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Righteous fury, p.24
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       Righteous Fury, p.24

           Markus Heitz
 

  The continuous smoldering had burned deep holes into the subsoil; craters gaped, sending up plumes of whitish steam.

  Sinthoras found this scene of devastation intensely invigorating. Overwhelming!

  He saw a forest that consisted of charcoal sticks and next to that the remains of a town, its walls collapsed, consumed by fire. The conflagration had eaten away at the foundations.

  Truly this is the land of demons. In great excitement the älf started to make his way down past the broken carcass of his horse. It was about midday when he approached the ruined town.

  Walking ankle-deep in ashes, he could feel the heat radiating up through his boots. The sky was hardly visible through the steam and smoke; the daystar was nothing more than a dirty, glowing ball. The burned trees crackled and snapped as he passed.

  At last he arrived at the shell of the town.

  Sinthoras took in the holes that had opened up between the houses. In other places the ground had caved in, bringing whole buildings down. He was fascinated by the destruction, and found it aesthetically pleasing: a whole town had been turned into a work of deconstructed art, a work of decay. I’ll create the same effect in Tark Draan. He strolled around, discovering new shapes and structures in the ruins.

  He came across human remains, nothing but charred bones, all displaying the same feature: the head had been chopped off or the skull had been smashed in. This was certainly no accident.

  How can I find the mist-demon? From his previous vantage point he had gained the impression that the burning mountain ranges radiated out in all directions. A creature made of mist would be difficult to locate in all this smoke and steam.

  The wind was coming from the south now, enveloping Sinthoras in an acrid cloud of smoke. Coughing, he tied a cloth around his mouth and nose.

  He decided to climb to the top of one of the neighboring hills and sound his horn. If the demon turned up, all well and good. If, instead, barbarians responded to the signal, he could interrogate them.

  He marched across hot, dry ground, feeling the heat under his feet as he started the climb. Everything was permeated with fire.

  Tiny flames danced over cracks in the soil and bursts of gas ignited without warning, presenting new dangers for Sinthoras, however carefully he watched his step.

  Occasionally the earth creaked and groaned like an ice flow and sank even under his slight weight. He imagined the red-hot chasm that lay underneath the fragile crust.

  What a bizarre world, he thought, catching sight of the hilltop emerging through the smoke.

  He climbed cautiously to the summit, took out his bugle and put it to his lips, repeating a sequence of notes. The signal sounded over the mountains, its echoes forming a somber canon. How the melody suits this dark landscape! If one could only include sound in a painting, he thought as he let his gaze wander.

  The light was failing and heavy drops of rain fell, splashing on the horn as he blew. Then the deluge started, drenching Sinthoras to the skin.

  The earth at his feet hissed with thirsty greed as fire and water instantly created steam that covered the hills.

  It became difficult to breathe. Droplets of moisture formed on his forehead, armor and hair; within a few heartbeats the cloth round his mouth was soaked. His lungs seemed to be cooking. He saw stars dancing in front of his eyes.

  said a voice in his head.

  Sinthoras was startled. This was not a trick of his hearing. “And who are you?”

 

  “Show yourself!” he challenged.

 

  The mist-demon! The demon had found him! “Greetings,” he spluttered, coughing. “My name is Sinthoras of the mighty and invincible folk of the älfar.” He pulled himself proudly to his full height, his voice velvety now, eager to please and impress. “My rulers, the Inextinguishable and Eternal Siblings, send me. I have been seeking you and have the honor of offering you an alliance.” Despite his exhaustion he wanted to cry out in excited triumph. The success of his mission was now at hand! My success, mine alone! He thanked Inàste for her help.

  <Älfar? What’s that?>

  The question was an insult. “A race.”

 

  “In no way! We are far superior to any other race!”

  the demon’s voice reflected his amusement,

  “My rulers are offering you sovereignty over a realm of your own on the other side of these mountains,” he went on. This was not going as he had planned. He was furious to learn that the demon had never even heard of his people. Or is this his idea of a joke? Is he trying to make a fool of me to see how I’ll react? “You will rule over humans there. The Inextinguishable Ones will support you with an army bigger than any previously seen in Ishím Voróo.”

  The voice inside his head merely laughed.

  Sinthoras could not grasp this. “Surely everyone wants to rule? You yourself have made this place your own; you defend it and you have killed or driven out the humans who once lived here.”

 

  Sinthoras did not get the impression that the demon was particularly interested in getting to Tark Draan. This surprised him. It surprised him a lot. He no longer thought the demon was testing him. What is the point of a bored, indifferent ally?

  “What would you wish from us, then, in return for your support?” he put to the demon, mystified now.

  The rain was easing off and a sharp wind drove the smoke away, allowing him to see the mist-demon floating a foot-length above the ground. It was disappointingly unspectacular for a demon.

