Combining the two armies took some time. The Y’danis, many of whom only knew Azhani as the killer who had slain so many of their brethren, were uncertain of their king’s true wishes. After all, he was the one who had named her Oathbreaker in the first place.
On Azhani’s side was the fact that she had all of the priests of Astarus and Astariu with her. For a people held spiritually captive by the horrifying rituals of Ecarthus, it was a chance at freedom. Five days passed while the Y’danis argued amongst themselves.
Some of the men deserted; the horrors they had faced were too much and the idea of marching on in the dead of winter, did not inspire loyalty. Azhani let them go, praying they made it to safety. Many of the soldiers immediately joined her army; these were the men and women who had served with her or knew her reputation as something other than the Banshee of Banner Lake. These she welcomed with open arms, finding places for them quickly.
Of the Ecarthan priests, there was no sign. The black-robed men had vanished soon after Arris’ death. Since the king’s passing, Azhani had been very distant. The warrior went about her days as if running through fog; she would say and do all the right things but it was obvious, at least to Kyrian, that her soul wasn’t in it.
When the stardancer tried to broach the subject, Azhani waved her off, saying that she “needed some time”. Even after Kyrian had told her about the krill-thrall, Azhani had sent her away. Gritting her teeth, Kyrian allowed Azhani her space and worked with the other stardancers and the chirurgeons to heal as many of the soldiers as they could.
Eventually, the armies meshed, bringing the total number of fighting men and women to nearly five thousand. The merger was none too soon. Night after night, demons harried the patrols, waging a war of attrition on the weary soldiers. Tonight would be no different and Kyrian set off toward the chirurgeon’s tent, preparing to care for the onslaught of new patients that were sure to fill the large white pavilion before dawn.
The young mage Devon raced across the camp, heading for the picket lines where the horses were being readied. Tonight was his night to ride with the patrols and he did not want to be late. Azhani had chosen him to be on her squad and he did not want to disappoint his old friend. A flash of red hair caught his attention and he stopped, turning to stare at the space between two tents.
There, in the shadows, partially illuminated by torchlight, were Syrelle and Allyndev. Their heads were together and he could just make out their soft conversation. Guiltily, the young mage strained his ears, listening to the quiet talk.
“Be careful,” Syrelle said, buckling Allyndev’s sword belt tightly. “I don’t want you to get hurt again.”
Allyn captured the princess’ hands and brought them up to his lips, brushing a gentle kiss over her knuckles. “I will be chary of my health, my lady, I swear.”
Syrelle rolled her eyes and pulled her hands away from him. “I don’t need oaths, Allyn. I just want you...” she looked down at her feet and then back up into his eyes. “I just want you to come back,” she whispered.
“Sy-“ Allyn said, reaching up to brush his fingers over her cheek, a wondering smile fluttering across his lips. “I-“
She nuzzled his hand and stepped close to him. He enfolded her into his arms and she clung to him, shaking. Tilting her head back, she quietly commanded, “Kiss me, Allyn, please.”
Devon tried to turn then, tried to not see the sight that would forever banish his dreams of loving Syrelle, but he could not look away. Prince Allyndev gently tipped his head down and kissed the princess.
Now able to tear his gaze away, Devon continued on to the horses. His heart was hammering in his chest and he felt tears sting his eyes. Yet, the pain was not as great as he feared it would be. The great sorrow he was so sure he would feel if Syrelle did not choose to love him, just wasn’t there. He loved her, but there was no desire to wring Allyn’s neck, like he had heard some of the other mages say they would do if anyone ever took away the objects of their affections.
Smirking mirthlessly, he wiped away his tears. Maybe I’m just weird, he thought as he reached the side of the horse he would ride. The saddle was trimmed in saffron, marking it as an animal that would not spook if he started tossing around lighting bolts. Putting his foot into the stirrup, he lifted his leg over the saddle and settled into the leather, making sure it had been cinched tightly. Satisfied, he wrapped the reins over the saddle horn and began the calming exercises that would ready his mind for spell casting.
Besides, it’s not like I’ll never love again. Just look at Azhani. She loved Ylera so much, and yet ... even her heart opened again. He opened his eyes to see the woman he was thinking of kiss her lover good-bye and then mount up on Kushyra.
“Hey, don’t run off without me!” Allyn called out, causing Devon to turn and look at his friend. The young prince was jogging toward the horses.
Devon leaned over and grabbed the reins of the mare that had been assigned to Allyn. “Oh, never, Allyboy. We’d be lost without you,” he said dramatically as he led the horse over to the prince.
“Funny, sparkle fingers,” Allyn retorted, mounting up on the mare’s back.
Devon flashed him a bright grin and said, “So, was that Syrelle I saw you with?”
A soft grin washed over the prince’s handsome face. “Yeah, she uh...” he flushed deeply.
“Ahh, well, congratulations,” Devon muttered, wondering why he had even mentioned it. The pain, though less than wrenching, still managed to make his eyes tear up and his heart squeeze painfully.
Allyn watched his friend’s face cloud over and looked at him curiously. What the...
Azhani’s sharp whistle cut into his thoughts. “All right, ladies, listen up. It’s going to be really cold tonight, so be on your guard. The colder, the deader, isn’t just a joke tonight. Ready?” She looked at each of her men, waiting for them to nod. “Let’s go!”
