Four days later, just before midday, they reached their first major obstacle--the Anupa Marshes. The stench from the swamp was detectable from almost a league away, and the men of Ga’briyel’s company wrinkled their noses as they slowed their steps. The foul odor of decay and death increased as they got closer until several of the guardsmen lost their first meal.
“Steady, men,” Ga’briyel said with a growl. “These marshes are ten leagues from this end to the other. We must be through before first light the day after tomorrow to stay on schedule. We will not be stopping until we are through, but after that we can spend a day in camp. Follow me.”
A chorus of “Yes, sir” rippled through the company, and Ga’briyel took one step into the swamp. His foot sank until he was shin deep in muck and slime, but then he felt solid ground under his boot. He pulled his foot out and moved to a nearby tree, the name of which he did not know. He grabbed a slender branch that was about two paces long and snapped it off at the trunk.
“One behind the other,” he said. “No one drift from the line. I have a feeling if you do, you will be lost to the swamp. And watch the horses."
“Yes, Captain,” the men said, and Ga’briyel started forward again, leading Kumar. The warhorse twitched when he stepped into the water, but he was well-trained, and he made no other objections. This time, Ga’briyel tested the murky waters before every step. He growled deep in his chest as he thought about how long it would take them to move even a league at this pace, but he knew it was necessary if he were not to lose half of his men to drowning. They were still slogging through shin and sometimes thigh deep water, but oftentimes there was no other choice. Then, more than an hour later, Ga’briyel came upon a part of the marshes where the ground dropped off dramatically, and he knew it would be up to at least his waist. On some of the shorter guardsmen, it might reach their chests, but the only other option would be to turn around and try a different path, and that was not an option. He wanted to be out of these cursed marshes as soon as possible, so he stepped forward and sank to the point his sword belt was completely submerged.
“Watch out for each other,” he called out to the men behind him. “It is getting deeper.”
“Yes, Captain,” was heard again, and he moved forward, struggling through the water that was not only deeper but more rank. He heard several curses from behind him, and he forced himself not to join his men in voicing his displeasure. The trees were spread far apart, but their canopies were so full that very little sunlight reached the company, and everything was cast in a gray, dismal gloom. In a single line, the men and horses stretched back more than a stade, and Ga’briyel worried about the men at the back. If something attacked them in this fetid marsh, he would be unable to help them. He had no idea that he need not have worried about them.
Hours later, after more than five leagues through the deeper water, the ground rose gradually until it was again only knee-deep water they were slogging through. Ga’briyel heaved a sigh as Kumar shook his head to rid it of the water that clung to it. The Anmah’s relief was short-lived, however. Almost instantly after reaching the shallower water, he looked in front of him and saw something move through the water. A large body, scaled in metallic blue and green, slithered across the path they had to take, and it undulated for its entire length, which looked to be more than six paces. Perhaps even seven or eight paces. At the same time, he felt as if his head would explode with the sudden, severe pressure.
“Bride of a troll!” Ga’briyel muttered as he waited for both the pressure and the creature to pass. Then he picked up his speed in an attempt to get his company out of the deep water before he had to fight the thing. He knew it was a Sarpa—it could be no other possible creature based on Ma’ikel’s description—and he knew it would kill him. He could only pray that no one else died in the process. Ma’ikel’s research had indicated that Sarpa could only be killed by being beheaded, but Ga’briyel still had his blessed sword, and he hoped he could hold out long enough to make contact with the Hellspawn before he died.
“What’s the matter, Ga’briyel?” Dinton’s voice came from behind him.
“I now know what a Sarpa feels like. We need to get out of these marshes. Now!” The Anmah was striding quickly through the water as Dinton passed the word that there were dangers in the swamp and that the men needed to keep their wits about them. Ga’briyel knew there were only about two leagues left from where they were to the edge of the marsh, and after checking the ground around him, he moved to the side. “Mount and ride, Dinton. Ride hard and get out of here! Take Kumar with you.”
“What about you, Ga’briyel? Are you not coming with us?”
“I will be with you tomorrow after first light,” Ga’briyel answered with a deep frown. “I am going to die again, Dinton, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. I must kill this Hellspawn or it will spread just like the Dirack.”
“How many are out there?” Dinton asked, looking around him at the swamp.
