When Comes the Firetide | Chapter Three

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NOTE: This story contains depictions and themes that are mature in nature. If you find the use of foul language or the depiction of sexuality and violence to be distasteful, it may not be for you.  Some content may also be sensitive in nature for some readers.
This is an excerpt.  You can follow the blog and read past and future full chapters here: firetidecomes.blogspot.com/

Chapter Three:  The Motherless

The Viridian Cattedrale, Western Tybraes
2nd Som of Respect, Month of Inundation 8178

Vibrant rays of light beamed through the chamber, blades of green, gold and cobalt splicing the empty space with the Imperial colors. A single spotlight of white through the oculus above illuminated the central floor mosaic, obscured beneath a tangled pile of bodies. The pointing between the tiles had filled and stained crimson with Shae blood. Now rivulets of lilac ran from new limp limbs and throats, fresh Erahs corpses crowning the pile. Outside the macabre display, Dūsan Satass Druje lingered in the shadows waiting to be summoned. A slim figure with him stepped forward into the light and squat to meet the vacant eyes of a Shae man. Caramel rich lips peeled back in a mocking grin as she flicked one lop ear with a finger.

“Voor,” Druje hissed.

The woman rose and kicked the body with disdain before returning to her commander’s side. Regarding him, she grimaced. “Your stitches are torn. The Valk Malvud will see the blood. See weakness.”

“See to your own limping, woman.” Druje was unruffled by her needling. “Massafera Tyque knows the value of what I bring.”

“WHICH IS?”

The voice rumble through the chamber, a boom of thunder that trembled the very air. All eyes turned toward the throne dais at the fore of the throne room. An imposing silhouette glided like a spectre out of the darkness, circling from behind the infamous Jaed Throne. From Voor’s vantage below, he could have been Fondroy himself come to collect his death tolls.

Druje lowered to one knee, a hand at his knee and the other flat on the floor before him, a show that he bore no weapons. “I found a Blade Spirit, Valk Malvud… an Erahs Nelenr, as you described from legend.”

“I see no Erahs.”

Voor and the reigning priest locked eyes. She had not also genuflected. In a gratuitous display, she teleported beside her commander, reappearing in the same cowed pose. She, however, lifted her eyes to meet the priest’s immediately. The Valk Malvud pointed at her, the rings of his adorned ruddy hand flashing in the colored light rays.

“Who is this one, the veniportr?” The throaty rumble was as disdainful as it was curious.

Druje glanced over at Voor, “an assassin. The Erahs call them Ndorinr. Her gift does not rely on the earth currents to travel. She takes life force. I have seen nothing like them among our kind before.”

Massafera Tyque stepped down from the dais into the light. His eyes were an uncanny cerulean and pierced Voor with as much accusation as his query. “There are not. You are a mongrel, then?”

Lifting her chin, the woman stood and ported into the light where he could see her. Eyes defiant and her tone challenging she all but spat at him. “Do I look mongrel to you?”

“What is your name?”

“Voor Rass.”

“Why is there no faaltalla at my feet?” The priest turned his eyes on Druje as the commander tried to rise unnoticed. The grimace of pain was not hidden by the shadows. Massafera sneered in disappointment. “Oh… but there is. Tell me, Weak One… did the little Erahs best you in battle? You are broken, bleeding. I smell it on you.”

Druje averted his eyes. The slur stung in his wounds, more so because it was one most often reserved for the comparatively tiny Erahs. “She best us both. The legends are not exaggerated, Valk Malvud. She was drugged–”

“Stop your mewling!” Massafera drew back as if recoiling from a diseased beast. “I was right not to let you lead my forces. You are old and feeble. Useless.”

Voor half bowed her smirk barely obscured. “If I may, First One…?” His eyes lowered to her. “Damin Maris Eleyor owns the little dkun… he is too much a coward to keep her from us, but if he tries…” Her head cocked as a hand rest on her dagger belt. “I can find her. She would not inspirit her kin then, but perhaps the Shae’s drugs prevented it?”

“Kill the Shae anyway. I see no use for him.”

She bowed her head but hissed as his rust colored hand gripped one scarlet and black horn, jerking her head back with significant force. His breath smelled of rich spices and mushrooms. “Do not come back without the Nelenr unless it is to offer your blood to Fondroy.” He breathed deeply near her neck. “It smells sweet… he would not find it tasteful, but it is an offering all the same.”

With a toss, the priest threw her back with more force than the woman was prepared for. Voor staggered but managed to keep her feet. She turned her indigo eyes onto Druje a moment, then more timidly returned them to Massafera Tyque. “I will not disappoint you, Valk Malvud.”

A singular point directed her to leave. Voor Rass did not take the door, she merely dropped to a crouch and disappeared in a waver, like heat off the tiled floor.

In this distraction, Massafera crossed the distance between himself and Druje. In spite of Druje’s size, Massafera was equal in height but broader. His decades of age above Druje made Massafera no less physically imposing as his voice projected throughout the hall. “These debts you collect are trivial. I tasked you to find me Necromancers!”

Druje swallowed and fought the urge to look away. Massafera followed the twitch of his eyes. “Fondroy and Rotta still sleep. Hroc Tosh is still undiscovered. Only Uvall is awakened.”

“I underst–”

“CARE YOU NOTHING OF OUR GODS?”

The burst of his voice arrived like an announcement of lightening within the walls of the Cattedrale. Druje would not have been any more startled if the pile of bodies beside him suddenly burst into flames.

“Voor Rass cannot capture the Erahs girl alone… and she IS the one you seek. I am sure of it.” Druje met the priest’s enraged gaze. “Fondroy take me if she is not.”

“Find me the Necromancers…” the priest turned away revealing the immense Kith crest branded upon his back. A flick of one hand toward the bodies completed his dismissal. “And get rid of this… trash.”

Druje lowered his eyes to the floor, ignoring the eyes of the Ganroth guards stationed near every door and window, his shame displayed for them all.

“Om mal Oma Dess kaat vudmaa bosht eska ntas gos fayl,” he muttered, teeth clenched.
“I see my ascension in a vision and it comes with your death.”

A hollow threat uttered by many Ganroth in the heat of battle, outrage, or humiliation, Druje felt every word of it. Striding toward the door he was stunned when a younger soldier stopped him with a firm hand to his chest.

“The Valk Malvud gave you and order.”

Druje bared his teeth, gripped the less seasoned warrior’s wrist and with the speed and ease of practice on many a battlefield he had the man on his knees. Gripping the door guard by one horn he jerked his head back and snarled down at him. “As I see it, I outrank you by decades, nursling. I delegate the duty to you.”

