Authors: David Adams
The Soul Sphere: Book 2
The Final Shard
by David J. Adams
Text copyright © 2011 by David J. Adams
All rights reserved.
Cover art and maps copyright © 2011 by Rachel Adams
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
To Rachel and Derek. Every father has a right to say he has the best kids in the world…but in my case I’m certain that it’s true.
Tala’s words hung in the air like a cloud pregnant with poison rain. After all the trials they had been through and the thousands of miles they had covered, the news that Solek, the enemy of all that was good in Arkania, held the final piece of the Soul Sphere was like a blow to the gut. The Sphere had been created ages ago by powerful mages to contain the soul of the Dark One, the very embodiment of evil. Driven by his lust for power, Solek had caused the Sphere to shatter, and the Dark One had escaped and possessed him. The pieces of the Sphere were hidden and guarded, and with his foul magic Solek waged war on Arkania, spreading death and destruction. The six who dared oppose him had journeyed and fought to reassemble the Sphere, which they hoped they could use to defeat Solek and contain the Dark One once more. But they had thought to have the Sphere whole when they faced him.
A north wind kicked up, bringing a frigid breeze. Their fire swayed and spit, but blazed on, a beacon in the darkened northern shore of Arkania’s mainland.
Corson cleared his throat. “We knew we would have to face him eventually.”
“And we already defeat dire magic and strong enemies,” added Lucien, with a hint of his fierce goblin pride.
“You are both right,” said Tala. “And I do not wish to seem a defeatist. But the Dark One has made Solek a mage with powers beyond any who live now or lived in the past. We have seen him raise armies of the dead to fight his battles a thousand miles away. He commands foul creatures from the pit…” She let her words trail off.
“We have taken on his armies and his creatures,” said Rowan softly. “We still live.”
“But Arkania slowly dies. We have won small battles, but our world is losing the war.”
“All the more reason for us to figure out how we get the final piece of the Sphere,” said Demetrius. “Arkania will never heal as long as Solek lives.”
“It is late,” Alexis said, “and we have had a long day. Perhaps with the sunrise we might see a way.”
They agreed that a night’s rest was the best course, though their hearts were no less heavy. They set the watch and slept as they could, dreaming nothing but troubled dreams.
Dawn broke chill but not cold, a portent of spring, which had not yet arrived. Alexis commented how rare it was for it to be this warm while winter still ruled in northern Lorgras, and this combined with the bright sunshine and a bit of breakfast seemed to lighten Tala’s spirits somewhat, as it did for the rest of the party.
As they finished preparing the extra meat for their as yet unplanned journey, they fell to discussing what to do next.
“We have essentially moved directly toward the next piece of the Sphere since our quest began,” said Demetrius. “Although there are ways to get into Veldoon, I’m not sure how easily we could get to Solek. We would likely need an army to cut our way through.”
“A small party can travel unseen where an army cannot,” Rowan pointed out. “And the bag of cloaking Valya gave us will keep the Sphere hidden from Solek’s attempts to find it with magic.”
“He is nearly always too powerful for either a small group or an army,” said Tala, shaking her head slowly. “His dark arts make him a most formidable foe.”
“You said ‘nearly,’ ” Alexis pointed out.
Tala allowed the smallest of smiles to play on her lips. “So I did. His magic, powerful as it is, drains him of strength when it is used. You have seen how I sometimes need rest after using my own feeble skills.”
“He can be worn down,” Demetrius mused, rubbing his chin.
Tala nodded. “That is why his attacks with the Dead Legion were planned as they were. He needed rest between battles. And he has always chosen when to give battle. The rest of Arkania waits for him to act, then tries to defend as they can.”
“If we keep up continuous fight…” said Lucien.
“The only problem with that is fighting means dying,” said Rowan. “We would need to have a very large army to carry out an extended fight.”
“We do seem to be a tad short of large armies at the moment,” Corson said.
“None of the armies of Arkania would be strong enough, especially once near Veldoon,” Tala said. “All our fighting has been holding and retreating, using what protection the cities can provide.”
“ ‘Holding and retreating,’ ” Demetrius repeated. He paced back and forth, thinking. “What if we attacked? Attack and attack and attack some more.”
Corson looked at his best friend as if he thought he might have been sleeping through the conversation to this point. “We were just saying there is no army—”
“No one army, correct. All of them.”
“They have been smashed, broken,” Rowan said, but there was no edge to the comment. He was thinking on it as well.
“They have scattered, but there are many who would still fight,” Alexis said.
“Will they?” asked Corson.
“Some will and some won’t, just like in any battle,” said Demetrius.
“But knowing how desperate the situation is…” Rowan said.
“Many will still choose not to fight,” Demetrius replied. “And those that would will need to have their movements coordinated. It will be difficult.”
“It was difficult to get each of the Sphere shards,” Tala pointed out. Some of the fight that seemed to have left her last night was returning.
“Assuming we could find a leader for each region, could we convince them to take up the offensive?” asked Rowan. “That is what we need to ponder. Duchess Onsweys in Delving would surely give us what men she could.”
