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Righteous fury, p.41
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       Righteous Fury, p.41

           Markus Heitz
 

  The Inextinguishable ruler changed direction and strode calmly toward the Hall of Honor himself. An insolent creature indeed. Nagsor had summoned the gålran zhadar to appear after his request for access to Phondrasôn, but the interview had been scheduled for after his meeting with his sister.

  There have not been many opportunities in my lifespan for encountering a gålran zhadar. The dwarf-like creatures were notoriously suspicious of others; they had magic powers and they had an effective army of followers around them at all times. He and his sister had always avoided confrontation with such difficult opponents.

  Nagsor Inàste entered the ceremonial hall—but found no gålran zhadar waiting. “Where are you?” he called out. “Keep your eyes closed. My beauty could be fatal for you.”

  “I’m here,” came the response from a dark niche, and then the creature stepped out into the light that fell through the turquoise-colored windowpanes. The gålran zhadar was slurping noisily from a beaker. His eyes were wide open. “You keep good wine, Inextinguishable.”

  “Where did you get that?” thundered Nagsor Inàste, drawing himself up to his full height.

  “I found it in one of the chambers near here. I got fed up waiting for you so I gave myself a little tour of your Tower of Bones. It’s a nice enough on the whole, but I think that as a building it lacks playfulness.” He drank more of the wine and winked at the ruler over the rim of his cup. “It wasn’t easy sneaking round your blind servants. Their hearing is very good.”

  At first the Inextinguishable One was speechless with indignation. Then he roared, “You are a guest here!” feeling the fury rise in him. “You have the impertinence, the impudence, no, you commit the blasphemy of taking my—”

  His angry outburst was interrupted by the appearance of Nagsar Inàste. He wished now that his sister had not come. The deceitful expression in his visitor’s eyes was warning enough. This stunted freak has more in him than meets the eye. Considerably more.

  “You wanted to talk to me,” said the gålran zhadar, without making any concession to the entry of the regal sister. “Here I am.” He pointed over to the window, indicating the sun. “Hurry up. I’ve got to get to Phondrasôn.”

  Nagsar Inàste stood open-mouthed at this lack of respect. “How can you—”

  Her Inextinguishable brother raised his hand and came over to stand at her side. “It is in order,” he said to reassure her. “Do not concern yourself with his lack of manners. He will not be with us for long; I merely want to learn the true reason for his wanting to leave Ishím Voróo. He has been living here for such a long time, his castle has proved totally impregnable, and I had understood from Sinthoras that the plan was to extend it.” He regarded his visitor inquisitively. “So this looks like an enforced flight—what are you running away from, gålran zhadar?”

  The dwarf-like creature grinned. “So you want to find out whether there’s something on its way that will put the fear of the gods up the älfar, too, if the gålran zhadar are high-tailing it out of here? Am I right?”

  Nagsor Inàste said nothing.

  The gålran zhadar laughed outright. “I was curious to know what you wanted from me, Inextinguishable. I thought that would be the question you’d come up with.” He drained the beaker and chucked it over his shoulder. It clattered on the floor, causing an echo in the vast room. His face lost all trace of cheeriness. Suddenly his visage was suffused with hatred. “Your downfall is well deserved,” he barked. “It’s your own great heroes that have brought it about.”

  Nagsar Inàste stared at her brother in bewilderment. “I can’t understand what he’s saying. Do you intend—”

  “Explain yourself, gålran zhadar!” demanded Nagsor Inàste, no longer attempting to hide his anger. Black lightning flashes shot over his countenance. He did not understand what the other was hinting at and he was extremely concerned. “Otherwise I swear you shall not leave the Tower of Bones alive.”

  The creature uttered a long, loud laugh and seemed unimpressed. “One of your famous heroes—Sinthoras or Caphalor—stole a valuable possession of mine: a vial containing a magic substance concocted with the aim of intensifying the power of any demon and of binding that demon to one’s own service—but only if used together with the right formula.” By the expressions on the siblings’ faces he knew that they had been unaware of this part of the journey the heroes had undertaken. He snorted. “Oh, I see the Highest Ones had absolutely no idea their heroes broke into my castle? They deceived you about that?” He was shaking with laughter, holding his belly.

