Ethcings of Power
Ryne sprinted through the woods, tingles running through his body in tiny bursts.
Did Mariel have anything to do with the lapra’s attack as Forian suggested? He wasn’t sure, but if so, he needed to keep her at bay. He couldn’t afford to take an unnecessary risk while trying to save Kahkon. When Sakari located the beast’s lair, the last thing they needed would be her interference.
As he thought about the woman, his bloodlust boiled through his insides once more. The feeling conjured up images he knew too well over the years since he woke. Him, as he slammed the banner displaying the sun with a lightning storm striking in front of it into the ground. Towns and villages razed. The dead stacked in mounds. His Scripts as they roiled about his body more akin to living things than detailed tattoos when they drew on the elements of Mater. How that power had driven him to kill repeatedly to feed its hunger.
“Our power is yours to use,” the vibrant voice edged with darkness urged. “Take it. Abuse it as you will. Revel in the victory our power can bring you.”
No. Ryne slammed his mind shut against the voice. I cannot afford to lose control now. Not when Carnas’s people may be in danger. Not when Kahkon’s life depends on me. Concentrating, Ryne held the urge to kill at bay the way he’d practiced the last twenty years. He forced back the murderous intent by sheer will. A deep breath escaped his lips. Why has my control waned? Why now after all these years?
Ryne cast a glance behind him. Mariel’s form disappeared among the trees. He knew the pattern well by now. If he stopped to pursue her, she would continue to hide, moving more like an Alzari assassin than one of the high priestesses of Ilumni she claimed to be. Why would a Devout venture this far into Ostania? The thought was just one of many troubling him about the woman. He couldn’t remember ever seeing one with such high rank as she without their silver uniform or their full retinue of guards. He considered hiding himself, but at eight feet tall, conventional methods of concealment presented dilemmas. In this case, drawing on the essences within the elements of Mater to mask his presence wasn’t an option.
He took another quick look behind. He’d opened up more distance, but she still followed, as dogged as a hound. Again, he resisted the nagging temptation to go after her. But he couldn’t let her just roam free could he? Not with Kahkon’s safety at stake. Choice and consequence continued to pry at him.
He made up his mind.
“You wish for me to join you to chase her down?” Sakari’s smooth voice broke in, the words more a suggestion than a question.
Ryne’s forehead wrinkled. When did I link with him. “No. I only intend to lead her away,” he answered in a level voice. He used the link with Sakari to gaze through the man’s eyes. Sakari, accompanied by four hunters, worked their way through the forest several miles east of Ryne’s location. “Continue to follow the tracks until they lead you to the beast’s lair and Kahkon.”
“If you hold back, you will not capture her,” Sakari responded, as if he heard nothing Ryne said.
“I said I have no intention of chasing her right now. Besides, if I don’t hold back, I’d have to kill her.” Ryne’s mouth curled with distaste at the thought. He shook his head.
“Not if you allow me to help.”
Ryne’s forehead wrinkled at the sudden urge to ask for his companion’s assistance. Could he trust himself with his earlier loss of control? He hardened his tone, “No, you stay with the others. Find the boy. I promised his mother. He mustn’t end up the same as those corpses we found, and we can’t allow him to disappear like the others. I’ll do what I can about Mariel.” Not wishing to second-guess his decision, he broke the link before Sakari could reply.
When he swept his gaze behind him once more, Mariel was a mere speck. At that moment, the hunter’s horn sounded in a long, undulating bray to announce the others had located their quarry. Swearing, Ryne chased Mariel from his thoughts and dashed off toward the sound.
As Ryne drew near, the ever-present lump in the back of his mind that told of Sakari’s presence grew in size. Feet flew by like inches and miles fled like yards as he followed his connection to Sakari along a path the hunters had hewn through dense undergrowth. The smells from fruits and orchid blooms and the twitter of birds hurtled by with each stride. One with the woods, Ryne avoided any branches and vines the men had missed. Within minutes, he reached the horn’s origin.
An abrupt silence greeted him.
