Chapter 26: The Dance of Flame and Shadow
Hialed Volkure took his time preparing his worktable. He cared about the preservation of the head of the former Morschcoda Norrin Shrevneer. The other heads he had taken had belonged to proud and honourable Morschen, men and women both, but Norrin Shrevneer was the only instantly recognizable name among the two dozen he had killed since he had become a Morschledu Hunter. Whatever the other heads would look like days or years after the jars were sealed, he did not care. That they existed would be enough. But with the Morschcoda’s head, he wanted that to be recognized by prisoners and slaves that served him when he ruled Anaria as King. He wanted the broken people of Anaria to recognize the face of the man who could have ended his despotism before it began, and he wanted them to curse both that man for failing and their gods for that man’s failure.
First, Volkure raised the ruined stump of his right hand. After recovering his Ring, and managing to work it onto the middle finger of his left hand, he had burned his right wrist to cauterize the flesh, sealing the wound. He then spoke three quick words to create a ball of flame around the wrist. Picking up Norrin’s head with his left hand, he ran his hand along the base of Norrin’s neck, cauterizing the severed flesh, sealing inside what little remained of the blood and fluids. He then set the head aside and lifted a jar onto the table.
First, he filled the jar with water, then, holding the jar between his hand and his right wrist, he increased the heat from his hands until the water in the jar was boiling, then kept making it hotter until the water had all evaporated. He then poured more water into the jar, which he mixed with a gelatinous, almost tar-like substance of his own creation. He took a large brush and painted Norrin’s face with the tar. Then, as part of the process of making sure it would continue to be recognizable permanently, he used progressively smaller brushes to paint the details of the dead Morschcoda’s face so that they would continue to be noticeable. He then slowly lowered Norrin’s head into the jar, whispering enchantments that he had learned from Vorteez for the preservation of flesh. He placed the lid on top of the jar, and placed his left hand on top. He heated the lid until it had melted and fused with the jar, and only stopped when his handprint, complete with an indentation for his Ring, was noticeable on the top.
Volkure stepped back from the table and stretched his back. He then lifted the jar and held it up, so that he could look Norrin in the eyes.
“Welcome to your new home, Morschcoda.” Volkure laughed, something between an insane cackle and a chuckle, and set the Morschcoda’s head back on the table. He stopped as he heard someone step into his tent. “What do you want?” He shouted. He turned and went to draw his sword, forgetting for the moment that it hung from his right hip now, not his left.
The War Chief bowed, terrified at how quickly his General’s mood could change. “My apologies, my Lord.” The War Chief bowed. “A messenger is here, demanding to speak with you.” The War Chief backed out of the tent.
Volkure rolled his shoulders and growled, but followed the War Chief out of the tent. An Armandan man, older than Volkure, dismounted when he saw the General.
“Who are you and what do you want? I’m a busy man.”
The messenger bowed. “Your pardon for the interruption, my Lord. I bring a message, from the Lord Vorteez.”
Volkure rested his stump on his sword hilt. “Read it.”
“Pardon, my Lord?”
“You heard me. Read it. That’s an order.”
“But the Lord Vorteez himself instructed me that this message was for your eyes only.”
“And I am deciding that since the message is for me, I can choose who sees it.”
“But, my Lord—”
“Which of us is more likely to kill you right now: the Lord Vorteez, or me?” He paused to let the threat sink in. “Now. Read!”
The Armandan trembled slightly as he broke the seal on the letter. His eyes flicked across the opening line. He managed to say two words, “Greetings General,” before his eyes burst into flame. The fire quickly spread to his hair, slowly burning its way down to the flesh on his head, which started to melt and burn as well. The messenger died slowly, burning until all that remained of him was a charred skeleton.
Volkure looked down at the blackened skeleton, intrigued. Privately, he doubted that Vorteez had meant the trap for him. What would the Master of Pain need to fear about his messages being intercepted if the messages themselves could kill anyone but their intended recipient. Still, he wanted another test of his theory. He ordered one of his Deshika to read him the message.
