Ranedalian elite troops are sent out in a desperate mission to save their homeland.
|Ostarian Benefal. Ostarian the master of five elements. A man who some said, was a more powerful shaper even than the great Carius Ledaldrin himself, principal ruler and head of the Seat of Magic in Darnet for fifty years, knelt on his hands in knees in the dirt and mud, expelling his lunch’s contents on the ground in violent, gasping explusions. His self-effacing laughter choked off as his gorge rose and he fought to gain control of his heaving stomach. Ostarian the Great, some had called him. He didn’t feel particularly great, not now, not as he lost control of his lurching stomach and grew sick again. Ostarian the fetid perhaps. Ostarian, the master of vomit. He wiped the long sleeve of his charcoal gray robe across his mouth.
“Are you okay, Os?” A deep, sonorous voice asked, and through his befuddled mind he recognized the voice of Teschuff Stayton, commander of King Darien’s army, and leader of the King’s elite soldiers, the Ghosts.
“I’m … fine.” He assured his friend as he helped him to his feet, but the effect of his claim was dampened by the dry, rasping heaves that followed it.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Os. A lot of people have this reaction when they see a dead man.”
Ostarian glanced ruefully at the five men with them, all hand-picked, grizzled veterans. They were some of the very best soldiers Ranedal had to offer; brutal and efficient in the art of war—they were not known for their compassion. The night was complete, the only light in the small clearing came from the torch one of the men held, but it was enough for him to see that they were grinning, their eyes twinkling with amusement. “They don’t seem to.” He observed, feeling his face heat with embarrassment.
Teschuff turned and regarded the men, their faces immediately growing somber as they turned and looked away. Ostarian swayed on his feet, but Teschuff steadied him with a hand on his shoulder. “This is not the first dead men they’ve seen, friend.”
Ostarian glanced down at the two lifeless corpses sprawled on the ground. The dark-haired, bronzed-skinned, bodies of the two sentries had been stripped of any useful items with callous efficiency by Teschuff’s Ghosts. Drying blood stained their throats a deep crimson and a pool of it had already gathered beneath them. Ostarian and his companions were in the deep tracts of Ranedalian forests, and though the ancient oaks blocked out most of the sunlight with their leafy canopy, still the summer heat was oppressive and the air felt thick and moist. Though the men had been dead for only a short time, Ostarian was certain he could smell their decaying flesh. The odor made him gag, but most importantly he avoided their lifeless, glassy stares. It was the eyes that were so tough to look on—eyes that looked toward a future they would never see. “Nor are they the first I’ve seen.” He ventured, bringing a hand to his nauseated stomach. “But I’ve never seen it so close, so real.”
Teschuff nodded, his expression growing somber as he brushed a hand through his brown hair. “I know, Os. I’m sorry. I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but Mantah has left us little choice. The assassination of Darien’s son at a parley is not something the King will abide.” Teschuff’s eyes clouded as he spoke and he stared off into the darkness. The night was silent, the only sound that of his friend’s hard, angry voice. “Gasten did not deserve such an end, Os. He was a good man, and would have made Ranedal a fine king. Mantah asked Darien to treat with him on a matter of peace and then killed him and the four that went with him.” His voice lowered to a near whisper, “I asked the King to send me, but Gasten would not hear of it. ‘I am no war leader, Teschuff,’ he told me, ‘Your place is here, with the men, with my father.’ I begged him, Os, begged him. But he would not be swayed.”
It was Ostarian’s turn to place a comforting hand on his friend’s shoulder. “It is not your fault, Teschuff. Even you cannot be everywhere at once.”
“No,” his friend agreed, his jaws clenched in remembered grief, “but I should have been there.”
Ostarian wanted to tell Teschuff that no one had thought there was even a chance Mantah would be fool enough to kill Gasten in the middle of a peace talk. The War Chief and leader of the Krutes was a cruel, calculating man, that was true, but no one had thought him capable of desecrating a banner of truce. Ostarian wanted to reassure his friend, but he had tried such words before, and it seemed Teschuff was determined to take the guilt of all the war’s evils on himself. So instead of speaking, he gripped his friend’s shoulder reassuringly, letting the silence comfort Teschuff in a way his own foolish words never could.
