CHAPTER 1- THE SEERESS OF DRAL
Kern Aldrich sighed as the mare tripped, nearly tumbling down the wooded slope. This was the third time today the horse had tried to kill itself. That was the only way Kern could explain it; the horse was actually trying to kill itself. No animal could be that clumsy. Whatever the reason, the horse was going to need shoeing again, if it carried on. Kern did not relish that idea- he had neither the time or the money to spare. He wanted to put as much difference between himself and the Royal palace as he could. If it wasnt for his haste, Kern would have returned to Horville long since. The innkeeper there had assured him that the black mare was fast and sure-footed. Lightfoot he had called him. Well the horse certainly was not fast, and Kern had two bruised ribs as testimony to its sure-footedness. Fortunate for the innkeeper, he was in a hurry.
Kern dismounted and, after ensuring the horses ankles were fine, proceeded to fill its nose-bag with oats. It wasnt the horses fault the innkeeper knew nothing about looking after horses. It had probably only been out of its stable twice in its life. And the poor beast had walked all day. They could both do with a rest. Kern unsaddled the horse, and brushed it down, at the same time analyzing the surrounding area. Like most places this far south of Angost, the land was flat, and sparsely occupied. The road he was on wound its way east, towards Kelra, and the river Kel. Most of the Kings roads were paved, with frequent patrols, but Nuledor was a poor duchy. The road was in a bad state of disrepair, with loose flagstones every other step. No wonder Lightfoot found the going hard. Surrounding him on all sides were bare-leaved oaks and ash trees, slowly returning to life after their winter slumber. During the midst of summer, these roads were easy-prey for bandits and cutthroats, hiding in the deep green foliage. But spring had barely dawned, and the trees could barely conceal a hare, let alone a gang.
Setting his backpack on the floor, and removing his sword belt, Kern tied Lightfoot to a nearby oak, moss-covered and gnarled with age. This would be as good a spot as any for a rest- the sun was setting, and there were very few travellers at night. Besides, there was very little a Knight of the Realm couldn't handle. Even a disgraced one. Kern frowned at that last thought. It had been barely a week since hed been banished from King Aarins court, shamed and dishonoured. He wasnt sure what his destination was, but he knew he wanted to be as far away from Angost as he could. As far away from Ardadain as he could. Kern quickly brushed the thought aside- dwelling on the past served no good purpose. The past ended where memory did, but the future was eternal. That was something old Canus used to say to him. Canus, his friend, and mentor- now just a shadow of his mind. Kern could never return to the Court, or the friends he left behind. The gathering gloom did nothing to help his mood, and the stretching shadows heightened his gloom. Scolding himself, Kern set to work gathering wood from the road side. A warm meal was what he needed. A warm meal, and a good nights sleep.
Seating himself in a grassy clearing within sight of the road, Kern stacked the firewood, and kindled it with his tinderbox. He had nothing to hide from. Indeed, hed welcome any company tonight. Once the fire was going, he removed his boots and lay down, warming his feet. It felt good to be out of the saddle. He felt like hed been riding for weeks. Kelra was only another half-days travel away, and then he could rest in a proper inn. Kelras inns were reputedly very hospitable, and luxurious, with musicians, and gleemen, and dancers, and bards. And very comely serving girls, apparently. Kern smiled at that thought. Kern had travelled far and wide, even as far as Malidor, but he had never had the opportunity to visit Kelra. Tomorrow he would find out if the tales were true. Kern opened his bag, and removed a gourd of beer and a leg of pork. Not as much as he was used to, but anything was luxury after a hard days ride. Besides, thinking of Kelra had made him hungry. After his meal was finished- a week ago he would have laughed at anyone who claimed it was a meal- after it was finished, he took out his longsword, Quicksilver, and a whetstone, and began to hone it. The blade had been given to him by the king, so long ago, a gift for his services. It had served him well, and every night he had dutifully polished and sharpened it. A knights sword was his life. A sword given by a king was his soul. Replacing his whetstone, Kern lay down, his head resting on his rolled-up coat. Quicksilver lay by his arm. You could never be too careful, even in spring. He closed his eyes, and waited for sleep to erase his weariness.
The sound of the explosion made Kern sit upright. What was that? Kern stood up, and scanned the horizon. Silence. Nothing. Picking up his sword, he watched the sky. Was it thunder? There was no sign of any clouds, nor was there any lightning. Maybe it was his imagination. Cursing himself for being so jumpy, Kern sat back down, reluctantly replacing Quicksilver in the patch beside his make-shift bed. It was nothing.
