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|Archol Thar, an undead mage and wielder of the Dark Fire, and the Raven, a mysterious warrior with a demonic soul, are the guardians of the Arsenal of Heaven. Their task: to prevent anyone from seeking out the Winds, a powerful elemental consciousness, bound inside. Their task has led them to a remote area of Trinia, where a barbarian warlord and his wizard advisor are preparing to try their hand at unleashing the Winds...and binding it to their will This story, like many of my others, concerns characters from the Arsenal of Heaven. There should be enough backstory inside to make sense of it, but if not, tell me so and I'll put more in. Enjoy||
The Arsenal: Guardians
The air was cool and wet, the dampness soaking my charcoal-black cloak until its value as a garment was close to nil. The fog had rolled in sometime before dawn, and a beleaguered sun had made little effort to dispel it. I didn’t mind. Warmth or cold made little difference to me, or my travelling companion.
I glanced over at my partner, standing on a rocky outcrop at the top of the hill, staring into the mist. I was still somewhat awed by him, despite our years together. He claimed he could pick things out of the mist, thick as it was, and so far he had proved it to me. The wind rolled over and past him, and he was as indifferent to it as it was to him. His black hair gleamed with moisture, and his pale skin shone. His only seeming concession to the weather was a rough garment of northern furs veiling his left arm.
That garment had little to do with keeping out the cold.
He stood still as a heron, and for the same reason. Far away and below us, a small settlement languished in the fog. The dull sounds of human habitation barely reached us up here, but I could tell that the Raven was listening intently. For myself, I was never very patient, and had become even less so ever since my premature death.
I looked down at my hand, and began to amuse myself, conjuring a single tongue of blue-black flame there and dancing it from finger to finger, and then from hand to hand, watching the little flame grow as I slowly fed it energy from my reserves.
“Stop that.” The Raven said, without looking behind him. “It’s distracting, and you’ll call their attention to us if you keep it up.”
“What’ll they do? Kill me?”
“Oh, Archol Thar, you missed your calling as a jester when you became an undead mage.” The Raven said sarcastically, then turned away from his vigil with a sigh. “I don’t really know what we’re here for, Archol. These people are formidable enough in their own way, but they’re fractured into dozens of tribes. They don’t even have stable leadership. How could they be a threat to the Arsenal?”
“It’s not them as a people. It’ll be one man, or woman, or whatever, with too much lust for power.” I replied, still keeping the flame dancing. “It always is.”
“Lust for power isn’t a crime.” The Raven grumbled. “I don’t see why we have to go around wiping out anyone who’s ambitious.”
“Not just anyone, Raven.” I said. “Artemis let us know about this one. You know how he is about these things. This isn’t a wild goose chase. Someone down there,” I said, pointing at the tiny settlement, “is a threat to the Arsenal of Heaven and the Chaining of the Winds. Do you want another Windscorch on our hands?”
The Raven grimaced, and I could tell he was remembering well that terrible desert, devoid of all life. It had been many years since the Disciplan Wars, when the first word-wielding Sorcerer in centuries had unleashed the elemental force of magical Winds and bent them to his purpose. An entire nation had been scythed into dust by horrific storms and years with no rain. Everything that had not fled had died.
The Winds were chained now, in the hammer of an archangel, no less, but there were men who remembered the power that they represented, and some among those who thought to use it for their own advancement in the world. They were the worst kind of fool, with just enough cunning to get themselves killed and send the world plunging into darkness with them.
“Good, I see you remember. Our job is to stop that from happening. And if that means we have to go to some nowhere village in Trinia, then that’s where we go. Besides, we need some way of passage across the narrow sea to the Koyani Empire. This is as good a place in Trinia as any to start looking.”
“Alright. I just hope you remember the language.” The Raven glowered at me meaningfully.
“Angels and Demons, Raven, that was one time. Not all of us are expert linguists.”
“You called the farmer’s wife-“
“I know very well what I called her now. I still think the farmer overreacted. It was obviously just a mispronunciation.”
“Whatever, Archol. Just let me do the talking.”
“Just as long as you let me do the burning.” I said, with a grin.
“Don’t flare your eyes like that when you smile.” The Raven scolded. “It’s bloody creepy.”
Of course it was creepy. I was an emaciated, scorched fragment of my former self. The Dark Fire that I now wielded as a weapon had destroyed my body, burning away muscle and life while sowing the seeds of my power. My eyes had been replaced with two pinpoints of bluish flame, my cheeks were hollow and my stick-thin arms looked nearly skeletal. Shrouded as I was in my robes, I could disguise the horror of my appearance if I wished, but occasionally I found it useful to…flaunt it.
Suddenly, the Raven was up and spinning, blade drawn from its sheath and furs coming away from his left arm. The limb was a pulsating wraith, almost transparent, an outline of blue spiritual energy and veined with the black of demonic powers. It was a formidable weapon, more so even than the sword that had leapt into his hand.
The Raven was making a show for whoever had snuck up behind us. If he had been certain of their enmity, no one would have even seen him move.
I stood slowly, allowing the flame dancing on my fingers to become an orb of fire between my hands, casting a ghoulish blue shadow on my face. The effect, I knew, was one to frighten small children (and most adults) at night.
The Raven had fixed his gaze on an erratic boulder at the bottom of the hill on which we had set up our vigil. I followed his eyes there, and thought I could make out something unnatural. After a few tense moments, an old man stepped out from behind the rock, hunched as if beneath some unbelievably heavy burden. He was so heavily wrapped in furs that he resembled a slow moving tortoise covered in hide. He walked as if he had a limp in both legs and every step risked catastrophe.
The Raven sheathed a sword, smiled. “At last. The man I’ve been waiting for.”
“We’ve been waiting for someone?”
“What did I say about talking?”
The old man approached closer, though at a pace that would shame even a snail. He seemed to have an unpleasant grin splayed across his face, his eyes all but invisible beneath the bushiest eyebrows I’ve yet seen on a human being. One skinny arm stuck out of the cloaking furs, the hand a knotted fist clutching a steaming mug of some nameless liquid. The hair on his head was wispy thin, and moved in the wind like a tiny banner proclaiming his advance.
It seemed to take hours for him to reach us, and when he did, he promptly dusted off a nearby rock (which accomplished nothing but to get his hand wet) and sat down with a sigh, as if climbing the hill had been a hellish ordeal. I suppose for someone of his age, it would be.
After noisily settling himself in and slurping some of the aromatic black liquid in his cup, he looked up at the Raven (or so I assumed, as his eyebrows pointed in his direction). “You can tell your friend the mage to put his fire away.” He spoke the Trinian tongue, and his voice was surprisingly robust, belying his age. “He’ll not need it.”
“He’s a friend, Archol.” The Raven assured me.
Embarassed, I reabsorbed the flame. I had all but forgotten the power I had been holding, like a dagger to the man’s throat.