A man emerged silently from the darkness, and Ostarian couldn’t help the squeak that came out of him before he saw that it was Bleeder, one of Teschuff’s men. The man’s face and arms were a patchwork of scars. Some were from blades, whips, or other weapons, and Ostarian knew from what the other Ghosts had told him that Bleeder’s entire body was criss-crossed with similar scars. The man’s nose had been broken so many times that it seemed to have lost all shape and just sat, bloblike, on his face. “What is it?” Teschuff asked, forcing his mind away from the memories of the past to the here and now with a visible effort.
“Sir,” the man growled in a raspy voice that had never sounded right since he’d had a rope tied around his neck by Krute troops when he’d been taken prisoner and been drug by a horse for over a mile. They’d left him for dead, but he had survived and—as the story went-- killed six of his captors in their sleep before fleeing. Ostarian felt a chill go up his spine as he was once again reminded of the brutal efficiency of the Ghosts. “Eye says we have men incoming.”
The change in Teschuff and the other five Ghosts was immediate. Hands sprang to weapons in an instant and they scanned the forest that surrounded the clearing, as if they could sense the men approaching through the curtain of darkness. “How many?” Teschuff asked, sounding surprised.
“Twenty five men, sir, on foot, heading in this direction from the south.”
“Damn,” Teschuff growled, “a patrol then.”
“Sir?” One of the men asked, his voice low but calm, “Should we put out the torch? Might be they haven’t seen us.”
Teschuff shook his head slowly, “No. They know we’re here.” He whistled then, a loud, piercing, signal that sounded exactly like the call of a male Cuckoo, a small, fickle bird native to Ranedal. Ostarian smiled, it had been he who had taught Teschuff that call. The leader of the Ghosts considered for a moment before he came to a decision and nodded, “Bludger.”
The large, heavily muscled, dark-bearded man stepped forward, carrying a massive hammer in his thick hands. “Sir?”
“Break the men into their pairs, and spread them out north, east and west. Me and Os will watch the south.”
The big man eyed Ostarian skeptically, “Uh, sir … are you sure that’s a good idea? Why not let me an’ Giant watch the south? We’ll do ye proud, sir.”
A small, wisp of a man, no taller than five and a half feet slipped out from behind a nearby tree. He had a long, thin dagger in each hand. His eyes were nothing more than narrow slits and he had a sharp, pointed nose. His hair was pulled back in a blond ponytail, enhancing the severity of his hawk-like appearance. “Be happy to oblige, Ghost.” The man agreed in the mellifluous, smooth speech that marked him as a member of Ranedal’s upper class.
Teschuff patted Ostarian on the back reassuringly, “They haven’t seen you fight, Os. That’s all.” He turned back to the others, “Gentlemen, Ostarian can more than hold his own; I wouldn’t worry on that score. Now form up. Flank them if you can, but wait for Eye’s signal.” The men nodded and the one with the torch stuck it into the ground in the middle of the clearing before the pairs disappeared, wraith-like, into the surrounding darkness.
“Thanks.” He said to his friend, hoping that he wouldn’t give him cause to regret his words before the night was done.
Teschuff grinned at him as another form emerged from the darkness. “Don’t thank me yet, Os. Some of them will try to flank us, but we’ll be getting the bulk of it.”
Another man emerged from the darkness. He wore dark green and tanned clothing, so that he blended in with the surrounding woods. A bow was strapped across his back, and dried mud covered his face and hands, but what Ostarian could see of his face and form looked completely average, dull brown eyes, brown hair, and a plain face, height and build. A face, a man made to forget. “Ghost.” The man said as he approached and knelt, “I heard your call.”
Teschuff nodded and pointed to a thick, ancient oak on the southern side of the clearing. “Eye, I want you up that tree.” The man nodded, securing his bow behind his back, and disappearing up the tree with agility that a monkey would envy. In moments, he disappeared into its thick, leafy boughs.
Teschuff glanced around and nodded, apparently satisfied. “Alright then.” He took up a position a short distance in front of the torch, and Ostarian followed. As they stood, waiting for the approaching men Ostarian’s heart beat rapidly in his chest and he struggled to control his rapid breathing. He glanced at Teschuff, but if his friend felt any similar anxiety it lay hidden beneath his calm, cool exterior. The commander of the Ghosts tilted his head for a moment as if he heard something, but for Ostarian the night was blanketed in a calculating, malevolent silence. “They’re coming.” His friend said.
