Seeker of Legends Preview

 

 

 

Prologue

 

 Countless stars shone down on the King’s Road, a seemingly endless series of stone slabs suspended seven meters above the ground by massive wooden posts. The three moons of Varta, nearly full now, cast their pale glow on the forest on either side of the road, casting soft shadows on the forest floor. A cool wind whipped through the trees, a prelude to menacing clouds approaching slowly from the west.

And on the King’s Road, a lone carriage rolled steadily northward toward the Kingdom of Tykus, pulled by two burly horses.

Seeker Dante shifted uneasily in his seat inside of the carriage, his buttocks aching from the days’-long ride through the forest. The carriage was old and worn, far from the usual luxury the Guild of Seekers provided. No one who managed to spot the carriage would think it was owned by the Guild…or that it carried such precious cargo.

And that, Dante knew, was precisely the point.

He glanced to his right, at the other man in the carriage, a younger man with light brown hair and a thin mustache. It was Seeker Murin, a low-ranked Seeker Dante was mentoring. The man – still practically a boy – was still green, fresh out of his apprenticeship. As with most fresh graduates, Murin’s confidence far exceeded his competence. With experience, that would change.

If it doesn’t, Dante mused, he’ll be dead.

Dante sighed, looking down at the large wooden music box sitting between them on the seat cushions. It was well-made, with intricate designs carved into every inch of its outer surface. A convincing counterfeit; anyone lifting the lid would find a fully-functioning machine inside. But beneath that, Dante knew something far more valuable lay:  a small obsidian container. And within that, a very valuable artifact.

A very illegal artifact.

What the artifact did exactly, Dante didn’t know. That was often the case with the Guild when they acted as their own client. Most Seekers retrieved artifacts for private clients, giving a percentage of their profits to the Guild. A few of the more skilled – and more trustworthy – Seekers ran missions for the Guild itself, retrieving artifacts that High Seeker Zeno felt were necessary to strengthen the Guild. These artifacts were sacred indeed; the traits stored within them were almost guaranteed to increase the powers of all of the Seekers, making them stronger, or faster, or smarter.

Each artifact brought them one step closer to the Founder’s grand vision.

Seeker Murin stirred, glancing at Dante.

“That was some weird shit, huh?” he said, shaking his head. “The Kingdom of the Deep, I mean.”

Dante said nothing, not meeting the man’s gaze. He recognized the statement for what it was…a banal conversation-starter. Silence made Murin nervous. It was a weakness of the young, and it betrayed his lack of real self-confidence. All signs of a low-level Seeker. With promotion, Murin would be exposed to a stronger form of the Founder’s will, through an upgraded Seeker medallion. This would cure his weaknesses, even if experience did not.

“If you ask me,” Murin continued, “…they’re all a bunch of freaks.” He smirked then. “Ever wonder how they, you know?”

“No, I don’t,” Dante replied.

“How they do it,” Murin continued. “Especially the guy who sold us that,” he added, gesturing to the music box. “His dick had to be huge.”

“Like I said,” Dante stated coolly, “…I don’t.”

“They’re not even human anymore,” Murin continued, obviously not understanding Murin’s unspoken sentiment – that he didn’t want to talk. “They’re like…animals there.” He shook his head. “I wonder what that guy’s woman looks like, to be able to handle that much meat,” he added. “You know?”

Dante ignored the younger Seeker, closing his eyes and resting his head back against his seat. They’d traveled from the Kingdom of the Deep, through the Glade of the Deep to the King’s Road. They’d made it all the way to the Fringe, the last few kilometers of forest before the Deadlands…and the Kingdom of Tykus. A vast wasteland, the Deadlands was all that remained of the old Outskirts, a city once filled with peasants. Peasants that, under the leadership of the Original, had risen up to start the great Civil War.

Tykus had driven the peasants – and the Original – out, laying waste to the old Outskirts, digging the tainted dirt out and tossing it into the ocean.

