Story: Curses

Here is another story from The Clans, called “Curses.” While the first story, “Wholeness,” takes place in relative antiquity, this one occurs soon after the events in The Born Sword, the first novel in the upcoming series, and includes one of the characters from it. Men have become desperate since the Returner has come to the Fourth World, and many have tried to foil the Returner’s plans to annihilate it. One man, Thraid, hopes to gain tremendous power to put a halt to the Fourth World’s destruction. But he had to compromise much for even this slim chance. 7900 words.

Curses

by Brandon M. Lindsay

Thraid turned at the sound of a man crashing through dried and dead foliage. As usual, he smelled as well as heard Kardon before he saw him, but this time Kardon’s usual odor was overwhelmed by the stink of urine.

The rotted log nearly broke as Kardon scrambled over it and into the small clearing. He came upon the rest of them, panting and wheezing, his breath whistling through the gaps where teeth used to be. His face was filled with terror. A dark, wet trail ran its way down the inner thigh of his buckskin breeches. And then he grinned.

“It’s over there!” His excited whisper was more of a hiss. “And it’s big!”

The rest of the men leaned against the log and peered through the trees, all except for Thraid, who hung back with the bound sorcerer named Zherrid. Not that he wasn’t interested; he was, but he simply didn’t want to crowd up against the mass of unwashed bodies that had been his traveling company these past two weeks.

He gave one cursory glance at the sorcerer, whose face was covered by the dingy cowl of his robe. The copper bonds still circled the sorcerer’s wrists. He wasn’t going anywhere, so Thraid decided to leave him alone for a moment to have a look for himself.

He crept up on a boulder that was only a few paces away, not so far away that he couldn’t keep an eye on the sorcerer. The moss was brown and flaky. Dead, just like nearly everything else these days. Yet it made for better footing than wet, green moss did, so Thraid counted it among the few blessings that had been bestowed upon him in his lifetime.

When Thraid reached the top of the rock and looked over, he almost lost his grip and fell. He realized then why Kardon had pissed himself.

The beast was there, just like the sorcerer had said it would be. Massive was a word Thraid reserved for stone boars and elephants; this was in a category beyond that. Thick, sandy-

colored hair ran down its girth in random clumps. Along its back and flanks shone pearlescent plates of carapace, catching what faltering sunlight pushed through the sky’s heavy clouds. Two ribbed horns the size of horses’ legs protruded from the back of its head, made of the same stuff as the carapace and terminating in needle-thin points. The creature was gnawing at the dry, withered grass at its feet with its lipless maw.

Thraid slid back down to the ground and waited for his breath to return. His hand clenched the hilt of his sword as if doing so was enough to stay such a monster. For once, Thraid was glad for the murderous band of thugs that fate had forced upon him as companions.

When he looked up, he felt the sorcerer’s gaze upon him, still hidden by the shadow of the cowl. Thraid almost preferred to look at the beast.

Luckily, Derge stepped between them, breaking Thraid’s line of sight to the sorcerer. Derge’s stubbled and scarred face wasn’t a much better view. His unceasingly suspicious glare was leveled at Thraid for several moments before he spoke. “Keep the bird-man in view.” He jerked his thumb at Zherrid while keeping his eyes on Thraid. A sneer twisted his lips before he stalked away. Hidden in that facial expression had been, And don’t think of running off with him or I’ll find you and cut your throat.

But then that was hidden in nearly all of Derge’s expressions, and hidden poorly at that.

Thraid checked to make sure his sword was clear in its scabbard before making his way over to the sorcerer. If ever he planned to run away, it certainly wouldn’t be with the likes of Zherrid.

But Thraid wouldn’t flee, not while he knew that the Returner could be here in the world. And if what the sorcerer said was true…

Thraid stood a healthy distance from Zherrid, again glancing at his copper bonds. The sorcerer was still watching him, but Thraid ignored it, instead pretending to study his companions breaking down the meager camp they had made before the beast—and the ruins it guarded—were found.

“Fear and hope are things intertwined,” came a soft voice at his side. “So I can’t understand why you would feel any fear.”

“Shut your beak, sorcerer,” said Thraid without looking at him. Zherrid had been saying things like that ever since they took him, things about how everyone was doomed, how the Returner would ruin the Fourth World now that he was here, maybe even destroy it completely. Of course, Zherrid wasn’t the only one saying such things. Nearly everyone had heard the rumors in some form or another, but Zherrid seemed to revel in reminding everyone of the grim state that the world was in.

Yes, Thraid did feel fear. Tremendous fear. Everything could go just as Zherrid said, but that was why Thraid was here. If what the sorcerer told them was true, if these ruins had the properties Zherrid had said they would, then the destruction of the Fourth World might not come to pass.

If all hope was lost, if Thraid’s fears became realized… then he would despair. But not before. Not while a chance still existed.

Zherrid chuckled at his side, sending a chill up Thraid’s spine. Sometimes he swore the sorcerer could read minds as well as work magic.

