Steps Saga Part 6 – Hounds of the Mind
By Thomas J. Lauser
He stood outside the Grand Temple of Nez’Gar, waiting as droves of Seragorn warriors entered to receive their post-victory tattoos. Dressed in a plain brown hood and robe, with only his bodyguard by his side, none knew the Arkresh of the Seragorn was among them. When at last the line ended, Venomar motioned to Bazra, removed his hood, and moved swiftly through the temple halls and into the Pan’Heyla Lodge.
There, in between rows of cots, a half dozen shaman sat around a large basin of Pan’Heyla brew. Each had piercing blue, dilated eyes, and a swirling aura of azure energy around them. All but the High Shaman himself, Osiren Alter’Mas, who had maintained his sobriety, watching over his understudies as they did their work.
“Ul’Dos, Suldan Osiren. Do you have time for one more?” Venomar asked as he approached the cadre of shaman. He had cut his dreadlocks off, replacing them with the hairstyle he preferred during wartime – shaved on the sides, long on the top with a ponytail in the back. As his mentor Elohan had warned long ago, lengthy braids were impractical, making helmets difficult and gifting opponents something extra to take hold of.
Osiren rose from his seat, laughing loudly. He had white braids down to his legs, a well-kept beard that reached his belt, and wore a white robe decorated with the fur of a great eagle.
“Salrok Venomar! You should’ve told me you were in line! You could’ve cut to the front.”
“He should have,” muttered Bazra, who leaned against the wall behind the Arkresh.
“And make all those young warriors wait for their first victory tattoo? Nonsense. They’ve earned it.”
He removed his robe and stepped forward, exposing an upper body covered from waist to neck in tattoos. The Guldara Eagle on his shoulder, a rising sun above a raging duel on his back, a pair of lion cubs near his heart, and torn letter on his right arm were among those the Arkresh treasured the most. Seragorn used tattoos as a means of commemorating important achievements, transforming their flesh into a canvas of accolades.
Venomar sat down on one of the cots and cracked his neck. It had been too long since he was last tattooed. Meldah wanted him to go for one after his victory over Otak in the arena, but he refused. To do so would be dishonorable, the Arkresh insisted. But days earlier, his men took Barruk – the last Claudian-controlled city before the imposing Lincoln Bulwark. This, Venomar believed, so be an achievement worthy of a new tattoo.
“As have you,” Osiren said as he cut open a fresh Pan’Heyla fruit and squeezed the juice into the basin. “Now that Barruk has fallen, only the Bulwark stands in your way.”
“What’s the plan for that? I’m sure you have one in mind already,” asked Bazra. She had been grinning and gleaming at Venomar ever since he removed his robe. One of Osiren’s understudies looked her way, forcing her to hide her expression.
“I do,” said Venomar. He laid down on the cot, and rested his hands behind his head. “But it won’t be necessary.”
Osiren had given Venomar all but a few of his tattoos. In his view, there were better artists, but none with superior creativity. After Venomar joined Clan Guldara, Osiren taught him the art of shamanism, and quickly became one of his foremost mentors. Their current roles afforded them little time to interact with one another, making Venomar’s occasional tattoo appointments all the more meaningful.
“And why is that?” Bazra asked, scowling. “You can’t give up now, not when they’re on their heels!”
Osiren nodded slightly, picked up a large spoon, and stirred the brew.
“The Claudians will make the next move, Bazra,” Venomar explained. “They fear being upstaged more than anything else. They’ll come through the Bulwark’s gates and attack us. When they do, I’ll hand them a defeat so crushing they’ll have no choice but to surrender.”
“Even so, Meldah doubts they’ll bow to your demands. He’s refused them once already,” Bazra replied, looking down at the floor.
“Hopefully, they won’t have to,” Venomar grinned. Today is the start of Imperial Summit on Slavery. Alistair is set to speak. With luck, he’ll have slavery abolished by the end of the week, leaving North Avarad as the only thing we need to restore our great nation.”
“Sounds like wishful thinking, salrok,” Osiren said as he tapped the spoon on the edge of the basin, echoing through the temple.
“Yes. Don’t count on them giving up their slaves so easily.”
“I’m not,” Venomar shook his head. “But I have faith in Alistair. He’s convinced many to join his cause already. I’ve no doubt he’ll succeed at the Summit.”
“We can only hope, salrok,” Osiren picked up a carafe from the floor, dipped it into the basin, and walked over to the Arkresh. “Are you ready?
