An Athasian Story
By Siri Khalsa
The wind is undying. On the dying world it blows ceaselessly and those who struggle for life beneath the dark sun find the world's rhythm in it. The windborne sand is everywhere and experienced by all and screams across the planet like some mad razorwing of immense proportions and destiny. The sand blows over dunes, craggy mountains, baked salt flats, fields, desperate cities and the endless sea of silt. The wind carries the burning grains across lands unseen by any, save the Dragon once, over stretches of Athas long dead. The wind blows eternal and eventually returns. It blows now over a small village in the wastes near the pearly choking dust the living fear and falsely call a sea. In a filthy hot adobe hut a child is born amid the howling sand storm. It is a boy and the mother is dead and her remains fed to livestock.
The boy grows with a spear in his hand. The village has a simple mud brick wall that must be regularly defended from the intelligent monsters shaped like men that live and die in the waste and filth from which they are born. He is fifteen now and has killed many times. His sunken eyes and strong shoulders tell of crushing labor and constant pain and fear. Already the boy has a penchant for mindless violence.
It is the year of Desert's Fury when the storm comes to the village. Dark clouds gather above at first, and then a blessed rain of life-giving wetness pours down. The villagers run from their hovels with praises on their lips to the Lord of the Two Moons, hands twisted into signs of supplication. Then the rain comes like stones with enough speed to bruise skin and blind eyes. The wind throws children and livestock into the swirling vortex of cacophony and unseen force. The water melts their wall and homes and the thunder deafens and the lightning kills. Their screams cannot be heard and those who stand to pray to their distant and capricious god are cut down by flying craft of their own making. Most go mad and throw themselves into the tempest and are whisked away like so much loose sand. Death is among them but in a form they have never seen and it frightens them as a child's first hunt might.
The boy stands and surveys the destruction an eternity later. Everything is gone and everyone dead and all structure of human devise flattened and all of the water sucked into the bowls of the parched world. His father is dead but he does not feel. He drinks the blood of the dead for water and leaves the silent cataclysm of the dead village. The boy looks and finds a sharp piece of obsidian as long as his forearm and walks into the baking desert.
Two years later he is in Altaruk. He is stronger now and works during the day and at night he drinks kank ale and fights with the travelers and merchants that pass through. He fights all types from all of the city-states. Muls, dwarves, elves, human. He is violence incarnate in victory, in a daze of agony in defeat. They are always amazed by his strength and ferocity. His shoulders are broad and his hands large and callused. Late at night he collapses in a little room behind the weapon maker's shop and shoves a wooden wedge under the shoddy door and sleeps off the pain and alcohol.
The next night the boy is in the tavern drinking. A thin half-elf is there and an instant malevolence fills the boy's gaze and their eyes meet and a place in the mind opened that will not be closed without blood. He sets down his drink and approaches. Who the hell do you think you are half trash? The thin half-breed leaps to his feet and screams in elven, eti telu yinnah? The boy hits him fast, low. The other man hits the hard packed dirt with a sound like throwing rats against a wall and draws a sharpened piece of bone and stabs the boy in the thigh. Pain like lightning shoots up his leg. In a crimson rage he looks down upon the frail elven features and an instinctual hatred of weakness shoots through his shrieking psyche. He stabs the half-elf in the chest with his own knife, the stomach, the groin, until his hands are covered with alien blood and all movement has ceased. The boy looks up from his slain opponent and sees the eyes of hundreds of patrons staring at him in silence. He has been screaming. He flees the tavern and runs into the night and hides in a silt covered alley amid the beggars and filth that the gathering of intelligent races produces.
The boy must leave. In the morning he uses all of his money to buy a kank and a sharp spear tipped with flint. The man he buys it from has a huge scar on his face that the boy wants to touch but does not. The dusty streets seem hostile and alive with unseen malefactors and he looks everywhere like a hunted animal. The boy spurs his kank and the insect responds mechanically.
As he rides out of Altaruk's heavy stone gate, a dwarf of strange appearance meets him. Tattoos cover his bald head and loose white robes are his only clothing. He rides a huge crodlu, the largest the boy has ever seen with black scales and red eyes and huge clawed feet whose talons are as long as a hand. The crodlu is a magnificent animal. The dwarf brings his fearsome mount in front of the boy's kank. I know what you did in the city.
The boy grips his spear and tenses. The dwarf notices this but does not react. I am not here to hurt you though. I seek only to interest you in a potentially profitable venture.
What the hell do you want with me.
I saw the way you move. The dwarven eyes assume a faraway look. I know how you think. I want you to protect me.
Hire yerself a damn mercenary.
The dwarf seems unconcerned and unfocused. I want you. I choose my guards personally. The dwarven jaw opens in a silent laugh.
The boy begins to look about nervously. You a damn mindbender? He takes a faro leaf out of his saddlebag and chews on it some, then spits.
There is a vast treasure that I have been searching for many years. My meditations have finally led me to it. It is beyond the Ringing Mountains in a place called the Dragons Crown. I can promise you a silver piece a day.