The man slurped annoyingly at his drink, then continued his crazy smiling. “Well, Raven, I suppose you’re here to rid me of my problem.”
“Your problem, Old Tim?” The Raven asked, snorted. “It’s been fifty years at least since I was indebted to you, old man. We’re here for our own reasons.”
Old Tim chuckled. “That’s what everyone says. Of course, it always works out in my favor anyway, regardless of intent. So, what are ‘your’ purposes here, then?”
“That’s our business.” The Raven said gruffly.
“It stopped being your business the minute my sentries saw you standing on that rock, which is, as you know, within our territory. My people would have been out here with a warband if I hadn’t forbidden it. Good thing I recognized you.” Another slurp. “I had to tell them I’d summoned you from Beyond for a task.”
“Do none of your people remember me?” The Raven asked, not without some trepidation.
“Fifty years since you left, Raven. Did you truly think any of my people would have lived to see you again?”
“I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, and you know that. But the life expectancy here is understandably short.” Old Tim sighed. “If they weren’t so damn proud all the time, I could help them more. But, such is their way. Stubborn and young, the lot of them.”
I cleared my throat (not a pleasant sound at the best of times). The Raven looked over at me, rolled his eyes and turned back to Old Tim. “Tim, this is Archol Thar.”
“I know him by reputation.” The strange old man said, looking at me. “From all accounts, the man who killed the Disciple and Chained the Winds. And undead, too, just like the rumors said.”
“How do you hear rumors all the way out here?”
“Not important.” Old Tim replied. “Now, are we going to help each other, or not? I have a suspicion that my problem is your problem.”
“Oh, really? Do tell.” The Raven said.
“You came here to eliminate a threat, I assume?”
“That threat’s name is Saskag, of the Cloud Fox tribe. Or, at least formerly of the Cloud Fox. The upstart has come here with two score veteran warriors and proclaimed himself chief over my tribe and his own, despite the fact that he was exiled from the Cloud Fox. He intends to unite the tribes under his banner, apparently. And from his…inflammatory talk, I also expect that he then intends to lead them on a bloody crusade spanning the whole damn continent.”
“Suicidal, more like. We don’t have the numbers, technology or discipline for such an endeavor.” The old man grumped. “Despite appearances, I don’t think Saskag’s stupid, though. He wouldn’t advertise those intentions unless he knows some way to bring them to fruition. I can only think of one weapon that would equalize us with the world’s armies, however weakened they are by the Disciplan Wars.”
“The Winds.” I said grimly.
“So, you see, your problem is my problem.” Old Tim said. “My people are perfectly happy not conquering the continent under a banner of slaughter, thank you very much, so if you would kindly remove this Saskag idiot, I’d be grateful.”
“Just point him out, and consider him toast. Literally.” I said, with a fiendish grin.
“If only it were that simple.” Old Tim replied. “He’s won over the young and bloodthirsty demographic of my tribe, which as you probably know, means almost all of them.”
“Except the old buggers like you.”
“Right. So you can’t just go in and kill the man.”
“So, are you saying we have to be …subtle?” The Raven asked, as if the flavor of the word was bitter on his tongue.
“I’m afraid so.”
“Well, I think I’ll be sitting this one out.” I said, then endured two glares for my trouble. “What? I burn things. A lot. I’m good at it. Subtlety isn’t a watchword of mine.”
“We’ll use that to our advantage.” The Raven said slowly. “I’ve got an idea…”
* * *
The Raven stalked into the small village, dragging Old Tim by a handful of furs. The old man protested weakly against the Raven’s grip, while somehow managing not to spill a drop of his drink. I walked along behind them and to the Raven’s right, my hood up and flames dancing on my hands to warn off any heroic intervention.
Not that the people of Old Tim’s tribe would try to intervene. They would fight together against a common threat, but the old man had no bodyguards. To prove himself worthy to be their wise man, he had to be cunning enough to handle any threat to himself. That didn’t stop people from glaring at us, spitting at us, or cursing us in their guttural tongue.
“’Sheep lover’?” The Raven mused under his breath, after one enthusiastic barrage of curses. “At least they’re getting original.”
“You really think this is going to work?”
“If it doesn’t, can you burn our way out?”
“I’m insulted that you have to ask.” I replied.
“That wasn’t part of the plan!” Old Tim growled from his undignified position.
“We may not be subtle, but we’re big on improvisation.” I said, with a hideous grin.
“Don’t worry, Tim.” The Raven said. “No one dies today if I can help it.”
The single street going through the village was essentially a muddy path, and Tim’s fine furs were slathered with mud by the time we reached the center of the tiny settlement. Every home was identical; a small dome of sod, with the occasional canvas outbuilding or corral for chickens, sheep, or a hardy kind of goat that the Trinians raised here. Men, women and children all glared at us as we walked past. One baby looked up from its nursing to stare me right in the eyes.
“Can babies growl? I swear, that baby growled at me…”
“Now you’re being paranoid.” The Raven replied. “Hush.”
The men of the settlement were making a ragged ring around us. We had stopped before a larger, more permanent shelter, although that’s a rather flattering description. It was still made mostly of sod, but seemed to be multichambered, and had more outbuildings around it. Stuck in the dirt outside was a pole with a human skull mounted on the top, a fox-skin pelt hanging from its scalp. Beneath that, a ragged banner flapped in the wind. I could make out two symbols on it: four wavy lines, suspended above a white hammer on a black background…
“Queen of Angels…” I muttered. “Do you see what I see?”
“Artemis’s hammer, and the Winds.” The Raven said grimly. “He knows exactly what he’s looking for, and he’s already made it his standard”
“All the more reason to burn the place to the ground and get the hell out of here.”
“No one dies today, Archol.” The Raven said forcefully. “Have you forgotten your redemption so quickly?”
Shamed, I knew not to push him any further. He was right. I was what I was because of my pride and my temper. I still had much to learn to curb both.
“Besides,” The Raven went on, “We need to find out how he knows so much.”
“He has an advisor.” Old Tim muttered, just loud enough for us to hear. “Skinny man, with a fondness for showy rituals and impressive looking books.”
“Thank you so much for letting us know.” I said, looking at the Raven. “This isn’t going to work, Raven. We’ve got a budding sorcerer on our hands in there.”
My companion didn’t answer. Instead, he raised his hand for my silence and watched the entrance to the structure intently. Moments later, a man emerged from the darkness, followed by another. The first was a big man, wearing only a kind of furry kilt and a few furs draped over his shoulders, more for decoration than for the warmth provided. His shoulders were broad and muscled, and the rest of him looked chiseled out of stone. His hair was a silvery blond, cropped short at the front and tied in a tail at the back. His eyes were deep-set and dark, like icy-cold wells of blackness. His skin seemed somewhat pale, as if he had been ill recently, though his body’s strength belied that assumption. At his belt was a large one-handed axe, a favorite weapon in Trinia. On the other side hung several human jawbones, strung on a length of coarse chain.