“Indeed, Suldan Osiren. May Nez’Gar guide your visions.”
As the carafe reached Osiren’s lips, Iranok rushed into the lodge.
“Arkresh! Arkresh Venomar!” the majordomo shouted. He then leaned over and took several deep breaths.
“Well, good thing I’ve yet to drink,” Osiren said, lowering the carafe.
“Hold on, Iranok!” Bazra ordered. “The Arkresh is about to get his victory tattoo. What’s the matter?”
Venomar sat up on the cot, his face filled with concern.
“Urgent news from Minthera! Alistair has been taken prisoner!”
“What? Why?” Venomar exclaimed.
“We’re not sure. Reports are still coming in.”
“Then there’s no time to waste!” Venomar stood at once, picked up his robe off the floor, and marched towards the exit. “Bazra, to the Palace! Iranok, contact Daggerface! We’ve work to do!”
Venomar sat at the Campaign Table in his War Room, clutching a bottle of Kholdros Spiced Rum in one hand and a pewter mug in the other. Two toys between his massive green fingers.
“Ven,” whispered Bazra, who stood behind him. “Is that necessary?”
The Arkresh nodded and poured rum into the mug until it was full. On the way to the palace, he’d heard it again. For the first time since the night he executed Otak, the Black Dog was after him.
“I can’t believe he admitted to meeting with you,” said Meldah, seated across from Venomar. “In front of the whole Senate!”
“Alistair is a good and noble man,” Venomar replied after downing half the mug. “Surely, the lies had begun to wear on him.”
“Sounds like they boxed him in.” Bazra shook her head. The Arkresh finished off the mug and filled it again.
“It appears his brother and Ferdinand outmaneuvered him,” said Daggerface. He stood on the left side of the table, in between Venomar and Meldah. He was middle-aged, slightly older than Venomar, and was clean shaven. His skin was a dark yellow, and he had more scars on his head than the eldest Seragorn did tattoos. One wrapped around his right eye in a circular pattern, and another fell directly across his nose.
“Damn it,” Venomar exclaimed. He slammed his fist on the table, rattling the books and maps atop it. “We had them right where I wanted them.”
“With respect, Arkresh, your plan was flawed from the start,” Meldah leaned back in her chair. Bazra took a step forward.
“Meldah, now is-“
“But it is. Alistair was never going to free the slaves through his voice alone, and Ferdinand is never going to surrender North Avarad. It’s too important to their economy.”
“So you’ve said,” Venomar nodded. “But enough politics. We need to act.”
“Do we?” Meldah asked. “Alistair is a Claudian citizen. You’ve never claimed him as an agent.”
“Because he’s a friend,” Venomar replied.
“Still, he’s not a Seragorn. Perhaps the best solution is to do nothing at all.”
Meldah’s dark eyes scanned the room. Bazra looked as though she wished to wrestle with her, right there on the War Room table. Daggerface stood silent, as did Iranok, who presided over the threshold. Venomar downed another half of his drink.
“After all he’s done to free slaves?” Bazra asked.
“The Claudians will not know this to be a blow unless we act like it.”
“Unacceptable,” Venomar insisted, slashing the air with an outstretched hand. He then drank the rest of his rum in a single swig, grabbed the bottle again, and began to pour.
“Ven, must you?” Bazra whispered. The Arkresh glared back her through his sullen, wounded violet eyes.
“I will not leave Alistair to his fate,” Venomar said, turning back to Meldah. “’He who abandons his friends will someday find himself alone and encased in stone, a statue with none to set him free.’”
“There must be something we can do,” said Bazra, placing her hand on the Arkresh’s shoulder. If he noticed the gesture, he paid it no attention.
“Indeed. Meldah, who do we have in the prisons?”
“No one of value. The lord of Barruk fled the field, and it would take at least ten of him to equal Alistair.”
“Daggerface, how strong are your contacts in Minthera?” Venomar asked.
“Of all the cities in the Empire, Arkresh, they are the strongest. Few notice the custodian cleaning the latrines, or the house slave who vanishes in the dark of night.”
“Do you think you could spring him?”
Meldah laughed, Bazra looked at Venomar bewildered, and Daggerface scratched his chin in thought.
“Spring him? That’s absurd! The Carcerium is bound to be crawling with Blue Helms!”
“If it’s what the Arkresh wants, then we’re going to do it!” Countered Bazra.
