As Lash picked up his sword and shield with the mixed group of other students, along the border the Shrkai people continued to come across seeking refuge from the intense heat and endless drought that had devoured their homeland. Most of the Shrkai people gathered in camps many in tents still, but simple stone structures were behind built in the prairies and thick woods that bordered the northern side of the Seerogana, the wide gentle river that although had dropped in level in the last couple years was still one of the main waterways in all of Annuvin. Trade markets smaller version of the massive market that once rivaled Schilling Harbor as the greatest flow of goods, were popping up all along the northern side of the river.
In one such market between an Annuvian village built at the edge of the woods and a Shrkai village of about equal size being constructed in the nearby hill valley, both Shrkai and Annuvians of all sorts mingled on a daily basis. With very few speaking both languages much of the trading took place with pointing and holding up fingers for prices and a few common words. One day as a Shrkai man was trading several bags of grain for bushels of fruit and some housewares a different Shrkai man Ahrl Cinge, walked in from the direction of the Annuvian village with three cloaked figures about the size of a child. He went to a table at the edge of a large tent that encompassed many trade tables, but this one had a large hog roasting over a fire just beyond the tent. Although this Shrkai man was quite able to speak the common language of the Annuvians he pointed to the items on display he wanted and the elven servant on the opposite side of table served him up a plate of pork with some roasted vegetables.
He went to sit at a nearby wooden table and the three child-sized figures formed a line behind him. They reached out from under the sleeves of their cloaks and clasped hands. Each hand had only three fingers and an opposable thumb of the same length, all tipped with a sharp, claw-like nail. They turned together and all three of them looked to a large human male who was walking passed a Shrkai who had just finished trading for goods and was headed out of the tent. The Shrkai accidently bumped into the human, as he backed away from the counter with his arm loaded with housewares. At first the human just politely nodded as it appeared he knew the Shrkai man did it on accident, and the Shrkai man smiled in return, but after a moment the human male stopped. He turned to look back at the Shrkai man with fire in his eyes.
“Why don’t you stinking charbacks swim back across the river where you belong!” He stepped forward getting very close to the Shrkai man’s face. The Shrkai man smiled at first completely unaware of what the man was saying, but then his expression soon changed as well and he reached into the pushcart he had just loaded with goods and pulled out a long copper soup spoon and struck out at the man. A brawl suddenly erupted among the people under the large tent. There was an even mix of Annuvians which consisted mainly of humans, but some dagnaars and elves as well and Shrkai. The brawl encompassed really only a few of each faction, those directly looked upon by the three child-sized figures joined the brawl with little or no encouragement while many others who were not in the direct gaze on the shrouded trio, seemed appalled by the brawl and simply moved away from the fighting.
Ahrl continued to eat his meal while seemingly unaware of the chaos going on behind him. When he finished he wiped his mouth and stood calmly. He stepped away from the and with a simple command of ‘come’ the three shrouded figures followed behind him in tow not unlike that of ducklings following the mother duck. As he exited the tent three armed soldiers were charging in to break up the brawl.
A few days later after they got word of the story, Sarnay and Frolin flew in on their dragons and landed in a field nearby. They dismounted and went to the same trade tent where the brawl took place and asked questions of the witnesses. They talked to the elven vendor who witnessed the action and despite the fact that both Sarnay and Frolin where Shrkai he was very cooperative and even humble and saddened, as he reported what he saw.
“I can’t say what started it,” the elven man reported with his head hung. “I’ve heard about incidents elsewhere, but everything had been so peaceful here.”
“Can you recall anything in particular about it? Think please any small detail.” Sarnay coaxed him.
“I don’t know. I was serving people like I do every day,” he turned to direct his daughter to continue rotating the hog over the fire as he thought back to the brawl. “I served this guy with some weird kids, the next thing I knew was people were throwing punches at each other.”
“Wait a minute… did you say a guy with some kids?” Frolin asked suddenly. “Were there three of them by chance?”
“Well ya come to think of it there were,” the elven vendor replied.
“Thank you sir you’ve been very helpful,” Frolin thanked the man then pulled Sarnay off to the side. “One of the witnesses at a brawl in a different region several weeks ago said something about a Shrkai man with three kids.”
“Really?” Sarnay asked.
“Yes you were questioning a different witness at the time. This can’t be a coincidence. This is the only connection we’ve found in several incidents,” Frolin said, as they began to walk out from under the tent toward their dragons. “and the incidents are separated by just enough time for someone to have walked from village to village in a straight line even. The first we heard about was the furthest east and the others were between here and there. We absolutely have to follow up on this.”
