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
Peaking above the well made but hastily put together camouflage. Ough squinted through the dim light and watched the sprawling camp. The evening before they had arrived near the encampment of hruks. The size of which Ough estimated doubled the number of individuals living in the capital city of Hadriana. Having no other choice, Ough discovered a small cavern on the side of a hill near the start of the camp. They had agreed to make it their base of operations until they could figure out how to get around the army.
The stench, permanent and oppressive, made Ough’s eyes water. He watched a group of five hruks standing in a group at the end of the path leading to the camp. Wondered what they were discussing, he decided that it ultimately did not matter. As from what Ough had been able to gather over the last few hours the only Hruks in the entire horde capable of making a decision were both dead. One cut down in the throne room of the capital, and the other washed away in the still rising flood waters of the river.
Ough wondered what the army would do now that it had no command. Would it exist until all surrounding resources had been exhausted or would a new leader emerge from within and lead the horde further south? Whatever it was, it appeared that everything was at a long stalemate of sorts. All Ahy and Ough had to do was wait until they found a way to cross without detection and they would more than likely survive this encampment.
Seeing nothing of value to report, Ough ducked behind the thistle and returned to the very small cavern. It was not much larger than a bear den. If a third trelve had been with them it would have been too tight for all to fit. Ough nodded at Ahy, who was sitting on a rock with nothing more than cloth wrappings on. His leather armor cast aside, he was well built; thin yet powerful. Ahy’s green cat-like eyes were unlike any lesser trelves. Ough often found himself captivated by their glow.
The temperature had increased each day of their journey, yet the rain had kept them cool. Now the air was boiling with added humidity and all it seemed like the only active part of their day was sweating.
“Anything?” Ahy asked without looking at Ough.
Ough shook his head, “Nothing to report.”
“Whhew…it’s so hot, I can’t stop sweating., Ahy fanned himself with a single hand. “How do you still have all your armor on, I’d be dying with all that on.”
It was true that Ough wore heavier armor than Ahy, but no matter the circumstance Ough could not allow his armor to be removed, should his true identity and secret be revealed. The secret burned at every thought Ough had lately, especially since Ahy had saved him from the hruk. He had almost let it out in the heat of the moment. Luckily Ahy had changed the conversation without realizing anything suspicious. “Gotta be prepared for anything, that’s what my commander taught be during training.”
Ahy shrugged, “Try relaxing a bit, you are usually much more jovial.”
“I just….I just hate waiting!” Ough yelled a little louder than he meant to. “Sorry, I just get anxious and impatient. I hate being late for anything and just sitting here when we have so far to go. Makes me feel like we are going to be late on everything.”
“Whoa…relax,” Ahy attempted to calm the agitated trelve, but his words only fanned the flames.
“I can not! How can you just sit there? We need to get out of here, I know there is a way we just haven’t thought of it. Do you think the hruks can smell us? Are you hungry, I am starving. If we can’t make it out of Gre-Llue we’ll fail our brothers and sisters and most of all my family. Do you think a bear stays in the cave in the winter? Did I ever tell you about my ax? it was my fathers and before that his fathers, and so on back a hundred generations. Anyway, my father broke the one blade while defending our home from a group of ten hruks. He almost won too. But in the end, he came down hard on a boulder and shattered it. The recoil gave the hruks enough time to disembowel my father.”
“Ough!” Ahy shouted, breaking the stream of conscious verbal onslaught. “Put down your ax.”
Ough realized that in his anger and nervousness had pulled out his ax and hoisted it in a battle ready position. With Ahy being the only thing in his view it appeared like Ough was ready to swing at Ahy as if he were a hruk from his memory. Ough shook his head and lowered his ax and his face in shame. “Sorry, I got carried away there.”
“Yeah…dear Leone, I don’t even know where to start. Have some water.” Ahy tossed a leather sack of water to Ough. With a meek gesture, Ough took a sip. His eyebrows jumped with how good feeling of cold water rushing down through felt. The water seemed to wash away his anxiety.
Ough rubbed his scrubby brown hair, “Thank you.”
“What was that about your ax and your father being murdered?” Ahy asked with caution.
“That’s why I’m here, that’s why I’m not scared of these hruks like I should be. It is my duty as a son of the house of Brodur to seek revenge. The hruks invaded our lands and sacked our home. They ripped apart my entire clan, you see I’m the only one left, and I swear to Leone I’ll cut them all down with this ax.” Ough’s face had turned dark and drawn tight as he recalled horrific memories.
Ahy stood up and crossed the tiny bit of separation between them. He reached out his hand and grabbed Ough’s pulling him into a shoulder hug. “I’m sorry my friend, you have my word that along this journey if the moment arrives I’ll let you take down any hruk you wish to.”
Ough could not meet Ahy’s gaze as his vision felt warm and watery around the edges. He felt like he should pull away from the embrace, and yet Ahy’s strength reassured him. “You just don’t want to do any killing yourself.”
