Xariel was back on familiar ground, and it gave his thoughts at least temporary respite from the nightmarish thoughts of the coming war.
Even if scouting out the enemy was what he had tasked himself with.
The Great Focus, the palace of the seers, was almost as much home to him as his own palace. As he seated himself in the cushioned crystal throne at the centre of the Chamber of the Universe, Xariel had a vague memory of his first glimpse of the Great Focus, as a boy. His aethyric abilities had already been discovered, and his father had pointed it out to him.
“One day, Xari, you will study there and learn the deep secrets of the Universe.”
He remembered seeing it, the great sweeping palace of sweeping amethyst and crystal spires, nestled into a high valley before a great sweeping range of mountains. Rivers ran on either side of the palace and tumbled into crashing waterfalls on either side of the building’s great southern wall, rolling down a thousand feet into the lush lowlands below. In actuality, it took no more than half a day’s walk to reach the Great Focus from the city, if you knew the pathways. Xariel and his attendants had been brought by ship, a small Royal sloop large enough to accommodate the king, his twenty pages and ten warriors as a bodyguard. Xariel didn’t much feel like he needed any of them, but Thorrell had met him after the Council meeting and insisted quietly on adherence to the rules at this time. There was no way of knowing what the Arakul might be capable of now, and Thorrell was concerned that an assassin might somehow have reached Eadenn.
In any case, it had not taken long to reach the Great Focus, which made Xariel glad. He had spent the time becalming his mind and preparing to search the Aethyr for signs of the enemy. The activity was familiar, and carried for Xariel a certain sense of control: there were few seers who could claim an innate ability on a par with Xariel, and none who could say that their lore was more complete.
As their boat had landed in the crystal courtyards of the Eastern Ruminatory, facing towards the rising sun, Xariel had seen Starcaller Delariel sedately making her way across the tiles towards him, surrounded by fussing attendants. Xariel had smiled as he saw the ancient seer, chastising himself for his earlier conceit. If there was any who could said to understand the deeper mysteries of the universe more than he, it was Delariel. Her innate power was not as great as Xariel’s but her intellect was towering, and her gift for foresight, which was partially her ability and partially her long experience, meant that there was little that could take her by surprise.
“Well met, Starcaller,” he said warmly as he descended from the sloop. Delariel bowed her head gently.
“Majesty,” she said in a voice older than the firmament, “I felt I might see you today.”
Xariel smiled and allowed a moment of mysticism, knowing that an entirely less ethereal explanation would follow.
“Leaving aside the strange visions I have caught from the whispers of the Solar Sea,” she said, “I heard that an emergency meeting of the Ancients had been called. I hope that my representative behaved himself. However, given the severity of the last year’s events, it seemed logical that yet another Arakul invasion is on its way. And therefore, it stood to reason that you would wish to scout out such a threat. Which would naturally bring you back to my doorstep.”
Xariel’s smiled widened at the use of the word ‘back’. Delariel never seemed particularly interested in anyone’s political rank. Everyone was either an old student come back to learn more, or a potential student come to her for the first time.
“Indeead, Starcaller. Portents of the most terrible war yet have reached my attention. Therefore, I humbly require that your seers bend their attention to the oncoming enemy. In particular, I shall require the use of the Chamber of the Universe.”
Delariel had nodded serenely without comment. The Chamber of the Universe was built on a strong confluence of the tides of the Aethyr and it was a useful focusing point for powerful seers.
Delariel had been good enough to acknowledge Xariel’s urgent need when he asked that they waive the ceremonies which in principal should take place before the king takes the Great Focus. However, as he had been about to enter the Chamber, a hundred lesser seers trailing behind, ready to attend to his every need, Delariel had slipped in close to Xariel.
“Beware, majesty,” she had whispered with uncharacteristic fierceness, “something evil is out there. I have sensed it. It watches. It waits. And beyond the lattice, it may find you.”
Just as abruptly, she had straightened and resumed her distant composure. Xariel knew well enough that there was nothing else to it. If she had known more than she said, she would have said so.
In spite of her warning, Xariel still felt optimistic as he seated himself in the throne. The hundred seers sat upon stools in a great circle around him. Above, the crystal walls of the Chamber abruptly stopped some twenty feet above, leaving the huge round room open to the naked universe beyond. Twilight was gathering into dusk by the time that Xariel settled himself down.
He emptied himself. Bodily urges and need slowly slipped away, as though the cool waters of the Solar Sea had neutralised their grubby, hot insistence. His own fears and angers melted slowly away as he turned his mind to the endless, eternal ocean that sighed and washed overhead.
