Fiction Friday: Dust in August

Dust in August

by Bryan Fazekas

Darkness came early that day in Ateth, a small town on the caravan route from Gnit to Srebmun. Dusty August saw its end, for storm clouds filled the sky. Rains had not fallen since early June and all would welcome the relief. A high price had been paid for a wizard to cause rain, this taking the entire savings of the local people. At least the stunted crops might still produce, increasing the chances of survival for the families that halfheartedly tended them.

Gron Griffentel, owner of the Griffen’s Head Tavern, surveyed his common room. Farmers gathered in clusters, sipping ale to drive the caked dust from their throats, waiting for the promised rains. Limited conversations could be heard throughout the room, mostly gripes at how much the wizard had charged. Gron agreed with the comments, especially since he had put up the lion’s share of the gold. Business had been poor this summer, the drought limiting the number of caravans that passed. During summer months the road trade was mostly produce, but the drought had reduced the number of caravans from several per week to several per month. That meant rooms not rented and food not sold. Gron still had the local trade, but that was but a fraction of his business. He disliked the cost of breaking the drought, but if it produced business it would be worth it.

All conversation ceased when a stranger staggered in the door. The man, for a man did exist under the layers of dirt, flopped down on a vacant stool at the bar. Gron studied the road-weary traveler. Short and thin, the man looked little better than a rack of bones, and a light one at that. Wrapped in a cloak now grey regardless of the original color, he wore clothes of similar nature underneath. The face, cratered with heavy lines, showed that many years of bad weather had punished and buffeted it. The thick beard adorning it contained more dust than the clothes, if such was possible. Gron met the stranger’s gaze but quickly looked away. The stranger was easily in his 60’s, but a disturbingly intense gaze indicated that the mind behind the eyes had plenty of fire remaining. Few could meet that gaze for more than a few seconds.

“A great mug of your finest ale, fine gentleman. That will do for a start, to peel the mud on the back of my throat away.”

Gron looked him up and down, making no move toward the taps but finally speaking, “Just how do you plan to pay for my ale? From the looks of you paying for a mere sip is beyond your means.”

After a few moments a sly smile formed and the stranger reached into a pocket to withdraw a coin. Wordlessly, he slapped it down on the bar. The entire crowd gasped at the coin laying on the bar. “My Lord! A platinum crown! I haven’t seen one of those in years.”

Gron gave him a sharp look and questioned, “Where and how did you get that?”

The stranger’s smile took on a sardonic attitude as he replied, “I got that one honestly, in the plying of my trade. Which brings me to a proposition. I am a storyteller. If I dazzle you all with a tale I get free room, board, and ale. If I don’t, the crown is yours, and I pay for all I receive.”

A frown of concentration came across the owner’s narrow face. Different men in the tavern spoke up, urging him to accept. The voices urging acceptance became more strident and Gron grudgingly agreed.

Smiling a brighter smile the stranger said, “First some ale that my throat might loosen up.” Taking up the flagon he drained it in a single swallow and held it out for more. Slowly reaching out the barman took it and returned it full.

“My tale tonight is one of bright and wonderful deeds, feats of heroism and bravery. It concerns a man two thousand years dead, Teroip Stemtaarp.”

“Tear roy stem tar?” one man asked.

“Yes, the last Senior Knight of the Lords of Rendelshod.”

* * *

A castle as great as Taof few would dare to attack with an army at their backs, but the three led by Teroip Stemtaarp prepared to do it without one. The cause ranked high and the prize valuable, so dare it they would. Lord Taof had of late been secretly running raids on caravans passing by and had taken prisoner the daughter of a wealthy and influential merchant. The merchant had long been a worshiper of Epixinee, Goddess of Luck, so he had come to Stemtaarp for help. Epixinee was the patron of the Lords of Rendelshod so the choice was natural.

Lair McCandle buckled a sword belt around his waist. The broadsword had been awarded to him at his test of manhood a mere seven months before, and his pride in the blade was immense. This same blade had been the blade of many generations of McCandles, indicating the coming of age of the eldest son. The belt tight, Lair looked at his lord and master, Teroip Stemtaarp.

