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Righteous fury, p.16
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       Righteous Fury, p.16

           Markus Heitz
 

  His senses tricked him, turning the flesh-stealer into a real älf. “I slipped out before the door had quite closed and opened it again from the outside,” she said, her voice tinkling like a bell, as full of promise as the warm smile she bestowed on him: he could do anything he wanted to with her. “When we are free I’ll complete the parchment for you, demigods. Not before.”

  Sinthoras shook himself, tripped over his own feet and fell. The others had to haul him up and help him along.

  He had no idea which way they were going. His legs barely functioned and he felt so odd. There was shouting. Caphalor stopped every so often to shoot some arrows and then Sinthoras had to crawl through an opening after him. He was seeing double: he did not know which of the hands were really his, so his fingers failed to grasp the metal links.

  “Pull yourself together!” Caphalor yelled at him angrily. “Do you hear? Pull yourself together and climb down the chain. If you fall, you’ve had it. Think of our mission and pull yourself together! What will our rulers say? Do you want to bring shame on yourself?”

  No, he certainly did not want that! He brushed away the fog in front of his eyes and made his way down as best he could. However he hurried, the others were a long way ahead of him now. He put the spear in his belt and tried to catch them up.

  After what seemed an age he reached the side shaft and tumbled out of the hatchway. They ran through the night, heading for the protection of the forest.

  Sinthoras turned his head.

  All the lights were blazing in the sky fortress, the windows were lit up and there were fires on the tops of all six towers. An impressive sight indeed. They heard a loud clanging and a metallic screech, repeated ten, twenty times over.

  “Run!” shrieked Karjuna, scared to death now. “Don’t stop, run for your lives!”

  Sinthoras could not help himself. He simply had to wait to see what would happen.

  The towers were moving!

  Then he realized his eyes were deceiving him. Parts of the external walls were rumbling aside, exposing hatchways and large openings. The fortress was growing flaming eyes and incandescent mouths. He wanted to stop and make a painting of it—with the black night as a background, the castle was of another world entirely.

  Deep-throated brass sounded the alarm and shrill pipes sent out urgent signals.

  The first of the connecting sections were being let down on long chains. The fortress was not going to let robbers and murderers get away scot-free.

  Sinthoras stared, wide-eyed in amazement. The darkness had gone and the whole plain was filled with light: a hundred stars rose to the skies from the walls of the castle, shooting up to illuminate the clouds, making their way up to their celestial siblings. Their comet tails formed sparkling patterns, painting the firmament in glowing hues, overtaking each other, competing to go higher, highest. No, he would never be able to capture this magnificent scene on canvas.

  “By Inàste,” he whispered in awe. “What beauty!” Near tears, Sinthoras swallowed hard.

  But the distances were too great, it seemed, for these piteous new stars.

  Their flights ended, they described great arcs in the sky and turned toward the earth, about to burst and shatter on the ground.

  “No!” he cried, stretching out his arms as if to catch and save each of them. “See how they fall, the stars! They—”

  “You fool!” Caphalor shouted in his ear. “It’s fire-arrows! They’re shooting at us with fire arrows!”

  Sinthoras felt his shoulder being grabbed and he was dragged away under a growing hail of blazing stars.

  When the first missiles hissed down next to him, igniting the dry grass, he came to his senses and shook Caphalor off, running after him of his own accord.

  All around them arrows came whizzing down. The first salvo had spared them, although he saw one had narrowly missed him, piercing his drinking flask.

  The whooshing sounds changed, and the missiles this time became flaming leather bags, as big as a man, with great flaring tails. Black shadows hurtling through the air proved to be large stones fired in their direction. Behind them the whole plain was alight.

  His mind finally became clear as his pounding heart pumped the confusion out of his head and the fresh air sobered him. “Get to the cave!” he shouted to Caphalor, who was racing ahead.

  A burning arrow from above penetrated the obboona’s right shoulder. Sinthoras heard the hiss as the flames were smothered on entering her flesh; she screamed out but kept running, though slower now, and she was soon overtaken by the two älfar.

