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Righteous fury, p.23
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       Righteous Fury, p.23

           Markus Heitz
 

  One of the men replied, sounding delighted. The others waved their arms in the air and shouted, overjoyed at having escaped with their lives. They rode over to Caphalor and Raleeha to meet them halfway.

  Caphalor surveyed them arrogantly. He did not even rein in his night-mare, but trotted past.

  The men watched him from under heavy brows, admiration and fear in their eyes. They had obviously heard of the älfar. They could not understand why an älf would have come to their aid.

  One of them was talking to Raleeha, trying to convince her of something.

  “If he’s trying to persuade you to escape, you know what will happen to them all,” he said, matter of factly. “You are not to leave my side.”

  “Master, forgive him. He does not understand why I follow you of my own free will.” She sounded distressed and worried. “Please excuse their ignorance.”

  “Tell them not to follow us. If they do, they’ll be shot.” He did not have many arrows left, truth be told, but the humans would not know that.

  Her compatriots, riding alongside, were arguing with her, trying to get her to go with them.

  Caphalor urged the night-mare and the horse into a gallop. One of the barbarians rode up and stared until the älf turned to face him. The expression in the man’s moss-green eyes was serious and grateful. The he raised his ax in farewell and peeled away, followed by the other three.

  “Thank you, master,” he heard a relieved Raleeha say.

  He did not answer. His lips had gone numb and he could not speak.

  The alchemancers’ poison was at work.

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands),

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

  late summer.

  Initially, Sinthoras had contemplated taking on all of the barbarians, but fifty seemed a bit on the high side, even to him. With the advantage of surprise it would have been a different matter.

  They surrounded him. Leaning on his spear, he smiled politely, the essence of calm.

  The barbarians could see he was not a jeembina, but were not able to place him.

  It was refreshing not to be met with craven fear simply on account of his älfar appearance. Like big children. It was time to teach them who they faced.

  “You are no jeembina,” one of the barbarians yelled. The man’s speech was ugly, but at least it was intelligible.

  “I am named Sinthoras and am one of the Shindimar,” he lied, grinning broadly. He avoided the word älf in case they knew it. “The jeembina took me prisoner, but I was able to escape when you attacked them.” He pointed to the wood. “Some of them made off that way. They were chasing one of your soldiers.”

  The barbarian passed the message on to his men via a translator and they drew their weapons and headed out along the path into the trees. Most were keen to storm off immediately, but some stayed put, deep suspicion on their ugly faces.

  The leader, the one with the best armor, looked a bit like Hasban. Sinthoras assumed he was a relative of Hasban. He smiled at him. Soon you shall follow him, little barbarian.

  It was this man that gave the orders to move. He even returned the smile.

  “You’ll be coming with us,” the barbarian said.

  “Gladly.” They moved aside for him and he strode off in front.

  “You’re from over here?” the barbarian asked.

  “Yes.” He kept up the pretense. “The jeembina captured me when I was out hunting here in the forest.” He was pleased to note that the men did not realize the danger they were in. The trees and sharp leaves were harmless, it was the pretty phaiu su that were lethal.

  They went ever deeper into the woods, the snow crunching under their boots while Sinthoras walked silently and left no prints. You won’t forget this lesson, if you survive it. With his spear held loosely in his right hand he jogged along, light on his feet, pointing right and left occasionally to make them think he had heard something. He was diverting the barbarians’ attention away from the real trap.

  It was not long before the leader grabbed his arm and forced him to stop. The warriors formed a double circle round them both, their shields reinforcing the ring. The interpreter said, “My lord demands to know what you are up to.”

  “I’m taking you to where your men are in trouble. Why have we stopped?”

  “Because there are no footprints,” was the sharp response. “Our soldiers can’t fly and nor can the jeembina.”

  The leader drew his sword and held the tip against the älf’s throat.

  There was no mistaking the threat. “We can go back if you like,” he said, raising his arms to show he represented no danger to them.

