A Blade's True Name
A short story prompted by: https://ironage.media/prompt/the-trek.html
As he crested the ridge, it lay before him. Home. The seat of his uncle, Vizier Qualys, his only surviving family member. The Vizier would be happy to see him, for Kanwyln brought him good news.
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The war was won. Pathoria had fallen. It’s king dead, children on their way to the rune mines, and women enthralled to the very drunk, very lustful, Hakoran army.
Kan could still feel the vibration of his father's blade through his nerves. It was a dull, but seemingly permanent sensation. Over the course of his month-long return, it was still there. Part of him wanted it to stay forever. After that red day in his enemy’s capital, he did not deserve to forget it.
As he approached Qoal’s Spires, he could see the absence of servants in the work undone. The road was untended, still bearing the scars of supply wagons a year prior as the phylweed crept in, beautiful but dangerous. The degrading state was a reflection of the skeleton crew left to tend the Spires. The long war had sapped the nation of its youth. Most of the fighting age men were still leagues behind Kan, likely hilt-deep in unwilling thralls. The women were in the fields missing those drunk murderers. He almost laughed at the idea. What a waste.
When the East gate loomed before him, his approach was finally noticed.
“Oy! State your business!” Shouted a familiar voice. A crossbow bolt missed him by a yard. That warning should have been closer.
Kan howled, “Boyl, open this gate or I’ll have your flabby hide tanned by supper!”
A mostly bald head popped above the parapet, “Prince Kanwyln…it can’t be. The last raven said you’re sieging the ‘orncliff.”
“Boyl, you blind craven bastard. Open this gate. I’ve rum to share, or a backside to flay. You decide.” That ought to to do it.
A minute later, the gate cracked open. Barely enough to fit. Kan had to remove the Blade on his back just to slip through.
Boyl stood on the other side with five other old men in robes, hunched figures betraying their age, all holding trained crossbows.
Boyl’s bushy eyebrows opened, as his pale green eyes vainly attempted to overcome farsightedness. “Master Kan…it is you!.” He dropped the crossbow and knelt, back and knees cracking. The others followed his example, echoing the cracks.
“My prince…your ‘air…I couldn’t tell.” Boyl was a knave, but he knew when he erred. Kan pitied him. Mostly.
“Price of war. Their southern general almost had my throat in the wastes due to that blasted hair. I should have cut it like Jerald said.” Boyl could see him wince. Jerald had died two years prior during the assassination attempt on the Vizier - as had most of the assassins. The survivors served time in the dungeon until they gave up their charge.
One of the other old fools stared at his right ear, now exposed without the obfuscation of once long dark hair. His birthscar, a red gash bifurcating the cartilage at an angle, was exposed. His uncle claimed it happened during the birth that took his mother. It never made sense to him, but he had never questioned it before. It just was ugly and embarrassing. He preferred to hide it, until recently. The stare made the ruined ear feel hot. Kan glared back directly into the eyes of the kneeling geezer and broke his gaze in an instant.
Kan shook off the past, “Where’s my uncle. I have news.”
“He’s in the cloister, Ser. With his books.”
“Of course. We’ll share that rum later, Boyl." He let a little warmth creep in, "It's…good to see you.” Boyl looked touched, even if he was somewhat touched in the head. Kan walked off, towering above the robed fools, pretending to defend the Spires. Poor bastards.
The courtyard was a mess. A couple goats were feeding at a trough, waste unattended. Moss had started to spread up the inner wall. Deliveries of grain were haphazardly placed, and even at a distance, Kan could see that rats and maggots had ruined the feed. Did the Vizier know this was happening? Did he care?
The cloister was adjacent to the inner keep, the second-most defensible structure within the Spires. The family’s history scrolls said Qoal’s third wife, Myriam, had it built so she could read the tomes of conquered enemies. A strange woman from a strange people, almost forgotten.
Kan opened a small door in the side of the inner structure and entered the hallway. Much like the eastern courtyard, the hallway was a shambles. Refuse and hunting dog hair littered the corners and only half of the torches were lit. Boyl and the others either were lax in their duties or too busy in others. What was most disturbing is that the Vizier would ignore this decay where he frequented the most. Kan put it out of mind for there was more important business at hand.
The cloister's entrance at the end of the hallway loomed above him, as most of the doors in the Spires did. Two guards stood watch.
"Let me by, I have news for the Vizier."
"Ser, the Vizier said he is not to be disturbed." The taller guard on his right responded.
"He needs to hear this. And don't you know who I am? I'm the Prince."
"You don't look like the prince to me." The guard nodded across the hallway towards a portrait of Kan, one of many in the Spires. He was younger in that painting, maybe eighteen. Long black hair hiding the birthscar, and a spark of life that wanted to wage war that would paradoxically strangle that spark. It was strange how much a soul can fade within a decade and through a war. He really did look different, hair or no hair.
He did not have time for this. "Let me by, or we'll have two fewer leeches in the barracks mess tonight."
The guards exchanged looks and began changing stances to something more threatening when the door creaked.
"Let him in, Torek." His uncle rasped through the crack. Kan glared as the guards stepped aside and then entered the cloister.
The cloister was really a library, but occasionally used for alchemical experiments, especially in these last few years. His uncle was interested in explosives, poisons, and their combination. Some of his more recent experiments were tested on the Pathorians. Kan could not unsee those acid-gassed corpses. He almost shuddered thinking about it.
Books were strewn about everywhere. Thousands. Irreplaceable ancient manuscripts stacked and bent, some placed uncomfortably close to candle flame. Forbidden knowledge treated like a child's well-worn storybook. A year prior and his uncle would have executed anyone that left the cloister thusly. The rot of the Spires was flowing from one source, it seemed.
His uncle had been reading a large book written in an unknown language. It's binding was the hide of an animal, perhaps a boar. Odd.
"It is good to see you nephew, but I am confused." His uncle sounded older and weaker. His beard was nearly gray, after being mostly black only a year before. Even his purple robes were faded. "Your last bird came with the last full moon, and yet here you are. Even if you raced it like a demon, we wouldn't be speaking for another four months, at best."
