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Chapter 1 -- My Apprenticeship
Copyright © 2002 Chris Gonnerman. All Rights Reserved.

We were fools.

We had travelled together for a few months, in the spring and summer of that year. I was nineteen, and I was next to the oldest.

In my homeland I had trained as a warrior, using the staff; it was our traditional weapon, and I am proud to say I was quite good with it. I joined with Kras Dolan, a spearman, Fresia the Nimble, an acrobat and sometimes thief, and her lover Sol Avar the sorceror. Together we traveled throughout the land now known as Spain, from the ice fields to the strait, and then across to the grasslands you now know as the Sahara Desert.

We fought highwaymen and collected the bounties; sometimes we found monstrous creatures to battle, like the Ape-Men or the Little People. They were not the elves or leprechauns you are thinking of, but more like modern-day Pygmys, endowed with magical powers.

Often we had heard of the evil wizard whose zombie army controlled a small kingdom in the northeast part of Africa, and one day Kras said "We can defeat him." So we headed east along the coast. We were fools.

No sooner than we had stepped into the courtyard of his dilapidated fortress, but we were beset by zombies from all sides. They drove us into the keep proper, where it was dark and gloomy, as the windows were all covered. Though badly abused we began to get the better of them, and Sol even said "Look, they flee before us!"

Those were his last words. I tripped over a zombie Kras had dismembered, so the bolt of eldritch power missed me; but the others were not so lucky. I stood up, and found myself face to face with a horrid, withered sorceror. I could feel his icy breath from five feet away...

I ran, in abject terror. What man wouldn't, if he had not steeled himself for the experience? In my panic I chose a door we had not explored, and found myself descending. Soon I was lost in the caverns below the keep.

He pursued me for what seemed like days; in fact it may have been, for I drained my waterskin, refilled it and quenched my thirst at an underground stream, and drained it again before he caught me.

I had run down a blind alley, and before I had time to backtrack he was there. I had by then prepared myself to stand my ground, and fight like a trapped rat, but he raised his hand and spoke an arcane word, and I fell in a heap.

Three zombies came forward; one stripped my gear from me, and the the other two lifted my tingling body to a kneeling position. With another pass the monstrous wizard removed the spell, removing the paralysis.

"You are cunning and crafty," he said in a voice like dry leaves crackling. "Smarter by far than any of the other fools who have tried to best me. I will make you an offer, my friend: call me your master and become my apprentice, and I will give you power beyond your dreams. If you decline, know that I will make your death far more painful than that of your friends, here."

It was then that I realized the three zombies were the animated corpses of Kras, Fresia, and Sol. I cracked.

"You are my master, O great wizard."

"My name is Gruven Ket, but you will always call me Master." The zombies (I never think of them with the names they had in life) lifted me to a standing position, and I followed my new master meekly out of the caverns.

Ket never called me by my name; he never asked it. I was always "apprentice" except sometimes when he rebuked me, calling me "slave." I was given responsibility for the captives he kept in the dungeon, most of whom had been there many months and had thus lost their minds. The villages nearby gave tribute, in gold and in food, in return for safety from Ket's undead army; handling the food became my responsibility.

Much of my time was spent in study and practice; Ket had many projects occupying his time, and so he spent only two or three days in ten at most training me. Still, I learned steadily, for I had nothing else that I cared to do, and I could not leave. I passed four years in this manner.

Though I could not leave the keep, I was allowed access to the caverns. From time to time when the proximity of my master became too much to bear, I would wander about them for a day or so. It was on one such trip that I found a narrow, hidden passage, at the other end of which I saw sky. I determined that it opened just outside the outer wall of the keep, near the bluff overlooking the sea.

One day in the chill of winter my master called me to his study, for training I assumed; but he wished for the first time to discuss something with me. "In three days hence is the day of sacrifice, when I must give to the demon-lord who must not be named a virgin sacrifice. Here," he said, waving a hand at the door behind me. As I turned to look I saw a young woman, her hands bound behind her, gagged, and held by two zombies. Ket rose and approached her, causing her to writhe and struggle to no avail. With one icy claw he ripped her dress from top to bottom, and the zombies tore off what remained.

