beside her. Gerard had Kelvin by the back of his collar, and dragged him across the ground toward Trax and Locasta. Kelvin was still alive, barely. He was was groaning with each step Gerard took. Gerard dumped Kelvin at Locasta’s feet. Trax eyed him carefully, raising up to his full height and spreading his wings out over Locasta.

“Do you understand now what this one was planning? You lead him to me, right to the treasure that they needed.” Gerard knelt down to try and look into Locasta’s face. “All because you got ahead of yourself. You thought you saw a chance to become the champion before your time.”

Locasta took a deep breath, gripped her spear, and began to stand. Slowly, her face twisted and gray, she raised herself up. Gerard followed her up, staring into her face the whole time.

“You just hurt yourself with your own spell, didn’t you? So desperate to show how strong you are.”

Locasta began muttering, quietly at first and then more loudly.

“Ah, there you are,” Gerard said, sounding relieved.

“My will is iron,” Locasta said, breathily. “My heart is adamant.”

“That’s it. Get up.” Gerard almost growled it through gritted teeth.

“My body is stone. I feel no pain.” The last sentence tore out of Locasta in a shout. She pushed herself up and lunged at Gerard. He grabbed hold of her wrists to keep her from scratching his eyes out. They struggled for a moment, but every move Locasta made, despite her assertion, forced a look of agony across her face.

“You don’t have to do this,” Gerard said, looking into her face. “Let’s go talk for a bit. If you don’t like what I have to say, you can kill me later.”

Locasta took a few more ragged breaths, then nodded. Gerard let go of her wrists, and she staggered briefly, but caught herself before falling backwards into Trax.

Trax put his hand up to steady her. Gerard turned and started walking back towards the three clawing hills, stepping over bodies as he went. She was leaning heavily on her spear again, and breathing shallow.

Without a word, Trax reached into the folds of his robe and produced a small vial of red liquid, and held it out to her. She looked at it, and then him, with contempt, but he held it out until she took it and drank down the contents.

The potion took affect fairly quickly, and in a few moments she was standing straight and breathing more deeply. The stony look of her skin faded away, and several large bruises and cuts appeared. She dropped the vial back into Trax’s hand, and followed Gerard to the hills.

 


 

Gerard had made camp between the clawing hills, nothing more than a small fire and a place to lie down. Locasta lowered herself down to the ground, gingerly, and leaned against a larger rock at the foot of the hill.

Gerard stoked the fire up, and made a place for Trax to sit, using his own bedding to form a sort of seat for him. Trax hovered near Locasta for a bit, but she waved him away.

“I’m fine Trax. Sit, eat something. Tend your wounds.”

“Please, blessed one, sit,” Gerard said, motioning to the seat he had made. “Can I get you anything?”

Trax shook his head, took another close look at Locasta, and then made himself comfortable on the seat, folding his wings behind him.

“Those fools out there had you convinced they were just a bunch of scavengers, trying to live on their own without the Gargants in charge.” Gerard shook his head and crouched by the fire. “But they were more than that, as I’m sure you noticed. They were rebels, some of the top people from each of the four lands, and the moment they knew what you were they intended to kill you. But not before you led them to me.”

“Was it Craven they wanted? Or just to take a stab at us?” Locasta’s voice sounded small to her, weak compared to Gerards, which rumbled in the small space around them.

“Mostly Craven, I think.” Gerard shrugged. “But it would have helped them to say they had killed us as well.”

“Helped them how? Even if I had reported them when we returned home, they would have been able to move, find another hiding place, and keep on doing whatever they’re doing.”

“Perhaps they believe that they can start a larger rebellion if they continue making a nuisance of themselves?” Trax commeted.

“That is all they are too, a nuisance.” Gerard huffed. “They would have been stamped out eventually. Kelvin was a fine fighter, but he was no leader. They were after something more than just scrabbling around and making trouble. They needed a prize.”

Gerard had laid his sword aside, and was cleaning his hand. It was puffed up, and bleeding. Blood covered the hilt of Craven, and as Locasta watched it slowly began to disappear. Not drip off, or dry, but was absorbed into the sword. Once his hand was clean he bound it tightly with a strip of cloth.

“A prize? For what?” Locasta started to lean forward eagerly, winced, and sat back again.

