This is a story about an established adventuring group’s personal funnel.
It’s also about a Ranger and the things he does without using magic.
Commentary: Tribes, cities, empires, heroes, and antiheroes
Ranger: You can listen on Fierce Firelight or read it below the commentary.
Something I’ve wanted to note for awhile is that in my stories and RPG stuff, tribesmen and city-state dwellers who have lived near each other for a long time always share their ethnicity and common origins. The groups diverged into different modes at some point in history.
I think this was probably true of many early sedentary polities and their nearby tribal communities; it might have taken a long time before they were differentiable to us, particularly if the latter were non-nomadic.
As an example of this dynamic, in Fane of the Poppy, the Archzenites and Affidavits share a common ancestry, whether or not either really knows this or cares to recognize it.
City-states and tribes in my stories are explorations of different modes of human life, and sometimes of their interactions. Either can individually or collectively be heroes, antiheroes, villains, tragic actors, context, or footnotes.
This doesn’t mean that city-states and tribes of differing ethnicity can never come into conflict, just that the “starting” conflicts aren’t usually between people with radically different origins (except with empires, with the Cynthians invading the coasts everywhere and the Empire of the Twin Canals subjugating as many tribes and cities as possible).
The valences of conflict between ancient neighbors and between people who are basically unknown to each other are very different, and each has its space. I prefer the "neighbors" option when structuring the world and leaving open the "unknowns" option for development.
The "neighbors" species of conflict tends lend itself to dramas of statecraft and family intrigue, while the "unknowns" tends to pattern more easily onto familiar conflicts from more globetrotting recent history and losing its timelessness, or seeming to be racial in origin when I want the conflicts in my work to represent the plurality of things which people have fought over since ancient times (if you've read my stuff you know that urbanites fight urbanites and tribes fight tribes and the urbanites fight tribes for all the reasons that those polity-types fought each other historically and then some).
The alienness (at the beginning) of the antagonists in a struggle between unknowns can be a constraining factor when it comes to narrative, rendering people into forces of nature to each other, which is why I'm content with everyone in this world speaking the same language (except xenostygians); the language barrier is a very real source of drama in reality, but not one that I'm interested in constantly exploring due to its tendency to narrow the immediate possibilities of the situation when the whole world is a patchwork of tiny states and cultures (although I am interested in loss of speech). I'm happy to explore conflict between mutual unknowns in simple stories, but I want to leave the gate open for stories involving different kinds of polities (city-states and tribal federations) to be about things other than the conflict of mutual unknowns and their piece-by-piece demystification.
Part of the reason I settled on this neighboring-cities-and-tribes setup is because I want it to reflect elements of the histories of many real-life nations and cultures going back thousands of years while also never mapping 1-to-1 onto historical conflicts; when city-states and tribes fight, trade, and make alliances in my stories and RPGs, I want it to be both recognizable to one who is somewhat versed in history, but I also want it to be capable of being seen with fresh eyes.
Another reason for this is that I don’t take a tack where either city-states or tribes are inherently morally superior (the details make the difference) and players/characters should be able to emerge from either, though empires and things like roving theocratic armies tend to have a more iniquitous set point in my material.
This is all before large nation-states despite the tech level, because all of the supernatural stuff in the deep wilderness prevents deep penetration by human settlements, except for isolated RGOs (e.g. highland mining communities) and tribes that have developed hyperspecializations to survive whatever lurks in their area a la the guides in the Stalker film.
When I wrote Ranger I wrote another story in the RPG-class vein called Barbarian, about a tribesman who is dragooned into an malevolent city-state’s military (which sounds awesome to him, at first) and once he gets there he has to decide what he's ultimately going to do.
The city-state in Barbarian is the same city-state as in Ranger, Megastheos, but a few centuries later.
Barbarian is a lot longer, though, and can stand some serious restructuring, editing, and finishing, so it may be some time before I put it up.
These stories (Ranger and Barbarian) are both about morally gray guys vs Bad Guys, and a consideration that I struggle with when conceptualizing stories is: how bad can a main character be at the beginning of a story while ensuring that a reader in the expected core audience (which for me are just people who share some critical mass of neurotype elements and/or experiences) won’t see the character as being unworthy of redemption? The main character in Barbarian and in another story which I’ll record, The Crimes of Jack Daw, are both fairly ruthless individuals at the start of their stories (not murdering innocents, but ruthless in their own ways), and if a form of wake-up call/redemption doesn’t come quick enough, a reader can begin to snarl at an unredeemed bastard’s minor victories along the way. So when should the path to a better way present itself, or when should the protagonist start seeking one if he or she doesn’t want to be abandoned or reviled by the reader?