“That is quite true,” confirmed Jazda, the captain of the ship the duchess had given them to continue their quest when it led over the sea. He and Rande, the youngest member of the crew at fourteen and the only other survivor of the attack that wrecked the ship, had been listening quietly to the conversation, having not fully understood the quest the others had been on until now.
“Lorgras will send its warriors,” said Alexis.
“My pack fight,” said Lucien. “Others I cannot speak for.”
“The Westerland could be a problem,” said Alexis. “Duke Fallo may not want to come out from behind his walls, nor allow a goblin army to march through his lands.”
“If he not fight,” said Lucien, “we pass through Westerland no matter what he say.”
“He might march out if there is an army in his land.”
“Did not march out before,” replied Lucien, referring to the Dead Legion army that had laid siege to Western City.
“Regardless, we will need to speak with him to see what his intentions are.” She turned to Demetrius. “And what of Corindor?”
Demetrius sighed. “Corson and I will do what we can, but both the king and prince are dead, and our armies were scattered. We have been away a long time. I do not know what we will find when we return. Some men ready for a scrap, certainly. An army may be another matter.”
“That leaves Ridonia,” said Rowan. “I don’t think we will find any help from the men there, as that kingdom lies in Veldoon’s shadow. We saw no one when we traveled through those lands.”
“I am sure you are right,” said Tala. “The Ridonians have been shattered. I must speak to my own people in Dol Lavaan, in the Eastern Forest. I do not hold out much hope for a positive response, but I must try one last time.”
“So assuming we could gather all our strength to oppose Solek,” said Demetrius, “we would still need to coordinate the advance. It will be next to impossible to communicate over such long distances.”
“Then must come together at chosen place and time,” said Lucien.
“The only way for an army to approach Veldoon is through Saber Pass,” Tala said. “The sea coast is no good—it is all high cliffs.” She looked to Jazda for confirmation.
“Unassailable,” Jazda confirmed. “Plus those dragons might still be lying in wait. Citadel used to have small port, but the road cut into the cliffs is steep and narrow, and easily defended from the fortress above.”
“And both the Black and Gray Mountains are said to be impassible,” Rowan added. “Looks like Saber Pass is our only viable option.”
“Not a good one,” said Demetrius, stating what the others already knew. “An excellent place for a force of any size to be trapped by a smaller foe.”
“And Solek will likely have an army larger than any we could hope to muster,” said Alexis.
“If we really try,” said Corson, “I think we could be a bit gloomier.”
They managed to laugh at the comment, which was a good thing. “We have some time to consider our battle plan,” Demetrius said. “Perhaps better options will become apparent. For now, we should plan to converge a few days’ march from the pass, either at the foot of the Demon Hills, or north along the Great Northern Forest. I’d suggest the plains beyond the Hills. The question would be ‘When?’ ”
“I hate to say this,” said Rowan, “but if we want to act with any speed we’ll have to split up. If we travel together to each kingdom…”
“It would take a year or more,” Alexis said, finishing the thought. “Even as it stands, it will be months before armies from the furthest reaches of Arkania can be gathered.”
“The summer solstice,” Corson suggested.
They agreed it made as much sense as any other time they could choose. They started to turn their attention to who would go where, to which Alexis noted they could remain together a bit longer. “If we move west, further into Lorgras, we should eventually be able to find horses to ease our journey. It’s possible someone could reach the Eastern Forest or Corindor more swiftly going south from here, but the passage along Veldoon’s borders would add great risk.”
“You are right,” said Tala. “And your Lorgrasian steeds have already shown their strength and speed. Even with the detour we would arrive more swiftly on their backs than we ever could hope to on foot.”
Everyone agreed, quietly pleased they could delay their parting from one another. They set out to the west, keeping near the shore. The sea breeze was cold, but not unkind for winter, and inland only a thinning layer of snow was left to disguise the pale yellow grass. That color, they each hoped against hope, was simply the shade before the spring greening, not evidence of the effects of the Dark One’s foul presence on the land. But they had seen this infection elsewhere as they traveled in the fall. No one asked Alexis if this was the way with the grass this far north in her land, and she was equally reticent to comment on it.
They had journeyed six days, the sea to their right, the Great Northern Forest to their left, when a sight on the horizon made their hearts simultaneously want to soar and sink. A Lorgrasian horse, white, tall, and powerful stood at the crest of a small hill, watching them approach, his mane flicking in the wind. He took a few steps forward, hesitated, then sprang forward at Alexis’ call.
Alexis whispered into his ear as she stroked his neck. When she finished, the horse darted away. “He will bring enough horses for all of us. We can keep moving if we stay to the shore. It may be a few days before he can gather them together and make it back.”
It was indeed three days later when the horse returned, with eleven others in tow. With only a word of thanks from Alexis the steeds took on their riders, and proceeded west at a brisk pace. They seemed tireless, but like any living creature the strain of constant exertion could wear them down. The riders rotated mounts frequently, and took meals out of the saddle to let the horses graze and rest.
After four days’ riding they could no longer deny that the forest was bending away to the south. The time for them to choose their separate paths had come. They took a final meal together as a group, a rather cheerless repast consisting of small portions of the meat the dragons had hunted for them and cold water collected from streams they had crossed. When they finished, the silence hung oppressively about them.