Kan expected this. "Blasted pigeons Uncle. We must have sent that bird not five months ago. I'm shocked it actually made it. The Pathorian hawks killed all the ravens, and half the pigeons joined them. Lucky devil of a bird."
His uncle looked tired, and nodded, looking distantly. Kan was unsure if he believed the tale.
"Uncle, I have news. The day is won. Pathoria is no more."
The slouch in the Vizier's back evaporated, as did some of the gray in his beard. Had to be his imagination. "Splendid! Most excellent nephew!" He crept closer, Kan could smell the drink on his breath, and what he hoped were not soiled smallclothes. "Tell me…did Flinhorn fall?"
"Yes, sire. He held the keep for a week after we took the walls. Bloody work that. Once we had him cornered, he refused to surrender. Took dozens of men with his blade before we were forced to put him down. No idea how he had our runes, but it was luck's joke he didn't have enough for the defenders. I'd have likely died on the wall had it twisted that way."
"His boys? Daughter?"
"Most died during the breach. Olvya killed fifty before the bowmen had the best of her. Cursed witchwork. We never found Arnhorn though. He may have taken the acid and been disposed of before I could verify it."
Qualys look wistful. "Shame about the girl, she was the best of them." If Kan didn't know any better, he'd think his uncle would have tried for another son with her, married or thralled. She was in a better place.
Regaining his composure, "And where is the army, why are you here alone?"
Kan tensed at the question, despite his efforts. "I left Jerym in charge and the army is keeping the peace." If drinking and raping equate to peace. "The mercenaries turned brigand during the first nights and began their plundering. We need the merchants' connections to open up the trade lines again. A living merchant is worth a hundred sellswords. We hung five score in the square the day before I left. Jerym has it in good hands now."
He could tell the Vizier was skeptical, "Uncle...I came back because I needed to see the Spires again. And to see you. We haven't had a raven for nigh a year. I needed to make sure Arnhorn didn't escape to get some pitiful vengeance by end running us. Jerym thought it unlikely, so I went alone." Hopefully that was enough.
The Vizier chewed on that for an uncomfortably long time, but his drunken haze dulled his sharp perception. "Aye…it's good to see you boy." He had soiled himself. The stench of drink only masked it partially. "It's been too long, and you deserve a feast. We deserve a feast!" Qualys snapped, and two servants entered from secret doors. "We've kept your quarters cleaned for you. And you look like you could use a soak." Kan almost laughed, but did not want to allow a path for the rising bile in his gut.
He realized one of the servant women was Hareitha. She stole one glance, blue eyes framed by dark hair making him nostalgic for a youth long dead. "Take your time son, the kitchen is slower these days, but we should be ready at nightfall." Summer was ending, and the days were growing shorter. He may have five hours. Perhaps six.
He followed the servants out of the cloister and proceeded to climb the Prince's Tower. In previous generations, up to a dozen princes could have filled these apartments. Unfortunately for the family, Kan was the only one left, with no other heirs - or bastards to claim the Spires. His uncle's seed had failed time and again, his daughters wedded off to occasionally hostile neighbors. The last time he saw his cousin Paulena, the spark of her teenage years was faded, wedded to the Sheik in the Cragpass, just one in his harem of wives. The Sheik had helped defend the Spires in the pass after the assassination attempt, earning favor and a wife from the Vizier.
They entered the bathroom with its high vaulted ceiling in a dark bricked room with tall windows like most of the Spires' apartments. Shockingly, the room was clean, likely unattended for the past year in his absence. Kan went behind the changing screen and began disrobing as Hareitha and the old woman with her drew the bath. His dry cracked skin craved the hot water. It had been too long, perhaps six months, since his last bath. He had to cut his hair after the ambush the next day. His ruined ear grew warm.
Kan leaned the scabbarded blade on the screen, its vibration still ringing through his nerves. Did that start when Olvya had fallen or before? The details were hazy in his mind, but the end result was not. They were all monsters on that day. Piled bodies used as makeshift fortifications. Men carrying dead comrades as shields from volleys of arrows. Acid-burned skin. The witchwork. The blasted witchwork.
He carefully removed his gauntlets, gingerly placing the right above the left. He may need that later. Inset in the dorsal plate was a seemingly dull runestone indicating a depleted charge. When he was disrobed, the servants turned away as he slunk into the claw-footed tub. Pure comforting bliss. If he died in this moment, nothing else mattered.
Hareitha nodded to the other servant, who left and closed the thick heavy door behind her. Kan suddenly felt like he was cornered. Pain crossed her face, "Did you forget about me, 'Wyln?"
"Forget?" He wished he could forget. "No. Mourn, maybe. First for your marriage, and then for your husband, and then for your child. I don't know how you snuck that message out to us, but it was bloody hard to fight with that in mind."
She walked closer to the bath, blue eyes meeting his. "It was bad here as well, Kan. Lornic died not two months after you left, and the babe soon after. I did not think I could go on."
"Then why did you?"
"You know why." Her robes fell on the floor in an instant, and in another she was in the bath. He hadn't seen a naked woman in months, other than the thralls he would like to forget. He had grown sick of the camp followers as well, preferring a hard drink and a couple hours of shuteye instead of that kind of companionship. The sight of her body had rekindled something nearly sclerotic inside.
"'Eitha…," was all he could get out before she had him, too tired and lonely to stop her. Not that he wanted to. It was a long year. A bad year.
Minutes later he finally could catch his breath. During their efforts, bathwater had sloshed out of the tub. "I…didn't realize how much I missed that." The soapy water jostled as she turned to look at him with some satisfaction. The cruel part of him was still cross with her. "It's too bad you married a farmhand."
Looking hurt, "It's too bad you're a cold-hearted Prince." She looked away from him. "We could have left. You wanted to leave."