“Venomar, I beg of you, reconsider,” Meldah leaned forward and held out her hands. “This is a waste of resources. The Sulmarr were furious about what you did with Alistair in the first place. Only his success at setting our people free has saved you from their wrath. If they find out you went to these lengths to release a former slave owner, you’ll surely be deposed.”
Venomar leaned back in his chair, stroked his beard, and starred into his rum. As Arkresh, he did not rule the Seragorn alone. He oversaw all military matters, and had the sole authority declare war and negotiate treaties. But the Sulmarr, the rulers of the Eastern, Western, Northern, and Southern Holds controlled all else in their respective regions. Elected for life, they appointed Udicars, set taxes and tariffs, and, if necessary, had the authority to replace an Arkresh.
“To Octavarius with the Sulmarr! The Arkresh cares not for their bureaucracy!” shouted Bazra as she took a step forward to stand right beside Venomar.
“And clearly, you care nothing for common sense!” Meldah shot up out of her seat, her face flush with anger.
“Enough, both of you!” Venomar slammed both his hands on the table, his voice booming through the Palace. “I want no more of this!”
Venomar took a deep breath and followed it with a long drink. The room stayed silent, awaiting his next command.
“Can it be done, Daggerface?”
The Spymaster nodded.
“I will offer you no promises, Arkresh. But I can try. In fact, I’ve got just the man for the job!” Dagger said excitedly. “I daresay he’ll think this a fun proposition.”
“Excellent!” Venomar exclaimed. I knew I could count on you, Daggerface. Alistair is not just a friend to me – he’s an ally to every free Seragorn. If you can set him free, you’ll be more of a legend than you already are.”
“I like the sound of that.”
The Spymaster grinned, spun around, and hurried past Iranok out of the War Room. A famous author off to publish his magnum opus. Meldah sighed, picked up her books and papers, and followed suit. Iranok stepped out of her way and laughed awkwardly.
“Disappointing,” she said before departing.
Venomar sat in front of the large glass window in his bedroom, staring out at the dark blue waters of the Bay of Vakera below. He clutched a full mug in his right hand. An empty bottle of Kholdros Spiced Rum rested on the floor. Bazra paced behind him, and Iranok stood by the door.
“No wonder her man left her. She should keep her damn opinions to herself!” she shouted as she stomped around the room.
“That’s unwell of you, Bazra,” Venomar replied between drinks. “Her opinions are why she’s here.”
“So she can disagree with you at every turn?”
“She’s a brilliant politician, and one of the few I can tolerate having around,” Venomar chuckled. “If she ever runs for Sulmarr, I’d vote for her.”
Bazra shook her head and took a seat on the edge of the Arkresh’s bed.
“Then we’d cancel each other out. She talks about you, you know,” Bazra said, looking down at the floor.
Venomar glanced back at her.
“Before Kari left for her Windswept Walk, she often talked about you as well. About the times you spent together in the markets, or out hunting Vonn.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“Then what do you mean?”
Venomar stood up from his chair and moved closer to the window. Ships were drifting into the bay, guided by the shimmering flame of the Elakar Lighthouse.
“Don’t you think it’s strange that she hasn’t bonded with anyone?” Bazra walked over to the Arkresh’s side. “Despite having a child?”
“I’ve two, and yet I’ve bonded with no woman,” Venomar countered.
“Your circumstances were different. And Kari is not your blood.”
He’d stumbled upon his second child, Kari, after capturing the town of Durham during the Rebellion. Venomar took her as his own, and after capturing Arkera, raised her in the Palace of the Arkresh. Now eighteen, she had just left for her Windswept Walk, a two year journey undertaken by all shaman after completing their training. His first child, whom he sired in his teenage years, he seldom spoke of.
“She hopes to bond with you, Ven” Bazra said, putting an arm on the small of the Arkresh’s back.
The Arkresh stepped away, finished off his mug, and went to grab another bottle from the cabinet.
“And I’ve been clear on this matter, Bazra,” Venomar said as he poured himself a new cup. I am an Arkresh. Not a king. My lineage does not matter.”
“I suppose it doesn’t,” Bazra sighed. She too gazed out into the purple darkness of the bay, a barmaid awaiting the return of a sailor lost to sea.
Venomar returned to the chair by the window. He thought of Alistair, suffering in the Carcerium. He prayed Daggerface would have news soon. But what if he didn’t? What if the Spymaster was too late to reach Alistair? The abolitionist would no doubt suffer the same fate he expected to receive from the Arkresh himself months earlier.
