Few can do what I do. Even entire armies fall short compared to me. The Elementals that I slay are too dangerous to fight without magical and physical skills earned over years, through sacrifice and tireless dedication. Even Zom-Ka, the Chaos Child who has travelled to my continent in search of adventure, can only do so because of his training and innate magical skill. And Koshidi? The hook-wielding young woman from the Mountain Clans? She barely manages. But we must slay them for Lady Molvik to make it to the sanctuary of the savannah city of Sharnich before the forces of The Old King catch up with her army. And his people are after us too. Tracking us. Hunting us. And the Elementals are getting stronger, better, more dangerous. Seemingly adapting to Zom-Ka and me. They are using tactics I have never seen before. They are combining with each other into glorious and dreadful new forms. And while Koshidi is careful, Zom-Ka is relishing the challenge. Always seeking out the most dangerous. Feeling rather than thinking. And using death magic. His skill is undeniable. But so is the danger he poses. Not only to our foes but maybe even to us.
by A. C. Karzun
Copyright 2015 ACKarzun
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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This is the greyscale version, optimised for greyscale devices. The original version with colour-coded text is also available.
I trace the white scar running across my dark face for what I can very easily believe to be the four-millionth time. Left by a Metal Elemental slashing open my face years ago, I have no illusions that it did not improve both my looks and my personality.
Using my magically enhanced vision, which grants me a view of everything within a direct line of sight, I can see the Elementals move. I know that even at this distance they are fully aware of my presence. The existence of Elementals is a much-debated issue among those prone to talk endlessly but until the Deities see fit to explain it to us, I am sure we will never truly know why they exist or indeed how they are even capable of existence. Personally, I could not care less; my sole task here today is to eliminate this particular group so the armies of Lady Molvik can advance. The fact that I, singlehandedly, can do what an entire army cannot, proofs how incredible I have become.
The early autumn wind brushes through my short, dirty hair and brings with it the scent of charcoal and ashes. My movements are fast enough to surprise even the Air Elemental sneaking up on me with its friends. All four are bereft of their lives without me even needing to break a sweat.
I hang my golden axes back in their rings on my belt and start running towards the group, I do a quick count, two-dozen-and-five. I have faced greater numbers. As they start getting into a position that should make it easier for them to fight me, I start formulating my strategy. I have a particular opening move that usually takes care of at least two of them but looking at the way these are positioning themselves that is going to be hard. A Lightning and a Metal Elemental make their way towards me, ready to intercept me. Then they hit me with a strategy of their own that I have not seen before. Metal jumps up and stretches out horizontally, Lightning leaps into it and travels through it to come flying out of Metal’s outstretched arms, straight towards me. I pump some extra shaay into the orange shimmer covering my body, which protects me from energy, and brace myself. As Lightning is about to hit me, I catch it as best I can with my redrawn, shaay-charged axes, make a quick full circle with outstretched arms and hurl it back towards the group. I did not have the time to aim it properly but I am hoping I aimed it well enough. I curse as it misses the Ice Elemental I was hoping to hit but am relieved to see it hit Water instead. Water turns to steam but not before stumbling into Wood. Lightning travels between both, splitting in half and dying as Water evaporates and Wood is set alight.
Three down, two-dozen-and-two to go, I am on my usual roll.
I am Zom-Ka from Clan Valderia of the House of Valderia. Servant of Morach, God of Shaay, Servant of Aoki, Goddess of Death. I am a Chaos Child and I am in trouble. I am lying on my back looking up at the smoke and dust filled sky, trying to distinguish the stars. My body hurts truly horribly in many places, but what I am most worried about is my left leg, which is not hurting at all. Lack of pain is a bad thing. So I am trying to see the stars. I am not willing to look down my body to see what my leg looks like, presuming it is still there. I stretch out my arms and my right-hand brushes against my staff. I turn my head so I can see it. It is still in one piece, though it has seen better days. But then so have I. I go back to trying to see the stars.
I need to get up, the wetness beneath me is not just mud and not all of the blood belongs to the Gorthsian warriors I have slain. I reach out with my right hand and pull my staff closer to me. I use it to prop myself up and become aware of the dead weight on my left side; my leg is still there. I risk a look. I cannot see it under my robes but I can see are the three arrows sticking out of it. And some of the blood coming from the area is purple, which means one of the arteries has been hit. I try to suppress the fear. For a Chaos Child, the sight of our purple blood is always enough to make us panic. I start pushing green shaay into my leg. Hopefully it will now heal halfway decently, presuming of course I did not lose so much blood that I will die. I start the long trek back across the battlefield to our camp.
Carrion-feeders are not the only creatures that follow armies. I have been following this one too. They leave enough behind for me to live off and at this particular time in my life, I am simply not in the mood to make a lot of effort to live. And I am not the only person doing this. There is a young couple of Dwar’Das, who have also been treading across the battlefields in search of anything useful; though unlike me, they are looking for valuable items. I cannot be bothered to explain to them that they will not find much; Lady Molvik’s warriors will have rolled and looted their enemies already. I think there might also be an Inniad about, but I have not seen much of it.
I am sure to keep my distance from the army, the last thing I need right now is to be gang-raped to death by a bunch of overzealous SouGors.
I have to admit though that Molvik has an interesting approach to this war. She is obviously losing but rather than just give in she has been retreating, regrouping and advancing again, making it difficult for the NorGors to advance far with any speed.
I look over the night-filled field of dead bodies amidst all but dead fires and pretend I am actually making a decision. Of course, I already know I am going to cut up a soldier for food, just as I have been doing for the past few days. I could go hunt in the nearby woods but why would I? It will be a lot less hassle to simply look for a halfway decent body and maybe I will even be lucky and find a pre-cooked one.
Through the dust and smoke, a light blue skinned KayChil with dark blue hair, wearing tattered and dirty, brown robes comes strolling off the battlefield, covered in blood and shaay. Some of the blood on him is purple which I know to mean he has been badly injured but I guess that the shaay is keeping him from dying. He looks so small and slender beside the tall, broad-shouldered, dark-skinned Gorthsian warriors, but I know without a doubt he could take them all, probably all at once and maybe even in the state he is currently in.
It would be fair to say that even though I have not met him yet, I like him already.
Zom-Ka, he says his name is. His grasp on our language is not great but then again, compared to my complete inability to speak his language… Or Karzuni for that matter, the amalgamated language they speak on his continent. Apparently, Lady Molvik has hired him as some sort of a shaman, though one who is willing to fight. That makes sense, before he went into battle, all the soldiers were mocking him. Now, having seen him fight, the captains are requesting he be sent into the next battle with their battalion. Not only does he know offensive magic, he is apparently a very good healer too, which explains how he managed to survive his wounds. The thing is, there was a lot of blood on those robes of his, and some of the soldiers I spoke to are saying he relishes battle. That he enjoys it a little too much. He kept getting into the thick of it, purposefully seeking out powerful enemies. That means that he either has a suicidal edge to him, or worse, that he enjoys the thrill of near death.
Or maybe what I have heard of the Chaos Children is true, they are not only arrogant, but that arrogance is well earned. That they are far more capable than most of us realise. Or at least are willing to admit.
In the centre of her tent, Lady Molvik patiently listens to what her scouts have to say and once they have related all they know to her, she slumps back in her makeshift wooden throne and lets out a long sigh. As she closes her eyes, none of her advisors or military leaders dare speak. They know better than to interrupt her when she is thinking things through. Apparently, large groups of Elementals are moving towards the same area, as if they intend to join. And where they will do this is right in the direction we are travelling in.
Her eyes flash over me and Zom-Ka, who is stood next to me. Then she closes her eyes again. Beside me, the KayChil tenses. From the corner of my eye, I can see a small smile play across his face. Just enough of his thin, sharp teeth show for me to realise that he is grinning. Fair enough, to be honest, I am not entirely devoid of a semblance of a grin myself. Albeit a far less predatory one. It is obvious what the Lady is thinking. And once she has told us, I do not know what to worry about more, her plan or the unabashed glee on Zom-Ka’s face.
I bend the middle two fingers of my right hand and extend the thumb, making the hand symbol for the God of Shaay, Morach. Then I bend the ring finger and little finger of my left hand, making the hand symbol for the Goddess of Death, Aoki. I place the palms of my hands against each other and raise the thumbs to my forehead, then place them on my lips and finally I place them on my sternum. I bow my head and close my eyes.
“Great Morach, God of Shaay, Giver of Life, Father of Magic, I give thanks to you for giving me a life to lead and am grateful each day that I may live it. I give thanks for the blessing of Magic you have bestowed upon me. I seek in everything to achieve your will. I remember with each kill that I take the life of something precious. And I honour that life by taking shaay from it and making it a part of my own. Great Morach I beg of you that you continue to bless me and give me both the strength and courage to continue on this path so my shaay may eventually pass into the Whole too.
“Powerful Aoki, Goddess of Death, Taker of Life, Mother of Peace, I await your embrace. I accept of each day that it may be my last and seek to make each day worthwhile. I steadily and surely head through my life, in the full knowledge, not only that you are with me but that you await me when I am done. I see where I am and where I am headed, and will continue on this path for as long as it takes.
“May my soul remain strong.”
“Are you ready?” I ask Zom-Ka as he gets up from saying his prayers.
“I guess.” He replies in that heavy accent and with a look of apprehension on his face.
“You have never ridden a horse before?” I ask from atop mine.
“I have…” He starts. “I do not like them much.”
“What do you usually ride?”
“Wagons, pulled by horses.”
“And if there is no reason to drag a whole wagon along?”
“Walk. Well… I do… Or run.” He gives his horse a look I do not quite comprehend but guess to be one of distrust.
“The best way to conquer your fear is to face it.” I say, trying to keep the impatience bubbling up inside of me, out of my voice.
He bobs his head from side to side, the KayChil equivalent of a nod, and gives the horse one final nasty look before mounting it with the ease of someone who has done it masses of times before.
We are a good four-dozen rogs from camp, heading at a decent speed over a well-travelled path when, seemingly out of nowhere, an Oppallus leaps out in front of us and starts growling. The horses stop dead in their tracks at the sight of the short dog-like being. Zom-Ka is almost thrown from his horse after having ridden it perfectly since we left and I finally realise why he dislikes them so much, they are living creatures and so they can make up their own mind on how to behave.
He looks at the Oppallus and growls as he squints at it. Next thing I know he has hopped onto his saddle with his staff in his right hand and leaps at the being. Somewhere between the horse and the moment he lobs off the Oppallus’s head with that staff, he has managed to charge it with orange shaay. I am still looking at him, impressed with what he is capable of, when six more Oppalli come charging at us, three from each side. Or more to the point, at the horses, I get off mine by swinging my leg over my horse’s head and have my axes out and my blue shimmer up before the three on my side reach me. I spend a while dodging their teeth and claws while swinging my axes at them. I can hear Zom-Ka yelling behind me, while the ones he is fighting growl and bark. After I have killed two, the third manages to knock me down and before I really understand what is going on it has gotten on my horse and is riding away on it. It is at that point I notice Zom-Ka is in a similar predicament, the difference being that he is screaming things in his language at the one riding off on his horse.
He does something and before I can quite work out what it is, he starts running after them. As he runs, I can see, with my rather unique gift of sight, shaay being pumped from his heart into his legs and from there into the run itself. When he said that whenever he needs to go anywhere, he runs, it did not occur to me he meant it like that.
I try to run after him but there is no way I can catch up with him. He, however, seems to be catching up with the horses.
I throw away my staff and keep pushing shaay into my leg muscles and through into the energy of the run itself. I am gaining but after the fight and the battle a few days ago, I am still a bit weak and so have no idea how long I can keep this up. I should have eaten more meat and I swear to Morach and Aoki that if I catch up with these bandits I will use them for that purpose. As it turns out, I am not going to learn what Oppallan meat tastes like today as both decide to get rid of me by throwing the saddlebags at me. One goes hopelessly wide but the other hits me square in the face. For a brief moment, I have no sight and no focus and so miss-step beautifully and am sent flying by the speed at which I was travelling. I react the only way I know how to and I try to huddle up into a ball. I also try to get a blue shimmer going which should protect me from anything physical, though not from the force of the landings. It is all far less than perfect but it keeps me from snapping my neck, which at this point really is the main concern. I end up on my right side watching our horses being ridden out of our possession. I roll onto my back and stretch my limbs as I discharge the shaay from my muscles.
I watch as Zom-Ka takes a bag to the face and goes into a nasty tumble. He seems to be trying to roll but is not entirely successful. As the horses are ridden off, I see something that for a moment makes my heart go cold as he bleeds out a very large amount of shaay. Then I realise he is simply getting rid of the shaay he had pumped into his legs earlier. On the way over to him, I pick up his staff and my saddlebag.
“Are you alright?” I ask once I am stood over him.
He opens his red eyes and seems to be looking straight through me. “Bruised, scratched… headache too. Oh, and my pride has been whacked.” He closes his eyes again. “Did you notice how we got bested by a pack of dogs?”
“That would be hard to miss.”
“And how many Elementals did the Lady send us to take care of?”
“A huge amount.”
He bobs his head. “You better be as good as they say.”
“I am.” I reply in a level voice.
Cursed Inniads, turns out there were a few of them. I had only ever seen one of them at a time and I am not particularly skilled at distinguishing between them. One big bear-like being looks very much the same as any other as far as I am concerned. They attacked me as a group this morning at daybreak. I am still not entirely sure why they did but I taught them not to mess with beautiful, leather-clad, hook-wielding Mountain Gorthsian women. I managed to kill all of the cretins but not before one of them cut me something vicious with a blade of sorts. The wound is not so deep that I need to worry about it but the blade cut through the leather straps on my left arm. So now I will need to go hunting to replace them.
As soon as I have bandaged the wound.
The night is as a blanket around me. The darkness envelops. The forest is full of sounds; nights are never quiet. All shadows seem to hold danger. I know there are animals here that I have never seen before. Dangers I cannot be sure I know how to handle. Tonight could be the last night of my life. And I love the feeling. There is no tomorrow. There is only now.
I am running through the forest, hoping some big furry predator will give chase. Sure enough, after a while of dodging treelike and bush-like shadows, all resembling in my mind horrid monsters, a huge growling thing comes after me. At first I keep running, if for no other reason than that I need to find a good spot to fight. Round about the same time I start to realise that it is catching up with me I see my chance to start the fight properly. I leap up at a branch hanging horizontally overhead and hang my hooks on it, throwing my legs forward and letting the momentum carry me up and over. The bear, at least I think it is a bear, jumps up and swipes a claw the size of my head at me, missing me completely. I land on the branch and jump down on its back, ramming my hooks into its flanks. It lets out a terrifying howl as I push myself upwards with my legs, ripping its sides open. I duck, unhook and jump off backwards to let the bear die in horrific misery.
I look at the huge bear, which looks nothing like the white bears living on the snow-covered mountains where I grew up. These are hulking black monstrosities. To be honest I am amazed that I managed to kill it, presuming the cursed thing gets around to dying. At the moment, it is still howling in agony. The good thing is that it is so big all the other animals know to stay away, if for no other reason than that it would take an even greater predator to do this. Then I notice it is turning to face me with a look that I, even in this darkness, recognise, it is going to put all it has into one final attack. I should, of course, just climb into a tree and wait until it has given up and dies.
