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Righteous fury, p.12
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       Righteous Fury, p.12

           Markus Heitz
 

  On his feet again now, Sinthoras sprang onto the back of the troll he had just felled, plunging his knife into the broad neck. The brute’s massive body slackened. Sinthoras dragged his knife out of the troll’s neck, waving it round above his head to produce a whirring sound, then he grabbed the end of the spear, activated the blade contained within, and thrust it violently forward to stab through the neck of another assailant.

  Sinthoras vaulted off the troll’s back and flipped the spear closed again, so he had a short spear in his hand by the time he landed. One supremely agile turn later and he was facing his final foe: the troll that had been carrying the cage—the one they had called Idiot Face.

  Yellow eyes swiveled right and left, taking in the sight of the dead bodies, then the troll gave a strangled moan. It took a step back and brandished its weapon in the älf’s direction, hoping to hold him off.

  Sinthoras’ laugh was full of malice. He used his native talent to intensify the troll’s fear. Black webs shot out toward the frightened troll who breathed them in, making its face grow pale.

  “Is our poor ugly troll all by his little self all of a sudden?” Sinthoras mocked sweetly, feinting with his short spear. “Come and try to get me, Idiot Face. That’s what they called you, wasn’t it?”

  The creature turned and ran off. Sinthoras was setting out in hot pursuit when an arrow whizzed past, hitting the troll centrally in the back of its head. A second shot entered his neck and a third, going through the back, pierced the brute’s heart. Gasping for air, it staggered into the thicket and lay motionless.

  Caphalor jumped down and approached the cage. Nothing moved inside it. Perhaps the prisoner is waiting to see the outcome? He thought: an enemy of the trolls was not necessarily the prisoner’s friend.

  With considerable effort, Sinthoras wrenched the front section of his spear out of his last victim’s flesh, wiped it clean on the creature’s fur and put the weapon back together. “You stole my last one,” he said reproachfully.

  “It didn’t look as if you wanted to kill him, I thought you were just racing to get to the cage before I did.”

  “Is that what you thought?” Sinthoras moved the cage cover with the tip of his spear, cursing loudly at what he saw. There was a similar expression of disgust on Caphalor’s features; he placed an arrow to his bowstring, ready to shoot.

  They were looking down at a very slender young female, her clothes in shreds. Pointed ears, cut to shape and not the girl’s own, stood up through the short brown hair. Her face—thin and with scars on the cheekbones—was an unnatural, crooked shape.

  Caphalor knew what it was they had found: an obboona.

  The scars were from a brutal procedure she would have undergone in order to make her face narrower: her flesh would have been cut into, the cheekbones fractured and some of the broken splinters of bone removed.

  The obboona’s big eyes stared at them both. She had tried to dye her eyeballs black, but the pupils were still visible; the disguise was not perfect. However clever her people were in this, they had never managed to copy älfar eyes.

  “Samusin has sent us a flesh-stealer,” Sinthoras spat. “I say let’s show her what it’s like to be flayed alive.”

  “I say let her live.” Caphalor lowered his bow. “She knows how to get into the sky fortress.”

  “That’s only what the trolls said. Who knows if it’s true?”

  “You want to go to the sky fortress?” The obboona slid to the front of her cage. “It will be an honor to show two demigods the way in.”

  Her voice did not sound natural, either. Caphalor saw a scar on her throat and a slight lump below it. Something had been inserted to press on the vocal chords, changing the way she spoke with the intention of making it more älf-like. But no one could ever really attain the wonderful tonal range—melodious yet dangerous—that Inàste had given his people.

  “Your voice is an insult for our ears,” he yelled at her.

  “Forgive me,” she responded humbly, cowering down.

  “Who says we need her knowledge at all?” objected Sinthoras. “She’ll just be a burden.” He raised his spear to jab at her.

  “I used to be in service with the gålran zhadar who owns the tower,” she said quickly. “I know all the towers, every corridor, and the secret gate I used when I escaped—and then I ran straight into these trolls.” She smiled, showing immaculate, brilliant-white teeth. “What have you come for? Do you want his life or his treasures? His hoard is so big that he’s having to get a new tower built.”

