Iron Sorcerer – Episode 3: Trading Off

Locasta did not protest helping the strange camp move quickly away from the site of the roc attack. She didn’t want to be found there when the other roc scouts came looking for their missing friend. Kelvin, it turned out, had skill with healing magic, and restored Trax well enough that he was no longer limping. He and Locasta remained at the rear of the fleeing people, in case of another attack. She watched him for a while, to be certain he was well. He fought lithely, but he was not young, and she worried that he would tire soon.

She did what she could to hide their trail as they passed. It was difficult, even moving as slowly as they were, to cover every sign of their passing, but she at least managed to smooth the earth out enough to keep it from being obvious. She also lowered the stony protection from her skin, because she didn’t like the way the people were looking at her.

Kelvin led them through rocky, desert land for several hours, until they reached a deep cut in the earth. The canyon was hard to see from far off if one wasn’t looking for it, and as they descended she guessed this was where they lived when they weren’t out doing . . . whatever they were doing.

There were small shelters set up along the sandy bottom, and a spring of water that formed a stream down the center. It was cooler in the canyon, and deep enough that even if a roc could find it, it couldn’t follow them down. She doubted anything but a very young Gargant of any kind could follow them into the place. The group spread out as they reached the bottom, greeted by others who had stayed behind. There were children in some of the huts.

“What is this place?” Locasta said quietly to Trax as they watched the crowd disperse.

“It appears to be a village.”

Locasta stopped and looked at him. He may have been smiling. He may also have been wondering how she could not know this was a village.

“A village. Part of no one’s territory, where no Gargant can reach. These people are rebels, Trax.”

“They may simply be outcasts, or refugees from some battle between the lands.” He was looking at a few children playing around the spring, splashing each other and laughing.

“Perhaps some of them are,” Locasta said. “But Kelvin is not. Those guards were not. No Gargant would let them go.”

“What do you mean to do?” Trax turned back to look at her again, his eyes narrowing slightly, his head tilted to one side.

“If there are people here from our lands, we will bring them back with us. The others are not our responsibility.”

“What if they do not wish to leave?”

Locasta frowned and looked away, spinning her spear in her hand a few times before striding forward to find Kelvin. He was busy supervising the distribution of goods through the village. He kindly but firmly told her she would have to wait until they were done.

While Locasta waited, Trax began slowly walking among the people, stopping now and then if there were any that didn’t shy away from him. He helped carry some of the heavier items to people’s huts. Locasta paced, tapping her spear on the ground like a walking stick.

Finally, all the goods had been distributed, and Kelvin turned to Locasta.

“Are you always like this?” he asked her, his mouth twisted into a half smile. Locasta paused, not used to anyone in leadership smiling. It was unnerving. Not as terrifying as when a dragon smiled. But close.

“Like what?”

Kelvin laughed. “Never mind. Where is your friend? Join me for a meal, and we’ll talk about all of this.” He waved his hand to signify the village.

__________________________________________

The meal was simple. It was mostly vegetables and bread and cheese. They sat in Kelvin’s hut and ate quietly for a while. Locasta was used to catching a meal whenever she could, so she had been ignoring her hunger until now. She did her best to eat calmly, the way Trax did, as though they weren’t in the middle of trying to find a lost compatriot. She was still finished before either of the men.

Kelvin seemed to enjoy her impatience. Rather than start the conversation right away, he watched and ate slowly as she tapped her fork on the table.

“You already have some idea of what we are,” Kelvin said when he had finished, leaning back in his chair. “I won’t insult you by pretending. We are made up of people who have escaped from each of the four lands.”

“Escaped? You mean deserted.” Locasta folded her arms.

“I would say that was true of me, if you insist,” Kelvin said sighing. “But most of the others, they were not soldiers, or guards. They were just citizens, forced into labor for the Gargants.”

“And are fed and protected for it.” Locasta shook her head. “Let’s skip past the ideological bickering and get to the point. What do you intend to do with this band of yours? If you just mean to scrounge out an existence in this hole, that’s fine. But if you mean to be attacking temples-”

“We did not attack the temple. The roc did that. We did go past there to scavenge afterwards, and we weren’t the only ones.”

“Why would the roc attack a temple?” Locasta ignored his remark about other scavengers. At least the thing she was looking for rightfully belonged to the dragons.

“We weren’t sure. But your comment earlier helped me understand. They must be looking for the sword.”

Locasta grimaced. If they were after the sword, they would be after Gerard. She would never doubt a seasoned champion of a city of Dragonhelm, even if she hadn’t seen one in action. And she had watched Gerard fight a Roc, alone. The last she had seen him, he still bore a spear made from one of its talons. But that had been only one, and it had nearly killed him.

“You said that you’ve seen . . . the other champion. Could you describe him for me? Do you know if he had the sword?”

“Well, I’m not quite certain what the sword looks like, so I don’t know that I can help you with that. But he was a tall man, powerfully built, with a long scar along his forearm.”