I asked a friend who doesn’t usually write stories but has consumed more anime than Patrick Stuart has read Black Library, and his opinion was that if a main character does some really dark shit it should happen before the story starts, and shouldn’t have done something that would commonly be considered unforgivable in their backstory, unless you’re planning on writing a tragedy or a nihilistic exploration of something (the latter of which is possible but fraught with difficulties).
I think he’s basically correct. Still, I plan to continue exploring the edges of this line from time to time.
On to Ranger!
Dasen sat back by the dead campfire. The trees took shape around him in the predawn light. His bow lay across his lap, his quiver under the small of his back. He was still and tranquil.
There was a crack in the woods. A man named Morari lowered himself from a bower of twigs which he’d mane in the shoulder of a tree.
Morari was a veteran warrior. He belonged to a circle of elite fighters and experts who pried artifacts and riches from the cold fingers of despots, raiders, and men long dead in their tombs.
Dasen stood up. He was an aspirant to join Morari’s circle, and so were the men who still slept around the dead campfire. They were all on their trial run. Morari was there to audition them.
The enormous warrior walked slowly over to Dasen and stopped, chewing silently on a dry red sausage with his perpetual hint of a smile.
“Get em up. We move out in two minutes.”
Dasen nodded and began running between sleepers who were bundled in blankets in the leaves by the fire’s ashes, shaking them awake as he went. They sat up without a hint of anger or pleasure. There were six of them. Two were missing.
Dasen looked at Morari, who gazed back at him, chewing.
Dasen began roving around the woods near the campfire, searching for the missing aspirants. He found the one of them laying on a bed of pine needles in a little pit of soft soil. Dasen knelt over him, seized his lapels and shook him awake.
“Get the fuck up and be at the campfire in one minute,” Dasen growled with as much menace as he could muster.
“Got it,” said the young man.
Dasen went of in search of the last one missing. He finally found the man, whose feet were sticking out from underneath a dead log with a half-dome of mossy twigs set against the wind. The man wasn’t wearing his boots.
Dasen picked up the boots and hurled them towards the campfire, then grabbed the man’s trouserlegs and yanked him out from under the tree. The man came out kicking and sat up, scraping his head on the log. He looked at Dasen furiously.
“What’s your problem?”
“Get your boots on and get to the campfire! You only got a few seconds!”
The man ran after Dasen, sticking his feet into his boots without tying them and clomped up to the campfire where the others were already standing.
Morari had finished his sausage and was standing contrapposto with his hands on his hips.
“Sorry,” said the missing man.
“When the Emberlings call a muster, they torture and kill the last man who shows up. They figure they don’t need a guy like that anyways.
“Get your pack.”
The man went, bent over, and slung his pack from where it lay by the fire, pots and pans jangling.
“I’m with the Emberlings. Head back to Megastheos.”
“I can do better.”
“I understand. Get moving.”
The man turned, and set off back down the trail with his head hung low. Morari looked at Dasen.
“Take us off.”
Dasen nodded. He took his bearings from the stars and led the party off the trail into the dusty wilderness.
Morari had a set of plate armor slung on his pack, which burdened him so little it seemed to become part of his body when he took it up.
He had a two-handed sword in a black scabbard, and he used it like a walking stick.
Dasen had seen the other members of Morari’s band when he’d visited their private drinking hall in Megastheos. They ranged from hard, lean and wiry survivors who could cross mountains on a peasant’s fare, to sleek athletic champions with splendidly sculpted bodies like ancient engravings. Morari was the only one of them who was huge and musclebound. He didn’t need to be so big; he just liked to be, and he was known to lift carts and press giant stones for a hobby.
“What’s your plan?” he asked Dasen
“Cut through the wilds to Bitterwell Peak, then head due northwest to the sound north of Glassloch.”
“Can you hit Bitterwell Peak from this far out?”
“Ok.” Morari walked back so he could watch the party from behind.
Dasen felt good as he strode through the woods. He knew his pack was heavy and his gambeson was hot but he felt a sense of purpose and momentum.