He had wanted to leave, his bags packed in secret. And then the night of blades. Dozens of assassins assaulted the keep that night. Jerald fell. But the Vizier lived, and everything changed. The rage was blinding at the time. He did not believe Jerald's warnings of a hostile Pathoria, powerful yet distant. After months of the assassin's torture, they learned of Pathoria's involvement. If only Kan had left a day before with 'Eitha, he could have remained blissfully ignorant of it all. He could have missed the war and built a homestead. Raised chickens. Luck thought otherwise.
Her voice straightened his wandering thoughts, "Kan, it's not too late. We're still young."
He was almost touched. Despite everything she had gone through, she still clung to that juvenile hope. "In body, but not in mind." A pall crossed his face, staring into an invisible distance as his heart beat hard. He had to warn her. "'Eitha, whatever happens tonight, know that you were right about everything."
"What's happening? What did you do?"
"It's not what I did. This time." He pushed away from her, lukewarm water sloshing out of the bath. "It may get bad tonight. You have to stay away from the feast-hall." Worry crossed her face. The modicum of hope she clung onto was already evaporating. He had to give her something. "But…," he took her hands in his, "I think you can help me."
They made love two more times and napped on his robe-towel. If only this good moment signified the very end of a bad year. If only.
Kanwyln was dressed in his finest livery, family crest of crossed blades over an ornate rune emblazoned on his chest, when he entered the feast-hall. As with his rooms, it was cleaned, likely while he napped with Hareitha. The tantalizing smells assaulted his nostrils. Aromas of pheasant, quail, and duck filled the room. Roast parsnips and wild mushrooms made him salivate from a distance. Hard and soft cheeses, still cool from the larder, were placed equidistant around the table. Soft rye bread was steaming in baskets. The cooks were still prepping the lamb and suckling pig. The last good meal he had was over a month ago when they won the outer wall and raided the barracks stores. It was nothing but potatoes, salted beef, and watered down mulled wine, but it kept them alive. A week later, he had fled. Worlds shattering. Upon that thought, his appetite instantly disappeared.
A butler pronounced, "Kanwyln Hakor, First Prince of Qoal's Spires and heir to the throne!" There were four others standing around the table. The Vizier, the Sheik, and two oddities he did not recognize, one large and one small, both with greasy black hair and a visible sheen on their faces. It was warm in the feast-hall but not that warm. Perhaps they were were used to cooler climes. Northerners, perhaps. Flanking the room, there were also six guards, likely the only trained ones left, one at each entrance. Ten men total. Luck tilted against him, it seemed.
"And now, you may be seated and feasted!" order the Vizier gregariously, as per tradition. The attendees sat, and the minstrels in the corner of the great feast-hall began playing "The Warrior's Welcome," a boisterous, patriotic tune, contrasting the brewing tempest inside.
The servants began the first course, plating quail with a cherry sauce. As soon as the wine was poured, a bold red from over the Axehills, the Vizier toasted "A huzzah for my nephew, victorious over our shared enemy, Pathoria. Huzzah!" The unknown guests Huzzahed, if a little delayed. Kan did not hear the Sheik say anything.
"Thank you Uncle. May your enemies dread your gaze." This game had to begin sometime.
"Our Enemies." Qualys was still holding his wine-cup, sunken eyes gazing. Kan could see the dark purple on his tongue from twenty yards away. The old leper had been drinking all day. Perhaps, all year. At least he couldn't smell him from here.
"Our Enemies, indeed. Tell me uncle, who are our guests? I know the distinguished Sheik Bartoum," Kan nodded and the Sheik met his gaze, dark eyes smiling like a beast. "but I do not recognize those to my right."
"Ah, yes. I forgot that you've missed much at the Spires. These gentlemen are emissaries from across the Ytyr Ocean."
Kan was dumbfounded despite himself, and almost choked on the wine. "There is nothing beyond the sea, Uncle. At least, none of your captains returned." The Vizier spent a decade sending hapless adventurers into the Ytyr, lost to the unknown. A wasteful endeavor built on a fool's hope to cure impotence and like most follies, buttressed by avarice.
"That is not what our guests, Mister Larnt and Ghant, have told me. Captain Bertram made it to the land of Pyre." Pyre, a mythical place, filled with gems, the keys to eternal life, and of course, runes. Different runes.
The closer, and smaller, of the two emissaries spoke up, "Indeed he did, Vizier. The great captain shipwrecked and after some weeks of recovery, endeared himself to the Empress. She bore him a son." His accent was slippery. The words came much too quiet, like something was in his throat.
Genuinely curious, Kan asked "Captain Bertram left a decade ago…why hasn't he returned."
"Alas, after the birth of the seventh prince, the good Captain took ill. The land of Pyre is filled with diseases your people haven't encountered before, unfortunately. We couldn't help him." Larnt, or Ghant, did not seem overly broken up about the death. Kan could not believe it. He was not the only liar at this table.
Kan sipped his wine. He was going to have to play out this charade. Hopefully, his uncle would drink more. Luckily, the Vizier seemed to already be on his second glass since sitting. "And tell me Mister…?"
"Larnt, Ser. Larnt Sobeka." The words were slippery like his skin.
"...Larnt. What brings you to Hakor, other than to tell us of poor Bertram and drink our wine?" He took other sip.
"The good Captain told us all about your lands. At least…all he could remember." Larnt either did not care about his sinister tone or could not control it. "The Empress wants her son to visit in the coming years and thinks to build alliances before sending him abroad." Ah, a thinly veiled invasion. Lovely. "We're hoping the Vizier can house him in the Spires upon his arrival. And we believe we are close to terms for the arrangement."
The Vizier took another sip. "Aye, my boy. These men have brought me a sample of their runes and tomes. I have been studying them nigh six months." That explains much. The old bugger always got lost in the arcane, especially when it presented new opportunities. "With their information, Hakor will be able to spread further than Pathoria, into lands beyond. It's quite exciting. It's your legacy Kanwyln. Your future." Kan felt a pit in his stomach. He didn't want this. The charade would have to end soon.
"Exciting indeed, uncle! I look forward to perusing the materials." He took another sip to hide his growing contempt. The Vizier was on his fourth glass, somehow, lips turning dark purple. "Uncle, have you told our new friends of the war with Pathoria. Its history?"