Teroip had long been one of the Lords of Rendelshod, the group of men that for countless generations had championed the cause of Good. Like his father, grandfather, and twelve generations before them, he grew up training for a life-long quest, one that had no end. Dedicated to the Goddess Epixinee, he could not even consider a different lifestyle. To Lair he was little removed from godhood, a feeling that Lair made obvious. This was a source of embarrassment for Teroip who always acted in a very humble manner.

Forty years had weathered his body and mind, but both survived well, vital and powerful. His hair, coal black in color, contrasted strongly with the close-cropped beard of iron grey. The visible skin, little enough, appeared as old leather, tanned deep brown. A heavy broadsword, enchanted by Epixinee long ago, hung at his side. Three daggers, matching his sword in style, also ornamented the belt. His armor, full plate, had emblazoned on the front the coat of arms of his family, a rampant gold dragon under two crossed swords. On his shield was the sign of Epixinee, four circles with a stem, similar to a four-leafed clover. Now the armor and shield were covered with blackening, so that neither shone as usual.

Lair’s attention shifted to his own armor which suffered from a similar condition. Before he could ponder the blackening of his armor, his attention was again distracted by two other men, neither of whom he liked.

The first man was Teroip’s other retainer, an elven half-breed. Kytole’s father, also highly placed among the Lords, had loved an elven woman and had married her, but Kytole could never claim his father’s name. His mother had died when he was young, and his father had remarried. Full-blooded brothers existed and his being first born mattered not. Kytole also lacked the strength and stamina to wield the broadsword required of the Lords of Rendelshod. Thus he was an outcast, looked down on by all except Teroip. Kytole had become an adept of the Order of the Wind Mages, and while far from being a full wizard, he showed promise of someday achieving that exalted rank. Teroip accepted this fledgling wizard with a slight build and pointed ears, although Lair could not understand why.

Kytole wore no armor, but dressed in normal street clothes. Under his cloak he wore a shirt with many pockets, and pants of similar nature. Visible on his belt were several pouches and a single dagger. Lair wondered that the half-elf never carried a real weapon.

The second man, Karamoz Nighthawk, had no proud family either. Of human blood, he had grown up in the streets of a large city and did not even know if any family existed, nor did he care. He held the unofficial title Master Thief and had the job of getting them into Castle Taof. Dressed all in black, no weapons showed although the others knew he had a wide variety hidden. The blackening on his hands and face didn’t really show because of his dark complexion, but was needed to reduce shininess in lights. His reputation was as dark as his skin, but he always got the job done.

Nighthawk spent many hours preparing the others for the assault. The heavy plate armor favored by the two warriors required padding to muffle it, and burnt cork had been liberally applied to reduce visibility. Then the thief drilled the others with actions that they should and should not make. Lair complained, “I don’t like all this sneaking around. It isn’t honorable!”

Spitting on the ground, Nighthawk retorted, “Honor is fine and well in open battle against decent odds, but we’re going up against a hundred times our number and even a tough guy like you cannot kill twenty men at once. I’ve received my pay, which means I do my best to see you through this, but I’m coming out alive. We do things MY way!”

Teroip interjected, quickly before his hot headed retainer could reply, “I do not like it either, but there is no other way. If we make a frontal assault the girl will be dead and disposed of by the time we’re in the castle. Karamoz is here to do a job and we follow his instincts.” The tone of voice told Lair that the decision was final so he swallowed the retort he had readied.

The assault team went in single file to a copse that had been allowed to grow within forty feet of the outer wall. Scattered lights on the top of the wall showed guards pacing every so far apart. After scanning the wall for twenty minutes, Nighthawk held up a hand signaling that the others should wait and then slipped off into the darkness. To the others the master thief simply disappeared, there one moment and gone the next. Kytole could follow his progress with his night vision, a racial legacy from his long dead elven mother.

