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Righteous fury, p.8
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       Righteous Fury, p.8

           Markus Heitz
 

  Anger boiled up in Caphalor. Obviously his unwished-for travel companion had decided to get to the mist-demon first and secure the alliance for himself. Then he would be the one to receive the praise . . . and enjoy the increased standing this would mean.

  With a curse, Caphalor urged Sardaî over the bridge. His rage transferred itself to the stallion, which covered the ground in huge strides, snorting furiously. They neared the end of the bridge—not yet fully lowered—and the night-mare leaped easily over the gap between water and land.

  Caphalor pulled sharply on the reins to bring Sardaî back under control, noting that his night-mare only settled when he did. “I see you are attuned to my state of mind,” he said, stroking its broad black neck. “You are astonishing.”

  The stallion snickered, enjoying his rider’s attentions.

  After gauging his location from the height of the sun and the information on the map, the warrior älf urged Sardaî on, storming over cleared land and into the steppes where the grasses stood a good two paces high.

  The first part of the journey was through neutral open country that did not belong to anyone. On the one hand that was a good thing, because there were no patrols or guards he might have to kill; on the other hand, it meant he might come across a troop of óarcos, a band of trolls or a small army of barbarians on the lookout for prey and easy booty. He also had to think of the obboona, the flesh-stealers who hunted älfar and flayed their skin, cutting off their ears, noses, and other items in order to attach them to their own bodies in an effort to be like the älfar, whom they so admired, thinking them demigods. They were thought to be as good as eradicated after the Inextinguishables’ many campaigns against them—but you could never be too careful.

  It was the same situation with the cnutar—symbiotic creatures made up of three component parts that could separate and merge again at will. The form that took precedence was fairly random: it might be an animal, a particular race, or even an object, but the components of one creature could not remain separate for longer than sixty heartbeats at a time or they would die. If a cnutar remained whole, it measured three paces in height and was as heavy as an ox; it would not be an easy opponent.

  In Ishím Voróo, anything he encountered would be an enemy, that was why he kept his bow to hand: the long arrows he carried would stop them dead at first shot with no need for prolonged fighting, which was perfect—Caphalor had no time to waste in fighting, he had to catch Sinthoras up. The fact that he had been duped before their journey had even begun was eating away at him. It was also seriously affecting the beauty of his personal appearance: cold hatred and the thought of revenge transformed his features into a terrifying aspect.

  Sardaî kept up the punishing gallop across the steppe.

  At midday, Caphalor granted the beast a short rest on the banks of a slow-flowing river. It was intriguing to see Sardaî greedily grabbing the best fish from a passing shoal, water alone not being enough to keep the stallion going—it needed flesh and blood.

  For himself, Caphalor took out a small tin which contained a special nutritious paste composed of every food group a warrior needed on campaign: herbs, meat, and fat. He used the tip of his dagger to scoop some out and then licked it directly from the blade. The sweet, sharp flavors slowly dissolved on his tongue.

  He swallowed it down with some water, stowed the tin and pulled out the map, then calculated how much ground he had covered and where he could hope to be by nightfall. The night-mare had made excellent progress—at this rate he might even be able to overtake Sinthoras before they reached fflecx territory.

  With a snort Sardaî raised his head; red-stained water splashed down from his muzzle. His ruby red gaze was fixed on the reeds to their right.

  Caphalor noticed the tall reeds swaying with the gentle movement of the water, but the rustling sound he could hear did not correlate with what he could see.

  Dropping the map, he picked up his bow and arrows and with half-closed eyes concentrated on the direction the sound was coming from. When he was quite sure he had pinpointed its source, he drew the bow and let the arrow fly.

  There was a high-pitched scream and a splash.

  Caphalor’s mouth twitched. The scream sounded like a barbarian woman’s.

  The water between him and the reeds was turning red. He got the next arrow ready and waited patiently for her to show herself.

