In my experience, when you smash a sacred relic over a guard’s head, he usually has the decency to fall over. But sometimes you underestimate the strength of a man’s helmet.
He turned to face me, but by the time he freed his sword from his scabbard, I’d rounded the path winding down from the tent he guarded. I counted myself lucky he was too dazed to call for help.
To be clear, I did have a sword, but my swordsmanship can be described as mediocre if you’re being generous, and I wasn’t about to engage someone whose fighting prowess I’d never even seen. Not only that, but it’s horribly dangerous to run full sprint with a sword in hand.
Thankfully, I can always count on my friends. Okay, friend. Singular. Sort of. He’s my brother. Does that count?
I heard the guard’s muffled scream as Orym clamped his hand over his mouth and cut his throat.
The guard hit the grass like a sack of flour, staining it a ghastly red. Orym looked from the corpse to me. “You’re a coward, Azoc.”
“That may be so,” I told Orym, “But look where this man’s bravery led him.” I kicked the corpse as my feet, careful not to bruise my toe on his helmet. “We tried it your way. Now it’s my turn.”
“Yours is the way of cowards,” Orym muttered.
“And yours is the way of fools,” I countered. “Come now, brother. We didn’t come to the highlands for nothing. We have a Witch to visit.”
We returned to the tent by way of mountain pass. Orym and I had been to seven of the Eight Cities if Nyn to seek a cure for his curse. To date, no one had been able to help with his condition.
As we neared the tent I chanced to see a dozen boulders carved with runes. It was either a protection spell or those were grave markers.
I winced, anticipating some horrible force would strike me down, yet nothing came. “Some enchantress,” I muttered. “Doesn’t even have a protection spell.”
“Were you hoping for one?” Orym asked.
“No, but isn’t it expected of a Witch?”
Orym held the tent flap high and I glimpsed a hag bent over a brazier. There was a rune two different runes on either side of the brazier.
“After you,” I insisted. Orym entered, shaking his head. As he drew upon the Witch he stepped aside. I could’ve sworn it was to make me look upon her garish visage.
The gray fumes of her brazier misted up, weaving in and out of the tangles of black hair that spilt over the sides of her head. Her face was both wrinkled, yet at sharp as a knife. What teeth remained poked through her gums like brown tree stumps.
I cleared my throat, but the Witch spoke first.
Without looking up, she hissed, “What do you seek?”
“Y-you’re mistaken, it’s my brother who does the seeking, not I.” Orym scowled at that. “We’ve been through all Eight Cities of Nyn. We seek—um—tell her, Orym.”
“We seek a cure for—” her next sound made even Orym pale. He snatched a fistful of my cloak, as if anticipating my next move.
The Witch sucked in a breath of air between her teeth, though it sounded more a death rattle. Her eyelids fluttered, showing two white lines. “The taint of the White Wizard lays in you.” She pointed at Orym. “A shard of Being is in you. How can this be so?”
Orym shrugged. “I killed him.”
The hag stood statue-still. The only sign she even lived was the hiss of her breath.
Orym’s hold rose to the back of my neck. “Do not run.”
“Me? Run? Never.”
“And the coward’s tale?” The hag asked.
“My tale? Ah, I see. My tale. Well, we were conscripted in Morgad to fight the White Wizard. It was a glorious battle. I made my way quickly through the ranks—” This was not, strictly speaking, a lie. What I didn’t mention was that my move through the enemy was more of a sprint than a glorious battle. “—I was the first of the Morgadians to reach the castle, and like my brother here I sought the White Wizard.” I’d wrapped my lie in a truth. While I hoped I might take him by surprise and win a bit of glory and land and all that that implies, my foremost concern was finding a place to hide until the massacre was over. “I had the misfortune of—well, kinship. There’s little else to it,” I paused, trying to find the right title to address her with. “…Madame. My brother killed the White Wizard, and his final curse rebounded. He has a shard of the Wizard inside him.”
The Witch finished for me. “And you want me to drag the shard of Being out?”
“Yes,” we said at once.
