Chapter 4

Corbin reached back to scratch an itch on his lower back as he crouched down behind a partially dilapidated stone wall in order to stay out of sight. The coarse animal hair of the hooded robe provided by Cristobal irritated his bare skin underneath, so a quick scratch brought instant relief. Lydia wore one too, thanks to a brief portal jump to a safe house location where Cristobal stored such provisions. It was the perfect place for outlanders to find native garments for the purpose of blending in. Another portal jump had brought them to a clearing in a densely wooded forest near Cristobal's village. After a winding trek along marked trails they found themselves at the outer wall of the village, where the recent invasion of Lord Saph's forces left gaping holes in the stone work of the wall. A large iron gate lay mangled at the village entrance, a once stout sentinel in place to protect the villagers from harm. Now it was nothing more than another defeated victim in the wake of Lord Saph's conquest, twisted and rusting.

Peering through a crack in the weathered stone wall, Corbin surveyed the village beyond. It was just as Cristobal described. A single dirt street stretched through the middle of the village, dividing rows of stone and wood built habitats topped with thatch roofs. Along the way, here and there, wooden carts were parked. A lone rat scurried across the street, disappearing between buildings, but otherwise the place seemed devoid of life. It was a ghost town. Corbin looked to his right at Lydia, who was crouched in position nearby beside a pile of rubble from a section of collapsed wall. She was observing the village too, peeking over the broken wall with her face concealed within the hood of her robe.

"There, at the far end of the village," Cristobal said in a raised whisper, causing Corbin and Lydia to glance at him before gazing off to where he directed as he stared through a hole in the wall.

A rather large stone building resided where Cristobal indicated. It was wide, with several stone pillars in place atop the stairs leading up to its entrance. There a set of sturdy closed wooden doors reached high into a smooth arch. A square section rose up to another level from the center with large stained glass windows centered on each side. Clay tiles formed the roof, which was flat on both levels. The structure was simple in design, but it was a magnificent testament to craftsmanship in scale and symmetry alone.

"That's the synagogue," Cristobal revealed. "That's where Drake is."

Cristobal crept over to Corbin's position. Lydia took the cue and made her way there too. The trio huddled together in the shadow of the crumbling wall.

"When Saph's army swept over this land and took my village, it was given to Drake as bounty for his part in the victory. It was his fatal blows to Sebastian and Vivian that crushed our defenses and scattered my people to the wind," Cristobal explained. His words were tempered with a mixture of contempt and remorse.

Corbin's chest heaved with ire as he looked back towards the synagogue. His nostrils flared as his upper lip twinged with fury. Visions of Sebastian and Vivian holding ground against overwhelming odds before being cut down flashed repeatedly in his mind, stoking the embers of his growing rage.

"Are there any of your people left here?" Lydia asked.

"Only a few, now slaves to Drake and his minions," Cristobal answered regretfully.

"It's time to introduce myself to this Drake," Corbin said through gritted, angry teeth.

Cristobal placed a firm hand on Corbin's shoulder to keep him from rising. "Not now," he urged. "Drake has a garrison of fifty soldiers at his command stationed here. I have warriors gathered elsewhere, awaiting..."

"We won't need them," Corbin assured as he stood and pulled away from Cristobal's grasp. He looked down at Lydia with a stern expression of resolution. She nodded to confirm her consent. "Wait here until I need you," he advised.

Lydia pulled the hood away from her head, shaking her inky black hair free before meeting Corbin's stare again. "Just remember, you're vulnerable in your human form," she cautioned.

Corbin shifted his gaze back over the wall and down the long street towards the synagogue, towards his enemy. Strolling alongside the battered wall he kept his eyes locked on his target until he came to a crumbled section of wall low enough for him to easily hop over. As he began a steady march up the street he removed his hood, glancing around at the vacant buildings as he went. Nothing stirred until about halfway through the village when a small boy suddenly came tumbling through an open door out into the street. Cristobal and Lydia watched closely from their hiding spot behind the wall as Corbin approached the young boy.

A large bowl came flying through the same open door as the boy, spilling a brown stew in splatters as it crashed onto the street. A disapproving groan from within the building followed. Corbin knelt down to help the young boy to his feet while he watched the doorway. Heavy footsteps on a wooden floor sounded forth as someone came their way.

