Five summers have passed since Maelich and Cialia bested Kallum over the Forgotten Forest and scattered the god to the wind. Ouloos is entering an era of peace like none the world has ever known. Or is it? Tragedy strikes. Ymitoth is killed at the hands of dead-eyed men bearing an uncanny resemblance to Kallum’s priests. The loss proves too great for Maelich to cope. His sanity slips and he vanishes. Cialia embarks on a quest to find her lost brother. Along the way she learns her former city, Druindahl, has entered a period of darkness. The people she once protected are at the mercy of mercenaries interested only in coin and presided over by a king powerless to stop them. The cruelty she finds in the hearts of these horrible, false riders of Druindahl is more than she can stand. She finds her flame. The aftermath challenges the very core of her moral beliefs. Meanwhile, war threatens the shores west of Havenstahl. Without the city’s two greatest heroes to protect her, one man must stand up and lead the armies of the greatest city of men against an unstoppable force of monsters from across the Great Sea. Riddled with uncertainty, Daritus must stand tall against overwhelming self-doubt and lead his soldiers into a war more perilous than any in Havenstahl’s history. Ouloos will never be the same.
A GOOD DAY FOR HUNTING
It was far too late in the morning to begin a hunt. The sun already flirted with the very pinnacle of its ascent. Before Ymitoth reached the next clump of trees, the bright lord of the sky would be on its slow dive into the Great Sea to swim the dark waters until once again it was time to kiss Ouloos with the light of a new day. A late start didn’t matter much to Ymitoth. The hunt wasn’t really what drew him out of the throne room and into an unfamiliar saddle on an unfamiliar horse. It was the trail he yearned for—fresh air and freedom from the daily squabbles of those who called him king. The road forever beckoned, tugging his attention away from his duties and mundane questions of who did what to whom and why it wasn’t fair. Sadly, the weight of his crown kept him firmly planted within the walls of his great city. Each day the freedom of the trail seemed to slip further and further away, a fond memory slowly fading into the murky obscurity of forgotten loves. The horse shifted awkwardly, reminding Ymitoth of another lost love. Pride was a sturdy, black steed, built for miles on the trail and fast as the westerly wind ahead of a furious storm, but he was no Rumallah. More than merely an ample mode of transportation, Rumallah had been his only companion on many a journey. The king’s heart ached even more for the old horse than it did for the open trail. In sixty summers he hadn’t met a man he trusted more than that animal. If only he could have one more adventure racing over rolling meadows, stooping to drink from the cool waters of a forest brook, and battling fearsome, nightmare creatures from the darkest places where the feet of good folk don’t tread. Alas, even if he could find a bit of freedom to do any of those things, his old friend would remain absent. Nothing could ever fill the empty spot Rumallah left in his heart when he departed this world. “Ye think we’ll be seeing anything for the wall, highness?” a voice from behind tugged him away from his melancholy, another stark reminder he could never be alone on the trail as long as the damned crown of Havenstahl called his head its home. He turned the home for a crown enough to make eye contact with Egete as he replied, “Any life we be taking from the trail be filling our bellies not decorating our walls.” “Forgive me, highness,” Egete’s eyes dropped quickly away from the king’s stern gaze. Ymitoth ignored it. Egete was a solid soldier and a sturdy guard who still managed to wield a downright friendly personality. As far as guards go, he was probably the king’s favorite. He certainly didn’t earn Ymitoth’s sour look. In fact, his statement hadn’t really bothered the king at all. Any words leaving his mouth would have earned a negative response. His presence was what truly bothered the king of the greatest city of men. Not because of anything he had done, simply because the trail and Rumallah were the only company Ymitoth cared to keep just then. In Rumallah’s absence, Pride would have to do. Egete and Scrih—the other guard accompanying Ymitoth on his hunt—were about as wanted as a three-inch thorn in the arch of a tired foot. The taste of sweet solitude on the trail was the one thing Ymitoth hungered for and the one thing he couldn’t have as the king. A brief flash of brown in a dark and familiar clump of trees caught the king’s attention. “Whisht,” something like a whistle without a tongue blasted sharp and quick from his lips as he raised his left arm and nodded toward the trees. Egete and Scrih tugged the reins of their respective horses, halting them immediately behind the king. Ymitoth shot an intense, narrow-eyed scowl in their direction to stifle any words that may have been knocking against the backs of their teeth. The heavy