The Witch stopped breathing, and even the air seemed to still. She opened her eyes, milky ovals showing through the tangle of hair draped over her face. The tip of her tongue traveled like a worm across her lips. “The Fates are kind to me this day. A spell-struck man comes before my brazier. I will take the shard of Being out of you…for myself.” She bent forward, and her tangles of hair caught fire. “Burn!” She rasped. Flame traveled up the strands of her hair as if she’d bathed in oil. The left brazier-rune flashed as she burned, laughing while her skin blackened and her eyes melted. She crumbled to dust and the wind carried her up the down the highlands to the Eighth City of Nyn. The rune dimmed, having done its work.
“I have an idea.”
I turned in time to see a dozen dead men rise from the earth. “Huh,” I said, “So she did have a protection spell.”
Skin sloughed off their fingers as they dug their way out of their own graves. The creatures were not so much men as they were bits of gristle wrapped around charred bones. There wasn’t a man among them without a blade in hand.
“Let’s try the other way. I turned to run but Orym caught my cloak—within a three steps it snagged my neck and I fell onto my back. The rune on the right side of the brazier lit up and fire burst forth toward Orym, who danced out of the way. Then the rune dimmed as the dead men shambled forward.
I drew my sword and proceeded to hide beneath the brazier. “I told you we should’ve have asked around before visiting a local Witch. But did you listen? Of course not.”
Orym ignored me, which for some reason frustrated me more than the horde of dead men straggling into the tent. He leveled his sword at the dead men, who closed in. Brute and fool he may be, but strike me down if I can’t admire his skill. The man’s a poet a sword. Give Orym a weapon and he’ll look almost beautiful. Each cut splintered bone and lacerated flesh. But even in pieces, the dead men moved.
“Azoc!” He grunted as he gave ground to the dead men. “Azoc!”
“Careful,” I muttered. Someone’s hand hit the ground near me. It rose onto its fingers and scuttled toward me. I scrambled back, smashing my head against the bottom of the brazier in my panic. “Sound desperate enough and I might feel guilty.”
“You should,” Orym said as he parried an oncoming slice of death.
I put my shoulder to the brazier. “How many times do I have to tell you, Orym—” One hard shove, and it tipped over on top of the oncoming hand. “Bravery gets you killed.”
Orym turned as the flames sprang to life and he danced out of the way of the oncoming fire, bisecting a corpse on his way out of its path.
I saw the glow beneath the brazier too late, and fire sprang in all directions, catching me and my brother.
There was a searing white pain, and then nothing.
The pain retreated, and the two of us stood amidst blackness. I could feel a chewed up wooden floor beneath me. “Where are we?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“There’s a window over there.” I groped through the darkness towards it, and saw the Eighth City market below us. “Okay,” I said, “Wherever we are, it can’t be good.”
“If I can use the Wizard’s shard of Being—”
I seized Orym’s arm and he pivoted to face me. I fought down every instinct that told me to turn heel. “I won’t let you do that.” He glared at me, but I set my jaw and dug my heels into the ground. This was my brother. I was with him when he was a child shitting himself. He didn’t scare me. “I won’t let you do that,” I said again. The shard of Being is what we want out of you. If you use it—”
“I know what will happen!” Orym roared. “It was I who cut the head from the White Wizard’s body, not you. Or have you forgotten how you hid from the slaughter?”
I winced. I would have preferred if he struck me. “That shard will eat you, alive Orym! Have you taken too many knocks on the head to remember that? I can’t let you use the shard of Being. I won’t let you!”
And then I noticed he was grinning. This set my heart pounding, as Orym never smiled at anything good. I followed his eyes to see he was staring at my hand. I hadn’t even noticed it had gone to the hilt of my sword, much less that I’d drawn it three inches from its sheath.
I looked up to lock eyes with Orym again. He raised his eyebrows and I slammed my sword back in its sheath. “I don’t make idle threats,” I said.
“You don’t make any threats.”
“Azoc, was that courage I saw there?”
“On if you’re still plan on using the shard.”
