BY MARK FURLONG
The nimble beast flashed with frenzied speed through the dark, dense trees. With each violent step the sodden ground surrendered, causing him to falter, recover, and then falter again. Sharp, thorny branches sought out the vulnerable openings of Lathon’s sallet, raking flesh, and digging shallow, scarlet gullies into his arms. He desperately struggled to guide his steed through the thick underbrush with muscle memory and instinct guiding his way.
“Do you challenge?”
The haunting voice echoed through Lathon’s head. He fought to shake himself free from it, but the memory set every follicle at full attention.
“Breathe… breathe,” he reminded himself as he sent frozen molecules into the frigid night air.
The top of the forest momentarily opened and starlight cast shadows onto broken branches. An instant of peace fell upon him and his mind was restored with purpose. As the forest top returned, the animated silhouettes vanished into darkness. A solid rogue branch, set deep in rooted stumps, separated rider from horse, sending him on an unholy flight through a merciless jungle that feasted upon his flesh; ripping skin from muscle and severing his sideways knee nearly off.
When he awoke the pain was immediate. The agony took verbal form and his cries undermined his once stealthy journey.
He cocked his head and carefully listened. A steady red stream flowed down his calf and was ingested by the forest floor. He inhaled another determined breath to call for his horse, but paused. Lathan’s pupils expanded and he scanned his proximity for any form of defense. The volume of the approaching abominations steadily increased.
He spotted a familiar amber glow radiating from beneath the swampy marsh. He clenched his jaw and boldly lunged forward. His agony filled the forest. Again, he reached ahead, grasping at rocks and roots, groaning with each betrayal of his leg. Heavy footsteps approached from behind.
The blinding illumination from beneath the leaves penetrated the forest, casting shadows that lengthened and shifted as the light expanded. He spotted Childra’s unconscious body nearby. The pursuing creatures erupted as they spotted their prey. Reaching into the ground Lathon unearthed the glowing sceptre. He quickly turned and thrust it skyward while roaring “Terra!” The faces of the grotesque creature morphed as the earth absorbed them.
The pain escalated and Lathon knew his sceptre was dearth of power. With two hands clasped around it he closed his eyes and fed it his remaining energy. The staff vibrated and a dim light gradually returned. With declining strength he whispered “Sanitas."
Lathon and Childra were enveloped by a droplet of light. The experience was anything but painless as Lathon’s wounds were healed and bones were snapped back into place. The light eventually faded and the two remained lying amongst the leaves. Lathon wrapped both hands around his previously broken knee and pulled it inward.
The horse gently raised its head, folded its legs underneath its body and carefully pushed itself upright. Lathon inspected her for damage, and after spotting none, embraced her tightly. He mounted her and they returned on course.
Several kilometers later the woodland abruptly ended revealing a vast open field.
The horse gently slowed and then came full stop. Lathon unhooked and removed his headgear, but not his hood. Both man and animal stood staring in wonderment at the monolithic structure in front of them. The superstructure was massive and its gravity pulled them closer prompting Childra to retreat in order to counterbalance the illusion.
“Easy girl. Steady.”
The moon’s obstructed light occasionally revealed movement within the field and around the fortress. Indiscernible figures plotted the grounds in front of the structure and appeared unaware of their arrival.
Lathon slowly made his way towards the front entrance, careful not to draw attention. It was exactly as he had remembered and he was filled with trepidation. He slid down the side of Childra, but held onto her reigns with unsteady hands as he prepared to relive a moment that had haunted him for fifteen years. He stared silently at the gate, reliving the events; carefully reviewing every detail.
He composed himself, and then called out his friend’s name.
A moment passed; and then another.
The wooden bridge leading to the main threshold of the fortress slammed down violently in front of them. Lathon stared fearfully towards the great doorway. Then, the air died. All creatures of the night went silent, and from the deepest bowels of the castle a deafening voice thundered out of the entranceway.
“DO YOU CHALLENGE?”
Lathon’s sceptre began to glow brightly.
Out of the entranceway of Grenash Castle stepped Loudess, donning full combat regalia, and accompanied by Rumar the Fomorian, and the Legion of Three. Lathon’s eyes connected with Loudess’. His friend’s face looked older and expressionless as he stared back from across the bridge. A crisp autumn breeze blew across the field, between Lathon’s legs, and into the East tower of the castle. At the top of the tower the once restful flags clapped violently in the wind as they unfurled.
Intolerable pressure began to grow inside of Lathon’s head. His sense of time, purpose, and self was vacillating and he struggled to maintain perspicuity. He wrapped his fingers tightly around his sceptre, and its light intensified, spreading across the field and into the Verboten Forest revealing an entire battalion of Loudess’ army strategically positioned.
Lathon stepped forward to address his countrymen. “People of Grenash,” his voice was deep and hoarse. He began again, “People of Grenash...,” his voice failed worse than before. He continued, “... the Mystic Sceptre has rightfully been retuuuurrrrr.” Lathon fell to his knees in great pain.
Loudess stepped onto the platform that separated the two men. A great sadness befell him and his head descended. When it passed, he raised his eyes and firmly projected his voice.
“Lathon! I have watched you mature from a dull and disinterested young man into the brave and honorable citizen you have become today. Your undeniable courage has served you and your kingdom well, and you’ve inspired many through your sacrifices. Your loyalty and faithfulness shall always remain a part of Grenash lore. However…”
Loudess’ voice cracked. He cleared his throat and then spoke in a much firmer and somber tone.
“Dear friend, fate has brought us together again, but tonight it has played a twisted and unpleasant game. We are all victims of our own fate. Some run from it, and others to it, but regardless of the path we choose, we always find it. The return of the Mystic Sceptre was foretold in the scrolls centuries ago. It was once our mightiest weapon, but for good reason it was banished from the kingdom. It became a symbol of death, an element of evil, and a memory of destruction.”
Lathon pressed his hands against the sides of his head as the pain penetrated his skull. He was confused and struggled to comprehend what Loudess was saying.
“Lathon...” Loudess continued.
“...the scrolls foretell that the sceptre is the weapon of our kingdom’s ultimate destruction, and however cruel and unjust, it clearly establishes the one that returns it to our kingdom as Karnage; the destroyer of Grenash.”
Loudess raised his jeweled war hammer and a semi-transparent blue light engulfed the castle.
Lathon desperately cried out to his friend, but the words fell from his mouth like shattered teeth and were replaced by the sounds of a wounded animal. Uncontrollable anger and violent thoughts filled him, and as the impending physical transformation began, the once heroic life of the man living within this human body came to a sudden and tragic end.
Lathon’s head split in two like a dropped melon and fell flatly onto the castle grounds. In its place grew the head of Karnage; monstrous in both size and appearance. Its expanding wings split Lathon’s remaining corpse into infinite pieces, scattering them across the field. The beast continued to morph into form and by the time it finally took flight it was fifty times the size of its previous incarnation. Its eyes, as red as blood, sharply contrasting its emerald green skin, and its razor sharp talons ripped deep into the earth before it launched itself skyward.
The battle began.
Mark Furlong is an online marketing manager for an STM book publishing company in Boca Raton, FL. He lives and works remotely just outside of Buffalo, NY. This is his first published story. You can follow him on Twitter.