The following story takes place at the same time as the events unfolding in THE SILENT ARMY
To Find The Overlords (A Story of the Fellein Empire)
James A. Moore
The very first rule of sorcery is simply that magic always has a price. Any of the sorcerers who walked the continent could have told a soul that. Sometimes even the wisest of us forget.
The fires were out, but still he burned. Poultices and minor spells were all he could use for the present time. He had to save what power he still possessed for the journey. The pilgrim walked as best he could, wrapped in bandages, drawn like a moth too foolish to turn away from the flames. It was time. He needed to get to the cairn of the Overlords before anyone else could interfere. They called to him. They needed him as much as he needed them.
Just south of Trecharch, the vast forest country that the Sa’ba Taalor razed to the ground as they passed, the steppes start. They are not perfectly flat, but the hills are gentle and the grass that grows there is stubborn and tough, with a fine edge that has cut more than one unwary traveler. Even the locals don’t walk on that vegetation without thick-soled shoes.
The area as a whole is called the Wellish Steppes as a reminder of the Wellish Overlords, who, one upon a time, came close to destroying the Fellein Empire.
The stories were many and varied as to exactly what happened. What was known by all was that the Overlords were monsters. They had an army of monsters. They came from below the surface of the land, or from caves that had long since been destroyed. It was not truly certain. The Wellish people were savages and they served the Overlords and attacked everyone who dared defy their masters.
The war was brutal and had great costs on all sides.
These days the Empire remains and the Wellish, as a people, are gone. That’s the way of the world. Sometimes a challenger comes along and defeats everything in their path with seeming ease, as with the gray skinned Sa’ba Taalor. Other times they are barely remembered and most often used as warnings to children in the form of fables and fairytales.
The Wellish Steppes run for a long ways north to south, cutting along the edge of the Blasted Lands, and serving as a sort of buffer before the rest of the Empire reaches that dreadful, perpetual storm of ice and sand.
For three days the Blasted Lands grew silent. The storms abated, the ice began to thaw and the fine grit that had sandblasted the sides of the Edge—that final barrier between the raging storms and the rest of the land—settled in a vast field for as far as the eyes could see. Except, of course, where the Seven Forges still crouched in the far distance and spewed their volcanic smoke into the air.
The world is known to change in the damnedest ways.
On the fourth day the storms came back and the valley where the Blasted Lands had grown silent, within its nearly thousand foot natural wall, was once again turbulent and lost in clouds and ice. As it should be, as it had been for a thousand years.
Cutting across the Steppes from the north to the south is the Imperial Highway. Just to confuse matters the exact same highway intersects itself and runs east to west. They run across each other only once. The east-west version of the highway runs near Canhoon, the capitol. The southern branch runs all the way to the roaring volcanic mass where Tyrne, the Summer City, used to be before the gods of the Sa’ba Taalor erased that beautiful jewel of the Empire from existence.
The world is known to change in the damnedest ways.
Though most of the Sa’ba Taalor were already moving on to seek the destruction of Canhoon, there were a few stragglers. Lo’arne followed the King in Iron and had sworn himself to the god Truska-Pren. He was a very capable soldier. But he was also getting older, and while he did his best he could not always keep up with the younger fighters. For that reason he was here, watching the roads and waiting for stragglers from the Empire.
Anyone coming along the way would be dealt with. Most would be killed. A few might be allowed to live, but only if they had some worth, or proved good enough fighters to win a challenge against one of the Sa’ba Taalor. There had been five challengers so far. None of them had survived.
Though the area had been claimed by the Sa’ba Taalor, there were plenty of refugees trying to escape the devastation and find a place where the conquerors did not show themselves.
Lo’arne had four companions to handle the vast area. Currently they were miles distant and following the tracks of anyone who had come along the way. He would have joined them, but instead he chose to watch the actual crossroads of the two highways. It had proved a very fruitful area to find refugees, and the less he had to run the happier he was. Of all the enemies he had face in his life, and there had been many, it was the ache of his joints and the failing of his eyesight that bothered Lo’arne the most. This was his compromise. He would fight any who came along, but he would do so on his own terms and not after chasing the damned fools for a few miles.
He was doing his stretches—a wise warrior is always prepared—when he saw the man walking along the highway, heading past the crossroads and moving to the north.