At that he spit in the youth’s face then snapped his wrist with a loud snap heard across the room. Druje booted him in the back as he let him go. “See how well you carry the dead with one arm, gansalla.”

Turning he strode from the room to seek out one of the army’s loyal Erahs’Jasuuk veniportr. He needed to reach Damin Eleyor’s estate before Voor Rass fucked everything up.

– – – –

Iaegonul Ruins at the base of The Shards, Eastern Tybraes
2nd Som of Justice, Month of Inundation 8178

So little was explained, no real information offered, or orders given beyond staying at the Teigne’s side and to meet at his tent once they had made camp for the night. A night spent at the base of The Shards was not a night to which any looked forward. As they had ridden, Khes had the distinct sensation that the Teigne was examining each in turn, as if they had been called forward for inspection and no more. Eight of them flanked him, his personal entourage riding between them. No one spoke save the Teigne and Gregoire. Sly as she could, Khes attempted to locate Revas and was relieved to see him riding just off to the side behind a lanky Shae with a prosthetic leg, likely a healer or a Keeper there for death rites. The two looked to be enjoying conversation.

~You are well?~  Khes sent to him.

Revas looked up and simply waved. It was acknowledgment, at least, but not a proper Erahs response. She mustered a smile in return, but her heart was sinking as she faced forward again and sat up straight. She caught the eyes of Gregoire and the Teigne pass over her. Khes lifted her chin with dignity then nodded, but inwardly willed them to leave her alone. She wanted them to break for camp. Perhaps dinner and a bedroll would bring some semblance of normalcy for a time, if such a thing existed.

The remains of Iaegonaul stood like the sun-bleached bones of a long dead beast once majestic in life. The lowest lying foothills that spread up and out from its epicenter had become a speckled coat of colored tents. Spires of a tower rose out of the mountain’s edge, a sharp bone fang amidst the crystalline peaks known as The Shards. The mountain range looked impossible to scale or traverse, sharp, jagged structures made of quartz and bismuth. The nearly sheer cliff-faces may as well have been frosted and colored glass capped in ice and snow. The natural crystal mountains reflected and refracted the light so much so, that sunrise and sunset in and around The Shards had come to be known as “The Glaring.” Prisms sent rainbows dancing about the foothills, but also struck out with beams of blinding light. Until the fiery orb of the sun was completely beneath the horizon, the Shae army and its few Erahs companions were forced to wear dark veils to shield their eyes.

Though Enoa Vale was a city, and considered rather affluent, Khes’ amazement at the manors of Enoa seemed childish and naïve in the shadow of these monstrous mountains. How ridiculous Damin Eleyor must have thought her, so wide-eyed at a city when the Tybraes held wonders as these.

Revas could barely contain himself, his excitement infectious. The raw genuine energy inspired smiles and new found awe amongst the soldiers. Khes grew weary of calming him and since it did not seem to trouble the others, she let him marvel aloud. Only when he began to pester the Teigne’s Jaed Knights did Khes hush him and remind him he should be seeing to Lieutenant Váleo’s things.

Gregoire stopped Khes and indicated an area removed of the main camp. “Settle yourself there. Rest and eat. Once the Teigne is ready, we will send for you. I’ve left you something by my vnesh.”

“Why did I need to ride near him for so long? Could we not have spoken then? And the others…” Khes studied him with wariness.

“No more questions.”

The young woman huffed to herself as she turned her vnesh and obeyed. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw that Zakeriel was deep in conversation with the soon-to-be Jaed. Perhaps it was merely about his impending status as a Jaed Knight, but it looked far more staid than that.

Beside Gregoire’s tied mount, rest a small leather bundle on a rock. Tucked within a fold of the wrapping rest a small note. Dismounting, Khes approached it to see her name written in Avali. Whipping her head about to look for Gregoire, she spotted the man but only briefly as he stepped into the Teigne’s newly erected tent. The man had admitted he did not know the Erahs words. Who here would have written this for him?

Very delicate as she fingered the note, Khes turned it over to find a very simple message.

“Lihaan’s blade. Your birthright.” Followed by the symbol of the Venerate.

This was what kept Gregoire in the Venerate’s tent so long. Khes was confounded that the cold, often cruel woman had parted with it, or even deigned to give it to her. So much about that woman confused her. Had she known her at all? Odd too, the timing with which Gregoire chose to finally deliver it. Perhaps Hakken had told him what he had seen. It could be for protection. Perhaps now he finally trusted her.

Unfolding the leather binding, Khes revealed her mother’s weapon. The symbol of the Alces wolf etched into the shining blade above the symbol of the Nelenr. Equally elegant designs were also carved into the sleek, horn handle. Unable to keep the tears from her eyes as she held the heirloom, the orphaned woman turned her back to the camp and let them fall. Her fingers trembled as she tried to slide it into its sheath, but she only managed the job with unleashed sorrow.

Her mother’s passing was a proud death, an honorable one. It was not some tragic loss, a wasted moment or a wasted death. Lihaan had been a paragon of a Nelenr. She gave her life defending the Venerate and the Clan and Khes knew even Boann was not so callous as to have denied her proper homage in spite of Khes’ absence. Khes did not feel some great wound or soul rending by her mother’s sacrifice. She should aspire to such a distinguished example. Khes had, however, been denied any moment of release. Offering up any expression of gratitude, respect or love to promise their rejoining in a future rebirth. Lihaan passed through the Firetide two cycles ago without ever hearing Khes’ vow. Khes’ heart was rended for this.

The sun was not yet set, her serenity only just reclaimed and her tea not yet warm when a young squire ran over to Khes’ fire and bid her come. Looking down at her untouched meal, Khes sighed but left it. Her hands sought out her newly bestowed weapon and the precious Weyd Journal before rising to attend matters with the Teigne. Lihaan served the Venerate. Khes answered to a different regent, it would seem.

Arrival at the tent was not pleasant, not for Khes at least. A very brawny man, grey-brown with black hair and as grim as his coloring suggested, stood beside the man she knew as Obret. Unlike Obret, in possession of both ears. This Shae had illustriously decorated hair, and scarred nearly as much as Gregoire. Proud in stance, he was no criminal, more likely a veteran warrior, possibly even a Deignier with battle experience. He carried himself with more than enough pride.

His arms crossed as Obret indicated the approaching Khes, and the brute’s expression soured more.

“Goron, meet the mighty Erahs-girl what tried to take me stones,” Obret snorted with a half-bow in her direction.

“An Erahs and a girl-child?” Goron straightened and growled. “Is this a joke, or does the Teigne insult me?”

“Woman,” she corrected with a firm tone. He would have made a good Ganroth, Khes thought immediately fashioning horns for him in her mind. “I doubt you rank of any importance to the Teigne.”

