Title

Souls of the Damned

Summary

Forged by blood and forced to kill, skin the souls of the damned or perish in the fires of hell. No regret, no remorse this is salvation and peace will be assured.

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Chapter One: The Legend of the White Tiger

"STOP THAT BOY!" The voice of the commander echoed throughout the castle grounds as a group of guards entered the market area. The group slowed to a halt, their eyes scanning the area searching for a sign of their target. The commander wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead and threw his sword onto the ground frustrated. "Damn, we've lost him!" he cursed, before continuing the search.

It was just another day in the great kingdom of Leruma. Thieves from surrounding lands seemed to target Leruma's poultry stock and treated it as a bit of a game. Who could steal the most chickens and escape punishment. The game was growing in popularity that even the locals of Leruma were partaking in thievery. Corruption was a vile disease, but unfortunately it could not be stopped.

"Did someone steal from the warehouse again?" asked a male with bright yellow hair. He bent down and picked up a piece of hay and placed it in his mouth chewing on it.

His female companion frowned. "That's disgusting Max!" She crossed her arms over her chest and looked at the other male standing beside her. "Tell him Rei. Tell Max he should not be chewing on hay from the ground!" Her honey brown eyes remained fixed on Rei's dark eyes.

Rei glanced sideways at his blond friend. "Max, Hilary's right. You don't know where that hay has been." Max rolled his eyes and spat the piece of hay from his mouth. The three of them watched as it slowly floated to the ground. "Do you think the lord of Harifi is sending his men to steal from us?" Rei asked, pulling his eyes away from the stray piece of hay.

Max raised an eyebrow. "Lord Rhineheart? I thought he was always boasting about how full Harifi's granary stocks were!" Lord Rhineheart was a pompous old man of great pride. Once the kingdom of Harifi struggled to make ends meet, but under the leadership of Rhineheart the kingdom grew rapidly in power and wealth. Today Harifi remained the strongest kingdoms economically and military wise.

Rei shrugged his shoulders and pushed back a strand of stray hair away from his face. "Haven't you heard?" Max and Hilary both shook their heads. "They say a plague is sweeping through the streets killing their livestock and destroying their crops."

"Some would call that karma," Max said. "Do you remember the Great War?" It had been three decades since the battle between Leruma and Harifi. Thousands of people had died in the blood feud, sacrificed their lives to please their Lords yet there was no gain. Since the coming of lords Rhineheart and Hawkin, a truce between the kingdoms was established.

Rei contemplated his response, but was interrupted by two eager guards. Both the guards were dressed in silver chainmail from head to toe, their swords hanging by their sides. "Have you seen a male with blue facial markings?"

Max shook his head. "Sorry."

The guards nodded and continued their search. "If you spot him let one of the guards know."

Max nodded. "Will do." He waved the guards goodbye and watched them as they continued to search the grounds. "I doubt they will find him; the criminal is probably already gone by now."

"They will find him, Commander Gregory's failure rate isn't high," Hilary commented. No criminal ever escaped Leruma since Gregory was promoted to Commander of the Guards. "It'll only be a matter of time." Her words spoke true and the guards returned to share news with the trio.

"The criminal has been caught. He will face punishment immediately. The commander invites all people of Leruma to witness the punishment in the forecourt." Without saying another word the guards left making their way to the forecourt.

Rei exchanged glances with his two friends. "I've never been the one to turn down an invitation." Max and Hilary nodded. The trio made their way towards the criminals' post where a huge crowd had formed. Rei forced his way to the front of the crowd eager to glance at the criminal. He expected to see a dirty rough looking man wearing poor rags, but was surprised by what he saw. The male was no more than a year older than himself and appeared to be in good health. Rei could not detect any sign that would indicate otherwise.

