by Frank Moricz
Only the beginning...
If you choose to rate and review this story, please ONLY do so after having read the story from the beginning. ("The Ternion Prologue" )
Zek Cain: Conviction
A laughter rang out, and Zek’s eyes snapped open. The air was cool under a still-dark sky. He sat up and looked around. Mason was gone from where he slept; Zek saw that his crystal torch remained burning on the ground. The campfire gave off an ethereal light that cast a crimson glow across the flat land.
Zek stood. The Warwin Rush churned with a tumultuous sound of crashing water that refused to quiet. In his tattered robe, the chill of the night air caused his skin to prickle.
“Mason?” Zek called out. There was no answer. In the distance, there was a sound of laughter that wavered through the night air. Bright flames gathered in his hands, and light erupted outward. He walked slowly toward the river. The ground dropped into a small decline, and his steps slowed while he searched the blackness for his friend.
The roar of the river became louder as he approached. He came closer to the steep bank of the water, and a glint of light reflected in front of him. A long shape seemed to hover in the air; a line of orange against an endless horizon of thunderous void. Zek stopped when he saw the reflection, and called out once again.
“No,” a familiar voice called out.
“It... it can’t be--”
“Another lesson for the powerful Zek Cain,” the voice said.
The darkness began to dissipate. It collected into an outstretched fist that hovered before Zek. The flames around his hands grew brighter, and they cast a blue light around him. The figure before him began to appear. The telltale black robe appeared first, and his heart started to pound.
The shadows were gone; the azure firelight revealed Magus Zeno. In his hands was the crystal sword that Mason had bore, and it was now held against Mason’s throat. The robe of the shadow instructor was still wet from the blood that dripped from the blade-wound in his chest.
“This is not possible,” Zek said. “Mason killed you, and I took...”
“You took my soul, Cain. You took my essence and now I will always be with you. I will make sure that you are given exactly what you deserve,” Zeno replied. The deadly threat echoed around Zek.
“Zek, help me!” Mason cried out. A drip of blood ran from his neck where the point of the sword had punctured his flesh.
Zek was filled with rage. Indigo light welled in his eyes. The fire in his hands became purple, and he willed an inferno toward his target.
Magus Zeno laughed while the flames washed over his body. His robe burned away, and his skin began to melt in the intense heat. Still, he laughed. Zek drew the fire back, and stood before a smoldering skeleton who still held the crystal sword.
“You cannot kill the dead, Cain,” Zeno said.
“What is this?!” Zek screamed out.
“This is only the beginning,” Zeno replied. His skeletal hand reached out and grabbed Mason’s hair. Mason fell to his knees, and Zeno stood behind him. The sword ran through Mason’s neck, and his choking cry was cut out of him. A spray of dark blood littered the ground.
“No!” Zek screamed. Zek stood frozen in pain and fear while the limb body of his friend was thrown to the floor. Zeno stepped over the corpse and began to approach Zek with the bloodied sword.
“You will never rest again, Cain. I will be there to haunt you for the rest of your life,” the skeleton threatened. “When you die, I will be there.”
Zek dropped to his knees, and the flames left his hands. He held them to his face, and filled them with the pained tears that ran from his cheeks.
“We are one now. I will search your mind and find your deepest fears,” Zeno continued.
“I... I am so sorry,” Zek said.
“Not as sorry as you will be,” Zeno said. His skull turned to the distance; where a shifting sound came from the darkness. “We are not done yet.”
A warm brightness began to creep through Zek's fingers. The light found its way to his damp eyelids and he felt himself laid back once again. The crash of the river seemed more distant now, and he heard the sounds of high-pitched chirping above him. His hands slid to his sides, and he took in the sight of the morning sky.
It was a dream. The realization struck him. No, a nightmare. He sat up and attempted to make sense of it all. The experience left him drained and restless; the feeling was so real that he took a moment to wipe the tears from his cheeks.
Mason was still fast asleep on the ground. Zek stared at him for a moment and noticed the peaceful expression on his face. He decided to lay back down and rest as long as he could before the journey began once again.
He crossed his arms behind his head and eased himself back down. The pace of his heartbeat was normal once again, but he felt the memory of his dream would be with him for a long time to come. His eyes closed, and he attempted to push the thoughts away.
