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Of Armor and Bone: Chapter 32

The rain fell heavily over the gray-brown matted grass of the Tuleforian plains. Mud flew up behind Shiloh’s horse as he skidded the animals through the growing puddles. Zethurus blinked as the drops of water flew in his face, his grip on the reins struggling as his hands grew numb in the cold.

Underneath him, Shiloh could heard the horse breathing raggedly, its feet finding it hard to garner traction in the mud. He was soaked to the bone, the cold clothes clinging to his body. The rain was blinding, and the road ahead seemed to blur into the distance.

The horse suddenly tumbled, sending Shiloh sailing into the mud ahead of him. As he reorientated himself, he looked back at the animal struggling on the ground, its front leg bent at an unnatural angle. Zethurus crept slowly back down the road, his brow covered with his hand.

“I think it’s lost.” The mage called out, his eyes barely able to look upon the injured animal.

Shiloh slid forward, his knees dragging through the mud. He fumbled with his cold hands with the handle of the knife sheathed behind his back. The horse shuddered as he approached, its breath coming in heavy waves as it tried fruitlessly to roll itself back over. He gently held the knife to the animals taut throat and slowly slid the blade into its windpipe and jugular.

The warm blood stung his icy hands as the animal finally took its last breath. The crimson liquid soaked into Shiloh’s pants as he rubbed the blade against the side of his leg to clean it. “Damn it.” He said, whispering under his breath.

“Get on, we’ve got to get out of this weather.” Zethurus said, offering his hand down from the horse.

Shiloh wiped the wash of rain from his face and peered up at the mage before taking his hand without a word. As Zethurus continued back down at road at a more manageable pace, Shiloh looked back behind them at the darkness of night slowly encroaching. The orange sun rays glared through the streams of rain falling perpendicular to the ground.

“Why did you run, that time?” Shiloh sighed, placing his forehead against Zethurus’ back. He could feel the man’s slight warmth, even through the wet clothes.

“Instinct… no.” Zethurus wavered. “I just ran for my life.”

“Survival is an instinct.”

“I wasn’t worried about surviving. Looking back, death seemed as if it would have been preferable.” The mage muttered, his voice battling the sound of the rainfall.

“Lady Kiaren was ready to kill you herself.” Shiloh joked, the humor falling flat.

“I engaged that man foolishly. Out of self defense, yes, but… also because I felt like I could prove something with my powers. Like the treaty had sealed their usefulness. But then he managed to wound me, and I blacked out. When I came to, he was on the ground, and I could feel nothing but the throbbing of the wound on my arm, and the disgusting feeling of dark energy running through my veins.”

“What was it like?”

“Like things crawling inside me.” Zethurus said, sputtering through the water soaking him.

“You don’t know how you felled Mandabus, then? Penetrated that impenetrable armor?”

“I have a notion, but there’s no way I could replicate it.”

“The power he held must have… I don’t know how to say it… resonated?” Shiloh asked.

“It seems so. Though, at the time, I had to wonder if it had come solely from myself.”

“That’s why you ran, then?”

“Yes.” Zethurus answered as he leaned into the gust of wind and sideways rain. “Acting as I did, even to protect myself, my people… likely the Order would have judged my harshly.”

In the distance, the pointed buildings of Tulefore city began to peek up from the horizon, their dark shadows hiding beneath the cover of clouds just in front of the setting sun. The horse began to find better traction upon the roughly paved road and the tufts of dead grass between the stones.

Shiloh could feel his strength failing as the cold and hunger began to gnaw away at him. He shivered as Zethurus urged the tired horse on. In the dull refection of the wet stones, he could see the faint lights of the buildings in the distance forming star bursts in his blurry vision. The metal horseshoes underfoot of the animal began to clack loudly as they passed under the city gate. The sound was broken up by the splashing of the rhythmic loud footfalls into the puddles around the city streets.

As the road began to climb upwards, Shiloh could feel himself being pulled back. He could barely hear his own teeth chattering loudly, despite the vibration rattling his skull. The horse was yanked to a stop suddenly, and he could hear Zethurus talking to someone. A glance at the person’s feet revealed a guards thin armored boots. Zethurus yanked at Shiloh’s shoulder to sit him up straight before the horse began to continue down the path, more slowly this time. “Hold on, we’ll get warm soon.”