But where is the fun in that?
With a harrowing growl, it charges towards me. Due to the darkness, my timing is shoddy, but I manage to ram one of my hooks into its skull as it slams into me, knocking me onto my back and ending up on top of me. So now I am lying in the dirt with a dead, smelly, heavy-as-a-tree bear on top of me, unable to move properly, covered in bruises, with its blood seeping down onto me. Still more fun than watching it die from a tree, though. Despite myself, I let out a manic cackle. By the sky, I love life sometimes.
“I am not convinced.” Zom-Ka replies, looking up at the sun.
“This is my part of Arym.” I respond. “I think I know better than you.”
He starts looking around, checking the horizon, for as far as we can see it with the nearby forest blocking parts of it. Then he looks up at the sun again and then at the mountains in the north… That is when I realise. “You are right,” I say. “Those mountains… they are not directly to our north, are they?”
He looks up at me and smiles. “No, they are to our northeast.”
I nod. “I guess I lost my bearing somewhere over the last two seasons.”
“We have been going south. Lady Molvik has been taking us to that city in the southeast, by the savannah.”
“She has?” Now it is my turn to look around. “Why are we not heading to Torban?”
“Sharn… What is it?”
“Sharnich is being fortified and the savannah means they have to come from the woods or we would see them.”
I nod. “Through the valley. Unless they choose to come through the savannah anyway.”
He sharply raises his chin. “They would have to go too far around and would be spotted.”
“Was that a ‘no’?”
For a moment he squints at me and then bobs his head. “Yes, it was.” He sharply raises his chin again. “It is like your—” He shakes his head.
“It looks defiant.”
For a moment he seems confused, then he gives me that predatory grin again. He holds my gaze in a level stare and makes this sharp move with his chin, a quick raise and then holds it there. There is no mistaking it, it says, ‘Bring it.’
“So we have been heading in the wrong direction.” He says.
I sigh. “I am afraid so.”
The grey clouds are racing across the sky and the rain is falling hard. He does not seem to mind or even notice. I guess I am fine too; after all, this robe was not only crafted with all kinds of weather in mind, but comes with a hood. The biggest problem I am having, besides the wind, is the mud; with his massive weight he is sinking deeper than I am, but his muscles are more than large enough to pull his feet back out. No such luck for me, I am not sinking as deep but it is harder for me to pull my feet back out, if for no other reason than that I am wearing the wrong kind of footwear. My original boots were still damaged from the battle so I am wearing the ones given to me; they might be the kind a proper shaman would wear but not someone like me. The good news is that I have not yet slipped and that is more than he can say, as I have been using my staff to keep myself upright. But despite everything, I am having difficulty keeping up with him. Since we worked out we were going in the wrong direction he has been pushing forward hard. Losing our horses was bad enough but he remained optimistic that we could get our task done in time. Now that he has made a stupid mistake, he seems concerned that we might not make it. I am hoping he will cheer up a bit once we get closer to the Elementals. Right now, he is just annoyed with himself for making that mistake. And, of course, part of the problem is that I knew better. He may like me but the prejudices that his people have, not just towards other karzuns but also towards the different races of their own karzun is in there somewhere. Slayer himself is, just like Lady Molvik and her people, a Southern Gorth, or SouGor as they say. The Old King they are fighting is a Northern Gorth, or NorGor. While these SouGors have very dark brown skin and bushy black hair, the NorGors have pale skin and straight hair ranging from dark brown to bright red. They seem to feel that such a difference of appearance also means there is a difference in character. As a Chaos Child, this is hard for me to understand, everybody of my karzun has different skin and hair colours. I have blue skin and dark blue hair, but my mother has purple skin and dark purple hair and my father has yellow skin and red hair. It is entirely impossible for me to believe that differences in colour also must mean differences in personality. I do of course understand that there are differences between the different karzuns, necessarily so. But in my travels, I have met so many people, that I have learnt to deal with everybody as an individual. In the end it would appear that identity might spring from racial and cultural differences but personality does not. Simply put, there are arseholes in any karzun. But also people I am proud to call friends.
It has been three days since we left Lady Molvik’s camp and we are still nowhere near the area where the scouts said the Elementals are gathering. I am, admittedly, not on a schedule here. She knows better than to plan the unplannable. But even though we have won the last battle and destroyed a great part of The Old King’s army, it will not be long before reinforcements arrive and if our army has not moved at least half the distance towards Sharnich before then, we might not be able to get there at all. The agreement is that the army will start their march when the reinforcements reach a certain point and we have to have dealt with the Elementals by the time they get to us. If Zom-Ka and I cannot clear the way by then, we are doomed.
“We are close though, right?” Zom-Ka asks.
“Depends on your definition of close.” I reply.
“No more than a few more days march.”
“Four, at most.”
“And from there?” He asks.
“Presuming I can get us some horses? Say a day, maybe more. We will not be riding through the night.”
“So we will be at the Elementals in five days. And we are certainly faster than the army… Exactly how good are you at this?”
“Normally I would say: ‘Better than you can imagine.’ But in this case…”
“We will have to divide and conquer.”
He gives me that predatory grin. “I will explain what it means on the way.”
Amidst the deluge of words, with several long-winded examples, lies a plan that makes sense, rather than just attack them as on a group, we need to find a way to take them on as smaller groups. The best thing, of course, would be to attack them before they all get together. And I really need to find the best way to make that happen.
The thing I am worrying about the most, though, is the fact that they are all getting together in the first place. Maybe I am arrogant but I cannot shake the feeling it has to do with me.
You cannot win every time.
There are just too many of them. Eight, ten, maybe a dozen. All men too, so presumably all the survivors will want a go. Sky knows what I was thinking. Or maybe I was not. Maybe the bear hurt me more than I thought. Whatever the case might be, the fight against these bandits who stumbled across me tonight did not go well. I think I have killed two and two more might actually die of the rending. But now I am on the ground. A bit too far from my hooks with three of them holding me down while a fourth, their leader, takes out a knife to cut through the straps of leather that cover my body and serve me as garments.
“Can I have a go with her when you are all done?” I hear a voice with a very heavy accent say.
The hold on me loosens slightly, but not enough.
“Get lost!” The bandit with the knife says.
“I already am lost, so that will be hard. Should I have said ‘please’?”
I turn my head and see a slight figure in the light of my campfire. He is wearing a robe with a hood over his head, making it hard to see his face. He is leaning on a walking stick.
“Maybe we will have a go on you as well; they say you KayChils are not too picky.”
KayChil? I give the figure my best predatory grin. No doubt nowhere near as good as his, but he will get the drift. By the sky, these guys are in trouble. I focus on the tingling in my gut. That will get me through the next few moments. Unless the fear returns.
“Oh, did you have to go there?” He makes a point of sighing. “And we could all have gotten along so well.”
I have heard stories. They tell them in whispers at fires on dark, cold nights. They say the KayChils are special. Better. Better than all the other karzuns. They say that Anasin, their Mother Deity, as well as ours, gave them a gift. Stories are one thing, but to actually see it, is beautiful. I did not even know it was possible to move that fast. He just comes at the leader so quickly even if they had time to respond, they do not, just because of the surprise. He cleaves him in two with his stick, or apparently staff, which is now glowing in both red and black. Not just at the ends as I have seen some sorcerers do, but the length of it, with a soft orange glow where his hands are. I realise that this glow is actually coming from his hands.
The guys holding me down make the stupid mistake of letting go of me as they go for him.
I roll onto my stomach and head for my hooks.
I push black shaay through my staff and out towards the men charging at me. It seems almost unfair, as Gorths are so used to physical fights, and for some reason hardly ever bother with magic. Two die the instant the black flames touch them, the third manages to dive out of the way, which I do a moment later as the men who were holding down the woman get to me. They actually did not realise that the fact that I could not see them did not mean I did not know where they were. Every being has an aura of shaay radiating around them, extending from their souls, the wizards say. This makes it particularly easy for a spellweaver like me to feel where they are. As easy as if they had been wearing bells.
I grab my hooks and am about to get to my feet when I take a kick to the face. I go down on my back and he gets on top of me with a crazed look in his eyes. He holds me down with one hand while he gets his knife in a good position. Two huge golden axes, glowing ominously, slash through him like he is lard. One from the right, the other from the left. They cut through his upper arms and through his torso. The parts collapse onto me and an avalanche of blood pours over me. I look up at a SouGor roughly the size of the bear I killed. He has a nasty scar and a very serious look on his face, like this is just his duty.
“Get up.” He says in a voice entirely fitting for his size.
As it turns out Zom-Ka has already taken care of the remaining bandits. The thing is, he is still taking care of one of them. He is holding out his staff, which is now glowing green, and at the end of it hangs the body of one of the bandits. The staff is actually stuck through his mouth and a part is coming out of the back of the head. The green glow travels up the staff and into the man. That is when I realise he is still alive, despite having a staff through his head. Zom-Ka is keeping him alive. I knew he was a good healer but apparently he is more than that. And as black shaay starts pouring out of the man, down the staff and into Zom-Ka, I realise just how much more he is. In some kingdoms, this type of magic is explicitly forbidden.
“By the sky!” The MounGor woman exclaims beside me. “Is he feeding?”
“Yes.” I say as the muscles in my jaw tighten. I know what this is, and I have an intellectual understanding of what the man is going through. The green shaay is keeping him alive, meaning he can still feel all the pain his body is in, and he is partially aware of how part of his head is missing. But it is the black shaay that brings the worse pain. As Zom-Ka drains the shaay from him, he does so by pulling it from every cell in the man’s body. Each and every cell must be screaming in agony. And there is no release, not yet. But that is not the worst part; that would be the pain in his soul. It wants to leave but it cannot. This kind of thing is madness inducing. It is pain worse than anyone can imagine, on every level. It is beyond a shadow of a doubt the worst possible way to die. And one is sent to the afterlife insane.
The black shaay stops flowing and Zom-Ka lowers his staff to let the corpse slide from it. He does not even pay attention to it, as if it is not a person. He has that wild look in his eyes that I have seen before in the eyes of some sorcerers. And on his face is not that predatory grin but instead a joyous smile. I know enough about death magic to know it is involuntary, he cannot help but enjoy the feeling of sucking the life-force out of someone and letting it become his own. As a matter of fact, just like when he released all that shaay after he took that tumble, he probably just did it because it is necessary. Either he steals someone’s shaay or he has to get it some other way.
I try not to think of what they are doing. I try to sleep for a while longer. But I can hear them. Their whispering and the wet sounds of meat being cut. I can smell the meat by the fire and I know where they got it. The stories are true; MounGors and KayChils eat their enemies.
Zom-Ka is his name and he is cute. He is also very small; he only comes up to my collarbone. We are cutting up the bandits, taking out the best organs. Slicing off good pieces of flesh. He has insisted on the hearts, one of which he has already eaten, which is fine by me, I have never liked the taste or texture of hearts. No problem for him of course, not with those gorgeous teeth of his.
She is a lot more fun after she has had some sleep, I think. Or maybe anyone would cheer up a bit from cutting up the men who tried to rape them. She fights with hooks, which is how she gets her name: Koshidi, Hooksuser. Or something like that. She speaks with a MounGor accent, which is of course to be expected, and between that and my own accent there is a lot of asking each other to repeat what the other just said. But we get along great. Maybe that is because she is essentially an adventurer like me. We have both left our families and childhoods and gone out into the wide world to see new things. Of course, I do so without feeling a need to cover my body in straps of leather instead of wearing proper clothes and I wield an actual weapon.
So she is coming with us. She swears she is a good fighter and claims that she killed a large bear just a few days ago. Admittedly the leather straps around her arm are fresh and do seem to be bear hide so I guess it might be possible. I have no idea how useful she will be in a fight against Elementals though. It really does take someone with magical powers, and great ones at that, to slay them. She has none, worse than that she does not even have decent weapons, just those hooks. I guess we will see how well this will go.
Anasin knows why I let the KayChil do the bartering.
“For the dogs.” I hear him say. He is actually honest about what kind of meat it is. Still, if he manages to throw some meat into the deal it will not cost me so much gold. And it is going to cost plenty considering the fact I am paying for Koshidi too. The bandits had some gold but not a lot. He has hinted at being from a rich family but has long since run out of whatever amount of gold they gave him when he left all those years ago. And Lady Molvik has not payed him yet. He swears he will pay me back and I believe he will, if he survives tomorrow’s battle.
He strolls over to me with a big smile on his face. “There you go; I saved you the cost of one whole horse. Which I guess means Kosh pays for herself, what with it being her attackers that are paying for it. Both flesh and gold.”
“But did we get good horses?”
“We did, I get that one.” He points at a horse not significantly different to the others. Then, remembering how he feels about horses, I figure there is probably some difference from his point of view.
The candlelight casts shadows across her face as she nods gravely, silently, as she absorbs the information. “Can you teach me a shimmer?”
“Not before tomorrow.” I reply.
She nods again. “Pity. I know enough magical theory but I cannot actually weave.”
“What do you know?”
“How to make magical weapons. My father was a weaponsmith. I know how to make axes like yours, though not necessarily with that much gold. Are they solid gold?”
“Amalgamated, but close.”
“And I can make staffs like Ka’s, with gems like his has and even filigrees or metal cores. But I have no idea how to wield them.”
“But you are good with hooks?”
“Absolutely, you saw the four I killed.”
“Two, Zom-Ka killed the other two.”
“They would have died anyway.”
“True, I guess.”
She looks across the room we got at this inn at Zom-Ka sleeping on the floor. “How does he do that?”
I smile. “He says it is a talent of his. He can sleep anywhere, in any position, in any situation.”
“But not in a bed?”
“He has not slept in a bed for years.”
“You know him well for only having travelled with him for a few days.”
“Ask him a question when we are riding, then watch the sun move across the sky as he answers it.”
“So he is not just talking to me so much because he likes me.” She says it as a statement rather than a question.
“Oh, he likes you. I can tell by the way he talks to you.”
She smiles. “I like him too.”
“Then you can lose your ears to him.”
I am riding next to Ka, who is trying to explain his heritage. “No, from my mother’s side. I will start again.” He shakes his head, as if to clear it. “My name is Zom-Ka from Clan Valderia of the House of Valderia. My father is from Clan Valderia of the House of Foss and my mother is from Clan Brakken of the House of Valderia. I have my father’s Clan and my mother’s House, like everybody from a House.”
“Right, I think I have got it. So it is not Houses with Clans in them, Houses and Clans can be the same.”
“Some Clans have been elevated to Houses and some Clans have joined those Houses. Every House is also a Clan, but not every Clan is a House, nor is every Clan part of a House.”
“And they are all on one island?”
“The islet used to belong to Clan Valderia and then Clan Brakken joined, each forming a House. Several Clans have joined them on the islet since, creating the city of Orzhadat, the ones that formed a House moved whole and their original villages or towns were abandoned. The Clans that joined a House either joined whole or left some people in their villages. The only exception is House Foss which has its own city and its Clans are in the surrounding villages and towns.”
“But you said your father’s clan was Valderia?”
“Valderia is the exception, we have alliances with all the Houses and some of them are joined with us as Clans. In fact, we have no Clans that are not also Houses.”
“Tell me about it, the scribes record every birth meticulously but the Bloodlines are hard to track. And, to be honest, they cheat.”
“People are adopted into a Clan before marriage so we do not all end up a mess of Clans.”
