Baynes climb book i of t.., p.6
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       Bayne's Climb: Book I of The Sword of Bayne, p.6

           Ty Johnston
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  Chapter VI: Mages Three

  The day grew late and the sun began to sink beneath the clouds that made up Bayne’s horizon. Long shadows stretched across the mountain and the road, hiding the warrior in gloom and chill.

  As always, Bayne walked on.

  He walked through the night, never stopping to rest or even to catch his breath for a moment. Sometime in the darkness, he could feel the bricks beneath his booted feet becoming more and more rare. Eventually he was striding on cold rocks and flat stone and sometimes dirt and sand.

  It was in the morning, as the sun showed itself once more, Bayne could make out that the road he had been walking had narrowed to little more than a mountain path. The broad expanses of the fields were now replaced by what appeared to be little more than a trail possibly used by the rare mountain creature, perhaps goats or lions. Bayne had spotted no such beasts, but the trail itself proved that someone or something had at some time made their way over the very ground.

  The path here also turned steep, forcing the big man to lean so far forward he was practically climbing more than walking in many places. At times his chest was mere inches from the ground and he was forced to use his hands to steady himself or to pull forward.

  Whereas the day before the mountain’s top had been distant and hidden beneath a haze, now the mountain was right on top of Bayne. He was up against it, nearly part of it, step by step and inch by inch. The pinnacle was now above him, and though still he could not make it out due to the heights and the nearness of the mountain’s wall upon him, Bayne could sense the summit as if it were a living, breathing thing soaring above on the ether.

  His travels were nearing an end, and the unstoppable warrior discerned such.

  As if to show his perceptions were not mislaid, the mountain trail eventually flattened out again and ran straight away from the ledge and between high snow-draped outcroppings like giant rocky fingers clawing at the sky. Here walls of solid stone grew out of the mists on either side of him.

  But the pathway ahead was straight and true.

  Then it became a climb again, nearly as steep as before, but only a short distance before the stony walls were passed and Bayne found himself on flat ground once more.

  The clouds and mists evaporated before his eyes and ahead was the apex, the highest heights of the mountain. It was a flat stretch little more than the size of a village, with splashes of snow here and there. A single tree, young and only tall enough to provide weak shade beneath the day’s sun, was rooted off to one side.

  Three figures were seated on ancient, wide, flat stones in the center of the grounds. The three were men, all.

  The first to draw Bayne’s attention was the tallest of the three, directly facing him. A black cloak wrapped this man’s shoulders and his long, murky hair was marked by a stripe of white.

  Verkanus. The mage. The Pursian Emperor. His steed was nowhere to be found.

  The wizard king seemed to pay Bayne no mind. He sat and stared, unblinking, as did the other two men. They formed a triangle, their faces to one another, each just within arms’ reach of the other. They were so still Bayne would have believed they were statues carved from the very mountain if not for the slight rising and falling of their chests.

  Of the other two men, both were familiar.

  The nearest to Bayne sat at an angle so the warrior saw more of his back than his front, but Bayne would never forget the plain, unassuming face of the Ashalic priest Pedrague, a man already considered a saint by many and at one time almost a friend to Bayne. He wore a simple brown robe of rough wool, the hood hanging back behind a head covered with little more than a round patch of auburn hair.

  The third man sat with his side facing Bayne. This one was the least familiar, though he had been seen the most recent. He was the old man at the village that was not quite a village at the foot of the mountain. He was the stranger who had greeted Bayne upon leaving Stagnation. He was Algr. He was Masterson. He was even Valdra. Pieces of all these had come together to form the features of this man in a mixture not altogether unappealing despite its unusual conglomeration. He was dressed in a plain tunic, plain breeches and sandals. A cloak of a heavy homespun material was suspended from his neck and dangled down his back.

  He was the first to move, the first to look at Bayne. He smiled.

  Bayne blinked. It was difficult to stare at this man. His features were known, but they seemed to change even as Bayne stared at him. One moment the proud, aged features of the mercenary Masterson were staring out from beneath this man’s grayed head, the next moment the quizzical look was present of the man from the village that was not quite a village. As soon as Bayne’s eyes would focus on the fellow’s features, they would shift and evaporate as mist then form together once more with a different visage; it was a constant change, not giving the eye a moment to concentrate on one appearance.

  Bayne blinked and shook his head.

  “Welcome, Bayne kul Kanon,” the man said.

  At these words, the other two appeared to come to life. Both looked to Bayne as if they had just risen from a deep sleep and only now were taking notice of the huge figure of the warrior.

  Bayne nodded to the speaker but remained silent. He had found his prey, but the others were unexpected, as was the situation. Better not to speak until he knew more.

  “I see you finally caught up to me,” Verkanus spat.

  Pedrague chuckled. “Did you have any doubts?”

  The king turned his dark gaze upon the priest. “He should not have come. He is not welcome here.”

  “Of course he is welcome,” Pedrague said.

  “All are welcome,” said the man with the shifting face.

  Bayne shrugged. “Welcome or not, here I stand.”

  The face-changer asked, “To what purpose?”

  The warrior pointed a finger at Verkanus. “I am here for that one. He has much to answer.”

  Pedrague grinned and eased back on his stony seat as if to get a better look at Bayne. “Yes, he does, indeed. Which is one of the reasons we three have gathered here today, and are thankful you have arrived to join our group.”

  “He is not welcome,” repeated the king.

  “I care not for the reason you three have met,” Bayne said. “I came here only for Verkanus.”

  “You seek answers,” pointed out the one with the varying features.

  Bayne nodded.

  Verkanus spat to one side. “Then ask your questions, fool. I have business with these two, and wish to conclude it today.”

  The other two men sat quietly.

  Bayne was surprised. Could it be this simple? Ask his questions and receive the answers? This seemed not likely after the extent to which the emperor had gone to prevent his being followed by the warrior.

  Verkanus stood. “Ask your questions or leave. My time here is limited.”

  “Why have you been offering gold for my death?” Bayne asked.

  Verkanus chuckled, his white, perfect teeth showing between twin, pale lips. “Because I owe you nothing. And it is my way to put aside that which I find annoying. You come to me seeking answers to questions. I do not have your answers.”

  “You have not heard my questions.”

  “The exactness matters little,” Verkanus said. “I can guess at the general gist of your inquiries.”

  Bayne glanced to the other two who continued to sit in silence, their eyes shifting from one speaker to the other. Could the warrior hope to find his answers from them? Not likely. Even if they could provide answers, so far they had not seemed forthcoming.

  The big man pointed at the standing mage once more. “You created me.”

  “That is not a question,” Verkanus pointed out.

  “So it is true, then?” Bayne said. “You created me.”

  Verkanus sighed. “Do you remember that night we first met?”

  Bayne nodded once more. “Of course.”

  “Everything I know of you comes from that night,” Verkanu
s said. “Your own memories hold the key to anything I could tell you.”

  “You cast a spell, a ritual,” Bayne said. “You brought me forth.”

  “Indeed, I did,” Verkanus said, “but that does not mean I know more of you.”

  “Impossible.” The single word was harsh off Bayne’s tongue. “You are a wizard. It was your spell which brought me to the battlefield. You must know from where I came, what I am.”

  The emperor mage chortled. “You give me too much credit, Bayne. As I said, any answers lie within your own memory. Do you not remember that night of battle and blood? Do you not remember all that happened?”