The young man 's messy coal black hair fell around his shoulders, his dark eyes glowing with utmost hatred. He was brought forward to the criminals' post. The crowd rushed forward eager to get the best view of the punishment of the criminal. A tall male with blond hair dressed in silver chainmail held a knife at his throat. "Good people of Leruma, I, your commander Gregory Granger, am pleased to announce the one responsible for stealing our poultry stocks has been caught." The crowd cheered except for Rei. He never understood the lust for blood that took hold of the minds of people.

"Isn't that the grandson of Lord Rhineheart?" Max asked, edging up beside him. "What was his name again, Kai wasn't it?"

Rei nodded. "I think it is... what reason has the grandson of the most powerful man all Ilduja have to steal?" It didn't make any sense. Surely Lord Rhineheart took good care of his own kin? Or was there a greater power at work?

"Oh he looks terrible," Hilary whispered, pressing her hands against her face. "I wish we could do something to help him."

Max frowned. "Hilary, he's a criminal!"

Hilary shook her head. "His only crime was for stealing food to help his own people Max; wouldn't you do the same if you were in the same situation?"

Rei shook his head slowly. "He's right Hilary; Kai deserves punishment for what he has done." He shrugged his shoulders carelessly. "Besides, we don't know what his intentions were Hilary. For all we know he could be trying to poison our food stocks."

Hilary gasped. "I can't believe what I'm hearing." She stopped conversation with Max and Rei, opting to focus on Kai instead. No expression of fear was present in his face. It was as if he had already accepted fate.

Gregory grabbed Kai's hair roughly and forced him onto the floor. "Tyson, Jason – chain this criminal to the ground," he ordered, pointing at the two guards standing nearby. Tyson, the soldier with short black hair, walked proudly towards Kai. His younger companion, a red haired male called Jason, followed behind. The two quickly chained Kai's legs and arms to the ground preventing escape. "Good people of Leruma, what punishment shall he face?" Gregory asked facing the jeering crowd eager for blood.

"Chop off his head!"

Laughter erupted from the crowd and even Gregory grinned. He shook his head sadly. "I do not have the power of execution unfortunately, but I will gladly remove his fingers that have aided him in unpicking the locks on the warehouse door." Cheers greeted his words. "Tyson, place his hands on the chopping block." Tyson nodded and eagerly forced Kai's hands on the block before him.

Gregory bent down beside Kai and smirked. "You won't have use of these anymore," he said, glancing down at Kai's fingers. "Jason, hand me the rusted cleaver," he said, holding out his hand. Jason nodded and grabbed the rusted cleaver beside the criminals post and handed it to Gregory. Gregory grabbed the knife and placed it on Kai's right hand thumb.

Kai's face whitened as he eyed the blade nervously. He tightened his jaw and tried to refrain from screaming as Gregory slowly forced the edge of the blade into his thumb joint. A deep cut was made and blood seeped out leaking onto the chopping block underneath. Sweat beads formed on his forehead as he struggled to keep from crying out in pain. "... ungh..." he grunted, as the blade continued to cut. He tried to jerk his hand away but Tyson held it in place firmly.

Hilary's face paled and she covered her eyes with her hands unable to watch the gruesome scene. Rei wondered if the punishment fit the crime – surely stealing a couple of chickens wasn't a crime worthy of losing fingers. "Why did you steal the chickens?" Gregory demanded.

Kai struggled to find the words to speak. "... my family need food ... disease has ruined our livestock and crops..." he said, gasping in between breaks, "they are sick and need food to keep their strength..." he added.

"I knew he wasn't stealing chickens to spite us," Hilary said, eyes closed.

Even Max tore his eyes away from the event. "He still should not have stolen our chickens though," he said, "but this is too much." Max's face had paled.

Rei continued to watch with a worried expression. If Rhineheart fell to disease what would happen to Harifi? Would they invade Leruma like they had in the past? The kingdom of Leruma already faced an invasion from the southern kingdom of Telliera. Another invasion from another powerful kingdom would end their existence. A tortured scream from Kai shook Rei out of his thoughts. "I wish I could help..." he mumbled. He winced as Kai screamed again. Every man broke no matter how tough he thought he was.

