The Southern Syndicate, Part 3

General Arrys was forced to surrender immediately because he was both outnumbered and surrounded.  The Obsidian soldiers were immediately cuffed in manacles, disarmed, and thrown deep into the Seaside Keep stockades.  In the dungeons, they discovered that Anon’s entire army was captured and disbanded, along with all of the capital’s civilians.  So, when the Obsidians surrendered, each solider was separated from his regiment, just as they were from Anon’s army. 

The riverlings paired their prisoners off in groups of two.  All members of any potential insurgent army were allowed to continue wearing their armor to ensure that no one was paired off with another soldier.  Everyone was fed twice daily, morning and night, but no one seemed to formulate what the riverlings had planned for them.  Every other day prisoners were rotated and shuffled around as a method of taking roll.

For several weeks, everyone adjusted to the routine of being underfed, inhaling the fetid smell of growing piles of defecation, and sleeping irritably on hard stone floors.  Some took to leaning on each other’s backs while sitting up for greater comfort and ease of rest.  As time passed and the routine established itself, clothes devolved to shredded rags marred in dust, sweat, and blood.  Armor grew heavier and the edges frequently stabbed its owners in various places.

On the morning of the second month, the riverlings started to beat their prisoners into submission each time they counted roll, even though none put up any resistance.  It was during these days that the prisoners found their first casualties.  Many were knocked senseless and drifted in and out of consciousness.  Among them, Colonel Khrys missed some meals because he wasn’t coherent when those meals were dumped beside his cell.  His stomach growled while he was unconscious and his head pounded to a drunk rhythm when he was awake.  His mind was a cloud, seemingly drifting in and out of dream and reality to the point where discerning the two was a challenge for him.

Outside, continuous darkness crept into the dungeon through barred windows.  The only sounds that could be heard were the grunts and groans of the riverlings working to rebuild Seaside Keep as their needs fit.  There was a constant rumbling coming from them, as they brought structures down and then reworked the masonry.

Khrys came awake late one morning at the sounds emanating from the construction.  He was facedown on his stomach and drool leaked out from the corner of his mouth during his unconsciousness.  He looked around and didn’t recognize any of his surroundings – he was thrown into a new cell while he was out cold.  But, this was part of his routine since the beatings wore on his body. 

When his mind made the connection that there was an opening in his cell, he stumbled to his feet and limped toward the window.  The only things he could see were the river and the now destroyed Frayed Bridge.  He wanted to try to break the window barrings with a stone, but he lacked the strength.  So when he grew tired of watching the river flow, he dropped his head and turned around.

In the corner of his cell, he saw a familiar looking figure slumped back with one arm atop the pedestal of a raised knee.  Their hair was short and dark brown and their clothes concealed sharp curves in spite of the malnutrition of being a prisoner.  Their skin was relatively clean and seemed to glow brighter than the oil lamps around the prison cells.  Khrys’s eyes examined this figure from foot to forehead with an intense, primal hunger.  He felt his heart beating faster with distant memory.  One thought chased the next and the rush of emotion and lust caused his breath to fall short.  And when his eyes finally locked with theirs, they turned away.

It was her.

Sorlyna gazed off to the first direction her eyes could find.  To polish what she was feeling, she lifted her hand to her face and buried her lips between her thumb and forefinger.  Things never seem to change, he thought.

What would he say to her?  What could he say to her?  He wasn’t able to find any words that wouldn’t sound like an overdrawn cliche.  He couldn’t tell her he missed her or beg her that he’s changed – that would just convey his obsessive neediness for her.  He couldn’t open with a joke – that would just prove he wasn’t capable of being serious.  So what was the truth?  The last time he saw her, he wasn’t in any army and didn’t wear any armor.  He was a just weaponsmith in the Crystell Castle slums.  Each of them knew that this wasn’t song or story.  This was reality, and in spite of the physical evidence that each of them still had feelings for what was going on between them, they were both still people.

Khrys leaned up against wall in the corner opposite Sorlyna.  “How long was I unconscious?” he asked resting his head back.

Sorlyna looked down at her fingernails and picked them with her thumbnail.  “They brought you in that way,” she hesitated.  Having realized she didn’t directly answer the question, she tried again.  “About a day.”

