The Fallen Goddess: Book One

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Chapter 10

Chapter the Tenth

“Do you mean to live?” Bretts asked him over a glass of mulled wine. Today he wore a fedora, covering a usually shiny head. The two friends sat at a table in an open field, and the sun drenched them with summertime warmth.

Zayne was already feeling a bit light headed. “I’m standing here, aren’t I?” he responded good naturedly, swishing the dark red liquid inside the goblet with a practiced hand. “I didn’t realize that living was something that one meant to do. It always kind of happened to me.” Involuntarily, he smacked his lips. He was thirsty. Why were they sitting at a table in a field?

Bretts cracked a smile. “You confuse existing with living, my friend. Existing in an involuntary act, a function of circumstance and biology. Living, on the other hand, is a choice.” He waved his arm around grandiosely, ever the poet. “You exist when you eat, you breathe, you sleep. You live when you feast on an exotic meal, when you smell a rose, or when you share a pillow with a beautiful woman. Do you follow what I mean?” His smile broadened until it stretched from cheek to cheek, displaying teeth that seemed too oversized for his face.

Zayne raised his cup to his lips to drink. He did not like the smile that Bretts wore. It did not look right, and it made him feel nervous for some reason. Perhaps it was his thirst. He was so thirsty he thought he might go mad. But even as he tilted the cup, he found it to be empty. “What does this mean?” he asked Bretts. “Why is my cup empty?”

Bretts reached back and slapped Zayne on the face. As he fell to the floor, he heard a ringing in his ears and his cheek exploded in pain. Tears involuntarily ran from his eyes. He looked up at Bretts, surprise and confusion and dismay registering on his face.

Bretts looked down at him in disgust. Rage contorted his face into something alien and fearful. “It is between circumstance and choice that destiny occurs, torn between competing paths even as it moves inexorably forward.” He spat at Zayne. “This is yours.”

***____***

Zayne gasped as he opened his eyes. Just a dream, it was just a dream, he thought to himself, trying to calm his panicked heart. Bretts is dead, murdered by the Traë, murdered by the choices I made. A feeling of nausea and disorientation washed over him as his mind shook off the sleep. His head throbbed at the temple unevenly.

He lay prostrate in the back of what seemed to be a wagon, his body carelessly tossed upon and moreso underneath the heads and entrails and skins of dozens of animals. The heat was oppressive, and he was sweating profusely. The wagon lumbered forward, each rut and knot in the road causing the rickety cart to rise and fall precipitously.

He was alive; in fact, he might even be free. What had happened to him? He remembered months of torture tied to a rack at the hands of the Traë. He remembered escaping the room and wandering down the hall, but after that he drew a blank. However, he was not bound, and by the looks of it, he was either hidden or presumed dead and thrown into the cart.

He looked around surreptitiously. Around him were the still-moist entrails of animals. Blood was everywhere, matting both hide and organs. Flies covered everything in writhing mats of black and blue and iridescent green, their incessant buzzing a constant drone that receded as his mind tuned it out. Raising his head as little as possible, he looked over the pile of skins and guts that covered most of his body, looking for anything resembling a human. No, there were only animals here. Their remains, at least. The parts that were not edible.

He pooled Sihr, and was gratified to feel a trickle. Was there some sort of ward or geas of Elder Magic upon him? It was possible, although he thought it unlikely. He had some attenuation to Elder Magic now; if someone had tied a spell to him, he would be able to feel its proximity. But he could not be certain. He did not want to use Sihr in any case; no telling if a Traë mage was around, ready to remind him of the price of failure.

Sweat comingled with blood dripped into his eye from his forehead. He lifted an arm, disturbing the scores of flies that lapped at the blood upon him. Grimacing, he stuck his finger in his mouth to clean it of blood and rubbed his eye, relieving the sting. The metallic and salty taste of blood spread across his tongue. Well, he had eaten worse in these last few weeks. Blood was the least of his concerns.

Even a trivial effort like lifting an arm exhausted him. He was too weak to do anything, much less flee this cart from wherever the driver was taking it. He needed more rest. He needed food. He let his head fall back and let sleep take him.

The next time he awoke was in the night. It was still warm, but not unbearably so. They had stopped moving, and he could see firelight illuminate the latter half of the wagon bed. Zayne thought to call out to whomever was taking him wherever he was being taken, but decided that it did not matter; any place was better than where he had been. Maybe the driver did not know he was in the back. Maybe the driver would take him back if he found out that a stranger was hiding in the wagon bed. Maybe the Traë would make sure he would never escape again. At that thought, Zayne’s heart started beating faster and terror gripped him. He could not go back. He would not. Zayne pulled up at the sticky pelt of an animal he could not identify, trying to cover himself completely.

