The King Is Dead
The stars began to twinkle into oblivion in the night sky as the sun burst over the horizon behind Leyla. She glanced over her shoulder for a quick peek, as well as to give her dark brown eyes a break from the chill, dry wind.
Her dark hood and the scarf around her face protected her from the cold at the high altitudes she was flying on the back of Memmonym, Lady of the Dark Night Sky. She reveled in the freedom she felt soaring through the dawn on the back of a dragon.
This was what she always wanted. To be completely integrated with a dragon. Not dependent on the riding gear she trained with. But connected as one with her very own dragon that adapted to her every thought and movement.
The splendid beast gave a loud roar and sparks from deep within its belly flickered out of its mouth, past Leyla’s legs. The thrill of the hunt always left her feeling giddy with excitement.
“Wake up, Leyla,” a voice broke through the sound of the wind.
The pre-dawn sky darkened, and the nebulous clouds around her swirled in closer and thicker. Memmonym, the dragon beneath her knees, disappeared along with the bow in her left hand. The darkness deepened all about, and only a soft glow remained in front of her.
“Come on! It’s urgent. I need you to wake up now,” the irritating voice persisted.
Leyla groaned and then rolled over with a sigh before opening her eyes. She blinked up into the face of Zuleyha, her best friend. Leyla groaned again and looked up at the open window. It wasn’t even light outside.
“I was having such a delightful dream. Riding on the back of a bronze fire dragon. Why did you have to wake me up so early? It’s not even light yet.”
“Master Danyal, sent me to fetch Princess Banu, but I can’t find her.”
“She’s probably had a nightmare and her nurses took her to sleep beside her mother.”
“I already checked. There’s a tremendous commotion around the King’s chambers, so I couldn’t enter. But Nessim, one of the guards at the door, went inside to check for me. When he came back out, Nessim told me that the princess wasn’t inside. He confided in me that the guards were already looking for her.”
“Well, she’s fine then. Go back and tell Master Danyal that the guards will soon find her and put her back in her bed.”
Leyla closed her eyes and breathed deeply, as if going back to sleep. Zuleyha squealed angrily and shook her.
“You know I can’t return until I find her and can take back news of her whereabouts. Please come help me find her. I don’t live here like you do. I’m sure you know all the places she might be hiding.”
Leyla sighed and sat up, flipping her long, black hair and pulling it back into a ponytail.
“Fine,” she sighed. “But you owe me big time. You know how much I need my beauty sleep, and how ornery I can be when I don’t get enough sleep. So, just remember that you asked for this.”
Zuleyha leaped to her feet and clapped her hands with glee. Leyla changed into something more appropriate to be waltzing around the castle in than her nightgown before heading for the door.
The halls were bustling with activity for such an early hour. Unsettled groups of guards rushed past them nervously. Some coming. Some going. Handmaids and ladies-in-waiting walked quickly around them as well.
Leyla noticed that those coming from the king’s chambers had tears in their eyes. She tried to ask one or two what was going on, but everyone seemed to be in a dazed hurry. The girls entered a large open hall where small groups whispered in hushed voices.
“Maybe Master Danyal was right about sending you here. Something must have happened to the princess.” Leyla whispered to Zuleyha as they looked around for a familiar face.
They both noticed Naile, one of the mages in training, at the same time. The girls bustled over to her and asked what was going on. Naile looked over her shoulder at the guards before answering.
“Something happened in the King’s chambers. We don’t know for sure yet. But rumor has it that the king is dead.”
Zuleyha gasped and grabbed Leyla’s arm. “What about the princess? Has anyone seen her?”
Naile shrugged and brushed her red bangs out of her eyes. “She’s probably in her room or with her mother. I’m sure she’s around somewhere.”
Another group of girls walked past them. Leyla turned to smile at them, but they all stuck their noses in the air and turned to walk around her without acknowledging that she was there.
“It’s okay. Sevda and her little clique think they are better than everyone else, but they still come snooping around to catch all the gossip just like the rest of us.” Naile whispered.
“Who is she?” Leyla asked.
“Just a girl in my class who thinks she can do everything we do better than we can like the snob she is.”
The murmuring of voices from the other end of the hall caused Leyla to look up. Metehan, the king’s brother, came striding in their direction on his way to the King’s wide double doors that the guards opened promptly.
“What’s he doing here?” Leyla asked. “Wasn’t he banished from the kingdom for treason?”
Neither of the other girls answered, and Leyla knew they didn’t know any more than she did herself. But she noticed Naile had her eyes closed. She could see the girl’s eyeballs moving rapidly back and forth under Naile’s eyelids.
Leyla glanced at Zuleyha who raised her eyebrows and shrugged. They waited quietly for Naile to come out of her trance.
“What did you see?” the girls both asked immediately when Naile opened her eyes.
Naile glanced over her shoulder again at the door, then leaned in to whisper quietly. “The king and queen both seem to be dead. Metehan and one of the guards he calls Abdulkerim were discussing how to proceed. It seems like they are plotting for the kingdom. And they are looking for the princess themselves.”
Zuleyha gasped and looked around nervously, “C’mon, Leyla. Master Danyal was right. She is in danger. We have to get moving if we are going to find her before Metehan does.”
Leyla frowned. “We have to be careful. Master Danyal may be in cahoots with Metehan and his cronies if they really are plotting against the kingdom.”
Her friend scoffed. “Master Danyal wouldn’t do such a thing. He’s a good man.”
“Well, that may be. But he knew something was up before we did. I wonder how he knew that. But let’s deal with that later. First, we have to find the princess if we want to help her ourselves. Then we can figure out who to trust and who not to.”
She looked at Naile and asked if the girl could use her gift of seeing beyond walls to find the child. Naile closed her eyes for a few moments and then shook her head.
“It’s too noisy in here. Locating a missing person is different than seeing past a wall when I already know they are there.”
Leyla quickly took the girl’s arm and guided her back to her room, with Zuleyha close on their heels. Naile lay down and rolled onto her side. After a few seconds, she rolled back over.
“Did you find her yet?” Leyla asked impatiently.
“No,” Naile scowled. “You tapping your foot is annoying. Stay still or leave the room.”
Leyla’s face burned at the rebuke, but she held her tongue. She pulled the chair out from behind her desk and sat down. Zuleyha sat down on the rug and crossed her legs. They both watched Naile intently for what seemed like hours, although it probably wasn’t actually more than five minutes.
“Found her. I think she’s crouched in a small room under the kitchen stairs that lead down into the cellar.” Naile said, sitting up.
“What do you mean, ‘you think?’. Is she there or not?” Leyla growled, still miffed at Naile telling her to be quiet earlier.
Zuleyha butted in sweetly to keep the two from arguing.
“Seeing into the glow isn’t an exact science, even for an experienced mage, Leyla. Naile is at the top of our class, but she is still studying and learning. C’mon. Let’s hurry and go see if that’s where the princess is at. We need to get there before Metehan and his dirty henchmen have time to harm her.” Zuleyha said as she pulled them out the door and down the hall toward the kitchen.
The girls raced down the spiraling staircase to the central hall. They had to pause and step aside though as a large group of soldiers barged past them. They waited nervously against the wall until the men went by before continuing on their way. The girls could overhear the men behind them shouting the princess’s name as they kicked open doors.
“Well, at least we know they haven’t found her yet,” Zuleyha whispered breathlessly as they continued toward the kitchen. “I wonder what they plan on doing to her when they find her.”
“Probably kill her like they did her…” Leyla started to say, then stopped as they rounded the corner and came across some guards.
One of them was Nessim. Leyla’s heart fluttered. She had always had a crush on him, but he looked even more striking in his uniform.
“Hey, Zuleyha. Did you find the princess yet? I guess you were onto something. The captain has the entire troop searching for her.”
The girls all shook their heads nervously. The door to the cellar wasn’t far away, and they needed to get down there before the guards did.
“No, but we ran out of cucumbers to place on our faces. So, we came down to get some more. You know how we girls are about taking care of our skin.” Zuleyha giggled nervously as she moved past him toward the cellar.
“Well, let me come with you and keep you company.” Nessim offered politely.
“No!” the girls all burst out simultaneously.
“No, we’re fine. We don’t want to pull you away from your task and have you get in trouble with the captain. Besides, the princess is probably scared and alone. You should work with the others to find her as quickly as possible.” Leyla stammered.
Nessim seemed disappointed but agreed with them.
“Yeah, it isn’t like she would be down here in the kitchen anyway. She’s probably upstairs hiding under her bed or in a dark corner of her closet.” Naile added.
“Hmm. You’re probably right. But I’ll look you, ladies, up when I get off duty. Okay.”
The girls all smiled and nodded as he walked back the way they had come. As soon as he turned the corner, they raced for the cellar door. They found the princess at the bottom of the staircase, crouching behind the staircase, just as Naile had predicted. Leyla was impressed.
The princess was bawling her eyes out. Zuleyha hugged her and comforted her while the other two girls tried to do their best to soothe the child.
“It’s okay, Banu. Everything’s going to be okay.” Zuleyha whispered.
The child shook her head and began to cry again. “They killed my mommy and daddy. I saw the guards stab him with their swords.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, Banu. That was a terrible thing to see. But we’re going to protect you from those wicked men and take you somewhere safe so they can’t hurt you. Okay.” Leyla said softly.
The young princess nodded and wiped the tears from her eyes as she sniffled. Leyla and Zuley each took one of her hands and were helping the girl to her feet when suddenly the door at the top of the stairs burst open.
Leyla grabbed a gunny sack full of corn and dumped them on the floor. She threw the bag over the princess’ head and pushed her to the ground again below the stairs. When she looked up, Nessim was walking down toward them with a big grin on his face.
“I sent the other guards on ahead. I wanted to make sure you girls were alright and keep you company.”
“Oh, that was sweet of you, Nessim,” Zuleyha cooed.
“So, did you find what you came down here for?” the handsome guard asked.
“What? What’s that?” the girls stammered.
“The cucumbers, ladies. Wasn’t that what you came down here for?” Nessim asked them as he cocked his head to the side.
“Oh, yeah!” Zuleyha giggled nervously. “Not yet. We were talking about girl stuff down here. Like who the cutest guards are and all.”
Nessim smiled. “And that would include me, of course. Right?”
“Oh, yes, Nessim,” the girls all clamored in unison.
Nessim beamed as he raised his hands and spun around slowly for them to get a good look at him in all his uniformed glory. He stepped on some of the corn that Leyla had dumped out of the bag and almost tripped. The girls giggled, and Nessim blushed.
“What’s all this corn doing here on the floor?” he yelled out in surprise and begin kicking the corn back under the stairs toward the princess that was stuffed in the bag that the corn had come from.
The girls shrugged, and Leyla moseyed off to find some cucumbers. “Got ‘em,” she yelled, waving a handful of cucumbers over her head.
“Oh, you didn’t need to. There is an entire bag right here,” Zuleyha said, picking up the gunny sack that Banu was inside of.
“That’s an awful lot of cucumbers. Isn’t it?” Nessim asked as he tried to take the bag from her arms. “Let me help you.”
“No, I got it. I need the exercise to get stronger. And no, it’s not a lot. We need to look our beautifulest.” she retorted.
Nessim snorted and laughed. Zuleyha laughed nervously along with him. Somehow, between the two of them, they managed to let the bag slip and fall to the floor. The princess screamed, and Nessim looked up at them in shock.
Zuleyha didn’t hesitate. She threw out her arm and tried to summon up enough energy to toss Nessim across the room. It didn’t go quite like she had imagined in her head, and nothing happened to Nessim.
“Were you trying to knock me out,” he asked in surprise. “What’s wrong with you girls.”
In the meantime, Leyla had picked up a broomstick and whacked him across the back of the head. This time he fell like a sack of potatoes. Naile grabbed some rope from a shelf and the girls tied his hands and feet. Zuleyha brought a rag that they used to gag him.
“I’m sorry for dropping you, Banu,” Zuleyha apologized as she pushed the princess back down into the large gunny sack. “But you have to stay in here a little bit longer till we can get you out of this place.”
Leyla tossed the girl in the bag over her shoulder, and they quickly climbed the stairs. Naile opened the door and peeked out. She waved them through when the coast was clear.
“We’ll head to the stables and use a wagon to get Banu out of here,” Zuleyha said as she led the way toward the back exit.
A small group of guards entered the kitchen and walked past them. They eyed Leyla and her bag as they went by. Leyla froze for a second, but they moved on by without stopping her or questioning her.
“Guess, I look like just another cook hauling in a bag of potatoes to make french fries,” she snickered nervously after they left.
They made it outside and circled around the building toward the stables. Leyla had tired and paused to set the bag down for a minute. Zuleyha nodded and motioned with her hands for Leyla and Naile to place it on her shoulders.
“I got you, Banu. You alright in there?” she asked.
The princess replied, but Leyla couldn’t understand her muffled words. Naile was walking in front of the group. She stopped and raised her hand for the other girls to stop.
“What do you see, Naile?” Leyla asked.
“There’s a lot of commotion down at the stables,” Naile whispered in a hushed voice. “Metehan sent a large group of guards down this way.”
“Nessim must have gotten free and told them we have the princess,” Leyla growled. “I knew that boy was no good the moment I first laid eyes on him.”
The girls scrambled to move off the trail and into the shadows of some small trees and bushes. They waited for the group of guards to move on by. They listened to the sound of the guard’s boots marching in unison until they had moved on around the building, and Naile gave them the okay to stand up.
“Can you please let me out of this bag?” Banu pleaded.
