Lord Kesryn Oswyne, well-known merchant and purveyor of fine goods, stood in the center of a maelstrom. Wreckage lay chaotically strewn about his manor house, and bits and pieces of his possessions were scattered around as if a tornado had thrown a party and invited the hurricane brothers to entertain. Brilliantly golden energy wrapped the sorcerer’s body, pinning him in place. Crackling through that aura was a haze of thick, crimson power that sent spitting, arcing streamers through the binding spell. The silence in the room was unearthly.
All at once, there was a shrill keening sound as a burst of dark force shattered the magical bonds, freeing the sorcerer from the starseeker’s spell.
“DaCoure!” he shouted harshly, kicking at the wreckage. “I will see you bleed, Azhani Rhu’len, I swear it!” he growled, summoning an army of invisible servants. Instructing them to clear away the destruction, he turned and strode purposefully into his study.
From a wardrobe, he removed a fresh set of tailored silks more properly fitting to a merchant of his station, tossing the bloodied, tattered rags he was wearing into the fire. Pouring a glass of thick, amber colored liquor, he went to his desk and sat down, picking up the messages that Baron Var’s summons had so rudely interrupted.
The first note was one from Var, coincidentally, informing Kasyrin of the Y’Syran nobleman’s continued success in poisoning the Y’skani ambassador. The sorcerer snorted and tossed it into the fire, watching it shrivel and blacken. A sneer twisted his lips. Var would have to be dealt with – it wouldn’t do for the mage’s other agents to hear that one of them had caused their master so much grief and gotten away with it.
Next he read and dealt with several business matters, finally coming upon a missive from his Killigarni contacts. Perusing it briefly, he felt a swift flash of pleasure from the death toll. At least he had one idiot who was worth the gold he wasted. No help would emerge from Y’mar at the crucial moment. Other messages from other operatives, said much the same; that his plans were moving forward, if at a snail’s pace.
A black scroll case, stamped with the dark red markings of the Ecarthan priests, drew his attention. Ah, excellent. The temples proceed as planned – the sacrifices have begun. Looking up, his gaze fell upon a tall obsidian obelisk, scored at regular intervals. At the very base of the tower, a thin, reddish glow was just barely visible.
Three fully operational temples now served the spiritual needs of the Y’dani people, and every day, more of the black-robed priests were coming into the kingdom. Astariun priests were being openly shunned by the populace, out of fear of reprisal from Arris’ new police force. A quick missive, suggesting that the Astariuns be encouraged to leave the kingdom, found its way into the scroll. A few muttered words sent it to the main temple in Y’dannyv, just a few blocks from his three-story home.
From Porthyros came the news that Arris had finally signed the Non-Human Restriction Act into law, forcing all non-humans to register with the border guards before they entered any city or town in Y’dan. A nasty, feral smile lit up the mage’s pale face. The idea that no matter what face Azhani wore, she would still have to submit to a “racial scan” by one of Ecarthus’ priests, made Kasyrin feel much better about the defeat he had just suffered.
Introducing Arris to the wonders of Ecarthan worship, had been a banner day for Kasyrin. As he and Porthyros long suspected, the fanciful trappings and panoply of the demon’s worshippers, appealed to Arris’ vanity, much more so than the plain, boring sermons of the Astariuns. The Eater of Souls was a fearsome creature, but he liked a good show.
He also thrived on the blood of the slain, and so, Y’dani criminals no longer swung from the gallows, feeding the carrion. Instead, they fed the fires that burned day and night in the three temples that had been constructed. Attendance at a daily mass was encouraged and rewarded; the poor were fed a hearty meal and nobles were rewarded with invitations to dine with their king. Merchants who attended, suddenly found it much easier to do business – those who did not, found their goods going astray.
Blood trickled sluggishly from a wound in Kasyrin’s forehead, sending anger rippling through the mage once more. The sorcerer expended a bit of precious energy to heal it and then spent several minutes daydreaming about flaying the skin from Azhani Rhu’len and her elven supporters, one strip at a time.