The edge of the pelt was still wet. Whether it was blood or some other liquid, Zayne did not know. What he did know was that his throat was so dry that he could not even swallow. Grimacing, he put the edge of the pelt into his mouth and sucked as hard as he could. Instantly he felt a flow of salty, bitter liquid in his mouth. Zayne swallowed convulsively, trying not to gag or cough. Warm, briny blood coated his throat as it dribbled down his throat. Its salty and metallic taste turned his stomach, but his throat thanked him for the lubrication.

Zayne knew his body was in poor health; everything hurt, and even without the starvation and the lack of water, he could feel the throbbing of muscles and bones that had not healed properly. Muscles that had twisted around broken bones, or the calcification of bones around a broken joint. Even with a Sihr healer, his body was so far removed from health that there was no hope that he could ever expect to look or feel normal again, but he needed enough strength and health to be able to function normally. There was no way that an Aeyn could heal himself, but Zayne knew of ways to encourage the body to accelerate its own healing. It wasn’t fast, but it required only a trickle of Sihr.

The trivial noises of movement distracted him from his thoughts. He strained his ears, trying to make out what was going on outside the wagon. He felt pitifully exposed, protected only by the pelt and viscera of animals that were amassed on top of him. Much good that would to against a cudgel. Or Elder Magic, for that matter.

Zayne heard a slap, and a cry of pain. “You will do what you are told, and nothing more,” he heard a bored-sounding voice state, replete with the baritone inflections he associated with the Traë. “What I do with him is none of your concern, human. Keep your ears shut and your tongue still, or I will cut them both out.” Zayne’s heart lurched in fear; they were talking about him, and there was a Traë in the party. That could only mean that they were not finished with him yet. He broke out in a cold sweat, despite the chill of the night wind, and he felt his heart thundering in his chest. He could not go back to that room! He would not! Tears leaked unbidden from his eyes, and Zayne damned himself for his cowardice. Escape was his only hope. Zayne cursed the gods of caprice and circumstance, confident that they were the black-hearted deities that were shuffling him between the hands of one Traë and then another.

Whatever response the human made was muffled, though Zayne struggled to make it out. “Bah! Humans,” the Traë reflected. “Premus Sarkir is right. Humans are the vermin of the thinking world.” The Traë snorted derisively, sounding oddly like a horse to Zayne. “A race designed to serve, no doubt. Failing that, a nuisance to be exterminated.”

Zayne quailed anew at the words. He had heard of Premus Sarkir during his imprisonment; he was some sort of high ranking officer in the battle corps of the Traë. Much of the conversation that was had in that room was around what the Premus wanted done to Zayne that day, or what the Premus might do to those that failed him. He was no mage, but had taken an uncommon interest in Zayne during his imprisonment. ‘Premus’ was a designation of rank in the Traë military forces; evidently, he answered only to Traë royalty, or whatever system of government they had on this side of the Aryth Sea.

When the Premus visited Zayne, it was always at the end of a torture session or immediately following one; Zayne’s recollections were not very clear, given the state that he was at the tail end of one of these sessions. He had vague and uncomfortable memories of begging for mercy and promises allegiance to the Traë. He shifted uncomfortably at the memory. Draw enough blood, and even the strongest of men will give up his daughter for respite. In any case, one Traë looked like another to him; the only difference his untrained eye could discern were markings on the tusks that wrapped around their fearsome heads. The Premus stood out because of the red filler in the etchings of some of carvings on his tusks, which was something he had not seen on any other Traë. Zayne had unclear memories of the Premus sitting down and speaking to him once the interrogators had left the room.

Zayne took a deep breath in an attempt to clear his mind of the memories and the fear that plagued him. Focus and concentration would take him much further than the response of a frightened rabbit. Evidently, he had not escaped; he was being herded. To what end, he did not know. It did seem that whatever it was that was transpiring was not standard procedure; it could be that he was being transported for Premus’s purposes alone, without the knowledge of the rest of the military force. It was unlikely that military transfers included prisoners being thrown on the back of refuse carts, unbound and hidden from sight under the entrails of dead animals. Whatever the case was, Zayne doubted that it was going to be for his benefit. He had no friends here.