Ahy chuckled, “It’s a deal then.”
Ough broke the long handshake and leaned back against the cavern wall. “So any ideas on how we are going to get out of here?”
“None at all,” Ahy admitted while tying his long black hair in a sling in an attempt to keep himself cooler.
Silence fell upon them as their conversation drifted away, replaced by a new level of humidity and heat. Sweat ran down Ough’s arms and over his brow stinging his eyes. Time appeared to slow down as the afternoon lasted for far longer than necessary. The night did not bring much relief. Instead, it brought out swarms of tiny stinging insects that were attracted to the smell and light of the enormous encampment beside them.
“I can’t stand it anymore. I’m going back to the river.” It was Ahy that broke first.
“We can’t move at night, that is when they are most alert. They will smell your stink the moment you step out of this cave,” Ough challenged.
Ahy shook his head in stubborn refusal of facts, “I’ve got to do something. I swear if I sit here for much longer the last you’ll see of me is screaming as I run out into the open and end it all to get away from this heat.”
It was Ough’s turn to sooth and calm, “we must persevere. I know how you feel. I just want to rip my armor off and all I can think about is the cavern pools I’d go swimming in as a child.”
“I bet your kind would roll in that puddle over there.” Ahy spat in a vicious and mean way.
“My kind?” Ough repeated with a sour expression.
“Yeah I’ve heard rumors that you lesser trelves eat mud and go swimming in it, that would cool us down wouldn’t it.”
Ough wanted to correct Ahy’s rude words but held his tongue due to his own upbringing.
Ahy must have noticed the expression on Ough’s face as he stopped talking for a moment. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. The heat is gettin’ to me.”
Ough did not respond, the word mud kept bouncing around in his thoughts as if to taunt him and rile him into responding to Ahy. “I’ve heard ye’ highborn trelves are all cowards who only send lesser trelves to do battle. While you all stay behind in Hadriana defending it.” Ough highlighted the word defending with air quotes.
“That’s not…” Ahy had no foil to Ough’s accusation. It was true in trelven society the harder and more dangerous jobs were always assigned to lesser trelves. The rest given to highborn trelves.
“I’ll prove right here and now that it isn’t lesser trelves that deserve these jobs, it is you lazy highborn’s.” Ough boasted, daring to rise above his class and call out the unfairness.
“And how would you do such a thing?” Ahy leaned towards him.
“I’ll…I’ll do what I do best and I’ll dig a tunnel from this cavern to the other side of these hruks to get around them. I’ll do a job your kind could never complete, cause you’d never get your hands dirty.” Ough was now standing, even at his shorter height, the dim light made him look enormous in the small cavern.
Ahy forced a laugh. “Dig? The entire way, that’d be miles until we could return to the surface and be clear of these hruks. No way, but it’s a deal.”
Ough clapped his hands together and agreed to the challenge. Without speaking Ough undid the knot keeping the armor on his left leg. On one end of the metal shield was a pointed edge, the other end was curved and broad. “Do you know how we lesser trelves make such sturdy metal?”
Ahy shook his head, “With fire?”
“That would work with human steel or the cruft the hruks used to make. No, we forge our metal and steel with fulken fire. A force from deep in the earth. Legend has it fulken fire has been burning since the beginning of time and will never stop. Long ago all of Aura was covered in ice and snow. A winter that lasted decades, frost giants and mammoths were all that survived on the surface. All the highborn trelves were forced to join with the long-past gwarves and live under the firmament with our ancestors. Together they joined in more ways than one and dug deeper than ever before. Somewhere down below the surface they discovered fulken fire and used it to melt the snow and ice along with forging trelven steel. Metal that will not shatter, will not dull, and can only be changed with another spark of fulken fire.”
“If our steel is so strong and powerful. How then have the hruks nearly vanquished our species from existence? Unless we find this fabled weapon, I fear we will see the last age of the trelves come to an end.” Ahy asked.
The metal between Ough’s hands started to glow as if an invisible flame was turning it to bright orange and red. “You’ve heard of the knowledge, right? They still teach that to children in hadriana?”
Ahy answered, his gaze focused on the bright spot between Ough’s hands. “That old fairy tale? Sure, as a study in mythological fiction or historical fantasy that was created before certain things about the nature of the universe were properly understood by society.”
“Do you remember how it began?”
Ahy thought for a moment before giving up. “I do not recall, it’s been a while.”
“Aye, it has…” Ough smiled. Picking up a large rock, he smacked it along the edge of the molten metal and began bending the metal. “It starts with the arrival of the eternal darkness.”
“Ah! I remember now,” Ahy clapped his hands as the story came back to him. “Something impossible happened, all over Aura towers sprung out of the ground. With them came six-armed giants. These giants were supposed to be gods of some kind. Instead, they began destroying these towers and any civilization that stood in their way. All inhabitants joined together to defeat this new enemy, but something even worse arrived; the darkness. Darkness fell and consumed every last one of the giants. Then, the jewel of the moon fell from the sky and gave the magici of Redren power enough to lock away the darkness. Light ascends.”