For several minutes he remained silent, staring a hole through his mug, as though any second a messenger of the gods might spring from the rum and tell him if Daggerface’s rescue mission would be successful. What did the Emperor do with traitors, he wondered? Burn them at the stake? Crucifixion? Hanging?
Somewhere in the Palace, he heard the howling of the Black Dog. It’d been barking at him since he left the temple, chasing him through the streets of Arkera. And he could not evade it any longer.
“What’s the matter?” Bazra asked, as she turned around to see Venomar crying into his drink.
“I’ve failed him, Bazra. I should’ve never gotten him involved in this. He has a daughter, just as I do. He lost the woman he loved, just -” Venomar hurled his mug at the floor, shattering it. He ran his fingers through his hair, tears cascading down his face. A priest who just discovered everything he’d ever believed was a horrendous lie.
“Ven,” Bazra said as she rushed to his side. “Come here. We’re going to get through this.
Bazra tried to embrace him, but Venomar brushed her hands away.
“How many more must we lose to this cause, Bazra?” Venomar cried. “I should’ve sent Daggerface’s men to Soldrafor after the Den attacked him. I should’ve gotten him out of Calanar weeks ago!”
The Black Dog shrieked in his ears. Kutz. Korgoth. Bianca. How many more?
“Don’t doubt yourself!” she countered. “He knew the risks. He walked right into the Vonn’s nest. He wanted to save our people, free every slave. Just as you inspired him to do.”
“And when his own people slaughter him, the blood will be on my hands!”
Octavian. Haedra. Elohan.
“Daggerface won’t fail,”
And soon, Alistair.
Venomar shot up and kicked the chair from out behind him, sending it sliding into the wall. Bazra rushed over to him and wrapped her arms around his waist.
“You’re stressed! Come, let me spend the night here, with you,” Bazra. “We can face the Black Dog together.”
“No! I wish to be alone.”
“But it’s having its way with you already! Let me help you,” she begged, grabbing hold of his hands and looking up into his violet, bloodshot eyes.
“I have all the help I need,” he replied, glancing at his liquor cabinet.
Bazra pulled closer and gently caressed the back of Venomar’s head.
“That’s an order!” Venomar ripped himself from her grasp. “Out!”
She shook her head and threw her hands in the air.
“You know what? I’ve had it with this. To hell with your order. I’m leaving on my own terms.”
“Then leave!” Venomar shouted as she stormed through the threshold and past Iranok. “I can protect myself.”
“From enemies? Yes. From yourself? Never,” she replied as she continued down the hall.
“Shall I call for additional guards, Arkresh?” Iranok asked.
“No. She’ll be back by morning.”
“I wouldn’t count on that.”
Venomar glared back at the majordomo.
“Good evening, Arkresh. I’ll be in the atrium if you need me.”
“Very well. Don’t disturb me for anything but news of Alistair.”
Iranok nodded and closed the door. Venomar trudged over to the cabinet, withdrew a new bottle of rum, and succumbed to the infernal canine.
Venomar awoke to Iranok’s voice and a furious knocking at the door. He rolled out of bed shirtless, a haze enveloping his vision. The daylight, pouring through the window, scorched his eyes. He rubbed them with the palms of his hands, stumbled over two empty bottles, and opened the door.
“By Nez’Gar, Arkresh!” Iranok shouted. “You’ve a visitor, have some decency!”
“Rough night?” asked Meldah, standing beside him.
Venomar scanned left and right.
“She did not return.”
“Lover’s quarrel?” Meldah smiled.
“No. No,” Venomar shook his head. He looked down at his chest, and realized he was bare. Embarrassed, he took a step back from the threshold.
“Any news of Alistair?” Venomar said as he scavenged the room for a shirt, finally finding one in the chest behind his bed. He threw it on – a baggy, white tunic he’d not worn since his trip to Icebane Tundra.
“Not yet. But Daggerface is hard at work. They say they’ve never seen him so determined.”
Meldah stepped into the bedroom. Iranok nodded and closed the door behind her.
“Who’s they?” Venomar asked. He motioned to a small circular table, and pulled out a chair for her. She sat down, and Venomar brought over another chair to join her.
“Friends of mine.”
“In the Dreggs?”
