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The King's Champion
- M.H. Bonham
For over fifty years, fireworms have ravaged the city of Citadel Heights. Warriors and wizards have sought to find the answer to the attacks, but to little avail. Each raid has decimated the Chi’lan warriors, the elite guard of King Romarin, the son of Rhyn’athel, the warrior god.
Kalena, a young squire to Cahal, the King’s Champion, knows all too well the peril that the fireworms bring. As she watches her friends and fellow warriors die in the attacks, she knows something must be done. A tragic loss sends her on a quest with Romarin, himself, to find the source of the attacks and to perform daring rescue. But an ancient evil lurks in the fireworms lair that even the magic of Romarin may not be able to fight, and forces Kalena to face an enemy even more dangerous than the fireworms…
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A loud screech, like that of an angry hawk, resounded off the parapets of Citadel Heights. Kalena hesitated in her practice and looked up, her skin prickling in cold fear. She wanted to run – to hide anywhere she could. And yet, she knew there was no place that was safe. Another screech. It was so loud that she expected to see a dark shadow flying over her at any moment.
“Steady, Kally,” said Cahal. The old Chi’lan warrior grinned at her reassuringly. He was tall Chi’lan with the characteristic red-gold hair and silver eyes that marked both him and Kalena as being from the Lochvaur kindred. But while Kalena was young – a swordbearer chi’li’a and not a full Chi’lan warrior – Cahal was older and seasoned with numerous battle scars. “They die from the sword as we do.”
Kalena blinked and swallowed, not realizing she had held her breath. “I’m sorry, Champion,” she said, lowering her broadsword. “I wish I knew how to control the fear.”
Cahal smiled. “We all have fear, Kally. As a Chi’lan, you learn to control it.” He shaded his eyes with his hands. “I’m surprised the watchtowers haven’t called alarm. I felt that screech in my bones.”
Kalena chuckled, despite her fear. “I’ll go inside to help the garrison prepare...”
“No,” Cahal said. “I want you to stand with me.”
Kalena stared. “With you, Champion? But I’m a chi’li’a...”
“Soon to be Chi’lan. Don’t you think it’s time you saw battle, instead of staying behind the lines?”
Kalena’s throat tightened, and she could hear her heart pounding in her ears with excitement. She nodded and stood in ready stance next to Cahal, her sword drawn. Cahal shielded his eyes once more against the afternoon sun, his own sword, the legendary Fyren in his right hand. Kalena glanced at the long sword – its silver adamantine blade held a dark stain across it as though blood had permanently etched itself in the metal.
Another screech and Kalena fought the urge to cover her ears. Where was the damn watch? Chi’lan warriors were already pouring out of the garrison.
“Fireworm!” the watch called out.
Kalena gazed into deep blue sky, looking for movement. Yet, all she saw were the massive gray stone of the Shadow Mountains. She turned to look at the cliffs on the north face of Citadel Heights. The fortress city, built along the ridge, was impervious to any ground-based attacks, but against air assault, it was as vulnerable as any other.
Then, Kalena saw a dark speck along the gray cliffs. She hadn’t seen the worm because it was so well camouflaged against the rocks behind it. It was thirty feet long – a mature fireworm – with black scales and a thin, serpent-like body. It watched the fortress with glittering obsidian eyes and opened its mouth to hiss at them, exposing the large, sharp teeth. It writhed like a serpent in the air.
“There it is!” she shouted, pointing to the upper ridge.
“Good eyes,” Cahal said brusquely. “The Heights!” he shouted to those manning the siege engines. “Turn the ballistas!” Others took up the cry and the soldiers scrambled to turn the heavy siege weapons. Cahal tugged at her sleeve. “Come on – we’ll have a fight on the curtain wall. It’ll come to us.” He led her out of the courtyard and up the steps that led to the wall walk.
“Where are the others?” she asked breathlessly as they ran up the stairs.
“The other Chi’lan?” Cahal asked. He pointed to the warriors already on the wall walk. “Lochalan is leading them.”
“No, the other worms – they seldom attack alone,” she said.
Cahal frowned. “You’re right.” A group of about twenty five warriors had gathered, many Kalena knew. Among them was Lochalan, her older brother, and another Chi’lan named Falar, who was the first Chi’lan from the Redel kindred she had ever seen. “I want you to spread out along the wall walk but keep close enough so we can cover each other.”
There was a murmur of assent and Chi’lan dispersed. Lochalan and Falar approached.
“What are you doing here, Kally?” said Lochalan.
Falar frowned, looking at the insignia on her surcoat. “You’re chi’li’a, you’re not allowed here.”
“She’s with me,” Cahal said before Kalena could speak. “She’s testing for Chi’lan next week.”
Kalena almost gasped. So soon? she wondered. She had only been apprenticed for five years. That would make her the youngest Chi’lan since King Romarin, himself. She met Cahal’s gaze. The old Chi’lan’s eyes glittered, confirming his words.
“You’ve deserved it – I haven’t seen such talent in years.” Cahal turned to the others. “Get ready! We’ve got a worm to fight.”
The fireworm hissed and flapped its wings. Kalena watched it, fascinated and repulsed by the odd movements. As much as she hated them, she had to admit they were beautiful in their own deadly way.
Suddenly, the fireworm screamed. Its undulating body straightened and it shot directly for them. Kalena yelled and raised her sword in time to parry the fireworm’s claws as it attacked.
Cahal was faster. His long sword cleaved the creature’s neck. Black blood spewed everywhere, and the worm collapsed, thrashing in its final death throes.
Kalena stared at Cahal’s sword. “Thank you…” she stammered, meeting the commander’s gaze.
“No time for that, Kally, look!”
She turned to see two more fireworms attack Chi’lan fifty feet from them. The two Chi’lan who met the assault were none other than Falar and her brother, Lochalan. Kalena yelled and charged, swinging her broadsword as a fireworm broke through Falar’s defenses and raked the Chi’lan with its venomous talons. Falar’s sword had cut into the creature’s hide, but had caught between the hardened scales and he was struggling to pull it away. The fireworm lashed out, its teeth coming down on his head, only to glance off the helm. But the impact was enough to stun Falar and he collapsed. The fireworm grasped the hapless warrior in its claws, preparing to take off.
Kalena slammed her sword into the beast, cutting just above the shoulder. The blade sliced deep, tearing into connective tissue and neck. The fireworm screamed and whipped its head around, but Kalena was already moving. It shot a blast of flames at her and her cloak and surcoat caught fire.
She dropped to the ground and rolled. From somewhere, she heard her brother scream her name. The fireworm went after her, leaving Falar. She felt the massive claws bat at her like a cat plays with a mouse, but her armor held. Kalena leapt up to see nothing but coils and shoved her sword upward with all her strength.
A deafening screech and her sword was wrenched from her hands. The fireworm slammed against her and she was thrown once more to the ground. The beast slammed into her once, twice, and then, thrashed terribly. Her vision became dim and unfocused. Then, she felt someone grip her and drag her away.