The Assassin; Or, There and Back Again

Sleeping under the stars every night for the weeks leading up to our descent into the Abyss hardly prepared me for the month I would spend there. Late from the relative comforts of Helm’s Deep, staring up at the night sky, I dreamed of hot meals and dry sheets; when Yog’Sothoth plunged our island through the portal and danger was constant, I longed only to see the same stars again. There is an alarming lack of consistency in the how others describe their experiences. Some saw a reversal of colours, some saw the world all in black and white, and others still saw no change at all. I, myself, witnessed a red sky during the day, and an alien array of celestial bodies at night, all pervaded by the constant stink of blood.

The moment we made our transition into the Abyss, a great change overtook me. I felt as though the very core of my being had been ripped out. I felt softer, weaker, and I was plagued by headaches for days. None of the healers in Dagger Deep knew what to make of my condition, and when the process was reversed and Arrakis returned to the material plane, the changes I had undergone remained. Arcane mystics in Ankh fared no better, and the greatest healer I have known, Relan, Bishop of Ithus, found his powers useless in curing me. Since our return I have also been plagued by a worsening cough, even as I feel some of my previous vigour returning. Some weeks past I went toe to toe with a giant and managed to overpower him through brute strength. That feat drained me as no other battle has before. Bella remains light in my hands, but it seems swinging her takes more out of me every time. The healers tell me there is a corruption in my chest, some residue of the air in the Abyss. I have spent half my coin on useless herbal concoctions and the other half being told that nothing can be done to cure me of this affliction.

I am twenty-six years old, by my own reckoning. I have never owned anything that I could not carry, nor known the touch of a woman, without coin changing hands (one way or the other). I flounder in my careers as a town guard and as a spy, and the secret agents of my homeland, the Order of Wolves, seem to have lost interest in me. I feel without purpose, without direction, beyond survival. Survival itself seems to be a short term goal, as all signs point to my impending death. Another adherent to Ithus, Brother Hector, implores me to remain strong and steadfast; my mentor and friend, the Hrogn barbarian Merek, suggests that I whore and fight my way to the grave. Ultimately, I am struck with a great melancholy. I see my end coming, and nothing with which to fill the intervening time.

Nothing except, perhaps, reclaiming the legacy of my father. The strangeness of my vision in the Dragon peaks, when I should most certainly have died, led me to redouble my efforts in translating the Captain’s journal. A scholar in Ankh succeeded, and it appears that my vision was correct. A lifetime of not knowing my father, when he stood above me all along. I have a name, at last; Sandar Ilos Zolus. The same name as that of my father, the last great general of the Empire, whose land lies burned and ruined under the heel of a power-obsessed mage. If I am to die, well and truly, perhaps there could be some meaning in dying for my name. To reclaim my father’s estate might afford me some comfort, and to die in the effort might ease my soul wherever it should end up. I do not make friends easily, and this has held true of my time in Dagger Deep, but there are some I would count as comrades. I believe those who would undertake this journey with me are few, but I also believe they would not turn back for all the world, especially if they were to get paid at the end. I shall make my inquiries, and begin to settle my affairs, and continue searching for something to relieve the corruption in my lungs so that I might once more let out a proper battle cry before the end.

***

Some weeks passed, my condition worsening. Through a proxy I arranged for supplies and mounts to be picked up outside of Ankh the day after the Festival of Osis. A number of the denizens of Dagger Deep had, indeed, come to my aid. They were Dice, an acolyte of Cheeba; Zarnor, my orc companion; Hector, acolyte of Ithus; and Merek, barbarian member of Hrogn. Meeting us in Helm’s Deep were my mercenary friends, the twins Oleg and Meven. I also acquired a wife in the form of the tavern maid Fritha. I was highly intoxicated at the time, but found the idea of being her fifth concurrent husband appealing. Four other men could not be wrong. She had no idea of the journey I was planning, and I admit I am nervous at the wrath my return might incur.

I left Dagger Deep with Zarnor and Merek at the end of the Festival of Osis, and our ride to Helm’s Deep was uneventful. Some distance from the city proper I packed myself into a crate so that I might be smuggled in without attracting the attention of any lingering enemies. It was a hot, uncomfortable several hours, and I was dropped and turned on my head a number of times, but was no worse for wear when Zarnor freed me on the deck of the cargo skiff on its way to Ankh. I paid the captain the agreed-upon price, and we disembarked into that strange city.