Slowly, gracefully, Xariel’s spirit emerged from his body. He looked unmoved upon his entranced form, and those of the seers, their minds entranced simply to help him return should he become lost.
With the speed of a thought he flew from the Chamber, and the Great Focus. He rose up through the air, watching cities and mountains fall away beneath. He felt a strange sense, as of pushing through a hedge as he passed through the lattice, the greater warding shield that kept Eadenn safe from aethyric attack. After a moment, he was free, and staring away through the majesty of the Aethyr as it rolled, an eternity and just a shadow’s depth from the physical world of the Solar Sea. The Aethyr could be travelled much more quickly than the Solar Sea. It was more a matter of willing than travelling, and a seer of Xariel’s ability could travel inconceivable distances in incredibly brief spaces of time. There was no sense of rushing, but still, with speed that mocked any physical vessel, the spirit could bring itself to any place in the Solar Sea.
There were dangers, of course. Sometimes, the Aethyr’s own currents could pull at the traveller’s mind, subtly convincing the inexperienced to change their course without realising it. There was the danger that an unfocused mind, unsure of exactly where it wanted to go could take itself to an unknown place where return was difficult. A mind could be shattered if an impulsive thought of another place crossed the consciousness of the traveller and caused their spirit to be torn between one place and another. Some of the currents were rough, confusing to navigate and almost physically painful. The wildlands were almost impossible to navigate, just as it was almost impossible for a seer to scry them from afar. Only the fierce predatory minds of the Arakul had the ability to travel the wildlands, and they were weak seers who rarely bothered in the effort.
Xariel focused on his destination. He didn’t know a name because it didn’t have a name, but he knew someone who’d been there. He concentrated on the image of Brother Mantar, and allowed the images he had caught in Mantar’s mind to guide him.
He swum along currents that might have broken a lesser mind. He ignored pitfalls in the aethyr and chose his route with the careful, precise, instant knowledge of one who had been doing so for a lifetime.
He arrived on the tiny Realm, in a small and abandoned outpost. He was conscious of the cold, and the creaking of a broken door in the wind, in a distant and irrelevant way. He looked around the shattered outpost as though he were physically present. He saw the place where Acolyte Konlar had fallen, and where Mantar had given his last desperate warning, though their bodies were not to be seen.
He moved away from the outpost, following the churning feel of emotion on the Aethyr. He glanced towards the distance, seeing the wall of the wildlands, barely an hour’s travel by ship away. He could feel it pressing on his mind, like a man who knows he is sitting slightly too close to a fire.
He ignored the sensation and pressed on, flashing over twenty miles of forest until he reached a perfectly turned out encampment. Two hundred yurts stood in precise lines. Two thousand Arakul. A tiny rearguard force left to guard a Realm whose significance had come to an end.
Xariel approached, examining the encampment. He noted fifty two guards, alert and well disciplined but bored beyond all belief. It came off of them in waves. He moved down the line of yurts and quickly found the command yurt. His sprit ghosted through the wall.
An Arakul commander was sitting wearily at a desk writing by candlelight. Xariel approached, and touched his mind.
His name was Karnagesh. He was writing by candlelight because he found those green crystals the priests gave out worrying. He missed his son and wondered how he was doing. The old wound he’d taken in the war against Nestlor was playing silly buggers…
Xariel sifted through the morass of random thoughts and impulses. Karnagesh was, to all intents and purposes, a normal soldier. He grumbled about life, he missed his family, he grumbled to his officers about the soldiers. He grumbled about someone called the ‘priesthood’… Xariel kept trying to get a good look at the root thought of that, but it was as if Karnagesh was doing his best not to look at them, even with his mind’s eye. After a few moments, Xariel hit what he was looking for. The commander – more properly the Ironfist Commander – was writing a report about how little had happened to his master, Hetmaster Ghatulor, who would report to Battle-group Commander Anobys, who might bother, if he really wanted, to pass it along to General Jarlok.
General Jarlok, Supreme Commander, Twenty-Third Division.
Xariel caught a flash of a man, a scowling, unpleasant-looking Arakul with a long, lean snout and a habit of continually flexing his left hand. That would be Jarlok. Xariel disliked him even based on the second-hand image. He followed the idle process of Karnagesh’s thoughts. Jarlok had been tasked by the Supreme Lord – who? – with taking Eloytia. He was currently heading to some banged up little mudball called Newpeace so that he could celebrate his victory over a bunch of peasants.