His options to escape were limited. Sihr was out of the question, as far as he was concerned; he doubted his ability to summon enough magic to overcome the pair, and even if he could, he might inform every Traë mage in a five league radius of his presence. Zayne was desperate to reach out to the Circle of Nine and tell them what had transpired, but such magery would have to wait until he could be sure that there were no Traë nearby. He could perhaps steal away into the night if his two guards were fool enough to sleep without a watch. Perhaps he could make his way off the wagon and into tall grasses or a culvert during the day as they rode across the rutted road; falling from the cart might be just another tree root or uneven stone that the driver could not avoid.

Now that he was relatively unhindered, however, it would be so easy to end it all now. Lie back in the grass, lift a boulder with Sihr, and let it drop on his head. Or wield so much Water that badh’ would incinerate you. He could try to drown the camp that had tortured him; that would do it. A moment of pain for an eternity of solace. The idea was an itch in his mind, an ideation he could not discharge. Certainly he would rather be dead than live though such torture again. He would never allow himself to be captured again; that much was certain.

No, he would not kill himself. Not unless there was no hope for escape. He was too much of a coward to commit his corporeal form to the earth and embrace the Keeper. He would continue his meager existence, subsisting in fear and in the shadows, until that time he was forced to give it all up. And even then it would be with tears and a curse.

Zayne heard someone get up and approach the back of the wagon. Instantly he closed his eyes and evened his breathing, although his heart felt like it would burst out of his chest. If anyone touched him, they would know him to be awake. He hoped it was the human.

The smell of tumbaco wafted past his nostrils, making his mouth water. It smelled of nutmeg and sweet cherry wood and the acrid odor of the tumbaco leaf itself. Zayne could feel eyes roving over his misshapen and tortured body. “So much work for such a small and insignificant beast,” he heard a deep and hollow voice expostulate bumptiously. It was the Traë, without a doubt. Zayne tried not to swallow. Instead, he surreptitiously cracked an eye, trying not to give away the fact that he was alert, but there was nothing to be seen from his vantage point. “What is it about you that fascinates the Premus?” he heard from somewhere off to his left. “Are you some sort of human royalty that we have not heard of from across the ocean? Do you wield some unlikely power invested by someone other than Khalas the Illimitable?”

It occurred to Zayne that a needle of sharpened Air could be driven through the Traë’s eye with only a minimal of Sihr expended. Just a drop; no one outside the immediate vicinity would notice. He could drive the needle into its brain and the Traë would never know what happened, even if Sihr was as evident to him as is was to Zayne. One drop of Air to make the needle, pushed by two drops of Air into this bastard’s eye. Less than a heartbeat, and this monster will lie at my feet.

It was a tempting thought, but one Zayne did not dare to follow through with. The risk was too high. He had been tortured for months; who knew that effect this would have on his ability to use Sihr? He doubted his ability to focus a strong, if miniscule, amount of Sihr for a singular purpose. And what if this Traë was a mage that was faster or stronger than he was? He would be bound and no doubt taken back to whatever hell he had been expelled from for more torture. No, the risks were too high. He had to find another way. Once that avoided confrontation. He needed to use stealth, not the sword.

“Basel! Come here and find out why this human still sleeps,” the Traë called out, presumably to his human servant. “It has been days since he has eaten. If he does not wake soon, I will have to put a feeding pipe into him.” A hand, unmistakably Traë, closed around his arm. Zayne could feel the five fingers and two thumbs hold the upper part of his arm with a vise-like grip and shake him, rattling his teeth. Zayne lay limp, too frightened to do anything but tremble.

He shaking was short lived. “Master Grethe, you will rip off his arm,” he heard an obsequious human voice whine. “He has yet to heal. You will not be able to question a dead man.”

There was another slap. “Do not presume to instruct me, human. The next time I hit you, it will be with less restraint.” Even though Zayne’s eyes were closed, he felt the imposing presence of the Traë fade as he walked back to the fire.

He felt the unmistakable touch of lips upon his ear, producing tingles that ran down his neck. “They are strong, but they do not see so well, especially in the dark,” he heard, the man’s voice low and rasping as he tried to whisper conspiratorially. “Rest now, good sir, and I will wake you on my watch. This one is a laze, and would rather work me than see to his own work complete. We will speak later tonight.” Zayne felt the man push something into his hands. “Eat this quickly, before Grethe returns. It will sustain you. Perhaps tonight I will be able to save you something more filling than a piece of bread. Shhhh! Don’t speak! Save your words for tonight!”