“Not yet, little princess. We have to make sure we get far away from here so no one can see you before we let you out of that bag.”
The girl sighed a long, deep sigh of exasperation. Leyla felt sorry for her, but at least the girl was alive and able to sigh. Something she wouldn’t be able to do if the king’s evil brother had his way with her.
“What do we do now?” Zuleyha asked in frustration.
“Let’s head over to the dragon stables, and fly the princess out of here,” Leyla replied, recalling her dream.
“But I don’t know how to fly on a dragon, and it is way too dangerous to put the princess in that kind of situation,” Naile snorted.
Leyla looked up and said, “I’ve almost completed my training. I should be able to handle one of the smaller ones on my own. And I’ve seen Banu riding dragons before. Right, Little Princess?”
“Yep, sure can. We can fly out on Myldrynarth, the Loud One. He’s talkative and can be feisty, but he should be small enough for you to handle.” The princess replied. “Whoa! What’s going on out there?”
The gunny sack floated up off the ground, right onto Zuleyha’s shoulders. She squealed excitedly as it came to rest. “There’s my mojo. Though I’d lost it since it didn’t work on Nessim,”
“That’s just because you’re in love with that boy and got too emotional,” Naile snorted.
Leyla wondered why the girl was so ornery. “Is everything okay, Naile?” she asked.
Naile sighed loudly. “Something doesn’t feel right, but maybe I’m just nervous that we’ll get caught. Let’s just get out of here as fast as we can.”
The girls hurried down the trail toward the dragon caves. It was easier going now that they didn’t have to physically carry the princess. She was small, but still a solid little bundle. Leyla felt a twinge of jealousy that she didn’t have a special power as the other girls did. Master Danyal said hers would come with time, but she was tired of waiting.
They drew closer to the entrance of the dragon caves, and Leyla put up her hand for them to stop. She asked Naile to take a look around. The girl closed her eyes for a few moments.
“I sense half a dozen dragons in there and an old man in the back. Other than that there aren’t any other humans here as far as I can tell.” Naile said.
“Good,” Leyla replied. “It’s old man Evren. He takes care of the dragons and keeps them under control. I’ll take the princess from here. If you girls haven’t had any dragon training, it’s best if you don’t go near them. They can be feisty.”
“Are you sure you’ll be okay with the princess?” Zuleyha asked. “Besides, Master Danyal sent me to fetch the boy.”
Leyla nodded. “You two find some horses and meet me down there as quickly as you can. I’ll wait for you in the chapel behind Master Danyal’s house. We’ll go see him together. I still don’t trust him completely. Not until I know how he knew the princess was in danger and why he sent you before we even knew that Metehan was back in the realm.”
Zuleyha and Naile nodded and scurried off into the darkness, back in the direction they had come from. Leyla picked up the gunny sack with the princess. “We’re almost there. Then I’ll let you out of the bag,” she whispered.
She grunted as she lifted the bag to get it up over the threshold and carried it to Myldrynarth’s stall.
The dragon backed away from her and hissed. Like most of the dragons in this stable, they only used it for training. This wasn’t a normal time for it to be ridden. And it didn’t seem to want to go out at all at this time of night.
Leyla ignored it and continued preparing the riding gear. She approached it slowly with her hands in front of her to soothe it, but it wouldn’t stop hissing.
“What’s going on back there?” a voice boomed out from the far end of the stable.
Leyla froze and backed away from the dragon. She ducked down against the wall where she had left the gunny sack. She hoped Old Man Evren would go back to sleep, but a stool scooted across the floor and footsteps came in her direction.
He came directly towards her stall. There was no sense hiding. She just had to explain herself to him till he let her go. Or she’d have to take the dragon by force. Evren was an old man, and he wasn’t a very large man. So Leyla figured she had a good chance of taking him. She stood up and grabbed onto a rake with one hand in case she needed to get physical.
“Hey, Master Evren. There’s been a terrible tragedy this night. The king is dead. So, is the queen. I’m on a mission and require a dragon to complete it.” Leyla burst out as he limped up to her.
“The king is dead, you say?” Evren inquired in an incredulous voice. “What happened?”
“I don’t have all the details yet. The guards are racing around, inside and out. It’s total chaos in there.” She replied, still gripping the rake.
“It’s alright, child. You can put your weapon down. I’m not going to fight you for the dragon. You’ve been properly trained and they are for use of the castle. However, that is an interesting story. Where did you say you needed to go?”
The gunny sack at Leyla’s feet with the princess inside rustled. She held her breath, hoping that the old man wouldn’t notice it, while she racked her brain for a reasonable excuse for needing the dragon. Just as she started to speak, the princess sneezed loudly three times.
“I assume that part of your mission is to deliver your bag of goods. Eh?” Old Man Evren said with a smirk.
Leyla squirmed and gripped the rake tighter as she stammered to explain herself. The old man bent over and untied the gunny sack, but Leyla couldn’t bring herself to whack him over the head.
“Why hello there, little princess. What are you doing here in my stall?” he asked with a gentle smile.
Banu blinked up at him and slowly stood to her feet. “A bad man stabbed my daddy with their swords. Then they killed mommy. I ran to hide. And now Leyla is helping me to escape so they don’t kill me too.”
“Hm! Well, then you two better hurry and get out of here then.” Evren said as he stood back up to look at Leyla. “Do you have a safe place to take her?”
She nodded. “I think so. I’m going to meet some friends and we’ll take her to…”
The old man put up his hand. “The less you tell me, the better. That way I really won’t know what to tell them when they come to question me about a missing dragon.”
Leyla nodded her thanks as she turned to continue preparing the riding gear. Old man Evren stepped over to quiet the dragon for her.
There was a loud thump and when Leyla turned around, the old man was lying on the ground with blood coming from his head. Sevda and two of her friends were standing just inside the door with the rake in her hand that Leyla had set down.
“Where do you think you’re going with the princess, Leyla?” Sevda asked as she pulled the rake back up over her shoulder for another swing.
Leyla ducked and charged straight for the larger blonde girl’s midriff with her shoulder. She slammed Sevda back into her friends. There were too many for Leyla to bowl over, though. The other girls held Sevda up and pushed her back to Leyla.
Sevda swung a right fist that Leyla tried to block, but realized she couldn’t move her arms for some reason. The blow caught her just above the left cheekbone, and Leyla went down hard. She could use her arms to pull herself back up off the floor, but once Leyla was on her feet, it felt as if her arms were glued to her side.
Leyla managed to duck another blow that Sevda attempted to land. Then tried to charge the larger blonde girl with her shoulder again. But it felt like she hit an invisible brick wall after the first step, and she couldn’t get anywhere near Sevda.
“C’mon, ladies. Fight fair. Stop using your friend’s power to keep you from losing fair and square.” Leyla growled at the other two girls, who grinned at her from over the stall wall.
“What? And let you escape with the princess after killing her parents. Not only are you a murderer, but now you’re a kidnapper, as well. We’re going to return the princess and collect a nice, fat reward.”
Sevda came back in, swinging again with a look of righteous indignation on her face. Leyla tried to dodge the blow, but now she was paralyzed all the way down to her feet. She couldn’t even fall down to the ground because the other girls were holding her up for Sevda.
Leyla screamed in rage and bent her knees to pull her feet up off the ground. The girl continued to hold her there in the air as she floated off the ground like a goofy punching bag. Leyla pulled her feet up higher towards her waist and lashed out with both feet.
Sevda’s friends hadn’t seen that one coming, and the kick nailed her just above the knees. Leyla’s follow-through forced Sevda’s knees to bend in the wrong way and buckle. She went down to the floor with a surprised scream. Leyla lashed out again and kicked her across the face before her friends could put a stop to her kick. But by then it was too late. Sevda was out cold.
“Oh, you’re gonna get it now, kid!” Sevda’s friend with short, yellow hair said as she stepped through the stall door. “You should have just shut up and taken your beating like the warrioress you say you’re training to become.”
“How did you find us?” Leyla asked, stalling for time.
The girl snorted. “Sevda can see beyond walls too. Did you think Naile was the only one who had that gift? Are you the only one that hasn’t developed even one ability yet?”
She reached out her hand, and Leyla began to float up off the ground towards her outstretched fingers.
“Please, you don’t understand. Metehan…” Leyla started to say through her choking as she began to black out.
Suddenly, the girl dropped Leyla to the floor. She managed to twist herself so her arms and shoulders took the brunt of the fall, but it still hurt. Leyla gasped and tried to catch her breath. When she looked up, both of the girls had fallen to the ground.
Nessim stood in the doorway with the rake in his hand. He stepped forward and helped Leyla get up. She started to wheeze out an apology, but he held up his hands and shushed her.
“No apologies needed. I know you had no reason to trust me. But I’m on the princess’s side. I’ve been hearing rumors and know things aren’t right around here. So, let’s get her out of here. Then you girls can explain to me what’s going on.”
He smiled at the princess and reached down to pick up the riding gear to throw over the dragon, which was still hissing and spitting in the corner.
“Wait,” shouted out a booming voice.
Leyla looked around to see where it was coming from, but no one else was there in the stall with them. Nessim was still trying to wrestle the riding gear onto the hissing dragon and seemed oblivious to anyone else being around.
She peeked out the stall door to see if the guards were coming for the princess already. But the only thing she saw was a dragon in the other stall with his eyes fixated on her. Leyla turned to re-enter the stall when the voice called out again.
“Wait!” the voice boomed in her head again. “Help you!”
Leyla spun back toward the dragon and cocked her head to the side. “Were you talking to me?” she asked. The dragon nodded and reached out his neck across the hall till its head was inches away from her.
“Touch,” it said. “Connect me.”
Leyla gasped and reached out a trembling hand. It was against the rules for the trainees to integrate with a dragon. Much less one of these training dragons. After completing her training, she would possibly be permitted to integrate with a dragon of her own. If she were found worthy, and a dragon was even available.
But no one was allowed to integrate with these training dragons. They were available for training use only. Integrating with one would mean it belonged to her and could no longer be used by anyone else.
“Are you sure? I haven’t completed my training yet. I don’t want you to get in trouble or even lose your position.”
It didn’t answer, but pressed its face directly into hers until their noses touched. A large horn protruding off its nose and others continuing up its head caused her to realize how large this dragon was. It was at least twice the size of the little one that Nessim was trying to prepare. A chill ran down her spine.
The dragon closed its eyes and opened its mouth a little. A soft, yellow glow lit up the base of its throat as if the great bronze beast were preparing to spew its breath weapon.
“Blow. Breath mix. Become one.” the dragon whispered into her head.
Leyla took a deep breath and blew into the dragon’s mouth several times. Their noses still touching. She felt the dragon’s thoughts becoming stronger and clearer. She could understand full sentences, not just sporadic words. It was almost as if she were learning the dragon’s language. It was beautiful.
When she opened her eyes, the dragon had pulled its head back over to its stall, but its voice was just as clear as if it were still directly in front of her.
“I am Ytar, Protector of the Sky. I come from the Elmandost deserts. I was there when the treaty was made with your people. I swore an oath to protect your kingdom. And if the princess is in danger, then it is my duty to help you protect her. Myldrynarth, the Loud One, is weak, cowardly, and will only cause you trouble that might put the princess’ life in danger.”
“Hey! That’s not fair.” Leyla heard Myldrynarth’s voice whining in her head.
Ytar roared across the hall into the other stall. Leyla placed her fingers on her lips for it to hush. “You’ll draw too much attention to us down here,” she whispered.
Nessim’s head popped over the stall wall and looked at her with enormous eyes. “What’s going on over here. What did you do to that thing? Get away from it and come help me get this little booger ready here. I’ve almost got everything buckled on.”
Leyla smiled and went through the door to pick up the princess. Sevda’s yellow-haired friend stirred and moaned a little. Leyla didn’t wait for the girl to open up her eyes. She lashed out a hard kick under the girl’s chin that sounded like it might have clipped a few teeth. Leyla hoped it wasn’t too bad, but needed to make sure that the girl didn’t wake up and use her powers to prevent their escape.
“C’mon,” she said to the little princess as she opened up the door to Ytar’s stall. “Are you ready to ride?”
Banu nodded with wide eyes as she looked up at the gigantic dragon. “I’ve never ridden one this big before.” the princess whispered in awe. “Not even when my daddy came with me.”
“What are you doing?” Nessim protested as she led the dragon to the exit. “I’ve already got the other one ready to go. You don’t even have riding gear on that one yet.”
Leyla smiled and shrugged. “He wants to help the princess and is willing to take us of his own free will.”
Nessim’s eyes widened. “And he integrated with you? You’re not supposed to do that.”
Leyla couldn’t hold back the enormous smile that threatened to rip her face in half. She even giggled and shrugged sheepishly. “You know what they say about desperate times.”
The guard put his hand on her shoulder and nodded approvingly. “It’s always the dragon’s choice. If he accepts you, then he knows you are worthy. That is all that matters.”
Nessim placed his hands together to boost Leyla up onto the Ytar’s broad back. Then he handed Banu up into Leyla’s waiting arms.
“Go with the wind. Get the princess to safety. I will stay here to make sure these foolish girls don’t tell anyone how you escaped. I’ll try to keep them occupied until you’ve had sufficient time to get her far enough away that Sevda can’t locate her.”
Leyla thanked Nessim and let the dragon know they were ready to go. Ytar leaped into the air and spread his mighty bronze wings. The swiftness and power of the dragon’s body made her catch her breath. The princess squealed with delight and excitement.