“As originally from the islet, is your Clan the most powerful House?”
“With Brakken and Foss. But yes, ours is considered special because we have the original name and never left the islet on which our people were born.”
“So really your karzun should be called Valderian?”
“Some say so but the Clans and Houses would object. But I personally do believe we need a name as a people. Chaos Children seems so… stupid. Even if I do get why you call us that.”
“Our Mother Deity is Anasin, Goddess of Conflict and our Father Deity is Dorrin, God of Balance. There is no denying we are a messed up people because of that. And then there is the hairlessness.”
I give him a cheeky grin.
“I would show you but it is a bit harder for me, what with all my ritual scars. But we do appear to be the only karzun in the world who do not grow hair all over our body when we reach puberty. At least amongst the karzuns which grow hair.”
“You are all actually smooth all over?”
“Except for scalp hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, yes.”
“Yes!” He starts laughing. “All over.”
“I do have to see that!”
He gives me a cheeky grin back. “Patience, sweety.”
We both burst out laughing.
He rolls up the sleeve on his right arm and shows his arm to me. It is covered in scars so as to make it resemble lizard scales.
My jaw just drops. “That must have hurt!”
“A bit, but it was fine once they poured Dragon’s blood on it.”
“That is supposed to heal.”
“It does, instantly.”
“How did they get the blood?”
“We killed a Dragon.”
“You did what!” Slayer bursts out, despite riding plenty ahead of us he must still have been listening in.
I burst out laughing again. “After all these days you never told him?”
“It never came up.” Ka replies.
“And it will have to wait.” Slayer says suddenly, even more serious than usual.
We halt our horses.
“This will be a good practice run.” He says.
“What will be?” Ka asks.
“Them.” Is the simple reply.
I watch him fight with all the skill and ability of someone who has done this all his life. There is joy in his eyes as he takes on the Elementals. He moves with perfect control over his body. Years of discipline focussed into one point. His movements are fluid, almost graceful. He goes from one move straight into the next. Every dodge, parry and thrust are as if they are part of an intricate dance. The only thing that spoils the effect is the fact that his every attack is brutal, everything he does is aimed specifically at incapacitating the enemy. As he sets a Wood on fire with some positively frightening waves of red flames, he throws his head back and with a riotous laugh, yells, “I love this!”
This is what I could live for. I could happily spend the rest of my life doing only this. Elementals are glorious to both behold and fight. They are abominably gorgeous. They are held together with unnatural, divine magic. They fight with pure instinct that is somehow channelled through a primal intellect. Raw and powerful, my kind of enemy. And it takes all of my abilities and skills to fight them. I am right at the edge of myself, getting better with every move, like a muscle gets stronger with each usage. This is why I left home, why I travelled the world, fought a Dragon, insulted men twice my size and joined The Lady’s army. I need to push myself, to be better tonight than I was this morning. And these magnificent creatures give it to me. The twelve elements made alive. Each with their own challenges and ways of combat. Each dangerous and deadly.
But then, so am I.
I make each move count. Sure, I am doing what I was taught by the monks, making each movement flow into the next. Thinking only of what I am doing and what I will do next, ignoring the obvious fact that I might die at any moment. But I am playing for keeps here. And I am letting the sorcerer in me do what it does. I might have been taught some beautiful and terrifying things by the wizards at the University but in the end, it is my innate affinity for magic, for the flow of shaay that I use. All the theory they taught me, all the lessons and discipline were merely used to hone the rawness. Here I let it out with both passion and precision.
And I play with fire. My gift manifests itself as flames. It is different for each spellweaver. Slayer actually uses pure shaay. His magic actually looks like magic. For some it is water, ice, smoke or one of the other twelve elements. For me it is and always has been fire. Hence my preference for black and green flames. Death and shaay, or life, magic, as fire.
I guess it is a good thing Slayer told me some of the basics and, as long as I stay away from the fire elementals, I should be fine. And the lightning ones, electricity, Ka called them in his language. Of course, smokes and dusts are an issue too. Hard to hit something that is not really there. Water is fun, if tiring. But Slayer’s basic tactic of using them against each other is sound. Fling one into the other and watch the sparks, or whatever, fly. And nothing makes one feel more like a fighter than bashing away at a huge creature made of metal with two self-made hooks. Still… I keep seeking out the ice, stone and wooden ones, they are the easiest for me and Ka stays close to make sure nothing happens to me. Slayer on the other hand is a long way off fighting a whole group all by himself, more than living up to his title of Slayer of Elementals.
“Ka! Get back here! Now!”
He stops and turns, gives the fleeing Elementals one last look and then comes walking back.
Beside me, Kosh drops to her knees, falls onto her side and then rolls onto her back. She spreads her arms, closes her eyes and lets out a long tired sigh. “I am dead.” She says it with a jovial smile.
“Just look at it.” Ka says as he picks up the two separate pieces of his staff and comes towards us.
“And charging after them without a weapon seemed like a good idea?” I ask.
He gives the fleeing Elementals a nasty look. “One is Wood. Besides I am never unarmed.” He holds up his left hand so I can see his rings. “See.”
“Very nice. Still…”
“Sleeping, are we?” He says to Kosh.
She keeps her eyes closed and just raises a hand in the general direction of his voice, the hand is unmistakably in the shape of an insult.
“Maybe later. I am pretty beat myself.”
“I will have a look at your staff later.” She mumbles.
Ka bends his knees and sits down, too tired to make the obvious comment. He looks up at me. “Clever spell.”
I just smile at him. Truth is of course that I too am tired, much like my friends I am covered in sweat but somewhere along the way I learnt how not to get too tired fighting these beings. And, admittedly, magic plays a part. So does water. “We need to get us some water.”
“Over there somewhere.” Kosh says, waving her hand. “Chunks of ice.”
Ka gives me a look.
I nod back. “It is just ice now. Once they die, the shaay holding them together fades.”
He bobs, thoughtfully. “Souls?”
“Yes, but different somehow, unlike any other kinds I have seen.”
“That is the Deities for you.”
“Specifically Anasin and Vannash.”
“According to our prophets.”
I stare out over the field where we fought. So They did anyway. In a manner of speaking. Then Anasin, Goddess of Conflict has in fact mated with all of the male Deities. Or at least produced beings with them. I guess it would make sense that She would not create a full karzun with the one other Deity who is not married. Leaving me with the conflict that union has created.
“I especially love the way they combine.” Ka says with gleaming eyes.
We have made a camp near where we killed the Elementals and are eating so we can get back some of the energy we have spent. Especially since Ka and I need to replenish our shaay.
“They do not usually do that.” I reply and Ka picks up on the tone of worry in my voice. “Nor have they ever moved towards each other before. Usually they travel in relatively small groups.”
“So that thing Electricity and Metal did, is not normal?”
“Not until days ago.”
“And the way water and ice worked against me?” Kosh asks.
“Combining like that to form one whole? No. In fact that was the first time I ever saw that.”
“Just for me?” She says with a cocky grin.
“Us.” Ka responds. And then, looking at me, “You. It is you.”
I nod. “I have been wondering about that myself.”
“Well you are The Slayer.” Kosh says.
Ka bobs. “This had to happen sooner or later. No enemy will keep employing the same tactics if they always fail. Do some always flee?”
“There you go then. They are more than intelligent enough to communicate with each other.”
“Really?” Kosh asks. “They seemed pretty dumb to me. Or at least primal, like any animal.”
“No,” I reply, “there is intellect there. Besides, plenty of animals communicate.”
“Exactly, even some plants do.” Ka says.
Kosh and I just stare at him.
“Never minds it is a long story.”
“We have the time.” I reply.
“Yes,” Kosh says, “now you can tell us about the dragon.”
They have so much anticipation in their eyes I guess I am going to have to. I let out a long sigh. “How much do you know about Dankir?”
“They are reptilian, right?” Slayer says.
“Yes, they are tall upright walking reptiles. They have mostly hunter-based societies and live in tribes. I spent some time with one of the tribes and they banded together with a bunch of others to hunt an Ancient Crimson.”
The Dankir scurry around me, their excitement becoming more and more physical. I can feel it in the air, we are close, this is about to become very real. It does. A humongous reptile of ridiculous proportions, far greater than I thought imaginable, looms in the distance, appearing through the grey fog, parts of its red scales becoming clear.
The Dankir holler, screech and cheer, they yell things at each other and me, I only understand half of it, they are too excited and my grasp on their language is still too loose to understand it all. But I get the feeling, deep in my bones.
This is it.
They quiet down, like soldiers before a battle, a feeling I know well. We are ready, we are one, we have planned and talked and prepared. Each knows their task, and all are ready to perform it. This will lead to death for many of us, but we do not fear it, to die today as a part of what we are about to do is an honour. To know that our deaths will be the price for this victory, that our deaths will pay for the lives of others, is a very good thing indeed. One does not fear death in the face of glory. Nor does one seek it. To die is to make victory that much harder for those one leaves behind, so one does what one must to survive, but also to get others to survive. This is why we are one. One whole group and the honour is shared, we stand or fall together. We are victorious or defeated together. The honour and glory of one is the honour and glory of all, even those at our camps or our villages without whom we would not have been able to prepare. We share it all as one massive army.
And collectively we charge the glorious monstrosity.
My task here is healing which sounds simpler than what the truth of it is, or will become. I am to stand at a respectable distance and heal anyone who gets too wounded, either by laying on hands or by sending a healing spell in their direction. In a bag on my back is a large hare, to be drained of all its shaay should I need it. Anyone who falls and is either dead, or as good as dead, is ours to use and to feed on. But that is just the start. Dragon’s blood has healing properties so those closest to the beast will try to get as much blood on themselves as possible, which will heal them instantly. Some will try to catch the blood to heal others. Casters like me are expected to eventually get close enough to drain shaay from the scales the warriors cleave off. But the really hard part will come once enough of the Dragon is exposed. We are to climb it and heal from there, using anything we can, except each other. Some will cut open the beast and tap blood from it. The vials are then to be used by us to heal. I know some special healing spells, which I have tried to teach the others, but being the only one who has used them in combat, I am to make sure the main warriors stay alive. One in particular, Cracked Stone, is my responsibility. It is paramount I keep him alive.
He is, of course, also the one leading the charge.
I switch my mind-set into combat mode and get ready for the inevitable crumbling of the plan.
The warriors raise their shields once they are within range and the Dragon breathes its fire down upon them. Cracked Stone gets through all right but some of the others are touched by the fire. Mostly it is regular fire but obviously nothing like this can exist without magic and so some of the fire is magical too. I weave the spells necessary to heal the ones closest to me; dousing the flames and turning their charred scales into clean new ones. I drop down on one knee by one Dankir and place my hand over her boiled eye, regrowth is impossible but I can heal what is left and soothe the pain.
She gives me one of those wicked grins I have come to recognise as friendly and grunts a ‘thank you’ of sorts. We get up and get back into the fight.
I find Cracked Stone under the head of the Dragon slamming his axe furiously at the scales of its long neck whilst trying to avoid its claws. Other warriors are trying to damage its massive legs but are having a hard time at it.
This is when the casters and archers make their contribution. I had been wondering why it was not just simply using its wings either to do damage, or to fly, but I notice they are covered in arrows and that it is there that casters are focussing their fire… and ice and electricity and all the other types of spells they are casting. This way they can cast to their heart’s content and not have to worry about hitting the warriors.
Cracked Stone leaps to the side as the Dragon suddenly moves its head in his direction and tries to bite him in half. The snout slams into the ground sending dust everywhere, and a portion of land is flung away as the Dragon raises its head. It turns its massive body and sends waves of fire at the casters but most of the fire is stopped by the huge orange shimmer the casters put up. Those that are hit by the flames drop and roll around as their healers get to healing them. The Dragon keeps turning, whipping its humongous tail around and knocking down plenty of warriors. I weave some basic healing spells and try to quickly set a few bones, while looking to see where Cracked Stone is.
Once I have located him, and drained the hare, I run towards him, he looks wounded, though not too badly. “Get us on top.” He yells.
I look up. “How?”
Before he has a chance to respond, the Dragon helps us out by swinging its tail at us. In the brief moment I have, I manage to take out my knife, charge it, grab hold of Cracked Stone’s armour and leap with shaay flowing into my legs. I ram the knife into the tail and let it take us upwards. For a moment, I allow myself to feel very proud indeed of my skill before realising we are no longer attached to the tail and are now in free fall. I use shaay to make us turn and send Cracked Stone at the wing we are passing close to. From there he should be able to make it to the beast’s back. I stretch out my arms, holding the blade with both hands and manage to get it into the very tip of the wing. For a moment I hang there and then figure being right where arrows and spells are heading is, no doubt, a bad idea. Even if I am at the edge. I try to manoeuver myself to the inside where, hopefully I will not be in as much danger. From there I try to get to the Dragon’s back and join Cracked Stone, who is now hacking away at the scales there. By the time I get there, he has been joined by two others.
I look across the body at the head of the Dragon. “Why do we not just crack its skull and destroy its brain?”
“Too thick.” An out of breath Cracked Stone replies.
I hold out my hand. “Axe.”
He gives me a strange look and then that wicked grin, quickly followed by the axe itself.
I steadily make my way up the back and then, with effort, up the moving neck. I reflect on how, now I am actually on top of it, it does not seem so big anymore. Once I reach the head, I push all the shaay I can into the crude but sturdy axe and ram it down into the skull. The head shoots upwards as both a howl and fire emanate from the Dragon’s maw. As I hold on for dear life with one hand, I hack again. And again. And again. Eventually the scales and skull leave a big enough wound for me to push green shaay into.
Then I pull black shaay out. It envelopes me. Fills me. For a moment, I am as a Deity.
Then I pass out.
Kosh cackles with laughter. “You passed out?”
“After killing the Dragon by sucking the shaay out of it.” I reply with a cool smile.
Slayer is just sitting there, quietly, with a huge grin on his face. He is obviously very impressed with me. To be honest, so am I. But then I usually am.
“Did you fall?” Kosh asks.
“No, apparently I levitated down.”
“Seriously. Must have been the Dragon’s shaay.”
“Unbelievable. And then when you woke up they had carved up your skin?”
“No. They asked me later if they could, to make me a member of their tribe.”
“And you accepted?” Slayer asks with incredulity.
I shrug. “Why not?”
“Must have hurt.” Kosh says. “Oh, no, wait, you said, they used the dragon’s blood to heal you.”
“It still hurt during the cutting.” I reach into my robe and take out the small vial there.
“Is that it?” Slayer asks.
“Yes, they gave me a vial of Dragon’s blood. It is almost all gone though.”
He holds out his hand. “May I?”
I hand it to him and he carefully opens it and peers inside as a yellow shimmer appears over his eyes. “Potent stuff.”
“You can see?”
“It is my gift.”
“Just shaay?” Then I remember what he said after the battle. “You can see souls?”
He hands me back the closed vial. “Usually only auras but sometimes souls too.”
“See?” Kosh asks.
“Usually spellweavers feel shaay,” I explain, “but some rare individuals can actually see it. Impressive.”
Slayer gives me a big proud smile. Rightly so, in some ways that is more impressive than killing a Dragon.