“I have no idea, but I know I will die because of them. And it will be extremely painful, Dinton. Please, do not come back for me no matter what you hear. I could not forgive myself if one of you died because you tried to save me. Promise me, Dinton! No one comes back for me!”
“I promise, my friend.”
“Good, now ride! Ride hard! Signal when the last man is clear of the marshes, and I will face what I must.”
“Yes, sir,” Dinton said, clapping his friend on the shoulder. “Men!” he shouted. “Mount and ride!”
The sounds of creaking leather and jingling tack sounded behind them as Dinton swung up into the saddle and grabbed Kumar’s reins. He gave Ga’briyel one last, regretful look and then dug his heels into Shala’s flank causing her to bolt ahead. Kumar instantly joined her, galloping through the water. Water flew up from the horses’ feet, and Ga’briyel watched as fifty-one other men and two boys sped past him, most giving him looks of concern. He ignored them until Tero, the last in line, passed him, and then he drew his sword and turned toward the swamp. He walked backward until the water was at his ankles, and then he stopped. He did not want to get too close to his men, and he had no idea if Sarpa could live outside the water, but he wanted more sure footing for this battle. At least with the water only around his feet, he would have more mobility. He set his stance and waited. He did not wait long. Within five minutes, he saw a large head appear out of the water not three paces from him. It was similar to the head of a snake, but it was unlike any snake Ga’briyel had ever seen. It was almost a pace wide, for one thing, and for another, there was intelligence in those green eyes.
“Can you speak, Sarpa? Do you have a name?” he asked, readying his sword.
“I can, Sainika, and I do,” the creature hissed. The sibilant in Ga’briyel’s title was drawn out as the creature’s tongue slithered out between sharp, pointed teeth. “My name is Ajil. I am surprised you know what I am, Ga’briyel Mistri el’Adama. That was definitely not expected.”
“I know a lot, and I learn more every day. How many of you are there?”
The Sarpa grinned, and Ga’briyel held back a shudder at the depravity in that expression. “Now why would I tell you that, Sainika? It is to my advantage to know how many Sarpa are in the world and to your disadvantage to not know.” The creature raised itself up until its head was level with Ga’briyel’s. “Do you know how we kill, Sainika?”
“I do,” Ga’briyel said, shifting his stance a bit to give the Sarpa less of a target, “and I know you will kill me, but I will kill you as well. All of you, no matter how many there are. No Hellspawn can stand against me. I will kill every single Daitya, Azazil, Sarpa, Dirack, and Takosa. I will slaughter the Luten and Idajo and Sisuvu. I do not care if it takes a thousand years. I will kill you all.”
The Sarpa’s eyes glowed green, and Ga’briyel’s matched them, burning violet in the gloom. “You cannot kill us all, Sainika. No one can kill us all. Even if you managed that feat, Sayatan would only create more. There will never be an end to us. Surely you know this.”
Ga’briyel just shrugged. “Perhaps, but I will rid Duniya of you at least for a time. Now, come and die, Ajil.”
The Sarpa laughed, and Ga’briyel could not help but cringe. It was the most evil sound he had ever heard, worse than the Luten’s giggles. “You already said I would kill you, Sainika. What makes you think you can kill me before I do that?”
The grin that crossed the Anmah’s face would have filled his friends with fear had they seen it. It went no farther than the muscles of his lips and cheeks, and the hatred that flared from his eyes was terrifying. “I know I can, Sarpa. Come on, let me see what you can do.”
With that, the Sarpa let loose with a stream of red liquid that sizzled as it raced toward Ga’briyel. He dove to his right, rolling in the water until he was on his feet again, his sword ready. He did not escape the entire stream, however. One drop landed on his left forearm, and he gritted his teeth as the venom burned its way through his shirt and then through his flesh and bone. He wanted to scream at the agonizing pain, but he held it in, not wanting the Sarpa to know how much it hurt.
“Impressive, Sainika,” Ajil hissed. “Not many creatures can stand that kind of pain without going insane. But no matter. If one drop hurts that much, just think of how much it will hurt when you are covered in my venom.”
“Not going to happen, Sarpa. I will kill you first.”
“Perhaps, but I am not the only Sarpa in these marshes. Between us, you will die, and we will make sure you suffer for days afterward. We can drag you into the depths of the swamp where no one will be able to find you and where we can keep you in pain for a very long time. Possibly until you do go insane.”
