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On the high seas west of Ornak, a storm battered the face of the deep. Clouds the colors of soot and ash swirled above the ocean in an unbroken line stretching to the horizon in both directions. From the clouds came flashes of lightning, arcing and branching sideways and downwards in a perpetual dance played to the beat of the accompanying thunder. The legends said no ship could pass through this never-ending storm, and those that tried were now rotting hulks on the bottom of the ocean.
Yet High Commander Zevcek waited with patience uncharacteristic for his orcish brethren, observing the Storm Curtain from the safety of his ship. At anchor a mile or more from the unceasing tempest, Zevcek knew he would have to risk moving closer if his plan were to succeed.
Soon. But not yet.
Despite the claims of the legend of the Storm Curtain, Zevcek knew that a moment might pass in which the storm would not rage over a particular spot of ocean. For long years he had studied the unpatterned madness of the storm. And he had concluded that such pauses in the Curtain’s fury were unpredictable and rare, but they did happen. Long enough to allow the passage of one ship, perhaps?
This was Zevcek’s theory. He had risen through the ranks of Ornak’s command on the promise of this speculation. What if a ship long ago had made the improbable journey traveling east through the Storm Curtain? What if that ship, carrying his orcish ancestors, had landed on the coast of Ornak, a small peninsula on the western side of the grand island the humans called Sularil? What if the crew of that ship had multiplied over the centuries to fill the land of Ornak? What if the multitude of their brethren remained on a long-forgotten landmass west of the Storm Curtain?
In recent months, Zevcek had claimed pieces of his theory as truth. Now he waited, his uncharacteristic patience his most important ally. Or perhaps his second most important.
“Fetch me the wizard,” Zevcek called after seeing just a hint of softening in the color of the clouds. An underling bowed and scurried away below decks to do his master’s bidding. Zevcek admitted to himself that none of his plans would have been possible without the traitorous and greedy human, Feren Silvern, whom the high commander had persuaded to join his cause. Promises of wealth beyond imagining were ever so easy to make.
Zevcek’s own people, the orcs, possessed no magical ability, a fact of life that frustrated him to no end. But this human had performed wonders that Zevcek had to see to believe. Silvern had transported Zevcek blindly through the Ethereal Plane and brought him back again. The high commander decided he could put up with the wizard’s smugness for a little while longer. After all, Zevcek only needed the odious human for one more spell.
He heard the wizard long before he made his appearance. “This better be important,” came the human’s grating voice. “You know I get seasick when I’m on deck.” Zevcek was glad his orcish sailors could not understand the common tongue in which Silvern complained, or else they might have taken issue with the company Zevcek had brought aboard three weeks ago. His ship had been reprovisioned from Ornak five times since he began his current round of study, and he had rotated his unruly crew to forestall any thought of mutiny. Still Zevcek’s patience held. But the wizard was trying it sorely.
“Unhand me, you dog! I can negotiate ladders on my own, thank you.” Silvern’s curled waves of hair and fleshy brown face appeared in the doorway to the lower decks. Seeing the wizard’s eyes always struck Zevcek with a pang of jealousy. The irises were black as night and flecked with blue flickers of arcane energy, which marked this human as a powerful and practiced mage. Silvern deposited a large and ornate book on the deck and pulled himself up behind it. Wobbling to his feet, the wizard picked up his spell book, swayed toward Zevcek, and put a quivering finger under the high commander’s nose. “You know I prefer my solitude away from your smelly rats.”
Zevcek ignored the slur and pointed toward the Storm Curtain. “I believe the time is upon us,” he said in the common tongue.
“So you’ve claimed a dozen times. What makes this one any different?”
“You’ve said that before, too.”
“Silvern, I am not paying you an exorbitant sum to second guess me.”
“No, you’re paying me an exorbitant sum because of this.” Silvern opened his spell book. “I finished the incantation.” His greedy eyes sparkled blue as he ran his hands over the page of newly dried ink.
“Then let us begin.” Zevcek struggled to keep the excited anticipation out of his voice. “All hands on deck. We sail west.”