The man had not been there a moment before. Though Lo’arne was the first to make jokes about his failing eyesight, his vision was not that far gone and he could still find his target with a bow. The man had not been there. There was nothing around for him to hide beneath or under. From his slight hill, Lo’arne could see for a mile or more in all directions.
The stranger did not seem to be moving toward Canhoon, but rather drifting along the highway in the direction of Trecharch.
Trecharch was dead, of course. Lo’arne had helped make it that way. The great vine, which had been worshipped as a god by the locals, had been destroyed. The people were either dead or scattered. The vast trees of the landscape had been burned into ashes, and stumps that towered in the air and smoldered with the remembrance of fire even days after all had been incinerated. Trecharch was as dead as could be, but the traveler looked north and either ignored the vast caul of smoke in the area or did not see it.
Either way, he was in Loa’arne’s area and that meant he was Lo’arne’s to kill or play with as he saw fit.
Most of the followers of Truska-Pren tended to wear armor of some sort and he was no exception. Instead of covering his entire body Lo’arne covered his chest in plate and carried a shield. His axe handle tapped softly softly at his thigh. The long spear was a better weapon for the moment and he carried it effortlessly despite his numerous physical complaints. All was right and good in his world.
The figure up ahead of him was either not worried about his presence or did not hear him coming. He made no effort to be quiet. There were some of his people who could move and never be heard or seen. He was not one of them. He was a large man and heavily muscled, and his weapons and armor made noise, by all the gods.
He could have thrown his spear and killed the fool, but where was the fun in that? He wanted a proper combat and he would have it.
“You trespass where you are not wanted!” The words were spoken clearly. Unlike many of his companions he could speak a little of the language of the people in Fellein.
Finally the man turned to face him.
He was nothing much to see. A broad man, thick with muscle as well, though shorter than Lo’arne. It was hard to imagine that he had ever been in a fight worth noticing. His skin was darker than the flesh of the people he had encountered. Most of the Fellein were as pale as newborn babies. This man, however, had dark brown skin and wore his hair in long kinked coils that were gathered together and pulled behind him.
He was dressed in sensible clothes for traveling, and he carried no weapons save a long dagger and a walking stick that had been carefully carved and lovingly tended. That sort of stick, as Lo’arne was well aware, was precisely the right length for causing a great deal of agony in the right hands. Any item could be a weapon.
He slowed his approach and kept his hand on the long spear. Caution was the best approach. The man carried himself with a relaxed stance and looked at Lo’arne with curiosity instead of fear.
“I am where I need to be.” The man’s words were not challenging at all. They were conversational, and spoken in the tongue of the Sa’ba Taalor.
“No. You cannot be here. My king has ordered that all must be driven from here or killed.”
“My name is Darsken Murdro. I am an Inquisitor for the Fellein Empire. I am here to take care of certain rituals that must be handled if we are going to continue on in this world.” The stranger bared his teeth in what Tarag Paedori, the King in Iron, had assured him was a “smile” and meant as a friendly greeting.
Despite his warmth, the stranger examined Lo’arne carefully, eyeing his scars and the Great Scars that split his mouth, all three of them. When he spoke, it was with the authority of three gods behind him. They could speak through his mouths if they wished. They could see through his eyes. They could speak to him and guide him in all things. He was truly blessed.
His body was covered in a series of scars that told of a hard life and many battles, most of which he had won. In comparison there were not many scars on his enemy. He carried himself well, but that did not mean he was truly a warrior.
“Darsken Murdro, you will leave here, or I will kill you where you stand.”
“You will not, I’m afraid. I have business to attend to.”
Lo’arne nodded his head and swept the spear around so that the large blade came up and then down toward the head of his enemy.
Before it could connect, Darsken Murdro brought up his walking stick and blocked the blow. The force of the contact shuddered down the arms of both the men and they backed up, eyeing each other carefully.
There was no attempt at conversation. They were now engaged in combat and only one of them would walk away. The both of them knew it, too.
The dark man stepped in close, and fast, limiting the use of the spear’s business end, but hardly making it useless. It had one purpose at this point and that was to shove the Inquisitor. Lo’arne did just that, bracing with both of his heavily muscled legs and driving his enemy backward.
Darsken moved, sliding to the side and once again using his shorter weapon to knock the spear askew. As the longer weapon moved out of his way he pushed on and drove his knee against Lo’arne’s.