“They wanted to impress someone else. The real leaders of the city for humans. They needed a prize to get into the city of Rest. I think Kelvin had actually been there, and they knew he was trouble, so they wouldn’t let him and his scavengers in. So he thought if he killed a few champions, brought them a magical weapon, that they would reconsider.”

“Rest?” Trax said, thoughtfully. “Where is this city?”

“The eastern wastes, somewhere. I’ve only heard rumors.”

“Is that . . .” Locasta wasa having trouble finding her words. “Is that why you didn’t return home when you found Craven? You’re hoping to find Rest?”

“Yes. I’m hoping to find Rest. I will not be returning home.”

Silence stretched between them. Locasta started down at the fire, thinking furiously through any and all options. But none of them ended well.

“I don’t understand.”

“No, I imagine you don’t.” Gerard stirred the fire again, looked across at her, then at Trax. “I will try to explain. But I can’t make you understand.”

The Iron Sorcerer – Episode 2: The Camp

Roc hordes were impossible to track. The massive birds could fly at incredible speeds, carrying riders with javelins or even small siege engines deep into enemy territory. They could sweep into a town, slaughter any opposition, snatch packs full of supplies and disappear into the sky in minutes.

With ground troops, they could take down citadels. But troops were much easier to track. Locasta and Trax picked up their trail on the far side of the giant’s temple, a wide swath of disturbed earth and brush that wound north and east through the foothills.

“Do you know of any roc towers in the east?” Trax asked as they hurried along, keeping an eye on the sky for scouts.

“None,” Locasta said. The dragon border guards occasionally flew north to check for roc or giant activity too close to the river that formed the border between them. There had been no reports of any rocs this far south.

“Should they not be heading north?”

“Maybe they are trying to cover their trail, or avoid giant cities on the way north?”

“Still, it will be difficult to move a large amount of troops through the desert.”

“That’s good for us,” Locasta said. “It will slow them down.”

They travelled on for a while, and Locasta tried to guess what the roc troops were up to. She had not heard of them attacking the holy places of the giants. There was little that would interest them in a temple, unless they were suddenly desirous of magical artifacts. That made her worry that they were after Craven, and they may have taken Gerard with them.

She had not officially met Gerard, the Iron Champion of her people. She had only been a child in training for the trials, and he had never spoken to them. But she had seen him fight. Trax fought with grace. Gerard fought with raw power. Sometimes his enemies lost out of fear long before they would have lost from being wounded.

“Are we going to talk about your way of solving problems?” Trax’s voice broke through her thoughts, and Locasta frowned.

“Are we going to talk about what you did in that cave back there?”

Trax did not answer. He was so strange, so different than what she had expected a descendant of dragons to be. In Stonehaven her actions would have been applauded, not questioned. His prayer for the dead of a people not his own would have been considered close to treason. Perhaps monks were allowed different ways, in exchange for the amazing skills they offered Dragonhelm.

As the sun sank behind the hills, Trax began to lead them through the valleys. His sight was better in the dark, and she had to admit, and his hearing was better than hers as well. She had a few objects in her possession that would allow her to see at night, but she didn’t want to reveal that just yet.

Being able to travel in the dark, when a horde of troops could not, and when a roc’s vision would be severely limited, allowed them to come upon the troops within an hour after sunset. Locasta started to move around the camp to find the roc’s roost, but Trax stopped her.

“It does not smell right,” he said, both sniffing at the air and slipping his tongue out slightly.

“What do you mean?”

“They do not have a roc with them.”

Locasta narrowed her eyes, and tried to sniff the air as well. rocs did have a distinct smell, but if it was downwind of them she would not be able to smell it anyway.

“Are you sure?”

“Fairly sure. I should be able to smell one if it were nearby. If they were travelling with one it is not here now. All I smell are humans.”

Locasta huffed a bit. But she had travelled with troops before, and there was a definite smell to a human army.

“Another odd discovery. I don’t like it.” Locasta readied her shield and the words to a spell. “Do you think we could get somewhere to observe them for a while?”

“Do you not want to try to infiltrate them? You may be able to slip through quietly.”

“I’m sure they will have more vigilant sentries than the giants did,” Locasta answered. “And I’m not skilled with subtlety.”