Thoughts of hope and fear vanished as Thraid turned his attention back to Kardon, who was impatiently stalking around the camp, muttering and fidgeting and occasionally cursing. Kardon never did have much in the way of patience, so it was no surprise when he abruptly halted his pacing and whooped. “What are you waiting for?” he cried, drawing his knives. He bared the gaps between his teeth with another grin. “Let’s get him!” Then he was tearing off the way he had come. Back toward the beast.

“Lord damn that fool,” muttered Derge. Then, drawing his sword, “Well? After him!”

Derge was greeted with one shocked moment of silence before the men whipped swords free from scabbards and readied crossbows as they poured through the woods after Kardon.

Derge trotted a few paces behind the last of them, broadsword held out in front of him, before turning around to face Thraid. “Bring the sorcerer!”

Thraid nudged Zherrid with the pommel of his sword. Zherrid stumbled before falling in with Thraid and Derge.

At first all Thraid could hear was heavy breathing, the crunching of dead leaves beneath their feet, and the occasional joyful war cry from one of the other men. But then a thunderous roar shook the forest, rattling leaves from their branches—as well as rattling the bones up Thraid’s back. Kardon must have broken through the treeline and been spotted by the beast.

That someone could be as stupid as Kardon was astounding to Thraid. Kardon had been the one to spot the thing, hadn’t he? What in the Lord’s dominion compelled him to chase after it? Kardon’s idiocy was something he would never understand.

As Thraid broke the treeline, he began to ponder his own.

The beast—Behemoth, Zherrid had called it before—stood, tree-trunk legs planted defensively, a mere two dozen paces away. Up close it was larger than he could have imagined. The ruins it guarded, the face of which looked like a sculpted stone stalagmite, loomed not far behind it. Two men were already down; one was dead. The front half of his body was trampled to pulp. Thraid didn’t stop to see who it was.

Nine men remained, including Zherrid, Derge, and Thraid himself. Two had taken cover behind an uprooted trunk, and were now trading turns shooting their crossbows and reloading them. Squeaks, whose massive bulk was the closest match to the Behemoth as ever there was, swung his axe madly, scoring a minor scratch that resulted in a spray of yellow blood and another deafening shriek from the beast.

Derge grabbed Thraid’s arm and pulled him close, his sour breath reeking in Thraid’s face. “Watch him,” he said, flicking his eyes to the sorcerer. And to his credit, he rushed forward to assist the others.

Thraid did as he was bid, making sure Zherrid didn’t leave. Of course, the sorcerer didn’t have anywhere to go, not this far from civilization, not with bonds on and with as little wind as he seemed to have within him. So Thraid watched the battle instead.

The beast was ferocious, and despite its size, quite nimble. Its heavy tail, bare of fur and covered in the same chitinous, pearlescent plates that ran along its back, was nearly as long as the rest of its body, and lashed about with devastating results. The tail cracked into Kardon’s shoulder and sent him spinning into an outcropping of stones, where he quickly crumpled. The sound of bones snapping wetly rang out through the din.

“Kard, you fool,” Derge murmured, barely audible over the sounds of battle. The Behemoth was distracted by Squeaks’ antics, its jaws snapping at his axe, which seemed to snap right back. Derge pressed his advantage, darting in beyond the beast’s line of vision, careful to dodge past its thrashing tail. The plates behind its shoulder were smaller and more segmented, and thus more vulnerable. It was there that Derge drove his broadsword.

The Behemoth reeled and stumbled from the blow, snapping its jaws and thrashing its limbs in Derge’s direction as it made its retreat. Derge held his ground, managing to slide past the beast’s desperate attacks, dealing more minor blows with each parry. Then, the Behemoth turned and clambered away toward the woods, whipping its tail around as it did. After a few moments, it had disappeared into the trees.

“How long until that Aberration returns?” asked Derge.

“It might be gone for some time,” said Zherrid, “but it won’t have gone far.” His hooded head turned to regard the ruins. “It is Anchored to this place, and can’t escape it, though it may try after the injuries it has sustained. I suggest we get this over with by nightfall.”

Thraid watched as Derge nodded and slid his sword back into its scabbard before turning to determine the status of the rest of his company. The sun was already on the descendant, meaning they only had a couple of hours of daylight left to see if they could find the artifact supposedly hidden within.

But what were they supposed to find? Even the sorcerer didn’t know what it was or what it looked like.

What in Berahmain’s holy name was Thraid even doing here, pursuing such a fool’s errand? The absurdity of the situation finally seemed to hit him. Growing up, he had heard stories of heroes battling massive creatures to explore ruins for mystical treasure, and eventually began to dismiss such stories as trite and childish. So why was he following in the footsteps of imagined heroes? Didn’t he know that great feats only succeeded in stories?

He shook his head to dispel such thoughts. He had been listening to the sorcerer too much. That’s all.

But he couldn’t dispel the image of Kardon’s horrific death. Was that what awaited him?

