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Tales of Conan: In Service to a King

Monday, May 16, 2008

Age of Conan - Fictional Story Series Begins
by Michael Lafferty

GameZone.com presents the first in a series of original fictional stories by Michael Lafferty stemming from the massively multiplayer online world of Age of Conan - Hyborian Adventures. The following story was written with the permission and cooperation of Funcom, the developer of the game. This story will kick off a series of stories that deal with the world, the characters and the lore involved in Hyboria. Some of these stories may contain spoilers for quests, so by Crom, be forewarned!

In service to a king

Arias’ face was lit with the flickering oranges, yellows and reds of the campfire, but rather than contentedly embracing its warmth, his brow was furrowed in a scowl. His right hand absently rubbed at the soreness of his left shoulder, but that was a pain that was not going away. In truth, he barely felt it; moreso it was the cold fingers of age stabbing into his joints that occupied his attention – a chill that left him too aware that his time in this world was drawing to a close.

Many times in the past he had been sent on missions for his king, youth gracing each step, strength and powerful assuredness in his demeanor. But those years were gone. The king had aged, he had aged and once-strong shoulders began to stoop with the passage of time. The days of golden peace for Aquilonia, the kingdom ruled by his liege, had also passed. The Hyborian jewel was besieged on many fronts, and Conan called up his trusted spy to determine the direction of the next biggest threat. Court mages had spoken in riddles about the undead called to action but Arias did not trust the gibberish, preferring something more tangible than words.

When King Conan asked, he merely nodded and set out to run a blockade, to meet a ship and gather key information. But even as he now sat in the glow of a campfire, he felt the task might be beyond him. Already, twice since he had been in the Barachan isles, he had needed the help of others to survive, and he knew that before this was over, he would need more help.

He pulled his right hand from his shoulder and examined it in the light cast from the fire. There were old scars intertwined with new wounds that would later add to the miscolored textures of his flesh. The knuckles were battered, bruised, and barely scabbed over – the result of his last encounter. That was the one that bothered him the most as it underscored how far he had fallen from the days when he was a feared fighter.

The hand curled into a fist, the knuckles screaming in protest, but the old warrior cast aside the tormentors and looked beyond them, staring deep into the fire pit. The brightness burned at his eyes, but he neither saw it nor felt it; instead he turned over in his mind what he had uncovered since this disastrous trip had begun.

He thought of writing out and sending a hasty report on what he had discovered so far, giving the king and his advisors the information he had but then quickly dismissed the notion. He was known for complete reports, valued for them in fact, and what he had now were but fragments – albeit the very portends of a greater evil amassing against  Aquilonia. What exactly did he know? Well, to start, Mithrelle was here, the powerful witch who served Stygia’s deadliest god-mage, Thoth-Amon. That, in itself, was cause for alarm, but she was not the sole source of the evil that festered in the port. Tortage City harbored a deeper malevolence, that much was certain, and it seemed to flow from the madness of Strom, the tyrant who ruled the city. It was a tangible thing, an entity coalesced in a hazy mist that seeped up from the Underhalls and hung above the streets of the town at dusk, clinging to everything it touched.

He had felt it even as the small boat he had used to sneak through the island’s blockade had drawn close to the harbor. He should have known then that this mission would not be as easy as it had sounded back in Aquilonia. He had been sent to meet a slaver ship inbound from Stygia with a young boy on board purportedly in possession of a document that would cast light on the new threat. The ship had docked, all right, but there was the stink of sickness and death about it. Bodies had been hauled away as Arias had watched from the shadows of the dockside buildings. He was about to move toward the vessel to find the boy when Red Hand guards found him instead. Quesado, the Zingaran dog and blade of the Tortage ruler, had been at their lead. They meant to arrest him, and then kill him. To fight there and then was madness. Arias knew if he was patient that an opportunity might arise but he also vowed that he would not willingly be sent before Crom; he would fight until the breath was taken from him by force. 

He had been escorted through the docks and placed in a small boat. He played the role of old man, a spy unmasked, feigning acquiescence and acceptance of the inevitability of his execution. But Arias was ever vigilant, watching the guards for clues as to which might present the greater challenges in combat. Over the years, Arias had grudgingly surrendered power for cunning and realized that, in the hours to come, it would be cunning he would need the most … and surprise.

The boat ride to White Sands Isle was without incident; the small boat skirted the shoreline fires from the small Pict villages and beached near a spot where the jungle ran close to the water. Quesado had looked at him a final time, his hawkish face stretching into a semblance of a smile.

“Unlike you, old man, when I am sent on my king’s errands, I return with success on my lips,” he had sneered. Then to the other guards, “take him to the clearing and end it quickly.”