One final message remained. This was not a simple missive delivered by a rag-covered urchin, but rather, a magical message from the demon that claimed his soul. It burst into being as a fiery green orb and then melted away, leaving behind a black slate that was deeply etched with silvery runes.
~It is done, my servant. Soon, I shall waken and hunger. I trust you shall provide a first meal worthy of a god?~
Fear trickled lightly down the mage’s back. Ecarthus had fulfilled his end of the bargain. Demons would soon pour out of the mountains. A tidal wave of evil would engulf Y’Syr and any other who chose to stand against Kasyrin Darkchilde and his demonic master. Ruin and death would soon spread across the land, filling the matrix with enough magic to break the bonds of time. The day would come when he would stand before the gates of hell and strip away the bindings that had locked Ecarthus out of this world for eons.
Until then, he would maintain his persona as Lord Kesryn Oswyne, spice merchant, pulling the strings of many puppets, and enjoying their dance.
“In Ecarthus we are free, our blood is his blood, and we feed him gladly,” the priest chanted in a droning monotone while his gray robed acolytes dragged the bound and gagged prisoner up the steps to the black basalt altar that graced the center of the stage. Behind the altar, a cauldron was suspended over a hotly burning fire that seemed to leap and dance to every word the black-robed priest said.
Arris watched the show with a jaundiced eye. The ceremony had become commonplace. The blood no longer caused his stomach to twist brutally, nor left him with nightmare images that haunted his dreams for days. Beside the king sat his best friend Porthyros, his watery blue eyes fixed on the scene below them with fanatical glee. A table just to the scholar’s left, held a platter filled with a steaming pot of tea and a plate of sandwiches, which he would soon insist the young king consume.
Since the king was determined to lead his armies north during the next winter, Lord Oswyne had determined that the boy had to look the part of a great warrior. Arris was a scrawny, wiry young man with very little mass – Porthyros’ job now became that of nanny. Every day he had to make sure the king ate and exercised enough to build some muscle on his small frame. So far, he had done an adequate job – many of the noblewomen had noticed the king’s healthier appearance, and several of Arris’ favorite wenches had reported that his stamina had much improved.
Lord Oswyne also brought in a sword master who took over the king’s weapon’s training, pushing the young man to his limits. Arris complained, he pouted, and he threatened, but he finally started to see the light when a peasant, disguised as one of the king’s pages, broke into his room in the middle of the night. Armed with a dagger, the man had tried to slit the young king’s throat, but Arris had not only disarmed him, he had also easily turned the would-be assassin’s weapon against him, exacting justice personally.
The peasant’s head still graced a pike in front of Y’dannoch castle, serving as a warning to any who did not agree with the king’s laws. Porthyros was proud of his charge. He was maturing well, yet still remained very malleable to the scholar’s wishes.
“Tea, my king?” he offered quietly, handing over a large mug.
“Yes, thank you,” Arris said, drinking deeply.
The service below ended with a terrified scream as the priest drove a razor sharp blade into the chest of the sacrifice and opened him up from neck to navel. A crimson wash of blood spilled out over the altar, flooding down the steps and pooling in specially carved grooves along the edge of the stage. As the man’s life bled away, the fluid ran along the runnels, draining into large black urns set at either side of the stage.
As soon as the body was drained, it was unceremoniously rolled into the fire pit, filling the room with the fresh scent of a charnel house. Porthyros stood and inhaled deeply.
“Exhilarating, isn’t it, my king?”
Closing his eyes, Arris pictured the service again, sipping at his drink. Yes, the service was exciting, in a disturbing sort of way.
“Just think, that man will wake up in paradise, gifted with the eternal gratitude of Ecarthus himself!” the scholar enthused.
“The ultimate reward,” the king muttered hazily. Suddenly, he was very tired. “Is it lunchtime yet, Thyro? I’m a little sleepy and I’d like my afternoon nap soon.”
“Of course, my king. Here is a little snack for you to nibble while we return to the castle. Master Nallerack awaits you.”