None of the men who survived were seriously injured. Only Squeaks, who had been a little more vigorous in his axemanship than was necessary, was hurt, having strained his shoulder. Nothing he couldn’t walk off in a matter of a few minutes.

Thraid took that moment to study the ruins. Everything about them seemed… stretched, as if some giant hand had gripped the arches and lifted the whole thing skyward. Tightly fitted stones the color of shale comprised the walls, lending them the color of night. Nothing grew on them. No vines crawled up the sides, no weeds punched between stones, no fungus dappled their surfaces. Nothing at all. From the outside, Thraid had a hard time calling the structure ruins as it seemed neither man nor nature had done so much as push one block out of place.

He glanced over at Zherrid, who said nothing but followed Derge and the others toward the entrance. Thraid watched him pass and walked behind him.

The doorway’s width could have barely allowed three men to walk through shoulder-to-shoulder, yet the door itself couldn’t have been less than a hundred feet high. Derge barely used any muscle at all when he pressed open one of the enormous copper doors, so smoothly did it swivel on its hinges.

Derge turned to Zherrid. “Sorcerer, can you light the way?”

Zherrid raised his hands, still bound by manacles, in answer. As long as they remained fastened, he could not work his magic. Or that’s what was supposed to happen, anyway. Thraid tended to doubt the drivel he often heard in the marketplace when it came to magic. Yet Derge had decided a chance that the bonds would work was better than no bonds at all, which was one of the only sensible things Thraid had yet heard from the man.

“Torch, then.”

Squeaks pulled out a metal rod the length of a man’s arm from behind his thick shoulder. He swiveled the slotted metal cap at the top of the rod partway, and a sickly green light issued forth from the slots. A mold torch, powered by luminescent mold within a glass chamber at the torch’s head, from the lands of the Shannod clan—which happened to be the clan fighting Thraid and the others’ own Wyrric clan.

Derge snatched the mold torch from Squeaks as if it was his own, and likely, it was. At that moment, a series of thoughts cascaded through Thraid’s mind, congealing into a foul and unpleasant conclusion. Functional broadsword. Practiced and efficient combat techniques. Leadership experience. Enemy tools. Rampant suspicion.

Derge was a deserter.

He shot a quick, almost imperceptible glance at Thraid just then before turning into the darkness.

Thraid was surprised at how much light came from the Shannod torch, and it didn’t hurt that it was augmented by shafts of gray daylight angling down from the narrow slits high in the cavernous chamber’s walls. So distant was the ceiling that no light reached it, making it look so much like a hole in the sky. The bare stone walls, the pillars… everything in the room was tall almost to the point of self-parody.

The place did not smell of decay or dust as Thraid had expected. It smelled of… nothing at all. Meaning it reeks of sorcery, he thought. Despite that instinct, it appeared to Thraid that the vast room contained nothing noteworthy.

Derge apparently didn’t see anything of worth there either. He wheeled on Zherrid. “Are you sure it’s in here?”

“Of course not. I’ve only heard the histories and discovered the location of this place. I’ve never been here myself, as I told you before.” A small chuckle issued forth from within his hood. “But then, you were rather busy kidnapping me, so you may not have heard.”

Anger boiled in Derge’s face. The torch in his hand began to look like a rather effective club.

Stenlor Wheats, another of Derge’s men, called out not far away.

“I found something,” he said in his typical dry monotone.

Derge visibly stifled his anger and stalked over to where Stenlor stood. The torchlight made Stenlor’s lean, narrow, and clean-shaven face look like that of a corpse. He pointed to a series of symbols scratched into the stone. Though the stone itself appeared ageless, the hastily scratched-in symbols seemed so incongruous with it that Thraid had to assume they were much newer.

“Can anyone read them?” asked Derge.

Thraid could read Wyrric, which was probably more than many of his companions. But this, whatever it was, he could not read.

“I can,” said Stenlor. “Some of it, anyway.” Not surprising. Thraid had long suspected by Stenlor’s mannerisms and speech that he had been educated. Doubtless he had fallen to bad luck, a fate with which Thraid was all-too familiar.

“And?”

“It says something about someone doing something with some curse. Or something.”

“Curse?” Derge turned to the sorcerer. “Do you know anything about this?”

Zherrid shook his head.

They continued on, passing through a door that was shorter than the last, but was still capable of towering over the tallest trees Thraid had seen in his days. Beyond the door lay a courtyard surrounded by a wall of the same shale-colored stone as the rest of the structure. Where green grass would have once grown was now only dry, hard clay. It seemed that even a place of magic such as this one wasn’t immune from the Corruption that resulted from a war between clans.

Or brought about by the Returner when he comes to destroy a world, if the most recent murmurings of the Church of the Overarch were to be believed.

But if Thraid hadn’t believed them, he wouldn’t be here right now.

In several places, large squares of earth had been carefully dug up and piled nearby in what seemed to be a systematic way.