Orym shook his head. “Not after that,” he said. For once his smile seemed warm. “You wouldn’t have done that unless you were ready to cut me down for it…so how do we survey where we are?”
A bodiless voice gave us our answer. “A shard of Being is a powerful thing,” said a voice from the darkness. Torches flared to life along two walls, licking the air and illuminating a carpeted path. The voice came again. “I must have it.”
“Now would be a good time to look for the front door,” I began, but Orym would have none of it.
“We can’t run.”
“We can. You just don’t want to. Now is not the time to play hero!”
“Do you see another path?”
He had the right of it, so we started forward.
As soon as we started walking the torch-lit path, the flames stopped their dancing and stood at attention like sentries. I chanced to see that each torch had the same rune that had cast fire at us from the brazier, only now it was etched along each wooden haft.
I turned to warn Orym, but before I could say anything there was a crackling behind me and I turned to see that there were runes on the floor. And they were vanishing fast. The floor crumbled behind us. Seeing this, Orym grabbed me by the back of my neck and threw me forward. I stumbled and lost my footing, which turned out to be a good thing because the torch-flames decided they’d very much like to burn me. The stumble was all that saved my life.
Orym saw this and followed my example, crawling after me. The fire whorled overhead; lashing the air intermittently. “Are you sure she’s a Soultaker? She seems content with simply killing us.”
“Soultakers burn, Azoc,” Orym growled. He kept his head level with the floor. “Bringing the house down on us would not give her our souls. She only wants to block our means of escape.”
I turned to look at him as we crawled forward. Fire cracked over our heads. “Do you ever stop to consider whether charging headlong is a bad idea?”
“I’d rather not—” Orym began, “—keep your head down!” He grabbed a fistful of my hair and shoved my nose onto the floor.
“You can be quite overprotective, did you know that?” I howled.
“When I tell the story of how my brother died, would you like it to be the tale of how he was too simple to keep his head low near a fire?”
“Personally, I’ve always liked the dying peacefully in your sleep kind of story. It’s boring, yes, but it’s much more fun than burning.”
“Then keep moving.”
Sparks trickled down every now and then, forcing us to roll before it took flame. I can’t say how long we crawled before we found a staircase, but I can say that it was too long.
Orym led the way. The staircase was mangled and twisted—as if it had been made from clay then crushed in a giant fist. I’m fairly certain it was mocking me, for the runes carved onto each step forced it to stay sturdy. Yet if you were to look between the gaps you would see nothing but blackness below. I had to fight the urge to drop something small to see how long it took to hit the bottom.
Yet when we were at the top, the second floor crumbled below us, torches and all. I cannot say how long it fell, for I never heard it hit the bottom. I did, however, see flashes of light as the torches whipped the air even while falling.
Orym raised an eyebrow. “Are you still interested in trying the front door?”
“Let’s go.” We reached the top to find a new hall much the same as the one before it. As we started down the way I found my legs trembling at the thought that it could give way at any moment. There were no torches, only a room at the end. Daylight streamed through it, though the sun had set not an hour ago. “Draw your sword, Azoc,” Orym whispered as the room came closer.
“That really gets in the way of my running,” I said as I drew my sword. I knew I had to do it, but telling Orym that would only bolster his pride. And there is nothing half so dangerous—or annoying—than a prideful Orym.
We came upon the room to see a cat and an armored man with a coat of arms emblazoned on his helmet. Both were asleep and slumped against a staircase. Orym tensed, and I did what I could to copy him. As he neared the cat I noticed that something had been shaved onto it’s fur. Some kind of marking…
“Orym, look out!”
The cat sprang into motion, growing bigger and bigger in mid-leap. Orym staggered back, holding it at bay with the point of his sword. It had grown to the size of a panther, and stalked Orym, tail flicking back and forth. I prepared to charge it from behind when the armored man leapt to his feet and charged me first. He tackled me into the hallway and in our confused, tangled fall I managed to drive my sword downward through his armpit, where he had little armor to protect him. Blood leaked from beneath his breastplate and stained it red.
