VOLCANO by Sergio Palumbo 
edited by Michele Dutcher
 
 “The warrior kings who built their own thrones,
ended up ruling over a desert.”
old people’s proverb about Kle-jhi-ttle’s descendants
 
Desolate emptiness surrounded it. It was really amazing how much nothing there was in that almost unending warm area. No small villages nor ancient ruins lost in all that expanse, only the dry ground, and some lonely rocks, and this for most of the hard days they had been riding.
 
On the other hand, some said that such a place might be approached from many angles—camp with the few merchants and travellers who dared cross these lands; listen to the sounds of the almost invisible insects that moved under the sand when the sun shone; walk thoughtful among the unusual rock formations that appeared from time to time; watch the clear sky over the course of the very cold nights.
 
Kruytem had other views and opinions about it all, but she kept them to herself. They were never meant to be revealed to anyone. According to her, walking on or riding across dusty ground like this desert was not dissimilar to crossing a stretch of sand that because of the winds changed unceasingly to such an extent that, after just a few hours, it could be completely different, the sand that had covered the path you walked being already elsewhere, or having disappeared possibly forever, who knows where…
 
The small group had stopped the previous night only for dinner, having covered twenty miles before dismounting. They had done the same the whole weak, until they had gotten here. The faint moons were high in the sky as they set up their belongings, providing additional light for most of the darkness that had fallen upon them all and seemed to have wrapped everything in it. Taking out their sackcloth with their sparse food rations from the pouch, they all had savoured the thin strips of meat inside without complaining at all about their lack of flavour—at least for a time, as their destination was near. Then, when the sun’s rays and its considerable heat had come back to life, ruling over earth’s surface, they woke up and continued their exhausting ride.
 
Many travellers commonly said: ‘The wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears’. While riding her strong white coated mount across that peculiar scenery in the early morning light—apparently as far as human eyes could see—Kruytem thought that she really didn’t know if such words were true, but it was certainly a pleasant proverb. 
 
 
 
Soil degradation in the area was caused by wind erosion, excessive salt accumulation and climatic factors, and the situation wasn’t going to change in the future: this had been an empty land of sand in the past; it was so nowadays and nothing would ever modify its unlikable characteristics. As the supply of drinkable liquids was inadequate, some locals maintained they could get a primitive water, taking advantage of the cooler night air to yield small amounts of humidity that could prolong their survival. They dug a hole in the desert soil, partially filled with vegetation of the most succulent kind available, if any; then a receptacle was placed in the centre of the hole and a sheet of different materials was used to cover the opening at the top, carefully sealing its sides to prevent air exchange with the outside, with a weight (rock or other heavy object) placed on the outer surface in the centre, immediately over the receptacle. This system was meant to keep water vapor coming from the vegetation and the exposed soil within the hole which, when put in touch with the cooler night air, made water droplets slowly flow toward the weighted centre. Hard it was to say if this way they could really get all the water that humans daily needed in such areas, or if they only postponed the time of their death a few moments later…
 
Probably there was more to deserts like this than sun, sand and solitude—though the tall woman had no time at all for such considerations. The wind whirled above, around, and under the saddles of the eight tall knightesses at her back, their huge helmets removed and secured on the side of their horses. There had been only a few moments of relief since the start of their exhausting journey. The first of these when they dismounted to rest before the starry sky stretched over their heads, and the others when they spent their time eating, or drinking the water they needed in order to remain alive and continue their ride. Under such conditions body temperature was higher than normal and it had been gradually rising since the sun appeared early in the morning, so that a continuous water loss couldn’t be helped and body liquids had to be replenished. Among the brief pleasing periods you could enjoy while passing through these empty lands, other travellers probably would also mention the long minutes they took to watch the wondrous sunset every day, as many would say that it was worth it in this boundless territory and that the view was one of the best things they had ever experienced in their lifetime. Though knightesses like them didn’t usually indulge in such behaviour and also didn’t show off such weaknesses at any time, truth be told. 
 
Through the sandstorms of the previous days they had ridden, across the vast expanse of rocks and dust that covered those waterless places. Getting past the more ghastly kopjes, that were those lonely hills which looked like the erosional remnant of a mountain and rose abruptly from the surrounding terrain, skirting around many blowouts, those typical low spots that ranged in size from several feet to several miles, as wind passed over the warm ground while the sand was moving along the surface through sliding and perilous movements, all of them had unceasingly kept moving, always dressed in their hefty and bulky metallic armour, until finally they arrived here. And now, before them all, in the distance, the city they were heading for was finally flaunting its most noteworthy features—those sturdy walls and wide turrets were a welcome sight for many merchants and traders who reached that region to attend the markets inside for buying and selling. But this was not the case for the female riders who were approaching.
 
Just below the tall walls they saw those characteristic perennial orange-coloured shrubs, the so called Dust Flowers travellers spoke about. Long lived, slow growing and resistant, they could be found only in terrains with water underground, be it considerably underneath the surface of that desert or under the rocks, and in the deeps of that huge town, Akmar-reb-tul, there was water, though not much, or so people said. Those shrubs, and the sand that covered everything for miles, were reputedly the only things capable of staying forever in these difficult lands, untouched and unaffected, while the foolish humans and their pretentious buildings were only temporary.
 
From their present point of view, the fortified city looked like a merged agglomeration of houses and different structures joined into a single, central mass, built apparently into the side of a mountain for extra defence, with a single outer wall to protect this, though it was just a false image. They were still distant. The site of Akmar-reb-tul covered a huge area. This district had been only lightly occupied in ancient times, but the place now was a key city in the region, a major part of the so-called Desert Range where dealers and rich tradesmen had been active since shortly after the first coming of men to this zone. The urban area was also home to the yellowish Temples of Ever Light, where the main and most notable local deities were still worshipped throughout the whole land.
 
It had been at the time of Kle-jhi-ttle that the place had seen all of its architecture greatly increased and upgraded within a matter of a few years. By turning what was reputed to be only a camp site into a real city, that wise ruler apparently sought a residence for the court, and a base for his army, and was attracted by a region known for its hunting—even though it was otherwise poor in natural resources. That man had built extensive whitish palace complexes surrounded by fortified settlements for his guards. 
 