  Of course Bayne remembered. His first conscious thoughts were from that night. He closed his eyes and pondered the past, venturing back across almost a dozen years to that single night, the night he was born unto this world.

  There was nothing.

  Then there was existence.

  It was not an awakening, not like a living man roused from sleep. There simply was.

  Then there was flame and bright colors, yellows and reds impaling his eyes.

  But there was no pain.

  His flesh was seared, blackened in places, bubbling along the thighs and bright red on the arms. He did not feel it. Or, at least, he could control it. There was a sensation, as if a signal in his skin was telling his mind of warning, but it did not hinder his actions.

  He pushed off the ground, standing in a ring of fire.

  Staring about himself, he found the flames encircling him and licking at his bare feet. He was standing in the bottom of a giant crater, itself a sea of chalky grit, the fire revealing what little he could see of his surroundings. Pieces of silvered metal littered the ground around him, some of them glowing white from the heat. Beyond was darkness.

  Night, he thought. But he was not sure how he knew this darkness equaled the night, the time when the planet was not facing a sun.

  He stared down at his strong, muscular body revealed beneath the glow of the moon. He knew he was man, but could not quite grasp all that meant.

  A soft, repeating thumping noise sounded in the distance.

  He turned toward it, not knowing what to expect.

  A tall man with long, black locks appeared from the darkness. Dried blood gripped a sleeve of his gray robes and straggled down to the beast he rode, a horse of bones with no skin.

  “Bayne kul Kanon,” the newcomer said.

  “Is that what I am called?”

  The skeleton horse shifted beneath its rider, stirring as if a remnant of its former life was disturbed by the scent of blood and burning upon the air. “A war demon was summoned,” said the rider, “and you are what has come.”

  “Bayne kul Kanon,” the big man said. These words were unfamiliar, but the concept of a demon he understood. Some stirring at the back of his mind informed him of such. He held out his burnt, muscular arms, staring at them as if they were something new to him, which perhaps they were. “Am I demon?”

  “You are what has come,” the rider repeated.

  “From where?” Bayne asked.

  “Demons rise from the pits of Hell,” the rider said, “but you came from above. A star burning across the heavens heralded your arrival, descending unto this very spot where we now stand, destroying all that was beneath it … men, horses, … all.”

  “Then I am not demon,” Bayne said. “Why was not a demon called by your magic?”

  The rider held up his bleeding arm, his cloak falling back to reveal a long line of crusted scarlet along the limb. “I was in battle casting my spell when an arrow glanced against me. A stray bolt, an inept assassin, I do not know. But the arrow discombobulated the ritual.”

  “And you? Who are you?”

  The dark-clad figure sat higher in his saddle, as if to bring weight to his words. “I am Lord Verkanus, King of Pursia, King of Ursia, Emperor Mage. It was I who summoned you forth from the nether. It was I who brought you here to do my bidding.”

  Bayne smirked at the words. Was he here to do any man’s bidding? He thought not. It struck him as foolish that one of his strength would bend a knee to another, even this wizard who rode a dead horse. Bayne was born knowing no fear, and it would remain thus.

  The rider, Verkanus, twisted in his seat, waving a bleeding hand toward the edge of the crater, nearly a quarter mile in the distance. For the first time, Bayne noticed there was a glow about the edges of the crater. A ring of fire burned there, all along the ledge. What lay beyond, he could not fathom, but his hearing picked out clashings of metal on metal and screams and shouts in the distance. The stench of blood, burning flesh and the soil of men rolled into his nostrils, causing within him to stir an emotion unfamiliar as of yet.

  Glory. Hubris. An appetite for death and destruction.

  The sensation shocked the big man. Was he a killer? It seemed natural to him that he would be, with his mighty thews and weighty legs.

  “We are surrounded by clashing soldiers,” Verkanus explained, sliding out of his saddle. “We stand in what was the center of a conflict until some little time ago.”

  Bayne’s gaze stayed upon the horizon, catching occasional glimpses of the shadowy outlines of men and horses, swords and spears raised high, splashing blood and tumbling heads and limbs.

  “Why is this fight?” the big man asked.

  The emperor nodded in the direction from which he had come. “To the north is my army of blue and black.” He waved a hand in the opposite direction. “From the south come the Trodans in red and gold. They wish to end my rule.”


  Verkanus lowered his head and gritted his teeth. “Because they are jealous. They believe themselves my superior.”

  Bayne nodded. “Man is only superior by feat of arms.”

  The emperor grinned. “My very thinking when my cohorts and I rode forward to do battle. This is why I called you forth, Bayne kul Kanon. You are my champion. Today we will decide superiority.”

  “You would have me kill in your name?” Bayne asked.

  “I would,” Verkanus said.

  “To what end?”

  “I brought you here,” Verkanus said. “I gave you all. Demon or not, you appear well suited to the arts of war. Fight for me and we will crush the Trodans, securing my kingdom once and for all, and securing your freedom.”

  “ My freedom?”

  Verkanus nodded. “If the Trodans take the day, it is most assured they will chain you and break you.”

  Bayne scoffed. “Not likely.”

  The emperor turned toward his steed and opened leather saddle bags on the beast’s rump. He rummaged within, then pulled forth a wooden, iron-rimmed shield and a short sword that glinted in the dying glows of the flames dancing about Bayne’s feet. He tossed the weapon and shield to the feet of the man before him. Then Verkanus withdrew simple clothing, leather boots, belts, pants and a padded shirt. These he placed on the ground. Finally, he held out a shirt of chain to his champion.

  “Take these,” the emperor said, “and stride forth to assure yourself of freedom.”

  Bayne glanced at the offerings, then looked down at his own form, noticing his nudity for the first time. He did not feel shame at his lack of covering, but there was a sense of the incomparable and the vulnerable. He reached out and took the mail shirt and quickly pulled on the rest of the clothing. Last, he strapped the shield to his left arm and hefted the silvered sword in his other hand.

  “Steel,” Verkanus said of the weapon. “Rare in these times, but not impossible for one with the proper resources.”

  “What weapons do my enemies use?” Bayne asked.

  “Sword, spear,” Verkanus said. “Most will be iron or bronzed. Some few officers may have steel blades.”

  Bayne clanked his heavy blade against the side of the shield, smiling at being well fortified. He turned his smile upon the emperor. “I am strong. I am armed. What is to stop me, Lord Verkanus, from toppling you from your throne and taking it for myself?”
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  The emperor blanched at the suggestion, but was forthcoming with an answer. “What need have you of a kingdom? A crown wears heavy upon the head. Assuredly, it comes with wealth and power, but it also comes with more than its share of responsibilities. Would you sit daily, weighing the judgments of men, counting the coppers brought to you by collectors, overseeing all the comings and goings and happenings within a kingdom? I sense these would become tedious to one as yourself.”

  Bayne nodded, lowering his sword and shield. “You are correct, Verkanus. But I need not serve you in slaying these Trodans. My own might secures my freedom from them. Unless you have something else with which to barter.”

  “You have no recollections of from where you came?”

  “You know I do not.”

  “Then I will supply this information to you,” the emperor said.

  Bayne’s gaze narrowed, growing suspicious. “You have already proved you have not this knowledge.”

  “True,” Verkanus said, “but I have strong magics at my call. Destroy these Trodans, securing both your and my freedoms, and I give promise I will use all my abilities to learn of your past, from where you have come.”