“Well,” Obret cooed, “I don’t mind the womanly parts.”

She sneered at Obret, “and I shall not show restraint should you touch me again…” Khes then arched a brow at Goron, “Surely my summoning is, in a no way, about you, Goron.”

“Ah, ah– SIR ANCIL. Goron’s a bonafide knight.” Obret seemed more proud and pleased at this observation than Goron. “Maybe he’s got the prestige needed to warm your lady-parts.”

“I sheathed my knife too soon,” Khes sneered at him.

Zakeriel had approached unnoticed and quickly stepped between the two. “Hey now, that’s enough. You’ll both show Khes respect. The Teigne and Commander Kreios selected her just as they did you and me.”

He eyed her with a point indicating that the dagger was to STAY sheathed. Khes inclined her head, but did not remove her hand from her belt.

“For what, pray tell us? They cannot honestly think she is a capable fighter! Obviously no guardian for the Teigne.” Goron gestured to Khes in disgust. “She’s no bigger than a child… nor older from the look of it.”

“SIR ANCIL!” Gregoire’s voice boomed as he exited the Teigne’s tent. “I shall not accept such licentious verbal assaults of anyone, let alone my ward. Brute strength is not the only way to win a battle. I have seen the size of a man only lend to his destruction.”

A faint smirk curled Khes’s lips as she recognized Gregoire’s reference to how they came to meet. The knight, humbled at the chastisement, bowed his head in salute.

“Of course, Commander. My apologies.” Goron lifted his head to see that none of the three scowls before him had softened. Quick to amend, he stammered, “and to you… my lady.”

The tone of his voice proved that acknowledging her as a person was harder than noting her gender. This was a Shae that viewed Erahs as forest game, not people. For that, Khes marked his name black in her memory.

Zakeriel whispered at Goron as he sidled next to him, “and Khes is double Gregoire’s age… so watch it with the girl-child pish.”

“There is only three hours or so left until full darkness. You will not have much time to achieve your task, but it is essential it be done before dark.” Gregoire’s tone was severe and it gave Khes some pause. He led them away from the Teigne’s tent and directed their attention toward the ragged tower, jabbing at the sky. “Part of the ruins, there, used to be a meeting hall. A circle of unity for the younger nations to join and maintain peace.”

“You mean when we were viewed as equals?” Goron sneered and glanced over at Khes.

“Yes,” Zakeriel replied with a snide tone. “Us primitives and the Erahs living together. Frightening thought.”

“Zakeriel,” Gregoire snapped then turned his piercing eye on Goron in warning. No one addressed Khes or so much as glanced her way. After a cold silence, Gregoire continued. “Somewhere, within that tower, is an artifact left for us by the Tōk. Their leader, Samraat Taoel Gyreck has guarded it for over a Kyr–”

“A what?” Obret interrupted with a squint, then whispered at Goron, “wassat? A kyr?”

“A thousand years.” Khes answered him with a scowl then gestured for him to be silent.

Ignoring the interruption, the Commander finished. “Night is a dangerous time to be trapped in The Shards…even at the base of The Shards. The epicyon roam the tundra regions and can tear a man Goron’s size in half with little effort. The camp is unlikely to be troubled by them, but so small a group are easy prey.”

Khes spoke up without fear of reprimand, “then why can we not go at Dawn? If it is safer…”

Gregoire’s brow lowered into a stern grimace, but not in anger. There seemed to be an underlying frustration that was more complex than any simple answer. “Our arrangement with the Samraat came with restrictions. You will find his son, Lalsamraat Paoel Gyreck within the tower ruins. Escort Paoel and the artifact back to us before nightfall. Nothing else is your concern.”

It was evident the epicyon packs were not the biggest threat to them. Something far more cunning loomed near. Khes sensed this from him, though the others seemed to notice nothing. Zakeriel, perhaps, sensed it too, as he glanced at her briefly, a faint trepidation in his eyes.

With an affirming bob of his head, Gregoire handed all authority over to Zakeriel before walking away. The young Captain cleared his throat and sighed. “Right. Suit up, get your vnesh and meet me at the North pass in ten minutes.”

“Taoel, Paoel… these Tōk use any proper names?” Goron muttered to himself with a sneer as he started away.

“Feel free to ask them, Sir Ancil. I’m sure you’ll return with only a few new holes.” Khes barked after him then shook her head as he growled what was, undoubtedly an uncivilized retort.

Although Sir Ancil seemed no less enraged at Khes’s inclusion, the woman had all but forgotten the exchange. Long before her time with Damin Eleyor, her experiences among Shae culture were ripe with men like Goron.

Zakeriel turned to face Khes before she could walk off. “I apologize for them. Unfortunately in such dire times, we are forced to recruit for numbers alone…with an emphasis on combat. So, oafs and criminals abound within the ranks. Seems social graces and courtesy are optional these days.”

“Do not apologize for the faults of others. You will only grow weary with effort and old with grief.” Khes raked a hand through her platinum locks, sweeping them back from her face and twisting the long tresses into a knot. “I should get my things, tell Cricket to watch for my return.”

“Probably best not to tell him.”

The Erahs lifted her eyes to Zakeriel’s with a pained stare, “and have him panic that I’ll not come back at all this time? No.” She hesitated a moment before adding, “but, thank you. Sylf’atha.”

“Sill–”

“Sylf’atha.” Khes was patient as he repeated it, then informed him, “your welcome would be jo’venn.”

“Jo–venn.”

His repetition was as accurate as she expected. With a simple, short nod, she walked away. Perhaps it was only his genuine attempts at respectfulness or his kindness that prompted her to teach him, even if it were so simple a thing. At least he was willing to learn.

As she walked away, Zakeriel smiled. The sound of the Erahs language on her tongue was musical only adding to her exoticism. Erahs in the Shae cities only spoke to each other in whispers or neighborhoods that Shae did not frequent, if they dared to speak it at all. What little he had ever heard sounded like magical incantations that conjured the bedtime stories of the Old Gods Firetide of Creation: The Rogalian, legends of the very first Jaed and terrible battles of old magic that ended the god-war known as The Felling. Foolishness, of course, but to his ears, the language made her seem like a spirit from a time long past. A fetishistic fantasy of sorts. One he would be wise to be mindful of, so as not to place unrealistic expectations on her, or worse yet, to taint his view of her with false glorification.

Zakeriel was eager to see her combat skills in person, especially if it was the tiny Erahs that committed the Eleyor Manor massacre. This was a thing he had difficult not elaborating in his mind. No matter how he tried to step through the scenario, it simply made no sense unless it WAS magic.

Although her general distrust of Shae was certainly not subtle, it pleased him to see she was making an effort to adjust. Being thrust into an army of several hundred Shae was definitely a trial by fire.

