An excerpt from “The Hounds of Tyrant”, a Legacy of Ash novel-in-progress by James Downe
The Islands of Koi Rhe Veil
The sea had all but consumed their sanity.
Salt and wind had dried their skin and hair, their lips split and crusted with blood. At first none of the crew of the small craft believed what they saw, a bleak stretch of shore and sand on the horizon. They simply stared through their weathered, sun-bleached masks.
Gulls could be seen drifting lazily in the open sky above, small flecks of grey and white in an endless brilliant blue. The sea around the small vessel rocked gently, both the slight wind in the sails and the tide bringing the tired crew in.
Seven had survived. Four had not.
They had sailed out from Tyrant nearly four months previous on what was estimated to be a two week journey. The vessel itself was a small Miriai ship named the Far Cast. The red paint all but faded on the hull, the ship had been stocked with enough supplies for a little more than a month. The journey had been worse then any had expected, but at long last here they were. The islands of Koi Rhe Veil were little more than myths and fables, said to have been lost to the threads of time.
And yet, here they were.
Holeni struggled to believe what he was seeing. Hopefully they would find more than myth. This was it, he realized, this was why he had joined the Hounds. He would help to save the world from tyranny.
A grunt from his left brought his attention to the hulking form of Caulot, spear already in hand and knives strapped to his sides. The man was twice the size of Holeni, his chest was bare, his flesh crisscrossed with pale scars from countless battles. Violent black eyes peered out through his battered mask as he looked down on the thin form of Holeni.
“Get your things,” Caulot grunted. “Captain wants you in first.”
Holeni nodded. He had expected as much.
Their initial search of the islands was quick and efficient. There were fifteen small islands, each one covered in thick vegetation. Tall stones dotted the high shores as if dropped from the sky, though the smallest of these had been rounded by the swell of the tides
Holeni had made the run around in a small skiff with two others, taking nearly three turns to do the initial sweep. One island bore signs of an old stone harbour, ruined stone towers visible through the thick canopy of trees. More ruined towers could be seen on at least three of the other islands, but none were as easily accessible as the old stone harbour.
Returning to the Far Cast, Holeni gave his report and waited for the captain’s decision. It did not come as a surprise when the captain gave the order to sail closer to the first island and send a team into the dense jungle.
Some of the crew had managed to pull in a good supply of fish and crabs from the shallow waters with their nets, so they each ate a small meal and drank the last of their fresh water before making their way to the old stone harbour.
Six went out in the skiff. The captain, Holeni, Caulot, Uron, Gevial, Jaon.
The last rebel, Indrem, remained on board to watch the ship.
Holeni felt tiny next to everyone else, especially here, crowded into the small boat. The captain was not an overly big man, but a big red beard and solid manner made him quite impressive. Uron, Gevial and Jaon were thugs, nothing more, but they had aided the rebellion with fierce pride and dedication for years now. Holeni knew that he could depend on any of them, despite their profession.
The steep rocks would have made it difficult to climb, though the thick branches, roots and vines that hung down from the trees above would have easily supported each of them. Instead, they made their way to the stone harbour, even if it was in an advanced state of disrepair. Time had taken its toll, and though the chiselled stone steps were worn and smooth the rebels climbed up to the island surface.
The stink of salt and rot filled their senses.
Bodies, each one a kinasahr barbarian, lay in rough piles on the ground and broken flagstones.
Tusks and broken bones, they had been dead no more than a week. The blood was still fresh on the ground, and they all bore injuries from arrow, axe and blade on their mottled skin. There were no arcane wounds. If they were to fight, at least it would be something they could understand. None of the rebels, Holeni included, cared for the chaos of sorcery.
“I thought the kinasahri made better steel than this?” Uron asked, tapping one of the fallen barbarians with her booted foot. While she wore a mask carved to resemble three crows grouped together, Holeni knew that beneath it her face was a mass of scars given to her by the prince and his Cormorants.
Caulot shrugged and stepped forward.
“Butchered?” Holeni asked as Caulot poked through the bodies.
Their armour was poorly made hide and scale not meant to last. Their weapons were better quality, though they were obviously stolen from a range of different sources. Some were iron and steel, but others were carved wood and bone.