Lenka, gray-haired and wiry, stood with horn in hand behind a large mahogany tree. Its thick branches drooped from the weight of its leaves and the lantum vines snaking among them. The canopy in this part of the Fretian Woods grew in a tighter knit than elsewhere. If one didn’t know the time of day, the murky light could easily be mistaken for dusk instead of late afternoon.
Sakari and the other four hunters, all in scaled leather armor with short swords at their hips, melded with the tree trunks within the area until all were one and the same. Not a sound or motion gave away their positions.
A familiar smell akin to spoiled meat assaulted Ryne’s nostrils. He stared in the direction of the scent and Lenka’s crooked arm and forefinger. The stand of trees the man pointed out was darker still, deep night to the rest of the area’s dusk. Ryne watched and waited as Lenka joined the other five men.
From deep within the knits of vine and sapling leaves, a guttural sound reverberated similar to a man’s death rattle as he choked on his own blood. Except no man makes that sound.
Branches snapped and heavy footfalls thudded as if whatever approached walked on stone instead of the leafy rug that covered the forest floor. Ryne kept his gaze trained, his body tense, and his hand hovering over his sword hilt. The earlier tingle returned, but this time it built into the familiar thrill of his battle energy.
Where the other six men hid appeared as nothing more than shadowed trunks and foliage. The footfalls grew closer until they became thunder in the silent forest. Each step played a rhythmic beat to match Ryne’s own heart.
The sound silenced. Not just the noise from the footfalls, but all nearby sounds.
Leaves rained to the ground as branches whipped back and forth among the saplings directly across from Ryne. The black greenery parted.
Snarls and grunts ensued. Two golden embers for eyes appeared. A wide muzzle and a head bigger than a massive bull followed.
Once again, Ryne observed the unusual amounts of shade that clung to the lapra’s aura. Could it just be the rot?
The lapra stopped before its body became exposed. Shrouded in the darkness, Ryne didn’t need to see the grotesque red and black flesh dripping with decaying meat. From the near suffocating stench that clawed at him, he could picture the beast.
Another face, this one human, appeared not far from the lapra’s. The man’s aura, also tinted by more shade than normal, wavered in patterns Ryne recognized but couldn’t quite place. Paint covered the man’s face, blending with the leaves and shadow.
Ryne’s breath quickened. An Alzari mercenary? Here? Did Mariel already inform the Tribunal of my presence? Have they hired these assassins to hunt me down again?
A cry rang out in Kahkon’s unmistakable high pitch before Ryne could think of answers. Immediately, the lapra’s head and the Alzari’s face retreated among the trees. Sakari gave the signal and the hunters moved, all sprinting toward the stand.
From the corner of his eye, Ryne caught a flash of long golden hair and an unfamiliar feminine form just as it fled behind a trunk. An aura with a peculiar mix of light, shade, and earth essences emanated from the stranger. Who is that?
Heart thudding in his chest, his battle energy crawling across his skin in static charges, Ryne brought his hand down to his greatsword’s hilt and eased from his hiding place. But there was no sign of the stranger or her golden tresses. Her aura had also vanished.
Crashes and shouts abounded as the hunters from Carnas engaged the lapra and its master. The creature’s roars joined the men’s voices. A yell cut off with an abrupt cry. Howls changed to snarling whines. The lapra’s thunderous rumbles continued to echo.
Ryne raced to his friends, his brow drawn together in a lumpy frown. How could an aura he identified disappear as if it never existed?
The lapra’s roars continued, occasionally interrupted by a whine or a snarl. The clang of metal meeting metal also rose.
Ryne passed through the shadowy trees into an unexpected sight. Carnas’ five hunters had the grotesque ten-foot beast surrounded. From varied directions, they thrust, sliced, and feinted. Multiple wounds littered the lapra’s moldy fur. Its head dipped from side to side as it attempted to defend all attack points. Skin sloughed in places, and its blood dripped viscous and black.
But that was not what surprised Ryne. The shock was in seeing Sakari battle not one but two dual-dagger wielding Alzari.
