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Righteous fury, p.13
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       Righteous Fury, p.13

           Markus Heitz
 
Epocrypha of the Creating Spirit

  1st book

  Footnote

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

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

  summer.

  Caphalor ran behind Sinthoras, still trying to assess their chances of getting into the sky fortress. There was no quick way of taking such a stronghold and there would certainly be hefty defense equipment in place to deal with any attempt to storm the towers. It was a supreme work of construction from both the aesthetic and military points of view.

  He thought about the simpleminded beasts they had slaughtered in the forest. “And the trolls really thought they could break in and steal the treasure,” he said.

  “Does that surprise you? However stupid the obboona is, she must’ve had a field day with those trolls.” Sinthoras’ voice was redolent with barely contained fury.

  Caphalor knew why, but however much it went against the grain to leave the flesh-stealer alive, there was no alternative. “We will have to assess what she knows. This morning’s mist will have concealed us while we examined the tower, but we can’t rely on the gods protecting us all the time. Especially not if we climb up the walls.”

  “Don’t go on about our needing that thing,” replied Sinthoras angrily. “I want to . . .” He clenched his jaw and gave a snort of frustration. “She deserves to die. She has earned death a hundred times over.”

  “And she shall have it—after serving our purposes,” said Caphalor, sharing the disgust the other felt. “Do you think I’m enjoying the prospect of using her help?”

  “I wish she were dead, then we would not have the option.”

  They walked through the place where they had found the obboona. Overnight the troll corpses had gone, but pools of blood and drag marks on the ground could clearly be seen: the carrion-eaters had taken what they wanted.

  She was crouched down in the middle in the cage watched greedily by four, drooling wolf-like creatures. The obboona had cuts and scratches on her arms and legs, evidence of her attackers’ attempts to get to her.

  One of the animals leaped up and snapped at her, its long jaws closing a hair’s breadth from her face. She punched it on the nose and it fell back with a yelp. The others sat and waited.

  “Look! Those animals can’t be very bright: the obboona is still alive. There should have been deeper bites by now.” Sinthoras laughed cruelly.

  Caphalor took his bow from his shoulder and reached for an arrow. So far there had been two arrows he had not been able to retrieve, so he still had forty-eight, either in the quiver or packed in his saddle roll on the night-mare. He had also brought thirty replacement tips in case he needed to make his own arrows. “I—” He was about to tell his traveling companion he was going to shoot the animals when Sinthoras stepped out through the trees, spear in hand. Caphalor left the cover of the trees with a sigh and a shake of his head. Sinthoras’ craving for attention was incredible. You finish them off, then, if that’s what you need to do.

  “Watch me,” said Sinthoras, looking back over his shoulder. “This is how to do it.”

  “Sure.” Caphalor observed the animals that were now focusing on them. They abandoned their lethargy, eyes bright with hunger and bloodlust. The obboona prostrated herself on the floor of her cage, calling out something about honor and thanks and demigods. The rest of what she said was drowned out by the barking and growls of the predators.

  “You don’t believe me?” Sinthoras bent down to pick up a leaf from the clearing. He held it in his outstretched hand. “Before this touches the ground I’ll be done.” He let it fall.

  One of the beasts sprang and Sinthoras avoided it by turning his upper body, whirling his spear and ramming the point into the animal’s flank. The first of the attackers fell to the ground, but the second was aiming a bite at his calf.

  Sinthoras pulled his leg out of the way and delivered a downward kick to the animal’s skull, then launched himself off the other foot to leap onto the top of the cage. He jabbed the sharp blade of the spear into the gullet of the third beast.

  Caphalor watched the leaf’s slow descent. “Time’s nearly up,” he announced, smiling.

  The last of the wild things was eyeing Sinthoras, who jumped down nimbly, turning the spear. The animal slunk away.

  A handy breeze lifted the leaf again momentarily. The sharpened point of Sinthoras’ spear flew into the last of the animals, piercing throat and back, until it collapsed—exactly the second the leaf settled on the floor.

  The obboona clapped like an excited child and praised the skill of her demigod.

