Light & Death
The soldiers were about to drag the women prisoners away when one of them stopped and pointed up at the rafters. "Here now. What's that thing up there?"
"An owl," the lieutenant said.
"Looks like it got somepin' in its claws..."
"That's a bad omen," another soldier said, looking up. "Is it a ferret?"
"Nah at all...looks like...like a--"
"A crankbow!" Gillion shouted.
Lord Tchimiri pointed in alarm. From his finger a bolt of lightning sprang and crackled up through the air. The owl fell like a stone.
Daiza gasped--for a moment, she thought it was dead--but she saw it's wings were tucked in deliberately. It appeared to be diving right towards them...
"An enemy conjurer," Tchimiri whispered. "Kill it, you fools."
The bodyguards in corselets advanced, halberds up, and took a defensive position to either side of him. "Beggin' yer pardon, milord, but we ain't got no--"
"It's no owl!" he repeated. "Kill it."
"And I'm no maiden," Syll said, lunging.
"And I'm no boy!" Gillion added.
Daiza felt something hot and wet hit her face. She blinked and touched her cheek. She studied her fingers numbly. It was blood. Why was there blood on her fingers? She looked up.
Two of the soldiers were on the ground, clutching their throats. Syll was over them. The sleeves of her peasant-dress were covered in blood.
Gillion, meanwhile, had apparently lost his mind. He was running frantically in a circle, arms out, shouting up at the owl. "Right here, fellah!" he called. "Give it here."
At that moment, Daiza felt a change in the room's dji. It flowed up into the dais like an invisible tide. The strength of that flow terrified her; she'd never felt such channeling before. The spell he was preparing had to be massive--and her shoma rod was still on the lieutenant's belt...
She turned and staggered towards the soldier.
Syll was between them, her wet red knives a dancing blur before her.
Though the lieutenant had a sword and armor, he seemed to be getting the worst of it. The raven-haired woman was fast--perhaps the fastest human being Daiza had ever seen. Compared to that, the poor man's parries and thrusts looked like they were being performed underwater.
"Syll, I must get the--"
Tchimiri called out in a strong voice, finishing his spell.
The air burned and roared with the voice of hellfire unleashed.
Daiza winced, preparing for death.
It did not come, though. Blinking, she looked around. Gillion was holding his crankbow. The red light of the hellfire made him look like a bloodthirsty lunatic as he worked the crank.
Why weren't they dead?
She looked past him.
The owl! It was gone now. Kuthaan was between them and Tchimiri. As always, he was naked. His hands were up--palms out--creating a barrier of purple and green energy. The searing flames of Tchimiri's attack curved up and around this shield.
Through the terror and adrenalin, she gazed around to admire both attack and barrier. Above Ku's shield, the tattered banners disintegrated into white flakes. The masonry blackened. The stones began to crack visibly from the heat...
"You'll kill us all, you fool!" Daiza screamed.
Tchimiri didn't seem to hear. His mask was blown away in the inferno, revealing a ghastly white face with red, glowing eyes. His teeth were all pointed and his nostril-slits were flaring. As he chanted his horrible spells, Daiza could make out a long black tongue writhing around inside his mouth.
It confirmed everything: he was indeed an horcha--albeit a more advanced one than the creatures in the grove--and he'd blotted out the sun to protect himself, to protect his unlife.
Kuthaan strained against the inferno, making no noise, calling out no words. Were it not for his quivering muscles and sweaty, contorted face, one might not of known he was working magic at all.
There was a grunt behind her.
Gillion held his crankbow, the string still vibrating.
Syll's enemy was down, a bolt in his throat.
"The rod," Daiza said, pointing.
Syll grabbed it from the still-twitching body of the officer and handed it to Daiza.
"I knew you were faking," Gillion said as he worked the crank with both hands.
Wearing her trademark smirk, the dark-eyed woman gave him a wink.
Gillion put a bolt into position and nodded his head at Kuthaan. "How long can he go like that?"
"Not long," Daiza said.
Just then, the enormous doors at the other end of the hall slammed open. A group of men with swords and shields burst in and came to a halt just beyond the licking flames.
"Stop your spell, master, and we will aid you!" one shouted.
The inferno ceased. Before Kuthaan could recover, though, Tchimiri's hand jerked wildly and, with a whispered word, red lightning arced from his fingers.
"A doom-whip," Daiza said in awe.
Kuthaan winced but somehow knocked the spell into a column with a wave of his hand. The column shattered. The wild man swooned from the effort.
Tchimiri seemed to think he was about to collapse, so he followed up with another doom-whip. It was a mistake--Ku apparently expected a follow up attack and, in knowing what would come, was not only able to parry it, he was able to catch it and fork it back towards the dark lord.