  Bayne’s eyes narrowed further, nearly to slits. Could he trust this mage king? As far as he knew, Bayne himself had come into existence but minutes earlier, having been born in the middle of a conflagration which itself was in the middle of a battlefield. He was meant to kill, possibly made to kill or born to kill. This he knew. It was in his heart and bones and mind. He was a killer. But he was unfamiliar with the world in which he had appeared. Was it even his own world? Were these his lands? If he should choose a side in the surrounding conflict, would one be more appropriate to him than another? He had no way to know, and no one to trust. Only his instincts could guide him, and his instincts insisted he was a slayer, a slaughterer, and it did not matter who fell below his mighty sword arm.

  “Very well,” the warrior spoke. “I will do your bidding in this, but prepare yourself for the consequences if you should deceive me. I expect answers, and I will not wait long for them.”

  The emperor’s answer was a grin filled with teeth.

  Bayne waved his sword to one side. “Which direction?”

  “We are at what had been the center of the conflict,” Verkanus said. “Now chaos reins and the fight has spread to all corners of the field. Pick your direction, and your fate, and drive back these Trodans.”

  Bayne nodded, saluted with the flat of his blade against his forehead and turned and strode away from the emperor mage.

  Crossing the flaming broken ground, nearing the screamings and the screeches of metal on metal, the scent of war and death wafted to Bayne’s nose. Burning flesh, the copper tinge of blood, urine and feces and sweat, all these were familiar to the warrior. He could not recollect from where he knew these scents, but they were a part of him, trapped within the recesses of a past he could not remember. These sensed things energized him, as if he were a wolf on the scent of prey and slathering at the thought of a future meal. Climbing the walls of the crater, leaning forward so far his chest nearly touched the scorched ground, Bayne wondered at his own thoughts. Normal men would be repulsed by these things, he knew, but not Bayne. Something about him sought glory and destruction.

  Soon enough, he found it.

  A giant ring of flame encircled the pit, reaching up above Bayne’s head. Beyond lay a realm of madness he imagined was far worse than the Hell of Verkanus’s demons. Men butchered one another as if all were livestock. Heavy blades cut through chain link and leather pads and bronze plate, chopping through flesh and bone. Limbs littered the black ground. Blood and brain and gore splashed through the air. The din of dying cries filled the ears.

  For the briefest of moments, Bayne questioned his survivability. He had no remembrance of his own combat skills, of his own invincibility. But something from within, from deep down in what could possibly be called a soul, told him he had nothing to fear from these battling men before him. He was not only better than them at this game of war, he was unbeatable. No individual could stand before him. No army could stand before him. Only the gods, if they existed, could dare to scrape metal and tissue with Bayne kul Kanon and survive, let alone triumph. He was made for this, for war and butchering.

  Bayne did not flinch, but walked through the fires as if they were not there. Traces of the blaze hung about his garb briefly, but soon enough died away as he entered the maelstrom of death.

  It became immediately clear what was before him was less a battle than a massacre. The Trodans in their red kilts and bronzed plates dominated this section of the battlefield as far as Bayne could see, across the blood-blackened ground to low hills on the horizon. The dark-garbed soldiers of Verkanus were few in numbers, their black chain and iron swords not enough to save them from their overwhelming enemy. The thousands of combatants before Bayne were trapped together, forced into one another in a giant mass by the pressing of thousands of more soldiers beyond each side. The middle of the fight was chaos, with weapons swinging and cutting and hitting as many enemies as foes. These men were packed so tight together, and their battle madness so high, they were killing everyone before them, regardless of the color of the uniforms.

  To Bayne, this madness was like a balm to a wound. He lifted his sword high above his head and cried out. His throaty roar rippled across the land, causing killers to pause in their butchery and to glance up to the death that awaited them.

  Then Bayne dove into the throng of slaughter. He launched himself from the raised lip of the crater and fell with sword swinging into the mass of men killing men.

  His blade sliced away one Trodan’s face, sending the man screaming with a bloody cavity for a mouth. Not stopping, Bayne slung his sword around to catch another man in the groin, him falling to the ground screaming for his father. Using his shield, Bayne knocked aside several attacks from others’ swords, all the while keeping his own short blade whirling and dealing death to those around him.

  The big warrior’s appearance and blood-thirsty attack stunned most of the Trodans into inaction for several long moments, but these were men familiar with the battlefield and the soldiering life. They were not fools, but well trained and experienced. Once the shock of Bayne’s attack settled in, the bronze-plated Trodans backed away from the madman dealing death, forming a large circle around him.

  Bayne soon found himself without an immediate foe. The soldiers in red had backed away, leaving him ample room to stumble around on the dead and dying. Blood already gelled about his legs, covering his boots. Splashes of gore decorated his chest and shield. But he would not be denied further bloodshed.

  The warrior raised his head high once more and screamed to the heavens.

  The Trodans took that as a sign to attack. A dozen of them quickly stepped into a squared formation and tromped forward, their tall wooden shields at the ready and their short swords out to one side and yearning to deal death.

  Bayne would have none of it. He charged, surprising his enemies once more, clashing into the middle of the shield wall facing him. His weight and strength were more than a match for normal men, and he proved thus as he bashed aside two of his foes’ shields and sank a steel blade into a man’s throat.

  There was a scattering then, the Trodans fleeing further back, away from this godlike being that had appeared from the crater.

  Arrows were launched, javelins thrown, all to little avail. Bayne’s shield yielded beneath the many darts flung upon it, cracking and tumbling from the man’s grip, but Bayne was swift enough to dodge many of the attacks and soon had another shield, that of a dead man, strapped to his arm. What few arrows made it past his defenses left shallow scratches upon his arms and legs, and miracle of miracles the wounds healed themselves before the very eyes of the Trodans.

  Here was magic unbeatable, so the Trodans figured, a magic likely called down by Verkanus himself. Not being fools, the Trodan generals would sacrifice no more of their men upon the
wall of death that was Bayne. Horns sounded in the distance and flags of gold and red dipped along the horizon, and soon enough the Trodan soldiers nearest Bayne formed into retreating lines, never leaving their back to their opponent, always ready for an assault.

  Bayne would not let them go without a contest. He lunged and stabbed and slashed, cutting down retreating men left and right. The Trodans tried to put up a fight, but it was little use. Individually they were no match for this strange, unbeatable figure, and as a collective their only hope might have been in throwing down their weapons and piling upon Bayne, which was something they would not do as no true Trodan soldier would ever willingly toss aside his sword.

  Covered with bits of lung and brain and stripped flesh and blood, Bayne soon found himself alone in his vicinity of the battlefield. He stood tall, his red-splattered legs slightly bent as if awaiting a fresh attack. About him could be heard moans and cries of dying men, most wounded Trodans though some few of Verkanus’s men howled and crawled through the muck.

  Bayne glanced behind himself in order to thwart any possible subterfuge, was surprised at what he found and had to stop and fully turn and stare. The edge of the crater was nearly a mile distant, and between him and the pit were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dead and wounded soldiers laid out in great piles and masses.

  He had dealt this carnage with his own hands, yet it had seemed to take only minutes. He would have sworn he had slain no more than a dozen men, perhaps as many as a score, and then the enemy had withdrawn before him. How could he not remember all this slaughter? It was a mystery to Bayne. The blood letting had seemed to go on for some little while, but not to this extent. Bayne’s only conclusion was the bloodlust had overcome him, shortening his memories of the deadly events. He wasn’t surprised. He was a born killer, a natural killer, and none could stand before him.