The Vizier reached for the herb-buttered pheasant. "Drims and drams. The emissaries are more interested in the here and now, as am I."
The Sheik had been staring at Kan the whole time. Eyes boring into his head. His once steaming quail was growing cold.
"Good Uncle, could you humor us? This started with the death of my parents, correct? I never asked about that night. I don't know why."
Mid-sip of more wine, the Vizier almost choked. After a moment, he regained his composure. "You have never asked, that is true. Dark business for a child to work through." He took a moment to think. This was a liar's table, indeed. "Pathorians are reavers – leeches, really. Vultures. Expanding their kingdom with every generation through gutting their weaker neighbors. But more recently, they preferred diplomacy and weddings. Flinhorn's father, Arnhorn, took a liking to your mother, Kan. Your mother…and our runes. Unfortunately for everyone, she was already married to your father, King Daryn. As these things go, between lust and greed, we had a war." Kanwyln already knew this well-rehearsed and tired tale.
The old goat leaned forward and said, "What I never told you is that on the night you were born, Arnhorn attacked. They had somehow stolen enough runes to mount an assault. Barbarians with no sense of honor." He looked visibly frustrated. His hate for Arnhorn was true. As true as pain and death. "They took down the east gate with hardly a fight. We were unprepared, our armies fighting their forces in the plains. Never thought that craven bastard had it in him."
"He broke into the Queen's Spire. The King, your father, died at the door." This was new. Perhaps a kernal of truth had crept in. "Daryn had me stay with your mother, behind the curtains. Her last defender. As Arnhorn approached her with lust in his eyes, I slit his throat." Aye, you probably did do that. "Your mother was screaming, and even in his death throes, he was dangerous. He was large enough to throw me aside despite bleeding out, and tore you from her hands. 'is gauntlet split your ear awful." The Vizier was finally drunk. The ruined ear became very warm. Hot.
"I suppose he decided in that moment before death, to kill her as well. Who knows what a beast thinks." There were beasts in this room. Perhaps five, likely eleven. Most needed to be put down. "With his cursed blade, he cut the bed in half with her in it. I took his head in the next moment. Too late. I was too late, boy." The Vizier stared into his cup for a moment before drinking again. No tears welled in his eyes. He felt something, but it did not look like guilt. The Sheik finally broke his unrelenting gaze. Larnt and Ghant were chewing their quail in near silence.
Kan reached under the table. To his right, the gauntlet and to the left, the Blade. Hornsbane it had been called. Named by Qualys and allegedly forged for vengeance. But it had another name. Its true name.
The objects were tenuously hung under the table, perhaps with farm-wire. 'Eitha had done what he asked. He slipped his hand into the gauntlet, silently. The Sheik's gaze turned back.
"Uncle, who is Thrinhorn?" This time the old drunk actually spat out his drink.
After coughing a bit, he said, "Some long dead Pathorian reaver, I suppose." The color had drained from his face. The Sheik and Larnt stared back at the Vizier. Ghant finished his plate and reached for more meat, greasy lips smacking. The large sweaty man could eat.
"Then why did Flinhorn call me that before he died?" Silence.
The uncomfortable moment dragged on, as the old man's buzzed mind desperately tried to weasel out of the inquiry. "The ravings of a dying king of a now dead kingdom. No more, boy. We should call him Flinhorn the fallen!" The Vizier started laughing. Drunkenly. The Sheik chuckled without opening his mouth. Enough of this.
"Did you send me to kill my brother, nephews, and niece, Qualys?" A gasp came from a servant. The music stopped. Someone dropped a silver fork on the floor. Larnt became fascinated. The Sheik was still smiling.
"You've had a long war and long trek, boy. You aren't thinking. I've seen it before. Swordshock. Even worse with a runesblade." Genuine concern emanated from his drunken visage. "You need to rest. You are seeing and hearing things that are not so." The servants had scuttled out, pretending to bring more wine, and prep the suckling pig. Just a handful of guards and a table full of liars. It was time.
"Swordshock." Yes, he had wondered about that during the trek. But the revelations he discovered were too convincing. Too true. They explained too much.
"And did I imagine it when Flinhorn called this blade Horn's Flame?" With one motion, Kan kicked back his seat, grabbed the Blade, spun around to maximize its impact, and brought the edge down into the center of the long feast-table with every dram of rage he contained.
“Thrinhorn?” The whispered words echoed in his ears. Both men, prince and king stared at each other, runesblades still ringing from the last collision echoing their cancelled effects. In the next moment, Jerym and his crossbowmen turned Flinhorn into a pincushion. Kanwyln stared with shock as the king crumpled to the floor.
"He had to go, Prince. Took a hundred men just to corner him. The men wouldn't like it if we took him alive." Kan nodded his head, barely understanding. Arm vibrating. The last word of a king rooted into his mind like a disease.
"Aye, good thinking, General. It…is done." He stared at the king, filled with bolts, his red livery obscuring the blood that was rapidly pooling. Jerym shouted "Take the Tower boys! It's time to loot!" Celebratory shouts rung from the bowmen as they exited the kingshold, Jerym leading the mob.
When the room became mournfully silent, the king’s body stirred. Kan knelt by him. "Aye…it is you…brother." Coughs, and more blood. He had seconds. "They told me that Horn's Flame was stolen. Father's blade. Our father." Kan couldn't see the resemblance, but Arnhorn was fire-kissed as was Flin. But there was more to parentage than hair.
Still, he couldn't believe it, "Arnhorn killed my parents in the last war. You are mistaken, Ser."
"Check…the library…brot…" and he was gone. He stared at the man he fought for a year and hated for a lifetime. Ravings surely. Delusions.
Kan made his way to the library.
Horn's Flame hit the table and passed through with little resistance. The table cleaved with blue fire running down the center. The two halves exploded away from each other, rocketing to the right and left of the Blade. The Sheik, Larnt, and Ghant including the guards on the walls were taken by the large projectiles, likely crushed. Luck turned.