Turning his eyes off her, Zakeriel strode to gather his own mount catching a glimpse of the other men as they readied. Sir Ancil was far from the Captain’s trust. Knighted or not, Goron was impulsive, and dangerous. The man’s insulting manner was unwelcomed, as was Obret’s salaciousness. Why Gregoire was entrusting this mission to them was beyond him. He felt more compelled to question Gregoire on this assignment. Two such mouthy soldiers seemed terrible choices for a politically delicate mission.

Returning to his commander, the young man, cleared his throat. “I know you frown upon questions and back talk, sir but… why are you saddling me with two foul-mouthed bastards? This is a diplomatic mission, yes?”

“I do not frown on questions. Back talk, yes.” Gregoire straightened from his map with a weary sigh. “I am confident that, in spite of both you and Khes’ tendency toward mouthiness, you are also both very capable of grace. I suggest that neither of you disappoint me in this.”

Zakeriel flung a hand in the wide general direction of the soldiers, meaning to indicate Goron and Obret. “But why them? A meat-head and a drunken rake?! One would kill me for rank if he thought he could and Naaris’ Light we both know what they would do to– Wouldn’t Lt. Váleo be a better option? He’s far more articulate than I am, and arguably a better soldier. Dhom is a bit clumsy at times, but he’s a fine warrior when it counts and people generally take to him.”

“Which makes both far less expendable than a vile tempered brute and a slag.” Gregoire met his eyes. “They’ll follow orders, if you lead them. I trust Khes can handle herself if she feels threatened. Just make sure they keep their mouths shut when it counts… and if Fondroy’s Dire Black shades you, make sure it takes them, not you or Khes.”

The younger man’s lips parted to reply, but he could find no words. Instead he merely nodded then turned back to his vnesh and started off to the rally point.

– – – –

“Hermn.” Zakeriel assessed Khes’ garments. The three men were atop their vnesh all wearing armor of a sort. His was, of course, the Jaed scale and mail, while they other two wore leather armor that differed by only quality. Goron’s knighthood was not of the Jaed. Likely he was knighted by some Dūsan or other high ranking Deignier. His leather chest plate was a polished black with steel embellishments. Obret’s, however, looked like it would barely stop a sling shot. In comparison, Khes wore only the soft hunting leathers gifted to her by J’reth’s family.

“What?” The Erahs looked down at herself. Already supplied a quality sword, which she had little intention of using now that she had the Alces Blade, what else could she possibly be missing?

The man made a doubtful face then muttered, “we shall have to find you proper armor. It’s dangerous to only wear a light tunic.”

Khes snorted, “I killed six men in nothing but a Damin’s undershirt. I think I can manage.”

“Hoo! So you’re a criminal like me then,” Obret chortled impressed and eager to claim her company. “Hope they deserved it.”

“You would have liked them, Lop.”

“Filthy mouth on you–”

“That’s enough! We don’t have time for this.” Zakeriel brushed Khes’ elbow with his knuckles as he passed, but gave her a stern look. Judging by her quickly dropped gaze, she knew exactly what had upset him. Not having to verbally reprimand her, he barked at everyone, “Let’s go.”

As their Captain led them out of camp and further up the foothills toward the tower, Khes remained closer to him than the other two, but her ears were keener than any Shae’s. In spite of the other two hanging back, she could hear them just fine.

Goron glowered at Zakeriel’s back as he grunted at Obret. “Don’t like this, being led about by a boy. It is no wonder that the Ganroth’s coup succeeded, that they push in so hard. Nothing but children leading us.”

“Think of them as meat shields. S’what the young ones are for anyway, innit? Blokes like us’ll do alright.” Obret snickered a crass laugh as they took to a gallop.

– – – –

Zakeriel was anxious, aware of the time constraints placed on them by Gregoire’s warning. However, he also knew that the Tōk could have scouts very close to their camp. If they came riding in too hard, it may be viewed as an attack. They had to strike a pace between leisurely plod and charging gallop. The quickened trot, while moving along, still felt so slow as he could feel the air cooling with the coming of night. He used his fingers and counted the hours on the horizon. They had already been riding for an hour. Obret’s mindless banter elicited an occasional gruff response from Goron, but he and Khes wasted no effort to ignore him. Khes said nothing. Although he wanted to strike up a conversation, Zakeriel knew she would not discuss anything personal with the other two near and he was not sure what she might talk about. His first attempt early in the ride had yielded cold results.

“Revas said that you were away for two turns. I assume that you were with Damin Eleyor all that time, in Enoa Vale?”

The woman turned lightless eyes on him. “Oh yes, it is a lovely city.”

Point taken. Zakeriel fell silent and so they rode in quiet for the next half hour. Now the silence had settled in and was less awkward, but no more comfortable.

Movement on the overgrown road drew them up in their saddles. Khes’s Erahs eyes were keenest in the dimmer light and she immediately recognized it as a person, bloody and struggling to crawl. Kicking her vnesh ahead, she rushed toward him with the others chasing.

“KHES! Don’t just–” Zakeriel galloped to catch up. The woman had already swung from her mount and knelt to help the near starving and mutilated Shae.

He was grey but seemed tinted red with his own blood. Both ears were missing and his hair jutted about in awkward tufts, patches of hair and fur missing. His teeth, too, were not all present and his eyes were wild with fear. His protruding ribs were matched by his pelvis with little more than fur between the two. His eyes seemed large as Khes’ the way they bulged from his sunken face.

“Th-they’re coming…” he whined with a pant for air. Bubbles of bloody spittle collected and popped at the corners of his mouth. “Blackest hands– …like living death, Fondroy raking at your flesh…”

“Shh,” Khes carefully looked over his wounds. There were gashes through skin and muscle, like talon marks. Ganroth? “Just breathe.”

“Hurts…” he whimpered.

“I know,” she soothed, stroking at the fur on his cheek as an excuse to look at his eyes. They were black with clouds of blood. But not the onyx-crimson of the Teigne’s eyes. These were ALL black, no sclera to be seen. Even at the edges of their eyes the Shae had some white. This man had none. “Just rest now.”

“What’s Fondroy?” Khes whispered to Zakeriel.

Grim and quiet he tried not to let the dying man hear. “A name rarely invoked in anything save profanity… an Old God of death. A living horror worshipped by the Necyomantis.”

Khes blinked at him in horror until the dying man redrew their attention.

“So many…they’re coming…” The man’s eyes began to glaze.

Zakeriel and the others looked about and saw no one. Even the camp was too distant.

Crouching beside them, Zakeriel whispered, “he’s an escapee, Khes. From the mines. He’s probably mad from the brine, and hallucinating out of starvation. He may have even done this to himself.”

