Trust your blade.
Steel is unlike Men
It will not lie to you
—Ancient Ükardhi proverb
Musa Em had won a hard-fought peace—one he could not afford to lose for the sake of one man.
If it were any other man, he wouldn’t’ve taken the risk.
Musa Em ruled his caste as its Emperion. He had dealt with years of border skirmishes between himself and the rival Emperion. Before he could even begin peace-talks. Let alone the time-consuming negotiations with the rival castes to form his confederation. Even during negotiations, the rival Emperion needed to vote on the new Emperion of their confederation would be. In the end, they had chosen Duad Ath. Duad the Dreaded, he’d be called while they warred.
Musa Em still remembered Duad’s smile when they chose him. As sharp and curved as his dagger.
This same dagger would soon be at Musa Em’s throat if he was not careful. He had seen the thing that had slinked out of Ath’s expanse late at night during their weeks of negotiations. The beast was massive, such that it had nearly torn the roof clear from the hut’s entrance.
And when he saw the thing lumbering forth, he decided he needed a killer. To his satisfaction, one had come to their newfound confederation scant days ago.
* * *
Musa stole a visit to the man, shrouded in a cloak that blustered in the wind as he stomped through the tall yellow grass. He ran his fingers along the weavings that sealed the killer as came upon the entrance. With a mighty heave, Musa pushed the large stone aside, and moonlight flowed within.
He was upon the stranger. A man from Ükardhi, far south.
They had confiscated his ringmail shirt along with the double-edged sword that reminded Musa of the weapons the milkglass northmen. The prisoner had opened one of Duad Ath’s soldiers from waist to throat when he was caught sneaking into the confederation mere nights ago.
Presently, he was bound hand and foot by a length of iron fetters. When he saw Musa Em, he began to struggle, chains clanking He was a taut brown body of barely-sheathed muscle. Musa watched him struggle until, breathless, he relented and looked up at his captor. The two surveyed each other. His nose was curved sideways. Broken at least thrice, Musa guessed.
They’d let him keep his crimson cloak about his shoulders. Musa shuddered to look into the evil eye stitched onto the thing. Who could say what kind of evil that eye warded off? Who could say if this evil could be turned on others?
Musa hoped this was so. Smiling, he crouched over the prisoner. “Would you like to live, outlander?” Musa asked.
The prisoner grunted, newfound interest unveiling behind his eyes.
“It will cost you.”
The prisoner simply stared.
“I want you to kill a man for me.”
“Duad Ath. The Emperion of our new clan—and his creature.”
If the man was surprised, he did not show it. “I’ll need my blade,” he said. “And my shirt.”
Musa nodded. “It will be done.”
“When will I be free?”
“Within the hour. Anyone who can be bribed has been. And those who couldn’t—they were otherwise dealt with.”
“I’ll want my bonds removed now,” the Ükardhian growled. “And I’ll have some food, too. Good food. Not the wretched gruel I’ve been fed these past few days.”
“It will be arranged, outlander.”
“They call me Albarran.”
“It will be arranged.”
* * *
The blade had belonged to Albarran’s father. At times, it had been all that kept them alive in the white-heats upon the southron planes of Ükardhi.
Onde, when Albarran was young, he had found himself on death’s door. He remembered hearing his father praying to Kafmir, Lord of Duals and Duels. The God Kafmir had saved Albarran and woven him a cloak with an eye sewn onto it, sealed shut—it had since then felt welded to him by some primal instinct. Always was he aware of the forces clambering to break its protection.
Albarran stalked through the tall grass that reaching up to his waist, feeling this selfsame force. He pushed it to the back of his mind. He had a debt to repay.
His mail shirt rattled as he crept through the night toward Duad Ath’s hut. He had been told it would be the one with intricate patterns worked into the weavings. Some strange script that the man who saved him could not identify.
Still, all other huts were plain. This one had openings that seemed impractical. Most were crescent openings, with the occasional dash or complete circle, leading into more curves.
This seemed like the correct one.
Albarran stepped inside and saw that the moon filtering through the weaves in the hut had formed some kind of bizarre moon-formed letter, or rune. He’d never seen it’s like before.
He adjusted his cloak about his shoulders and pulled his two-sided blade free from his belt.
He stepped inside.
A lightning bolt flashed behind his eyes and pain seared his forehead. The world around him shattered like so much glass. Then the shattered shards fell into some sort of bright-burning Never beneath him. They fell until they were so small he could not see them falling. But he heard no crash.
He thought he would fall, too, until rock knitted its way between the Never and his feet, threading itself into spires of stone with a patchwork path interrupted by occasional tufts of grass and dirt. Some of it marked the edge of the spire, and he could see it falling like an open sandbag into the Never, yet it did not empty.