We met Hector and Dice in a tavern where I had also arranged to meet with the two agents of Ter’solma, a powerful healer and a mage. It was a solemn company that rode out the next morning. I was somewhat reluctant to have followers of three different gods in the party, but it also seemed wise to hedge my bets, as it were.

The first four days were uneventful, and the weather fairly mild. It was on the morning of the fifth that Zarnor made his request. He asked that we cross the Dragon Peaks further north than usual, so that he might stop in a location significant to him. The change would only add a day’s ride, so the company agreed. The rest of the fifth day proved far more exciting, as I will attest.

While riding through the forest on an old trail, I was at the head of our small column, keeping a watchful eye out for trouble, when my horse very suddenly sprouted the friendlier end of a crossbow bolt from his eye socket. A blood-curdling shriek and the beast went down, pinning my leg beneath its body. The rest of the company shouted and surged forward as our attackers burst from the trees. As I struggled to free myself, I heard several more crossbows fire, and Meven bellowing in pain. Oleg stood over me, sending crumpled bodies flying with his crowbar, and when there was a momentary lull, he reached down and casually yanked me from under the dead horse with one hand, and set me on my feet. I drew my sword and entered the fray.

It was a true melee, and I fought back to back with Oleg. I could hear but not see Hector, shouting exhortations to Ithus, and the occasional scream from someone who got in front of Merek or Zarnor. Dice was a whirlwind, silent, cutting enemies down with his blade or breaking bone with his shield. The Ter’solmans defended themselves adequately, and Meven seemed to have appointed himself their guardian, driving the enemy back with his hammer.

As quickly as the ambush began, it was over. We stood victorious, surrounded by the dead. As we began to breathe and take stock of injuries, there was a final shout. One of the assassins leaped from the ground clutching a dagger. He caught Meven off guard and drove the point through the dwarf’s chainmail into his belly. Meven responded with a hammer to the skull, but the damage was done. He collapsed to his knees, gasping with pain, trying to pull at his armour, then keeled over and was still. The healer attempted to revive him, but the blade had apparently been coated with some fell poison, and nothing could be done. The divines said a prayer over his body, drowned out by Oleg’s soul-shattering howl of grief. He began savaging the bodies with his weapon, and I didn’t have the heart to stop him. This carried on for several moments before he went crashing into the trees.

I picked one of the more intact corpses, and looked it over thoroughly. The crossbow was of Imperial make, the leather armour the right style, and on one cheek he bore the brand of the provincial irregulars, deserters who had been captured and forced into suicide reconnaissance units. A cursory examination revealed the rest of the dozen to have a similar background. Assassins, hired from within the Empire. This was far from a random attack, and deeply disconcerting, because with no prisoners it was impossible to know if they were sent from Camorra by Lord Tyrell, or if the mage I was hunting had learned we were coming.

While we waited for Oleg to return, we moved the bodies off the road and lit a fire. With the death of Meven, no one felt much like continuing that day. It was nearing twilight when I heard noises in the trees, and stood up to greet Oleg. Instead of my giant companion, I greeted another crossbow bolt, this one hitting me high in the chest. Someone whimpered, and then all was black.

***

I woke to find the Ter’solman healer and a fat man I did not recognize looking down at me. Beyond them, a thatch roof. I could hear the sounds of a tavern. More than anything, I felt an intense pain in my chest. The healer informed that I had indeed died, once again, but removing the bolt from between my ribs had proved troublesome, and this local pig farmer had helped them to extract it before bringing me back. She expressed shock at the state of my lungs, asked if I’d never had a healer look at them. I waved her and the chirurgeon away, staggered to my feet, and made my way to the door of the inn. It was long past dark, and from the booming voices in the common room my companions were well into their cups. No more traveling today.

I sat up most of the night pointing a scavenged crossbow at the door to my room. After consulting with Zarnor, we came to the conclusion that speed was now of the essence. With the assassins having failed, more would certainly come, and we were still four days from the relative safety of the mountains. At the break of dawn, I roused my companions. Oleg had followed us to the inn, and informed me that he had met Merek on the road west. The barbarian had urgent business on Arrakis, apparently. Our numbers were dwindling already.

