Fallen empire, p.1
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       Fallen Empire, p.1

           L. D. Dailey
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Fallen Empire
Fallen Empire

  By L. D. Dailey

  Copyright 2014 L. D. Dailey

  Thank you for downloading this ebook. You are welcome to share, reproduce, copy, and distribute for non-commercial purposes; provided the book remains in its complete original form. Thank you for your support

  Table of Contents

  Prologue ~ Bargains

  Chapter One ~ Miscalculations

  Chapter Two ~ Costs

  Interlude ~ Glory

  Chapter Three ~ Negotiations

  Chapter Four ~ Balance

  Epilogue ~ Culmination

  About the author

  More Stories from the author

  Connect with the author

  Prologue ~ Bargains

  Riri Gast peered over a mug of forgotten ale, watching the dark silhouette survey her mother's prosperous inn from the door. A noonday sun obscured the stranger's features, yet she felt his eyes on her- and her alone. Habit forced her right hand to massage the stump its counterpoint once resided. Stress always flared the pain of the old war wound. The din of the crowded proprietorship eased to an uncomfortable silence as the slim visage strode down the steps to the sunken dining room, the soft slinking of metallic armor singing in its wake.

  Riri felt heat around her neck and cheeks as shadow fell from the guest, revealing a handsome man with skin of honey and shoulder length locks mirroring his ebony chain mantle. The youth's pale features contrasted with the dark skinned citizenry of Asnium. He paused, elbow resting on the pommel of a sheathed longsword, a warrior at ease- yet ready. A crash from the kitchens diverted Riri, introducing an opportunity to compose uncomfortable thoughts of fancy. She winced as her aged mother kneeled over the remains of two bottles of rare wine.

  A gasp erupted from the customers, turning Riri away from the distraction in time to see an ogre, full of dark hair, protruding canines, olive skin, and a patchwork of spiked, leather armor, duck under the inn's archway. Instinct forced her right hand to the sword by her side. Riri closed her eyes and unleashed a frustrated sigh. No leather belt adorned her waist. No sword rested within its sheath. The old wound throbbed as she remembered a time long past and debated the reasons why the nightmarish creature ventured so far beyond the Endless Desert of the west.

  The ogre followed the newcomer like a slave, a hulking shadow that stepped over the steps rather than upon them. Merchants, jewelers, and horse lords who frequented the upscale diner stepped aside as the duo approached her small table nestled in a dark corner. The human paused to drag a chair opposite her before taking a seat. His ogre stood behind, a frightening guard with hairy arms folded over its chest.

  Riri's new companion placed a gauntleted finger in the air, beckoning her mother toward them. "Wine, if you please, Bahiti." His voice, smooth as silk floating atop water, paused as he smiled at the indigo stain seeping into the wooden floorboards, "Ianic- if you have any left." Riri received a dark eyed stare of warning from her mother that could break rocks before the diminutive innkeeper set about the task with a speed belying her advanced years. Riri stilled a frown from creasing her features. How does he know my mother's name?

  The youthful face turned toward her. Dark eyes regarded her with a soft intensity. A dimpled half-smile framed chiseled features. "Good day to you, Captain Gast."

  Riri swallowed, extending a trembling hand toward the warm ale between them. "I am not a Captain," she sipped the bitter draft, "not anymore." The whispered confession shamed her. A second, longer swig diminished her heightened apprehension. "Perhaps Captain Thry can assist you. He leads Lord Tesq's forces now."

  The stranger waited for Bahiti to return with his wine, nodding thanks as she retreated. He held the glass but refrained from drinking. Instead, his gaze hardened, emanating a silent threat, a warning against obstruction.

  The intruder's silence further unnerved the former mercenary captain. Riri sipped as a coherent string of thoughts penetrated through the pain around the stump of her left arm and the dread rising within. The foreigner speaks our language, without flaw. He walks with monsters. He knows my name, my past. Secret Gods help me he knows my name! A gasp erupted from her. "You're the Black Knight."

  The whispered words initiated an adverse reaction. Men and women, garbed in light robes fled the inn. A riot of fear and desperation clogged the door as respected citizens of high standing clawed for freedom. The Black Knight covered his mouth and chuckled at the chaos. Riri smiled at the beautiful sound.