 

  “Of course, what—?”

 

  Sinthoras did not hide his amazement. He had bargained in the past with others for gold or weapons or food supplies and he had traded in works of art, but to have the fate of his homeland depend on his singing? It was lucky that he sang tolerably well. “Then lend me your ears. I shall sing the Lay of Inàste’s Tears.”

  Sinthoras raised his voice and sang as he had never, in all his long life, sung before.

  Tears, heavy with sadness,

  dark and deeply troubled.

  Blackness of the sky,

  Tears shed for our sake,

  for us,

  us, the immortal ones.

  They gave us courage,

  brought us homeland and hope.

  Divinity descended,

  donated to us,

  us, the immortal ones.

  Elevated and highly blessed

  by our mother Inàste,

  they stand above all else,

  as we stand above all others,

  we, the immortal ones.

  Tears shall no longer flow,

  dark and deeply troubled.

  We live eternal, praising her,

  the mother, proudly.

  That pride itself

  was gifted us,

  us, the immortal ones.

  Others should now shed their tears:

  the mothers of our foes.

  Inàste herself will laugh with joy,

  over the bones of our enemies,

  slain by us,

  us, the immortal ones.

  The final tone echoed over the mountain ranges. Sinthoras was extremely gratified by the quality of his own performance and was sure it would h
ave had the desired effect on the demon. He sank down on his right knee. “Now let me describe to you how we shall travel to Dsôn—”

 

  “What?” Sinthoras was certain the demon had been lost for words.

  The sparkling cloud spread in size, becoming transparent.

  Sinthoras could not understand how this creature was criticizing his singing. Before he could bring himself to suggest a different song, the mist rose up and let the wind drive it back into the heart of the smoke. The rain had not been sufficient to douse the peat fires.

  Sinthoras heard.

  “Wait!” he shouted, trying to pursue the cloud, but it melted into the smoke and disappeared. “Demon, you must not leave!” he called in desperation. “Demon? DEMON?”

  He listened out for the voice in his head but heard only the hissing of the hot damp earth.

  There was no word.

  “By Tion!” he roared, ramming his spear into the ground. “What do I do now?” My dreams are shattered and it was my singing that did it. I chose the wrong song. Sinthoras uttered a sound that was pure helplessness. I must think of something! I must!

  He whirled round on hearing footsteps.

  Seven figures approached over the brow of the hill; they were in heavy armor and bore shields and swords. A hodgepodge of the usual races ranging from barbarians via an óarco to a fflecx. The cnutar they had with them was a symbiotic creation, an interesting novelty.

  Sinthoras pulled his spear out of the ground, threw down his saddlebags and readied himself for the fray. This is no chance encounter. You would never see such a mixed group under normal circumstances, not even in Ishím Voróo. They must have been dragooned into serving together. “What do you want?”

  They fanned out and the barbarian, his face mostly obscured by visor and beard, stepped forward. “Apart from your death, älf? We want the vial you stole from the castle of my master, the mighty gålran zhadar.”

  “I do not have it; my companion took it,” Sinthoras lied. He was angry with himself for not noticing he was being followed. He had not really paid attention. He had not left tracks, of course, but his horse had, and he would pay for this oversight. As these seven adversaries had managed to avoid all the obstacles of the journey, they must be good at what they did.

  “If so, the troops pursuing them will soon find out,” the barbarian replied.

  You think you are going to defeat me? By placing his finger to his lips and putting his head on one side, Sinthoras pretended to be thinking hard. “Wait! I think it was the obboona who took it. She knew what its importance was.”

  The barbarian shook his head. “I don’t think so.” He drew his sword. “I think you know exactly what you stole, otherwise you would not be here and we would not have found you, would we?”

  Sinthoras was curious. Of course, he had studied the vial and had sensed the magic it contained, but he had no idea what it was for. From what the barbarian was saying, it sounded like it might have something to do with the mist-demon—that would tie up with the damaged inscription. “Possibly,” he answered vaguely, twirling the spear in his hands.

  “Then we’ll start with your death and we can look for the vial ourselves.” The barbarian gave the signal to attack and the other six moved in.

  Sinthoras was dismayed to see the fflecx selecting a dart from his belt while the others spread out to surround him.

  He did something he had previously only done once, in all his years as an älf warrior, and then only under express orders: he turned and ran, weaving this way and that to avoid the alchemancer darts. If you are stupid enough, do what your leader says and come after me!

  His speed gave him a head start. He would seek out suitable places for a counterattack to avoid meeting them in open combat: the numbness in his fingers was spreading up his arms and it would affect his precision with weapons. He would have to set traps.

  The gålran zhadar’s henchmen were forced to act; before they could take either the vial or his life they would have to catch him.