The same area had been further developed under his son, who sponsored the construction of other wondrous buildings. To celebrate the completion of that project of renovation, a tall commemorative greyish tower had been built at the southern end of town, and a palace with a walled hunting park had been also constructed at the northern side of the urban area. Akmar-reb-tul had remained the residence of the new ruler until three centuries ago, when Kle-jhi-ttle’s descendants made some changes to the military disposition and eventually returned to the present capital, which was closest to the remains of the country’s first ancient seat of power. Since that moment, the new capital had changed its location three times more, while this area—being far away from the centre of the country—declined but maintained a certain role in the defence of the territory and the guarding of the borders. It was not easy today to reconstruct the plan of the original Akmar-reb-tul, if you could see it all from the sky one day, because of later rebuilding and several modifications the town itself had undergone during the last forty years.
 
Kruytem raised his head, her cold bluish pupils gazing at those walls while she considered their width and how tall they really were. Her light hair was kept short, the same as all her armed fellow knightesses, but it didn’t stop the sweat that was dripping on her shoulders and her back, as was common given the warm climate of the place. The forty-year-old knightess leader’s features were hard and you could say you were looking upon someone whose face had probably not broken a smile for a long time, if ever, whenever you stared at her expression. Her unflinching demeanour could make a person feel ill at ease.
 
The woman studied the city without speaking, in the strange silence that completely seemed to wrap the desert expanse. Even though the urban area itself was formally called Akmar-reb-tul (‘the site that sees delights’), the common name the inhabitants called it by was later shortened in popular usage to the present Akmar. Nowadays, the seemingly endless town with an abundance of domed buildings made up of colourful light pink tiles stretched as far as the eye could see, and it was full of those typical keyhole arches common in such regions, being highly decorated with an endless intricate overall pattern of different forms or stylized plants. According to the historians, this urban area had reached its greatest extent, and was full of imposing features: seven parallel great avenues crossed the middle, to the northwest in succession lay the stables of the military troops, the slave market, the office of the police guards, the main prison, and the huge merchandising area around the old palaces that were the tallest buildings in their heyday. To the east all the less important narrow and confusing alleys intertwined here and there, most of the poor houses were painted in white, or yellow, or a light colour, and were bathed in light of the warm sun from the morning until late evening. When sunset fell on the urban area, like in all the local villages, the poorest homes stood like flat dark buildings apparently lost in the worst districts, while the richer portions of the town were clearly lighted up. There were only small lamps that helped people complete their jobs in the streets and let them move about safely, until the moment came to finally get some sleep. 
 
The suits of armour all the eight knightesses wore were ornate and decorated, made from steel plates that entirely encased the wearers. Having developed throughout the mainland during the Late Wars of seventy years before from the old coat of plates worn over mail suits during the previous dark centuries, that shape had reached its peak only recently. This was true even though the full and more respectful suit of armour perceived as ‘sacred’, was actually a characteristic feature of the present times that only the High Holy Knightesses were endowed with officially by appointment of the crown. This was especially true because of the long bloody battles that had spread across the Realm and had seen famous warriors of the many noble houses fiercely fighting each other for the final rule of the wealthy capital itself. Such suits of ‘three quarters’ plate armour were usually painted in some dark grey colour and left only the lower legs partly unprotected, in order to allow better movement during the demanding battles. These were also so strong and massive that no single sword of a common lowly soldier could pierce them, nor the weakest arrows fired against their armour. Only some modern crossbows could do it, and only if they hit points that were more vulnerable, which not many were.
 
Besides, the thing that attracted the most attention by the viewers was the delicate though complicated drawings that appeared on the outside of the armour itself, which looked like intricate carvings made on a wood trunk or on old walls of noteworthy temples. And they were there for a reason, as their meaning exceeded the common decorations that men could think of or the costly patterns that usually adorned all the beautiful mantles and the clothes of the richest and noblest families of the country. 
 
As soon as the female riders got to the imposing main gate, it was Kruytem’s duty to announce herself and her knightesses. Which she did in her usually cold, clear voice.
 
“Guards, up there! Here is the High Holy Knightesses’ Order, appointed by the crown itself. Open the gate and let us in!”
 
The armed men on top of the entrance to the walled town exchanged a quick look at each other, then were busy manoeuvring to open the door that usually kept the inside of the urban area off limits to all the newcomers. No other words were necessary, no other explanation was given. And they weren’t meant to be spoken to those simple soldiers, who just watched them pass below, admiring from afar the brilliance and the wondrous appearance of their peculiar armour.
 
So, the eight female riders all were admitted inside, and it didn’t take long before they arrived at the three-storey palace of the local guards. All of them dismounted and walked over to the metal door of the building, while the Knightess Leader introduced herself, declaring that they had been sent there under their High Holy Knightesses Order’s request to deal with the delicate matter that had been reported some days before. And they were immediately treated accordingly also here, as it was tradition in such cases.
 
“Glad to see you here, honourable Knightess Leader! You all are welcome, Holy Knightesses. We are at your service!” These were the words they received from the man in charge of the military in town. The captain of the city guards wore a tall, brimmed war hat with many peculiar local decorative elements that was widely spread all over those southern regions of the Realm. He was of middle height, with a short chestnut beard, and had his head partly shaved under the helmet. His coat’s hardened leather shoulders could be seen clearer on his double-breasted coat than on his soldier’s coats. An ornamented belt and a sword completed his military outfit. His name was Ilnm and he immediately greeted the knightess leader and her women-at-arms warmly. Kruytem noticed at once that the captain had been born in that place, or he had always lived there, given his peculiar local accent, which was unmistakable. 
 
Even though Ilnm asked them to be accommodated within the premises of the palace—where the best rooms would soon be emptied and made available to all the honourable knightesses for the night—Kruytem refused, saying that it was unnecessary. She also added that their task had to be completed as soon as possible and couldn’t wait for their worthless personal exigencies to be fulfilled, therefore she only requested that their horses be appropriately fed in their stables so that they could move around more freely and begin their research for the remaining hours of the day. “We have just a few needs, and don’t want to waste our time. There are more important things to be studied, and done,” the woman maintained.
 