The man behind him was a study in opposites. His clothes, while somewhat mud-stained, were obviously fine enough to mark the man as wealthy. His adornment, instead of furs, were fine gold chains hanging from his neck and wrists. Two silver earrings hung from his ears. The man was short and terribly thin, giving him an air of fragility. This man’s hair was blacker than night, but his eyes were an intense green. He locked stares with first me, and then the Raven, without flinching.
Impressive. This, then, was our budding sorcerer, and likely the source of Saskag’s information.
“Chief Saskag?” The Raven said, still holding Old Tim by his furs. The large man simply nodded, glancing briefly at Old Tim without a flicker of surprise. “The old man,” The Raven said, “waylaid us on our way south, and tried to bargain for your death. I thought you’d like to know.”
Saskag barked a laugh. “Did he, now? That’s interesting. That’s very interesting. What was your price, stranger?”
“Passage south, on the ship that visits here every so often, bringing him his personal supplies.” The Raven said. “He told us it would be here in just a few days. I thought I’d rather speak to the man actually in charge instead of taking an ancient’s opinion”
“Smart man! The old one’s mistaken, though.” Saskag said, with a yellow-toothed grin. “The ship rides at anchor, just off the coast south of here. I will be boarding it myself, tomorrow.”
“And your destination?” I asked offhand in my raspy voice.
He was about to tell us. I could see in the way his eyes shone that here was a tavern boaster, the kind of man who rallies his warriors as they sit in their cups, drunk on their plunder. He was no threat to us, that I could see.
But before he shouted it for all of us to here, the sorcerer-advisor gripped one massive bicep and pulled Saskag back to whisper something in his ear. It obviously grated on the large warrior, but he visibly restrained himself. “And why is this your business?” He asked, his words keenly edged.
The Raven broke in before I could answer. “My friend is a curious fellow. I, however, am not. Will you grant us passage on your ship? That’s our only concern.”
Saskag seemed to consider it for a moment. Then, he asked: “Can you fight?”
The Raven snorted. “Better than this lot.” He said, gesturing to the glowering men who had gathered around us.”
“And your friend?” The sorcerer’s voice was as smooth as the silk that hides the dagger’s edge. “Can he fight?”
In impetuous answer, I conjured two fireballs to float a few inches above my emaciated hands, casting an insidious blue glow. They flared briefly, and with a rush of superheated air, my hood was flung back as if by magic. The air rippled around my shoulders as my eyes flared from their embers. I fixed my infernal glare on the sorcerer.
“Fight?” The Raven asked, then shrugged. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Though you may have heard of me, sorcerer.” I poured all the venom I had into those words.
This time the sorcerer did not hide his advice in a whisper. “Great Chief, these men are a danger to you. We must-”
If the sorcerer had waited until out of the public eyes to offer his advice, it may have been taken. But Saskag would not be ordered about by an advisor in front of his loyal warriors. “Silence, Kiernan. This man seems a doughty fighter. And his friend will be useful against the Empire’s navy. Why waste the blood of my warriors when I can burn those cowards in their fancy ships?” If Saskag noted the distaste in the eyes of his warriors for this tactic, he didn’t deign to show it.
Kiernan, the sorcerer, was the one to restrain himself now. “Yes, my Chief.”
Saskag nodded, then turned back to us. “You will fight for me, and I will take you across the narrow sea. It is not so far out of the way, for me. But that is tomorrow. Tonight, you will drink with my men!”
It was not a request, and to refuse now would not be insult but a kind of treason. Surrounded by the man’s loyal followers, we could do nothing but acquiesce. “What of the old man?” The Raven asked, his hand straying ever so slightly towards his sword. I prepared myself for a confrontation. If Saskag demanded Old Tim’s death, we would have to fight our way out of this.
That would be messy. Come to think of it, there would be a lot of smoke, too.
“He drinks with us!” Saskag said, with a grin. “He is just an old man. Sometimes, like today, he is not in his right mind. Some mead and hearty company will cure him of his delusions!” The malice in Saskag’s eyes belied his words.
“Very well.” The Raven said, then looked around at the uneasy warriors. “Well, what are we waiting for? It’s never too early for a drink!”
* * *
Saskag’s men drank beneath the stars. The sod huts, it seemed, were only for sleeping. The fog that seemed to eternally beset the lowlands of Trinia had miraculously lifted for the night, and Saskag’s men had taken this as a bad omen. Apparently, they viewed the fog as some kind of guardian spirit, permanently enshrouding them and hiding them from predator and prey alike. There was some muttering, but all of it was quiet, and it faded as the mead flowed fast and furiously.
The stars spread their canvas across a velvet sky. The moon as a sliver away from new, a sickle hanging ready for the reaping. I shuddered at the thought. Old Tim sat nearby, wrapped in furs that had somehow become, if not clean, then not muddy, sipping at his eternally steaming cup of black liquid. At his request, I had kindled a small fire for him, and now a battered and tarnished metal pot hung over it, whistling faintly and filling the air with a pleasant aroma.
“Are you sure you don’t want some?” Old Tim asked.
“Don’t do it, Archol.” The Raven shouted as he approached, holding two clay mugs brimming with mead. It was awkward, but somehow he managed it with one hand and heaps of balance. His left arm had yet to be revealed. “It’ll give you gut rot powerful enough to wake the dead. No offense.”
“None taken.” I said bemusedly, taking the mug offered me. “And I do what with this?”
“You drink it.”’
“Raven. What have I told you of my condition?” I said, gesturing with the mug.
“Er. Right.” He said. “But if you don’t drink, it’ll be insulting to Saskag.”
I sighed, then drained the entire mug in one gulp. I had a vague wet feeling as it slid and sloshed down my throat, but no taste whatever. I had seldom tasted alcohol in life; in death, It seemed I was doomed to the same fate.
The Raven seemed to sense this as well. “Don’t worry. It’s awful stuff anyway.” At the alarm on my face, he grinned. “And don’t worry about me insulting Saskag either. Everyone bitches about the mead, even Saskag.”
The Raven hunkered down next to me, swigging from his mug. “So. The plan for tomorrow?”
“Figure out how much of this gambit is Kiernan’s machinations and how much is Saskag’s ambitions.” I replied, speaking our native tongue, eyeing the chief nearer to one of the large fires. All of his warriors, and many of their women and even children, had come out tonight. Those not loyal to Saskag, it seemed, had stayed in their huts. Whether this was out of fear or indifference, I didn’t know. Still, it was good to see some still loyal to Tim. Three large bonfires had been set up, and from the smell, they were burning peat, taken from the large number of bogs in the low-lying area. Saskag was by the farthest fire, and from the look of things, was enjoying his mead as much as any of his men. Kiernan, however, was nowhere to be seen.