The crew of orcs weighed anchor and embarked. “Yes, right there,” cried Zevcek, pointing a gloved hand. “Two points to starboard. Break out the oars.” With the sails stowed because of the storm, the orcish crew bent their backs to the oars usually used to make port. “This is it. Silvern, your time is now. Do not fail me!”
As the ship lurched toward the Storm Curtain, the wizard stepped to the bow and began the long incantation. Zevcek joined Silvern and pointed to the momentary break in the storm. For several anxious minutes, Zevcek kept his forefinger trained on the spot while Silvern intoned the spell. Waves crashed against the hull. Lightning flashed a bare ship length away. Thunder echoed all around, but Silvern’s voice rose above the din.
The wizard snapped his book closed, raised his arm, and grabbed the wrist of Zevcek’s pointing hand. Zevcek felt a jolt of power surge through him, stealing his breath and strength. He dropped to one knee, but kept his eyes trained on the Storm Curtain. An arc of dazzling white-blue energy shot from Silvern’s outstretched arm. Zevcek watched as the wave of energy pulsed towards the calm spot in the Curtain. And like any curtain in any window might, the Storm Curtain rolled back where the arcane power touched it, revealing calm seas three ship lengths wide.
Zevcek rose to his feet and smacked his gloved fists together in triumph. The time for patience was at an end.
Grail vaulted over a low rocky outcropping and scrambled behind it to catch her breath. Unaccustomed to being winded, the fleet-footed elf gulped the thin air of the mountainous Highpoint Island. Lifting her close-fitting leather armor, she exposed the copper skin of her torso, mottled now by a dark bruise that threw her ribs into sharp relief. Grail touched the bruise and winced.
A low, guttural roar reverberated through the mountains. The echo played havoc with Grail’s senses. From which direction did the roar issue? How far away? Grail bit her lip and with one more long exhalation brought her breath under control. As the echo died away, a new sound took its place: footsteps, coming near with speed.
Grail heaved herself up from her hiding place, sword drawn. But she relaxed her fighting stance when she saw who was dashing towards her. “Daxa,” she called. “Over here.”
Daxa Torn saw her elvish friend, changed course, and was soon sucking down the thin mountain air just as Grail had done. “Most of the platoon’s down, Lieutenant,” reported Daxa. “You and I and two others escaped the initial attack.”
“Only two?” Grail slumped against the outcropping. “Which two?”
“I couldn’t tell.” Daxa put her hands on her head and took a few short breaths. The fair skin of her cheeks was flushed red with exertion, and the tight bun keeping her hair at bay had lost its integrity. Wisps of flaxen hair swirled around her face and plastered themselves with sweat to her forehead. “They were off running with their backs turned. The rest didn’t have time to flee.” A deep breath in. “They were dead before we ever sighted the dragon.”
“Are you injured? Did the dragon touch you?”
“No.” Daxa hung her head. “I scuppered the moment I saw it. You’re the only one who stayed long enough to fight the thing. It’s a dragon, Grail. What were you thinking?”
Grail fingered her bruise again, a souvenir from the scaly, green beast’s tail. Fortunately, it had used neither teeth, nor claws, nor poisonous breath on her in their brief encounter.
“This doesn’t make sense,” Grail concluded. “Where would they get a dragon? How could they control it?”
“Nothing makes sense in war, lass,” said Daxa, in an uncanny impression of their drill instructor, Corr Ironhide’s thick brogue.
Grail chuckled, despite their desperate situation. Her friend had the ability to make her laugh in even the bleakest of circumstances. “You’ve got that stubborn dwarf nailed.”
“So what’s the plan?” asked Daxa. “It seems impressions are all I’m good for right now.” She smiled. “I guess I could distract the dragon by letting it munch on my flesh and bones.”
“How very sacrificial of you,” said Grail. She started to laugh again, but a second roar stole the mirth from her voice. “Definitely closer that time.”
“How can you tell with the echo?”
“I can’t, to be honest. I just assume it’s closer because then we have more time if I’m wrong.” She slammed her fist against the rocky outcropping. “None of this adds up.” Grail coughed and winced again. “Here,” she said. “Help me out of this armor. I can’t breath in it with this bruise.”