“I do not think we will learn much simply watching in the dark.”

“Then we’ll wait and speak with them in the morning.”

 


 

Trax and Locasta rose as soon as the sun began to show above the brushy hills, and made their way towards the camp. There were two guards, indeed more vigilant than the giant had been, but a great deal less impressive. They were armored with makeshift jacks of cloth and scraps of bone, and their weapons looked dull and ill kept. Locasta noted that the older of the two handled the weapon like he knew what to do with it.

“Who goes there,” the older one asked, a tall, sun wrinkled man with a dark rope of hair falling down his back. The limber woman beside him was younger, and fairer, but just as wary.

“I am Locasta, champion of Stonehaven,” Locasta said. She wished her voice didn’t sound as young as she was. The guards looked a bit surprised, and neither of them relaxed.

“And I am Trax, teacher of the Old Ways.” Judging from their reaction to her large companion, she guessed their tense stance was more in thanks to his presence than to hers.

“And what is your business with us?” the woman asked. Her voice sounded older than Locasta had estimated, rough and horse.

“I can’t speak for my companion,” Locasta said, motioning towards Trax. “I wish to bargain with your leaders for some of the spoils from your last raid.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed, but the other guard laughed in a short bark.

“I wish to speak with someone of the Jolani tribe or family, if they are travelling with you,” Trax said. “I have personal news for them.”

“That is interesting,” the man said. “Very well.” He took a few steps closer to the camp, and started shouting. “Fen! Fen, here boy!” A young boy, no more than twelve, came running into the valley. “Go and fetch Kilven, and Jola. Hurry now.” The boy hurried off like a shot, only having raised his eyes once to Trax and immediately looking away again as though his eyes had been burned by the sun.

They waited in silence in the valley, shadowed in the early morning light. The guards never relaxed for a moment, and Locasta amused herself by counting how many ways she could disarm them. There were at least six options for the woman. Only one, perhaps two for the man.

After a short wait, three people appeared behind the guards. Two were obviously a couple, older, the man partly gray in his beard, the woman very gray and a little stooped. The third person bore himself very straight, and walked in a measured pace, taking in everything with keen, bright blue eyes.

As soon the couple saw them, the woman ran forward, a terrible rage spreading across her face and her hands up like claws. She was running towards Trax.

“You!” she shrieked, spit flying from her mouth. “How dare you show your face to me!” The female guard caught her, but the woman managed to drag her forward a few steps before they skidded to a stop, the woman still reaching her claws out towards Trax. “How dare you come to me without my Jami!”

Trax stood still and silent in the cool of the morning, looking at the woman with deep, expressionless eyes. The woman’s husband had caught up to her, and was holding her back as well, though she was starting to collapse in a heap to the dusty ground.

“I know what happened! I know that you survived and my Jami didn’t! How dare you come back here.” The woman’s words trailed off into sobs as she fell completely against her husband. He held her close, and looked up at Trax, not in anger so much as exhaustion and sadness.

Trax stepped towards them then, holding something out to them in his hands. “Jola, Mavi, I am sorry that I was not in time to deliver the news myself. I am sorry that I was not able to save your son.” He stopped several feet in front of them, knelt in a fluid graceful movement, and bowed so low that his snout touched the dirt. “Your son was a valiant and graceful warrior, and his skills and prowess should make you proud.” Locasta couldn’t tell what he was holding until he raised his body up and handed it to the elderly couple. It was a robe, and a belt, about the size right for a youth.

The woman would not look at him, instead burying herself against her husband’s chest. He took what Trax offered, however, and his face crumpled. Then Trax started his prayers again. At first those around them looked anxious, unsure of what was happening, but then a breeze picked up, and a calm came over the couple. The woman even stopped crying. They took a deep breath at the same time, picked themselves up, and headed back into the camp.

“What was that about?” Locasta asked in a low voice as Trax came to stand beside her again.

“That is another off my list,” he answered. By now the other person who had joined them had stepped forward, and was watching them closely.

“A champion of Stonehaven?” he said finally, his voice about as rough as any of the others, but elevated somehow. The voice of someone used to giving orders, Locasta thought.

The champion of Stonehaven,” Locasta corrected, trying to match his lower pitch and commanding tone.