Ostarian glanced around them, wiping his sweating hands on his robe, “Uh … shouldn’t we hide, like the others?”
Teschuff shook his head, one side of his mouth raising in a half-grin as his eyes roamed over the pitch black forest, “And then who would welcome our new friends? Besides, it’s too late for that.” He drew the two long swords that had been strapped across his back. The blades gleamed in the torchlight, making it appear as if their sharp edges were already coated in blood.
As if on cue, men began to appear from the darkness in front of them, stopping at the edges of the torch-lit clearing. They carried various weapons, some swords, some hatchets, mauls, or spears, but Ostarian’s stomach lurched as he noticed the careless expertise with which they handled them. Their black hair, ebony eyes, and dark, bronzed skin marked them as Krutes. A lean, sinewy man stepped in front of the others, a spear in one hand and a thick, rope net with iron balls attached to its ends in the other. “Well, well,” the man sneered, his thick Krute accent making the words difficult to understand, “if it isn’t the Ghost himself.” He studied Teschuff intently for a moment before he smiled, unimpressed. It was a wicked, cruel smile, revealing teeth that had been filed to sharp, pointed fangs. “My people tell stories of you, did you know? Stories made to frighten children and fools.”
Teschuff grinned, “My people tell no stories of you.”
The man barked a harsh laugh, “Not yet, but they will. I am Eminsera Taket, and I will be the one who kills the great Teschuff Stayton. Mantah will reward me greatly when I bring him your head.”
Teschuff looked at the man and the ten Krute warriors behind him. “You do not need to do this. Leave Ranedal in peace, and I will not pursue you. You will be allowed to go back to your homeland. I will not make the offer again.”
Eminsera growled, “We do not need your mercy fool! You and your men will die! Ranedalians are weak! You are no match for true Krute warriors!” He gestured to the warriors behind him who let out a war cry that was echoed by voices in other parts of the forest. Teschuff sighed, “Well, come on then.”
And without another word, they did, whooping and shouting as they rushed forward, bloodlust twisting their features into macabre masks of hate and rage.
Ostarian started to call on his shaping, but he found it almost impossible to concentrate in the face of the fierce, piercing war cry and charging warriors. He cursed himself as he fumbled at his gift, grasping in the frantic, unpracticed attempts of a novice. He had shaped in battle before, but always from the walls of castles and cities, never from so close. Teschuff did not hesitate, but charged in to meet the oncoming warriors, his swords flashing out, weaving a blinding net of thrusts, parries, and counter attacks. In a matter of seconds two of the Krute warriors were down; no longer shouting wildly with rage, but shrieking out keening, whimpering cries of pain.
Two men and—Ostarian was stunned to notice—a woman peeled off of those engaging Teschuff and charged Ostarian. He knew that Krute women were trained to fight the same as the men, but he was still shocked by her crazed, disheveled appearance. The woman and one of the men brandished swords over their head, waving them ferociously as they came on. The other man did not have a sword, but wore leather gloves, the backs of which were covered in short, thick metal spikes. Ostarian watched, frozen as the warriors came on, still shouting that blood curdling cry. An arrow whistled out of the tree and pierced the throat of the woman, coming out the other end and lodging itself in her flesh. The warrior’s eyes went wide and she dropped to the ground, scraping and clawing at the wound as her lifesblood oozed onto the ground.
The arrow served to break Ostarian from his paralysis, and he reached his right arm to the fire of the torch. His hand glowed a deep red as he embraced his shaping, and he gestured toward the other swordsman. Fire leapt from the torch at his command, lancing through the air and engulfing the man. The warrior slowed, but did not stop at first, stumbling forward in a screaming, raging inferno of hate, pain and fire. Finally, he slumped to the ground, but when he glanced up Ostarian saw that the other man was already on him.