This was by far the most magnificent dragon that Leyla had ever ridden. And the best part was that she didn’t even have to use any riding gear to direct it. All she had to do was think about where she wanted to go, and the dragon was already heading in the proper direction.
“Where are we going?” Banu asked over the sound of the wind.
“I’m not sure yet,” Leyla answered honestly. “First, we are going to stop behind the chapel in the village to meet some friends. We’re going to see what Master Danyal’s intentions are. If they are good, we will go where he directs us. If not, we’ll head out on our own. But don’t worry. Ytar and I will do everything within our power to keep you safe until you are old enough to come back and claim your father’s throne. Then you can avenge those who killed your parents.”
Banu looked up in surprise. “Does that mean that someday I will still be queen?”
Leyla looked down at her and smiled soberly. “Yes, little princess. You’ve done well escaping them so far. Now you just have to stay alive and learn how to be a mighty warrioress. I will teach you everything I’ve learned. And when I can’t teach you anymore, we will find others who are better than me.”
The little princess smiled gratefully up at Leyla and snuggled into her arms to nestle up for warmth against the chill wind. Her eyes drooped heavily, and she drifted into a light sleep as they flew toward the village ahead.
Leyla looked up and noticed that the sky was getting lighter, and the stars were growing dimmer. She glanced back over her shoulder to see the light of the sun bursting up over the horizon, just like in her dream.
Suddenly Leyla gasped. Just like in her dream. She had been riding a mighty dragon without riding gear. The dream had been a premonition of her being fully integrated with Ytar before it even happened.
The only difference was that in her dream, she had been holding a bow and not a child. Then it hit her. Banu was the bow. The little princess was the weapon that Leyla had been given to defeat this evil that was attempting to take over the kingdom.
Tears welled up in her eyes. Grateful for this opportunity. Pleased to be serving her purpose. And satisfied that her gifts were showing up finally.
Did this mean that she had the gift of premonition? Would she be able to see things before they happened? Leyla liked the thought of that. She swore to herself that she would do everything she could to develop this gift and use it to protect the princess.
“No! What have you done?” Samara screamed.
Her body lay in a crumpled heap where she had been thrown during the blast into a dusty, smoky corner of the building. Well, what was left of the building anyway. The acrid smoke lay thick and heavy. Laced with the smell of burning plastic and sulfur.
Her nemesis walked slowly across the room toward the portal that now lay exposed. The heels of her boots clicked sharply as she walked. The crunch of rubble and the grinding of shards in each step grated on Samara’s already frayed nerves.
“Please, Andreia. Let us all through first. Then you can destroy the portal. We’ll never come back here again.”
Andreia set down the bag of explosives she was carrying carefully. Then mosied on over toward the woman in the corner. Samara panted heavily as she struggled to sit up. Careful to keep her arms pressed down against the floor and her back against the wall.
“My, my!” Andreia exclaimed. “Aren’t we resilient? Can’t believe you survived that blast. And are still moving. I underestimated you.”
Andreia stopped walking and cocked her head to the side to analyze the situation.
“Please. Let those of us that you haven’t killed through. We’ll shut it down ourselves.”
“Then you’ll just build another.”
“We took you in. We fed you. We treated you like our own. Why are you doing this?”
Andreia shrugged and stood back up. “This is why I came. To infiltrate your ranks. Find the portal and destroy it. I was raised to hate your kind. I was raised to hate what you represent and why you come here. My mission has always been to seek out and destroy these portals.”
She slid the rifle slung over her back. Barrel pointed to the ground and swung it in Samara’s direction. Samara heard the click of the safety as Andreia prepared to pull the trigger.
“Wait, Andreia. But we didn’t create this portal. We don’t have that kind of technology. We won’t be able to create a way to get back here.”
“No, but you’ll just find another portal to use `somewhere else. Then you’ll go there and scavenge off the land from the already established inhabitants like the parasites that you are.”
“But we are a nomadic people. We are constantly on the move. We don’t pillage. We trade our skills and services to enhance the lives of the people we come across.”
Andreia scoffed. “Tell that to the ‘nomadic’ people that came through our portal when I was a child and wiped out my entire village in a single day. They took everything we worked for. They burned our homes. Killed our families. Destroyed everything we had built.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, my friend. There are truly evil people out there. But those aren’t my people. That’s not what we do. You can’t stereotype all portal hoppers like that.”
“It’s nothing personal against you or your people. It’s just what I and my people do. Our mission is to shut down all known portals.”
Andreia turned around and walked back toward the large, black bag she had set down. Samara felt her bones twisting back together and our muscles healing. The nanobots were working quickly. Just a little bit more and she would be able to move again. She felt sensation coming back to her feet and legs. She could wiggle her toes again.
She watched Andreia sling the rifle back over her shoulder before picking up the bag. Andreia turned around only to find Samara in her face.
“What? How did you manage to walk again.” Andreia gasped as she dropped the bag and tried to grab the gun.
Samara blocked Andreia with her left hand and punched her with a right uppercut. Andrei would have fallen except Samara was still hanging onto the base of the rifle and the sling held her up.
She gave the gun a hard tug to pull it up and over Andreia’s head. Samara pointed the barrel down Andreia’s face who had fallen to her knees and was now begging for her life.
“You’re no better than the people who wiped out your village. You’ve become like them yourself by blowing up this building to kill my family and loved ones.”
“No,” Andreia pleaded. “It’s not like that. Just let me go and I’ll never try to destroy this portal again. Please.”
Samara scoffed and mimicked Andreia when she said, “No, but you’ll just find another portal to blow up somewhere. Then you’ll go there and blow up buildings and kill innocent inhabitants like the murderers you are.”
She reached down to pick up the bag of explosives. Andreia tried to grab the gun and push it away. Samara didn’t give it a second thought. She pulled the trigger. The bullet hit her square in the chest.
Andreia lay on the ground. Looking up with a stunned look of disbelief on her face. Then she saw the green lines running down the sides of Samara’s arms. She started to laugh but ended up coughing as she choked up blood.
“Now, I understand. That’s why you survived the blast. And how you got up so quickly. Next time, I’ll make sure to start with the more powerful explosives.” She said glancing at the bag after she had finished coughing.
Blood still ran out of her mouth. There wasn’t much chance of her serving. But Samara pulled the trigger several more times to make sure Andreia didn’t get another chance to destroy the portal. Then pulled the trigger a few more times out of sheer anger and grief at the destruction the woman had caused. The sound of a radio cackled lightly. Samara picked it up to listen.
“Are you coming, Andreia? We don’t have much time. Set the timers then meet us down at the docs. Do you copy?”
“Roger that. On my way,” she responded mimicking Andreia’s voice and accent.
Samara turned to the portal. She couldn’t see it clearly for the flames, so she climbed up onto part of the wall that was still standing for a better look. The blue sheen of the portal looked normal although it seemed to cackle with more electricity than usual.
It would be a little while before the flames died down enough for her to get over there. Meanwhile, she would have time to take out Andreia’s team and avenge the death of her friends and family. As well as search for any other survivors.
Samara checked to see how many bullets she had left. Then hopped down to go hunt the rest of Andreia’s team and prevent them from destroying any other portals like this one.
Ankur blinked a few times and shook his head in disbelief. What were these people, or creatures, or whatever they were? He had just blown the building they had been inside of to smithereens. And yet here they were, pulling themselves up out of burning rubble. They wouldn’t stop coming at him.
He sighed and rested his gun up over his shoulder as he watched them pull themselves through the hot coal and burning metal that covered the area. The heat of the fire wafted over him. It was stifling. Hard to breathe. Ankur twisted his head to the side to cough into the crook of his arm. But he never took his eyes off the undead corpses that were coming in his direction.
These were a different breed. They didn’t burst into flames themselves when they got too close to the heat like the Shufflers he had seen in NorthWorld. Nor were they fast like the Racers he had come across in Aria. They were slow but persistent. And the fire didn’t do a thing to stop them.
If only he had brought his axes or his swords. He hadn’t planned on needing them. Actually, he hadn’t even been expecting to come across any at all. Especially not this many all at once.
Someone had called in something suspicious. Ankur had come down on a whim. He had never been to Khmaodong before. He had been hoping to find out what the natives had seen and then dispel their fears of another local legend.
At the most, he thought he might find one of these creatures here that had made it up through a portal. Then he could have captured it and sent it back to his team to analyze while he took some much-needed rest and relaxation on the beautiful beaches this area was known for.
But now, here was a whole pack of them. He had caught one. But then he realized that a few others were roaming around. The locals showed him where they were coming from. Ankur had checked it out and thought there might be three or four hiding in the building.
He figured the easiest way to get rid of them was just to blow the whole building down. Expose them and then put down any that managed to escape. But that plan hadn’t worked. And now he had counted at least two dozen of these flaming corpses pulling themselves up out of the rubble.
Ankur looked around, but the men he had hired had all fled at the sight of the first corpse pulling itself up out of the rubble. One of the burning creatures closest to him snarled as it drew closer. The tall, lithe man slung the shotgun off of his shoulder and let go with both barrels.
The fiery corpse paused and snarled as it looked down at its chest and belly where Ankur had aimed. Ankur squinted, but couldn’t see much damage. He snapped the shotgun open and slid two more cartridges into the chamber. Closed it and fired again. This time aiming for the knee of the undead monster that was less than a few meters away.
This was a special weapon that had been developed by Ankur’s team specifically for close-range situations like this. It would have torn the legs off of a normal human. But it didn’t seem to do any major damage to this thing. The firey creature paused and hissed at him, but then immediately kept coming. And it picked up its pace as it got close and honed into his scent.
Ankur didn’t like this one bit. This was way too close for comfort. He scrambled to get away from this thing. He leaped from one rock to another, careful to avoid the hot molten metal flowing around them.
He had known that this was an aluminum plant before the people had abandoned it a few weeks back. But that wouldn’t have accounted for so much melted metal flowing around him now. It seemed to increase after they had tried blowing the building down.
Ankur hadn’t realized that it had been flowing around the area behind him while he was watching the creatures up ahead. There weren’t many places he could walk without stepping in it. The rocks and ground under him were hot. He could feel the heat through the soles of his shoes. The hard rubber melting and growing softer. He needed to find a way out of here and quickly.
He looked back at the fiery critter not far behind. It didn’t seem to mind the molten heat. It actually seemed to relish it and step directly in the reddish-orange lava flowing around it.
And then, Ankur slipped. He went down hard. Trying to stop himself with the barrel of the gun. But it slid out from under him. He twisted his body as he went down on the hard rocks. He felt the searing heat of the molten metal burning his skin. Hitting his head hard. And then blacking out. The last thing he saw, was the fiery undead corpse looming over him.
Fifteen minutes. That’s all it had taken to kill almost everyone in the village. Well, to be honest, the attacks had started a few weeks back. But they were sporadic. People had been disappearing into the jungle. They had found only traces of splattered blood of the victims.
Most people suspected some sort of animal had been killing them off. Some thought a lion. Others a pack of famished hyenas. The tribal chief had even suggested an angry gorilla.
Bat Uduak knew it had been none of those creatures. He had been out with the search parties. He had seen the tracks. If you could even call them that. They had looked more like the tracks of a python. But there had been lots of them. As if a pack of pythons had been hunting together.
He had mentioned it the first time they discussed it around the community fire at the center of the village.
The chief had mocked him. “Do you know how stupid you sound, Uduak?”
Everyone laughed along with the chief. Uduak was so embarrassed that he left the fire immediately and went home to sleep. But the next day, he could still see people smirking when they looked at him. But only until the next victim disappeared. After that, they lost one villager every other day.
People had stopped venturing so far out. The attacks had come closer and closer to the village. They held council meetings almost every night. They had called in hunters and witch doctors from far away tribes. But so far no one had come up with a solution. Until yesterday.
An old woman named Zodwa had appeared. Dressed all in white. She had promised to resolve their problem. The solution would be to prepare a great sacrifice. Thirteen animals of thirteen different species. Goats, sheep, chicken, ducks, swans, peacocks, hogs, cows, monkeys, frogs, pythons, turtles, shrews, and even rats.
Zodwa would bleed them out in the center of the village and satisfy the appetite of this famished creature. She said it was called Umhyg’vhoxr.
She told them it was an ancient creature that appeared once every century to feast on human flesh. All she required for payment of her services were the seven youngest children in the village.
Uduak protested violently. His youngest child had been born only two weeks ago. But the chief had promised the children to the woman anyway, despite Uduak’s threats and his wife’s screams.
They had been to no avail. Uduak had made preparations. He planned to flee with his wife and child at the first light of dawn. But the chief sent ten of his mightiest warriors out well before first light to gather the children to the center of the village.
Uduak lay in his hammock and tried to comfort his sobbing wife. At first light, he walked out to the center of the village, where the old crone was making her preparations.
“If your sacrifices fail, and anyone else is taken by this creature, I will sacrifice you to it myself,” he screamed in her face.
The chief sent the warriors out to drag Uduak away, kicking and screaming his threats into the air.
They tied him to the center pole of the men’s hut.
He struggled to get free from the ropes as he watched the old crone dance and chant around the village center as the villagers brought her the animals. One by one, Zodwa sacrificed them and poured out their blood onto the dirt as the sun rose higher in the sky.
The old crone had marked off the village center into thirteen sections. She sprinkled the blood of the 13 animals of each of the 13 species over the 13 sections. Zodwa had gone into a frenzied trance as dark clouds rolled over the village sky.