  Let’s begin the lesson. What none of the simple souls noticed was his spear tip touching a low-hanging branch, releasing some of the threads to waft in the breeze.

  “What have you brought us here for?” the barbarian demanded to know, pressing the blade harder on to his throat. “You are on the jeembinas’ side?”

  “Of course not!” laughed Sinthoras, staying relaxed and showing no fear. “You know, of course, that there are ways of concealing one’s tracks. I have the ability to detect where this has been done.” He watched the silver filaments drift. Exquisitely beautiful. He paid attention neither to the leader, nor to the translator.

  One of the threads landed on a soldier’s helmet and slipped down over the leather neck protection. A gentle breeze lifted the loose end onto the man’s naked skin.

  Here we go! Sinthoras was looking forward to what would happen next.

  More webs drifted down onto other soldiers who were still blithely unaware. Other threads, attracted by body warmth, were blown around until they found somewhere to land.

  At times like these, Sinthoras was grateful that the älfar had a vast store of knowledge in their libraries. He had read about many Ishím Voróo secrets in the old books, and this was one such phenomenon recognized.

  One silver thread wobbled over toward him. He blew it away sharply so that it touched the face of the leader, sticking to the man’s skin.

  The barbarian raised his hand to brush it away—then he opened his eyes wide and gave a shocked exclamation. The thread swelled up, becoming as thick as a man’s finger. No matter how the man tried, the filament, no longer silver, but first purple and then dark red, could not be dislodged.

  The leader’s face turned pale. He dropped his sword, sinking onto his knees to tackle the pulsating rope that clung to his face.

  Well, there you go. Exactly what the textbooks say. Sinthoras watched closely, without his book-learning he would have been a victim, too.

  The attack on the barbarians’ leader was the signal.

  The filaments dropped down onto the horrified men as soon as they sensed the proximity of unguarded skin and they puffed up, gorging themselves on their victims’ blood. The men slashed at them in vain.

  Pointless, you ignoramuses. When they bit, the web-like creatures secreted a substance that prevented the blood from clotting. Even if you pulled them off, you bled to death. It does not look as if any of them will survive this little lesson.

  “You knew about this!” the translator shouted, jabbing at him with his sword. “You led us—”

  Sinthoras parried the attack by punching the flat side of the man’s weapon. He turned his spear upright and stuck it into the ground, slamming his fist into the barbarian’s windpipe. The älf seized his spear again before it had a chance to topple. The translator fell with a gurgle, gasping for air. “Do you simpletons still not realize why barbarians are never able to hang on to power?” he mocked.

  All around him the soldiers were dying. More and more of the phaiu su floated down, attracted by the smell of blood.

  Don’t touch me, I provided all this food for you.

  Sinthoras stepped to one side and sheltered under a tree that harbored none of the webs. He rubbed a couple of the filaments on his armor with gauntleted hands and they disintegrated just like spiders’ webs. Harmless. He ke
pt one as a souvenir, wrapping it carefully in the material of his sleeve cuff. As long as it did not touch skin it could do no harm. “Come along, little one. If Caphalor gets back alive, you shall be my gift to him. A secret gift.”

  The leader had managed to tear the phaiu su off his face and it had left a long open wound reaching down to his neck. It was bleeding badly. The man shouted at Sinthoras.

  “Are you cursing me, little barbarian?” Sinthoras burst out laughing. “I serve gods whose blessing would be a curse on you. What should I be afraid of?” He grabbed the floating filaments from nearby branches with the tip of his spear and diverted them toward the young man, who did not move aside swiftly enough. Three of the threads clung greedily to his skin. “Follow your relative into death. I shall follow my destiny.”

  As he left he liberated more phaiu su from the trees.

  The wind carried them to the Sons of the Wind. They would complete what he had begun.

  This journey was becoming enjoyable.

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands), ten miles north of the älfar realm Dsôn Faïmon,

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

  late summer.