In each other’s arms, they look like they belong together. Even with the clear difference in size, there is nothing strange about it. Curled up together in the chair in front of the inn’s fire they look right. What sticks out most of all is the fact that they are not talking, or kissing, or fondling each other. They are just holding each other and both have a calm I have not seen in either of them before. Ka is always so jovial and Kosh always seems to be trying to protect herself somehow, as if she uses her personality as a shield. But here they are unprotected, open, and safe.
I leave them be and go to my room to get some much needed sleep, tomorrow we will be going after more groups of Elementals.
Here in this chair, with his arms around my waist and my arms around his shoulders, I feel something I have not felt in a long while. I feel at home. He is sleeping. Besides eating and drinking, spellweavers need to get plenty of sleep after casting, using magic costs a lot, mentally, physically and spiritually. And even though he has said he can sleep anywhere and in any position, and despite knowing he has done a lot of magic today, I have chosen to believe he is sleeping now because he is in my arms. I look down at his face, blissfully at peace, like a baby, and listen to his slow breathing. The strange thing is that I can also feel his heartbeat, which is at a rather high pace. Must be a Chaos Child thing, slow breath and a fast heartbeat. Conflict and balance both at once. They say shaay resides in several places, it is stored in one’s marrow, it flows in one’s blood, and it is released in one’s breath. That is why spellweavers inhale a sharp intake of breath before casting and breathe out during casting. Sometimes whilst saying a spell, though that is to keep focus. I wonder if his body is now making shaay flow while releasing as little as possible.
He turns his head and snuggles in deeper between my breasts. I kiss him on his forehead and he murmurs, “I love you.” A sweet smile appears upon his face, rogs away from anything predatory. I kiss him on the lips and whisper, “I love you too.”
I slip from her embrace and get out of the chair. I look down on the young woman I love and feel a pang of regret at the fact we will never be able to have any children, even though I doubt she will want any. I touch the two rings on the ring finger of my right hand with my left hand, both of which bear the symbol of Valderia. My blood ends here and I shall have no heir. Not that I ever wanted one. Nice girls all around but I am no prize bull. I do not wish to exist for breeding. I have no desire to marry and mate with a girl from a House and have affairs with same gender lovers so the bloodline stays right. I like dancing with my partners, Life and Death, too much. Like her. That grin she gave me the first time I saw her showed me all I needed to know about her. And seeing her fight today, I know I will always love her. She is strong, not just physically, like all Gorths, but mentally as well. Even if she is not entirely aware of it yet. I stare into the fire, which to me looks like an old friend and smile. Coming here was a great idea. I knew I would have fun, but to have joy too? That I never really expected. She calms the fire in me. And when I am near her, I do not feel such a dire need to excel. I can shrug off the responsibilities of being from House Valderia and just be Zom-Ka. With her, I feel the peace I normally only feel when praying.
I feel the sweat pour down my back but I continue, I have to. There are so many around us and no matter how many we kill, they keep coming, there seems to be an endless supply of them. The plan had been to attack the smaller groups before they became a large group, too large for us to handle. But apparently, their plan was to come to the aid of whichever small group we attacked. Slayer does not seem to have any problems, whatever spell he has that keeps him going is doing its work. Kosh on the other hand is starting to struggle. We are fighting side by side because my magic and her violent streak complement each other. I really wish I had my staff though. Kosh had offered to make me a new one but we had to go after the Elementals first. And I did say my rings would be enough, that my magic is enough. In many ways it is. I can cast an interesting array of offensive spells and I have learnt how to syphon shaay from these glorious beings. I can throw up and keep up blue, orange or green shimmers. Blue to shield against items, orange against energy and green to not only shield against magic but to drain shaay from it. Whichever one is needed at any given moment.
“Winds again!” Kosh yells.
I see it; several Airs have joined to create a large monstrosity, a mini tornado. The Elementals around it scurry or fail and are swept aside, two Fires actually go out and one Water is ripped to pieces. The trick to dealing with them is unbelievably hard to pull off, as I need to get Dusts and Smokes into it, to weigh it down. Without my staff, this becomes almost impossible. “That way!” I yell at Kosh and we head through a group of Elementals, Kosh ripping through an Ice and a Stone as we go. These Gorths might not be good with magic but I cannot help but be impressed with their physical strength. She is actually tearing apart rocks with those hooks, if I did not know better, I would have thought she was channelling shaay.
I find a Smoke and send a pillar of black flames towards it.
It moves away and we start circling it, trying to get it between the combined Airs and us. It is not working, more Elementals are heading our way and there is no way we can fight them all and pull off this trick again.
I have only one idea left, and it will cost me.
“Run!” I scream at Kosh. “Run away!”
“No!” She yells back.
“Not from them! From me!”
The look on his face says it all, even though I do not quite know what it is saying. He is about to do something really crazy. I start running, dodging the Elementals rather than fighting them.
The roar I hear behind me scares me and I try to move faster. The Elementals around me stop paying attention to me and let me pass. On both them and the ground I see a light, a black light, if that is even possible. It looks like the kind of light that is cast by fire. In this case, a very large fire.
It is an explosion, a roar, a bang. A sound unlike anything I have ever heard before. In my soul I feel a pop, something dark tugging at me, sucking at me, my soul, my life. I cleave the Wood in half and turn to see black flames pour towards me. I throw up a green shimmer all over my body. Though the flames, I can see a shadow of a man, roughly Zom-Ka’s size. And his soul, a diamond of red and green energy, is in the shadow. The flames wash over me, fraying the shimmer. For the first time in a very long time I fear I might die but I do not, it is the Elementals who die. I can see the shaay being blasted from them as the flames touch them. And without that shaay, they are reduced to nothing more than their elements. Fires burn out, Dusts drift to the ground, Smokes evaporate, Ices break apart, Woods fall, Lights go out, Shaays turn to black flames and then disappear, Metals drop to the ground, Waters splosh apart and sink into the soil, Airs fade, Electricities cease to be and Stones collapse.
The black flames recede and shortly after that, I hear Kosh screaming.
I run across the black, dead grass.
I try to find its centre.
If he died for me, I am going to kill him.
I see his body and hurry towards it.
He is lying on the ground amidst the remnants of Elementals.
I drop down to my knees by his body and grab him.
He is breathing but only barely and his skin is scorched in places, as are his robes.
“Slayer!” I yell out.
“Coming!” I hear his voice boom across the field.
“Dah.” Ka says. “Keep it down. Headache.”
I kiss him all over his face as I hold him tight.
“Hmmm.” He groans. “Actually, alloverache.”
I release my grip a bit, but only a bit. “If you had died, you arsehole…”
He gives me a beautiful smile. “And leave you? Never.” His smile fades and he closes his eyes. “Sleep now.”
“Is he…” Slayer whispers as he comes up to us.
I look at him. “Can he sleep?”
Slayer starts laughing. “Yes! Yes, he should sleep. Sodding KayChil…” He turns away, but I saw it, tears were welling up.
Death headaches are the worst. Not that I actually died of course, I have too much control for that. Still, I came too close for comfort. I expanded my aura, the field of shaay thatthat surrounds me, and I turned it into Death. I pushed as much shaay as I could into it. Until my bones started to scream at me. Then I pushed some more. I nearly emptied myself. I nearly lost necessary cohesion and disconnected my soul from my body. And not for her, though that is how it started, but because it felt so good. That is the true danger of death magic, not that one kills others but that one kills oneself. Though, I guess those one kills might disagree a bit on that point. But the fact remains that no matter how good it feels to kill, it feels better to die. The Blessed Release can be so inviting. To let go of everything, to be at peace, to be one with The Whole. And then to be without Kosh. They say in death there is no pain, but I suspect being without her would be more pain than I wish to bear.
I will have to stay in bed for a while to recover; both my soul and my body took a beating. Kosh says she has a surprise for me when I am all better. It cannot be sex though, we have done that. Nearly dead and I still did not say ‘no’, I can be such a slut sometimes. Or maybe it does not work that way if one actually loves them.
Forget the rest, this is love. The sheer childish joy on his face as he wields the new staff I made for him fills me with unbridled joy.
He goes through a whole set of difficult moves, he casts spells through it. He spins it, twirls it, throws it and every so often comes over to me to kiss me and tell me that he loves me. He has been telling me that over and over for the last two days as he was confined to a bed while he recovered. Even before we made love. And I always make sure I say it back.
She was not lying when she said she knew how to make magical weapons. The staff she has crafted for me from the corpse of a Wood Elemental is truly a work of art. She carved it precisely the right way, giving maximal flow of shaay. The two gems she took from my old staff are right where they need to be and she has laid in filigrees of metal taken from a Metal Elemental. It all works exactly right. I can channel anything through it, and I think the fact that what I am holding is made of things that were once alive, makes all the difference. Even though I thought it would not be, the metal is somehow different. Unfortunately, I am not used to channelling through metal, so at the moment, I am using it for enhancement of the flow, but I will learn. Trust her to make me something that demands I become better. This is, of course, what I should have had from the start, a staff specifically made for me, not a custom made but general staff. The only thing that made my earlier staff unique to me was its length, exactly the same as mine, as all good staffs should be.
He makes all the right moves but he is slow and his balance is just a bit off. The spells he weaves with his new staff are impressive to see but rather powerless. He is nowhere near his old self. But then, how could he be? He almost died.
He walks over to me, Kosh by his side, a big grin on his face and his beautiful new staff in his hand. “Can I borrow your axes for a while?”
“What for?” I ask, a little bit suspicious.
“I need to consecrate my staff.”
He slides the hafts of my axes into the ground so they are side by side and places his new staff on the bridges between the hafts and the blades. He kneels down before them and takes off his rings before putting his golden ring with the green gem on his left middle finger and his silver ring with the black gem on his right middle finger. He gently runs his hands over the staff and soft flames appear between his hands and the staff, green flames under his left hand and black flames under his right hand. He closes his eyes and tilts his head back. “Great Morach and Powerful Aoki, I dedicate this staff to You and ask that You bless it with Your Wills and Powers so I might better Serve You. I solemnly promise to use this staff responsibly and correctly and to always honour You when doing so. I humbly ask that You help and guide me when using it and that You stop me should my path lead somewhere You do not wish for it to lead.
“Guide my hands, heart, soul and life.
“May my soul remain strong.”
He is about to get back up when there is a loud crack of thunder from the sky and two lightning bolts, one green and one black, shoot down, connecting with the staff. All three of us are thrown back.
In a brief moment, I see him and me together and in front of us a large group of big, ugly, yellow beings, Kuras, I think. Ka kisses me and gives me his best predatory grin. He raises his staff and I raise my hooks. And with a roar, we charge them.
I stand next to the woman I love and look at the tribe of Yellow Kuras heading our way. I kiss her and grin. We can do this. We charge.
“What was that?” Kosh exclaims as she gets up.
“The Deities.” Ka answers, seeming both happy and scared. “They answered!”
Bad as it may be, my first response is to see if my axes have been damaged. They seem untouched and so is the staff, except that its gems are now softly glowing.
Kosh just stands there for a while looking up at the sky before she turning to Ka. “This is why you leave them alone.”
“No! This is why you call on Them and Serve Them, so They may Bless us.”
“Bless us? By making us mad?”
“By showing us our deaths.”
She gives him a look while I try to work out what they are talking about. “We die together?”
He smiles at her. “Apparently.”
They walk up to each other and kiss passionately.
When they let go of each other Ka drops to his knees and looks up at her. “Koshidi— I just realised I do not know your whole name.”
“Koshidi will do.” She says with a warm smile.
He smiles back. “Koshidi, will you honour me by becoming my wife?”
While he gets up and starts rummages in his pockets, I open my big mouth. “Wait a moment.”
“You should marry us.” Ka says as he takes two rings from his pocket.
“Actually…” I start, but cannot finish what I was going to say. Something happened between them just now and it is something the Deities made happen, so perhaps I should bow to Their Will instead of being my usual arrogant self. “Of course I will.” And even without the Deities, I should, I realise, they are my friends, why would I stand in their way?
I walk up to them, hold out my hand and he gives me the rings, one silver and one gold, both with the same symbol on it.
“Do you Zom-Ka from Clan Valderia of the House of Valderia take this woman as your wife?”
“Do you, Koshidi, take this man as your husband?”
“I absolutely do.”
I hold out my hand with the rings and Ka takes the golden one. Holding Koshidi’s hand, he says, “With this ring I take you as my wife. I promise to love and protect you, to honour and appreciate you. To work with you and fight beside you. To be there for you when you need me and to never take you for granted. To be by your side for the rest of my life and if the Deities allow it, to be with you after death.” He slides the ring onto her little finger.
Kosh takes the silver ring and holding Ka’s hand says, “With this ring I take you as my husband. I promise to care for you and to keep you safe from harm. To fight for you, with you and beside you. To respect whom you are and to accept whom you are. I promise to love you until death and if the Deities allow us, beyond life, until the end of All.” She slides the ring onto his ring finger.
“With the power and might I have as Rankir, Slayer of Elemental, I witness and strengthen this bond. May this union be Blessed by the Deities and woe befall those who attempt to sunder that which the Deities have united. May you love each other till the end of your days and beyond.”
They kiss and then Ka looks at me with a warm smile. “And may you forever be our friend.”
Kosh nods and then suddenly throws her arms around me. Ka is stood there with an awkward look on his face prompting me to say, “Oh for the sky’s sake.” I grab him with one hand, pull him to me and hold both in my arms. “Friends forever.”
Kosh kisses me on my temple and then kisses Ka again.
“Touching.” A voice says from behind me.
We turn to face the person speaking, and as we realise who said it Ka hisses like a cat and tries to do that fast moving thing again. He does not do it as well as he has, due to not being himself yet. Still, he manages to, in one move, pull both axes from the soil, sending the staff up to just above his head, and throw them at me. He catches the staff and tries to load it with shaay. Kosh in the same moment leaps away, taking her hooks from her straps.
The Old King’s men raise their swords and shields but make no move yet. I am about to ask what they want when black and green flames start flying from one side of me and a woman with two hooks charges from the other. I guess we fight.
But not for long. It soon becomes clear that their shields have been magically enhanced and that makes it hard for Ka to do anything. Maybe he would normally be able to compensate somehow for the shields, or he would be so much better than now with just fighting. But at the moment, he does not have any hope of doing much of anything. Kosh fares better, pure, unbridled anger seems to almost always work for her. And I normally fight Elementals; soldiers are never much of an issue for me. But there are a lot of them, and they work well together. That is why I could always fight Elementals, until recently, they never worked together. It does not take long for me to realise we will lose. And so I choose to follow the fourth rule of combat: When you find that you are losing, retreat and live to fight another day. “Kosh, get to Ka! We are leaving! Get to the horses!”
“No!” Ka yells.
“You are in no shape to fight!”
“Really?” The leader, whom I am fighting, says sarcastically.
I pummel him in the face with the back of my left axe and decapitate a soldier with my right axe. Then I make my way towards Ka, who is desperately fighting off eight soldiers. Kosh joins him but she brings with her the six she was fighting. When I get to them, she has killed two and I kill two more before we make a break for it. It would appear that Kosh has managed to convince her new husband to listen.
Angry is not the word for what Ka is at the moment. A disappointed rage might be a better way to describe it. We have been riding for a while but he is still in no way happy we left a fight.
“We could have won.” He growls.
“How?” Kosh asks him quietly
He just looks at her, breathing heavily, but his rage seems to be subsiding. “If I were not so useless at the moment…” He finally says.