The boy hears what the dwarf says and a silver piece a day is many times as more money than he has ever made, so he agrees and a later he and the dwarf ride off into the stony barrens. The red suns beats down on the crimson sandstone that is the desert floor and on the grayish boulders and on head of the boy. He wraps a rag around his skull. The dwarf rides his demonic mount in silence, bald cranium going uncovered in defiance of the natural order or logic. They pass by the bones of long slain elves and far-away mountains tower in the distance like fleeing gods. The kank plods along the furnace stone with insect resolution. The boy's eyes burn from the wind but he constantly scans the horizon for their destination, for he has not been told where he is going. He contemplates killing the dwarf but always the eyes of the monstrous crodlu catch his and he does not act. The boy chews some faro leaf and drinks water and mutters in Draji to himself. It is his first language and makes him feel stronger to speak it.
In the distance a gathering appears. A few tents surround an oddly shaped orange boulder that must serve as a landmark. There are men around it and they see the dwarf and most go about their business of sharpening weapons and mending hide armor but some stand and stare at the new arrival. The dwarf dismounts and enters one of the tents and his terrible mount stands by the entrance like a mother protecting its clutch. The others around the boulder eye the boy warily, and after some time most introduce themselves with few words and no contact. Five are muls and four are human and one is a half giant deserter from Nibenay who sits around the boulder next to the boy and talks dumbly at him in a tongue none present except the dwarf can understand. At night the warriors build a fire from dead cacti and desert grasses and cook jozhal meat and talk in low tones about the dwarf and their mysterious destination. Now that the boy has arrived they are eleven strong and will leave on the morrow says a scarred mul woman named Reisa. Many wonder how the dwarf can afford to pay ten silver a day and others say that one foolish elf that was recruited a few months ago tried to kill him in the night and the crodlu tore him into four pieces. That cursed thing never sleeps, like a kreen. Besides he is a mindbender, a sullen half elf with a huge obsidian axe says. I've seen mindbenders die, the boy adds and most shrug but Reisa looks at him hard and the half giant looks confused. The warriors sleep without a watch and the boy awakens at night to the sound of the crodlu walking outside of the communal tent and cannot sleep again until he hears it return to it's place by the dwarf's shelter.
They rode towards the west in the morning, the dark sun beating on the backs of the warriors, who in response wrapped loose turbans and drank quickly from water skins. The boy watered his kank on the go and let it have its head and it quickly falls into line behind the dwarf's crodlu. The Nibanese half giant walks, his long legs eating up the desert. Thermals rise from the reddish sandstone like escaping spirits and the fighters sag beneath the heat. They rode for two more days, stopping briefly at night, the dwarf always looking around strangely with his eyes half open before declaring the campsite safe and they did not see a living thing for days. The riders eventually assumed the color of the land the traveled through, becoming like some mobile feature of the harsh landscape, small mountains moving across an endless windswept stony barren. The eyes of the warriors' water and squint but in each pair exists a mindless hostility that like a colored lens tints anything the wearer beholds. Hands constantly on weapons. Only the eyes of the dwarf are pure, like a baby's, serene and flat. The boy has looked at the dwarf's eyes and saw only a soulless reflection of himself and nothing more. He feels fear but restrains it and turns it into anger that eventually will become hatred.
The third day from the boulder they sleep in a place of brown stone where the windborne dust feels like the overseer's lash. The red light of Ral lights the desert casting a blood meridian across the sand dunes in the distance and an almost imperceptible crimson aura over the heads of the sleepers. Guthay's redeeming light is nowhere to be seen. The ground they sleep on is hollow and throughout the fireless night they can here echoes of disturbances in the lightless caverns below and most wake with headaches. As the travelers rise and eat dried meat in the predawn dark the dwarf squats atop his midnight crodlu. You are all the spears of fate, he says. Intelligent life was created to kill and in being killers you are closer to your destiny than any sage could guess at. See the sun rising yonder? It is red, like our blood. As it should be. For Athas is a world of dust and fire and so the strong must feel a duty to kill the weak.
For days they ride west, into the setting sun, seeing little life and no water. They pass through the rib cage of some long extinct creature that must have been as long as ten mekillots and only the half giant seems fascinated. His brutal, dirty face is never far from the boy and the constant chatter soothes him. Sometimes the half giant will swing his huge club through the air to illustrate an incomprehensible story and the boy's eyes follow him closely, like a smaller animal watching a larger one that may decide to eat it.
They reach the mountains after a time and the climb is long and arduous, with the dwarf yelling encouragement all the way despite the warnings of the fighters that it will draw attention. The dwarf does not care and yells at the boy's huge companion in Nibanese and at the lone crossbreed in elven. His mad calls force their lungs to breathe the parchment thin air and continue on like the call of the Draji templar to prayer. The boy has never worked so hard in his life but the trek seems unreal and only his disassociation from the present keeps him moving. Even the muls are laboring by the time the weary group reaches the peak of the last mountain. From there they can look down through the thin clouds and see a huge jungle stretched out beneath the slopes. In the party only two have ever seen such a sight and the rest stare blankly and think to count the trees and quickly give up. The dwarf, who seems not at all tired, urges the boy to fetch wood for a fire.
He wanders away from the camp and finds a pond with ice in the center. The boy has never seen ice and it fascinates him. The water is cold and feels like pleasant fire in his parched mouth and he drinks deeply and leans against a rock next to the pond and looks west over the forest at the setting dark sun and feels peace. He almost slips into unconsciousness but rouses himself roughly and grabs his spear from the ground and gathers the branches of the small mountain trees. When he returns to camp the mul woman Reisa turns to him. She is sharpening her bone sword and he notices that her hands and arms are heavily scarred.