He followed the path, and heard the vestiges of voices—a conversation.
“…Should have taken my warning! Should have left with your clan while you were still an Emperion!” The voice came behind a bend of jagged stone.
“Your beast doesn’t frighten me,” said the voice of Musa Em. “My interests remain here, Ath!”
“That murderer gives you good company! Oh, don’t look so shocked. Of course I know. There are many things here—even secrets—that make themselves known to me. I know that the peace you so strived for was won more by daggers in the night and whispered threats. And yet I was named Emperion of our new caste. It seems the others fear my beast more than your steel. It must chafe, does it not?”
“I did not need to conjure some foul beast to secure my rule. I never exploited a caste for greed and ambition. Do not shame me with such words when you gather taloned beasts and damascened steel to silence those who might dissent.”
“At least the Ükardhian isn’t ashamed of to bring his murderous acts to bare!”
Albarran had heard enough of their arguing, and rounded the jagged rock to reveal himself. The two men stood at arm’s length of each other, both pointing curved daggers to the other. But when they saw him, they lowered their arms an inch.
“Then it is settled,” Albarran growled. “We three are altogether scoundrels.”
Duad Ath adjusted his the collar of his tunic and swallowed saliva. “What shall become of me, then? May I yet keep my life?”
Musa’s smile was as curved as the Ükardhian’s nose. “Perhaps,” he said. “If you swear never to summon your beast, and stay away from this evil realm.” He gestured to the void of Never surrounding the three of them.
Albarran laughed. “Since when does a leader keep his promises? Come, let me cut his throat and—”
“Silence,” Musa hissed. “I may yet end this without bloodshed. He stepped forward, but only just lowered his dagger. “Do we have a deal, Ath?”
“A cornered lion has few options,” Duad Ath muttered, staring at Albarran’s blade, then at Musa’s dagger. He smiled, which struck Albarran as unusual. Why would he smile in such a situation?
But then the outlander heard something straggling down the sheer rock spire. It was a horrid desecration somewhere between a bear and a man. Its eyes were gouged so that it was ever-sniffing. It made a grating snarl and leapt for Musa Em.
But the southron threw himself in front of the former Emperion. The beast collided with Albarran and the two tumbled and growled.
Musa watched in muted horror. “You put your life in front of mine?”
“I pay my debts,” Albarran managed to respond. His shoulders were throbbing, having taken the brunt of the collision. He could not let the beast touch him. It was a tikoloshe—a cursed gremlin called to do the bidding of malevolent men.
The beast pinned Albarran to the ground and they struggled for three heartbeats before the outlander tore himself free, cutting one of the beast’s hands off and rolling to the side as it wailed.
Albarran’s cloak was heavy on his shoulders. He could feel the eye fluttering, trying to open. It took all of his mental faculties to seal it as he fought. There was a great thrashing of limbs as Albarran tried to sneak his steel past the tikoloshe’s defenses. But even one-handed the beast was formidable, swinging in a storm of tooth and claw.
The two were in a battle-frenzy. They caught and slashed and swung at each other. They heaved labored breaths, shoulders rising and falling like grass in the wind. Once during their battle, the gremlin nearly backed Albarran off the edge of the rock and down into the light glowing downwards forever below them.
Breathless, Albarran thrust forward, buring his blade in the beast’s belly. The gremlin’s fur was matted with blood as it sank to one knee. Albarran circled the beast and with a heavy kick, smote the gremlin into the burning Never below.
Albarran turned to address the two men, but Musa Em had long since fled, and Duad Ath was on his knees, uttering pleas for mercy.
But the southron could not hear him. He was battered and his cloak held back hungry spirits that wished to enter this vile place. For a fraction of a splinter of a moment, he closed the eye.
It was all that was needed. By the time the eye opened once more, fingers of argent were whispering through the Never, snatching up foul pieces of it and carrying them off to even fouler places. Specters of moonlight sifted through the realm, until every piece was carried away, and Albarran was within Duad Ath’s expansive hut once more.
He had not seen Ath himself carried away by the specter, but he was not with him when he returned to the hut. Nor was Musa Em, and Albarran was unaware if the men could have exited while the strange letter was still filtered in the tent by moonlight.
He did not bother to ponder whether or not the two had been snatched up by the specters. They had no protection from them. And he could not find Ath within the hut. He resolved that he had paid his debt to Musa Em—even if Em was not around to enjoy it. He tired of their petty quarrels, elsewise. There were other places and other travels for a southron wanderer.