A familiar sound interrupted his rest. It came from outside the camp, and Zek sat upright instantly. He recognized it as the same hushed shuffle he had heard before he woke. He could feel that something was amiss, and he began to scan the landscape.
The flat land was dotted with sparse stones, and his eyes halted on the largest group. He stood to get a better view while he strained to take in the sounds around him. The large group of stones seemed an odd color given the rest of the terrain, and it gave him an uneasy feeling.
“Mason,” he said. He knelt and shook his friend from sleep.
“Zek? What's going on?” Mason asked.
“I don't think we're alone.”
Zek stood with his eyes fixed on the strange rocks while Mason rose from the ground. He saw the glimmer of Mason's crystal blade in the corner of his eye. His friend stood ready beside him, and they waited without speaking.
As Zek suspected, he eventually saw movement in the stones. The largest of the rocks grew taller first, but it was soon followed by a pair beside it. They weren't rocks at all, but men who stalked us while we slept. Anger began to pump through him.
“Show yourselves! Come forth and speak to us!” Zek called out.
“Who are you?” Mason joined in.
“No sense in tellin' ya. Ya prolly ain't gonna be alive long,” the largest of the stalkers replied.
“We will see about that,” Zek shot back. He took a step towards the approaching attackers, and gritted his teeth in pain while his hands grew hot.
“Listen. We have nothing of value, and there is no reason we can't talk. You are the first we have met out here,” Mason said.
“Don't be sellin' yerselves short. We got someone wants to see you, and he's gonna pay well,” the man replied.
“Who is it? You must be mistaken - nobody knows us out here,” Mason replied.
Hurry up, Mason, I can't keep this up. Zek's hands grew hotter, and flames began to leap between his fingertips. He saw that the men carried wooden weapons in their hands, and readied himself for a fight.
“Look, enough talk. We know yer the ones we need, and we were told that yer more valuable alive. Come with us, or we'll be takin' you with us,” the man said.
“I tried to be civil, but clearly your mind is made up. So be it,” Mason said with a cold tone. “Zek, do it.”
Finally. Zek shot his hands outward, and a blast of red flame overtook one of the smaller men. Unbridled pain wracked Zek's body while he smote the attacker and evened the odds. The stalkers stood with wide eyes before anger overtook them, and they charged forward with weapons at the ready.
Two attackers remained, and Mason was approached by the smaller man. The swing of his club was caught by the crystal blade, which cut through the wooden weapon as if it weren't even there. The man attempted to hit mason with the hilt of the club in his hand, but Mason dodged quickly. The blunt handle of Mason's blade crunched against the skull of the stalker, and he was knocked to the ground unconscious.
The large man was all that remained, and he swung his crude weapon repeatedly while Zek dodged. Although his chest burned with incredible pain, Zek amplified his speed with crystal magic and remained unharmed.
They're not even using their magic. The club struck at him again and again. He continued to walk backwards while avoiding the attacks. If I use any more power I will likely kill myself... how pathetic is that?
Zek saw the club splinter as Mason's sword connected. His friend drove the blade into the thigh of his assailant, and the fight was over. Zek collapsed onto the ground with heavy breath to let the pain fade away.
Mason stood over the stalker, and held the point of his sword against the man's chest. Laid helpless on the ground, blood ran from his leg and soaked into the dry dirt. The look on his face showed Zek his broken pride.
“Now, who are you?” Mason asked.
“My name's Axyl. I'm a Marauder,” Axyl replied with a wince. His hand moved to the open wound on his leg.
“My name is Mason, and this is Zek,” Mason said. “We are here as explorers.”
“Y'er criminals with a bounty,” Axyl corrected.
“Who sent you to collect us?” Mason asked.
Axyl remained quiet. With a stubborn look on his face, he clamped his hand tight over his wound. Blood seeped through his fingers and dripped lightly.
“Fine. If you won't tell us, then I have questions about this land,” Mason said.
“I'm not inter'sted in yer questions.”
“Listen, Marauder. If you die here, it will be your own doing,” Zek chimed in.
“While we sit blabbin', my blood here is formin' a pretty little lake. If I got to choose between bein' talked to death or bein' stabbed again, I'd rather you stab me an' end it.”