  The Black Knight's reputation left a tomb as staff fled with patrons. Only Riri and the silent ogre remained. He lifted the glass once more, a bracelet of circular diamonds sparkled against the light while an onyx stone on the ring finger absorbed it. He pulled the glass to a prominent nose, covering an unadorned chain holding an emerald medallion with his forearm. He sampled the aroma with a deep inhale and smiled, eyeing her with chocolate eyes that seemed to shimmer.

  Riri swallowed a lump forming in her throat and wondered how one near her own age caused such terror. Almost did her mind dispute the rumors- almost.

  The youth sighed. "What troubles you, my dear Captain?"

  Her words spilled without thought, "Is it true the western horse lords capitulated to your rule? Is it true that you will avenge the Old Wrongs by warring against the east? They say you command the winds and the rain and the storm- that the Secret Gods obey you. They-" Her throat constricted.

  Eyelids closed to small lists during her litany, breaking the speech. "Finish it. Tell me, what else do They say?"

  Far more fearful of angering the warrior than insulting him, she pressed on. "They say you preach a blasphemy. That you will free men from the gods they serve, and-" Another swallow as Riri looked away for an instant.

  The slits closed tighter, concealing mahogany pupils. "And?"

  "And damn us all."

  The Black Knight sighed and placed the wineglass down. He reached for a pouch tied to his belt. "It is said," he tossed the pouch into the air, caught it, and threw it once more, letting the jingle of heavy coins orchestrate while speaking, "that the Merchant Lords of Asnium serve no king, only gold. It is also said that their charioteers follow the same rule."

  He tossed the cloth pouch toward her. Riri caught it and freed the leather knot in a single motion. Thin gold coins, the size of a child's fist, sang as they erupted from the bag and littered the wooden table. "The horse lords never surrendered, and I do not seek to conquer your people. I have, how should I put this, military arrangements with the horse lords along your western border. My force of ogres is large, but not large enough to invade your country." The youth sighed and shook his head. "Do you know how long it takes to orchestrate such an arrangement with no centralized bureaucracy?" He smirked, a sinister gleam dancing behind his dark eyes. "Not that you could stop me, had I assembled all the ogre hordes."

  "As far as righting the Old Wrongs, well, that's where you come into play, Captain. As I traversed your lands, I asked your people for an opinion of who is best of the mercenary captains. Your name came up more than any other did. The people still recall your stand at Horl's Pass against four times your number. I have need of such expertise." The Black Knight leaned forward, eyes sparkling like the minted gold beneath his chin. "You can lead the forces that right the Old Wrongs perpetrated by the Libaian Empire. You will be a hero." He leaned back, conspiratorial tone shifting. "Perhaps you can join the pantheon of these so-called Secret Gods you all worship when you die." Sarcasm clung to the Black Knight's words as he dissected the Asnium religion. "That is what happens to your peoples' heroes is it not?"

  He spread an upturned hand about the gold pile. "Take that as your commission. Spread the gold amongst the survivors of Horl's Pass. That should be enough men to move my plans forward. Tell the
m that I'll pay double after the job is done."

  Riri tried to suppress irritation at the stranger's foolish scheme. "You are a fool." She winced as the foreigner's eyelids closed to slits once more but found the strength to press her point. "If you think a thousand men and a few ogres can defeat the One Hundred Legions-"

  The stranger forestalled her with a raised hand. "My plan," he began through clenched teeth, "requires our travels within Libaias to look anything but an invading force. Stealth is the key. A massive push from your nation will lead to a war that would cause all my efforts in these lands to be for naught." The stranger seemed unaccustomed to sharing his plans as gauntleted fingers began to drum a steady, impatient beat atop the table. "As for the legions, I have set into motion events that will call their attention elsewhere. Furthermore, I know they are weakened from a costly campaign in the south. If the armies of Libaias march, it will be a shell of its former glory."

  The south? The Invisible War? His words led Riri to study the imprint upon the coins. A square altar flanked by four spiked chalices adorned some of the coins. Upon the rest, a hooded cloak did a poor job of concealing feminine features clutching a small dagger. Miittaani! She eyed the Black Knight as thoughts of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and demon worship played in her mind behind a hellish background of bloodstained wildlife. The southern peninsula's dark religion was, at best, the worst kept secret in all of Alast. At that moment, she realized that her supposed benefactor only answered half of the original query.