Clad in dark leather matching the color of the forest, their faces covered in war paint, they circled Sakari. As one, the assassins attacked him from opposite flanks, darting in faster than any other of their clan Ryne had ever faced.
The three men twisted and turned. Their steps synchronized as if they danced to a tune only they could hear.
Sakari was ever on the defensive, dodging and parrying stroke after stroke. His face remained impassive even when the Alzari’s black blades scoured his armor and licked at his flesh. Bright red trickles decorated his armor from his many cuts.
With a snarl, Ryne joined the fray, his battle energy surging to a torrent.
The closest Alzari twisted away to meet Ryne’s attack. Silversteel swished through empty air where the assassin once stood.
Unlike his partner, Ryne’s opponent dodged his strikes instead of making any attempt to parry. Ryne attacked with the basics as he tested the man’s defenses. The Alzari ducked, dodged, leaped, and spun, his movements an elusive glide.
Sweat marred the assassin’s painted face. His eyes narrowed as Ryne’s attack paused. In that lull, the Alzari struck.
His daggers spun in his palms. A complicated pattern of slices followed. The attack flew up, down, left, right, into circular motions then to feints and lunges.
Ryne recognized the Style at once—Amuni’s Hand, the God’s Way—but the assassin’s speed was so surprising he couldn’t dodge every strike as the leafy carpet under his feet caused him to move slower than he would have preferred. Nor could he raise his greatsword in time to parry despite its feathery weight. His armor parted with a soft hiss at the shoulder and chest followed by his own pained grunt. A burning sensation followed as did a trickle of warm blood. Ryne frowned. No normal steel could cut through his leathers. The Alzari’s weapons were imbued. Where could these men have found divya?
Ryne’s Scripts roiled across his body and armor. The voices surged into his head. They begged him to release his bloodlust, but he gritted his teeth against the feeling.
With Ryne’s recognition of the Styles came understanding. He considered each Stance the man would use before attacking with a Style. After parrying a few blows, Ryne adjusted to compensate for speed, a smile playing across his face. The Alzari’s brow puckered in concentration as he continued his onslaught.
Ryne faced Earthtouch—the Alzari shifting his feet, daggers pointed down, then bending slightly forward to dig deeper and connect with the Forms of the earth—with Voidwalk. In the Stance, Ryne became many times lighter, like a wisp upon the wind. Not even the dry leaves below him showed any effect from his great size. Ryne waited, relying on his Stance’s weightless air essences to counter whatever Styles the Alzari attempted when he attacked with the strength of earth essences behind his blows.
As if part of the rock and soil, the assassin sank knee deep into the earth and flew forward, leaves and dirt spurting into the air with the path he made. His blades sliced at Ryne’s lower extremities before they rose up, and the man soared from the hole he’d created. Ryne sprung backward in a massive leap, floating on currents of air to avoid the strikes. Face drowned in sweat, the assassin’s feet touched the ground, feather soft, before he rushed forward, his breathing labored as he strived to reach Ryne.
A sense of calm passed over Ryne. He already knew the man’s next attack. Almost every enemy he ever faced overestimated his size and strength and underestimated his speed and agility. This assassin was no different.
As the Alzari swept forward and up, his blades stabbing one above the other in a Style called Climbing the Mountain, Ryne leaned back into Bending with the Wind—his body folding back on itself with effortless grace until the back of his head almost touched his thighs. Ryne kept his sword held out from his chest as his body curved away, the assassin’s daggers striking nothing but air where Ryne’s stomach had been. In the same motion, Ryne pulled himself straight, knocked the blades to one side, drew his hand back, and stabbed.
He used the momentum from his lean to whip forward with Lightstrike—a direct lunge.
The Alzari managed a grunt when Ryne’s greatsword tore through leather, cloth, flesh and scraped past bone as it exploded from the assassin’s back with a shower of blood and viscera.
Ryne drew his sword back and flicked it to one side to rid it of the blood. He spun, ready to help Sakari, but the fighting was already over.