look carried more meaning than anything the king had said since passing through the gates of Havenstahl. After a few moments of startling quiet, disturbed only by the sound of lightly rustling leaves blowing about in the random clumps of trees surrounding the three hunters and the slow rush of waters from the River Galgooth flowing behind them, Ymitoth pointed while nodding at the dark clump of trees. Scrih sat just a notch lower than Egete in Ymitoth’s eyes. They would stand equal if only Scrih had stronger control of his tongue. “I ain’t be seeing nothing there, highness,” he blurted. “Shh,” Ymitoth scolded before shaking his head and whispering, “These eyes have watched me friends toast me sixtieth summer and ye’re telling me they be seeing more than the keen eyes of one so fresh to the trail?” Scrih silently shrugged while Egete added, “I ain’t be seeing nothing either.” “Fine hunting partners the two of ye have turned out to be,” the king shook his head as he raised his bow and knocked an arrow. As he drew his bowstring back and exhaled, Ymitoth’s body relaxed. All the tension tightening up his muscles and hardening his face fled on a current of hot breath. His old eyes scanned the dark clump for the faint flicker that caught them in the first place. Finally, it came again, barely a shape and scarcely a color. He remained frozen in odd, relaxed tension, all but forgetting about the two behind him. His intense focus sharpened and pierced deeper into the darkness beneath the mingling crowns of the trees. To Egete and Scrih he must have appeared stiff and rigid, more like a stone statue or a painting than a real, flesh and blood man. If only he could show them what he was feeling inside. That would be a lesson. They could marvel at the stillness of his form, the absence of even the slightest wobble or twitch as he held his bowstring back. The missing piece of the lesson, what he couldn’t show them or even describe with words, was how completely at ease he felt. Adrenaline pumped no matter how many hunts a man boasted. Experience didn’t stop the heart from racing. That was the thrill of the hunt, and it was always present. Controlling it was the trick. Learning to let your heart pound wild without allowing your body to fumble along behind it is what separates the hungry man from the fed man. He could have remained that way without flinching far into the darkness of night. However, the mighty hunter’s composure crumbled when his target stepped out into the light. Ymitoth shrunk in his saddle like fat melting on a hot stone as three cloaked figures slowly approached from the shadows. Nearly eighteen summers had passed since he faced down the dead-eyed men in the cathedral at Havenstahl, yet his paralyzing fear was as fresh as the day that memory was painted on his brain. “Run,” he could barely hear his own voice as terror squeezed his lungs, only allowing him enough air for a hoarse whisper. Egete and Scrih regarded their king with twisted, queer expressions. After a few moments of struggling with his lips, Ymitoth finally found his voice and shouted, “Run!” “From a mere three men?” Scrih’s expression matched the incredulous tone of his voice. “Damn it, that ain’t no request. It be a command from your king,” the volume of Ymitoth’s voice filled the clearing. “Have ye ever known me to be fearing any man or anything?” “Not in all me days, highness,” Egete shook his head slowly. “Not a chance, highness,” Scrih’s reply quickly followed. “Well I tell ye true lads, fear be tearing at me spine as I be sitting here trembling before ye. Now run, damn it,” Ymitoth’s cheeks shook with the force of his words. “Ye can be punishing me later, highness. But if there be a force in this land so awful as to be scaring the wits out of the bravest man I ever served, I’ll be cutting that terror down,” Scrih shouted as he drew his sword and slammed his heels into his horse’s flanks, driving the animal toward the three cloaked men. Egete fell in right behind Scrih shouting, “Make haste, highness,” over his shoulder. Ymitoth closed his eyes for the briefest moment, “Them boys damn hearts be far bigger than their damn brains.” Despite wrestling with the kind of mind-numbing fear that reduces most men to blubbering fools, duty prevailed. Ymitoth fired three quick arrows before charging after the stout, young soldiers who were so eager to prove their worth. Had they heeded his warning, all three of them would be on a hard gallop back to Havenstahl. The arrows sliced the air one after another, splitting the space between Egete and Scrih. All of them bounced harmlessly away from the dirty, brown cloak they connected with. Confusion knotted up the expression on Scrih’s face as he looked back over his left shoulder at his king. Then both he and Egete came to a halt. Ymitoth stopped directly behind his two soldiers before urging Pride in front of them. “Highness,” Egete complained. “No, lad,” Ymitoth kept his steely glare fixed on the dirty, brown cloak that led the group of three and stood a mere ten feet in front of him, “Ye ain’t