Etchings of Power
Irmina hunkered down among the branches and leaves, staring slack-jawed. Below her, the fight between the giant’s bodyguard and the lapras raged. These particular ones were normal in size, only about three feet across. They’d attacked as soon as the giant disappeared among the strange black trees.
Silvereyes danced among the lapras, always keeping himself between the closest one and Kahkon. The man’s movements were a blur of inhuman speed.
At first, the creatures had tried to dart in and snatch at the boys legs, but once they realized those efforts were futile, they resorted to attacking the Ostanian. Jaws dripping, lapras snapped and snarled as they pounced, their dark fur made darker by the waning light. Each one that sprang in fell to the ground. Wounded animals struggled to their feet to limp back among the trees. Yet, the creatures continued to pour from the forest’s dark recesses.
The bodyguard moved like a snake, his arm flickering as if he and his sword were one. Not once did he harm any beast more than to maim it with a precise slice to render it harmless. Numerous wounds scoured his armor from slashing claws and snapping teeth, tallying up with the other older scratches and nicks to leave his leathers a bloody mess. But not one lapra passed him. If she was not seeing it with her own eyes, Irmina wouldn’t have believed one person could hold off this many beasts.
With the back of her hand, Irmina flicked the salty sting of sweat from her eyes. Frowning, she stared from the wetness on her hand to Silvereyes. Where she was covered in perspiration from the day’s heat, no such sheen reflected from his face. The man didn’t appear fatigued, much less bothered by his injuries. Who or better yet, what was he?
Irmina winced each time his sword met flesh and at the yelps and plaintive cries that followed. She hadn’t meant for this to happen. When she tamed the leader of one of the lapra packs, she’d only intended on keeping the giant man off her. Somehow, the animal had broken from her control while calling to other packs and everything went terribly wrong. She’d tried in vain to touch the beast’s mind again, but it was as if a dark cloud hung within the creature’s head, preventing her from making any connection. Her efforts were met with the same intense resistance as when she attempted to force the infected lapra off Kahkon.
The only other time she failed to tame a beast was when she attempted to control Charra. The daggerpaw’s mind was a vise she couldn’t touch much less pry open. Thinking about Charra made thoughts of Ancel bloom fresh in her mind. She suppressed the memories and the longing they brought and focused on the events below.
Gradually, the beasts’ attacks lessened until they stalked around the boy and Silvereyes in a wide circle. The bodyguard’s armor, dark with his and lapra blood, hung in tatters in some places, but he still appeared unaffected by his wounds. Not even his chest rose and fell with the heavy breaths of exertion. He cocked his head to one side as if listening.
Hair rose at the back of Irmina’s neck, her shoulders tensed, and a prickle eased up her spine.
Silvereyes whirled to face the copse of trees into which the giant had disappeared.
Blistering waves like an open furnace struck Irmina. The blast of scalding air snapped her head around and forced her to hold her face away from the heated backwash. Snatching frantically at a branch, she just managed to prevent herself from falling headfirst.
A bellow echoed in a voice to challenge thunder.
When she was finally able to face the copse, Irmina stared, her jaw unhinged. Flames licked out from amongst the blackened woods. Branches snapping, the great trees yawed, then toppled to the ground. Luminescence as blinding as the noonday sun forced her to snap her eyes shut. Bright spots still dancing before her eyes, she pried her eyes open to gaze at what was left of the stand and gasped.
Distorted by heated waves, a giant form stood swathed in white light and surrounded by fire.
A voice cried out.
Irmina’s head whipped around toward the sound.
Silvereyes swayed before he dropped to one knee, his hands gripping his head as violent throes wracked his body. He fell face first, his head at an angle where she could still see his eyes.
A mind touched hers—a mind with a similar feel as when she communed with beasts. She locked gazes with Silvereyes.
For the first time, she saw his eyes in detail. Silver flecks dominated where there should have been white, and his irises glowed green. As she watched, they changed, becoming deep pools of obsidian like ink dropped on a pristine, white canvas. A feeling as if she would drown in their depths sucked at her. She thought she saw the man’s lips twitch before he crawled onto his knees.
Breaths coming hard and fast, her chest heaving, she clawed her gaze away and forced back the touch probing her mind. She noticed then the lapras had scattered to parts unknown and what little remained of the black cluster of trees.