  The clatter of horse’s hooves striking stone and broken, armored bodies brought Bayne around once more.

  Off in the distance, near where a group of the Trodan’s best had formed into a phalanx of spearman, a single horseman advanced, the soldiers’ formation opening enough for the man to ride through. The rider steered his beast directly for Bayne, taking his time in his approach as if sizing up the one who had slaughtered so many of his men.

  The rider was obviously an officer. His burly chest and legs were sheltered in bright, shining silvered plates. Black chain hung about his shoulders and arms. His steel helmet was in the shape of a wolf’s head, the animal’s jaws open to reveal a stern face within. Strapped to the tall man’s back was a humongous sword, long and wide and impossible to use but for the strongest of men. A diamond-tipped lance rode in a cup to one side of the saddle, it’s aim at the darkening sky above. A shield of brightest bronze hung on the other side of the saddle, ready for use if the rider should need it.

  Bayne simply stood his ground and waited for this man to near.

  The Trodan rider took his time, his horse little more than prancing across the thousands of dead and dying. He showed no concern in his animal’s steps, not watching where the heavy hooves would land, and that combined with his unyielding gaze gave him an air of haughtiness.

  Bayne smirked at the straight back and solid stare of the officer as the horse was reined to a halt some little distance from the big warrior.

  “You are witness to Proconsul Lucius Sulla Tallerus,” announced the rider with a booming voice. “Prepare to meet your doom, minion of Verkanus.”

  With that the rider slid from his saddle and whipped around his large, two-handed sword before slapping away his steed.

  Bayne saw little reason to share words. “Fair enough.” He marched forward.

  Swords, long and short, twirled in fists to clash against one another in a resonant scraping of sparks. The blow knocked the proconsul back several steps, but he remained on his feet, his heavy weapon gripped in both hands before him.

  Bayne winced as the flash of sparks faded from his vision, but he stood his ground.

  “You are mighty,” Tallerus said, “but righteousness shall prevail here today.”

  Bayne wasted no words. He jumped forward, feinting to the right with his shorter blade.

  The Trodan brought his own weapon around to knock aside his opponent’s thrust, but too late saw the attack had been a ruse. Bayne’s shield caught him in the face, flattening his nose and splitting his lower lip. Blood splashed as Tallerus was forced back another step.

  Bayne kept up his momentum, whirling about with his shield overhead, coming in low with a long slash. Tallerus barely had time to leap above the shorter weapon, but in the air twisted his own sword around so its point came down hard against his foe’s shield.

  The shield buckled and cracked, split nearly in two.

  Bayne slung out his left arm, sending his broken safeguard spiraling away.

  He only managed to bring up his short sword in time to obstruct another attack from the Trodan.

  Bayne then stepped back, his first withdrawal of any kind of the day. He did not fear, nor was he tired or wounded. He took that step to give himself a moment to grin, to show this enemy he had respect for him.

  Then steel crashed against steel, and this time the flying sparks lit up the night as if an explosion. Yet again, Tallerus found himself forced to retreat a few steps, and yet again Bayne forced the attack, plowing ahead with his shorter weapon whirling about in front of him.

  The Trodan’s eyes were agog at the speed of his enemy’s blade, the smaller sword bouncing around left and right and high and low and all around this big, muscular figure who had slain thousands. Tallerus could not match the speed of the dancing sword before him. He withdrew several more paces.

  Bayne darted in, his short blade thrashing out and sliding through the chain layering the Trodan’s right arm, sending links flying and blood spurting.

  Tallerus cried out, his head thrown back to scream to the heavens.

  The short sword came in again, this time from below, launching up with all the force Bayne’s muscled arms could bring. The blade slid in beneath hanging silvered plates, through black chains and oiled leather to find a home in the Trodan’s groin.

  There was a crack within and a jerk of the proconsul’s body. His eyes opened wide for a moment, then the orbs rolled back in his head as his mouth formed into a silent scream. His body shuddered and his arms curled up to his chest, dropping his large weapon at his feet.

  He was dead by the time he dropped into the mud.

  Bayne stood there breathing heavily, staring down at the fallen enemy. He nodded, a final salute to the one warrior who had given him a true contest that day, then tossed aside his short sword. Reaching down, he lifted the proconsul’s two-handed weapon by its handle and stared at the fine steel of the blade and the leather cords wrapping the grip. This was a fine weapon, a weapon befitting the man who now held it.

  Smiling once more, Bayne decided he would keep this sword. He knelt and rolled over the Trodan’s corpse, unbuckling the straps of the leather belt and sheath that had cased the huge weapon. Within minutes, the sword’s leather band was fastened about Bayne’s back and chest, the hefty blade resting in its familiar sheath.

  A flare of light along the horizon caused the big man to look up from the final buckles crossing his chest. The brightness was at first that of a new morning sun, and though Bayne was not as yet familiar with this world, he did not believe morning was near.

  As quickly as it had appeared, the light sunk down to a bare glow. It still remained far away at the horizon amidst the mingling horde of Trodan soldiers, all seemingly fearful to approach this strange warrior who had slain their general, but now the light bounced slightly from side to side.

  It was obvious to Bayne whatever the source of this luminescence, it was on horseback. That would account for the bobbling of the far glow.

  Gradually the light grew nearer, and after several minutes Bayne could make out the rider and his ride, a wobbly donkey that appeared too old to be of s
ervice despite the figure and the small packs it carried. Of the man on the back of the poor beast, he was a plain-looking fellow of an age not easy to determine; he could have been in his late twenties or his early fifties. His chin was bare beneath flat features, and his head was topped with a mass of short brown tresses. His garments were of a simple fashion, a dusty robe with the hood riding behind the man’s neck. About his midriff was wrapped a course rope. The source of the flowering light was from another rope, this one short and ending in a noose, hanging from where it was nailed atop a tall staff the rider carried high.

  Bayne did not know this man, but that inner knowledge deep in the back of his mind told him the fellow wore the garb of a religious principal, a cleric or perhaps a monk. Bayne too did not recognize the short noose, but it seemed to him to be a symbol, a sign of importance. Was this another Trodan challenger? It seemed unlikely. But Bayne would be on his guard. Verkanus might not be the only mage in this war.

  The rider lowered his staff and the light died away just as the donkey came to a halt within rock-tossing distance of the warrior with the large sword.

  “Hail,” said the rider, dropping his reins and holding up his free hand.

  Bayne nodded back.

  The priestly fellow climbed out of his saddle and approached gradually, pulling his animal along with him and walking with his staff. “It would seem we are at an impasse.”

  “You wear no armor and carry no arms other than your stick,” Bayne said. “Leave the field of battle and no harm will come to you.”

  “And if I do not?”

  “Then you are a fool who will die along with the rest of these Trodan slavers.”

  “Slavers?” The man’s face screwed up in confusion and curiosity.

  “You heard me correctly.”

  “We Trodans are no slavers,” the priestly fellow said. “It is a repugnant practice and against the laws of our land.”

  “I have been told otherwise,” Bayne said.

  The stranger shook his head. “You have been ill informed, then. I suppose it was Emperor Verkanus who told you thus?”

  “It was,” Bayne admitted.

  “He is a deceiver, that man.”

  “I know not,” Bayne said, “and I see no reason to trust your word over his.”

  “Well.” The other man gave a short bow, little more than a bob of the head. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Pedrague, high minister of Holy Ashal, the God Who Walked Among Men.”