“Agreed. The question is how.” The Raven said, serious now despite the drink.
“Saskag is the front, though he doesn’t know it.” Old Tim interjected. “The lout is nothing if not ambitious, and given time, he might become a pain in the ass of all Trinia. He could gather enough like minded warriors to raid us, even take a few tribes by surprise. But before Kiernan, he was just another warrior in the Cloud Fox tribe.”
“Kiernan has me worried.” I admitted. “He knows of me, and he fears me. But if he trained under the Disciple, he could be powerful enough to give us a lot of trouble.”
“No one heard of the Disciple having any apprentices.” The Raven pointed out.
“No one heard much from behind his borders. The only things they got were rumors and a faceful of steel as his armies marched.” I said. “There could be dozens of Kiernans out there.”
“Let’s hope not. It makes our jobs a lot more difficult.” The Raven said.
“What are our options?” I asked.
“Kill them both tonight, right here right now. We find another way across the sea. Option A, quietly. Option B, noisily.”
“No.” Old Tim said firmly. “I will not risk those loyal to me. I have always been their protector.”
“No one is speaking of hurting your people.” The Raven said.
“And I suppose Archol’s fire is always precise? And your rage never takes over?” Old Tim spat. “Well do I remember young Rehcht. What was left of him.”
The Raven blinked at that, and I saw the tide of guilt washing over him. The darkness inside him, part of a hideous ritual practiced upon him when he was a child, did not end its taint at his left shoulder. He warred against the demon soul inside of him constantly, fighting it for control even as it powered his fighting skills. “I have more control now…”
“But not absolute control!” Tim hissed, then softened. “You paid your debt. One year for each year of life you robbed from Rehcht. You owe me nothing. But please. I do not wish to see my people destroyed.”
The Raven swallowed, nodded. “Then on the ship, tomorrow. We’ll deal with both of them.” The Raven shot me a look. “We don’t know anything about the ship, or its layout. When we’re aboard, follow my lead.”
“No questions.” I confirmed.
The Raven nodded, sighed. “I’m going to get some sleep. I’ve drank enough of Saskag’s bounty.” He slipped off from us quickly and silently, heading for a hilltop some distance from the fires. I knew he needed only marginally more sleep than I, and I needed none, but did not follow him. Solitude was something we each had granted the other in all our years together.
Old Tim watched the Raven go. “I should apologize.” He said regretfully, after a moment.
“Some things cannot be taken back.” I snapped at him. “I don’t like you, Tim. You’re a meddlesome old man, and you know too well how to push the Raven’s buttons.”
“What I do, I do for my people.” Old Tim said quietly.
“I know. That’s why I didn’t go for Option B.” I said. I stood up, suddenly tired of company myself this night. I walked away from Tim without another word, heading in the opposite direction of the Raven. I was forced to walk past all the major fires, the radiating heat barely touching me. Men peeled away from my path as if I carried a pestilence. Saskag nodded and raised his mug to me as I passed, his eyes shining in his drunkenness.
Away from the fires, only the faint sounds of celebration continued behind me. Ahead of me, the rocky hills and soggy valleys of western Trinia spread out before me. There was no evidence of the near constant ocean fogs that covered this land most often. The grasslands that spread out below me were home to strange deer that dove to the bottom of marshes to feed on the roots of plants. It seemed an alien place, suddenly, to the plains and birch woods of my homeland.
Any homesickness left me when I heard Kiernan’s voice behind me, rasping now like a dagger. “So. The Burnt Man.”
I turned to see Kiernan standing behind and above me, cloaked now in his power. The gold chains s still adorned him, but amulets and rings now graced his neck and fingers. There was a stave in one hand, and a dagger at the opposite hip. Enchanted, all of it. The incantations of sorcery were as foreign to me as the moorland below me: I wove my power, elemental and raw. The power was inside me, a reservoir of blue fire. The sorcerer before me dragged his power from the earth with cunning words and the torment of his rituals. It was a magic originally meant to first counter and then exterminate elemental mages like me. The sorcerers had obliterated themselves in a great war centuries ago, but the Disciple had brought their power back to the forefront. And now, it seemed, there was one more practitioner of the dark art.
“So. A scrawny wizard.” I said disdainfully. “Come to challenge me?”
“And if I have?” He asked, fingering his amulet pointedly.
“You’ll burn.” I said, my voice full of hatred. “And pay for the crimes of your kind a thousand times before I let you die.”
“You think me weak?”
“Weak or strong, flesh burns all the same.” I spat. “Why have you come here. If you wanted to fight, we’d be fighting by now.”
“Your intentions. What are you really here for? I know you are allies of the old one, despite all your feigned contempt. If you think destroying Saskag will stop me, think again. There is always another musclebound fool to serve me.”
“We seek passage across the narrow sea.” I said. “I couldn’t care less about your pathetic ambitions.”
“You hate me, and all my kind. And you? You and your like are a blight upon humanity. Freaks. You don’t deserve to live.”
“It’s a good thing I’m dead then, isn’t it?” I replied calmly.
“So why accept my help? Why fight for us?”
“The Koyani to the south are our enemy, as much as you. You’ll suit our purposes for now.” I said evenly. “Anything else you want to know?”
His eyes narrowed. “Yes. How did the Disciple die, truly?”
“Like the scum he is.”
I heard his angry incantation in time to throw up a barrier of translucent blue fire. The tiny missile, moving faster than any arrow, slammed into it with surprising force. This man was strong. It took great study to so accurately speak the magic, and to fully unleash the power of any spell.
I almost lashed back. But we needed this scum, still. Instead, behind my shield, I grinned like Death himself. “One day, there will be a reckoning, Kiernan. But not today.”
With a snort of contempt and anger the sorcerer turned on his heel and fled.
I turned back to look north to the sea. Tomorrow. A day for reckoning.
* * *
The fog had still not returned the next morning, and the grumbles from Saskag’s men increased significantly. At least a few men had decided not to accompany Saskag at all on his mad quest. He pointedly ignored such treasonous behavior, but left the settlement in a bad mood nevertheless. About thirty men accompanied him, not including the Raven and I, in a ragged column behind the hammer and wind banner. The standard itself was carried awkwardly by a young warrior, who obviously understood little of this foreign concept. In Trinia, the subtle differences in equipment and adornment were enough to differentiate tribes even in the heat of battle: a standard was simply a waste of fabric to these hardy men.
The men trudging along in the ragged file looked miserable and hung over, and Saskag was possibly the worst of the bunch. Dark circles under his eyes and a pale complexion now belied his bravado the night before. A head for alcohol, perhaps, but he paid for it the next morning without a doubt. But something about his appearance nagged at me, something beyond simple hangover… I shook my head, hoping no one had noticed my staring. Now was a time for caution.