The man grunted an acknowledgment, then bent down and dug a small iron arrowhead out of the chest of one of the bodies. He scowled and showed it to the captain.
“It’s Miriai. Imperial without a doubt.”
“From Tyrant?” Gevial said. The captain nodded.
“Cormorants?” Uron asked.
“How can that be?” Holeni asked. “They can’t have followed us, could they? We were lost for weeks, off course.”
“They must have had better directions,” the captain said.
“They’ve been here for some time, waiting for us,” Caulot grunted. “These poor kinasahr have probably been living here for years, judging by their gear. Maybe natives of the islands?
“Regardless, keep your guard up. Even you Holeni, we lose you, this whole trip is for nothin’.”
Single file they pushed into the island jungle, weapons drawn and senses focused.
Birds and insects flittered from branch to branch, while several small dark grey monkeys followed closely behind. Holeni had his crossbow loaded, his hands shaking as he led the others through the wilderness. The moist jungle floor muffled much of the sound of his boots, while the dense foliage would cover most of the sounds of their passage. The captain followed close behind, a heavy sabre in his hands. The man was used to just such ventures, and Holeni had seen him wield the blade with animal ferocity.
They all knew the stories.
The old fort, known only as the Amicerach, had housed all the treasures and wealth of the sorcerers who had lived within the Koi Rhe Veil . And in that treasure, the item called the Stone of One Thousand Souls. With the stone in their possession, the rebellion would prosper, would sweep aside its enemies and bring justice and balance to the world.
With the stone, the Hounds would be unstoppable.
“Stop” Holeni whispered.
The captain gave a silent signal, and as one they crouched into the foliage. Holeni had seen the slight glitter of moisture on the thin strand of wire at his feet with plenty of time to spare.
He pointed it out to the captain, who scowled and nodded. Good work, he mouthed. They each stepped lightly over the wire and continued, all the more focused as they went. Holeni found four other traps, and each time they easily stepped around.
An old stone wall covered by vines encircled the fort itself. Few markings could still be seen on the surface of the stone, all dating back to an age long before the Mirias Deil, even before the empire of Ildestra.
Three small stone pillars barely four feet in height jutted out from the ground. Though they barely came up to Holeni’s chest, they were wider than they were tall, and he estimated maybe six feet in diameter. Taking a few minutes to inspect the pillars, he found that they were covered with carvings of some sort of ocean creature, a squid or octopus.
They were reminiscent of the wooden totems Holeni had seen in the forests far north of Mirias Deil, though the detail would have to have been phenomenal to still have such form after such a long time. Each stone pillar depicted these aquatic creatures, their tentacles at times wrapping around the entire base of the pillar.
Both the captain and Caulot caught his eye through their masks, but neither spoke a word.
They moved on towards the fort itself, finding two more thin wires hidden within the broad jungles leaves and vines at their feet. As they made their way closer to the structure, the canopy overhead opened up, revealing a cloudless sky of the purest blue. The monkeys had followed them this far, though they now sat along the top of the stone wall, going no closer to the fort. Ancient carvings lined the walls and towers, gargoyles whose twisted features had been all but consumed by time stared down from above. One by one, the six made their way silently across the open space between the wall and the fort.
They saw no one, heard no shouts of alarm. Finding a small portion on the fort wall broken and shattered, rubble scattered about as if it had been blown open from within, they climbed inside.
Wet dirt clung to the walls and floor within the Amicerach, memories of battles long past still clinging to the stone. The captain went first, keeping Uron close on his left. Uron held two smaller blades in her hands. Despite her size the woman was graceful and quick. Torches were lit as they entered the fort, the darkness consuming all light from outside.
A massive red and brown python pulled itself through a hole in the floor as they rounded a corner. The tip of its tail was all Holeni saw in the flickering light of their torches, though the musty smell remained.
Slowly and cautiously they began to search the ancient fort.
Most of the doors had been seized by time and moisture, while those that did open led to empty rooms and more hallways. After three turns of searching they eventually found a large room resembling a library. Here, the roof was open in places, the sunlight pouring in, giving more than enough light for the rebels to see.
“Put out the torches,” the captain said, though he kept his lit, jamming it into a crack in the stone floor.