Dante took a deep breath in, then let it out. It would only be another hour before they reached the Deadlands, and not much longer than that before they made it to the great wall surrounding Tykus. Going through customs would be risky, as usual; if they were caught transporting illegal artifacts, they would be tried and convicted of treason. Thus the necessity for building the music box around the obsidian container housing the artifact; customs officials would not break apart such a delicate machine to find the artifact, and the wood of the music box would insulate the traits emitted by the artifact, making them difficult to sense.

Dante had been through the process countless times, and had never been caught. A skilled smuggler like himself was exceedingly valuable to the Guild…a fact that had made him a wealthy man.

Customs would use the Guild’s own Seekers to test the artifacts, as was the protocol. These Seekers were trained differently than the rest, of course. None carried the Founder’s will. The kingdom tested each of these “false” Seekers by having mentally deficient, weak-willed people called Testers spend time with them, absorbing their wills. Then the Testers were extensively questioned by the kingdom. Any anti-Tykus sentiments a person might have would be absorbed by the Testers, and as they were simple-minded, they would not think to hide them.

A real Seeker would not stand up to such scrutiny.

“Wonder what that thing is,” Murin stated, breaking the silence. His eyes were on the music box.

“If you’re smart,” Dante replied, “…you’ll never find out.”

“Why’s that?”

“You should know why,” Dante retorted. It was well-known that artifacts from the Kingdom of the Deep were often wild artifacts, those containing traits that were not human. In the Kingdom of the Deep, humanity was not valued as it was in Tykus, and it was perfectly legal to expose oneself to wild traits. In Tykus, such a thing was highly illegal. Preservation of one’s humanity was the sacred mission of the Acropolis, the great fortress where the highest nobles lived…and the king himself.

“I wonder if this came from the Deep,” Murin mused. Dante glanced at him.

“Doubt it.”

“Why’s that?” Murin pressed. “What is the Deep, anyway?”

Dante sighed, shaking his head.

“What did I tell you about asking questions?” he stated wearily. Murin grimaced.

“Don’t ask more than one at a time.”

“You know it,” Dante stated. “So do it.”

“Right,” Murin muttered. He shifted uneasily in his seat. “So what is the Deep?” he pressed.

“No one knows,” Dante answered. “Except maybe High Seeker Zeno. All I know is the Founder went there a long time ago.”

“What was what, a hundred years ago?”

“More than that,” Dante corrected.

Suddenly there was an ear-splitting shriek.

Dante’s gaze jerked forward, and he spotted the horse on the right through the front window of the carriage. It reared up on its hind legs, then bolted leftward, slamming into the other horse. The driver shouted something unintelligible, yanking back on the reins. But the horse ignored the driver, breaking out into a gallop, veering off to the left…and bringing the carriage with it.

“What the hell?” Murin blurted out.

Then Dante saw what’d spooked the horse:  an arrow was sticking out of its right flank.

“Get out,” Dante ordered, shoving Murin toward the rightmost door of the carriage. “Go!”

The carriage angled leftward, both horses spooked now, running straight for the leftmost edge of the King’s Road.

“Get out!” Dante shouted, leaping over the music box and landing in Durin’s lap. He grabbed the door handle and pulled it, shoving the door open

Just as the carriage’s front left wheel went off the edge of the road.

Shit!

Dante scrambled over Murin’s lap toward the open door…and felt the carriage tilt to the left, making him slide to the opposite door. His back slammed into it, and he grunted, bracing himself. He saw the horses plunge off of the side of the King’s Road, then felt his stomach lurch as the carriage entered into free-fall.

 His Seeker instincts kicked in.

He curled into a ball, ducking his head in his arms, every muscle relaxing, going limp. He felt the carriage accelerating downward, time slowing as it careened toward the ground seven meters below. The carriage driver leapt from his seat outside of the carriage, falling to the right of the horses. As Dante watched, the horses slammed head-first into the ground, the driver hitting moments later. The driver’s seat struck next, disintegrating as it smashed into the forest floor. The front of the carriage exploded, pieces of wood and stone flying toward Dante. He closed his eyes, remaining limp.