The Dreggs was Arkera’s low income district, dominated by cheap taverns, high stakes Quippa Dens, and clanless housing. Beneath it, in a series of tunnels known as the Crypts, Daggerface managed his comprehensive network of spies and informants.
“I’ve friends all over. Why the surprise? You play Quippa at the Screaming Vonn once a week,” Meldah counter, grinning.
“When time allows,” Venomar chuckled. “There’s wisdom to be found in the Dreggs. Simplicity. And if you’re lucky, a bit of fun. But I didn’t think you the type to see that. I’m impressed.”
“Can’t say I view it the same. But, I also didn’t think you the type to do this,” Meldah said, pointing to the bottles of alcohol on the floor.
The Arkresh’s head had been throbbing the entire conversation. It’d been some time since he’d last required so much booze to bury the Black Dog, and his senses were paying the price. He leaned back, the room spinning around him like the spokes a windmill.
“Does it happen often?” Meldah inquired.
“I asked Iranok not to bother me with anything other than news of Alistair,” Venomar replied. “I don’t mind your visit, but I would prefer some privacy.”
“Then I’ll get to the point. You look unwell. Water?” Meldah pulled a canteen off her belt and held it across the table.
“You’re an angel. Sent by Nez’Gar himself,” Venomar said quickly, before grabbing the canteen, opening it, and pouring the contents into his mouth. He then wiped his beard and let out a sigh of relief. For a brief minute, the room stopped spinning.
“I’ve come to talk to you about Vakera.”
Meldah joined Venomar’s Rebellion after he liberated her from her master, an illiterate shopkeeper who used her as a bookkeeper. Shortly after the capture of Arkera, she started to show. She claimed she had become pregnant the night of the victory celebration. The Arkresh offered to find the father and force him to help raise the child – in accordance with the Old Code – but Meldah refused, saying she wished to know nothing more of the man she had been with that night. Despite rampant rumors, Venomar asked no further questions.
“How is she? Doing well with her studies?”
“She is. The Historians have taught her much.”
Meldah named her fatherless daughter Vakera, after the third Arkresh, who sacrificed her own life to end the second Gol’Kar Scourge.
“I’ve great respect for the historians. Beretaas wrote my book, after all. But I still think she would’ve learned more from the philosophers.”
“Perhaps. But I wanted her learn from the best,” Meldah explained. “And that’s why I want her to learn shamanism from you.”
Venomar’s world had begun swirling again, but it all stopped the moment Meldah uttered those words. It was an odd request. He’d refused to teach Kari when she asked years ago.
“From me?” The Arkresh asked.
“Of course, Venomar. Why not?”
“I’m not the best shaman,” Venomar shook his head. He could think of at least ten who could best him in the art of spellcasting. Besides, he’d never taken an apprentice. He knew nothing about teaching.
“You bested Otak.”
“Because I was the stronger warrior. Otak could cast spells I’ve never dreamed of.”
“That concentrated lightning beam in the arena, you couldn’t have done that?” Meldah asked, laughing slightly.
“Never tried it. There are shaman far more skilled than I. Osiren would be a better teacher.”
When Venomar escaped slavery and joined Guldara Clan, he made his desire to become a shaman known at once. He’d heard stories about them since he was a boy, and believed become one to be the best way to aid the cause of his people. The spells did not come naturally to him, but Osiren encouraged him when other mentors would’ve given up. When he left for his Windswept Walk, he had no doubt he’d succeed, because learning itself had been such a struggle.
“Osiren isn’t Arkresh of the Seragorn,” she replied.
“How old is she?” Venomar grunted, looking up at the ceiling. The pain in his skull had become unbearable. A furious bugle summoning a soldier from sleep during the still-dark hours of the morning. He’d need to mix a potion to numb it, and resolved to do so once Meldah left.
“She’ll be five on the fifth of Dreadfall.”
“Ah right, her birthday is the same as mine,” Venomar chuckled. “She’s still time before she can begin training.”
Shaman didn’t begin their training until age sixteen. Odd of her to ask now, Venomar thought.
“I’m aware. I just want to make sure I obtain your services early. Who knows what the years ahead will bring?”
Shattered glass. Meldah gasped and shot up from her chair. Venomar turned to see a hole in the window behind him, and an arrow, doused with flame, sailing through it.
If not for the pounding in his brain, he’d have been able to concentrate. To focus on the fire drenched arrow as it hurdled towards the liquor cabinet behind Meldah. If not for the capture of Alistair, the Black Dog never would have come for him that night. And if not for that infernal canine, he’d never have needed to pick up the bottle.