The room was large, with old bookcases and shelves carved into the walls. The memory of battle scarred the room, marks from blade and claw marring the face of the walls. Four skeletons lay covered in dust in the centre of the floor.
Ages had passed since these four had died. Myths had come and gone. Though they had decayed to little more than memory, something in this very room had slowed the process considerably. Holeni could taste it in the air, the scent of lingering ritual and sorcery. Within this room, time did not pass as it should.
The rebels searched the bones, finding tarnished silver bracelets inlaid with white coral on the skeletal wrists and ankles. The skulls were smaller than an average human, the femurs longer. All other belongings and clothing had long since decayed.
“The Caevasa,” Holeni whispered in awe. “The sacred defenders, mystics of legend. If the stone exists, they would have been guarding it.”
“Great,” the captain nodded. “Search the room. Uron, Caulot, watch the doors. Holeni, do your thing.”
The captain, with Gevial and Jaon, began to search through the piles of rotten supplies.
Holeni began clearing the centre of the room of rubble, leaving the skeletons of the ancient mystics where they lay.
Like four points of a compass, the guardians had stood in a circle around the very centre of the room. Directly between them, a large polished serpentine ring nearly three feet in diameter enclosed a rusted iron sphere. The sphere, in turn, was set into a depression nearly three inches deep. Runes and inscriptions covered various stones, some of the languages unknown to Holeni. He traced the symbols, the veins of yellow and gold through the face of the stone, the myriad fingers like spider’s web across the surface.
Rust coated the iron sphere, the nexus of the entire room and these four dead guardians. The sphere reminded Holeni of rough, unfinished globes made cartographers in Mirias Deil, and the maps and charts that explorers had once tried to make of the world.
The rust, Holeini thought, had a slight appearance of rot crawling over a corpse.
“How do you think this place fell?” Gevial asked aloud, though to no one in particular.
“Impossible to say.” Holeni’s thoughts had been broken, his mind thrust back into his present surroundings. “It’s been too long since the Sundering to have lasted untouched, even here. Someone must have been here, maintaining this place.”
“The kinasahri we saw outside?”
“Unlikely,” Holeni said. He had seen the kinasahr, seen how they live. They were too brutal to have let something like this stand. “It is more probable that it was a small few, a cult left over from ages past…handing down the upkeep of the fort generation by generation.”
“What was all this?” the captain asked. “A temple?”
“Not a temple.” As he spoke Holeni found small grooves in the floor, from the centre, cutting through the serpentine ring, each one ending at a small black tile set in the floor.
“What is it? You find something?”
Gevial poked at a few scattered icons that lay on a broken table.
“Careful,” Holeni whispered, raising a hand in warning, his fingers spread. “This place is more than we thought. Not sure yet, but our actions could have…large ramifications.”
“What do you mean?” the captain moved to Holeni’s side, kneeling beside him.
“This was a great place once, a place of severe ritual and sorcery. It seems to be connected…to something else…something more than just our little cause…something deep below the ocean.”
“Not makin’ much sense there,” Jaon laughed nervously. “What do you mean connected? Where’s the dust damn stone?”
“I’m not sure there ever was a stone…” Holeni mumbled as he moved across the room.
Pulling off his mask, he scanned the grooves and the tiles. There were twelve tiles in all. Five had already been broken, their surfaces cracked and rotted. The seven that were still intact though, were flawless, as if time had no bearing upon their form.
Holeni stared, realization dawning in his eyes.
“We shouldn’t be here.”
A crash from outside the walls thundered around them. Holeni blinked, and Caulot was thrown through the doors and into the room. Two imperial knives were buried in his chest, and his head smashed against a stone shelf as he landed. Uron was a moment behind, calling out a battle cry as she skidded through the doors. One of her arms was severed, blood spilling freely across the floor. Behind her came a unit of imperial soldiers, each one bearing the silver and blue of the Cormorants.
The captain did not hesitate, his sabre already knocking down the defences of one of the Cormorants as they barrelled into the room. The fighting was everywhere. Both Gevial and Jaon snarled as they fended off the imperials, while Uron was screaming in pain as she lay dying.
