A Captain’s Duty Part Four

This is the final entry to A Captain’s Duty, the failed fantasy piece I was commissioned for. You can find the first three parts at A Captain’s Duty Part OneA Captain’s Duty Part Two, and A Captain’s Duty Part Three. At the end of the chapter, I’ll also break down where the other two parts roughly would have gone.
Chapter Four:

The Path of Man
   The Serpent’s Spine mountain range was dense with jagged boulders and considered largely uninhabitable due to the carnelian stones’ tendency to absorb and emit the heat of the sun. There were several known hiking trails but the best of them turned in circles. The worst led to a labyrinthine series of paths ultimately culminating in a dead end. For that reason it was widely regarded that these mountains were ones best to be avoided and circled if they needed to be passed.

   Mathias Kolter claimed differently. Upon waking, he maintained that there was a passage through that would shave days off of their journey. Korkarin did his best to ignore the human, but Bren took him aside before they left Trome to put some weight into the man’s words.

   “Let’s check it out,” she said.

   “What? No. Why should we?”

   “Because if he’s telling the truth, it will help us get to Wrane more quickly. We can use every little bit of extra time we can get.”

   “Sure, but what if he’s not telling the truth.”

   Bren rolled her eyes. “What does he have to gain from lying? If an ambush were in place, this would have been the place to do it. While we were coming. They could have just tossed our bodies in the pile with the rest.”

   “Who’s to say the idiot isn’t just making something up to try and appease me? You know how their kind are. Leeches, always looking for the first thing that might give them a little more. They always want more. More status. More money. More favors. Watch him lead us into some chasm simply because he can’t stop talking long enough to watch his step.”

   “Let’s go check it out, Tal. We’ve got to skirt the range anyway if we end up going around. We’ll see if it looks like the real deal. If we get a bad feeling, I’ll lead us out the way we came.”

   “We could lose half a day that was,” Korkarin objected.

   “Lose half a day and get rid of the extra baggage. That’s one outcome, sure. Or we save time and gain a new ally, chatty as he is. That alliance can be as long or short as you want it to be.”

   The captain scowled at her after a long pause and Bren smiled at his back because she knew she had reached him. That scowl was his go-to move when he refused to admit his defeat in anything. He had been using it since they were kids.

   Bren let Kolter ride behind her on her horse after a stern warning to watch his hands. Andigar’s disapproval was writ in his face, but he said nothing. He reminded himself that his place in this party was to follow. If his friend was okay with the plan, he would stand by her until the end.

   They rode with little conversation between them save for the human’s directions. It took just over half a day to reach the mountains. They ate as they traveled – dried and salted meat – and when they stopped, they treated themselves to some water. Kolter was allowed to partake and he thanked the group profusely until Andigar finally told him to shut his mouth.

   The Serpent’s Spine towered above them, all serrated edges and colored like dried blood on fine dirt. There was a faint whistle as the air slapped and danced through the peaks. It appeared every bit as unforgiving as the venomous creature that had given it its name.

   “Here we go,” Kolter said. “The pass doesn’t have an official name, but it has picked more than a few nicknames over the years. The Crooked Belly. The Swiftest Strike. I was always partial to Longtooth Pass just because it doesn’t make any kind of sense.”

   Tal narrowed his eyes and focused on the exterior of the mountains. “Where is it, Mathias?”

   “It’s right… hold on.” Kolter walked up an incline of loose rocks and directed both his arms towards what had appeared to be a solid cliff face. The human stuck one arm behind a break in the wall and the optical illusion became clear. “It starts here. The light gets you, right?”

   “I’ll be damned,” Bren whistled.

   “It still hasn’t proven anything,” Korkarin muttered. Louder he asked, “How’d you know about the passage?”

   “I’ve spent most of my life trying to make a living in Mekan, Captain. Things aren’t always easy for my people. We stab each other in the back about as often as we look out for each other. Sometimes we’ve got to get away from it all. Regroup. Remind ourselves why it’s so important for us to stick together and maintain our identity. This little traipse through the mountains, it’s one of the few things we have that is wholly ours.”

   “Is it dangerous?”

   “Isn’t everywhere? The pass isn’t any more dangerous than any other place.” Kolter grinned. “The mounts should fit fine coming through, as long as they’re doing so single file. The baunkar might be a tight fit.”