An uncomfortable silence stunned the air.  It was a few years since they last saw each other.  They’ve both taken many others to bed in that time, yet through both Sorlyna’s eagerness to forget the burdens she had with Khrys and the sudden shock of his heart exploding in retributive abandonment, both felt lingering effects of their relationship.  They were both different people.  Time and the armor on his back both proved it.

“How have you been?” he asked.

“Fine,” she said plainly.

Khrys dropped his shoulders and rolled his eyes to himself.  He wasn’t sure if he should be glad he finally got to hear her voice after all this time or disappointed that she wasn’t interested in talking.  As he examined her body language and considered what she was feeling, he began to realize that she still had feelings for him.  If she didn’t, talking to – or even looking at – him wouldn’t be a concern for her.  So, Khrys stood up and very slowly paced towards her.  The closer he came, the more she turned her body away, but when he was finally in front of her, he struggled down to one knee next to her.  He reached for her shoulder to show he was being genuine, but then remembered how she neglected giving him the right when he last saw her.  And when he remembered that, he placed his hand on her shoulder anyway, praying to every god he knew that she would feel his honesty through his hand.  Her smooth touch brought him stark memories of their time together.  His heart skipped a few beats.

“I haven’t the presence of mind to know what to say to you that you haven’t already heard from other men,” he said.  “We both know that groveling and attempts at persuasion won’t get us anywhere.”  He cleared his throat.  His eyes scanned the room, almost as if searching for the perfect words.  “Just know that I haven’t forgotten you.  I pray for your safety and happiness often, as much as I hate the fact you likely dream of other men now.  I don’t intend to sound cocky, but it seems to me that we both still have feelings for each other.  I said it once already, but to ensure time hasn’t diluted the message, I want to reiterate that I still earnestly desire to make things work between us.”  Khrys scratched the back of his head with his free hand and then patted the shoulder he lay his hand upon.  “That’s it.”  He stood up and slowly walked away from her.

Sorlyna tried not to hear the words because she still believed he was an immature jokester, but it didn’t work.  She picked at her fingernails again and shuffled around some more in the corner.  She tried so hard to run away from him and yet fate seemed to reunite them in this prison cell.  She truly believed that she was done with him, that she bid her farewell and moved on.  Her heart raced many times for other men since she left him, but it was still racing for him in that moment.  It seemed that their time apart was causing her a much larger burden.  The more she noticed herself squirm around, the more she realized that he had gotten to her.  Maybe it was the armor that made him change.  Or maybe time.  No, she thought.  She remembered that neither was true.

When his hand touched her, she recalled how ardently he would kiss her after intimacy.  It always seemed to come from a place of intense wanton and profligate desire.  And his kisses didn’t communicate little messages like  satisfaction, but larger ones from places of deep emotion and caring.  Then she remembered how tightly he held her during the night – not like he never wanted her to leave, but even tighter.  She realized that she should never have focused on what he had to say at all.  True inspiration is impossible to fake, she thought.

She stood up and turned to face him.  Khrys didn’t back down from either her powerful eyes or her insatiable sexuality.  She folded her hands at her waist.  “How long have you been an Obsidian?” she asked, the curiosity in her voice.  She combed some hair behind her left ear to listen.

Khrys took a couple of paces toward her.  His heart unexpectedly melted the way it had when she first told him she loved him.  Before he could answer, a patter of footsteps came from the hallway near their cell.

What could it be?  It was neither the time nor day for a prison exchange.  Sorlyna and Khrys both turned toward the hall suspiciously.  The footsteps came closer and closer, but they didn’t carry the heavy pound of a riverling step.  Two shadows stretched into the cell, elongated into unnatural shapes and sizes because of the glow of the oil lamps.  Very calmly, however, two people, dressed in rags, emerged from the corridor.

“General Arrys!”  Khrys exclaimed excitedly.

Standing next to Arrys was General Anon.  Both exchanged their armor with the rags of their prisonmates, and each carried unsheathed swords stained with the black blood of the riverlings.  Arrys used his sword to break the keylock on Khrys’s cell.  “Come,” he said, swinging the gate open.  “We’ve got many other soldiers between our armies freeing the rest of the inmates.  Do you still have knives concealed in your armor?”