They rode hard, pounding along the pathway that had been traveled for many nights. Heading northward, they didn’t have to ride for long before the eerie howling of a pack of demons raised the hairs on everyone’s necks.
Allyn scanned the sides of the trail, seeking the glimmer of heat that meant a demon was lurking in the bushes. Twin arcs of energy lit up the night behind him and he wheeled the horse around, ready to face whatever caused Devon to fire off his spell.
Demons leapt from the bushes, surrounding the patrol. Azhani’s piercing battle cry split the night, causing the prince to shiver briefly before he ripped his sword free of its scabbard. Raising it high, he yelled, “For Y’Syr!” and charged the pack of monsters.
Chanting at the top of his lungs, Devon willed the arcane energy to split again, striking two of the beasts. Beside him, another mage, a young man named Jasyn, was tossing small fireballs at the horde of monsters. Suddenly, one of the gray-furred beasts leapt out of the bushes behind them, grabbing onto Jasyn and pulling him to the ground.
They tumbled several feet and Jasyn tried to free himself, but was trapped by the beast’s heavier weight. The demon rose, grappling the young mage. Jasyn continued to chant, raining down small bolts of energy that cut deeply into the demon’s body. Roaring in pain and fury, the monster lifted Jasyn over its head and threw him across the clearing.
Devon watched his friend fly more than fifty feet and impact the side of the mountain. “Jas!” he cried out, turning his lighting onto the monster that was now running for him.
Engaged with battling one of the monsters, Allyn almost didn’t see Devon’s danger until it was too late. Three demons were converging on the mage’s position, growling and slavering like rabid dogs.
Astarus’ balls! he had time to think, before he kicked his horse’s sides and raced over to rescue his friend. “Devon!” he cried out, standing in his stirrups.
As the horse got close, he leapt, knocking the mage out of the way of the leaping monsters. Two sailed over their heads, but the third managed to halt its leap, coming down with an open mouth. Helpless to stop it, Allyn watched as it bit down into Devon’s leg, picked him up, and brutally shook him.
There was an awful tearing sound and then a crunch, and then Devon went flying, landing in a drift not more than five feet away. The demon continued chewing and then let out a piercing howl.
“Devon! No!” Allyn shouted, leaping to his feet and hacking at the demon blindly.
Across the clearing, the young mage lay on his back, staring at the stars in the sky, watching them dance and morph into odd shaped patterns. His leg throbbed dully, and his knee felt as though it were on fire, and there were other parts of him that hurt, but the pain was oddly detached. A breeze blew across his face, chilling him. Shivering, he blinked his eyes, and huddled into his robe. He tried to recall the words to a warming spell, but the phrases deserted him. The wail that marked his warleader’s battle cry sounded, coming from very close by, and he tried to sit up to see what was happening.
He had no strength though, so he just lay there, making pictures in the heavens.
It was late afternoon and Kyrian was just waking. The night before had been filled with several terrible injuries, including one to her friend, the mage Devon. His left leg had been bitten off, severed below the knee. It had been a struggle to save him – for a long, breathless moment, she had been unsure if she could save him, but eventually, she got the bleeding to stop, and with the Goddess’ Fire, was able to start the healing process.
In fact, if it hadn’t been for Azhani’s quick thinking in the field – she’d gotten one of the remaining mages in the party to cauterize the young man’s wound before they brought him back to camp – Devon would have died. She was on her way now to check in on him.
Ducking into the tent, Kyrian noticed Allyn and Syrelle sleeping in a couple of chairs next to the young mage’s bed.
“Hey you,” Kyrian said as she knelt and began inspecting the bandages. “How are you?”
Weakly, Devon said, “I feel like I just got my leg bitten off.”
Since that was what had happened, Kyrian only nodded.
“I’m okay, I guess. It just... gods, it hurts,” Devon quietly admitted.
Kyrian nodded sympathetically. “I know, and I’ll see what I can do to help, okay?”
“’Kay,” he said, biting his lip as she prodded the wound gently. “So, uh, you hear any good, ah gods, gossip, lately?” he asked, trying for a bit of levity.
“No, you?” she answered absently, already humming softly.
Relief flooded through the young mage as the stardancer’s magic began to work. “Oh, blessed Astariu, thank you!” he whispered breathlessly.
She smiled and pulled the covers back over him.
“Well, uh,” he looked at his friends, who were still sleeping. “I saw Allyn kiss Syrelle yesterday,” he admitted softly.
Kyrian smiled sadly and licked her lips. “And?” she prompted.
“It hurt – almost as bad as having my leg chewed off, but not quite,” he joked weakly. Frowning, he said, “You knew, didn’t you?”
Nodding, the stardancer quietly said, “I’m empathic, Dev. It would be hard for me not to know. Especially since I’ve healed both you and Allyn.”
“Oh, well, uh, could you, not say anything?” he asked.
“Of course,” she replied. “If you ever need to talk about it, though...” she offered.
“Thanks. So, how’s Jasyn?” He looked over at the cot that contained the other mage that had been injured.
“He won’t be fighting anytime soon, but he’s going to live,” Kyrian assured him gently.
Suddenly, every mage in the tent convulsed in pain. Devon grabbed his ears and shouted, “Dear goddess, make it stop!”
As if from a distance, Kyrian could faintly hear what sounded like the dying wail of thousands. Azhani! was her only thought as she ran out of the tent, eyes scanning the crowd for her beloved.