Groups of villagers stood around nervously in small circles, whispering in hushed voices as they watched her. Uduak could overhear Danai talking in one of the closer groups. She wished the old woman would hurry and finish because the entire ordeal frightened her terribly.
Danai was his wife’s best friend. Maybe she would help him escape so he could save his son.
“Danai!” he said. Not so loudly that he was yelling and might attract the attention of anyone else, but loud enough that she would be sure to hear him.
A moment passed and no one came. He was almost ready to call her again when she appeared at the doorway.
“What is it, Uduak?”
“Please, help me get loose. Help me save my son. If not for me, do it for my wife. You know the loss of our only son will devastate her.”
Danai looked to one side and then the other. He almost thought she was going to do it. But her face hardened.
“Sorry, Uduak. Your wife is my friend, and I feel bad for your child. But you can have other children. But we are trying to save the entire village. I can’t sacrifice the lives of the entire village to save your son.”
She turned and left. Uduak tried to hold back the sobs that welled up in his chest. He leaned forward and tugged on the ropes that lashed him to the pole with all his might. Uduak twisted and pulled until they cut into his wrists and he had no strength left.
Leaning back against the pole, Uduak could no longer hold back the sobs. He let out a loud wail.
“Shut up, Uduak,” said Tjaart, one of the chief’s warriors, who came storming over. “Zodwa says it will scare off the Umhyg’vhoxr. If that happens, the chief says he will come cut out your tongue and sacrifice your son himself.”
“Imagine if it were Mwangi, your son, who was to be given away to that old crone,” Uduak roared angrily. “Would you sit idly by while that witch fooled the entire village with her stupid rituals? She’s going to take our children, and people will continue to disappear. The chief is a fool to believe her.”
Tjaart slapped Uduak across the face. Pain exploded in Uduak’s head. Blinding him for a few seconds. He looked up and could see Tjaart’s mouth moving, but couldn’t understand anything the man was saying because of the dull roar in his head.
Uduak shook his head and looked down in shame at having been slapped while tied up without being able to defend himself.
“If I were not tied up, Tjaart, I would kill you with my bare hands. My rage and grief are so great.”
“You must not speak of the chief like that, Uduak,” Tjaart shouted back. “If you speak ill of him again, I will cut out your tongue myself.”
Then Tjaart moved forward and crouched down in front of Uduak, who was struggling against the ropes.
He placed his hand on Uduak’s shoulder and whispered in a hushed voice. “I’m sorry, my friend. I understand how you feel about your son. But you must let the chief do what he can to stop these attacks. It’s nothing personal. Every clan has lost a loved one these past few weeks. The life of your son is the price that is required to place an end to our suffering. Look on the bright side, your son will not die. He will live a good life and be well-taken care of in the care of Zodwa. Who knows? Maybe he will be trained by her and become a great mage himself.”
Uduak didn’t look up to acknowledge Tjaart’s words. He continued to sob quietly. Tjaart continued to squat beside him a while longer with his hand on Uduak’s shoulder until someone called him. He patted Uduak’s shoulder in acknowledgment of Uduak’s suffering before standing up and leaving.
Tjaart paused and glanced back from the doorway. His heart ached for the young father, who was grieving quietly. But Uduak still did not look up to acknowledge him. Tjaart held no ill will for the poor man. It was his first child. He had not yet lost a child, as Tjaart had. Three of his seven children had already passed on. He understood the grief that only a father could feel over the loss of his children. He felt bad for Uduak, but there was nothing he could do unless he wished to lose more children to this beast that was running loose out there.
After Tjaart had walked out the doorway, Uduak raised his head again to watch the Zodwa still chanting. She danced around the animals that she was sacrificing to the Umhyg’vhoxr. The woman seemed to near the end of her ritual ceremony. Having started with the smaller animals, she had worked her way up to the larger ones. Now, she was pouring basins of cow blood that the chief and his men were bringing her. Uduak moaned. This was it. The sacrifice was almost over, and then his child would be gone forever.
Uduak groaned again as he repeated his son’s name over and over. “Umukoro, my son. Umukoro, forgive me. Umukoro.”
He heard a slight rustle of thatch behind him. Uduak felt small hands pushing his hands back from the pole and tugging at the ropes. He sniffled and turned his head to see who was there.
“Danai?” he said in a surprised voice.
“Hush, man. Stay quiet,” she whispered as she tugged. “I couldn’t just walk in and untie you when you asked me to. Everyone would have seen it and killed me, along with the sacrifices. I snuck around to the back and waited for Tjaart to leave. But now I am here, you see. I can’t bear to think of Nkosazana’s child being taken by that crazy lady out there. She will treat him terribly, and perhaps even kill him. I couldn’t bear to have Nkosazana look at me, knowing that I did nothing to help save her firstborn child.”
“Where is my wife?” Uduak asked. “Why isn’t she here with you?”
Danai moved away from him, and he turned to see where the woman had gone. She was off in the far corner, pawing through items. She returned and Uduak saw she had a knife in her hands.
“She is tied up as well over in your home,” she whispered as she continued to saw away at the thick rope. “The chief is taking no chances. After you threw your fit, he had the parents of all seven children tied up in different huts.”
Uduak felt the tip of the blade nicking his skin as she came to the end. He flexed his muscles and pulled the rope taut to make it easier for her. The knife finally cut through the rope, and Uduak was able to pull his hands free.
“Umukoro and the other children are in the chief’s hut. Seven of the chief’s warriors guard them. Each child has its own protector. So be careful.”
He rubbed his chafed wrists for a second before grabbing the knife from her and sawing at the rope around his ankles.
“Thank you, Danai,” he whispered as he pulled the rope away from his feet. But when Uduak turned around, the woman was no longer there. She was long gone, having slipped out through the thatch wall the way she had come in.
“Thank you, Danai,” he continued to whisper repeatedly as he followed suit and slipped out through the thatch wall himself. “I will repay you for your goodness. I promise.”
Uduak walked straight out behind the house until he was well into the woods before cutting over towards his own home. He could see the villagers gathered into small groups in front of their homes as they watched Zodwa completing her mad ritual. She had finished slaughtering the animals and pouring out their blood into the hard clay ground of the village circle.
The smell of the blood of a hundred sixty-nine dead animals lay heavy in the air as Uduak moved downwind from the village center towards his home. He entered his home through the thatch wall as Danai had, still holding the blade that she had used to cut him free.
“Shhh, my love,” he whispered as he cut her free. “Let us save her son and escape from this place.”
“But where will we go?” she asked through sobs of her own.
“Anywhere we want. Far from here. As long as we have our son, it does not matter where we go.” Uduak whispered while going to fetch his gun from its shelf.
His wife’s face went pale when she saw the gun and asked who he planned to shoot. He didn’t intend to shoot anyone, only to scare them away from his son was his quiet reply. She was hobbling around the hut slowly as she gathered a few belongings. Uduak watched Zodwa as she began winding down her frenzied dance.
“Hurry, woman! We don’t have much time,” he whispered to Nkosazana. “I’m going to fetch our son. When you finish gathering your belongings, me down at the falls. We will cut downstream through the water to cover our tracks.”
His wife nodded silently as she gathered a few meager supplies in the kitchen. Uduak snuck out through the small hole in the wall and raced through the woods toward the chief’s hut.
Uduak heard loud screaming break out in the center of the village before he arrived there. He tried to glimpse what was going on out front, but all he could see were people running for their lives in all directions. He didn’t wait to figure out what was going on, but went ahead and pulled back enough thatch to see who was inside.
The seven children were all there. Lying side by side on mats that had been placed against the far wall. Four empty hammocks were strung parallel across the room, but there were no warriors there to guard the children. Uduak breathed a sigh of relief and pushed through the thatch to find his son. He rested his gun up against the wall and looked down to smile at his son.
Loud screams and smashing sounds filled the air. The smell of smoke began to fill the air. Uduak tiptoed toward the door to take a peek.
At first, he couldn’t tell what was going on. Screaming people were running in all directions. Massive clouds of dust filled the air over the village center, where the old crone had been just a few minutes earlier. Two of the huts over to his left had caught fire and were burning quickly.
The sparks from the burning fires floated through the air, landing on nearby houses. The houses burst into flames that rose rapidly and licked hungrily over the dry thatch homes. Then wafted into the air to be carried by the wind to the next hut.
Uduak could see other huts beyond the fire that looked like someone had flattened them to the ground. Loud crashing noises and screaming filled the dry, smoky air.
“What’s going on?” Uduak shouted at people racing back and forth. But no one stopped to answer him as they raced to put out the fires in the burning huts. Others attempted to pull out what little belonging they could before their huts burst into flames.
Beyond the dust and flames, Uduak saw what seemed to be a small dust devil of wind circling around the huts of the village in a clockwise direction. He couldn’t tell through all the dust and smoke in the air, but his house seemed to be burning as well. Hopefully, his wife had already made it out with their belongings. All he had to do now was grab his son and meet her at the waterfall.
Uduak turned back to pick up his son. He saw a woman race in through the door while screaming for her son.
“What is it, woman? The children are all right there.” Uduak shouted as he recognized the mother of one of the seven children who had been taken.
“My husband is dead. Everyone is dead. We are all dead.” She screamed at Uduak as she grabbed her child and ran for the door.
Another woman came in screaming for her child. This time Uduak grabbed her and shouted for her to tell him what was going on. The crazed mother struggled and screamed to get free, but he clasped her firmly. She finally fell, sobbing into his arms.
“Zodwa finished her incantation. And a whirlwind appeared from the direction of the river. It blew through the middle of the village. It sucked up the witch and her sacrifices. Then churned through the huts, knocking them down and sucking up all who were in its path.”
Uduak loosened his grip and took another look out the doorway. The mother yanked herself free and grabbed her child. She was gone by the time Uduak turned around. He could hear the sound of smashing huts getting closer. He raced to his son and squatted down to pick up his newborn carefully.
The stench of a dirty diaper assailed his nostrils over the stench of the dank, smoky room, but he didn’t bother trying to change it. He rose to his feet with his child and grabbed the gun with his free hand as he raced for the door. Not bothering to go through the back to avoid the warriors. No one was trying to stop him, anyway.
The thunderous smashing sound of something hitting the side of the hut roared around him. The thatched roof and walls came crashing down around him before he could get out of the building.
Uduak saw large dark tentacles moving in his direction as everything came crashing down around him. He felt the same slimy tentacles sliding over him and wrapping around his right leg. His knife came out of the sheath at his side, and he hacked it off. The blade cut through like soft gristle, and a loud shrieking sound filled the air.
Thatch from the roof and walls swirled around him as the beast churned through the hut. Then it was gone and everything fell silent. Uduak shook off the thatch that covered him as he rose to his feet to watch the dust moving back through the forest toward the river.
He breathed heavily with his hands on his knees till the fright had passed. Then Uduak remembered his son and began pulling back thatch to uncover the area around the hut. But his son was nowhere to be found. None of the other children were there either, as if the giant tentacled creature had snatched them all away.
He began pulling the thatch away frantically from the center of the house before sparks from other burning huts landed on it. Uduak searched desperately for his son. But the child was nowhere to be found. The only thing there was the floppy tentacle of the creature that Uduak had sliced off.
Uduak fell to his knees, moaning for his son. He stabbed the slimy tentacle with his knife and screamed in frustration and anger. Two other villagers came walking by in a daze as they gazed at the destruction and havoc that this vile monster had brought upon them. One of them began wailing loudly as the other tried to comfort her.
He walked through the dust and smoke toward the center of the village as sparks from the burning huts continued to waft down through the air. When he arrived at the center, Uduak saw that the creature’s swirling madness had put the ritual fires for the sacrifices out. Scattered ashes lay everywhere. But none of the sacrificed animals were anywhere to be seen, as if the monstrous beast had swallowed them up and taken them with him. Just as it had most of the villagers that were unfortunate enough to have crossed its path.
Uduak turned and walked toward his burning hut while screaming his wife’s name. He heard someone moaning and sobbing. Fearing the worst and expecting to see his wife’s broken body, Uduak was relieved to find that it was not Nkosazana. He could tell it was an older woman, but he wasn’t sure who until he pushed back thatch that covered her slimy, twisted body. The way she lay all crumpled and disheveled made it look as if the creature had vomited her out along its path.
It was Zodwa. Uduak roared in hatred. His first instinct was to drive the blade in his hand through her heart. But that would be a fate too good for her. Uduak wanted her to suffer. He wanted her to face the humiliation of recognizing what she had done.
He roared at her. A deep, primal roar, since no words could express the pain and anger that he felt. She closed her eyes and turned her face away from him until he finished. Smiled when she saw the chopped-off tentacle he was still holding.
“You follow that demon to its lair and kill it,” she whispered in a hoarse voice. “Gather the other men and finish it. The poison I placed in the sacrificed animals has weakened it.”
Uduak’s rage increased exponentially when the full weight of her words fell upon him.
“You mean you knew this would happen? You knew it would return?” Uduak screamed as he pressed the knife over her heart.
She nodded. “I remember when it came to my village. I have studied and waited all my life for it to make its reappearance. The more it eats the slower it becomes.”
“That thing had not slowed down much, you stupid old crone,” he yelled.
“Your village was smaller than mine was. It wasn’t as gorged as when it killed my people. But it still slowed down some. And the poisonous herbs I placed within the sacrificed animals will weaken it. Gather the men and follow its tracks to its lair. Finish it off.”
Uduak looked around the village circle. Only a few women stood in front of their huts. “There are no men left in the village,” he laughed mockingly at the old crone. Pressing the knife below her ribs.