Locata’s grimace deepened into a scowl. It was Gerard. If he had found the sword he would have returned to Stonehaven. Perhaps he knew where the sword was, and was going after whatever had taken it, the roc that had attacked the temple.

“Where did you see him last?”

“It was on the trail to the temple. It was how we knew that it had been recently attacked.”

“So it was not weeks ago, as you had said before.” Trax spoke up, his level voice sounding strange in the small hut. Kelvin shrugged, but was looking at Trax as though trying to read him. He had said nothing about the camp, and probably never would, Locasta guessed.

“No, only two days.”

“Where is he going?” Locasta asked, sitting forward suddenly. Kelvin swayed back a little.

“I’m not sure. He didn’t seem willing to give up much information. But he was heading north while we were coming south.”

That was all Locasta needed to hear. She stood up and started to head out of the hut.

“Wait, now,” Kelvin daid, hurrying around her and blocking the small door. “You promised to tell me what you were doing in these parts, if I explained what we were doing.”

Locasta sighed deeply. “I thought that was obvious. I am looking for this other champion. It is likely at this point that he has the sword, and is trying to take it back to wherever he’s from.”

Kelvin watched her closely as she spoke, so she did her best to talk as though bored, having to explain the obvious to him. The most important part about lying, Locasta had learned, was that you needed to put as much truth into it as possible. There was nothing untrue about what she had said. Just nothing important either, at least not to a leader of scavengers.

“And what is so special about this sword?” He didn’t look completely convinced.

“There are several things about it that make it useful to the dragons and their champions.” She kept the same disaffected air. This would be the first time Trax was hearing any of this as well. “More symbolic than anything, though there is some magic in the sword. I’m surprised it seems so popular now. The magic that it uses harms the person wielding it as well as the person being attacked.”

Kelvin narrowed his eyes a bit at that. Locasta had hoped that he would focus more on the sword, and its peculiarities, rather than Gerard and their purpose in being so far from home.

“So you’ll be going after him?”

“Of course,” Locasta said, pushing past him, or trying to. “And I’ll be taking along with me any of our people who are part of your little pocket of rebellion.”

He was much more solid than she had expected, and he refused to get out of her way. She grunted a bit and stepped back, looking up at him with no less determination than before.

“Are you going to insist on arguing with me?” she asked.

“Perhaps we should find out what the people would like to do,” Trax said, coming up behind Locasta, and setting a large clawed hand on her shoulder.

“If that makes you feel better,” Locasta said, shrugging him away.

__________________________________________

Through the rest of the camp, people from all of the lands mixed together. There were clerics and bowed over servants from giant lands in long brown robes, there were wiry unkempt folk from the roq’s mountains, and wispy haunted eyed sailors from the kraken’s broken coast. The strong, tall people from Dragonhelm kept themselves a little apart from the others, at their own fire, surrounded by their own ring of tents.

When Locasta and Trax appeared near them, they stood up, straightening their dusty clothes, and nodded to them.

“Are you well?” Locasta asked, looking them over. There were a few men, and two women. No children with this group.

“As well as can be expected,” the oldest of them said.

“They’ve been treating you well?”

“Mostly they leave us be.”

“We are going in search of a prize of the dragons, and we are offering to bring you with us.” Trax spoke quickly before Locasta could order them to come along. She looked sideways at him, and then added in Draconic, assuming that wherever Kelvin was from, it was not Dragonhelm.

“You will come along with us. Your place is not with this rabble.”

No one in the group answered, simply hung their heads or bobbed them in agreement.

“See, they are agreed. They’ll come with us,” Locasta said. Then she turned as though to head back out of the ravine right away. Kelvin moved, not to get in her way, but between her and the others.

“My lady champion,” he said, smiling widely. Locasta froze, and then slowly turned to look at Kelvin. “These are my people now. I will not have you threatening them, or leading them into harm.”

“Harm?” Locasta took a long stride toward Kelvin and looked into his face. They were nearly even in height, and though he did a good job of keeping it off of his face, he almost took a step back. “You are dragging these people into the wilderness, and picking scraps from the fights of others like wild dogs.”

“You’d rather have them picking scraps at the tables of the Gargants and their favorites?”

“I can’t speak for the other Gargants, but the dragons protect their folk. Do they look like they were raised on scraps?” She nodded toward the group behind Kelvin. They were healthy, strong people, and relatively well kept even for having lived in the middle of nowhere for so long.

“Really? Is that why I found these ones stranded alone after a battle?”

“There are a million reasons for that. Either way, you have no right to keep them here. And what will you do next time you get caught between a roc and a load of tents? You cannot protect these people forever. They will be safer at home.”

“Fine. Perhaps we can make another trade then,” Kelvin said, holding his hands up against her tirade.

“I’m listening.” Locasta held her hands on her hips and tilted her head.

“Let me come with you. Help you find this pretender champion. If I succeed in leading you to him, you leave these people in peace with me.”