A few feet away lay the other Alzari, his daggers still gripped in his lifeless hands. His only wounds were two precise slices, one across his stomach and the other across his neck. Blood pooled below his body, leaving the grass and fallen leaves slick.
Several cuts in Sakari’s armor revealed his tan skin. He gave Ryne a reassuring nod.
Sightless eyes staring into the sky, the dead lapra lay between the hunters. Deep rents marred its fur in several places, and even dead, the monstrous body, black with blood, appeared too big for the beast’s six skinny legs. Putrid fluid leaked, the stench overpowering the smell from the rotten flesh.
Denton, the youngest of the five hunters who had left from Carnas, nursed claw wounds to his chests and arms. His torso heaved and his pale cheeks labored with each ragged breath. Lenka limped severely, his armor ripped from waist to knee. Torn muscle exposed white bone through the holes where blood trailed down and painted his leather red. The other hunters bore no injuries.
“Since when could Alzari tame these things?” Dren nodded toward the giant lapra’s corpse.
“Since when the beasts be leaving the Rot be a better question,” Keevo added. The grizzle-faced man kicked at the lapra’s mutilated leg.
Dren’s square jaw tightened as he regarded the Alzari assassin then Ryne. He nodded toward the corpse. “I thought the Tribunal had given up on you.”
“So did I.” Ryne shrugged. His chest and arm throbbed.
Dren continued, “Now, we find two Alzari mercenaries here. With the bodies we’ve found the last few weeks, this makes for a strange coincidence. But I guess now we know who killed those men in the kinai orchards.”
“Alzari weren’t responsible for those deaths,” Ryne said.
“Really?” Dren bent to take a closer look at the Alzari’s corpse. “How’re you so sure?” He poked at the war paint on the assassin’s face before he straightened.
“They always leave a ritual dagger as proof of their work. Plus, no weapon of theirs could have made the wounds on those men.” Ryne’s gaze shifted to the infected lapra. He stroked the scars on his face as he eyed the elongated claws and teeth. No lapra could leave the gashes on those bodies either. He decided to keep that to himself.
“Do you really believe this beast could’ve killed them?” Keevo’s scarred face puckered with doubt. “It was so infected with rot, it moved like mud. Amuni’s balls, the tamer ones on the plains could have taken this.” He spat at the remains.
“If the Alzari accompanied it, then maybe,” Ryne said. “Alone, I’m not sure. But who knows what can happen when you underestimate what you face.” He cast a sidelong glance toward the wounded men.
“Malka.” Ryne gestured toward the man.
Malka turned to regard Ryne. His nose and eyes peeked out from the brown bush that covered his face.
“Gather some kinai and help Sakari tend to the others.” Ryne nodded to the sweet, red fruit growing in thick clusters within the stand. “Keevo and Dren, check for signs of the boy. Shout if you see a woman with golden hair or that so called Devout, Mariel.” The men nodded and hurried off to do as he bid.
As Ryne surveyed the clearing, he removed the paste the sisters had given him and applied some to his wounds. The mixture had a sweet smell, but it stung enough to make him wince. Droppings from the lapra indicated the creature had used this particular area for some time. Bits of bone and carrion from the beast’s previous feasts littered the ground. Besides their footprints and the Alzari’s, there were no other human tracks. Ryne’s brow furrowed. If the creature dragged Kahkon here, why not kill the boy once it reached its lair? For that matter, why didn’t the assassins finish the job? He still pondered the question when Keevo and Dren returned.
“There be a blood trail and the animal’s tracks from the direction you came.” Keevo pointed south to an area with disturbed undergrowth. He shook his head, clearly baffled. “Why not return to the Rot or go farther north toward Alzari territory?”
“I think something worse must have forced the lapra out here. The assassins were trying to fight back.” Ryne lifted his chin toward broken branches and brush dragged across the stand’s easternmost side. “There’s wards carved into those tree trunks to hide a path there. I’ve only ever seen those symbols used by the Alzari clans when protecting their territory. Whatever it was, they didn’t want it to follow, and the lapra was too afraid to return to its home.”