The Erahs shook her head and indicated the talon marks. The edges were turning black, as if charring. “How?”

Reaching up the dying Shae suddenly cupped her cheek. Khes stayed Zakeriel’s hand when he moved to bat at the stranger. With a gasp, “Sweet Naaris… you came for me.”

Khes thought he only meant to state gratitude, but soon realized that he was slipping away and now he was, in fact, hallucinating.

“You glow… I knew Jaed Pyrrhus was wrong. Erahs Goddess… You are made of light. Made of such virginal light…”

Obret snickered at the virgin reference, but silenced when Zakeriel glowered at him. The dying man’s hand began to fall, but Khes held it until his eyes dulled.

“He has gone,” she whispered to no one and everyone. Lifting her eyes to Zakeriel, Khes asserted, “there is nothing we could have done…but I don’t think it was all madness.”

Goron barked a laugh, “Of course you’d support a delusional man who disavows one of the greatest Jaed history has ever known… and blasphemes. Pah… Erahs goddess–”

Zakeriel pointed at the man. “Not one more word.” He looked back to Khes and lowered his voice. “Ganroth run the mines…it’s possible he got that while escaping. We’re leagues away from the Yadri barrier wall. It probably just became gangrenous in his flight…likely days of hiding and running.” Zakeriel covered her hand. “Like you said, there is nothing we could have done.”

Suddenly arching its back, the corpse convulsed and expelled a breath like a cloud of misted blood. The startlement cause Zakeriel to grab Khes and haul her back several feet. The other two drew their swords.

“Is it on you?” Zakeriel panicked and grabbed hold of the Erahs, examining her face as if she were a child. Khes shook her head and pushed him away.

“I’m fine! I’m fine.” Using a sleeve she scrubbed at her face just in case. Something smelled… off. Like rotting mushrooms.

Before she could speak of her uncertainty, Goron kicked the body and grunted. “S’dead. We’re losing light. I am not going to be epicyon food because princess needs to play Goddess of Mercy.”

“Watch your tongue, Sir Ancil,” Zakeriel warned, then gently ushered Khes toward her vnesh. “We do need to go. I’ll report this incident to the Commander, but…I’m sure it’s not of consequence.”

“But he said they’re coming,” Obret fidgeted with his reins. “Maybe there are Ganroth chasin’im.”

Goron nodded, “he has a point. It is very near dark. We probably shouldn’t risk it…especially with only three of us.”

“FOUR.” Zakeriel glowered at Goron. “We’ll be fine. This is a simple enough task, so let’s get it done.”

As Khes mounted she looked the other two over. “Perhaps you should both return to camp then, if your pudenda are so tight.”

“Watch your mouth, Erahs! No one calls me a coward, especially not a leveret slave.” Goron roared at her then barked in shock as Zakeriel booted him off his mount.

Seething as he glared down, the Jaed Knight growled a final warning, “one more word from you, and you’ll be flogged for insubordination and your knighthood will come under review for conduct unbefitting.” Jabbing a finger at Goron’s steed, he ordered, “not get on your vnesh! We still have half an hours ride, at least and time is wasting!”

Sir Ancil hung back as the others started forward again. Leaning over, Zakeriel whispered to Khes, “did that sound official and commanding? I am really no good at being bossy.”

“Sounded bossy enough to me,” she asserted with a chafed, grim furrow of her brow. “But stop defending me. I can handle myself.”

There was a sense of deflation, but not that she rejected his help. Rather, Zakeriel sat back and regarded her as she eased onto her mount beside him. With all seriousness, he met her gaze. “I do not approve of how they treat you, that is true… but it is not because it is you. I would not allow anyone to be treated that way under my command.” His jaw tightened and he scowled. “I am a professional and take my job seriously… regardless of what my jokes and frivolous nature might have given you the impression of otherwise.”

He paused before turning away and added in a far more stern tone. “You may be special, Khes, but you are not receiving special treatment. Implying a fellow officer is a coward is also not acceptable. Watch that what you say in jest is understood as such. I’ve already explained the company of our ranks. And as you have specifically requested no special protections…”

Keeping her chin lifted, the young woman nodded and very softly replied. “Yes, sir.”

Returning to their journey with a return to awkward silence, they picked up their pace some, to outrun the impending darkness after so many distractions. As they rode, Khes’s eyes kept lifting upward to a very large bird circling above them. It seemed fascinated and followed their progress. This was of no small concern.

“Why does it follow us…?” Khes asked of Zakeriel, who only hummed in query. “The Teratorn,” she indicated the orbiting bird. “Why follow the living? There is carrion to be had.”

“Pleasant observation,” Goron muttered.

“Hey, I didn’t kick him, gansalla!”

Zakeriel touched Khes’s arm to calm her. She jerked away, but appreciated that he had made no more scoldings or orders. No one had a plausible answer and all but Khes chose to ignore it.

As the trees thinned and the landscape grew more slippery with quartz and bismuth crystal, the band of travelers grew more tense. The vnesh were getting skittish and the rocky but slick footing slowed their progress. Still the tower loomed ever larger before them.

The reflective light about the Shards was eerie and felt unnatural. There was an ambient brightness that felt artificially created and the lack of shadows distorted their sense of time. Full darkness was an hour or two away though the light of The Shards would echo for a time. To remain in its aura meant their ride back to camp would be in the dark and open to the roving packs of epicyon. While not blinding at this hour, the light made Khes feel exposed. She tightened her grip on the vnesh’s reins. Her ears perked and twitched as she honed her senses. They could sense so much more than just sound, but here, something about the crystal shards distorted those senses. All of her sensory inputs felt disoriented.

“This place feels like… blindness…” Khes whispered and rest the Alces blade upon her thigh as she searched the surrounding horizon.

“I saw shadows, caution!” Zakeriel hissed and drew his sword.

The other two eyed him but followed suit. Although all were armed, it was Khes who was first to raise her blade in defense.

The solid weight of a bolder slammed Khes out of her saddle and onto the cold, damp ground. Her cry was a growl cut short with a bark of lost air, not a scream of terror or plea for help. She slid back into the edge of a dry creek bed, rocks and jagged edged crystal tearing at her skin and clothes. The creature atop her was muscled and smelled of vomit and rot. Hemorrhagic eyes bulged at her as its salivating jaws snapped toward her. Its body was wrapped in furs and the shredded remnants of what looked like military regalia. Though it had a weapon, it seemed more interested in clawing her open and tearing at her with its teeth.

“It’s a Ganroth!” she heard Goron assert.

