Where Once The Faithful Roamed

Where Once The Faithful Roamed cover

Treachery runs deep on Aardnaar as the High Lords’ fleet approaches.

But across the eight corners of the known universe the Rösenbridge has taken the Guild’s last hope of salvation to an unknown destination.

Read chapter one of this stunning sci-fi saga, below…

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The rains had already begun as the withered man stumbled his way across deserted city streets to the anonymity that the winding rocky path might offer. He hated the city and all its sins and vices. Here all the enemies of ages past could try to honour the contracts that had been placed on his life. In the dens of sin that lined the roads to the hyper-yards were the opportunities to settle many an old score.
Limping on wounds of old he did not stop to rest or seek shelter until the last of the glowing globes that marked the limits of the sleeping city had been left behind in the rains that were growing in strength.
Only then could he feel the safety of the trees and the cover they would offer that he was used to. Hugging his already drenched cloak a little closer he hurried on into the comfort that the darkness would offer. Before him lay the mountain path that climbed into the mists.
Away from the lights he stopped to rest just a little and to let his eyes grow accustomed to the darkness so to make easier the climb on the rough stones. The trees were not thick here, yet, so he had to move a little to the side of the path to find one to shelter under to keep out the worst of the weather. Hustling through the city streets had left him out of breath, fearing to. Now at least he could rest without so much fear.
Somewhere through the woods he heard the sound of the wolverines beginning their nightly patrol. He would still have to face the dangers of natures making. Feeling under his cloak he took sanctity in feeling his dagger safe and ready in the hip scabbard. He had fought them off many times in the past, and could do so again. A man of the wilds, Stoto was tougher than his crippled looks might have suggested.
A rustle in the undergrowth close by stole his attention, and his heartbeat fluttered in his chest. Wolverines this close to the city? The sounds he had heard before were greatly distant, though it was not unheard for occasional opportunist stragglers from the pack to stalk this close to civilisation.
He twitched a hand under his cloak for the dagger.
“Not so fast, Stoto,” hissed an unexpected voice in his ear.
So the sound in the bushes had been a decoy to draw his attention; too late he realised.
His heart really did miss a beat this time – he knew the voice.
“Drew,” he hissed through a widening smile. Despite the enormity of the moment, Stoto’s voice did not reveal any fear.
The voice chuckled by his ear, and the feeling of a blade prodding his ribs grew ever more acute. “You always remember a voice Stoto. I like that very much.”
“Business or just a social call?” Stoto asked slowly.
The knife jabbed uncomfortably closer.
“What do you think?”
In the distance came the howl of wolverines running closer in their pack. They were still a long way off up the mountain path.
“Perhaps we should take this conversation somewhere a little closer into town,” said Stoto in measured tones. He nodded his head in the direction of the howl. “The wolverines run ever closer, and the cold dark fingers of the night provide them with all the cover they need.”
Drew laughed again. His voice hissed with smugness in his ear.
“Do not worry about the wolverines tonight my friend. They shall feed well, though you might not like the fact that it shall be at your own expense.”
“Whose contract is this on?” demanded Stoto. Carefully he tried to edge his fingers under the cloak, fumbling silently for the handle of the dagger. It was dark, and the steady patter of the rains deadened most sound, though he knew the bounty sharks were always keener than the rest to be able to stay alive for so long.
“I bet you’d like to know!”
He shrugged. “Just that it’s nice to know who’s trying to get the knife in.”
Laughter echoed through the night.
“Trying? They’re succeeding by my reckoning.”
Stoto’s fingers found what they were feeling for and slithered around the handle. A smile crept across his face, hidden in the gloom of the gathering storm.
“You’re never going to take me alive,” he warned slowly.
Drew failed to note the very real edge to the words.
“I don’t have to. I’m a bounty shark. Your head’s worth just as much with or without the rest of you.”
Only too late the bounty shark realised the inevitable. There was no time for exclamations or reactions. In the blink of an eye it was over.
Stoto flung his robe across a shoulder and bent low to wipe clean the blood from his blade.
“You know, Drew,” he said with a cackle as the wheezing body beside him slumped to the damp ground, “You were good, very good. But there comes a time for us all. Unfortunately for you, my time does not come yet.”
He spat in the dying man’s eye and turned to go.
“Yours however is a different matter.”
The mumbled words carried from the darkness through the drizzle but the figure that spoke them was already gone, lost to the shadows of the encroaching night.
For a while the clearing in the trees remained quiet save for the hissing blanket of the light rains. Then the bushes twitched, and two men stepped cautiously from the shadows – Drew’s apprentices.
In the trade of the bounty shark, it was always as well to train others to carry on such a lucrative business – for a percentage.
“Drew? Did you get him?” whispered the first, cautious of his master’s wrath for disturbing the peace, yet anxious that they had waited beyond earshot for what felt like too long.
There was no answer. Silently they crept closer.
“He was hear somewhere,” muttered the second.
It took them no more than a few moments to stumble across the cooling body.
“This is not good.”
His comrade nodded, pushing the body with a toe. Wolverine howls made them both look up with haste.
“They have the scent; they will be here to feast soon. We had better be gone.”
The other nodded. As they made to meld back into the trees the second paused a moment, hanging back.
“What is it? Do you want to become wolverine fodder?” scolded his comrade.
“What about Stoto?”
“If Drew failed, then we would too. He is gone with all advantage. The rains will cover the trail. The bounty will not pay for our lives if we chose to follow. He has won.”
He nodded to the still warm corpse.
“Let’s go – the wolverine’s are near and will not care to leave the opportunity for more fresh meat alone for the night.”
With those words the other nodded in agreement. Neither cast the body another look before disappearing into the trees.
Up the valley the sounds of the wolverine packs grew closer. The scent of fresh kill carried well in the damp conditions to noses well tuned to spotting prey that needed no work or effort. The pack would feast well and by morning all evidence of Drew’s misfortune would be gone.