  Bayne scoffed. “Your gods mean nothing to me, little priest.”

  Pedrague seemed taken aback by the sturdiness of the warrior’s words. “It would appear Verkanus has chosen well in his champion. I assume you are supposed to be a demon he brought forth, though I’ve never witnessed such a demon as you.”

  “No demon. To my knowledge, I am only a man.”

  The priest’s gaze narrowed. “You, my friend, are obviously much more than a man. No man could leave a swath of death behind him such as you have done.”

  “Nor am I your friend, priest,” Bayne said. “Is there a meaning behind your words? Is there a reason we are speaking before I crush your skull and take your head from your body?”

  Pedrague chuckled. “And a moment ago you were promising no harm to myself.”

  “Only if you left the field of battle. Which, so far, your mouth has not allowed you to do.”

  The priest’s laughter died swiftly. “I am no swordsman, nor a soldier. I am here to speak to you of the impasse we are facing.”

  “I see no impasse.”

  “That does not mean there is not one,” Pedrague said. “Yes, you have dealt much death, and likely could continue to do so. However, eventually, probably after many Trodan deaths, the generals and their mages would find some way to halt you.”

  Bayne snickered.

  “Oh, they might not destroy you,” Pedrague went on, “but it is assured they would find some way of dealing with you. Sealing magics, perhaps, or some form of barrier that would impede your movement. Have no doubt about that, my friend. The Trodans are the most resourceful people in all the lands.”

  “I have my doubts,” Bayne said. “Thus, I see no impasse.”

  “That being the case,” Pedrague said, “I am here to appeal to you to step aside and allow this war to continue without your intrusion.”

  “If Verkanus had summoned a demon, would it do as such?” Bayne asked, then provided his own answer. “I think not.”

  “As you have pointed out,” Pedrague said, “you are not a demon. You are a man, though an uncommon one. I hope to appeal to your sense of honor.”

  Bayne puffed out his chest. “What makes you believe I have a sense of honor?”

  “Most men of the sword do,” the priest of Ashal said. “That, or they are madmen who thrive on the bloodletting of others. You do not strike me as a madman.”

  The big warrior chuckled once more. “I slay one of their officers, and the Trodans send me a priest who will not shut up. This is an unusual strategy.”

  “No strategy. I had to beg the generals to allow me to come here. I wish to spare much death this day, and to bring Verkanus his rightful judgment.”

  Bayne spat. “Who are you to judge?”

  “Me?” The priest seemed taken back by the accusation, then his eyes grew dark and hooded. “I judge as do all good men who have suffered under the wrath of the emperor. It was Verkanus himself who slew his own son, Ashal, hanging him from a high tree. It was Verkanus who rode forth across Ursia and Pursia, bringing flame and death and decay and his bedeviled magics to all who would not bow to a knee before him. I stand here as a man who has lost much, my family, my father, my mother, my wife, my children, even my god, at the hands of Verkanus. Who am I to judge? I am a man destroyed by evil and reborn through the words of the Almighty Ashal. I am a man who will stand with righteousness against the evils of this world, and there is none more evil than Verkanus himself!”

  The big warrior watched Pedrague’s chest heaving after such speech and such emotion. Still, Bayne crossed his arms and grinned.

  “I suppose now you will mock me further,” the priest said.

  “No.” Bayne shook his head. “It is obvious you are a man who believes in his cause.”

  Pedrague drooped, suggesting he was nearing an end to his words with the emperor’s champion. “Where do we go from here?”

  “What would you have of me?” Bayne asked. “Do you believe I can simply step aside?”

  “Little hope of that,” Pedrague said, but then a glint appeared in his eyes. “However, if I were to prove to you the tyrant’s treachery, would you step aside then?”

  Bayne sighed as he reached over his shoulder and drew forth his new, lengthy sword. “If Verkanus has dealt falsely with me, then I shall find my own vengeance against him.”

  “There is another way,” Pedrague said, little above a whisper.

  The tone of the cleric’s words were different than before, final, and this put Bayne on edge. The very air felt more chill, and the torch lights of the distant army dimmed. Bayne realized there was a subtle magic at work, the priest’s magic. So far the man had dealt openly and fairly with Bayne, but those last words and the magic in the air showed the situation had changed. Whether or not the priest meant Bayne ill, they had spoken long enough. Bayne had an army to destroy. It was time he returned to his bloody work.

  “No more words,” the warrior said.

  Then he bound forward, within striking distance of the cleric, and with both hands hefted his mighty sword overhead.

  Pedrague lashed out with his staff.

  The blow was an explosion. Wood cracked against steel, there was a flash of light and Bayne found himself flying through the air.

  He landed in a heap of dead bodies, his already gore-covered frame once more layered in fresh red. Broken bones and fallen weapons and joints of armor scrapped against his bare arms and into the leathers of his legs. The wind was knocked from him, and he lay there a moment starin
g up at the graying sky, an early morning sky.

  Bayne blinked, and suddenly he understood. In but a moment a thousand images and sounds and scents and emotions washed over him as if he were laying on a beach and covered by wave after wave. He saw the past, far and recent, and Verkanus was central to everything he witnessed. The king stood in golden armor by the ledge of a cliff, a kneeling woman nearby crying and reaching for a boy who stared out across a desolate valley beyond the cliff; the boy jumped off the precipice and the woman screamed and the king laughed. A flash. Verkanus once more, this time in scarlet robes, in a cave or dungeon or some underground pit; he used chalk to scrawl impure images upon the stone floor as he bargained with reptilian beasts that stood on legs as if men. Another flash. The king atop a hill, a mighty tree next to him from which was strung a length of rope; at the end of the rope was a noose, and hanging from the noose was a young man … the boy! It was the boy who had jumped from the cliff, now grown to be a man. But he was unmoving, hanging there with his feet inches above the ground. About the hill and the king was a throng, a mass of shrieking and shouting people, all calling for the youth’s death and for their emperor to lead them to … something. Flash. Men covered in oil and set aflame before their families. Screaming elders butchered, limb by limb, in front of their kin. Babes ripped from the arms of their mothers and their tiny skulls dashed against rocks. Children impaled alive.


  Bayne sat up slowly and rubbed at the back of his head. To his knowledge, he had never been struck so hard. It had hurt. For a moment, he had felt pain to his spine and his skull. The moment was past. But the visions in his mind, those he could not dismiss so easily. The emotions were the worst of it. He had seen Verkanus juxtaposed upon various scenes, witnessed it visually, but the roiling of the mad king’s inner self was what ate away at Bayne. The emperor was evil. If any man could be labeled such, it was Verkanus. His armies had raged across continents, torturing and murdering along the way, all for the king’s glory. He had slain his own son, slipping the noose over the young man’s head himself. And why? Jealousy. The boy had grown into godhood, and Verkanus would not suffer that. The emotions and events went beyond that, however. Verkanus craved all. He yearned for total domination, to control everything and everyone. He was not above any offense in seeking such. He would do anything.

  Including lie.

  Bayne had been betrayed. His might had been purchased upon a promise of untruths. He had been leery of the emperor from the beginning, but had grasped at the slightest hint of aid in discovering his own truth. Verkanus had brought him here, thus Verkanus could send him back from wherever he had come, or Verkanus could at least discover who or what Bayne was.

  But that was not too be.

  Bayne knew this now, felt the coldness of it inside himself as if his bones were iron.