Xariel disentangled himself from the gloomy commander’s thoughts as he began to ruminate on how much he missed his home. Now he knew where to go. He knew of Newpeace. It was a tiny colony, semi-official, a place deemed safe for colonisation after the disappearance of the Arakul.
He rose again, and slipped through the night. He sailed away from the tiny Realm and flew through the Aethyr towards Newpeace. He wondered with a sense of unease who the Supreme Lord might be. Karnagesh had seemed reluctant to even think the name.
He arrived at Newpeace in the blink of an eye. The Realm’s moon was casting a milky white light over the fields and woods. He settled himself, reining in the speed of his spirit ten miles from the capital. As he landed, for a moment, he thought he heard, distant and faint, the aethyr-echo of a deep growling voice, and the tang of iron.
The thought went off like surf booming against a rock, and Xariel chastised himself for allowing his spirit to vocalise. Besides, it was foolish. He dismissed thought of the blacksmith, and looked towards the city. He could see smouldering columns of smoke in the night, where fires had been suppressed. He floated towards it grimly.
The streets were full of Arakul. Most of them were on patrol or guard duties, but here and there he saw groups of idle soldiers eating and knocking back firewater. They seemed edgy, presumably because of their commander’s presence.
Xariel moved through the streets, and found the largest building with ease. It was a rather clumsy small palace of white stone. The memories of the stones told him that a council of locals led a slightly incompetent government here, with a single member of that council voted to the Parliament of Eltor on Eloytia.
He slipped in through the front of the palace past a group of exceptionally tough looking guards. None were remotely aethyr-sensitive. He moved through the building. Mostly it was intact, though there were signs of struggle here and there. Knots of well organised guards were posted at most intersections. At one point, in the distance, he saw the hulking forms of two Strongmen. He had quickly shied out of sight, but was mildly perplexed when no shaman minder appeared. He realised that there was a minder, but it was a strange, robed figure with its cowl pulled up. Unsettled, Xariel chose to find a different route.
As it transpired, he encountered what he was looking for in the grand stateroom. It was an overly grand room with a wide balcony and flower-beds set all around the airy inside walls. The council table was small and round, probably only able to seat six or seven people. Xariel was examining the room for traces of the Arakul having removed something when the double-doors had thumped open. Xariel had automatically taken to the shadows of the rooms heavy column-supports as a group of Arakul bustled in.
Xariel recognised Jarlok immediately, although he wasn’t scowling. He was wearing an insufferable smirk instead. Behind him were two others. One was a lean, pensive looking Arakul who had a scroll in one hand, on which he occasionally made notes. The other was a giant, fully seven feet in height and nearly twice as wide as Jarlok. His much-scarred body was colossally muscular and powerful, and every step seemed to shake the ground. He wore heavy greaves and a shirt of ribbed armour, and carried a twin-headed battle-axe slung almost carelessly over one shoulder. At first Xariel thought him a Strongman, but this illusion was quickly dispelled: he looked calm, but not in the entranced, hypnotically pacified way that a Strongman would have been. And besides, he was old; he looked at least fifty to Xariel. Strongmen rarely lived past thirty, thanks to their berserker fury.
But the other three gave Xariel more pause. There were two very strange Arakul lurking around the back of the group. They wore midnight blue greatcoats and strange, ornate silver face-masks. They carried wicked scythe-like weapons, and looked dispassionately at the world with unnatural glowing green eyes. Xariel sensed with alarm a hint of aethyr-sight about them, and quickly pulled the currents of the aethyr around himself, blending into the background of the spirit-world. But it was the figure that walked ahead, alongside General Jarlok, that really grabbed Xariel’s attention. The Arakul was thin, almost serpentine, and tall. His long arms were clasped behind his back. He wore a long black robe which billowing sinuously around him. He too had sickly green eyes, though he wore no faceplate and seemed to carry no weapon. Xariel looked down, and saw the talisman hanging around the Arakul’s neck. He felt himself recoil sharply from the sight of the object, the indefinable mass of slithering lines and angles. He’d never seen anything even remotely similar, but everything about the object was wrong. It gave Xariel the strange sickly sensation of standing on the edge of a sea of utter blackness and flinging stones out, to sink into the dark and attract the attention of whatever lies in the stygian depths. He once again ensured that he was well disguised as he listened.