“That’s a pretty one,” said Daxa, eyeing the purple splotch disfiguring Grail’s copper skin. “So no armor then.” Nothing could keep the humorous sparkle from Daxa’s eyes. “That’s very considerate. It’s like you’ve already skinned yourself for when the dragon eats you.”
“That’s it!” said Grail, clapping Daxa on the shoulder. “We need to get the dragon to eat something. Look around. Do you see any lavender?”
“No, but the plant is the color lavender. I swear I saw some when I was running away. Come on.”
“Grail, you do know you’re now going towards the dragon, right?” When no response came, Daxa, still holding Grail’s leathers, trotted off after her fellow lieutenant.
When she caught up to Grail, the elf was unbraiding the cord of a necklace she kept secreted away under her uniform. “Redgrass from back home in Daen,” Grail explained. “Here, give me that leather jerkin.” Grail rolled the supple leather into a cone. “Head back to that stream we just ran through and fill this with water.”
Mystified, Daxa shrugged and ran back the way she had come, a third roar from the dragon quickening her pace. “Always think it’s closer,” she said under her breath. “Always think it’s closer.”
She returned to find Grail grinding flutes of lavender in her palm. Daxa held out the cone of water and Grail tossed the ground lavender in along with the redgrass. “A little secret recipe from my people…”
“The Long Walkers,” said Daxa.
“That’s right, in the common tongue. One more ingredient.” She wiped her forehead and wrung her hand off into the jerkin. “Sweat of an elf of the Oruana Kir.”
“I learn a new bit of elvish from you every day.” Daxa smiled. “Not that I’ll be around after today to use any of it.”
“Yes, you will,” said Grail and took the potion from Daxa. “This will work.” A fourth roar echoed through the mountains. Grail headed off in the direction from which she guessed the roar was coming.
“If we get through this,” whispered Daxa, “remind me to write a song about how you slew a dragon with pretty smelling water.”
Grail flashed her friend a rare smile. “Trust me.”
They returned to the small clearing where they first encountered the dragon. It had not moved, nor had it eaten any of Grail’s fallen soldiers. “Distract it for me,” said Grail. “But without the munching, all right?”
Daxa nodded and stepped forward. “Hey, Lettuce Scales. Do you mind if I call you Lettuce Scales?” The dragon swung its head in Daxa’s direction. “I’m talking you.” Daxa’s voice broke on the last word. She screamed as the dragon opened its mouth, revealing rows of teeth the length of longswords.
Grail dashed in front of her friend and heaved the water out of the jerkin and into the dragon’s mouth. Caught off guard, the dragon instinctively swallowed the sweet-smelling potion. Grail dropped the leathers and clamped a hand over Daxa’s still screaming mouth. “Watch.”
The dragon shuddered and began to shrink. A few moments later and the dragon was shorter than both Grail and Daxa. Then standing before them was not a dragon, but a dwarf: barrel-chested, with a thick black beard and bald head.
“Sergeant Corr Ironhide,” said Grail. “You make a very convincing green dragon.”
Daxa was stunned for a moment, but quickly regained her composure. “Drill Sergeant, sir. I would like to officially apologize for calling you Lettuce Scales, sir.”
Ironhide looked himself up and down, then rounded on Grail. “Are you daft, lass.” Corr had only one volume, a screeching yell that amplified his brogue. “You’ve just ruined the training exercise with that trick of yours.” He looked around at the fallen platoon. “Right, men. Up you get. Session’s over for today.”
The dead soldiers all rolled over and sat up, grinning. The other two who had ‘escaped’ the dragon walked out of the shadows of the trees. One started to clap, but a glare from the drill instructor silenced him. Corr Ironhide turned back to Grail and Daxa. “This exercise was for you officers only. It had exactly one objective: ‘Know when you’re beaten.’ There are times in battle when strategic retreat is better than foolhardy bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.”
Grail began to protest, but Ironhide shouted over her. “But no. Our elvish friend Grail decides she’d rather change the rules of the test than learn from it.” The dwarf stood on tiptoe and wagged a threatening finger in Grail’s face. “Know this, lass. You can’t change the number of orcs charging downhill at you by throwing water on them.”