  He heard more rustling and splashing sounds and then a black-haired woman crawled out through the reed bed, his arrow lodged in her thigh, though the fletching had prevented it going all the way through. A closer look brought something else to his attention: she had an älfar slave collar round her neck. That was a surprise. How had she managed to escape from Dsôn Faïmon? Why would she still be wearing that badge of slavery if she were on the run?

  “Don’t kill me, noble älf,” she begged, sobbing. As she lifted her face he saw she was extremely attractive—for a human. Her eyes were covered with a black band, decorated with lace, and she was wearing a dark gray dress with a black bodice; a silver dagger dangled at her belt.

  “How do you know I am an älf?”

  “The arrow, I can feel the fletching.” She gave a moan. “Älfar arrows are unique.” She dragged herself along until she reached the pebbles of the shore.

  Catching a whiff of her blood, the night-mare snorted. It was hungry still.

  Caphalor waited. “And what are you doing here? Are you trying to get back to your family?”

  “Never!” she cried. “I was following my master, who . . .” The girl blushed and fell silent.

  “. . . who is called Sinthoras,” Caphalor completed. It was obvious—how many other älfar were traveling on this path to the north west of Ishím Voróo?

  She nodded. “My name is Raleeha Lotor, noble lord.”

  “Have you been blind long?”

  “No. It was my master’s punishment for me, I had been negligent,” she said, her tone contradicting her words. “I am following him to show that I would give my life to save his, to make up for my mistake.”

  “And indeed you nearly did give it.”

  Her name meant something to Caphalor. There had been talk of a human from the Lotor family voluntarily entering into service with Sinthoras. She must have fallen in love with him. It happened a lot: humans were attracted by the beauty of the älfar, or else fascinated by their art. There was no way of knowing which had been the case for this barbarian.

  He had nearly killed his rival’s slave.

  Caphalor paused for a moment. Wasn’t it the Lotor family that was said to be amassing a huge empire in the barbarian lands? Caphalor put down his weapon and went over to her. Under different circumstances he would have enjoyed letting his anger toward Sinthoras have full rein; he could have let Sardaî eat her. But he would let her live: she would be able to tell him more about his rival, and she was a Lotor. One way or the other, she would prove of use.

  “Prove yourself,” he said, cutting through the arrow shaft close to the skin of her thigh.

  “Noble lord, what shall I—?”

  “Pull the arrow out,” he told her gruffly. “I want to see which is stronger, your fear of pain, or your will to survive.”

  Raleeha grabbed hold of the arrow with both hands, grimacing. She took a deep breath and then pulled; the arrowhead caught fast in the ground. She cried out with the pain, then released the tip of the arrow, adjusted her hold and tried again.

  Caphalor watched her face as she struggled: pain, defiance, and anger chased each other across her visage and her lips were bloodied where she bit down on them. He was entranced by the sight of her. With another cry of pain she yanked the arrow out of her thigh.

  “You did better than expected, but you still made too much noise,” he said, cutting a strip of cloth from her dress to use as a bandage. “How did you get away?” He took great care to ensure her blood did not sully his person.

  “I came out with a cart taking soldiers to the island fortress,” she exp
lained. “I swam the defense-moat and followed the tracks of my master’s night-mare as far as I could. I could feel the scorch marks where its hooves had been. But after a while I lost my way.”

  “So I have saved your life.” Caphalor was enjoying himself. “You are in my debt.”

  She hesitated and then bowed her head. “I will do anything you ask, noble älf.”

  Caphalor knew she was pretending, but he admired the strength of her will. For a barbarian she was extraordinary. He laughed and restrained Sardaî when the beast tried to snap at her. “We’ll find something for you to do.”

  CHAPTER IV

  The älfar who settled in Avaris were wealthy and of high standing. No älf could make his dwelling here without the assent of all other residents.

  Wèlèron was the area set aside for the warrior class and priests and those with talent in the magic arts. However, the älfar had very few powerful wizards. The magic in their blood did not allow this to happen.