Kytole watched him creep up to the wall and crouch there, looking up, for what seemed an eternity. Then, like a fly on glass, he seemed to ooze up the wall. Lair muttered something that the half-elf only partially caught. Teroip hushed him and Kytole pointed to the wall and made climbing motions to indicate what Nighthawk did. Lair neither liked nor trusted the thief and made no bones about it.

The half-elf returned his attention to the wall and saw a guard pace by the point where Nighthawk should have reached the top. Then a blackness darker than anything he had ever encountered rose up and enveloped the hapless guard. Less than a second later the darkness subsided and the guard with it. As a half breed elf and fledgling wizard, Kytole had experienced many forms of magical darkness, but never one that his elven sight could not penetrate. This frightened him.

A tiny object dropped from the wall, clinking lightly on the stones. The humans heard nothing, but keen elven ears picked up the sound. Kytole motioned them forward and when the three reached the bottom of the wall a rope awaited.

The older man went up the rope first, his muscles effortlessly pulling the combined weight of his body, armor, and weapons up the stone surface. Kytole followed a few moment later. His ascent had not the ease of his lord, even without the weight of armor, but much physical training paid off. Lair went last, mimicking the quick climb of Teroip. Atop the wall the four attackers crouched in shadows while Nighthawk reminded them of their route.

“Down the wall, along it, and then through that door”, he whispered. The thief made as to begin the climb down but the elder warrior restrained him.

“Won’t that be missed?” he hissed, pointing to the body of the guard Nighthawk had dispatched.

Shaking his head he replied, “Not if we’re quick about it.” So the small group of attackers slid down the rope and slithered along the wall to the door. Teroip stayed constantly alert for indications of discovery, but none manifested itself. Karamoz listened with his ear to the door and quickly jerked back, motioning the others to do likewise. Muffled clanking of armor made everyone’s breath stop. Scant seconds later the door swung open, flooding that section of the courtyard with light. Four men stomped out, closing the door behind them, shutting off the betraying light.

Lair hissed, “That was close! How are we going to get in without the light showing?”

Kytole intoned, his voice quiet but commanding, “Allow me.” He retrieved a small coin from an inside pocket and rubbed it with charcoal powder. A few inaudible words, and then the starlight disappeared, leaving the attackers totally in darkness. The experienced thief and warrior knew what the young wizard did, but not Lair. As the light departed he started. Then he understood, and softly cursed his own foolishness.

Taking the lead, Kytole went to the door and opened it. The magical darkness diminished the ability of his night sight, but it totally blinded the humans. Each followed with a hand on the man in front. Kytole moved until he heard the door shut behind him. Then the coin went into his pocket and the light of sputtering torches became visible to the humans. They had entered a narrow hallway with many doors opening upon it.

Nighthawk took up his position as scout and led the way down the hall. At the third door he stopped and bent to listen at it. A minute later he nodded, satisfied, and cautiously swung it open. Entering a small room lined with crates he motioned the others in. Lair, at the back of the line, shut the door and the room pitched into utter darkness. The master thief formed them into a circle by touch and then held a short conference.

“Through that door behind me lies bunks for the levies. After that is a series of common rooms with bunk rooms off them. If we pass quietly we have them none the wiser. If we don’t, we go to the afterlife. After that we take a stair up and turn right once there. I believe we want the room at the end of the hall.”

Lair asked, “Why are we going this way? It isn’t a direct route and seems too dangerous.”

“Because the only other way is through the main hall, and it’s lit and guarded!” It became obvious that the thief liked the young lord as little as the lord liked him. “Muscles aren’t everything.”

Teroip cut Lair’s retort off by asking a question. “Where is the Baron Taof’s suite?”

“Down that hall, but don’t know exactly where. My deal’s to get the girl out. Weren’t ‘sposed to touch the Baron.”

“That’s right. Once you have the girl safely out the Baron is my responsibility. I keep bargains just like you do.”

Lair snorted, obviously not as trusting as his mentor. Then he gasped, for cold steel touched his throat. The thief had slipped a knife through one of the slim openings in his neck guard, and had done it without touching the sides. The young warrior strained not to shake, knowing that any movement might be taken as hostile. “I know you think little of me, and snub your nose at me. I don’t have a fine family and loads of gold. I have what I got for myself and no more. But my word is my bond and if you ever say otherwise I’ll cut your throat.” Nighthawk withdrew the blade and tapped each member of the group as a signal to go. No one made any comment about the thief’s threat, not even volatile Lair.