Oddly, the first thing she noticed was the sky. It was nearly charcoal gray. She quickly counted the marks on a nearby candle, frowning as she came to the startling conclusion that it should be near midday, not midnight. Then the demons attacked.
The creatures swarmed the guards, howling eerily and overwhelming them quickly. Dimly, the stardancer slapped at her side, but her baton was long gone; she had never replaced it after Kasyrin’s shade destroyed it.
She turned at the shout and saw Devon standing in the doorway of the chirurgeon’s pavilion. He was leaning on a chair, blood rapidly pooling on the ground below him. “Here,” he held out a Stardancer’s baton that shined with an intense yellow light. “I made this for you with Starseeker Vashyra. I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do, since I obviously can’t go with you.” Seeing her startled look, he shrugged. “I had it in my haversack. Meant to give it to you before, but never found the time. Now’s the time – go!”
Lifting her robes to run through the mud, Kyrian grabbed the baton and asked, “Why is it glowing?”
Devon shook his head, “I don’t know. I found the spell in my book; it claimed to be for hopeless situations and well... gods,” he leaned over and vomited, “I can’t explain it now, but go... go find Azhani, she will need you before this day is through.”
Torn between the desire to find her lover and staying to help Devon, Kyrian stood, staring down at the weapon in her hand. Around her, men and women grabbed whatever weapons that came to hand and fought back against the surprise invasion of demonkind.
Death and chaos swirled through the camp. Above the shrieking of blood maddened demons, the stardancer could hear her heart hammer like a drum in her chest.
Can I do this? She tried closing her fingers around the baton’s handle and found it easier than she remembered. I have to. There’s no one else.
Kyrian turned away from Devon. A chirurgeon stuck his head through the tent flap, grabbed the young mage, and pulled him back inside. Gritting her teeth, Kyrian started to hunt determinedly for Azhani.
On a ridge above the camp, Azhani Rhu’len stared down at her army, the mixed banners of Y’dan, Y’Syr and Y’Nor dotting the snow-covered ground like tiny pins tacked to a territory map. These were her people now.
King Arris the Kinslayer was dead. Among the crazed monarch’s things, a journal had been found that detailed in gleefully insane terms, every bizarre and evil act the man had committed, all at the urging of his childhood mentor, Porthyros Omal. The very last entry had gone on, in intimate detail, about how Arris had systematically poisoned Theodan until his father had died.
Padreg had lost no time in making that little detail a well-known fact. The army, which had still been having troubles in getting along, suddenly became a lot easier to command. Azhani supposed she should be grateful, but all she could feel was an abiding sense of disgusted pity.
Ylera’s death had been just an amusement for the annoying little man whom Arris had insisted stay by his side at all times. Porthyros had told the prince that if Ylera wasn’t around, Azhani would love him instead, and wasn’t that exactly what he wanted? Azhani ground her teeth in anger. So blind, trusting, and drugged to his gills, Arris, had eagerly gone along with Porthyros’ plans. Destroying the one person that the warleader cherished, was only a minor piece of the total plan.
Gaining control of Y’dan was the main goal. With it, Porthyros’ friend, the merchant Kesryn Oswyne, would be able to introduce Arris to a new god; a being that Porthyros promised would give Arris everything he ever wanted. Kesryn Oswyne, also known as Kasyrin Darkchilde, had brought Ecarthus to Y’dan.
Tears stained the warleader’s cheeks. Reading the passages that lovingly described how Arris, at Porthyros’ urging, had violated her lover, tore a hole in her heart that bled until she could cry no more. She ran from the camp, seeking a tiny corner of peace, needing the silence of the wilderness.
Gormerath’s song shattered the stillness. The sword’s usual hum suddenly became a shrill shriek that rivaled Azhani’s battle cry. She looked down into the camp and nearly leapt from her rock perch at the sight of the demons that were overrunning the unprepared soldiers.
The blade was in her hand, blazing like the noonday sun.
The sun! Where is the sun? Azhani knew it had to be midmorning. It had been at least two candlemarks since the last patrol arrived.
Memory, swift as eagle’s wings, caressed her mind. “The breaking is at hand. Upon the day when the sun stands still and the stars no longer spin with time, a battle will rage.” Searching the sky, Azhani was astounded to find it gray, almost like twilight. The sun, which should be overhead, was rapidly vanishing, cloaked by the shadowed form of the moon.
Gormerath tugged her forward anxiously, but not toward where the army was camped. Instead, the blade urged her up higher, toward a curiously flat-topped mountain where she could just now see an orange glow beginning to form. This must be it. The breaking is here. I love you Kyrian, remember that forever. A wild grin ripped across the warrior’s face.
In the camp below, where chaos reigned, the soldiers stopped and took heart when the sound of their Banshee’s wail filled the valley.
Kyrian raced through the camp, dodging demon and soldier alike. Her robes were already thick with gore. Blood from those she had stopped to help and the yellowish slime that the demons bled, mixed to form a sickening paste. When she heard her beloved’s battle cry, she looked up, spotting Azhani on the ridge of a hill. Watching as the warrior waved her flaming blade once, Kyrian immediately started running for her, needing to get to Azhani’s side.
The stardancer picked her way up the mountain, slipping and sliding as she went, cursing the new, smooth soles of her boots. Finally, she made it up and started running down a small trail. Other soldiers had come before; their boots had gouged up chunks of mud and snow as they ran. Bodies were everywhere – demons as well as the men and women of the army, had fought and died very recently. Ahead, Kyrian could make out the sounds of fighting.