Venomar launched a burst of water from the palm of his right hand, but it missed horribly. The arrow broke through the glass of the liquor cabinet and punctured a bottle of rum. Flames bellowed and swelled within, a furnace of embers. The Arkresh flipped the table over and charged forward, desperate to protect Meldah.
The ensuing explosion set off the other bottles in the cabinet, producing a blast that set the bedroom alight. As the cabinet came apart, with bits of blazing wood and torrents of fire spewing in all directions, Venomar and Meldah were thrown backward. The Arkresh crashed into his chair, crushing it. His advisor hit the wall, streams of orange dancing up her left arm, her savage screams resonating through the palace.
“Meldah! No!” Venomar pulled himself up and rushed to Meldah’s side. Shimmering, light blue water flowed from his fingertips, dousing the flames on her arms. He then picked her up, and crashed through the door and out into the hallway.
Meldah continued to wail. She grasped her left arm with her right hand and thrashed about on the palace floor in agony.
“All the Gods in heaven!” she cried. “It hurts, Ven! It hurts!”
A blue, glossy film developed on the tips of Venomar’s fingers. He then grasped Meldah’s arm, one hand over the other, as though he were talking hold of a Batoohn stick. In seconds, glowing water flowed over the limb and into her scorched flesh. Meldah moaned and closed her eyes.
“Sent by Nez’Gar himself,” Meldah mumbled. She tried to move the arm, and then howled again.
“Don’t move that arm,” Venomar ordered her. “All I did was stabilize it.”
The Arkresh looked back at the room, where the fire continued to rage.
“Arkresh, what’s happened!?” shouted Iranok, running over to the pair. A host of guards followed behind him.
“We were attacked. I know not by who,” Venomar explained. “Get her to Osiren. He’ll know what to do. Three of you with me, the rest with Iranok!” The Arkresh pointed to the guards, motioning them to follow. He then turned around, and rushed back into the burning bedroom.
After swiftly assessing the damage, Venomar extended his right hand, palm open, and cupped the wrist with his left thumb and index finger. He then rotated delicately around the room as a deluge of water shot forth from his palm in a great stream, putting out the blaze.
“How did this happen?”
“Where did they come from?”
Venomar pointed at the hole in the window. Without a word, he approached it, and gazed out across the shimmering bay at the only location the arrow could’ve been fired from – the Elakar Lighthouse.
Dressed in his black and silver armor, a crimson cape flowing behind him, Venomar ascended the narrow stairs of the Elakar Lighthouse. Elara, captain of the city watch, led the way, and a host of Arkresh Elite warriors took up the rear.
“Is something wrong with Bazra?” Elara asked. She wore heavy armor, and had dark shoulder length hair.
“Yes – I mean, no. She’s simply taken the day off.”
“That’s unlike her.”
Venomar shook his head and looked out the window. Wherever she was, he prayed she was well. The Black Dog had taken enough from him already.
Elara stepped into the light room and gasped. The Arkresh pushed past her, and let out a groan of anger.
Streams of blood. Fragments of bodies, torn apart by the blades of unknown assailants. And in the great brazier, aglow with orange flame, two skulls burned.
“Hadok and Ferah. Both of Clan Velkan, I believe,” Venomar said as he paced about the room.
“Yes. Meldah told me Hadok was on his way to being named Guttah.”
“Have they any children?”
“One. A girl. No older than five.
“I’ll ensure she’s taken care of,” Venomar sighed. “Their family watched over this place diligently. They deserve to be honored. I’ll handle the expenses for their Passing Rite, and we’ll hold a Day of Honor for both of them.”
“The Claudians will pay for this. When you smash the Bulwark, do it without mercy.”
“Let’s not blame the Bagherak yet,” Venomar replied. He knelt down, and picked up a small Clan Velkan pendant off the floor.
“How’s that going to help us?”
“It won’t. But the spirits will.”
Venomar clutched the pendant in both hands. A bright, yellow flame shot from his palms, enveloping the pendant. The smoke rose up into the Arkresh’s eyes in two small columns. His pupils dilated, and through an amber haze, the spirits granted him sight of the lighthouse massacre.
They burst through the lighthouse door, four Seragorn, each dressed in armor too expensive for common thugs. Like a swarm of Pictan Vipers they rushed up the stairs, and descended upon Hadok and Ferah with blades in hand.