  Sinthoras did not waste a glance on her as he continued on his path through the forest. He realized that several had hit him in the back and were lodged in his rucksack—luck would not be on their side for long.

  The älfar raced through the undergrowth between the stout tree trunks without stopping.

  A huge boulder landed just in front of them and rolled over and over before coming to a standstill. Trees, leaves, and branches came crashing down and soil spurted up on all sides as the älfar ducked and weaved. The forest’s wounds gave off the smell of resin and damp earth.

  Sinthoras wondered what military engines the fortress had employed to send a missile of that size such a distance.

  “Let’s get on,” he panted, swerving round an uprooted tree.

  There was a sudden flash, a hissing cloud of smoke and a burning sack fell out of the treetops, bursting into flame and raining molten fire. Heat and light filled the forest.

  “By Tion!” exclaimed Caphalor, bounding away out of danger and out of Sinthoras’ field of vision.

  Dazzled by the flames, Sinthoras ran off in the opposite direction.

  He saw more and more missiles landing: the castle defenders were doing their best to cut off the intruders’ retreat and were burning down their own forest, rather than see them escape with their lives.

  Finally he saw the split in the rock that was the cave entrance—their safe haven.

  “It’s me, it’s Sinthoras!” he called, so Raleeha would know who was coming. He could hear one of the huge boulders flying down at him. At the last moment he flung himself through the narrow opening ahead of the crash.

  The boulder landed with an enormous thump, shaking the ground and throwing up clumps of earth. An instant later and he would have been buried under it.

  He sat down, gasping for breath, and felt a further shuddering impact. Pebbles showered down on him: their shelter had been hit for a second time.

  “What is happening out there?” Raleeha asked from her high perch. She had an arrow in one hand and a dagger in the other. The heel of one of her boots was lying on the ground next to her drinking flask.

  “Quiet!” he snapped at her, his newly acquired spear at the ready. He could see the fire arrows he had thought to be shooting stars, but he was still having other hallucinations. He put it down to gnome poison and prayed the gods would spare him further bouts.

  A shadow swept past the entrance and Caphalor pushed his way through.

  A shame, that. Sinthoras could see that the other älf had only made it by the skin of his teeth. His armor and clothing showed scorch marks. He must have gone through the fire to reach the cave.

  The smoke and the smell of burning were getting stronger; the wind carried sparks into the cave and the crackling of the fire was growing louder.

  “We can’t stay here,” Caphalor coughed. “There’s only a narrow section of the forest that’s not burning yet. If we don’t go now—”

  Another missile hit their shelter. This time the night-mare whinnied loudly and pawed the ground in terror, its tail whipping from side to side. Caphalor was attempting to calm the beast when another boulder slammed down outside.

  Parts of the roof started to cave in and a cloud of bluish gray dust rose up over Caphalor and the stallion, preventing Sinthoras from seeing them. Let’s hope that one got him, he prayed to Samusin.

  “It’s me, demigods,” Karjuna called, climbing caref
ully in through the entrance.

  A petroleum bomb slammed into the rock wall above her head and a waterfall of fire engulfed her.

  Giving a scream unlike any sound Sinthoras had ever heard, the obboona ran through into the cave, hurling herself onto the floor and rolling in the dust, scattering burning drops of petroleum and scraps of charred material. This extinguished the flames. She shrieked with pain, then fell still and remained motionless. The stink of burning flesh was in the air.

  Sinthoras glanced over to the entrance where the fire was still raging. A thin finger of fire made its way harmlessly through, running down the floor of the cavern. Outside the entire forest was aflame. Hot wind invaded their shelter, making it difficult to breathe.

  Stepping round the obboona, he took a look outside.

  Flames shot up wildly, interlinked and overlapping, thirty or forty paces high on all sides, lighting up the whole sky. The crackling of the fire was terrifyingly loud and the flames were a sea of bright yellow and dark red: a sight he would never forget, if he lived through it.