  But their understanding of the workings of the body flourished.

  Soon their healers had learned how to open up the skull without killing the patient, and how to cure the sick from tumors. Festering flesh could be replaced with healthy tissue, diseased blood exchanged for fresh and organs be removed or modified. Älfar were practically immune from death through injury or disease.

  Epocrypha of the Creative Spirit,

  Ist Book,

  Footnote

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

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

  summer.

  Nagsar Inàste stared out of the open windows looking over northern Dsôn.

  “We have sent fire and water out together on that journey,” said Nagsor Inàste, striding through the spacious room toward his älf-partner.

  Turning, she revealed the immaculate features that only he could look upon. Nagsor remembered how one älf, while receiving the Honor-Blessing, had mistakenly raised his eyes and looked on her directly. He had watched the älf gradually lose his mind: at first he had smiled, enchanted, then his smile had become horribly exaggerated and black tears had spilled down his face. His eyes had grown brighter and brighter, before losing their color. The älf had become blind and had lost the power of speech, and from then on was no more than a shell. They had had him killed so as not to prolong his unworthy life for all eternity. Just as no one could stare at the daystar without damage, no one could survive her startling beauty with impunity.

  Nagsor soaked up the sight of her with intense pleasure. The window glass was tinted red, so half of her face was blood-painted, the other half white, illuminated by the daystar. One eye shone black in the light, while the other, in shadow, shimmered with a color that defied description.

  She was clothed in a transparent black nothingness of a dress that showed every detail of her perfect body. Nagsor shivered with delight at the sight of her. Only he was allowed to touch her, to share her bed, no one else.

  “Was that not our intention, brother?” she answered. “Whichever is the stronger of the two will return to us, bringing our new ally. There will be an end to the discord amongst our people.” She closed the window and the transparent shimmer of her dress faded. She came over to him, put her arm gracefully around his neck and kissed him passionately.

  He touched her slender waist and slid his fingers up her back, stroking her gently until their kiss was ended.

  Nagsar Inàste looked him in the eyes. “We have done the right thing.”

  “I just wonder what might happen if both of them returned having completed the mission successfully? What if fire and water were to combine to make steam? Steam under pressure is incredibly powerful.”

  “We are the Inextinguishable Ones, no älf presents a threat to us.” The älf-woman removed her arm from his shoulders and moved over to a tall door; he followed her.

  “Did you hear that a slave has escaped?” he asked.

  “Yes, I was told she belonged to Sinthoras.”

  “Her family are the Lotor, do you think she ran back to them?”

  As Nagsar opened the door, golden light illuminated her features. The room behind was lined with gold leaf and great amber lanterns hung from the ceiling suspended on long ropes of pearls, emitting a warm glow.

  In the center of the room was a miniature version of their empire and the adjoining lands. Nagsar had constructed the model; she had painted the outlines of the territories on the floor and had used soil and sand for the landscape, and water for the rivers, lakes and seas. In the middle there was a representation of the Tower of Bones—their center of power.

  They walked up the spiral staircase to the glass floor above, where they had a bird’s eye view of the model. A clever treatment had rendered the glass invisible, with not even a reflection to obscure the view.

  “I thought Sinthoras had good control over her. It’s said she followed him of her own accord. I am surprised to learn she has run away, unless she were here as a spy for the Lotor.”

  Nagsor laughed. “The barbarians would never dream of attacking us.”

  Nagsar did not look amused. “I had the slaves and servants in their household questioned: Raleeha is known to have made sketches of practically all the main buildings in Dsôn. She has been here for one-third of a division of unendingness—time enough to sketch all the important roads. And now Sinthoras has blinded her, perhaps she feels she can do no more here.”

  Nagsor Inàste lost his gaiety. “Even if I don’t believe Lotor would have anything like that planned, I’ll put extra guards on watch down at the moat.”