“More or less, yes, that is how The Knowledge begins.” Ough had now formed a perfect spike with the metal in his hands. Leaving it aside, he untied the armor over his right leg. He began working it in a different way while heating the broad end. “The fire from the jewel of the moon did not come from the moon. That was Redren propaganda added to the knowledge, no it came from a star. It took nearly all the power of a celestial body to put away the darkness. Then when it was at it’s weakest, the hruks in their jealousy stole it away and buried it deep. What had once been little better than bronze became fearsome metal that would decimate even the strongest trelven blade forged from fulken fire. From the moment that star fell to Aura and was stolen by the hruks our days have been numbered.”
Ough had long since finished the shovel head and had begun wrapping leather around it to bind it to a sturdy branch. He then did the same with the spike and his preparations for digging were complete. “This should do it!” Ough declared with a fist pump of joy.
“Only those?” Ahy questioned. “A pick and a shovel, there’s no way you can move enough dirt to even fill this cavern.”
Ough chuckled at Ahy’s naive statement. ”Nay, I will show you the skill handed down through generations of my family, the skill of mining.”
Taking a step towards the stone wall, Ough took a deep breath and hoisted the spike up to his shoulder. Stomping with his feet, he widened his stance and began humming a deep tune from the depths of his core. Ough pushed the base of his tool so that it rose over his head and in a single smooth and practiced motion the hammer came down, striking the dirt. A plume of dust rose above Ough. Where once had been a solid rock wall was now a depression large enough for Ahy to fit into. It had appeared as if the rock and dirt had leaped out of the way of Ough’s spike to avoid the oncoming sledge.
“Amazing,” Ahy commented. Ough struck the wall a few more times and soon enough there were the beginnings of a tunnel leading into the depths of the firmament.
After a few hours of watching Ough mining, Ough’s captivated audience of one called out. “Can you teach me? Can you show me how to dig like that?”
Before responding Ough struck once more. Wiping his sweaty brow, he finished and returned to the entrance where Ahy was still watching from. “Even if I taught you the spell of va’ nhur and gave you this spike, the results would be drastically different. I bet you’d make no more of a dent than a human with even the heaviest pick-axe. This magic requires muscular magic as well as perfection of form and follow through. It took me ten years to get to where I am, and I am nowhere near the master level that my father was at. I was in the middle of my apprenticeship when the hruks came…”
Ough could not help as tears broke through his tough exterior. Mining had been his family’s claim to fame and fortune since the merging of trelven blood with gwarven folk. Now unless Ough figured out the secret to the skill his family invented and held most guarded, he would never be better than the average day worker in the mines.
“At least take off your armor, you have to be dying in the heat and that much exhaustion.” Ahy tried to change the subject.
Ough accepted and tore off the hinge that held his breastplate of leather woven steel in place. With a crash that was somehow louder than all of the digging, Ough’s armor fell to the ground.
Now clad only in cloth rags, Ough appeared anew to Ahy. Ough felt his face grow warmer as Ahy’s gaze fell over him. Ough was sure that his secret would be exposed. Yet in his heart, he felt a pang of joy for the moment to come so that he would not have to harbor this burden anymore. Ough looked down at himself to observe what Ahy might be seeing. His full arms barren and his muscles were tight and veiny from the heat and work. Broad shoulders exposed a large and full chest concealed by the flimsiest rag. There was no way that Ahy would not notice.
“I see what you say about muscle magic. I agree I would not have what it takes,” Ahy commented, before turning back to look out the entrance, completely devoid of interest in a less armored Ough.
Ough wasn’t sure what was worse; holding in a secret from someone you cared about, or having put all the signs before that person and still completely missing the obvious truth. He did feel much cooler with his armor on. The situation had completely taken his mind off of his grief, so in a quiet murmur, he sent a word of thanks up to Ahy before returning to the dig.
As he struck the wall, Ough began to laugh. It was a deep belly laugh that seemed to overtake all things. The words “muscle magic” kept ricocheting around his head until they became an inside joke unto himself. How could an archer famous for his keen eyesight and observation skills, completely miss the fact that he was, in fact, a she. A female trelve, who was the only daughter of the family of Brodur. She had witnessed the dismemberment of every male in her family and repeated her vow to revenge her family and take down as many hruks as she could. She laughed at her committing a trelven crime by joining the army as a female. Laughing harder still as she felt tickled by each elaborate way that she imagined having to come up with to get Ahy to notice her femininity.
Ough continued to laugh as her spike landed once again. This time evaporating away more rock in a single blow then she had the entire night. The missing element to her family’s power was laughter. On through the night and over many morrows Ough dug further underground as Ahy remained at the entrance. Keeping watch and wondering why his new found companion had suddenly gone delirious with laughter.
2017 © Stew Stunes