Sighing, Arris accepted the sandwich and followed the scholar out of the temple. He was not particularly looking forward to his appointment with the sword master, but he recognized the need for the practice. After all, who knew when someone else would try to change the destiny of Y’dan, by removing its rightful king?
The dream came that night.
He was on a snow-covered mountaintop, wind ruffled his hair and snow coated his beard. Blood and gore covered his armor and his sword hung limply from exhausted arms. All around him were the bodies of his men, their green and black tabards shredded by the claws of the demons that still howled just beyond the edge of his vision. Waning sunlight kept the creatures at bay, but they would soon be free to attack.
Looking around, he did not see his mentor and friend anywhere. Not among the dead, nor among the living, was the man who had been by his side constantly since he was eight summers old. Slogging through the snow, he stopped by each man, checking for life. He was alone, wrapped in a cyclone of snow and wind.
The sun set, snuffing out the day. A victorious howl sent chills down his spine and he grimly took hold of his blade, setting himself to fight bravely until he met his end. Then, he heard it. Out of the realms of nightmare and his deepest fears, came a sound he had prayed he would never hear again.
A long, piercing wail cracked through the twilight, followed by the thundering of hooves. Erupting from the swirling snow she came, mounted on a beast the color of smoke. Her blade was flaming ice, and with it she carved a swath through the demons that circled his position.
Fear put wings on his feet and he raced away from the pursuing figure, running all the way across the mountaintop until he reached a cliff. Barely stopping himself, he watched chunks of ice and snow fall into the darkness. Turning, he faced the mounted woman, clenching his teeth to keep from biting his tongue.
The warrior’s apparition thundered right through him – it was not real. Relief flooded him and he sank to his knees, weeping in gratitude for his timely rescue. That’s when the sharp, wrenching pain tore through him. Gaping, he looked down to see the tip of a sword protruding out of his chest.
“What?” he gasped, as blood filled his mouth. Falling over, he caught just the faintest hint of golden eyes blazing into his mind before darkness took him away...
”No!” Arris bolted out of bed, grabbing his sword and slashing at the darkness. The door opened and Porthyros ran in.
“My king, are you unwell?” he cried, turning up a lamp to chase back the shadows in the king’s bedchamber.
Dressed only in a pair of light breeches, gripping his sword in both hands, the Y’dani monarch’s body was drenched in sweat. Blinking in the sudden light, Arris let his sword drop and then sank into a chair, panting heavily.
“It’s nothing, Thyro, just a dream. Bring me some tea and I shall be fine,” he ordered weakly.
“As you wish, my lord,” the scholar said, dashing out of the room quickly. Tonight, the king would get just tea – too much krill would cause the young man to lose his mind, and that was not in Lord Oswyne’s plans, yet.
Azhani was seated at her desk, composing a message to Padreg, when a timid knock came on her door.
“Come in,” she called out, spreading a thin layer of sand over the parchment to dry the ink.
The door opened, revealing one of the castle’s many pages. “There’s a man to see you, Master Azhani. Says his name is Brannock Maeven.”
Nodding, the warrior said, “He’s a friend. Send him in.”
The page bowed courteously before scampering off, replaced by a man dressed in the colorful robes of an Y’Noran trader. Doffing his ridiculously oversized hat, the sandy-haired man bowed deeply and said, “I am always honored to be in thy presence, Lady Azhani.”
Amused, Azhani politely allowed the man to press a chaste kiss on the back of her hand. “Liar. Last time you saw me, I had you arrested for bribery. What can I do for you, Bran?”
Stepping back, the man produced a long, heavily wrapped package. “From the hand of King Padreg of Y’Nor, I bring you tidings. Hear now his words.” An accompanying scroll appeared, was unfurled, and Maeven began to read.
I hope this finds you and Kyrian in good health. My lady Elisira is out with the new foals, counting the blessings of the goddess to our clan this season. Young Devon has taken well to schooling under the wise Starseeker Miria and sends his love. Thomas, Syrah and Aden also send greetings and well wishes.