We were on the road not long after that, eating in the saddle, my purse lighter for having purchased a new horse, and for the next three days we rode from dawn until dusk, pushing the horses harder than was probably fair. At long last, we reached the base of the Dragon Peaks, and prepared to enter the pass Zarnor had specified. It was late afternoon, but Zarnor assured us that we could reach his destination before true dark and safely camp there.

Riding into the mountains for the first time since the winter didn’t produce any great emotion in me, though I rubbed my forearm self-consciously, remembering the wounds left by the wolf. Perhaps by now they’d moved to greener pastures. For high summer, this section of the mountains was bare, and the magically attuned of our number began to seem tense. We came onto a plateau, and all were silent.

It was a desolate place, with little soil and unexplained scorch marks. Even I could sense a dark energy. Zarnor told us to wait, and walked off a short distance. He stood silently for a few moments and then returned, telling us that a village was about a mile further on, and we could spend the night there. His face suggested against asking questions, and we rode on to spend a cheerless night in the small village inn.

***

The next two days were uneventful. We passed through the mountains, and by evening of the second day had reached the edge of my father’s land. Stabbing up at the darkening horizon was an ugly black spire. It seemed that the mage truly had built a tower. I spent an hour scouting the surrounding area, but saw nothing of note. We spent a fireless night under the stars and awoke to a light drizzle.

Fanning out into the empty field, I led the way toward the tower. All was eerily silent, and nothing moved. The Tersolman mage informed us that he had cast a spell that would reveal any invisible foes, but an army of orcs failed to materialize.

I reached the tower first. Tower was an apt term, as I could see the top only by craning my neck back. I began walking around it, looking for an entrance, but didn’t get far. There was a sudden snapping sound, and I could hear the wind, though I had not been conscious of not hearing it before. More startling than that were the mix of orcish and Imperial mercenaries that appeared as though out of nowhere, surrounding myself and the party with crossbows and spears leveled. I could see no gaps in their ranks, and with every move we made they stepped closer, closing a circle around each of us.

A voice boomed out from above. “You should never have come back, Sandar. Bring them.”

We were forcibly separated, and marched toward the manor house. They had restored part of it, and as I discovered, expanded the cellar into a veritable dungeon. My companions and I found ourselves stripped of our weapons and imprisoned alone in dank cells. Hours later, a pair of soldiers dragged me out and down the hall to a small room.

My wrists were chained and attached to a hook in the ceiling, hanging me so my toes were barely scraping the floor. A decidedly uncomfortable position. A pair of orcs stood guard by the door, and I could hear someone behind me tinkering with metal or glass. I was turned around roughly and brought face to face with a small, unassuming man, a southerner by the look of him, dressed like a butcher and holding a metal instrument in one hand. He raised it, and I could see that it was an impossibly fine blade; a gentle caress down my cheek caused no pain, but I could feel warm blood streaming from a wound.

“It would be Master Dar. Master Sandar, yes? Of course,” he said, chuckling and nodding. “The good master expresses his regrets, of course, that he could not attend. There would be no doubt he will attend soon, of course. Yes.” With the last word he slit open my shirt; deciding not to waste any more time, I summoned my strength and kicked at him wildly with both feet. My boots connected solidly with his chest and sent him crashing against the wall with a howl. The next instant it seemed blows were raining down from every direction, my chest, stomach and back being pummeled with fists.

The torturer staggered to his feet, let out a snarl and the barrage ended, the orcs stepping back as silently as they had attacked. The man turned his back on me, picking through a leather case and producing a long hook, like we’d use for moving bales of hay, before all of this happened. He got very close to me, and said, “Master Sandar, you will not do that again. The good master wants you alive, of course, and I am very good at keeping you alive. There would be no doubt that even my talents are not unlimited, yes?” I closed my eyes and fought back a scream as the hook pierced my side.

***

Back in my cell, I woke to the sound of the door opening. A figure entered from the dimly lit corridor, and suddenly the cell was bright. Standing above me was an elf, who didn’t look much older than myself, as their kind goes, in a plain black robe. I had never seen him before, but I knew who he must be, and I raged at my muscles to move. He must have seen this, because a wave of his hand stopped my struggles and very nearly my breath. I was completely immobilized. The mage sat down next to me, almost companionably, and put a hand on my knee.