Marching discipline was notably absent; these were men who knew they walked in friendly territory. There was no attempt at stealth, and no scouts were sent on ahead. I met the Raven’s eyes and knew he noted this as well. We both knew the danger of the Trinian countryside: on our way to Old Tim’s tribe, we had come across a raiding party of the Cloud Fox.
That had not been a pleasant morning, least of all for the raiders.
It would be easy enough for such a raiding party to ambush Saskag’s little outfit. I glanced over at Kiernan. Perhaps the young sorcerer was protection enough.
His rage from the previous night seemed to have been subdued. He walked in high good humor, with a scathing smirk spread across his face and his nose in the air. He was dressed in something more suitable for travel now, though the chains and amulets of last night still adorned him. So. At least the wizard was battle ready.
Suddenly I found myself envious of the vile man. By what right did his lungs take air, and the sun warm his skin? His power cost him nothing, no draining of reserves or stilling of the heart. He walked the earth oblivious to the price others paid for his strength, and paid no such dues himself. Why was I left walking, bereft of heat or cold, the pumping of blood absent from my silent veins?
I tried to staunch the old wound, found the bleeding slow and remorseless, and bitter as bile. My un-life was my burden to bear, and I had long ago vowed to bear it with no self pity. And yet, it seemed so unfair…
But then, what did fairness have to do with anything?
“And how’s my favorite zombie today?”
I glanced at the Raven as he moved up the column towards me, and managed: “I prefer the term ‘revenant.’”
“Nah. Doesn’t have the right ring to it.” The Raven said, with a grin.
To look at him, no one could have guessed the turmoil inside. Of the two of us, Dark Fire or no, he was the more formidable. A roiling tempest of rage, determination and speed hung like a funeral veil just behind his eyes, and still the man jested. A Norg Demon, full of hatred and vile lust, railed at his defenses day and night, and no bitterness passed his lips, no self pity. Two hundred years he had struggled, and still he gamely rose to face the day.
Who was I to complain of fairness, when his only love had been ripped from him?
“Well, what do you think of our little band?” I asked in our native tongue.
“Undisciplined, but skilled.” The Raven said, suddenly serious. “You’ve taken the measure of Kiernan, I presume?”
“Powerful, and with restraint. I think he may have been an apprentice to the Disciple after all.”
The Raven blinked. “How can you be sure?”
“I can’t. But we don’t know he didn’t train others. And when his empire crumbled after his death, well, who would have noticed a few apprentices hanging around?”
“That’s scary thinking, Archol.” The Raven replied, after a moment.
“He’s nowhere near as powerful as Agrimmaad’s Disciple, but he could be. I doubt he’s powerful enough to contain the Winds. In either case, he’s ambitious. He as much as admitted that he’s the power behind the throne here, and Saskag’s his puppet.” I said.
“How much of a puppet?” The Raven asked.
“I don’t know. He can’t be in direct control, otherwise Saskag wouldn’t have let us join his little gang.” I said, but the Raven didn’t look convinced.
“Or maybe he’s playing us like a harp, and wanted us along for some reason.”
“He doesn’t have to worry about the Koyani navy with us along, does he?” The Raven asked.
“He’s a sorcerer. He could deal with it himself, given some preparation.” I replied. “Now you’ve got my hackles up, Raven.”
“Keep them up. Whatever we’re in, we’re neck deep and it doesn’t smell nice.”
* * *
We didn’t have far to walk. Within a couple of hours of leaving the settlement, the narrow sea came into view. The hills rolled down to a small bay, rocky outcroppings standing out like splintered bone. There seemed to be no sharp line between the sea and the earth. Instead, salt marshes dominated the shoreline, gentle waves lapping the sprawling wetland.
The narrow sea was not rough at this point, due to its shallowness. The fog, normally a navigation hazard, was still absent, and for the first time I linked Kieran to the condition. I looked at him in a new light. He was more powerful than I imagined, if he could push the fog away without any sign of effort.
Sitting a few hundred meters offshore was Saskag’s ship. Somehow I doubted he had gotten it by legitimate means. It was dual masted, with many sails, and a bank of oars along the side. This was no raiding ship, or patrol vessel. It was every inch the merchant vessel. Saskag and his men had not even bothered to change the banner that hung limp from one of the masts.
By the time we reached the shore, we were up to our knees in briny marsh water. Only Kieran showed any distaste for the discomfort. He had not long to suffer. Within a few moments boats were rowed inexpertly from the ship. We boarded gingerly, well aware that the men rowing looked none too confident of their skills.
We reached the ship and climbed aboard via rope ladder. The first thing I noticed upon reaching the deck was the stain that spread across the deck in front of me. The Raven grimaced as he came over the rail after me. Somehow while climbing he had managed to keep his arm hidden. The man could be circumspect, when necessary.
“Didn’t even bother to clean up.” He muttered. “I wonder if they kept any of the crew alive.”
“We’d better hope so. This is a large ship to be run by a rookie crew.” In answer to our question, we saw a few olive-skinned men, obviously of Koyani descent, walking dejectedly about the ship. The Trinian’s watched them with predatory glares, but it was clear there was a kind of equilibrium here: the Koyani could not be killed without making the ship useless, and yet they were too few to take the ship back by force. There was tension, but no outright strife.
The Koyani men stared when they saw me; some touched their wrists to foreheads and muttered prayers to their Lord of Blood. I felt the power thrum at their invocations; Desh Nikal was not a dead god, nor was he unmindful of a threat when he saw one. The Raven and I were on our way south mostly to deal with the threat he posed to the Arsenal.
We were underway shortly. The Koyani sailors moved quickly to their tasks. I did not doubt that Kieran had something to do with it. The Disciple had used his magic to drive his armies. I had no doubts that the sorcerer was using his to ensure the obedience of his new slaves.
The ship skimmed over the water at impressive speed; its myriad sails saw to that. I stood at the prow, looking out over the water, ostensibly keeping watch for the Koyani navy. In reality, I was years in the past, when I had boarded a similar ship. Then, we had been racing the Disciple to find the Winds. What fools we had been, to think we could bind the Winds to us instead, to use them as a weapon. By our own ambition we had undone all the barriers before the Disciple.
We had paved the way for him. Now, it was my responsibility to see that no one unleashed the Winds ever again.
A heavy burden.
The Raven joined me at the prow halfway through the first day. “Our friend Saskag retired to his cabin with the sorcerer as soon as we boarded. He hasn’t been seen since.”
I looked at the sun, judged our direction. “We’re heading southwest. It looks like Kieran will keep his word and drop us off at the coast.”
“I doubt that somehow.” The Raven muttered. “Besides, being dropped off is not why we’re here. Somehow, we have to kill Kieran and his pet Saskag.”
“Any plans, now that we’ve seen the ship?”
The Raven made a show of looking around. “It’s tight quarters for your magic. Especially considering everything is wood. But it favors me. Numbers won’t matter much here.”