The man lashed out with a gloved fist and Ostarian lunged to the side in a desperate attempt to avoid the blow, but the spikes raked him across the shoulder and arm, and he cried out at the sharp, shocking pain as he tumbled to the ground. He whipped his head around to see that the man loomed over him. He raised his fist and brought it down in a savage motion, and Ostarian had no time to move, only time enough to think of Diane, his wife, and how he would miss her, as he watched the spiked fist descend, but before the man’s strike connected, the blade of a sword ripped out of his chest. Blood showered out of the wound, covering Ostarian, and the warrior’s back arched in pain and surprise. He gawked in confusion as the man collapsed to the ground beside him. The warrior turned a wide-eyed, crazed stare on Ostarian as he died. For a moment, Ostarian was transfixed by those lifeless, unseeing orbs, glassy and still in death, but finally he managed to jerk himself shakily to his feet.
When he did, he was greeted by a scene out of a nightmare. Seven of the ten Krute soldiers were dead, leaving three others and the leader who stood back, watching, his smug expression gone. Teschuff bled from a deep cut on his arm and was barely managing to evade the collective attacks of the three remaining warriors. Ostarian’s brow furrowed in confusion when he suddenly noticed that Teschuff had only one sword, but then he looked down and saw the other sticking out of the man who’d nearly killed him. Of course! Teschuff had saved Ostarian’s life, but put himself in dire peril. He narrowed his eyes in anger and concentration. Now it was his turn to help his friend.
He held his arms out wide on either side and closed his eyes for a moment, searching for the elements that were normally within easy reach. It was growing increasingly difficult to focus past the red-hot pain in his shoulder and the cacophony of the battle that was raging around him as the other Ghosts held off the flanking Krutes compounded the problem, but he gritted his teeth and continued to grasp at his gift. After what felt like an eternity, his hands began to glow the deep, tell-tale green of earth shaping. “Teschuff, get back!” He yelled, and his friend responded immediately, knocking a blade aside, kicking another attacker in the stomach and leaping backwards. He turned the jump into a roll that left him several feet away from his attackers.
It wasn’t much, but it would be enough. It had to be. Ostarian brought his hands above his head and let out his own cry of anger and frustration as he slammed them into the ground. The earth rippled as if it was water, and suddenly long, spear-like protrusions of rock and dirt ripped out of the earth, surging forward and impaling the three shocked warriors before they could react. They cried out in fear and pain. They shouted, they screamed, they bled, and then they died. Ostarian watched, at once relieved that his friend was saved, and also sickened by the bloody, violent spectacle of that deliverance. He stumbled and almost fell, weary from the use of so much shaping, and the strength-sapping pain in his shoulder, but suddenly Teschuff was at his side, holding him up.
Ostarian blinked his eyes until his blurry vision cleared and saw an arrow whisk out of the tree at Eminsera, the leader of the Krutes, but the fanged man knocked it away contemptuously with the shaft of his spear. He barked a word in Strashnek, the language of the Krutes, and five more warriors appeared out of the woods behind him. One drew a bow, aimed and fired at the tree with lightning quick speed. Somewhere among the leafy branches Eye cried out in pain and Eminsera smiled. He gestured to the warriors behind him and they stalked forward purposefully.
Teschuff helped the still-dazed Ostarian to a sitting position on the ground before ripping his sword free of the corpse. Ostarian noticed a slight wince when his friend used his wounded arm, but that was all. “Stay here.” Teschuff said. He started toward the men, but before he drew close to them two thin daggers flew out of the darkness and struck two of the warriors in the back. They gasped in surprise, clawing at the daggers that impaled them for a moment before they toppled to the grass. Giant appeared out of the darkness, a slight smile on his face, and Bludger came up behind him. At the other side of the trees, Switch and Gorgeous appeared; Switch, held his long, barbed whips in both hands. Gorgeous lumbered forward in the hunched over strut of a gorilla. He had once been a street fighter and criminal before the war, but had apparently decided that if he was going to be smashing faces and twisting necks, they may as well be Krute ones. A faded, black patch covered the empty, ravaged socket where one of his eyes had once been. He rubbed at it with a knuckled fist, revealing puckered scar tissue. His pox-scarred face wore a perpetual frown, and it was no different now as he turned, spat, and continued toward the remaining Krute warriors. A people person that one, Ostarian thought in his half-daze. Switch lunged forward and his whips lashed out, catching one of the Krutes across the face, sending him stumbling back in blinding agony, and yanking the feet out from under another. Bludger and Gorgeous moved in, making short, brutal work of the three that were left. So quick and brutal, in fact, that Ostarian couldn’t help turning away to avoid violence of it.