Ga’briyel just took a step closer to the Sarpa, his left arm hanging limply at his side. There was a large hole, about the size of a gold coin, in his forearm, and he could see where the venom had burned its way through everything. When he looked, he could see the water through the hole. It was already starting to close, though, and he ignored it and the pain that accompanied it. He raised his sword, faked one step to his left, and when the Sarpa’s head swung in that direction, he spun the other way and scratched the Sarpa with just the tip of his sword. The screech that came from the creature was the most horrific thing Ga’briyel had ever heard, and he tried to cover his ears, but he could only cover one. He tried to use his shoulder to cover the other, but it was no use. The shriek continued for several moments, and then it slowly died away. Finally, the swamp was silent, and the Sarpa did not move again.
“Sainika,” a second voice hissed behind him, “he was my mate. You will pay for his death.”
As Ga’briyel whipped around, he was hit in the chest by a full stream of the other Sarpa’s venom, and this time he did scream. He blindly swung his sword and felt it scrape along something hard. He only hoped it was the second Sarpa’s scales. When another unearthly shriek joined his own, he knew he had made contact with it as well. He dropped to his knees in the fetid water, still screaming, as the venom ate through his chest and his ribs. Fortunately, it reached his heart quickly, and he collapsed onto his face within minutes. The venom continued to eat away at his body even after he was dead, however, and by the time Dinton and Tero came to find him, nearly his entire torso was melted away.
“Holy Yisu,” Dinton whispered when he saw his friend and the two carcasses of the Sarpa. “How did he kill them before they did this to him?”
“He is Sainika, and his sword is blessed. Yisu knows what is best, Dinton. He has given Ga’briyel what he needs to kill these Hellspawn and anything else he comes across.”
Dinton nodded, but he did not look convinced. Then he said, “Tero, we cannot take him back like this.”
“No, we cannot, but we can at least get him out of this putrid swamp. Go back and tell Kajal that we will be sleeping outside the camp tonight. We can stay on the outskirts until first light.”
“Right away, Tero,” Dinton replied before running back toward the camp that was already set up.
Tero looked down at his friend’s body and heaved a sigh. “I am sorry, Ga’briyel,” he said, his voice catching and tears burning his eyes. “I am so sorry you must go through this again and again. I wish I could do something for you, but I cannot.” He reached down into the water, picked up Ga’briyel’s sword, and slid it into its scabbard. Then he hoisted the body over his shoulder and carried it out of the marsh onto dry land. He stopped several paces from the line of guardsmen on watch and gently laid Ga’briyel on the ground. Then he sat beside him, his back against a tree, and waited for Dinton to return. Within ten minutes, he did, carrying three blankets, two of the fur-lined, oiled cloaks, and some food.
“I really did not want to freeze tonight,” he explained, giving one blanket and cloak to Tero and draping the other blanket over Ga’briyel, “and I do not think we should build a fire out here. We would not want to attract more of those things.”
“I agree,” Tero said, wrapping himself in both the cloak and the blanket. “No need to announce our presence out here.”
The night progressed achingly slowly, and Dinton and Tero spoke softly to each other. They talked about Ga’briyel and how they could not possibly understand what he was going through. What he went through on a daily basis. They talked about the dangers of their current voyage and how grateful they were to get through the marshes with only Ga’briyel’s death.
“Imagine, Dinton,” Tero said at one point, “if those Sarpa had attacked the company. How many men would have died horrible deaths? Would one of us have died? I cannot even bear the thought of dying by having your body dissolved while you feel it every single moment. How does he do it?”
“I do not know, my friend. Ma’ikel once said he was amazed Ga’briyel was not completely insane when General Mistri found him, and I agree. I still do not understand how he can deal with what has happened to him just in the past moons. How can he endure such agony over and over again, Tero? How is he still sane?”
Tero shrugged. “He gets angry. I do not agree with his anger at Yisu, but I do understand it. He needed someone to blame, and who better than the one who created him to be what he is?”
They continued to talk through the night about everything and nothing. Dinton asked Tero if he would ever marry, and Tero had laughed softly saying that he did not think so, that he was married to the service of the crown. At that point, Dinton had sighed and said that he wanted what Ga’briyel and Sophyra had, but he was afraid he would die before he found someone to share a love like that, especially considering how dangerous this journey was.