“You are not useless.” I reply. “You are just still recovering.”
“And what is the difference?” The rage seems to be returning and Kosh gives me a look and a quick wave of her hand. Her meaning is clear; I am not to say another word. I give my horse a kick with my heels and get a way out in front of them, leaving them to talk until it starts to get dark.
“Great Morach, though I feel bad about doing this after You having touched my staff and witnessed my wedding, I feel I need to ask if You might grace me by Blessing me with a return of my magical abilities. I feel useless without them and fear I might not be able to properly protect my wife and friend. In fact I fear I might be a liability to them and might even cost them their lives.”
“They’ll return when you are ready.” A strange voice says in Karzuni.
I open my eyes and find myself looking up at a tall and slender man dressed in beautiful dark green robes, with green skin and shining, light green hair. His eyes glow with pure shaay. My jaw drops and a moment later I prostrate myself before Him, trying to mutter words of unconditional loyalty and respect.
“Please get up.” The God of Shaay says to me.
I do, as best I can with my whole body trembling.
“As I said, your powers will return when you’re ready, which’ll be when both your body and soul are ready.”
I bob uncertainly.
“But I’m not here to answer your request. An answer of ‘no’ obviously doesn’t require my presence. I wish to ask you to do something.”
“Anything.” I reply in Karzuni.
“Be yourself. Follow the path you’re on and fight to be yourself.”
I bob and then, being the arrogant git I am, and having just been told I am allowed to be, I say, “Wouldn’t I do that anyway?”
“Of course. But telling you pushes you in the right direction.”
“Which I’m, presumably, not allowed to know.”
He just smiles.
And then He is gone. He does not fade, He does not just disappear, He is just gone, not even suddenly. He is there and then He is not and the two states seem to flow entirely naturally from each other. I blow out the contents of my lungs. Speaking to a Deity makes one a prophet and prophets tend to go crazy, so that is good… I try to clear my head by shaking it and then decide the best thing would be to curl back up with Kosh. When I am with her, things are somehow quieter in my head and that is precisely what I need right now.
At this speed, it will still take a while before we get back to Lady Molvik, even if they have already started to move in this direction. It might even be a few days and I am absolutely sure The Old King’s people are tracking us, seeing as they managed to find us yesterday. The only bit of consolation I have is that we have completed our task, the Elementals have been eliminated, which means the path to Sharnich is clear. “To be honest though, I have no idea how getting to Sharnich will help her.”
“Tell me about it.” Ka replies and I realise I said that last part aloud. “Sure, he will have to lay siege on the city but if he keeps her there for long enough he can conquer all of her territory. In truth, she already lost when he decided to invade, which is no doubt why he invaded.”
“So why did you join her? You have no stake in this.”
He gives me a look. “Neither do you.”
I nod. “True, though I am SouGor.”
He sharply raises his chin and sighs. “Bloody Gorths.” Before I can respond, he says, “This is the only war going here and her people were the first side I came across. Which is fortunate, it gave me the chance to fight Elementals.”
“Hey!” Kosh says from just behind us. “That should be, ‘Which is fortunate, because I met my wife.’”
He looks back with a big grin on his face. “Right, because you are the bigger challenge.”
She bursts out laughing and I find it hard to suppress a smile.
We have stopped so the horses can rest and have a drink from a creek.
Ka takes some food from his saddlebag and sits down by the creek while Kosh is further downstream taking care of natural bodily functions. Once I have sat down next to him, Ka says “I still need to discuss this with Kosh but I think it might be a good idea to leave the employ of Lady Molvik once she has payed me. I do not feel much like being stuck in a city for months.”
“Well, like I said, you have no stake in this, so if you feel that you should…”
“And what is your stake in this, if you are honest?”
“I gave her my word I would serve her.”
“As a Slayer of Elementals, you are done now, are you not?”
“There are still plenty of Elementals about.”
“But once they get to Sharnich there will be no reason to stay.”
“True, but until that time I will stay with her.”
He bobs. “Then I will stay too, that way we can leave together. Where do you plan on going?”
“Home,” I say with wistful sigh, “I have not been back in years.”
He smiles. “Then we go there and I get to see where you are from.”
“If Kosh wants to come along.”
“I do not think she cares much where we go as long as we are together. And we may have adventures.”
“I will have some of that.” Kosh says as she walks up to us. Ka throws her a chunk of bread and she sits down beside him. “So, can you tell me now?”
“No.” He replies.
“His big secret.”
“It will not be a secret if I tell you.”
“Would it have something to do with the increase of shaay I saw this morning in the trees and plants by our camp?” I ask.
“Yes.” He replies tightly.
“Then he cannot tell you.” I say to Kosh.
“You know what happened?” She asks.
“No but whatever it was, if Ka says he should not tell you, I would believe him. Unless it might be something which could be a threat to us.”
“No.” Ka answers. “It is only pertinent to me.”
“Then it is important to me too.” Kosh objects.
“And if I tell you it could be a threat.”
She gives him a look and then violently tears a piece from her bread with her teeth.
“It occurs to me that we should have headed for Sharnich.” Ka says. “We are closer and we know The Lady is headed there.”
“I do not think she will like it if it turns out we ran for safety just because some of The Old King’s men showed up. She is expecting us to come to her when we are done. Besides, this way we might be able to leave her once we have been payed. She does not really need us to go all the way to Sharnich.”
“We are leaving her employ?” Kosh asks.
“We?” Ka says with an amused smile.
“Well, I helped, I expect some reward or acknowledgement.”
“Good point.” He replies. “And yes, we are leaving and going to Slayer’s home. No reason to hang around in a sieged city.”
She nods. “Good. I do not like being in anyone’s employ anyway.”
Ka and I cannot help but burst out laughing and after a moment she gets it and joins in.
Maybe it was the fact that we have stopped a few times or maybe it was just that they knew where we were headed, but they caught up with us. They ambushed us and now they have us surrounded but they are not engaging us. Not yet. Ka is stood beside his horse with a look of pure anger in his eyes along with a strange determination. He stretches out his right arm and a ball of fire appears in his hand, the smoke giving away the fact that he does not put the orange shimmer up until after. I do not think he forgot, he just does not seem to care right now. It is amazing to watch, even in his pure anger he is fully focussed on what he is doing. And I see something I have never properly seen before, a KayChil soul. In the aura that surrounds him, I can make out a crystal of sorts. A flat, rounded diamond shape with a fold in the centre. It flexes purposefully at the fold, ever so slightly. His aura flawlessly extends with lines down his right arm, without any of them being jagged. Shaay flows along them. From his head, down his neck, through his right shoulder, down his arm and into the ball of fire in his hand. He is in perfect control of what he is doing. For the first time ever, I am actually, truly seeing how magic works. They say KayChils have a natural affinity for magic and that they are better at it than any other karzun, even Morach’s children. And looking at him now, I believe it. Their souls feel different somehow. Now I have actually seen one of theirs, I realise theirs are better. They have more control over how to refract shaay through it.
“Ka.” Kosh whispers.
The fire disappears, though in my view I can see its energy being absorbed into the shimmer, which now has a green hue to it. The shimmer fades, collapsing into his hand. The lines light up briefly and then fade, as does my view of his soul. All that remains is a very angry KayChil, shaking but somehow finding calm in Kosh’s eyes.
“Good,” Their leader says, “now we can actually talk.”
“Talk?” I ask.
“I am captain Ollirman, our King has sent us to find you and bring you to him; he wishes to make you a deal.”
“Bring us to him? By the time we get to him, Lady Molvik will be in Sharnich.”
“Actually he is a lot closer than you think.”
“Has The Lady been defeated?” Ka asks.
“No, that is why we have been sent to find you.”
Ka tilts his head and stares at the leader and then a very small, but sinister, smile appears on his face. “Well, maybe we should go with you then.”
Almost a full day’s ride takes us to The Old King’s camp, somewhere north of the way we travelled. I am guessing they crossed through the dense forest at the foot of the mountains. The camp is small so presumably the largest part of his army is still trailing Lady Molvik. I guess she is not the only one with interesting strategies.
They take us to a large but unassuming tent and inside we find The Old King waiting for us. He is a tall, slim man with large but lean muscles. His hair is mostly grey but slight patches of black can still be found in both his hair and his goatee. He gives us a measuring but warm look with his green eyes set in a deeply lined face. “Welcome.” He says kindly. “Whom do I have the pleasure of receiving?”
“I am Rankir, son of Rankar,” I say as I step forward, “Slayer of Elementals.”
Ka also steps forward. “Zom-Ka from Clan Valderia of the House of Valderia.”
The Old King’s jaw drops and he goes down on one knee. “It is an honour to receive you.”
“The honour is mine for being received by you.” Ka says without much emotion.
“I knew a KayChil once from your House, Azhk-Vari.” He says as he gets back up.
Now it is Ka’s jaw’s turn to drop. “King Atatlanta?”
The Old King smiles and nods.
Ka drops to his knees and lays his hands before him, bending forward until his forehead is touching the ground. “Sire, I pledge my life to you. Give me any task and I shall perform it.”
“Get up.” King Atatlanta says in Karzuni.
I get to my feet. “They kept calling you ‘The Old King’, it never occurred to me… Had I known, I would never’ve fought for Molvik. My grandfather told me stories about you. Told me how you saved his life. If you hadn’t saved him, I wouldn’t be.”
“We saved each other, many times. Does he still live?”
“He did when I left Orzhadat but that was many years ago. However, I would find it hard to believe he would’ve died since. He’s one tough old man.”
The King smiles. “I guess the same could be said for me. I got the title because I’ve managed to get this old despite being a monarch.”
“I’ve heard stories of how things work here. You do seem to be a very war-faring karzun.”
“I’d hope so. War and conflict keeps one strong.”
“Agreed. I’ve been seeking out things that could potentially kill me for a few years now and have become all the better for it.”
“How are you with fire?”
I smile. “As good as my grandfather, if not better.”
“He lived up to his name.”
“So do I.”
“Yours or his?”
We both chuckle.
“I have a task for you.”
“Which is why we’re still alive.”
“I need you to kill Molvik for me.”
I bob. “Slayer might be an issue but I’m sure I can persuade him.”
“Excellent. And the MounGor woman?”
“As she’s my wife, I am sure she’ll side with me. As a person too, for that matter.”
The King grins broadly. “You’re different from your grandfather in that respect then.”
“I’m also a Foss.”
He accepts my answer with a nod, as if it is an answer he actually understands. And perhaps he does. That is the thing with kings, they can never show weakness of any kind. But then I guess the same can be said of spoiled little brats. “I’ll let you talk to your friend and wife then.”
“So what was all of that?” I ask Ka once we are outside of the tent.
“Karzuni. I am still amazed you lot do not speak it. Almost everybody on our continent does nowadays. As a matter of fact there has been some talk of making it our main language.”
“Great.” I reply. “And what was said in this marvellous language?”
“He wants us to kill Molvik.”
“Oh no!” Slayer says. “We are not doing that.”
“Why not?” Ka and I both respond at the same time.
“I am not betraying her. I have too much honour for that.”
“What does honour have to do with anything?” I ask.
“Everything.” Ka replies. “Maybe I can convince King Atatlanta to keep you here while Kosh and I go and do it.”
“They will not let you anywhere near her without me.”
“Well, then you have to come.”
Slayer gives Ka an angry look. “No.” He turns away and walks off.
“He will change his mind.” I say.
“I am not so sure.” Ka says with a frown. “He is not some mercenary, willing to do whatever he is paid to do. We will need to appeal to his honour if we want him to help us.”
“I know how to do that. I will wait until he has calmed down a bit and then I will go talk to him. In the meantime… What was that grovelling for?”
Ka gives me a happy smile. “That ‘Old King’ is my childhood hero. My grandfather told me dozens of stories of the adventures they had together when he was on this continent. Part of the reason I came here was to follow in his footsteps, but to actually meet the man…” He lets out a happy sigh and makes a strange nodding motion. “This is so amazing.”
I trace my hand over the symbol made of copper and set into wood.
“Beautiful, is it not.” A voice says from behind me. I turn my head and find it is Captain Ollirman,
“Yes,” I reply, “it is the symbols of your Parent Deities combined.”
“Exactly, The Old King had it designed years ago as his symbol. He hopes to conquer all Gorths and have them unite under it. And though I still find it hard to believe that the symbols of the Deities are actually Theirs, it is a good symbol for us to unite under.”
“Actually the story goes that the Deities had Alavaran artists design them when they started building their cathedrals.”
“Or the bloody Alavars said that is what happened.”
“Or both.” I say with a smile.
He smiles back. “Knowing the Deities, that is probably the most likely way.”
“You are religious?” I ask.
He nods. “Very, though not to an extreme. You?”
“I try to pray to my Primary and Secondary twice a day and Anasin every few days.”
“I noticed your rings, green, black and red. No white?”
“I have never felt much of a connection with Dorrin.”
“I know what you mean; it will come as no surprise that I feel a deeper connection with Aoki than I do with Hondi.”
“And Cormona.” I say, pointing at his necklace, which has a blue gem on it.
“Yes, and him. Anasin, Goddess of Conflict. Aoki, Goddess of Death. And Cormona, God of Strength. I think most soldiers worship at least two of those three. Morach and Aoki for you, an interesting combination.”
“I have a talent for Life and Death magic.”
“Both? That is very rare.”
“It has to do with the flow of shaay for me.”
“Then that would explain it. Still, not many are capable of both.” He gives me a sinister smile. “And you, no doubt, have the personality that goes with it.”
“How does your magic manifest?”
“Like your grandfather? The Old King has told me about him, Azhk-Vari, Fire-Magician. He says he lived up to that name.”
“Very much so.”
“I saw black fire once, scariest thing I have ever seen. I have never seen green fire though, does it actually heal?”
“Would you like a demonstration?”
He gives me a wary look but consents with a nod nonetheless.
I take a step back and hold out my left hand. I gently push some shaay into my arm, through my arm and, with some help from my golden ring with the emerald in it, out of my hand and out towards his head. The spell is a simple stimulation spell that should make his mind a little sharper.
As the small flames wash over and through him, he begins to smile. “I can feel it.” He says. “Warm but not hot. It is rather pleasant, in fact.”
“Part of that is the spell’s effect.” I say. “Though the warmth is specific to the manifestation.”
“Impressive. We really should make an effort to have more spellweavers.”
“You must have some, and rather good ones at that. Those shields you have are impressive.”
“I do not know enough about magic to understand it but our enchanters weave some spells on them that makes them capable of shielding against magic too.”
“Yes but the impressive thing is that they keep doing that without a spellweaver channelling. How do you store the shaay?”
“In the wood itself, I think.”
This actually stuns me for a moment. “I did not know that was possible.”
“It drains quickly.”
“Not that quickly, unless you had someone with you who can weave.”
“We did.” He gives me a cold look and I hang my head.
“Never mind. Such is war.” He states coldly.
And suddenly I do not like this place at all, or these people. They are far too used to war and bloodshed. They revel in it. In the actual killing, not the battle, as I do. I try to both stop the sensation of homesickness and feel my love for a woman of this karzun. I only partially succeed in either. For the first time in my travels, I actually dislike people for what they are and not who they are and I do not like the sensation. Bad as it may be, I prefer my usual karzunal arrogance. If for no other reason than that is actually based on fact. We Chaos Children are better than all the other karzuns. Purposefully so.
