STAR CX is being published in an 8 part serialized format, Verse 1.5 – I/O is the second novella in the series. Each week I will be posting chapters from the series for viewing on my blog. Due to participating in NaNoWriMo, I have elected to delay the formal publishing of Verse 1.5, I will post chapters weekly and then in December launch the novella officially. For those that enjoy this series, I invite you to purchase the ebook or paperback editions of STAR CX: Verse 1 as a way of supporting this independent author; also reviews, likes, replies, retweets, and feedback are extremely helpful and encouraged.
The first night of any job can be fraught with worry and confusion. But no one told these new recruits to the trelven army that their first night would be dealing with murder, facing the enemy of their nightmares, and being sent off on an adventure doomed to fail. For Ahy and Ough, this fate-filled night would be the start of a quest like none had ever attempted. Their mission: cross the forbidden mountains of Gre-Llue to the land of Redren, break a 2 thousand year treaty, and convince the king of the humans to aid the last free city of the trelves. The only problem, Ahy and Ough might be the worst pair of trelves to be given such an important duty. For you see, they hold no such experience in things like fighting, hunting or even walking
through the woods.
Verse 1.5: I/O
3 Months previous
“Guards! Guards! Avail! Guards!” A voice shouted through the quiet night. At first, Ahy did not react. He felt dumbfounded and confused at the sudden commotion. This night was his first night as an acting guard over the citizens of Hadriana, the last secure and greatest city of the race of creatures known as trelves.
Ahy stood on helm of the easternmost point of the castle wall. To his back, the city of Hadriana sprawled as wealthy shops and homes became grids of indistinguishable light against the dark night. Standing within a shadow beside a tall column made of pearl. Ahy could have remained still and there would have been no doubt that even the best eyes of the kingdom would not be able to distinguish his figure from the night.
A repeated foray of shouting brought Ahy out of his momentary lapse of thought. For a moment, he thought about running to get help, but now was the time to prove he was there for a reason and so he stepped out of the shadow and became seen to the alarmist.
“Good Evening, I can assist,” Ahy spoke with a booming voice. He stood tall at near 7 feet, lengthy and full of muscle, built as the perfect weapon against the hoard of hruks. Instinct forced him to run his left hand up the back of his bow for reassurance that no matter what the trelve before him said he would be able to take care of the matter.
“The Iseult of Hadriana has been murdered,” The elder trelve said as if he were delivering a weather report.
Ahy shook his head, trying to judge if this was some sort of rookie hazing or if the words were true. “Say again, I thought you said our king was dead.”
“Don’t use filthy human words when speaking of our Iseult. I told you, something murdered the Iseult right before my eyes.”
“Well, lead the way!” Ahy threw his hands up, still not believing the story.
A huffing and puffing noise, broke the tension as another joined their party. This trelve was short and stocky no more than 5 cantibles tall. This trelve was a lesser trelve, and he looked the stereotype. Instead of tall and noble, this one was short and dirt strewn. At first glance, it bore the expression of the less educated. Ahy was sure it would make rude sounds towards the elder trelve.
“Aye, I heard you call from on far, I ran as fast as I could. You see it’s my first night on the job and all, can’t miss out on all the action. What’s..er…what’s going on? Name’s Ough,” It spoke without dignity.
“As I said to this oak, the Isuelt has been murdered,” the elder one scratched his long white beard.
Ahy attempted to catch the eye of Ough, but the half-trelve contained no such subtlety. “Was your name?”
“I am Ahy,” He responded with a stiff snap.
“Oh, my Leone! You’re that legendary archer the whole world’s been talkin’ ‘bout? I can’t believe it, my hero, right before my eyes.” Ough waddled up to Ahy and hugged him, lifting Ahy off the ground. The tall trelve sputtered mortified beyond embarrassment. He felt as if his half-kin had disarmed him in a way he would never be able to counter.
“Get off!” Ahy pushed away. “There’s more important things at the moment. This elder speaks that the Iseult is dead.”
“Sorry, just excited to meet a true legend after all,” Ough responded with a bashful wink.
Ahy found himself feeling that through some trickery of Ough, he was now the one who needed to apologize. “Tis not a problem. It is my first night as well, perhaps I am nervous.”
“First night, buddy with the great archer Ahy! Let me see your double shot move.” Ough begged for a demonstration. His enormous brown eyes catching Ahy’s attention. Ahy noticed that strange for a lesser trelve, he did not have a single blade of facial hair.