Snapping to attention, Grail’s shout matched the volume of the drill sergeant’s: “Permission to speak freely, sir.”
“Not granted, but I suppose that won’t stop you.” Ironhide folded his arms across his broad chest. “So best make it quick.”
“The mission as detailed to me was to neutralize the dragon by any means necessary. I succeeded.”
“No, sir, with knowledge.”
“Ach, get out of my sight, Elf, and take Lieutenant Torn with you. Know this incident will make it into my report.”
Grail and Daxa saluted the drill instructor and scurried out of the clearing. When they were out of earshot of the furious sergeant, Daxa said, “How’d you know it wasn’t a real dragon? That was either very brave or very foolish.”
“In my experience, bravery and foolishness often go hand in hand. But to answer your question: it seemed entirely unreasonable that a real dragon had been coaxed to participate in a training exercise. They’re far too rare, and most are either evil or fiercely independent. Plus, it was strange to me that it didn’t eat the soldiers. It was a good illusion.” Grail winced again feeling her bruise. “And the body was certainly real enough, but even these intense training missions aren’t designed to kill recruits. Push us to the limits, maybe, but not kill us.”
“No,” agreed Daxa. “The killing us part will come soon enough.” She tried to laugh it off, but the joke was all too true.
* * *
Malric stood back to back with Grem and Tirost. The three brothers circled slowly, their weapons flashing forward to keep the questing blades of the orcs at bay. The other four members of the dwarves’ squad lay lifeless in the mud nearby with crude blades, spears, and arrows sticking from them. Tirost, the eldest of the three, shouted to his brothers, “Looks like a score and a half.”
Grem, the middle brother, did a quick calculation. “That makes ten each. Doable.” He slammed his gleaming battleaxe against his mud-flecked shield.
“Says you.” Malric spun twin blades in his hands. “Remember, today is my first action.”
“Quick your bellyaching, Mal,” said Tirost, as he swatted a sword out of an orc’s hand with his long-reaching warhammer. “’Tis naught but excuses.”
“Yar,” agreed Grem. “What are thirty orcs to the likes of the sons of Ryor Hammersmith?”
“Overwhelming odds,” said Malric.
“In our favor,” shouted Tirost, a glint of battle hunger creasing his craggy face into a mad smile.
Malric grimaced. “Let’s get this over with.”
Tirost and Grem began a war cry, which a reluctant Malric was about to join when he noticed a dust cloud approaching rapidly from the east. “What’s that?”
“Ach,” said Tirost. “Cavalry from Torniel, here to steal our fun. Let’s meet them in the middle, boys.” Tirost charged, his warhammer cutting a great swath through the ranks of the orcs. Grem and Malric stayed close behind, axe and sword finishing off the foes knocked prone by Tirost’s scything tactic.
As Tirost predicted, they met the riders in the middle of the fallen orcish troops. The dwarven brothers had slain half the orcs themselves while the cavalry thundered around them. With the battle won, Tirost approached the lead rider and snapped a curt salute. “General, your appearance is timely and welcome.”
General Danalla Decirion removed her helmet and shook out her long silver hair, which cascaded past her pointed elven ears. “And your manners, Captain Tirost, have improved greatly since our last encounter.”
Grem and Malric snickered behind their brother’s back. Scuttlebutt claimed that Tirost, upon the last time the general had ‘intruded’ on his battle, had invited her to kit herself out in full plate armor and jump in a lake. Malric knew that Tirost had received an angry letter from their father, Ryor, after that incident, and so far Tirost’s behavior had, indeed, improved.
Grem’s chuckle stopped abruptly, and he stepped forward. “General, we lost over half our patrol today. Good, strong lads and lasses from Anvilcairn, who knew their way ’round their weapons. We three are all that remain.” He hesitated, glancing around at the carnage of the battlefield. “Scouting reports underestimated the foe by at least fourfold.”
Malric watched the general counting to herself as she followed Grem’s gaze around the field. The reports had estimated the foe at no more than a dozen; a foraging party, nothing more. But at least sixty dead orcs littered the ground of Arillon’s southwestern coast. Where were they all coming from?
Click here to purchase The Storm Curtain
on Amazon in paperback or kindle edition.