“Really?” The man tilted his head a bit to the right. “Seems I’ve met another who claims that title. They call you the Iron Champion, isn’t that right?”

“The last champion went by that title, yes.” Locasta stood up a little straighter. “I prefer to be called the Iron Sorcerer. Where is this supposed champion? I’d like to speak to him about his use of this title.”

“Not sure where he is now. This was a few weeks ago.” The man paused, looking down at his hands for a moment. Locasta remembered the same mannerisms in the regent of Stonehaven. It was a common political tactic, reminding the listener that the person speaking holds the power. “It seems he was not eager to meet anyone from Stonehaven.”

Locasta frowned. At first she had hoped that this man had actually seen Gerard, perhaps recovering from the attack at the giant temple. It seemed he really had only met someone claiming the title. “I imagine not, pretending to such a title as that, it wouldn’t be to his advantage to meet anyone out of Stonehaven.”

“Do you have proof that you are not the pretender?”

Locasta smiled. “Certainly.” She raised her left hand up suddenly, and something burst out of the ground behind the woman guard. A massive hand formed from compacted earth grabbed her roughly and picked her off the ground. She squeaked in surprise and dropped her sword. Locasta’s smile widened. That had been her favorite option for disarming the woman. Trax clicked his tongue in disapproval. The other guard raised his weapon, and though the leader paled some, he calmly raised an arm to stop the guard.

“It is not your place to worry if the title is mine, or the man’s you met before, if you have indeed met anyone claiming that title. I am simply here to bargain with you for an item that is rightfully the property of the dragons.”

“I understand,” he said, his voice changing to the tone one takes with a wild dog. “Please, release her.”

Locasta lowered her hand, and the magical hand dissolved into dust, dropping the woman to the ground.

“When you raided the giant’s temple,” Locasta began, wanting to get straight to the point. “Did you discover a long, dark metal sword, with a . . . prickly hilt?”

The leader looked a bit confused, but before he could answer, a clang of alarm bells began in the camp, and there was shouting and shrieks. A huge shadow fell across the valley, and the screams of the people in the camp blended with and then were drowned out by a piercing shriek from the sky.

The leader and the guards rushed back into the camp. Trax ran after them, leaving Locasta shaking her head. Things just kept getting stranger. Rather than having been working for the rocs, it seemed they were running from them as well. Could they be sea folk? This far from the coast? And of course Trax would be jumping in to defend them.

Locasta slowly made her way up onto a hill, waiting for the roc to finish its initial dive, looking out to see if any more were coming, or if there were troops approaching. So far nothing else was coming. Now that she had a good view of the camp, she thought she could understand why. None of the Gargants would consider these people much of a threat.

The camp was a ragtag group of people of all ages, certainly not soldiers, scattered randomly through the valley. They couldn’t have defended themselves against a pack of wolves, let alone a roc. How they had managed to raid the giant temple, she couldn’t guess. Unless something very fortunate happened now, they wouldn’t last the next few hours.

The roc was climbing again, becoming a dark spot the size of her fist against the sun. There were several deep gashes in the ground in the middle of the camp, filled with the broken ruins of tents and a few people. Trax was positioned near the gashes in the ground, and looked like he had taken a hit trying to defend the people in the camp.

Locasta waited, watching as the massive, spiky bird began to swoop back down. She would only have a few chances to cast the spell she had in mind before the bird hit the camp again, and Trax could probably not afford to be hit again. He was hurrying people away from the open places in the middle of the camp towards an overhanging hill that would afford them some protection from the attack. He was not moving as quickly as he could. As soon as the roc was in range, about when she could see the deep jeweled green of its feathers, she raised her arm.

From beyond the camp, directly along the path of the roc, long tendrils of earth rose from the ground and made a snatch at the roc. It twisted in the air, avoiding the tendrils, still swooping toward the camp. Locasta squinted into the sunlight, and tried again, the tendrils shifting quickly along the ground, leaving a trail of dust. Again the roc swerved. Locasta cursed under her breath, and tried to be patient. She watched carefully, waiting until it was close enough to see its shiny black eyes. Then she raised her hand and made a catching motion.