   “What did you say, you skinny little-”

   “Darian,” Bren said, placing a hand on Andigar’s forearm. “Easy. It was a joke.”

   The baunkar’s scowl relaxed and lost some of its flushed hue. “You’re… you’re right, lass. It’s the damn heat. It’s got my head all twisted up.”

   “Are you good to ride or do you need more water?” Korkarin has dismounted his horse and come up beside them.

   “I’m good, Captain.”

   “Then let’s go.”

   They walked their mounts up the incline and through the passage, following Kolter. It was a twisting, narrow entrance with the jagged edges of the canyon wall holding like jaws prepared to strike. Korkarin caught his sleeve on a rock around the third bend and came away with a thin slice. He hissed.

   “Tal?” Bren asked.

   “I’m fine. Keep going.”

   The sky was only just visible through the leaning walls. It was clear of clouds, bound to be another scorcher. A pair of spotted vultures circled overhead, their sizable wingspans casting nasty shadows. The vultures had once been exclusively scavenger birds, preying only on the dead and dying. A hundred years of adapting to desert settlers and more prepared travelers had led them to evolve into something much larger and much more aggressive. It wasn’t unheard of for a single bird to fell a grown man.

   They moved slowly and carefully, shuffling their feet. The hard rocks beneath their boots gradually transitioned into a fine tawny sand. The encroaching walls that boxed them in began to taper outwards. The light of day found itself no longer obstructed and fell upon them.

   After two hours of travel, the path had widened enough to allow them to walk three bodies across. The canyon walls remained rough but had smoothed out enough that they were no longer in danger of an accidental puncture wound. Four times they came to a fork where a second path would wind in the opposite direction. Kolter never hesitated as he led the group. He simply whistled a maadmi drinking tune, sweating profusely but otherwise merry. Andigar was nonplussed.

   “Here, hold on a second,” the baunkar called out. “You’re draggin’ us every which way through these mountains. How do we know you’ve got any clue where we’re going?”

   Kolter smirked and crossed his arms. “Do I look like I’m lost?”

   “You look like someone who hasn’t taken enough fists to the mouth.”

   The human laughed and walked back, past the group, past the animals. Bren sighed and ran to catch up with him. She grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around. Before he could say a word, she pushed into his chest, driving him back until he hit the wall.

   “Listen to me,” she said. She kept her voice low, keeping the conversation between the two of them. “I’m the one who convinced Tal that this little detour of yours was worth checking out. They could have killed you, abandoned you, or cut out your tongue. I made sure that didn’t happen. I made sure you were allowed to tag along.”

   “And I appreciate that. Cut out my tongue? That seems a bit harsh.”

   “It would have been to keep you from spreading misinformation about Trome.”

   Kolter blinked. “I don’t understand.”

   “Everyone in that village was killed. That’s what you showed up too late to discover. That’s why we were talking about dead men’s houses. We don’t know who did it, but whoever was responsible is still out there. They’re running around somewhere with their own plan, a plan we can’t begin to fathom. Tensions are a bit high with us. Do you understand that?”

   Kolter swallowed hard. “I do now.”

   “Good. Tal’s a nice enough guy on his best days. This isn’t one of those days. Darian, well, he’s not a nice guy on his best days. And today? You see where I’m going with this?”

   “I think I can piece it together.”

   “Figured so. The boys, they don’t think you’re too bright, but I see a light or two rolling around behind those big dopey eyes of yours. I would appreciate it if you stopped jerking us around and gave us a straight answer. One, hopefully, that won’t make me regret letting you have some of my water.”

   “I was doing that when you grabbed me. In order to properly illustrate, though you’ve got to follow me back a little bit. The next one isn’t for a while.”

   “The next what, Mathias?”

   He grinned. “Trust me for another hundred feet?”

   She didn’t like his smile. Part of it was just his face. The roundness of a human’s face made even the slim ones look fat. It added to their slovenly reputation. She didn’t even want to think about the way their ears resembled the cropping punishment reserved for sultani slavers. Humans were ungainly and unpleasant and a happy one just made her think of a hog in the midst of a mud bath.