Somehow the man’s leg moved around his and Lo’arne realized the dilemma exactly too late to do anything about it. Another forward motion on his enemy’s part and he went down, his leg failing to hold him as the other man bent his knee for him.
There were many disciplines of war that Lo’arne excelled at. The ways of Wrommish, the god of unarmed combat, were not among them. He could throw a fist with the best of them but kicking and bending limbs had never been his strong point. The spear fell from his hands and the heavy wooden staff drove into the side of his head, breaking bone.
The pain was immediate, his cheekbone shattered and the bones around his left eye cracked. His vision on the left side blurred and Lo’arne rolled himself to his hands and knees forcing himself to stand.
His enemy refused him that right, once again forcing his knee to bend. He was driven to the ground a second time and Lo’arne shook his head to try to tear away the agony that was clouding his thoughts. He had been broken before, but he was younger then.
The heavy walking staff drove into the back of his skull and that ended the fight. The bones in his neck and head broke and every pain he had ever felt before faded to pleasant memories in comparison to the agony that blew through his body in waves.
Lo’arne fell flat on his face and could not move. His arms and legs betrayed him and the pain, by all the gods, the pain was too large to ignore or overcome.
“Once every five years one of my people must come here and perform sacred rites. You will not stop me from doing this.”
True enough as words went. Lo’arne might have argued if he could, but there was more pain in his head and he faded into a sleep from which he did not awaken.
Darsken Murdro walked along the east-west highway with a mind to go north when he reached the intersection. He walked faster than most could ever comprehend, using the Shimmer to carry him ten strides length for every step he took. The Shimmer was not his to command, exactly, but he asked nicely and that odd force that ran between worlds obliged him. Few outside his people understood what the Shimmer was. Fewer still could speak with it.
Evidence of that was easy to find along the way. Aside from the tower he passed, and the great hole in the ground where Canhoon had rested before lifting into the sky, the only other noteworthy encounters were with piles of corpses cut down and left to rot where they fell. The Sa’ba Taalor took the bodies of their own, but did not waste time with the dead of the Fellein.
Not quite true. At least once they had gathered the dead together and raised an army. Darsken hoped that did not happen a second time.
The air was cold here, and the winds from the Blasted Lands were constant. Darsken was from Louron, an area that was tropical. He didn’t much care for the cold, but one did what had to be done.
The body of the invader lay behind him and Darsken moved on. Someone would find the corpse soon enough and he was limited in his spare time. He could ill afford another fight. He also knew that he’d been very lucky when it came to his enemy. He had watched several of the gray-skins in combat and knew most would kill him with surprising ease.
Inquisitors did not fight. They solved mysteries and on rare occasions ran errands for the Grand Inquisitor. As the second to that very same being, it fell on Darsken to leave Canhoon and find his way to the Wellish Steppes in order to maintain the peace.
He did not know exactly what the Wellish Overlords were and he did not need to know. What he’d been told was sufficient. According to his master the Overlords had lost their fight with the Empire but had not necessarily lost the war. Their people were gone, and they had not been seen in hundreds of years. Still, the Overlords were to be feared.
The Inquisitors were the only people in the Empire allowed to employ necromancy. He understood exactly how dangerous dead things could be.
For that reason, he risked more than he wanted to think about to visit the cairn of the Overlords and pay the proper respects to keep them silent and, frankly, as dead as they could manage.
The Overlords were not human. He did not know what they were, but unlike the gray-skinned Sa’ba Taalor they had never been human. The Sa’ba Taalor were changed by their gods, gifted with unique abilities and removed from their human ways. They were fanatical in their devotion and they were deadly warriors. He was grateful that the soldier he’d met was not among their finest.
The Overlords were an entirely different race. They were once worshipped as gods by their followers and they had once been the most powerful threat to face the Empire. They ate their enemies. They killed them sometimes and others merely devoured them alive. The Overlords were terrors. They had their own sorceries and their own ways and they had once reached far in an effort to take the world.
Part of him, that part that drove him to be an Inquisitor in the first place, wanted to know so much more. That would have driven him here eventually, but perhaps not as soon as now. The timing was not the best. He had the First Advisor to the Empire, easily the most powerful wizard in the known world, asking him for favors. He had a dead sorcerer that he was questioning in the cellars beneath the Imperial Palace. Then there were the invaders, who had leveled entire towns and destroyed Trecharch and its fabled walking trees.