Sometime just before first light, Dinton Sekara moved to his best friend, sat next to him, and rested his hand on the younger man’s forehead. He thought about how he felt about Ga’briyel Mistri el’Adama, and he knew that he felt much more than friendship for him. It was more like the Anmah was a little brother, and Dinton felt the same guilt for not protecting him as he would have if they were truly related. Just as he would have protected a little brother if he had one, Dinton felt as if he should have protected Ga’briyel.
“Do not be foolish, Dinton.”
With a gasp, Dinton looked down at Ga’briyel. The Anmah’s eyes were open, and he was frowning.
“I am not being foolish, Anmah.”
“Yes, you are,” Ga’briyel said, sitting up. “You cannot protect me. No one can protect me. It is my duty to protect the world, not the other way around. Last night, for instance. If you had tried to protect me, you would be dead.” His frown deepened. “Promise me you will not try. Ever.”
“I cannot promise you that, Ga’briyel,” Dinton said, smoothly rising to his feet and holding out his hand. “You are my friend. No, you are my brother. If I cannot protect you from dying, at least I can protect you from losing yourself.”
Ga’briyel took his hand and stood. “And how are you going to do that, brother?”
“I will…” Dinton trailed off, his brow furrowing deeply.
“My point exactly, Dinton. You cannot even protect me from myself. Did I listen to you when you told me Yisu cared? No, because I am stubborn and hard-headed and because I did not want to hear it.”
Dinton chuckled as Ga’briyel wrapped himself in the blanket. He was bare to the waist since the venom had eaten away his clothing as well as his flesh. “You are stubborn, Anmah, but something must have changed your mind. What was it?”
Sighing heavily, Ga’briyel busied himself with adjusting his sword. “Yisu came to me again. He explained some things that I cannot tell you about, and while I am not completely satisfied with His explanation, I am content to believe that He has a good reason for doing what He did and allowing certain things to happen.” Then he looked at his friend. “Did either of you sleep last night?”
“No,” Dinton replied, “but you said we would spend a day in camp, so I plan on doing that today.”
“As will I,” Tero said, coming up to the others. “We should be getting back to camp. The others will be wondering what has happened.”
“Lovely,” Ga’briyel grumbled. “More questions.”
“You should be used to it by now, Ga’briyel,” Tero said as they walked toward the camp.
“I am used to it, but I still do not like it. I do not think I will ever like it.”
Nothing more was said except to tell the watch they were returning, and then the three moved to their tent, Dinton and Tero to sleep and Ga’briyel to get dressed. When the other two were asleep, Ga’briyel took his bow and disappeared into the forest surrounding the camp. He stood silently beside a tree until he saw a large boar-like creature lumbering close by him. He nocked an arrow and let it fly. It hit the creature in the eye and dropped it instantly. Ga’briyel grabbed one leg and dragged the creature back to camp where he dressed it and cooked it over one of the fires. He was tempted to eat the flesh raw, but he knew that would sicken him, and so he forced himself to wait for it to be cooked. Then he sat and ate it all while the men of his company stared and whispered amongst themselves. At one point, Kajal sat down next to him.
“What happened last night, Captain Mistri?” he asked quietly, his body tense as if he were poised to jump up and run.
“There is no need to be frightened of me, Captain Kajal. I am not going to hurt you.”
“It is not that, Mistri. It is just that the men and I do not understand what is going on. It is disconcerting.”
“No, Kajal, it is fear. Trust me when I say I know the difference. You are scared of me.”
Staring at his leader for a moment, Kajal frowned. “I am scared of your abilities, Mistri, not you.”
Forcefully throwing the stick he was using to cook the meat into the fire, Ga’briyel snarled as he stood. “It was my abilities that kept you and everyone else here alive last night, Captain! I died an excruciating death last night so that you and these men did not have to! I killed Hellspawn last night so that they would not kill you! You should be grateful for my abilities, not scared of them!”
Kajal also stood. “Nevertheless, we are scared.”
“I know that! Did you know that I can feel your emotions, Captain? I can feel your fear and the fear of almost every man in this camp! Your fear is suffocating me! It is painful to bear, but I bear it because I must! Just as I die again and again because I must! I die for you, Kajal, and for the people of Duniya! I endure searing pain over and over and over for you! Seventeen times now, Kajal! Seventeen times I have died for this son of a troll world, and very few people appreciate that fact!” Ga’briyel stalked away, leaving Kajal standing with his mouth hanging open. He entered the forest and walked, his blood boiling and his mind racing. He had no idea how far he had walked when Telantes appeared in front of him.