“Forward units are reporting total success in the seizure of these outlying rocks,” Jarlock was saying, “it’s as I said, gentlemen. The bold strike catches the timid creatures we fight totally unawares. There, Anobys, there’s something for you to scribble down if you must. Bold strategy catches the cowardly enemy by surprise.”
Xariel glanced at the pensive Arakul with the scroll. His emotions were carefully controlled, and he ignored the tone in Jarlok’s voice with practiced ease. Xariel recalled Karnagesh’s thoughts on the command chain. This would be battle-group commander Anobys. He looked bookish for a senior Arakul officer.
Jarlok chuckled and tossed himself down in one of the seats around the small tables. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small cask of firewater, then put his boots up on the tables.
“To victory!” he pronounced, “we shall have taken Eloytia in a month. Xenegesh will be pleased.”
Xariel hardly heard the last three words. The power which hit him when Jarlok had spoken that name carried with it the force and quality of a foetid wind. Names carried power, but Xariel was unready for the force of power behind that dreadful name. A blur of images and emotions poured from the aethyr into his mind so fast that he barely caught a glimpse of most of them. He caught a vague glimpse of a tall figure with intense green eyes, swathed in dark robes. A tumble of images followed, vast wars where billions of Arakul fought each other to ruin, strange, wild hilltops crowned with crumbling stone circles, a half-seen memory of vast cyclopean structures in the distance, a flash of a malevolent mass of somehow luminous black bubbles.
Mostly, there was a feeling. A feeling of something unspeakably evil, far worse than an idiot like Jarlok could understand, of a will so dreadful that it survived things that would have broken lesser minds a hundred times, and the vague intimation of pacts made with things older than time and as vast as to dwarf the paltry concept of evil.
Slowly, Xariel dragged his attention back to the room. Jarlok was flexing his left hand in annoyance. He’d apparently been saying something else pompous and self-congratulatory, and what was more, he seemed to be goading someone.
From the narrowing of his eyes and the look of disdain on his face, that someone was probably the giant, and Xariel sensed a massive spike of enmity.
“Don’t you agree, oh mighty Bachnarr?” Jarlok continued, the sarcasm in the last three words heavy.
Xariel felt a spike of annoyance from the giant – Bachnarr – at that, but it wasn’t one of wounded pride. Bachnarr simply found Jarlok annoying. Xariel caught a flash of the giant warrior’s mind. He didn’t like braggers. He didn’t like warmongers. And he didn’t like men who gloated over the slaughter of near-defenceless creatures eking out a life on a Realm like this. Xariel found himself warming to Bachnarr.
“I would not question the wisdom of my lord General,” said Bachnarr, his resonant baritone voice carrying just enough boredom to show what he truly thought without it becoming openly rude, “after all, I’m just a soldier.”
Jarlok snorted and took a swig of his firewater.
“Yes, and you would do well to remember it. Your friend Nestlor is far away, and will not help you to conceal your old fashioned ways. Those same ways which are a contradiction of everything we are fighting for. Don’t you agree, Grand Hierophant?”
The question was directed to the disturbing, thin Arakul with the awful talisman. Xariel shifted his attention to the Grand Hierophant, who was now facing away. Oddly, Xariel realised, he couldn’t hear the Grand Hierophant’s breath or heartbeat, or other bodily functions. Usually, where a Aethyr-bound spirit was in a room with living bodies, the sound of breathing and other physical sounds was amplified by the spirit’s own lack of them. Xariel had long since grown used to tuning it out, but now he noticed it, he realised that the Grand Hierophant wasn’t making any sound at all. How…
“I think,” replied the Grand Hierophant, “that we have an uninvited guest.”
He turned around and looked Xariel directly in the eye. Xariel mercilessly pushed down the sense of shock and dismissed the impulse telling him that this was impossible. The Grand Hierophant had just proved that his seemingly flawless defences were sorely wanting. He ghosted backwards by several yards sharply, waiting for the Grand Hierophant to make the next move.
“King Xariel,” said the tall Arakul coldly, “very unwise of you. You’d have been far wiser to send one of your minions.”
Without further warning, he exploded up out of his body and lunged for Xariel. It took the king of the Draconis the tiniest moment to analyse his predicament. The Arakul should never have been able to leave their bodies without hours of ritual and meditation. This one could. Further, in the past, Arakul shamans were so weak that they seemed wan and waifish creatures in the aethyr. But the Grand Hierophant appeared as a giant, roaring shadow, spreading like an oncoming storm cloud, gnashing fangs and claws slashing for Xariel. His power was astonishing – appalling – impossible – yet it was.
