“Did you actually think you would live out this day?” asked Birnon. His eyes burned with loathing. He crept closer to Cullen until he was within striking range. Then he assumed the fighting stance from the first dream, raising the sword above his head. Cullen crouched, ready to jab. Birnon swung and the sword produced an ethereal song. Cullen dodged the blow and made a thrust. Birnon knocked the blade aside and struck back. The young human tried to deflect the blow but his blade snapped in half. Only a sword forged from the strongest metal could do that, he thought. Birnon chuckled at the Outlander’s quandary. He waited, evidently savoring the moment. Cullen could only stand helplessly as the singing sword whizzed at his head. He woke up a split second before dying.
THE SWORD OF CULLEN
Cullen knew he was lying and just as worried as everyone else. He could see the door buckling from the weight of the festival horde as they shoved against it. A squadron of royal guards joined the other sentries as they formed a wedge. Despite being a foot thick, cut from a rare hardwood tree found only in the southern parts of the Old Dominion, the door was about to give way. Once the mob broke through, they would flood not only through the arena but into the stands. The spectators would panic causing a catastrophic stampede. It was hard for Cullen to accept that he had fought and killed six competitors only to die in a riot.
The Outlander was so busy watching the uproar that he didn’t notice Shardo bounding into the arena. It was the same big human he had sparred with the afternoon before. Shardo was very self-assured. He smirked at the Outlander, ignoring the commotion at the entrance.
“What a glorious day,” he said. Shardo warmed up his huge body, swiveling his torso back and forth and then stretching his arms as far as they could reach. He appeared fresh and relaxed. Cullen, on the other hand, felt like a wraith from the underworld. He was bathed in sweat and splattered with the blood of his victims. Fortunately, his energy had not diminished.
“I had an instinct we would meet in the last match,” Shardo said, thumping his chest.
“I have an instinct these are your last moments to live,” answered Cullen. “I’ll be sorry to disappoint everyone. You were so adorned. This will be the end of both you and this corrupt empire.”
Shardo spit at the remark. “You’re full of crap, Outlander.”
THE SWORD OF CULLEN
The little girl tilted her back and opened her mouth. Something sluggishly crawled out. Maxwick screamed and grasped Cullen’s leg. The shape kept emerging, dark, wet, and cylindrical. Her mouth stretched wider and wider to accommodate its bulk. Finally, the huge head of a snake appeared. It seemed the child was giving birth. The serpent’s forked tongue was constantly flicking as its head climbed toward the ceiling. The body pushed through the child’s mouth, sheathed in scales and mottled with brown and black. The sound of rough skin rubbing against soft tissue worsened the horror.
Finally, the serpent became so colossal that the little girl crumpled into a heap. Cullen moved backward, crunching on the skeletons as he stepped. Maxwick, still clinging to his friend’s leg, moved with him. The Outlander accidentally dropped his torch and the fire went out. He had seen snakes before, even coiled in the corner of his adoptive father’s cottage, but none were very big. This monster, Cullen guessed, was over twenty feet end to end, able to swallow a human in one gulp.
The snake curled its body as it continued rising. Its head was triangular in shape, nostrils flared and slit mouth curved in a sardonic grin. The eyes were dark orange with a black slit pupil and they had a penetrating gaze. Cullen found himself transfixed by them.
Taz laughed heartily. His breath was so rancid that it made Cullen gag. Cullen cringed when he tried to imagine what the creature had been eating. He heard that the creatures sometimes dined on animal feces and decayed matter. The troll stuck his face a few inches away from Cullen and leered. He was far uglier than any troblin. The ridge over his brow, the sunken eyes, the protruding jaw were very well-defined. He practically looked reptilian.