What took ye so long? Her eyes are suspicious. The boy looks her in the face. I found water.
The camp fills their water skins with the pond water and the quiet half elf with the big axe lights a fire. The mountain air is colder than anything they have felt before and the wind cuts through their desert blankets like an obsidian knife. The dwarf and his terrible mount seem immune to the elements and appear to take satisfaction in the discomfort of the others. The boy watches the dwarf as the fire casts strange shadows across his face and adds a false sparkle to his eyes. The black crodlu prowls around the fire just out of the edge of the light, circling the camp slowly with only its red eyes visible at times to the huddled petitioners of warmth.
On that freezing peak the fighters talk about battles past and foes slain. The half elf tells of an elven tribe fighting a thri-kreen pack fivefold its size and slaughtering its opponents and making armor of their hide and throwing their eggs against boulders. He speaks of the elven warriors singing ancient songs and the women being of great beauty. His eyes are wet. A mul tells of a fight between a giant and a silt horror and embellishes with swipes of his powerful hands that put the boy on an edge. Reisa looks at the boy then the dwarf and tells a story of her first battle in Urik's arena.
I was fifteen years old and I was to kill two lightly armed criminals sentenced to death, she says emotionlessly as if recalling what she had eaten. They were dwarves and each had only a small spear. I was given a sword, shield and helmet. They came at me using strategy but I had been trained well and the first hit sprayed dwarf blood all the way into the templar's box. The second one I disarmed and threw onto the obsidian stakes that decorate that stadium. King Hamanu himself commended me on my performance. Even from a hundred paces his voice was like the thunder of a Tyr storm. He looked into my eyes?.
What was it like? The dwarf says softly, leaning forward. His face is morphed with curiosity.
She closes her eyes now and the boy leans closer too, muttering prayer to the Lord of the Twin Moons.
It was like falling into an endless, cold hell and being scared as a Dragon-sacrifice but being fully conscious and aware. Like dying slowly.
The dwarf appears unsatisfied. He gets up from the weakening fire and goes to his crodlu and sits near it and begins a mindbender meditation, like some sort of supplicant to a reptilian god. The boy looks up at Ral and Guthay and leans back into his blankets and clutches his spear near to him and falls into a shivering sleep. The warriors all go to sleep and no one thinks to set a watch as none have ever seen the dwarf's mount sleep and they are all bone tired.
The boy is colder than he has ever been and sleeps poorly. During the night one of the muls has died and his body is stripped and his glossy obsidian sword claimed by another mul named Sar. They cast the frozen body into a chasm and the boy watches it tumble down the rocks. They ride down the mountain into steamy jungle. The cacophony of noise frightens many of the desert dwellers and they are on a knife's edge all day. The humidity condenses on their skin and on their clothes and weapons. Colorful monkeys dance above their heads and scream strange words at them like miniature crazy sorcerers. They taunt the warriors, jabbering and swinging inches over their heads. The half elf becomes violent. I'm gonna kill them gith begotten things, he says through clenched teeth and removes a cavalry bow from his saddle. The half elf's first arrow pierces a bright blue monkey's chest and it falls from its perch silently. The sight of blood electrifies the party and the boy throws his spear through one of his minute tormentors and the others are attacking. The half giant pulls two monkeys down from a tree with his hands and hurls them against the ground with enough force to make them bounce and Sar hits one with his sword as it tries to flee and animal blood spills like mother's tears in wartime and two muls run after a lavender monkey that fled into the foliage and return with it and one grabs its arms and the other its legs and they tear it in half. Reisa has thrown her sword and she advances on the monkey her toss has stunned and gouges its eyes out with her fingers and throws it into the jungle to die without sight. The green monkey the boy impaled is not dead. It lies on the forest floor amongst thick grasses struggling for breath and stares up with glassy eyes. In each black orb the boy sees a perfect miniature sun.
The dwarf watches all this with a smile and advises the spent champions not to eat the fallen beasts. The slaughter of the monkeys pacifies the group for the remainder of the ride and few words are spoken and with no meaning. At night a human man named Chizan leaves the camp to urinate and the boy sees him go and watches as a huge black form extends itself out of the jungle and envelops him. Parts of the unfortunate appear to vanish into the inky black creature and the boy can see his eyes against that pure black, white and terrified. Chizan's screams wake the party and those with bows shoot arrows into the black figure that the dwarf's crodlu will not look at but it carries their comrade off nonetheless. His screams go on all night from some hidden location and none are willing to go after him and none sleep now except the dwarf, whom nobody has seen do so ever. The boy watches the moons and thinks of war.
The next day the jungle becomes so dense that they must walk and lead the kanks and the airborne insects, which are unfamiliar to the desert warriors prey upon them like hungry kreen. The half giant is silent and tormented by bites. The dwarf rides down the line and talks to him in his strange dialect. The colossal warrior appears even dourer as the dwarf moves back to the head of the group. Verdant leafy echoes surround them and water that is worth its weight in silver in the desert is an annoyance. The foliage becomes so heavy that they must dismount and lead their kanks and let the blood-eyed crodlu lead, but it only grows thicker as the day passes. Ultimately Sar the ex-gladiator has to cut a path with his obsidian blade. It rains for many hours without respite and as the rains lift, the half elf, who has been scouting ahead comes running back to the dwarf, huge axe banging against his thin leg. A party of halflings, he says with a grin on his frail face. Camped. Few guards. I already killed the ones facing east.