“I’ll do as you request, Knightess Leader!” the captain said, looking a little surprised, but he bowed in a sign of respect. Those women hadn’t even asked for a bath, or for a meal, the man thought, surprised, regardless of the days they had spent travelling to this town in the middle of the desert. Ilnm knew very well the stubbornness and the rough manners of the High Holy Knightesses by reputation, so there was no way to insist or ask them to have some rest, and he just provided them with some water, a few refreshing local beverages and a detailed map of the town. The only thing such female warriors usually had on their mind was to solve the problem they had been sent to investigate. Though there was also some widespread hearsay about the lesbian love affairs that went on between some of those women, within the Order itself, or even among many of them at the same time, he wasn’t interested in listening to such things and didn’t think it was of any importance. After all, what really mattered was what they did, and for sure he would never exchange his present job for theirs, given the great danger, and their difficult, deadly tasks.
 
 
 
Later on, as the group made up of the few guards that the captain had personally chosen and the line of the knightesses went along the street leading to the stables, there were whispering voices coming from nearby. Many citizens had already approached as soon as the first glimpses of the glaring plates of the women-at-arms had been spotted in the area. The full armour the knightesses wore looked imposing and extraordinary in the eyes of the local inhabitants who wore simple civil apparel—mainly long clothes to protect them from the hot sun and the wind, turning all of them and the common soldiers who escorted the eight into almost insignificant individuals that appeared to be no more than dwarves before these much taller female deities. Even though the locals couldn’t directly look into the faces of those noteworthy warrioresses, many thought different things about them all, imagining their true features in various ways. 
 
The head was completely concealed under a great basinet with a remarkably tall point, which included a long rear plate that protected the back of the neck and head, and then came a bevor, a rigid neck guard and a removable visor secured at each side which looked quite large. Circular ear pieces completed the helmet; in a fashion that was unusual in comparison to other suits of armour male knights wore at that time. The cuisse, being a strong plate armour for the thigh, had a leather part pierced with holes to attach to the arming doublet worn beneath, while the greaves were strapped on the inside of both legs. Some huge tassets, along with culets and elbow reinforces looked awesome, also the lower back plate was something that delighted the viewer. The portion on the upper part of the body seemed much more reinforced and decorated, the larger and strongest plates being positioned where more protection was required. The back drawings appeared to be cusped and worked in a peculiar style that added much to the decorative quality of the surface itself, even though it wasn’t just that the end of it all. More than that, over the chest, there was also a removable cuirass of four quadrangular plates joined by hinges, bearing inscriptions in an ancient language that seemed to add a major resistance to the overall body armour, as if the rest of the suit wasn’t just enough to endow a knightess with all the protection she needed when engaged in her fighting. 
 
 
 
Two showy and wide pauldrons overlapped the breast and back as a sort of plate shoulder defence. Both hands were enveloped in metal protections—hard glove-like structures that allowed perfect articulating movements for the fingers—that also covered the wrists. Their weaponry didn’t appear less exceptional than the metal armour they wore: a hand and a half sword of war, the lower part of the grip being covered with bluish leather, with a long scabbard attached, one huge pointed mace and also a wide knife on the opposite side, with two swellings at the base of the hilt. Last but not least, at their back a large rounded shield made up of reinforced engraved steel of the highest quality, with copper like studs and some decorative words intertwined with religious symbolic drawings, endowed with a double grip on the other side, adorned the imposing armoured warrior.
 
All of those arms, both swords and shields, were highly decorated using a method of inlaying gold mixed in secrecy with magical substances so that to obtain a better, stronger and deadlier weapon out of them. The tallest among the knightesses, who displayed a notable stature of over six feet, preceded the others: her steps looked certain, stable and unstoppable. As a matter of fact, you could say from first sight that she had the composure of a leader, a way of doing things that only the best persons could possess along with a great strength inside that you could feel coming from her, even though you weren’t allowed to really stare at her face. And it wasn’t just his noteworthy armour that made her appear so decisive, even though it clearly endowed her figure with a better appearance and a stronger bearing. 
 
The formalities Kruytem had to discuss with the captain didn’t last long, then Ilnm didn’t waste time and started speaking about the site where the troublesome traces had been seen—and immediately reported some days before. The townspeople had sent for help by releasing birds with messages, which had put in motion everything that had finally brought the Holy Knightesses’ Order to town.
 
“Show me the way!” The Knightess Leader cut it short.
 
“As you order.” The captain bowed and did as requested, immediately pointing to the opposite side of the open space they were in. This was where the secondary streets began; from that point they could easily reach the indicated location in a matter of half an hour by walking, more or less. The terms were appreciable to Kruytem who briefly removed her helmet and displayed a satisfied expression on his usually motionless face for the first time since she had come to Akmar-reb-tul. 
 
Grey and whitish small ibexes, native goats endowed with a short, sturdy build, filled the streets that they walked in silence. Capable of surviving on little food though requiring more water than most desert animals, they fed on herbaceous plants and dwarf shrubs. You could always find a lot of them within some walled town in this warm land, just as you could find many bugs on any genre of eatable aliments. As the locals saw the line of knightesses in armour going along the secondary passageways, all of them looked at the eight females in awe, both because of the wondrous suits they wore and because of the huge weapons they had. But there was also something else on their mind, an unexpressed worry and a clear fear, as they surely knew that those sacred women-at-arms were not here just for a common visit, as they weren’t meant for such things. Never. Perhaps their town had been tainted because of evil actions: so those warrioresses had come here in order to remove the bad seeds that had grown up in the surroundings, and to secure their faith and the appointed religion.
 
As the Knightess Leader moved on, one step after the other, her attentive eyes studied the area stretching around and searched for some signs of what they had come here to see. That was a part of the city that was anything but wealthy—probably it had never been so, and it would never be also in the future—and it appeared to be a place where delinquents and outlaws could be found almost everywhere. Of course, it wasn’t those disreputable individuals whom the knightesses had to fear at all, nor had they come around to get rid of such people. On the other hand, the place these thieves lived in was the common ground where the worst things were born and grew at the quickest rate, and where the most frightening consequences of evil deeds and practices could easily reach their forbidden end…
 
It was in the poorest parts of town that the most unholy actions were usually accomplished. The poorest people were ready to try everything in order to get what they needed, be it food, health, money or even power—at least that was how the High Holy Knightesses had been taught since they were children and had started their hard training. And such individuals were more bound than others to be subjugated by evil rituals and become fertile ground for forbidden religious beliefs of the past, the ones that had always been lurking in the dark corners of human civilization and continuously fought to get back to the surface of the common life, get back to the light again, and not for the best of purposes.
 