  Enough! “I am not going to permit you to—” began Nagsor Inàste.

  “Silence!” growled the gålran zhadar aggressively. “I know the extent of your envy. That is your motive for this campaign: you and your precious älfar were supposed to be the only immortal creatures, so you wanted to be rid of the harmless little demon who gives the dead a second life. You wanted to send him to Tark Draan, where he wouldn’t be any trouble and that way you would continue to be the only everlasting creatures in Ishím Voróo.”

  “An end to this posturing!” commanded Nagsar Inàste and six armed servants rushed in to the hall; two further assistants brought the Inextinguishable Siblings their swords.

  The gålran zhadar was unmoved. “You don’t frighten me. The vial was broken and now the demon is out of control; you have created a monster and let it out of its chains without the faintest of idea how to stop it. I predict that you will soon be having to serve this creature yourselves.” He turned to the window. “That is why, Inextinguishable Ones, I am leaving here. Even my castle will not protect me from the power of this demon. I am off to Phondrasôn where I shall set up a new kingdom for myself from whence I can observe the demon engulfing Dsôn Faïmon.” His voice grew quiet once more. “Pray to your gods that it prefers to pursue elves, dwarves, and humans rather than your own kind—or your realm will fall because you were jealous.” He strode past, scything through the groups of blind servants as he went.

  Nagsar Inàste looked at her brother. He breathed the order to attack.

  The first servant aimed a sword thrust at the creature—a thrust as true as if he had been able to see, but his blade was parried by the war hammer; the gålran zhadar’s second hammerhead smashed into the right side of the his face.

  The visitor leaped to confront the second bodyguard, ducking under his sword and diverting it with a hammer blow to strike the belly of the third servant, while he used the other hammer to destroy both knees of the next contender. He quickly raised his weapon and smashed the hammer head onto the open mouth of the next älf. He took the sixth with a double hammer blow to the shoulders, snapping the collarbones and making the älf attacker double up in pain.

  Then the gålran zhadar turned slowly round to face the Inextinguishables. An indefinable sound issued from his throat and the heads of his weapons were bathed in magic light. “If you wish me dead, Nagsar Inàste, I suggest you try to kill me yourself,” he advised. “I wonder if you will dare. Whole races have called me their god.”

  Nagsor Inàste knew that his sister would be provoked into attacking. The magic power that emanated from the dwarf-like creature did not seem to deter her. She must not be injured in any way. He stepped swiftly between her and the gålran zhadar. “We still need the instructions from you about getting the spy with the groundlings to work for us, that is why we will let you live,” he said, lowering his mighty sword.

  “How very noble of you.” The gålran zhadar gave a hollow laugh and the glowing light on the hammers faded. The weapons remained firmly, however, in his fists. “Noble and selfless.” With these words he strode through the hall and out of the door, laughing fit to bust.

  “You are really going to let him go?” Nagsar Inàste was at a loss to understand why the gålran zhadar should escape with his life. She raised her sword. “We have to kill him as soon as he’s told us what we need! He must not be allowed to live after that unacceptable conduct.”

  Nagsor
Inàste looked at the dead servants and the terrible injuries inflicted on them. Their blood shall not have spilled in vain; they served me loyally and well. Perhaps I can use their shattered bones to make a sculpture, something on the theme of destroyed bodies and destroyed souls. “You have forgotten one thing in your outrage, my beloved sister.” He took the sword from her hand. “He beheld our features and he did not go insane. What do we deduce from that?” He kissed her gently on the lips before she could reply. Then he walked past her to call for slaves to bone the corpses and collect the blood. “It is best we let him go.”

  “And the enhanced powers of the demon?” she asked behind him.

  “Don’t worry,” he reassured her. “We shall soon be rid of the demon.” I hope.