Working her dagger arm free, Khes was was able to stab it repeatedly in the ribs, but it was unaffected. It should be drowning in its own blood. Pinned as she was, her skills as Nelenr were virtually useless. She had not been properly trained for such situations. Suddenly a blade pierced through the creature’s chest, narrowly missing the Erahs’s head. As Khes rolled out from under the howling creature, a second blade decapitated the beast.

Crouched and trembling, Khes gaped up at Zakeriel as he pulled free his sword. The other two were too busy surveying the surrounding area for more. Had any of them known her, they would have recognized the tone of her flushed cheeks as terror.

“You alright?” Zakeriel offered a handkerchief for the blood that spattered her. “Are you hurt?”

Shaking her head, Khes scrubbed at her face, then rubbed at a tender point in the center of her chest. “Wh-what is it…?”

“Ganroth, I think.” Zakeriel rolled the body over with one boot then crouched to examine it.

With adamant fervor, Khes argued, “no…no, I’ve seen Ganroth that close. That…that was not Ganroth.”

In spite of her argument, she strode over to examine its head. Clipped ears, like little pointed flaps jutting out beneath a set of arching charcoal horns. Diseased eyes bulged even in death. Blood-stained fangs were bared in a massive, thin-lipped mouth. Its nose, little more than nostrils and a rhinarium, was sneered in a murderous snarl. It was a Ganroth.

Approaching the body, Khes studied it, then reached for one taloned hand. Zakeriel grabbed her wrist before she touched it.

“Look,” she instructed. “Black hands…like living death. Fondroy… like the Shae said. That’s what the convict said.”

“Just– …don’t touch it.”

“Thing tried to eat me– I’ve touched it plenty already.”

Zakeriel only gave her a stern look, then scooted forward to look at its hand. Using his dagger, he lifted and turned it. Each talon was charred like wood. Black with ashy-like bits crumbling away from otherwise coppery flesh.

Obret leaned over them and looked. “S’rot. Fella I knew in prison, out on Ba’en Coast…he got swamp rot. Lost his toes on his right foot. Just…turned black, fell right off.”

“You’re lying,” Goron snorted.

“No…I’ve seen that… this is, different. There’s no pus or…” Zakeriel shook his head. “Doesn’t look like infection… more like…”

“Like he’s just dying… but no one told him.”

The others looked over at Khes. “He was like a rabid animal. Didn’t react to pain, not even Zakeriel’s sword… like he was focused on just me.”

Goron chuckled, “on supper, you mean.”

“Exactly.”

With a deep exhale, Zakeriel stood and regarded the carcass. “Well, he was alive enough, not a walking corpse. All that blood… and he’s sweaty. The dead don’t sweat.”

“Or eat,” Obret pointed out.

“Disease of some sort. I’ll mention it to Kreios. Might be best for everyone to stay clear of it.” Zakeriel walked to his vnesh and lifted a flagon from his saddle. Passing it to Khes, he warned, “use it all. Wash as clean as you can. That thing bled on you…” He grew quiet, “tell me if you start feeling sick.”

Khes bobbed her head but muttered, “I’m fine. Let’s just finish this.”

“Lucky you’re so pale, vixen. You’d have been a ghost, way that thing came at you.” Obret laughed loud. “Shoulda seen your face!”

Leveling her eyes at the man as she washed herself of the blood as best she could, Khes smirked. “You know, where I come from… vulpin eat rabbits.”

“Oh, now that’s offensive,” the loud mouth sat back in his saddle showing genuine upset. “I ain’t called you no leaf-eater and the like. Not like Goron done. I was bein’ sweet… vixen is a compliment. Means your pretty…and… sultry.”

Shaking her head, Khes sighed and dried off. Getting back on her mount, she passed the flagon back to Zakeriel. “Your people are strange. I thought the Damin strange enough…” She pursed her lips.

With a laugh, Zakeriel commiserated, “he didn’t mean anything by it. The Shae really do call pretty girls ‘vixen.’ I’m not so sure it has anything to do with the vulpin. Not domestic ones anyway… wild ones, however…”

Narrowing her eyes at him, she could not restrain a smile. His tease was evident and, unlike Obret’s grating personality, Khes did not find it flirtatious or offensive. She knew Zakeriel’s motives were not salacious and meant to poke at her sensitivities, however justified.

Lifting her eyes to the sky as they moved on, Khes noted the shifting colors then noticed that their strange Teratorn follower was gone. Now it seemed a passing oddity, so Khes put it from her mind as the others had.

– – – –

Aikatmya Tower, Iaegonaul ruins in The Shards of Eastern Tybraes
2nd Som of Justice, Month of Inundation 8178

Although the shadow of the tower was against the eastern sky, there was an unsettling chill as they stopped at the foot of the looming structure. The tower was not entirely freestanding. Strange catwalks extended from the North face of it, disappearing into the rock face of The Shards. From what Khes had seen of it, it seemed like the skeleton of a creature long dead having failed to escape the sticky threads of a giant spider’s web. The walks and arches were both beautiful and harrowing to behold.

Taking the lead, Zakeriel tied off his vnesh and straightened his sword belts. “Everyone come, but no one speak. Let me do the talking.”

The whine in his voice gave away Obret’s identity without any having to turn his way. “Weeeellll… someone should watch our things. Them moloch-kin is crafty fuckers…might off with it.”

“Moloch… or you?” Goron eyed him with a glower.

In spite of the reptilian slur of the Tōk, clearly added to encourage Zakeriel to leave him behind, Khes smirked at Obret’s ineptness. “He’d be an idiot to steal them. Dark is coming and he’s no where to go but back to camp. In fact, he’ll have to pass camp to get anywhere… unless he’s headed to the mines.”

Clearly he had not thought everything through, but Obret jumped at the woman’s observations as truth. “Right! What she said. So… I’ll just mind the vnesh and have me a smoke. Just picking up a kid and a gift, yah? Don’t need me for that.” Shifty eyes darted about the gaping black maw of the tower that would swallow them.

Zakeriel shook his head and sighed, “yeah, alright. Fine. Twitch one nose toward running though–”

“I’ll cut your balls off.” Khes interjected with a ‘snickt’ of her dagger in its sheath.

“Why you on about me boys so much, princess?” Obret taunted with a rakish smile.

“Only language you understand.” Khes’s reply was blunt and humorless as she turned and followed Zakeriel and Goron toward the massive wood doors of the tower. Once upon the doors, the Erahs gasped, “Thes’ blood… how big were the trees they cut these from?”

Goron was about to mock her ignorance and point out that it was many planks pieced together, until he was close enough for his Shae eyes to see what the Erahs already had. Each door was one large panel reinforced with iron, but not a single cut in the wood, and the doors were easily a foot thick.

“Tellorath…” the knight gasped in shock.