  “Farron’s army is growing with each daystar-rise. In losing Raleeha, we have lost a valuable pawn and allowed our security to be compromised,” she hissed, stamping down over the top of the Ishmanti territories, as if she were grinding them out with her foot. “Curses on him! We can’t be doing with rebellious humans at this stage in our enterprise.”

  “Then let’s send out a few assassins,” suggested Nagsor, a malicious smile on his lips. “Or I can go in disguise and kill him myself. I think I’d enjoy that—it’s a long time since I slaughtered any barbarians.”

  “There is no need to send out an assassin yet, but let us keep a very close eye on them.” She moved forward gracefully, until she stood over the supposed abode of the mist-demon.

  Nagsor Inàste was still studying the area Lotor held. “What reason could there be for an escaped slave not to run back to her family?”

  His sister-mistress laughed. “Perhaps she is like a dog following its master and is merely following Sinthoras out of misplaced devotion.”

  “But if she has been blinded? She would never get . . .” He fell silent. She had, after all, managed to trick the border patrol. It was important not to underestimate her. “I’ll have a few slaves executed,” he decided. “That will serve as a deterrent; we don’t want any of the others following her lead.”

  “Keep their blood for me,” she instructed. “And get them to purify it and take the color out: I only need the clear fluid, it’s perfect for mixing with pigments.”

  Nagsor nodded. “And we can show one of the corpses and say it’s Raleeha; officially she will have been captured and executed.”

  “A good plan.” With her left foot, Nagsar circled the assumed position of the mist-demon. “I wonder what he will be like and what his conditions for joining us will be.”

  “We will have to be ready to accept almost any demands to get him to support our campaign,” he reminded her. “We need him to go to Tark Draan. As far away as possible.”

  “He’s bound to like it with the lesser races,” she said to calm him. “And I’m so sure that Sinthoras and Caphalor will talk him round that I would bet my own immortality on it. The two of them are so keen to get our approval: ambition is always a strong motivator—ambition and enmity.”

  “What about love?” he responded with a smile. “I don’t hate you, and I don’t want yo
u as an enemy and I don’t feel the urge to be better at anything than you, my shining star.”

  The älf-woman laughed enticingly and held out her right hand. He strode over to her, clasped her fingers in his and pulled her to him. Together they gazed down on the mist-demon’s land. “Yes, I’d nearly forgotten about love, because it only exists between the two of us in its purest form,” she murmured, stroking the smooth skin of his cheek. “The love between brother and sister.” She turned his face toward her and kissed him passionately.

  He returned her caresses. Intoxicated by her nearness, he asked, “When will you give me a child? A Sintoìt?”

  She hung her head sadly. “That is not up to me to decide, my love. I have tried all the tinctures and potions. We must be patient and wait.”

  Nagsor kissed her on the forehead, stroked her hair and closed his eyes. Waiting. What torture.

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands), Lar Too (no man’s land), near the border of the fflecx kingdom,

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

  summer.

  Sinthoras headed for the nearest hill. About a mile away from where he stood, he could see a brightly colored wooden palisade fence. It was a strange sight in the midst of all the dry, pale grass that surrounded it. Those absurd colors on the tall timber posts might lead a wanderer to think they marked the territory of a friendly race: all it needed was lollipops on ribbons and candied fruit the way the barbarians liked them.

  The appearance was deceptive.

  The land behind the palisades belonged to the fflecx: the black gnomes known as alchemancers, whose skill in concocting poisons was only surpassed by their duplicity and malice.

  All along the length of the fence he could see trapdoor openings, through which he assumed defenders could send out missiles. The main gate was painted in a shrieking shade of green. Sinthoras studied the inscription on it using his telescope.

  “Say friend or foe and walk in—we’re not fussy, we kill both,” he read under his breath. This was the black humor the fflecx were known for. They followed the motto on their gates to the letter, but they were known to reward wit and imagination.

 
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