  He glanced about and found his sword next to him. He retrieved the heavy weapon and gradually stood, then returned the sword to its home on his back.

  Pedrague still stood where he had, now more than a dozen steps away, his staff gripped in both hands across his chest.

  “So, the priest bares his teeth,” Bayne said.

  “Ashal lends me his strength,” Pedrague said, the top of his weapon aglow once more, “but I hope he has lent me his wisdom as well.”

  Bayne nodded. “He has.”

  “You saw?”

  “I witnessed.”

  “What did you see?”

  “Your god,” Bayne said, “when he was still in mortal form. He was but a youth, barely more than a score of summers.”

  “Yes,” Pedrague said. “That was how it was.”

  “Verkanus executed him, envious of the boy’s growing power.”

  The priest knelt on one knee and lowered his head, the staff still alight above him. “It is to my shame I was not present, that I could not save He who walked among us.”

  Bayne walked forward, each step measured as to not raise false suspicions.

  The priest did not look up. His head remaining facing the blooded earth of the battlefield.

  Bayne halted in front of the kneeling figure and raised a hand, gripping it into a shaking fist. But then the hand opened, and he placed it with gentleness upon the priest’s head.

  “It is time to rise,” the warrior said. “I will find the emperor and I will slay him, freeing your world of his corruption. You have your god’s magic, and once I am finished with Verkanus, you can discover what I wish to know.”

  Pedrague looked up, his eyes misted. “Ashal is all powerful, but I am but a weak man. I do not know if I can do as you want.”

  Bayne nodded once more. “At least you are being truthful with me. That is more than Verkanus gave. Stand, and hunt with me.”

  Pedrague arose, and the two went into the pit to find the emperor, but the evil man had long fled.

  That was the extent of Bayne’s memories of that night. He had soon parted with the mage-priest, the warrior realizing he could not be accepted by the Trodans, not after he had spilled the blood of so many of their kin. Long years would pass, many filled with blood and fire and steel. Bayne traveled across lands of many climes and peoples, through other battles and wars, always on the trail of Verkanus, his own name becoming a legend along with that of the emperor. Through it all, the Trodans believed the emperor to be dead, killed, the body missing during that final battle. Bayne had always known otherwise. Verkanus no more raised his head, but he left traces which the warrior could follow.

  Bayne had walked.

  Then he had climbed.

  “I remember.”

  “Then it must be plain I have no answers for you,” Verkanus said from his stone seat.

  Bayne turned toward the emperor. “Your magic must be able to reveal something.”

  Verkanus barked a laugh, holding up his hands in a pose of surrender. “Believe me, during the spare moments I have had between avoiding Trodan regiments, I have spun more than a few spells in an attempt to learn of you, Bayne kul Kanon. All attempts were futile.”

  “You lie,” Bayne said.

  “No,” Pedrague answered for the king. “He speaks the truth. But don’t believe for a moment he did so for your benefit. He wanted to know who you are, Bayne, in hopes of finding some manner to defeat you.”

  “Is this true?” the big man asked.

  Verkanus nodded. “I see no reason to lie. You have caught up with me. I suppose we will duel now, I with my magics, you with your sword.”

  “There will be no duel this day,” spoke he of the shifting face.

  The others glanced to the man.

  “We three agreed to a truce for our gathering,” the man continued. “Our temporary accord also includes Bayne.”

  “I did not agree to such,” Verkanus said.

  “You do not need to.” Glaring eyes peered out from the changing faces as if they could bore into the mage-king’s soul. “It is my word and my will. Or else our truce will end here and now.”

  The emperor lowered his gaze.

  Bayne stepped closer to the seated triangle and rounded upon the unnamed man. “For what purpose was this truce?”

  “We had much to discuss,” Pedrague said.

  Bayne glanced to the priest, then back to the other man. “What sort of discussion is this, three men meeting atop this mountain? Verkanus and Pedrague I know to be men of magic. Are you a wizard, too?”

  The man’s features altered again, several times in a matter of seconds. The faces that looked out were once more familiar to Bayne, but from an earlier time before he came to the mountain, from a time before he even remembered existing.

  “You?” Bayne spoke out. “You were the boy who jumped from the cliff’s edge? The youth hanging from the tree? You are Verkanus’s son? The living god?”

  The man answered, “I was all those things. No more.”

  Bayne turned to face Pedrague. “This man is your god?”

  “He was,” the priest said, bowing his head low. “He i

  “No,” Ashal said. “I lay no claims to godhood.”

  Verkanus jumped to his feet, causing Bayne to reach up and place a hand on his sword. “You fool!” the king screamed in the god’s face. “You were worshipped as divinity! You had thousands before you, worshipping you, willing to lay down their lives for you, but you turned your back on all of it!”

  Ashal’s face finally settled into one set of features, those of his former self as a young man, simple but handsome with a dark head of hair. He motioned for Bayne to lower his arm.

  “You were my father in that life, Verkanus,” the god said, “but remind yourself that is no longer so. Your jealousies are beyond touching me now. Please, sit, and we will continue.”

  The emperor’s brow was furrowed and wet, his eyes wide and red, his chest heaving, but after another glare at his former offspring, he managed to calm himself, his breathing returning to normal, and he sat once more.

  “Good,” Ashal said. He turned to Bayne. “You must forgive my former birth father. He has never grown to love the fact his son was chosen and not himself.”


  “To be a god,” Pedrague cut in.

  “No.” Ashal gave a sharp glance to the priest, a glance which softened almost immediately. “In my former life, I was the first true mage, a wielder of magic who did not have to resort to rituals and sacrifices.”

  Bayne shook his head and closed his eyes briefly. “This is confusing. And I do not see what it has to do with me.”

  “It has much to do with you,” Ashal said.

  The warrior stared down at the man. “Are you a god?”

  “There are no gods,” Verkanus said.

  “Of course there’s a god,” Pedrague said.

  Ashal grinned. “Perhaps there is a god. But if so, I am not one.”

  Bayne grimaced, confusion roiling around in his head. A god who wasn’t a god, who had been a man but was hung from a tree. Yet here he was seemingly alive and well sitting atop this mountain. None of it made sense.

  “It makes sense from our point of view,” Ashal said, waving a hand at the other two.

  “Now you are looking into my mind,” Bayne said.

  “My apologies.” Ashal grinned. “It was an accident, a mere reading of your surface thoughts. I will limit myself from doing so again.”

  “Good,” Bayne said. God or not, undying or not, Bayne would not long tolerate another reading his very thoughts and turning them back upon him.

  The god-who-was-not-a-god grinned all the wider, but said nothing.

  “You have still not told me why you three are here,” Bayne said. “Nor have you explained what I have to do with all this.”

  Verkanus snickered. “We were waiting to see if you were going to try and kill me.”

  “Try?” Bayne asked, his hands at his sides tensing into fists.

  Pedrague held up a hand to belay any assault by the warrior. “Verkanus is teasing you. Our purpose for being here is a complex one.”

  “Explain,” Bayne said.

  “We have gathered to seek a balance,” Ashal said, “a balance between good and evil and … a nonpartisan viewpoint.”

  “I do not understand,” the warrior said.

  “Of course you don’t, you dolt!” Verkanus nearly shouted. “You’re an oaf with more brains than brawn!”

  Bayne raised a fist before the emperor. “Remember that you have broken a pact with me. By rights I should at the least pummel you senseless. If your insults continue, I’ll let my sword do my talking.”

  Verkanus eased back on his seat and folded his arms, his lips a cruel smile.