“Here it is!” a worried Ilnm spoke out. “Our man found those evil traces in this part of town, but we didn’t know where exactly, as the guard who discovered those died not long after he was back at our palace. And he didn’t tell us much before his passing.” The man’s eyes revealed that he would eagerly give more details and be useful, but there was no way he could do so. They were unable to interrogate a dead man, the same as the Holy Knightesses’ Order, and there was no permitted sorcery that might accomplish such ritual. Unless you turned to forbidden practices which might put you in touch with the souls, and which would also have you immediately executed.
 
The Knightess Leader turned her cold irises on the much shorter captain without saying anything, but her mind was already at work, thinking of the possible strategy, evaluating the weak points of it and also considering the peculiar location.
 
“We didn’t investigate further, as we knew what such things could involve. We also knew that this was not a matter for us to deal with. But we immediately sent a report to the capital,” Ilnm added hurriedly. “And now you are here.”
 
“You acted well, captain,” Kruytem stated without any feeling being openly displayed. “Now we have the duty to deal with such a bad situation. You and your men can go back; from this point on we’ll move alone.”
 
The other bowed visibly before the Knightess Leader another time, enchanted by her voice. Turning to his guards, he immediately ordered them to follow him at once and quickly the place held only High Holy Knightesses in armour. No one else remained.
 
It was one of the poorest and most unsafe areas of Akmar-reb-tul, Kruytem considered sadly, and she easily believed that anything could happen or might be accomplished there, especially the worst deeds and who knows how many ghastly rituals. So, there was no reason to waver, no way of going back without being sure that what was wrong in the surrounding streets had already been wiped completely away. And that was exactly what they were going to do now… 
 
“Spread out!” Kruytem ordered the other knightesses. She looked suspiciously around before proceeding, as her women-at-arms had gone away to reach their designated targets. The warrioresses immediately moved forwards as ordered, walking slowly and with difficulty—even though they were well trained—along the silent secondary passageways of that area of town. No one else was in sight, or so it seemed apparently, apart from some whispers coming from the balconies of buildings that lined the thoroughfare. The dust that usually floated in the air because of the soft wind had already cleared, giving way to strong sunlight, but somehow the air looked unhealthy in that place, which was a strange sensation. There was much more going on, Kruytem considered, and she kept looking around attentively, being careful and walking on the defensive.
 
At the street level, the narrow passageways were partly shaded by the small poor buildings that created a strange setting which made the woman feel ill at ease. Here you could see an unusual effect of light that seemed to bounce off objects and the reflecting surfaces as if it was escaping these architectural features for the time being. That was an impression, and nothing more…
 
As all of her fellows were doing their duty, trying not to be distracted any single moment, the leader and two other knightesses next to her felt something, whether it was due to their augmented senses or just to a feeble impression; anyway, the others turned their attention to Kruytem and they all looked at each other.
 
The structure of those houses was typical of homes inhabited by ordinary, impoverished citizens, although most of them were built from stone and wood, with unstable or damaged walls here and there, while tents of different sizes and shapes stood outside the front door. Rubbish lined the street. All of a sudden, an unexplainable feeling made them move to the rear of a two-storey building where they found metallic jugs and tankards displayed outside the walls. A small tower nearby cast its shadow on them all and the women knew that was exactly the place they had to check now. Its height left less of the sky visible in the near distance, and the brilliance spread nearby showed off a peculiar soft orangish tint. A strong though strange gust of air blew against their armour and it didn’t seem to be only a breath of wind…
 
The building itself was a three-storey tower house—a particular type of stone structure dating back to the previous centuries and built for defensive purposes as well as a sort of home. It typically had storage rooms in the underground floor, for keeping wine in bottles or other wooden containers. Although similar structures had once appeared throughout the entire city of Akmar-reb-tul in the past, this one had been clearly built as a family dwelling at its origin, instead of a real fortification. But it wasn’t in good condition now, as the stonework outside was damaged and ruined, giving everyone an impression of a sad desolation—as if it had been abandoned. 
 
The main reason for the entranceway being built above ground level in such towers was commonly to maintain the integrity of the building rather than for defence, truth be told. The windows, which were high up, looked like narrow slits in the stone, and the old roof wasn’t crowned by a circle of battlements. The section of the tower underneath the entrance was packed with soil and some additional supports. 
 
The distance from the ground to the raised doorway was greater than that from the first floor to the second; thus large wooden steps would be too large for the door itself. This place really needed to be restored, but the knightesses doubted it might happen soon… The three women regrouped and found themselves standing in the doorway of that small old tower. They were overcome with a discomfiting feeling, due to some unusual noises, but Kruytem shrugged it off, and decisively headed inside. As the second knightess moved on, the third, too, got up and followed the ones who were already ahead of her. They all passed through the small hall and up the worn-out stony staircase until they reached the second floor. Then the first warrior opened the shabby wooden door and they went in. It was from that room that the troublesome noises had come, but those weren’t just common noises, more like unspoken whispers in their head… 
 
And at that moment an unreasoning terror began to possess them all! 
 
It was not as if the knightesses did not know what they feared, as they were acutely aware of it. Even Kruytem knew that, regardless of the fact that she was experienced and capable, the same thing was going to happen this time as it had occurred all the other times she had met wickedness face to face. She knew that the great evil concealed inside that place didn’t want to remain hidden for long… As soon as it could, it would spread out like a powerful sandstorm, bringing with it pieces of the ground, the courtyard and the town dump, throwing everything it could grasp—all manner of obstacles—across the open space they moved through incessantly. The experienced warrioresses knew that they must not to be touched by that grip, not reached by its invisible extremities that were aiming at them in order to have their bodies tainted, harmed and finally destroyed. As that was the real end of such a display of unearthly power, the result the great wickedness itself wanted to achieve.
 