  Caphalor gestured to Sinthoras to come over and they turned away from the cage. “We should ask her to show us.”

  Sinthoras shook his head, blond hair swinging. “Too risky. She could be leading us into a trap, she’ll want to kill us and take our skin.”

  “I’ve seen the sky fortress, Sinthoras, we won’t ever get in without her knowledge of it.”

  “When did you see it?”

  “Just now, from the top of that tree.”

  Sinthoras was thoughtful. “How far away is it?”

  “A couple of miles . . .”

  “So from two miles off you can tell we don’t have a chance on our own? Wish I had your eyes, älf. But I wouldn’t wish for your faint heart.” Sinthoras raised his eyebrows contemptuously. “I’ll take a closer look at this sky fortress and then decide what to do with the flesh-stealer woman.” As far as he was concerned the matter was closed. He left Caphalor and went over to the cage, rattling his spear tip along the bars before heading into the undergrowth.

  Caphalor turned to watch him. “I should kill him now,” he murmured. “It would be better than having to fight him every inch of the way.” He followed, sighing, and put the cover back on the cage, ignoring the obboona’s cries. If he had not overheard the trolls talking, he would certainly have avenged her people’s vicious mutilations of his own kind. As it was, she might yet prove useful.

  Caphalor entered the cave, finding Sinthoras already sitting beside the fire: his friendly way of indicating that he did not want to do guard duty. Caphalor stayed by the entrance, leaning against the rock wall, keeping his eyes on the surrounding area.

  Raleeha approached him, bringing the drinking flask he had left behind. “Could you tell me what happened, noble lord?” she asked.

  “Did your master not say?”

  She shook her head.

  He quickly summed up the events.

  “Flesh-stealers,” repeated Raleeha with a shudder. “That sounds horrible. Why are the obboona given that name?”

  “They have only one aim in life—to be like the älfar,” he explained, after taking a long draft from his flask. “They were once a vassal folk of ours and they worshipped us as demigods. They started mutilating their own bodies to make them more like ours, but this obsession led them to act in ways that made them our sworn enemies forever: they started to hunt älfar down. They conducted disgusting surgical experiments, taking the captured älfar’s body parts, or cutting off whole limbs in order to transplant them onto their own bodies.”

  Raleeha’s jaw dropped open and she shuddered with revulsion. “By Samusin!”

  “Others would take facial features, dry them out and then stick them on themselves,” Caphalor went on. “They would fix our ears on top of their own, or drape älfar hair over their scalps. The Inextinguishables waged a short, sharp war against them, driving the obboonas north—I would never have thought I would come across one here.”

  “These . . . limb and organ transfers,” she asked, “did they actually work?”

  “No. That’s what makes this revolting practice even more horrific. They were killing their idols, their demigods, for no reason: they knew perfectly well they could never make themselves like us, not even in part.” In fact, Caphalor had no idea whether those experiments had ever been successful, but he was not prepared to tell the Raleeha this. “Now return to your master.”

  “Of course, noble lord.” Raleeha bowed and walked slowly o
ver to Sinthoras, who had been watching her.

  But, shortly before she reached him, Sinthoras jumped up, grabbed the girl by the collar and dragged her back out of the cave, flinging her down at Caphalor’s feet.

  “Here!” he fumed. “Take her, if you like her so much.”

  “Master!” she breathed in dismay. Sinthoras kicked her in the ribs.

  “Keep your mouth shut! As I said, Caphalor, she’s yours now.” He glared at his rival.

  “Why would I want her?” Caphalor said, taken by surprise.

  Sinthoras pulled out his dagger, grasping her hair with his other hand. “Then it’s best if I kill her, then she can’t betray us . . .”

  “All right.” Caphalor gave a nod. “I’ll take her before you kill a slave belonging to the Lotor family. She may well prove useful to us.”