  Caphalor’s view of his surroundings was blurred and he was seeing double.

  The symptoms caused by the fflecx chemistry were increasing. The more he tried to ignore them, the stronger the waves of pain. Even the tarto gathered by the roadside—and normally helpful in cases of poisoning—did not help. The alchemancers had tailor-made their toxin.

  His right leg was numb and useless. His senses were playing tricks and the air had smelled like fresh bread for miles, though his tongue was plagued by the taste of metal. Keep going, he told himself. Gods, let me make it to the border. Afterward, grant me the strength to defeat Munumon. It was a wish he no longer believed would be fulfilled. The poison was affecting him too badly now. But Samusin might help, and maybe the herbs would slow his decline. “Master, what is holding us up?” asked Raleeha.

  “The horse,” he said. His speech was affected now and he chose to restrict his talk to essentials.

  Caphalor was overcome by a terrible lethargy and his eyes kept closing.

  “Rest,” he ordered weakly, sliding out of the saddle. He dropped his bow and, gasping for breath, tried to retrieve it. At the third attempt he picked it up and used it as a support.

  “As you command, master.” Raleeha followed the sound of the bow as it fell. They were standing under a tree that was devoid of foliage and offered no shelter. “Master, is there somewhere we can get out of the rain? Why did you choose to stop here?” The slave girl pulled the blanket round her shoulders.

  “Liked it.” He slipped down against the trunk, and fell into slumber, his head against the damp, cooling bark. He was running a fever. Only the soft rain prevented him from burning up completely.

  The fever brought dreams.

  He saw his life-companion calling to him as she slipped off her clothes. As he embraced her, he saw she bore Raleeha’s countenance. Yes, suddenly the slave girl had the countenance of an älf. The black lace over her empty eyes was strangely alluring. He bent to kiss Raleeha, feeling her desirable body under his hands, but she dissolved in smoke.

  Now he was on a balcony high above Dsôn, in the Tower of Bones, the Inextinguishable Ones standing on his right and his left and the jubilant masses far below, celebrating him as the conqueror of Tark Draan.

  “You are forgetting me,” whispered a woman and when he turned he found the burned visage of the obboona behind him. Before he could lift his arms to defend himself she pushed hard and he plunged over the balcony, to fall, screaming, past the million bones from which the tower was made, screaming, screaming . . . until a touch on his shoulder ended his free fall still miles above the euphoric crowd. The wind played around him.

  “Master!”

  He tried to open his eyes but the lids were heavy as stone. Someone was shaking him.

  “Master! Wake up! Please! They are looking . . .” Then Raleeha shrieked. In the distance Sardaî whinnied.

  Caphalor woke from his daze and looked around.

  The slave girl was being held by two masked figures; three others had hold of the night-mare and were trying to calm the beast before it could bite through the ropes with its sharp teeth.

  He was nearly too late to notice the shadows. His vision was returning slowly, but he could not focus on the three blurred figures directly in front of him.

  “Caphalor is your death.” He sprang up, drawing his short swords, clashing their blades against each other so that they rang out. “It is an unforgivable error to lay hands on my property. No sane person would steal from an älf.”

  The bandits froze at a sign from their leader. Their faces were partly hidden but their eyes showed fear. Barbarians: outlawed barbarians. “We thought you were dead, älf,” the leader said, putting on an ingratiating tone.

  “I’ll show you the difference between a live älf and a dead one.” Without warning Caphalor hurled his short swords and dashed forward at the group of humans, long daggers in his hands.

  The blades pierced the leader and the man on his right. Caphalor slit the throat of the third.

  Something whizzed through the air.

  The noise made Caphalor draw his head back. The feathers on the arrow shaft brushed his nose, so close did it come.

  “Master, take care!” Raleeha’s warning reached him. “One of them must be near you . . .”

  Another vague shape confronted him, roaring and swinging a weapon over its head.