The earth strips tangled around the roc, and began pulling it down to the earth. The problem with having waited as long as she did is the bird would be brought down on top of the camp. She started shouting and running down the hill, motioning to whoever saw her that they should get of the way.

With a loud crash the roc hit the ground and began to struggle against the strips of earth.

“Quickly I can’t hold it long!” she said, readying her spear. She wouldn’t be able to cast another spell while she was holding the roc down, but she could stab at it as well as anyone.

Trax beat her to the bird. It snapped at him, still struggling to stretch its wings or get its feet underneath it, but the long earthy arms hugged it tightly to the ground. Trax dodged the beak lightly, landing several kicks against the bird’s throat. It screamed again, making most of the camp pause to cover their ears.

Then the leader reached it. He had a massive war hammer in his hands, and he ran at the bird with complete abandon, his deep voice rumbling in a crazed yell. He swung the warhammer down into the side of the bird’s neck while it was busy trying to get a taste of Trax. There was a loud crunch, and the roc went limp. They were strong creatures, and quick, but their bones were fragile and hollow like any other bird.

Locasta finally arrived at the creature as the leader swung the hammer down again, making sure that the roc was dead. She looked from the battered, bloody lump of feathers to the leader, who had a flecks of blood spread across his face.

“So, I have a proposal,” Locasta said. “I will tell you about my quest, if you tell me what in the four lands is going on here.”

He eyed her a moment, breathing heavily, leaning on the handle of his hammer. “Sure. But first we move camp.”

 

The Iron Sorcerer – Episode 1: The Temple of Kaylus

The giant was half asleep when Locasta and Trax found him. He was leaning against a hillside, a spot that would be comfortable in the midday sun. He was the only guard they could see on the path to the Temple of Kaylus, and though Locasta thought there may be more hidden along the winding path, she doubted it. Giants didn’t need to hide. They backtracked a ways, until they were sure they were out of earshot of the giant, and crouched down in a cluster of boulders and tall grass.

Locasta didn’t speak right away, already formulating a plan of attack. She watched Trax instead, waiting to see if he also noticed the strangeness of the situation. They had not been travelling together for long. It had only been a week since they had chanced upon each other on the road out of Stonehaven, and she wasn’t sure of him or his abilities. He was impressive to look at, being dragonblessed and a full foot taller than her, and she was tall for a woman. Rather than flesh, he was covered in dull golden scales, and swathed in long green robes that bore the talismans of a monk of the Old Ways. She had met few dragonblessed, and fewer monks, and could figure little about him, not even his age. She wondered if he had ever met a giant before, let alone fought one, or if this was his first journey outside of the monastery.

“He’s small for a giant,” Locasta said at last, adjusting her grip on the spear in her hand every few seconds. “And not very vigilant, if he’s supposed to be a guard.”

Trax nodded. “So it may be that he is part of a trap, meant to lure us in unaware, or something very unusual is happening.” His voice carried no inflection when he spoke in the common tongue, and if the expression on his face changed at all Locasta could not tell.

“I don’t like our position. Either we scout forward, and possibly get surrounded by them, or try to fight here and draw them down on us.” Locasta sighed.

“I think he is here alone,” Trax said, after thinking for a few moments. “He would be afraid to be caught dozing if there were others.”

“You’re assuming giants are as disciplined as dragons,” Locasta said, nearly snorting in derision.

“I assume they would be when it pertains to one of their temples.”

Locasta tilted her head side to side, weighing the evidence. “Very well, we try to take this one as quietly as possible, and keep pressing forward.”

Trax made a strange hissing noise, his mouth open and showing his many pointed teeth. Locasta was a bit unnerved, and gripped her spear tighter. She knew he was laughing, but it made her uncomfortable all the same.

“Quietly as possible,” Trax repeated, then stood and started up the hill. Locasta followed quickly, understanding the joke. Though neither of them wore enough armor to clang each time they moved, neither of them were slight or subtle. Trax could be incredibly nimble for one his size, but he reserved that for fighting. And Locasta had never been graceful. The two of them clamoring up the rocky hillside should have alerted the guard to their presence.