“We’re not the first ones to come here,” said Stenlor. He pointed to one of the pits. “Excavation. Dig teams have already been here looking for it.”

Derge cursed under his breath and sent everyone searching the place for any other signs of something out of the ordinary. All they found was more of the same: indications that someone—more than likely members of the Church, considering the excavations were so systematic and thorough—had gotten past the Behemoth, dug up the ground, cleaned out the rooms, and left. Had anyone gotten away with the artifact, tales of a person unable to die would have inevitably cropped up somewhere. It could only be assumed that whoever had come before had left empty-handed.

As the sun was nearing the horizon and the ruins seemed scoured clean, they left and made camp outside what Zherrid claimed comprised the Behemoth’s territory. By the time enough burnable wood had been gathered from the forest in which they again made camp—a pitiful amount indeed, given their surroundings—the stars had already come out to flicker weakly in the sky.

Stenlor’s cookpot was fixed above the paltry flames. Thraid’s own pot had rusted through completely, even though the air was as dry as Shannod lands. And although their provisions had been secured not too long ago, and those provisions had been dried meat and nuts, which were fairly travel-proof, most of them had rotted anyway. What little they had left was shared, and in the pot was water being boiled to rid it of the filth that had mysteriously taken root in their water bags. Time was running short. If it was merely the Corruption tainting all of the land, then a victory on either side–either Wyrric or Shannod–would end it, bringing both lands back to normal. If it was something brought on by the Returner, however… Berahmain help them.

Thraid tried to remind himself that this plan of his could save the Fourth World from annihilation.

It was difficult when the mood around the campfire was so sullen. It was difficult when you could taste the price of failure in your food and in your drink.

Derge finally broke the silence. “Sorcerer,” he said without shifting his gaze from the writhing flames. “Tell us again what you know.” His voice turned hard. “You would do well to leave nothing out this time.”

Zherrid still had his hood up, and Thraid couldn’t fault him for it. He had always cringed when seeing a sorcerer’s face. But as if Zherrid had again read his mind and decided to prey upon his private fears, the sorcerer lifted his still-bound wrists to his cowl. Scaled fingers that terminated in thick, talon-like nails pulled it back.

Thraid’s breath caught, even though he had seen Zherrid’s face before. Soft, downy feathers, almost hair-like in their appearance, flared out from a low peak on his forehead. Lips and nose were melded together, forming the single slope of a rudimentary beak, even though the sorcerer had lips with which to speak. The worst, though, were the eyes. Piercing black orbs, heavily browed, stared deeply at Thraid as if he were a rat, sighted from above.

Though every sorcerer in the Fourth World had a bizarre, twisted mien, causing more than a few people to lump them in with Aberrations like the Behemoth, the rarity of sorcerers ensured their appearance was always startling to those unaccustomed to seeing them. The leaders of the clans tended to use them grudgingly, thinking of them as a necessary evil. The average person tolerated their existence… so long as there was no need of a scapegoat for his ills.

Zherrid turned his falcon gaze to the fire. Reflections of the flames danced in his black eyes. He smiled with his odd mouth, though it was a pained gesture. “You would like me to again tell you the words that got me kidnapped? What will you do to me this time?”

Derge’s broadsword whispered from its leather sheath. Sitting, he held it across the fire only inches from Zherrid’s beak-like nose. Though it wasn’t the ideal position from which to gut a man, Thraid was sure Derge was more than capable of doing so from where he sat.

“The question you should be asking is, what will I do if you don’t tell me?” The sword’s tip drifted down to rest gently at Zherrid’s throat. “And I want you to tell us everything, because I know there’s something you’re leaving out.”

“Fine.” The sword moved away from Zherrid’s face and returned to its scabbard. The sorcerer shot a glare Derge’s way before speaking again. “As I’m sure all of you are aware, sorcerers like myself are often exploited.”

He met each pair of eyes around the campfire, some of which flinched at his gaze, before returning to his tale. “Perhaps it is because of the way we look. Perhaps it is because of what we can do. But the fact is we are used and abused by those who need us most.

“Because of this, we are alienated from our fellow clansmen, and our fellow man. Yet it is this alienation which binds all sorcerers together, the feeling of shared troubles. We know the pain of a man shunned simply because of the way that he looks to others. We know it, because we have felt it ourselves. We feel it everyday.

“Since we spend most of our days serving the Kahns and our respective clans, we rarely interact with one another. Yet stories of our exploits, and our brothers of old, persist and are transmitted among us. Many of these stories do not exist outside our circle of fellows.

“One such story, from many epochs ago, tells of a sorcerer named Seloun. He was the last of his clan, save for his Kahn, in a war against another clan. He was also a coward who fled the battle while his brothers fought.”

Thraid noticed Derge wince at this, but kept his eyes on Zherrid as the sorcerer continued his story.