   Kolter’s smile had another issue, though. It was too confident. Too free of burdens. It bothered her that they were plagued with so many questions and uncertainties while this degenerate seemed to be enjoying himself.

   Bren pushed his shoulder hard into the scratchy stone and then released him. To his credit, the human hid his wince. He brushed the dirt from his clothes and continued back the way they came. A flippant wave of his hand beckoned them to follow.

   Andigar and his pony stayed where they were (“I ain’t moving again until I know what’s going on or where I’m supposed to be heading”) but the sultani trudged after Kolter while trying to ignore the heat on their necks and the rivulets of sweat running under their thick clothes.

   They didn’t have far to go before their guide pulled up short and pointed up at the canyon wall. Bren spotted it first. She shook her head in mild confusion and then pointed it out to Tal: twenty feet or so above the ground, a small pattern of swirls and dashed had been painted. Whoever had left it there had used a coat only slightly more yellow than the rocks around it.

   “What does it mean?” Korkarin asked.

   “It’s human code,” Kolter said, waggling his fingers in exaggerated mystique. When he saw the dearth of amusement on his companions’ faces, he sighed. “It’s an instruction. A direction. It would take too long to teach you how to read it, but it tells me which crosspath to take and how many paces until I should keep an eye out for the next one. This travel route has been around for over six hundred years, Captain. Back when my people had more of their own to speak of. Some strong, enterprising men decided a little thing like mountains weren’t going to be enough to stop them from getting around easily. They carved their way through, set up some dummy paths, and made a code. It used to connect two human cities. Real cities. Time passed. Human influence faded. The cities disappeared. The path – and the paint, shockingly enough – remained.”

   “How did you say you learned all this?” Bren asked.

   “I didn’t say, but come on. Humans talk to each other, you know. We’re not animals. I read a lot, too. Love reading.”

   Korkarin’s brows rose. “Where did a human get books in Mekan?”

   “If we’re going to prostrate for you, or the maadmi, or the baunkar, or whoever else in hopes of landing a career and a real life, we better make sure we’re actually useful. That means education. Knowledge. A skill. Where did I get books? I’m a human, Captain, so I did what humans and sultani bureaucrats do: I stole them.”

   He winked and started back towards Darian Andigar. Bren and Korkarin looked away from the symbol on the wall to stare after him.

   “What do you think his skills are?”

   The captain shrugged, exasperated. “Whatever they are, being a nuisance has to be near the top.”
   It turned out the Serpent’s Spine wasn’t quite as devoid of life as they had been led to believe. Over the hours they spent moving through the mountains, the party caught glimpses of three different kinds of lizards, a short-eared hare and some type of rodent with long legs and large feet. The coos of a bird – Kolter had called it a club-breasted thrash – drifted softly through the air, but its nest was tucked away deep in a recess somewhere and they caught no sight of it.

   As they traveled, they kept conversation to a minimum. Bren and Darian would occasionally recall and share a memory from their time doing missions together. Bren and Korkarin would similarly bring up something from their childhood. Andigar didn’t speak to Korkarin. Nobody spoke to Mathias, but the human continued whistling mirthfully, unfazed. They kept to the shaded areas as best they could, but the heat found a way to beat down on them regardless. They rationed their water, staying mindful of their mounts. Andigar’s pony faltered once; they rested the beast and continued on fine from there, but it left them uneasy.

   It was almost a relief when the sun finally dropped and the moon, red-eyed and resolute, took its post in the sky. Korkarin pointed out a small compression in the canyon wall and they settled in there for the night.

   Their next obstacle was the cold. It was the desert’s great mystery that a place with such malicious heat could transition into a vindictive freeze once the stars came out to play. The drop in temperature was not unexpected but was no more tolerable for the knowledge of it. As Kolter’s supplied had been left behind with the dead horse he had abandoned (“I always planned on returning to get it once I found out what you were up to,” he had said. “Things obviously turned out differently.”), there were only three sleeping bags between them. Bren volunteered hers to Kolter and took first watch. Korkarin gave his to Bren during his own shift.

   Now it was Andigar’s turn to stand guard. Kolter snored softly by the animals while Bren and Korkarin shared the captain’s bag. The male sultani slept with his arm around his friend and the baunkar, draped in his own sleeping bag, marveled at the vulnerability his fellow mercenary was showing. He had known Bren Dendalion for several years; vulnerable wouldn’t have been in the top thirty adjectives he would have used to describe her.