Rising from his crouch the master thief went to the door and listened carefully before opening it. Past the door several lines of bunks could be seen by the dim light of a single torch burning in a corner. Each bunk contained a sleeping man, leather cuirasses, shields, and small swords arranged at the foot of each bed. In single file the rescue party crept through the lines, alert for the slightest hint of any man waking. Forty feet took an eternity to cross, the fear of discovery palpable around each man.

As Nighthawk reached the door a soldier near him rolled over and sat up, his wide eyes bright in what little light the torch gave off. A shout died just before the man did, a slim hand clamped across his mouth and a sharp dagger driving repeatedly into his belly, slanting upward to ruin the heart. Stemtaarp, McCandle, and Karamoz turned to see Kytole crawl off the newly killed man, revulsion over what he had just done plain on his face.

Teroip caught the half-elf as he staggered off the bed. Kytole met his lord’s worried gaze, and nodded that he would be alright. Karamoz scanned the room for other problems, but happily found no success. Then he led the way into the hall. Closing the door quietly he indicated a steep stairwell leading up.

Again leading the way, the black-clad thief crept up the stone steps, moving carefully lest he trigger some alarm or trap. Nothing was discovered or triggered, but the other members of the party felt the caution justified.

At the top of the steps a hallway led both to the right and left, and the thief indicated the right. This hallway ended after perhaps forty feet, with several doors on each wall, and one at the end. Every fifteen feet burned a dim torch, giving scant illumination to the hallway. The left hall was a mirror image of the right.

Teroip motioned Nighthawk nearer, and whispered in his ear, “There are no guards! This doesn’t feel right!”

“Aye, something’s amiss. Keep a sharp eye open and stay least ten feet apart.”

At that he started off, moving slowly, so slowly it seemed that each step took a full minute. After he had gone about ten feet Stemtaarp also moved, mimicking his slow and careful tread.

Teroip had traveled almost six feet when a sharp cry from Lair caused him to look up, just in time to see a dark form drop from the ceiling. A sudden weight slammed him to his knees, and then onto his side, the crash of his armor on the stone echoing up and down the hall. Heavy claws ripped at his throat, stayed from liberating his life force only by the armor there. Then as suddenly as the thing had jumped him, it grunted and slid off.

The downed lord turned his head to see the thing that had felled him. It was a large bipedal form, covered with shaggy hair and threatening Lair with wicked claws. He had never seen such a creature before, but Teroip knew it was a devil.

McCandle had struck it with his broadsword, the heavy blade causing scant damage. Strong magic was needed to kill such a creature, magic the blade did not have. It had some enchantment as evinced by the mild glow it gave off, otherwise it would not have even bothered the beast. Now the young warrior had serious troubles. Stemtaarp knew he wouldn’t be able to get to his feet in time to save his retainer.

Claws slashed at McCandle, rending his armor as if paper. Blood flowed from the gashes, and return strokes did little more than scratch. Knowing it had no real opposition the devil advanced to slay the impudent mortal that dared to face it. Seeing his own doom, Lair made his ancestors proud as he stood bravely in a futile defense.

Suddenly blue-white spikes of magical force struck the thing, most glancing harmlessly off its leathery hide, a few digging deep and then disappearing. Howling in rage, the devil thing turned to see Kytole frantically incanting another spell. Ignoring its previous prey, it turned to slay the fledgling wizard. Just as it reached him, Kytole’s spell completed, a fan of flame bursting into the startled devil’s face. The half-elf jumped back and immediately began another spell.

The flames caused no damage, since such creatures suffer no damage from fire, but surprised it enough to buy some time. Then the angered beast continued its advance upon the rapidly incanting magic user. Lair’s slashes to its back were ignored, lust for the blood of the one who had hurt it overriding all else.