And then he smacked me away, pulling my sword out of him and throwing it to the floor behind him in the time it took me to find my footing. That was when I noticed the red gash on his neck. “Orym killed you…” I muttered. I looked to the carving on his helmet. It was no coat of arms—I had seen that symbol on the dozen rocks that marked the dead men that had tried to kill us.
He staggered towards me, bringing his steel down in an attempt to cleave my skull—little did he know that my best skill is avoiding all forms of physical violence.
That skill wasn’t completely applicable to my current predicament, but after years of avoiding your enemies’ blades altogether, you manage to develop some quick reflexes.
He hacked at me again, and I turned sideways. His hack turned thrust midway through his form, but I fell inside his reach and caught his wrist. With my other hand, I took his fist and pulled back. The bone jutted from the wrist, yet the grip on his sword hadn’t even slackened.
He swung at me with all the grace of a human-morningstar. I stumbled and fell next to my sword. His hand was whirling as I reached for it and I brought my blade into his path as his own came down hard and face. I kicked to my feet and cut his wrist from his hand.
He ran for me, but I sidestepped and left a leg for him to trip over. He crashed to the floor I pounced. I can’t remember too much of our struggle. He fought me, but when your fist is decaying, punching your foe does more harm than good. After I time, I managed to pry his helmet off and the man returned to death.
I made sure to toss the helmet into the pit, just to be safe.
I reentered the room to find Orym. He had taken a few scratches but was otherwise unhurt. The cat-panther lay dead in a corner, blood pooling from its underbelly. “Staircase?” he asked between ragged breaths.
“Staircase,” I said.
We climbed to the fourth floor, and again the preceding one crumbled into the pit. There was a hall, same as before, but this time there was a voice in the room at the end.
“Fire, fire, it must be ready. My guests are weary, and they need fire. Flames must turn flesh to ash, yes, yes. It leaves the soul bare beneath.”
Orym shook his head and mouthed, Not a sound.
I nodded, and we approached the Witch’s chamber. Orym didn’t dare run, for fear of alerting the Witch, yet I saw him fighting the urge to, which resulted in a quick, leaden walk that was funnier than I’m willing to admit, given the circumstances.
We entered the Witch’s chambers, and she didn’t even have the common courtesy to look up before throwing black-powder at us. It burst into flame in midair and forced Orym and I onto either side of the room.
“I may not be the most sociable man in the world,” I said, “but even I know it’s polite to give a simple ‘how are you’ before getting down to business.”
The Witch cast another line of black powder across the room. Once again it burst into flame, keeping me confined alone to one side while I heard Orym dodging spells and fighting the Witch. The only thing I heard was my name. “Azoc!” Orym shouted. And every time it grew more desperate. “Azoc! Azoc, please!”
“I’m trying!” I shouted, trying to make myself heard over the fire and the cacophony of his own combat. “Please, Orym, don’t die on me. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself!”
“Azoc! Where are you?”
My hands were trembling so that I hard to sheathe my sword rather than risk dropping it. I wove through rows and rows of tables lined with odd-colored liquids filled with various eyes, both animal and not. Strange substances were brewing in pots, thick as paste and light as broth.
“Come on, come on,” I muttered to myself. “Think of something! Ninth Hell, there must be something you can do.” The line of flame on the other side of the room beckoned for me. But that was suicide! It would do little good to run through fire to my brother’s aid only to die as soon as I’d passed the wall.
“Azoc, please! Hurry!”
I looked to a cauldron bubbling over the fireplace for something I could use, then turned to a table with a bowl of thick, silver liquid. Nothing of use.
“Don’t make me use the shard of Being!”
That did little to help my trembling. I could hardly think anymore. I was looking at all the Witch’s potions and brews yet not a thought passed my mind. There may well have been something I could’ve put to good use, but in my panic I may as well have been overturning an empty room.
I tossed aside tables and potions, and all the while my gaze kept going back to the fireplace.
“Azoc. Brother, I need you…”
I tossed a table aside, I scanned more bottles and potions and cauldrons.