From what was now a clearing within the woods, strode the giant, fires petering out behind him. When he reached his bodyguard, he hauled him to his feet. A few words passed between them.
Something about the smaller man seemed off, but she couldn’t quite place it. Sifting through jumbled thoughts, she scoured the recollection of the fight before she sucked in her breath, her hand covering her mouth.
Silvereyes’ armor was not only whole and seamless once more, but he no longer bore so much as a scratch.
Irmina shimmied down the trunk as fast as she could and sneaked away to put more distance between her and them as the men set about cutting down a few branches. When she felt more secure, she stopped to watch.
They’d constructed a litter. The giant picked up Kahkon, laid him gingerly on its surface, then stepped away. The bodyguard took his place. He rubbed something over the boy’s wounds causing the youth to shudder.
Irmina continued to follow their movements while they worked on the boy. Time passed and clouds scudded across the heavens as the deep oranges and purples of the twilight sky dwindled to a slate blanket. Seemingly finished, the two men waited a few moments, peering into the undergrowth at the sounds of rustles and crashing branches. A lamp sparked to life in Ryne’s hand. After a final look in her direction, they picked up Kahkon and made their way through the forest.
Ryne kept an eye on Kahkon. With each of the boy’s whimpers and ragged breaths, Ryne’s fist clenched tighter where he held the makeshift litter carrying Kahkon’s broken and bruised body. Moans escaped Kahkon’s lips followed by painful gasps and cries as they worked their way through a particularly rough part of the woods. A moment later, the boy fell into a feverish bout filled with coughs and unintelligible mutters, bloody spittle bubbling from his lips.
“Tend to him, Sakari,” Ryne ordered, working hard not to let his voice quaver. He paused as they set the litter down. “Be extra careful with his leg and his stomach. Please.”
As much as he wanted to comfort Kahkon, Ryne stepped away instead. Stroking the boy’s face and whispering reassuring words would only serve to encourage the anger smoldering deep inside. Waiting to one side as Sakari administered the kinai mixture again and changed the boy’s saturated poultices, Ryne let out his breath in a deep whoosh.
Denestia’s twin moons had risen and now lay hidden behind a mass of clouds made sluggish from the windless night. The day’s heat that normally lifted at sunfall, sat like a woven` quilt, heavy and thick, and added a palpable quality to the darkness of the surrounding woods. Ryne had the feeling that without its glass container, the lone flame from the lamp he held wouldn’t have flickered. Not even the shadows cast by its light wavered.
Insects chirped, owls hooted and foragers rummaged about in the undergrowth before they ran off, scared away by the guttural snarls of beasts drawn to the pungent aroma of Kahkon’s blood. On occasion, Ryne caught the occasional glimmer of movement or shining eyes among the silhouettes of trees. Off to one side, branches shook, but he made no attempt to be quiet, knowing only the most dangerous creatures would attack.
However, the beasts didn’t bother him as much as the knowledge that Mariel still stalked them while Kahkon lay helpless. And that in itself was a rockslide compared to the avalanche he’d discovered in the forest. Was the golden haired stranger responsible for the creatures? Could they have been an attempt to create wraithwolves? If so, how? From all his research, such an undertaking should only be possible in Hydae. And Hydae was sealed away from Denestia.
What was the Tribunal’s stake in all this? Could those among them who engineered his capture and torture so many years ago be involved in whatever plot was afoot? The old scars on his back ached with the thought, and he shuddered. He shut away the memory before it enveloped him.
Sakari raised his head from the boy’s body and peered off into the dark trees, silver eyes aglow.
“Is she still following?” Ryne asked, wishing for a different answer than what he knew would come.
“Yes,” Sakari answered from where he hovered over Kahkon. “She is staying quite a bit farther back than usual.”
The corner of Ryne’s lips curled, and he grunted his irritation. Kahkon whimpered, and Ryne’s back tightened at the sound. One tentative foot rose before he stopped himself, focusing instead on the rustles and furtive sounds among the trees.
“What are your plans for her now?” Sakari asked, poultices sopping with blood as he worked on Kahkon. Yips of a lapra sounded nearby followed by an answering growl.
“I don’t know. What I want to do is proving to be an unwise path to take. Carnas would only suffer,” Ryne confessed. He held the lamp up to peer among the trees in time to see dark fur and dog-like shapes disappear among the trees.
“If she is who she says she is, restraining yourself only serves to delay the inevitable.”