She ran on, ignoring everything until she spotted Azhani. The warrior was fighting six demons at once, defending one of the soldiers who had gone down. Putting on a burst of speed, Kyrian slipped in and brought the baton down on a demon’s head in a two handed strike that pulped its skull.
The fight was vicious. Azhani danced a lethal series of steps around the demons, avoiding their attacks easily. Kyrian immediately recognized the style – it was one that they had practiced together many times. The stardancer spun, putting her body at Azhani’s back, and together, they took on the remaining demons.
When it was over, Azhani and Kyrian turned and spent several heartbeats staring into each other’s eyes.
Finally, Azhani broke the gaze and pointed to the mesa. “I need to be there. I love you,” she grabbed Kyrian and kissed her fiercely. “Go back to camp, Kyr, please.” Then she let her lover go and sprinted off, running so fast that Kyrian would be unable to follow in her heavier robes.
“Not on your life, Azhani Rhu’len,” Kyrian whispered determinedly. Gripping the gore-caked baton firmly, the stardancer set out to follow her lover to the mountaintop.
She didn’t know how long she had climbed and walked. The journey blended together, becoming a cacophony of the dead and dying, that left her numb. Making it to the top of the mesa, Kyrian looked around. Not far from her, Azhani was picking her way through tumbled rocks to where a stone obelisk of matte black obsidian thrust its way upward from the broken ground.
The stardancer’s gaze flicked from her lover to a man in robes so black, they seemed to swallow the shadows. He stood next to the obelisk, his arms upraised as he chanted. The stench of blood magic filled the air. Kasyrin Darkchilde’s chant echoed around the mesa, causing Kyrian to shiver. Behind him, another man clutched his hands and cackled with insane glee. As Kasyrin’s spell wove over the obelisk, the stone began to take on an ugly reddish tone. Sickly yellow runes appeared, crawling from the base of the tower to the very tip.
Azhani saw Kasyrin, and snarled. Clutching Gormerath tightly, the warrior understood that this was the reason she had been chosen.
“I always knew you were too lucky for your own good, Kasyrin,” the warleader said calmly.
The dark mage turned, outrage painting his features into an ugly snarl.
“You,” he spat. “You’re supposed to be dead - stuck like a pig on the end of my puppet king’s sword.”
Porthyros danced back and forth, worry clouding his face. “Dead, yes, dead you are,” he gibbered madly, shaking a finger at the warleader. “Arris is a good boy, he does what he’s told.”
Looking over at the scholar, Azhani shrugged apologetically. “Sorry, didn’t happen that way. Your toy king cut his strings and gave his life saving another from your master’s dogs.” The memory of Arris throwing his body into Kyrian and taking a blow meant for her lover, still rang harshly in Azhani’s mind. Focusing on Darkchilde, she taunted, “Perhaps you should instruct your minions on proper care and feeding of puppets before they run off to play?”
“Fine,” Kasyrin hissed, “then this is between you, me and,” he muttered something in a guttural tone while smashing a vial of greenish liquid against the side of the obelisk, “My Lord Ecarthus.”
The eerie glow within the obelisk began to pulse, throbbing like a heartbeat. Azhani gasped as the ground started to shake and a terrible groan filled the air. The ground in front of the obelisk suddenly ruptured and split, sending up a plume of noxious smoke and ash. Shielding her eyes, the warrior stepped back a pace, feeling the cold hand of fear sharply grasp her heart.
Rising from the rift, came a demon whose countenance was so hideous that the warrior staggered back another step. Muscles wrapped over a twisted and bent body that was colored the shade of freshly spilled blood. Fangs and horns decorated a face, that on a mortal, could have been beautiful. Eyes that glowed a putrid green, gazed out on the world and flashed in triumph.
The monster ripped his hands from the earth, thrusting the six-inch clawed fingers up toward the sky in defiance. Bony, charcoal colored scales covered his chest and stomach. From the waist down, the beast was still entombed in the earth, but as Kasyrin chanted, more of the demon rose.
The demon’s aura was so powerful that Azhani flinched and staggered back even more, fear overwhelming her.
Kasyrin looked up at the beast and smiled, “Behold, my lord, I have brought you the mortal bitch, Azhani Rhu’len!”
Ecarthus didn’t bother to even look at his slave as he growled, “Keep chanting, you fool! Finish the incantation! Now!”
Laughing eagerly, Kasyrin opened his mouth to do his master’s bidding.
Across the mountaintop, Kyrian felt the awesome tide of evil that rolled off the demon in waves. Fear held her fast, pinning her feet to the ground. Though she had fought her way to this place, killing her share of demons, the aura of pain and death that permeated the mesa, brought back the keen-edged memory of watching that bandit’s life blood drip from her baton.
The image triggered her fear, and she stood, unable to even blink as the demon continued to rise from the ground. Kyrian watched as the dark mage’s underling began edging away from his master’s shadow and toward where Azhani stood, just as frozen as the stardancer.
Something inside the stardancer snapped when she spotted the wickedly curved dagger clutched in the man’s hand. Anger shattered the chains that fear had shackled around her soul. Gripping her baton tightly, Kyrian’s eyes narrowed as she surveyed the mountaintop and tried to come up with a plan.