And this time when I looked back to the fireplace I realized why I had been drawn to look. For above the it, in the center of its stone perimeter was an etching—and one I knew from earlier that day. That selfsame rune had glowed on the left side of her brazier as she burned in the tent.
I stopped shaking. “Orym! Orym, can you hear me?” I withdrew my sword and started for the fireplace.
“Help!” His scream was raw and scratchy.
“I’ll take that as a yes!” I called back. I went to work. “Take the offensive. Push her toward the fire! Toward me!
There were thumps and thuds and in a moment I could see the Witch’s silhouette on the other side of the flame-wall. Then Orym’s shadow, tall and massive. She backed closer to the fire and Orym cleft through empty air. As she stumbled backward the wall of fire vanished, and she turned to find me ready. She looked to Orym, who prepared to make the killing stroke.
But the Witch fell back before Orym had the chance. She backed toward the fireplace. “You’re think you can stop me? I will take the shard of Being—and both your souls, as my reward.” She stepped into the fireplace laughing. A tendril of flame shot Orym square in the chest. He stumbled back and fell, the front of his shirt blackening and falling away.
“Orym!” I started towards him and knelt beside him.
I was distantly aware of the Witch cackling. She had started to gloat. “It’s mine! It’s mine!” But the laughter didn’t last long. To her credit, it did not take long for her to realize I had hacked apart the rune above her. The screams came shortly after.
Of all the things I had seen that day, I would not have guessed they would pale in comparison to a Witch’s death-screech.
As she burned, the fire that cut across the room dwindled down to nothing. I heard crashes and shrieks as the house rebuilt itself outside the chamber.
None of that mattered. The only thing in the world was my brother lying on the floor, his chest burnt. I looked at Orym—really looked at him—for the first time that night. I saw my brother cut and bruised. And to my relief, the burn was not mortal.
“You desecrated her rune,” he muttered
“I was left with few alternatives. You threatened to use the shard of Being. What was I to do?”
He seized me by my collar and pulled me close. “It’s gone.”
“The shard of Being. She burnt it from me before burning herself.”
He shoved me away. I scrambled to my feet and helped him to his. “I never kid,” he said. “It’s gone. Honestly and truly gone.” Orym winced as he sheathed his sword. The two of us stood there as we soon came to grips with the realization that our quest was over.
I cannot say how long the silence lasted. But at the last I decided to break it. I indicated to the burn on his chest. “That’s going to leave a few scars,” I said.
“Count yourself lucky I don’t give you a few to remember this occasion.”
I decided it was in my best interest not to mention the handicap his injuries would have on him during the coming months. “We were separated by fire!” I said. “What was I to do?”
Orym grinned. “Run?” He suggested.
“Oh, brother, how little you know of me.” I sat next to him. “Call me coward, call me craven, but have I not been at your side through all of this? You think I haven’t learned the price of cowardice? While I hid from the White Wizard’s slaughter, you struck him down.”
“And yet you still run if the need suits you. Why?”
“Because there are worse things than being a coward.”
“And what would those be?”
“Being brave,” I said. I glanced at the fireplace. “Being dead.” The fire cracked and spat to fill the gap in our conversation. “The shard of Being,” I said. “You didn’t—”
“I didn’t.” Orym hung his head. “But I came close. Ninth Hell, the urge was strong.”
“I’m glad you fought it,” I said, and then started out the door. Orym chased after me. “Azoc! Where are you going?”
“We should leave,” I said, “Before we discover if the Witch had anything more hidden up her sleeve in the event of her death.”
Orym followed me down each stairway. A dead cat was slumped next to a bloody, helmetless guard, and on the floor below, torches danced on either side of the wall. And instead of a window, we now faced a door.
It was only when we were back on the streets that Orym spoke again. “Where are we going?”
“Away,” I said. “Nyn is spent up, but there are other cities.” I looked to him. “Where do we go from here?”
“Well,” he said, “There are always men in need of a sellsword or two.”
We left the Witch-house behind us, but the sound of flames yet echoed in my head. Like a Witch’s cackle.