Only well-trained women like them were capable of better resisting such obscure calls, by setting their cold blood against those evil contraptions. That was why their High Holy Order was made up only of female warriors and not of men who more easily gave way to their unmentionable fervours and violent excesses… 
 
‘How dark it has become!’ the Knightess Leader told herself. She looked around anxiously, and found that nothing was fitting in there; nothing seemed to be as it should. Just to the left of the door was a dusty bed, lengthways along the wall, with its head at an angle. In line with the bed were the fireplace and a small bookcase, with no books on it at all. Opposite the door, the outer wall was pierced by two small openings that overlooked the ground outside the tower, between which stood a damaged table that appeared to be two centuries old, or more. Who knows how many things had been placed on it during all that time, or how many owners it had had so far. Things began to take on a sense of uncommonness as common things now appeared strange, as if a sort of unknown smell was coming from under the bed itself, filling the room at present with vile air all around them. ‘It has to be there! We’d better pay the utmost attention to what’s under there…’ Kruytem told herself, and gestured to the other two something 
whose meaning only they could really figure out.
 
As the three women approached and bowed with some difficulty in order to get through a shorter archway, because of their huge armour and height, a sudden start of unexplained dismay reached the senses of the first two all at once: they both saw some rather conspicuous objects under the bed, similar to ancient vases, and some large paintings made on the wooden floor that looked like some terribly reddish and violet pulsating things. They resembled elongated arms that intertwined, overstretched and reached each other in an unbelievable hug of unexplainable, or better unattainable, shape representing an evil sign from a time gone by. It was something long forgotten by most humans… but it was still remembered by the High Holy Knightesses. It was, definitely, not a thing of their world, and the unholy drawing itself was enough to tell them that there was nothing safe or good left inside that room anymore. 
 
The heat and oppression of the air around them increased very much. Then the unseen presence the Knightess Leader had felt while inside that tower began displaying itself visibly, and it rose entirely to its feet, showing off its noteworthy stature, almost growing to the tallest point in the centre of the room. Within all that blackish shape, there was nothing that could be clearly examined along its unusual surface. Those unholy features were filled with appalling mirth while the hands seemed to be shaking with suppressed and nameless interest. The creature laughed, as if it sensed the fear growing inside the mind of the humans and was happy about that. Very happy. 
 
Now it was the moment to fight for their lives, the women thought, and to once again use their best skills and all the battle tactics they had learned since they had started practicing how to oppose such monsters. Otherwise, they would not leave that place all in one piece, or in full health… But nothing could be taken for granted, as the final result of such a confrontation was unpredictable and just one mistake or a false move could change the course of it in a matter of a few moments, and not for the best or in the interest of the female humans…
 
Due to a deadly invisible substance those evil creatures were endowed with, people who turned to those forbidden rituals frequently released such curses into the surroundings and all those malevolent aberrations of nature became insidious and almost impossible to stop or destroy. It was not a frequent occurrence, but it sometimes happened. And the poorer the citizens were who devoted themselves to such unholy inclinations, the more imposing and serious the result of their invocation could be in the end. This was true because such things drew power directly from the evil energies they wished for, as they wanted to strengthen their bodies and live in this world with help from the most deplorable tendencies and the deepest urgencies of the unwise common individuals who turned to that ancient form of unsafe worship. 
 
The well trained High Holy Knightesses had the duty to explore sites where such activities took place, officially document them, attempt to provide precise reports, and also police those who illegally used such obscure rituals. It seemed that there was always someone who transmitted such wicked knowledge from father to son, and it happened in the most obscure and abandoned places in every town of the Realm. Anyway, in order to fight such fearsome monsters, the force of arms and the strength of capable warrioresses, though rarely, was not enough, so peculiar equipment was requested, because common armour and cuirasses would prove of no use under such circumstances. Special body armour like the protective coverings the three presently wore—that were a powerful combination of massive steel, high sorcery and a long metalworking process—were needed at all times. Small openings or tiny rips across that reinforced surface would mean that the wearer could be easily affected by the adaptive poisonous skin of the evil presence, or that his body would be suffering deeply because of that infection, soon after the battle. That was a mistake not to be made, and a situation no knightess would be ever involved in, at all costs!
 
The first attack knocked the second warrioress’ shield away and the round defence marked with those arcane symbols hit the floor with a resounding clang. Now the woman-at-arms had to rely solely on her long sword to handle her imposing opponent and she grabbed the hilt in both hands to hold it with all her strength. But the monster—which was hardly contained within the main archway of the room—looked overwhelmingly large and strong in comparison to the small female. 
 
Kruytem lifted both her eyes and looked in awe at the creature towering over her long, processional, golden weapon, whose hilt was carved in the shape of a dragon’s head, long the symbol of their High Holy Knightesses’ Order. ‘It’s an ancient beast’, she thought to herself. ‘What the hell has been invoked in here, and why? Whoever has done it, whatever his desperation and the terrible circumstances that moved him, the outcome of his ritual has gone much farther than he could have ever imagined. This is not an average evocation…’
 
Speaking at the top of her voice, she said “This creature is going to kill everyone in sight, my fellow knightesses. You are in great danger!”
 
After a moment of dubiety, the third warrioress moved forwards and attacked the monster, without wavering anymore, her huge shield secured at her back. The sword opened the beast’s chest and the blackish hairy fur split open from the inside. But the blow didn’t seem to stop the unholy presence nor did it produce any real damage, as the wound was easily healed by means of a strange energy that enveloped its monstrous build. The eyes and teeth of the creature itself seemed to merge briefly into the main body, changing position and size while it prepared for the next move. Then the Knightess Leader opened her mouth and shouted: “Move away from there, you can’t win that way!” 
 
It was clear that her capable group lacked experience to deal with a beast like that, and Kruytem herself was barely able to dominate it. Even though, for many years, the woman had gone on expeditions like this, she had never seen anything like that. Such apparently unbeatable creatures capable of healing themselves at once were supposed to exist only in legends or in fabled recounts of ancient corruptions of a time gone by, or at least that was what she thought. The reality, however, seemed to be different. And more perilous than imagined…
 
A deep, grave voice cut the air. “I can handle this, you watch! I can beat it,” were the second knightess’ words, even though the thick armour plates she was wrapped in didn’t seem enough to face the incoming battle safely. Her name was Nuelun, and she had always been very dear to Kruytem.
 
“No, you can’t,” the Knightess Leader replied, and she truly wished she could have stopped her with a hand on her arm in time, if her fellow hadn’t gone too far. But it was already too late as Nuelun had started her next assault. It would also be her last.
 