“However, Seloun sought to balance his prior failings with one courageous act. He would find the artifact hidden in these ruins, and thus render himself immortal. He would outlast his enemies in the Challenge, thus ensuring that his clan would Ascend to the Fifth World, rather than Descend to the Third. By risking himself, he would spare them damnation in the next life.

“No one knows if he actually found the artifact, but his Kahn received a letter from him by bird shortly after Seloun set out. In it, Seloun said he had slain a creature much like the Behemoth in a ruin much like this one, and had attained the gift the artifact was said to bestow. The Kahn was overjoyed at the knowledge that his people would Ascend to the Fifth no matter what became of him, thanks to the courageous actions of Seloun.”

“You’ve already told us much of this before,” said Derge. The gleam in his eye was dangerous.

Zherrid nodded. “True. But the story doesn’t end here. After receiving the letter, the Kahn left his fortress to submit to the swords of his enemy, now that he believed that the battle had been won and his current life had no more meaning. He was executed within a week. Moments after, the enemy clan Ascended.”

Quinn Fell, a swordsman sitting across the fire from Thraid, snorted. “That’s what he gets for trusting a Lord-damned sorcerer.” Squeaks, at his side, grumbled his agreement.

But Thraid could see the thoughts still churning in Derge’s mind. “No, that’s not what’s important,” Derge said after a moment. “It wasn’t simply a betrayal. The sorcerer must not have survived if the Kahn’s death ended the Challenge.”

He was absolutely right. Thraid was surprised he didn’t see it himself. In order for the Kahn’s death to be what caused the enemy clan’s Ascension, he must have been the last living member of his clan. The Challenge would go on until the last living member of one of the two clans fell.

Zherrid bowed his head in Derge’s direction. “Correct. But what does this truly mean? Did Seloun fail to find the artifact, and then die before his letter was received? Or did he find what he thought was the key to immortality, only to have it fail the test of its power? No one knows. All that is known is what is kept in the Church’s records.”

The exact date and hour of the enemy clan’s Ascension. If anything could be said of the Church of the Overarch, it is that they were impeccable record-keepers.

But Thraid was not interested in that. Something else nagged at his mind. “What did the letter say about the beast Seloun had slain?”

Zherrid turned his raptor gaze to Thraid, making him almost wish he hadn’t spoken. “The letter did not survive, if it ever existed. All we have are accounts of what the enemy clan heard the Kahn say when he submitted himself to their judgment, and such accounts are inherently suspect, even if recorded by the Church.

“Thus, many variations of the story, as well as descriptions of its players, exist. Some say that the beast had long horns, such as what we have seen. Others say that it is Seloun who had the combined aspects of man and goat, and thus he was the horned one. Still others say that Seloun was actually a member of the Church, and some say the story itself is full of lies.”

“Well,” Thraid said, “what do you think? Do you think Seloun found the key to immortality?”

Another sad smile graced Zherrid’s odd mouth. “I believe that legends grant immortality better than any trinket.” With that the sorcerer lay down against the rocky ground and closed his black eyes, his taloned and bound hands resting against his chest.

The sorcerer’s final words hung in the air like a suffocating mist. Had it all been for nothing? They had known since the beginning that what the sorcerer said could be wrong, if not an outright lie. Yet they were willing to take a chance that it wasn’t. Did such a possibility truly exist?

Thraid loosened his tattered scarf from around his throat, as if doing so could loosen the hand of despair that threatened to choke him with its claws.

He knew some of the men had come simply for the thrill of battle. Quinn Fell and Kardon Fainman had been two such men. Others, such as Derge, had motives that Thraid couldn’t determine. Perhaps it was a deep-seated hatred of Aberrations, as the Church tried to instill. Perhaps it was sheer greed, or a lust for glory that couldn’t be found as a mere footsoldier in the Kahn’s army. He didn’t know.

But Thraid suspected that no one shared his reasons for coming. The Corruption that comes when two clans declare a Challenge began before the Challenge was ever declared—which meant that something else must have caused it. That, and the Church’s belief that the Fifth World had been destroyed entirely led many to believe that the Returner, enemy of Berahmain, was here on the Fourth World, and ready to do the same to it as he did to the Fifth.

Such a fate was horrible, and Thraid believed that the artifact that granted immortality could be what would stop the destruction of the Fourth World.

The Returner had drawn all of the clans into the Challenge—which meant that in order for his plan to work, all the clans would need to be destroyed. For some reason, it seemed, everyone in the Fourth World would need to be killed in order for the Returner’s plans to come to fruition.

But what if there was one man who couldn’t be killed?

It was as thin a hope as Thraid could imagine, but it was the only hope he had right now. And, feeling much like Seloun in the story, he would give his life for this final chance.

As he pondered the ambiguity of Seloun’s fate, he felt the hope he to which clung thinning further.

Stenlor stumped back into the firelight, meaning that it was Thraid’s turn for the watch. He wouldn’t have to wallow in the feeling of hopelessness that surrounded the campfire, but he doubted being alone with his thoughts would be much better.