“I’ll show you that some other day, tell me about yourself, Ough, where do you hail from?”
Ough looked defeated for a moment, but when he heard that Ahy spoke interest in learning about his past he perked up and was back to his explosive mannerism. “Oh, I lived a bit northwest of Cantiburn right at the base of an iron flat. Dug there my whole life pulling ore with twenty generations of my family, that is until the hruks invaded.”
Ahy had heard many similar stories, all too common these days. There was not much left untouched and unblemished by the great and unstoppable spread of the hruks. He felt sincere sorrow for his half-kin.
“Once they come through, they leave nothing but ashes and mud behind. So here I am working my way up the ranks until I can become strong enough to go back and reclaim my families land. I’ll do it, I swear.” Ough’s voice lost his usual cheerfulness and became hard and cold.
“I have no doubt in you,” Ahy patted Ough’s back.
A moment of silence passed as Ough and Ahy reflected on all that had brought them to this point.
“Can you tell me, if it’s not rude. What made you decide to join the guards? Instead of the fighters and go and kick those hruk’s back into the swamp they came from?”
Ahy had expected this question. “My father was a guard. It was always my dream to follow in his footsteps and help protect the Iseult…Oh, Leone! The Iseult, I forgot all about you saying he was murdered.”
“We haven’t a moment to waste,” The elder trelve repeated without blinking or moving.
“Take us to him!” Ahy yelled.
“Mother of Leone, we’ve been sitting here gabbing about nuthin’ while the Iseult is laying dead. We’re sure to be sacked as soon as major Acyn gets wind of this,” Ough whined.
The elder trelve’s eyes switched back and forth between the nervous youths. “If you just follow me, I can show you the way.”
“Okay, let’s go!” Ahy shouted, near to pushing the elder forward to get him moving. Ahy was angry and ashamed at himself for letting the situation get out of hand and forgetting his duty. The elder leading the way seemed to be in no hurry, with Ahy close to tripping the old trelve with every step. Before many steps at all, Ough was several strides behind them.
If it was a true emergency, there would be much more rushing and shouting. Why had the elder yelled in such a way that indicated haste and not act on it with his own actions, Ahy wondered.
The small group turned a corner as the unmistakable stench of a hruk struck them. It smelled worse than hot garbage and Ahy fought with valiant strength to hold back his gag reflex. Fortunate was on Ahy’s side as his will remained strong and he kept his true feeling on the inside. Stealing a glance at Ough. He saw the other trelve having a much more difficult time controlling his reaction.
“This is terrible,” Ough spat as if the scent had settled on his tongue.
“Right on the other side of the doorway was where I discovered Iseult Shannon.” The elder pointed to a door at the end of the passage.
“Where are all the other guards?” Ahy asked out loud.
Sighing as if this information was a repetitive daily task and Ahy had forgotten it once again. The elder informed him, “I’m afraid they too have been dismembered at the hands of a single hruk.”
“So what? We’re the only ones left?” Ough’s voice raised a pitch.
No one answered. Instead, the elder swung open both sides of the door and ushered them before the single hruk. The hruk who had slaughtered over a dozen guards and the Isuelt of Hadriana. Holding the remains of one guard, the hruk showcased its domination over any attempt to fight or escape.
“I have brought the last ones I could find,” The elder trelve spoke to the hruk.
With its elongated snout, the hruk growled an acknowledgment. The creature that stood before Ahy and Ough was at least a foot taller than Ahy and three times as thick. This one had all its hair braided with pieces of bone intertwined. This hruk was large and more terrifying than anything described to Ahy. The highborn trelve could feel his heart pounding in his chest, he was so nervous at the site of the monster.
The first lesson all trelves learn is that hruks are evil abominations. The second lesson demanding that it was a trelves duty to see to the eradication of all hruks. The only problem with the second lesson was that no single trelve was strong enough to overpower a hruk. Sure, they could use bows and swords to gain an advantage, but the sheer power of a hruk was enough to overpower most armaments. Plus the hruks bred like rabbits. The latest census estimated that in the entire horde of hruks there were 5 hruks to a single trelve. Every moment of training and preparation in both Ahy’s and Ough’s life had been in how to use their individual and collective strengths to defeat the hruks.
“You!” Ahy and Ough shouted at the same time, realizing that one of their own had betrayed them. Was there no hope, would this act of treachery be the end of the trelves of Aura?
“Hruk.” The beast heaved still steaming from the fierce battle that must have occurred. It’s face reminded Ahy of an enraged bear, but with longer teeth.