“Remember Orcsbane!” one of them shouted.
Though they tried to fight off the invaders, using shovels, chairs, and cutlery as makeshift weapons, Hadok and Ferah had no chance. When they had been disposed of, one of the assailants produced an arrow, doused it with a potion, and set it ablaze with the lighthouse fire. He then took a bow from one of his cohorts, aimed at the palace, and loosed the arrow.
Venomar closed his eyes and returned to the present. He knew the phrase “remember Orcsbane,” all too well.
It was the motto of the Reavers of Odahn.
The Reavers of Odahn rose to prominence during the five year lull between Venomar’s Rebellion and his latest campaign. Staunch nationalists, they favored a policy of “uncompromising revenge,” against all Claudians, and protested any decision they felt pacified the Seragorn image. In recent months, their numbers swelled, with members of every major clan – including some in Clan Guldara – subscribing to their ideals.
Since their inception, they’d always been loosely organized, with only a few noteworthy Seragorn bold enough to claim membership. During his investigation into Otak’s supposed ties to the Reavers, the Arkresh discovered their meeting place – the ruins a Claudian theater on the outskirts of Arkera.
They sat amongst rotten wooden benches, under a broken roof, with small daggers of moonlight shining down on them. Rows of headless statues – The Ascendant, Lethuc Leros, the Nine Companions, and Beatrice – towered over them. Once, Venomar sought to rebuild the theater and turn it a bastion for Seragorn artistry. But the Sulmarr of the South refused, calling the efforts cowardly and against greenskin principles. The Reavers of Odahn agreed, but could find no more appropriate places to propagate their views than a derelict home of their former oppressors.
“Did you hear what happened to Meldah?”
“I did! Heard she’s in some rough shape.”
“A shame. What will happen to her child if she dies?”
“Who cares? It’s what will happen to all Claudian-lovers.”
Aside from wristbands bearing their sigil – a hanged Claudian dangling upside on a green field – they bore no distinguishing marks. Men and women wearing robes of fashionable make stood alongside Seragorn in rags, numbering at least thirty in all.
“But that’s not what this rebellion is about!”
“By Octavarius, if we aren’t going to put the fear of Nez’Gar in them, what are we here for?”
“We can’t have lost Otak for nothing! If they kill one of us, we’ll kill two of them!”
“Attention!” cried a voice from the stage. The theater’s braziers came alight, and a middle-aged Seragorn woman with long red dreadlocks and yellow skin stepped from behind the curtain, flanked by a pair of guards carrying halberds.
“Meldah’s wounds were, no doubt, delivered by Claudian hands. At best, we must hope it inspires the Arkresh to think more of his own people than his abolitionist friend,” she said, once silence had fallen. “But let us begin this night as we have all others.”
She then raised her left hand into the air, palm open. The rest of the Reavers did the same.
“Nez’Gar, protect us. Ignaara, guide us,” they chanted in unison. “Velmar, inspire us. Profaned yet to come, do not forget us. Remember Orcsbane! Remember all we have suffered, and grant no impunity to The Ascendant’s sons!”
A furious gust of wind blew the theater doors open. The Reavers drew weapons and readied themselves. The two halberd wielding guards leapt from the stage and charged to meet the unknown assailant. Two cannon-like streams of lightning cut them down, immolating them inside their armor.
“Reavers of Odahn!” Venomar shouted as he stepped into the theater. “By the right of Vakera’s Voice, I place you under arrest for conspiring to murder the Arkresh of the Seragorn!”
Two explosions followed, and host of Arkresh Elite brandishing bows entered through a pair of freshly made holes on opposite sides of the theater. Quickly, they surrounded the Reavers, arrows at the ready.
“Ah, but that’s not what you’re truly here about, is it?” asked the woman on the stage.
“Udicar Telakka,” Venomar said. “You’ve joined in with this madness? Why?”
Telakka Aher’Vem, Udicar of Neos, smiled and stepped to the very front of the stage.
“Madness is madman’s word for sanity,” she replied. She sat down on the edge of the stage, her legs swinging back and forth. “Meldah’s wounds were a tragedy. We wanted to get Bazra, honestly.”
“Then you were behind the attack!” cried one of the Reavers.
“I believe you mean we!”
“Explain yourself! Who else knew about this?”
“Now look at what you’ve gone and done!”