Once it was done, Teschuff turned to Eminsera, taking in the man’s wide eyes, and opened mouth. “Eye!” He shouted, never taking his eyes off the remaining Krute warrior, “You okay?”
For a moment, there was no response, but finally an annoyed growl issued from the tree top, “Yeah, I’ll live. Bastard’s arrow caught me in the leg.”
Teschuff nodded and looked at the sole remaining Krute, raising an eyebrow in question.
The man took in the stern, bloody visages of the other Ghosts before finally turning back to Teschuff. “Are you scared to fight me fairly, coward?” He sneered, as he gestured to the men, “Would you have them do your work for you!?”
Teschuff sighed. “Just leave. Go back to Krute. No one else need die.”
Eminsera grinned, revealing the fanged teeth. “Do you know how many of your people I have killed, coward?”
Teschuff shook his head, his gaze growing hard and cold.
“Sixteen with my own hand!” He exclaimed, thumping his chest proudly. “And once I’ve finished with you it will be seventeen. Ranedalian men are weak and soft. Just like your women.” He saw Teschuff’s eyes narrow and his smile widened further, “Oh yes, I’ve had your women. Many have warmed my bed before I slit their throats.”
“Enough.” Teschuff said, his rigid, tensed stance belying his calm tone.
“Your men will cut me down once I’ve killed you!”
Teschuff shook his head slowly. “No. They won’t.”
The man growled incoherently and charged, swinging his net at Teschuff and lunging forward with his spear in the same smooth motion, but Teschuff was no longer there. He skipped to the side, lashing out with one sword and slicing through the oncoming net like butter. With the same motion, he slid past the spear’s lethal point by only a hair’s breadth, slashing across with his other sword with the speed of a striking snake. To Ostarian, it was as if time stopped. The severed net floated to the ground with agonizing slowness, Eminsera still stood with his spear lunged forward, his front leg bent and his back one extended, his teeth bared in a hateful snarl. Teschuff stood beside him, his eyes on the ground at his feet, his swords held loosely at his sides. Finally, the frozen moment stretched to its limit and burst. The Krute’s head toppled from his shoulders, rolling to the ground at Teschuff’s feet.
They spoke little as they started a fire a short distance away from the corpses and saw to all of their wounds. Ostarian was amazed that no one had been severely injured. His shoulder was seen to, as was Teschuff’s arm and Eye’s leg. Bleeder had a new, impressive, jagged scar on his face, but soon it would heal and blend in with the rest of his collection As the others sat around the fire, talking quietly, Ostarian and Teschuff walked a short distance away, stopping and staring off into the darkness. They stood for several minutes without speaking; the only sounds that of the crackling fire, and the hushed voices of their companions. Ostarian thought he should feel happy, relieved to be alive, and he did … some. But mostly he just felt tired—tired and empty and sad. “You saved my life. Thank you.”
Teschuff’s smile was forced, “You saved mine also. I guess we can call it even.”
“How many more must die before there can be peace?” Ostarian asked, not expecting an answer, but needing to vent his frustration and hopelessness.
When Teschuff spoke, his voice was low and hard. “Perhaps only one, but I fear more will bleed before we find him.”
Ostarian opened his mouth to speak, but decided against it. He knew that Teschuff spoke of Mantah Streck, the War Chief of the Krutes. It was, after all, the reason they were out here, knifing deep into the Krute battle lines. They’d received a tip that Mantah and his generals were meeting in secret and Ostarian, Teschuff, and the others had been sent to kill Mantah’s three top generals, and, if possible, Mantah himself. The loss of Mantah’s three best generals would weaken the Krute army’s effectiveness considerably, and the Krutes would not fight without their War Chief. They would retreat until another had been appointed, giving the troops of Ranedal a much needed chance to recuperate. It was a hopeless mission, but if successful it could end the Shadow War. As Ostarian wearily contemplated their chances, the increasingly familiar smell of death drifted across the night air, filling his nose and mouth with its desiccated taste, but he did not gag as he had before, and it did not surprise him much. He knew that he would grow used to the taste of death in the days to come.