“You must not let them bother you like this, Ga’briyel.”
Stopping short, Ga’briyel growled, “Do not tell me what I should feel, Debaduta! You do not understand what fear feels like, do you?”
“No, I do not.”
“Then you cannot speak about this! No one can! It is smothering, Telantes. I cannot breathe when there are that many men scared at the same time. And they are scared of me! Me! After what I did for them last night!”
“They do not understand, Ga’briyel. If you wish the fear to leave, you must make them understand.”
“Understand what? How it feels to have a Sarpa’s venom eat through your flesh and bones? How it feels to have a Dirack’s fire melt your skin away? How it feels to have a Daitya’s poison burn its way through your veins? How in Yisu’s name are they supposed to understand that?”
“Make them understand what you are feeling, Ga’briyel. Make them understand what you have done for them. Talk to them, Sainika.”
“I will try, Telantes, but right now I need to hit something.”
The Debaduta chuckled. “Another gacha tree?”
“No,” Ga’briyel said with a grin. “I do not wish to break my hand again.”
“All right, then, I will spar with you again. No weapons this time. Just hand to hand.”
“Agreed.” Unbuckling his sword belt, Ga’briyel propped the scabbard against a tree. “Let us fight, Telantes.” He dropped into a low stance and circled the spirit as the other did the same.
“I will not hold back, Anmah,” Telantes said with his own grin. “I apologize now for when I hurt you.”
“You are very confident, are you not? Remember who wounded whom more last time we fought.”
“It will not happen again,” the Debaduta said, and then he swept a foot out, barely missing Ga’briyel’s front foot. The Anmah laughed and danced out of the way.
“Nice try, Telantes,” he chuckled, and then he ducked low, rolled to the left, and grabbed Telantes’ left foot as he passed, throwing the spirit to the forest floor. Telantes hit with a grunt, and Ga’briyel completed his roll and attempted to pin the Debaduta with his legs, but Telantes grabbed them and flipped Ga’briyel to his stomach and straddled his legs.
“Nice try, Ga’briyel,” Telantes said as he grabbed the Anmah’s arms and pulled back. Ga’briyel used his hips to wrench himself to the side, and in the process, he managed to twist his right arm out of Telantes’ grasp. He threw his opponent to the ground and surged to his feet. Telantes stood as well.
“Not bad, Anmah, but it will not be enough to keep you whole.” With that, Telantes started punching and kicking at Ga’briyel. The Anmah blocked everything that came at him and delivered plenty of his own strikes. Again and again, both combatants blocked hands and feet until finally, Telantes broke through Ga’briyel’s defenses and landed a punch in his stomach. It was hard enough that the Anmah bent in two, his breath gone for a brief moment. Telantes took advantage of that moment and drove his knee up and caught Ga’briyel squarely on the nose. Blood sprayed from the Anmah and dotted the Debaduta’s white clothing with crimson.
“Son of a troll, Telantes! That was not nice!”
“No, it was not,” Telantes said with another grin. “Will you make me pay for that, Ga’briyel?”
With a growl, Ga’briyel feinted to his left and then swept the spirit’s feet out from under him. When Telantes fell to his back, Ga’briyel leaped and drove his elbow down into the spirit’s chest. He was pleased to hear something crack, but he did not stop. He raised his fist to deliver a deadly punch to Telantes’ face, but the Debaduta caught it in his hand just before it made contact.
“You said you did not want to break your hand on a tree,” Telantes said, his eyes fierce, “but I could break it right now if I chose to do so.” He started to squeeze. Ga’briyel ignored the pain and twisted his body, hammering his other elbow backward into the spirit’s temple. It was enough that Telantes released his grip on Ga’briyel’s hand, and they both stood once more.
“No more playing around, boy,” Telantes growled.
“Agreed,” Ga’briyel answered, his eyes glowing brightly. “Now you have made me mad. No more holding back.”