Elation as he had not known in months lifted his spirits. Food! He could not remember the last time he had swallowed anything other than the contents of his own heaving stomach as it protested the injustices of the feeding tube that they forced into his mouth and down his throat. He tore a small piece from the stash in his hands, wetting it with some of the blood that pooled around him despite being exposed to the heat and dryness of the day. When it felt soft and pliable, he furtively stuck it in his mouth. He chewed slowly, working the bread with broken teeth and aching gums. Blood turned the soggy bread into paste in his mouth, for which he was thankful; even with this semi-soft solid, his gums already hurt. It did not take much more than that to exhaust him; a few more cautious bites, and he decided it was enough. He lay back upon his bed of refuse and filth and looked up into an unfamiliar sky. Stars twinkled in the sky in places he did not know, and even the whispers of moonbeams that visited him in the night could not bring him anything but disquiet. This is not my world.

Later that night, when the fire had burned down to embers and the loud, raucous noises of the Traë’s sleep resounded across the darkened plains, Basel came to his side. “My watch,” he cackled as he climbed into the back of the open wagon with Zayne. “We humans have to stick together, ayuh. My name is Basel, master of this donkey cart here. I hear you from across the sea. You don’t look so different than I do. Maybe I’m from across the sea as well!” The man laughed uproariously at his own joke, careless of the Traë that slept not twenty paces from the two of them. “Get you up. You’ve been abed for near three days now. Stay like that much longer and you’re likely as not to stay there for good.”

Basel reached under Zayne and helped him to sit up, and Zayne finally got a look at his unlikely and bucolic seeming savior. The first thing he noted was the absence of a thumb on his right hand; he remembered something about a man missing a thumb from his incarceration. He was older; even in the dark, Zayne could make out white hair and the thin, inelastic skin of a man whose body had begun that final decline. “No, don’t talk yet,” he man said, putting a filthy finger against Zayne’ cracked lips. “Eat first, then some drink. When you are full, you can speak.”

Zayne nodded. “My thanks,” he said roughly as he took a small bowl of stew and a spoon from the man. It occurred to him that he just spoke the first words that had not been forced from him in months. His throat was raw, and his whole body ached with a pain that seemed steeped into his very bones. “It smells good,” he said of the soup, though he could smell nothing. Nevertheless, his stomach rumbled in anticipation.

Basel snorted derisively. “Let’s hope your tale is better than the lie you just told, or I might find better company with Master Grethe, beatings and all. I am less a cook than I am a Traë!” He chortled again.

As Basel droned on, Zayne concentrated on holding down his soup. His stomach roiled, and Zayne had to work his spoon around the small and pitiable vegetables that nevertheless threatened to dislodge the remnants of his teeth. Even then, he felt the broth spread through his body like a salve, revitalizing him. He took a deep breath after his first bite, trying to smell the dry air and the flavor of the new world he was finally experiencing. The hulking behemoth that lay at his feet he tried to forget.

“Where are we headed?” he asked suddenly, interrupting the Basel’s never-ending commentary on the Traë.

“Waas ‘at?” Basel responded, evidently miffed at being interrupted. “We’s headed west, though why you are I dunno. East, west, it’s all the same to you, in’nit? Lessen’ you think you can get back home, but there’s this puddle in yer way.”

“No, I mean specifically,” Zayne replied. Evidently Basel was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. “Are we headed to a city, or some outpost in the middle of a desert? Are we going to a military station? Are these Traë planning on setting me free?”

Basel looked at him, amazed. “And how do you think I would know something like that?” he said with a grin he did not bother to hide. A short cackle escaped him, the sound of a man unused to expressing real laughter. It was a hidden, frightened sort of laugh, imbued by years of hiding joy from tormentors. Zayne wondered if all humans on this side of the Aryth Sea were as this Basel was. “I’m human,” he reminded Zayne. “I do what I’m told, and so will ye, iff’n you know what’s good for ya. You coming from Esterelle. That place is bad, I know it. I seen it break many a man, and women too. But it can get worse. A lot worse. Esterelle is just there to get information outta you. They ain’t looking to hurt you any more than they been told to do.” Zayne looked at him incredulously. “Ayuh, I’m dead on with you, sir.” Basel said ‘sir’ but the words sounded like ‘saah,’ some odd combination of linguistics and accent that Zayne had a hard time understanding. “What happened to you? Tied you to a rack, whipped your skin from your bones, maybe use some ‘o that Elder Magic to make you crazy? Pshaw! I seen you walk back in Esterelle. No one cut out your tongue neither. And you ain’t afraid to look at another man. By the looks of it, you ain’t pissing blood neither. There’s worse things that a solid beatin’, that’s true. I seen it. You nothing short o’ lucky.” The old man leaned back against the head of a dead goat. “Yessir, you lucky. You still got a mind to think with.”