  “I was taking my time,” Sinthoras claimed, beaming. “I enjoy the anticipation of any triumph, however small.”

  “The leaf landed at exactly the moment the animal died.” Caphalor’s grin was just as broad. “You claimed you would kill them all before it fell.” He did not need to say anything else, Sinthoras’ face had fallen; he would be gutted by his failure.

  The obboona slid forward, stopping an arm’s length from the bars at the side of the cage, watching Caphalor. Her dark eyes sparkled and he could see they had once been green: the intensity of the black color on the eyeball was fading.

  “You will be needing me, worshipful one?” she breathed, humility and cunning in her tone. “You did not find a way in to the fortress? That is no dishonor, not even for demigods.”

  Caphalor had to muster all his self-restraint not to strike her dead on the spot. “We are giving you your life, flesh-stealer,” he spoke darkly. He sent her black, oily skeins of fear through the intervening space, enveloping her in a mantle of pure threat. He wanted her to writhe on the ground and learn what it meant to confront an älf. “In exchange you take us into the castle.”

  “Of course,” she said, looking longingly at him. Taking a deep breath, she inhaled the black wisps of fear as if they were a fragrance. Caphalor could detect no trace of fear in her. He watched her, reading the madness in her eyes.

  Sinthoras scraped aside the leaves in front of the cage with his spear. “Draw us a sketch of what’s kept where in the castle,” he commanded, making no attempt to hide his disgust. “Which tower does he keep his treasure in? Where are his rooms?”

  She smiled, transported with ecstasy. “My name is Karjuna,” she announced solemnly, as if it were something holy.

  The blunt end of the spear banged her between the eyes. She fell backward with a cry, blood shooting out of her nostrils to cover mouth and chin. Sinthoras had lost his temper. “You are an obboona, nothing more!” he shouted at her. “Low life forms have no right to names—do what you were told!”

  Karjuna threw herself to her knees. “Forgive me,” she whimpered, distraught. Crawling over to the bars she reached between them, took a twig in her filthy fingers and sketched the layout. “Around 600 men and women live in the fortress, all servants and slaves,” she said hesitantly. “Each tower is a village, with its own stores and its own soldiers. The lord of the castle lives in whichever of the towers he feels like, but always at the very top—up there he is closest to the gods.”

  Caphalor nodded. “And how do we get inside?”

  Karjuna gave a cheeky grin, but as soon as she realized what she was doing she cast a look of dismay toward Sinthoras, discovering to her relief that he had not been watching. “It’s the fourth tower,” she said hurriedly. “There are chains running in the castle supports, connected to counterweights under the earth. That’s how they let the cell sections down. There is a hatch I discovered by chance.”

  “A hatch wide enough for a horde of young trolls to go through?” asked Sinthoras suspiciously, without taking his eyes off the drawing.

  “No, indeed they would not have fitted through the hatch, demigod,” she hastened to explain. “But I had to lie to them to save my own life. I don’t know all the defense schemes the gålran zhadar has built into the towers, but the ones I’m aware of were certainly up to dealing with a few trolls.”


  “Telling lies so that you might live,” Caphalor repeated, pointedly, his hatred for her growing more intense by the heartbeat.

  Karjuna took a moment to understand what he was implying. “No! No, by Samusin, Inàste, and by Tion, my demigod!” she cried out in dismay. “I would never dare to deceive you!”

  “Why not? You obboonas kill our kind whenever you get the chance!” he retorted. In his imagination, he saw her kneeling over an ambushed älf, stripping him of ears, nose, and skin to attach to her own face. He could no longer tolerate her presence: the wish to see her die became urgent, almost painful. His right hand was already on the grip of his dagger.

  “I could never lie to you,” she repeated stubbornly, not responding to his objection.

  And Caphalor was certain that she was lying to him at that very moment, and there was nothing he could do about it, except . . . with the knife.

  “Control yourself,” he heard Sinthoras say in their älfish, speaking too fast for the obboona to understand. “We can hurt her, but we must not kill her. Anyway, I insist we share the pleasure of her slow and painful death.”