“Dar, Dar. So young, so impetuous, even for a human. I would have been perfectly happy to let you live out your days on the coast. I didn’t want you; I just wanted your father’s land. Speak.”

I found my mouth free, and said, “Why? What the hell do you need this kind of power for? Why here? The Empire is rotten, dying.”

He laughed, with the barest hint of condescension. “You know so little, yet speak with such authority. Although, in this case, you are right. This realm is overdue for its collapse. It shrinks rather than shatters. I will deal it the death blow, and avenge my people.”

“What people? The elves? They seem to be doing alright. I think they outnumber humans on Arrakis.”

“Not just any elves. The Builders, workers of stone and steel. Think of the elves you know, in their forests and towers. We were much more akin to humans. Warlike. Cruel. We built Camorra, laid the foundations of Montun, countless other places you Imperials take for granted. Thousands of years ago you humans forced us out, took our land. You people breed like rats. Kill a human and barely two decades later he’s replaced twofold. Breathing the same air as you, even now, makes me nauseous. Rats”

“I’ve never heard of any Builders. There can’t be many of you. You the last, then?”

That seemed to anger him. “The last faithful one. The others, they’ve joined the other kingdoms, given up stone. They sing to trees and ignore what’s truly in their blood. But I tell you, Sandar, when I’ve cleansed my land of your kind, they’ll return. They’ll hear the call of stone again.”

“Cleansed? There’s a bloody lot of Imperials. Eventually you’ll run out of companies to hire.”

“Do you want to know my plan, young Dar? Will that bring you comfort?”

“Just spit it out.”

“This is a land of infinite death. Wars have been fought here for thousands of years, even before you humans came. There are more dead than are alive now. With the power of this intersection, I will raise them all, human, elf, dwarf, orc, and wipe the Empire clean. I have studied my whole life to this end. Undead that are not undead. Come, Sandar.”

I was momentarily confused, but my stomach sank as my confusion cleared. My father entered the cell, stooping to fit through the doorway, clad head to toe in his rent armour. His eyes lacked the spark of life, but were somehow still present, and not in the way of other zombies I’ve seen. He was, indeed, something else. The elf cackled at the look on my face, and said, “You see! He’s perfect! All of the skills and knowledge he possessed in life, the tactical prowess, the understanding of politics, but utterly loyal. He cannot be turned by divine magic, and he is physically whole. Imagine it, young Dar! An endless army of them. And he will lead it. Your Empire will fall.”

I forced myself to look away, and the elf laughed again. The heavy footsteps told me my father was leaving, but I still could not bear to watch him. If the elf said anything else after that, I didn’t hear it.

***

The next few hours passed slowly as I heard various screams, at one point several at once, and from the laughs I knew Oleg was making a spirited attempt at escape. But I knew the rest were my companions, and I felt powerless to help. Gradually my strength recovered, and I promised myself that the next time the cell door opened, someone was going to die.

When next I heard a key in the lock, I stood up and moved next to the door, tensed and ready. The moment it opened I threw myself at the guard and looped my belt around his neck. His companion drew a sword and stabbed at me but I shoved my captive between us and his body took the blow. I threw the dead man at his companion and jumped after, sending the live guard to the floor with my hands around his neck. He took a surprising amount of time to strangle but eventually he stopped kicking. I took his sword and keys and set about freeing my companions.

The first I found was Dice, who seemed surprised to see me there, followed by Zarnor, who was disgruntled that it had taken this long. Before any more could be freed, a squad of five Imperials attacked. It was a furious fight, and served to remind me that when one chooses to wield a spear, one should always carry another weapon for when an orc takes it.

I confess that I have a certain darkness in my soul. I’ve killed when it was not strictly necessary, or used my fists when words might have sufficed. There have been moments where I relished in the fight, and lost all sense of myself in the slaughter. Nothing in my upbringing would account for it; I don’t believe myself evil, because I always regret it when I have gone too far, but something takes hold of me, guides my hand, and I am powerless to stop it. I tell this because I want to be clear, when I opened the door of the torture chamber and saw my friend Oleg strapped to a board, his hands and feet gone, his eyes charred holes, my thinking was razor keen. I took all of this in in an instant. One of the burly orcs charged at me, and the pilfered dagger in my hand flashed across his neck faster than I would have warranted possible, and I hurled my stolen sword at the other orc, burying eight inches of steel in his chest and dropping him to the floor.