Teroip staggered to his feet, fighting to clear his mind of the stunning effects of slamming into the floor. Horrified he looked on as Kytole’s spell apparently failed, for the apprentice wizard stepped forward to fight, his dagger held ready. Screaming in triumph, the devil made several wide slashes, and then screamed louder as its opponent’s dagger nicked its arm. The blade, mildly enchanted, did little damage, but the crackle of electricity was both audible and visible. The spell, whatever it was, did not fail.

Recoiling from the sharp shock, the other-worldly creature half turned, allowing Lair to stab at the horrid face. His blade went inside the gaping mouth and through the roof, penetrating upward into the brain, a one in a million chance. Death came immediately, so fast the devil did not even know it. It slumped to the floor, yanking the broadsword from McCandle’s hand, wedged in bone.

When the devil dropped from its perch on the ceiling upon Stemtaarp, another tried the same trick upon Nighthawk. The master thief’s reflexes were far quicker than the lord’s, and he rolled to one side. The devil hit the floor hard, unprepared for its quarry’s evasion. Before it could recover Karamoz snatched a dagger from inside his shirt, the magic of the blade lighting the hallway. Scarcely a second did the light show before it extinguished, for Karamoz buried it to the hilt in the devil’s back and left it there. Twelve inches of razor sharp steel pierced flesh where a man’s kidneys would be. Fantastically agile hands reached back to grasp the hilt, but could find no leverage to withdraw the blade.

A moment later Karamoz drew a short sword from inside his cloak. This blade shed no light, and a second later that area of the hall pitched into utter darkness. The devil thrashed around, hopelessly searching for the thing that had sorely wounded it. Karamoz’s eyes saw in this dark much as an elf’s eyes saw in normal darkness, in the infrared spectrum, all things visible by their heat. Waiting for an opportunity, Karamoz quickly ended the search and suffering of the groping devil. Then the darkness disappeared, the dim light of the torches again lighting all the hallway.

Teroip’s senses recovered fully as Lair tried to recover his blade from the grotesque body that trapped it. The devil lying dead on the floor had a human shape, but was easily eight feet tall. It was heavy set, much wider than a human could be, and had a face vaguely similar to an ape’s. A shock of long, shaggy, blue hair covered the top of the head, and ran in a wide streak down the spine.

The hair began to smoulder, and then skin began to shrink as if the insides were disappearing. The skin shrank until it contacted the skeleton, and then the entire thing crumbled to dust. With that Lair’s broadsword came free.

The devil gone, Teroip turned to check Lair’s wounds. The young warrior’s wounds appeared quite serious, but looked worse than they actually were. Kytole took stock of his materials used for spells that he carried in a pouch, breathing heavily from the exertion of casting so many spells in so short a time. Magic drained the user’s energy and excessive spell use might kill the caster. Kytole had not yet learned many spells, but neither had he developed the special stamina required of powerful spell casters. What spells he did know could easily drain his strength, although in time he would recover.

Lair and Kytole looked to Stemtaarp for directions. The older warrior motioned for them to follow, and all turned to see their guide wipe his blades clean and make them vanish somewhere inside his clothes. The second devil completed its transformation to dust at his feet.

The master thief pointed to the door at the end of the hall, speaking in loud tones, “Alert’s sounded now! Through the door and get the girl quick!”

Fumbling through his pouch, the half-elf yelled, “Get clear! I’ll open it!” Manipulating several objects not clearly seen, he began incanting yet another spell. Not questioning his command, the other members of the assault party dropped to the floor.

Seconds passed, during which time several doors near the end of the hall all burst open, disgorging sleepy eyed men struggling into chainmail shirts. The closest, still twenty feet distant, looked in shock upon the magic user as he finished his spell. A bolt of lightning discharged from Kytole’s hands, flashing out at chest level, the stroke filling the width of the hall. Men screamed as their bodies passed more current than a man’s body should. All dropped to the floor dead, the stench of burning flesh assaulting the senses of the four attackers. After frying the men the bolt struck the door, splintering it open.