“They come bearing news from the front.” The guard beside them called out. Zethurus slid off from the back of the horse, nearly taking Shiloh with him. The prodding joints of the guards’ gloves broke his fall. “Get this man by the fire.”

Shiloh felt himself being dragged, his heavy water-logged boots following after him on the ground. The bright light of the great hall was revealed to him as the doors opened. He caught a glance of the neat, colorful carpet on the ground as the men dragged him to the hearth and began to pull at his clothes.

The heat washed over Shiloh’s body as the maid slipped the drenched linens from off his shoulders. Zethrus collapsed beside him. A warm wooden mug was shoved into his hands. With blurry eyes, he looked into the glow of the fire as it cracked loudly. He brought the drink to his lips. The ale was bitter and warm, but settled reassuringly inside his empty stomach.

A continuous melody of creaking treads lead downward from the corner of the keep. Shiloh shifted to the side to see the engorged body of Emperor Manek being led down the stairs, his thick wrists in one pair of servant hands each. He yawned loudly and grunted as he climbed up the platform to his throne.

“What is so important that one would one interrupt my midnight snack?” Manek growled, his glazed eyes skipping about the room.

Zethurus stood, his still wet cloak flapping limply at his legs. “There is news from the Sing front, sir.” The mage walked up the fine dingy carpet before the throne.

“You’re a mage, are you not?” Manek said, focusing his eyes and licking his lips. “I’ve been waiting on news of the artifact for far too long.”

“We are not so fortunate, your Highness.”

Manek clicked his tongue and hacked loudly. “My brother’s Son… Terren it was, came to tell me the same words several weeks ago.”

Zethurus took a step forward. A sole sound had exited his mouth when the Emperor held his hand up to stop him. “I’ve done some thinking. Is it so important, the Sing mountains? With whatever artifact you could find? Why should the great Tuleforian Empire care about your magical forces, especially with the Order and that woman trying to oversee every little action you people do? And more so, I’ve been told a third squadron of men was turned over to Kiaren’s command to hold down the pissant settlement there.”

Shiloh stood weakly, his feet dragging across the hard stone floor. “The settlement has fallen. Lieutenant Terren was killed.” He called out, attempting to reach Zethurus.

“A shame. As for the settlement, Xiandol may have it.” Manek Shrugged. “It seems the artifact of so-called legend is now long gone as well. We have no longer need to be there.”

Shiloh grabbed to steady himself in Zethuru’s sleeve. “Xiandol is likely on the verge of marching upon the capital, with a newfound resource they’ve obtained.”

“It is the power of the artifact, it seems.” Zethurus added assuredly.

Shiloh looked up at him with a puzzled expression. Manek shifted in his creaky seat, placing his heavy head upon his fist. “This is fascinating, if what you believe is true.  It sounds as if it could be a power we could take back from them as well.”

“It’s not that simple!  We must make a move now, or we will stand no chance.” Shiloh pleaded. His body was already dropping in temperature again from being away from the fire. “We have to call up whoever we can to fortify the walls.”

Manek yawned loudly as he slouched down into the seat. “I will send word to some of our forces across the sea to return as soon a possible. I can have them home in two weeks at best. More could be here within the month.”

“You don’t understand sir.” Zethrus said, taking a step forward and pulling Shiloh with him.

“What’s not to understand?” Manek laughed tauntingly. “I’ve fought many wars. Xiandol will take weeks to set up supply lines across the mountains, then weeks longer to prepare a siege. I doubt they could even muster a navy to attack us from the sea.”

“Respectfully, you Highness,” Shiloh grunted. “Sitting upon a throne and studying your map of things you wish to obtain doesn’t add up to fighting a war. Additionally, this army isn’t one that requires any sort of supply line, or trebuchets for that matter. These are soulless men who fight brutally without fatigue, or fear of falling in battle.”

Manek’s eyes grew big in rage, and the vein at the side of his neck began to noticeably throb. “I shall send messengers to those I can reach. I don’t doubt we will see what force Xiandol brings to us sooner or later.”

Zethrus bowed before the throne, holding on to Shiloh to gently force him to do the same. The mage then dragged him away and back in front of the fire. Several of the castle’s servants passed by them as the Emperor gave out orders.

Shiloh crumpled again before the fire place. “Do you really think that Xiandol’s army is a result of the power of the artifact?”

Zethrus sat down um comfortably, extending his robe out past his knees to help it dry in the heat of the fire. “I have a notion.”

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