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands), älfar realm Dsôn Faïmon, Dsôn,

  4371st division of unendingness (5199th solar cycle),

  summer.

  Raleeha rose from her couch with a stifled moan.

  It was early morning and the sun was still on the far side of the crater’s edge; light fell dimly, as if frightened, through the window. A new day. The first sight her gaze fell on was the wound in her side. The stitches were holding.

  Unlike her älf mistress, she had recovered well from her injury and from the fall. Everyone assumed the slave girl had been hurrying to the assistance of her mistress when they both fell. Raleeha had not corrected this version of events.

  Since the “accident,” Timanris had been lying motionless in her bed, paler than usual and near endingness, unable to speak or to hear. Various healers had been consulted, but their opinions had always been the same: the impact after the fall had wiped all memory and all knowledge from her head. Her body, however, remained capable of the basic functions of breathing, swallowing, and excretion; this was why death had not yet stopped her heart.

  I shall play the courageous slave girl one more time, concerned for the life of her mistress. Each day she spent long hours at the dying girl’s bedside, talking softly to her about new works, and even showing them to Timanris, as if she were able to see them through her closed eyelids.

  Secretly, however, Raleeha was consumed with fear. As soon as the älf-woman awakened, all would be lost. There would certainly never be another opportunity for her to kill her mistress. There were always nurses in attendance in the chamber. The voices in Raleeha’s head kept giving her contradictory advice, driving her almost insane.

  Perhaps I am already crazy. She dressed and went to her mistress as she did every morning before taking her first meal. Is it my lucky day? Is she dead? She entered the room.

  She was surprised to see Hirai, Timanris’ mother, at the bedside. Not a soul knew that her sight had been restored and so she acted as if unaware of the older älf-woman’s presence.

  “Wait at the door,” she was chided. Hirai had letters in her lap; she had been reading them to her sleeping daughter.

  “Forgive me. I did not know . . .” Raleeha bowed and remained standing, to listen.

  “All right.” Hirai continued to read aloud.

  After a few sentences, Raleeha understood that the letters were from Sinthoras, written to his intended.

  The words pained Raleeha, expressing as they did the deep concern the älf-warrior felt, so far away from Timanris on campaign and not able to hold her hand or plant a kiss on her lips. The phrases had an honest ring to them and they touched Raleeha’s heart.

  What have I done to him? What torture must he be suffering because of my actions? It was not long before tears began coursing down her cheeks. She wiped her face with her sleeve and withdrew from the doorway.

  Her guilty conscience made her hate herself. Jealousy, greed, and those voices—these were what had driven her to it! I shall not rest until I have confessed to Sinthoras what I have done. It was not forgiveness that she craved, but she knew she must face his anger. What happened after that was immaterial.

  The confrontation with Sinthoras, however, could not occur in Dsôn, not in Timansor’s house.

  I escaped from the realm of the älfar before—why should I not do it again? So many baggage trains were underway, bringing supplies and equipment to the troops, that she was sure she would be able to travel with one of them without exciting attention.

  Her decision was made.

  She returned to her chamber, packed a few items and wrote a letter to leave for Timansor, in which she stated that she was intending to return to her brother. The safe conduct pass! Raleeha remembered the note Timanris had written, liberating her and guaranteeing an escort out of Dsôn Faïmon. The safe conduct pass had not been dated, but it carried the appropriate seal and signature. It was difficult to accept that she must use the favor granted her by her victim. This was not helping to quieten her conscience.

  Not delaying for a moment, she tossed down the farewell letter addressed to the head of the household, took the money that had accrued to her through the sale of her etchings, and hurried away from the house.

  Fear and joy jostled with each other in Raleeha’s head, adding to her agitation. She would ride out toward the south with a unit of soldiers in order to reach her master. If she were to die through his hand after making her confession, she would be content.

  Do not throw your life away, said the small voice in her head. You are too young to die and you are a talented artist. Come up with a different idea!

  Raleeha refused to listen.