“Burning shades,” Keevo hissed. “Do you think it could be Amuni’s Children—”
“No,” Ryne snapped.”Things are worrisome enough without you dredging them up. There’s enough fear in Carnas already. Besides, none of the wards I placed in the Rotted Forest have been disturbed. Even the Children aren’t strong enough to bypass those.”
“If not them, then what else?” Keevo’s face relaxed visibly, but he still glanced out toward the blockage to the east.
“I don’t know yet, but it’s best not to start any rumors. Extra scouts will need to be posted when we return,” Ryne said.
Footsteps behind them announced Sakari’s arrival with the other men in tow. The wounded hunters both chewed on kinai. Paste from the fruit dyed their bandages a brighter red, but the mixture appeared to be doing its work. Denton no longer gasped, although he did wince with each breath, and his color appeared close to its normal tan. Lenka, his leg now wrapped in bandages, moved with a less pronounced limp. For Ryne, his cuts had subsided to a dull ache.
“What about this person with golden hair?” Dren asked.
“None of you saw her?” Ryne asked in disbelief.
The hunters gave him blank looks.
“I did,” Sakari said. He tilted his head to the hunters. His green pupils expanded ever so slightly while the silver flecks crowding his eyeballs flickered.
The men looked away from Sakari’s stare. Ryne wasn’t surprised by his companion’s answer, but the villagers’ response troubled him. They were all experienced hunters. It would take a person with considerable skill to avoid detection from every one of them.
“Master Waldron, no offense, but you sure it wasn’t Mariel again? Maybe the light in the woods played tricks with her hair.” Lenka peered out into the woods.
“Or maybe an Alzari woman?” Dren added.
“No,” Ryne said, “this person is taller than Mariel with a more muscled build. And an Alzari with golden hair? Listen, you five head home. Lenka and especially Denton need to be seen by the menders. Me and Sakari will find Kahkon.”
The men protested, but Ryne shushed them with a wave. They gave in with curt nods.
After a few moments of preparation, they parted ways. Malka and Dren assisted the two wounded while Keevo scouted ahead. Ryne watched the men leave before he and Sakari headed south to follow Kahkon’s bloody trail.
“Why not send one of them to help Lenka and Denton and have the other two come with us?”
“Whoever was in the forest,” Ryne said, “She managed to elude their tracking ability. And she escaped me even after I read her aura. In the seventy years since I’ve woken, that’s never happened. One moment she was there, and the next she didn’t exist. My ability to see auras is unique among my people, how could someone—.” Ryne’s mouth dropped open at his last sentence.
Never before had I thought of any skill in reference to my people. Who are my people?
“Has a memory surfaced?” Sakari cocked his head sideways.
Ryne attempted to connect his words with an image of his people, but as usual his efforts were met by a thick fog. He pushed deep into the white mist clouding his mind until he encountered a red wall. There, he stopped. He wanted to will himself to go further, but his brief trips past the wall rose fresh in his mind. The excruciating pain and dread he experienced when he became lost within its glare became palpable. The faces of slaughtered innocents and him poised over them with his sword in hand swirled about him. Sakari’s touch had rescued him from insanity back then. He couldn’t afford such again, not now, maybe not ever. Ryne withdrew, his eyes focusing on Sakari.
“No, there were no memories, just a stray thought,” Ryne answered. “As for the stranger I saw, Keevo and the others would be no help if she proves to be an enemy.”
“Sometimes a distraction is needed to complete a task.”
Ryne scowled. “I won’t put them at any more risk than I already have. A person who can avoid my power? That’s unheard of. We need to move with care. My presence has already cost Carnas and its people too much. They’re as much a part of me as you are. I will not see them harmed.”
Sakari’s head dipped briefly. “As you wish.”
They continued their search in silence with Sakari gliding ahead. Occasionally, they discovered torn strips of cloth left along the wayside as the tracks changed course.