  “Bayne,” Ashal said, his voice comforting but also seeking the big man’s attention.

  The warrior lowered his fist and stared at the god.

  “Verkanus is immortal,” Ashal explained. “He cannot be killed. So please, ignore his posturing, as violence upon him will accomplish little.”

  “Besides, there’s our truce,” the king said with spite.

  Bayne rounded on Verkanus once more. “I agreed to no truce, nor would I have.”

  The king snarled. Bayne snarled right back.

  “This is getting us nowhere,” Pedrague pointed out. “We were speaking of a balance.”

  Bayne pulled back from thrashing the emperor and tuned his attention to the others.

  “Yes,” Ashal said. “The last few score years have been tumultuous ones for this world, in no small part due to the actions of Verkanus here.”

  The emperor’s dark grin grew wider.

  “With the execution of my former self a little more than two decades ago,” Ashal went on, “the events of this world reached a turning point. The future is being weighed, and the path it will take is being decided.”

  Bayne waved a hand over the triangle of seated men. “By you three?”

  “Not all of us,” Ashal said.

  The warrior glanced to the god. “You mentioned a balance between good and evil. It’s obvious Verkanus represents the evils forces. Does that mean Pedrague represents the good?”

  “No,” Pedrague said. “I am here merely to provide a mortal viewpoint, and as a recorder of events. I have no direct say in this matter.”

  “I represent the side of good in this debate,” Ashal said, pointing a finger at Bayne. “You are our neutral party, the one who holds the future in balance.”

  “Me?” Bayne took a step back in astonishment. “I have nothing to do with this world. For all I know, I am not from these lands.”

  “Exactly,” Ashal pointed out. “You are a true neutral party, the balancing factor. You have no biases in helping to decide the prospects for this world.”

  Pedrague stood and motioned toward the stone seat he had vacated. “Please, Bayne kul Kanon, join your rightful place.”

  The warrior glanced at the flat rock. “I prefer to stand.”

  Verkanus cackled.

  Ashal hissed, quieting the king. “What do you find amusing?” the god asked of the emperor.

  “Him,” Verkanus said, nodding toward Bayne. “He’s too obstinate to be involved with this. Why trust him with our decisions? Besides, he’s a slayer of men, a killer. Why should such a man be considered impartial?”

  “I have been wondering the same,” Bayne said, for once ignoring the emperor’s slights as he pointed to Verkanus and then Ashal. “I am no immortal, unlike you two, and I have whetted my sword on many a man’s entrails. Some would consider my actions less than good.”

  “But you are immortal,” Pedrague said. “Did you not know this?”

  “Immortal?” Bayne said. “I heal swiftly, but I am not immortal.”

  “You are,” Ashal said. “It’s another reason you were chosen for our gathering.”

  “Chosen?” Bayne said. Revelation upon revelation was twisting the big man’s thoughts in upon themselves. How deep did all this go? He had believed himself simply a powerful man, a warrior born, in pursuit of Verkanus and answers. Now, it was nearly more than he could comprehend.

  “I chose you,” Ashal said. “When Verkanus performed the ritual that would summon forth a demon, it was I in the mass of Trodans who hurled forth a dart to disrupt the spell. It was I who brought disorder to his magic and produced you from the heavens.”

  “Why?” Bayne asked.

  Ashal shrugged. “A balance was needed. Evil had been dominating the world for some time, and would have continued to do so unless measures were taken. You are the result of those measures. You are the balancer.”

  Verkanus sneered again and spat onto the ground in the center of the three stone seats.

  Bayne rocked back on his heels and ran a hand along his bald dome in order to give himself moments to think. He was immortal. But how? And he still did not know from whence he came.

  As if reading the warrior’s mind once more, Ashal pointed to the emperor and said, “Verkanus became immortal when he discovered ancient scrolls of the Zarroc, a race which annihilated itself ma
ny millennia ago.”

  “And you?” Bayne asked of the god-who-was-not-a-god.

  Ashal smiled. “I am … unique. Let us say it was my fortune to be born with special talents. Unlike Verkanus here, my mortal form can be destroyed, but I continue to survive in a spiritual body until I decide otherwise. When I wish, I can incorporate myself into a physical form.”

  Bayne blinked. A thousand questions ran through his mind, but what was there to say? This was all beyond the warrior’s reckoning. His existence, relatively brief for even mortals, had not taught him the ways of gods. Men worshipped, and until this day Bayne had had little belief. The world had moved, men lived and died, nations rose and fell, but Bayne had before seen little evidence gods truly existed, let alone walked the same soil as of men. To learn he was somehow connected with these divinities did little to ease Bayne’s mind. He was just a man, though possibly an exceptional one. His experience had told him nothing of how to behave in the vicinity of gods, let alone how to act if he himself were a god of some sort.

  Ashal smiled again. “Bayne kul Kanon, do not worry yourself over what you do or do not know. Knowledge can be overvalued at times, and logic alone will not always suffice. Trust your instincts, and learn to yield to faith.”

  “Faith?” It was Verkanus who spoke, the bitterness in his voice dripping with toxin. “You preach faith to this slayer? Where was your faith when he was slaughtering Trodans by the thousands? Where was your faith when his mind was blank and he could not recall his own past?”

  “Some men have to learn faith,” Ashal said. “Perhaps Bayne has.”

  The emperor sneered and waved a hand toward the warrior. “Well, Bayne, what have you learned during your days?

  For this, Bayne had an answer. He stood straighter, taller, as if proud of what he had to say. “I? I have learned that men are weak. They are assaulted on all sides by many distractions, and they fall prey to nearly all of them, never seeing beyond what lies directly before them. What have I learned? I have learned humanity has much possibility, but little diligence.”

  Verkanus chuckled. “Much as I expected.”

  “Possibility,” Pedrague repeated Bayne’s word, then added, “that implies faith. To see that very possibility implies faith that the possibility can become reality.”

  Ashal nodded. “Very good.”

  Pedrague blushed and lowered his head.

  “Fools!” Verkanus shouted. “Battle and slaughter, years of tireless walking, then climbing, and that is all this idiot has learned?”

  Now it was Bayne who sneered. “Then tell me, oh king, what has been missing from my education.”

  “Power, you fool! Among all men, you are the strongest. Invincible, immortal. You could have taken it all, by your own hand, and ruled!”

  “A familiar argument,” Pedrague pointed out.

  “Yes,” Ashal agreed. “The very one made to me in a former lifetime.”

  Verkanus fumed, his chest heaving and his lips parting slightly to draw in leaden breaths. “Surrounded by fools,” he muttered to himself, his eyes wandering away. “Always powerful, never gaining power. What use is immortality if one does not gain by it?”

  The emperor turned toward Bayne. “You have reached not only the apex of this mountain, but the apex of your experience, and yet you’ve learned nothing.”

  The warrior glanced from king to priest to god. “This mountain? Was it to be my teacher?”

  Ashal nodded. “In many ways, yes. It was a manner of preparing you for this gathering.”

  “The events that transpired,” Bayne said, staring at Ashal, “were they real or false?”

  “Does it matter?” Ashal asked.

  Bayne thought. The battle in the village had seemed real, as did the magic of the tavern, the women of the cave and the men of the road through Stagnation. It had all seemed real. If it had been lessons he was meant to learn, then Bayne supposed he had learned them. Real or not, they were real to him. That was what was of import.

  Bayne nodded. “Real enough.”