The blackish creature bent down, then approached Nuelun at an unexpected speed, slithering and swishing, and finally rose from the floor when its arms were already next to its smaller opponent. The leader looked at her knightess’ weapon pointing at the unearthly being and she knew that her move wouldn’t suffice, as the monster was too fast and bulky to be stopped. The tip of the sword the human held was already breaking when it all happened.
 
A powerful blow was heard in the room and desperate cries burst out of the poor knightess’ mouth. Nuelun’s body stopped shaking and a thin stream of light appeared, barely illuminating the place, coming out of a wide opening in the middle of the chest plate of the symbol wrought armour itself. That was unbelievable as such protections were the finest and strongest armours available! Then, something unstoppable threw her remains backwards. That fearsome creature growled and turned to the leader herself and the other knightess.
 
Nuelun’s face, her fair curls, and her chestnut eyes, appeared before Kruytem’s saddened pupils as she reminded herself of the love affair she had once had with her, and the taste of her kisses of the past were now mixed with the bad tinge of the tears she felt on her eyelashes that she knew she had to forcibly keep inside. She also knew that such a sad thought might be her undoing: it distracted her. And there was a ferocious fight still going on… 
 
The Knightess Leader remembered that day, long ago, when they had first decided to start their relationship as Nuelun had been assigned to her group. Both of them had looked intensely at each other and, on the nod, they had undressed and started stroking each other lovingly. Kruytem had selected an area of her younger partner’s slim, soft legs she wanted to fondle, then just went on for a while. Nuelun, with a pleased glance, seemed to appreciate the other woman’s passionate gesture and smiled at her in return. Both of them started hugging and kissing then, with a knowing movement, and the Knightess Leader kept shaking her lover’s short hair, touching her skin and nibbling her neck. The younger one felt herself getting aroused by that slow and soft stroking and with another kiss she turned her body to directly face her other and they kissed again.
 
Kruytem hadn’t stopped that day and had gone on and on, making her way through her partner’s womanliness. Nuelun moaned and softly yelped as the older one rammed her tongue in and out of her. Within minutes of this continuous stimulation, the younger woman neared an orgasm, her soft moans developing into screams of pleasure as the other’s experienced tongue made its best.
 
But now all that was over, most regretfully. No time for such a good memory now. Not at all…
 
It was with another lunge of its bulky tail that the ghastly beast easily got rid of the second warrioress, before she could even handle the situation. Not even her shield, if she still had it at her disposal, would have made things different. Also that loss was a blow that Kruytem greatly suffered, as she had once, though briefly, loved her, too. Her name was Blhona, and she had beautiful hair of the colour of abundant crops. Now she was simply no more on earth, her lifeless body covered in blood and lying silently on the floor. The Knightess Leader would never hear her kind voice again. 
 
“What if I show you how you can truly thank me for saving you?” This was what Kruytem had told poor Blhona months ago, while busy exploring some ancient ruins on duty, after helping her against five much taller wild male swordsmen who were eager to kidnap her once she had been defeated. The Knightess Leader had reached for her, approaching her face softly, kissing her lips slowly. The other woman’s clothing did nothing to conceal her beautiful female form. She had looked at her in return, glad for her lovely gesture. Soon afterwards Kruytem lost track of time. She was only aware of the satisfying sensations of the other’s mouth and hands. A feeling of regret only came over her when Blhona stopped holding her breasts.
 
Leaning over, she had placed one of her hands against the other’s exquisite slender body, straightened up and then moved her hands downwards, with moments of true, deep passion following.
 
Soon Blhona had lost herself in the Knightess Leader’s face, eyes, shoulders, legs and arms. This proved to be the most pleasing outing that she had ever had, she thought, while she continued to stroke her partner’s hair and neck in a passionate way. 
 
It didn’t take long before they were in the bedroom, lying on its soft sheets and pillows. “Haven’t you waited long enough for this?” she had added. The other had become more and more aroused, giving her a mischievous grin. 
 
“Isn’t this better than any other sex you have ever had?—better than any man ever gave you?”
 
Blhona nodded and kept kissing her, while clutching her body tighter and tighter. From that moment on, things just sped up. In that place, far away from the all the others who lived in the far recesses of the region they were in at that time, they could love each other without restraint. And they deeply loved for most of the night.
 
But this, too, was over now. And the Knightess Leader could do nothing about that. So, two casualties had already fallen to the ground, both had been dear to her, and only the angered Kruytem and the monster were still standing.
 
Trying to get a hold of herself and stand tall, despite the worsening situation and the sorrow she felt growing inside, the woman forcibly focused her mind and reminded herself of the many rules and methods of fencing—and also of unarmed combat she had been well taught, and had learned by memory, since she was very young.
 
“Pay attention to the placement of the hands by the swordsman on the left….’
 
“A great deal depends on being in the right place at the right time…”
 
“You must keep constantly manoeuvring in and out of each other’s range, changing directions and so on…”
 
“A good defence by footwork usually takes the shape of moving either directly away from your opponent or directly towards him/her…”
 
“The most common way of delivering an attack in fencing is the lunge, where the attacker reaches out with his/her front foot and straightens his/her back leg…”
 
“Stop the other’s strike before it gains power…”
 
“Raise your shield to protect face; sword poised for low strike or parry…”
 
“Buckler has to be put forward to deflect; sword arm is kept out of opponent’s range…”
 
“Hold an aggressive stance, possibly a prelude to a quick attack…”
 
“Buckler extended, sword kept back. Always a good pose to wind up a powerful strike…”
 
“A large shield covers the body, though the sword arm must be protected, but not impeded by the shield itself…”
 
“A good swordswoman keeps the shield between herself and the opponent, but she never forget to prevent her foot to be trapped as your eyes must look upwards and downwards at all times…” 
 
“Every part of the weapon can be used to attack…”
 
“An overshoulder throw might be more useful than a direct blow, and could put adversaries on the ground quickly…”
 
“Use a cross arm defence against a downward thrust…”
 
“An upward strike intended to hit the weapon arm can be evaded by drawing back and lifting the arm out of range of the strike itself...”
 