Gregory aimed a well placed kick at Kai's side causing him to double over in agony. "You will be left here to rot."

"My people... will have their revenge..." Kai said through clenched teeth. Gregory shrugged off Kai's threat. He pressed the edge of the blade onto Kai's fourth finger on this right hand. Kai screamed again unable to stop himself. The chopping block was covered in his blood. Kai threw his back and screamed once again, tears flowing down his pallid cheeks. The pain was immense, but the humiliation was worse.

The sick smirk of satisfaction on Gregory 's face made Rei feel sick to the stomach. How could someone gain pleasure from watching someone else suffer? It was Gregory who deserved to face punishment, but unfortunately that would never happen. Kai was now crumpled on the ground, hiding his right hand under his stomach. Jason held his left hand firmly in place readying it for the next phase of pain. Immersed in pain already Kai could not feel the blade slice into his other hand. Death looked endearing. Anything was better than suffering.

"I don't want to listen to this anymore!" Hilary whispered. The sounds of bloodcurdling screams would remain forever in her mind. She forced her way out of the crowd and ran in a random direction.

"Hilary!" Rei and Max pushed through the crowd to escape and chase after Hilary. "She's heading for Lord Hawkin's castle!" Max exclaimed, picking up his speed.

Lord Hawkin's castle towered over the smaller buildings casting a big shadow on them. The two guards usually present were gone, most likely watching the public punishment. A shudder ran down Rei's spine as a brief image of Kai's bloodied hand formed in his mind. Rei led the way into the castle with Max following right behind him. The inside brick walls of the white castle were lined with various statues and banners. "There she is! Hilary!" Rei whispered urgently.

Hilary heard her name and spun around facing Rei and Max. Rei was shocked to see tears flowing down her cheeks. "I'm sorry Rei. I couldn't take him suffer any longer."

Rei nodded and walked over to Hilary enveloping her in a tight hug. "Everything is going to be alright."

She buried her head into his chest and sobbed. "How can I sleep at night knowing a good man is dying outside our walls?" Her tears dampened Rei's cloth. "We have to do something!"

Rei tenderly patted her back before freeing himself from his embrace. Loud voices coming from within the throne room caught his attention. He hurried towards the throne room door and urged his friends to follow him quietly. "...the White Tiger must be found!" A stern voice exclaimed. Rei pressed his ear against the wall eager to hear more.

"Please listen to my words, my Lord. We can't afford to risk more lives of our men trying to find this beast." The second speaker seemed frightened by the thought of adventure.

"The White Tiger represents faith, hope and courage. If we wish to win this war our men must believe victory is within reach."

"But my Lord Tao, it is impossible! The creature you seek lies within the fortress of Cenarar! We would need someone of great power and skill to penetrate the defences!" Cenarar was the great fortress of the dead. A lone wizard of fire defended the fortress from soldiers. Rei pressed himself against the wall harder eager to hear more.

"The White Tiger must be brought to us or all is lost!"

"But grandfather... surely you know the risks..."

Rei cringed as he heard a loud smack from behind the door. "Do not question my orders Lee! It pains me my own grandson fails to understand the importance of capturing the beast..." Lee, noble hero of Leruma was infamous for his uncanny prowess in battle and leadership, but despite his status, Lee easily cowered under his grandfather. "I want you to find the White Tiger and bring it back to our kingdom."

There was a brief pause before Lee answered. "Yes Lord Hawkin, I will do as you command," he said, reverting back to using formalities. "I will head out before dawn." The conversation between the Lord and his grandson ceased. Rei heard footsteps advancing towards the entrance door. He quickly indicated to his friends to leave quickly. Although allowed to walk within the castle halls, eavesdropping was a crime punishable by law.

"What was that about?" Max asked, leaning against the brick wall steadying his breath.