"Are you okay?" Corbin inquired, dusting the boy off as he rose.

The boy, sniveling and wiping tears from his cheeks, nodded bravely.

"Good," Corbin said. "Now run along to the village entrance. I have a friend there on the other side of the wall who'll keep you safe," he prompted, motioning towards the wall.

The boy looked towards the doorway where a robust bearded man clad in soldier's armor emerged. He stared up at Corbin as if he were afraid to move.

"It's alright. No one is gonna hurt you. Now go, run along," Corbin assured.

The boy glanced back at the soldier before dashing off in a sprint towards the wall.

"Hey!" the soldier yelled out. "Get back here ya runt!"

Corbin squared himself with the husky fellow, standing in the middle of the street as the soldier turned his attention towards him.

"Where's Drake?" Corbin demanded.

The soldier sized Corbin up with a sweeping glance, huffing at the boldness of his tone. He stepped out of the building and onto the street, strolling towards Corbin as he reached over his shoulder and removed a holstered mace from his back. Corbin shifted his stance to make sure his footing on the unpaved road was sure. He summoned the strength of his inner beast to the surface, feeling the robe tighten against his body as his muscles stretched and grew.

"What business have you with Drake?" the soldier asked. He tapped the mace against the side of his tall leather boot, drawing Corbin's attention to the blunt studs adorning it's sphere.

"I've come to take his head," Corbin replied confidently, shifting his gaze from the mace directly to the man's eyes.

An amused chuckle bellowed up from the man's chest after a surprised look flashed across his features. "Well then, you've come for a painful death."

Corbin dismissed the threat with a shrug of his shoulders. "You can try."

"Enough of this already," the soldier growled. "Drake isn't to be bothered by fleas like you," he said, swinging his mace upward for a quick strike.

Corbin caught the weapon with his bare hand, leaving a stunned look on the soldier's bearded face. He smirked as he grabbed a handful of the man's beard with his free hand. "Some fleas have big bites," he remarked before snatching the man's head against his for a brutal headbutt that dropped the soldier into an unconscious heap at his feet.

Corbin rolled the fallen soldier away with his foot, making sure he wasn't getting back up any time soon, then he turned back towards the synagogue. Cupping his hands around his mouth to amplify his voice he cried out: "Drake!"

The village was suddenly overtaken by the sound of rustling within the buildings as Drake's garrison of troops assembled themselves out into the street, searching for the source of the call which snapped them into action. Corbin watched as the soldiers piled into view, looking very annoyed as they centered their attention on him. They began to brandish all manner of crude weapons as they started in his direction. Maces, clubs, war hammers, and swords surrounded him as he found himself in the midst of blood thirsty barbarians posing as soldiers. Corbin swept the lot of them with a scrutinizing gaze, meeting the vile intentions of their hard stares with a glare of his own.

Before they could pounce a strong wind blasted through the street, stirring up a wall of dust which avoided Corbin but blew into the gathered soldiers. They were momentarily distracted with shielding their eyes and coughing from the dust, allowing Lydia's robed form to spring into the air from behind the wall. She floated in the air until she hovered above Corbin, looking down on the soldiers as arcs of purple energy swirled around her body in the form of electrical bolts chasing one another. Her hair flailed about on the invisible currents of power emanating from her and amplified from her connection to Corbin's inner strength.

With an upward thrust of both her hands into the sky above her head Lydia used her power to lift all the threatening soldiers off their feet, casting them high into the sky above the village. They dangled helplessly, dropping their weapons to the distant ground below as they flopped like fish out of water. Lydia dropped her hands to her sides, allowing all the suspended soldiers to fall helplessly to the ground with yelps and screams until their impact with the buildings and street of the village silenced them forever. She descended slowly until her feet touched the ground beside Corbin. He gave her an approving nod.

The large arched doors of the synagogue burst open with a loud thud, snatching Corbin and Lydia's attention to the raised entrance of the structure where a towering figure came into view. Easily eclipsing seven feet in height, with a lean body wrapped tightly in leather armor clasped with wide straps and sterling buckles, the imposing figure peered out through the opening of a horned helmet. The sharpened edges of a double-bladed battle axe peeked over the shoulder plates of his armor, being as wide as the breadth of his own broad shoulders. His shadowed eyes surveyed the village before him, where all his soldiers lay scattered, broken, and defeated. Then he narrowed his vision on the two robed figures standing alone in the middle of the street.