They had marched a short distance, finally breaking from the jungle to a place where the trees and vegetation shrank back. The ground was stained a deeper color and the place smelled of death.

 

A guard turned toward him, to say something, but he never got the chance. Arias roared and lunged forward, one hand grabbing the throat of guard, the other locking onto the hand that grasped the hilt of a sword. The larynx collapsed on itself under the pressure, the guard’s eyes bulging slightly, a gurgle coming from his lips. The sword was freed, but the Red Hand did not hold it – Arias did. The other four guards were in motion, swords in hand. They pressed forward, driving the Cimmerian spy before them.

Arias knew the odds were not in his favor, he knew he would likely die at their hands but he was determined to take a few with him. A rocky wall crept up behind him as he parried thrust after thrust. The battle seemed to be drawing to a close, and then a lithe figure sped from the jungle toward the battle, a large two-handed sword held overhead. The skin was dark, and the sword seemed improbably large for the hands that wielded it. Another attacker? No, the Stygian’s blade descended and cleaved the sword arm from one of the Red Hand guards. Another turned, surprised. The Stygian’s mouth moved silently, lips forming a song of death. The darkness of the night erupted into hell fire, encasing the Stygian. But the Stygian was not harmed by the spell, though the nearest guard did not fare as well. His clothes caught fire and then the blaze wrapped around him like a living entity and when it released the guard to return to the Stygian, all that remained of the guard was a charred corpse.

Arias parried another half-hearted thrust. The guards, by now, discounted the threat of the old man and were more concerned with the new arrival. That was the death of one as Arias’ sword skewered him through the midsection.

The Stygian mage invoked another spell, words mumbled more than spoken aloud, and the blade of the great sword wrapped itself in flames. The remaining guard thrust, but his sword was consumed by the demonic fire, melting at the point of contact. The mage spun a tight circle, the blade following and striking the guard. His head fell away from his shoulders.

The battle was over. The flames sputtered on the blade and died away. The dark eyes of the Stygian turned to Arias. “Are you all right?”

A friend from Tortage had sent this mage to his aid. The Resistance, a surprisingly large force within the walls of the city, had been watching him. He owed them his life. He assured the mage that indeed all was well and he would return to the forests near the city soon, but he needed time to recover from the fight and to let Quesado report his death. He chuckled when he thought of Quesado bragging that Conan’s spy was taken care of. He was half tempted to let guards see him walking near the city to undermine the Zingaran’s standing with the fell ruler. But no – that was foolish and one did not get to be an old man by being foolish. He told the mage he would stay on the isle for a time and then find a camp in the shadow of Tortage’s volcano near the city. When the time was right, he would contact the Resistance and proceed with finding the boy.

The Stygian melted into the night and Arias set out in the general direction of the boat that had ferried him to the island. But fortune fled from him yet again. Traversing through the tangle of trees and vines, he tripped and the sword he had been clutching clanged away. He tried to find it in vain, then he sensed movement nearby and rather than wait and continue to search for the lost weapon, he moved on quickly. Whatever was shadowing him now threw caution away and picked up the chase. Arias cursed for having left the Stygian’s company so soon. Crashing into a clearing, he turned, barehanded, to face whatever was following. Picts burst into the clearing, their savage eyes belying their humanity. For the second time that night, Arias sensed his death was near, and for a second time, he was found and aided. A shaman, battle-hardened, death crunching down in a hammer wielded with precise dexterity, came to his rescue – another agent of the Resistance. His wounds were tended and the shaman left to report back, but even as the healer was leaving, Arias’ mind was assaulted with doubt. He had pushed it away, focusing on leaving the isle and making his way back to the outskirts of Tortage City, but he knew he would have to deal with that doubt before too long.

That brought him back to the present. Twice he had been on the verge of death and twice he was saved by outside forces. “I am getting too old to be of use to my king,” he muttered, the realization underscoring his words with profound sadness. If he survived this mission, he would talk to his king and tell him that his usefulness was near its end. Conan would understand. A dead spy is of no use to anyone. If the kingdom was able to survive the coming war, if Arias was able to survive the dire times ahead, perhaps he would be able to live out his years …

He heard a crack, a sound not made by the flames but rather coming from the path that cut through the jungle and led to his small camp. Arias grabbed for a weapon he had taken from one of the dead Picts. He knew that a servant of the Tortage evil would not come from the path; rather it would skulk through the underbrush, measuring each footfall and trying to catch him unaware. This sound was made by one who did not care if Arias knew that he, or she, was coming. That either could mean a fearsome warrior who came to face him before trying to claim his life, or yet another friend – sent by the gods or the Resistance – to aid him. He prepared for the former, but hoped it would be the latter.

 

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