“We should warn the border guards to be on the lookout for a Shrkai man with three kids.” Sarnay added, as they got to the dragons and mounted.
“Yes, you head to the next village, I’ll fly much further west to the far prairies the population is much more sparse, then we’ll meet somewhere in the middle.” He called out to Sarnay after mounting his dragon. She nodded her agreeance and they both flew off to the west.
As Sarnay and Frolin spread the news to the different border guard stations at dragon speed, elsewhere Sahn trudged wearily across the dry ravine with the sun baking his brain. He squinted his eyes as strange rock formation appeared in the near distance with heat waves blurring his view. He leaned his wiry frame upon the spear like a crutch the base of the spear pressing into the cracked ground supporting most of Sahn’s weight. He neared the formation with the visible heat waves parting before him revealing what appeared to be an entrance to an ancient temple. Sahn stood bewildered before the tall stone statues that bordered the arched entrance, one of them with an arm the size of Sahn that had fallen and broken upon the path before him. Sahn stepped toward the massive opening that was built into the hillside where the ravine had deepened and ended.
Sahn instantly felt the cooler air wash over him invigorating his weary muscles as he stepped inside the shaded temple. The sound of the base of his spear striking the stone flooring echoed throughout the chamber and Sahn heard a strange sound coming from a doorway before him beneath a set of crumbling stairs. He limped his way forward across the stone foyer and the sound became louder as he near. He wanted to picture it in his mind, but thought his imagination was getting the better of him, but as he passed under the stairs with dust falling between the cracks and through the doorway his eyes widened at the sight of it.
In the next room the green ivy grew through the cracks in the temple floor and climbed up the mountain wall. A water fountain that had absolutely no business being where it was centered the lush ivy crawling across the floor almost as if it were alive. Birds and tiny reptiles swam and drank from the fountains giving waters, as Sahn started to limp toward it. About halfway across the room he dropped his spear and let his small pack slide off his weakened shoulder and stumbled to the fountain like a toddler first using his legs to walk instead of crawl. He fell upon the base of the large fountain and looked at his reflection in the clear water of its basin.
He reached an open palm into its cool giving water and lapped up a handful splashing it on his face and letting it drip down his chest, as a tiny brown bird watched him angrily chirping at the invasion of his tranquil bath. After getting his fill of water, Sahn turned with his back to the life-saving fountain and dropped down to sit at its base. Before him an image appeared he thought at first was just his friend Darvin again, but he soon realized Darvin didn’t have long sexy legs beneath a shear blue gown and curves like that of a goddess and a shimmering dress that fluttered as if in a gentle breeze, but the stale air was still. Sahn looked up at the image before him and was in awe of the shapely image of the goddess Tarleena with her long light blue hair and eyebrow piercings she was truly a surprising sight to see in the crumbling temple.
“You have finally arrived,” the soft words flowed across her red lips. “We have been expecting you.” Sahn continued to stare upward sitting at the base of the flowing fountain not sure that what he was seeing was real or another image of his imagination. “Please let me help you up.” She reached out a sparkling arm toward Sahn who accepted it and he rose before her light on his feet as if floating on air. “You do not know how much we’ve needed you, please join us for lunch.”
“You’ve been expecting me?” Sahn finally managed to ask of her.
“Yes we have need of you. You who know us from before at the great city, you who know we once walked the land the same as everyone else and we are not all powerful. There is actually little we can truly do without the aid of the living.” Tarleena led him out of the fountain room and up some crumbling stairs that surely would have collapsed under their weight had their feet been touching the ground. She led him up to another chamber with ivy climbing the walls, but this room had stone benches with cushions still intact and showing no signs of wear.
“What could you possibly have need of me?” Sahn asked, as he sat on a bench near a granite table when his eyes fell upon a knife he somehow recognized. Tarleena sat at a bench across from him. Sahn’s eyes were transfixed on the knife with many images of faces of people being stabbed with it reflected on the smooth surface of the blade.
“This cursed blade was once yours,” She spoke in a very soft non-accusing manner. Sahn soon realized it was his knife the one he used so many years ago after he witnessed his wife and newborn daughter roasted by the ash that flowed down from an erupting volcano, he used this knife to strike out at the men holding him from running to her. “Since that fateful day all those who picked up this foul blade were compelled to use it on others. Many have died by its wielding.” Sahn began to tremble. He tried, but he could not look away from the knife.
“Please! Take it from me! I cannot bear to look at it!” Sahn screamed out.
“Oh but you must!” Tarleena spoke in an unusually harsh voice and her bright blue eyes darkened. “A dark force has escaped the spirit realm and this blade is the only weapon that can send him back.”