Devon’s gift felt warm in her hand. The stardancer recalled what he had said about hopeless situations, and grinned. I can’t think of anything more hopeless than this.
“Okay, Dev, here’s where we find out whether or not that spell’s worth the power it cost you,” Kyrian muttered, lifting her arm and heaving the baton outwards.
End over end it tumbled, cutting gracefully through the air, easily crossing the distance between the stardancer and the sorcerer. The baton shimmered as it picked up speed. Kyrian blinked, then winced as she heard the distinctly sickening crunch of a skull shattering. She didn’t stop to see what happened next. Instead, she began running for the man with the wickedly curved knife.
Kasyrin stumbled, his words faltering as pain exploded into his head. He reeled, trying to continue the chant, but the words wouldn’t come and it was agony to think. Blearily, he looked at Ecarthus. “My lord...” he whimpered, reaching out in feeble supplication.
The demon spared a glance at his slave and snarled, “Finish the chant, dog, and maybe I will save you.”
“As you will it,” he said, gasping thickly. His voice dropped to soundlessness, but his lips slowly continued to move and the demon’s form began rising from the earth once more.
::Now warrior, now it is time for you to decide if you believe,:: Azhani felt the goddess’ words in her mind. ::Do you have faith in me, warrior?::
“Yes,” Azhani whispered. There was no other answer she could give, not after the sacrifice she had seen her most hated enemy make in Her name.
The warrior heard the sound of far-off bells and then...
...She burned. A suffusion of fire hotter than the forges that warmed the Mountains of Y’dror, rushed through her being. She was pulled, guided toward a goal that she could not see, but knew she was inevitably moving toward...
The warleader watched in fascinated detachment as her whole body was bathed in the azure aura of the goddess Astariu. This was when she realized that she was no longer in her body; instead, she was a part of Gormerath.
The words of Vashyra’s prophecy sang out in her mind.
“Three chosen by fate shall unite to face the Beast. The Blade, the Heart and the Stringless Puppet shall cross paths. Upon that meeting, the Beast shall rise to seek his place. Stand well against the storm, and time shall sing of thy glory, into the mists of forever. Fall, and all will blacken and fade.”
No description would fit Arris Kinslayer better than “stringless puppet”, since he had managed to throw off the bonds of drugs and lies that the worthless Porthyros had fed him for too many years. The heart could only be Kyrian - the woman whose love and patience had worn down Azhani’s carefully built walls, until she was as much a part of the warrior as breath.
::I am the Blade,:: she spoke voicelessly, wonder and fear tingeing her words. It had nothing to do with the ancient hunk of spellbound metal that she had carted across half a kingdom.
::Yes, my child, you are. So it was written and so it is.::
If she had been still in her body, Azhani would have nodded. She would give her life to fight Ecarthus. ::I understand, but what about Kyrian,:: she asked dispassionately, trying not to let the emotion that roiled just under the surface of her thoughts, taint her question.
The goddess smiled and said, ::My Dancer loves you deeply, warrior. She will not lightly accept your loss. This test is yours, my blade – her sacrifice has yet to come.::
The goddess’ words did not give the warrior much comfort, but it was far too late to change her mind. ::All right, let’s get this over with,:: Azhani said resolutely.
The goddess nodded, but it was Azhani’s head that moved. She turned and tried to take a step toward the demon, only to find that there was an invisible shield blocking her way. Then she noticed that Kasyrin, though nearly dead, was still blindly chanting.
“Ecarthus, I stand to defy you. You may not enter this world unchallenged,” Astariu/Azhani yelled.
The demon turned its gaze away from its slave to look upon the warrior, seeming to notice her for the first time. Its eyes grew wide as it realized who the warrior was.
“No,” he growled angrily. “You shall not interfere this time, Astariu.” One demonic hand lifted and pointed toward the sorcerer. A bright orange beam of energy shot out and struck Kasyrin in the chest, jerking him upright. Suddenly, the sorcerer’s once fading voice strengthened.
“Kothos ectos necros. Askir nomay ifdrell.” The words were meaningless to all but Astariu. A barrier of shimmering force rose to encircle the goddess/warrior.
Porthyros had almost reached Azhani when Kyrian pounced on him, delivering a single, vicious chop to his throat. Gagging, the scholar dropped his knife and fell back, clutching his neck. His eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed. Kyrian spared him a brief glance, feeling almost no remorse over his death and then searched the ground for her baton. Spotting it on the grass beside the demented sorcerer, she whispered, “Come here,” and reached her hand out.
The metal rod shivered, then, slowly rose and gracefully returned to her hand. Grinning, the stardancer continued to creep across the mesa.
A contest of wills played out as Astariu/Azhani tried to force their way through the spell shield that blocked them from reaching the demon. Kasyrin, unaware of anything but his master’s bidding, chanted on.
“You gods think you’re so special,” Ecarthus said bitingly as he watched the goddess’ will surpass the strength of Kasyrin’s spell, allowing her to take two steps forward. “You take control of the mortals and claim their adulation for yourselves, leaving only the pathetic murmurings of beasts to myself and my brethren. Your days of being drunk on the wine of Faith are over. I shall rise, and when I do, I will herald in a new era where fear and hatred replace love and tolerance. Then it will be we who sup from the table of mortal misery and you who shall have to suffice on the dregs!”
“Hate and intolerance shall never supplant the blessings of love and faith,” Astariu/Azhani said, her words chiming across the field.