The second explosion was accompanied by a blinding light, and caused Lightfoot to shriek, bucking and pulling at his leash. That was certainly not thunder. Whatever it was, it came from the east, just off the road. Snatching his blade again, Kern ran off in the direction the light had come from, where a plume of smoke was now rising. The road curved just ahead, and the smoke came from a rise to his left, behind a copse of oaks. The trees blocked his sight, but he could see something glowing beyond them. The third explosion knocked him off his feet, and nearly deafened him. He was close enough now to smell the sickly odour of burning flesh, a smell all too familiar to him. Whatever was going on, he had to stop it. A scream came from the direction of the smoke, a scream of pain. A womans scream. Kern dived into the trees, towards the sound, holding Quicksilver ready. He sprinted through the brambles and hawthorn, scratching his legs, and ripping his red tunic. Pain shot through his arm as a thorn ripped at his skin, but he didnt slow. A woman was in trouble. Branches flailed at his face, and nettles stung his bare ankles, but Kern ran on. Another scream, this time directly in front of him. Kern dived forward, tripping on a gnarled root as thick as his arm, and landed face first into a puddle of blood.
Kern raised his eyes, following the trail of blood. He was in a clearing, surrounded by trees, singed and smoking. In the centre of a clearing were two creatures, prone and unmoving. Creatures was the only description Kern could give. The creatures were tall, about twice as tall as a man, and covered in thick red flesh. Spikes erupted from their backs, framed by giant bat-like wings. Their humanoid limbs ended in curved black claws, as long as daggers. Giant black horns topped their heads, shadowing their long pointed ears, and their lifeless eyes were as black as the Void. A long shaggy mane covered their scalp, and teeth as sharp as lances filled their wide maws. One of the creatures had a deep gash down its chest, the source of the blood that Kern was currently bathing in. The other was dark and scorched, its face and chest smoking. The smell of burnt flesh was overpowering.
Another scream brought Kern to his feet, and it was then he noticed the third creature. It was in the centre of the clearing, grappling with a woman on the floor. The woman had a dagger in her hand, but her arm was pinned down by the creatures giant arm. Blood ran down her other arm, and more soaked her white riding dress. The creatures cruel teeth were inches away from her face. Without hesitating, Kern dived forward, plunging into the creatures torso and knocking it off the woman. The creature sprawled on the floor, momentarily stunned, before grabbing Kerns legs and flinging him to the floor. Kern rolled quickly to avoid the creatures sharp claws, but Quicksilver flew from his hand and landed beyond the tree-line. Before he could react, the creature was upon him, claws tearing at his flesh. A sharp pain ran up his shoulder as the creature ripped a chunk from it. Kern screamed in pain, and tried to push the creature away, but its weight, and his weakened shoulder, made the attempt futile. His grasping hands managed to make its way to the creatures neck, clinging and squeezing desperately, but the creature didnt flinch. Its mouth opened, in a grin or a growl- he wasnt sure- and the lance-like teeth approached his neck. The creatures breath made him want to vomit. Clutching desperately to the things neck, Kern pulled at its flesh, removing large chunks. The creature roared in pain, its dark blood dripping over Kerns hands, but its onslaught never ceased. Kern could feel his grip weakening. The creature was too strong.
There was another explosion, and the creatures dark eyes widened in pain. Staggering backwards, it flayed at nothing, its back a roaring inferno. It turned back towards the woman, who was now on her knees, exhausted. Growling ferociously it charged towards her, its claws raised menacingly, burned flesh falling from its back. Kern wasted no time; ignoring the pain in his shoulder he dived towards the trees and grabbed Quicksilver, its blade shining red with the flames from the creatures back. Spinning round again he flung the blade, letting it fly towards the running beast. The creature stopped just short of the woman, blood dripping from its mouth, and arms twitching violently. Its dark eyes regarded the blade jutting from its chest, in surprise, and it let out a low growl before it collapsed to the floor, still twitching.
Kern watched the creature, until the twitching subsided. When it stopped moving, Kern kicked it, to ensure it was dead. Nothing. Whatever it was, it wouldnt trouble anyone ever again. Suddenly, remembering the pain in his shoulder, he kicked it again harder. The creature wouldnt feel it, but it sure made him feel better. Breathing hard, Kern looked around for the woman, anxious for her safety. She was stood a few feet away, studying him curiously. She was an attractive woman, tall and slim, and no older than twenty five summers. Her long dark hair was tied in two long plaits behind her back, though the skirmish had left them a little dishevelled. She wore a long white dress, split for riding, with purple trimmings around the hem and the cuffs, and with a large purple eye embroidered on the bosom. A long purple cloak covered her shoulder, and tall black riding boots reached to her knees. Most notably, a purple eye was tatooed on her forehead- the Symbol of Dral, god of Magic and Balance. Her large dark eyes gazed at him intently, studying him. The blood soaking her dress brought back the memory of the last few minutes, and emphasized the pain in his shoulder. Kern realized he was still shaking.
"Are you alright?" he asked, walking over to her. She seemed unaware of her wounds, and of the blood dripping down her arm. Her eyes never left his.
The woman nodded. She looked around the clearing, her eyes wide, and seemed to notice the creatures for the first time.
"What are those things?" Kern asked, indicating the corpses.
"Pazuza," she replied simply. "Daemons of the Pale." Suddenly she clutched her arm, wincing, as if mentioning the creatures had renewed the pain.
"Daemons?" Kern said, trying to keep the unease from his voice. Daemons? That explained a lot. Kern had fought all kinds of unnatural creatures, from Goblins to Trolls. Hed even met a dragon once. But never in his career had he fought the Unclean. What were they doing here, on this plane? In this realm? Why were they attacking a lone woman? The word did explain a lot, but opened up a plethora of further questions.