“Sidestep an attack, and thrust over the opponent’s arm…”
 
“A perfect downward thrust has the power to penetrate also the heaviest mail coat…”
 
“You can possibly win by strongly grabbing the other fighter’s wrist and giving him a strike atop the head…”
 
“Two capable and experienced hands might stop even the quickest upward thrust…”
 
“An armed combatant has a clear advantage over an unarmed one, no matter how well trained. Anyway, also remember that having something to use against an opponent is better than having nothing…”
 
Other than that, there was also the ‘Pre-emptive strike’ and the ‘Two handed thrusts’, in which it was the left hand that grabbed the other’s blade. Then came ‘Grappling’ when the warrioress on left forced blade in right man’s neck. And many and many others…
 
There were also some better tricks, that involved the fighters keeping swords by the blade. Moreover, though combatants would parry, the preferred thing was to prevent a weapon entirely from reaching you. And in doing so there were many good moves which mainly relied on dodging and side stepping, undoubtedly. When it came time to stroke, any part of the weapon might be used, it was a well-known teaching to be always kept in mind.
 
All those important rules were, only a small part of a typical combat. But this fight was really different from confronting any other human swordsman or warrioress, be he or she more powerful, more experienced or taller than you….
 
Another movement of the unearthly monster’s powerful tail and the Knightess Leader had only enough time to better position herself in order to sustain the appalling impact and adequately protect her body from the fatal blow she was afraid that would possibly come next. Her wide dark pauldron pressed against the pointed end of the creature, cracking and breaking because of the strong and poisonous evil matter it was certainly made of. The attack also visibly spun the experienced warrioress backwards, and a sort of bewilderment filled her surprised eyes as a deep terror was already seizing her mind. Then all at once, without notice, the monster began changing its appearance, showing a big nose bulging out of the demon’s unbearable face, its skin fearsome and putrid, while its overall size greatly increased and changed, once again. The beast’s already huge extremities turned a dark reddish colour while the eyes looked like two catlike orange pupils now: the mouth gave out a cry in its own language, whatever it was, which resembled angry growls, in a bloodcurdling tone.
 
That sight was enough to make the Knightess Leader herself figure out what the predictable end of that fight was going to be. How could she doubt it?
 
There was no way to win over that creature using only a steel weapon; there was no way to better its hard, adaptive body. And not even the best shield ever made by the most capable human metalworkers within the whole Realm, nor any reinforced suit of armour as the one she presently wore, could suffice against such assaults. Kruytem was perfectly aware of it, but she didn’t have many other techniques at her disposal to face that threat now, except her magical powers and the sorcery associated with that. With all the dangers that such a daring action could have…
 
Her attention immediately started turning to the meaningful and ancient words of the enchantment that required some time before being activated, time that the Knightess Leader thought she was presently lacked, sadly. But she had no other chance but to try…
 
As the monstrous creature moved on, Kruytem whispered inside her mind the opening lines of the ritual she knew so well. Turning to face the four corners of the earth, she welcomed the elements of the air and fire, most of all, then the woman addressed the denizens of the heavenly spheres; she called upon the gods, the ancient tomes, and the souls of those departed, along with those not yet born. She welcomed them all in the name of the High Holy Knightesses’ Order and then released such energies combined, altogether at once. Her heart almost stopped as she did so, an aching pain ruling over her for some moments, but she managed to survive in the end. After all, she was still young enough, being only forty years old, otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to accomplish her ritual and live long enough to remember that daring, almost suicidal action…
 
But she knew she had no other choice!
 
Some abandoned old torches suddenly burst into life all around, they flickered and dimmed, then their strength started enlightening the whole floor, quickly increasing more and more. There was no way to stop such a ritual by now, no one could do so, the Knightess Leader knew it…And it all happened, finally!
 
Before the unholy being reached his position, Kruytem was well aware of the fact that she had to go out of the room, at once! Then, the Holy Fire would make that disproportionate and uneven fighting cease forever. Maybe.
 
Stone walls surrounded her; the exit was still distant, maybe not close enough to be reached on time… Her eyes narrowed, her breath coming in short bursts, her body sweating as if she were in a sort of heavy rain: sword in hand, the warrioress started to run, there was no other way out, and she well knew it!
 
The strength of the blow that hit her again was so powerful that the Knightess Leader thought her armour had already been badly pierced. She believed that she had lost all the protection around her body against the evil sickness that unearthly monster brought along with its damn being. But things proved to be different from what Kruytem had feared, even though such an impact had greatly affected her and both of her legs and her breast were aching. She had been lucky enough to remain alive, but there was still much to do in order to get out of that damn tower and survive. Just another move, she told himself, just another step to the exit, without stopping, without turning back…The woman had to accomplish that action while she was still awake, but it was difficult, more than she could have ever imagined.
 
After finally jumping out of the doorway, still fighting not to miserably faint because of the great pain and the incredible last blow she had received—that her armour seemed to have held out against only by chance—her voice activated the sorcery conveyed inside of all of her being and her body’s energy was released outwards at that moment, in an explosion of unbearable light. As the flames of her high-powered war enchantment began to envelope the wooden floor and the whole room, destroying the stone walls themselves, the leader retrieved her senses. She got up again and saw that the place she had just left was darkened, with no movement coming from inside, not anymore. 
 
She had made it, finally… but at such a great cost, and after the loss of two valuable younger knightesses of her group. Two dear partners she had been in love with…
 
The woman had some difficulties at getting downstairs to the entranceway being built above ground level and when her legs brought her there she was surprised to notice that it was still standing regardless of the powerful explosion. Actually, the soil and those additional supports that section of the tower was packed with had done their job, and had kept it intact. She would never believe that if she hadn’t witnessed it all by herself.
 
Her eyes opened wide and the present silence around her fell even deeper. After a wait that seemed endless in that place, the other five High Holy Knightesses who were outside reached her, in full armour and ready to support the woman in the supposedly ensuing combat. But there was no need for their intervention, as everything seemed to be finally over. Anyway, not everything was set yet. No, unfortunately, everything wasn’t concluded for that day, not yet. 
 
They had no time now to think of their dear dead fellows, and the moment of commiseration and the memorial service itself had to wait. They all already knew that in their heart, and the Knightess Leader made it much clearer in a deep, commanding voice after reporting the unprecedented characteristics of the beast destroyed, the bloody fighting she, the courageous Nuelun and poor Blhona had faced together inside the old tower and what had happened a few moments later in the room. There was still a long ritual to be activated, and it would require their remaining strength and dedication for part of the day, undoubtedly. That was a ceremony involving important gestures and some peculiar objects in which the actions and wording had to follow a careful form and order. Utilizing a limited organized set of expressions, turning to their ‘restricted code’ governed by secret rules, in the end they could make it. And all their minds had to be focused in accomplishing their final goals both for the emotional value as for its practical value, too.
 