The Vizier stood, purple lips and all, unharmed by the runesfire and subsequent explosion. A blurry haze surrounded him. His necklace glowed. A runeshield. He calmly used a napkin to pat his lips.
"Guards, my nephew is sick and needs to be restrained. Apprehend him." The mace from behind was inches from his head when he ducked and spun. The Blade took the guards in one sweep, fire rending armor, torsos and legs exploding away from each other like the table before. Viscera splattered his face with crimson as his arm buzzed with vibration. The Blade got heavier, its charge nearly drained.
The two guards at the end of the hall barrelled forward. Torek, the guard from the cloister before, howled as he brought down his spear with intent to murder. He kept howling when his head left his shoulders and smacked into the ceiling, neck burning during the ascent, fueled by the Blade's secrets. When the helmeted head thudded on the floor, the other guard turned to flee. "Coward!" bellowed the Vizier. An ethereal blast erupted from a robed arm, enveloping the retreater. He had a moment to scream in pain before being turned to steam. The guard's armor clattered to the ground, perfectly cleansed as if it were just washed.
"How…", Kan huffed. He had never seen such power – outside of witchwork.
"Pyrerunes, boy. Part of your legacy. Well, what could have been your legacy." At the moment the smoldering table half on the right Kan's right creaked. With a thud, it violently rolled to the center of the room, still smoking from the fire. Ghant and Larnt were standing, broken arms and legs reordering themselves. Their skin was peeling off.
Ghant grabbed his ruined face and pulled. The greasy sheen was gone. A beast's face beneath, scaled like a reptile, yellow eyes focusing as dual lids blinked. He somehow grew even larger than before, heads above the average soldier. The Vizier smiled from across the hall. "Mister Ghant, would you mind restraining this very disturbed young man."
Ghant charged. Kan swung. The Blade was caught in his claw.
For the second time in mere moments, Kan was in disbelief. "What?!" Ghant lifted the Blade as Kan stubbornly clung and threw him. There had to be at least one charge left. Had to be.
He hit the wall, runesblade clattering on the ground. Luck turned its back.
He spent the days following the king's fall in the library after chasing off his own looting men. They could have the gold and silverware. This place was his. It made sense to the men, since they knew of the Vizier's penchant for books and reasoned his nephew suffered the same affliction, laughing to themselves once out of earshot. Jerym reported the progress of the closing siege daily. There were payment issues with the mercenaries. A prince was missing. Kan hardly listened. He forgot to eat.
He found dusty histories of the Horncliff and its people. Originally led by the legendary Pathor, they were raiders from along the coast, not unlike his own people. Different kingdoms. Similar origins. But the details were different. The Horncliff allegedly discovered the power of the runes in this land and began mass-mining operations centuries ago. Over time these were lost to raiders and treachery. Decay had set in. There was mention of lost cities, a once glorious expansion that had receded. One such place sounded eerily like his home, lost mysteriously to Pathoria. They could not find it again despite following verified maps. Those charges with surveying the land again never returned. This was decades ago.
According to the tomes in the cloister at home, Hakor had discovered the runes. This other history implied one was mostly false. The implications were incomprehensible.
When he found the book of blades, his vacant stomach roiled. Hornsbane, his father's sword was perfectly detailed in the middle of the tome. It described its abilities and battles in which it was pivotal. It described the forging method and the binding of the rune. It was a thousand years old. At the top of the page was its real name. Its true name. And the last entry in the chapter described the assassination of the King and loss of the Blade. The murdered Queen and kidnapped prince were also mentioned in a footnote with the sterility of a historian's pen.
Flinhorn's blade, Serpentrend, now in Jerym's lootpile, was in the following chapter with just as many details.
The cloister's book of blades was smaller by comparison, newer, and sparser on details. Vague. The script throughout was virtually uniform, never changing hands implying the same historian wrote it. He had memorized the page on Hornsbane as a child. He could recite it from memory given a reason.
If this was a gamble the dead king played in his final breath, he went to some expense. A library of books with all the markings indicating age buttressed by sprawling intricate details. It did not make sense unless it were true, or at least mostly true. He found the Queen's diary soon after and spent an afternoon descending into a deeper abyss.
After he threw up his empty stomach, he went to seek out the mercenary captains. The war may be over but the long trek home was just starting.
He awoke with a scaled manacle clenching his throat. Pain oscillated between his skull and back. Something was broken somewhere. There was just enough slack for him to breathe. Barely. Smoke was filling the room as the smoldering tables began to catch the rugs and tapestry. Cooked food was burning.
The thing that was Mr. Larnt was smiling on his right, as Ghant suspended him, both blinking with their alien eyelids. Larnt was smaller and paler, but still similar to the other. Like two different species of lizard. On the left, the Vizier was talking. "...and now you have to listen to reason, boy. You've been my charge for your entire life. There is no need for this insanity to continue."
Kan choked trying to speak. Mr. Ghant loosened his grip, snatching the thick livery instead, tearing it slightly.
"You…lied. Are lying." He had to know a truth before death. A sliver of truth. He had to know this mad gambit was worth it. "Did you know that she loved you once…when you were young."
The Vizier's eye twitched.
"She spied on you when you experimented on the stableboy. She didn't know what she saw. But it haunted her for years." No movement, no expression.
"She didn't speak for years. Something about it made her sick – dumb. Eventually, your cousin was there for her and brought back her voice."
He erupted. "The bitch had it coming! And Arnhorn, that bastard!"
"Those assassins. You hired them, didn't you?"
Qualys was turning red. The drink had broken him. His silence was enough. A moment passed, as he turned away. "I raised you, you ungrateful whelp. You were my vengeance."
"And my ear?" It grew hot as it did whenever it was the subject.
"An accident. I needed a hostage to escape…"
"Uncle, cousin, whatever you are, thank you."
The Vizier turned back, eyes alight with hate. "For what, you worthless whorespawn?"
"For finally telling a truth." Kan brought his guantlet above his captors' outstretched arm and slammed his left palm on top of the dull rune in the center. The shield exploded out, slicing off the reptilian arm and throwing the bodies outside its rapidly expanding periphery into the walls.