   He had been a member of the Beryl Cavaliers for a couple years before Bren had sauntered into their camp. Her hands had been shaky and her skin pale, but when she spoke, it was with the assuredness of a veteran. She had demanded a place in the band, for less pay at first if necessary, but she guaranteed she would earn an equal share by the year’s end.

   Fellian – a sultani that had been cast out of Mekan for her past crimes and the founder of the Cavaliers – agreed to give Bren a trial, for amusement if nothing else. Bren’s swordplay had been sloppy, but even then she could beat anyone in an archery challenge. Fellian trained her in the areas she was weakest in. It took only five months before she was paid out the same as everyone else.

   They were a bunch of misfits, outcasts and former criminals trying to do some good. All allegiances to their races or any previous organizations they may have belonged to were severed. Racial hang-ups were disregarded. They were one group. A family.

   Even so, not all jobs they were hired to do required all members. They often found themselves mixing and matching groups to best fit the skill set needed for the contract. Additionally, some groupings paired better than others. Natural chemistry that led to almost precognizant compatibility on the battlefield.

   Bren found Andigar early on and clung to him. It wasn’t because she needed protection or because she wanted his help. She simply saw that he often kept to himself – even then, even among friends – and wanted him to have company. She had laughed off his gruffness and ignored his demands to be left alone. When he broke down and pleaded for her to go because of his troubles controlling his temper, she listened to everything he had to say. After he was finished, she refused again to let him stew in his lonesomeness.

   Once he finally decided to let her in, they became almost inseparable. They worked well together, often able to communicate with the slightest of physical cues. He trusted her implicitly, she who saw the worst sides of him and neither flinched nor turned away. He suspected that though she didn’t often speak of herself, her feelings or her past, she trusted him as well.

   She saved his life. He saved hers in return. He kept his mouth shut when she began a relationship with Gris Palmos, a fellow Cavalier. He continued his silence when it went wrong, when she took it out on their next targets, when she wept in his tent because she knew it was the only place none of the others would see her.

   It was the only time he had seen her with her guard down. It was the only time he could have used the word vulnerable. At least, until tonight. Until she had reconnected with Tal Korkarin and had dragged him into the sultani captain’s mission. There were years more between them, years unknown to Andigar. Then there was Korkarin. He was another thing altogether. It was obvious that the man had a code he stuck to, an idea of right and wrong that he stood behind. Beyond that, the man was nearly inscrutable, staying silent just as often as he pelted someone with questions. As fine a quality as that was, it also lent him a sense of condescension and superiority that Andigar doubted the captain even knew he had. Korkarin’s limited experience outside of Mekan had also bred an unsconsious racism. The captain had never benefited from a multi-cultural brotherhood. He grew up in the heart of sultani lands, with sultani practices and biases. It made him difficult to like.

   It didn’t help that the thing inside Andigar didn’t like anybody. It twisted up on itself, full of anger, full of rage. The beast inside him wanted out. There was a time when he could do nothing to stop it. He would lose feeling in his limbs, his body. The next thing he knew, he would be watching himself as if in a dream. He watched the violence unfold and when he came to, his hands would be awash in blood. Sometimes it would splash onto his chest or his face. It might go as far as elbow-deep, but his hands… his hands were always red.

   Two terrifying years passed from the first incident until he was able to bring it under some semblance of control. It still slipped out now and again, generally in times of great stress. His fellow mercenaries considered it fortuitous for a mission, though most kept him at arm’s length. They liked him, he felt, but didn’t trust him. They welcomed him but didn’t full accept him. None of them did. Except Bren.

   There was a noise in the distance that sounded like a rock being crushed. Pebbles rolling down the cliff wall, perhaps. Rocks being displaced as animals moved around, preparing for the day. Or… maybe something else.

   Andigar stood up and shed his sleeping bag. He glanced up at the sky; it was already turning a deep blue from onyx. Another sound floated forth, nearly identical to the first. He reached for his axe.
   The swords came together with a shudder and then slid apart as the two opponents moved past each other. They circled around, eyes on the tip of the other’s blade. They stood in stances they had seen others practice hundreds of years.