The only thing that troubled the back of his mind was the man who’d been sent home. They were far away from the territory of the Dekandrites that the man probably wouldn’t be be ambushed, but Dasen considered himself responsible for the party being short one man.
The predawn chill had come and the dew was unbelievably thick as they crossed a grassy field to reach a wild green draw on the other side. Their boots and trousers became just as wet as if they’d climbed into a fountain when they traversed the grass and descended to the riverside, which was choked with vegetation.
A heron glided slowly above the reeds. Winter was breaking and the foliage wasn’t as thick as it would be come summer, when it would have been almost impossible for Dasen to cross without throwing off his heading. As it was, they could pass but the water would be cold enough to take their breath away.
Dasen felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Morari.
“Count them off. You go last.” Dasen nodded.
Addis had been the first aspirant to stand up by the firepit. Dasen sent him across to check out the far shore. Addis made no preparation but simply crashed into the water, pushing through it wherever he could get his feet on the riverbed. He was not stupid, he was so tough that he seemed to play by a different set of rules. Being soaked wouldn’t reduce his competence.
The others went across with varying degrees of gingerness, some trying to hold their packs overhead, one or two taking their boots off first. The cleverest had a tallow-treated pack which he’d sealed, and he used it as a raft, floating across the river.
Dasen held his bow overhead but otherwise went as he was, counting on the journey to dry him. Morari walked beside him, pushing through the water with his pack submerged. His plate armor may have been stainless steel, but Dasen knew this man was rich enough to abuse and discard coats of plates if he liked.
That was why many of the aspirants were there, some of them experienced soldiers. Dasen wasn’t there for the money. He was there for this. The adventure.
Morari got to the shore first and stepped up as the water cascaded from his clothes and pack. He turned, barring Dasen’s way. Dasen stood as the freezing water pushed past him. He took a steady stance.
“Weren’t you on watch?”
Dasen nodded. He breathed through his nose to not begin panting as the chill tightened his muscles.
“Why was that guy late?”
“I didn’t think he’d camp so far away.”
“Wrong answer. You don’t know if these guys are responsible, or where their loyalties lay. You keep them where you can see them. When we get to Dekandrite territory we won’t be sleeping around a fire, just a hole to piss and shit in. Nobody leaves the circle till we move out.”
“If there was another ranger, he’d be taking over for you.”
They stood there for a long time. Dasen began to breathe through his mouth as the water chilled him to the core. His legs shook and he repositioned his feet again and again as they sunk into the mud. His fingertips hurt and then were numb. He began to mentally sing a hero’s ballad and he found that it braced him, gave him courage, and he could barely resist breaking out in a tearful smile.
Morari stood there until Dasen’s head began to ache and his eyes were drooping, then he turned and went up to where the party was waiting in a clearing. Dasen collapsed against the muddy bank and hauled himself out of the water, quaking violently. The shady earth felt warm between his fingers. He joined the group. The band gazed at Dasen with varying degrees of empathy. Morari was expressionless. Dasen nodded at Addis, and took point again.
They were in the highlands. Dasen had counted his steps. They should be at Bitterwell Peak, but there was no peak in sight.
He looked around with a growing sensation of dread. He gave the sign for a halt, and the party gratefully took a knee, except for Morari, who stood back with his arms folded, his massive sinewed forearms broadening against one another.
“Have some water and lay down,” Dasen said to the aspirants, “I’m gonna do a map check.” They nodded and lay on their bellies beside their packs to lower their profiles, pointedly avoiding glancing at Morari, who stood over them like a statue.
Dasen spread his map on the ground, then looked around. The clearings in the forest weren’t large enough to be marked upon the map. Dasen shed his pack, tucked his map deep into his quiver, found the tallest tree and began to climb. It was easy going for the first half but then the branches got thinner and more distant. By the end of it, he had to stand up on a branch with his legs shaking, look at the branch above him as if it was the only thing that existed, and then jump to reach it. He grabbed the dry bark, pulled himself up, set his knee upon it and slid out his map. The treetop visibly swayed. He looked around. There were five or six hills; any of them could be Bitterwell Peak.
He looked back in the direction of the town. He saw a thin trail of smoke rising from an imperceptible chimney. Then he looked into the far north and spotted Mt Gauntbody. Looking at the map, he located the peak that was most directly between Megastheos and Gauntbody. Pivoting his vision to the right of that, he was able to determine that the next peak was Bitterwell. He memorized a branch on the bottom of the tree which pointed in the right direction, stowed his map, and gratefully descended to the earth.