He landed on his knee, ribs creaking. All three of his enemies had been propelled outward. He had hoped the the shield would have bifurcated at least one of them, but only Ghant was injured, his severed arm bouncing in front of him under some demonic force. He kicked it away. Larnt looked to be flattened on the far wall, not moving.
Ghant was hissing as scales started to close the fresh bloody wound. "I'm curious if your organs work like your scales." Kan spun to dodge the remaining arm, and thrust the Blade into the bloody stump, its pointed end emerging from Ghant's left shoulder. The hissing turned into a roar.
Fire erupted from both wounds, almost burning Kan. He let go and rolled away from the beast. It made one last hissing accusatory stare at him without a hint of fear, flames burning the yellow eyes into suns. Ghant exploded. Two disembodied feet remained as the Blade clattered between them. The severed arm stopped moving.
"I knew I had at least one charge left." He hobbled over to pick up the Blade and felt the grinding in his torso. Definitely a couple of broken ribs. He chuckled. An entire war over a year, a fallen king, and the trek home with nary an injury. The tapestries on the walls finally caught fire. There was little time left.
The days riding from the Horncliff were a hard blur. After promising to pay the mercenaries, Kan had lit a fuse. At his suggestion, they would begin looting the city with aplomb, believing this to be the official position of their charge. Inevitably, they would run afoul of the merchants and in turn, the occupying army. Within a couple of days, there may be pitched battles in the streets, the mercenaries being near equal in force to the regulars, greed and duty driving the fray. With any luck, they would dismantle each other. If not, he had to be a ghost before Jerym or the captains caught up with him. They definitely would be looking for him in Hakor. At the worst, he would be three-days hard ride ahead of them.
It would take months, he told himself, and be filled with day after day of hard riding. This horse would go lame within a week. He'd have to steal another one somehow. And another. Small prices for a slim chance of retribution.
On the fourth day, the first horse stepped into a prairie hole, and snapped its foreleg. After falling and nearly being crushed, Kan almost decapitated it out of rage, but knew he couldn't waste the Blade on a dying horse. When calm won over, he put the poor animal down with his waistknife.
Two weeks on foot, and Kan was getting sick of hunting game. He was able to eat almost every other day, but the time wasted was priceless. The army would either find him or beat him back home. Occasionally, he thought of disappearing, but the life of a prince didn't prepare him for anonymous farmwork. He would die in vain before wading into pauper’s trades clumsily as the dark truth remained unearthed into his gray years.
Even worse, his amateur career in horsetheft was over before it began. Somehow, he forgot about all the looting and burning of the surrounding countryside the army committed during the war. If there once were horses, they were taken months ago. Many were dead, and some had been eaten.
A week later in the mountains, he could see campfires on the horizon when looking back towards his origin. They were coming. Jerym or the mercenaries. He may have to ply a trade after all. Chickens. I could raise chickens.
When he made camp that night, he did not light a fire. Nothing but stars and the noise of nature. He had nothing to eat, and his plan was failing. He sowed chaos for nothing. Cursing himself, he realized he'd have been better off staying away from the library and remaining blissfully ignorant, after all.
"Good Evening, Prince."
His heart almost erupted as he launched to his feet, holding the Blade mid-swing. Across from his bedmat, sat a robed women on a stump, a faint glow illuminated her, it seemed. Has to be the moonshine.
"You're far from where you want to be, aren't you?" Her voice was sultry. Alluring.
He changed sword stances, "How do you know that?"
She waved a hand dismissively, "It doesn't matter. Your 'friends' will either catch you or overtake you in a week. I am here to help."
"And how can you do that? Do you happen to have a dozen horses up your skirts?"
"Some do not need steeds." She started moving her hands in a pattern. Sometimes crazed beggars in the streets at home would do something like that. He always thought it was brainrot brought on by tainted drink. Before he could continue his inquiry and potential disposal of this nuisance, he heard a crack, like the breaking of stone.
Between them a blue light formed, expanding outward. When it was about his height it stopped, as an image resolved in its oval shape. He could see mountains. But not these mountains. The brainrotted beggars could never do that.
"I…know those hills. What is this?" He almost reached out to the image, like a insects to a candle in the dark.
Even though he couldn't see her through the oval, he knew she was smiling from her tone of satisfaction. "It's a door. Not all the way home, but close enough. I suggest you pack your things and go. Now."
A fear instilled since youth boiled up in him, "This is witchwork. Curses. Doom." He remembered Olvya and her stand in the courtyard. Shivers.
She was not smiling, now. "Some have called it that. Those that refuse to understand. To learn. To know deeper truths." The last word pricked his fear. "This is your only chance, Prince. Take it. I have other places to be and even others if you do not make this choice."
"I…", he looked towards the campfires on the horizon, and shook his head, "...you're right. Blasted witchwork." Kan gathered his things, as she watched, the oval door glowing with its own soft light.
When he secured his gauntlets, the right glowing emerald on the backside of the hand where the rune was bound, she spoke up. "You will want to hide that. Pour some gamesblood over it and let it dry to hide the light. You may need to apply it several times." He had already been thinking about how to do that. A runeshield was always a powerful tool, especially if your enemies did not know it was there. It had saved him countless times in the last year, much to the dismay of the hapless enemy soldiers nearby. He nodded, not saying anything.
With the Blade now strapped to his back, he looked her straight in the eyes. Violet eyes. Strange. Has to be the light from the door. Or the moon. Something.
Putting her eyes out of mind, he said, "I would thank you, but I do not know you. And if I knew you, I doubt I could trust you. This…," he pointed at the oval door, "...will either kill me or get me closer to where I need to be – where I will likely die anyway. However, should injury befall, but not kill me, do not let me find you again."
She smirked like he was a child complaing about an itch. "It is I that would find you, Prince. But do not worry. You will not be harmed." A beautiful thing she was. Dangerous. Like phylweed. He turned and began stepping through the oval. As his right foot entered she said, "You will not remember me, anyway." Before he could stop himself, she pushed him through.