Xariel fled.
He flashed up out of the palace and into the skies above. The Grand Hierophant snarled after him with demonic pace. Xariel could feel the raw, seething power on his heels and whickered sideways, diving from one aethyric current to another. His spirit appeared to flick out and reappear distantly. The Grand Hierophant did not pause and simply ploughed through the aethyr after him, but the reaction was clumsy. Xariel managed to gain distance on him, but the unrelenting speed and power of that awful soul quickly closed the gap. Xariel swirling and becalmed himself, stilling his emotions and thoughts, momentarily allowing the aethyr to wash him with itself. the Grand Hierophant was again fooled for a moment, but after a second his brute power allowed him to recapture Xariel’s essence.
Xaiel flew across the Solar Sea, jinking around the confusing soul-songs of stars and switching currents. Each time, his tricks would throw his implacable enemy for a moment, but each time and with a shrinking lag-time, the Grand Hierophant would rejoin the frantic chase. Xariel was perplexed. The will and power of the monster was terrifying, but he wielding his power like a blunt instrument. There was little finesse, only cataclysmic determination and power.
The voice thundered through the spirit world, driven on a battering ram of willpower and confidence, but Xariel ignored it. The Grand Hierophant was stronger than himself, stronger than anything he’d encountered, but he worked on his formidable aggressive ability alone. In a protracted battle, he would almost certainly prevail, but Xariel didn’t have to keep this up. Although…
He could sense the welcoming presence of the lattice drawing near by billions of miles every passing instant, but the staggering power of the monster behind him was drawing him closer too quickly. He could almost feel those freezing claws of shadow swatting for him. However, Xariel was one of the greatest seers of his age. What the terrible Arakul could do with power, he could make up for with wisdom.
Abruptly, he whirled to face the monster. He could feel the warm protection of the lattice at his back, close but too far. The Grand Hierophant filled the universe before him, a howling, screaming mass of shadows with gnashing mouths full of teeth, and the face of his physical body ghosting across the oily surface, gloating triumph in his eyes.
Xariel willed sharply, commanding everything in his being into a new, singular condition.
I am the spear.
The look on that ghosting face was almost comical as his entire spirit form seemed to become a poised weapon. Xariel lashed forward, ramming himself through that shadowy face. For a moment, as his soulspear hammered through the Grand Hierophant, he felt the cloying, timeless evil rooted in the monster’s heart, but he managed to hold his lethal form. He burst from the mass of shadows and flew for Eadenn, his spirit form reverting as he flew. Behind him, he could hear the Grand Hierophant roaring in soul-pain and indignation. He risked a glance back in time to see the great spirit-rent he had put into the monster unbelievably stitching itself up. The Grand Hierophant hadn’t spotted him yet, but he would be able to resume the chase in moments.
Then he hit the lattice. Once again, the strange hedge sensation kicked in, but the ancient warding barriers recognised him and let him pass. Then he was sailing slowly down towards the Great Focus and –

Xariel opened his eyes. The Chamber of the Universe was cool and pleasant. The attendant seers were slowly waking up and blinking as if from a good night’s sleep. Xariel shuddered, feeling oddly dislocated. His body was well, his heartbeat steady, his muscles comfortable, but he felt as though he should be exhausted. His spirit was exhausted.
And in spite of the lattice, in spite of the thankful presence of the physical world around him, Xariel could still dimly sense that terrible mind beyond, roving tirelessly through the night, searching for him…

To say that Bachnarr was bored would be doing a very poor service to the concept of boredom.
Bored was being on a long guard duty. Bored was to be on a long march with no comrades-in-arms to share stories with.
Listening to one of Xenegesh’s impudent puppies barking on about how great he was whilst that Grand Hierophant devil and his Ahasturex sniffed around wasn’t bored. It was bored if someone had decided that a little complimentary discomfort and aggravation were in order.
Bachnarr didn’t much like the Twenty-Third Division. Most of the soldiers were pleasant in a bland sort of way, having been fed Xenegesh’s Malkadon-dung ideology but otherwise being good enough company. But the senior commanders were, to a man, raving new men who’d give you a long frothy lecture about the wonders of the new ways if you mentioned anything that might in the slightest way be construed as a defence of the old ways, or even if you didn’t, come to think of it. Jarlok was the worst of them, because, even leaving that aside, the man was an arse. Talented, no doubt. He’d proven that numerous times in the later Unification wars and was proving it again now. But he arrogant, unpleasant and had a bad habit of telling people that he was invincible and that no-one matched his genius.