Only just in time, Tchimiri brought up his hands and cast a protective ward. It was a weak spell, though, compared to Kuthaan's barrier. The doom-whip slid off it and hit one of his bodyguards in the chest, melting the corselet like fudge.
The soldier's eyes rolled into the back of his skull and he collapsed.
"That's potent magic," Daiza whispered.
"Sure you don't want to take up Lord Creepy Eyes on his offer? You sound impressed."
She pointed back at the door. "Hold the soldiers off. I'll help Ku."
Gillion pulled the trigger on his bow and without even checking to see if he hit, moved to re-crank it. He nodded at Syll. "Load me, babe."
It was a testament to how desperate the situation was that Syll failed to comment on this. She reached into the quiver Kuthaan had brought in his owl-talons, snatched a bolt and plopped it into the crankbow.
No sooner was it in place than Gillion fired.
She turned and watched it's trajectory.
The soldiers paused to admire it as well. One of their comrades was on the floor, his boots twitching.
"Again," the little man said, cranking.
"Sky Mother," Syll whispered. "You are one helluva shot."
It was a testament to how desperate the situation was that Gillion failed to comment on this. He raised his crankbow and fired instead. As Daiza ran from them, she could not help but notice how incredibly calm the little man was, despite the fact a half-dozen armed men were now barreling towards him.
On the dais, Tchimiri had switched to using raw dji energy, trying to overwhelm Kuthaan's defenses through exhaustion. She could feel the dji flowing in from all over the island, coming towards him through the network of guitar-strings she'd felt before. As a thing of unlife, channeling dji wouldn't fatigue the horcha-lord at all. Like her shoma rod, he was a dead thing that stored and spent dji, not a living caster with flesh that could tire.
Daiza reached into her own power store--the shoma in her hand. It still tasted like the dead forest--oily and cold--but there was more than enough dji to throw her own spells around. She might even break through his defenses. Lord Tchimiri seemed to favor offensive magic.
But what spell would hurt him? She was almost next to Kuthaan when she stopped.
It was the tree-knower--inside her head.
Daiza, you must go back to Gillion and take one of his bolts. Channel as much dji into it as you can. I'll send you more as well.
Frazzled as she was, she answered him verbally: "How could you possibly spare any dji now? And what spell am I crafting?"
I will show you. Just go.
His back was to her. The muscles bulged with strain. His long blond hair, matted and dark, clung to his skin. Drops of sweat ran between his shoulder blades, down his spine to his buttocks.
She turned on her heel.
A soldier--the rest were all dead--reached the pair of comrades just in time to catch a dagger in the eye. With a clatter, he fell down.
Syll walked over to the body and yanked it from his skull. "Why'd you start in the back?" she asked Gillion, who was already reloading.
He answered through a bolt clenched in his teeth.
"I didn't understand a word of that."
With a shaking hand, Daiza took the bolt from his mouth.
"Gonna be my loader now?" he asked.
"Please do that, Daiza," Syll said, facing the door with a dagger in each hand. "I'd much rather be slicing."
Daiza didn't answer. She clenched the bolt in one hand and her shoma in the other. Concentrating on the missile, she spoke the words of enchantment, pouring dji into the wood and the metal, imbuing it with power, feeling its very molecules hum and throb with stored energy...
Focus the dji into the iron tip, Ku whispered to her. Even in her mind, his voice was getting weak.
He was on one knee, hands up, still catching spells. Tchimiri roared and waved like an overzealous preacher, face contorted with rage, fangs and unnatural tongue on full display. He was reaching for the rarer magics now--she saw darts of purple flame and spears of black ice fly at the tree-knower.
Forget me, Kuthaan told her. Concentrate on the weapon.
"What do I imbue it with?" she called to him.
The heat of the sun.
Impossible, she thought, not intending him to hear it.
He did, though: Forget your chants, your magic words. Just remember what it's like to feel it on your skin, what that warmth is to you.
She felt a pang of hopelessness. In this place? I've almost forgotten now...
Remember, he whispered. Remember...
"You okay, kid?" Syll asked her.
Daiza scrunched her face up and concentrated on the bolt. "Keep your crankbow ready," she told Gillion. "I'll need you in a moment."
"Not sure I'll be here in a moment," Gillion said cheerfully.
Through the doors another squad of guards burst in.
"Master!" one of them screamed. "We are under attack!"
"I know, you idiots. Just kill them."
"No," the man objected. "I mean there's a battle in the--"
He never finished because a blade of steel flashed behind him, cutting into his neck. He toppled to the ground with a cry and moved no more. In his place, Kalaena stood, sword red with blood, her face a cool mask of determination.
For just a second, that mask faltered. "Daiza," she said in a strangled voice.
There followed the clatter of sword-on-shield. The enemy soldiers had, in her moment of weakness, pounced on the Swordsister.