be having no idea what ye be dealing with here. I do, and it ain’t nothing less than death.” A low, deep chuckle emanated from the cloak, as the shape beneath it raised both hands to draw the hood back. Ymitoth failed to suppress a gasp. Two black, dead eyes—lifeless orbs that had haunted his dreams ever since he faced the three in the cathedral at Havenstahl—glared at him. The last time he saw those eyes in the waking world had been shortly after celebrating Maelich’s twelfth year. Even after all the years that had drifted by since the terrifying night so long ago, the horrors were as fresh as the breeze upon his neck. As his focus remained locked on those two empty globes, he was only faintly aware of something resembling a smile slithering beneath the orange mange under the twisted nose immediately below them. Ymitoth drew a deep breath in through his nose. There was something foul about the aroma of the wet decay of leaves from the damp ground beneath the trees. Normally he found the scent rather appealing. Staring at the nightmares before him made the odor far less pleasant. Without averting his steely gaze, he growled through clenched teeth, “Race back to Havenstahl, lads. Tell them the king has fallen and a nightmare be coming to batter our gates. Find Maelich, and tell him dead-eyed men be walking about the woods of Havenstahl.” “No, highness,” Scrih’s voice carried a measure of authority. “Aye,” Egete agreed. “We ain’t be going nowhere without ye, highness.” Ymitoth sighed and shook his head, “Lads—” “Such fierce loyalty for their king,” the dead-eyed man goaded. “I am impressed. And king, no less. That is equally impressive. When last we met, you were but a crude swordsman training an insolent brat to swing sharpened metal around. Look how far you have come.” “Aye,” Ymitoth scowled, “a king I be. But I warn ye, this sword at me hip ain’t for show. I swing this lady hanging at me side with vicious intent.” The dead-eyed man’s stillness made the volume of his laugh seem impossible. The horrible sound filled the air around Ymitoth and his guards, startling the horses that stamped and whinnied in response. Much like a cornered animal puffs up its chest in the hopes of frightening off a threatening predator, Ymitoth pressed on, “Ain’t a jest left me lips, ye vile thing.” The horrible laughter ceased as quickly as it began, “Therein lies the brilliance of your humor. It is completely unintended.” The foul creature paused. “I am still not convinced whether you believe your boasts, or if you are merely feigning bravery for the sake of your men. I assume the latter. Even a gruff swordsman parading as king must be wise enough to realize the folly in standing against a herald of the one true ruler of Ouloos, god of creation, and master of all things.” “I fear nothing,” Ymitoth spat as he drew his sword and leapt off Pride’s back with the grace of a warrior half his age. Before the muddy bottoms of the king’s boots kissed even the tip of a blade of grass, Egete and Scrih charged. Hooves tore into the wet trail, tossing muddy clumps of grass up into the air behind them. Ymitoth barely took a step toward the monster before the heavy air beneath the trees thickened once again with the deep horror of the dead-eyed man’s laugh. Like a premonition, the next act danced out on the stage of a brief, waking dream flashing through his consciousness. Before he managed even a step toward the horror threatening his men, the nightmare manifested itself in two pairs of claws shooting out from beneath the sleeves of the other two dirty, brown robes. His feet froze as he helplessly watched his faithful guards dashed against the ground in heaps while their horses—life gushing from throats torn open by sharp talons—rose toward the treetops. “No,” a throaty shout grew from deep in Ymitoth’s gut, filling the air and challenging the might of the dead-eyed man’s laugh. The dead-eyed men paid him no heed. Their leader offered Ymitoth that same silent, snaky smile as his two companions yanked back their hoods and leapt onto the broken piles Ymitoth considered the finest of his guard. The king remained frozen as half of a hand landed near his foot, and the air before him filled with pieces of Egete and Scrih. Mere moments later, lifeless eyes glared up at him from heads no longer connected to the bodies that had carried them around. Their dead stares seemed to accuse him. It was more than he could stand. The warrior charged.
E. Michael Mettille is the pen name of Mike Reynolds. Mike Reynolds is the author of Lake of Dragons and Hell and the Hunger. Mike has also written numerous short stories and poems. He has spent the last twenty years in direct marketing, print, and communication. Mike is fascinated by history, belief systems, the human condition and how all of those things work together to define who we are as a people. The world is a wonder and, based on the history of us, it is a wonder we have a world left to wonder about. Born and raised in Milwaukee, WI, he now lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Shelia.