"It is done."
Karia sat down in the grass. He was tired beyond reasoning. When was the last time he had eaten? They slept whenever they had a chance but without food sleep helped less than he would have thought. Fighting in the mountains was never this bad. Long days of waiting followed by moments of frantic fighting, but never the endless hunt before the killing began. Executions more than fights.
He rose and swept the plains for more prey. None to be seen, none left. They had kept count. Not a single man lived to brag about rape and murder. Wherever she went after death Nakora was avenged.
Strange then that he should only feel tired. When they started the strange game of predator and prey he had hoped for satisfaction, but that emotion never emerged. Somewhere he understood that they had become even less than animals, because only an unthinking avenger could have managed the eightdays of horrors they had brought upon the hunted as well as themselves.
"Gring, we're done. What now?"
She walked back from the last corpse, trampling grass ahead of her. "Don't know. We created honour, but I feel dirty, and we're not done yet. More dirt will cling to me before we are finished."
Karia looked at her. Taller than any of his sworn men, tusks red with blood after she ripped the throat out of the last of the murderers and more human than most he had ever known. Maybe she was right about humanity after all.
"Then what?" he asked. "Ri Khi, to bring vengeance to their very homes?"
"Ri Khi," she confirmed. "This must be paid in full. Honour demands it. We are but tools."
There it was. She liked this even less than he. Too much killing. More than he'd been involved in during years of campaigns against his enemies. Khraga like Gring.
"So be it. Could we at least rest, feed and wash. My men follow me out of loyalty, but I have forced them far beyond that border. It is not fair. I," he faltered. "I would dishonour them otherwise," he finished when he realized what he wanted said.
Gring nodded. "You are right. I apologize. We rest."
Karia turned and went through the high grass in search of his men. Blood everywhere. The last they found had crawled and begged. Two even weapon less. It never mattered. The very last, the one Gring killed with her tusks, tried to flee with only his hands. He couldn't walk with two shattered legs.
Karia wondered what made someone using the very last of his body that way. They must have known the end was coming, and still.
"Aphitus, make camp upwind. We're finished here," he said when he saw one of his riders. We're finished, and so are my men. Seven alive. Twelve dead. Why did we have to run into those nomads?
He walked to his horse and dug for some scrap of food he knew he wouldn't find. It graced while he searched his pack. Searching was more important than finding. It gave him something to do. Something to occupy his mind with.
They would rest for a day or two. Hunt perhaps and then west. Trailing the caravan, he guessed. If they could even find its tracks. The hunt had taken them far, far out into the Sea of Grass, and he no longer knew where they were. Gring did. She always did.
Gring wiped her tusks with grass, spat some out and swallowed some. She would throw it all up later, but she had a need to clean her throat as well.
In her mind she thanked Karia. She owed him more than he could ever guess. Truly he was no halfman. His humour and make pretend stupidity kept her sane when otherwise she would have broken. No human should kill this much and not feed once. Prey lived to be eaten. They were precious and it grated in her consciousness to kill only for the killing.
She didn't even have coins as an excuse. Halfmen did. They could argue almost any deed was worth doing if only the money was right, or power. She couldn't. That was not her world.
She owed Karia more than her own sanity. Of the men sworn to him less than half lived. They had fought like true humans and died to keep his promise. She should have known of course. His was a strange lot. Every summer they fought her own on equal terms in the snow where humans had the benefit of strength as well as resistance to cold. She had heard rumours of the halfmen warriors but always discarded them as exaggerations. No halfman born took up arms against those odds, or so she believed. Now she knew she was wrong. Those who valued loyalty higher than life would. It was almost like honour Just a different kind, this loyalty.
So much to learn about the world. So many years squandered protecting her honour That way lay ignorance, and in its wake followed a danger she was only grasping the edges of.
First vengeance, though. After that she had an entire life to learn and relearn. A vague feeling of disapproval settled in her mind, but she firmly pushed it aside. All great humans had met with disapproval, and she slowly understood why. There were truths that hurt and secrets buried deep inside human ways. The greatest maybe that halfmen lived lives so short they were forced to learn that much faster, and so, as a whole, they had learned more than humans. If her kind didn't catch up a day would come when this world had no place for them. Just a different kind of the hunters game, and prey who didn't learn became meals.
She growled a laughter and released a full burst from her predator's glands. Prey! She had seen her own become prey even before they left Braka. Those villages would be nothing but broken wrecks by now.
Random thoughts flew through her mind as she gathered grass. Time to make a nest. She would burrow deep inside it and sleep. Tomorrow her fur would need cleaning. Picking straws took a long time, but she didn't care. The need to grow young again, if only for a single night was too strong. She wished she could nestle into her mother's embrace. Memories of days lost flashed through her, and smells of safety, and love.