News of the Kingdoms is not good. Killigarni pirates continue to harry the Y’maran border; High King Ysradan and his lady, Queen Dasia, are out with the navy seeking the brigands at all costs. Pirellan Madros is regent for Ysrallan, while the Princess Syrelle has come to Y’Nor as a fosterling. Elisira is grateful to have her; the ladies here are a bit lacking in the skills to assist a woman of High Court bearing.”
Azhani laughed, interrupting Maeven’s easy brogue. “Which is Paddy’s way of saying that Y’Noran women don’t pamper each other.” The fact that Madros is known for his less than honorable tastes, probably has something to do with it as well. Having the princess in a safe place is a good idea. Azhani gave credit to the High King for knowing that his cousin was ill fit as a guardian.
The trader pulled a face, rolling his eyes in silent agreement and then continued reading.
“The dwarves of Y’dror, face the depredations of a monster they have called a dragon; though I do not know whether the creature is actually such a beast. In Y’skan, wild sandstorms rage through the sands, forcing the clans to unite at Ratterask until they pass. King Naral of Y’Tol, also sends ill news; a plague of insects has devastated the crops and all of his resources have been poured into recovering as much as possible, so that his people do not starve come winter.
It should come as no surprise when I say that we of Y’Nor have had our own troubles. Badly disguised bandits, men most likely of the Cabal or of Killigarn, have taken to attacking our clans, doing little damage yet keeping us all tired from long candlemarks of watch. I have not, however, forgotten my promise to you, and on the heels of this missive, shall come all that I can spare. May the gods speed your hand to the heart of our troubles.
I have saved the kingdom of Y’dan for last. I cannot break this to you lightly, my friend. The land you once served has become a place of sorrow and darkness. Our sibling gods have been cast aside in favor of a demon; he who is known as the Eater of Souls now holds the faith of Y’dan captive. Horrors unknown to common man for centuries, are now a part of their everyday lives. It is said that Arris himself visits these terrible shrines; let us hope that he is just mad, for if he is truly sane, then I quake to think of what his next move will be.
Azhani, my friend, it is not lightly that I speak of regicide; the king who seeks to slay another can, himself, be open for the knife. My Cousin is not well; his rule has poisoned the earth and caused a weeping in the land that even we of Y’Nor can sense. If ever there was doubt of Theodan’s choice, it has faded into history. Victory, I pray nightly, that it be yours to claim, ere Y’dan’s darkness spreads like a cancerous growth on the body of the kingdoms.
At the urging of those within the clans whose eyes are given to looking forward, I send to your hand, a gift of the ages. Gormerath, slayer of demons, blade of my ancestors and true forged weapon of Lyriandelle Starcrafter is yours now. Wield her well. May she love your hand as easily as she loved the mothers of my foremothers. Elisira wishes you to bear her against the darkness, for she cannot.
Speaking of my lady, she has joined me and wishes to add a reminder that we are to see you at midwinter. I know it was brash of me to suggest such a date, but my lady assures me that it was well intentioned, mayhap even prescient. I pray that this is so, for none deserve Astariu’s blessings more than you and Stardancer Kyrian. Peace, my friend. I await your reply.
Padreg, Clanleader of Y’Nor.
Lady Elisira Glinholt, his beloved.”
“Well isn’t that just peachy?” Azhani commented acidly, reaching for the cloth bound bundle. The news from Padreg, added to what the queen’s guard had discovered early that morning in Baron Var’s cell, made her day just that much brighter. Upon arriving at the nobleman’s prison cell, all that was found was a gooey puddle of flesh and bone.
Roused from her sickbed, Starseeker Vashyra and three acolytes visited the dungeon and cast a powerful augury, learning that the traitorous baron had been attacked and eaten by a lesser demon. The garolkoth beast, known for its taste for elven flesh, had entered the cell via a pentagram inscribed in Var’s own blood. What had caused the nobleman to summon his doom, the starseeker could not say. Azhani suspected that the demon’s presence was the work of Darkchilde, perhaps as a warning to whatever of his agents remained within the Y’Syran borders.