"Is your wound bad?" The woman asked, regarding his shoulder.
Kern shook his head. "Ive had worse, mlady." he replied truthfully. "Ill live!"
The woman nodded, and smiled. "In that case, Id better be on my way!" she said, straightening her dress, and walking towards the trees. "Thank you for your help, sirrah."
Kern stared at her in amazement. Hed just saved her life, and all she could do was walk away. She was in no fit state to walk anywhere, and who knows how many more Pazuza were out there.
"Is that it?" Kern said, a little sulkily. "I save you from Balzots Spawn, and you walk away like nothing ever happened?"
The woman stared at him, a slight smile touching her lips. "What do you want, brave warrior? A kiss? My undying love? A night in my bed? You have my gratitude, and I have said thank you. If you want anything else, I suggest you rescue a common whore!"
"An explanation would do!" Kern said irritatedly. The nerve of this woman. All he wanted was justification of why he had risked his life fighting creatures from the pale. And maybe a little company on the road east. "Why did those....things...attack you?"
The woman stared at him for a while weighing him up. "Dont get involved, goodman!" she replied, after a short time. "Trust me on this!" She smiled at him again, before turning round and vanishing into the trees.
Kern watched her go, mumbling to himself. All his life hed been taught to uphold the Knights Code, and that included protecting any woman who needed it. And this woman seemed to need a lot of protection. He looked around at the dead Daemons, scattered around the clearing, and made his decision. "Damn, but I hope I live to regret this!" he said to himself, before running into the trees after the woman. "MLady!" he shouted. The woman stopped ahead of him, most of her lower body concealed by a hawthorn hedge . "MLady, wait!" he said. She turned around again, and watched him approach.
"Do you presume to order me around now, warrior?" she said scornfully.
"I would never be so presumptious, lady." Kern said, smiling cheekily. "However, Id like to know which way you are headed!" Kerns face turned more serious.
The woman looked around, a little nervously, apparently considering the question. "East." she replied simply.
"Then I ask that I be allowed to accompany you. Im heading East, and the journey is long. And lonely. All I ask is for the pleasure of your company, until our journeys lead us separate ways!"
"I told you, you dont want to get involved in this!" she said. She stopped looking around, and stared him in the eyes. "This is much bigger than you can even imagine, warrior!"
"Let me rephrase it," Kern said, smiling wickedly. "I mean to protect you, MLady, be it from cutthroats or more of those Pazuza creatures. This land is not safe for a lone woman. I swore an oath to protect anyone who needed it. I ask that you let me protect you, as your bodyguard. If you decline, I will still follow you. But Id prefer your willing company!"
The woman smiled warmly. "An oath, brave warrior? Then Im guessing you are a Knight of the Realm. But still......" The woman stopped suddenly, seemingly listening to the air. Her lips moved silently, as if talking to herself. "So be it." She said in a whisper, obviously meant for no one but herself.
"An oath you say? An oath to the king, Ill warrant!" She smiled when Kern nodded. "Well I am neither a man, nor do I have royal blood. A kings oath means nothing to me. If you want to accompany me, I ask that you make a new oath, an oath to me."
"Name it mlady." Kern said, his face solemn. "Name it and its your."
"Very well, brave warrior. Do you swear to protect me, from all that may wish to do me harm, be it a stranger, or your closest kin? Be it mortal man or Denizen of the Void? Do you swear to follow me wherever I lead, be it to the Otherworld itself? And do you swear to do whatever I command, whether it be to fight The Legions of Darkness or Balzot Himself? Even if the command is to leave me to perish? Do you swear, brave warrior?"
Kern knelt before the woman, one hand on his hilt, the other over his heart. "I swear my lady, on my heart and soul, and my hope of salvation. I swear by my blade, and by all I hold dear. I swear in the name of Eleniel, and the Light itself. May the Darkness claim me if I hold false to the oath!" Kern responded, in the traditional oath of the Knights of the Dragon. "I swear!"
"Then arise, my Champion!" the woman replied, her face serious, but her eyes sparkling with contentment.
Kern returned the smile, and kissed the womans hand, before standing before her. "My life is yours!" he said. Whatever this woman was about, it was serious. Taking the oath before this beautiful woman had replaced something he hadnt known was missing, an emptiness which had come with his disgrace and banishment. Kern once again had a purpose, and a darkness had lifted from his heart.
"Do you have a camp?" the woman said.
"Yes, MLady." Kern replied. "Just through those trees." he said, gesturing.
"Then take me there. I think we could both do with some rest. And Ill see to that shoulder of yours."
Kern nodded, and began to lead the way through the trees, carefully stepping over a gnarled root. "MLady," Kern said. "May I be so bold as to ask your name?"
The woman smiled warmly at him. "Amelia." she said.
"Im Kern. Kern Aldritch." he replied.
"I know." said Amelia.
Kern gave her a puzzled look. He was sure he hadnt mentioned it before.