  I’ll kill the fflecx first. He took out the phaiu su he had kept in his cuff, and taking the silver filament in his gauntleted hand, he ran into the midst of the densest smoke, threw himself into one of the smoldering pits and held his breath.

  Sinthoras sank down into the ash. A heat haze swirled round him like water. He relied on his armor and on his own stamina to be able to suppress the burning pain for long enough.

  He soon heard his pursuers. When he heard the soft steps nearing he sat up and opened his hand, blowing the phaiu su off his gloved hand. Fly and find yourself some food!

  His breath was enough to waft the strand on its journey.

  At first it seemed it would land ineffectually on the plated shoulder of the óarco in front of the fflecx, but the gnomoid’s playful nature sealed his fate: he reached out for the web-like thread and a light breeze waved it into his face.

  The phaiu su sat fast and the fflecx screeched like an old woman. His companions rushed up and tried to help him. The barbarian, however, shouted a warning: the fflecx was a goner and they must look to their own safety.

  You are so easy to trick. The general confusion helped Sinthoras. Still in his hiding place, he stuck the end of his spear into the cnutar’s right leg, activating the weapon’s hidden switch.

  The artificial blast of air inflated the flesh, bursting it open. Blood and shreds of skin shot into the air and the leg bones were laid bare.

  At once the parts of the symbiotic creature separated and took on human form. They desperately attempted to stem the bleeding of the other part, but death was too quick for them. Sixty heartbeats later the other two sections keeled over as well. There was no sign of the other pursuers. They must be out in the mist somewhere.

  Five. Sinthoras jumped up and ran deeper into the swirling fog, leaving a trail of sparks and ash. I can cope with five, even in my present state.

  He received a sudden blow on his back that felled him and heard an óarco mock him in a deep, throaty laugh.

  “The black-eyes always used to be quicker than that,” came the taunt.

  Sinthoras heard a whistling sound and rolled over onto his side; the sword missed him. He could no longer feel his arms but at least they moved and obeyed him. “Quick enough to kill you,” he announced arrogantly. His movements were jerky and inelegant. The óarco had no problem parrying his spear thrusts.

  On his right side the barbarian loomed up out of the mist, aiming a sword thrust at this head.

  Sinthoras met the opponent’s blade with his spear shaft, deflecting it to strike the óarco, but the creature protected itself with its shield.

  Is there nothing I can do properly? His acute hearing told Sinthoras that the ground under his feet was cracking. Without a moment’s hesitation he rammed his spear into the ground and activated the mechanism again, springing backward simultaneously.

  The high-pressure air-jet tore a hole in the earth’s crust, swallowing up the barbarian and the óarco. A cloud of sparks erupted and a red tongue of flame shot up to the sky. Another of the barbarians, hurrying to help his friend, fell into the pit himself. The chasm had opened quickly and his heavy armor had pulled him to his death.

  I can do this after all. Sinthoras landed outside the danger area and started running. Only two . . .

  As if from nowhere the edge of a shield hit him on the chin.

  Sinthoras was thrown off his feet, hanging suspended in the air for a moment before falling. The spear slipped out of his fingers and d
isappeared into the fumes with a clatter; he could not breathe and he was sure his jaw was broken.

  He jumped up and whirled around, spitting blood and drawing his long knife.

  Then he was kicked in the side so that all the air was driven out of his lungs. He heard a shout of triumph and saw the ugly face of a half-troll looking down at him. Then a shield smashed against the älf’s face.

  This made Sinthoras cry out in pain; blood dripped from his mouth, but there was worse to come: his arms and legs gave way and he had no resistance against the poison exerting its full effects at the worst possible time. Samusin, be gracious or I am lost! Any thought of his defeating his enemies was fading fast.

  “Over here!” yelled the troll, kicking Sinthoras over on to his back with a steel-tipped boot. “Over here! I’ve got him!”

  “There’s only one left besides you,” Sinthoras croaked indistinctly, attempting a malicious laugh. It was incredibly painful and so he stopped trying. Robbed of any strength in his limbs he could not think of anything he could do to avert the impending defeat. He had been so close. All the fault of that indecisive demon!

  “As if I care,” the half-troll mocked, above him. “The only thing that matters is that I’ve caught you, black-eyes.” He lifted his huge foot and stamped down on the älf’s stomach with his heel. “Let’s see what you have had to eat,” he said with an ugly laugh.

  The armor took most of the murderous impact, but the half-troll increased the pressure, breaking four of the älf’s ribs. Fighting for air, Sinthoras arched his back.

  And heard glass breaking.

  The half-troll had shattered the vial with his foot.

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands), älfar realm Dsôn Faïmon, tip of the Radial Arm Shiimal,

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

  late summer.

  Caphalor opened his eyes.

 
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