The four men charged through the dead bodies, moving at the run into the open room. Inside they found a woman’s bedroom, filled with lace and colorful hangings. Intertwined on the bed lay a man and woman, Taof and the fair maiden the party came to rescue, just rising groggily in response to the carnage outside.

Uttering an oath, Teroip stepped forward to drag the woman from the bed. Thrusting her at his retainers, he addressed the man, “I regret that time and circumstances prevent me from dealing with you in a more proper fashion, but I have little choice.” With that he hacked down at the exposed face.

Inhumanly fast reflexes reacted to evade the slashing blade. The man rolled from the bed and grasped a propped up sword. Throwing the sheath aside, he advanced nude upon Teroip, the sword glowing brightly.

Teroip’s own blade brightened considerably, for it was a Cleaver, a blade fashioned by a goddess to fight evil. He knew then that he faced not a man, but a powerful devil and would need all his skill to survive.

At that moment the girl, held by Lair, savagely twisted and tripped him. As he went down she yanked a dagger from its sheath on his belt and leant over to slay him. Nighthawk reacted with lightning speed, his foot lashing out to strike her on the neck. She fairly flew against a wall, the dagger dropping from her fingers. Hitting hard she fell unconscious to the floor.

“He’s a devil and he’s charmed her. She knows not what she does.” Master thief, scum of the slums, held out a hand to help up fledgling lord, son of great men.

The devil in human form spoke, “You will not escape. My men, and other servitors, will be here in moments to capture you. Then you will know suffering, Lord of Rendelshod. I will take you back to the Great Overlord himself, and my reputation will be much increased by the capture of one of your kind, and that accursed blade.” As if to lend credence to its words, a sound of many men running in armor could be heard in the hall.

Karamoz and Lair ran to the door, slammed and barred it, just in time to prevent the entrance of the enemy horde.

“Won’t hold long, then we’re up to our armpits in trouble.” The thief spoke the obvious.

Lair twisted undecided, not knowing what to do. His lord faced a creature from Hell, many men hammered on the door to get in, and Kytole was on his knees from exhaustion. The casting of many spells in so short a period of time took much strength from even a full wizard, and the half-breed was but an apprentice. Axes could be heard beating the door, and would soon make an entrance. Lair helped Kytole up, forgetting for once his dislike.

A light glow appeared around Teroip’s body, and then disappeared, a protection magic granted by his sword. With that he attacked the devil, blade flashing with its own light. The other three men knew this was the Lord’s fight. Nighthawk checked the girl’s pulse and dragged her into a corner.

Both Stemtaarp and Taof possessed mastery of the blade, so that during the first dozen exchanges no blood was drawn on either side. Each slash was parried, although Teroip knew he had narrowly avoided several incapacitating cuts. Both were a bit winded from the fury of their fight, and stopped for a moment to catch their breath. The possessed body of lord Taof smiled as the sound of axes beating through the door continued, and splinters broke and fell to the richly carpeted floor. “You should surrender now. I guarantee nothing for you, Stemtaarp, but your companions will receive the benefit of a quick death.”

“No! We die fighting!” McCandle yelled his family’s battle cry, dating from the defense of a castle some seven generations before.

“Aye. Nothing’s been easy in life, so I don’t expect death to be any different.” Master thief concurred with lord.

Kytole said nothing, but staggered over to the rapidly breaking door, and withdrew a scroll from an inside pocket. He began reading from it. The devil screamed, “No!”, and lunged toward him. This gave Teroip an open shot which he took. In ordinary combat this would be considered cowardice, striking at an opponent that wasn’t fighting back, but Teroip had his retainer to think of.

His blade pierced low in the former human’s back. The point of the sword drove through the body and would have killed a human. It barely hurt the devil, but had enough force to throw his slashing blow off target. Instead of striking Kytole the point of the sword cut the scroll he had been reading from.

The scroll had contained a Fire spell, one of great power. Kytole could not use such a spell directly, but could invoke the magic a full-fledged wizard had placed into the vellum of the scroll. The spell completed, but instead of detonating a burst of fire down the hall, it burst just outside the rapidly disintegrating door. The burst lasted only an instant, long enough to kill most of the men in the hall. Unfortunately some of the fire came through the holes in the door and Kytole had been directly in the path. The blast hit him in the chest and threw him across the bed. He lay on the floor unmoving.