They reached Glasswell Loch late that afternoon and gazed down over the glassy bay to the north. There were little thatch baskets on the shore that gleamed with an odd warm light. Dasen knew that these were collection points for the Dekandrite’s aphasic slaves, who deposited amber taken from the water, which their blacksmiths used as fuel for their earthwork forges. The party’s faces lit up with greed. The baskets stood alone. None of the tribesmen could be seen.
Dasen looked at Morari expectantly.
Morari said, “I’m gonna take a piss and look around. When I get back, I want to hear your plan. If it’s good, we’ll execute it. If not, we’ll head back to town. I’d rather you see your mother again than have the Deks plant you asshole-first on a centipede pot, that’s why I sent Brimley home this morning. But, if you don’t want to take any risks to get that amber, then this profession may not be for you.”
He set off up the nearest hill.
The party shed their packs and put their heads together. They collectively glanced at Dasen, who was the navigator, and Addis, who was the boldest. Addis looked at Dasen.
Dasen began sketching in the dirt straightaway.
“Here’s the sound. Here we are on this ridge. You can see the crags on the saddle behind us; they’ll be unmistakable when we’re near the waterline. We’ll have two groups, one that holds the ridge, one that goes and gets the amber. The reason for that is if the amber group gets cut off, they can blow a whistle and have the second group hit the enemy from behind. Or, if the group’s getting chased, the guys at the crag can surprise whoever’s chasing em. Remember there’s also a ton of loose rock up here you can toss down at em.”
“Who’s doing what?” asked a dry-mouthed barkeep.
“I’ll go for the amber. Addis too.” Addis nodded without a word. “We’ll go right away since the Deks sleep in the day.”
“Ok. So us guys with ranged weapons hold the crag,” said the barman, even though Dasen was wearing a bow.
“Yeah. If there’s no one down there, we bag up the amber and split, if there is anyone… we either hit em or pull back. It’ll be a judgement call.” They nodded. “Anyone else want in on the grab team?”
There silence, then,
“Fuck it. I’ll go,” said Haedra, who was a discharged soldier.
As if on cue, Morari came out of the woodline.
“Let’s have it.”
Dasen explained, Morari nodding slowly, stroking his chin.
“What happens if you catch a javelin? Say I’m not here, how do these guys get out?”
“Everyone, go due south and eventually you’ll hit the Scalestream. Just follow its flow, and it’ll take you into Assindar township.”
“Alright, simple enough. We’ll go ahead with your plan. Just be aware that if we get into the shit with some Deks I’ll probably be ok, but you guys aren’t capital-A adventurers, so act accordingly. If I spot a big Dek war crew I’m pulling us out, though.” He made a kingfisher’s call. “That’s the signal that we’re coming, and if you hear it throw a rock down below and hold your fire. But if you hear me blow my whistle it means we’re bringing company. Be listening.”
Dasen, Addis and Haedra slithered forwards on their bellies. The water gleamed silver through the boughs. The trees had animal skeletons twined from them in whole hunting scenes, hundreds of bones hung joint-to-joint in osseous mobiles.
The wicker bands of the amber baskets were strips of human skin made hard by baking. One section had human eyelids within it.
“Brutal,” whispered Addis.
“Fucking savages…. fucking primitives… kill ‘em all,” breathed Haedra.
“Easy,” said Dasen, “Eyes on the prize… ah, bad metaphor. Let’s get the amber and bug out.”
“Cover me,” said Addis. Dasen and Haedra nodded, nocking arrows with their bows laying flat against the grass. Addis took his short sword in its scabbard and tucked it under his belt, then slid forward towards the nearest basket of amber.
He reached it and slid his arm up it like a snake. He took a handful of little orange rocks and bagged them, repeating this several times.
“Shit, enough amber, man, let’s get out of here,” hissed Haedra under his breath. Dasen silently concurred… then his blood ran cold. There were people walking up the beach towards the amber baskets. The first of them were bald, gaunt, and slinking. They had hideous, odious tattoos as if they’d been used for contemptuous practice. There were four young men coming behind them, and Dasen was seized by apprehension at the sight of them. Their bodies were lean yet muscular in a way that no farmer or burgher could match. They were nude and had spiders and centipedes tattooed across every inch of their pale bodies. Their ragged manes reached their heels, and one of them had a single braid amidst his hair which terminated tied up in the crest of a wooden fullhelm that hung behind his knees. They trouped along with long, thin spears. Their gaits were loose and limber.