She was beautiful, of course, and terrified, her eyes like those of a trapped deer. "You will care for her, apprentice; see to it that she is still a virgin when I slay her on the altar." With that, he waved in dismissal and turned away.

I led the zombies, who by now were carrying her, down to the dungeon. I gave her a cell that had not been used in a while, and sent a zombie to bring fresh straw. After posting guards at the door I removed her bonds.

First she struck at me, but she was weak with fear and exhaustion and so did me no harm. I put my arms around her and held her tight until she stopped struggling and began to cry. After a time she moved away and I told her I would return soon with food and water.

When I returned, some hours later, I brought food and water for her consumption as well as a bowl of water for washing in. She watched me like a mouse watches a hawk, but she did eat and she did wash. Finally she spoke.

"My name is Mara. Have you a name, apprentice?"

"I am called Solomoriah, but not by my master, who does not know my name." I smiled at this, my first smile in many years.

She stood then, and approached me slowly. "I would do anything, Solomoriah, to escape the fate your master plans for me." She spread her arms slowly, a gesture of offering, and I would be no man if I didn't admit I was tempted. My master's warning rang in my ears still, though, and I refused her. I left quickly, before I could change my mind.

It was nearly daybreak then, and like my master I slept in the daytime; but I did not sleep that day, for in my mind I could see Mara bound to that altar Ket spoke of. I had seen it many times, even seen the bloodstains, but I had not allowed myself to think about its use before. Now I could think of nothing else.

The next night I did my best to avoid my master, and he seemed content to ignore me. I planned and plotted a thousand escapes before I settled on one.

As I have said, Ket's keep stood on a bluff overlooking the sea. The land above the bluff was flat and devoid of trees for a long distance, and I knew that zombies were "planted," half-buried, throughout that area as traps. The bluff, though... Ket's zombies had to be kept away from salt, lest he lose control of them, so the salty sands below never saw a zombie footprint. My master himself could not bear the daylight very long. We would flee, then, through the hidden tunnel to the outside and quickly over the bluff. If we did so at dawn Ket could not follow us, and I believed we would be safe.

As dawn was about to break I put on my gear and went to Mara, carrying some of my extra clothes to cover her against the cold. Though they fit her poorly she said they would do; for by now she realized I meant to save her.

As I led her from her cell I saw zombie guards massed at one end of the line of cells. I boldly approached them, ordering them away, but they did not obey me this time. With a cold chill I realized that Ket knew of my treason.

I ran back to Mara, throwing open all the cells (which were merely barred) as I went. The other slaves, particularly those with more aggressive forms of madness, ran out into the corridor and grappled with the zombies. I heard Ket calling to me but his words were unintelligible.

Both ends of the cellblock had entrances, and though it was a longer distance the other way it was our only choice. Mara, for her part, was tougher than I gave her credit for, and never fell behind. We narrowly missed being caught by zombies; fortunately they are slow and stupid opponents.

We reached the opening at last, and I put Mara through first, then followed her. The sky was clear and bright, and I felt confident.

I was a fool.

I started down the bluff first. The handholds and toeholds were quite good, and I could see a ledge only five yards or so below where we could rest out of sight of the fortress. I turned to Mara to help her down just as a bolt of scarlet fire burned through her abdomen. She toppled, lifeless, falling on me and nearly bearing me to my own doom.

I was right that the zombies would not follow me onto the beach, so I buried her there under sand and a cairn of large stones. I wept, and as I wept I realized I had never wept for my lost friends.

It was a long, cold day as I fled along the seaside, putting as many miles between myself and my former master as I could. I don't know if he let me escape or if I really got away on my own; but I spent the next several years on the run. I freely used my name, certain he did not know it, and I became more powerful in the ways of magic. As with my friends years before I fought the unjust and evil, and lived on the proceeds.

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The Adventures of Solo Jones Last Updated 07/18/2005