"Something about the White Tiger..." Rei responded. For many years Lord Hawkin had sent numerous groups of soldiers to locate the White Tiger and return it back to Leruma. He believed the creature was capable of bringing victory, believing his men would be inspired to win. He knew Lee was incapable of retrieving the White Tiger alone. He would need additional help and not from the military. He motioned for his friends to follow him back outside of the castle.

"Where are we going?" Hilary asked.

"To the criminals' post," Rei remarked. The trio headed back towards the post as the sun disappeared below the horizon.

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Kai sat on the podium clutching his wounded hands. Four fingers, both thumbs and two fourth fingers lay on the ground before him lifelessly. Already the pieces of flesh had stiffened and slowly begun the process of decomposition. He whimpered softly and brought his hands to his chest. Chains bound him to the podium preventing him from seeking help. It was common for criminals to be left to die of starvation or dehydration, not of pain itself. "We have to help him," said Hilary.

"Are you mad? He deserves this!" Max responded.

Hilary shook her head. "Didn't you listen to a word he said? He's trying to help his family combat the sickness!"

Rei ignored the bickering of his friends and watched Kai. If he did not act Kai would die within three days and be fed to the dogs. It wasn't a fate Rei wished upon anyone, no matter how vile their crime. "I'm going to help him," he said, standing up from his position behind the bush.

Max grabbed his arm. "What? Why?"

Rei freed himself from Max's grasp. "Hilary's right. Kai doesn't deserve to die... not like this."

Max fell silent before speaking again. "How are you going to free him? Only Lord Hawkin's key can unlock them," he said. Stealing the key from Lord Hawkin would be a difficult task – the key remained in a safe protected by a barrier of magic. "And if you somehow manage to free him, what do we do? Gregory will return tomorrow to check on the state of the criminal," he added. "He will not be pleased."

The edges of Rei's mouth curved into a smirk. "I've got an idea."

"What sort of an idea?" Max asked curiously.

"We're going to find the White Tiger."

Max's mouth dropped open with shock. "Are you mad? The White Tiger is in Cenarar protected by the wizard!" Swords and other physical weapons could not the power of magic. "And what does this have to do with rescuing Kai?"

Rei gripped Max's shoulder tightly and answered the first part of his questions. "What if Lord Hawkin is correct? What if this White Tiger can bring victory to our lands and vanquish evil forever? We would not have to send men into battle and thus not lose any lives to war."

Max contemplated the wisdom of Rei's words. "How can we breach the fortress walls of Cenarar?" A large black stone wall protected the castle from intrusion. "And if we pass the walls how do we deal with the troubles inside?" Vile creatures of darkness hidden by a permanent thick fog patrolled the entrance to the main castle.

"We'll need help," Rei said. "I know of some people that will gladly aid us." He jerked his head in Kai's direction.

"You're going to form an alliance with the criminal?" Max said. "What if he decides to kill us?"

"He's indebted to us for helping him," Rei said. "Of course, we'll have to free him first."

"We'll need more than a criminal to aid us in this suicidal journey Rei," Max replied.

Hilary spoke. "I'm sure the Wise Man can advise us," she said. "He lives in the forest of Stanra just northeast of here." The great forest of Stanra covered most of the continent of Ilduja, spanning from the Bay of Rullee to the ancient ruins of Foamli. A river divided the forest into two divisions starting from the snowy mountains of The Three Glaciers and ending at the Bay of Rullee.

Harifi was built on the north eastern side of the river, whilst Leruma was situated on the north western side. Two bridges connected the two divisions: Skull's Bridge and the Bridge of Three. The Bridge of Three brought adventures to an opening in the forest of three ancient dark temples, whilst Skull's Bridge led to a bandit camp in the forest. Either option proved fatal to unsuspecting adventurers and peasants. "Then it is settled. We shall leave for Cenarar at dawn," said Rei. "But first, we must free Kai." Rescuing Kai before the break of dawn would not be an easy task.

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First chapter down, what did you think? Keen to read more or not? Let me know your thoughts in a review!