He was, simply put, very busy.
Darsken walked on, moving faster than should have been possible and dealing with the odd pulling sensations that came from traveling along the Shimmer.
He could not have told a soul what the Shimmer was, even if he had wanted to, because though he had been born in Louron he was still not quite certain what caused the rippling air and the blessings that protected his people.
The Shimmer moved between worlds. He knew that much. Those who tried to attack Louron found out the hard way for themselves. That was one of the reasons his people were usually peaceful. Nothing and no one had ever managed to invade the lush wetlands of his home.
His father claimed that invaders were pushed into other realms of reality. His mother countered with the notion that the invaders were cast into the space between realities, where dreams came from. In either event, the Shimmer was responsible and it was a wondrous thing.
Sometimes, if one asked the Shimmer nicely, it would lend itself. That was the case here. He should have been on Canhoon, a city that was currently floating several thousand feet above the ground and moving to the east like a massive stone cloud. He was needed here and so he moved through the realms of reality, unable to see them clearly, but aware of them, just the same, and traveled to where his master said he needed to accomplish a necessary feat.
The way was mostly clear and that was a good thing. It was only mostly clear, however. There were almost always complications; that is the way of the world. Nothing is ever as easy as we might wish and any magic, even the Shimmer, comes with a price.
The cairn was not particularly remarkable. That was often true of the places where power hid. Sometimes a great stone edifice might exist, or a spectacular castle might rise as high as the heavens, or a city might well lift into the skies and evade an invading army as Canhoon was currently managing, but other times there was no sign that the miraculous was nearby. That was how the mysteries of the world protected themselves.
The stones were buried under generations of grass, dirt and whatever the wind cast along over the centuries. All that was there to be seen was the highest of the stones, and even that looked like a turtle’s back half submerged in the ground. It was gray and unremarkable.
Darsken climbed atop that stone and felt the power buried beneath him. His legs tingled at the contact and his ears heard a high note that was not caused by the wind.
The prize he was to offer was in his hand a moment later, pulled from a small pocket sewn into his cloak. It too had power, though he was more familiar with this form.
Inquisitors were the exception to the rule. They were allowed the ability to work with the life force of others. They could pull the dead back to have a conversation; they could draw out the very essence of a person in order to gain answers to their inquiries. Small amounts only, lest the person they questioned be killed by the loss, or driven mad.
In most cases that life force was replaced. Not always. Darsken did not like stealing the life from a person. Some of them simply did not recover well from the theft. He preferred not to wear away a person’s life that easily. It was a power that could be abused and the only thing that stopped that abuse was the vow each Inquisitor took. The vow was more than words. Those who broke it paid a heavy price indeed.
There were ways to take life without ending it. That was what it came down to. He was contemplating that very notion on behalf of the First Advisor, Desh Krohan. There was a dead woman who meant a great deal to the man, and he had asked Darsken to fix that matter. Likely he would do it, if only to save the First Advisor from himself.
Of course, having the most powerful sorcerer in the entire Empire in a position where he owed you a favor was not a bad thing, either.
The stone in his hand was carved to look like the face of a skull, mouth agape, eye sockets deep and shadowy. It was a reminder that what was carried came at a price. Perhaps no one had died to gather the life energies inside the stone, but there was no guarantee of that. In any event, many had suffered to gather that much energy. There was enough power in his hand at the moment to raise the dead. Not just the body, but the spirit as well. He could have resurrected Pathra Krous, the last emperor, or he could have added a hundred years of good health to his own life with the stone.
He did neither of these things. Instead Darsken Murdro placed the stone upon the top of the cairn and crouched over it. With his hands he pressed the powerful token against the dull, gray rock, and uttered words of power that helped him force the stone into the very flesh of the cairn. It was a slow process, and tiresome.
For fifteen minutes he continued his chanting, doing his best to look out for possible interference. There were surely more of the Sa’ba Taalor about and there were many among the Fellein who were hungry and desperate enough to try their luck against a man who carried no sword.
Finally he was done, and Darsken sat back against the cairn and felt the power from the stone ripple downward into the depths of the Overlords’ nearly forgotten tomb.