  It was not long before she found an expedition heading to the front with a cargo of ammunition for the catapults: spears and arrows. When she showed her safe conduct to the leader, he permitted her to find a space under a rough tarpaulin shelter on one of the ten flatbed carts.

  Raleeha sat on the swaying cart as it juddered ever nearer to the frontier of the älfar realm. She was struck with nostalgia at having to leave the unique treasures of this land.

  This is where you belong, not back with the humans. They never understood you, she heard. The älfar admire your gifts. How can you possibly give that up?

  Despite her firm resolution to confess her crime to Sinthoras, it only took a few miles for her to come up with another plan: a plan worthy of a devious älf devoid of any conscience.

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands), seventeen miles from the Northern Pass and the Stone Gateway,

  4371st division of unendingness (5199th solar cycle),

  summer.

  Caphalor sprang forward, a dagger in his outstretched hand aimed at the right eye of the groundling before him. The thrust hit home and the dwarf collapsed as if struck in the heart.

  If Caphalor had hoped to find the enemy in a state of chaos and confusion, he soon realized his mistake: the groundlings closed ranks and formed a high defense wall with their long shields, reaching from the tunnel floor to its roof. There was no getting past.

  I could do with my reinforced arrows. They would pierce those shields easily.

  His älfar troops stormed along in his wake, attacking the shield-wall with their swords, pressing the defenders back in an attempt to force them to a position where they would be more vulnerable.

  But it was hard going; Caphalor and Sinthoras had taken on an extreme challenge. Again and again dwarf hands would shoot out of a sudden gap wielding a morningstar, a war hammer, or an ax, and the blows they dealt were expertly targeted. The älfar registered their first casualties, but Caphalor saw no enemy blood on the tunnel floor. They are good.

  “They know what they are doing—it’s home ground for them,” Sinthoras remarked as he wiped the sweat from his brow. He jabbed his spear through a gap and a yell answered. He quickly activated the trigger for the secret adaptation and the yell turned to a scream that was suddenly cut off. Two älfar penetrated the gap in the shield wall and started laying about themselves, attacking the groundlings furiously.

  Two further shields fell and the breach grew wider.

  Show me what you can do, you stumpy-legged mine maggots. Caphalor was keen to learn more about the groundlings’
methods of combat and so he pushed his way through his soldiers to the front of the melee, giving no heed to the warning shouts from Sinthoras. If he were to lose his unendingness now he would be with Enoïla all the sooner. But he carried within himself the strange certainty that he would not die here. Not today, not tomorrow. The main butchery was now taking place in a wider, higher part of the tunnel.

  More room to fight in, at last! Caphalor saw a stocky, bushy-bearded dwarf wearing a densely woven chainmail shirt coming at him with a spiked mace. No normal knife would go through those tiny links, but Sinthoras’ spear would.

  “Whatever you are,” roared the groundling, “I’m going to slice off your legs and cut you down to my size. Then let’s see how well you fight.”

  Caphalor found it hard to understand what the groundling was saying. It was an excruciating dialect to listen to, but it was clear enough that these fighters were pretty sure of themselves.

  With a rapid glance he assured himself that the shield wall had fallen and that all of his warriors were engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the groundlings. Where are they trying to get to? If he was interpreting the dark shadows at the end of the tunnel correctly, it looked as if at least four dwarves had taken flight. If they reach their fellow groundlings our surprise attack is scuppered!

  But first he had to rid himself of the attentions of his bold opponent.

  Three spike-set iron balls came toward him and Caphalor bent backward, kicking out at the same time to slam the sole of his foot into the dwarf’s nose.

  But the opponent, reaching only to Caphalor’s hip, dodged the blow nimbly, if not with any degree of elegance, and then retaliated with the morningstar.

  Two of the iron balls missed his pelvis, but the third, anchored as it was on a slightly longer chain, hit home.

  Caphalor felt a dull ache; the padded undergarment beneath his black-plated armor had taken the full force of the blow, but it caused him to stumble to one side—directly into the path of a long-handled ax wielded by another of the groundlings.

 
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