Khrys forgot that all of the Obsidian troops were required to bear concealed weapons for short range dueling.  The riverlings never strip searched the soldiers.

“I do,” he said.

“Good,” Arrys said.  “We need to keep moving.”  He began running for the hallway with General Anon, but then stopped for a moment.  “By the way,” he turned around, “their weakness is the throat.”

The patter of footsteps returned from where they originated.  Khrys turned toward Sorlyna.  Both of their chests dropped heavily up and down from their emotions and what was to become a fight for freedom.  He took both of her hands in his and looked directly into her pupils.  “It is my duty as a colonel in the Obsidian Army to give my life for any and all civilians,” he said.  “If I die, I do it with one in my heart.”  He reached into his armor and pulled out two butcher knives.  He gave one to Sorlyna.  She smiled at his words, and with excitement filling both of their eyes, they ran for the other prison cells holding each other’s hand.

The Southern Syndicate, Part 2

The clouds drifted with uneasiness as the Obsidian Army marched south along the primary road of the Arcane Plains.  General Arrys led the troops on his charger, flagmen at each of his sides.  Each flag depicted a white figure of a man wearing a red cape and resting a foot on top of a defeated chimera.  The image was engulfed in an all black silhouette.  Behind them, Commander Luk followed on his horse, all six of his colonels around him.  Each soldier of their battalion followed, broken into ranks.  The other commanders and colonels were divided together with their own battalions in equally spaced ranks behind them.

A few birds chased each other around the oak trees in the plains, chirping with a fulfilled satisfaction.  It calmed the minds of the nervous adventurers.  The sun had the perfect warmth to it and, combined with a gentle breeze, the Arcane Plains felt more like a tropical resort.  Many took note of the feeling it was providing them, thinking they might not have the chance to enjoy another like it.  Their two day journey was nearly complete and most were silent at the thought of what could be waiting on the other side of River Droon.

Colonel Khrys pulled his steed next to Commander Luk’s.  He was a unique fellow; some said he was quiet, others claimed he was personable, and some even labeled him goofy and obnoxious.  He kept short brown hair and his beady, gray eyes were like lasers, always catching the slightest inconsistency in the air or in someone’s movements.  He held a close friendship with Commander Luk.  “What do you expect will happen once we cross the Frayed Bridge?”

“It’s been a couple of days,” Luk said, “So hopefully General Anon will still be alive to welcome us.”

“And if not?”

“I think most of us choose not to consider that possibility.”  Luk laughed to himself.  “What about you?” he asked.  “What do you hope to find on the other side?”

“It doesn’t matter really,” Khrys said.

Luke examined him for a moment.  “Why do you lie to me?  I always know that when you’re this vague it means you’re lying.”  He cracked a grin.

Khrys laughed.  “Sometimes I choose not to say because I know you know what I want to say.”  He paused for a moment.  “Her.”

“How long do you plan on searching for her?”  Luk asked.  “You’ve already scaled the Towering Mountains, the first man to accomplish such a feat, scoured most of the major cities on all three continents, and even succumbed to walks around Crystell Castle on your sleepless nights.”  Luk scratched the back of his head.  “I never thought that a woman leaving her man so abruptly could have such an impact on him.”

“Yes, but it’s the reason why she left that has me in despair.”  Colonel Khrys knew his instinct was right.  Sorlyna didn’t leave because another man sparked her attraction or because she grew bored of his routine lifestyle (in fact, she enjoyed adding spice to it).  She left because she never felt an emotional connection with him.  He’d always been too busy forcing himself to make her laugh that she grew sick of his act – she was one of the people to identify him as goofy and obnoxious.  She opened up to him many times, but he was too ignorant to recognize her struggle to connect with him… until she bid him goodbye in anger.  He hasn’t heard from her since.  “She was the sun between the clouds of my life,” he continued.  “I really miss her.”

“You’re certain of the reason why she chose to leave?”  Luk asked.

“I’ve never had this much confidence for anything in my life.  She hated the jokester…,”

“And never met the lovable man we’ve all come to know,” Luk finished.  He paused for a second.  “How do you know she’d even take you back?”