The baron’s remains were hastily scooped up and buried as far from the city as possible, in an unmarked grave. Several lesser Astariun priests presided over the quiet ceremony; speaking what prayers they could to ease the tortured man’s soul into a peaceful rest.
Maeven handed Azhani the package, and almost fearfully, she unwrapped it. She, like every other goddess-trained child, had heard all the legends surrounding the mystical blade. Gormerath, the blade of light, had been handed down through the ages from the hands of Lyriandelle Starcrafter. The famed weaponsmith was the firstborn daughter of Y’mareth Firstlander, the man who discovered the lands where Y’myran’s seven kingdoms now existed. With his six brothers, Y’mareth transformed the wild, demon-ridden continent into the prospering kingdoms that now existed. Lyriandelle, a priest of both Astarus and Astariu, forged Gormerath from a chunk of ore that fell from the sky, gifting it to her father. It became his greatest weapon against the hordes of demons that ravaged the land.
Upon his death, the blade came into the hands of Lyriandelle’s daughter, Y’Mara. Through her, the sword passed from woman to woman until it ended up in the hands of Padreg Keelan’s ancestors. The sword’s powers grew and its preference as a woman’s weapon, became legendary. Men could wield her, but she often did not grant her gifts to those wielders, choosing instead to lie dormant.
Azhani took her first look at the blade of legend and was highly unimpressed. A ratty, battered leather sheath and a hilt that appeared crusted in the mud and cobwebs of centuries, greeted her anxious gaze.
“She needs a bit of love and tenderness, I’d say,” Brannock Maeven commented, tucking his hands behind his back and bending over to peer at the revealed sword.
“It needs something, that’s for sure,” Azhani said. Narrowing her eyes, she looked up at the trader and asked, “Are you sure this is the same bundle Padreg handed you? You’re sure you didn’t decide to stop over at Ironfoot’s casino?”
“I swear on my beloved mother’s honor. I came directly from my good clansman’s tent to this lovely home. I haven’t even stopped to sample this fair city’s mead,” the man assured in a slightly hurt tone.
Reluctantly, Azhani accepted that the sword had indeed, come from Padreg. She reached into a drawer in her desk and pulled out a square of soft cotton cloth that she usually used to clean her own blade, and began to attempt to remove some of the years of dirt and grime from the crosspiece and hilt of the sword.
After only a few moments of scrubbing, the dirt began to flake off. Surprised at how quickly it cleaned up, Azhani concentrated on rubbing it clean. When the last traces of soil fell away, what remained showed the truly remarkable craftsmanship of its maker. The blade was a longsword, slightly wedge shaped and incredibly sharp, even after all the time it had spent in the sheath. The metal used to form the blade was unlike any the warrior had ever seen before. In the light, it glinted a rainbow of hues, but in shadow it was the dull gray of normal steel. Wave-like bands of color and shadow rippled up and down the blade, showing that the metal had been folded thousands of times, imbuing it with a supernatural strength.
The curving hilt was golden in color, yet harder and stronger than gold or brass. Inset in the center of the crosspiece was a single, sapphire blue stone that appeared to glow with an inner light. The handle was a solid hardwood, which, like the metal of the blade, Azhani did not recognize. The same golden toned metal finished out the sword, creating a pommel that was both beautiful and functional. Gormerath was half again longer than Azhani’s current blade, and she realized she would need some time to accustom herself to its greater reach. A sheath that could be worn on her back would have to be constructed, as well.
Gripping the handle tightly, the warrior stood and took a few experimental swings with the sword. She almost dropped it when she discovered that it was so perfectly balanced, that it seemed nearly weightless. As she worked through a series of easy strikes and parries, Azhani noticed a sensation of warmth creeping up through her hand and up her arm. It wasn’t uncomfortable or distracting; rather the feeling was welcoming, as if the blade were greeting her in its own way.