Ryne squeezed his eyes shut against the tightness in his chest as if mere sight could will away the truth behind Sakari’s words. If indeed Mariel was a Devout in the Tribunal’s employ, eventually one of the messages she sent every morning would include his description. If one had not already as the presence of the Alzari assassins seemed to suggest. If everything stayed true to his past, more assassins or worse, a cohort, would be dispatched to take him. Either way, his time in hiding was at an end.
Frustrated by his lack of options, Ryne growled. There was no telling which faction within the Tribunal Mariel represented. And he couldn’t simply ask. Added to that, using his power to capture her was not a viable option with his recent waning control. Drawing on his Scripts to destroy the shade’s abominations in the woods had brought him to the brink. Luckily, the killings had been enough to appease his power’s hunger.
“He’s safe for now,” Sakari said.
Ryne took in Kahkon’s pallid face. The boy writhed, but at least he seemed a deal calmer, his aura steady. With a relieved sigh, Ryne picked up his end of the litter, and they set out again, shadows cast by the lamplight chasing them.
“I do not believe the Tribunal sent those assassins for you. I think it was mere chance,”
“You know what I think of chance,” Ryne retorted.
“They failed too many times before. The Alzari have never seemed the type to risk men foolishly. If they indeed came for you, they would not send two assassins. And a cohort would require the Tribunal to seek permission of the Ostanian Kingdoms, no?”
“Yes,” Ryne agreed. Although he’d yet to find a connection, he still found himself wondering if Sakari’s knack for mirroring his thoughts had anything to do with their link. “But when has that ever stopped them? Besides, the negotiations would only give us but so much time.”
“Time enough to escape,” Sakari said.
Ryne’s mouth twisted with distaste. “And leave the villagers at Tribunal’s mercy? Abandon them to the Alzari or Amuni’s Children and the shade?”
“And if this is all Mariel’s doing?”
“Then she dies,” Ryne answered, leaves crunching underfoot like the crackle of a fire.
“The end result would be the same,” Sakari said.
Kahkon moaned and began another set of fitful mutters. Padded feet pattered among the trees followed by a whine that whispered through the still air. Ryne held the lamp out again. A svelte forest lapra slunk away from the light, its three-foot lichen-covered body fading into the undergrowth. Several similar forms slipped by at the edge of the lamp’s range followed by more low whimpers and snarls.
Ryne eyed Kahkon for a moment until the pain etched on the boy’s face eased, and he settled down once more. “I’ll convince them to move to the Nevermore Heights or southeast to Bana land.”
“If you say so,” Sakari said.
Even as he’d said it, Ryne knew the villagers would never flee. They were refugees from the territorial feuds that plagued Ostania through the years, and many had faced their own bloody trials during the War of Remnants. They would stand, fight…and die.
“I’m surprised you’re concerned for them. You never were before,” Ryne said, eyeing Sakari askance.
“I am not,” Sakari replied. “Alive. Dead.” He shrugged. “They matter not to me. You are my sole concern, and it seems you have forgotten your summons by the Svenzar is due. Your choice to protect Carnas will be even more difficult.”
“I haven’t forgotten. You know as well as I do that if the summons comes, I will have to answer.” Ryne’s fist clenched on the litter as he sifted through his meager choices. “Being bound to their gods’ wills is not something to be ignored. Besides, in the thirty years doing as they bid, I’ve made greater strides to control my fate than I ever have since I awoke. Seventy years, Sakari. Seventy, since I woke to your face with only the knowledge of my name and how to use these Scripts. I don’t see myself giving up the chance to discover who I am, why I exist, and why this craving still smolders within me.”
“Not even if it means Carnas will have to do without your protection?”
“When the answers could provide me with the chance to save the village? Yes. Maybe I’m growing old, but the suffering I’ve caused weighs on me a little more every day. I would rather stay here and live my days in peace than to spread death as I have in the past. If the Sevnzar have the answers to such a path as they promised, then I’ll ask the questions and pay whatever price is necessary.” Ryne waved the lamp around to his left as the slinking noises of the lapras drew nearer before they dwindled under the light.
“Sometimes the cost is more than a person can bear,” Sakari said.
Kahkon coughed and spat up blood. They stopped and set down the litter. Ryne stood guard with the lamp held out as Sakari bent to tend to the boy. Around them came the crunching tread of paws on fallen branches and leaves, the snap of small twigs, the swish of leaves brushing against fur. The sounds were nothing more than a soft susurrus. But they numbered in the hundreds. Ryne picked out as many as twenty svelte forms slinking through the woods and brush. Could Mariel really be in control of these beasts?