The dwarf looks back amongst his following and the boy looks him straight in his baby eyes. The dwarf considers. He can see that the tedium and strange sights have worn away the narrow band of resistance that restrains the fighters from the endless sea of pure violence that ebbs in the eyes each. The heavy dwarven brow crinkles and he reaches below and touches the neck of the crodlu and dismounts. The warriors look at him and dismount themselves, tying the reins of the kanks to a tree and drawing their weapons and tightening their armor so it makes no noise. The three that have bows nock them. The dark sun's light filters down through the canopy, casting playful shadows that dance and sway with the wind like children. The war party moves silently through the leafy green realm like ghosts from some horrible other dimension of dust and aggression, weapons gripped in strong and callused hands, scarred faces tense and alert. They come upon a camp of around fifty halflings just coming out of their primitive huts to enjoy the after rain sun and bask in the cool moisture. Some of the men have painted faces and grip half sized spears and the half giant is on his belly as not to be seen and he smiles. The boy and Reisa are next to him and they look at each other and the boy feels her violence and is stronger and more aware. The small warriors are all clustered around each other talking and the children are running wild and the women sit around in small groups in jungle colored hides and chew betel nut. They are like miniature humans but look vastly intelligent, as if in being reduced to half size had somehow doubled the amount of wisdom each possessed. The dwarf is focusing and the warriors know he is preparing to use the way and they are excited and then the first arrow flies.
The arrow is from the half elf's bow and it flies true and strikes a halfling child no bigger than the Nibanese half giant's hand in the throat. The tiny body is decapitated and as the women gawk two warriors are struck and collapse, pierced and dying from arrows as long as they are tall and as thick as three of their fingers. The warriors are stunned and two more arrows hit their targets with killing accuracy before the rest rush the foliage from whence the deadly missiles came, screaming and hooting and their face paint makes them look like inhuman, brutal children. The fighters rush out to meet them with bloodthirsty cries and the half giant slams a club twice the size of his opponent home and there is a sound like the breaking of agafari branches and blood flows. The boy rams his spear through a halfling warrior and the savage collapses woodenly. Another leaps in front of him as the boy is trying urgently to pull his lance from his fallen enemy and slashes his forearm deeply with a knife. The boy cries out in pain and wrestles the pygmy to the lush jungle floor and is stabbed again but he is beyond feeling and pounds his fist into the halfling's head again and again until his hand is coated with thick blood and the skull has collapsed inward and forms the shape of a slave's water bowl. Reisa has cut down three effortlessly and is covered in gore like a fine silk dress and attacks a third with her knife because her sword has broken and kills him and guts him and begins ripping out its entrails as if desperately searching for some prize or treasure. The half giant strikes out with his heavy mallet and each strike's concussion alone kills a tiny foe and hurls them into the air like limp sacks of rice. The Nibanese's ugly face is blissful. Sar the mul ex-gladiator has been taunting one opponent the time entire, giving him superficial cuts on the face and arms and roaring and waving to some imaginary crowd but now he grows tired of the game and cuts the diminutive body in twain with a single stroke of his polished sword. The two human men who were Balician legionnaires and speak common badly have been working in a team with one using a large wooden shield and lance and the other only a buckler and short stabbing blade. Their names are Denga and Masid and they work well together. The shield man defends his comrade while the sword man attacks quickly and kills. They have killed seven in this fashion and are methodical. The boy sees three elder halflings in the rear collapse with blood running from their noses and ears and he knows the dwarf has killed them from the inside with the way and crushed their brains. The last of the warriors is struck down by the half elf's axe and the fighters fall upon the huddled women and children like gith on an unprotected desert caravan. In their eagerness to be about the kill their mouths hang open and their cries are not in any language but are understood. The women scream and clutch at each other but no mercy is given and their children are put to the sword. The half giant grabs a halfling woman in each hand and smashes their heads together and rubs the pinkish brains onto his muscled chest like fearsome war paint. The boy beats them to death with the heavy shaft of his spear and finds a baby and throws it up into the air crying and as gravity pulls the infant balefully downward he impales it. The muls run around in excitement swinging their weapons into clumps of bodies like eager adolescents. The dwarf runs to and fro naked, exhorting his champions to greater acts of brutality and howling in exhilaration at each kill. The small bodies lie in heaps near their thatch huts and finally there are none left to slay. The warriors collapse on the ground in an orgasmic daze and stare upward with mute pleasure, muscles relaxed and weary. Puddles of blood lie about the clearing and the dwarf's morbid crodlu is seen jumping up and down in puddle after puddle, landing with its huge clawed feet and cawing in pleasure as the warm blood splashes its underbelly. Only the dwarf is standing and it all the warriors are covered in gore and it appears that he is alone in a killing ground. Leshi, the naked dwarf says.
The half elf pulls himself up. I saw three children escape westward. The thin face takes a moment to register the command but then he drops his heavy axe and bow and draws a sharp flint dagger and moves into the forest like a skilled hunter, quietly and gracefully.