“We don’t need to slaughter the whole crew. Just our targets.” I reminded my companion.
“We may not have a choice, if things get messy.” The Raven said grimly.
I looked out over the sea. Calm, but unforgiving. The Raven and I seemed to be its reflection. “We’ll see.” I replied hesitantly. “But that’s hardly a real plan.”
The Raven shrugged. “At least we’re flexible. In any case, we can’t make our move until we get within sight of the shore.”
We stood a few moments in silence. There was little more to say. Plans were difficult to make when we knew so little of our opponents. Normally, we observed our targets for days, if not weeks, before striking. But time was not on our side.
A commotion behind us brought us spinning around. I readied myself to strike; the Raven’s hand strayed to his sword, and beneath its cloaking furs his left arm pulsed aggressively.
One of the Koyani crew members had made a grab for a Trinian hand axe, and now both the enslaved crew and their Trinian overlords were shouting at each other in their native tongues. The offending Koyani was held by two Trinian tribesman, who were now themselves surrounded by angry Koyanis. The situation only grew more tense as a pale and obviously unwell Saskag approached, shouting guttural orders.
From the way everything suddenly calmed, I knew there was something else going on. All the Koyani stopped and looked at Saskag with something like satisfaction in their eyes.
Then a man stepped from the shadows behind the chief.
With a dagger.
The blade arced down and drove into Saskag’s back, going to the left of the spine. The point should have split his heart in two, and rent his lung.
But the chief whirled in anger, the dagger still standing out of his back, and with casual skill, brought his own hand-axe down onto the Koyani’s head, splitting his skull and killing him instantly. Then, seemingly without thought, Saskag reached back and tore the dagger free.
There was silence on the deck, save for the snap of the sails and the creak of the lines. The Koyani gambit had failed. Their distraction had given the assassin enough time to do his work, but somehow Saskag still lived. How had the dagger missed his heart?
There was a simple answer to that question.
Kiernan pushed his way through the crowd of Trinian warriors, taking in the dead Koyani and the cowering slave crew. Saskag looked at the sorcerer, the skin on his face tight with rage. “Can you drive this ship through the sea for me, wise one? My…crew…has outlived their usefulness.”
Kiernan looked from the Koyani to Saskag and back again, then nodded. “Save their bodies. I have use for them.”
Saskag nodded to his warriors, and each drew their axes and advanced on the skeleton crew. The Koyani now fought tooth and nail against the closing ring of warriors. My vision was thankfully obscured by the press of bodies. The axes rose and fell, and the spraying of blood sometimes turned the air crimson.
The Raven made to step forward, but I grabbed his shirt fervently and held on. “Not yet, Unless you want to swim to the coast.”
“We can’t just let them…”
“They made their choice! We have to make ours.” I hissed. “We bide our time, Raven.”
“You said you’d follow my lead, no questions.”
“This isn’t a question.” I said. “It’s too late, anyway.”
The bodies lay sprawled and unmoving, more blood spreading from them to stain the deck. The Trinian warriors backed away, keeping their loose circle as Kiernan stepped in, avarice and lust clear in his eyes. Suddenly uncaring for the condition of his robes, he knelt in the middle of the bodies and began his spell of raising.
The Raven turned away in disgust, but I forced myself to watch. The wizard muttered his incantations, pitching them so none but he could hear. But the cadence and the pronunciation must be exact for any sorcerous spell to work, and he had mastered this one. Before long, one bloody hand twitched, and then another. By the time the spell was completed, the Trinian warriors had drawn back in fear or fled the deck in horror.
The Koyani stood, their hearts stilled and their eyes dulled, awaiting Kiernan’s command.
“Return to your duties.” He snapped. Reluctantly, the undead crew strode off, ignoring the hideous wounds that no longer bled, and the lungs that no longer filled.
I felt no kinship with them, only a distant pity. They had not retained their will; they would simply obey Kiernan’s commands until he dismissed them or their bodies were too damaged to continue existing. They were like, and yet unlike, myself, for the Dark Fire healed my wounds as best it could.
Kiernan stood, ignoring the stains on his clothes, and stared down the horrified Trinians, as if daring them to challenge his blasphemy. One by one, they turned away, wandering aimlessly on the decks.
“Impressive.” I said. “Cheating men of their afterlife like that. Do you do that often?”
“Silence, mage scum.” He growled.
“Impressive, as well, that Saskag survived such a horrible wound. He must have a terribly small heart, and no left lung at all, to still be standing. Or maybe he’s under your protection somehow.”
Kiernan made to walk away, but I followed him, ignoring his cursing of me. “Or perhaps he has no need for heart or lungs anymore.” I said, acting finally on my suspicion.
The wizard turned and gripped my by the front of my robe. My hood fell back and I glared at him with blazing blue eyes. “Does Saskag himself even know what you did to him?”
“You know nothing, Burnt Man!”
“How long before the other warriors begin to question how he lives? How long before the Cloud Fox recognize a son that they thought buried?”
The wizard spoke a word in anger, and a surge of power threw me from my feet and sent me careening down the deck, bouncing off the railing and finally sprawled out by the prow. The wizard glared across the ship from me.
“Long enough.” He said, and turned away.
* * *
“Saskag’s a revenant!” I hissed to the Raven.
He blinked out of his glum reverie and stared at me incredulously. Enlightenment dawned on his face. “It makes sense. No living man could have survived that wound. His paleness, the dark circles under his eyes…”
“I’d bet a thousand gold pieces that Saskag of the Cloud Fox was dead and buried before Kiernan found him. It would take quite a spell to leave a revenant with any free will, and an even more powerful magic to convince him he still lives. Kiernan’s using him to get to the Arsenal, maybe even for the heart of an army.” I said. “We have to move tonight. Kiernan knows that we know, and by now we’re a liability. Are we close enough to shore?”
“It’s a bit far, but if we take one of the ship’s boats, we can make it.” The Raven said. “Where’s the wizard now?”
“In the cabin, patching up Saskag. Can’t have your leader walking around with a gaping dagger wound.” I said sarcastically.
The Raven looked up at the darkening sky. “We move now.” He decided. Then he smiled. “It’s good to finally get things out in the open, isn’t it?”
“Always.” I replied.
We turned as one and strode towards the stern, where the one small cabin was situated. Trinians moved out of our way, some giving us curious looks, others trying to avoid my eyes. The incident with the Koyani earlier in the day had disturbed some of Saskag’s warriors. We would use that to our advantage.
We arrived at the cabin to find four Trinian warriors barring our way, axes in hand, eyes hard. Ready for a fight.
They had known we’d be coming.
It was too late to turn back now. We were committed. But suddenly I felt outclassed by Kiernan. Everything he had done since we met him had been a subtle manipulation, guiding us to this point. But why? Why bring us on board, when he could have killed us that first night?