He scrambled to his feet, checked his sword in its scabbard, and wandered off alone, watching the ruins through the forest of dead trees that looked so much like finger bones in the starlight. It wasn’t long before he heard the crunching of leaves that signaled footsteps approaching from behind.

Derge stood next to Thraid, arms crossed, staring at the ruins as well.

“You’re a smart man,” said Derge quietly. “I can tell by the look in your eyes that you’ve figured out what I am.”

Thraid tensed. Desertion was the gravest dishonor, and a crime punished by excruciating torture and imprisonment, not to mention being forever cast as a pariah if ever reborn in this world. Derge seemed like the kind of man who would do anything to avoid that.

But instead of striking him down for the knowledge of who he was, as Thraid feared he would, Derge spoke. He spoke words that Thraid had never expected to hear from the man.

“I want you to know why I did it.”

Thraid turned, dumbfounded. “What?”

Derge looked away, as if ashamed. “I know what I did was not honorable.” It took a moment before Thraid realized he was still talking about his desertion. He turned and met Thraid’s eyes forcefully. “But honor cannot save us here. I think that is why you have come as well. Because you know that this may provide our only chance at salvation.”

Thraid gawked at him, astonished by his words. Was it possible? Could a man like Derge truly have come for the same reason as Thraid? To save the Fourth World from destruction? Everything he had believed about the man had turned upside-down. But before Thraid could respond, Derge had already begun walking back to the camp.

Thraid sighed and leaned against a nearby tree trunk. What in the Lord’s dominion had just happened?

* * *

When Thraid opened his eyes again, the early morning sun was already shining through wispy clouds.

He shot to his feet. How long had he been asleep? Had he slept through the whole night?

His mind raced as quickly as his feet as he sprinted back to camp. Thraid knew little of the ways of magic, but suspected the sorcerer had a hand in this. Perhaps he had cast some sort of sleeping spell on Thraid to escape in the night.

He was surprised to see that Zherrid was awake… and cooking breakfast. The sorcerer had his hood back up, but Thraid could still see his odd yet pleasant smile within. “Good morning,” said Zherrid. “You look worried. Don’t be.”

“What?”

Zherrid’s smile widened as he scooped some of the suspect meal into Thraid’s wooden bowl. “The Behemoth didn’t come for us in the night.”

After his confusion passed, Thraid realized the sorcerer was mocking him. He knew that Thraid had fallen asleep at his watch and was worried that the sorcerer had left.

No one seemed to mind that the breakfast was disgusting, nor did anyone seem to mind that its contents were utterly unidentifiable. In fact, everyone licked his bowl clean. Hunger had a way of doing that to people.

Once again they struck out toward the ruins and gathered at the forest’s edge as Derge explained his plan.

“We don’t have any choice here,” he said, meeting everyone’s eyes except for Thraid. “We didn’t come all this way just to starve. So I say we kill this Behemoth thing for good and keep searching this place until we find whatever there is to find.”

It seemed as good a plan as any, so everyone nodded and grunted in assent.

The beast was standing near the same spot where they had fought it the day before, its long tongue darting across its wounds. Some of its plates caught the sunlight like a dull mirror. Others were spattered with crusted yellow blood from where Derge’s men had hit their mark before.

It wasn’t Kardon who whooped and attacked the Behemoth like an idiot this time, but Quinn Fell. He screamed and charged with his longsword drawn, spittle spraying from his mouth looking not unlike the beast. Everyone was quick on his heels except for Zherrid, who hung back at the forest’s edge and watched.

Thraid had been a farrier for the Kahn’s army and was no soldier, but could, like every grown clansman, handle a sword. Still, the others had made their living as marauders and cutthroats and murderers, so Thraid stood back and waited, blade in hand, for openings to present themselves. He spent more time ducking the Behemoth’s tail than he did finding openings, however.

Quinn Fell was a maniac with his longsword, as awesome to behold as Dorien Starfell or any of the heroes of old. Every parry carried with it a rending slash, each defensive maneuver swiftly becoming offensive. The Behemoth roared, shaking the ground; Quinn roared back. Crossbow bolts took the beast off guard, allowing Quinn to press forward. And just when he had raised his longsword to deliver the final blow, an errant crossbow bolt spun off out of control and took Quinn in the back of the knee.

He crumpled to his back, eyes wide in astonishment, sword clattering to the ground, as the enraged Behemoth crushed his chest under its enormous foot. Ribs cracked, and Quinn’s scream was quickly cut short.

But it was enough of a distraction for Squeaks to deliver a crippling blow to the Behemoth’s own knee. The Behemoth buckled, wrenching the axe from Squeaks’ hands. The big man stumbled forward—right into the path of the beast’s massive tail. Squeaks’ body was jerked back and went limp as it collapsed on the grass, dust rising around it.

With a furious shake of its head, the Behemoth scythed down Stenlor and another man, one whose name Thraid couldn’t even remember just then. The axe fell free and the beast limped forward, hate and pain smoldering in its eyes. It was coming for Thraid next.