“How do I know she’d accept that lovable man when he’s presenting himself to her out of context… away from the together, alone, and romantic setting?”  The situation left Khrys feeling artificial, like part of an imaginary whole.  And when the time came for him to fill the gap made by her absence with something tangible, there was only the illusory.

“I hate the parts of life that are so beyond your control,” Luk complained.  “So many people have so much good in them and the majority of us take it for granted.”

“Even I did with Sorlyna’s love.”

“Let’s just finish this mission and get back to Crystell Castle with as many men as we can.  The sooner this job is done, the sooner Arrys’s men will be at ease.”

“You know me,” Khrys said.  “When I feel like this, like there’s nothing to live for, it gives me everything to die for.  So I don’t fear death.”

The Obsidian Army turned a corner around a hill in the road and the Frayed Bridge came into sight beyond the trees.  On the other side, the sea crashed along the shoreline gracefully.  The smell of the beach began to fill the air and the soldiers inhaled a deep breath of it, hoping part of the smell would absorb inside of them and remain with them. 

As the troops marched forward, the highest lookout tower in Seaside Keep emerged behind the treeline.  The concrete architecture was a beautiful introduction to the lifestyle beyond the bridge.  The road continued to bend around and when the road straightened before the Frayed Bridge, the leaves of tall palm trees rustled in the breeze on the other side of the river.

General Arrys stopped in front of the bridge and turned to face his army.  “Seaside Keep is just beyond the bridge.  There, General Anon will brief us on what’s been going on.  Together, he and I will help devise battle plans.”  Arrys turned his horse around and began to cross.  His men resumed their pace behind him.

Khrys was still thinking about Sorlyna.  As his horse sauntered on, he turned his gaze toward the river.  Much of it was tranquil, hold for tiny little waves that rippled throughout in discordant patterns.  As he was about to turn his head, he noticed one of the waves moved against the current.  At that moment he realized that all of them did so.  He shot he eyes to the other side of the bridge and saw the same little ripples moving around in the water.

They weren’t waves.

Colonel Khrys opened his mouth to point out the strange observation, but before words could come out, a snarl roared about the air.  All of the soliders continued their pace, but looked in all directions to find the source of the disturbance.  It happened again, only this time it was much louder and much closer to all of them.  The bridge beneath them began to rumble from a hard smash.

“To the other side,” Arrys called and charged across the bridge.  His men rushed behind him as the smashing and rumbling came in more aggressive beats. When they turned to look at the commotion, they saw a massive number of the sea creatures Anon described through his messenger.  In a matter of seconds, the Frayed Bridge crumbled to pieces into the river and a massive number of foes began marching toward the Obsidian Army.  General Arrys looked toward the fortress, searching for a direct path to get his men within its walls.  As he looked around, he saw many of the monsters aiming crossbows at him and his men from the guard towers within Seaside Keep.

The Southern Syndicate, Part 1

The eyes in the room stared at Luk in dismay.  The hopes of peace burned in his men along with the candle wicks around the table.  The dancing and flickering of the flames was the only life in the war room.  Commander Luk’s elite sentinels were silenced by the breaking news: they, and the rest of the Obsidian Army, were ordered to march south to war.  So they slumped back in their marble chairs, waiting for their commander to break the tension.

But Luk was just as stunned as they.  General Arrys was a newlywed.  When news of the uprising in the south by monsters of the sea first emerged, it was assumed that his desires were to spend time with his wife and to let the battalions south of the River Droon handle the issue.

General Anon from the Sentries of the Sea dispatched a messenger to request the assistance of the Obsidians, however, so Arrys hardly had a choice himself.  “Deal with it now, rather than later,” he reasoned to Luk alone.  “While we have the soldiers.”  So he gave Luk the responsibility of briefing his army on battle and marching preparations.  The news was ill received.

“What do the reports describe?” asked Kert, Second Colonel under Commander Luk.

“Monsters,” he replied, “Slimy beasts with virulent, jellylike hair that can puncture you with its stingers, thick scales as hard as diamonds, and a disgusting, salivary phlegm that will instantly corrode your flesh.”

“And how do you battle such a creature?” asked First Colonel Laureth.