The demon snorted, raising his arms and gesturing expansively. “Then stop me, godling. Strike me down where I stand.”
Reaching her goal, the stardancer lashed out.
“Ecarthus unbound... Ecarthus unbound... Ecarthu-“
The sorcerer’s chanting was abruptly cut off, as Kyrian, who had managed to sneak up next to him, brought her baton down on his head, crushing his skull like an overripe pumpkin.
“I already have,” the goddess said, smiling viciously and nodding at Kyrian, who brought her bloody weapon up and saluted the warrior. The demon gawked at the stardancer and then at the slowly crumpling body of his minion.
There was momentary silence, and then a shriek that rivaled the warleader’s famous war cry, burst from the demon’s mouth.
“No!” Ecarthus wailed, shooting beams of orange energy at the lifeless body of Kasyrin. “You must live. It is time! You must raise me so I can feed. I hunger, slave, so get up and chant!”
The mage did not rise.
Kyrian looked down at the blood and brain encrusted baton in her hand and then up at the half-formed demon and said, “Guess this must be one really messed up day for you, huh?” The stardancer’s voice was hollow and emotionless.
As a sword, Azhani did not have eyes. If she had, she would have closed them in sympathetic pain. The roil of emotions that her beloved must be feeling... it tore at the warrior’s heart. However, she could not help Kyrian now. Whatever happened, Azhani knew that her lover was strong enough to survive.
Ecarthus looked at the stardancer. “You. You did this? You took my vessel from me? Prepare to meet your goddess, priest, for you shall pay for your insolence with your life!” The orange glow of the demon’s hand began to darken to an unfriendly looking black.
“Hey, Ecarthus, you wretched excuse for a hell-spawned demon, have you forgotten about me?” Azhani/Astariu leapt the remaining few feet to the demon and struck, shoving her blade deep within his chest.
Azhani felt herself penetrate the demon’s nearly solid flesh, felt the fire that was her essence pour out of the blade and into Ecarthus, mingling with his spirit in a bizarre dance of attraction and revulsion. She understood, with the clarity of the gods, that this was the ultimate being responsible for the death of her first love, Ylera Kelani. It was because of Ecarthus that Kasyrin had sent Porthyros to Arris, and ultimately, caused Ylera to be executed. He was also responsible for the death of her king, Theodan, and for the deaths of countless others. All her anger, all the hatred and pain she had felt toward Arris, coalesced into a bright blade that sliced deep into the demon’s soul.
::You wished to enter the mortal plane, Ecarthus. Then so be it, enter and die!::
The demon only had a heartbeat to realize that his transformation had been completed before...
“No,” he whispered, looking down. What had once been his healthy, muscled body began to wither and shrink.
::Yes. You are not immortal anymore, beast. Now, you feel the effects of time unbound. You are mortal, Ecarthus. That is my gift to you; in payment for all the bitter tears you gave to me. Enjoy it, for it shall be your last.::
The demon whimpered one last time before collapsing inward and crumbling into a pile of dust.
Kyrian stepped toward the warleader, whose body was glowing a strange silvery blue. “Azhi?” she whispered, reaching for her lover. “Is it over?”
Astariu turned to face her Stardancer. “Yes, child, it is.”
Kyrian froze upon hearing the warrior’s tone. The voice was, yet was not Azhani’s. The timbre was wrong, too musical, and too ethereal to belong to the woman who whispered her name in love. Clues clicked into place and Kyrian nearly prostrated herself.
Astariu nodded as the answers to the stardancer’s unspoken questions flashed across Kyrian’s face. “Yes, my Healer, you are correct in your assumption.”
Wonder and awe suffused Kyrian’s face. “But, where is Azhani?” she whispered, as her gaze fell to the sword that now hung, blackened and broken, from the goddess’ hand.
“She fulfilled the prophecy, as it was written,” Astariu said, sorrow and pride mingling in her voice.
“The prophecy?” Kyrian said, and the words of Starseeker Vashyra echoed in her memory. Tears gathered in her eyes. “Azhani. She’s the Blade, isn’t she?”
The goddess did not answer, but that was enough of a reply for the stardancer.
“Damn you, Astariu. Damn you for taking the one person whom I loved enough to fight for,” she hissed and then turned away from her goddess.
Astariu winced at the stardancer’s words. ::Brother, it is time for you to make good on your promise,:: she let the words drift into the ether.
There was a flash of light, and then standing before the stardancer was a man of such incredible ugliness that she actually flinched.
“Hiya, sweet cheeks,” the man said, winking at her. “It looks to me like you’ve got a real mad on going right now. Well, howza ‘bout I give ya something to help that.”
“Who are you?” Kyrian asked, amused by the little man, despite everything. Though, there was something oddly familiar about the way he walked.
“Never you mind about that. I’m a askin’ if you be a-wantin’ anything round about now?” the man said, waving his arms about in a crazy fashion.
Kyrian looked at the man, uncertain what his motives were, but the day had been just long enough and just devastating enough that she spoke before thinking, “I want my lover back.”
“Oh, is that all? Well, then, so be it.” The man waved his hand and blew the stardancer a kiss.
Kyrian watched in amazement as the man’s lips actually flew off his face, fluttered across the clearing and smacked her straight on the mouth, then flew back to his face. He grinned delightedly.