The sword in his hand felt like a twig, rotted by Corruption. How could he hope to even survive this day, much less defeat such a creature? It had already dispatched the best, most brutal fighters not attached to the Kahn’s army. What could Thraid accomplish? He was no warrior.

He glanced to Zherrid, and then to his bound hands. What if Seloun, a sorcerer, had killed the last beast? Then couldn’t Zherrid?

Thraid’s hand went to his waistpouch. The key to Zherrid’s copper bonds was in there. If he could just toss the key to Zherrid—

“Don’t do it!” shouted Derge as he staggered back from his last assault. “He can’t be trusted!”

Thraid blinked from his stupor. Can’t be trusted? And Derge can?

His mind snapped back to their conversation the night before. He’s like me. If anyone can be trusted, it is Derge. He removed his hand from the pouch. The sorcerer’s bonds would stay.

Derge met Thraid’s eyes, then turned back to the Behemoth. The beast had been distracted by Derge’s shouts. Its tail whipped behind it as it crouched low, muscles bunching beneath its plates.

Derge charged, screaming with his sword raised. He headed straight for the beast.

He ducked to the left, narrowly avoiding getting gored by one of the Behemoth’s horns. He danced back to the right, bringing his broadsword up as he did, and dragged the blade along the beast’s neck.

The beast screamed in pain, but it was little more than a glancing blow, and Derge knew it. Instead of dodging back, as reason would have suggested, he took two steps in further and swung his blade at the Behemoth’s foreleg.

The blow rocked the beast up onto one side, leaving its underside temporarily exposed. Thraid froze and gawked. This was the moment Derge had engineered. It wouldn’t last long.

Thraid ran forward, screaming like a girl, blade extended in front of him. At the last moment, faced with his own inevitable death, he closed his eyes. The sword met resistance, as if scraping along a pane of glass, but then something cracked. To his surprise, the blade slid upward, and after a moment, his hands were covered with hot goo.

He opened his eyes.

And jumped back.

The Behemoth collapsed where Thraid had just stood, a cloud of dust spilling outward. Had he not moved in time, the beast’s weight would have killed him.

Thraid’s own weight and exhaustion pulled him to his knees. He wiped off his hands on his breeches, leaving stinking yellow smears.

The Behemoth wasn’t moving. Thraid wasn’t going to be fooled, so he continued to watch, just to make sure. When Derge stepped out from behind it with only a few scrapes and a cockeyed grin, Thraid allowed himself to breathe.

He glanced around. No one else was standing. Just him and Derge. Thraid hadn’t even seen when the others had fallen.

Zherrid was walking toward them, hood pulled back, arms swinging at his sides.

Arms swinging at his sides.

Zherrid’s copper bonds were nowhere to be seen. But Thraid hadn’t tossed him the key. Had he?

Zherrid raised his arm toward Derge, who then collapsed to the ground screaming.

Derge’s eyes bulged as he convulsed, yet gasping and choking, he managed to cry out one last thing: “Returner take you, Zherrid!”

Thraid stood watching in shock, unable to comprehend what was happening, much less do anything about it.

Soon it was over. Derge lay on the ground, foam dripping from his lips, his lifeless eyes staring at nothing.

Thraid stared in disbelief. He turned to the sorcerer. “What did you do?”

Zherrid’s heavy brow rose over one black eye as he rubbed at one of his chafed wrists. “I killed him. He was no longer necessary.”

Necessary? “But—”

“Someone else has taken the curse,” said the sorcerer. He pointed one of his taloned fingers at Thraid. “You. He who kills the bearer of the curse becomes its new bearer.” He gestured to Derge’s body. “He was no longer needed.” Zherrid’s twisted face twisted further into a sneer. “They were cruel, wicked men. If there was one last thing I can offer the Fourth World before it’s gone, it is justice.”

Thraid looked again at the sorcerer’s wrists, where the bonds used to be. Zherrid had never been under their control. They had been under his the whole time.

“What do you mean, ‘curse?’ What do you know about it?” Thraid had a feeling deep in his gut that he already knew the answer.

Zherrid smiled and sat down on the ground a few paces from where Thraid knelt. “I sought you and your men out. You had a reputation for being the bloodiest, nastiest bunch to be found. A real cluster of wicked souls, aching for your own damnation.” He shrugged. “I was only able to offer it to one of you.”

One of us. Zherrid spoke to Thraid as if he had joined up with Derge’s men for the same reasons as the others—to live a life of butchery and violence. He had rarely spoken to the sorcerer, and gave him no reason to suspect differently, no reason to believe that Thraid was unlike the rest. Now, he wished he had done otherwise.

Like Derge, Thraid had fled Wyrric’s war camps, realizing that the war had been rendered pointless. Instead, he sought out ways to battle the true threat: that of the Returner. He had been no soldier, and thus was no deserter, but abandoning his station had made him an outcast. No one would listen to him, much less help him. He had become desperate, and fell in with the only men who would have him. Derge’s men.