Haedra looked at Dasen. Addis had froze with his hand in the amber basket. The warriors would reach him in just a few moments moments.
Dasen felt every grain of the wood between his fingers. The grass and the sun were vivid. He was about to witness something horrible.
Some part of him couldn’t believe it was possible that he could shoot the Dekandrite spearmen. But he took a knee, drew back an arrow, and held it until his arms were shaking and his fingertips were growing numb. A warrior stopped and gaped as he saw Addis laying there in the sand. Dasen let go with the familiar thumping noise and the arrow was launched tremendously at the warrior. When Dasen lowered his bow to look, the man was staggering backwards, screaming. He’d dropped his spear and was grasping the arrow’s shaft, perhaps trying to tug it free.
“Yes,” Dasen said in spite of himself. But the tribesman continued screaming horribly. Dasen’s skin began to crawl. The man gave a cry that seemed to come from the depths of his soul. Dasen couldn’t stand it. Weren’t they supposed to be tough? Stoic? Would he please stop?
Dasen reached back, retrieved another arrow and nocked it, but the Deks were already ducking and scattering, including the man whom he’d shot. Addis was up and sprinting through the brush with a fat bag of amber bouncing against his thighs.
He slid his short sword free as he reached his companions, his eyes alight.
Dasen turned and rushed up the soft soil of the hill. He went over a crag that jutted from the hillside to find an easier path and ran straight into a Dekandrite who’d come directly up the hill from the beach, trying to cut them off. The warrior had his spear in a low one-handed carry but Dasen swung his bow with both hands, catching the man in the chest and shoulder and knocking him over backwards, breaking the bow with a crack. Dasen dropped and then fell down on with a fist to the warrior’s jaw with a smack. The man immediately began shaking with his eyes half-lidded, unconscious.
“Gotcha,” Dasen hissed grimly, then planted his hands on the warrior’s hard chest and stood up.
Haedra darted in, straddled the unconscious man and began stabbing him all over the ribs with his short sword.
The man’s arm curled up towards the blade and he half-awoke, trying to sit up as his wounds began to bleed one by one, before he fell back and let his arm curl towards the ground. Haedra moved on to the man’s neck.
“Holy shit!” hissed Dasen, his voice strangely high-pitched. Haedra stood up and backed off, nearly tripping, then wiped his blade on his shirtfront.
“Welcome to war, kid! You gotta finish em when you get the chance! Otherwise they’ll end up like that cocksucker at the beach, or they come back and do the same thing to you!”
“We’ve got to get out of here,” said Addis evenly.
“Ok,” said Dasen, gazing at the slaughtered tribesman bathing in his own blood. He wondered if this would just enrage them more? Or if it would make any difference at all?
He grabbed the fallen warrior’s spear and led Addis and Haedra up the hill into the darkening foliage with the sun growing low on the horizon. The patches of sunlight seemed to move before his eyes. The night was coming soon, and with it, advantage for the Dekandrites.
They didn’t have to wait for night. They were just five minutes’ breathless jog from the crags when they heard a shrill, mirthless, tuneless piping on the wind. A Dek war party was on their tail. They couldn’t hide. Dasen didn’t attempt to estimate their chances; they were in Morari’s field of expertise now. The huge man blew his whistle to signal the party waiting in the crags. The aspirants didn’t look him askance, but the piping seemed to slink towards them like a languid shark smelling a flounder.
The Deks came through the trees when the trio was almost in sight of the pass above, where their companions lay in wait. Dasen almost fell over when he saw the first of them. It was a jade colored serpent the size of a horse slithering up the hill towards him, mouth agape. Its fangs moved freely in the darkness, and then Dasen realized that it was a Dek warrior in an elaborate garment of peacock feathers that trailed over the rocks and roots as he went. The man had a pair of ivory daggers held icepick style in his hand; they were scrimshawed walrus tusks filed to an almost invisible point.
More come through the woods behind him. A geometric man wearing an armor of wooden boxes bound in an ecosystem of articulating segments, never touching, always rotating as he moved. As he approached, he slapped the boxes on his forearms and they produced a pair of obsidian spikes which fell into his hands beneath them.