“I’d always hoped to see you bond with Meldah. I’ve always thought she could inspire you to see our side of things,” Telakka continued.
“Enough! You’ve no right to speak of them!” Venomar
“But with you sure to respond to your pet Claudian’s arrest, it needed to be done.”
Venomar swore, and lifted a hand in the air. The Arkresh Elite pulled back their arrows.
“If you kill them, you’ll be killing innocents,” Telakka countered, her hands held up. “None knew about the attack other than myself and the four men of my personal guard I picked to complete the job. You’ve already killed two of them”
“Then have the others step forward,” Venomar said.
Telakka nodded, and the remaining two Seragorn from Venomar’s vision emerged from the crowd. Both were male, but one clearly came from the Dreggs – evidenced by the rags covering his body – while the other was an individual Venomar knew to be a fellow member of Clan Guldara.
“Then by the grace of Nez’Gar, the rest of you may leave. Discard your heraldry and exit through the door behind me. From this day forward, the Reavers of Odahn are no more. All who bear their colors in public shall henceforth be enemies of state,” Venomar ordered. Within seconds, many of the Reavers removed their wristbands and tossed them to the theater floor. But the Arkresh stayed at the ready, certain of what would come next.
“Fantakka!” cried a Makros Clansmen in leather armor. He charged the Arkresh, his right fist held high.
“Fanterrah!” Venomar responded, accepting the challenge. He sidestepped the attack, grabbed the Makros Clansmen by the arm and tossed him to the ground. Then, he leapt on his back, and placed him in a seated arm bar. With great force, the Arkresh yanked his opponent’s limb upwards, producing a snap heard throughout the theater.
“Anyone else?” Venomar stood up and scanned the crowd. With heads held low, the rest removed their wrist bands and departed as the Makros Clansmen wailed like a child who’d just lost their prized toy.
“Are you proud of yourself, Venomar?” Telakka asked. “Never mind. I know the answer. You want to know why, Arkresh? Then let us speak.”
He stepped forward and drew Liberator. He hoped she would go quietly, but he doubted it. The Elites closed in, and the last of Telakka’s conspirators took defensive positions.
“I doubt you’ve a good explanation for attempted murderer,” he thought of Alistair and Meldah, both in peril. He’d been praying to every divine he respected that they’d make it through this. In his years, he’d seen worse wounds than Meldah’s. But she was a politician, not a soldier. No matter what, the experience would scar her forever. Venomar worried for Alistair’s wellbeing far more. Only the distractions of duty kept him from brooding on it, though he could not help but wonder what was taking Daggerface so long.
“Like so many of us, when the Rebellion ended, I went to the Flame-Born, those wondrous nymphs of Ignaara, to learn what had befallen my ancestors. My father and mother left our small village in the Arch to visit my aunt. She’d just been named a Gutah in Clan Velkan. Slavers captured them both, and sold them to Blackwood Company.”
Venomar wavered and sighed.
“I’m sorry. You’ve every right to be furious. But the sins of Blackwood Company’s past should not rest on Alistair’s shoulders. He’s trying to make amends.”
“Then who’s should bear the burden? Someone must!” Telakka stood up, and reached behind her back. “And he’s made no amends to my family. My parents died in his service! They were galley slaves, killed in a raid by Dwarven Varayag in the Trade Wars. They were butchered defending the man who owned them!”
“I was born a slave, Telakka. I understand your pain. There’s nothing that can be done about the past but learn and grow from it.”
“I knew you’d come, Arkresh. I never wanted to harm Meldah. It’s a tragedy I did,” she explained as she produced a small vase from behind her back. The Arkresh recognized it at once. A Girajan funnel.
“Take it from her, my friends! Now!” Venomar shouted as he charged the stage. He’d seen a Girajan funnel years ago, during his Windswept Walk. If they did not act quickly, then one of the most fearsome creatures to grace Theranos would be upon them.
“Only to draw you out, and avenge my parent’s memory!”
Telakka took the vase in both hands, hoisted it above her head, and dashed it on the floor.
The result was worse than what Venomar remembered. Far worse.
Thomas J. Lauser – TJ to his friends and family- is a writer and special education teacher from Wallingford, Pennsylvania. “The Price of Abolition,” is his third published story, and continues the “Steps Saga,” that began with his first story, “Business of Change”. He is currently working on several more short stories and a novel. His writing blog is www.adreamdeferredband.wordpress.com