* * * *

Hurrying the well-worn path into the night shrouded mountains Stoto only glanced briefly over a shoulder at the sounds of the passing pack. Their howls no more than forty paces through the pine trees served to quicken his pace, though he was careful not to let the loose stones give him away with their noise underfoot.
Even with a free meal within their keen sense of smell, wolverine packs were not averse to attacking others in a night should it suit their whims. Even his trusted dagger could not hope to fight them all off. But none came.
A futile glance to the sky told him the downpour could only strengthen for the night. Arranging the cloak about his person as best he could he resigned himself to the fact that he would become wet and miserable long before he reached the warmth of Palladin. Behind him, receding beyond the mists as no mare than a meagre halo of orange, the glow of the civilisation was all but gone, along with the last traces of his handiwork.
Word would not spread, he was sure of that. His secret would remain just that. Those who chose to take the dirty money of the contract were seldom those who would be missed.
But there would be others, he knew. By the law of averages there was always the chance that one sooner or later would make the grade and strike home the killing shot.
The problem, as he surmised it, was that they all knew where to look. Living in one place for so long had let every bounty shark in the trade know where to try and find him. And every enemy he had ever made could find plenty of takers to the dirty money in the spaceport bars of the city.
Palladin was no longer the sanctuary that it had once been; its pink towers and old walls were empty of the promises of so much that had once been. With Jono’s liaison with the old man and the dwarf everything that was left had gone. There was nothing left to pillage for his own use here except the empty shell of a civilisation past its prime and receding into the darkness of the twilight.
Through the distance he spied the twinkling lights of the palace, reflected in the surface of the lake and shrouded in the mists that the rains had brought.
He hurried his pace and was soon stood before the huge studded main gates. The rains might serve to wash the trail clean, but that did not stop coincidence and fate contriving to bring the pack to him anyway. In the distance he could hear their howls as they finished with Drew and picked up Stoto’s own trail up here to the palace.
Shuffling a hand clear of the sodden robe he lifted the oversized knocker and let it fall with a crash.
The sound of the pack heightened as the echo rumbled on about the valley. Panic began to edge down his spine as he thought, not for the first time, of the possibilities of the doormen taking the bounty shark’s credits to deny him access. It would be such a simple kill, and one for which he had no defence prepared.
But his fears were unfounded as the wicket gate eased open letting him duck through thankfully into the smoky warmth beyond.
It took his eyes a few moments to adjust to the new flickering torchlight, so bright it seemed after the darkness of the rain soaked valley. Behind him the wicket door thumped shut as it was barred and bolted it to secure it fast from the enemies outside. Now the patter of the rains became only a distant rumble from somewhere high above the eaves.
With a flutter of robes a figure he recognised stepped from behind and regarded him with a critical eye.
“What brings you here?” Stoto sneered, wiping the water from his hair and face with the back of a hand.
Zolteen shrugged. “There is no reason why I should not. When others are called away to help in the kitchens, some-one must man the gate in case of visitors and late comers up the valley.”
It seemed his eyes twinkled for a moment more so than the flickering torchlight could have done.
He continued with an edge in his voice. “Now where would you have been if there had been no-one to open the gate Stoto? What brings you back here so late? It is indeed unusual for you to spend so much time in the city.”
Stoto felt the hidden meaning in the voice, something that spoke of hidden vendettas to settle. There was no use in trying to sense malice upon the ether as Zolteen’s mind was so tightly shut to prying that Stoto did not even try.
“I had business to attend to,” he spat.
He realised too late that too much might have been divulged.
“Oh?” Zolteen looked the weasel man up and down. Small rivulets of water continued to drip from his sodden clothes, and certain elements suggested that perhaps he had been caught in some scuffle or other.
“What kind of business could attract some-one such as you to the city? It appears as though it must have been of great importance for you to venture back in night and rain.”
“None of your business!” he snapped icily.
The silence between them cut through the air with the sharpness of a knife. Stalemate had been reached.
Stoto felt his hackles rise. Had the high Priest’s advisor been behind the hiring of the bounty shark? The thoughts did not surprise him much as there were many enemies both within and without the pink stone walls of Palladin. It still made his skin creep with the worrying tendrils of fear.
Perhaps there was nowhere safe left on this meagre planet after all, he reasoned in his mind.
“Very well,” said Zolteen dryly at last. He turned and reached for a wavering torchlight and used it to guide himself through the tall dark passages that led from beyond the gate. “The high Priest will wish to see you,” he called out over his shoulder, “Now those he has entrusted have departed, he desires for a return to normalcy within the palace. He expects his audience first thing in the morning. When the new dawn has risen above the mountains you will be before him in the main chamber.”