  “Useful? Nonsense! We don’t need any help to defeat barbarians in battle!” Addressing Raleeha, he said, “Serve him better than you have served me. You’ve already lost your eyes, don’t risk losing anything else.” Sinthoras cut his symbol out of the leather collar and scratched Caphalor’s mark in the bare skin underneath. The slave girl inhaled sharply as the blade drew down her neck, but only put up her hand to stem the blood when he had finished. As he moved back to the fireside, he sneered: “You belong to him now.”

  Raleeha knelt at Caphalor’s feet, sobbing quietly. He knew it was not the pain that was making her cry, but the loss of her master—the älf whose slave she had volunteered to be, and for whom she had gone into voluntary exile from her homeland.

  “Get up,” he said gently, much too gently for an order to a slave. He repeated the command roughly. “Up with you!” Raleeha obeyed.

  It was fascinating to observe her tears oozing out from under the black lace blindfold. She had an älf-like look about her in the warm light of the flames. She was undeniably attractive, but it was the mixture of pain and melancholy in her face that was really capturing his attention. Caphalor drank in the sight of her distress, wanting to hold the moment fast as he did not have the requisite talent to capture it in paint: his main gift was for carving in bone. “Lie down. You can take Sardaî’s blanket if you are cold.”

  She bent her head. “Of course, noble . . . I mean, master.” Raleeha was turning aside when his hand came forward to undo the three buckles on her collar. She stood still in surprise.

  “Don’t forget to eat,” he said firmly. “Make sure you eat and drink. Tomorrow you will wait here for us while Sinthoras and I take the obboona to investigate the sky fortress.”

  “That’s if the obboona is still alive by then,” was the comment from Sinthoras, his back turned. “The carrion-eaters will be finishing off the troll cadavers tonight. The obboona’s cage had better be sturdy.”

  As if prompted by his words they heard a shrill cry of terror from the prisoner, then the roar of an animal, and the squawks of a flock of vultures. The obboona was not going to have a restful night. Caphalor had not an ounce of pity for her.

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands), the kingdom of the fflecx,

  4370th division of unendingness (5198th solar cycle),

  summer.

  Dawn arrived swathed in mist, allowing the älfar to get up close to the sky fortress without being seen.

  They ran from tower to tower, examining the masonry. Sinthoras saw that stone block fitted neatly into stone block with almost invisible joins and no use of mortar. The whole structure derived its stability from the sheer weight of the enormous edifice.

  Using the hilts of their daggers, they tapped carefully against the base here and there, hoping for a different tone denoting a hollow area. But in vain. Caphalor even dug away at the grass at the foot of one of the towers to see how far down the foundations went, but had to give up—the stone blocks had to go ten paces or more.

  The sun rose higher in the sky as the älfar investigated, melting away the morning fog. Sinthoras looked up to the tops of the cloud-hung towers and noted huge metal rings fixed to the walls at the height of the connecting corridors and stairways. Steel cables as thick as an arm were attached to the rings.

  He assumed this must be to prevent the towers from swaying in a strong wind and he could not help admiring the engineering expertise. “It’s amazing,” he said. If only he could put up a building like this—only smaller, of course—in Dsôn! Caphalor would never be able to afford anything like that.

  “Perhaps we should take this gålran zhadar prisoner rather than chopping his head off,” Caphalor mocked sarcastically. “I’m sure he’d be able to run you up a pretty little house like this in Dsôn.”

  “Why not? We could use a building genius like him. Why should he die for the sake of an old crown and a bit of parchment? I’m sure I can persuade those fflecxy freaks to let me have him as long as I bring them enough fancy sparkly stuff from his treasure chests.”

  “There’s one thing you’re forgetting, Sinthoras.” Caphalor laid a hand against the wall. “How are we going to get inside without the help of the obboona? Do we climb up a vertical wall hundreds of paces high with no toe- or handholds to be seen? I could manage twenty paces perhaps, but this? Not my thing.”

  Sinthoras looked at the blank walls. He hated admitting that he too could see no way in, but there were not even any windows in the towers.