But as they crested the hill the giant was still dozing, curled into a nook in the rocks. They paused there, to be certain the giant wasn’t pretending, and readied themselves for the battle. Trax’s breathing slowed, and he closed his eyes, drawing energy into himself he had explained to Locasta before. Locasta purposely quickened her breathing, forcing her adrenaline to rise, and as it did she felt her skin begin to harden as she drew on the power granted to her by the Stone Dragon. Soon her skin was pale and grainy as granite. She glanced over at Trax who was looking back at her with his golden, reptilian eyes, the pupils slit thin and hyper focussed. Together they leapt from the hilltop onto the still form of the giant.

Trax landed gracefully on the giant’s shoulder, helped in his descent by the leathery wings that unfurled from his back once he jumped. In one fluid movement he brought his quarterstaff down hard onto the curve of the giant’s back and swung into a set of kicks. Locasta could hear the bones breaking under his blows.

She landed roughly on the top of the giant’s head, and would have continued toppling down if the point of her spear hadn’t dug into his skull with a dull thud. She steadied herself between the spear and the hillside, blood spreading into the hair beneath her boots, and called up a spell. Sparks of red energy flashed along the spear.

But the giant wasn’t defending himself. He groaned, a low rumble beneath them like an earth tremor, but didn’t move. Locasta half jumped, half climbed her way down the giant’s body, stopping near where his knees were tucked up by his stomach. More dark blood was soaked into the hillside, and the ragged edge of a wound was visible on his side.

“He’s already dead,” Locasta said, kicking a rock down the hill.

“He is not dead, he just moaned in pain,” Trax said, gliding down to land beside Locasta.

“Well he’s mostly dead. We’re just finishing him off.” Locasta looked a bit closer at the wound. “I can’t really tell what it was . . . what do you think?”

“I think we should investigate further. I will put him out of his pain.”

Locasta climbed back up to the giant’s head to retrieve her spear, while Trax began digging through the things in his travel sack.

“What are you doing?” Locasta asked as he also climbed up to the head with a few bottles in his hands.

“Relieving his pain.”

“That’s a waste of potions! Do you have any idea how many of those it will take to actually heal a giant? He’s dead, let him die honorably for having tried to guard his charge.”

“If he were guarding his charge, he would have died at the temple, not this far down the road.”

“Then let him die a miserable coward. Come on, we don’t have very many of those, and it won’t do anything for him.”

Trax thought for a moment, then looked again at the giant, who was still making the ground rumble with his groans.

“I cannot leave him like this,” he said finally, beginning to uncork one of the bottles.

“Fine.” Locasta huffed, slid down the hill a short way, and jammed her spear into the back of the giant’s neck. He made a short choking noise, and fell silent. “There. He’s out of his pain. Let’s keep moving.”

 

————————————————————–

 

“I think we should discuss your way of solving problems,” Trax said, as he and Locasta followed the winding path through the hills. There was no sign of any other guards, and in fact, no sign of anyone at all in the valley.

“What?” Locasta retorted, pausing her scan of the valley. Trax had a strange habit of starting lectures this way, supposedly a way of putting the person he was lecturing into a thoughtful or quiet mode. Locasta hated it. “I think we should discuss why this temple seems to be abandoned, and only one half dead guard was left behind.”

“It would seem the order that used the temple was forced to leave quickly,” Trax noted.

Locasta grunted. She had been hoping for more insight than that. Trax was glancing sideways at her, his golden eyes narrowed. “What was your friend’s mission here?” he asked.

“He was retrieving an object of value,” Locasta answered. She had learned it was best to answer Trax vaguely. He rarely assumed she was not being truthful, and never sought more information than he needed.

“And if the giants were unwilling to part with that item?”

“He would not have been able to drive away a troop of giants and all their servants.”

“You did say he was more powerful than you? Quite the experienced fighter?”

“Yes, and completely alone for this mission.”

They stopped as they neared the entrance to the temple. The path ahead of them rose up and over a steep ridge, and disappeared. Beyond the ridge, the hills rose to craggy cliffs that formed a natural circle. Using the nearest of the cliffs with few rocks jutting out at the right height, Locasta boosted herself up enough to look over the ridge.

“He couldn’t have done this alone,” she said, her voice hushed. Trax dug into the side of the ridge with his talons and pulled himself up cautiously.

“Oh, no,” he said, quietly agreeing with Locasta’s assessment.