“Have I not done enough? Is my penance not yet fulfilled? Have I not suffered enough?”
“NO!” Tarleena shrieked and stood before him. “You started a chain of death now you must end it!”
“No, please no! I know what I’ve done and I’ve suffered for it believe me. How much more can one man burden?” Sahn dropped to his knees, pressed the palms of his hands to the dusty stone floor, and pressed his face against the backs of his hands. “I beg of you. I cannot relive this! I’ve buried my rage I do not wish to bring it up again!” Tarleena again sat upon the bench across from him.
“We know of how you aided the daughter of one of our disciples and drew the spirit out of his body. We thank you for that.” Tarleena said in her customary soft voice. We are not completely blind to the pains you’ve suffered, but you must endure this. You are the only one. If anyone else were to pick up this blade they would surely succumb to its dark curse.” Tarleena reached down with her open palm and pressed her fingertips to Sahn’s forehead raising him up from his bowed position. “You are not alone in your mission. You have friends. One of them searches for you now.” Tarleena stood behind Sahn, as he viewed an image of Darvin walking through the desert that appeared on a nearby wall.
“No please not him. I’ve done too much to him already. I took his parents from him. You can’t make me face this again! I refuse.” Sahn turned from the image with his hand up blocking the sight of it even after he turned away. Before him on the table was the knife he used so many years ago glaring at him across the room.
“You cannot escape your pain. You must confront it. Go to him. He is now your strength, as you were once his.” Tarleena vanished as did the image of Darvin on the wall. Sahn stepped toward the table one unsteady step at a time before he finally stood looking at the knife lying there on the only piece of furniture still remaining in the room. His chest heaved with every fateful breath breathing in the now stale air. He closed his hand into fists. He felt his rage returning. For years he suppressed it deep inside, now it clawed its way back up wrenching out his insides on the way. “If they want blood I’ll give them blood.” He spat out with what little moisture he had left in him spewing forth from his lips. “I must confront my pain!” He shouted out his voice echoing throughout to empty chambers of the temple. “You want feel my wrath? Then so be it. A wrath you shall have! Let none stand before me. You think you know me? You do not! You forget I know you. I was there that day. The day you took everything from me! Everything! You want to release the rage I felt back then?” He grabbed up the knife and slid it into a sheath that appeared on a belt around his waist. “You think you can control your creation? You know not what you do.” With fire in his heart and blood in his eyes, Sahn turned to exit the chamber.
Further away in the desert with sand swirling about him Darvin trudged through the desert with a cloth over his face weighed down with a few filled skins of water and wearing his white chill suit. He lifted a map to his face with one hand and held the flapping edges back with the other. He tucked away the map and altered his course slightly to head to a spot where he hoped to find a water pipe to refill one of his water skins. He bent forward to lean into the wind and raised a hand over his brow to block out the blowing sand and trudged forward. He soon saw the pipe he sought protruding from the ground and started to pump the handle vigorously. After a short wait some sandy water trickled out of the end of the pipe and he placed one of his water skins beneath the faucet to catch as much of the water as he could, although it was very little.
As he raised the water skin to drink from it, he saw something approach through the sand-filled sky and waves of desert heat. At first the image was nothing but a blur on the horizon, but the blur grew in size as it approached and took the shape of a man walking with a staff. Darvin continued to watch the man approach from a distance not knowing who it could be. He thought himself the only one foolish enough to be out this far into the dry desert. The only one he could think it to be would mean the end of his search, but he suppressed those hopes. As the figure got nearer he could see it to be a man wearing a tattered chill suit with a small pack on his back and water-skin attached to a belt. He squinted his eyes to look at the man’s face and soon realized his hopes were answered, it was Sahn the man he had searched for now for over two years.
Sahn walked straight to Darvin leaning not as heavily on the spear he used as a walking staff as he had just a short time ago. He stopped just a few feet in front of Darvin and managed a meek smile with his cracked and blistered lips.
“Sahn. I can’t believe it’s you.” Darvin stepped forward to take a closer look at his friend, but stepped back again when he saw his face.
“Why did you come here?” Sahn snapped his rage not subside much during the long walk from the temple. “Why do you follow me? Is there no one else you can torture?”
“Why I’m your friend Sahn.”
“Well you have a poor choice in friends, but if you insist on following me. Let’s march out of this desert.” Sahn reached down to grip the handle of the cursed knife in his sheath. “I have something I must do.” Sahn stepped away in the same path he was headed with a determined stride despite his once fatigued muscles. He moved on feeling no pain, feeling nothing, absolutely nothing at all. Darvin followed behind him. Struggling to keep pace.