Next was a man who glowed like a sun priest even in the fading light due to a half-disc of pure amber that he wore behind his head. He had on robes the color of tangerine sorbet like the sunset, and he held aloft an amber-toothed macahuitl like a sacramental icon. He was bald and his entire head had been covered with a strange black lacquer that formed a mannequin-like beetle shell around it. The only living flesh that could be seen was his blazing eyes.
A man who looked like some kind of hideous vascular mutant came through the trees, his red flesh shifting this way and that, poking and exploring everything around him. Only his naked tattooed legs were visible. Then Dasen realized that he was armored in red vipers which slithered in masses all around his body like he was a living mating pit. In any case, his eyes were lost in the morass of red scales. Perhaps he was so in tune with his armature that he could navigate from their hisses. He carried no weapons; his hands rested on two trees which he stood between.
Another came behind him, a man who swirled with milky white discs that flowed through the air around his body like a traffic of moons. Each had a rim of shining steel, and they were twined around him by furry green ropes. Dasen realized that they were sand dollars which had been bored through and set with steel blades to make chakrams, and the man had them twined such that their patterns were predictable and all he needed to do to keep them in a deadly flow was to weave his arms in a familiar pattern inside the deadly matrix.
The man in the snake raiment emitted a bloodcurdling scream echoed in an ear-piercing shriek by his serpents.
These men were the advance party, and they had just sounded the alarm.
Addis rushed them instantly with his short sword raised above his head, and several of the Deks fell backwards immediately, stunned by the sudden onslaught. Dasen could make out Addis slashing at two of them but the rest advanced on Dasen and Haedra; the serpent-man threw one of his dagger-darts overhand and Haedra screamed. Dasen glanced over. The scrimshawed weapon had impaled Haedra’s shinbone, and a strange dust which had clearly been rubbed into the weapon’s depressions was hazing the air around the wound, which begun releasing dark blood in trickles.
“Addis!” Dasen yelled. Addis looked over his shoulder; he’d delivered several livid red slashes to the arms and body of the man with the amber sun-disc, and had cut off several heads from the viper-clad man. Addis backed up, turned and sprinted to where Haedra was sitting.
Dasen looked back at the Deks and heard Haedra scream as Addis unceremoniously lifted him over his shoulders. The snake man and the geometric warrior had reached Dasen and the snake man darted in, trying to stab him with the fang-tusk. Dasen leapt backwards and lowered his spear, daring off the peacock-clad warrior, while the cedarbox-clad man attempted to flank him. Dasen suddenly whipped his spear point towards the flanker and it dug into the man’s square wooden breastplate. The serpent warrior came in with a low stab but Dasen relinquished his spear to dodge it and punched the snake man in the face as he passed, dropping him flat on his belly with a reverberating crack. The man in the boxes body-slammed Dasen, stabbing with his spike, missing Dasen’s arm but gashing his hip.
Dasen was bowled over onto the downy dead bark of the hillside and the man in cedar lunged in to thrust his weapon into Dasen’s chest; Dasen reached up and barely managed to seize the man’s forearm box before the plunge. The man fought it free and Dasen desperately caught it again; the man began to push his other spike inexorably against Dasen’s side, piercing the flesh and muscle as the man’s knuckles rammed the dirt, his body laid across Dasen’s, pinning him down.
Just then there was a vorpal swoop in front of Dasen’s nose and the head of the box-clad warrior split apart in a V, brains gushing into Dasen’s face in a hot and viscous release. Dasen blinked and sputtered, pushing the man’s limp and heavy form off of him like a dog which had fallen asleep in his lap. He looked over in awe at the man’s split head; his eyes had fallen back from their sockets and lay amidst brains in the moss. Something flew over Dasen’s head and landed with a terrific thump and a cascade of dirt in front of it: it was Morari, clad in full plate mail and wielding his two-handed longsword.
Dasen got up and fumbled backwards, wiping brains out of his eyes over and over. He looked up the hill and saw Addis disappearing with Haedra, who’s pantleg was soaked in blood drip-drip-dripping into the earth. Then he looked back down at Morari.
The Dek warriors moved in on Morari, even the man in tangerine who’d been slashed by Addis.