Zayne’s heart started beating faster even before the old man had finished his thoughts. He did not want to imagine a world that was worse than what he had experienced. “I have to get out of here,” he said breathlessly, fear making both his voice and his thoughts incoherent. “I don’t want to see any more. I want to go home.”

Basel grinned. Firelight illuminated his dull and rotting teeth, trying to reflect off of them but failing. “There’s no escape here, sir. Every one you meet on this side o’ the puddle, be it man or Trae, is your enemy. Best understand that now.”

“You could help me,” Zayne said desperately, the panic burgeoning in his breast like an animal trying to escape a cage it suddenly found itself in. “Just point me towards the Aryth Sea. I will do the rest myself.”

“Are you mad?” the old man asked incredulously. “Even were I mad enough to do that – and I am not! – you would be found in a matter of hours. Can you run faster than a horse? Have you some magic that surpasses that of an Elder God? Can you wield a sword better than a Traë? I think not, on all three counts. If these Traë want you dead, so you shall be, sir.” Basel’s grin turned feral. “Find comfort in those that protect you, that seek to guard you from harm.” Zayne felt a callused hand stroke his leg, climbing ever upwards. “It might be that I could help you, if I liked you well enough.”

Zayne closed his eyes and shuddered. “Not yet,” he said, trying not to cringe. “Later, when I feel better,” he added hastily as he saw the scowl on Basel’s face. “I appreciate you very much. I just need some rest.” The whimper is his voice was only slightly contrived. He felt ill.

“You Easterners whine worse than second wives,” Basel told him, clearly put out. “I’ve seen whores with stronger backbones. Ah, to hell with ye.”

“No, wait!” Zayne said desperately. Basel, for all his faults, was the only human he knew on this continent. “I meant no offense!”

“Pull ye on Khatam’s root,” Basel responded as he got up and moved off the wagon. “Let’s see how ye feel when Grethe’s knows ye awake. He’s been meanin’ te ask ye of the East.”

“Basel – “

“Close yer trap, Easterner. I’ll bid ye the morning anon.” He walked back to the fire and lay down on the cot of hides he had made. Zayne looked at him in despair, wondering what he could have done differently. In a few moments, Basel’s hacking snores joined the Traë’s, and Zayne knew that whatever chance he had with Basel was no more.

Zayne took hold of the frayed ends of whatever luckless beast that had the misfortune to grace his body and pulled it to his chin. Winds came from the East, reminding him of home, and he imagined that he could smell the flavors of honeyed mead and stolen kisses and freedom. But this wind chilled him, and he knew it to be an invention of a broken and hurting psyche. Those scents and those memories he imagined were no more than a lie.

****____****

In darkness there is death. It was one of the first rules he had learned and then believed. There were always rules when you were tutored in the Circle of Nine, but this was one of those that stood out. Darkness was a time of quiet, a time of rest. A time of sleep. Invariably, it was the time to reap what was sown. Sometimes that was justice, and sometimes it was vengeance.

This time, it would be necessity.

He had not slept in the last few hours since Basel had left him. Instead, he had lay awake and looked at the unfamiliar sky and listened to the cacophony of sounds around him; insects buzzing in the darkness, the occasional hoot or growl of some unknown animal far into the grasslands that surrounded them, or the deep rumble that erupted from the Traë that Zayne could only interpret as snoring. Basel’s hacking snores had receded considerably earlier that night when he had been kicked awake by a disturbed Traë and sent some few score paces down the path to stand watch. Basel had complied with minimal fuss, grumping a bit at the kick and the lackluster curses that the Traë offered out of habit, but once the big Traë was asleep, Basel had promptly followed suit. Meanwhile, Zayne kept company with his fear. It was a dark shadow that lay next to him, stroking his fragile mind with whispers of warning and comfort. It criticized his every plan silently as it sought out flaws and gaps in his plans, promising him endless suffering at the hands of the Traë for any mistake he might make. He planned, and his fear plotted with him.