Taz jammed his dagger point into Cullen’s larynx. “Tie his hands, Yudad“, he commanded the troll guarding the human. The creature slipped off a coil of rope that was looped around his right shoulder. He shoved Cullen’s hands behind his back. Cullen groaned with pain as the troll jerked on his wounded arm. The creature wrapped the rope around each wrist then cinched the cord tightly between them to make sure the human couldn’t wriggle free. Another troll was binding Maxwick’s hands the same way. Cullen noticed a white thick scar on the troll’s left cheek, probably from a knife.
An adolescent boy with a shock of bright orange hair burst into applause, even sticking two fingers in his mouth and whistling. Everyone gasped. Birnon was despised among the Outlanders, considered nothing but a bloodthirsty despot, but no one dared flaunt their contempt. To do so was a death sentence.
“Grab that piece of shit,” Sern ordered. The other two snatched the boy by each arm. Sern yanked his sword from out the sheath strapped to his saddle and stormed toward him. The boy struggled to free himself. Some women screamed, somebody else cried, “Don’t do it!”
“Let him go. I’m the one you want.” Cullen emerged from hiding and sauntered out into the street, sword at the ready. He pulled off his headdress. Maxwick uncovered himself and slid off the horse. The townspeople, knowing there would be a duel, scampered back into the buildings. The ale drinker casually sipped his beverage and watched.
“Careful, Sern, he knows how to use a sword,” one of the thugs warned. They were still trying to restrain the boy.
Sern circled Cullen with a wry grin. “I’ll end this shit right here.” The thug went into a stance, holding his sword beneath his head at a right angle. Cullen wanted to laugh. Sern’s posture looked awkward and amateurish. He was obviously not well trained in swordsmanship.
The bonfire unexpectedly emitted a loud whoosh! Dancers screamed and bolted back to where the others were sitting, afraid they would be burned. Cullen and Sayda bravely stood their ground. The flames whirled and tumbled until they changed into the outline of a man’s face. Eyes, a mouth, hair, and even a beard were recognizable. Small horns protruded from the head. It was a likeness of Khangi as depicted by artists across the centuries, a likeness usually painted on a large board that Outlanders would pee and spit on during the equinox jubilees. “It must be a trick!” a celebrant yelled. “It’s part of the celebration!”
A voice spoke from the inferno, the same thunderous voice Cullen had heard in the cavern. Birnon may be gone, but I am still in control. You I will never give you rest. I will enter your hearts and minds, fill you with corruption, fill you with fear and hate so that at death you will serve me in the underworld. I will be victorious.
“What’s happening?” Sayda asked, folding her arms tightly over her breasts to hide her nakedness. For once, the huntress appeared frightened.
“Go back with the others,” Cullen advised. They could hear wolves howling in the forest.
“Fight me you human garbage!” His words were slurred and he was staggering, barely able to keep his balance.
Shardo pulled out his own sword and smacked Kuran on the head with the flat end. The old troblin immediately plopped to the ground unconscious. Surac jumped from his horse to help his uncle. Shardo eyed the strangers, laughed nervously, and shrugged his shoulders. “You did good,” the colorful man said, “you teach troblin manners.” He chortled some more.
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Shardo said. “May I ask what brings Your Highness and his army into the desert?”
“Malla now conquered. I go conquer other lands now. In one month we invade Goblin Empire, then we invade Outlands. We kill all those filthy barbarians, wipe out their stupid religion.”
“The Outlands?” Cullen asked in disbelief. Maybe the king was bluffing, maybe it was an empty boast, maybe he would overrun a few provinces and stop. But Cullen couldn’t be sure. He would have to break away, head back home, organize an army, organize a rabble if he had to, something. If the Vledcrots entered Hearttide, he would have to resurrect Deathsteel again. The faith was still his responsibility.
“Oh yes. We conquer all the world. Everybody fighting and confused now. Whole world upset. We step in and conquer them before they can fight back. Don’t worry, we no kill merchants. We need commerce. You safe with us.”
“I can’t believe the faith is being threatened again,” Cullen whispered to Shardo, “and so soon.”
“He’s right, the world is in upheaval as we speak. Now is the right time for the Vledcrots to move in."