Ryne resisted the temptation to open his senses and gain a better awareness of what lay ahead. Luring another lapra or worse would only serve to hinder the boy’s chances at survival. Dear Ilumni, I beg of you, keep the boy safe. Dizziness swept through Ryne. His jaw grinding with the effort, he fought the feeling off and concentrated on their search.
Almost a mile farther, they found Kahkon. The boy lay curled between two large tree roots. His right leg was a jagged stump and his shirt no more than tattered cloth covered in dry blood. Hair that should have been a healthy dark color now contained several white streaks.
Ryne rushed to the boy’s side, resisting the urge to cry out. He removed the pouch of kinai paste and passed it to Sakari. “Here, the sisters had Taeria prepare this before I left Carnas. It should be potent enough to help.”
Sakari took the pouch and inspected the contents as Ryne bent and eased Kahkon over onto his back. Ryne sucked in a gasp at what he saw. A gash ran down the left side of Kahkon’s chest all the way to his stomach. How the boy had lived, much less dragged himself this far was beyond Ryne. Rage and grief warred within Ryne at the sight.
Kahkon’s chest heaved, each breath a gurgle, and his brown skin was a pale shadow of itself. His eyes snapped open and stared sightlessly before they focused for a moment then widened with terror.
“Ma…Master W…Waldron h-help me,” Kahkon said in a hoarse whisper. “Sh-shade”
The boy’s words, combined with the itch that often nagged at his mind whenever someone watched him, brought uneasiness creeping down Ryne’s back. A decayed odor wafted through the air as he took in his surroundings. It was the same stench as at Miss Corten’s but multiplied tenfold. His gaze immediately picked out an aura of shade among a nearby copse. It took him a moment to realize the aura emanated from the trees themselves. The branches and leaves were as black as a moonless night.
“Take care of him,” Ryne ordered Sakari as he lay Kahkon’s head down and stood.
Ryne eased his way through the undergrowth, his hand on his sword. The brush ended well short of the copse of rosewood and teak. Tangled vines, roots, leaves, and creepers spread across the forest floor in an advanced state of decomposition. He squelched through the decay, the brown of his boots becoming black.
Careful not to touch the trunks, he slipped through an open space between the trees. The putrid smell of decay and moldy fur as if he stood inside a mismanaged dog kennel grew to choking proportions. As he entered, a lapra howled from Sakari’s direction. Ryne turned to go back when the sight of what lay in the middle of the area caught his eye. His hands coiled into fists.
The eight missing villagers, their bodies black and purple, lay among festering roots and rotten kinai fruit. Fleshy tendrils connected them all together in a mass that vibrated with a beating heart’s rhythm. The men and women’s chests rose and fell slowly.
Beside them were four beasts joined in the same fashion.
The creatures appeared to have been lapras at one time, but their snouts were now more elongated like a wolf’s. Their mouths lolled, revealing rows of sharp teeth. The middle legs were almost fully withdrawn into their torsos. They were each at least seven feet in length. Muscles rippled beneath ebony skin and fur.
Memories of similar creatures before and during the War of Remnants surfaced within Ryne. Wraithwolves? He frowned even as the thought brought a chill crawling along his back. Is someone or something attempting to create the beasts? But that’s supposed to be impossible in this realm. They must be what’s left of the host from the war. If so, how did they cross the Rotted Forest without triggering my wards?
Ryne sucked in a breath at the auras around the shadelings. They were the same as the one he saw around the Alzari. He remembered where he saw them before.
The realization led to several conclusions. These particular Alzari must have given themselves to the shade. They had to be protecting these shadelings for Amuni’s Children not fleeing as he first thought. Which meant the Children had indeed breached his wards, crossed the Rot from the lands beyond, and were somewhere within Ostania.
Ryne drew his sword.
“Use our power,” hissed the deep voice. “It’s the only way to be sure.”
The other, opposing sentience remained silent.
Ryne’s Scripts thrummed to life, and Mater surged through him. His bloodlust triggered, and he didn’t subdue the feeling.