And then there was darkness.

 

* * *

 

Dante groaned, opening his eyes.

He realized he was lying on his back, staring upward at the seat cushions of the carriage. He frowned, wondering how they’d gotten up there…then realized that he was lying on the ceiling. The carriage had flipped upside-down.

He heard groaning, and turned to see Murin lying beside him, a deep gash in the man’s forehead. Blood poured from the wound, forming a puddle under their heads. Dante grimaced, sitting up, feeling pain in his back and arms as he did so. He looked down, seeing pieces of glass and wooden splinters jutting out of his forearms…and more in his legs. Sharp, stabbing pain shot through the left side of his chest with each breath, and he grunted, putting a hand on his ribs there. The merest touch sent agony through him.

What the hell happened?

It took him a moment to remember, and when he did, he swore.

“Get up,” he ordered Murin, rising to a crouching position, ignoring the pain the movement caused. He lended the younger Seeker a hand, pulling him to his feet. Murin looked dazed, his eyes glassy. Concussed.

“What…” he began, but Dante cut him off.

“They’re coming,” he growled. “Go out that way,” he added, gesturing to the still-open door nearest the man. “I’ll go the other way.”

“Who-”

“Shut up and go!” Dante hissed, shoving Murin toward the door. He turned to his door, yanking at the lever to open it. But it didn’t budge. He swore.

They’re watching, he knew. Whoever had shot the horse. If they saw his door open, they’d know he was trying to escape. He hesitated, then braced himself, kicking the door just below the handle. It burst open.

Agony shot through his ribs, and he held his breath, his eyes watering with the pain. He waited for it to lessen, taking shallow breaths. Eventually it did.

He peered outside.

Pieces of the shattered carriage were strewn across the forest floor, lined by pale moonlight. The carriage had struck front-first, then tipped over onto its back. That explained why it was upside-down. He spotted a man lying in a broken heap nearby…the driver.

If the man wasn’t dead, he would be soon.

Dante drew the longsword from its scabbard slowly, turning so that his body was blocking the blade from view. Otherwise whoever had shot them down might see the moonlight flashing on the blade. He peered into the darkness, but saw nothing but trees and bushes.

Then he heard footsteps behind him.

Crunch, crunch.

Dante spun around, then relaxed. It was Murin; the man had stepped out of the carriage, and was limping into the forest, his sword in plain sight, moonlight shimmering off the blade.

Idiot!

Murin jerked back suddenly, an arrow protruding from his chest.

Dante swore under his breath, breaking out into a run toward a large tree ahead. He reached it, ducking behind it, keeping his sword down low.

Shit.

He felt panic rising within him, and surpressed it, trying to focus. Panic would get him killed. He needed to think.

The arrow came from straight ahead, he reasoned, recalling the angle it’d struck Murin at…and the horse earlier, on the King’s Road. That meant that the archer had to be to the right of the road. Dante circled around the trunk until it was between him and the carriage. His ribs hurt terribly, and his hands were slick with blood trickling down the countless wounds in his forearms. The hilt of his sword felt slippery, and he gripped it tightly with both hands.

He had to kill whoever ambushed them, he knew. If he didn’t, whoever it was would get their hands on the artifact. His hand went to his chest, reaching for his Seeker medallion, but of course it wasn’t there. He’d left it at the Guild, as he always did when going out to transport illegal artifacts. Couldn’t have the enemy getting a hold of his medallion, after all.

There could be more than one archer.

He grimaced, glancing out from behind the tree, peering into the woods. He still couldn’t see anything; a dense mist hung in the air just above the ground a few dozen meters away. There was no way the archer could have shot Murin through that haze. Which meant…

A burst of pain lanced through his left shin, and he cried out, dropping his sword and falling onto his back on the hard ground. He looked down.

An arrow was embedded in his shin.