Several of the men in the hall had been shielded by the bodies of others, and two conspicuously survived the middle of the inferno intact. Their clothes burning off them, these two transformed into forms similar to the devils destroyed previously.

The battle between Stemtaarp and the devil continued, but it was obvious that the human lord had the advantage. The wound in its back slowed the devil, although a man suffering such a wound would be incapacitated or dead. Both were tiring, so the sword play slowed to a pace that could be watched by the naked eye.

The devils in the hall burst through the weakened door and battle immediately commenced, magic blades vs. razor claws and teeth. Lair’s opponent didn’t rush in and try to panic him as the previous one had. Instead it made short rushes and feints, blocking the sword strokes with its claws. The future Lord of Rendelshod doubted that any future existed, for his opponent had him outclassed. McCandle still was a credit to his ancestors, surviving the first few exchanges without being scratched. His earlier wounds hadn’t stiffened yet, but they weakened him and made the inevitable just that much closer.

He stole a glance to see how his companions fared. Nighthawk fought his opponent with a whirl of blades, claws, and teeth. The thief was no trained warrior, but he was quick and strong. Unfortunately he lack a good defense, and had taken several bad slashes as a result. In exchange the devil suffered from several thin cuts and slashes. In a brief instance of his harried consciousness, Lair wondered who would win, and how much would be left of the winner.

His lord fared much better, the wound inflicted upon the thing that had been Lord Taof slowing it. Teroip bled from a few nicks, and his armor was severely dented in several places, but he was winning and both combatants knew it. Taof made a last desperate gamble, and spent his remaining strength on an insane offensive. His glowing blade flashed and whirled, leaving tracers of light in the air. The offensive forced Teroip to expend more of his own remaining energy that he cared to, pressing him hard to avoid being rent.

Taof’s burst of energy had about spent itself when Teroip reversed the action and pressed it back. The devil’s eyes lit with the vision of its own death, just a moment before Stemtaarp’s broadsword hacked through its defense and chest. The sword chopped through as if it were carving a pumpkin, and in a flash the pieces disappeared, reduced to their component atoms by the potent magic of the Teroip’s sword.

With that Lair’s attention returned to his own problem. Several good hits had been scored upon the devil, and with a weapon of greater magical power the fight would have been ended, but such was not the case. The wounds suffered at the claws of the other devil were taking their toll, and Lair’s defense eroded quickly along with his strength.

With a quicksilver move the devil brushed aside the blade, suffering damage that it ignored. The sword flew from the young lord’s hand as tusks crushed the armor of his shoulder and the flesh underneath. Claws ripped at the armor on his belly, seeking to messily shred the life inside. Lair screamed in agony. As suddenly as the attack began it ended, the devil dropping the limp form in reaction to an attack from behind.

Lair hit the floor, the jar causing his consciousness to fade for a time. When his eyes cleared of the bright spots of light that filled them, he saw Karamoz above him, preventing the devil from completing its desire to shred the downed warrior.

The thief dripped blood from numerous wounds, some that looked capable of being fatal. Still he remained, preventing Death from touching his downed companion. Fighting with dagger in one hand and sword in the other, Nighthawk slapped aside claws and evaded tusks while attempting to drain the life of his attacker. More wounds were scored by each side, and the thief’s apparently inexhaustible energy proved itself finite. His defense slowed and he cried as claws ripped his body, but still he would not desert his companion.

Claws grabbed the thief, and pulled him towards the fangs of his opponent. With wild desperation Karamoz stabbed with his dagger into the neck of the devil, but not in time. The huge jaws clamped and ripped out his throat, a spray of blood washing across the face of the devil. The claws released their grip and the limp body was shaken as a dog would shake a small animal.