“We aren't medics. I would save your life if I knew how,” Mason said solemnly. He took the blade away from Axyl's chest, and he slung it across his back once again.
The other Marauder had woke from his unconsciousness, and had pushed to his feet. Attempting to seize an opportunity, he began to charge Mason from behind. Zek had stood in time to spot him, and he felt crackling energy leap from his hands. The bolts lifted the attacker from the ground, and he left behind a smell of burned flesh as he careened backward.
“Holy shyk!” Axyl called out.
Zek fell backward, overwhelmed by the agony he had caused himself. The sounds of the world drowned away. He landed hard, and felt his consciousness slip away.
* * *
Zek woke with a pounding headache. The sky was bright with the midday suns, and the land he rested upon was warm against his skin. He sat up, and his skin felt dried by his stay in the sunlight. With the knowledge that time had passed, he wondered where Mason was and began to look around.
“Mornin', partner,” a voice called out from behind him.
Zek turned to see Axyl on his feet once again. A charred black cloth decorated his wound. Zek realized suddenly that it was the remains of his tattered robe. He looked down to see he wore the tough clothing of a Marauder.
“What--” he started.
“We tossed the body in the rush. He ain't gonna be needin' them clothes no more,” Axyl explained.
“Well, these are... different.”
“Th' man wore quality gear. He was a bastard, but he traded well.”
“If he was a friend, I am sorry,” Zek said. There had been so much killing in the last few days, he had started to become numb to the shock.
“Nah. I'd 'v killed him too if he ga'mme a reason,” Axyl replied.
Zek stood to examine the clothing. It had more weight than anything he had ever worn, but it moved freely as he stretched. Mason was nowhere to be seen, and he noticed Axyl watching him as he looked around.
“Yer friend said he'd be right back,” Axyl said.
“I noticed you called me 'partner'.”
“Ah, yeah. Turns out yer friend an' I made a deal. We gonna get me patched up, an' imma show ya to Avila town fer supplies. Avila has a doctor, an' he can fix anything.”
That sounds like Mason, always the diplomat. As long as this brute walks ahead of us, it sounds like a good plan. I would like to meet this 'doctor' myself.
“How is your leg?” Zek asked.
“Hurts like shyk, but I'll manage 'till we get there.”
Footsteps approached, and Zek turned to see Mason in the distance. In his hand, he carried a pouch made of the same material as his new clothes. He walked with a huge smile on his face and water dripping from his hair.
“Glad to see you awake, brother,” Mason said.
“Where were you off to?” Zek asked.
“I thought you would wake thirsty, so I got water from the rush.”
“Can't drink the rush – it'll kill ya,” Axyl cut in.
Mason's smile washed away, and he looked down at the water pouch in his hand. He thought for a moment, and tossed the pouch to Zek.
“Well, it'll be good to rinse the dirt off and cool down then,” he said.
“Geez, kid, ya act like you ain't even heard of the rush before,” Axyl lectured.
“We're a long way from home,” Zek said.
“I see that,” Axyl said. “Well, ain't too far from Avila. Should make it by nightfall, even with m' leg tore up.”
“Are you sure you're rested for the trip?” Mason asked.
“I've had worse,” Axyl replied. “C'mon, we don't get there soon I'll have'ta find a woman who thinks a peg-leg is sexy.”
Zek smiled at the jest, and he poured the cool water of the Warwin Rush over his head. His parched skin felt rejuvenated, but his thirst was still strong. He shook the water from his hair and readied himself for the journey ahead.
The trio walked together; Axyl led the way toward the river. He hummed a foreign tune as he limped on, and he walked at a pace that showed Zek his stubborn nature. Every so often, a small drip of blood painted a spot on the desert as they moved.
When they reached the river, Zek halted in awe at the sight. What they had seen in the night did no justice to the power of the churning torrent. There seemed to be no bank on the opposite side, so vast was it's width. The water flowed so violently fast that he knew there was no hope to bear it without an intense magic.
Axyl did not slow, or seem to pay any attention to the water. He turned to the south and plodded along the riverbank. The path would slope steeply at points, but Axyl weaved to find the flat ground as it seemed he had done for a lifetime.