The torturer himself cowered in a far corner. I stared at him, and without turning around, said, “Go find the others. Prepare to move out.”

“Dar, this is a waste of time,” Zarnor replied. I said nothing, and after a moment I heard him and Dice trotting down the corridor. I closed the door carefully, then crossed the room. The torturer held his small blade out at me, the impossibly sharp one, but I knew his heart was not behind the gesture. He was a coward; I’d met his like before. They know all of the places that hurt most, but a moving body is too great of a challenge. I snapped an order and he dropped the blade, standing slowly. Taking hold of the front of his apron with one hand, I slapped him soundly with the other. He let out a sob, and my fist ramming into his belly drove the air from him, producing only a wheezing gasp. He doubled over, but I hauled him upright and asked, “Where is our gear?” Confused, the torturer extended one arm, pointing vaguely down the hall; I grabbed the outstretched finger and bent it backwards. At the moment it snapped he found enough air to scream. I kicked his feet out from underneath him, then drove a foot into his midsection two or three times. Stooping down, I picked both him and his knife up, and making eye contact, held the blade to his throat. I said, “I’d like for you to know how it feels to be restrained, helpless, while a raving lunatic cuts into you without any compunction or hesitation, but, well, I just don’t have the time.” With that, I sliced across his throat effortlessly, then stepped back before I was drenched in his blood, and he crumpled to the floor.

I moved to stand next to Oleg, taking in the extent of his injuries. There was not much of him left, and while I could hear the faintest whisper of a breath, a hand on his shoulder and saying his name produced no response. This small, weak, coward of a man had broken my giant friend, when the lowest gangs of Helm’s Deep could not. I knew that Oleg would not want to die this way, and I felt my fingers curl involuntarily around the handle of the knife.

***

I found my friends gathered at the exit of the cellar, by following a trail of bodies. They were all whole, though somewhat worse for wear. Hector handed me my sword belt and offered a grim smile, despite his left eye being swollen nearly shut. Dice threw the bolt and opened the heavy cellar door, and we quietly made our way out into the darkness. Despite the chaos, it seemed no alarm had been raised. Some windows in the manor house showed flickering lights, and the top of the tower glowed with an unearthly light. I pulled Zarnor close, and whispered, “Can you light some fires in the house? Quietly.” He bared his tusks in what might have been a smile, and slipped off into the shadows.

The rest of us walked quickly to the tower, unmolested, and this time I managed to find the entrance. It was unlocked, and we entered the dimly lit foyer. An Imperial seemed to be on guard, but he was asleep in a chair. He never woke. We started up the wooden steps, and it was on the third floor that we encountered our first resistance. A group of four mercenaries scrambled up from their card game, but the fight was over in seconds. One of them screamed, however, and footsteps from above materialized into a handful of soldiers. The way they moved set them apart, however; as they came close, I realized they were more examples of the necromancer’s new type of undead. We began to fight, but blows against them were shrugged off. Only serious trauma seemed to have any effect. The healer from Ter’solma began working a spell that succeeded in weakening the creatures, and Hector urged me to continue upward and find the necromancer.

I moved up flight after flight of steps, passing through what appeared to be arcane and alchemical laboratories, meeting no more enemies until I reached what I took to be the penultimate floor. There, in the centre of a suite of living quarters, stood my father. In the candle light his state of undeath was more apparent; the skin was grey, his eye sockets hollow, the tears in his armour showing unhealed wounds on the body. His left hand gripped the hilt of Invictus, his six foot greatsword; the steel gleamed. I stepped forward and he did not move, but I found myself slowing as I approached, reminded of his immense size and power. I am not a small man, but he stood better than a foot taller than me, and perhaps half again as broad. The whispers of giant blood came back to me, but then he spoke, and such idle speculation fell by the wayside.

“Dar,” was all he said. His voice was deep as ever, but somehow hollow, as though it came from a great distance.

“Captain,” I replied, sheathing my sword.

“You can call me father. I think you’ve earned that.”

“No.”

“No? The lads always said that you wanted to know who your father was. Are you not happy to know now?”

“My father is dead. I’d be happier to know he wasn’t also still walking around.”

“I loved your mother, you know. In my way. In what time we had.”

“Yes.” This was rapidly becoming tiresome, and I knew that the mage was attempting to manipulate me through this husk.