  Smoke and heat forced him to turn his face away.

  “We must block up the entrance with the debris,” came Caphalor’s voice next to him. “Otherwise the draft will bring the fire in here and we’ll be baked like loaves of bread in an oven.” His face showed new grazes and cuts and he was covered in dirt and dust—but he was still alive.

  Sinthoras saw a dust-covered Raleeha cowering in the corner, trembling all over, coughing and trying to hold her sleeve over her face. The obboona was still lying on the ground. The night-mare did not fancy trying her flesh.

  It seems that Inàste has put a charm on your life. Sinthoras nodded and helped Caphalor block up the entrance. But that will all change soon.

  They worked swiftly to prevent the air from getting even worse. The narrow burning line of petroleum on the floor provided light for them to work by. When they had finished they sat down and listened to what was happening outside, taking it in turns to drink from Caphalor’s flask. Boulders were still being shot at the forest, but no longer landing in the immediate vicinity.

  As it grew hotter and more stifling in the cave, Sinthoras began to sweat. The stallion snorted constantly and Caphalor was unable to calm the animal, whatever he tried. Raleeha did not dare to speak.

  Sinthoras seized the chance to check over his rucksack. The crown was undamaged and the parchment had a hole in it, but it had not been burned. A pain in his right hand made him catch his breath. His fingers tingled and then went numb: the gnome poison at work again.

  “All in order,” he reported. “Have you got the gålran zhadar’s head?”

  “No.”

  “What?” Sinthoras sprang to his feet, holding out the rucksack in reproof. “We were supposed to bring Munumon his head!”

  “There wasn’t time.”

  “That was the third requirement for us getting the antidote!”

  “We had to escape from the castle. I could do nothing against those numbers all on my own,” Caphalor answered sharply. “You were no help.”

  “Are you reproaching me, after I felled the zhadar?” he snapped in reply. “It’s your fault we haven’t got the head.”

  “Only because I was having to look after you. We’ll be able to talk Munumon round, I’m sure.” Caphalor’s tone was confident.

  “The gålran zhadar was lying in the corner! How could you not—”

  “Stop!” Caphalor threw him an icy look. “There was no other way to get us out of there. Not least because of the state you were in, an instant more would have been our undoing!”

  “Just because you are always escaping death doesn’t mean your luck will hold,” Sinthoras retorted, tossing the sack onto the ground. He was not going to take the blame for this. “What do we do if Munumon is not satisfied with what we have to offer him?”

  “He will be satisfied with it.”

  “I’m not counting on it.” It did not take him long to decide on his best course of action. “You take the rucksack and crawl on your belly to the ugly gnome. I’ll get on my way to the mist-demon.” The smoke was making him cough.

  Caphalor stared at him. “Has the magic affected your sanity? Your body carries a poison that will finish you off before you’re halfway there.”

  “It’s not certain the poison is lethal,” Sinthoras contradicted stubbornly, trying to convince himself. “Perhaps Munumon was lying to us, and anyway, he might just kill us when we’ve handed over what we’ve got: the parchment—damaged—and the crown, but not the head. You won’t be able to fight off one hundred gnomes, however Honor-Blessed you are. You haven’t got enough arrows, for a start. You stand no chance.” He placed the spear over his knee. “As soon as the inferno has died down and the ground has cooled I’m heading for the northwest.”

  “Then our ways part here,” said Caphalor calmly. He did not try to dissuade Sinthoras. “Your decision will cost you your life, but I shall bury your body when I pass it.”

  The obboona gave a sudden moan and started to push herself up from the floor. She groaned, staring at her scorched hands, then yelped when she felt her face: the false ears came away in her fingers, turning to ashes. Croaking, she got up and staggered round the cave, begging for water.