“Then you must kill it yourself. Eat the monster’s tentacle and absorb its power. Then you can kill the Umhyg’vhoxr before it regains its strength.” Zodwa whispered. “Then, after you kill it, continue to eat it. Start with its heart. Then you will be fast enough and strong enough to kill any more of those creatures that enter our world.”
“You are one crazy, old woman,” Uduak growled while looking down at the tentacle still in his hand before asking. “Should I cook it?”
Zodwa shook her head. She chuckled at the horrified look on his face as he brought it to his lips. Uduak bit off a small piece and chewed it tentatively. It was slimy, but sweet.
He took another bigger bite and chewed faster. The old woman smiled in satisfaction and nodded as she watched him chew. She placed her hand on his stomach and whispered an incantation over him.
“I’m sorry for the suffering I brought your people. I knew it would come, but I didn’t think it would do this much damage. I thought the poison would eliminate it more quickly.” she said shakily, with her dying breaths.
Uduak didn’t answer. In fact, he didn’t really even hear her as his body absorbed the essence of the beast the tentacle belonged to. He didn’t even notice the old woman gasping for her last few breaths of air.
Everything grew silent around him. The world seemed to slow around him. He tore off larger chunks of the tentacle and gulped them down without even chewing them up completely. Uduak breathed heavily as he swallowed the last bite and stood to his feet.
The old woman lay silent and still at his feet. He bent over to close her eyes. Then walked to the group of women standing by the huts. They stood still, like statues. It freaked him out at first. The entire world around him seemed to be standing still.
Then he noticed a bird flying overhead, only it wasn’t moving either. He looked around and noticed a grasshopper in mid-jump. It seemed to be floating in the air.
As he watched, Uduak could tell that it was still moving forward, but so slowly that he could barely notice it. He looked back at the women and noticed one of them seemed to be moving her mouth, but so slowly that he couldn’t tell what she was saying.
The sudden realization of what Zodwa told him sank in. He had absorbed the creature’s speed by consuming its flesh. Maybe now he stood a chance of catching it and killing it. He ran over to where he had left his gun and threw thatch around until he found it.
As he stood up and glanced over at the women, he could see the fear etched in their faces as they turned slowly toward him and threw their hands up into the air. He could hear the screams welling up in their mouths. Uduak smiled at the scene, even though he realized how grim things looked.
Uduak turned and raced down the path of death and destruction that the creature’s whirlwind had left behind. It wasn’t hard to follow at all. The spinning and swirling tentacles tossed everything in its path. Unlike its previous victims, the Umhyg’vhoxr did not hide its trail this time. Its path led straight to the river and the falls, where he was supposed to meet with his wife.
But it was too late. Her bag with their belongings lay just off the path where the creature had tossed it before swallowing her up. Uduak screamed at the falls before him. The monster’s trail led straight to the giant waterfall. He followed the trail to the river but lost it when it entered the water.
Uduak looked downstream, wondering if it had gone that way, but shook his head. It was in no mood to play games like before. It had cut a straight path to its destination. He looked up at the mist spraying up from the sheets of water and wondered if it had flown to the top.
It could move fast, but hadn’t flown before. He tried jumping himself. Wondering, almost hoping that if so, he had absorbed its power to fly. But even though he jumped much higher than normal, gravity still pulled him right back down, albeit slower and lighter than normal.
The only logical explanation was that it had gone through the falls. Was it back there watching him even now? Trying to hide from him.
Uduak walked up the shore toward the waterfall. The sheets of water barely moved as they cascaded down. He reached out a hand and placed it in the water. It split over his hand and water moved slowly to the sides of his hand as he watched it continue to drop slowly toward the river.
He watched it with mesmerized fascination. Then shook his head to draw his attention back to the task at hand. He walked around the sheets of slowly dropping water and found a ledge moving along the back of the falls until he came to the center.
There was water running along the back of the wall here, but part of it was darker than the surrounding area. Uduak placed his hand through the slow-running water and once again watched it part for him to see a tunnel inside.
The furious man stepped through quietly. Careful to place each footstep slowly in the pool of water that gathered at the base of the tunnel so as not to make much noise. The light coming through the water falling behind him lit up the tunnel with a soft white light.
Uduak could see that the tunnel widened immediately, and a dozen steps led up into the cavern ahead. A soft reddish-orange glow lit up the inner chambers above him. He let his senses adapt to the dark environment around him.
With each step upward, his senses adapted to the cavern. He could tell that this was a much deeper perception than he had before, consuming the creature’s tentacle. He wondered what he would be able to do after consuming the Umhyg’vhoxr’s heart. His senses tingled with excitement as he moved slowly and quietly up each step.
He could see dark tentacles moving slowly against the reddish glow. Uduak gripped the gun tightly in his hands, wondering what it would look like and where he should shoot it.
Low squeals and grunts came in longer, and longer pauses until, finally, it fell silent. Picking up bits of rotted wood that stood against the wall, Uduak tossed them past the creature into the center of the room. Its tentacles twitched slightly at the sound, but other than that, the beast made no other sounds or movements.
Uduak continued to move slowly and silently up the steps, but once he arrived at the top realized there had been no need for stealth. It disappointed him killing the monster would be this easy. He would have enjoyed fighting this creature to the death.
The creature barely moved when he poked a tentacle with his knife. He pointed his gun at the beast, but wasn’t sure exactly where to shoot it. The mass of tentacles seemed to come from everywhere.
He poked and prodded, finally locating the mass the tentacles came from. He pointed his gun in the general direction and pulled the trigger until he had no more bullets. Then came the hard work of cutting off the tentacles one by one because he wasn’t really sure that the bullets had done anything to it.
The giant mass that was left was slimy and gross. But he continued to cut into it. It had organs he had never seen before when he was cleaning the game he hunted. But he recognized the heart when he came to it. It was larger than his head. Eating it took more than one meal to consume it all. But he knew he was different when he had finished.
Uduak had wondered if the poison the old crone had used would harm him when he ate it. But just like with the tentacle, the flesh was soft, slimy, and sweet.
A large stone table lay in the center of the cavern where Uduak pulled the tentacles to lay them out. It wasn’t a hard task with his newfound strength. The flesh of the Umhyg’vhoxr didn’t putrefy like he had expected or was used to with other animals he had hunted. Maybe it was because of the cool, damp environment, or maybe it was because of the nature of the creature’s makeup. But Uduak stayed in the cave until he had consumed the entire thing.
Between the flesh to eat and the water from the falls, Uduak felt no need to return to his village. He didn’t attempt to venture deeper into the cavern’s tunnels until he had absorbed all the creature’s powers. He sensed that there were more of these things down there. Someday, they would attempt to come to the surface.
When they did, he would be ready for them. But for now, Uduak was content to stay where he was. Each bite of the Umhyg’vhoxr allowed him to sense that he was avenging the death of his wife and son, as well as the entire village.
When he was ready, he would return to shambles the creature had left his village in. He would take new wives. He would have more children. And when he felt ready, he would hunt more of these creatures and feed them to his wives and children.
And when they had absorbed these powers, they would exact their revenge against the entire race of these creatures. They would save other tribes and villages from their dilemma and be revered for their speed and power. He would bring all those villages together under his rule as chief. And his sons would be princes over each tribe and village.
Uduak stood at the edge of the falls and roared a loud war cry into the tunnels as a warning to those Umhyg’vhoxrs that hid deep within its caverns. Then he turned to climb the path back to his village with the last two tentacles slung over his shoulders. He would feed them to those who had survived the attack of the Umhyg’vhoxr and together they would rise from the ashes to rule the world.
Ren walked through the burning rubble of the once noble village that lay before him. His companions racing ahead of the flames to pillage and plunder the beautiful buildings that still stood. But he wasn’t in the mood. Something wasn’t right here. He could sense it deep within.
While his friends whooped wildly and shouted gleefully, Ren continued to walk silently behind them through the smoke and ashes. He didn’t like the way his commanding officers had handled the situation and set everything up.
It wasn’t that Ren held any pity in his heart for the enemy. They deserved everything they had coming to them for the terrible things they had done to his people. This was war, and both sides did terrible things to each other that they felt deserved justice and revenge. A war that had raged back and forth for over a decade.
He paused to look up at the once tall building burning to the ground to his left. Ren cocked his head and crouched down for a better glimpse under the smoke. Not that it was much better. The thick smoke filled the air all around him.
Ren walked around the area analyzing everything. Trying to figure out what it was his instincts were telling him wasn’t right here.
Something inside the building exploded with a dull roar and the flames lept even higher and burned hotter than that they had been before. Driving Ren back a dozen paces to keep from singing his hair and eyebrows.
Three men raced past him carrying bats of loot as they whooped and hollered all the way back to the boats they had left at the river. He watched until they disappeared before turning back to continue in the direction they had come from.
His feet burned and he jumped out of a pile of smoldering rubble and coal that he had been walking through. Ren stomped his feet a few times before the burning subsided.
As much as he wanted and even needed his share of loot to pay off his debts, he couldn’t bring himself to go through with pillaging this village. They didn’t deserve it. They were neutral in the war. In fact, they had once been allies.
But over the years, they had settled their strife and made a truce with their enemies. Withdrawing from the war had infuriated Ren’s leaders who still had a bone to grind with their enemy. Their allies’ withdrawal now meant that they no longer had the advantage.
After many meetings and long talks around the fire, they had grudgingly accepted the truce and promised to honor it even though they would continue their war.
So, this surprise attack was a low blow. Plundering their village for no good reason just didn’t seem right. His commanding officers had used some lame excuses. Something about past offenses that hadn’t been righted. But Ren sensed that there was more to it than that.
The war had left them in dire straights. The constant battles left the men little time to take care of their own homes and businesses and farms. The little crops that their wives and children grew were often ravaged and burned by their enemies who seemed to grow stronger and stronger over the years.
Ren feared that if things continued to go this way, they would no longer be able to hold back the onslaughts of the enemy armies that swept through from time to time.
Deep down, Ren sensed that attacking their unsuspecting allies was just a desperate attempt to raise the morale of the army while coming up with some supplies to keep them going.
But even worse, Ren felt that something was really off here. Even if their attack had been a complete surprise, they shouldn’t have overrun the town this easily. Someone somewhere should have a put up a fight or formed some kind of resistance. They had once been fierce and formidable warriors themselves. A few years of peace wouldn’t have left them this vulnerable and open to an attack.
Ren paused and crouched again for another glance around. The burning fire made it difficult to look very far past them into the darkness beyond. He moved his eyes slowly around the area, watching with his peripheral vision for any sign of movement in the shadows.
Something was coming, and it wasn’t going to be pretty. Ren was sure of that. He could sense their former allies watching from the safety of the shadows and darkness to attack.
Suddenly, it hit him. He understood what was wrong. The silence was growing louder as if that made any sense. But that is how Ren sensed it. He didn’t hear so many whoops and hollers as before. As if, one by one, his fellow warriors were being eliminated up ahead.
Again, Ren watched a couple more of race past him toward the boat. Gleefully shouting at all the loot they had plundered from the Yokonagawa.
“C’mon, Ren! There is so much more back there! Hurry up and get your share before it’s gone.” Kota paused to yell out before racing off again to keep up with his companions.
Ren realized that all of the looting warriors were running back from the loot ahead, however, he hadn’t seen anyone come racing back from the boats after dropping their load off. Not one had returned to continue plundering the village.
He waited a few moments. Listening in to the silence between the crackling flames and snapping timber. A few more men came running back from their plundering with bags on their backs.
“Hey, wait!” Ren yelled out to them. “I don’t think you should go down there.”
But they didn’t listen or didn’t hear him over their own whoops and hollers of excitement. Again, Ren realized that the only whoops were coming from behind him where the others were still plundering and pillaging the Yokonagawa homes before torching them to the ground. But nobody was hollering or making noise back at the boats.
A pang of fear mixed with anger flowed through him. He had known that this wasn’t going to bode well for them. Ren had tried to warn their commanding officer of his vision, but the old man had laughed at him after calling him a coward.
Ren began walking back toward the boats, but instead of walking straight back down the path his companions had gone, Ren circled around the burning buildings off the beaten trail.
It felt good to get out of the smoke and breathe fresh air once again. Ren moved quickly but silently through the trees, making his way back down to their waiting ships. Carefully watching for any enemies waiting to ambush him.
The waiting ships lay silently in the dark harbor. He didn’t see the guards who had stayed behind. Had they decided it was safe and abandoned their posts to loot and plunder with the others?
Ren watched with bated breath as he planned his best course of action. Rushing in would be foolish. He could die before warning his companions that something was wrong. If he waited to figure out what was going on, more of his returning companions would die, but if he left, he still wouldn’t know what was going on.
He decided that his best course of action would be to return to the men to warn them that something wasn’t right. Then together, they would figure out what was going on and how to protect themselves.
Ren slipped back the way he had come under the cover of the trees that hid him from the light of the full moon and stars illuminating the surrounding countryside.
He was about halfway back to the place he had come from when he heard another group of men returning with their loot. Whooping and hollering like those that had come before them.
Looking around carefully to make sure no one was watching, Ren waited till they were in sight before rushing out into the open air to meet them at the edge of the burning buildings.
“Hey! Stop. You can’t go down that way. Something is wrong. No one is returning.” Ren shouted in a hushed voice.
“C’mon, Ren! There is so much to plunder. We’re all going to be filthy, stinkin’ rich after tonight. Get up there with the others.”