He scrambled to his feet, then saw something burst out of the mist ahead. A figure in a black cloak, their face hidden in the shadows thrown by a hood over their head. Holding a bow, sprinting right at him!

Shit!

Dante reached down, grabbing his sword and lifting it up. The cloacked man dropped the bow, unsheathing a sword from his hip in one smooth, quick motion. Moonlight danced off of the silver blade, and the figure reached Dante within seconds, swinging their sword at him with terrible speed!

Dante felt his Seeker reflexes kick in, and he blocked the blow without thinking, their blades ringing with the impact. He counterattacked without thinking, without needing to think. He’d spent years absorbing the skills of the finest Seekers to have ever lived, some of the most skilled swordsmen in the world. He thrust at the cloaked figure’s chest with perfect technique, aiming unerringly for their heart.

The cloaked figure dodged to the side at the last second, moving with impossible speed, and slashed at Dante’s neck!

Dante parried the blow instantly…or tried to. The cloaked figure pulled the blow back at the last minute, stumbling backward, falling to one hand on the forest floor. Dante lunged forward, slashing at them, but the figure’s hand swung up from the ground, flinging dirt right into Dante’s face. He closed his eyes automatically, turning his head to one side…

…and felt a horrible pain in his belly, shooting right through to his back.

Dante gasped, opening his eyes and looking down. At the sword buried to the hilt in his abdomen. He gasps, staring at it in disbelief, his sword slipping out of his hands and falling to the ground beside him.

The cloaked figure lifted one black boot, kicking Dante in the hip. Agony burst through his belly as he lurched backward, the sword slipping free from his body. He fell onto his butt, his back slamming into a tree trunk behind him. He stared up at the cloaked figure, clutching at his belly with both hands. There was a dagger at his hip, but he didn’t reach for it. It was futile, he knew.

He was already dead.

“Who…are you?” he gasped, feeling hot blood pour from between his fingers.

The cloaked figure stood there, staring down at him silently. Then they reached up with one hand, grabbing the edge of their hood and pulling it back.

Dante’s breath caught in his throat.

It was a man, he realized. A young man, his hair cut so short he looked practically bad. His skin was nearly as dark as the night sky, his black eyes glittering in the moonlight. The man didn’t answer Dante’s question, staring down at him silently.

“You’re a fool,” Dante spat, grimacing as a fresh wave of pain shot through his belly. “You’re attacking Seekers!”

“Damn right I am,” the man agreed. He raised the tip of his sword, pressing it against Dante’s breastbone.

“You must have a death wish,” Dante muttered. “They’ll find out about this,” he added. “You’ll have to face the entire Guild now.”

The man’s lips curled into a smirk.

“That’s the idea,” he replied.

“You’re a dead man,” Dante promised. When the man didn’t respond, he grimaced, shoving the tip of the man’s sword away from his chest with one hand. “What are you after,” he added. “The artifact?”

“That,” the man answered, “…and information.”

“What information?” Dante pressed.

“About the Guild.”

Dante glared at the man, giving a grim smile.

“Over my dead body,” he growled.

The man shrugged, flipping his sword around so he was carrying it backward, grabbing the blade in both hands.

“Works for me.”

And then he swung his sword above his head, chopping downward at Dante’s face.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 Hunter knelt down before the dead Seeker, ignoring the ache in his thigh as he did so. Even after two weeks, the two wounds he’d suffered there had not fully healed. It was a constant reminder of Traven, the man who’d tried to kill him…and who’d killed Vi.

He rummaged through the man’s pockets, finding a few coins there, and not much else. The Seeker wore a half-dozen rings on his fingers; Hunter pulled these off, stuffing them in his cloak. He had no idea what kind of traits the rings emitted, but they might be valuable. Any artifacts were potentially valuable, if they made him stronger. Faster.

Better.

He finished searching the man, finding nothing more of value. He didn’t bother taking the man’s weapons, knowing that his own were far better. They’d been owned by Vi, after all…the best fighter he’d ever met. The best in the world. Nothing else could compare.