   Bren hooked her hair behind her ear with her off hand quickly before returning it to the hilt. “What was that, Tal? You’re going to have to step it up if you want to beat me.”

   “It’s not fair,” Korkarin said. His sword was almost comically oversized for the young boy’s frame. “You’re taller than me. You’ve got too much of an advantage.”

   “My dad said if you’re going to get into a fight, you have to create victory for yourself. You can’t blame me for you losing just because I’m growing up faster.”

   Korkarin stepped in quickly and swung his sword high. Bren ducked underneath it just to see his knee rising rapidly towards her face. She raised her left forearm up to block it; the force still sent her reeling backward. Her ankles crossed each other and she landed on her back. The sword was released reflexively.

   Before she could grab the hilt and scrabble back to her feet, Korkarin had kicked the weapon away. His own was pointed at her throat. His face was stretched into a wide grin.

   “Was that better?”

   Bren smirked. “Maybe a little. And you said you wanted to be a shopkeeper.”

   “I said it would be nice to have my own little store, and I still think so. I should know how to stop thieves, though, don’t you think?”

   “Yeah. We’ll see.”
   Several years later, he looked so handsome in his training uniform. The creases were all smooth, freshly pressed by Yana. His mouth was set in an expression of discomfort, but his eyes held boundless energy.

   “Who am I supposed to spar with now?” Bren asked, playfully tugging on his collar.

   “I have no doubt you’ll find a suitable replacement quick enough,” he said. “Try not to hurt them too bad.”

   “No promises.” Bren’s smile faltered and she sighed. “I wish your training weren’t so… isolated. I’m going to miss you.”

   “It’s only a year or two. You’ll keep busy. You always do.”

   She smiled and agreed with him, but her heart wasn’t in it. He was her best friend, had been almost since they were born. What would she do without him?
   It was five months after her father died that she demanded to be a part of the Beryl Cavaliers. It had been difficult seeing the man who raised her and taught her so much, the man she loved more than anything, waste away and die from a disease he couldn’t kill with a sword. Lungrot, the physicians had said. Her father had never smoked griproot. Second-hand smoke was the physician’s best guess and another twist of the knife.

   So she had sought the mercenary band out, wanting to surround herself with warrior types, tough men from all walks of life. People who spoke the same language she did, the one her father taught her. It was the same language Tal had spoken before leaving her to become a guard.

   It was harder than she had imagined. Even with good people there. Even with the smile she managed to plaster on her face to mask the pain. Even with, for a time, a man who had been a lover and a confidante.

   She could still remember the first man she killed. It had been with a blade, back before she had developed a fondness for archery even though archery had always come more naturally to her. Maybe killing a man with a sword is the reason why she began to prefer using the bow. She remembered the tears flowing down the man’s face. She remembered the hot tracks left by her own that night when she –
   “Fudrossi! Bren! Captain! Get up, we’ve got company!”

   Andigar’s words cut through her slumber as clear as a bell. Fudrossi. The baunkar word for “alarm”. Her eyes shot open and the weight of sleep evaporated as she rolled over to grab her bow and quiver. She caught glimpses in the edge of her eye of Korkarin and Kolter waking, but her attention was focused elsewhere.

   Ten figures – human men, all of them – were rushing down the canyon towards them. The blades they wielded were curved swords, similar to the maadmi make but crafted larger to fit the hands of the humans. Their eyes were wide, but they made no noise as sped forward.

   Bren rose up on one knee and pulled two arrows free. She nocked them both and let them fly. One hit the lead man square in the center of his chest. It sank in, but not as deeply as she had hoped. Whatever armor the man was wearing beneath his shirt kept the wound from being a fatal one.

   The second arrow had more luck, whistling past the first man’s face and sinking deep into the right eye of the swordsman behind him. He dropped like a stone, tripping up two others running behind him. Bren felt nothing, she wouldn’t until later. She simply pulled another arrow and fired it.

   Korkarin and Andigar were up and running towards the fight. The arrow sailed between them and hit the lead man in the foot, sending him sprawling. Whatever he had been wearing that stopped the arrow wasn’t enough to protect him from the baunkar’s axe when it came crashing down.

   “Mathias, who the hell are these people?” she snapped.