Kosh sits down in the grass at a respectable distance from me and when I look at her, she sends a small smile my way.
“Alright,” I say, “let’s have it.”
“The reason why I should join you and Ka in murdering Lady Molvik.”
“More important is the reason why you will not do it.”
“Because I am not an assassin. My calling in life is slaying Elementals. That is what I excel at. All my skills, both physical and magical, are geared towards that end. Not to murder a monarch and then fight my way to safety through that monarch’s army.”
“So you are saying that you are not capable of doing it?”
I give her a stern look. “You know very well that is not what I am saying.”
“So you can?”
“Physically, and that is not the point.”
“Mentally and emotionally you cannot.”
“That is not…” I take a deep breath and try to stay calm. “You know what I mean.”
“Actually, I honestly do not. As much as you might try to deny it, you are a mercenary, someone fighting for no other reason than the pay. That scar on your face proves as much. Who in the world would continue to do what you do after being so disfigured? Someone who does not know what else to do. Someone who is only good for one thing.” She leans on those last two words and then snaps her mouth shut leaving me with what she is implying, that a slayer is all I am.
“But I am more.” I say quietly, more to myself than to her. But am I? People even call me by my title, my function, as if it is my name. “Is that how you see me? As just a slayer?”
“No,” she replies kindly with a big, warm smile, “I see you as my friend.”
I know when I have been played. I am more than smart enough to recognise it. But this one time I think that maybe I needed to be played. “Rankir,” I say, “maybe you should call me that then.”
She moves over to me and puts an arm around me. “Rankir it is.”
I look at them and shake my head. “Really?” I ask. “Seriously? Just like that?” They both give me ridiculously large grins. “Alright. But it will take some getting used to.”
They both reply at the same time. Slay…Rankir with “I know.” And Kosh with, “Tell me about it!”
I think that calling Slayer Rankir from now on might be the easier task. Seeing Kosh in actual clothes however… Not that she is wearing that much, in true Gorthsian fashion she is wearing clothes which show plenty of muscle. Actually, that is the thing, I can actually see her skin instead of glimpses in-between straps of leather. I should probably be positive about it, this should significantly improve our love making experiences. She might actually be naked from now on.
“By the way,” Kosh says, “I negotiated a deal with the king. You might be willing to do this just because he is your hero, but I would like to see some pay for this.”
“As would I,” Rankir says, “if for no other reason than that I doubt Molvik will pay us.”
“Really?” I say. “I would have thought she might. And then we can kill her.”
“Sound plan.” Kosh says with a smile. “Double payout.”
“And we will need a plan, you realise.” Rankir says. “We might be able to get close enough to kill her but getting out will be difficult. And then there is the fact that you are still not entirely yourself…”
“Actually, I am. I visited The King’s mages, they… did whatever they did and I am alright now, better even, I think. One even gave me a quick lesson in channelling through metal and she gave me this.” I hold up the wand she gave me. “Should come in handy.”
Rankir gives me a strange smile.
“And yes, before you ask, I know how to use it.” Sort of.
They say failure is a necessary part of life, that it helps us rise above what we are, so we may become better. Or dead. That last one tends to be the risk one takes when doing something dangerous or just plain stupid. Death or improvement, quite a choice. For Ka there does not seem to be much of a choice, he will, consistently, choose that which is hardest. Kosh just goes with whatever is the most fun. I however should learn someday to trust my instincts. I am so good at fighting Elementals and so bad at everything else. Maybe I should just accept that there is a curve, that failure is a part of ending up successful. If I wish to be more than just a Slayer, I will need to take chances. Especially if my friends are involved.
Or maybe I should just go back to being Slayer.
This was not quite part of the plan, somehow Molvik found out that we are now working for The Old King. Her people attacked us as soon as we got near her position. Realising we would not be able to fight our way through the whole of her army we decided to flee but a large group of her soldiers followed. They caught up with us in this forest and now we will have to fight them.
My axe cleaves through the soldier’s head, and his brains spill out. I spin on my heel and ram the other axe through a young soldier’s chest. The blue shimmer I throw up over the left side of my face prevents an arrow from hitting it. I have covered the distance to the shooter quick enough to cut off one of his arms before he has even drawn a second arrow. I kick a soldier hard enough in the chest to break ribs and swing my left axe at the head of another, severing his jaw.
With full force, I ram a hook into each of the woman’s eye sockets and swing my arms wide, ripping her head apart. I bash the skull open of one man and gouge through another’s stomach, making his intestines pour out. A low swing of my leg knocks down someone and before it has hit the ground, I have shoved the point of my right hook thought its skull. I roll between two more and drive my hooks into their legs, yanking out their hamstrings.
I just keep swinging my staff around, channelling shaay through the metal, keeping it loaded with energy. I chop them to pieces. Arms and legs come off. Heads are split, cut and opened up. Viscera spill onto the ground. Bones break. And they scream, at least those who survive, in horrific agony. Wails are all around me. They keep coming at me and I keep killing them. Some are set on fire and some have the life drained from them so I can keep going. Some have their souls disconnected from their bodies and others are made to boil in their skin. In full swing I cannot stop. I become the purest servant of Aoki, bringing death and taking shaay. A young woman looks up at me pleadingly, crying, as I shove my staff through her face and into the soil beneath her head. I smell the scent of burning skin, flesh, bone, brain and hair, and I like it.
In the fading light of dusk, I see Ka send out black flames from one hand towards three soldiers while he swings his staff with his other hand, sundering two more at their chests. Kosh is bashing someone in the head with the back of a hook, until the head caves in. I break one of my main rules and actually throw an axe at one of the soldiers, after charging it, of course, and it passes through her stomach and chest, setting her leather garments on fire. She falls to the ground and spends a few moments screeching like a banshee before dying. I swing my remaining axe through a wide enough curve to carve through a sword, a torso, an arm, a shield, another sword, a head, another shield, a shoulder and another torso. I spin around to find out what is making that strange boomf sound, to find it coming from Ka. He is walking between the bodies with a wand in his hand, firing it at any intact heads, which explode in red light. I realise that what he is doing is making sure they are all dead, which would not be so disconcerting were not for the small grin on his face.
Wands are special things. They do not create magic nor do they allow one to channel shaay. They do not improve spellweaving, instead they enhance the casting of one spell or one kind of spell. In the case of this particular wand, it enhances red magic, specifically destruction. I have never been particularly good at blast spells and this wand corrects that. I need merely aim the wand at that which I wish to destroy, breathe in and then breathe out, shunting shaay through my arm. The slightest of focus is enough to send a small red ball from its tip,which explodes when it connects with something. At the moment that would be the heads of our attackers.
“Stop that!” Rankir yells at me. “We need to question them.”
“No, we do not.” I reply calmly. Besides any logical reasons, I am simply having too much fun. Few things bring as much pleasure as casting. “Spies, scouts, magic, who cares? It does not matter how they knew, all that matters is that they do and that we need to find a way to get to Molvik.”
“We need to know her plans.”
“Why? We were in her employ not long ago. How much can her plans have changed?”
He sighs and I keep exploding heads.
“There is no way we can kill her now.” Kosh says. “It would be impossible to fight our way through all her people.”
“I might have an idea.” Rankir responds. “Maybe.”
“Run away?” I ask. “Cut our losses? Admit defeat? Admit that we have no real reason to go through with this?”
He shakes his head.
“Good. It is a plan though, should your plan fail.”
“Actually, seeing as how Molvik knows where I am from, we have to eliminate her so she will not seek revenge.”
“I had not even though of that. And presumably the same goes for King Atatlanta?”
“So what is your plan?” Kosh asks.
“We lure Elementals into her path and have them deal with her soldiers. And maybe even her.”
Of course, Ka destroyed most of them. At least most of those nearby. And there is a reason they call me Slayer of Elementals, I am a slayer, not a hunter. I have spent enough time going after them to be able to feel and sometimes even see them. As such, I can track them. But to just find them? That might prove hard.
“So we need to leave the forest,” Ka says, “because they tend to stick to open areas. Of course, out of this forest it will also be easier for Molvik’s people to find us.”
“Presuming she sent anyone after us.” Kosh says.
“She will have,” I reply, “Spies or scouts if no one else.”
“Then they will know what we are up to.” Ka says. “Though that might not matter.”
“You are the spellweaver here. Can you not feel them?” I ask.
“No. Not like that. Not just like that. I do know what they feel like.” His eyes lose focus as he says that last sentence and I can see him trying to work something out. “Maybe…”
“This will sound a bit strange. But maybe we do not need to go looking for them.”
“They will come for me.”
“Us. You said a few survived my blast.”
“I would imagine they might not like me much either now.”
“And how will they find us?” Kosh asks.
“Their Shaay Elementals will be able to.” Ka says as he looks up at the sky. “We will still need to go to an open space, but from there I can call them.”
“Call them?” Kosh and I ask simultaneously.
A grin spreads over his face. “Definitely.”
He is stood in the middle of a field of tall grass. He has his staff in his left hand, holding it at the end and he has it stretched out in front of him with the tip touching the ground.
He is on fire.
There is an orange shimmer covering him, protecting him. It is placed just outside his robes and is in fact moving with the cloth as it flows in the breeze. And from the shimmer, the flames. Black and green intermingled, favouring the black. The grass around him dies and is reborn as the flames touch the blades. The strangest thing, though it should not be to me, is the lack of smoke.
He raises his left arm until the staff is held up straight above his head. Thicker black and green flames cover his arm from his shoulder to his hand and then shoot up the staff and from there into the air, up to twice the height of the staff’s tip.
A smile appears on his face and the flames and shimmer disappears.
“I felt it too.” I say as I walk over to him.
He turns and points his staff in the direction of where we felt the pinch. “There. And they are coming.”
“Are you sure?” Kosh asks.
“Absolutely,” he answers, “I felt something of pure shaay respond.”
“Quick question.” She says. “Is there only grass between here and them?”
Ka tilts his head and looks at her, then he looks at me.
“To be honest, I do not know.” I say.
Kosh nods and then starts running towards the horses.
“Engage or what?” Ka asks.
“Might be an idea.” Rankir answers.
“To motivate them?” I ask. “As if slaying a whole bunch of them was not enough?”
“Erm…” Ka says. “Ride?”
“By Anasin!” Rankir exclaims.
“Yes!” I reply. “Ride!”
And we do as behind us we hear the roar of the creatures the Elementals have combined themselves into. Not just the ones of whom it would be expected, or at least seem logical, like Ice and Water, but Fire and Water combined with Shaay, Wood and Electricity. They somehow managed to work out how to combine in any way they like. Riding away at full speed is a good idea as far as I am concerned; I would not even know where to begin fighting those. And I am not entirely sure the guys would know either. But that is a good thing, we are not here to fight them, just to lead them to Molvik.
After we have led them around the nearby village, of course.
“Final bit might be an issue!” I yell at no one in particular. As good a plan as it is, we have sort of forgotten to work out how we will get the Elementals to actually attack Molvik’s people.
“We outrun them!” Rankir yells back. “They will continue in a straight line once we are out of sight!”
“Unless they feel you two!” Kosh adds.
I give Rankir a look.
“We will just have to outrun them well ahead of the army and curve around until we are behind them!” Rankir yells.
“Might be tricky!” I respond.
“Trust me! It does not have to be precise!”
He has a point, as long as Molvik and they cross paths, things should work out for us. A large group of Elementals and an army will engage each other once one is in sight of the other. Our only concern might have been guessing where the army will be but we know the route they are taking. Under other circumstances she might have changed it once she found out we betrayed her. But as things stand, ‘route’ would be too strong a word for ‘heading in a straight line towards sanctuary’
Rankir, Slayer of Elementals. One would not have thought that one man can do what an entire army cannot. Looking down as we are upon Molvik’s army battling the Elementals it would appear to be entirely true. The regular soldiers have no hope at all. Few people know how to use magic even if, really, we all have a potential for it. Mages and magic wielding soldiers do their best but cannot stop the Elementals. Sure, some are slain but not after killing a great many soldiers. From here, it is perfectly clear how absolutely amazing Rankir is. His ability to fight and use magic while doing it, is positively astounding even when you compare it to people with that ability themselves. In part, it has to do with those golden axes of his, which allow him to enhance his blows. But even with those, it is mostly skill and talent.
Of course, the fact that there are many new combined Elementals helps us too.
“When do we go?” Ka asks, his usual impatient self.
“When there are far fewer soldiers.” Rankir answers. He looks up at the sky. “After nightfall.”
“Can you take on those new Elementals?” I ask.
“Maybe, some of them are…” He does not finish the sentence.
“Yes,” Ka replies, “they are. And I am not exploding again.”
“Also,” I say, “I do not feel much like going through the corpses to find out if Molvik is among them. Especially considering how some of them are ending up.” Ripped apart, burnt, broken, stomped upon, squished, I am glad I never realised what they can do before I started fighting them.
“Molvik will survive.” Ka says with a hard edge to his voice.
Rankir just nods.
Presumably, she will make sure she is protected. “Has either of you seen her?”
“No.” Rankir replies as Ka sharply raises his chin. “But we would have noticed if anyone fled.”
“She is down there somewhere, fighting.” Ka says.
“Rankir, you are using that sight thing?”
He nods. “I have been searching for her since the fight started but so f— There.” He points. “There she is by the… Dust/Metal/Light… thing.”
And there she is, flanked by two soldiers and a mage, fighting the combined Elemental, and fighting well.
“She knows magic?” Ka asks surprised.
“Some.” Rankir answers.
Ka takes out the wand and aims in her direction. “You know, if I aim well enough…”
“Ka.” Rankir says sternly.
He puts the wand away. “Right, we do not want to alert her to our presence. Presuming, of course that she does not simply already know we are here. Her scouts must have spotted us.”
“I think she has other things on her mind right now.” I reply with a smile.
The only light comes from the fires and the Elementals. An eerie green from Shaays. Blue and white from Electricities. Orange and red from Fires. Yellow from Lights. And all manner of colours from the Combines. In that light, I can sometimes make out the figure of a small person in a robe with a hood over his head. With bent knees and hunched shoulders, he still manages to move with speed and grace. Ka seems to have a talent for stealth or maybe it is just that he is so small compared to the larger Gorths, the relatively big Elementals and the huge Combines. He has left his staff with the horses and has a knife in his hand instead. Like me he is searching for Molvik, whom we lost track of as it got darker. Kosh is around here somewhere too, covered in mud so it will not be so clear she is a MounGor. I do my best to engage neither Gorth nor Elemental, unless provoked. Any pleas for help that might come my way go unanswered. Let the Elementals kill them, I have a task to perform. I push down the nagging in the pit of my conscience that I should not be doing this, but then I remember that I am doing this for, and with, friends and the nagging subsides, mostly. Not that I really owe Molvik much of anything, I performed my task and as Ka pointed out, I have no real stake in this war. I am a mercenary, a highly specialised one, but a mercenary nonetheless. And now an assassin, I guess.