Lair recoiled at the messy death of Karamoz, hands fumbling for a weapon of any kind, panic running rampant in his veins. Without his conscious mind controlling them, his hands encountered his dropped sword. While his eyes feasted on the horrible sight of the devil chewing on the face of the human, the hands grasped the sword and plunged it into the belly of the devil, piercing it as it might butter. Still not realizing what he was doing, he twisted the blade to shred the life of that which slew his companion. Luck caused the blade to slash the heart of the beast, and it dropped stone dead onto its belly. A sharp snap of the sword breaking could be heard a great distance away. Lair staggered to his feet, finally realizing what he had done.

Looking around, he saw a dead beast, its throat slashed, and some ways away Kytole lying in a heap with Teroip leaning over him. Of the one that Teroip had fought nothing remained, destroyed by the magic of the Cleaver that he bore. Lair watched Teroip pull a small vial from a pouch and poured a sip down the young mage’s throat. Then retrieving a jar from another pouch, he rubbed some of the contents, a grey paste, into the burns. Putting his ear to the thin chest, he listened for a moment and then nodded.

The elder warrior then turned his attention to his other servitor. Strong hands forced Lair to sit and then held a vial to his lips. A sour tasting mixture flowed down his throat and started burning as it hit his stomach. Not a painful burn, but a comforting one that promised relief of pain and healing. Then some of the grey salve rubbed into the mess that had formerly been his shoulder and chest. Lair jerked away, for the salve burned, but with strength of will he held himself still as the healing salve was applied.

“Wh–why did he do it?”

Intent upon his work, the lord took a moment to answer. “Do what?”

“Why did Karamoz give his life for me?” Wonder filled the warrior’s stunned mind. “He knew I didn’t like him.”

Teroip finished with the salve and looked directly into Lair’s eyes. “You’re the product of many generations of training in combat and honor, but you still don’t understand. There are many more kinds of honor than that practiced by us. Karamoz was a street urchin, who never had anything that he didn’t get for himself. His honor was his own and was so important to him that it controlled his entire being. You needed help so he helped. I doubt he even hesitated a moment about coming to your aid. His honor wouldn’t let him.” He looked down and continued in a more subdued voice, “I wish I could be that brave.”

Standing up, Teroip queried, “Can you stand?”

“Yes, but what about your wounds, and how about Kytole?”

“I’ve no more healing salve, but I’ll be alright. Kytole is in bad shape, but he’ll live. He should come around in a while. Karamoz hit the girl pretty hard, but she’ll come to in a while. With Taof dead the charm should be broken. I don’t imagine that her father will be happy about her loss of virginity, but he’ll be happy she’s alive and unhurt.” Looking around at the carnage, he spoke further, “Collect Karamoz’s things while I borrow a wagon. I don’t think anyone is left to try to stop me.”

As Teroip left the room Lair picked up Karamoz’s sword and dagger. Then he retrieved the pieces of his sword from the dust that had been a devil. The broadsword had served eight generations of McCandles but would serve no longer. Lair picked up the broadsword that had belonged to Taof. He slid it into his sheath.

Surviving members of the castle guard watched from a distance as the party of four left through the main gate. It was a ragtag procession, a ragged warrior driving a wagon and a second ragged warrior sitting with two unconscious people and a corpse.

* * *

The tavern thundered with the applause of all the people that had come to hear the tale. After the men and women finished clapping and left the storyteller to his meal, the bartender spoke to him confidentially. “Can you stay for another few days?” Visions of all the silver that had crossed his palm during the story filled his greedy head.

Shaking his head the old man replied, “No. Besides I’m not needed here anymore.” With that a blast of thunder rocked the building, and in the aftermath rain began to fall.

The inn emptied itself of people who rushed out into the long needed rain. Cries of joy and prayers of thanksgiving to numerous Gods of the Storm could be heard.

Stunned by the timing of the words and the rain, the barkeep asked, “Who are you?”

“Tewvel. Master storyteller and arch-mage.” With a gesture the storyteller disappeared into thin air.

===

I wrote this story in the mid-80’s, earning an A+ in a literature course I took in college. It’s a simple morality play, the journey of a young man into understanding that there is more to life than he has understood up to that point.

Copyright 2015 Bryan Fazekas.

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