   “I have no idea! I was about to ask you the same thing.” Shadows surrounded Kolter’s wrists and ankles once more, but there were few places he would be able to jump to with the sun rising. He took a few steps back and eyed the frantic mounts.

   “Don’t you even think about it,” Bren said.

   She dropped her bow and drew a short knife as one of the swordsmen reached her. She dodged back from a swipe that would have taken her nose and blocked a return strike with her own blade. The man’s strength drove her back several steps. Bren bared her teeth and waved him in to engage again.
   Tal Korkarin’s sword deflected a thrust as one of their surprise attackers ran past him. He spared a glance to make sure he wasn’t in danger of any further strikes from behind; the assailant kept moving, bee-lining for Mathias Kolter.

   Interesting, he thought. Maybe they weren’t with the nuisance after all.

   He and Andigar were left with six violent, angry humans. They remained quiet still – save for grunts of exertion – giving no possible motive for the sudden conflict. Were these the ones responsible for the massacre? Were they trying to cover their tracks again by killing them now?

   Two blades came at him at once. He dipped his head to the left to avoid one and knocked the other aside with his blade. Something bit into his right thigh and he looked down to find a third man’s weapon digging into it. His teeth ground together as a sudden wave of pain surged through him.

   He slapped away the first man’s saber as it came towards his head once more and then lunged towards the third man, striking before he could fully retract his weapon. Korkarin’s sword punched through the human’s neck. The man spiraled away, dropping his blade and clapping his hands to the wound.

   “Hell,” Korkarin muttered. “This must be hell.”

   Trying to avoid the pain in his leg, the captain backed away in a circle, battling both men as best as he could. A quick slash opened up the back of his hand. Another tore open his left shoulder. He was scoring hits of his own, but his leg was growing numb. He would have to find an opportunity soon.
   “No, no. No no no.”

   Kolter never considered himself to be much of a fighter. He was a talker. He liked to talk. He was good at it. Sure, he would find occasion to throw a punch here and there. He even owned a knife that he had woefully left behind with his dead horse, so hurried he had been to catch up with the sultani. Still, he preferred trading verbal barbs to steel ones.

   When the other human broke away from the group after failing to land a hit on Korkarin, he charged towards Kolter instead. Tired, terrified, unarmed Kolter. Unarmed, but not defenseless.

   He wasn’t ashamed to run away from the swirling saber while he didn’t have something of his own to swing. The shadows cloaking his ankles swirled turbulently and he came out of the shade on the western side of the path. It was an effective evasive maneuver, but it only fooled the other man for a second.

   The human turned back towards Kolter, the latter stuck with no further place to run. The saber cut through the air with a soft whistle and slammed into Kolter’s side. A pale yellow flash sparked from a ring on his finger; the strike broke a couple ribs from the force but failed to cut flesh. The two men stared at each other.

   “You’ve got to love daevas, huh?” Kolter croaked before catching a fist to the face.

   The only thing keeping him upright while being pummeled was the canyon wall at his back. Each blow wore his daeva-infused armor down more. It came as a shock when the edge of his attacker’s blade finally broke through and cut a line across his forehead. It was even more shocking when the weapon was being pushed into his belly.

   Kolter flicked both of his hands up and outwards desperately. Blue sparks of force slammed into the other man’s face, breaking his nose and pushing him back. Kolter grabbed for the nearest loose stone and slammed it into the side of his adversary’s head until the man stopped moving.

   He was able to stay up close to thirty seconds longer than his foe. The pain in his belly grew harsher as he moved, so he staggered over to a large rock and sank down onto it. He pressed his hands to his abdomen and looked at the rest of the canyon.

   Korkarin was leaking heavily from a number of wounds but somehow was able to hold his own against the pair of men, despite their best efforts to wear him down. Bren had taken a slice high up on her breastbone, but her enemy was growing frustrated. As he watched, Andigar’s neck and shoulders grew translucent red scales. He held off two opponents by breathing fire in their direction. He swung and drove the spike on his axe into the chest of the third man facing him.

   It was so hot out. Fire seemed unnecessary. Kolter pressed his belly more tightly and sighed.
   The baunkar’s arms were wreathed in brilliant ivory bands, the same enhancement he had unleashed back in Mekan. He drove both of his living opponents back with powerful swings of his axe. Any attempts at flanking him were deterred by the tusks extending from his elbows.