With all the Elementals Molvik’s people are too busy to notice me. From time to time one will throw a look in my direction but then be distracted by an Elemental and any time an Elemental notices me they tend to get distracted by a soldier. Maybe I should feel insulted, after all, I did wipe out a whole load of them. But mostly I am glad, they do not seem to be able to sense me, and as long as I do not use any magic that should stay that way. Now, if I could just find Molvik…
Even on those rare occasions that one of them, Elemental or soldier, spots me they tend to leave me alone. Two soldiers so far have given me more than a look but I killed them before they could do anything beyond that. In this bad light and with this mud all over me, they have to consider what to do, and with me, any hesitation is deadly. I caught a brief glimpse of Molvik earlier but before I could get anywhere near her, a group of soldiers and two hulking combined Elementals passed between us and I lost sight of her. Even if I do get to her, I am separated from Ka and Rankir and have no idea how to get to them and tell them. Both insisted that we split up but stay in sight of each other. Hopefully they can see me because I have no idea where they went. Not being able to see Ka does not worry me too much, he became as good as invisible before we were even near the battle and I am sure he will not let me out of his sight for too long. Rankir however is a different matter, I would have expected to be able to spot him with ease, he is not exactly slight.
“Over there.” A voice with a heavy Chaos Child accent says from beside me.
I follow his gaze and see Molvik with two others fighting three Elementals. “Rankir?”
“Head over to that burning wagon and wait there, I will go get him.”
I make my way to the wagon, making sure when I get there that I am not too well lit. I kneel down and wait, keeping an eye on Molvik whilst also looking around from time to time to make sure I am not spotted. After a while, I see Ka and Rankir heading my way.
“We wait until they have slain the Elementals.” Rankir says.
“Are you sure?” I ask. “At the moment they are distracted.”
“If we attack now, we will have to deal with the Elementals as well.” Ka explains.
“Ka, you take out the mage.” Rankir says. “Kosh, you kill the soldier. Leave Molvik to me.”
I nod and Ka bobs.
And then we wait.
Molvik’s huge, two-handed sword cleaves through the final Elemental and beside me I hear Rankir say, “Now.”
The three of us move in a hurry towards our targets, there is a flash of recognition on Molvik’s face when she spots us and she gives a few quick orders before we engage. I actually start before the others because fighting a mage means I will have to use magic, so I might as well use ranged spells. Mages are usually sorcerers trained to use combat magic, magic specifically useful in a fight. The difference between a sorcerer and a wizard is that a sorcerer has an innate talent for magic whereas a wizard had to learn it from scratch. This tends to mean that sorcerers are less disciplined and therefor more dangerous. Mages try to hone that danger. I am essentially a sorcerer who has been given a missionary’s training for both magic and physical fighting.
I start by casting a medium fireball in her direction. She throws up an orange shimmer, as expected, and extends the shield from her hand to channel a death cloud in my direction. Rankir and Kosh dodge the cone of black ashes heading towards us and I throw up a green shimmer. I drain what I can and use some of that shaay to throw ice shards her way. She sends a cone of flames at the shards, melting them. Then she extends the cone and releases it, essentially hurling a wall of flames at me. I dodge, jump and roll away, trying to put some distance between our fight and my friends. This is going to be a proper battle, I think.
She is a bit shorter than I am but that sword makes up for it somewhat. I need to get close to her to hit her with my axes. Fortunately, it takes longer to swing such a large weapon compared to my smaller axes. She is very proficient at using it and it is hard for me to find an opening. She is also very strong, in part because of the magic she uses. Because of that, I have to use both by axes for blocking; making it hard for me to make any offensive swings myself. For the moment, it is a stalemate with her swinging her sword and me blocking. What I am really waiting for is a lunge so I can parry, but no luck so far. But I am patient, I know the rules; wait for the opportune moment, and strike. And wait for it as long as one has to.
He with a sword and shield and I with two hooks, all I could think of was to just go in full force, swinging my hooks and putting him on the defensive. Even though his shield has some kind of magical charge to it, it does not matter much. Those shields are really only effective against magic. Sure, they make the actual shield unbreakable but I am using hooks, I was never going to do much damage to it anyway. I keep swinging and bashing the shield, and he keeps backing away, I create a small opening in my defence and he takes it by lunging his sword at me. I catch it in my hooks and pry it away from him, then I fling it away. I go back to bashing the shield with all the power I can muster until he falls onto his back. He holds his shield above him and a look of sheer fear appears on his face. I stop and give him a small smile. “Run.”
He gives me a small questioning look but then he scrambles to his feet, drops his shield and runs off.
I look around, who to help, Rankir or Ka?
Our battle consists mostly of alternating offensive spells with defensive ones. Once in a while, we get a little creative, like sending heat to evaporate a water spell but mostly we stick to our fire spells. I am holding back a bit though, if I let rip that will alert all the Elementals here to my presence and they will no doubt come charging. They must know I am around, after all, they managed to follow us here, but they seem more concerned with the soldiers at the moment. That will no doubt change if I make it unmistakably clear I am right here. Unfortunately, I am going to have to soon. At the moment, we are evenly matched, but I cannot keep this up forever. That pillar of flames I created earlier took enough out of me. But for the moment, at least until Molvik is dead, I guess this is what it will have to be.
There is a terrifying roar as Kosh comes charging at Molvik like a lunatic. Completely oblivious as to who this crazy woman covered in mud is, it takes Molvik a moment to choose how to react. And that is exactly a moment too long. I tap the sword aside with one axe and swing with the other, slicing through one of her wrists. She gives me an angry look but before she can do anything Kosh is upon her, wildly swinging a hook at her head. She moves the sword to block and as she does, I use the opening to cleave open part of her neck. Kosh spins, steps behind Molvik and slides a hook into one of her eye sockets. She carries the spin through and yanks the head clean off. She gives me a wide and nasty grin, which I find myself returning.
It is done. Good. I let rip. Waves of red and black flames pour from my outstretched hands. She throws up a thick orange shimmer that she quickly turns into a green one.
Meanwhile, all around me, I feel pinches, as if the whole Kosmos turns its head in my direction. They know I am here.
The green shimmer overloads and she switches back to orange and in that moment I find its weakness and concentrate all the energy of the flames into that one point. It bursts through and she is turned to ashes in moments. I ready myself to fight the Elementals.
“Right! Let’s go!” I hear Rankir scream over the roaring of Elementals moving towards us.
Probably a good idea. Probably…
Something hard hits the back of my skull and a whole night sky of stars passes in front of my vision. Then everything just goes black.
I peel open my eyes and wonder if I am flying. And if so, why am I flying sideways? And why are there four strangely shaped brown legs there? Then the world settles into something logical and I realise I am lying over a horse.
“Do not move.” I hear Kosh say from somewhere.
“Right.” I reply. As if I was going to.
Rankir’s voice comes from somewhere else. “We are far enough away, I think.”
The horse I am on stops and I feel an arm slide under my stomach. Next thing I know I am on Kosh’s lap, who is apparently sitting on a horse.
“Sorry.” She says with a very sweet, guilty look on her face. “You had that look on your face you get just before you go and do something stupid.”
I touch the lump on the back of my head. “Ah. That was you.” I slide an arm behind her back and kiss her. That seems to make some of that guilt disappear from her face.
“We have to keep going.” Rankir says.
“What happened?” I ask and leap to the ground.
“All the combined Elementals and a few Shaays started coming at us, or more to the point, you, so we ran. Some of the soldiers tried to follow us too.” Kosh explains as I get onto my horse.
“We got to our horses and rode off but a group of them followed.” Rankir continues.
We start riding again.
“Soldiers or Elementals?” I ask.
“Both,” Kosh answers, “but mostly Elementals.”
“We have lost them though?”
She gives Rankir a look.
“I think.” He responds. “But I am not sure. Maybe they can still sense you.”
“I will try and blank.” I say. “Might be useful.”
“You can do that?” Kosh asks surprised.
“If he does, he cannot cast either.” Rankir explains. “No shaay in or out, in any way.”
“And it costs.” I add. “It takes a lot of shaay to not let any seep out, ironically.”
She nods. “Is it worth it?”
I try to sense the Elementals but do not come up with anything. “I do not know. I cannot feel them but that does not mean they cannot feel me. I should point out however that they did not attack or even really notice me until I used my flame spell.”
“Maybe they forgot why they were there.” Kosh says with a smile. “They are not the brightest.”
“They managed to combine in impossible ways.” Rankir reminds her.
“Right. Maybe you should then, to be on the safe side.”
I bob. “Fair enough.” And once again the world goes dark around me but this time it is far scarier. And more tiring.
We have been riding a while when I finally notice the bag hanging from the back of Kosh’s saddle. It is roughly the size and shape of a head. “Is that what I think it is?”
She nods with a smile.
“We have to keep going.” Kosh says to me.
“No.” I reply. “I am staying here.”
Ka kneels beside me and looks at the huge combined Elementals in the valley below. “They are choosing to stay that way.”
“Looks like it.”
“Yes,” Kosh interjects, “hugely interesting.”
“Actually, it is.” Ka replies coldly.
“This could be dangerous for people who live nearby.” I say. “Especially if they keep getting bigger. Just look at that one. That is what? Six, seven of them combined?”
Ka tilts his head and narrows his eyes. “Eight, there are two Ashes, I think.”
“For as far as you can even tell their elements.”
He bobs. “They are becoming proper single entities.”
It is hard to understand what one sees when one looks at them. They show parts of their original elements but it is as if they have found some sort of average between them. Their forms mimicking various parts and shapes of the originals.
“We really need to get to The Old King.” Kosh says.
“Then go.” I reply calmly. “I am staying here.”
“Right,” she replies, “we will come back for you once we have been payed.”
Ka gets up and looks at me. “Do not go too far from here.”
“I will be sure not to.”
I snuggle up to my very satisfied wife and look into her beautiful grey, almost blue, eyes. I gently kiss her and whisper: “I love you.”
A very gentle and sweet smile appears and she whispers back, “I love you too.” Her hand slides up my back and her fingers slide through my hair. She places her forehead against mine and closes her eyes. “I wish we could stay here forever.”
She opens her eyes and lovingly kisses me. “I want to see where you are from.”
I kiss her back and smile. “We will go home then.”
“You do not mind?”
“Why would I?”
“I thought maybe you would get into trouble, having married a Gorth.”
“Oh, I probably will, at least a little bit. So what?”
“Will they not expect you to reproduce with one of your own?”
“Hey!” She says and playfully bites my nose. Then she laughs.
I kiss her again. “Tough luck for them if that is what they want.”
She kisses me passionately and rolls us over so she is on top of me.
Sometimes I think she intends to fuck me to death. Not that I plan on complaining.
The biggest smile appears on The Old King’s face and he gives us a very pleased look. “Very well done. This settles the war.”
“Does it?” I ask. “I think you will find that there are plenty SouGor left willing to fight you.”
“Of course, but most will not really care. One far away despot asking for taxes is very much the same as any other, for many.”
“True, I suppose.”
“I hope your large friend is alright.”
“He is keeping an eye on some Elementals.” Ka replies.
“Yes, we have heard disconcerting things about them. I would actually very much like to make use of The Slayer’s skills. When you see him, would you be so kind as to let him know?”
“Of course.” I reply.
“Excellent.” He beckons over a nearby servant. “Be sure to pay these fine people plenty and let them use and take what they want from our supplies. Within reason, of course.”
The servant nods obediently.
“Once again, I thank you for your service. Now, I you will excuse me, I have matters to arrange.”
“Of course.” Ka and I reply.
“I would, however very much appreciate it if you came to see me before you leave. So we may properly say farewell.”
“Certainly.” Ka responds with a smile. “I will make sure of that.”
I have always wondered about how Elementals live their lives. They are dangerous, to be sure, but unlike most other types of creatures they do not, necessarily, seem dangerous because of their will to live. A pack of wolves may, in a harsh winter, attack villages for food but Elementals, as far as I know, need no sustenance to exist. All they do is wander about, group together, split and wander some more. They are violent, but not usually without provocation. There seems to be no real reason to their existence. And maybe that is the problem. Anasin birthed the karzun the Alavars named Chaos Children and unlike all the other karzuns they were born nameless. They have struggled since to find their place in this world and going by Ka I think they have done quite well. Perhaps the same cannot be said for Elementals. Brute beings with barely any reason, they are doomed to wander about. Going from place to place with nothing to do. Until I showed up and started slaying them. I gave them a reason to exist. Or at least a goal to strive for. And, to be completely honest, so has Ka. And they are now focussed, so much so in fact they have found ways to become stronger. And it suddenly dawns on me what I would do if I were in their position. What, in fact, Ka did a few days ago. I would call my enemy to me to destroy him.
Where is the nearest settlement?
Harder and harder. The regular Elementals I can handle, though they have become harder. The simple Combines I can manage. But these new hulking monstrosities are a nightmare borne straight out of Jishoa. They are immune to my old strategy of using one against another. They use so much shaay to stay together that it is… Shaay! Each of the huge Combines has at least one Shaay in them! Ka, I need Ka. He is the one who is good with shaay channelling. But I have seen him do it. I watched as he used black flames to break the bonds between body and soul.
“Aoki be with me.” I mutter.
Usually I merely channel shaay into my axes to make them stronger and sharper. I add shaay to my swings to have more power, so in principle I should be able to do more. Ka has complained that we Gorths only use brute physical force, that we should use more magic. That is what I am going to do.
Sometimes spellweavers talk of the pain of casting. And the pleasure that follows. The best I can manage at the moment is to add some black shaay to my swings and it seems to, partially, work. But the pain is there, like overextending my muscles. And when I release the pleasure is there. Now I understand why Ka is so dangerous, why he is always so willing to fight and weave. I have known people who lost themselves in drinks and potions and how hard it is for them to stop taking those drinks and potions. Magic seems to very much be like that. After each cast I wish to cast again, and again, and again. After each pain comes the pleasure and after that comes a new pain. A lack of power. I have felt it before, but not like this. With each release of shaay, I feel better, and with each release, I get better.
The Elementals fall to me. Almost easily. Except the huge ones, they take more effort. But I manage. There is one thing I fear though. They got stronger to fight me. And then stronger yet to fight Ka. Now I am getting stronger myself, will they become even more powerful?
Ka just looks at me, or maybe he is looking through me. He is most definitely thinking about something. “Shaay is life.” He finally says, more to himself than to me. “They live. And they all use shaay. Shaay binds them. Makes them. Assuming that the Shaays are better at using shaay… Simply disconnecting… That is why black shaay worked; you disconnected their souls, as I did when I exploded. The Shaays must be creating better connections. The bonds between body and soul are shaay based. It is that which connects them. That is why they can form in any way they feel like. I am afraid that in the end black shaay will not be enough. They will learn how to keep cohesion. I will have to teach you some better spells. And I mean real spells, none of this channelling karp.”
“Right, that is a Karzuni word. Shit.”
I nod. “So, teach me.”
“Tomorrow, it is getting dark and you need to be fed and rested. I will be yanking you out of your comfort zone, you understand.”
“Yes. The further the better. These Elementals have moved far from their own.”
“And you will have to kill them all. None can escape, not anymore.”
“Already ahead of you. I chased down a few earlier.”
“We will stay with you a while longer.”
“We will?” Kosh responds, though not accusatorial.
“Yes, until I am sure Rankir can survive.” I notice he says ‘can’ not ‘will’ and in his eyes, I see not the young man but an old soldier. He is taking this very serious indeed. “But that is for tomorrow. You know, we managed to get you some things from King Atatlanta’s supplies.”
“Not least of which,” Kosh walks to her horse and pulls two boots from her bag, “these. They are the largest they had and they should be an alright fit.”