Infinity and nothingness changed places. He was everywhere and in between, and then he was elsewhere. Harbend had forgotten just how strong Escha was. Jumping with him was becoming a little bit like the sleeping gods Escha used.
Borrowed a tiny bit of the gift from, Escha said. He always refused talking about the gift as something you used. Only a loan, and all loans had to be paid in full or else you died. Harbend didn't really understand, but then he wasn't a mage.
He looked up and remembered. The Sea of Grass. This was where he had spent one glorious season with Nakora. Wonderful memories. Hurtful memories. She was gone, forever.
"Where are we?" he asked. Idiot question!
Escha looked back as if to answer the question. Instead he only shook his head and smiled. He nodded south and a wide path cleared in front of them. There was more than one way to use the gift.
Harbend followed in Escha's steps. They would walk the last bit. There was no reason to arrive too close to Gring, even if she was a mindwalker.
He looked west. Strange. He didn't remember the caravan ever veering this far from the mountains, and where was the caravan?
"Escha, where are we?" he repeated, this time in earnest.
Escha turned. "Further east," he answered and smiled that sad smile again. "I believe we are not the first to hunt."
Harbend frowned but said nothing. Gring would have answers to his questions.
Together they continued following the path Escha created ahead of them, Harbend trailing the khar and planning what he would do next.
After some time he heard horses, and then a rider arrived. He didn't recall seeing him before. Leather, dirty and torn, a short bow and a quiver dangling at the saddle and a sabre in hand. None of Trindai's men, that much was certain, but neither did he belong to the men from Ri Khi.
The rider barked a question in a language Harbend didn't understand.
"Who are you," he asked in De Vhatic, then in Khi and last in Veric. He didn't receive as much as a glimmer of understanding.
Another rider approached. This one he remembered. From Belgera? Yes, their guide in the capital.
"Do you remember me?" he asked.
"I remember you very well, Master de Garak." There was a haggard smile oh his face. "I wish we could have met in happier times."
"Your memory does you honour," Karia said. "What brings you here?"
"Do you have to ask that question? By rights I should be in Verd now."
Karia bowed in his saddle. "I didn't, but it was only polite to do so anyway."
"Where is Gring," Harbend asked. He was less than graceful, but need ate his soul.
Karia frowned slightly but pointed across the grass rather than spitting out the sharp retort Harbend had expected.
Harbend followed Karia's direction with his eyes. A slight breeze carried the smell of the plains mingled with decay. Suddenly he was certain Gring had already started his work.
Heavy steps announced another arrival. It had to be Gring. Anyone else would have come on horseback. It was.
"Harbend, I thought you would come. Not this fast, but I knew you would come for the sake of your mate."
Harbend stared at her and nodded. What should he say? He looked at her. How long since she cleaned her fur properly? How long had she been doing his work?
"Karia, why are you here?"
"I was sworn to Nakora," Karia answered as if everything came clear with those words. Maybe it did.
"How many are left?" Harbend asked. How many do I get to kill?
"They're all dead. At least all who rode with us. More where she lived," Karia answered.
Harbend felt fury rising. He'd been cheated. "None left?"
"None," Gring said. "Not here. We are going to her home, as Karia said. Those truly responsible for the dishonour are still left."
Not cheated after all then. He had promised himself to visit revenge on all involved.
"Good," he said. "I have hired Khar Escha's services for some time. We should be able to arrive there before anyone else."
"Bastard gherin! They don't even know!" Karia didn't look happy.
"They do not have to know. What need do the dead have of knowledge?"
Escha grabbed Harbend's shoulder. "I will help, but are you certain this is the path you want to follow?"
"Want? I must!"
Escha shook his head. The smile was long gone and in its place Harbend saw a sadness so profound that the dead man inside of him momentarily woke. It was no use. He couldn't afford becoming that man again. "You understand, you must! Trai died and you had your revenge."
"And an empty satisfaction that was indeed. Yes, Trai died. I lost him. He's gone and my life is bleaker for that, but Harbend, that loss was nothing compared to the memories of what I did."
Harbend shook himself loose. "I will have my revenge, just as you. I can live with what I did. I will not live with what I did not do!"
Escha turned to Gring. "I promised him I'll help. I won't like it, but I will."
"I understand," she said.
"I need you to help him. I can jump us all to Ri Khi, but finding people is not my gift. I need the mindwalker you are."