  “I wonder what’s so special about that crown for this gålran zhadar to have bothered to steal it in the first place,” Caphalor muttered. “And what’s in the parchment?”

  “Who cares?” retorted Sinthoras. “Munumon could have demanded a pink pony and a harp with the strings missing.”

  “I don’t think it’s as simple as that,” objected Caphalor.

  “He’s got us between a rock and a hard place. Or do you hold the antidote to the toxin that’s in our blood?”

  “If the parchment and the crown, for example, held the key to successful invasion of Dsôn, and we were able to discover this before we took the items to Munumon—would you still say that?”

  Sinthoras sighed with irritation. “You’re not making any logical sense.”

  “But I’d like to know the significance of the crown and the parchment.”

  “Then I suggest we ask this gålran zhadar. That should set your mind at rest—and you can stop pestering me with your stupid questions,” Sinthoras snapped. He was being careful not to lose his temper entirely, or risk giving them away, but his anger at Caphalor was always there in the background. He despised Caphalor for his weak Constellation beliefs that were typical of the whole Constellation faction. Cowards, the lot of them. Honestly, who hid in a tree to shoot their enemies instead of fighting properly, toe to toe?

  It was Caphalor’s fault that he had given Raleeha away. He had been infuriated that she was asking the älf so many questions and it had been stupid of him, but he could not take her back now without losing face. On the other hand, Caphalor was not going to make it back to Dsôn alive, so it was not worth worrying about; he really ought to stop dwelling on it.

  “Yes, let’s ask the gålran zhadar,” agreed Caphalor, sounding for all the world as if he were serious.

  Sinthoras found him exasperating. Why could he not have had one of his own Comets with him on this mission? They would have reached the mist-demon and negotiated an alliance by now.

  Suddenly, they heard a deep throbbing hum as if something heavy were starting to move. The tone slowly grew higher and higher.

  As he placed a hand on the wall of the tower, Sinthoras noticed a vibration; something must be in motion inside the building. “Is there a winch in there?” he asked. He took a careful look around and sniffed the air, but could not detect any unusual smell that might indicate the use of fuel.

  “Look! Up there!” Caphalor had moved a few paces to the side and was squinting upward, shielding his eyes.

  One of the pieces of tubing had loosened itself from the network and was being lowered to the ground on five cables. At one end there was a wooden gate—had they been spotted?
Was the gålran zhadar sending down warriors to intercept them?

  The tube came closer through the swirling mist.

  “We need to get out of here,” said Sinthoras, turning. Then he stopped. “Or do you think that might be how we get in to the castle? We could climb on top of the tubing and get pulled up with it. Then we wouldn’t need to use the obboona.”

  “No,” replied Caphalor. Now the tube section had come down lower they could see there were spyholes in the side of it, and faces at each of them. There was no chance for them to stowaway.

  The tube settled onto the ground and the gate opened, letting a wagon with ten armed men roll out and move north.

  The älfar watched from a safe distance as the gate was closed and the tube was hauled up again.

  Sinthoras ground his teeth. It was clear they would have to employ the services of the flesh-stealer after all, instead of going ahead and killing her. He had been looking forward to torturing her.

  He knew what he would do: he would hang her up by the heels, hooking into the tendons. Then he would make a cut and peel off her skin like a garment she had no right to wear. Then he would beat her raw flesh with a switch and destroy the blood vessels, letting her bleed to death in agony. The life-juices would clot instead of being used on a canvas. All of her blood would seep away, decay, disappear completely.

  Sinthoras gave a satisfied smile. Yes, that was exactly what the flesh-stealer deserved. As soon as she had served her purpose.

  CHAPTER VI

  Shiimal was the region attracting älfar who specialized in agriculture and animal husbandry. Farms of enormous proportions were started up, producing meat and grain for the entire realm in the one radial arm.

  Kashagòn is the home of the true warriors! Älf-men and älf-women dedicated to the art of battle came here and founded academies where the hardiest soldiers, the best and most deadly combatants of all were trained.

 
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