Grim and isolated, The Fortress sits
upon its island. It is not nearly as impenetrable as the Ruling
Council would like. With its walls of wood and stone, and its high
watchtowers scanning the dismal swamp, it is the last line of defense
for the humans against a dark and dangerous world. The only other
protection for mankind are the Slayers, a magic-infused fighting
force sent into the murky waters outside the city to hunt the
denizens of the swamp.
However, there is a sinister element to
the magic used to compel the Slayers into their combat partnerships.
The dirty underbelly of society, the poor, the destitute, and most of
all the criminals are forced to undergo the Binding and daily face
death. They are an army of slaves.
A Burning Hope
is the tale of one man defying his own desperate circumstances, as
for the first time in his life he dares to hope and dream. It is the
story of a Slayer named Maeze and his fight to regain control of his
destiny and live the life of freedom he desires.
“Pay attention, you mangy bastard.”
Aerick flicked a grin at Maeze as he
began untying the skiff from its position on the dock. The words
didn’t hurt Maeze. That was just the way Maeze’s partner spoke,
and the smile said he wasn’t serious. Aerick continued. “I’m
sure not going to do all the work for you today.” Aerick spoke like
a commoner, without clear enunciation, squishing words and syllables
together and at times even omitting certain sounds when he chose.
The Fortress rose firmly and resolutely
behind Maeze. A circular structure, built to mimic the island upon
which it sat, the Fortress was far from pretty. The architecture
appeared only half finished in terms of its original conception. Four
towers, one each at the north, south, west, and east side of the
island, stood prominently, made of harsh stone and stained dark over
the years. They had obviously been constructed first as the
architects of past times began building this haven from the world.
However, it was clear that the designers of the Fortress had fallen
short of their expectations for materials. The northern wall was
built of the same grim granite as the tower turrets, yet the other
three quarters of the wall were a hodgepodge of tightly fitted logs.
The northern ramparts of stone changed from one step to the next,
making way for the lumber constructed walls that followed. From the
midst of the chinked log walls just slightly shorter than the
northern, stone ramparts, the towers would emerge, a stark contrast
of stone to the logs that surrounded it.
Maeze quit staring at the Fortress
standing grimly behind him and untied his end of the skiff. He rocked
the sturdy little craft with one boot to test its merit. It wobbled
on the water and dirty, brown liquid oozed in from the many tiny
leaks around its hull, but it was firm in its ability to stay afloat
and to keep the majority of the marsh water out.
“She’s fen worthy,” Aerick stated
as he watched Maeze tip and push the skiff, testing it with one foot
while keeping the other foot planted firmly on the dock.
Maeze grunted noncommittally as he
thought of what lurked beneath the surface of the water. “She
better be. Our lives depend on it.” The comment brought a bitter
twist to his partner’s mouth and Aerick didn’t speak again until
they had cleared the tiny harbor on the south side of the Fortress
where the Slayers’ Docks were located.
As he and his partner rowed into the
marsh and away from the Slayers’ Docks—docks named for the
working class fighters who departed from them—Maeze thought about
how much he hated leaving the Fortress. The marsh surrounding the
island held no joy for one such as him, a Slayer. Leaving the
Fortress to do his daily work of protecting the settlement was hardly
enjoyable. Being a Slayer meant a person had been forcefully
recruited into a lifetime sentence in the lowest position in the
Fortress’ fighting force, which came with extreme danger and risk.
Maeze hated returning to the Fortress
as well. He pretty much just hated the Fortress. In a way, he
supposed that he hated the world around him in general. It was a
bleak, unforgiving place from which he and his fellow man were forced
to scrape a miserable existence. Well, all but the Ruling Council
that was. Those few who maintained power and influence were afforded
certain luxuries that others were not. Maeze wondered bitterly if he
would be in his current predicament if he had been born into one of
those families. Of course he wouldn’t. The thought was immediate
and filled with the sour taste of truth. The poor broke the law, not
the rich. Oh, the rich were criminals too, their cruelty was
unquestioned in Maeze’s mind, yet they created the rules and could
mold them any way they pleased, erecting a world where they could
continue to exploit those less powerful than they.
They rowed slowly, gradually, for an
hour, taking turns at the oars along the way. They had no destination
in mind. There was no rush. Hell would come to them, they didn’t
have to find it.
Fens slid by slowly on either side.
Dark, brown water, so murky the end of the oars disappeared when
submerged, even just below the surface. So dark that barely a glimmer
of reflection could be seen, even if a person peered into it. A
ripple stirred the calm surface of the pool to Maeze’s right, and
both he and Aerick jumped, slightly startled, and placed a hand on
their weapons as they let the oars of the skiff rest. Something rose
in the midst of the ripple and Aerick sighed audibly as he saw it was
just a fish. He was still new at this. Not like Maeze.
Maeze’s hand gripped his flanged mace
tightly even as the fear caused by the noise of the fish ebbed and
silence resumed dominion of their surroundings. The boat drifted
lazily, caught in a small bog swirl, those random currents that
eddied through the swamp all around them, making their way in and
around the humps of floating vegetation and the few solid mounds of
earth that punctuated the marsh.
Such was the marsh. Small currents that
could carry you anywhere and everywhere, as long as you didn’t want
to go any place in particular. Such was the world really. Because the
marsh was the world and the world was the marsh. There was nothing in
this forsaken land other than fen and bog. This was all there was,
just endless dark water, vegetation, hummocks, and the occasional
stunted tree for as far as the eye could see. Even farther.
Maeze and Aerick let the skiff drift on
the bog swirl. They had nowhere they needed to be. Come dark they
would just make sure they were back to the Fortress. That was all a
Slayer really did; nearly every day they spent out on the water,
waiting to kill or be killed, and by nightfall they were back within
the protective, oppressive walls of the Fortress.
He fingered his weapon, as Aerick
balanced the oars on the edges of the boat. His partner, not rowing
any longer, instead stared moodily out over the sinister, brackish
water. Maeze studied his mace, the weapon he had carried for three
years now. He had come to know every inch of its surface, every nick,
every scratch. The wooden handle was worn smooth from many years of
use, even before it had found its way into Maeze’s possession.
Simply fashioned, the haft was stained dark from the endless amount
of marsh water that had splashed on its surface or been soaked up
from filthy hands gripping it. The haft ended in a heavy metal ball
covered in sharp metal spikes, firm enough that with a powerful
swing, you could crush a hole in a skull or put one of its sharp
spikes in a man’s heart. Or any other creature for that matter,
Maeze reflected grimly. Men were the least of his concerns.
As if to punctuate that thought, a
white shape bobbed to the surface and Maeze leaped into instant
action swinging his mace downward with all his might, into the swamp
water and directly at the object. With a tremendous splash of water
from the swing, a flimsy, pale stick floated disconsolately on the
surface of the mucky water. It had probably drifted free of a watery
prison somewhere deep beneath the surface and had arisen here.
Maeze shook from the rush of adrenaline
caused by his instant and defensive action. Aerick stood with his
short sword gripped fearfully in his thin hands.
“Well?” Aerick breathed the