Daiza felt her grip on the dji grow shaky. It began to wobble like a spinning top about to go off its axis...
Was Kalaena alive? What were the soldiers--
Concentrate! Ku hissed in her mind.
Daiza nodded. She didn't dare look up from her work now. The dji energy was really building, getting unwieldy. Somehow, despite the monumental effort of the barrier, Kuthaan was sending her energy. It suddenly occurred to the sorceress how: the wild man was catching the dji flow before it reached Tchimiri. He was siphoning off the horcha-lord's own power! It was brilliant.
"Don't worry. Your sister's fine," Syll yelled as she charged away. "I'll help her."
Gillion tapped the floor with his foot. "Whatever you're doing," he told Daiza. "You better hurry before we all end up on the wrong side of a sword."
She tried to shut him out--shut out everything but the bolt, the dji, and Kuthaan.
The little man's words echoed in her mind. It wasn't a distraction, she realized, it was her answer: sword.
"Kaphaï!" she exclaimed, remembering the sacred word for the spell. It meant, roughly translated, 'sword of light.'
The iron tip of the bolt burned as if fresh from the forge. The red grew brighter and brighter until it sloughed away into an unblemished white so harsh she could not look at it without her eyes welling with tears.
Gillion shielded his face. "That's a handy trick."
Daiza put it into the crossbow and turned to face Tchimiri. "It must go in his heart."
"Where else?" the little man asked with a chuckle.
"Now--before he sees what we're doing."
Gillion needed no prodding. He aimed for two seconds--an eternity for him--and let fly. As soon as it left his bow, the shaft burned like a line towards the castle's dark master. Bright as it was, there was no hiding it.
Lord Tchimiri looked up and the rage melted from his twisted visage. It was replaced by something like fear--a deep, animal fear. He spun one of his hands and whispered with purple lips the word for wind-spiral, trying to summon a vortex of air between him and the missile. A stiff enough breeze could stop a crossbow bolt...
But apparently Kuthaan had a little bit of energy left. Seeing what the vile magus was planning, he cried out in a strange chant that Daiza did not recognize. She almost thought it was a plea--a sort of prayer. But Kuthaan claimed he did not pray.
Though they stood at the center of Tchimiri's vast power, nestled in his unnatural fortress, the wind remembered who its true master was--neither him nor Ku, but Nature itself.
The air did not move when he called to it. It ignored his spell.
The horcha-lord's fear turned to confusion. Daiza could tell that no spell of his had failed in centuries. He'd probably completely forgotten what it felt like.
The bolt soared true, burning through Tchimiri's purple tunic then biting through his ribcage and ending its flight in his shriveled heart.
The castle's master fell back and sprawled beside his throne.
At that exact moment, the wild man collapsed face-first into the stones.
Daiza sprinted forward, fingers white around her shoma rod.
"Kuthaan," she said, trying to roll him over.
A pair of gloved hands were suddenly helping her. She looked up. Kalaena had thrown down sword and shield to rush over when she saw what had transpired. Syll wasn't fighting alone, though: Ruadd was in the middle of the hall now, morningstar swinging. With every blow he splintered shields, cracked ulnas and radii, knocked men onto their backs, but never--if he could help it--killing anyone.
The soldiers who weren't already crippled looked like they were about to surrender. They backed up into a semicircle and stared at the inhuman warrior before them.
Daiza looked back at her sister.
"Ku," Kalaena whispered, touching his face.
His eyes fluttered open. "Kalaena."
"Gave us a fright. Second time today. That's your quota. No more, okay?"
"Check," he said, pointing up at the throne. "Make sure he's truly dead."
"I'll do it," Daiza said.
Carefully, she got to her feet and, still gripping her rod, approached the body. Her sister appeared beside her, unarmed. She put a cautionary hand on Daiza's forearm. Daiza shook it off and walked up to Lord Tchimiri.
His eyes were not dead but they weren't red anymore, either. They were a rather nice shade of brown, with a little green mixed in for color. They stared up at the rafters until Daiza appeared over him, then with effort they focused on her. His lips moved. They were changing from purple to red now...
Kalaena drew a poniard from her belt and made as if to strike but Daiza shook her head and knelt over the dying lord.
"Time to leave," she said, surprised by the gentleness of her own voice. "It's over."
"I could have given you eternal life."
"What you had wasn't life."
He stared at her, unable to comprehend, then finally grew still. Within seconds, the skin withered to the bone. A minute later, there was nothing but a dry yellow skeleton.
"For a minute there, you almost sounded like Kuthaan," Kalaena told her. "Is some of his wisdom finally sinking in?"
"Don't get your fuckin' hopes up."
Kalaena delivered a playful punch to her chin then, to Daiza's surprise, dropped her knife with a clatter and hugged her fiercely in both arms.
©2015 Christopher Beats. All Rights Reserved.