“I…remember. You used to talk more. What has changed?”

“You’re dead, Captain. I keep telling you.”

“I do not feel…dead. The master gave me new life. He can do the same for you. He will do the same for you.”

I closed my eyes. I did not expect an emotional reunion, an explanation for the lie I lived for most of my life. I was, thus, not disappointed, so I said, “Then let him try.” The Captain surged forward with the same astonishing speed I had always known, and I was hard-pressed to avoid his charge. A swing of his sword took a lock of my hair. His assault was precise and efficient, and it was all I could do to avoid his attacks. Finally his foot caught the edge of a rug, causing him to stumble. I slipped under his guard and drew my dagger, then threw myself onto his back. Repeated thrusts to the neck and chest failed to slow him, but I managed to sever the straps of his cuirass and it fell to the floor, along with me. He attacked with renewed vigour, and in his eagerness to reach me, he overextended a thrust, letting me hack at a knee with my sword. It was a surprisingly effective blow, nearly severing his leg. This did slow him down.

I retreated at this point, catching my breath, and with a snarl of rage that did not come from the man I knew, he hurled his enormous sword at me, which I managed to dodge, barely. He dragged himself across the floor toward me, and I picked up his sword. The weight was staggering, but with a roar, I raised it above my head, and then impaled him with it, the blade stabbing through his spine and sticking into the floor. He struggled to move, and snarled and growled at me. Clearly whatever measure of his soul remained lost control in the heat of battle. I picked up a lit oil lamp, and without more than a moment or two of hesitation, threw it down on him. The glass shattered and the oil ignited in a small explosion, and the flames spread across his body and outward onto the wooden floor rapidly. I ignored the screams.

The final trapdoor was concealed in a corner behind a silk curtain. Evidently the necromancer preferred something of a life of luxury. I climbed the ladder and opened the hatch, then pulled myself up onto the roof of the tower. I was met with a strange sight: The elf stood in the centre of a complex pattern of lines and figures, a mixture of the arcane, divine and draconic scripts, plus more I did not recognize; all were glowing blue, and the staff in his hand blazed with a black flame that I could just make out against the night. His posture indicated that he expected me, and I expected nothing less. The man had an ego. He opened his mouth, no doubt to further stroke said ego, but I refused him the chance to speak. By the time he realized I was charging, he was too late to strike me down with some incantation or other; my shoulder crashed into him and he fell down, hard. My sword came down on his staff, sundering it, and sending a wave of energy back up the blade, which I dropped as soon as I felt the burning in my hands.  The necromancer struggled to rise, and my boot found his face, holding him down. He was physically far weaker than me, and my foot obstructing his speech evidently kept him from lashing out with magic.

Something struck me from behind, sending me crashing forward and making my head ring. An orc stood over me, clad in black armour and wielding a massive club. The elf scrambled to his feet, and began incanting something, but a grunt from the orc cut him off. This was obviously the chieftain, and he wanted to fight me in honourable combat. Bugger that, but why not play along? I thought, as I stood, shakily. The orc kicked my sword over to me and I picked it up. As he set into a fighting stance, I drew my dagger and threw it underhand, and it stuck into his gut. Bellowing with rage, he charged at me, and I met him with a tackle. We both fell and set about with knees, elbows and fists; we were of equal strength and the contest didn’t seem to be progressing until I felt an impact on my back and my body became racked with painful spasms. The orc stood and retrieved his cudgel, and in my writhing I saw the elf standing close by; he looked exhausted, as I’ve often seen casters do after expending themselves.

As the orc raised his weapon to finish me, something crashed into him from behind, sending him to his knees, and then Hector appeared, wrapping the chain of his flail around the chieftain’s neck. As my friend strangled the war leader, I got to my knees and threw the elf to the ground once more, beating him into submission. I heard a crack, and looked to see that Hector’s struggle was over, the orc limp in his arms. We both stopped for a moment to catch our breath, and in that moment the elf spoke, his words slurred but intelligible. He said, “Dar…Sandar. Your…your affliction. I can fix it. Let me live and I will fix it.” I punched him again and he groaned, then said, “Please…please, you don’t have to die. You’ve beaten me as it is. Please.”