Morari whipped his longsword in a circle above his head, daring back the Deks, then suddenly long-lunged towards the disc-spinner and planted his sword no more than two inches into the man’s chest amidst the storm of silver blades. The man gave a little cry and stepped back as the discs wrapped around the sword. Morari tore it free, cutting many twines, and the disc spinner sat down with an expression like he’d been grievously insulted, bleeding profusely down the chest. Morari had pierced his heart.
Instantly the tangerine priest and the man clad in vipers rushed Morari with weapons outstretched. He darted between them with such agility that Dasen wondered if Morari wore plate armor as a form of deception.
Morari gave the tangerine-cloaked warrior-priest an upward slash as he passed. The man turned and fell to his hands and knees with a ruby red line blossoming across his robe. The man who was wrapped in vipers whirled on Morari, but Morari’s carried his sword’s momentum into a whirling roundhouse attack that went through the viper-bearer without slowing, bisecting him and dozens of his snakes in an explosion of red flesh that pitter-pattered across the boughs and soil.
The man in the serpent coil began to push himself up with red teeth, blinking, but Morari walked by him on his way up the hill, swinging his sword with a noise that chilled Dasen. Morari cut the fallen warrior’s head off, and it fell to the ground inside his garment, reaching the earth before the man’s chest.
Morari took Dasen’s collar and sped him up the hill. He was laughing gutturally and relentlessly underneath his breath.
Dasen shook his head as he staggered under Morari’s grasp.
The party maneuvered long into the night. Four of them at a time would pick up Haedra, move, and when the Deks would begin to appear in the woodline the party would set him down and pepper the foliage with arrows and slingstones. They moved like this for hour after hour in an odyssey of pain and darkness. Dasen’s fingertips grew numb from Haedra’s pantlegs, his gait stooping and his feet aching. Dasen knew that he was fatigued and yet he was hyper-alert, peering into the shadows with wide eyes for the slightest hint of movement. Morari ranged around them, directing their path and fire, tireless.
The Deks didn’t relent until the party had reached the Scalestream. Dasen’s heart beat relentlessly because he knew that he wouldn’t hear the trackers over the stream and his own physiology. But the next attack didn’t come. They marched into Assindar after several more hours of silent walking, their arms and shoulders pained in ways that they’d never before experienced.
Haedra was deposited at the temple. Dasen would later learn that Haedra had lost his leg. It was their tribute to the Dekandrites.
Morari marched the party on Megastheos that same night. Dasen couldn’t believe it. He’d been looking forward to bed and breakfast in Assindar. Now they would spend the rest of the night marching under their packs after the ordeal they had just suffered through. He looked at Morari, and a part of him said to himself, “He didn’t carry Haedra all that way, what does he care?” Then he stopped himself, and thought, “Chances are he’s had to do much worse.”
They marched all night, minds growing numb, nearly passing out as they walked. Some of the party began to complain bitterly to each other, but Morari did not censure them or speak at all. Dawn broke with a cool wind across their faces; the skin of their backs felt like they’d laid down in glass from the pressing of their packs on their sweat-laden skin. Dasen's feet hurt so bad he wanted to cry, not to mention being nearly delerious with fatigue and hunger, but he kept going. The night was long and so was the morning. Morari whistled a tune from the back of the pack.
Finally they reached Megastheos, from whence they'd departed. The guards smiled as the aspirants trudged through the gates like slaves driven from a foreign land. Morari directed them into the clubhouse and they sat on wooden benches in the foyer, gazing at each other, barely able to think.
Morari opened the inner door a crack.
“Bluesmith,” he called one of them in. Bluesmith staggered up using his pack to steady himself and went into the inner chamber. A few minutes later he came back into the foyer furiously, slinging his pack and stalking out onto the street without a word or glance to anyone. Dasen’s heart was pounding like he’d just been thrown by a horse.
The door opened.
He got up and went in. Morari’s crew was standing around impassively, gazing at him with arms crossed. Being at leisure they wore common, form-fitting clothes and daggers. Their eyes were hard and unforgiving, but amusement danced within.
Morari turned to face him. ”Dasen, thanks for coming out. We appreciate you taking your shot; that got hairy and I know you don’t want to leave empty-handed. I’m sorry to tell you this, but…”
Dasen’s hands shook. His heart was in freefall. Morari smiled.
Dasen nearly fell over. Then he nearly leapt in the air.
Morari cracked a smile.
"Get the fuck out of here. Come back when you're cleaned up and we'll get started."
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