His desperation had deepened the longer he’d stayed with them. But then they happened upon a sorcerer who was a little deep in his cups, speaking a little too loudly about a chance for glory and riches. Of course, Derge’s companions were taken with the idea. So was Thraid, once the implications of such a prize—immortal life, a chance to save the Fourth World—had sunk in.

What a fool I have been.

Zherrid had spoken of despair before. Thraid now felt it coming at him from all sides, circling him like a predator. Quietly, he asked, “What will happen to me?”

“Why,” Zherrid answered in an ironic tone, “the same thing that happened to Seloun.” He gestured to the Behemoth that Thraid had slain. “You will forever be Anchored to the artifact that you have sought, unable to leave it long without causing yourself horrific agony. You will be incapable of taking your own life. It must be taken from you. Your appearance will… change.”

“The artifact,” said Thraid. His voice almost failed him. “What is it?”

“The ruins themselves.” The sorcerer’s grin was feral. “But that is not all of it. Worst of all, you have severed all connection you have to your clan. You are no longer welcome within the plans of your god, Berahmain. You cannot participate in the Challenge. You will neither Ascend nor Descend with your clan at the end of the Challenge. If and when the Returner destroys this world, you will be destroyed with it. And with the killing of the Behemoth, you have already become an Abomination.”

Despair pounced.

Thraid closed his eyes.

“Seloun,” said Zherrid in a contemplative tone, “was a good man. He tried to spare his clan even though they did not love him. His efforts, though fruitless, were earnest enough. He did not deserve his fate. You have freed him from his curse.”

Thraid opened his eyes. He stared without hope or fear at Zherrid’s face. “So there is no chance, then. There never was.”

Zherrid cocked his head as he studied Thraid. “What do you mean? What are you talking about?”

Thraid shook his head. “It doesn’t matter now.” But after a moment of silence from Zherrid, he felt compelled to explain. “I had come in the hope of finding a way to cheat death… so that man could live on this world. I believed that if someone… anyone, me, or otherwise… could not be killed, then the Returner’s plans to consume the Fourth World in war and thus destroy it could be stopped.” He shook his head again. “All of that depended on trusting you. But that is the only mistake I claim in this life.”

Hope flared briefly in Thraid’s chest as he glanced up at Zherrid. “Is there no way to reverse this curse?”

“Reverse it?” Zherrid shook his head. “No. You could only transfer it to someone else. But you would not only destroy your own life, but that of someone else as well.”

“No. I can’t do that. I might take on the appearance of a monster, but will not become one myself.”

He felt Zherrid’s falcon eyes watching him, piercing him, as if determining his sincerity and the very nature of his soul. After some time, Zherrid spoke, though his voice was weak and quavering. “Then I have condemned a far better man than myself to a fate worse than death.” Genuine sorrow dripped from the sorcerer’s words.

Thraid slumped forward, utterly defeated. Hope had died. Everything he had done, everything he had gone through… was meaningless. He would never again be reborn in another world after his life in this one had passed. All he had to look forward to was death at the end of the world. Truly, he was damned.

“There is… one last thing I can offer you, Thraid.” Zherrid raised his hand.

Pain shot all through Thraid’s body as if every inch of him was being shredded. Agony ripped away his breath. He lost all control of his bowels, all control of all of his bodily functions. Yet it didn’t matter; the pain was so thorough that Thraid could barely tell it had even happened.

Something popped in his chest and the pain stopped. As his vision faded, as he felt the end drawing close, the world tilted to the side and Thraid was looking into Derge’s dead eyes. Yet a kernel of hope remained in his heart as he stared at a man who could have, someday, become a friend. Thraid was able to retain that in spite of the storm of hopelessness that threatened to engulf him, if only because he knew it was possible that good people could still exist in this world. People like Derge, people like himself.

Death would take him utterly, but despair would not.

* * *

Zherrid lowered his hand. Enough men had died by it today.

He turned away from Thraid’s body, looking instead at the Behemoth. Cursed Seloun, also dead by Zherrid’s will, if not by his own hand.

Zherrid wondered if Seloun, a sorcerer who had also attempted a noble thing but failed in the end, would have understood. The curse now writhed in Zherrid’s heart, gnawing away at him. Thraid had not deserved it, so Zherrid had taken it from him—at the cost of Thraid’s own life. The look in his eyes was enough to convince Zherrid that it was a price gladly paid.

Zherrid had done what justice demanded. What little justice was available to him.

And he would remain here, Anchored to these ruins, severed from his clan, and become a monster.

Or perhaps complete my transformation, already begun, he thought as he glanced around at the carnage he had wrought.

He turned to the curved, pearlescent plates surrounding the Behemoth’s body and saw his own warped face reflected back in more ways than one.

* * *

Copyright © 2011 by Brandon M. Lindsay


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