He opened his eyes. Nightfall in the Axehills near home. Something had changed. He remembered getting up this morning, trying to hunt, hiking, seeing the smokefires of the army. Then…what?
He must have fallen asleep. That had to be months ago. He got away somehow. Right?
He looked at the stars, the moon. They were not right. It had only been weeks since he left the capital. His mind was hazy and it hurt to ponder it.
It does not matter. He was near home and his uncle would have news of the war within the week. News and more. Much more. The trek was almost over.
The feast-hall was ablaze. The food of kings scattered about and roasting for a second time. Destruction. Dead guards. Reptilian guts. An abattoir. A maelstrom.
As he raised the now heavier Horn's Flame from between Ghant's abandoned feet, he heard moaning from the other side of the hall. The Vizier was alive, for now.
Qualys looked at him. A withered heap with purple lips. He tried to raise his arm, only to realize he could not feel it anymore. He could not feel anything.
"Why…Kan…why?" The words came with difficulty.
Kan limped to him, agony dancing in his ribs. Hopefully, nothing vital was pierced.
"You know why. This," Kan waved his arm across the room, "is a lie. It's all lies. Built on murder."
The Vizier was barely able to look him in the eyes, "...wasn't…always this way. It was…true enough, once. It's," he coughed up blood mixed with wine, "still your home."
"I have never wanted this. It never felt right. And now I know why. It was never mine. My home was to the west. I destroyed it. For you." There was no rage in his voice. The truth calmed him. The horrible truth. The gods-cursed blood-soaked truth.
The Vizier looked at the boy he kidnapped years ago. He couldn't do anything about that now. He was blinded then and driven by dark interests. He barely understood why he turned traitor. He had wanted the Queen for himself, but it had been years too late on that dark night. Nothing had went right. His memory was hazy and fading fast.
He was forming what could only be vaguely approximated as an apology when he saw strange movement. Qualys's eyes widened, "...be…hind…"
The scimitar almost took Kan's head were it not for a block from the depleted runesblade. The Sheik was smiling, before he disappeared into a burst of smoke.
Fear gripped Kan. Pyrerunes, Beastmen, and now this? He heard a burst behind him.
The Sheik emerged, blade falling. Kan rolled out of the way.
"I always knew you were a viper, Bartoum. But a demon?" He swung trying to take the legs, but the smiling predator vanished again.
Another burst and smoke erupted three yards away, directly in front of him. "No demon here, child. More than a man, though." He tossed the Blade back and forth between hands. "More than you." He vanished again. Another burst.
Kan was too late rolling away this time, and the curved blade sunk in his calf. He screamed. Agony upon agony.
The Vizier watched. It was all he could do. He let this creature in, knowing it could sting. It would take everything now. He thought he could discard this mountain dweller when the other prince arrived. He finally understood the Sheik's success against more powerful forces and hired assassins. Bartoum was something else. A devil wearing the skin of a chained circus beast. The horror was setting in as darkness overcame his sight. His body deflated. Bones shattered. A cursed life at its end.
Keeping the curved sword in Kan's calf, the Sheik smacked away the heavy runesblade as if it were a toy, and brought a knife to Kan's throat. "Your cousin was my favorite wife – for a time."
Kan was overwhelmed. He had a plan for many things, but not this. He had assumed the Sheik was a man. A costly assumption.
As the knife began to cross his neck, he heard the thunk. And another. The Sheik howled like a mountain cat and dropped him.
Looking up he saw two crossbow bolts in his enemy's chest. A third hit its face before the thing that was more than a man disappeared again into a cloud of smoke, scimitar evaporating, opening the wound completely.
Lying in his blood and unable to move, Kan closed his eyes as hunched robed figures approached from the nearest entrance-way.
A steady vibration slowly awoke him. Early morning sun pried open his eyelids. He coughed.
"Careful, master. Don't move." He realized he was on a medic's litter. He had seen thousands of these in the war, but never experienced it. They mostly carried corpses and soon-to-be corpses. Four hunched-over robed men were carrying him. A fifth was carrying Horn's Flame.
"Boyl…" it hurt to talk. His throat was bandaged.
"He said not to move." Hareitha came into his vision walking beside the litter.
"'Eitha," Kan coughed again.
"Here," she brought a canteen to his lips and let him sip a little. "You can talk, but be easy."
His final memories barreled back in as he tried to shoot up in the litter. "The Sheik! Where is he?"
"Dunno Master. We did our best, but somehow even a bolt to the face weren't enough. Darrul 'ere said he saw him at the west gate before disappearing again, he did."
Darrul chimed in, "He was screaming, sire. Must've been our tipped bolts. Would kill an ox and his family." Kan remembered those bolts from the early days of the war. The Vizier was able to make a poison that could boil a man's blood. Something to do with snakes. The army ran out of them, but the Pathorians did not forget the sting. Kan would not forget what it did to a conscript fool enough to scratch himself on a bolt. They had to bury what was left of him away from the campdogs.
"Serves that backstabbing troll right." He did not want to meet that creature again, even to avenge his current wounds. The litter came around the road and Kan could see the Spires. They were burning.
"Bloodruin. What happened?"
Hareitha looked at him, somewhat cheekily. "You did, Prince."
"I'm not a prince, I'm not any…" the inferno must have reached the cloister's substores. An entire stockpile of acidbombs erupted. The King's Spire was collapsing and taking half of its children with it along with much of the outer wall.
"The servants…oh gods…"
"They made it out, Ser. Minstrels, too. Your ruckus had us all right afeared. The boys and I were leaving as well, but 'Eitha wouldn't let us." She patted his leg, wrapped tight in a clean bandage.
Looking at him she said, "It was a cruel place. I think everyone will be better off without it."
He let himself smile slightly before his heart jumped again. "Boyl, did you see what happened to Larnt?
"The skinny fellow? He slipped past us before we got to you. Very shaken. Ugly. Did he get burned? Skin looked odd." Boyl scratched himself nervously.
"Blast! It could not all come up royals, could it?" He looked at his wounded leg and realized it did not even come up knights. They sat in silence as the litter moved on.