I looked over at Hector, but he simply looked exhausted, and said, “It is your choice, brother.” I stood, and then pulled the elf to his feet, saying, “If you try to betray me, I will kill you, or he will. Bear that in mind while you consider your next course of action.” The elf placed his left hand on my face, covering my eye, and began an incantation. I felt warmth spreading outward from the point of contact, and it abruptly turned into a torrent. Whatever magic he was working was coursing through my body, and with howl of rage I grabbed his wrist and wrenched his hand away from my face. Flames still flowed forth from his hand as he laughed maniacally. My fists rained down on him, and he continued to laugh as he was driven to his knees, and the laughter continued still as I dragged him to the low wall around the tower, raised him over my head with a strength hitherto unknown to me, and threw him over. The laughter stopped as he fell and the elf shouted something. I didn’t catch it, but the ground caught him ungently. As the battle fury left my body I was acutely aware that I could see about half as much as I could before, and that the skin on the right side of my face appeared to be gone. I slumped down against the wall, and Hector rushed over to me, speaking, but his words are now lost as well.

The rest of my companions emerged from the trap door, and the Ter’solman mage called us to gather around him as the tower was sure to collapse soon. Hector and Zarnor managed to drag me over, the mage incanted a spell, and we abruptly appeared on a forested hill some distance away.

Through the haze of my agony, I could see the tower wreathed in flames, and the manor house similarly afflicted. We stood silently and watched for several minutes. I opened my mouth to speak, and the world exploded.

***

I came to in a daze, and was somewhat startled to find myself on what appeared to be the same hill, but was devoid of any trees, save a handful of blasted trunks. My friends were strewn about me, groaning as they regained consciousness, and I looked to where I thought the estate must be. Since my return I’ve learned the word “crater,” and that describes what remained of my former home. There was a deep bowl surrounding where the tower had stood, and no sign whatsoever of either the tower or the house. The fields were burned clean, as far as the eye could see. I became aware of the smell of burning hair and roast pork, then realized that it was us, clothing and hair all lightly singed, and what was left of my face. Somewhat disturbingly, my stomach growled at that moment. The laughter it sparked was welcome.

***

The journey home began peacefully enough, but my suggestion of crossing the Dragon peaks further south proved unwise, as we encountered an Imperial patrol out of Camorra on our way into the mountains. Evidently I matched the description of a wanted criminal, but as the interrogation continued, the lieutenant in charge blanched, and decided that this hardened band of fighters was not worth arresting.

As we continued westward, the healer in our group attempted repeatedly to repair the damage to my face, but to no avail. A variety of spells and herbs failed to heal the burns more quickly, and nothing would bring back my eye. We even stopped in the same inn as before, and the local doctor, the pig farmer, was at a loss, his hogs never having been engaged in mortal combat with powerful sorcerers, at least not to his knowledge. At this point the Ter’solmans left us, with the suggestion I attempt to smuggle myself into Ankh and seek help there among the casters of a more experimental nature.

Wanting to recover from the ordeal, and keep some distance between myself and my enemies on Arrakis, this seemed a reasonable course of action. Separating from my friends, I paid a boatman a hefty sum to take me across the river, and we reached nearly three quarters of the way across before his crew forced me overboard and I had to swim the rest of the way. Evading a senatorial patrol, I made my way to the commercial district, and some discreet inquiries led me to the shop of one Tellema, an ancient dressmaker who also knew her way around a poultice, and I paid her most of the last of my coin to put me up while my face healed.

***

A week has passed since then, and I write this to attempt to reach some conclusion about my adventure. I avenged my father’s death, and laid his ghost to rest, quite literally, but in the process destroyed everything he’d fought for. My goal, I told myself, had been the reclamation of the Captain’s estate; was I planning to become a farmer? I had little enough patience for the work before. The idea of tallying accounts and haggling grain prices in addition to the labour did not appeal. I came away with scarcely two coins to rub together, and the weight of two dead friends on my conscience. A raving madman claimed a plan to wipe my homeland clean in a tidal wave of death, but heroism has never appealed to me, either. A homeland, I’ll add, that either wants to see me dead, or use me as a spy. A ruined face, but, oddly, I could breathe freely once more. Whatever the elf had done worked to safe my life. Perhaps it was a sick joke on his part, not expecting to survive the encounter regardless of what he did. I’ll never know. I do know that I have stalwart friends that stood beside me, facing down death and insurmountable odds, and despite that, we survived.

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