  The Black Knight shook his head. "No, I'm not from Miittaani. I do not consort with devils and demons. I do not eat human flesh" Riri eyed his bodyguard through her peripheral. The Black Knight laughed and his mirth suppressed her uneasiness. "I like your boldness Riri Gast. I will tell you this." He brought the wine glass to his lips, paused as his nose wrinkled, and lowered it untouched. "I led the defenses during the empire's invasion of Miittaani."

  His hand curled to a tight fist as he stared past her, mind lost in the past. "They're like locust, weeds- these legionnaires. For every one you kill, a dozen take his place. They won the war, but it wasn't enough. Like they did your people forty years ago, and the northern lands a few years after that, they seek to break a people of their will. They stormed my wife's home." he traced the outline of the hooded figure atop one of the gold pieces. "She was a priestess of Ba'al'rishna. Her magic was strong. An arrow shouldn't have killed her. But in the time of her greatest need, her fickle god withheld his blessing. She died in my arms. I swore to avenge her, but the gods intervened at my moment of triumph." His eyes, rimmed with lines of pain and determination, returned to the present. "I hate them."

  Riri placed her hand atop his. "We all hate the Libaians. They owe the world much for the suffering they cause."

  The Black Knight wrenched his hand from her gentle hold. "Do we have an agreement, Captain? I cannot succeed without you."

  "Lord Tesq will never-" Riri paused, shocked with the swiftness of her own capitulation. She frowned at her perceived greed while eyeing the king's ransom glittering before her. At that moment, she realized that the money did not win her over. The story- his story- touched something deep within her. She imagined herself the avenger of the Old Wrongs. She saw an opportunity to put the lie to the teeth of lesser men who shunned her as a useless cripple. Her mind battled against the temptation overwhelming her reason. I should walk away. She recalled the eyes of her mother and found strength. She stood and turned from the treasure, taking satisfaction in her resolve.

  The stranger began returning the coins to their pouch. "Your loyalty to this Tesq is admirable." Riri halted. "I hear you held the pass against overwhelming force, lost your hand in the melee." He tied the thong and passed it to his bodyguard. "They say Tesq called you worthless for your reward, promoted an idiot as your successor-"

  Riri fled the man, the truth of his words forcing an internal confrontation with her fears. Visions of that final encounter with the horse lord drenched her in sorrow. He broke her, challenged her value in front of comrades after a great victory, and tossed her aside like so much rubbish. The fact behind his words hurt most of all. What value does a maimed soldier bring?

  Upon exiting, Riri pulled the front door closed and rested against it. Tears streamed down her face as her stump flared with agonizing pain. The door opened, and she fell into a strong embrace. A fantasy of lovers caressing flashed in her mind. Riri fought against her body as tense shoulders and arms relaxed as he held her.

  A bejeweled gauntlet caressed her wound. The onyx bauble on his finger seemed to rotate, the imperfect cut waxing and waning in an enrapturing dance with every revolution. The pain subsided, drifting away like smoke. Riri stared up at the Black Knight and caught an instantaneous grimace of pain. He returned the gaze, a hint of anger creasing his features. "Are you Asniums so primitive? Why does an injury as old as this pain you so? The infection still remains."

  "I don't-"

  "Of course you don't know. But I suspect you could recite the One Hundred Sacrosancts of your precious Secret Gods without fail. Religion," the Black Knight's nose twisted and flared with contempt, "the invisible chain of the ignorant." His face softened. He sighed. "You're a slave and you don't even know it." He severed the gaze, venturing backward as he released her. "Rmuk. The gold."

  Moments of silence past before the beast pried her fingers open and placed the bribe within. The Black Knight nodded once, signaling a finality of sorts. "We march in four days." Riri nodded and turned. "Oh, and tell your mother I forgive her. I know some of your leaders do not agree to my presence. The poisoning of my drink was patriotic, in a matter of speaking. She needs not fear my wrath." The mercenary captain faced her new benefactor, shocked more by the display of benevolence than the accusation. He smiled and touched his nose before returning to the deserted inn.

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