The jungle rustles about the resting group peacefully none sleep but it is like sleep and some hours later as the dark sun is falling beneath the western horizon they rise and the dwarf is perfectly clean and clad in a white robe and he tells them of a nearby stream. One by one the warriors wash the blood and grime from their bodies and upon their return all are in good spirits. The sun goes down quickly and soon they sit in a circle around the fire with the crodlu circling and watching and the warriors laugh and the dwarf produces a water skin of strong drink made from cacti and they make merry amongst the dark stacked corpses. The boy has not bathed and he leaves the fire with his lance and goes to the stream. He undresses and enters the water and washes and cuts his hair short again with his obsidian knife taken from the village of his birth and takes a crodlu scale and shaves. His wounds are not serious and he washes and cleans them carefully and the pain is something the boy can ignore. He leaves the water naked in the dark and sits on his calves facing east toward Tektitutilay's ziggurat and the two moons and bows his head and says the traditional prayer to the jaguar king. He finishes and lies back in the soft grasses and sleeps against his will.
When he wakes the moons are gone and the dark sun has risen and the humidity of the jungle is like a blanket on his skin. Birds and other tropical forest creatures call out in screeching tones and the boy dresses and walks back to camp. The dwarf is awake but all the others are just rising and shaking off the effects of the drink and looking at the now stinking corpses dumbly. One of the two mul mercenaries has taken sick and has to be strapped to his kank as they leave the massacred village. His normally deep bronze skin is pale and his eyes are brown where they should be white. Denga and Masid stay away from him and cover their mouths with cloth. Reisa, Sar and the other mul fighter whose name is Vorek look at their fallen comrade with disgust for weakness that comes naturally to all species and is only enhanced by each warrior's gladiatorial training. The sick mul is deteriorating rapidly. He talks to the boy, who rides next to him. Draji, he croaks coarsely.
The boy looks at his strong, pale face with no expression. The mul makes a feeble motion with his arm. My name is Harish. You didn't know that, eh? It matters not now. I am dying. I can feel the little demons eating my insides out. Imagine, a strong mul like me being struck down not by the arrows or spears of my foes but by some insidious jungle plague. Truly an inglorious end for one who once fought for Tyr against Urik's great legions.
What the hell do you want with me.
The mul considers and listens to the forest sounds for a few moments. The treasure we are seeking for the dwarf must be very valuable. He has paid us all a silver piece every day of our journey. There are seven of them in my bag. I want you to give them to a woman named Fenka in Tyr after this affair. She lives near the old arena in the warrens.
What makes you think I'll do something for you? He spits faro juice. The boy's eyes have no sympathy. I aint yer slave you damn half-breed. The boy moves his kank to the end of the line and the mul calls out for him several times for him but is ignored. The jungle has loosened and as the dark sun falls westward the dwarf gives a yell in his language and the riders emerge from the trees onto a scrub plain of large cacti and plentiful grasses. The dark sun beats down on the mounted warriors and they quickly resume their desert attire of loose turbans with neck covers and shed all unessential pieces of hide armor and heavy clothing. The kanks chitter excitedly and begin grazing and have to have their antenna prodded to keep the insects on course. The boy feels more aware in the desert and is relieved that the constant noise of the jungle is gone. Leshi the half elf catches up with them. He goes to the dwarf and the fighters cluster around their leader to hear the half elf speak. He has on his belt three small halfling heads. I caught and killed them, he says between gulps of water.
The dwarf scowls. What took you so long?
They are clever creatures, master dwarf. Very small as well. It took some time to locate all. They knew to scatter. Is that mul sick or dead?
Does it matter?
Leshi falls in with the party and the half giant speaks softly in Nibanese to him. Later the half giant is looking at the back of the dwarf's head and muttering. The boy knows that there will soon be a reckoning. He is worried as well. This is further west than he has heard of anyone traveling. As the dark sun sets their shadows get longer until they are stretched out across the rough grasses farther than the boy can throw a stone and the cacti look red in the failing light like the bloody spears of a victorious army planted across the battlefield. As darkness settles over the plains they light a fire and Leshi looks around but finds no danger and they camp and the sick mul is placed near the fire and he watches the flames like a man transfixed with the beauty of what he is seeing. The dwarf meditates briefly and then walks to and fro in the dark just beyond the light of the fire, lecturing his warriors.
War is the highest calling my children, never doubt that. War forces unity of existence, a unity of cause and action unlike any other endeavor in this burnt world. War becomes the reason for itself and the ultimate end and so the man who is a warrior is a master of his reality. He is the god, not the priest, and all others must bow before him because he is the embodiment of truth. The crucible of violence is infallible and the man who dwells in violence knows not falsehood and the weak and deceitful must cower in the face of his purity of being.
Masid is chewing faro leaf and spits. He sits next to the boy and they both watch the dwarf as he instructs the assembly of killers and the dwarf's crodlu sits like a man by the fire and watches its master with its demonic eyes and squawks its agreement. No one speaks and the sick mul Harish gives a weak moan and the desert is silent except for the ever-present wind that brings with it yet the familiar sting of sand.
The next day the fighters leave the scrub plains behind and ride into a deep red boulder field. The kanks are well fed on the grasses of the plains and scuttle forward stalwartly. The boulders lay at most ten paces from each other and are huge and only the half giant can see over them and they appear to stretch on to eternity. The crimson sandstone beneath their feet is hard and cracked and the boulders at least provide some protection from the abrasive wind. The dark sun beats down mercilessly and sweat pours off of the warriors and their mouths are dry again almost as soon as they set down their water skins. Wandering through the maze of boulders makes them uneasy and all grip their weapons and jump at the slightest noise. The boy is chewing faro leaf and talking with Reisa and Masid. Their sun burnt faces huddle close together as they talk of killing the dwarf.