"I have started something I must finish. I am, as you halfmen say, getting second thoughts, but I am honour bound to finish in Ri Khi what I've started here."
Escha clasped her arm. Harbend watched them. Escha's unhappy face was easy to read, but he was surprised to understand that Gring shared those thoughts. No, not so much that she shared them as his being able to read her so clearly. At least that was what he said to himself. It had to be done, or else he would never rest again.
"If we're decided then we have a long ride ahead of us," Karia said.
He was in for a surprise, Harbend thought grimly. "I said ahead of everyone else. Escha will jump us there."
"I won't leave our horses. Your blood thirst will have to be delayed."
"Who said you would have to leave your horses behind?"
Karia stared at him, then at Escha. "Are you serious? I've heard about the khars from Khanati, but horses?"
Escha gave Karia one of those sad smiles. "Master de Garak is quite serious. It's taxing, but I could jump a small army all over the world. I might die if I did, but I could."
Karia looked as if he was about to protest, but then he took the reins and turned his horse around. "I guess I had best gather the men then," he said as he rode away. He even managed to radiate disappointment from behind.
It was settled then. Harbend would join the quest for revenge that should rightfully have been his from the beginning. He pushed away the feeling of resentment. Nakora was one to love. He could hardly blame her friends for avenging her.
He settled down and waited for them all to get in order. Gathering men and horses would take its time, and even if he was in a hurry there was little he could do to speed them up.
Leaving the Sea of Grass, for the last time, he hoped. If he never saw the open plains again in his life it would still be too soon. They had taken too much from him.
They arrived in a bubble of clear air surrounded by dust. A couple of the horses shied away nervously and almost all riders were white faced. One gulped, gulped once more and threw up over the side of his horse.
For once Harbend's hate had to step aside and give room to another emotion. Awe, pure and simple awe. What Escha had just done went beyond description. They had become part of something as vast as the universe, had for a moment been part gods themselves and for the second time since he lived one of Arthur's Weaves Harbend gleamed a little of what drew mages to immerse themselves further and further in the gift. He understood Trai's scars and why Escha's dead lover had faced the risks inherent in overusing the power.
A look at Escha's drained face sobered him. There was a reason for Escha's reluctance to indulge himself too much. Maybe both khars had been equals in power, but one was dead, and Harbend saw that very little coincidence had played a part in the choice.
Harbend turned his attention to his surroundings instead. He'd been here less than half a year earlier. Winter then. Of the wintry and barren landscape he remembered from their frantic attempts at locating Arthur nothing was left. Spring flowers filled the air with smells and promises of summer.
A summer he by rights should have shared with Nakora. Well, he brought promises of his own here.
The outer city still sprawled along the southern road barely hiding the stone structures of Ri Nachi proper, and people were everywhere. Not a few of them gaped at their sudden appearance. Harbend wondered why. Mages often came here, and then he recalled the way they had arrived. The jump tower soared into the air a fair distance behind them. Bringing horses to the glassy platform had been out of the question of course.
He barely had time to throw Escha a questioning look before the khar nodded at Gring.
"It was empty, Escha brought my mind here first," she confirmed.
Harbend shuddered. Trai would never have given that a single thought. Jumping into something spelled disaster for anything involved. Escha had proved that when he tore down the castle where they finally found Arthur.
Trai's fiery magic may have looked more impressive, but Harbend suspected that whenever Escha used his gift of jumping as a weapon the results were only so much more horrifying.
Slowly order returned, and Karia had his men ride through the gawking crowd in good order. Some of his men still looked slightly sick, but the need to handle horses among people quickly took over.
Harbend walked beside Escha and followed the riders from Braka. No need to hurry now. Across the river answers lay waiting, and death.
"I think he's mad."
"He is, and so were we. Let him have his revenge," Karia told Aphitus. "We cheated him. You know that. In his heart he feels cheated even if he never says anything," he added.
Aphitus opened his mouth but kept his silence.
"Yes, he is mad," Karia confirmed. "What would you do if someone killed your wife that way, or your daughters?"
Aphitus mumbled something through his beard, but Karia could see his face redden slightly. The daughters were a subject you didn't bring up easily. Two dead already, one this very winter when madness hit Belgera. It had taken him all his strength and ability to enforce the loyalty of a sworn man to prevent Aphitus from killing the outworlder outright when he learned she'd been captured.
She hadn't even been directly responsible either. A stupid accident. Two days after the attack a gutted house caved in and the falling walls had been enough to scatter a cooking fire. When the housewife got the children out of danger the girl fell from the stairs. The riders below never had a chance to prevent what happened later.