We stood across from the warriors. Eyes met. Steel gleamed.
They made the first move. The Raven made the last.
There was no talking. They knew why we were there, and acted accordingly. The first man to step forward brought his axe up, and then flashing down in a lightning-fast arc towards the Raven’s skull.
For a moment, it didn’t seem my friend would move. Then he did, faster than sight could see. The furs on his left arm shifted aside to reveal his deadly wraith arm as it flashed forward to slide soundlessly into the man’s chest. Simultaneously, his other arm raced upward to intercept the axe diving for his head. He didn’t bother breaking the man’s arm, though he easily could have.
The Raven withdrew his shadowy limb as the man collapsed. The other three warriors were still in shock. My companion had kept his secret well. The dead man’s body had scarcely hit the deck when the Raven’s sword flashed into his hand and darted for another of the guards. This one got his axe up to block the strike, the ring of metal filled the air as the Raven’s blade sought an opening on the Trinian.
The two unoccupied guards seemed torn between helping their comrade and attacking me. Their hesitation cost them. I quickly conjured a fireball in my right hand, blue light spilling across the deck as it formed. Before they could wonder at this conjuration, I hurled the fireball at the men, striking one full in the chest. The ball detonated, hurling the man backwards into the cabin, splintering the door as he struck. The second man was thrown to the deck, embers in his beard.
As I stepped forward to finish the man, he leapt up in a mad rage and rushed me with his axe. Caught off guard, I tried to avoid the blow, but I wasn’t as fast as the Raven. The axe struck, biting deep into dead flesh and dry bone. Pain flashed once more as he tore his weapon free for another blow.
He never had a chance.
I gripped his shoulder with one hand and set him ablaze.
The blue fire burned hotter than the sun itself. The man didn’t have time to scream, or to wonder at the flames that engulfed him. He took one step backward before collapsing into a pile of fine ash.
The Raven was just drawing his blade out of the last of the guards. Blood had sprinkled across his face sometime in the melee, and as he turned to look at me it caught silvery starlight as the sky turned velvet. Behind us, the alarm was raised. It was as if we had kicked a termite mound, for the Trinian warriors now surged towards the cabin, shouting and brandishing weapons as they came.
“Go inside. Take care of Kiernan.” The Raven said. “I’ll handle the crew.”
I nodded and turned to blast the door open. Moments later, I heard the gurgling cries of dying men as the Raven rose to meet them.
I pointed at the door. A streak of fire sliced the air from my finger to the splintered portal and the door exploded into flaming splinters and choking smoke. Without hesitation, I walked through the destruction and into the cabin.
Seconds later, the cabin blew apart.
I came back to myself against the mast. There was a terrible pain in my chest, and I could feel my feet dangling free in the air. I looked around groggily to see that only moments had passed. The Raven darted around the advancing warriors, his blade a sliver of moonlight sending crimson spray to spatter the decks. I looked down to see that I was suspended almost ten feet above the deck. A spar of wood stood out from my chest. I could feel the Dark Fire trying to heal the horrendous wound. Much of my power would be drained to heal it, and when that power was depleted…
I reached around, tried to grip the spar in my skeletal hands, and found it sticky and black with dead blood. More power leached from me moment by moment. I had to do something to free myself, or I would die here pinned to the mast.
“Raven!” I croaked. “Little help!”
The Raven danced away from the man he’d been fighting, leapt to the rigging to the left of the mast, and hurtled himself skyward towards me, eyes glassy and almost unfocused. He was fighting at his peak, killing men and staving off the demon inside simultaneously.
The Raven passed within inches of me, and I felt his blade sliding along the mast, slipping behind my transfixed body to crunch through the wood that held me. I dropped soundlessly as he continued skyward.
I landed with the sound of cracking bones. I stood unsteadily, wrenching the chunk of wood out of my chest and watching as the wound healed, albeit slowly. I couldn’t afford to lose the power required to repair the damage, and so I willed the Fire to stop. Then I looked at where the cabin had been.
Standing in a storm of crackling power was Kiernan. Saskag stood by his side, looking confused at our betrayal. The sorcerer was anything but confused. His incantations continued unabated and unhurried as the Raven held off the enemy behind me. Desperately, I started weaving a fire-arc, focusing on the image and the feel of the fire in my mind before draining it from my reserves. I hurled it skyward, a massive ball of bluish-black flame that tore open the night sky with a roar of destruction. Everything within twenty feet of the passing flame caught fire, the heat was so intense. It hurtled skyward, up and up until it seemed simply another pulsing star.
“Raven!” I shouted hoarsely. “We have five minutes!”
“Five minutes Raven, and then we leave this boat or burn with it!” I said, and then summoning two blades of pure blue flame, I strode towards the remains of the cabin. As I approached, Kiernan completed his incantation, ending with a rising tone of triumph in his voice. The power that flickered around him at last coalesced into a raging torrent of power.
He channeled it into Saskag.
The confused man didn’t grow larger, or brighter, that I could see. He soaked up the power like a sponge, until finally the torrent ended and he stood there, looking dazed. His head turned towards Kiernan pleadingly. Perhaps he finally comprehended his own condition.
The sorcerer had no mercy. With a word and a gesture, Saskag’s last free will was gone.
What advanced on me was a soulless tower of muscle and bone. I brandished my flame knives, ready to strike, but he barely deigned to notice me. No need had Saskag to draw his axe; he backhanded me casually across the face, and that sent me flying into the far railing. Only a desperate scrabble for purchase kept me from plunging into the ocean. As I tumbled back to the deck, pain washing over me in pulses of agony, I saw Saskag stride purposefully towards where the Raven kept his men at bay.
I turned my eyes to Kiernan, who now eyed me hungrily. “That’s right, Burnt Man. You, and me. Revenge for my master. And your friend? I’ve been waiting a long time for a warrior-slave to best Saskag. From the moment I saw him, I knew who and what he was. Now you die, and his power will be mine forever.”
Enslavement. That was why he had lured us here. All his subtlety, to bring us to this moment, when he could destroy me at his leisure, and bind the Raven to his will. With such power behind him, even Artemis could not defend the Arsenal for long.
I would not allow it.
Any fear fled me. Coldness replaced it. Intent drove me.
I stood, and started to weave.
Incantation warred with instinct in that duel, logic with rage. Anger did not consume me, it enshrouded me. He would wipe my kind from the earth. He would unleash the winds and plunge the world into endless darkness.
I would not allow it.
I threw my hands out in front of me, sending a snaking arm of flame into the remnants of the cabin. The wizard muttered a word, and the flame splashed like water against a levy, flowing over and around the force field he had erected. I rolled to the side as he countered, throwing a thousand violet darts of power at me. They came like a purple hailstorm, crashing into the decking and railing behind me. I came up fighting, hurling a fireball from each hand. They weren’t accurate – I couldn’t concentrate well enough for that- but he spent time countering them, and that bought me time for a more substantial weaving.