He is mad, says Masid. We seen it and heard it and I thinks sometime the crodlu be the real leader.
Reisa nods at the legionnaire's sentiments. There is no life on this stony barren. No water, no animals. It stretches on forever. We will die unless we turn back. No one has ever come this far beyond the mountains. We do not even know what name this desert holds. We should kill him and his mount and take his silver. He pays us every day. He must have enough. She looks at the boy.
He spits faro juice. I say we give him three days to find a village or oasis. Then we kill him.
Masid agrees and Reisa nods and they move back into riding formation. The kanks trudge over the stone, their chitin legs making a click every time a leg sets down. Everything else is silent and the ten are like ghosts moving through a dream of desert. The sun sears their skin like an overseer's whip and Sar the ex-gladiator begins to sing lewd wine shop songs and is interrupted by the half giant's urgent call.
Hei henchi gith. The towering Nibanese looks pensive and grips his weapon. Hei henchi gith.
The warriors slow the pace and look at the half giant curiously. Is he rambling again? Sar casts a baleful stare at the half giant. I swear by the moons I'll cut his filthy throat if he doesn't shut up. The boy looks at Denga and Masid, who are speaking in rapid Balician to each other and waving their weapons around like wards against some insidious evil. Harish the sick mul looks scared and confused, his diminished eyes darting like insects. Hei henchi gith. The boy yells at the dwarf. What the hell is the cursed giant saying?
The dwarf has his eyes closed and looks back at the boy and a smile breaks over his broad face and he speaks so all can hear. He says that he sees gith.
A wave of red fear spreads through their ranks and the boy prays to the Lord of the Two Moons. The mul mercenary Vorek and Sar the ex-gladiator speak in low tones. Reisa draws the foot long broken end of her sword. The Balicians appear on the verge of panic, their eyes white and crazed. The dwarf looks at the half giant without expression. Hem henchi ut?
Alenge? yetra? Ter namen.
The dwarf translates. He thinks fifty, maybe more. Well, my soldiers of destiny? Do we stand and fight the true hordes of the desert or flee this right crucible? The baby eyes look at the assembled killers and finally meet the boy's hardened stare. They watch each other for a few moments and the dwarf smiles and it is like an omen of death. Damn you, the boy whispers.
The warriors stand in a clearing of the boulders and dismount from their kanks and the black crodlu stands with them like a man. The half giant lifts Harish onto a boulder and he is given his bow and a quiver and the pale mul smiles as he thinks of his end. Already the dwarf is engaged in psychic combat with distant gith mindbenders, and his brow is covered in sweat but he grins still. Leshi draws his bow and climbs onto another stone and calls out the distance of the approaching multitude. Fifty paces. Thirty paces. Brace yourselves!
The boy hears the battle cry of the gith before he sees them. The sound is like the screams of tortured slaves, a howl of immeasurable pain and rage that stirs those who hear it to base emotions and Reisa is next to him, checking his leather armor and speaking softly to him. Don't worry, Draji. Five to one isn't so bad. She moves down the line checking armor and weapons, speaking to the half giant to who smiles. The fighters raise their own cry now and it is terrible to hear and the gith explode in a charge from the boulders like a wave of pale death, ragged mouths wide open and a red haze fills the boy's vision. Two gith rush him and he parries their strong but inaccurate thrusts and smashes the haft of his spear down on the head of one and he feels the skull give way and it drops to the ground like a bag of rice. The second slashes his leg deeply with it's obsidian lance and the boy sees his own blood on the sandstone and stabs his spear into the gith's belly and blood is on his hands and he pulls it out and hears the screams of his victim like a ode to his strength. Another jumps on his back and tears its sharp claws across his face but misses his eyes and the boy grabs one of its hands and pulls it in front of him and kicks it in the face and the pale gith stumbles back into a boulder and the boy grips his spear in two hands and swings it from his shoulder like a club and hits it in the head with enough force to throw the gith to the ground. Reisa is killing her opponents with the jagged end of her sword and steps inside another marauder's reach and jams the bloody length of bone under its chin and blood covers her as it collapses on the hard stone shell of Athas. Another gith runs to her and stabs her in the face and Reisa stumbles back and is run through the chest from behind and stabbed again in the stomach. The half giant kills many but three gith throw flint tipped javelins at the towering warrior and they puncture his chest. The Nibanese stumbles and throws his club at the three and the huge missile hits one and breaks its head open like a clay pot and the half giant grabs another gith and breaks his neck and another bandit stabs the half giant in the back and two more javelins hit him and he falls like a great totem of violence and is torn apart by the savage desert brigands. The dwarf's crodlu is killed by flying spears and Leshi and Harish rain death down upon the gith like gods standing above seditious petitioners and death flies from their bows and the gith die as they are born to do and one scrambles up Harish's boulder and cuts his throat from ear to ear and then rips the head off the mul's body and holds it high and yells like a victorious gladiator. Leshi fires an arrow and it hits the gith in the groin and it falls from its perch howling. Sar kills as only a gladiator can and is wounded time and time again and cuts down opponents and is finally overwhelmed and is clubbed to