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Chapter 34

Belker surveyed his new command. Besides Derleth, he had forty men-at-arms and four cave giants. All of the soldiers carried crossbows with poison-tipped quarrels loaded in them, plus their regular swords and armor. Derleth had a huge spellbook in his backpack, a staff and several wands tucked in his belt. The cave giants, of course, needed only their huge clubs. They could flatten an entire house with one massive blow.

Niran hadn’t been kidding when he said he wanted Storm’s small band dead, he thought. This is more firepower than we normally take to wipe out a whole village. Either Niran had suddenly become a believer in over-kill, or this Storm was more dangerous than he’d heard. Either way, it didn’t look good. He shook his head silently as he mounted his horse.

“Mount up,” he ordered unnecessarily. The men were already climbing into the saddle as he spoke; the powers of the fiendish bloodstone ran deep. The giants, of course, didn’t need horses. They merely waited until the humans were mounted then silently followed them out into the cold winter morning.

Belker led his band through the growing city springing up around the old mining camp. Before the giants had arrived it had been little more than an odd scatter of huts and a few open-sided sheds. Most of them had been destroyed when the giants took over, but Niran’s slave army was quickly replacing them with new, larger buildings. With the giants at his command to do the heavy lifting, the construction was proceeding at a rapid pace. Already a whole series of long barracks were being put in place to replace the row after row of tents they were sleeping in now. Heavy smoke wafted out of four larger buildings; the armories where Niran’s blacksmiths worked day and night forging weapons for his growing army. A long line of men, giants, and goblins shuffled slowly into the mess hall, its tables filled to capacity. Beside it, another mess hall was being built to handle the overflow.

He and his men were going to miss the evening meal today, but at least they wouldn’t have to listen to Niran’s lecture either. Every day it was the same thing; an endless harangue about the inevitability of Human domination of Gaia, how they were destined to conquer the world and become its Master Race. During his lectures, Niran would espouse his peculiar philosophy; a mixture of racial purity, brutal efficiency, and divine righteousness. It was the only time Belker ever saw him become truly animated, waving his arms and pounding on the lectern with his fists, his voice rising and falling hypnotically, his eyes burning with the fervor of a true believer. At first, Belker couldn’t fathom why he seemed to be trying to recruit them to his cause. They were already enslaved to him by the power of the bloodstone. Why was he trying to persuade them to join him freely?

Then, slowly, as the months passed, he began to understand. The reach of the bloodstone wasn’t limitless. It could only control so many people at a time. If Niran’s plans were to succeed he needed willing recruits, loyal soldiers rather than slaves. And Belker was forced to admit, there was a dark fascination in the evil creed he preached. Certainly, it had more internal consistency than most excuses he’d heard for conquest, but it was the hellish fascination a snake had over a rabbit before devouring it. As surely as day followed night those who succumbed to it were lost forever.

Many of them had though. It was inevitable. Men had damned themselves for lesser causes throughout history, and Niran’s promises of unchecked power had seduced them in droves. One by one they had gone to him to swear fealty. The bloodstone could instantly spot any deception, so only those who truly turned were accepted. They were released from the bloodstone’s power, dressed in new uniforms and given command over the remaining slaves. They wore his wretched symbol with pride, as though it was the greatest gift in the world. Maybe to them, it was.

Belker’s lip curled with disgust as he turned away from the mess hall. He would never turn, not for all the gold in the world. He turned his head, catching a glimpse of the nursery as he did. The nursery was where the children were kept.

The children.

There was another mystery. Why was Niran so insistent on bringing back all the children younger than three from the villages they despoiled?

Mysteries abounded around The Leader, the least of which was his curious habit of disappearing for days on end, only to reappear as suddenly and unexpectedly as he’d vanished. Where he went during those times, and how he did it, were subject of much debate when the slaves laid down to sleep at night. It was one of the few respites they had from the bloodstone’s hideous power and they made the most of it, speculating wildly about Niran’s motives, goals, and most importantly, how to escape.