  “Fool!” Verkanus said. “Illusions all!”

  “Created by you?” Bayne asked of the king. “Or you?” he turned upon the god.

  Ashal remained silent.

  Verkanus chuckled. “Your woman doesn’t even exist! You had believed once your dealings with me were finished, you would return along your path to find your precious Valdra. But she is not real!”

  Bayne waited for the emperor’s evil laughter to die. “If it was you who created such illusions, then you are powerful enough to discover from where I came, and you have lied to me that you cannot answer my questions. You have broken our bargain more than once.”

  Verkanus laughed again.

  He was quieted as Bayne palmed the emperor’s face.

  “Enough of this,” said Bayne.

  The big warrior’s strong fingers wrapped around the skull and he squeezed. There was a shrill cry, followed by the cracking of bone as the emperor’s face imploded, then silence. Red jelly seeped between Bayne’s digits before he tossed Verkanus to one side.

  “Let us see how you enjoy eternity without a head,” Bayne said.

  The emperor’s faceless figure twitched and jiggled for several moments, then came to a standstill.

  “Thus the balance has been reached,” Ashal said with a bow of his head.

  A sudden intake of breath caused Bayne to glance up at Pedrague. The priest stood as if stone, his features stretched in horror. The warrior moved so that his large body shielded the image of Verkanus from the priest.

  “He will recover,” Ashal said of Pedrague. “Give him a few minutes.”

  “After the battle with the Trodans,” Bayne said, “I would have believed him beyond such emotions.”

  The god smiled. “Some of us remain innocent all our lives.”

  A flare lit up the scene and all eyes focused upon the corpse of the king. The body was aflame, a lavender blaze eating away at the flesh and dark garb. Within seconds, the figure had become as black ash, then it broke and cracked into a million miniscule pieces and drifted away upon a light breeze.

  “He will … rebuild himself eventually,” Ashal said, standing. “Until then, the world is a safer place, a better place.”

  Bayne turned to the priest once more and saw the man continued to stand still with a glazed look upon his face. The warrior slapped his hands in front of Pedrague’s eyes, drawing a flinching head as response.

  Ashal stepped over to the cleric and placed a gentle hand upon a shoulder. “Go from here now, good Pedrague, and return to your temples. This gathering is finished. Record what you will.”

  “I believed …” the priest’s voice trailed away as he stared off once more.

  “You believed there would be a war between myself and my former father,” Ashal said. “That was never a possibility. I do not wage war. I have no need for it.”

  “Which I suppose is why my presence was necessary,” Bayne said.

  “To an extent,” Ashal said, “but the outcome was not entirely yours to decide. Verkanus could have acted upon his own, as could I. You were here not necessarily to make a decision yourself, but to provide an equilibrium. You acted. An outcome has been decided. The matter is finished.”

  “You implied he will return,” Bayne said. “How long?”

  Ashal shrugged. “Much will be up to him, and there’s the mental scarring your damage will have done upon him. It could be months or years, perhaps even several human lifetimes.”

  “I will be waiting,” Bayne said.

  “Good,” Ashal said. “Perhaps next time Verkanus will have a more difficult road to dominance.”

  “What of him?” The warrior jabbed a finger in the direction of the priest.

  Ashal squeezed Pedrague’s shoulder, then waved a hand before the cleric. “Be at ease.”

  The priest blinked. “I … I …”

  “Take care of yourself, Pedrague,” Ashal said.

  The priest, his face
lively once more, turned to his god. “You are leaving?”

  “I am.”

  “You must come with me!” the priest nearly shouted. “We can bring you to the temple. Word will spread. You have returned.”

  Ashal’s smile was a sad one. “Not now, good man. The world must do without Verkanus and myself for some while.”

  “But why?” Pedrague asked. “Why not return? Bring your healing powers to the people, my lord, and all will follow. You can bring an end to the divisions among the believers. You can bring the Ashalites and the Ashalics together, ceasing the warring among the shrines.”

  “Then I would be little better than Verkanus himself,” Ashal said. “No. Men must learn to do for themselves and provide for themselves.”

  “Faith,” Bayne said.

  Ashal’s grin grew wider and less sad. “Indeed. And free will.”

  “Before you go, will you help where Verkanus would not?” Bayne asked. “Will you tell me who I am?”

  “With regrets the answer is no,” Ashal said. “In many ways you are still a blank slate, Bayne kul Kanon. You have much yet to learn, and my telling would hamper your progress. Your road is not yet finished, though perhaps your climb is. My apologies.”

  Bayne nodded. There was no more to say on the subject.

  “You are one of three immortals now, Bayne,” Ashal went on. “Remember that, and use what you learn wisely. Men will attempt to use you for their own ends, as they do with all they perceive as gods.”

  “I am prepared,” the warrior said.

  The god’s eyes glimmered. “I believe you are.”

  Then Ashal turned and walked several yard away. He turned back one last time, waved, and said, “Goodbye.”

  It was as if a mist of steam poured over the god, and then he was gone.

  Bayne blinked. Then he turned to Pedrague. “I propose we climb back down,” the warrior said.

  The priest shrugged, but disappointment was clear on his face. “I suppose.”

  Soon enough they were walking.

  As they rounded upon the path Bayne had followed to the top of the mountain, the big man gently slapped the priest on the shoulder and provided a grin of his own. “Do not worry about your god, preacher man. Remember to have faith.”

  Pedrague chuckled as they walked. “I will attempt to do my best. But you, Bayne? What will you do now? Where will you go?”

  “I go in search of the woman Valdra,” Bayne said, retrieving Masterson’s cigar from his belt and planting it in one corner of his mouth. “She seemed as she would make a good companion for one such as myself. If Verkanus spoke truly that she was an illusion, it will be to my loss. But I will search nonetheless.”

  “Faith,” Pedrague repeated.

  The priest snapped his fingers and a small flame danced in the middle of his hand. He held it up to set a burning glow to the end of his companion’s cigar.

  The story continues in: A Thousand Wounds: Book II of The Sword of Bayne

  The Ursian Chronicles

  (in order of publication)

  City of Rogues: Book I of The Kobalos Trilogy

  Road to Wrath: Book II of The Kobalos Trilogy

  Dark King of the North: Book III of The Kobalos Trilogy

  The Kobalos Trilogy OMNIBUS edition

  Blade and Flame: short story sequel to The Kobalos Trilogy

  Bayne’s Climb: Part I of The Sword of Bayne

  A Thousand Wounds: Part II of The Sword of Bayne

  Under the Mountain: Part III of The Sword of Bayne

  The Sword of Bayne OMNIBUS edition

  Ghosts of the Asylum

  Demon Chains

  The Castle of Endless Woe (novelette)

  Six Swords, One Skeleton and a Sewer (short story)

  Five Tales from The Rusty Scabbard

  Mage Hunter: Episode I: Blooded Snow

  Mage Hunter: Episode II: Sundered Shields

  Mage Hunter: Episode III: Bared Blades

  Mage Hunter: Episode IV: Hammered Iron

  Mage Hunter: Episode V: Changeless Fate

  Mage Hunter OMNIBUS edition

  Shieldbreaker: Part I: Road of the Sword

  Shieldbreaker: Part II: An End to Rage

  Shieldbreaker: Part III: Betrayal of the Self

  Shieldbreaker: Part IV: The Slave Pits of Mogus Potere

  Shieldbreaker: Part V: Following Bayne

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