The group had already moved on past Ren for him to physically stop them, and he didn’t want to yell after them to let their enemies know that he was onto them yet. A couple of more men came trotting down the trail under the weight of their bags of newly found treasure. Ren focused his attention on stopping them.
“What are you doing, Ren? Move out of the way. We’ve gotta drop this stuff off so we can get back up and gather more.” one of the men growled in an irritated voice when Ren wouldn’t let them past.
“You don’t understand. Something is wrong. No one is returning. I think they’re being killed when they return to the ships.”
“What have you been chewing on, Ren? There is no one here but us. The Yokonagawa all fled when we got here. Jump on this chance to grab yourself some goods.” the one named Ichiro said with a laugh.
“Yeah, Ren. We were going slow because my missus is a little larger than average, so it took me longer to find things that’ll fit her. And I saw a bunch of people come down here to drop stuff off and then come back up while we were still scavenging around. They must have gone back up on the other trail. You just didn’t see them.” Souma whined as he tried to push past Ren who was still blocking the path.
“Fine, go down, but be careful. And return this way to let me know you are okay on your way back.” Ren replied, letting them pass.
Ichirou and Souma both nodded as they raced past him without bothering to reply. Ren stood there for a minute watching them disappear toward the boat. Wondering if he was mistaken. Maybe he was just being overly cautious. Perhaps he was missing out on a ton of loot that everyone else was gathering without him.
Thoughts of treasure and great wealth filled his mind, driving out the worries that had plagued him since they had arrived. Ren continued walking up the trail towards the unburnt houses slowly. Waiting for Souma and Ichirou to come back up and tell him that everything was okay.
Other groups of looters passed Ren, and he was careful to warn them to keep an eye out for potential dangers. But like Souma and Ichirou, they all scoffed and brushed his warnings off as foolish advice.
Ren finally made it past the last burning house and into the section where his companions were still ransacking and pillaging. He set his sights on a house that seemed to be relatively untouched, and almost started heading toward it when he remembered that he was still waiting for Souma and Ichirou to return.
He looked back but they were nowhere in sight. If all they had done was drop off their bags and come racing back as excitedly as they had gone, they should have passed him well before now.
Ren sighed. Why did he always have to be like this? He regretted always having such a strong sense of moral duty to others. Putting them before himself. He had missed out on a lot of great opportunities because of it. And had almost died a time or two as well.
The thought of all those treasures waiting to be gathered was almost too much of a temptation for him. Maybe he could just gather a little bit for himself to have ready when the time came to leave while he warned the others.
He moved in the direction of the house, shouting out to others who were preparing to head down the trail, but none of them gave him any heed.
Ren was at door to the house. It was a small house. That’s probably why the others had passed it over in favor of the larger homes with more stuff to loot. But Ren could see that it was made of the finest craftsmanship. Whatever was inside would be top quality and fetch him a fine price.
He reached out to push the door open and step inside. Ren looked to the side and saw a large group of looters walking past him toward the boats. He felt that same strange sense of foreboding that he had earlier. Ren sighed and smacked his fist against the door with a growl.
Spinning around, he followed them from a distance. He could always come back and pillage later. This was a large town and there were still plenty of unburned houses. Just a quick jog down to the river to make sure his companions were okay. Then he would come back and ransack every last house and burn them himself.
It didn’t matter that they had once been allies. His leadership had just declared war on them with this act and they would all pay dearly for it, now that they would be waging battles on two fronts. Ren didn’t care. He had been raised to fight since the time he could walk.
He would plunder and get all the loot he could like everyone else to make the rest of the battles to come feel like they were worth something, Ren pondered as he followed the men racing down to the boat.
Ren watched as they raced excitedly across the planks onto the ship and disappear. He breathed a sigh of relief. At least they hadn’t been attacked like he thought was happening. With a smile, he started to turn and walk back up the trail.
Then stopped and cocked his head to the side. What were the men doing? Why hadn’t they dropped off their bags and come back for more? What were they doing up there? He pursed his lips and tried to imagine what they were up to.
Ren moved swiftly, but silently toward the ships. He slowed down when crossing the wooden planks to avoid making any more noise than necessary. He boarded the ship and looked around. Everything was silent and still. Bags of loot lay everywhere, ready for the journey home. But none of his companions were on board.
He made a brief but thorough inspection. No one was around. Had he boarded the wrong ship? Ren walked to the edge of the boat and looked around at the others in the harbor. All were silent and still as well.
“What could have happened to them?” Ren wondered.
Another group of rowdy looters came trotting down the trail toward the boat. Ren moved back behind some cartons to watch and see what would happen to them.
They came running up the planks excitedly and tossed their bags of loot down. As soon as they did, each man turned and ran past Ren to the edge of the boat and leaped over the edge. Ren heard a quiet splash below, and then that was it. Nothing else. No commotion. No splashing around or calling for help.
He looked over the edge of the boat to the dark waters below. The bodies of the men who had jumped had completely disappeared as if they had sunk out of sight. But all around, the bodies of other companions floated listlessly in the waves.
Ren moved around the edge of the ship in horror. He recognized the faces of his companions under the light of the moon, as they rolled around in waves. Hearing the voices of others coming he raced off the boat to meet the men before they crossed the planks.
“Stop! Stop!” he hissed wildly as he flailed his arms. “Don’t go on the ship. Everyone who goes up there is dying!”
His companions laughed. “Don’t be silly, Ren. You were just up there.”
“I’m serious. Please, just put your bags down and come look over here to the side so you can see behind the ship. It’s full of our drowned companions in the water. Ichirou and Souma and everyone else. They are all there in the water.” Ren insisted.
The men looked at each other and shrugged.
“Ren wouldn’t be so stupid as to try to steal our loot. There is plenty for everyone tonight. But just to be safe, you stay with the bags, Jirou, while I go look.” Takuya said motioning for Tetsuya to follow him.
Takuya tossed his bag down and the other men followed suit. Immediately they all turned and walked up the plank onto the ship. Ren reached out to grab onto Tetsuya’s sleeve. But Tetsuya shook himself free and continued to walk toward the edge for the ship.
Ren dashed forward again and grabbed onto him again, this time by the arm. He also tried to hang onto the back of Takuya’s tunic as he pulled himself over the railing and threw himself into the cold waters below. Ren couldn’t hold onto him and concentrate on keeping Tetsuya from climbing over the edge.
He let go of Takuya and focused on preventing Tetsuya from jumping off the ship, but his companion was larger and stronger than he. Tetsuya shook himself free and jumped to join Takuya and Jirou in the water below.
Ren screamed in frustration and kicked at the railing. He raced up the trail while trying to understand what was causing this. He came to another group of men returning to the ships and tried to explain to them what was going on back at the ships.
They seemed worried and put their bags down on the ground. As soon as they did, each one began walking toward the ship with a strange look in their eye. Ren did everything he could to stop them. He knocked them over, but they just got right back up and kept on walking like Ren wasn’t even there in front of him.
He tried punching them. Kicking them. Pushing them around. But it didn’t matter what he did to them. They just kept walking toward the ship until they got there and threw themselves overboard into the cold, dark waters.
Ren ran back up the trail and tried again with another group. He got the same result. Everyone that put their bag of loot down immediately walked down to the ship and threw themself overboard.
He tried over and over with every group headed back, but it was completely useless. One by one, his companions drowned themselves mindlessly like a pack of lemmings. It was as if they became obsessed with jumping into the water after letting go of their bags of loot.
Ren even tried tying some of them up to trees to keep him from moving to the water. But they either cut themselves free, or another one of their mindless lemming friends would cut them loose.
As the moon moved across the night sky, Ren watched dozens and hundreds of his companions drown themselves under the light of the silent, twinkling stars.
After watching the last of his friends jump overboard, Ren fell to his knees in the middle of the ship and wept. Grieving the loss of his friends and companions. Frustrated at his impotence to stop whatever curse had caused this. Sobbing as he looked at the bodies of his drowned friends floating in the waves of the harbor.
Waves of emotion washed over him. Regret at not having demanded more from his superiors and understand why they had been sent here to their deaths. Guilt for not having been able to save his friends. Shame for being alive while they were all dead in the waters below. And rage. Fiery rage at whoever had done this to his friends.
Ren leaped to his feet with a roar. No longer afraid of making noise and being heard. Whoever he had sensed watching them earlier knew he was here. Knew he was still alive.
“Come and get me you cowards,” Ren screamed as he raced up the path toward the burning buildings. “I’m going to finish what we came here to start.”
When he arrived at the houses that his companions hadn’t yet ransacked, Ren began to torch them one by one, as fast as he could. Pulling firey torches of wood from the already burning houses and throwing them into the houses that still stood darkly against the night sky.
He worked swiftly and silently. Ren knew that he didn’t have much time. They probably hadn’t calculated on someone not-so-greedy person not touching their cursed objects. And right now, at this very moment were conjuring up some sort of incantation to try and stop him.
“Cowards! Come down from where you’re hiding in the hills and fight me like a man.” Ren screamed out into the darkness beyond the burning flames as he continued torching houses up and down the streets around the town square.
Ren didn’t have a death wish. He didn’t want to die foolishly. But his fury was so great that he wanted to kill his enemies just to avenge the death of his friends.
He heard them coming before he saw them. The patter of their feet as they raced down the street in his direction. Trying to come in behind some burning buildings. Hoping to catch him by surprise.
But Ren was ready for them. Trained by the most revered master in the land. A mighty warrior with every sense honed to the sharpest degree. A hardened soldier enraged beyond measure and thirsty for justice.
He didn’t even pull his sword to meet them. Ren ran directly at them. Sliding into them and bowling them over. Parrying the blows of their sword with his torch. Using their own momentum against them, Ren tossed them into the fire of the house burning beside them. One by one they fell kicking and screaming into the flame.
All of his rage and fury focused on avenging the death of his friends. Years of training, honing his skills to perfection. Ren didn’t even have to think. Punching. Kicking. Dodging when he needed to dodge, Ren made short work of his enemies.
And he still hadn’t even pulled his own sword. Sometimes using their own weapons against them. But most of the time, it wasn’t even necessary. His rage provided an almost superhuman strength to his killing spree. Breaking bones. Crushing their resistance. Tossing them into the fire as if they were ragweed.
The years of truce and lack of fighting had made the Yokonagwa soft. But they continued to pour down from the mountains. Eventually, Ren tired of toying with them and pulled his sword. They fell before Ren like hay before a scythe.
Soon there were bodies piled up in the center of the burning building and it took greater effort to toss them up there, so Ren moved the fighting back to another room in the house and continued to dispatch his enemies from there.
Eventually, his hand went numb and clave to his sword, but he continued to wield it wildly. Dispatching his enemies left and right as the building burned down beside him. Eventually, the flames consumed all but the pillars that had once held up the homes and darkness once again swallowed the town. And still, Ren continued his feud with the Yokanagwa, until every last one of them had been put down.
Ren looked down at the sword in his hand. He couldn’t open his fist to let go of the sword by willing it. He had to pry his fingers open to remove the sword. The exhausted warrior slid the sword back into its sheath and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. Then looked around and sighed.
Seeing the bodies heaped up within the burning pillars was an eerie sight. It brought him no joy to look upon them. No sense of elation at the victory he had wrought single-handedly. But there was a sense of completion at having performed his duty.
He had finished the task his commanding officers had sent him here to fulfill even though he hadn’t agreed with it. And he had avenged the deaths of his fellow warriors. Not that it would do much good to bring any one of them back from the dead.
Ren moved out of the path of smoke coming in his direction and then stood there for a moment letting the cool, night breeze wash over him. Cooling his sweat-drenched body. He untied his hair and shook it out. He looked around for a place to sit and rest his weary bones.
“Well done, mighty warrior!” a loud voice boomed from behind him. “I have been searching for one as great as yourself.”
Ren spun around and jumped back at the sight before him. A large, majestic figure stood silhouetted in the darkness of buildings still burning behind him. He took a step backward with each step it took toward him until he was almost up against the building that had burned down behind him.
His brain tried to process what he was seeing exactly. The creature didn’t seem to have much of a face. The only distinct feature he could see clearly were its burning red eyes and the two large horns coming out of its head. A skull tied into place between his horns stood out with the skulls stuck to the shoulder pads of his leather and fur outfit that was covered with some sort of armor.
“Your heart is pure. Unaffected by greed as the others were. And you fight like an Ergavyan. Your father must be proud to have raised such a fine son as yourself. It’s too bad, you must die tonight. My orders are to make sure no one lives.”
Ren’s head reeled at the information he was processing. Trying to recall the Ergavyan legends he had heard from his mother’s bedtime stories as a child. This couldn’t be real. They were mythical creatures of magic and might who had once ruled the land. Remnants of their once great civilizations were all that remained in far-off desert lands.
“Come, mighty warrior. Bow to your fate like a man. It is a rare privilege for one such as yourself to even see an Ergavyan such as myself, much less have the glory to be killed one of my kind.”
Ren snorted in disdain. It may have been more out of fear than of disdain, but he didn’t want to appear weak before the strange being that had just appeared.
“I bow to no man. Nor do I bow to any Ergavyan. And if you think men bow to fate, you are sadly mistaken.” Ren shouted loudly and more courageously than he really felt as he assessed his situation.
Unsure of his chances of standing his ground and fighting, Ren fleetingly considered fleeing. He had never fought an Ergavyan, nor had he ever seen anyone else fight one for that matter.
Perhaps they were slow and he stood a good fighting chance. Or maybe they were swift as lightning, like the Yovian Elementals in his mother’s bedtime stories. Ren fanned his fingers and flexed his fist as he prepared to grab his sword.