Slowly, the soldier picked up the parchment, fearing its apparent power to burn its readers to death. Slowly, he raised it, hoping that Volkure would say enough before he would have a chance to look at the words. But Volkure didn’t stop him.
The Deshik soldier didn’t even get as far as the Armandan messenger before him had. The second that he looked at the first word, he dropped the paper and started to writhe in pain, clutching at his stomach. A large, sharp, black rock forced its way through the Deshika’s skin above his stomach. Then others started to form and force their way out. Blood poured from the tip of each rock as they continued to grow out of him, until finally, he collapsed, dead.
Satisfied with his experiment, Volkure picked up the paper himself. A wicked sparkle touched his eyes as he read the message, savouring the feeling that the words gave him. “We have a new mission.” He turned to his War Chiefs. “Daken Calmi has returned to Meclarya, causing upheaval across the Morieden Plains in Northern Drogoda. He must be stopped. He has taken refuge in the Dragon Graveyard.” Volkure laughed. “Fitting, since that will be his grave as well.” A second sheet shifted as Volkure refolded the paper. He pulled it off of the first and read it, his expression souring. “Unfortunately, it won’t be his grave. Vorteez wants him alive.” …
“Heishtar vur!” Erygan swore loudly, slamming his fist onto his map table and scattering the flags and figures that represented various armies throughout northern Anaria. A servant jumped, and General Domrar Cadrick looked up at his King, both afraid and annoyed.
“My Lord, this is the best information that we have.”
“Well it’s not shtining good enough, is it?” Erygan picked up a small black carving that was supposed to represent his son and threw it back down on the table in disgust. “He’s my son, Domrar. He has the power to be wherever he wants to be by thinking himself there, and so do almost one hundred of his soldiers, and he still can’t stay in contact. How did Volkure’s army even get across the Baan-Taar in the first place?” Domrar tried to remain calm for his King’s sake. “I do not know, my Lord. Obviously, Prince Eildar’s forces were overmatched or otherwise unprepared to hold the bridge. Prince Eildar, I’ve noticed, is reluctant to spend lives if he believes that the battle is already lost.” Erygan groaned and rolled his shoulders, then rubbed his face in his hands. “And what good does that do us, Domrar? How in the Three Hells does saving lives matter if we lose Eschcota and Braldish?”
“It is a gamble, my Lord. Perhaps the Prince felt that, behind Braldish’s walls, his army could hold the line, and so is trying to find some balance between damage dealt and lives kept.”
“It could be,” Erygan muttered, only reluctantly agreeing. He sat down across the table that his anger had virtually swept clean. “He is smarter than me, at least about war. He studied tactics under Makret Druoth, you know.” Domrar actually smiled. “I know, my lord. I can remember how pleased he was when you told him he was going to Morieden City.”
Erygan smiled too. “Leshia wouldn’t talk to me for a month after Eildar left. She wanted to go too.” Erygan laughed. “Every Great House has its share of Garrenin blood, but those children of mine …” Erygan laughed again. “It must be their mother. Something about Meclaryans seems to set off the flood of Garrenin-ness. Taren’s father, Garrick Calmi. My wife, Rashti Calmi.” Erygan took a deep breath. “Maybe it’s just House Calmi.” Domrar laughed with his King. “If Queen Rashti were here, I would want to be well out of the way right now. Her scepter does more than leave bruises.”
“Too true.” Erygan began to replace the flags and carved figures. “So, what do we know about what’s happening to the south?”
“Which south, my Lord? Far south or near south?”
“The far south isn’t my concern.”
Domrar nodded and adjusted Erygan’s flags. “This, here, is us.” He pointed to a flag near the Eschcota-Torridesta border. “This, about three days’ travel west of Lake Miliish, is Eildar. And this,” he set a red token on the map, “about a day north of Eildar, is Hialed Volkure’s Deshika.” “And this map is accurate as of …?”
“Three days ago. We haven’t moved, and there has been no report from Eildar to indicate that either he or Volkure has changed their position.”