death wailing like a child. Vorek uses his war club well and fights defensively and keeps his back to a boulder. His eyes are panicked but he strikes down any that come too close and the gith prowl just outside of his reach screaming and feinting. Javelins hit Vorek's shield like the blows of a hammer and he stumbles and the gith are on him in a second but he recovers and hits a marauder with all of his strength and its chest cavity collapses and blood spills from its mouth and it leans back against a boulder and dies looking into the dark sun which illuminates the unholy slaughter. Denga and Masid fight using tactics and they have killed five gith and then Denga is hit with a heavy thrown stone and a gith with a weighty club strikes his head and Denga's brain spills onto the hungry ground like an offering. Masid runs to the inhuman brigand and slashes its face and when it falls he crushes its windpipe with his boot. The gith looks up into the blue sky and asphyxiates with a gurgling sound like water running over rocks and Masid is backed into a corner by three gith but Leshi's arrow takes one and distracts the others and he stabs one in the chest and punches the other and wrestles it to the ground and draws his bone knife and cuts its throat and smears the blood on his face. A gith approaches from behind the legionnaire and stabs him in the back. The dwarf has finished his mental battle and now attacks the minds of the gith warriors. One by one they fall with blood streaming from their noses and ears and the gith waver and the remaining warriors attack and the boy stabs one with his spear and Leshi cuts down two with his bow and dodges a thrown javelin and Vorek roars and beats his opponents back and rushes one and crushes his collarbone with a heavy blow and kicks the brigands head in while he fends off the other gith. There are only five gith left now and they regroup and are crazed beyond thought of retreat and that is not their way so they rush the three remaining warriors who stand next to each other now covered in gore and grim faced. All five die and the fighters give no mercy and then they are standing in a bloodbath exhausted and numbed.
They squat around a fire made of gith spears and the dead surround them in a spiral and at the center is the dwarf. Leshi and the boy and Vorek huddle against the cold and listen to the madman speak of divine right of combat and universal blood of being. The dwarven face is twisted and grotesque in the flickering firelight and his white robe is stained with blood. He paces now, speaking quickly.
My sons of battle, you have passed through the white of eternity and only more shall you taste. The only way is to live to taste truth and all else is false, unforgivable sin. Feel the emptiness of the heavens and know-truly know- that intelligent life can make his own destiny and no elemental entity or god-king can alter that. Know that we are and will not be worthy of that destiny until we are purified! Yes, you feel the rightness of this path. The path I speak of cannot be walked, it must be fought. What say you, Draji?
I aint yer damn son.
Of course not. The dwarf smiles. Your father is the spear and your mother's milk the blood of your enemies. That is why I chose you. You are so close to clarity.
Maybe so. But I have seen the truth of my path represented in this twisted world we live in over and over. The ancient texts speak of green fields of flowers and seas of water and warriors who fought for honor. We have endless stony barrens, a sea of choking dust and men who kill for no reason at all. Our birthright was taken from us by selfish and terrible beings beyond what our minds can understand. Two hundred King's Ages of suffering and slavery and burning sun and death and why? We were not meant to live this way. The sun used to be yellow. It is now red. Do you know why?
The boy says nothing and tightens his grip on his spear. Leshi and Vorek huddle like frightened children next to him and the dwarf is speaking louder. Ral and Guthay cast their light onto the killing ground and the boulders are like unmoving judges at the edge of their vision and the bodies inhuman like cordwood. The boy feels something inside him bend and slowly break and he feels a great pressure leave his head.
Because the world is dying, Draji. Eventually the water will run dry and we will all vanish into the choking dust and windborne sand just like everything eventually does. You have to accept that. Can you? Can you accept the fact that your reality will die? You have no fear of your own death. But can you envisage everything you know perishing like so much wood in a fire? We are doomed. We will all fade away into the wind.
So will you. The boy grabs Leshi's bow and nocks an arrow and leaps close to the dwarf. The boy points it at the dwarf's face and their eyes lock. Leshi is on his feet staring. Do it, he mutters in elven. The dwarf is serious and he regards the boy coldly. You kill me with that arrow or you take it away right now. Do it now.
The boy is sweating and the bow is hard to hold back but he cannot kill the dwarf. He sees in the mad eyes the truth and is debilitated. He lowers the bow and hands it to Leshi.
I'm going. The boy picks up his water skins and spear and Leshi gathers his things. The dwarf is silent. Leshi speaks to Vorek. Are you coming?
He'll kill you.
The scarred mul spits faro juice. We'll see.
They head out into the dark boulder field alone, back towards the mountains. Leshi whispers to the boy. You will never get a chance like that again. He will come after us in the morning. You should have killed him. Et immmey heritu.
What does that mean?
It is the first line of a song my mother used to sing.
What horrors the minds of the mad produce,
Wraith shapes of evil and demons naked under the moons,
The spite of the world set loose,
Under the shadows of the silvery dunes.
The boy prays to his dead god.
It is the afternoon of the next day when the dwarf overtakes them.