As her impromptu dance came to an end, she finished with a flourish, laying the sword down on her desk, but not quite letting it go. She could almost sense the fragile bond that was beginning to form between her and the sword and she did not want to do anything to disturb it.
“She’s beautiful,” Azhani whispered, staring down at the weapon in awe.
“Aye, that she is. A precious bit of work, there. Like the one who wields her, I’d think,” Maeven said, a touch of awe in his voice as well. Never had he seen a more graceful demonstration of the martial arts than he had just witnessed. The half-elven warrior’s skill with the blade, was a gift from Astariu. Of that he was certain.
Azhani didn’t seem to hear him, so lost was she in contemplation of Gormerath.
“Well, I’ll just let you two get acquainted. If you have any messages for Padreg, you-“ A rolled scroll was absently shoved in his direction. “Yes, thank you. I’ll see that he gets this. Have a nice day, my lady.”
Bowing, Brannock Maeven backed out of the room, and shut the door behind him.
“No, block, thrust, feint, parry then strike, Allyn. And turn your blade out a little more; it’s all fine and dandy to hit someone with the flat in practice, but in the real world, it’s the edge that does all the work. Now, try it again; hit me,” Kyrian ordered, stepping back and readying her staff.
The wood felt odd in her hands. The staff was not her best or even second best weapon, but her baton had been destroyed by Kasyrin Darkchilde’s spell. She didn’t feel like deflating young Allyndev’s ego by showing him just how easily she could take his sword away from him with her bare hands, so she had taken one of the many practice pikes and snapped off its head, twirling the shaft around easily. It would suffice, and Allyn’s padded armor would deflect most of her light blows.
Allyn sighed heavily. “When is Master Azhani going to teach me again?” he whined.
“When she has recovered from her wound, Allyn. Now, lay on!” Kyrian tried not to roll her eyes. Though a young man of nearly twenty summers, Allyndev Kelani was a study in mixed emotions. One moment, he was diffident and reclusive, the next, recalcitrant and rude. The loss of his mentor had come as a hard blow, softened only by his seeming ability to defeat the men who had, less than three months ago, laughed him off the practice field. Now, as he faced her, he was once again the object of their derision.
Kyrian had heard the men long before she reached the salle.
”What’s the matter, Ally, can’t fight so good without your half-breed master to back you up?” One of the men had taunted. He was a regular spectator during the stardancer’s lessons, never having taken up arms against her during her practice sessions.
The other guardsmen echoed the first man’s sentiments, causing Allyn to shout in fury and attack them. Only her arrival had forestalled an all out brawl. Daring a glance out of the corner of her eyes, Kyrian spared a thought to wonder where Azhani was. She had told her that she could come down and do some light sparring today, yet the warrior had not made an appearance. The crunch of booted feet on the straw-covered ground, brought her attention back to the young man she was facing.
Circling around each other warily, each of the combatants sized the other up. Allyn knew he was a good student; Master Azhani had praised his skill many times. Stardancer Kyrian was a different teacher, though. Her patience was greater than that of her warrior friend’s, but she was less apt to pull a blow that would sting more than the young half-elven nobleman’s honor. That morning Allyn had already learned several painful lessons. His knuckles ached terribly from the dozen or better whacks he had received for his carelessness. Now, he was attempting to disarm the stardancer, which was a task that at first had seemed easy, but as the day wound on, he realized was truly a challenge.
He struck; his practice sword twisting to block her counter move and then faked to the right. As Kyrian brought her staff around to block him, he reversed his motion, attempting the parry. Again, as before, his blade remained too flat and she easily tucked the end of her staff under it and knocked it from his battered hand, delivering another numbing blow to the knuckles.
Cursing under his breath, he held up his open hands in surrender. “Fine, you win. I’m done,” he grumbled crossly, waiting for her to back away. Was she trying to break his knuckles? He sucked on the throbbing digits and sulked. Master Azhani never treated him like this. He was a prince, damn it. Didn’t she know that? He opened his mouth to complain, but was interrupted.