Laboriously, Zayne made his way out of the cart. Flaccid muscles protested weakly but did their job as he made his way to the edge of the wagon. The wooden cart creaked as his weight shifted, but not appreciably so; there were hundreds of pounds of viscera and skins and bones in the back that helped spread out the weight. The horse snorted as he clambered off of the cart but made no other noises. They didn’t even bother to unhook the poor beast, he thought to himself. Indeed, the pitiful grass that arose in patches near the road had been trimmed to the ground, no doubt by the horse’s teeth. A fresh wind cleared his sense of smell, and for a moment he gagged at the stench that assailed his nostrils; the odor coming from the back of the cart was unspeakable. The thought that he was probably imbued with that sickening scent gave him pause; he did not want to alert the Traë or Basel by walking downwind of either of them.

Basel was right. He could no more outrun these two than he could fly across the Aryth Sea. As long as they lived, any attempt at escape was futile. He could not run, and they would catch him shortly after they found him gone. In another life he would have thought to steal the dray horse that was bound to the wagon, but he knew that in his current state anything more than a trot would probably throw him.

He cast about by the light of the dying fire for a stick or some other pointed object without success. No luck, but he had not expected any. Might as well expect a cold pint of ale and a comely wench to serve it. No, he did not need the stick; it just would have made the next few moments a bit more bearable. Unconsciously, he flexed his fingers, and felt the pull of scarred skin pulling around bent and crooked bones.

He made his way around the fire pit that had been dug next to the road. A poorly-healed ankle gave him a slight limp, and his left foot dragged a little as he moved. Embers glowed fitfully, casting restless and erratic wraiths upon the brown gravel of the road and the side of the wagon. On the far side of the small pit Zayne could see the hulking, shadowed form of what could only be the Traë.

The monster lay supine upon the ground, with its two arms folded underneath its head. Those thickly muscled arms lifted the huge, oversized head off of the ground and provided clearance to the swell of the pincer-like tusks that extruded from its thick neck. Or perhaps it was a part of the lower jaw; Zayne could not be sure. Its thick, leathery hide was bare, with the exception of a loincloth that Zayne supposed was for modesty. An oily sheen glistened iridescently in the glow of the embers. The beast had no nose; instead, there was a ridged area above the lips that sheltered four holes at its base; Zayne took those for nostrils, although he could not see the rise and fall of the Traë’s immense chest that would indicate breathing.

Zayne dropped to his knees and looked down at the Traë’s head. It rested nearly between his knees. A quick blade of Air to the throat and I will not worry for this one anymore, he thought, but the idea was no more than a passing fancy. He would not use Sihr; he had no desire to alert any Traë mage to his whereabouts. Not when he could use his hands to the same effect.

He took a deep breath and unceremoniously plunged two thumbs into the closed, lidded eyes of the Traë. There was a moment’s resistance, and then both eyes collapsed, bathing his hands in a sticky, viscous gel. The Traë under him screamed, and arms that once cradled its head flailed as they tried to bat him away. Zayne, however, had already pulled away, backing himself into the shadows, as though the cloak of the night could do any more to hide him from the Traë than its blindness could. Pebbles and grit clung to the wetness on his thumbs in mute evidence of violence he had just inflicted.

It did not take long for Basel to wake and make his way there. “Master Grethe!” he cried out as he ran up to the Traë. Grethe had made his way to his feet, but had not stopped screaming or waving his multi-jointed arms. Whether it was in fear or in agony, Zayne did not know, but he was glad. “Aye Khatam, who has done this to you?” Basel cried out as he saw the state of his master. “Master Grethe! What happened to you?” Basel grabbed his own head in both hands and rocked back and forth discordantly and moaned.

“My eyes!” Grethe screamed, almost incoherent in his pain. Two hands cupped his bleeding eyes, hiding the damage that had been visited upon him. “Find me a Healer! Find me a Healer now!”

“From where?” Basel screamed back, frightened by his master. “We’re nowhere! There’s no one about!” He backed away, and his gaze fell upon Zayne. He looked at him uncomprehendingly for a moment, and then his eyes widened as he saw Zayne cringe back in terror. “You,” he breathed, unbelieving as he turned towards a quailing and trembling Zayne. “You did this. You did this!” His voice became a screech as comprehension dawned. Zayne shook his head, unable to speak, unable to move as Basel’s ire blossomed into full-fledged rage. “Ye sick, homeless bastage! After all he did for you!” Basel kicked him, his withered leg connecting solidly with Zayne’s gut, and he cried out in pain. “You killed us!“ he wailed, punctuating his words with another kick to Zayne’s side. “You killed us both!”