The two dusty figures walking through the boulder field are weary and the boy misses the clatter of chitin feet in the distance. Leshi freezes and the boy is alarmed and looks amongst the gray stones and sees the dwarf fifty paces away riding a kank and carrying Vorek's bow. The dwarf snaps off an arrow and it strikes Leshi in the arm and blood seeps from the wound like a desert spring. The boy hides behind a rock and Leshi behind another and the boy hears the dwarf dismount and the dwarf calls out then.
It's all right, Draji. I'm here for the half-breed. Just show your self and I will take him and leave you. Have no fear.
Leshi crawls over to the boy and gives him his bow and quiver with his good hand. The half-elven face is grim and pale. Kill him. Telu hajmi, Draji. Kill him, Draji. Just give me the spear so I may die well. Arrgh, by Coranuu that pains! Go, hunt! Hinnai!
The boy looks at the weakening Leshi clutching his heavy lance in thin hands. He drops his water skins and excess weight, checks the bow and prays quickly. Then he moves off into the boulder field, bow drawn and an arrow ready.
The boulders cursedly hide all from sight. The baked reddish ground holds no footprints and is as hard as flagstones and the boy listens desperately for footfalls and hears nothing. His leather armor is heavy and hindering but he does not remove it. All of his senses are extended and weaving through the gray maze he sees the dwarf's kank in a clearing. The boy smiles and will not fall for the old elven hunter's trick and he moves back wards and crouches behind a cracked boulder and watches the kank. As anticipated, the dread figure of the dwarf now comes in sight, Vorek's powerful short bow in his thick hands. The boy draws the arrow back as far as he can and carefully aims at the center of the dwarf's mass and breathes in and out. In for Ral, out for Guthay. In for Ral, out for Guthay. He releases the arrow but the dwarf's senses are enhanced with the way and he moves at the last instant and the arrow grazes his muscled shoulder, spraying blood onto the thirsty ground. Before the boy can nock another projectile the wounded dwarf has scrambled behind cover. The boy begins moving, dashing between boulders. He hears the dwarf's voice from far too his left.
Very good, Draji. Do you think I've killed Vorek? You would be wrong. He has his share of the treasure now. He knew not vex the templar, unlike some I can name. I am not trying to hurt you Draji. You are my chosen.
The boy changes his approach pattern, going to the dwarf's voice on the right. He is breathing hard and sweat runs down from his close cropped hair and into his eyes. His footsteps seem too heavy and deliberate. An arrow whizzes by his face and the boy drops to the ground and rolls behind a rock and crawls to another piece of cover and peeps out into the boulder field. Another deadly missile scores a furrow into the stone by his head and the boy crawls to another piece of protection, breathing hard and listening madly for something. He hears Leshi's screams in the distance but is not fool enough to move. The dwarf yells out once more.
You know, Draji, I never could understand your pitiable faith in a dead and also false demi-god.
There is only one god you should be worshipping, and that is not a god of worship and boons and sanctity and blasphemy. No, if thee is a god that watches over Athas it is not some elemental creature but a mad an malicious being who delights in suffering. Much like myself, indeed. Perhaps I am his prophet. He does not answer prayers! Because prayers are the whimpers of the cowardly weak of this burning planet not worth the water they drink!
The boy has circled the dwarf's voice and has him in his vision and silently pulls back his bow, aiming at the dwarf's torso. He mutters a prayer to the Lord of the Two Moons and the dwarf spins and they both fire arrows at the same time. The boy feels something like a hammer hit his chest and he is now looking up at the blood red sun of Athas. After an eternity the dwarf is standing above him.
Heavy hands grab his arms and drag him across the scorched earth. The dwarf is very strong and the boy can see that his arrow had struck the dwarf's thigh and pierced deeply. The dwarf seems not to feel the wound and talks to his incapacitated mercenary.
You have been tested and found wanting, Draji. It is a shame, really. You had so much promise. I shall return to the civilized lands and try again.
The boy swallows and grimaces over the pain. The dragging sends lightning jolts of agony up his spine, but he manages to speak. What about the treasure?
The dwarf laughs deeply. The treasure I offered cannot be found in some shell of the Green Age or village coffer. It required a journey of spirit, not miles. You were unable to finish, and so now you are dying in a barren wasteland.
The dwarf stops and lays the boy down in a clearing. He sees Leshi some feet away. The dwarf mounts his kank and looks down on the dying warriors. Athas' sun beats down on the boy and warms him.
Heat thermals dance around him as if the spirits of nature rejoiced at his fall. The boy breathes out and looks up into the blinding blue sky and sees his beloved moons and smiles. The dwarf speaks then.
are dying. But only if you have fear will you truly die. The bald head shines like a polished egg and the dwarf leans forward and his baby eyes light up.
Know this Draji. There are no gods on Athas. But whether in this world or the next, whether the circumstance is distorted or just, there will be a reckoning. There always is. What will you say then?
The dwarf rides off and the clacking of his kank's feet fades and is gone. The boy lays dying and struggling to breathe. He thinks of war and the moons and then Leshi calls out with his last strength.
What will you tell him?
The boy thinks and smiles. He hears Leshi die a few moments later and closes his eyes.
We will say that we never doubted. We will speak of killing our enemies and wandering the burning sands. We shall speak of thirst and anger and death and slavery and poverty. We shall speak of storms so terrible as to erase all life when they bring water, and of a choking sea of dust. We shall speak of a peoples fallen from grace into brutality and blood sport. We shall speak of the crimson sun of a dying world. And we shall say that we never knew fear.