Be thankful you were too young to fight when Nestlor was still someone your kind had to fight. He’d have wiped the floor with you.
Bachnarr smiled at the thought, but sighed. That was the kind of thinking that had got him here. He’d follow Nestlor to the ends of universe, and since men always looked to Bachnarr for an example, they’d follow too. And unlike Nestlor, who had eventually begrudgingly bowed the knee to Xenegesh to save his men, Bachnarr only tolerated the new ways for Nestlor’s sake. He remembered that day, that last glorious day, as the armies had surged together, the last real hope for the old ways. Nestlor commanded the armies of the righteous against the usurper. Bachnarr had been his champion.
Bachnarr remembered that last scorching charge, when Nestlor had met Xenegesh in single combat. It was as if the gods themselves had duelled among them. After that personal war had run for… maybe fifteen minutes, it had felt like eternity… Nestlor had been gaining the upper hand. The loyalists had cheered wildly, Bachnarr among them, knowing that the usurper would be cast down, and…
Bachnarr had spent decades trying to piece together what had happened then. He’d been staring straight at the combatants. Nestlor had Xenegesh on the run, down on one knee, and then suddenly, somehow, Xenegesh had been holding a sword at Nestlor’s throat.
I am the old ways, usurper. If you would kill them, I have no wish to live. Kill me, and let the old ways bleed away with me. Let my men live.
The words still filled Bachnarr’s heart with pride as he remembered them. And he remembered, in that suddenly still battle-line, how he had shrugged off his enemies and shouted.
No my lord! No man here will let you die unavenged! Usurper, kill him and you will have to kill every man here!
Xenegesh had then leaned around his sword and whispered to Nestlor. Bachnarr had not heard the words, but later discovered the price of Nestlor’s men’s lives.
I own your life. Your own old ways would have it so. I will spare you if you serve me.
Bachnarr had not heard that, but he had heard Nestlor’s response.
I’d rather die a clean death now.
Xenegesh had not, as all had expected, struck the deathblow, but whispered again. Nestlor had later told Bachnarr what he had said then.
Let me finish. I will spare your men also. If you defy me, not only will you die, but so will they. Not easily. I will break and humiliate each of them and make them mewl for death before I send them to oblivion. What do your old ways tell you now?
Nestlor’s heart had been heavy as he made the deal, and the first thing he had done was explain to Bachnarr. Bachnarr also felt the crushing horror of it, but he understood what Nestlor had done. Still, Bachnarr was what he was. He was a champion, not a General. It was true he knew how to lead men, and knew how to win battles, but it was never something he had wanted. He did not want to order other men to their deaths. And that had meant he could voice his opinion a little more. He remembered the official victory banquet, when Xenegesh had received Nestlor and his commanders as new vassals. Bachnarr had stared very deliberately at the Supreme Lord, and had spoken in a low voice that only he would hear.
I serve you because my lord Nestlor does, Xenegesh. But don’t imagine for a moment that I will ever forgive you, or stop wishing vengeance on you.
Xenegesh had regarded him calmly, with those appalling green eyes.
I don’t imagine that’ll stop you from swinging a sword, was all the Supreme Lord had said.
Of course, he’d never got that vengeance, and now, at fifty-four, it wasn’t very likely he was going to. Still, sometimes he thought that the mere fact he’d stood up to the bully at all was enough, dangerous though it might have been.
Bachnarr had never worried about the danger of saying something if it was right, or doing something if it was just. The truth was, if he hadn’t done those things, it’d hardly have been living anyway.
Even as a boy, he’d never stopped to consider if it was sensible to do something if it was right. He remembered as a child, finding a Targaloth trapping in a tar-pit, weak and barely conscious from starvation. Using the prodigious strength he’d had even then, he’d hauled her out and dragged her back to his yurt. He’d fed her until she was strong enough to go her own way, and then watch as she bobbed away across the tundra.
You know she might come back and devour our livestock? Or kill one of our own? His father had kept saying at the time.
Bachnarr had shrugged.
Would’ve been wrong to leave her there.