  Caphalor was about to drive this one back with his power, but there was a flash inside his skull; he saw stars, smelled fresh bread and tasted metal. His arms fell useless at his sides and his legs were fragile as glass, about to shatter under his weight. He could hear them cracking. The poison! He expected the bones to break.

  His adversary appeared as a glowing figure whose attack was suddenly halted. “What’s the trouble with the black-eyes?” he asked laughing.

  “Don’t waste time!” someone yelled. “Hit him now before he comes round.”

  Again the stallion whinnied. Hooves thundered close and the outlaws shouted wildly in confusion.

  When Caphalor’s vision finally settled he saw the bloodstained, blind slave girl obviously searching for him several paces off. Why is she walking free? He could not speak. He knew what was happening: the alchemancers’ poison was killing him. Perhaps the exertion of the fight had hastened the reaction.

  He noticed the sudden stillness of the forest. In front of him he saw the worried face of a familiar älf. “Caphalor! I go hunting without you just the one time and . . .”

  Aïsolon! His friend’s voice was soft, but Caphalor could not think anymore.

  His senses deserted him.

  CHAPTER XI

  Nagsar and Nagsor Inàste saw that the empire they had created was good and well formed.

  But they needed a monument to exemplify their triumph over all other races and to symbolize their claim to power.

  And so they caused a mountain to be constructed in the center of the crater with steps leading all the way up to their palace.

  A residence built solely from the skeletons of their enemies.

  Epocrypha of the Creating Spirit,

  1st Book,

  Chapter 2, 12–17

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands),

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

  late summer.

  Sinthoras galloped along an overgrown path on the stolen horse. Brambles and bushes threatened to block his progress, but he urged the sweating animal mercilessly onwards; he had been catching the smell of peat fires, but he had not seen any houses. Was he imagining it?

  He thought he had noticed a hint of numbness in his fingers. This would be the legacy of Munumon’s malign influence and it would surely be increasing day by day.

  He had gleaned directions to the mist-demon at a nomad campfire one night, listening
to their conversations from the darkness. The barbarians had called the northwest region the Land of Endless Death and avoided it. It had been said that nothing created by the gods would survive there, and that something terrible had taken all life from the place.

  This all sounded satisfactorily like the work of the creature, and thus was the direction to head in.

  What Sinthoras saw on his way only strengthened his suspicions: he had ridden through abandoned villages, seen ruined temples on the plains, and had passed a toppled statue originally dedicated to the god of light. The gods were being blamed for the disaster. Barbarians and gods alike had fled the area.

  Soon I shall find this being, he promised himself. Then I shall have triumphed over Caphalor and all of the Constellations. We Comets shall lead Dsôn Faïmon to its glorious future. He preferred not to think about his own death. Sinthoras firmly believed that ignoring the poison’s effects would keep him healthy longer than if he were constantly watching out for new symptoms. He was totally convinced he would make it back to Dsôn alive. He wanted his triumph, he wanted to receive the Inextinguishables’ Honor-Blessing, he wanted to be part of the campaign against Tark Draan and to have his military success elevate him to leadership. His name must feature in the legends of his race. The strength of my will shall protect me, he told himself. I shall prevail and live, and Caphalor will die.

  His mount plunged through a wall of foliage and Sinthoras saw—two paces before him—a yawning abyss.

  In that same moment he realized that his horse was moving too fast to be able to stop. He did a backward somersault, released the saddlebags from their straps, and landed neatly on his feet, using his spear for balance.

  The horse tried to veer away from the cliff edge at the last minute, but failed, sliding over and disappearing with a pitiful whinny of fear.

  The älf stepped forward to look over the precipice, stunned at what he saw.

  Before him were gently sloping mountain ranges, perhaps 800 to 1000 paces high, all interlinked, with no sheer cliffs or rock faces. They varied in tone from soft brown to shimmering green. In many places clouds of smoke rose up and whole sections glowed dark red like tobacco in a lit pipe. The hillocks and the flat land between were made of peat—and all of it was on fire.

 
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