It was at great length that the silence of the travelers was broken, and Axyl announced that they were close. Zek turned to see the suns had descended toward the horizon over the endless storm of water. The land had become less barren in the final leg of the journey, and life erupted from cracks in the parched soil. Slowly the landscape became more lush, and by the time structures came into view the terrain was verdant once again.
A large log that lay on its side gave the travelers a chance to rest. They sat, and Zek looked at the worn structures of Avila. Knowing relaxation was within reach made him feel at ease. I'll get this crystal out of my chest, and be myself once again. After that, I will find some real power in this vast world, and a place we can make our own.
“Well, here it goes. Avila, home o' some cowards and pious types – but there is some skill to be found in there as well,” Axyl said.
“And this doctor?” Zek asked.
“Best one I know of,” Axyl replied.
Zek smiled, and his hopes rose. In Arc, the medics may have had the skill to heal him, but there was no help to be had from them now. He turned to see that Mason was smiling as well, but knew it was because of the interest this town had for him. The people they had met thus far did not seem to know how to use magic, and he suspected that Mason felt more at home here than he ever had.
Axyl was the first to stand, and he grunted as he hoisted his large frame onto his wounded leg. Zek and Mason stood together and waited. Zek noticed that Axyl seemed to be hesitant in moving forward, and he grew curious.
“Everything all right?” Zek asked.
“Uh, yeah,” Axyl replied. “I was just...”
“Well?” Zek asked, impatiently.
“He was waiting for me,” A deep voice said.
The three turned at once, and looked up to the scarred face of the giant Felguard that stood there. With a dark hood over his head, shadows covered his dark smile. He cocked his head to the side, and his neck gave out a dull cracking sound as he put himself into a fighting position.
Mason acted first, and he pulled his sword from his back and readied it in front of him. Axyl took slow steps backward with a wide-eyed expression. The foe narrowed his single eye on Zek, who knew that he could not hope to fight well in his current condition.
“You... have yer prey,” Axyl said.
“I do. Thank you, commoner,” the Felguard replied.
“... An' my reward?” Axyl asked.
“Your people attacked me without cause. You may tell them that I will not exact further justice for their crime. Tell these 'Marauders' that the Peacekeeper has pardoned them,” the Peacekeeper answered.
Axyl's face washed over in anger. Zek could tell he expected a far greater reward for his betrayal. Still, he watched the Marauder step back further from the scene.
Mason side-stepped with his sword in hand, circling around the unmoving brute. The Peacekeeper kept his focus trained on Zek, who knew that rumors of his power were not lost on his foe.
“Do it, soul mage,” the Peacekeeper said. “Show me the fight I was promised, and make my journey worthwhile.”
A fear gripped Zek's heart – his limited knowledge of the Peacekeeper only reinforced the feeling that this was his end. He attempted to drown the fear in the familiar will that caused his eyes to glint with a purple tinge. He saw that Mason was now completely behind the Felguard, and saw the strong will and courage of his powerless friend.
At least we will die together. It was not for nothing, we did the impossible, and we escaped. Mason was able to see the world he longed for, and I was able to do that for him. He made a peace with himself, knowing these may be his final thoughts. A feeling began to surge within him, and courage filled him with new strength. Perhaps he can still live free, and remember his brother as a hero.
“Mason, run!” Zek screamed. A burst of soul magic filled him, and his eyes blazed with dark power. He pushed aside the pain that tore at his chest, and charged himself for a final burst that would obliterate himself as well as his enemy.
The Peacekeeper did not advance, but Zek saw his hand move upward. The Felguard pressed his middle finger to his thumb, and held it aloft while Zek continued to fight against the agony of his cast. With a curled smile across his lips, the Peacekeeper snapped his outstretched fingers, and the magic Zek had willed completely faded away. Startled and drained, he stood fast against the back of the Felguard's massive hand as it crunched against his skull.
Zek flew backward, and a trail of blood took to the sky as he went airborne. He felt a crunch within his body when he connected with the trunk of a large tree. He fell face-first into thick grass; his blood poured over broken teeth and puddled on the soft ground. In his final thought, he wondered how long Mason would be able to survive, and hoped that they would not be buried together in Arc.
If you choose to rate and review this story, please ONLY do so after having read the story from the beginning. ("The Ternion Prologue" )
Continued in "Invalid Item"