The temple was built far down into the ground, so that the cliffs towered over it. Each cliff had been carved into the image of a giant, each with a different expression on their face and each looking down at the central part of the temple. More than half of the center bowl-like valley was covered with boulders and broken rock, most of which had been torn from the cliffs. The giant statues were missing most of their bodies below the waist. Among the rubble the large arm or leg of a giant was sticking out at strange angles. At the very middle the head and shoulders of a brass statue, the image of the giant’s god Kaylus, stuck out from the landslide.

While Trax stared down at the destruction, Locasta hopped down and moved back to the path. She cupped her hands into shovels, and began making motions at the ridge. Each swooop of her hand caused a person sized pile of dirt to pull itself away from the ridge and dump to the side as though she controlled a massive invisible shovel. After a few moments she had cleared a path through the ridge, and began heading into the valley.

“Are you certain we should go down there?”

“There are probably a lot more bodies under the stones. I need to see if he’s one of them.” She also needed to see if the place had been robbed, or if the item he had been sent for was still there. Trax launched himself off the ridge and glided in slow circles down over the rocks, while Locasta picked her way down the path, sliding in spots where the packed dirt gave way to bare rock.

“No one alive,” he said, landing beside her once she reached the bottom. “It does not appear that it was a natural collapse.” Trax waved an arm at one of the statues. Rather than seeming incomplete, the stone looked like it had been torn apart. There were several sets of three parallel scratch marks within the holes. “They must have all died in the landslide.”

“Not all,” Locasta said, gesturing to another opening in the walls, this one a natural cave that had been finished over with cut stones. “These were slaughtered.” There were several people there, piled together, their throats cut, their gray robes splattered with blood and dust. “In case you needed further proof that this was a Roc attack. If those bird brained fools have taken the sword-”

Before she could finish, a loud crack sounded behind them, and a massive stone rolled towards them. They dove further into the cave, Trax hopping lightly over the bodies, and Locasta nearly tripping over them and crashing into a side wall. She caught herself against the smooth stones, and gasped as she realized what a tactical mistake they had made. The boulder landed snugly in the cave mouth, sealing them inside.

Trax sighed. “It seems that the bird brained fools have trapped us.”

Locasta waved her hand dismissively. “Stand back.” The cave did not extend back very far into the earth, about five feet or so. It had just been a space for the humans to do whatever work they did for the temple.

“Do you think that is wise?” Trax said, backing up as far as he could against the wall.

“Are you going to move it?” Locasta asked, pointing at the boulder.

“It is not likely.”

“Than stay back.” She made a wide sweeping motion with her left hand, then made a fist and punched forward at the boulder. A thunderous boom blasted through the boulder, shattering it and sending shards of stone exploding in all directions. Trax’s ears were ringing. Locasta stood dazed a moment, bleeding from several cracks the flying debris had opened on her face and arms.

The wizard outside who had dropped the rock into place looked much worse. She had been knocked backwards, and was cradling her arm as she tried to pick herself up from the pile of stones she had landed on. There was another woman, wearing similar robes to the bodies behind Locasta, also crumpled on the ground.

The blur of black leather and flash of sharp silver that jumped at Locasta from beside the cave mouth didn’t seem hurt at all. His sword sparked against her stony arm, and he kept swinging, pressing her against the mouth of the cave. The swordsman had been quick and silent, surprising Locasta before she could react. But Trax moved with the speed and grace of a flame. He surged forward and pelted the swordsman with a series of kicks and punches that flowed like the steps of a dance.

The swordsman tried to weave out of the way, but each dodge was anticipated and countered. Trax drove the swordsman back so quickly that he tripped over the fallen rocks and lost his balance. It was not enough to knock him down, but enough to keep his sword from coming near the scales of his attacker.

By that time, the priestess of Kaylus had gotten back to her feet and started twirling something that she had been carrying on her belt, ending with a sling like motion, aimed at Locasta. A beam of light flew from the reliquary and knocked into her, searing her skin and leaving a strange glow all around her. The wizard made a motion from her spot on the ground, sending several arrows made of pure flame streaking for Locasta.