Pushing on, Zakeriel looked for a torch or lamp just within the giant ingress. He felt a pat on his elbow, followed by another slightly firmer one, and another before he hissed, “What?!”

Khes who quickly nodded and directed her eyes upward as her Captain turned to her. The tower foyer was quite an illustrious one, the ceiling going several stories high before it domed. Paintings had once adorned the sections of ceiling, but most were faded now, and some sections were broken away entirely showing only black suggesting an abyss above them. It was through one of these holes that the torch must have been dropped, for it was tumbling end over end then landed with a loud, echoing smack on the ancient marble floor.

Zakeriel and Goron immediately stepped back and readied weapons, but Khes moved forward. Lifting the torch, she held it high and illuminated herself entirely. Looking back at Zakeriel she gestured for him to speak, but the Captain was wary and jerked his head for her to retreat back.

The woman ignored this and called out in a bold, but diplomatic tone. “We come as guests of the Tōk, emissaries of the Teigne of Tybraes. Is one named Paoel Gyreck among you?”

Fighting his urge to hush her or pull her back, Zakeriel turned his eyes to the shadows and searched for those that greeted them. A sudden sparkle, a rainbow speckling of light began to flicker in the darkness. What seemed like pairs of colorful fireflies began to emerge from the darkness on all sides putting the two knights on edge. Khes however maintained a controlled calm.

The reflective eyes of their Tōk hosts were the only offering presented, so the Erahs bowed, resting the fingers of her sword hand on her brow. “I am Khes Adaia of the Erahs’Avali… and these knights are Captain Zakeriel Téos and Sir Goron Ancil.” She covered any nervousness well, only a small swallow hinting at any unease.

The first to step into the light seemed to half hop forward, as one might expect a man with a back deformity to shuffle and skip. The Erahs woman had never seen a Tōk. Neither had either Shae. Few people had unless they ventured north of The Shards, and these were rare encounters – or boastful lies. It was not quite as the stories had told. Reptilian it was, but far from imposing or intimidating as the ‘moloch’ slur implied.

Multiple horns protruded from the Tōk’s head and body. It did not wear conventional clothing, some jewelry adornments only, allowing for Khes to see its physiology clearly. The thick reptilian skin was nubbed and thorny in shades of warm greys and deep sienna. Its belly was smoother, and pale, but its tail grew darker until the tip was a mottled bistre.

Every movement was fast and short, so it seemed to twitch or spasm more than turn its head to eye each stranger in turn. One bulbous eye was directed toward them. In the light it did not glow with rainbow colors but instead was marbled in grey and black like porphyry stone with a solid obsidian sliver at the center. A rough textured, bony fringe surrounded the ocular socket serving as a hood for the nearly translucent membranes that flicked up to coat the eye in a fine, oily mucus.

Though its head sat above its body with a slack throat skin that allowed it to turn its head far more than the other races, the body seemed impractical and clumsy. Broader than it was thick, the torso seemed so much larger than the limbs should have supported. Powerful thigh muscles flexed above what seemed like spindly calves making for squat legs, better for leaping than running. The arms, also not terribly long, were wiry with sinew, but little visible strength. Nearly identical, the hands and feet were very long, mostly digits and webbing. Each finger and toe was capped by a threatening claw that clicked on the floor as it shuffled closer to Khes, its wary eye darting between Goron and Zakeriel.

“Are you Paoel?” Khes ventured with a pleasant tone. The creature seemed more afraid of them than anything.

A series of clicking sounds began to echo throughout the vacant tower. As Khes shifted her eyes to the shadows and strained to use her night vision, she caught movement. The Tōk were all drumming their clawed toes on the ground. It was some sort of social assertion. Returning her gaze to the one before her, she waited. When the sound died down, it addressed her.

“Khes Adaia odh Erahs’Adhali. Paoel. Yes. I am this.” Its head darted ever so slightly, his eyes shifting to the other two again then back. The voice was strained between deep guttural rumblings. She guessed that the language was strange and difficult for him. Though he attempted the ‘v’ sounds out of politeness, the were not quite right. Likely the closest he could manage. Even his own name, she was not sure if it was actually a ‘p’ as his pronunciation was strange to her ears.

Not wanting to be rude, Khes half bowed. “My apologies, did I mispronounce your name? Is it Paoel? Or are you saying… Baoel?”

Paoel’s nostrils flared and he made a soft staccato ticking with his teeth. “Yes. Paoel. Good. You are The Motherless?”

“The…what? No.” Khes shook her head and glanced toward Zakeriel in confusion. “No, the Teigne of Tybraes sent us…for a relic…a gift from your father.”

“Relic. Grrmn. Yes.” Paoel looked her over then looked at the other two. There seemed nothing special about either. “Relic is to go to Motherless. Samraat Taoel saw the A’hhakening. Must go to Motherless.”

“SAMRAAT!” Every Tōk voice bellowed in unison.

Shrinking and feeling like she was failing at a duty she had not intended to assume, Khes looked at Zakeriel in desperation, then blurted, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. He sent us to escort you back, to collect the relic.”

“Teigne is Motherless?”

“Yes!” Zakeriel spoke, suddenly stepping forward. This outburst caused a collective snarling and hissing as the other Tōk moved forward. They too carried weapons and one by one began to light more torches. The small eruptions of light felt threatening and Zakeriel gestured for peace, making a show of setting his swords on the floor.

“It s’eaks as you?” Paoel challenged, one eye bulging toward Khes.

Realizing she had given an impression that she was an authority, the woman half bowed and stepped aside. “Indeed, I spoke on his behalf.”

Not at all angry that she had spoken in the beginning, Zakeriel took over the duties that had, in fact, been assigned to them both. “Paoel, the Teigne is motherless. The woman that carried him died before his birth. He was not ‘born’, but rather cut from the dead woman’s womb. This makes him motherless, yes?”

The Tōk emissary was hesitant and proceeded to look them all over before lifting its chin as it answered. “Yes. This true. Motherless. Yes.” Pointing toward the doors Paoel croaked, “can all go now.”

“But, the relic,” Khes murmured.

“Paoel is relic.” The Tōk regarded her with curiosity as if this was something she should understand.

Zakeriel interrupted before Khes could question further. “Very well, let us go, before darkness falls.”

“Dark is good. Tōk do not fear dark.” Paoel puffed his chest giving Khes the distinct impression that he was bragging.

Goron grunted with insult, “we don’t fear the dark, moloch. We fear the packs of epicyon.”

Paoel sniffed and hissed, then flicked his tail to slap it loudly on the marble floor. He was clearly familiar with the term that Goron callously let slip. “Epicyon mindless. These fear Tōk.”