  “Oh, look! If the gods are with you, Caphalor, you can get our flesh-stealer to complete the parchment. That’s if she can still hold a pen.” He mocked Karjuna: “The cleansing fire has returned your own skin to you.” He pushed her away with the blunt end of his spear before she could touch him. She fell on Raleeha’s drinking flask and poured the water down her throat, tears of pain coursing down her face.

  Sinthoras would have loved to ram his borrowed spear right through her heart and then shove her outside for the flames to finish off.

  He began to examine the spear more closely. Running his fingers down the shaft of the new spear he discovered a little opening—if he put his finger over it a hissing sound came from the spear tip, where a tiny hole was visible, as small as the eye of a needle.

  He immediately grasped the significance: if he stabbed an enemy with this spear and then pressed on that valve, a rush of air would destroy the victim’s guts. No one would survive that.

  He was forced to admire the gålran zhadar’s inventiveness. The gnome had probably stolen the idea from someone else, of course. Who cared? This unique weapon was now his.

  They heard a splash.

  The sound of falling drops was repeated, the intervals getting shorter all the time until it sounded like a fine spray of water.

  “You know what that means?” Sinthoras ran to the blocked exit and chucked some of the stones aside, letting clouds of steam into the cave. There was a strong smell of smoke—it was pouring with rain and the downpour was slowly putting out the fire.

  This was his best chance of getting away—if the gålran zhadar’s soldiers did not find their bodies they would be after them in hot pursuit. He enlarged the opening until he could crawl through.

  “My thanks, Samusin!” he cried, bowing his head. “The god of justice is with me.”

  “You’re really going?” Caphalor stepped up to him, his concerned expression concealed by the steam vapor. “Think—”

  “I hope when you and your two women get there you find Munumon is having one of his good days.” Sinthoras shouldered his spear. “I shall get to the mist-demon first, Caphalor, and I promise we will meet again—alive. Then you will serve me in my army when I lead it against Tark Draan. Don’t imagine your Honor-Blessing will help. They’ll forget about you. The älfar will be praising me soon.” Then he left, giving Caphalor no opportunity to reply. It was such a good speech, he did not want it spoiled.

  He hurried away through the swirling mists of hot steam.

  CHAPTER VIII

  Phondrasôn.

  Discovered by the Inextinguishable Ones. Kept hidden and made secure by the Inextinguishable Ones.

  It is Unspeakableness, living under the earth, and not a world that m
ay be stepped into. Here there be horrors, monsters and nameless creatures, and its extent defies measurement. Criminals are consigned to its deepest regions, warriors come to face their ultimate challenges, but nothing that possesses the power of reason can reside in this region.

  And if any were to attempt it, their reason would be forfeit.

  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.

  Standing at a safe distance, Caphalor surveyed the devastation on the empty plain in front of the fortress.

  The torrential downpour had put out the flames and turned the ground into a steaming black morass. About a hundred of the gålran zhadar’s soldiers were combing through the area, leaving no fallen tree unturned in their search through the ravaged zone. They were searching the ground methodically in groups of ten—eight warriors and two archers—looking for the burned remains of the älfar.

  One of these units had a pack of white hounds on long leashes and they plowed straight through the debris toward the cave where they had sheltered.

  Caphalor, Raleeha, and the obboona had set off immediately after Sinthoras had left. Caphalor had no wish to get involved in any more fighting, not when Munumon and the antidote were waiting. Hardly had his thoughts turned to the poison in his blood than his eyes dimmed and his vision blurred. His hands were turning numb. He shook his fingers and rubbed his eyes. Everything was normal again. “They won’t catch us up now,” Caphalor muttered. He turned the night-mare’s head and told it to walk on, leading Raleeha behind him tied to a long rope. He feared despair might make her try to follow her Sinthoras and she was still too valuable to risk losing in Ishím Voróo. She had grazes on her arms and shoulders from the rocks that had fallen in the cave and was coughing a great deal from smoke inhalation.

  The flesh-stealer limped along, bringing up the rear. The ugly mount Sinthoras had been given by the fflecx had not survived the fire.

 
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