The same streak had been as an adult. He’d quickly become champion of his tribe in pit-fighting, and later, both under Nestlor and Xenegesh, he’d fought other champions in great arenas. He remembered one occasion, fifteen years or more ago. He’d been fighting some cocky bastard named Horlash, First Champion of the fledging Twelfth Division. Before the fight, Horlash had run his mouth about how he’d paint the floor with Bachnarr. Bachnarr had beaten him to an addled mess in seven minutes. And as Horlash had stared pleadingly up at him from the sand, fifty thousand Arakul baying at Bachnarr for the killing blow, he realised he wouldn’t do it. Horlash was twenty, not much more than a boy. He was arrogant – probably less so now – and foolish, but he didn’t deserve to die for that. And there was no way he could fight on. No threat to Bachnarr. He’d cast away the short-sword and helped the mauled Horlash back to his feet.
Nestlor had been pleased. Xenegesh had been less impressed, icily hissing about the need to show no mercy.
I’ll show my enemies no mercy as long as they remain my enemies. But I won’t kill an innocent boy for being too cocksure.
After that, the crowd had bayed twice as loud.
Bachnarr the magnanimous. Bachnarr the magnificent. Bachnarr the Mighty.
It had been five years now since Bachnarr had put all that behind him. He’d killed a man in the arena – there was no choice, the man had been lunging for him – but when the body had hit the sand, the bronze faceplate fallen back and Bachnarr had seen boyish face that looked so like Horlash’s face… it had been too much. He had put away his gladiatorial armour and short sword, taken up his battleaxe and declared he would gladly wrestle and enter display bouts, but would no longer kill his own for the amusement of a bloodthirsty mob.
Of course, that had annoyed Xenegesh as well. Bachnarr was probably the greatest warrior of the Arakul, but Xenegesh had thirty billion to choose from, and Bachnarr’s most prominent use for the Supreme Lord was to amuse the crowds. Perhaps it had been that, perhaps it had been an ongoing unease at Bachnarr’s open hostility, but either way, he’d been unceremoniously yanked up from the Seventh Division and plonked down in the Twenty-third. It hadn’t made much difference until very recently, since the preparations for the war had begun and the Divisions had been spread out more.
It wouldn’t have been so bad were it not for Jarlok’s obvious paranoia about him. Most of the battle-group commanders were unpleasant – with the exception of Anobys, who was unsettlingly quiet and observant. He reminded Bachnarr more of a Hasturex than a normal Arakul. But the General himself seemed to think that Bachnarr’s one and only aim in life was to undermine his authority. And for some reason therefore felt the need to keep him around.
Bachnarr had responded to this by being as critical of Xenegesh and of Jarlok himself as he could be. He still wasn’t too bothered about the consequences. He’d gone to great pains to ensure that his beloved daughter Lerikar was well provisioned but otherwise totally obscure as a line trooper in the Seventh Division. He was all that Xenegesh could hit, and he wasn’t afraid. Leaving aside that he’d been living on borrowed time for many years, it would provoke a wave of disapproval if the Supreme Lord were to kill him. Nothing that Xenegesh wouldn’t recover from, but frankly, if his death would cause Xenegesh even a mild stomach cramp, it would be an adequate bonus.
Bachnarr knew that even these things was likely to get him in trouble, and wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the Grand Hierophant was here to attempt to muscle him about a bit.
Not that he’d be doing much of that for a while. The priest was still standing, statue still, his two Hasturex keeping silent guard over him, while Jarlok went ballistic. The General was demanding to know what type of intruder could have got in and went the Grand Hierophant was likely to return to his body and what the risk was and a thousand other things which the Hasturex either didn’t know the answers to and simply didn’t care enough to tell him. They simply reassured him in polite but final tones that the Grand Hierophant knew his business.
Bachnarr wandered over the balcony and stared out across the smouldering town. In the distance, he could see sweeping mountains capped in snow, and Bachnarr felt a pang of memory for home. He thought of his daughter idly, hoping that she was happy and that the lads of the Seventh – good lads, old ways lads – were keeping her good company. He heard Jarlok ranting in the background, now demanding to see the Rovemaster in charge of this Realm, who still hadn’t managed to show his face. Anobys was now speaking to a few junior officers in his strangely flat, droning voice, probably accomplishing more than Jarlok. It was odd. Give him a battle and Jarlok would give you a victory. Ask him to do anything else and he was simply an unpleasant and frankly not especially decent tyrant. Anobys was a good administrator and a decent sword hand. He unnerved Bachnarr slightly simply because he was so mild mannered. How he’d risen to the heights of one of the ten senior staff of the Division was a mystery, especially with such an egocentric berk as Jarlok handing out promotions.