The two began fighting in earnest. Even when the punches and kicks were blocked, bruises formed on the Anmah. Ga’briyel managed to land several blows to Telantes’ face and body, but he was frustrated at the lack of blood or bruises to show that the Debaduta was indeed in pain, so he stepped up his attack. Telantes also struck Ga’briyel several times, breaking several ribs and fracturing his upper leg with one vicious kick. Almost two hours into the fight, Ga’briyel felt Mathi and Zahin nearby, but he ignored them. He was determined that Telantes would be the one to call off the fight, and as he slammed his foot into the Debaduta’s ribs, he thought that might be all that was needed to end it, but he was wrong. Telantes simply snarled and rushed the Anmah, powering into him and pinning him against a large tree. The spirit then proceeded to inflict punishing blows on Ga’briyel’s face and body with his hand and knees as he held him with the other hand on his throat. Ga’briyel managed to land a few of his own strikes, mostly with his feet and knees, and then he raised his feet up, forced them between his body and Telantes’, and shoved. The Debaduta flew backward, his grip on Ga’briyel’s throat loosening. The spirit’s back hit a tree, and he grunted as his face twisted with pain.
“Enough,” Ga’briyel rasped out as his hand went to his throat. “Enough, Telantes.”
“Yes, Sainika, enough,” Telantes replied, holding his ribs with a grimace.
Ga’briyel dropped to the ground with a groan, his back against the tree. He looked to his right and saw the boys watching him wide-eyed. They were seated at the base of another tree, and Ga’briyel could feel their confusion.
“Why are you here, boys?” he asked.
“Captain Kajal wanted us to find you, Captain Mistri. He said he needed to talk to you.”
With another deep groan, Ga’briyel hauled himself to his feet and picked up his sword belt. He started to strap it on, but he was in too much pain, so he simply held it in his hand. Telantes joined him as they walked back to the camp, and he looked to be in as much pain as Ga’briyel, which gave the young Anmah a modicum of satisfaction.
“I cannot stay, Anmah,” the Debaduta said softly. “The men of your company must not know of me.”
“I understand, Telantes. Thank you for the fight. I needed it.”
Telantes’ face screwed into a semblance of a smile. “I know you did. I am pleased I can be there for you to release some of your anger, Ga’briyel.” He started to chuckle but stopped, gripping his ribs once more. “You are strong, Sainika. Never doubt that. No one has ever managed to hurt me as much as you have.”
“Physically strong, perhaps, but I am not so sure about mentally. Sometimes I feel as if I am coming apart. Sometimes I feel as if Yisu is asking too much of me.”
“It may feel like that, but He is not. He knows what you can take, Ga’briyel, much better than you do. He will never give you more than you can handle.”
Ga’briyel scoffed. “I find that highly unlikely, but I know you believe it. He does not seem to take much interest in how much I can handle.”
“You are wrong, Anmah,” Telantes said with a frown. “Yisu has a deep interest in you. He cares for you immensely, and if you cannot see that, then you are a fool.”
Stopping and staring at the Debaduta, Ga’briyel snapped, “A fool? You have no idea what I have gone through in just the past several moons, Telantes!” He felt the discomfort of the boys, but he was angry again, and he could not stop himself from striding up to the Debaduta and poking him in the chest. “Five deaths! All but the arrow were incredibly painful!” Zahin flinched at that, but Ga’briyel did not notice. “A Daitya’s poison, a Dirack’s flame, drained by a Takosa, and now the Sarpa’s venom! You do not get to tell me what I can and cannot handle, spirit! I may have hurt you, but I will guess that within an hour, the pain will be gone! I have suffered more in the past year than you could ever imagine! And it is not all physical suffering, either. I am here while my wife is not! I will not be with her when our child is born, and that is almost more painful than the deaths! So do not tell me how I feel, Telantes! You do not have the right to do that!”
Telantes’ eyes went wide in surprise at this outburst, and then a look of sorrow crossed his face. “You are right, Ga’briyel,” he said softly as he carefully removed Ga’briyel’s finger from his chest. “I apologize. I do not understand the pain you have suffered, for I have never suffered it myself. No one has in the last five thousand years. You are wrong about Yisu, however. I have been his servant for time immemorial, and I like to think that I understand Him at least a little. You cannot see Him, but I can, and He has suffered along with you each and every time you have died. He feels your pain, Sainika, and he cries along with you.”
“The creator of the world feels my pain? Physically? I highly doubt that.”
“No, Ga’briyel, not physically, but do you feel the pain of your father when you leave or that of your friends when you die?” Then Telantes frowned. “Forget I asked that. Of course you do.”