A slight breeze swirled just then. With it rose the rank smell of lapras. The lamp’s flame flickered, causing the shadows to bob and caper.
Sakari straightened until he stood as silent as their surroundings that was suddenly vacant of the night time noises of its normal denizens. His eyes glinted like polished silversteel as he peered around them. “How far until the Fretian ends?”
“A few thousand feet.”
The forest lapras began the low crooning they used when they called to other packs. The hair at the back of Ryne’s neck stood on end. Wails answered in several directions, some ahead along the dark path. By Ryne’s count, there had to be at least five packs, which meant more than thirty lapras.
“Sakari, do you think you could—”
“I’ve already tried. These beasts are not responding to me. Fresh blood has driven them past the point of control.”
“So it’s not her doing?” Ryne turned quickly to follow the sound of padded footsteps. The brush rustled nearby before settling.
“No. She could not control this many creatures, no matter what anyone claimed they saw.” Sakari gripped his scabbard. “Take the boy. I have tied off the wounds so they should not bleed much, if at all.” Sakari looked up through the branches above them. “When the clouds clear the moons…” He drew his sword.
Ryne nodded and set down the lamp. He bent and gathered Kahkon’s ragged form in the crook of his left arm, tucking him against his side.
The rustles among the brush grew more purposeful. The lamplight played along the ground with its own life, elongating the shadows into looming black creatures that attempted to swallow the already dim radiance. Among those shadows, the forest lapras flitted back and forth.
The clouds began to drift by the moons.
Sakari snatched the lamp up and fled down the path. With his sudden movement came yowls and snarls.
Ryne followed, not looking back to see what the noises meant. The lamp’s luminescent pool bobbed and dipped as they bolted for the forest’s edge. Ryne kept Kahkon hugged close to minimize the effect of their movements as Sakari weaved his way ahead.
Silhouettes of the beasts trailed them on either side, eyes glinting. When they crossed clear patches in the canopy, the moonlight painted a clear picture. The woods crawled with lapras, mottled fur black to match the night, the lichen on their bodies near impossible to tell apart from the shadowy undergrowth.
Ryne and Sakari sped toward an opening ahead that revealed the moonlit Orchid Plains beyond. Agitated barks and growls revealed lapras snapping at each other in their eagerness to attack.
Sakari stopped short. “I will hold them here.”
Offering no protest, Ryne stretched to a long lope as he passed Sakari. Within moments, he left the whines and wails echoing behind him. He increased his speed to a dead sprint, his heart thumping in his chest, the familiar thrill of his battle energy resonating within him.
Ryne burst from the woods into the dense fescue and grass of the plains. Four shadowy forms emerged before him. Cradling the boy against his body, he reached for his sword.
“Master Waldron, stop, it be us,” Keevo’s panicked voice rang out.
Ryne drew up short and eased his hand away from his weapon.
Behind Keevo stood three dartans with Dren perched upon one aiming his bow at the woods.
“We hoped you would take the same path back when you found Kahkon. The mayor and a few elders voted against us coming, but we did anyway.” Keevo’s teeth showed in a wide grin before his face puckered with concern at the sound of fighting within the forest. “Where be Sakari?”
“He’s holding them off until I—” Ryne cut off, movement along the plains drawing his attention. He passed Kahkon’s prone form to Keevo.
A thousand feet or more from where they stood, the grass swayed, disturbed by something other than the wind. The entire expanse bent and shifted as if the pasture itself advanced toward them.
“What—” Keevo began. He turned and his face drained of color.
Small-bodied plains lapras by the score trotted out from the underbrush.
Ryne leaped into the saddle of the closest dartan. “Pass him to me!” he yelled.
Keevo lifted Kahkon up above his head as Ryne drew close.
Almost all at once, Ryne snatched the boy and tugged the chain reins to force the mount around to face the lights of Carnas shining in the distance. “Ride!” he commanded. “Ride like you never have before!”
The breeze that had kicked up earlier now blew stronger. Carried by the eddies were the howls and pained yelps from Sakari’s battle.
The plains lapra packs swept across the field in silence.
Ryne whipped his reins as he fled toward Carnas. He didn’t look back.