  Caphalor nodded. He remembered the poison running in his veins. The antidote was waiting for him, but he could not get it without her help.

  The obboona looked at each of them in turn. She knew her life hung by a thread.

  “I believe you,” Caphalor said finally, bending to open the lock of her cage with a fine hook. “What is the best time for us to try to enter the castle?”

  “At night: most of the slaves and the others will be asleep, there won’t be more than a few dozen awake.” At a sign from him she left her cage, crawling to their feet in the dust, trying to kiss their boots.

  Sinthoras kicked out at once, hitting her right shoulder. “Don’t you dare!” he whispered hoarsely. “Pray to your degenerate gods that I don’t kill you before we get there!”

  “My demigod,” Karjuna implored Caphalor. “I beseech you!”

  Caphalor could not help himself. He kicked her, too, striking her in the face. The skin on her cheek tore open revealing the bone plate that had been inserted to change the shape of her face. “Remember who you are, flesh-stealer,” he warned her quietly as he turned away. “Follow Sinthoras. You are to observe the fortress from the edge of the wood and wait there for nightfall,” he ordered. “It’s possible the guards spotted us just now.”

  Sinthoras did not move. “Who do you think you are, Caphalor, to issue orders to me?” he asked. “And what are you up to? You want some time to be alone with Raleeha?”

  The acid sarcasm tested Caphalor’s patience to the limit, but he was able to fight back with the same weapon. “I’m the one who has been awarded the Honor-Blessing,” he said with a smile. “Being honored by the Inextinguishable Ones is an exquisite feeling—like being given a splinter of divinity. Knowing you, it’s unlikely you’ll ever experience it: what could you do to deserve it?”

  Gray lines flitted over Sinthoras’ countenance but disappeared at once. He turned away and headed for the forest undergrowth. “Come with me and keep quiet,” he hissed at the obboona. “If you don’t, I’ll make you sorry.”

  She hurried after him, throwing a hasty glance at Caphalor. Was that desire in her eyes?

  Vowing to himself that he would throw the obboona from the very top of the sky fortress, he went back to the cave. He wanted to let Raleeha know what had been happening: it was important to have her on his side; if he were kind to her and could get her to trust him, this potentially valuable barbarian girl might transfer her affections to him.

  He pulled up short on entering the darkness of the cave: Raleeha had gone. The night-mare snickered happily to see him. “Oh, it’s you, master,” he heard her voice coming from somewhere above his head. He stepped further in and saw she had climbed onto a narrow rock shelf over the entrance where she was perched with one of his long war arrows in her hand, ready to strike.

  “Did it go well?” she asked, bowing her head.

  Caphalor was impressed: for someone who had recently lost her sight it could not have been easy to climb up to that shelf, let alone find a place to hide. She could not have heard his footsteps. “Was it Sardaî that betrayed me?”

  “He would not have greeted any but his master like that.” The slave girl stood up and adjusted her position, tilting her head slightly, listening. “You are alone, master? Has something terrible happened?”

  Caphalor realized the fear in her voice was for Sinthoras. He recapped the day’s events and told her that they wanted to get in to the fortress with the obboona’s help. “We will be back soon.”

  “Do you trust the flesh-stealer, master?”

  “No. We’ll get her to show us the way in. Then she will die,” he said, going to the cave entrance. “Be ready. When we leave here, we’ll be leaving very quickly, I expect.”

  “No one will spot you, master. You are älfar, after all.”

  It did not help us with the fflecx, though.

  “Yes, we are älfar,” he said after a pause, before leaving the cave without further words to her. He set off to follow the tracks of the obboona, which led directly to where Sinthoras was concealed.

  The obboona was startled to find him at her shoulder. Sinthoras did not even look up, but kept his eyes on the daystar-lit towers ahead of him.

  “Anything special?” asked Caphalor.

  “No.”

  Caphalor climbed up to the highest fork in the tree and settled down for a nap. He would need all his strength for the night mission. “I’ll take over in a bit,” he told Sinthoras, closing his eyes.