   He barely saw them. He didn’t feel the injuries being cut into him. He just acted, attacked. He was violence. He was wrath.

   Andigar kicked one of his stocky legs into the pelvic bone of the man to his left. To the right, he used his axe and increased strength to shatter the curved blade of his other enemy. His own hands became empty. They grabbed the human by the shirt and shoved him to the ground. He began punching. Over and over, he struck. His ivory bands began to turn crimson.
   She didn’t see the knife. She wasn’t even aware he had drawn a second weapon until it was thrust between two of her lower ribs. Bren hissed and brought her elbow across to collide hard into the human’s chin. He fell off balance just enough for her to bring her sword back in a move that took the man’s head from his shoulders.

   Her hand found its way to the hilt in her side, but she didn’t remove it. That would be worse than keeping it in for the time being, no matter how it was grinding against the bone. Instead, she dropped her sword and retrieved her bow and quiver.

   Bren saw Kolter sitting on a rock, injured but alive and out of immediate danger. With effort, she adjusted to see the others. Darian Andigar was in one of his blood-rages. He wasn’t paying attention the man closing on him with wicked intent.

   “Arkhiang!” she yelled. Pivot.

   Andigar’s head snapped up and he stepped away to the right. The human creeping up on him missed his attack and stepped directly into the flight path of Bren’s arrow. She nodded approval at her own success and then turned to Korkarin’s ongoing battle.
   His arms were growing tired and his head was growing light. As the sun rose, the heat grew and it beat at him as relentlessly as the two thick-nosed humans. Sweat or blood rolled down just about every part of his body and he was finding it more and more difficult to spot openings where he could strike.

   Korkarin parried two more swipes but caught the tip of a blade to the chest. The man on his right stepped forward to seize on the flinch when two arrows caught him in the face and neck. The sultani captain capitalized on the surprise and ran through the last man standing. The human gasped – the most he had expressed himself since the attack started – and collapsed.

   No men remained, save for the one he had dragged along on his mission. Korkarin dropped his sword from tired hands. It stuck in the sand at a crooked angle, slick with red. He could see Bren on her knees. She had dropped her bow and sat with her hands turned upwards on her knees. She had her head tilted back towards the sky, breathing heavily in the aftermath of the fight.

   Korkarin shuffled over to a large rock across from Kolter and took a seat. He didn’t see Andigar, but his head was swimming too much for him to make a conscious effort to find him. The canyon walls seemed darker, but he chalked it up to his vision fading. The mounts… the mounts had gone, frightened off in the melee. Without a human to guide them through the paths, he suspected they would wind up lost and starving and dehydrated, just like them.

   He reached for his waterskin and found it empty, the contents having spilled out through a gaping hole in the side. He sighed and tossed it off to the side. Kolter let out a raspy laugh from where he was sitting.

   “What’s so funny?” Korkarin asked.

   “The water. Of all the things that could have been stabbed: your face, your heart, your lungs… you make it through all of that and the most devastating thrust is through the damn water.”

   “I fail to see…” The captain trailed off. Something about this was eerily familiar, but he couldn’t place the memory.

   “Brother, there isn’t any reason to greet the Reaper with a sour puss, if that’s what’s meant to be. Personally, I’m just hoping the afterlife has some ice.”

   A shadow on the ground caught his attention. Korkarin’s eyes tracked upwards to find the source until they reached the top of the valley. A figure stood atop, looking at them. It almost looked like a hariq, though the sun made it difficult to see any tattoos. After a long pause, the figure turned and walked away.

   The captain didn’t even know if what he saw was real. He had heard of mirages, illusions caused by the desert heat. The same intolerable temperature was sapping even more strength from him. His eyelids were getting heavy, and he wanted badly to take a nap. Who would judge him for a quick nap? He had fought so hard.

   As his chin dropped to his chest, he could swear that somewhere in the distance came the chiming of bells.