The elder bowed, turned to them, and spoke. “My name is Der. I have been conscripted by the hrukian horde. To act as convoy and intermediary in these final discussions. They will recede to the north bank of the river Rhue, under one condition, you hand over their prisoner. The previous Iseult was unable to do so. One by one they will destroy each and every trelve until their prisoner is returned. You can end this war now.”
Ahy felt stuck in place as if locked in a dream and if only he could shake himself, he could wake up. His mouth opened and closed several times as he proceeded to fail on how to respond to such a drastic turn of events.
“The river Ima is far behind the line of battle now. How could a prisoner be so important to give up so much contested land?” Ough asked, surprising everyone.
“He says, he’ll show you if you’ll allow him to bite each of your ears off,” Der translated.
“There’s no way…” Ahy shook his head. “Can we have a description of the prisoner, any information at all?”
Der signed with total apathy to the situation at hand. “No, this is merely a pass-fail sort of thing. Either you do know where the prisoner is and you live, or you die.”
“Wait. Let me talk to my friend here and together we will tell you what we know.” Ahy asked permission. Der whisked them away with a flick of his wrist. There was no escaping the hruk so there could be no harm in allowing them a moment.
Ahy put his arm around Ough and pulled him away so that their backs were to Der and the hruk. Ahy wore a light cowl, its main purpose was for camouflage. With a slow and steady curl, he draped the cowl over Ough to such a degree that the lesser trelve was completely hidden. In the small huddle, Ough spoke first. “Did…Did you really mean it? That we’re friends?”
“I mean, I never thought in a million years a lowly underground good-fer-nothing trelve could make friends with a high-born tree trelve. Today is a great day,” Ough blurted out.
“Today is a terrible day!” Ahy shouted down into the pit of his arm. “Our Iseult is dead, many of the other guards are as well and so will we if we don’t come up with something.”
Ough looked away. He appeared sullen from the instant rejection, “I suppose you’re right.”
“Well, any ideas?” Ahy whispered.
“Give em a ghost trail that never ends,” Ough suggested, a sudden sage of wisdom.
Ahy thought on this for a moment. It sounded plausible that they might be able to deceive the hruk and Der enough to give them time to escape, but what then? There was nowhere else to run or escape to. There was an endless ocean to the west and south. Forbidden mountains to the east and only death and destruction ever came from the north. Escape for any trelve was impossible. “I’m sure they’ve already considered that we might give them false information. It would have to be an immaculate lie to convince them. I bet they would hold us until the information proved accurate. That is if they don’t kill us regardless of what information we provide.”
“What about your bow?” Ough asked with starry eyes.
“What about it?”
“Could you not just whip around and plant an arrow right between that monster’s eyes and finish this terrible night?”
“And if I should fail to hit my mark, we will be destroyed instantly.”
“I’ve got yer back, mate. No worries that monster won’t ever have the chance to touch ya.” Ough assured with great confidence.
Ahy mumbled nonsense as he peeked over his shoulder without moving his neck. The beast was pacing in a line, its eyes never left its prey. The hunt had already begun and Ahy was now realizing that no matter how many arrows he shot at it, the strength of the hruk would overcome anything he could manage. “I…I’m scared,” He admitted, face turning red.
“It’s alright, so am I.” Ough attempted to sooth the unusual emotion pouring out of the highborn trelve.
“It’s not that I’m scared of the situation nor is it that I am scared I might miss. I have always been a great shot and I have made targets far more challenging. I am afraid of what might happen should the arrow fly true. You see, I’ve never hit anything alive…anything that had blood in it, that is.” Ahy admitted, his eyes downcast and sad.
“Oh dear, well…that’s, that’s…”
“That’s why I never joined the fighting forces out on the front line, cause I’m a bloody coward.”
“No worries friend. Don’t listen to all the doubters, I’m positive that’ll get you nowhere in life. I believe in you. I believe in the you that I always dreamed of meeting one day, the legendary archer Ahy. I believe in the Ahy that’s never missed a target in his entire career. You can make this shot just spin and release, don’t overthink this one,” Ough soothed.
Ahy blinked, tears in his eyes. He wanted to wipe them away but knew that if he did the sudden movement would end this moment. Here he was, high society trelven, being schooled on self-worth from an underground trelve. Life was an incredible journey, Ahy assured himself. It was in this moment that he regretted squashing Ough’s words of friendship earlier. Without a doubt, Ough was a friend to Ahy. Resolve returning to Ahy, it was time to act and Ahy dropped the cowl surrounding his companion.