“Nyjeta.” Erygan was slipping back into anger. “Information three days old is two days too old.” Erygan pulled something out of a pouch on his belt. It looked like a black stone, but what it really was was a condensed pocket of empty space. Almost as soon as Portalling had been discovered by the Morschen, they had found a way to bind that magic into a physical form, so that it could be used by those without the ability to create portals themselves. That Erygan, who was more than proficient at Portalling, wanted to use something besides his own magic told Domrar just how upset his King must be.
Erygan threw the stone at the wall of his tent, staring intently at the spot on the map where his son’s camp was last reported to be. He didn’t look up to see if he had been right. He just turned, walked through the portal, and shouted “Eildar!” The screams of feasting gore crows were the only answer as Erygan stopped, hoping that somehow he had made a mistake and that he had gone anywhere but where he had meant to. Domrar came through with him, swore loudly, then went back and shouted orders. Twenty-five Black Guards filed through the portal after Domrar, and all he said to them was “find the King’s son! Now!” Erygan watched them with unseeing eyes as they fanned out to search the sight of the massacre. He couldn’t comprehend that there was life in the destroyed camp just then. All he knew was death. He tasted the iron from the blood hanging in the air, mixed with the harsh flavour of burning cloth and canvas. He smelled the stench of urine and blood, rotting and burned flesh. He could feel the ground through his boots, drenched in the lives of hundreds and thousands. He heard the screaming of the feasting crows as they fought over the softest exposed flesh and the eyeballs of the dead. And he still saw nothing. His rage, his fear, and his complete lack of hope that anyone, least of all his son, had survived blinded him to everything.
“Your Majesty, General, over here.” The call drew them all together, about five hundred feet from where Erygan’s portal had opened. “Eschcotans, my Lord. Looks like Volkure’s work. Headless, every one of them.”
“There’s been no sign of my son?”
One by one, the soldiers shook their heads. “None yet, your majesty.”
Erygan took a deep, shaky breath. “Then until this entire field is searched, I don’t care about half a dozen headless Eschcotans, and—”
The soldier didn’t say anything. He just held up a heavy steel helmet that Erygan knew too well. He took it from the soldier reverently, cradling it in his arms like a baby. It fell from his hands as he broke, falling to his knees and weeping.
It was many long minutes before Erygan had enough breath to find a raspy voice. “Norrin, by all the hells, why you? I told you to stay in Dishmo Kornara. I told you so many times.” His voice broke and he buried his face in his hands. “Your first and final treason carries too harsh a penalty, old friend. But I promise you, and I swear it on my own life, that Volkure will die by my hand for this, and he will die praying that he has taken nothing else from me this day!” Erygan started to break down again, but he had no tears left. “Bring the Morschcoda’s body. It will lie in honour in the halls of Braldish. Find his armour, his throwing chisels, and Riin-Dair.” Erygan’s men searched for another two hours. They found all of Norrin’s heavy black armour, and every one of his chisels. But Riin-Dair was nowhere.
“That bastard Volkure must have taken it.” Domrar was slowly guiding Erygan back to the portal he had opened. “But, some good news, my Lord. Prince Eildar either was not here, or he escaped. And I think most of Eildar’s men escaped as well.” Erygan had no words left in him. He just nodded, thankful for the news, but with no strength left to force a smile.
“And there’s something else, my Lord. Every indication is that Eildar’s men retreated west and south, towards Braldish, likely to regroup, and because that’s where we did believe Volkure was heading. But the Deshika are very clearly moving east, towards the lake.” “Do you think they’re going to Dishmo Kornara?”
“Not much point now. And even without Norrin, the Eschcotan army is still there, and Volkure is, unfortunately, too smart to start that fight.”
“Maybe fortunately, General. Dishmo Kornara won’t stand if the Seven find it.”
“Of course, my Lord. But my thinking is, what if we were wrong about Volkure going to Braldish? What if he was just trying to get back south? The safest way is to cross the bridges above and below Lake Miliish. That way you avoid the Plains of Moredo and the Morieden Tribes.” “Too convenient. Something happened to change his mind, and honestly, I don’t care what.” Erygan left Domrar and went back to his portal. “Find my son’s body. If he’d survived, he would have already come home. I have things to deal with in Toredo.”