The Wellish Overlords were quiet for the moment. The tingle he’d felt earlier was their attempt to pull his life from him, to feed on his spirit. He was protected, of course. He understood the ways of the necromancers of the past and was prepared for any efforts the dead things beneath him might make.
The winds from the Blasted Lands roared close by. He had never actually seen them before and even now all he could see was the caul of storm clouds, ice, and dust that hid the depths from view.
Far away he could feel the presence of his sister, Daivem, as she rode along the seas in search of the best way to deal with the sea bound Sa’ba Taalor. They had killed many people and the spirits of those murdered souls cried out for vengeance. She could not give them that, but she could help them achieve it for themselves. That was what the Inquisitors did when they did not solve cases for the Empire.
The dead rested easier in Fellein because the Inquisitors were there. In some cases, that meant the dead of different ages as well. A bit of this life and that, a gathering of fragments. Those soul pieces were as small as the trimmings from a haircut in the grander scheme of things. The people who lost that life force were unaware of their sacrifice. Better that a thousand lose a little, and the Overlords be kept, than that they get a chance to awaken and feed again on the people of Fellein.
A secret kept from the Empress and even the First Advisor. It was known by some that the Wellish Overlords were not as dead as most that lay in the ground. The majority had no notion of what those vile things had almost accomplished in the past, and little desire to learn what they might be capable of in the future. No doubt that was for the best.
Darsken rose and dusted himself off, looking once more around the area before he started the journey back to Canhoon far away in the sky. The Shimmer was kind and waited patiently until his work was done.
One hundred strides and he had covered a dozen miles. He would be home again soon.
The pilgrim who walked along the dusty Imperial Highway was not seen by anyone. He did not want to be seen.
He had followed the Inquisitor. They had met before, but Darsken Murdro would not have recognized him even if he could have seen him. The pilgrim could not allow that, not yet at any rate.
He was more powerful than an Inquisitor in most cases, but at the moment his nerve endings roared with pain and his muscles trembled with every step he took. There had been little he could do about that back at his tower, but now that he was on the move, the pilgrim knew there were ways to end his suffering that did not include his own death.
One of those ways was directly ahead of him.
The behemoth that Darsken Murdro had defeated in battle lay still, but he was not dead. As was often the case with the Sa’ba Taalor, he was a very large man, and had he been standing he’d have towered over the pilgrim.
The pilgrim lowered himself painfully to his knees next to the prone figure.
“Your kind did this to me. I sought peace, but you wanted only war.”
Fingers burned down to the meat and in one case to the bone, reached out and pressed against the broken skull of the defeated man.
The words were whispered, hissed past clenched teeth, fueled by desire and desperate need.
The pilgrim demanded what he wanted, took it from the broken man and listened to the gasp of pain, watched the silvery eyes widen in horror as the life was ripped from the damaged body.
Energy moved into him, a trickle at first and then a wave and the pain that moved throughout the pilgrim’s body changed and intensified. Flesh reformed, muscles grew back, and bones broken and burned mended a little more and grew healthier. Small steps, small dashes of life were all that he could take, but he drank them in greedily.
It took all he had left by way of strength not to scream in agony. The repairs hurt almost as much as the original damage.
The metal pressed against his face, the fire that ate hungrily at his skin and ignited his clothes. Had he been merely a mortal he would have died right then, but for centuries he had extended his life through mystic ritual and that alone saved him from death.
He’d crawled from his tower after the Sa’ba Taalor left him, and slowly made his way along the Imperial Highway. Along the way he found others to feed on, much like the one he consumed now: Broken, ruined and dying, left behind by the enemies that had burned him in his home.
Not a feast, but enough to let him continue on.
When he was finished, the body before him moved no more. It looked the same, but now lacked a vitality that even a broken neck had not completely stolen away. It was lifeless.
The pilgrim sat up slowly and looked around. There would be more of them, of course. More of the Sa’ba Taalor. The area had been claimed by the gray-skins and they’d have likely left others behind to mark their territory. He was not the only refugee to walk this direction.
As a citizen of Fellein and a member of the Sorcerer’s Council, he was sworn to protect life. Still, the pilgrim did what he had to. He had not found any healthy souls along his path but he had found a few that still clung to life despite the atrocities committed on them by their enemies. What he left behind were emptied husks. Shells that had once been living people and now rotted with the victims of the Sa’ba Taalor. He felt guilt at that notion and shoved it aside.