“Yes, Debaduta, I do! I feel everything! Everything! I can shut my mind to people’s thoughts, but I cannot stop feeling what they do! Everything they feel! Like the fear of my men!” Ga’briyel turned on his heel and stormed back toward the camp, but not before he heard Telantes speak softly.
“I am sorry.”
Ga’briyel ignored him and soon reached the camp. The men’s fear had only diminished slightly, and that made him even angrier. Mathi and Zahin looked at him, and their concern only added to the smothering sensation. When the boys moved toward the tents, it helped a little, but not much.
“Where is Captain Kajal?” Ga’briyel growled at the nearest guardsman.
“I last saw him at the horselines, sir,” the man stammered as he snapped to attention.
Ga’briyel turned in that direction and soon saw the man he was looking for. “Captain!” he barked, and Kajal spun toward him.
“Yes, Captain Mistri?”
“You wanted to talk to me?”
“Yes, sir.” Kajal started to walk toward the perimeter of the camp, and Ga’briyel followed him. When they were away from everyone, Kajal turned toward the Anmah and frowned when he saw the cuts and bruises on Ga’briyel’s face. “Are you all right, sir?”
“I am fine, Captain. What did you want to say?”
Taking a deep breath, Kajal dropped his eyes. “I wanted to say that I am sorry for earlier, sir. I thought about what you said, and you were right. We should be grateful for what you did for us last night, and we were not. I have talked to the men, and most agree with me, but some are still afraid of you. They are afraid of what they do not understand.”
“They want to understand? I can make them understand if that is what they want. I can make them understand what I saved them from, and if they do not believe me, they can ask Dinton and Tero what they found when they pulled me from that swamp last night.”
“I think the men should hear from all three of you, sir. If you would be willing to talk to them, that is.”
Ga’briyel thought about that. Would telling the men what had happened to him help or hurt more? Would describing the agony he had suffered and the horrific wounds the venom had inflicted scare them even more? He had no idea, but he did know he had to try. Otherwise, the fear surrounding him would drive him insane.
“Fine. Gather everyone, even the men on watch. I will speak to them if you think it will help. I am unsure of that myself, but I will try.”
“Yes, sir. Immediately.” Kajal saluted and ran off to gather the men. Ga’briyel stayed where he was, clenching his fists tightly.
“Everything all right, Ga’briyel?” Dinton’s voice came from behind him, and Ga’briyel just shook his head.
“No, Dinton, it is not. Kajal thinks that if I explain to the men what happened last night, they will be less frightened, but I do not think so.” The Anmah turned around slowly. “What do you think?”
“It is possible, my friend. I think you should try.”
Ga’briyel nodded and walked back toward the camp where Kajal had already managed to get everyone together. He took a deep breath as he stood in front of his company and then looked at them, his eyes blazing.
“Captain Kajal says you all want to understand me. I will do my best to make that happen. I am Anmah. When I die, I live again at first light of the next day, fully healed, but I remember everything! I remember the agony of each and every death! I have died seventeen times, and all but two were torturous! Do you want to hear of those seventeen deaths? Do you want to hear how twelve of them were when I was six years old? I do not think you do, but I will tell you of last night’s death.
“Sayatan has created creatures out of your worst nightmares! Last night it was Sarpa—serpents at least six paces long. Two of them! I killed one after its venom burned a hole through my forearm. Burned right through flesh and bone! I did not know of the other until it spoke and spat its venom onto my chest. Imagine someone holding you over the hottest blacksmith’s forge while the flames burn through your body. That is what I endured last night. For you and for the people of Duniya! I watched my flesh melt away until the venom reached my heart and I finally died. I managed to kill the second Sarpa, however. Hopefully there are no more of them, but I would not bet on that for any amount of coin. Dinton and Tero found me and pulled me to dry land, and for that I thank them. I did not want to wake up in that swamp. Yisu alone knows what might have fed on me as I lay there. I do not know what they saw when they found me, but you may ask them if you wish.”
The men were staring at him, stunned looks on their faces, but Ga’briyel was pleased to feel their fear and horror decrease until it was barely noticeable. Then he sighed heavily. “If you want to know more, you may ask me, but you may not like what you hear. I do not like to talk about what I have gone through, but if you truly want to know, I will answer your questions. Now, go back to your duties.”
“Yes, sir,” the men answered and drifted away. Ga’briyel stayed where he was and waited for the inevitable. It did not take long before the first guardsman came to him, and the next several hours were spent answering endless questions.