Hunter paused, staring at the man. Then he lowered himself to his hands and knees, turning the dead Seeker’s head to the side, hiding the horrible wound in the man’s forehead. He closed his eyes, pressing his forehead against the man’s temple. Almost immediately, images flashed before his mind’s eye, coming to him in rapid succession. He didn’t bother trying to hold on to any of the images, letting them come and go as they pleased. They were the Seeker’s memories, he knew. Fragments of them, anyway. Incomplete, many of them uninterpretable.

And now they’re mine.

Hunter felt the images fading, and lifted his forehead from the man’s temple, rising to his feet. He turned to the fallen carriage, striding up to it. Both doors were open, revealing the cabin inside. It was strewn with broken glass and splintered wood; he stepped inside, looking around. The Seeker had mentioned an artifact…

He spotted a small wooden box lying next to the door, and knelt down, picking it up. He turned it in his hands, then focused his awareness inward. Studying himself. Monitoring himself.

No change.

The box had no effect on his emotions, then. If it’d absorbed any emotion, he would’ve known it. He was incredibly sensitive to emotion, a curse he’d suffered on Earth and on this world, wherever it was. Merely being close to an object that had absorbed someone else’s emotion would cause him to start feeling that same emotion. Indeed, he felt angry now, a slow, smoldering anger that he’d felt ever since he’d returned from the Ironclad lair weeks ago. Ever since he’d returned to the forest.

The Fringe hated humans, and that hatred was now his.

Hunter blinked, realizing that his mind had wandered. He glanced down at the box in his hands, and remembered that it contained an artifact. An illegal artifact, in fact. It was not his memory, of course. It was the Seeker’s. But it felt like his memory. It was still confusing, this new ability of his. A power he hadn’t even noticed he’d had at first, but that was growing over time. And it wasn’t just people that he could absorb memories from. He could absorb those of animals as well, even after death…and they were usually their most powerful memory:  their untimely deaths. A fact that had quickly converted him into a vegetarian.

Hunter stuffed the box into a large pocket on the inner lining of his cloak, walking through the carriage to the opposite door. He spotted a body lying on the ground nearby, the man he’d shot through the chest. Another Seeker, probably. He stripped the man of his coins and a few trinkets, then leaned over, pressing his forehead against the man’s temple. Again, images flitted by in rapid succession in his mind’s eye.

Then he lifted his head, yanking the arrow from the man’s chest and returning it to his quiver. He walked back through the carriage, returning to the first Seeker, and pulled the arrow from the man’s shin. He retrieved his bow, slinging it on his back, then strode away from the carriage, toward the three moons high above.

Two down, so many more to go.

 

***

 

By the time Hunter reached the edge of the forest, the sun was already starting to peek out from behind the horizon, its rays casting the clouds above in brilliant orange and red. He left the trees behind, walking forward until the ground gave way suddenly, ending in a steep drop-off. Beyond, a massive, cylindrical canyon lay, extending downward hundreds of feet to a lake below. He gazed down at it, spotting two small islands in the center. There was a house on the larger island, and a smaller building on the other one. A long wooden bridge connected the larger island to the shore of the lake, a crescent of rocky ground at the bottom of the canyon. A much shorter bridge connected the two islands.

He felt a pang of nostalgia then, remembering the first time he’d seen this canyon. The awe he’d felt. Of course, he hadn’t been alone then.

Hunter sighed, turning left to follow the edge of the canyon, eventually reaching a narrow path that spiraled down the side of the canyon, all the way to the bottom. He followed it, glancing over the edge as he went, remembering the fear he’d felt when he’d gone down it the first time. Vi had saved him from himself then, lending him her preternatural calm. He had no need of it now, striding forward without pause. He had nothing to fear anymore; the worst that could happen to him had happened to him.

And he’d done it to himself.

He forced himself away from the thought, knowing all-too-well where it led. He’d spent enough time wallowing in his grief. Not that he didn’t have a good reason for it. He’d killed his mother after she’d mortally wounded Vi. And he’d killed his brother…a brother he’d never known he had.