He led his band toward one of the nameless passes ringing the mines, heading south toward the outer edges of the mountains that surrounded Mount Coldfire. A combination supply drop and lookout post had been set up a few leagues from the main encampment at the top of a waterfall marking the limits of the King’s patrols. Ever since Roderick had unwisely decided to leave the giants alone, Overhang Falls was the furthest into the region any of the patrols ventured. It created a gaping hole in the middle of the kingdom’s defenses where Niran could safely muster his forces without worrying about spies reporting back to Robling before he was ready to move.

Shaking his head at the memory of Roderick’s foolish decision, Belker took his men up the newly built path toward the outpost. It was bitterly cold along the exposed ridge. Unceasing winds whipped around them, creating a haze of flying snow that chapped their exposed faces and stung their eyes. They pulled their cloaks and hoods tightly around them but it did little good. Snow squeaked under the horse’s hooves as they plodded slowly up the trail. Building clouds threatened more snow before evening. Under any other circumstances they would have turned back but the power of the bloodstone forced them on. During the summer the horses could make the trip in a single afternoon, but winter was different.

The hours slowly ticked away as they climbed higher and higher into the mountains then dropped down through the first pass. Toward mid-afternoon, the first flurries of new snow came down. Within a quarter of a league, it had become a whiteout, obscuring the trail and blinding them to everything but the tail of the horse in front of them. Belker pushed them along faster, only partially to make as much time as possible. The other possibility, that one of the horses might make a misstep in the storm and send one of the men plunging to his death, didn’t bother him. Death was the only hope they had of escaping the dread pull of the bloodstone. Indeed, it would be a welcome release for any of them. He’d swear allegiance to any god who would send him to his death, he thought morosely.

If any of them heard him though, they weren’t answering. They plodded on for hours, the light gradually becoming dimmer until it was impossible to see anymore. They were finally forced to stop for the night under a rocky overhang which provided only scant protection from the storm. After miserable hours in the dark, they continued their journey at first light of dawn.

The second day was much like the first. Stinging winds chapped their faces and reddened their eyes. The bitter cold seeped through their heavy furs, leaving them slumped on their horses half-numb and lethargic. Even the giants were affected by it, their massive heads bowed against the wind, slogging forward one stumbling footstep after another. Toward evening the outpost loomed up before them in the swirling snow.

Belker stiffly dismounted, his men woodenly following his example. They led the horses through the gates into the sheltering lee of the high, wooden palisade. If they had to live, at least they wouldn’t have to be cold doing it. They stabled the horses, rubbing them down with straw then throwing heavy blankets over them and filling their bins with food and water. The giants were too big to fit inside the one other building; they would stay with the horses.

The men crowded into the barracks combination warehouse, eager to be out of the cold. It was a long building, half of it given over to a large room stacked with supplies; food, weapons, blankets, water, and such. The other half was an equally large room. Cots were stacked in the corner, waiting to be used. Trestle tables filled much of the area in front of two stoves. There were four fireplaces, one on either side of the main door, and one each opposite them on the other wall. Fires were quickly laid in them. As the icy building slowly began to warm up, they shed their coats and began cleaning it out. Abandoned during the winter months, a thick coat of dust had settled over everything since the last troops had been pulled out until next summer.

Belker left his men to their work and trudged outside. There was a parapet built all the way around the inside of the walls, high enough for a man to shoot a bow over the wall at any approaching enemy. He climbed the nearest ladder to the parapet, ducking his head against the raw wind that clawed at him once more. Looking out over his position he considered what Niran had told him. According to what he’d said, Storm was a straightforward sort . . . he’d take the shortest possible path to his destination, no matter how rugged the terrain. It meant he’d have to come up the long valley that stretched out below the peak the outpost sat on. With an elevated, fortified position, and the advantage of numbers and superior firepower, Belker knew he couldn’t lose.

He sighed heavily.

Storm was as good as dead.

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