The guardsmen started to jeer Allyn once again, but this time he did not respond because he was too drained to defend himself. The prince’s shoulder’s slumped and he turned away from the stardancer.
Standing in the shadows, watching the sparring session, Azhani shook her head and grimaced determinedly. Today, she would have some answers. The warrior reached out and prodded the first laughing guardsmen she could reach.
“Go, and take your friends with you,” she growled, nodding her head toward the door.
The man turned to protest, but when he saw who he faced, he nodded and saluted smartly. Quietly, he started tapping his friends on the shoulder and pushing them toward the exit. When they were gone, Azhani stepped out of the shadows and spoke.
“Kyrian, do not let honor stop you; in the real world, there’s no such thing as a time out. Allyn – true life scenario; no stopping until the kill strike is made.” Azhani’s commanding tone set both fighters into action.
Kyrian immediately dropped into a low crouch and feinted with the staff, leading Allyn to dodge left. He successfully evaded her and managed a half-hearted somersault over to his fallen blade, scooping it up as he tumbled. As he came up, Kyrian struck again, but this time, he was able to deflect her blow. For several, heart-pounding moments, the two fought neck and neck, trading heavier and heavier blows until, at the crucial moment, Kyrian again disarmed Allyn. Instead of taking the kill shot, though, she stepped away, with her hands shaking visibly on the shaft of the staff.
A half-strangled growl of frustration filled the room. “Damn it, Kyr, why do you do that?” Azhani demanded, striding into the open, wielding a practice blade of her own. Angrily, she swung at the stardancer, forcing her to defend herself.
Retreating and deflecting blow after blow, Kyrian stuttered, “Enough, Azhi, I don’t... I can’t...” but the warrior was relentless, delivering pounding strikes until Kyrian’s own anger overran her fear.
Letting out a shriek, Kyrian leapt away from the wall she was backing into and brought her staff down in a two handed blow. Azhani blocked the blow with some difficulty, and the force of Kyrian’s strike snapped the shaft in two. One end held in each hand, Kyrian twisted her wrists fluidly. This was like having two batons for the price of one, and the baton was her best weapon outside of her own fists.
Sweat dripped off both women’s faces, spattering on the floor. Both were panting heavily, and each seized a moment to catch their breath. Azhani looked at Kyrian’s face, which was a mask of anger and hurt.
“Mad at me?” she taunted. When Kyrian nodded in the affirmative, Azhani replied, “Good. Now, come get me. Because I don’t know why the hell you freeze up in battle, and I don’t particularly care, but from now on, I won’t allow it to happen.”
The warrior’s words struck a bitter chord in her. “Won’t allow it?” Kyrian shouted. “Who the hell are you to say such a thing?”
Whatever answer Azhani may have had was lost in the flurry of blows that were exchanged as Kyrian launched herself at the warrior, her sticks moving so fast, they almost blurred.
From the sidelines, Allyn watched his mentors in awe, praying for the day when he would come within a fraction of their abilities. I really am just a scholar with a sword, he thought, feeling the dregs of his self-confidence drain away. Maybe I should just go back to my stars and my flowers.
Azhani remained calm throughout the battle. As Kyrian grew more and more wild and frenetic, the warrior met each blow with calm resolve. “Talk to me, Kyr. Tell me why you hate this,” she pleaded softly.
Tears mixed with sweat, blinding the stardancer momentarily, but Azhani did not press the advantage. Instead, she backed away and harried Kyrian’s weakened defenses.
“No,” Kyrian grated out. “I can’t... it’s... gods, it hurts so much,” she whispered as she swung.
“That’s because whatever it is, has festered deep within you, Kyr. You’re a healer – you know how bad that is. Do yourself a favor, and drain that wound. Let it out. You can talk to me, Kyr. I’m your friend and I don’t care what it is, I just want you to feel better,” Azhani pressed.
“I...” Kyrian’s voice broke.
“Tell me, please,” Azhani pleaded, dropping her sword. Kyrian wavered and the broken staff pieces in her hands slowly descended until they hung limply at her sides.