“Ah yes, that’s the prisoner! Ha! My friend, you are correct,” Ahy shouted with overt expression. He kept his cowl over Ough as he watched how his enemies would respond.
The hruk stopped pacing and Der’s eyes narrowed at the suspicious pair.
Catching on with quick aptitude, Ough responded with a glint of mischief in his large brown eyes, “I tried telling’ ya. Not sure why you wouldn’t take my word for it.”
Ahy turned, drew his arrow and shot. The action took less time than it does for a human to exhale. The arrow landed with a perfect thunk in the forehead of the monster. The hruk had no time to even growl or yell before it fell to the ground in silent passing.
“Oh, my Leone! It worked!” Ough clapped his hands.
From behind the enormous pile of flesh rose the slender profile of the elderly trelve named Der. Beside Der, they saw their major Acyn pulling a sword out of the beasts back. Der was already wiping clean a slender blade normally used to separate skin from bone in the kitchens.
“Great work men, your distraction gave us enough time to act,” Major Acyn praised. The commanding officer stepped forward extending a warm welcome to the junior guards.
“We were only a distraction?” Ahy asked bewildered.
“Afraid so, your arrow is fast and true, but you’d likely need to fire over 100 arrows to put a hruk of this size down. If our blades hadn’t met at the exact same time that your arrow did. You’d’ve been crushed in less time than it takes you to breathe in air,” Acyn stated in a crude way.
“I…I see,” Ahy fell quiet after realizing that he still had much more work to do if he wanted to no longer be a coward.
“What now?” Ough asked. “Sure we stopped this one hruk, but just to the north, there is an encampment of thousands of them. And even further north there are hundreds of thousands more waiting to spill over us like a flood.”
“Thinking like a true guard I see,” Acyn commended Ough. “We have a task for the two of you if you’ll take it.”
Ahy and Ough had little choice but to nod in agreement.
“The prisoner they are searching for escaped one of their most secret weapon manufacturing compound. She, yes, a female human by all account, is a weapon they were planning on using as they invaded West and broke over the mountains. We have for a long time believed this is what they were planning. She escaped, but incorrectly, they thought we broke her out and brought her to Hadriana. Logically then, she escaped over the mountains and is deep within the human territory. It will be your mission to go undercover, on a most dangerous mission where should anyone discover you. You will instantly be hunted to death. You must go over the western mountains, break the treaty of Gre-Llue. Find this escaped prisoner and convince their king to bring aid and men with the goal to once and for all end the horde before it destroys all life on this world.”
“How would we convince humans? We are trelves. I’m a foot too tall, he’s much broader than regular men. Our pointy ears are dead giveaways, so too is our speech. Discovery would be certain the moment they lay eyes on us,” Ahy pointed out.
“You’ll have to make due on your own and be resourceful. We believe in you, or well there is no one else alive that we can spare to send. Our hope lies in you two to complete this task.”
Ahy looked at Ough. Both of their eyes betrayed their feelings; their hearts heavy with fear beyond anything, they were both out of their league, and they both were ready to go. This was Ahy’s chance to prove he was not a coward. Same as it was Ough’s chance to become the fighter he dreamed of becoming so he could take back his land. “We accept.”
A roar like that of a lion descending on a gazelle erupted from the thought dead beast as it chomped down on Der’s midsection, splitting him in half.
“No Der!” Ahy shouted and tried to run to help the triple crossing elder trelve but the major held him and Ough back. “You can’t, I’ll end this but you must start your journey now. Go run! Save us while there is still yet daylight! Make for the mountains!”
“Der! DerDerDer! No DER!” Ahy shouted, not hearing a word the major was saying. Ahy threw punches and kicks at the person holding him. It was Ough who was dragging him away from the growing massacre. Ahy watched Acyn draw his blade and run screaming towards the still alive hruk as the door to the Iseult’s inner chamber snapped shut with a hollow clang. Through the haze of Ahy’s anger, he could hear Acyn’s blade hit its target over and over and yet the roars of the beast seemed to grow louder and stronger.
Ough, still clutching Ahy as close to his bosom as possible, picked Ahy off his feet and rushed away from the danger, he began running for the mountains. As distance grew between the horror behind them and the terrible nightmare yet to come, Ough began humming a tune reserved for times of grieving and sorrow.
2017 © Stew Stunes