“Be careful human. Or you will face the wrath of Ergavya upon you. Look what I have done to your comrades without laying a hand upon them. Imagine what I could do to you.” The creature growled.
“Or maybe you are slow and don’t know how to fight. So you hide behind your magic in the darkness with your trickery.”
Ren reached for his sword and pulled it from his scabbard, and crouched for the charge. The Ergavyan smiled menacingly and shifted forward in anticipation. It charged at him without pulling a weapon.
It was surprisingly fast for its size. Ren ducked the first swing of its giant fist and took a swing at it. But his sword hit mostly leather and metal. Ren moved around it, dodging punches and blows while simultaneously seeking a weak point to connect the sharp blade of his sword that would do some damage.
The Ergavyan blocked his swing with the protection on its left forearm and swung at Ren with its right. Ren was tiring from his dance around the Ergavyan and ducked too slowly. Its fist connected with Ren’s body and smashed him back toward the burning remains of the building where he had tossed the bodies of the enemies he had annihilated.
“Had enough yet human?” the Ergavyan growled as it walked toward him.
Ren pulled himself to his feet and braced himself for his final battle. He glanced around him for something to climb up onto. Something that would get him high enough up to take a swing at its head. The pile of bodies behind him was the only thing around.
He flipped backward onto a body at the bottom of the burning heap and then jumped from one to another till he reached the top. The burning pillars of the building lit up the scene around him like one of the Hive Gnome deathmatches he had once seen while on a diplomatic trading journey to the lands in the North.
Ren sensed that this was the end for him. He had to pull out all the stops. There was an ancient form of calling up fire that his master had once taught him. But it was painful and sucked all of his energy. He had been sick for two weeks after. So, he had never used it again. He had never been in a position where it had been necessary.
He didn’t even want to do it now. His body had aged since then. And he was tired and weak from all the fighting he had already done. Ren sighed and raised his sword over his head. He closed his eyes and lifted the knuckles of his left hand to his lips.
Calming his breathing and focusing his attention inward toward his belly. He let his mind wander into the night air around him. He could feel the power and magic that lay heavy in the air. Ren had never felt it this strongly before. He breathed in sharply, channeling that power and magic through the crook of his fingers. He could feel his own strength growing.
The Ergavyan stopped coming at him and cocked its head to the side. “Where did you learn how to do that human?” It asked as if genuinely curious.
Ren didn’t answer but continued to suck in sharply and channel the power growing within him. He felt heat building up within him and he willed it into his sword.
His sword burst into flames, and Ren swirled the weapon around his head, leaving a glowing yellow trail of light that extended past the tip of his sword, effectively extending his reach.
The Ergavyan growled nervously and charged toward him. Ren leaped to meet it. Swinging his sword downward with all of his might. The Ergavyan’s arm sliced off cleanly and dropped into the burning flames that surrounded them. It howled and backed off. It roared at Ren again. He charged at it, but it turned tail and raced off into the night.
Ren was too tired to chase it. His energy was low. He had pulled enough power and energy from the air around him that he didn’t feel sick like before. But still, it had drained him. He stopped running after it and bent down to catch his breath.
It would be out there in the darkness. It would try to weave some magic spell against him as it had done to his companions. His best bet would be to get off the island.
Ren set all but one of the ships on fire and bid his companions farewell as he sailed out of the harbor. Careful not to touch any of the bags of loot that lay scattered across the deck.
He would return again another time to hunt the Ergavyan down and fight it as his ancestors had many years ago just like his mother had told him about in his bedtime stories. He would return with those trained to sense magic and they would hunt it down.
And if there was one, that meant that there would be others. He would unite the three kingdoms against their common foe and put an end to this senseless bickering and endless feuding.
And one day, he would lead his people united in battle against the Ergavyans to finish what his ancestors before him had started to wipe out this evil that killed his companions.
The dragon and its rider bolted into the night sky as hot, angry tears rolled down Akio’s cheeks. They didn’t make it far before the whipping wind peeled each one away from his face.
Akio looked back to see the Enforcers still blocking the way home. They seemed relieved that he fled without putting up a fight. They hadn’t even tried to stop him from leaving or attempted to pursue him. He realized that all they had wanted to do was prevent him from returning home with his dragon.
The fear in his heart abated when he saw that no one pursued them. Suddenly, Akio felt like a coward. He the might dragon warrior fleeing from the people he had fought to save.
He screamed with frustration into the cold, night air. The silent stars above his only witness. Not even the moon was out yet to watch him ride the wind. Shooting across the sky on the strong, firm back of Yunlong, the dragon he had pulled from the clouds. His only consolation for all of his effort. Everything he had been promised was a lie. They had used him for their own end.
“Not a lie,” Yunlong whispered in his mind. “You should go back. To your people. To your kind. I will return to the clouds. I will be fine. You will be fine. Better than fine. You have achieved a great thing. You will receive great rewards. You will be a hero to your people for what you have done.”
“No!” Akio roared, so furiously that his voice cracked and his throat hurt. It felt like he had torn a vocal cord. But he didn’t care. It wouldn’t hurt more than the tear in his heart. It wouldn’t ache more than the pain in his soul.
He would be hoarse tomorrow. He wouldn’t be able to speak for days. But it didn’t matter. Nor did he care. There was no one for him to speak to now except Yunlong. And it wasn’t even necessary since the dragon could read his thoughts. Speaking to Yunlong was simply a human habit that made Akio feel like the giant beast could understand him better even though he knew it wasn’t true.
Yunlong understood the human more thoroughly with a single sweep of her mind than Akio could ever express with a million words. And that was why Akio couldn’t bear the thought of leaving his new friend behind in order to return home.
“It’s not fair you can’t go back home with me!” he whispered hoarsely and instantly regretted it. He swallowed the pain and coughed to clear his throat.
Akio felt the pale dragon sigh briefly. He picked up on a mix of feelings. Anger. Regret. Sadness. He caught glimpses of hundreds of previous battles. But a strong residual sense of loneliness pervaded her memories through all of them.
“Humans and dragons were never met to coexist. We were only intended to be used as tools for a specific purpose. The Enforcers are right. It would only create confusion if I were to return with you.”
The rider didn’t try to voice his thoughts. He could feel her in his mind. Deep in each thought. No matter how brief. She could feel his pain. Sense his frustration. And he knew she understood him.
How was that possible? Two beings that were so different. Two creatures that warred for centuries. Mortal enemies throughout time. Yet felt the same feelings. Thought the same thoughts. And connected at such a profound level.
“What will you do now, Cloud Rider,” she asked in his mind.
It brought a brief smile to his face in spite of his frustration. It was a compliment coming from her because when they first met, she had mockingly called him Earth Crawler.
“I will find a way to return home and reveal the truth. I will expose those who sent me. They will regret choosing me to do their dirty work.”
“You can still go back to your people. You just can’t take me. Tell them your truth. They are your loved ones. They believe the lies, surely they will believe the truth when you tell them.”
“They won’t. They’ll call me crazy. The Enforcers will make sure that everyone thinks I’ve gone mad. Without you, I have no proof. And that is the only thing they fear. Having their lies exposed and people learn the truth.”
“Why is that important? You know the truth. And that is what matters. You can live a long and successful life with your people.”
Akio shook his head as he tried to process his emotions.
“No,” he finally sighed. “I’d rather live alone but free than to be enslaved with lies no matter how comfortable they may have once been.”
The rider felt his dragon smile. “Very well, young human. There is hope for you. Maybe we’ll make a real warrior of you yet.”
“No! Please don’t. Stop. I’ll go for you if you let Kurou live.” Ami screamed.
Yasu lowered his sword and looked up at her with a grin. “That’s more like it. Do you swear?” he asked with a low growl.
Ami nodded as the tears ran down her cheeks.
“That’s not a good answer,” Yasu roared as he raised his sword and pulled Kurou’s head for the final blow.
“Yes! Yes, I swear. I swear on the life of my unborn children. I’ll go to your field of swords and fetch this Reaper’s Toll you are talking about. I swear it. Just let Kurou go.” Ami sobbed.
Yasu grinned wickedly as he lowered his sword. Then he gave Kurou a hard shove to the ground.
Kurou groaned and rolled over to look at Yasu. “No! You must not do this. He already had the Scarlet Terzite. If you give him the sword, he will be unstoppable.”
Ami shook her head and wiped the tears from her face as she shakily to her feet. “He is already unstoppable, Kurou. He defeated all five of us without it. The others are dead or dying. I just want us to live.”
Kurou groaned and refused to look at her.
“I will not look at your face ever again if you do this.”
“I don’t care if you don’t look at me, Kurou. Just knowing that you are still alive will be enough for me. The hope that someday you will look upon me again will be enough.”
“I will never look at you again,” Kurou spat in her direction, and then moaned in pain at the movement. Then he tried to push himself up.
Yasu kicked Kurou in the ribs. Hard. Ami heard ribs crack.
“Please stop it,” she sobbed. “I already said I would fetch your stupid sword. Now, leave him alone.”
Yasu smiled as he kicked Kurou again. “I don’t trust your kind,” he growled. “If I let him up, he’ll do something that would make me want to kill him. I need him alive for you to do what I want. So, it’s best he stay down.”
The large, burly man spat at Kurou who lay groaning at his feet. “Now, go fetch me my sword you snotty, little brat.”
Ami looked up at him pleadingly, “But where is it? How do you want me to get it if you don’t tell me where it is?”
Yasu snorted, “Seriously? You expect me to believe that line. You and your friends attacked me to try and steal the Scarlet Terzite. It’s obvious you wanted it to get to the Field of Swords. Why else would you have come after me like that?”
He reached down and grabbed Kurou by the back of his coat and tossed him over his shoulder.
“Walk in front of me down this way,” he grunted while pointing down the shadowy tunnel.
Ami walked slowly shuffling her feet more than she had to just to buy some extra time.
“What about my friends back there?” she asked.
“What about them? They’re dead. You can come back and bury them after you get me my sword.”
Amy asked him a few other questions, but he didn’t answer. Yasu told her to shut up and keep walking. He paused from time to time when they came to branching tunnels as if trying to remember which way to go.
Finally, he stopped and motioned for her to step inside. She walked into a massive cavern full of exquisite stalactites and stalagmites that had formed over hundreds and thousands of years.
They came to the other side of the cavern and Yasu motioned her through a smaller tunnel that led to another smaller cavern.
A soft blue glow filled the room. It was beautiful. It emanated from a round circle in the middle of the cavern.
“What is that?” she asked.
Yasu guffawed in scorn, “Seriously, you’re still gonna play dumb and act like you don’t know what that is?”
Ami shrugged and looked at him blankly waiting patiently for his reply.
“C’mon! That’s the portal to Sechya.”
“Sechya?” Ami exclaimed. “But that is over a thousand miles away. What’s in Sechya?”
Ami’s sobbing had ceased. She seemed enthralled with the sight of the portal before her.
Yasu scoffed. “That’s where my sword is, and it is far. That’s why you need the portal.”
“But I was told portals like this were dangerous,” Ami exclaimed. “In the stories, my grandmother told me as a child there is always a trap.”
“Of course, to keep others out. Your people built this and set traps to kill my kind.”
“So, what traps are here and how do we get through it?” she asked.
“Not we! You. I’ll stay here with your friend while you fetch me the sword. And don’t even think of trying anything funny. I’ll slit your friend’s throat without thinking twice.”
Ami sniffed and wiped her eyes. “Just tell me what it looks like and how to find it. Quickly, so I can come back and help him before he bleeds out.”
Yasu kept his eyes fixed on her as he pulled a piece of folded paper out of his pocket. He held it by the corner and shook it out so that it unfolded. It was old and brown and tattered and worn.
“Wow!” Ami exclaimed as she stared at Yasu’s crude drawing of a sword. “It looks like you drew that a long time ago. Huh? How long have you been looking for this thing.”
A low growl erupted from Yasu’s throat, “Far too long. Far too long. I spent my life searching for this weapon.”
“Why?” Ami asked.
The grotesque orc stared at her a long moment before answering, “Once I have it, I will exact vengeance upon my enemies. And I will drive them away from this mountain so my people can once more live in peace from those who have enslaved us to dig out the treasures the mountain hides. Then the treasure will be ours once more.”
Ami sensed the passion emanating from him as he spoke.
“So, what does this sword do?” she asked. “Why is it so important to you? And how will it help you?”
She looked back at the portal and squinted. It seemed like she could make out the faint outline of a sword on the other side of the glowing blue light.
“It’s the sharpest blade ever forged here in these mountains. Some say it is so sharp that it could cut through the hardest rock like goat butter in the summer sun. Once I possess it, I will slice through my enemy’s ranks as none of their weapons will be able to withstand me. With the Scarlet Terzite in one hand to protect me, and the Reaper’s Toll in the other, I shall be undefeated and vanquish my enemies.”
Yasu’s low growl increased to a roar so that by the end he was shouting the words at her as his arms flailed wildly. Ami had to wipe bits of slobber from her face with her sleeves.
“Okay, okay. I get it. So, how do I get through the portal then if there are traps? I can’t even see what is on the other side.”
Yasu grinned and pulled out the Scarlet Terzite. He stepped closer to the portal. The blue glow cleared so that they could see through to the other side. Ami could see a field full of swords all stuck into the ground.
“So, that’s why they call it the field of swords,” she muttered. “How did they get there?”