Stop it.

Hunter focused on the path ahead, realizing he’d reached the bottom. He veered rightward toward the long bridge, crossing it to reach the small island where Vi’s house was. He’d repaired the front door as best as he could, after it’d been smashed in by one of the Ironclad. Huge beasts with black armor and two pairs of arms, he’d thought of them as monsters…as the enemy. Until, that is, he’d gone into the Ironclad lair with Vi, and realized that his mother – the very person he’d traveled to this strange world to save – was their leader. Now Hunter knew who the real enemy was.

The Kingdom of Tykus…and Duke Dominus.

He sighed, turning away from Vi’s house and walking across the smaller bridge to the smaller island. This is where Vi had built her storehouse, a small building designed to hold powerful artifacts without contaminating the nearby environment. It’d been badly damaged by the Ironclad; Hunter had spent the last couple of weeks repairing it, replacing each brick and using clay from the lake as mortar. He’d rebuilt the walls, but had found the roof trickier to re-create. He was going to need the storehouse if he was to become a Seeker like Vi.

Hunter stopped before the storehouse, retrieving the wooden box from his cloak. He set it down on the ground, then got to work prying the thing apart. The Seeker’s memories he’d absorbed were correct – the box contained a hidden obsidian container within, perhaps a foot long and half as wide. He withdrew this, opening it and looking inside.

There was a bone there, a long, narrow shaft. It looked like an upper arm bone…a humerus. It was thicker than he imagined a human’s would be, with large, prominent bumps on the ends. He stared at it, waiting for a memory to be triggered. One of the Seeker’s memories. But nothing came. The memories he absorbed were like that…fragmentary, incomplete. It seemed like the most powerful memories and most recent ones were the clearest; he certainly didn’t absorb all of a person’s memories. Just bits and pieces, without seeming rhyme or reason.

He paused, then picked up the bone, holding it in his hand. He closed his eyes, turning his focus inward.

No emotions came to him.

That meant that the bone contained traits other than emotions. He absorbed emotions the best, and skills a little above average. Physical traits he absorbed poorly, as best he could tell, and he didn’t appear to absorb anyone’s personality at all. He had a strong will, Vi had told him…one that resisted being changed. It’d been nearly as strong as Vi’s.

Hunter opened his eyes, then walked up to the storehouse. There was a narrow moat surrounding it, filled with water from the lake. The water served to carrying away any traits that might radiate from an artifact held within, preventing those traits from being absorbed by the ground beyond the moat. This prevented contamination of the environment by particularly powerful artifacts. He climbed over the wall of the storehouse, dropping through an incomplete section of the roof. There was a square platform immersed in a half-inch of water inside, and he landed on it, then placed the bone within. That done, he climbed back out of the storehouse, walking back across the small bridge.

He glanced at Vi’s house, having the sudden urge to go inside. To feel Vi’s presence again.

Don’t do it.

He hesitated, stopping before her house, staring at the front door. It’d been at least a week since he’d given in to the temptation. He’d promised himself that he wouldn’t do this anymore, that he’d leave her be. Even though she was dead, her will lived on in the places she’d been, absorbed by the things she’d spent the most time near. All he had to do was go inside, and she would be there.

She’s dead.

He was about to turn away when he spotted something in the air above her house. A bird, carrying something in its talons. It landed on her roof – on the chimney-like structure there – and dropped something into it. Then it flew away.

A carrier pigeon, Hunter realized. Vi had received a contract from a client from a carrier pigeon a few weeks ago, before they’d gone back to Tykus.

He hesitated for a moment longer, then strode to the front door, opening it and stepping inside.

The house was just as he’d left it.

A small bed sat in one corner, dolls and stuffed animals all around it. Vi’s childhood possessions, filled with her essence. She’d kept them to restore her humanity after experimenting with wild artifacts. Weapons hung from the walls, each filled with the skills of ancient warriors. Only one was missing…the mace he’d taken two weeks ago, after returning from the Ironclad lair.