Then the flickering light was gone, beyond a side doorway. There was a thump of a timber door drawing back into place leaving Stoto with only the dull echo of the rains outside for company.
“Pah!” he exclaimed, shaking off the rain sodden cloak and throwing it to a corner in anger and disgust.
The money was gone; every currency bar that had resided in the treasury. Now all he had left to look forward to was the steady grind of assassination attempts and the backbiting of the Palace life.
In that moment his mind was made up. There was no future here any more. No more use to sheltering with the high Priest’s entourage. It was time to move on.
The flickering light from the guttering wick of the torch he took from the wall bracket threw odd shadows across stone walls and roof timbers that had seen many generations pass undisturbed. But now they carried new meaning to the withered man, and a new future without prospects.
Doorways led to passage and narrow spiral staircases to carry him higher and higher into the maze of turrets and towers on a path that for him had been well trodden and memorised over the dakrum that had gone on by.
Now perhaps this would be his last time through these corridors that no longer held any power. There was only one more task before he moved on.
Within the damp confines of a hidden pocket his hands grasped tightly to the cold hard metal of the powercells. They were his means to call upon acceptance into a new phase of life and a new beginning.
The final spiral of the worn stone steps led him to the tired oak timbers of the doors that led to his own chambers. Fishing out the key and turning it in the lock, he thrust them open, and made ready for the final night under the roof of Palladin.
Making sure there was no-one else present, he locked and barred the chamber doors behind him and then hustled to the secret passage.
Water dripped in the shadows with a steady plink, plink. Its rhythm was almost metronomic, but Stoto did not notice it at all. Armed with the fresh powercells he quickly replaced those that had worn out within the secret grotto of his den within the walls of Palladin.
His meeting amongst the grim reality of the hyper-yards had yielded much, though not always to his advantage. Silently he cursed the foolishness that the high Priest had shown in his trusting of the trio he had despatched for off-world.
Now there was nothing at Palladin except a roof above his head, and the steady dripping told that that would not be such an advantage in these days of austerity. With the gathering rains heaving down in clouds borne heavy from the mountains of the mists the aged slates above were beginning to fail.
He found himself having to move the boxes of electronics as the dribbles of water crept closer along the workbench. Annoyed at the extra work it was making he muttered uncontrollably in strings of profanities. At least here he knew there was little risk of being spied on or discovered this late at night.
Wires sparked as he made the final connection and dormant circuits hummed into life. In the moments that seemed to him like all eternity the circuits whirred across the frequencies until they had a lock. For a brief few seconds the room seemed to go quiet, like a black hole that sucked all noise out and into it, vacuuming even the very thoughts in a person’s mind.
Then projectors hummed into life, and the air began to shimmer.
“Stoto!” the voices hissed, catching even the weasel man off-guard as he fumbled with the wires in surprise.
Air popped with static and the face folded into being.
“Shh! Don’t talk so loud,” Stoto warned.
A smile crept over the projection like waves running with the incoming tide.
“Do I catch you at a bad time? Are you afraid that you will be watched and judged?”
There was an edge sharper than obsidian fragments in the voice. Stoto caught them, and pulled back in fear. His mind thought of the excuses as his mouth began to back-pedal.
“There are those who might hear,” the feeble words came.
The head eyed him with distaste.
“Then why do you risk calling me? This had better not be a waste of time. You have seen our agent in the city, I trust?”
He nodded and cast a furtive glance behind him, as if half expecting the sounds of voices to have brought unwelcome. But the walls of Palladin were thick and strong and the secret meeting across the ether remained so.
“Indeed I have my Lord,” he whispered, “But there is one last favour I ask.”
“Favour! The High Lords do not do favours. Hold your tongue and with it your insolence,” the head poured scorn with its words.
“I must leave this planet,” Stoto begged.
But his words fell on ears that did not care to listen.
“You will stay and do our bidding.”
The head eyed him with an intensity.
“Remember the assassin who attacked you on your journey back here. There will be others who will be more thorough in their task if you do not follow our orders.”
Stoto reeled in shock at the revelation. How did they know – unless they had taken the contract, perhaps as a warning?
The face of the High Lord smiled, as if anticipating his thoughts.
“No, the contract was nothing to do with us. However if you disobey, the next one will. And they will be more accurate than you could ever believe, I assure you. Now do not strive to waste any more of our valuable time. When we need your service we shall come to you,” the voice boomed as final farewell.
Before Stoto could utter another word in reply the image folded and collapsed. Electronics clicked to standby, and the High Lord was no more.
But the thinly veiled threats hung heavy in his mind.

Part two of the Shibboleth Saga.
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