“Ya might want to be passin’ that one on quick-like, cuz it won’t be a-lastin’ long.”
Confused, Kyrian turned to face the goddess who wore the body of her lover, only to find that the warrior was no longer standing, but crumpled in a heap on the ground.
“Azhani!” she cried, running to her lover’s side. Her lips began to tingle as she rolled the warrior over. Azhani’s head flopped about lifelessly. Blood trickled from the warrior’s eyes, ears and nose. Kyrian reached out and caught her lover’s head, cradling it against her chest. “Beloved,” she whispered. “This isn’t happening,” she said, tears dripping down her cheeks and mingling with the blood and dirt on the warrior’s face.
The tingling in her lips grew to a buzzing sensation.
“You can’t die, you can’t leave me now. Not after you promised me a future. I need you with me, Azhani and I won’t let fate steal the life that we earned,” Kyrian whispered fiercely and then bent her head down to place a single, chaste kiss upon her lover’s rapidly cooling lips.
Almost immediately, the tingling vanished. The lips under hers warmed and opened as a tiny gasp of air escaped. A sob of joy erupted from the stardancer as she clutched the warrior close. Her gift engaged and she sensed that the warrior’s life force was fragile at best. Closing her eyes, Kyrian used her magic for the last time that day. Her essence blended with the warrior’s and felt every small hurt and wound that Azhani had taken while battling the demons. Those, she easily healed, drawing energy from the earth and focusing its power on them. There were other, deeper hurts, that even her Goddess-given powers could not touch, and those wounds she tended the only way she knew how.
She loved. She opened her heart and loved, and without restrictions or reservations, she let the warrior Feel what she felt. She prayed.
“Come back to me, my love. Come home, Azhani,” she whispered, rocking the warrior gently.
Hours seemed to pass as she held the warrior close, praying silently and singing until her throat went hoarse. Kyrian closed her eyes and continued to pray, calling for her love to return to her.
From a distance, she heard her name. It sounded so far away, that she almost didn’t think she had heard anything at all, and then, she felt a hand on her face.
Kyrian opened her eyes to see Azhani looking up at her, a strange, almost peaceful, smile stretching across her face.
“That’s it, beloved, open those pretty green eyes of yours and tell me you love me,” Azhani rasped.
Kyrian sobbed and rained kisses down on the warrior’s face and lips, slowing only when Azhani’s fingers laced into her hair and held her still, so that she could lazily kiss the frantic stardancer’s lips.
When Azhani finally let her go, Kyrian stood and walked over to the ugly little man. “Thank you,” she said quietly and then kissed his cheek.
“Ah it was nothin’, toots,” he said, blushing deeply. “I’ma glad I dunnit.”
“What a day,” Kyrian murmured as she looked around the top of the mesa. The obelisk was now a pile of cracked and pitted rubble. The bodies of Kasyrin and his servant were gone. All that remained of the mage and his underling were dark depressions in the snow. Above, the sun shined brightly, and illuminated the entire plain of the mesa. The stardancer looked over at the strange little man, who put a finger to his lips and smiled wickedly.
Confused, Kyrian smiled blankly.
The strange man returned her smile and skipped over to the pile of rocks that had been the obsidian tower, and began sifting through the wreckage.
Azhani slowly elbowed herself up, getting to her knees and then finally standing. Gormerath, now only a blackened hunk of metal, lay forgotten on the ground, the blue gem in its hilt winking in the returning sunlight. She bent down and picked up the broken blade and sheathed it. Whether or not it could be salvaged, the sword deserved a better fate than to be left lying on the top of an icy mountain.
“Azhi? I have a question.”
“Okay.” The warrior limped over to her lover’s side and draped her arm around her shoulders.
“Who was that man with Kasyrin?” the stardancer asked, a strange sadness coloring her voice.
“Porthyros Omal,” Azhani said, a hint of steel creeping into her voice.
Kyrian had seen the journals. “Oh. I’m glad,” she said, her voice still tinted oddly.
Startled, Azhani looked down at her lover. “Why?”
The stardancer shrugged. “Because I killed him.”
“What?” the warrior blurted. “Kyr – are you, okay?”
Closing her eyes, the stardancer leaned into her lover and shivered. “I don’t know, Azhi. I – I killed them both, and it didn’t even bother me.” Fearfully, she looked up into her lover’s face and asked, “Does that make me a killer?”
“Ah gods, Kyr – you’ll never be a killer. Not like me – never like me. You didn’t kill because you wanted to, you killed because you had to.”
The stardancer’s lip quivered, then firmed. “I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t regret killing them.”
Azhani didn’t know how to answer that. Instead, she just held Kyrian close and reveled in the fact of being alive.
A long, appreciative wolf whistle interrupted their embrace. “Well, now, lookit what we got here. Two of the foxiest lookin’ ladies I’ve seen since, well gosh and tarnation, since the last one of these here eclipses!” The hideous man wandered over to speak with the two women.
Amusement sparkling in her eyes, Azhani said, “Just who have we the pleasure,” she emphasized the word, “of entertaining?”
“Yeah, who are you?” Kyrian asked curiously.
A huge grin split the man’s face. “Ah, ‘ere now, lass. P’raps you’ll best remember me this way.” His form wavered, then shifted, changing into a black-robed man with a death’s head tattoo on his face. “Is this better?” he growled, his voice low and ominous sounding.