Gasping for breath, Zayne desperately tried to roll himself out of Basel’s reach, but another kick connected at the bridge of his ribs, right underneath the breastbone, and the air whooshed out of him. His eyes watered as he struggled to breathe, and Basel’s screeches faded and his grasp on consciousness teetered on a knife’s edge. Not yet, he thought desperately as he struggled to remain awake. The edges of his vision darkened and a black haze filled his view. Close your eyes, and by the Dead God’s balls, you will die. Zayne forced his eyes open and looked up at the unfamiliar sky, littered with stars that seemed out of place or altogether foreign to him. Basel’s maddened face appeared in his field of view, his face contorted almost comically in disbelieving fury. Even in the dim illumination of the firelight, Zayne could see spittle frothing at one corner of his mouth. He was holding something in his hands like a sword, but bigger and thicker. Basel raised two spindly arms over his head, and Zayne looked at the splintered length of wood that Basel had probably torn free of the rickety wagon they had been riding on over the last few days. Zayne closed his eyes, waiting for the arms to descend and smear his head into the dry sand and scrub beneath him. I’m coming, he thought, and hoped the Reaper would make his passing painless. Or as painless as a plank of wood to the head could be.

A short, interrupted scream and the dull thud of a body hitting the ground disturbed his morbid thoughts, and he was rewarded with the sight of an unconscious Basel supine upon the ground next to him, even as his inadvertent attacker continued his agonized screams and the intemperate flailing of his two sets of arms. Not unconscious, Zayne realized as he crawled carefully over to Basel and looked into his unblinking eyes and saw the crushed throat where his master had inadvertently struck him with his powerful arm. Beyond his corpse, the wooden plank lay upon the floor, thankfully unmarred by Zayne’s blood. Looks like the Reaper snatched the wrong soul. Zayne shook his head shakily. I’m glad it’s not me.

Even through his fog of pain and madness, the Traë knew something was wrong with Basel. “Basel!” he cried out. “Where are you?” The oversized monster dropped to his knees and two hands felt along the ground for the dead man. Fortunately, he was too far away to realize any hope of finding either Basel or even Zayne. “Speak up, you beast of burden!” Grethe cried out bitterly, his guttural and anguished voice rolling across the open plains. “I promise that you will share the fate of your human friend if you betray me!” Hands scrabbled in the dust of the road as the Traë sought his human companion.

Zayne eyes the discarded length of wood thoughtfully. Few things would salve his damaged soul like beating a Traë to death, but risks were for children and fools. Let Grethe live the rest of his days blind. Or let him die of starvation; Zayne did not care. They are beasts that can speak, and no more. But their teeth are sharp, and their blood is hot. In any case, he lacked the strength.

“You will suffer, human!” the blind Traë screamed. “Both of you! Your skins will warm my women, and your flesh will feed my dogs! Basel, you son of a whore, do you hear me? I will take your wife myself, and then I will give her to my hounds!”

“Basel is dead,” Zayne whispered, and the Traë fell silent for a moment. “By your hand,” he added absently.

The silence extended for an uncomfortable moment. “You can still live,” the Traë finally said quietly. Even though you took my eyes, even though you caused Basel’s death. I will protect you. All you must do is take me to a healer.” He took a breath that sounded desperate to Zayne. “Take me, and I will insure you live. I promise you wine and women as well. The word of a Traë is inviolate.” Grethe smacked his lips together nervously, the light of themebers dancing on his strangely unresponsive face. “All you must do is guide me westward.” Grethe clambered to his feet and stood before Zayne, ten feet or more away by still as imposing and as deadly as an unsheathed sword.

Zayne turned away without a word. East was the only direction he could take. Across however far they had taken him, and then across the Aryth Sea. If he travelled far enough, he would find his home. Zayne turned away from the Traë that continued to fling epithets into the night sky. He could not take the horse that still munched quietly upon the scrub that surrounded it; he was too weak to unbridle it, let alone ride. East he would walk, and once he found the ocean, he would find a ship to take him back. And if he could not, he would swim.

His left foot trailed behind him a bit, but he did not care. That was the price of pride. Of knowledge. I’m free.

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