Before long, Kan asked, "Boyl, where are we going?"
"Well, Ser, we can't go back west, lest we run into the Sheik and winter is hitting the north. That leaves…"
"South." He had never been far south. Their enemies were always in other directions. He wondered if the Vizier had manipulated his perception of this as well. "Boyl, you didn't happen to save that rum, did you?"
Boyl's leathery face brightened up, eyes visible from behind bushy eyebrows. "Aye, Ser. I did."
"Kan, no," Hareitha scolded.
"Just a nip, love. A nip." She acquiesced. "Boyl, open that bottle and have a taste, then give it to 'Eitha and the boys here. I'll take what's left."
"But Ser," protested Boyl.
"It's yours my friend. Have at it."
Boyl reluctantly popped the cork, shrugged, and took a pull. He began to cough. "Burns rough, Ser." He continued coughing when he handed it Hareitha. She took a sip as her eyes watered, but she did not cough or complain. The other men took their turns, shifting the litter as necessary, most coughing after their sample. Darrul handed the bottle back to Kan, half full.
Kan drank half of the remainder, fire burning his throat as his stomach warmed and his aches numbed. He reached out his right arm and realized the constant buzzing sensation had left him. He exhaled with a sense of peace.
Hareitha put her hand on Kan's shoulder, "'Wlyn, what do you want to do when we get wherever we are going?"
He thought about it and took another sip. "You know, for once I don't have a war to fight or vengeance to seek." He sighed again, actually feeling the bad year come to an end like night of bad drinking. It was over. "I suppose we should build a house and figure out how to raise chickens."
Her vision had finally come true. The Spires were burning.
On the edge of the forest overlooking the seat of so-called Hakor, she took off her traveling robes and laid them on a patch of phylweed. A faint breeze passed over her nude body, a sensation that would have bothered her centuries ago. She hardly felt anything anymore. But the burning Spires did bring a smile to her face. Her long rotted captor and presumed husband never listened to her warnings. He was the first fool she suffered. His Spires were dead, her former prison destroyed.
Sitting upon the robes, she fished out the deck from the nearest pocket. She shuffled the deck, as she had learned in her youth from the thing beyond the veil. Thinking of that did cause her to shudder.
She flipped the first card. The Fool. An image of a bearded man, with lips colored purple, slumped against a wall. She had always thought the fool was merely sleeping in a rowdy feast-hall. Now she could see that he was dead and the rowdiness of the feast-hall reflected violence. The cards did that sometimes. Shifted when a reality aligned.
Qualys was a fool, even as a child. Petty. Lecherous. But he was her tool. She showed him how to see distant lands through the boys' soul, an addiction that, piece by piece led to today's burning, decades in the making. It was too bad she caught that girl watching his first lesson. She hated hurting the curious ones, but the deck had spoken. The lost memories damaged the girl for a time. It was no matter. The fool had killed her years later. She wished she could have flipped their futures, but…the deck spoke.
To the left of the first card, she flipped another. As always, it was the Alchemetry, depicting poisons and potions filled with otherworldly light. She knew what it showed, but never successfully guessed at what it meant - not here at the Spires anyway. Qualys did throw himself into the arcane and had built up a stockpile of liquid weaponry, but surely that was already deployed against poor Pathoria. She tapped the card, puzzling over it as she had for years. Then, the base of the King's Spire exploded. She smiled and flipped the next card.
The Fall. It depicted a peasant boy striking the killing blow on a giant. She looked up and saw the falling Spire crush half of its children and the east wall. Excellent. That fool Qualys kept his explosives tightly packed in the substores. Another buried room exploded.
She flipped another. Ah, the Ghost. She had puzzled this one out decades ago. The thing that called itself Sheik Bartoum had broken free of its cage. Once in the Cragpass, he had tried to capture her for his harem. As with now, he lived to regret it even though he now could not remember it. She looked towards the pass and could see intermittent bursts of smoke. He was moving. Fast. He must be in agony. Perhaps, he was poisoned. He would have to crawl back into his broken prison to recover. No matter. The Ghost lived and will be played again. So spoke the deck.
She flipped again. The Far Lands. Volcanic, lustrous, and dangerous. Yes, the Scalemen were coming, whipped by their eternal Empress. The card signaled dark days for these lands. During her travels in Pyre, the deck told a similar story. At first, she tried to warn them as well, but they would not listen, just as brutish and blind as men. The Empress was cunning, but short-sighted. There would be a struggle. Perhaps, had Pathoria lived, the men of this world would have a chance, but Qualys had made sure that reality did not come to pass. A fool, but a useful fool. Great civilizations must fall to open the veil. Sacrifices. Nothing more.
She flipped the final card. This was always The Whelp, depicting a scarred youth reaching for a blade as he bled out his last moments. She had expected that. She had planned for that. But it had changed. After centuries, it was different.
The Farmer. An image of a man working his field, discarded sword in the foreground. Her heart beat hard. "No…," Red filled her vision.
She looked in the distance, south. She saw them. Survivors carrying a litter. He lived. Even at this distance, she saw him lift a bottle and drink. The deck had spoken.
This would change things. The farmer was an ill omen. It could mean many things. Usually the subject disappeared into obscurity and died of old age, but sometimes the blade would be raised again. She remembered others that raised their blades again. Worlds burned.
Scalemen, Ghosts. Runes, Pyrerunes. Burning Spires. All coming to pass, save for the bloody farmer. She slapped the cards in a fury.
The wind blew over her naked form and she looked into the sky. Looked beyond to where it lurked. Her eyes grew bloodshot. It looked back.
She could feel it and shuddered, stomach turning. A millennia of work, dashed to the ages.
The new visions washed over her mind like boiling oil. She screamed.
When her voice was hoarse, she breathed heavily. She collected the deck and her robes. Her hands performed the rites and opened the door to the Giantscape. A last look at the crumbling Spires of Qoal, and she walked through.
For Myriam Syrith, there was always work to be done. Events to shape. Worlds to break. Hopefully, she thought, this will be the last one.
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