Some lives had greater value than others. His, he was certain, was valuable indeed.
Up ahead of him, the Inquisitor moved to the cairn of the Overlords. Making certain the illusions he’d cloaked himself in were intact, the pilgrim followed.
The ground was uneven the closer one came to the actual resting place of the Wellish Overlords. The hills more pronounced, and the hiding places were more frequent. The Inquisitor did not see the gray-skin that moved after him. He was too intent on his prize, perhaps. But Jeron did. And he moved closer, studying the young soldier as the man, in turn studied Darsken Murdro.
In his current condition the pilgrim could not possibly fight any one. His skin was badly burnt, and his nerve endings sang with agonies he’d have never thought possible.
Jeron, the pilgrim, had miscalculated. He’d attempted to speak reason with a religious zealot and he had paid the price. His flesh was ravaged, his life was flickering like a nearly exhausted candle.
The best possible way to mend that situation was before him.
Magic always has a price. That was true enough. He’d kept himself alive through his sorcerous abilities since the King In Iron had burned his body and destroyed his library. The loss of the knowledge hurt, but mostly he remembered all that had been written down and could find the information again if he needed.
His body was another story.
Sorcery cost dearly. He would have preferred it a different way, but the man in front of him was needed to pay that price.
The fellow was young and strapping. His gray skin was unsettling. His eyes glowed with their own light and he carried enough weapons to intimidate a squadron of City-Guard. Unlike the last corpse he’d left behind this one did not wear armor. He used stealth as his weapon.
He was also unaware of Jeron’s presence.
Jeron crept up, concealed in illusions, and grabbed the man from behind. The very illusions that protected him from detection were spread out as well, hiding the attack from the Inquisitor not that far distant. His arms wrapped around the broader arms of his enemy and Jeron hissed the words needed to summon his power.
Necromancy was outlawed in the Fellein Empire. That had always stopped him in the past.
This place, the Wellish Steppes, was currently controlled by the Sa’ba Taalor. He did not know, or care, about their laws.
The man struggled for half a heartbeat before Jeron’s sorcery started ripping his life away. Energies never meant to be touched by man were pulled from him, drawn like water from ice, reluctant to leave but forced away just the same. Wounds were born on flesh that had not been struck. Skin and meat burned and sizzled as the spirit was torn away.
The man screamed and Jeron wept. They were not tears of sorrow, but of wonder. He had never allowed himself to feed from another person before. Days or weeks of careful crafting allowed a sorcerer to store away power. Had he been in Canhoon that is exactly what Jeron would have used to heal himself. Instead he ripped what he needed from a healthy, vital living being and felt that power flow like sweet wine into his body, mending ruined muscles and nerves, rebuilding flesh that had been injured far too grievously to ever heal without magic.
The stranger died. He fell to the ground and Jeron fell with him, holding on to those ruined remains in order to take whatever last dregs there might be left in the dead husk.
When he was finished feasting he rose and looked around. There was little to see, save the slope of gray slate that marked his destination.
How long had he feasted? He could not say for certain, but the sun had moved through the clouds above and the Inquisitor was gone. Minutes, perhaps. Hours, maybe.
Death had almost taken Jeron, but he’d managed to stave it off. Now he was healthy again and could feel surges of power moving through him.
He had heard of the Wellish Overlords, of course. He had been alive when they tried their hand at crushing the Empire and had helped seal them in their tombs.
But as often happens when a sorcerer gets older, the details sometimes get murky. He wanted to see them again. He wanted to remember them. The Wellish Overlords were the stuff of nightmare. Despite their vast injuries they still lived.
He wanted to know how. A sorcerer is first and foremost a curious mind. He needed to understand the Overlords and why they still existed after so long in the ground.
He wanted to know what made them survive so that he could do the same.
The power that Darsken Murdro had poured into the stone still existed, but it was far below the surface of the stone now.
Jeron settled himself on the cairn and focused his attention downward to the place where the bodies of the Overlords still slumbered.
Far beneath him the Overlords stirred.
It would take time to contact them. They had been asleep for a very long while, after all.
Still, Jeron was patient. He would listen carefully. He had always been a good student.