Allyn silently racked his practice blade and left the room. His lesson was clearly over.
“I’m listening,” Azhani prompted.
The softly spoken words flattened the walls Kyrian had erected. Falling to her knees and flinging her weapons away, she whispered, “I killed a man.” She then curled up in a ball, as if waiting for blows to rain down from above.
Instead, Azhani knelt in front of her friend and drew her close. “I’m betting it wasn’t like winning the brass ring,” the warrior commented wryly. She well knew that no words would erase the deep guilt that lived in the stardancer’s gentle soul. Kyrian was a preserver of life. For her to carry the knowledge of death, no matter how well deserved, was a punishment far worse than any mortal laws could deliver. Wrapping her arms loosely around the stardancer, Azhani began stroking her friend’s sweat-soaked hair.
Kyrian looked up at Azhani, her eyes oddly dry. “I can’t even cry anymore. I’ve cried so much over it,” she admitted hoarsely.
“Tell me about it?” the warrior gently asked, settling more comfortably and cradling the shivering body of her friend against her.
At first, the words wouldn’t come, but as the warrior sat and rocked her, Kyrian found that she was able to speak. In bits and pieces, the story came out. She talked of her time in Myr, the elven village where she was accepted as a teacher; how she would take the children to the lake to swim every day and how, on one fateful day, she had encountered a raider.
“Afterward, gods, it was so horrible. I started to perform the passing on ceremony and it hit me. I knew, as clearly as I know my own name, that I had stripped that man of his life. From then on, nothing I did would balance the awfulness of that act.” She took a deep breath and sighed. “So that’s why I freeze up in battle. I always have that one moment of time where I have to consciously decide that I am going to hurt or possibly kill someone. Each time I do it, it gets a little easier and each time, I get a little more afraid.”
“What are you afraid of?” Azhani asked as she unconsciously ran her fingers through the tiny curls that brushed the edge of the stardancer’s collar. Her hair is so soft. It’s like wind.
“I’m afraid I’m going to stop caring; that one day, I’ll face someone in battle and I won’t have to decide whether I’m going to hurt them. On that day, I won’t be a healer; I’ll be a killer. On that day, I’ll cease to serve the goddess.” Guiltily, Kyrian leaned into the sweet caress. It felt so good, and although she hated herself for it, she greedily absorbed the warrior’s touch.
“Kyrian, you can’t beat yourself up over what might be. I’ve never seen someone more dedicated to serving Astariu – you worry over nothing. If you let your fears rule your life, you will always be running from them,” said the warrior. “Yes, it’s horrible when you have to make the decision to take someone else’s life, but there are times when that is what is necessary. Look at Arris – think of all the evil he and people like him have caused. Should you meet him in battle, would you spare him?”
“That’s not fair,” Kyrian complained, unknowingly snuggling into Azhani’s chest.
The stardancer’s embrace sent chills through the warrior, causing her heartbeat to increase. Swallowing heavily, she replied, “Life’s not fair; that’s what I’m trying to tell you, Kyr. Yeah, it’s like drinking from a dirty chamber pot sometimes but that’s what happens when you want to be the hero.”
“Ew,” Kyrian said, wrinkling her nose. “Not the best analogy you’ve ever come up with, my friend.” Pulling away and searching the warrior’s face, she said, “But maybe I do understand. I don’t know if I’ll keep freezing, and I don’t know if I’ll still be afraid of becoming a killer, but now I know you’re here, and that makes it a lot better.”
As she brushed Kyrian’s cheek with her knuckles Azhani said, “I’ll always be here. You’re my friend, Kyr.”
Looking into each other’s eyes, both women saw a flash of something. For Kyrian, it was enough to start a bonfire of hope within her heart. For Azhani, it was worse – for it started a maelstrom of questions that she feared to answer.
Kyrian closed her eyes and sighed. Covering the warrior’s hand with her own, she smiled sweetly when Azhani’s fingers opened, cupping her face lightly.
Two heartbeats echoed loudly as neither woman spoke, existing only to share the comfort of their friendship.
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