“Fear you?” Goron chuckled stepping closer to show his superior height. Paoel was no taller than Khes but to Goron’s surprise, moved nearly as fast. The Tōk’s powerful thighs propelled him forward, and he sprang up, leaping from column to column about the room until it landed behind Goron and whacked the Shae’s knees with his tail. The large knight crumpled to the ground, humbled for the third time that day. Not that Khes imagined this time would impress upon him either.

Bending over the fallen Shae, Paoel issued a snarl, a throaty growl accompanied by a hiss, a sound no Erahs or Shae could make.

“Disrespect.” Poael spat with particular care to emphasize even the difficult to pronounce ‘p’s. “Disrespect Tōk. Disespect Lalsamraat.”

Cautious as she did so, Khes stepped forward and held out a hand. “Apologies, Paoel–”

“LALSAMRAAT!” The Tōk all barked in unison. Now Khes was getting scared.

“Lalsamraat Paoel… please, forgive his insolence. Sir Ancil has an affliction of the tongue.” The woman eyed Zakeriel with a plea for assistance, but Zakeriel seemed content to let the Tōk kill Goron.

Paoel hopped over Goron to where he and Khes stood toe to toe. The heat of his breath puffed from his nostrils, no proboscis to direct it downward. Although the hot wind in her face was uncomfortable, Khes was careful not to flinch or cower.

“Sick tongue. This I like. Tōk use Shae sounds…He is stupid.”

Unable to restrain herself, Khes convulsed to hold in a laugh, raising a hand to cover her mouth. “Yes,” she smirked. “This too.”

Genuflecting again with a step back, Khes implored, “if you are not too offended, Lalsamraat Paoel…may we go?”

“Go. Yes.” Paoel bobbed his head sharply then puffed his chest again. “Khes need Paoel to chase giant scary dogs.”

“Naturally,” Khes smirked over her shoulder at Goron then at Zakeriel as Paoel took the lead and escorted them out of the tower to the thundering sound of his people’s throaty cry. It was neither scream nor growl, but some strange deep bark that harmonized amongst them. It reminded Khes of the Alces wolf’s howl in the essence of union.

Paoel bowed to them as best a creature of his shaping could, then returned back inside.

Zakeriel stepped up next to Khes as she reached her vnesh. “Naturally? If any one of us suggested you need a man to protect you–”

“None of YOU are the son of an emperor who has just been deeply offended by an arrogant Lop.” Khes hissed back with an intense stare. “Also, none of YOU stepped up and acted as emissary, instead when the scary monsters came, hid behind the Erahs girl because I am expendable–!”

“–NO!”

The man’s protest drew stares from the others as they mounted and waited for Paoel to re-emerge. Zakeriel turned his back to the others and ducked his head with a hiss, “no. You were doing fine and I thought it best not to cause confusion after you stepped up and introduced yourself. Gregoire entrusted you and I both to be the articulate voices, which you proved to be. Better than I.”

Khes bent down from her vnesh to whisper at him, “they were scared, Captain. Few of our kind have ever seen a Tōk, so it is logical to assume few of them have seen us. They look strange to us, imagine how we look to them! No tails… weird things sticking off our faces and heads, and they likely have only seen fur on animals, likely NEVER saw hair. You two grabbing at your swords right away must have terrified them. At least Paoel has the spine of a leader.”

“Hey…” Zakeriel inclined his head with a genuine moan of wounded pride. “That’s a low blow.”

“Then saddle up and act like a leader.” The Erahs pursed her lips and sat up straight, lifting her chin with dignity.

Zakeriel’s jaw was taut with frustration. He was less upset that she was speaking to him in such a tone, more that she was not entirely wrong. “You and I will have a talk back at camp… not just about your insubordination but… this notion you have stuck in your head that you are just…” he glanced at the others then dropped his voice even lower, “still just a slave or viewed as property. Not all Shae are the same, Khes.”

“You think so?” Every word was cold and calm, dismissing his assertion.

“You are not expendable.” His voice had softened significantly, then shifted with deep concern. “Are you alright? You’re sweating.”

Khes ignored the question, her eyes seeming glazed. Her attention glanced over him toward Obret who was gaping in the direction that Paoel had gone. His eyes only got wider as the Tōk prince returned riding atop a thickly furred epicyon.

A broad smile brightened Khes’ face as she watched the proud Lalsamraat saunter forward on his mount. The creature was enormous, even by epicyon standards. Though it was a canine animal, its tail swept behind it like a cat. Plush fur covered its body and its face, while dog like, reminded Khes of a bear. Its sandy gold coat was singed with black, making it appear dirty but also emphasizing every ripple of its bone-crushing muscle.

Paoel sat on its back with one leg folded up and the other draped over its flank. His tail was lifted and curled up behind him in an elegant spiral. He looked very regal. Stopping the epicyon at Khes’s side, the Tōk lifted one eye toward her. “All go now.”

“Absolutely, your grace.”

Uttering a cough-like sound, Paoel shook his head. “Only Paoel. Taoel to make new Lalsamraat.”

Although this abdication troubled Khes, she nodded and gestured to Zakeriel. “Captain Téos will deliver us to the Teigne, then.”

“Good. Yes. This good.” Paoel did not wait, uttering a dook which prompted the epicyon mount onward.

The presence of the Tōk and the wild dog brought some hope that the quickly darkening skyline would not bring the deadly packs down upon them. Strangely, Paoel’s confidence felt less like boasting and put Khes at ease. The others had far less faith, which was likely the reason that Paoel stayed at her side as they returned to camp. The epicyon’s run easily kept pace with the gallop of the vnesh. The Erahs woman, an experienced hunter, did not doubt it could surpass them and likely take even the largest of the group down.

Upon passing near the corpse of the Ganroth that attacked Khes, they encountered the Teratorn. Wings spanned as wide as three vnesh standing nose to tail. With its head ducked protectively over its carrion, the bird was as tall as Goron, if not taller. The dirty grey-brown feathers seemed closer to black in the near-gone light, and its eyes gleamed yellow as it threatened them off with loud, possessive screams. All were happy to hurry on past, no one willing to bet it would refrain from taking live prey.

As the party encountered the Shae corpse, they side-stepped it. The fear of disease had been a wise one on Zakeriel’s part. Khes cast a sad glance over her shoulder at the deceased. She felt cold like damp clay. The dying man’s belief that she was his goddess made her feel guilty, as if she failed him. It was a foolish, presumptuous thought, but it emphasized the sick feeling in her stomach and a tightness in her chest. Although she knew it would not, Khes almost expected an accusatory glare, but he did not turn his head to stare back. When they had all ventured far further up the road his hemorrhagic eyes peeled open and a ragged breath escaped his expired lungs.

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