******************

So that was basically it. I wanted to end the first part on a cliffhanger to encourage people to want to pick up the second part. That part would begin with a group of gamla (basically nomadic camel people) stumbling across the group and nursing them back to health. One gamla leaves his tribe to journey with them, having found their mission to be worthy of going out and earning his True Name. He is immediately drawn to Andigar as the gamla – a person of peace – wants to help the baunkar find stability with the raging daeva he is host to.

Once they’re healed enough to travel, they head to an ever-shifting merchant city. Humans in this world do not have a particularly powerful culture and no capital cities like the solari (basically elves) or the baunkar (basically dwarves, who have carved out Roman-raquel cities in the mountains), so they’re resigned to making themselves useful in other ways, such as merchants, bodyguards, fools, or advisors. So the group finds themselves in this market and after asking around for information sources, they track down a suqur. The suqur are basically hawk-people, typically elegant, and I thought it would be awesome if this particular one – who hoards secrets and information and items of great worth – be obese, just a fat bird dude living life to the fullest.

This baron of sorts tells the group that the second village they were planning on visiting has been wiped out, razed to the ground. He’s still hiding information, and either refuses to divulge it or will only tell them if they pay an exorbitant price. Having been nearly killed in the mountain range, they have nothing and so they leave. Except Kolter notices an object (maybe something capable of a degree of divination) in the suqur’s tent and swipes it. The suqur notices its absence and sends people after them; the group escapes and Kolter admits the theft to Korkarin who nearly beats the shit out of him, but upon using the object, they get hints to head out to the mountain city of the baunkar.

The baunkar have a caste system of sorts with religious heads being top tier, but while they worship essentially ridiculously powerful, ancient daevas, daevics (those in a symbiotic relationship with a daeva) are persona non grata, which means Andigar isn’t exactly having a great time. The baunkar treat Korkarin and Bren fairly enough but keep them at a distance. The gamla notices this and recruits Kolter – who is hesitant after his previous experience with Korkarin – to figure out what it they’re hiding: evidence of collusion between the baunkar and the sobek (the gator people from the prologue, including the main antagonist) in building a massive war machine. The sobek steal the metal, the baunkar design and help build the parts.

Before the group can leave and warn the Singer of the Sands, the hariq (the secondary antagonist) arrives with a sobek retinue and combat breaks out during which the hariq reveals he can use arcane magic without daeva help our hindrance! They fight, the sobek are killed, the hariq is badly wounded, and the group escapes from the pursuing baunkar through tunnels those baunkar won’t or havent explored. Turns out they’re filled with horrible giant insect things with poison blood. They engage in a fighting retreat during which Korkarin is blinded by blood splashed into his eyes. They eventually reach a drop into a river (which has been done a thousand times, fucking sue me, there’s a reason this was never written). They jump.

They wash up quite a way down the river onto a mossy bed. They’re tired and beat up , and Bren tries to treat Korkarin’s eyes, which are right fucked, but it somehow awakened a daeva-enhanced secondary sight, tying in with the dreams and visions he’s been having. They realize they’re closer to the sobek than they are the Sultanate and decide collectively to try and sabotage the war machine. Kolter uses his tricks to help disguise them, but two sultani, a human, a baunkar, and a gamla are difficult to hide in a large group of gator people and they’re discovered

It is entirely due to daevic abilities and magic items that they’re able to hold off the army as long as they do, with Bren and Andigar heading straight for Graxxus. Korkarin, blind though he is, uses his newfound abilities to infiltrate and decimate the war machine with explosions. It costs him his life. Andigar – working with his daeva as opposed to Graxxus who has essentially let his take over- kills the sobek leader but loses an arm in the process. Kolter, Bren, Andigar and the gamla prepare to be overwhelmed and killed when Graxxus’ second-hand warrior stops them. Yes, Graxxus reunited the warring sobek clans, and yes, he had grand ideas but conquest had become too large a focus, and his unpredictable fits of rage and violence while he struggled with his daeva didn’t inspire many. The sobek allows the group to leave on the condition that Bren negotiates a trade arrangement with the sobek and tells them that they deliberately ceased an attack under their new, more stable leadership. She agrees, and the group leaves, taking Korkarin’s body home for a proper funeral.

There would have been some additional segments more fully fleshing out Graxxus and making him more sympathetic and nuanced, but… Yeah, there ya go. Hope you enjoyed.

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3 thoughts on “A Captain’s Duty Part Four

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