The memory made Karia regret his words. Maybe Harbend was taking his revenge too far, but Karia was part of it as long as Gring was, and that made his sworn men part of it as well.
He swallowed bile and moved forward in the night. They were dealing out justice to someone who didn't even know he was guilty and that made it wrong somehow. He shrugged as he took another step. He should have had those thoughts before he promised himself to Gring. Now it was too late.
Ahead of him she and Harbend moved like shadows. If anyone was awake in the building they still wouldn't know that death approached. A steady drizzle cut noises to nothing audible in the wind and the darkness was absolute for anyone who hadn't spent a season on the plains. How Harbend managed to see where he was treading Karia didn't understand. Maybe Gring lent him some of her powers.
They reached wooden stairs and Karia almost hoped they would creak to give warning. Another thought that shamed him, and he resolutely climbed them together with Hlavac.
Aphitus had fallen slightly behind, and the rest of the men were guarding horses. Four were more than enough for what they had come to do here.
As Harbend forced the door open it did creak a little, but they were soon inside. Gring waited just inside the door. Her weight would give them away if she entered walked too far inside. Her mission was to make sure no one escaped.
Karia made way for Aphitus and hugged the wall to his left. The information Harbend had bought said he would find a doorway if he followed the wall far enough. Karia hoped it was correct. Getting lost in a building he had entered to commit murder in wasn't what he wanted.
It was correct, and he slowly made his way into the bedchamber where a secretary slept. Secretary and son, and thus somehow involved in Nakora's death.
The darkness wasn't as compact here. A night lamp behind a screen shed a little bit of light in the room, and Karia saw the sleeping body in the bed. He drew his dagger as he bent over his victim.
The deed was quickly done. Secretary, or son, or guilty. He would never know, and neither would the dead man he left behind as he made his way back.
He felt dirty. It was murder. Nothing could change that. A defenceless man lay dead in his own bed, and Karia had been the one taking that life.
Muffled noises reached him from the darkness. Up the stairs? Probably. A silent struggle signalling that Aphitus hadn't entered unnoticed. Then the noises subsided and he knew that whoever had spotted Aphitus was dead by now.
After that they killed undisturbed. An old woman, her husband, the master of the house and his son all went to the blades, and they returned out into the night.
Karia tried not to think too much of what he had been part of. It was his duty, and duty knew no remorse. Maybe later there would be a price to pay.
Gring ran over the hard ground. Behind her the farm roared and writhed in flames, almost as if it had been given life just to have it sniffed out. Two men ran for the woods and she followed them. Her task was to be as visible as possible. Karia waited with three of his sworn men behind the tree line she shepherded her prey toward.
Setting the farm on fire had been an accident. Sloppy ambush, but they were in a hurry now. Rumours spread faster than they killed, and she needed to be done with this region before those rumours grew into knowledge. The real problems would start when they began killing north of the forest. Any hope of a local killing spree would vanish then.
The smoke stung in her nose. Even halfmen would feel it, but for her it was painful. An acute sense of smell carried a backside as well.
She ran on and laughed. Mirth sounded like roars to halfmen who didn't know humans, and she wanted them to run heedlessly into the waiting ambush. It was only suiting they should run from the last show of joy they were ever going to experience. The irony appealed to her, as did the justice.
Cattle and chicken fled from her as she charged on. From time to time she released small bursts from her glands. It was involuntarily. She could avoid it while hunting just as much as she could avoid breathing.
Ahead of her the tree line quickly grew until it dissolved into individual trunks and branches and at that time she heard the screams when her prey understood they'd run into a trap.
Metal clashed against metal and suddenly one man staggered back into the field. She fell on him from behind but he managed to turn and face her just as she clawed into him. A flicker of horror and recognition reached her from his face, then surprise as she tore his chest open.
There would be very little pain. She knew that, and his face only displayed resignation when his bowels spilled onto the ground. Then life fled him.
The man caught between the trees lasted little longer, and Karia came out in the open.
"Are we done here?" he asked. He seemed strangely subdued as he wiped his dagger clean. Something ate him from the inside.
"We are," Gring answered. "Khar Escha waits with Harbend. He's promised to jump us close to our next prey before dusk."
Karia threw a glance behind him as the others emerged from the trees. "He's tired, isn't he?"
Gring nodded in the halfman way of affirmation. "He is. I could not balance such amounts of the gift. I don't understand how he does."
They started on their way back to the horses as soon as Karia's men reached them.
"I've heard rumours about Khanati," Gring said.
Karia grinned. "So have I. They say it never snows there."
"I've heard that as well, but I was thinking about their khars. Those not strong enough either die or are forced to become battlemages."