I focused the power in my hands, feeling it flow through my fingertips to become a condensed, roiling sphere of dark fire. Before Kiernan could recover, I launched it. The technique was so named for two reasons: the streak of blue-green it left in the air behind it, and the shock people felt when they saw it screaming towards them at faster than the speed of sound.
With a roar it connected with Kiernan, and the resulting explosion ruined the aft part of the ship, throwing flaming debris in all directions. Kiernan lay against the last fragment of railing at the end of the boat; his force field had saved him from the flames, but not from the concussion. Blood ran from both his ears, and splinters of wood had pierced his hands and upper arms. He snarled in rage at me and flung himself to his feet with one word of magical power. Then, as if reaching a decision, he spoke an airy incantation that lifted him lightly off his feet and into the air. Another few words, and blades of green energy emerged from his wrists. I summoned my own blades in answer once again.
We both charged.
We met in a storm of flashing energy and burning rage. My crossed blades blocked a downward chop, but a stab with another nicked my belly. I drew back, feeling the stinging pain dully as he came at me again, grinning at his advantage. His wrist-blades flashed green light before my eyes, dazzling me with their speed. Somehow, he had enhanced his own strength and speed in preparation for this. My knives had always been a weapon of last resort. Now, I was truly desperate.
He brought his left blade forward in a stab that barely missed my head, while his other came in low for my gut. I parried it, saw an opening and lunged. Just a nick, and his body would fill with liquid flame…
A green blade punched into my back as I exposed myself. My blades disappeared as this new wound sapped still more energy from my attacks. I stumbled, fell and rolled to see Kiernan dismissing his own blades. He frowned down at me. “What does it take to kill you?” He asked incredulously.
“Wrong…question…” I said.
“I suppose you’ll tell me the right one.”
“Right question is…what does it take to stop me?” I growled, and came slowly to my feet.
With a snarl, he began his incantations again, this time simply throwing his hand out. The force he channeled was enough to crack my ribs and send me skidding across the deck. I tumbled through a broken railing and nearly slid into the sea. I glanced down at the silver glass of the sea beneath me, twenty feet below. I started hauling myself up, unwilling to find out if revenants sink or float.
I crawled back aboard, realizing belatedly that Kiernan probably thought me dead. I peeked over the side, looking for the Raven. I found him easily enough.
Saskag’s axe and the Raven’s blade danced in a tempest of steel and inhuman speed. The Raven leapt and dodged like his namesake besieged by crows, for Saskag’s men had closed as well. As I watched, he ran up the side of the mast as if it were nothing, then back flipped ten feet up and came down with a crushing sword blow that nearly rent a man in two. Tearing his sword clear, he was just in time to parry Saskag’s axe and his chain of jawbones. Not just for decoration, the grisly trophy lashed out, drawing blood once and again on the Raven’s face. He danced back, reaching over his shoulder with his sword to slash a man’s throat without looking, and then rolling forward to jab again at the undead chief.
A lumbering blow with the axe, and the Raven had his opening. His wraith arm snapped out and passed through Saskag’s thigh, the veins of chaos doing their grisly work as blood vessels ruptured and the femur snapped. Saskag cried out and felt on to his side. The Raven stepped forward, raising his blade to end the revenant’s existence.
I could see Kiernan heading towards him, words flowing.
I had nothing left to throw, it seemed. My reserves had been devoted to my horrible wounds, and though I had not cast much fire, I was completely drained. Or near enough. I could conjure but one more creation…
Kiernan stopped, sniffing. I knew what he could smell.
He screamed in rage and pain, putting out the tongue of flame I had set in his hair with a wave of his hand and a word. It was just enough of a distraction for the Raven to bring his sword down and take Saskag’s head from his shoulders. Enough time to look skyward, and then dive desperately overboard.
Kiernan turned on me in rage, dashing towards me, summoning his blades to hack me to pieces, just as the Raven had done to his creation. I glanced upward, smiled.
Kiernan reached me, gripped me by the collar, and reared back to drive his blade through my skull. Then he realized I was counting under my breath.
“Three, two, one…”
The fire-arc slammed into the fore of the ship, a fireball almost half the size of the vessel itself. The ship sheared in half from the impact as waves of heat set the sails and rigging ablaze and melted all the caulking on board instantly. Kiernan’s skin was scorched red in a split second, his hair singing and his eyebrows going up in smoke.
Then came the concussion, and then, the rolling cloud of expanding fire from the explosion. At the last moment, looking into his eyes, I smiled, and then fell backwards overboard.
It was a strange view, plunging headfirst towards the water, watching the ship’s timbers rippling as the shockwaves raced through it, and then seeing the flames bursting outwards, and the spar’s flying-
* * *
I opened my eyes to daylight. The sun was beating down on my face. Birds chirped and sang somewhere over my shoulder, and as I watched a flock of geese flew honking across my vision. I felt no pain in my body, and wondered if that was because the Dark Fire had healed me, or if…
“Is this heaven?” I wondered aloud. Then the Raven’s head popped into view, and he gave me a scowl. “Er. I guess not, then.” I said.
“Good. You’re up. For a minute I thought you were…”
“Once again, Archol, your sense of humor amazes me.” He grimaced, worked his shoulder. Apparently I was the only one free of pain this day. “So. It seems that Old Tim’s going to have to find himself another supplier.”
“I suppose he will.”
The Raven helped me to my feet. I threw my hood up, more to shield the sun than to spare the Raven the sight of my face. He’d seen worse before. I made a show of dusting myself off, then grinned at my companion. He glared at me, then broke into a smile himself.
“Five minutes, you said.” He grumped. “It was more like five and a half.”
“It was on the nose, and you know it.” I said.
“Yeah, well, thanks for the warning before the massive ball of flame nearly obliterated me. That was real nice of you.”
“I thought you had a better sense of timing!” I protested, laughing.
The Raven started walking, a little stiffly. I followed him at his easy pace. We were in no rush anymore. The threat of Kiernan and Saskag was taken care of; we wouldn’t speak of them again. We seldom did, unless necessary. We had had too many close calls to relish any recollection of them. For now, the grasslands of the Koyani Empire spread out before us in all their greenery. The waist-deep grasses covered the land for miles around. It was an idyllic place. But the Raven and I came to bring war to this place, against its tyrannical god and his boundless ambition. It was a bitter introduction to such a beautiful land.
“You know what?” The Raven said some time later, when the sounds of the sea were fading behind us. “Just once, just once, I’d like to get through a trip without you blowing something up.”
For once, I had to agree with him.
|The Fallen Moon Part 6||The Arsenal: Possession|
The Heretic Wars Part 1: Blasphemy
|Godhunter Part X: Nemeses|
|Tribunal Part I: New Blood||The Heretic Wars Part III: Divinity|