She was prepared this time. She shot her arm up in defense, and a round shield of stone appeared over it. The arrows dissipated into smoke as soon as they hit it. Locasta ran the head of her spear along the edge of her shield, sending sparks flying, and then pointed it at her attackers. Two bolts of blueish lightning shot out from the spear tip and lanced out at them. The wizard screamed in pain, and the priestess grimaced, but she still started to prepare another spell.

“You should surrender while you are able,” Trax said, not even panting, though the swordsman was working hard to keep up with his blows. “She will not pause long enough for you to relent at the last moment.”

Locasta laughed, loudly, and started moving slowly towards the women, watching in amusement as the wizard tried to get the components of a spell together with one hand. She kept trying to gather things in her broken arm, and each time she added something, something else would fall to the ground.

“Sounds fair to me,” the swordsman said, gulping for air as Trax finally began to slow his attacks. They warily backed away from each other a few steps. “If we get to leave with our lives.”

“Your lives? I suppose,” Locasta said, still maintaining the lightning. “But I will need to search you.”

“No deal,” the priestess cried, slinging another stream of light at Locasta. This time when it hit it made her mind fuzzy and her vision went blank a moment. The lightning wavered, but continued.

“You can keep your precious relics,” Locasta said, still smiling. “I only want back what is rightfully ours.”

“Come on, give it up! They only want the sword, and it’s not here anyway.”

The priestess glowered at the swordsman a moment, but finally raised her hands in surrender. Her face darkened as the lightning continued pouring into her.

“Locasta, if you please,” Trax said, but there was an edge to his voice, one of the few of his inflections Locasta had learned to recognize. She stopped the stream of lightning.

 

————————————————————–

 

“Well, that was an interesting turn. A rogue like that telling the truth.”

“He wanted to get away with his life. I do not imagine the price was worth what few scraps they found still intact in this place.”

Locasta was pacing circles around a small pile of rubble. It was mostly in the shade, and though her skin took on some of the properties of stone, she was still sticking uncomfortably to her shirt.

Trax, who managed to enjoy the heat no matter how sticky the air, was doing something in the mouth of the cave they had been trapped in. Locasta couldn’t see what.

“Rocs are going to be a pain to track,” Locasta whined, moving further into the shade of the remains of the Kaylus statue. She walked out again almost immediately. From that angle she couldn’t see Trax at all. “I mean, it can’t have been too long since they attacked. Hardly any carrion here yet. And the giant guard wasn’t quite dead. But if they were travelling with no ground troops, they could have flown anywhere by now.”

“Judging from the deaths of these they had ground troops.”

Locasta was torn between staying where she was, to avoid them getting caught unaware again, and moving closer to Trax. He seemed to be setting something up in the cave. She couldn’t imagine he would be taking the time to bury so many bodies. And they had already searched all the corpses. Unfortunately, the rogue had been telling the truth, and Craven, the sword that the Iron Champion had been sent out to reclaim, was already gone.

“We should be getting after them then,” Locasta said, deciding to move a little closer and to the right, to try and see around Trax’s large, scaly body. “We have a good chance of catching them.”

“In a moment.”

Locasta managed a glimpse of what he was doing. He had set up a few small metal bowls in front of him, with incense burning in each one.

“We’re wasting daylight.”

“You may go on ahead of me if you wish. I will catch up.”

“And to think I considered you a good omen.” She kicked away a small rock and went back to her pacing. She could have gone off on her own, but this had become much larger than she had thought it would be. She had been sent to find a missing comrade. Gerard, the Iron Champion, had not reported home for far too long. So they had named her the new champion, and sent her to find out what had happened. What she had thought would be a good first quest had turned into a war between the Gargants.

Trax began a low hum. It was rhythmic, almost sing-songy, and was punctuated now and then with a growl. Then he launched into what she could only call a prayer. In the common language Trax’s voice was monotone, without inflection or expression. In the dragon’s language he was a poet.

Locasta said her ritual prayers to the Great Stone Dragon every night as any loyal citizen would. But her simple repetitions of “today in your strength Great One I . . .” followed by her deeds for the day were nothing like the eloquent verses Trax said for the dead in that cave. When he was finished she almost wished she had died there that day as well.

He took a moment to collect the bowls again, but left the incense burning there.

“Now we may go.”

Locasta nodded slowly, and followed him out of the valley on the trail of the Rocs and their soldiers.