  “I shall watch over you both, my demigods,” Karjuna called up to him. The next moment she yelped.

  Caphalor smiled with satisfaction. He did not have to look to see what had happened: Sinthoras would have punished her for her arrogance. As soon as he had slept a little he would climb down and discipline her himself. He hoped she would make lots of mistakes.

  Under cover of night they made their way quickly toward the towers.

  Caphalor was struck by how quiet it was: the forest had been alive with sound, but as soon as they were on the plain silence had fallen; there were no insects, no animals. The sky fortress was not sending out good vibrations.

  Karjuna was in front and heading straight for the fourth tower, making as little noise as possible. She was nowhere near as silent as the älfar, of course, but still quieter than any other creature would have been.

  Caphalor cursed the fflecx. Wretched gnome folk. Nothing in their brains at all and then stupid enough to get robbed by a gålran zhadar. He was not yet noticing any ill effects from Munumon’s poison.

  “Here,” said Karjuna, stopping at the base of one of the mighty support columns. “It was here.” She ran both hands over the surface of the wall.

  Caphalor watched her while Sinthoras observed their surroundings. The obboona’s movements were smooth and flowing, but much too coarse to be anything like those of the älfar she so admired. She might have been able to fool one of the lower monsters, but any creature with half a brain would catch her out immediately, seeing her as a miserable imitation of true perfection.

  Karjuna had finished testing the wall’s surface and had found a small hatch the size of her palm with a large metal ring fixed to it. She pulled the ring and there was a loud click as a trap door swung open, only large enough for an älf or a slim human to crawl through: a perfect trap.

  But the obboona was not put off by any thought of treachery and she disappeared through it into the darkness. She called the two of them to follow her.

  “You first,” said Sinthoras with a smile, bowing to Caphalor. “The Inextinguishables’ Honor-Blessing will protect you from any ambush.”

  “Their award makes me more valuable as a prisoner,” he countered. “If this is a trap the obboona is leading us into, nothing must happen to me.”

  “So you’re saying the Blessing is not worth having?” Sinthoras feigned a friendly tone.
“The Inextinguishable Ones will be sad to hear that.”

  Caphalor paid him no further heed, stowing his bow and arrow so that he could follow Karjuna.

  He plunged into the blackness. It smelled of cold and of stone, of iron and oil. He looked about him as he forced his way carefully through the narrow opening—he had to make sure he did not get caught on anything. He found himself in a vertical tube, his foot hovering over an abyss; warm air streamed up toward him, blowing his hair about his face. He stopped and listened.

  “Be careful!” came Karjuna’s voice above him. Her warning was not as prompt as it could have been. “There are chains in front of you. They’re for the counterweights. Stretch out your hand and hold them. Take care—they are oily and slippery.”

  Caphalor did as she said. The links were huge, each one half as tall as him, and they ran deep into the ground until they reached the weights that had enabled the tower’s corridor sections to be lowered. He wondered what forge had produced such things: this gålran zhadar must be ingenious indeed, and have the skills of incredible master craftsmen at his disposal.

  The ascent began. He climbed determinedly upward, but after a time his arms and legs grew tired. He began to concentrate on each individual movement, ignoring the pain in his tortured muscles: one hundred, two hundred, three hundred times he completed the same sequence of steps and holds on the enormous chain, pushing himself onwards. The tips of his fingers were tingling—this was new—perhaps an effect of the toxins in his blood. This augured badly for the future. As he climbed, he grew more and more furious that they had ever fallen into the hands of the fflecx.

  The obboona stopped. “We’ve arrived.” There was another click and a faint blue light appeared from a new opening in the wall. Karjuna pulled herself up and went through.

  “What if she closes the hatch now and raises the alarm?” said Sinthoras, close behind him.

  “She could have done that earlier.”

  “Are you saying that to allay your own fears, or have you been off your guard?” Sinthoras mocked. “Perhaps there’s an army waiting for us up there, and the Honor-Blessed älf will be heading straight into their arms . . .”

 
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