“Anon’s scouts have reported weaknesses at the ankles and wrists.  If the limbs are amputated, the blood loss should be significant enough to cause rapid death.” Luk cleared his throat.  “To make matters worse, these monsters come with the gift of intelligence.  They’ve already estalished beachheads along the coast and their numbers grow by the day.”  Luk observed his colonels dart their eyes around the room at each other in silent understanding.  Time was critical to the success of the mission.  “Our objective is to eliminate all threats, exterminate every one of these creatures, or to die trying, which ever comes first.”  He folded his hands together and lay his face between his knuckles, his elbows on the table.  After a few moments of thought, lowered his hands.  “Report to each of your units.  Tell them to start packing their preserves.  We leave at dawn.”

All of Luk’s colonels bowed their heads respectfully and quietly exited the war room.  Luk remained behind, drumming his fingertips on the tabletop.  He quietly watched the nearest candle’s flame dance in dissarray as he exhaled, the improbability of the task at hand weighing on his conscience.

Distressed at Sea

The ocean was tranquil.  Martin was inappropriately picking dirt out of his fingernails and flicking it below from the crow’s nest.  He kept his telescope ready at his side, however, just in case a member of the the S.S. Dissonance’s crew came up to the deck.  Or if he just got bored of boredeom.

Captain Ferril started yelling from below.  Martin lifted his telescope to his eye and scaled the horizon in front of him.  Ferril stormed up the stairs from the cabin, three of his deckhands following behind him.  All of them rushed to the sails and dropped them for a change in course.

“I want to head north to the port of Marseilles,” he said.  “I received a report that new cannons are in stock at the shipyard and I want to replace our old, cracking ones.”

Ferril scratched his eyebrow and some dry skin fell onto the deck.  He was a young captain; he acquired the job when his former captain, Morris, was killed in a Holkani pirate invasion of his old ship.  Ferril was thrown overboard into the sea in battle, but was luckily rescued after a few hours afloat, grasping for life on some flotsam from his ship’s wreckage.

He was an angry man.  His emotions from life’s traumas wore away at him daily.  He hated the fact he lost his former captain and best friend.  And why shouldn’t he?  They knew each other from growing up together down the road as children.  Morris was always a great advisor to Ferril; he helped him strategize battles, develop confidence for the girls, and even taught him the sword.

Moreso, however, Ferril hated those fucking pirates.  They were unpredictable.  The Holkani scouted the seas in unpredictable routes during unpredictable hours, starting fights and duels for the sake of instigating fights and duels.  They rarely plundered gold or goods, but if they were victorious, they always kept a dread of every man’s hair as memento.

A flock of seagulls flew overhead, squawking signals for sneaking on their next kill.  Martin rolled his eyes at the noise as he continued to daydream.  Down below, the deckhands rushed to adjust the sails in the proper angle.  Maybe no one would notice him.  They were all busy keeping Captain Ferril happy.  He wondered if he was like a ghost from the crow’s nest.  If he tried to spit into the sea, would anyone notice or hear him?

Suddenly, a cannon fired nearby.  Everyone on board jumped in the direction of the boom.  A Holkani warship was approaching fast in attack position.  Martin looked at their deck through his telescope and saw their warriors drawing their swords.

“All hands on deck,” Ferril shouted.

Martin jumped off of the crow’s nest and climbed all the way down, standing before Captain Ferril.

“Where did they come from?” Ferril inquired, tempering his rage in his throat.

Martin swallowed.  “I thought they were a merchant vessel,” he lied.

“Get down below and tell the others to prepare the cannons.”

As Martin fled into the cabin, Ferril ran to his supply of swords and tossed one to each member of his crew.  He shot his eyes over toward the enemy ship, which was closing in fast.  “We will not abandon our loved ones,” he said.  “They will not survive the day!  They will not butcher our hair!”

As the Holkani approached, Ferril thought of his aging cannons.  He remembered the hate that plagued his life because of what they did.  He didn’t want this fight, but nor did he have a choice.  He was going to exact his revenge for the murder of his best friend and former crew.

The roar of a cannon echoed about the air, and with it, the sound of ship parts crashing into the water below.