Confusion twisted Kyrian’s face. “No, I don’t think so.” Though, again, something about the way the man stood was so familiar.
“I know you,” Azhani said, her voice low and dangerous. “I killed you.”
The man’s shape wavered once again, this time shifting into the form of a middle-aged scholarly-looking gentleman. “That’s right, you did. And might I say, you shoot a mean bow, toots.” He rubbed his shoulder, wincing in remembered pain.
“You’re Astarus!” Kyrian blurted, her studies as a priest having finally caught up to her brain and tapped it gently with a boulder-sized clue.
“That’s right!” Ghostly bells and whistles appeared, playing a loud fanfare. “And for your correct guess, let’s see what you’ve won, lass.” An envelope appeared in his hand, with a tiny pop. With a flourish, the man opened the envelope and read the contents. “Kyrian Stardancer, you’ve won an all expenses on you, trip of a lifetime by the side of your beloved, Azhani Rhu’len. Thank you very much for playing, and have a nice day!”
The god vanished and so did the remains of the obelisk, leaving behind only a tiny piece of parchment. Gingerly, Kyrian bent to retrieve the note. In gold leafed lettering it said, “The bards shall sing of this day until the stars no longer shine. ~Astarus”
“You know something Kyrian?” Azhani said as she started looking for the best way down from the mountaintop.
“What’s that, Azhi?” the stardancer replied, folding up the note and putting it into her pouch.
“Being a hero is exhausting work.”
Halfway down the mountain, Kyrian signaled for a halt and gratefully sank down onto a convenient boulder. Stretching out her legs and massaging trembling calf muscles, she wistfully said, “Ah gods, I’m thirsty. I wish I had something to drink.”
“Your wish is my command,” Azhani replied gallantly. She angled away from the trail, hiking toward a rock outcropping.
Too tired to follow, Kyrian watched her lover disappear around the rock face. Sighing wearily, she continued to massage her sore legs. Lacking a sheath, the baton had left a large bruise in her thigh and Kyrian winced as she prodded it. She was utterly drained. Astariu’s fire would not heed her call for a long while. A lazy search of her haversack produced a large bundle of pain killing herbs. Silently, the stardancer prayed that Azhani would be able to find water.
The warrior returned a few moments later carrying a full waterskin. “Look what I’ve got,” she crowed happily. “I emptied my skin on the way up here, but there’s a little waterfall just over there that hasn’t quite frozen yet.” She wouldn’t mention that she had nearly fallen in as she tried to fill the skin from the tiny trickle.
Kyrian accepted the waterskin, smiling her thanks and sipped from it thirstily. “Oh gods, this is cold!” she exclaimed.
“Yeah, feels great on my throat,” Azhani admitted, taking back the skin to drink herself. The warrior’s voice was still quite roughened.
“Here, this should help even more.” Kyrian offered her lover a twisted bit of herbs. “Just chew quickly and swallow it with some of that water.”
Azhani took the herbs and put them in her mouth and then nearly spit them back out. “Oh, this tastes like dirty feet,” she complained, but dutifully swallowed them anyway.
“I know,” Kyrian said sympathetically as she chewed her own share. “It’s better than the pain, though.”
Nodding, Azhani slid down onto the ground between Kyrian’s legs and rested her head against the stardancer’s knee. Icy wind buffeted the mountainside and Azhani shivered. “Just a few moments rest, love,” she said, idly stroking her lover’s leg. “Or we’ll catch cold.”
Lifting Azhani’s braids away from her face, Kyrian said, “I know, but it feels so nice to just sit here with you.” She touched Azhani’s cheek, brushing away dirt and blood. The warrior blinked and yawned sleepily. A large clump of mud fell away, revealing the lighter, scarred area where Azhani’s tattoo used to be. As the skin below was revealed, Kyrian gasped in surprise.
The exclamation startled the warrior. Nearly loosing her balance, she jumped up and spun around. “What? What is it? More demons? Quick, Kyr, toss me your baton!”
The stardancer shook her head. “No, honey, there’s no demons. I just,” she shook her head. “Here, look.” She reached into her pouch and drew out a small silver mirror that she used to check if an unconscious patient was breathing. Handing it to Azhani, she said, “Look at your face, my love.”
Bewildered, Azhani took the mirror and looked in it. Bits of dirt and blood still clung haphazardly to her skin, making it appear even darker than usual. Her braids were in dire need of washing, and several of them had come undone. A thin, dark scar marred her left cheek where a demon’s razor sharp claws had split her face open to the bone. On the other side... Azhani nearly dropped the mirror. Where once a small, disk shaped scar had marked the skin below her eye, now a brilliant, silvery mark in the shape of a sword rested.
The warrior reached up to stroke her face disbelievingly. The mark was real; she could feel its raised edges under her fingertips.
“But... how?” she whispered in amazement.
Kyrian shrugged. “I guess Astariu felt you were missing something?” she offered by way of explanation. She stood up and brushed her hands off on her robe. “I don’t think it matters, love. It looks beautiful on you.” The stardancer walked over to her lover and took the mirror gently, putting it away. Reaching up, she stroked the ridged area of skin and said, “I love it and I love you.”
Still bewildered, Azhani nonetheless smiled happily. “I love you, too,” she said. Dipping her head, she kissed her lover warmly. “Now, let’s get back to camp. I’ve a feeling that there’s much work to do.”
Together, they continued down the mountain.
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