Right now, he was proving his worth. Jarlok had stormed off somewhere in a huff, and Anobys was calmly fielding the herd of runners and officers buzzing for the attention of someone in authority.
Bachnarr pricked up his ears as he heard Anobys telling a clearly exhausted messenger to compose himself. He turned and strolled over as the man managed to gasp out his report.
“Rovemaster Kynrex is slain, battle-group commander! An Oldfang named Arnalok has just reported in that his squad and the Rovemaster himself were killed by a vigilante in a township sixty miles from here.”
Anobys raised an eyebrow.
“A vigilante?”
The man nodded.
“A Draconis, sir. Not one of the warrior orders, though. A blacksmith.”
Bachnarr felt his heart slam in sudden shock and excitement. He kept his face neutral. Most of the new ways hangers-on didn’t know about Old Thunderbrow. Of course, Xenegesh wouldn’t want them all to know about him, would he? He noticed that the Hasturex had suddenly if subtly taken a keener interest, but pretended not to notice and looked at Anobys.
“It’s of little consequence,” said the Battle-group commander calmly, “Kynrex was too arrogant and there’s little enough that this blacksmith can do now. However, the General will need to be informed. In the meantime, I want a Fist of trackers to have a representative here within the next three minutes. Their task will be to hunt the fellow down and kill him.”
The messenger chose that moment to say something tragically silly.
“A Fist, sir? A hundred men to kill one blacksmith?”
Anobys eyed the man evenly.
“I’m sure that Kynrex thought a squad would be enough. Now the crows pick his bones. A Fist. And they will be advised to handle him with care.”
Bachbarr frowned. There was something – a lot, actually – about that which didn’t seem right to him. Principally the idea of Old Thunderbrow being killed by a pack of mangy trackers. In any case, he couldn’t let it stand.
“Battle-group commander, if I may?” he called a little louder than was strictly necessary. Anobys regarded him passively and then strolled to meet him.
“Yes?” he asked.
Bachnarr shifted the axe in his grip.
“I can take care of the blacksmith.”
Anobys arched an eyebrow.
“He’s probably a hundred miles away. Maybe more.”
Bachnarr snorted.
“You think that’ll stop me. Trust me, I can deal with this. And besides, I’m sure you can spin it as some great victory if I manage to kill some poor innocent blacksmith.”
Anobys didn’t bridle at the ‘innocent’ part, but held Bachnarr in his cold gaze.
“There’s something more here, Bachnarr. Something personal that you aren’t telling me.”
Bachnarr met his gaze.
“That’s true, Anobys. And that might affect things. It might help you understand me more. It might help you control me. It might give Jarlok some reason to believe I’m a traitor the way he desperately wants to. If you don’t let me, I’ll happily forget the whole thing and you’ll be left wondering whether it was important.”
Anobys stared at him silently for a long moment before a faint, cold smile appeared at the corners of his snout.
“You’re an interesting creature, Bachnarr. I think that’s what the General misses too much. Very well. You have two days to find and kill the blacksmith. After that I send the trackers.”
Bachnarr laughed aloud.
“Are you suggesting that you won’t send them after me to spy on what I’m up to?”
The icy smile didn’t falter.
“You know me well.” He said quietly, and strolled sedately away to meet a gathering crowd of officers.
No, thought Bachnarr, I don’t. And frankly you scare me.

It occurred to Bachnarr fifteen minutes later as he marched out of the town that Anobys had never stopped to question how Bachnarr would know where to find the blacksmith, given that they knew only of the town he’d been seen in the day before. That much they’d finally managed to get out of the messenger, who was clearly awed in Bachnarr’s presence.
But Bachnarr knew. He’d already studied the maps of this Realm on the way down, because as ever he wasn’t as sure as Jarlok that the locals would be entirely cowed. And he knew about old Thunderbrow. They’d never met, but Nestlor had told him a lot about the blacksmith, and Bachnarr knew the stories better than most. He had a good idea where to head.
He looked out across the meadows towards the distant mountains as he thought about the blacksmith, and flexed his hand around the haft of his axe.
“Sternhammer,” he whispered to the air, “I’m coming for you.”
He began to lope towards the mountains, his heart full, the gentle sigh of the night breeze like the cool caress of Kaline, the Goddess of Ice. Bachnarr realised that the first time in a long while, he was happy.
He couldn’t say for sure he would beat Sternhammer. Not by any means. The truth was, he had no idea what to expect.
And that was what made him so happy.

Published in: on February 13, 2009 at 12:02 am  Leave a Comment  

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