“They were taken there when great warriors died. It’s a safe haven for them where they are protected from the elements until such a time as one worthy to wield them was found. Or at least that’s what the legends say. They say that the Reaper’s Toll was…”
“C’mon, I don’t have all day or Kurou is going to bleed out,” Ami interrupted him. “Let me go get the sword and then you can tell me all about it.”
Yasu cocked his head to the side and looked at her with a pleased look. “Yes, good. Go!” he commanded.
“But what about traps,” Ami asked. “What if I die going through. Then how will you get the sword.”
The orc grunted and frowned as if he hadn’t considered the possibility. “But your kind can go through there. Only I cannot. It is a trap for me.”
Ami shrugged. “Maybe, but there may be something else that triggers it too.”
Yasu smacked his face with his hands and sighed in exasperation. He walked around in a small circle and motioned her through. “Just go. I’ll take my chances. If you die, I will find someone else of your kind.”
“But you won’t have any leverage over them like you have with me and Kurou.”
“Argh!” Yaso roared. “So, what’s your plan woman. What do you suggest?”
Ami shrugged. “We should at least throw somebody through to make sure that portal won’t burn me up like it would you.”
“Haha! Very smart woman. You want me to throw your friend through first and then you will jump through and run away. I am not that stupid.”
“No, I wasn’t thinking of him. I was thinking of the body of my friend that you killed back there. You can throw her through just to make sure nothing will happen to me because I sure don’t want to die going through this portal today.
“Hmmmm…” Yasu growled. “I suppose you are right. I don’t want to have you die. Then who would get my sword for me.”
The bald-headed orc growled and ran his large rough hand over his grisly gray bread as he pondered his options for a moment.
“C’mon! Let’s go fetch the other body,” he finally said.
He threw Kurou over his shoulder and walked back through the tunnels the way they had come. When they arrived back where the fight had started, he pointed at one of the bodies on the ground.
“What?” Ami said. “You’re the big, strong orc. You can carry them both.”
“I’m not doing all the work here,” Yaso growled.
“Well, fine! But the other guy over there is smaller and lighter.”
Yaso set Kurou down and helped Ami heave his body over her shoulder. She staggered and stumbled under his weight as they walked back down the corridor. They had to stop a few times for her to set him down and catch her breath. Yaso had to set Kurou down and help her each time.
They finally made it back to the portal. It had closed again and turned blue. Ami heaved the weight she was carrying to the ground and placed her hands on her knees to catch her breath.
“Let’s go! We don’t have all day. I want my sword.” Yaso complained.
Ami pointed at the portal, “Well, first you have to open it though. Right?”
Yaso snarled at her and looked like he was about to say something but didn’t. He pulled the Scarlet Terzite from his pocket and held it in front of the portal until it cleared. He nodded for her to continue.
Ami picked up her friend’s arm and held it by the sleeve as she tried to push it through.
“It’s not going through,” she huffed. “Maybe he has to go through with the Scarlet Terzite.”
The orc snorted and his nostrils flared. “I’m not giving you the Scarlet Terzite, woman.”
“Well, do you want me to get through this portal or not?” she asked. “You’ve never actually used it before, have you?”
He slapped his thick orc hands to his face and roared as he turned away for a moment. Finally, he turned back and handed it to her.
“Fine, take it. But remember what I’ll do to your friend here if you try anything foolish.”
Ami took the red crystal pendant and placed it in her friend’s hand before pushing it through the portal.
“Be careful,” Yaso yelped. “If it falls out on the other side, we may be stuck her without being able to fetch it.”
Ami looked at him with a scowl but then paused for a second to wrap the chain around her friend’s hand so she could pull his arm back through when needed. Then she pushed his arm right on through the portal.
The orc breathed a giant sigh of relief behind her. He was so close that the sound and feel of his warm breath down her neck startled her so that she almost fell through herself. She jumped back, pulling her friend’s arm and the Scarlet Terzite back with her.
“What are you waiting for? Go on!” Yaso berated her.
“Calm down, orc. It’s my life on the line. I want to make sure there aren’t any of those traps that are going to go off after we get him all the way through. Help me turn him around so we can push his whole body through.”
The orc shook his head, “Not me. I’ve seen what it does to other orcs that get too close to this thing. Other orcs have tried before me. I’ve seen it. It was built to keep us orcs from going through to the other side.”
“So, how did you know that the Scarlet Terzite would get me through,” Ami asked.
Yaso shrugged, “My friend and I overheard two of your kind talking. They said the Scarlet Terzite would open the portal to the Field of a Thousand Swords. So, we took it from them. My friend tried to go through the portal. And it turned him into a pile of mush and goop.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Ami said after a quiet pause. “Let’s push his feet through first.”
“Don’t let the Scarlet Terzite go through,” the orc rumbled in his all-too-familiar growl as he turned her friend around. The orc gave her friend a slight shove through the portal so he was about halfway through.
Ami lifted his upper body up and pushed him the rest of the way through while holding onto his arm. She let his limp body flop through to the other side of the portal and pulled the Scarlet Terzite off his hand at the last second.
“It works,” she shouted with a glance back at the orc.
He waved her forward and she took a step through. The shimmer around the portal had disappeared and the air was completely clear as if the very fabric that separated the two locations no longer existed.
Ami held up her face to the warm sun that she was now standing under and paused with her arms lifted up over her head.
“Hey! Get the sword,” she heard the orc yelling at her.
She turned and grinned at him. “Hang on to your horses there you impatient imp! Do you know how long I’ve been down in that cave and since I’ve felt the rays of the sun warming my body?”
Ami saw his face fill with rage and he flinched as if he were going to leap through the portal at her. She just grinned and looked back at the field around her.
It was full of pink and white flowers. Dozens of swords stuck up out of the ground around them with their sheaths beside them.
She pulled a sword out of the ground and waved it in the air around with masterful skill. She picked up its sheath and slid the sword into it. Then placed it on her side.
Ami turned and smiled at the orc. “Come get your sword, Yaso. I have no idea which one it is, but I think I’m going to keep this one.”
“What?” the orc shouted in a thunderous roar. “I’m going to chop off your friend’s head.”
He slid his sword from its sheath and reached down to grab Kurou’s head in a threatening gesture.
Ami just smiled and shrugged her shoulders as she placed the Scarlet Terzite around her neck.
“Go ahead. You can’t get to me. I’m safe. Do what you want to with him because I didn’t care for him much in the first place.”
The look of shock on the orc’s face at realizing he had been had was classic. He screamed and threw his sword at her. Ami easily dodged it and just kept laughing.
“C’mon, Hibiki!” she said kicking at the body of her friend. “You can get up now. No, need to keep acting.”
Hibiki opened his eyes and smiled at her. “Whew! That was close. I almost threw up when that stinky orc got close to me to help you pick me up.”
He reached a hand up and Ami helped pull him to his feet. “You always were a good actor.”
They glanced over at the orc who had a befuddled look on his face as he tried to process what was going on.
“What?!” Kurou yelled. “You’re going to leave me here to die.”
Ami shrugged. “Sorry, Kurou. That crazy orc would kill us all anyway if we gave him what we wanted. This is what we came for. Right? Our task was to get the Scarlet Terzite and come through the portal. I saw that Hibiki wasn’t really dead like the others. He had only passed out. I just had to improvise after Yaso bested you to get us over here.”
Yaso took a step forward and growled at them, “Careful, woman. You swore an oath on the life of your unborn children that you would get me that sword. Your word is your honor.”
Ami smiled wistfully, “Truth is, that I can’t have kids, Yaso. My doctor told my parents that years ago. So, that’s not something I’ll have to worry about. Is it?”
Yaso let off a string of thunderous curse words in his language that Ami had no idea what he was saying, although she imagined they were probably pretty foul as he took another step forward.
“Careful, Yaso!” the woman cautioned. “You don’t want to turn into a pile of goop and slime like your friend. Do you?”
He held up his hand and pushed it forward slowly. It came through the edge of the portal without anything happening to him. Ami and Hibiki took a nervous step back.
“It seems the portal is wide open. I think you forgot to close it behind you, little lady.” the orc said with a smirk. “When you called me an imp, I almost went into a rage and close enough to sense that the portal’s protection was no longer blocking me.”
Ami pressed closer to Hibiki and whispered for him to grab a sword while she covered him. She began to slide her sword out of its sheath. Hibiki lunged for the nearest sword sticking up out of the ground. But the orc was still faster.
He closed the gap between them and grabbed the hilt of her sword with one hand and slapped her to the side with the other.
The orc spun around and lashed out the tip of Ami’s sword clean through Hibiki’s wrist whose hand fell off still holding the sword he had tried to grab.
Hibiki fell to his knees screaming and clutching his wounded arm with his good hand.
Yaso walked over to the woman who lay sprawled on the ground where she had landed. “What was it that you said about improvising?” he smirked as he circled her.
He waited in front of her as she pulled herself to her knees. Ami had landed on top of a sword and pulled it up behind her back. Hoping that the orc wouldn’t see the tip until she had a chance to use it. Waiting for him to come closer.
Yaso didn’t disappoint. He got right up close in her face. Grinning with that taunting smile.
“Thank you for opening the portal, Ami. Now, I can find my sword myself. This turned out much better than I expected. In fact, I think I see it sticking up right over there.”
As he turned to point to the side, Ami swung her sword out from behind her back and shoved the weapon up into his chest as hard as she could.
He looked down at her in shock. “You don’t cease to amaze me, human. For a female of your kind, you are very resilient and so full of surprises. Too bad you are not one of us. I would take you for my wife. There would never be a dull moment with you around.”
Ami waited for him to step back or fall forward. But when he smiled, she looked down at the sword she had shoved at his chest. She pulled it back. Then sighed in frustration when she realized that the blade had broken.
The orc pushed his fingers through the hole the sword had made in his shirt, exposing the hard leather and chainmail protection he was wearing. He continued holding on to Ami with the other hand.
A glimmer of sunlight flickered in Ami’s eyes and bright flash accompanied by a swishing sound of sweeping sword before it connected with the orc’s thick arm. The orc screamed and let go of Ami immediately.
She fell back to the ground and saw Hibiki looking just as a shocked as the orc did.
“A hand for a hand, and a wrist for a wrist, you orc scum,” Hibiki shouted in gleeful anguish. “No protection there. Huh?”
The orc’s arms were thick and strong, and Hibiki only had one arm to swing the sword with. So, it hadn’t cut clean through the orc flesh and bone but gotten stuck about half way through.
The orc grabbed the handle of the sword with his good hand and roared as he pulled it loose.
“Your kind should know better than to mess with someone like me. You’re weak and pathetic. That’s why I didn’t kill you in the beginning but let you live. I should have followed my instincts and cut your heads off right from the start.” he spat at Ami who was scrambling to get away from him on all fours.
Hibiki was limping over to pick up another sword. He turned to face the orc with his sword pointed in its face. But the orc swatted it to the side. His powerful arm were no match for his scrawnier, punier opponent’s.
Even though he only had one, good arm to swing with, he drew his sword back and brought it straight down on Hibiki’s head, cleaving through his skull.
Yaso didn’t even try to pull it free. He left it there and turned to go after Ami before she became a threat. She had found a sword and was turning around, but Yaso didn’t even bother finding another weapon to face her with.
He simply dodged her attack and swatted her arm in the opposite direction. She attempted to recover and swing back in the other direction. But before she could come back around, the orc smashed her across the face.
Ami fell hard. The sword fell beside her. She lifted her head to look for it, but the world swirled around her from the pain of the blow. She felt around for the sword, but by time her fingers found it, the orc had already stomped his giant foot down on it.
Yaso bent over and swatted her hand away. He picked the sword by the handle, then wiped his face with the back of his other hand. He wiped away the sweat, but ended up smearing blood from his wounded arm which only made matters worse.
The orc spat to the side and stared down at Ami with so much hatred that she could almost feel the rage emanating from him.
“I rue ever considering accepting your offer to get the sword in exchange for your friend’s life,” he growled as he flipped the sword in his hand so the blade faced down.
Yaso raised it over her throat for the final blow. Ami raised her arm and turned her face to protect herself.
She heard the sound of metal slicing through flesh. She felt the splatter of warm blood across her face and body. But she felt no pain.
Ami pulled her arm back and looked up to see Yaso with a large blade sticking out of his throat and another through the middle of his chest.
He dropped his sword and reached up to feel the blade coming through his flesh.
The orc continued to look at her in disbelief as he tried to understand what had just happened. He turned around slowly to face Kurou before falling to his knees.
“What? How?” he said as he fingered the sword coming through the breastplate in his chest.
“I guess you were right about the Reaper’s Toll cutting through anything,” Kurou said before bringing a third sword across the orc’s neck. It took three or four hacks for Kurou to chop off.
“Do you think he’s really dead?” Kurou asked as he pulled the Reaper’s Toll from the orc’s chest.
Then Kurou came over and bent over Ami. She smiled at him and sat up trying to hug him.
“Oh, Kurou! I’m so glad you’re safe.” she said with a sob.
“Oh, save it, woman. Your tears don’t fool me anymore.” he said as he pulled the Scarlet Terzite from her neck. “You left me back there for dead.”
He stood up and walked away. Ami scrambled to her feet.
“Wait! Where are you going? I’m coming with you.”
“I’m going to finish my mission. You can go back to whatever hole you crawled out of before I found you.” he growled.
Ami fell to her knees.
“No, please don’t leave me. Stop. I’ll go with you and fight with you!” Ami screamed after him.
Kurou turned and smiled at the irony of her words before stepping back through the portal and closing it behind him.