"I didn't know." Karia kicked away at a small stone and swore. It was only the tip of a larger one. Nursing his foot he fell behind. "The khars in Ira are even stronger I've heard," he said from behind her.
"Stronger than Khar Escha? I doubt that. A golden, and perhaps not just any golden maybe."
"Maybe so," Karia agreed. "Just heard that Ira makes more khars and stronger khars than Khanati."
Gring didn't answer. Karia was right, to a degree.
"I wonder what it takes to be a khar?" Karia continued.
"The spark, and an education," Gring said and growled.
Karia laughed and gave her a shamefaced grin. "You would know," he said and laughed again. Then he became serous again, and they continued in silence. Only Karia's men kept up the small chatter men are prone to do after a fight, even one as one sided as this had been.
Gring veered away from the burning farm. The smoke stung too much. Three dead lay inside. One of the oddities of Ri Khi. One farm for five unmarried men. Royal mercenaries paid with even more hard work.
She felt an urge to rush inside and drag their bodies out. Killing without feeding was wrong. It grated in her. She forced the want away. Karia would never understand. His kind never ate their enemies, and she had to respect him with peculiar taboos, customs and all he'd grown up with.
She looked at him. Once again he pretended this was just a mission like any other. She could smell that pretence, but she knew, and it worried her. The mindwalker in her called and warned her about the danger. Sooner or later she would have to release him from what they were doing or he would become twisted from the horrors.
The warrior in her told her to be silent and kill more. That voice had grown stronger, and she realized that Karia wasn't the only one she needed to be worried about. No mindwalkers were warriors. Warriors relied on their external senses only. Walking the mind of a prey while killing it was walking the path to madness.
They reached the horses. Gring watched Harbend's grim satisfaction as he watched the fire consume the farm only to be halted at the fields. Late in summer it would have spread across them. Late in summer they'd never been noticed during their approach, so maybe the farm would still be standing. She left the world of ifs, gave her warrior voice a hard mental kick and headed for the well behind the burning buildings.
She washed herself clean from blood and drank a bucket of water as well. Thankful that the well lay upwind from the smoke she started on her armour and weapons. She barely noticed how Karia's men joined her, and they worked silently side by side.
The second boon of being upwind was that she didn't have to feel the stench of burning flesh, and she knew it would have made her hungry rather than nauseous.
By the time they finished birds of prey circled above them and carrion eaters had already gathered at the tree line. The sun glared down on its last rise and they left the ruins behind them.
Gring didn't mind eating among the dead, but the other, used to death as they were, still showed unease at the silent company. She allowed that insight of differences between humans and halfmen to bounce around among the others she had taken to heart since she took up company with the taleweaver that day half a year earlier. And one thought cut her short. She had promised not to think of Karia and his men as halfmen. They had deserved that she kept her promise.
Fixed in that resolve she once again let her thoughts come and go as they made their way into the forest, and not until they paused to make a hasty meal did she focus her mind on the task ahead.
More killing, but this time it wouldn't be as easy as it had, or at least the second target would be harder to get at. They still had the advantage of surprise when they move away from the capital for the first time. When Escha jumped them away from the capital in a way few other living mages would have been able to, she corrected herself.
She thanked Karia when he handed her a strip of dried meat, and most of the bones from the pig they'd slaughtered a day earlier. She could crush the bones with her teeth and the marrow was fresh food for her. The others didn't like it much.
The dried meat was but a trifle, but she accepted it for the gesture as well. Karia really wanted her to feel like one among them. He went to great lengths to show that in actions as well as words. If the thought hadn't been so hilarious it almost was as if he pampered her.
The leaves wrapped around pork fat was another matter though. She gulped the package down, leaves and all. She needed a lot of energy to keep her body moving. More than the difference in weight could account for. Tapping into the gift almost continuously drained her, but she was their eyes and ears watching far beyond where mundane senses reached. She could starve herself to death without never knowing if she wasn't careful.
The meal was over far too soon, and she made herself ready among the grim men around her.
Escha looked at each of them in turn and nodded. Then he looked north, eyes fixed in concentration and she could feel the maelstrom of power gathering as he brought swirling threads of power around them. Strange words, more shouts than speech left his mouth, and even if she knew them for the tricks of concentration they really were, there was never a doubt about how rumours about mages and their words of power were born.
Then she felt the nexus closing in and they reached a crossing point of two lines of communications between sleeping gods, and another one, and yet another one. Escha moved between the lines, forced them together and unleashed the power when he had managed to tie five of them together in a single point. The rush of power filled her and she left the world and re-emerged on it -- somewhere else.