"I got this," Corbin told Lydia through the side of his mouth as he advanced toward the synagogue. She remained behind, alert and ready.

"You must be Drake the Cowardly. Lord Saph's dog," Corbin taunted as he marched toward the steps leading up to the entrance of the synagogue where he stopped to stare up at the looming figure.

"I am Drake the Executioner, you fool!" the figure boomed out with an enraged growl following his words. He glared down at Corbin from atop the pillared landing of the entrance.

"I have come here today to avenge Sebastian and Vivian, my friends," Corbin declared.

Drake rocked his head back with laughter. "You will meet the same fate as those two rebels... my axe," he vowed, reaching around to swing his axe free from behind, bringing the massive weapon into full view. He gripped the handle with one hand while the neck of the blade rested in his other hand.

Corbin, poised and ready for battle, started up the steps towards Drake. Cristobal was now standing, watching over the wall with the young boy tucked protectively at his side. Lydia too was glued to the impending confrontation. Drake breathed out a scornful groan before descending the steps for Corbin. He swung his axe out and over his head with both hands gripping it tightly, ready to meet his foe with a decisive and devastating blow. When the two neared and Corbin was within range he swung downward with all his might, anticipating a killing strike that no creature in the realm could survive.

In the blink of an eye, as he watched the axe come for him, Corbin morphed into the alternate form of his inner beast. The robe around his body ripped open to allow the hulking black wolf within to emerge, blocking Drake's strike with a brawny forearm which stopped the axe in mid-swing. An expression of shock and awe overtook Drake, and disbelief flooded him. Even with Corbin's beastly form standing a few steps lower than Drake, the executioner had to look upward to meet the snarling gaze aimed at him from behind a fang-filled snout.

"What sorcery is this?" Drake uttered. as he tried desperately to gather his wits.

Corbin cocked his free arm and sent a massive fist crashing into Drake's chest. The large battle axe fell onto the stone entrance of the synagogue with a ringing clang when it was ripped free of Drake's grasp. He flew through the air until a crushing impact with one of the support columns interrupted his flight. Corbin reached down to pick up the axe, eyeing it with his purple eyes as he lifted it up. Thinking of how it was used to end the lives of his two friends made his eyes blaze with anger. He pinned his pointy ears back and snarled through curled lips as he set his sights on Drake's squirming body at the base of the column.

Holding the axe in one clawed hand at his side Corbin strode over to Drake. The broken executioner was trying in vain to collect his broken body, spitting up blood as he struggled to get on all fours. He winced in agony as huge clawed feet came into view beside him. Turning his head upward to see the hulking beast covered with black fur and holding his axe, he lowered his gaze back down in defeat, in anguish. Corbin raised the axe high over his head, then released a ferocious roar into the air through his wolf-like snout before bringing the weapon down to separate Drake's head from his body. The severed head rolled free from the horned helmet upon impact with the stone landing, and Drake's lifeless body collapsed at Corbin's beastly feet.

Corbin glared at the axe in his grip one last time before dropping it next to Drake's headless corpse. He turned to see Lydia and Cristobal rushing up the steps of the synagogue. The young boy stayed back in the street, gazing up towards Corbin in wide-eyed awe and fear.

"I...I...had no idea...," Cristobal muttered as he walked in a slow circle around Corbin, eyeing the massive creature before him while being completely astounded. It took a moment for him to gather his wits and return to rational thought. He stared for a moment at Drake's remains. "When word of our actions here today reaches Lord Saph's citadel, he will not delay in retaliating," he warned.

"Then we must plan and be ready for him," Lydia advised.

"Now you want to plan?" Cristobal mocked, glancing up at Corbin before settling his attention on Lydia.

"Hey, you wanted our help. You brought us here," Lydia reminded sharply. "This is how we help," she said, gesturing out towards the village where Drake's garrison lay in defeat.

Cristobal gulped down his opinion, and nodded. "You are right. Come, let us depart from here. We have little time to waste," he urged as he made haste down the steps of the synagogue.

Lydia looked up at her big beastly brother who was a giant standing next to her. She smirked with an approving nod and the two siblings reached out for a fist bump. They turned and headed off after Cristobal.