Locasta furrowed her brow, and looked over Kelvin. She couldn’t tell where he was from, not by his speech or by his clothes. When she had first seen him he had been wearing simple leather armor, something they could have made out here in the wastes. He had removed that for dinner, to reveal a plain grey shirt and dark pants, again nothing specific to a region. He spoke with little accent, so she doubted he was from roc or kraken territory, but those from Dragonhelm and those from the giant’s land of Silm sounded fairly similar. He had the courage of someone from the dragon lands, and had managed to lead a band of lost humans. Giants preferred to lead their own themselves. Dragons tended to train others to do it for them.

“Sounds good to me,” Locasta said finally. “Do you want the first blow?”

Kelvin frowned, confused. “What?”

Then Locasta punched him hard in the jaw, making him stumble back a step.

“What was that for?!” Even after being hit by her, he didn’t raise a hand against Locasta. He just looked at her, rubbing his jaw. Locasta nearly rolled her eyes. It usually happened like that the first time, with her opponent in shock that a barely grown woman would hit them. The second time they put up their defenses before she hit them.

“She wishes for you to prove that you are worthy to join us,” Trax explained as Locasta took a fighting stance, raising her spear and pulling her shield around.

Kelvin looked at Trax. “Are you serious? She wants me to fight her?”

“You could fight me instead,” Trax said. His voice was calm and his expression still. He didn’t need to do anything to look terrifying.

“Stop stalling,” Locasta said, and took a stab at him with the spear. It wasn’t meant to harm him, just to get his attention. “Get your hammer.”

__________________________________________

Kelvin emerged from his tent carrying his warhammer and wearing his armor. Locasta was waiting for him. A crowd had gathered around the tents, leaving a good amount of space around her.

“Well, you asked for it,” Kelvin said. “Let’s get started.”

“I’ve already hit you once. Your turn,” Locasta reminded him. She was enjoying that Kelvin was no longer smiling.

He was a smart fighter. Rather than running at her, as many men did when faced with what they thought was a weaker opponent, he began to circle to his left. Locasta turned to watch him, while keeping an eye on her surroundings. She was on his turf, and the bottom of the ravine was not exactly even. She would have to carefully watch her step.

Kelvin took a few more measured steps, and then turned to rush her mid stride. She managed to plant her feet and deflect his blow with her shield. The blow rang loudly, echoing through the ravine. Locasta gritted her teeth and twisted with the force of the blow, swinging her spear towards the spot under his arm that wasn’t protected with thick leather. He managed to pull away from her and avoid the blow, but his footing wobbled and he hurried to the far side of what space they had.

“Are you trying to kill me?” His voice was high with shock or disbelief. But there was no fear in his face.

“I’m trying to make sure you know how not to die,” she answered. “And you still haven’t hit me.” She charged at him, steadying her spear against the side of her shield. He deflected her with his hammer, twisting away and letting her rush past him, and managing to land a punch on her side as she passed.

“There, I hit you. Is that enough?”

When Locasta turned, Kelvin stared. Her skin had turned stony gray, and ground dryly against her spear.

“I’ll let you know when I feel it.”

“Not exactly fair, is it?” They were circling each other again, watching for gaps in the other’s defences. “Using your magic against me?”

“Right, because you didn’t ask for the blessing of your god before coming out here to fight?” Locasta took a few stabs, taking advantage of the reach she had with a spear, but he was good at dodging. Or perhaps he was good at reading her. “I have fought clerics before, you know. I remember how it feels. Always just out of reach, always one step ahead.”

“I can’t help it if my god likes me,” Kelvin said. His smile was back.

“So I can use the favor of the Stone Dragon,” Locasta replied. “Doesn’t sound unfair to me at all.”

He charged her again, full steam, his hammer raised high. Locasta took a few steps towards him, feigning a blow with her spear. He responded, pulling that side of him away, and throwing his stride off just enough. Then she planted herself firmly, and crouched as slow as she could. She caught him just above the knees, which would have knocked most charging men off balance, let alone one wielding a heavy warhammer. Kelvin flipped forward, somersaulting over her and landing on his back behind her.

She spun quickly and planted her spear in the earth just beside his ear. “That was better, but a little over the top.”

Kelvin’s response was to wrap his legs around her waist and toss her onto the ground beside him. He shoved himself halfway on top of her, and pushed a dagger to her throat.

“Well, you know, I don’t like to be accused of being over dramatic.”

Locasta laughed, then looked up, away from Kelvin, as a tall shadow moved over them.

“I think he should join us. It’ll be fun.”

Trax, who had just stepped into view over the pair, grunted and shook his head. “I think perhaps we should also discuss your definition of fun. You can get off of her now.”

Kelvin hopped up quickly, brushed himself off, and moved to offer a hand to Locasta, but she hopped up easily on her own.

“All right, let’s go. We still have plenty of daylight left.” Locasta pulled up her spear and started walking back towards the entrance of the ravine. Kelvin sighed loudly, and looked at Trax.

Trax shrugged. “I apologize. She is young. She is very young.”

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.