One of the enemy soldiers came fast at Holeni, sword raised. She struck swiftly, Holeni barely having time to duck underneath and sweep the attacker’s legs out from under her. A kick from the woman sent Holeni sprawling, his head cracking off the stone behind him. Pain and dizziness threatened at once, though the rebel shook it off and forced himself to stand. Looking up through the pain, he saw the captain swing downward into one of the soldiers, cutting deep into the chain armour beneath the faded uniform.
Another soldier stepped in to take his place, parrying three quick thrusts before pushing back and scoring a well placed strike on the rebel captain. Roaring out with pain, the rebel leader caught the man with his fist, following quickly with his blade as the imperial fell. Rolling away at the last second, the soldier narrowly avoided a killing strike.
Instead of flesh and bone, the captain’s sabre shattered one of the small black tiles. It cracked instantly, a low groan echoing throughout the fort. Holeni’s heart missed a beat as the realization of what these tiles were washed over him.
Ancient wards of binding, of slumber.
Impossibly, Caulot was on his feet, sword raised and covered in gore as he roared out in anger. More imperial Cormorants fell. Holeni could see the skill of these men, their forms flawless as they came again at the captain, the ease and efficiency in which he held his blade. It was like music to the soldier, and art he had perfected.
These imperials were not just elites, they were hand picked by the First Legislator himself.
A sharp stinging pain lanced down Holeni’s right arm, an imperial blade slicing neatly through his armour, biting into his flesh. He swung his sword up past the Cormorant’s defences, though the soldier parried the blow and cut Holeni again, this time on his chest under his left arm. The small rebel gasped and struggled to remain standing, not to let the pain overwhelm him. As the man came in again, the captain appeared at Holeni’s side, taking the imperial apart from shoulder to hip.
They were surrounded, but the fighting was scattered.
Each of the tired rebels faced two men at a time. Knives and swords flashed, stone shelves were shattered. Caulot was down again, this time he had a short sword sticking out from his back, just below his neck. Holeni watched as Jaon cut down the two men she faced, one of them falling on top of one of the remaining tiles.
The soldier’s knee cracked the ceramic square, and another shudder rocked the foundation of the fort. Holeni shouted out to Jaon to stop, but they had gone too far now. The imperials would cut them down no matter what they did. Holeni knew he must get the fighting into the hallway, to fall back and try to get away.
“Fall back,” he tried to say as he coughed up a well of blood.
Gevial went down, a blade across his throat. He fell near the centre of the room, his blood mixing with that of Uron and the fallen soldiers. Three soldiers lay at Gevial’s feet, tendrils of blood flowing down the grooves towards the tiles. The captain was knocked back, three others before him. One of their blades smashed another tile. The captain rolled, but the soldiers were on him at once, their blades tearing into his flesh and bones. Holeni watched the nightmare unfold around him as the captain’s head was hacked from his body.
How many more tiles, Holeni thought as Jaon fought on above him.
They would not last long, not now. Not with all the blood. Holeni tried to count the small black tiles, his head swimming as nausea drove him to unconsciousness.
There was sudden quiet as Jaon, wounded and breathless, was the last one standing. Bodies of both friend and foe lay broken across the room. Holeni himself realized that a sword had punched through his stomach, his legs lifeless under his body. He struggled to remember how it had happened, but his thoughts would not respond.
Two tiles…had they survived?
He pulled himself up to see, his gaze dropping to the floor when he saw both ceramic pieces were shattered. Blood flowed down all of the tracks, twelve channels of blood, each one rolling down to the foundation of the fort to the unknown darkness below.
“Get out,” he groaned. Jaon was lifting him, dragging him to the door, but Holeni shook his head. “I am done, Jaon. I am beaten. We have all been beaten.”
“What are you blabbering about?” she hissed, scanning the hallways outside for more imperials.
“The tiles,” Holeni said. “The tiles. Get out Jaon, get back to Tyrant.”
“Not without you,” Jaon said as she hoisted the broken man onto her back. “Someone has to explain this to Abstinence, and it’s not gonna be me.”
Holeni saw just how close they had been. Jaon was covered in blood, one arm hanging lifeless at her side, and still she made her way slowly from the room and back the way they had come.
Dust damn, what have we done? Lady of Luck be with us now, Holeni silently prayed. Be with us all.