This is how you can recognise when people truly care about you, when they give you not what you want, but what you need.
I thought the first few hours were boring, Ka insisted on giving Rankir a whole lecture on the theory of magic, most of which I already knew. But in listening to him I realised I was learning new things as well and once they finally got to the practical part I decided to join in, just for a laugh. Well, laugh is what I did when I cast my first spell. It was not much, indeed, it was far less than Rankir’s beautiful spray of water, but it was more than I had ever even thought myself capable of. A whole world opened up before me. I might be able to learn to weave. Or at least to channel.
Ka was being weird about it, though. He asked me first if he was a good teacher, to which I could only reply ‘obviously’. Then he asked if he was being himself. The endless talking, the sly jokes, the joy on his face, the guiding. Yes, he was being himself. He bobbed very seriously when I said so, as if something slotted into place in his mind. And for while he seemed on another continent, in another time. Then he went back to teaching us, with a new determination, as if he had decided that this was very important indeed.
And he refuses to explain why.
Out here, far from our little camp, in the dark, my only light the stars and the moon, I find peace. Is this it then? Is this it? Or maybe not.
‘So many of the insane claim to Serve the Deities and so many who Serve go insane, it is hard to tell them apart.’
A dear childhood friend of mine became a missionary. She wished to travel to other karzuns and tell them to worship more, or better. Especially the Kuras. They are atheistic, feeling that if they leave the Deities alone the Deities will leave them alone. It is a very logical and correct attitude to have. Kuras worship, if that is the word, nature instead. Their shamans use natural shaay, for lack of a better term, for their magic. They combine their magic with herbs and plants and do and see amazing things. Or so I have been taught. They are our kin in that their Mother Deity is also ours. Anasin, Goddess of Conflict. They live up to that. Seemingly always at war, with us, with the Alavars, the Dwar’Das, the Dankir. Themselves. Sometimes they are even stupid enough to try and take on the Southern Korrosin. Despite that, every so often some fools will get it into their minds to go to them. To try to get them to worship Anasin, if no one else. They have been somewhat successful, managing to get some of the Green Kuras who live closer to us to give it a half-hearted go. But all fanatics are stupid. Minor victories are never enough, they cannot rest until all think and act as they do, oblivious to the fact that they are fighting, not a losing battle, but an impossible one. She was killed. Not even brutally. Just killed. She never even got to talk to them. Killed on principle. I do not want to know what it feels like to be so sure that one is doing some Deity’s work that one walks straight into the fangs of death.
Morach told me to be myself and I think that as that is all any of us can ever do, that is all They expect of us. A nudge here, a push there. A dream, a nightmare, a substance-induced vision. But no more. To keep us on the path. But I think walking works better than running. So if He has a plan for me. If I am doing His will. Serving Him. Then that is how I will do it. Fucking carefully. I have no desire to see the other side just yet. Nor to lose my mind.
At least not worse than I already have.
He proves a pretty good teacher. He has actually been taught by wizards, and it shows. His control is stunning. And he is more than capable of teaching me some of it. The fact that I can see how he casts proves to be very useful indeed. If I did not know better, I would have thought that is why I have my gift. Once I am done here, I fully intend to go to a major city and get some proper lessons. My share of the money payed by The Old King should cover more than a few.
The sad thing is that they will not come with me. Though Ka had said they would come home with me, they have changed their minds. Ka wishes to go home himself and I cannot blame him. We both feel the same; we have both been away for far too long. Our goodbye will not be permanent, I feel certain that we will meet again in the afterlife.
I try to push shaay through my arm, to manipulate it so it becomes flames. I try to control it so it is black. I try to make it flow from outside of the orange shimmer so it will not burn me.
“No! Again. Do not think about it. Just do it. See it, feel it, make reality match up with your vision.”
I hold out my arm again. I put up an orange shimmer. I visualise the black flames. Then I try to make them come.
“You are still thinking. Do not feel the shaay in your arm. Do not try to make it flow. Just make it happen. You can do it with your axes.”
“This is different.”
“No, it is not. The only difference is perspective. You do not fear setting your axes on fire. Maybe you should go back to using them. Once you can channel through them instinctively, it might be easier do to the same with your arm.”
“Or accept the pain.” Kosh says. “I think you are trying to protect yourself.” She holds out her arm, puts up a weak shimmer and casts an ice spray. She suddenly pulls back her arm, holds her hand to her mouth and blows into it, then she rubs it with her other hand. “Like that.”
One of the rules of combat is that one has to accept that one might die. Or at least get hurt. Fear of that will make one lose. That is the mentality I need to have.
I try again and this time I cast a cone of black flames. And I do not even hurt myself.
Casting is one thing, casting in combat is another. Luckily, I am used to combat, making it a lot easier for me. Still, I find it hard to do all the things I need to, to cast. Breathe in, orange shimmer and breathe out while I throw the flames. Ka says that I need to learn how to cast a proper killing spell but at the moment, I am sticking to copying his black flames. I have learnt to cast them through my axes, so I do not have to do anything to get rid of them during the cast. Being used to channelling some magic through them already really makes a difference. But I still lose focus from time to time. My instinct remains to use my axes and not to cast. And so, from time to time Ka will yell some instructions at me or show me how he does things. By the time we have slain all the Elementals I have learnt a few new things.
He still has plenty more to learn but I am not a proper teacher and I find myself constantly repeating that he needs to feel rather than think. That is because, as a sorcerer, that is how it works for me. But he is a fighter first and foremost, his magic should complement his fighting, not become the primary part of it. So after a few days I find that I have taught him as much as I can, if for no other reason than that there really is no substitute for experience. He will have to learn the rest by doing. The only thing that worries me is that he is copying my flames. His magic should be manifesting itself in whatever way suits him, not me. So I make that my last lesson.
“Try to visualise your shaay flowing from you, engulfing the flower and then severing its bonds. See the shaay connections in its soul and unravel them.”
A yellow glow appears in his eyes mixed with some green and he squints. A green glow extends from his fingertips and, in thin beams of light, wraps itself around the flower. The beams turn to black and the petals start dropping from the flower. He gives me a weak smile. “Was that it?”
“Yes, how does it feel?”
“You might get that. Try not to use it too often. The uncomfortableness will make you hesitate. You manifested though. Light, by the looks of it.”
“Does that mean anything in particular?”
“That you have a ‘Light’ personality, make of that what you will. You have sight, so it is not entirely unexpected.”
“I would like to see you use it in combat though, to make sure you have truly gotten it.”
“There is a small group of Elementals to our north. We could head there.”
“Alright, be sure to use plenty of other spells, you really need to get a feel for this.”
“So you keep saying.”
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” I scream at the top of my lungs as I fall backwards into the dirt. I lash out instinctively with black flames at that which hurt me, hopefully killing it. The pain feels like fire burning through my skull. The wound seems to be as much ethereal as physical, with my soul itself screeching at me. I try to get back up but the world seems to spin around me, in multiple directions at once. Reeling, I get to my feet only to fall back to the ground. The second try has me landing in familiar arms.
“Get him out of here!” I hear a dark voice yell and I am lifted up and moved at speed in some direction. Slant-ways up, I think. Might be in a southernly northern direction though. These kind of things are hard to pinpoint when one is six-dozen rogs high and falling towards the moon.
I am placed on the grass ceiling and water is poured onto my face.
“Ka?” I hear my wife’s voice inquiring.
“Over here.” I reply. “Or maybe over there. Sometimes I am over there.” I try to point in the general direction of where I am likely to be.
“He is badly wounded.” My friend’s voice says.
“And now tell me something I do not know!”
“Any time you lot want to make the stars stop spinning you go ahead and do that.” I say.
“It is daytime, sweety.”
“All the more reason to tell them to stop. Cursed stars. Arrogant and annoying, just like rainbows. And frogs. Frogs especially. Bloody frogs.”
“So now what?” The most beautiful voice in the Kosmos asks.
“Ka, you need to cast a mental healing spell.”
I stretch out my arm and aim it at the big brown blob with the deep voice.
“Oh.” That would be just like me, getting all wounded for no discernible reason. I grab my head and cast…
The world becomes its usual self and some understanding leaks back into my mind along with my wife’s face becoming clear in my vision. “Hey, love.”
“See, that is why I do not drink. Head damage is way more fun.”
She gives me a playful slap. “Fucker.”
“I think you are ready. Or at least as ready as I can get you.” Ka says.
I nod. “How are you feeling?”
“Breached skull, damaged brain… No damage to my beautiful features, so I should never even notice the difference.”
“And without some stupid joke?”
“I am not joking. A little head damage never hurt anyone who is not already crazy. The healing was perfect, as I always am. And as long as the scar is under my hair I will not mind so much.” Apparently, he is serious.
“So now what?”
“We leave you.” He whispers.
“I know. When?”
“We need to head south, you are heading north. So… now, I guess.”
I have never been much good at goodbyes or farewells. I just left home one day. They knew I was going to someday so I figured I did not need an actual farewell. The ‘goodnights’ the evening before served well enough. In the end all I can do, is hug him tightly. No words spoken by either of us. Even Ka is pretty quiet for once. His hug might even have lasted longer than mine. They end up saying the things they want to hear, about how we will see each other again. How Rankir will maybe head to Orzhadat one day. All lies of course, but what else is there to say? Rankir and Ka promise to meet up again in the afterlife if nothing else. I find myself promising it too. And meaning it. If there is a place after death where we go, then I want us three to be together again. After all, we made a promise before the Deities. Have to keep that.
We ride off in silence and when we are a decent way off, I take one last look back over my shoulder. I see a huge SouGor riding off on a horse and for the first time in a very long time, I cry.
I get off my horse and take my axes from their rings.
I walk towards the creature.
I size it up.
Big is not the word.
Huge is not enough.
Enormous only begins to cover it.
Unbelievably, unimaginably gigantic.
Dozens of Elementals in one, presumably one whole group, all in one.
And it has noticed me.
Fear is not something I am used to feeling.
Only when something truly dangerous occurs, do I feel it, like some bloody Chaos Child exploding.
And I feel it now.
This was my greatest fear, that they would become this powerful.
And I realise I will die here. There is no way I will be able to survive this.
Even if I defeat it, a distant possibility, I will not survive this.
And in recognising this, the fear disappears.
One last slaying to do.
It notices me.
Its form moves towards me.
I grin and make a sharp move with my chin, a quick raise and then I hold it there.
An energy fluctuation draws my attention.
A tear in reality itself manifests.
A chance to save my people.
Who are fighting for me against the God who was once my husband.
Our children, at war with each other.
Can it be any other way?
When two Deities disagree, can anything other than war be the consequence?
I send a question into the unknown.
An answer comes back, with a warning attached.
I accept, as close to thankful as I can be.
I accept once more, assuring them I fully understand.
This is still better than what awaits my people here.
I call to them.
I tell them to enter the tear.
As many as possible pour through before it closes again.
On the other side, I do what I must to keep them alive.
I bind their souls to bodies formed from local creatures.
And they are safe.
The ship steadily makes its way across the ocean. By coincidence, luck or Divine Providence, we are on the same ship that originally brought me to the Gorths’ continent. I am stood on the bow of the ship staring at the horizon where steadily the contours of my continent are appearing. I feel a mixture of joy, sadness and anticipation. Joy at the prospect of arrival, sadness for leaving a good friend behind and anticipation for the journey home.
I look at the light from the rising sun glistening on the water and pay no real attention to the gentle but determined footsteps I hear behind me. Her body moves up to mine, her arms wrap around me and she rests her chin on my head. Her grip tightens and she whispers that she loves me. I whisper it back and place my arms around hers.
I close my eyes and feel the spray of seawater on my face, cool in opposition to the warmth of the sunlight. I smell the sea air, and her. Listen to her breathing and, in the distance, the ocean birds. I feel my aura touching hers and swear that through it I can feel her love. Our love. Combining, flowing together, through both of our souls. I turn and kiss her, tasting her. And I am complete. More than that, I am home. Not because I am nearing my continent but because I am with her. This is where I belong.
This is who I am.
I am Zom-Ka from Clan Valderia of the House of Valderia.
Servant of Morach, God of Shaay.
Servant of Aoki, Goddess of Death.
Friend to Rankir, Slayer of Elementals.
But above all, husband and lover of Koshidi.
128 years later.
The grey lattice fades to make way for the world.
I find myself by a stone wall. The city wall, I realise.
My stomach turns and I throw up. For a moment, I worry about it. Then I realise why I shouldn’t.
I walk away from the wall, wiping the spit from my lips. I see a large group of people making their way down a road to… the city. The city of Orzhadat. No, the City of Valderia. And they are here to see the Ceremony of Leadership.
As I walk, I look at the city gates and above them the work people placing the symbol of Valderia. Once an islet, then a clan, a House and now the city itself. And soon a people. The Valderians are born today.
I steadily make my way towards the procession. Uncertainty fills me. What if I make some stupid mistake? What if, what if, what if? I would’ve thought that after all this time I would’ve stopped worrying so much.
“Hello.” A man says to me in heavily accented Karzuni. He has a big smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.
All worries fade. “Good day to you.” I reply.
“So where’re you from?” He asks jovially.
“Tigra.” I reply, a lie and a truth in one.
He bobs “I’m from Uvuna. The name’s Zom-Ima.”
“A pleasure. You here for the Ceremony?”
“Yes, and work.”
“Aren’t we all. Say, you seem like the good sort. I’m on my way to see my brother-in-law. He said he’ll be able to get me some kind of work at the Castle. Maybe he can get you some work there too.”
“You don’t even know me.”
“No, but I’ve got a good feeling about you. You see, I have a talent for this kinda thing.”
His beaming smile makes it impossible for me to disagree.
Chatting, we eventually end up at the gates. There are guards all around as we pass through but they don’t bother checking anyone. Presumably they’re only here in case something happens, not to check who’s coming or going. Or maybe to help people, I see plenty of them talking to passers-by, and always with a smile. When we pass one, I give her a friendly bob.
She gives me a friendly bob back and with a smile she says, “Welcome to Valderia.”
Books in the Valderia series:
V01M01 Chosen Missionist
V02M02 Heretical Missionist
V03M03 Hellbound Missionist
About the author:
A.C.Karzun is a firm proponent of The Death of The Author.
Slayer: Few can do what I do. Even entire armies fall short, compared to me. The Elementals I slay are too dangerous to fight without the magical and physical skills I have earned over years, through sacrifice and tireless dedication. Even Zom-Ka, the Chaos Child who has travelled to my continent in search of adventure, can only do so because of his training and innate magical skill. And Koshidi? The hook-wielding young woman from the Mountain Clans? She barely manages. But we must slay them for Lady Molvik to make it to the sanctuary of the savannah city of Sharnich before the forces of The Old King catch up with her army. And his people are after us too. Tracking us. Hunting us. And the Elementals are getting stronger, better, more dangerous. Seemingly adapting to Zom-Ka and me. They are using tactics I have never seen before. They are combining with each other into glorious and dreadful new forms. And while Koshidi is careful, Zom-Ka is relishing the challenge. Always seeking out the most dangerous. Feeling rather than thinking. And using death magic. His skill is undeniable. But so is the danger he poses. Not only to our foes but maybe even to us. NOTE: This is the greyscale version, optimised for greyscale devices. The original version with colour-coded text is also available.