Some darker moments were approaching…
 
 
 
After all the preparations that were made in secrecy, it took eight hours before the remaining warrioresses came back to the palace of the police guards. Not many words were spoken, according to the usual custom of the High Holy Knightesses, and their horses were readied for the next journey across the warm expanse that stretched just outside the tall city walls. 
 
The warrioresses had previously stayed for some time under the Great Pendentive that stood in the middle of the town for reasons known only to them. That arch spanned a wide space and arced upward and inward at the same time. The structure touched each of the five walls of a large, square open space, as they rose to meet each other. The increasing wall thickness had allowed the builders to bring them together in a rounded, rather than square shape, so that a peculiar roof had been placed on top of it. In this way, the roof itself looked imposing, and full of details that were worth watching. Though, it was not just to have a look that all the five remaining knightesses had gone to that place. 
 
Kruytem took leave of the captain who bowed before her and all the other women-at-arms, and then it was time to leave Akmar-reb-tul. There was not much else to say before moving away, truth be told. But words of what those female combatants had accomplished that day had already spread across the entire city at a fast rate, as it did the short recount of the destruction of part of that floor of the old abandoned tower with all the evil concealed inside it, whose explosion had briefly shaken that part of the urban area.
 
A lot of citizens, unceasingly moving upwards and downwards, already crowded the streets and the stalls of the marketplace that did lead, or was close to the city walls. Such locals usually grew their own food, and made their own clothes and just needed the right location where to sell their goods or exchange things, and also socialize day by day. Those were certainly the best places close enough to herd the animals and bring their wares to the market, as the choice of possibilities was truly endless. Commonly the few ones that resulted unable to afford a stall sold their items from baskets, or spread cloths on the ground to display what was available. Eventually they were joined by singers, performing animals, and other entertainers. Horses and carts were a regular sight, though it seemed to be much more than ever at the moment, you couldn’t even imagine there might be contained so many means of transport within the town itself… As a matter of fact, today there were other better reasons to come here, spend the time and stay longer, as the chance to have a look at the Holy Knightesses living Akmar-reb-tul as some great heroines after all that they had done was just something that many reputed unmissable, undoubtedly.
 
So while all the remaining tall knightesses were proudly riding along the avenue, the people were coming from all corners, chanting, feasting, greeting and blessing them all as they approached the ‘Great Entrance’ and started exiting the city walls. Kruytem didn’t care what they were saying, as in her mind these citizens were already part of the past, voices from a town that was going to be forgotten soon.
 
As the High Holy Knightesses moved away from the city boundaries and silently began heading for the desert like wasteland that seemed to stretch endlessly before their eyes, on the way back to their home headquarters, they were still able to hear the people’s happy songs in the distance, figuring out the words of the deep thanks the noblemen, the merchants and the lower classes were saying because of their intervention and the dances that were going on for remembering that very good day. Probably those men and women were still feasting and showing how glad and thankful they were when the female riders in armour went past some small hills that appeared to be made out of sand and ashes. They seemed to be greatly enraptured because of the noteworthy warrioresses’ coming and the deeds they had accomplished during their brief stay.
 
They were feasting again, Kruytem told herself in a motionless though sad expression, when the first signs of the incandescent fire began gurgling out of the circles of blood sorcery the remaining Holy Knightesses had drawn upon the terrain. They were probably still feeling safe and sound when the ground suddenly shook and a magical eruption was generated from the deeps by means of their enchantment, based on Fire Magic, showing how powerful and merciless it could be—just before the streets and the palaces were hit by its tremendous strength and the whole inhabited area finally exploded, destroying everything and everyone in a matter of minutes.
 
As a huge volcano –drawing energies from the Magic of the Fire Elementals of Earth itself—was emerging from the terrain of a place where it had never been nor was ever supposed to appear one day. People living throughout the whole area had never seen anything like that and, no one among them had never imagined that they would ever witness such a powerful force in the future. 
 
That was the only way to secure the whole region and to completely get rid of the danger coming from that incredibly evil infection caused by dark sorcery and the forbidden ritual practiced by several unholy individuals. The knightesses had tried to stop it and that action had provoked the death of two of their friends. But Kruytem also knew that such intervention was late and the evil had already spread too widely in the underground of the city to be wiped entirely out by only using their poor remedies. As a matter of fact, what the secret procedure required was simply the destruction of the entire site the obscure ritual had been made in before its consequences became too serious, making the evil capable of reaching the water rivulets underground, thus going into some lake or a greater river whose course would get in a brief time to some other towns full of people within the Realm, or to the capital itself.
 
The king didn’t want to take such chances nor was such a deadly danger allowed. There was no other possibility ahead of the knightesses as destroying the town of Akmar-reb-tul was the best way to remove the perilous consequences for the time being, and for the next future. That was the certainty they needed, and the right thing to do, according to the uncompromising orders those warrioresses had received…
 
Kruytem, the Knightess Leader herself, knew of the hearsay about the forbidden lesbian love affair among their group, and she also knew that people didn’t like that sexual behaviour, the same as the inhabitants of that town. Though their exceptional deeds and great skills as knightesses were greatly valued, it wasn’t the same about their love interest, and their real sexuality. Things had always gone that way in these lands…Actually, it wasn’t that their destruction of that place would ever please her, or that she wanted it all to happen so as to avenge the great lack of respect for their true inclinations. She simply didn’t care about that, she wasn’t interested in what they thought about whom she and her warrioresses loved in reality. She truly didn’t care too much. Only the final act of removal of that unspeakable evil was all that mattered to her Holy Order, and to her. Regardless of all the many deaths involved, and of the many deep sufferings it all would have caused…
 
Anyway, the incoming destruction couldn’t be stopped anymore, not for today, and not by means of any other sorcery known in their world. The whole walled town of Akmar-reb-tul was going to be no more on earth.
 
Such an action had already been done once in the past, centuries ago, though elsewhere. Kruytem only hoped that it wouldn’t need to be done again during what was left of her difficult life—at least this was what she wished for, deep in her heart.
 
After all, as that old saying went, if it were not for hopes, the heart would immediately break, wouldn’t it…? 


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