His gaze fell to a small opening in the wall, where the chimney-like structure – a mail chute – met the floor. There was a rolled-up piece of parchment there. He bent over to grab it, pulling off the wax seal and unrolling it. There was writing on the page, letters that resembled English, but were different enough to make reading them difficult:

 

V –

Need to speak with you. New job, great perks. Just business, I promise.

– L

 

Hunter stared at the page, feeling a burst of excitement. It was one of Vi’s clients, that was certain. Without the support of the Guild of Seekers, and without knowing any of Vi’s clients, he’d resorted to staking out the King’s Road, waiting for carriages to pass and intercepting them in hopes of retrieving artifacts. He’d had to wait a few days for the last carriage to come, and he’d been lucky that it’d been a Seeker carriage. The last two carriages he’d ambushed hadn’t carried anything of value at all. Two weeks of hunting, and he had very little to show for it. Word would get out that someone was attacking the carriages, and he had no doubt that soldiers would be sent to patrol the road. It wouldn’t be long before he’d have to abandon that strategy.

But if he could get access to Vi’s clients…

He rolled the paper back up, then paused, bringing it to his forehead. Vi’s client’s memories might have been absorbed by the parchment, after all. He waited.

An image came to his mind’s eye, of a woman lying curled-up in a bed. The vision disappated rapidly, far too quickly for him to make sense of it.

 Damn.

Still, he had an initial– L – and he’d absorbed some of Vi’s memories, as well as this client’s. A woman, he knew, without knowing how. It might be enough to find this client. And if this client could point him in the direction of Vi’s other clients, he might just have a chance at accumulating powerful artifacts like Vi had. Artifacts that would make him stronger, faster, and more skilled. Powerful enough to take on the Seekers…and the kingdom.

Hunter nodded to himself, shoving the paper into one of the pockets in his cloak. He left the house, closing and locking the door behind him, then walking back toward the storehouse. He needed to spend some quality time with that bone he’d taken from the Seekers…at least enough to figure out what it did. He’d have to bring it along with him on the trip.

He retrieved the bone from the storehouse, then walked back to the shore, to his makeshift bed near the narrow path winding back up the canyon. He laid down on the dirt and leaves, holding his sword – Vi’s sword – in his arms, and his bow. The more time he spent with them, the more of their skills he would absorb.

He closed his eyes, feeling suddenly exhausted. He’d been sleeping during the day for the last week, and hunting during the middle of the night, in the cover of darkness.

Somehow, he knew that he needed to go west from the canyon to get to this woman’s house…no doubt from the memories he’d taken from Vi, or from this client. He’d have to start walking after he woke up, and trust that their memories would guide him through the forest. If not, he’d just go back to Vi’s place. He couldn’t afford to leave Vi’s house unguarded for too long, of course…not with the veritable treasure trove of artifacts she’d collected. But a few days wouldn’t hurt.

Maybe, just maybe, this client would be able to help him, so he could get his revenge.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 Dominus sat up in bed, squinting against the bright light shining through the windows of his bedroom. He waited for his eyes to adjust, putting one hand on his sheets.

To his surprise, he found that they were dry.

He was even more surprised that he’d woken up at all. The fevers had wracked his body all day yesterday, coming in terrible waves, their arrival heralded by uncontrollable shaking. He only remembered bits and pieces of the last few days, the infection that had spread from the bones of his right leg to his bloodstream making him delirious. In the few moments of lucidity he’d been granted, he’d expected the worst:  that he was going to succumb to his illness. That those terrible moments would be that last of his life.

He frowned, then threw off the sheet covering him, exposing his legs. He stared at his right leg, unable to stop himself from grimacing. Bandages were wrapped around it from the knee down, those covering his foot stained with pink and yellow secretions. He waited for the smell to assault his nostrils, the stench of rotting flesh, but none came.

Interesting.

He leaned over, untying one end of the dressing from his leg, then unwrapping it, exposing his mutilated foot. He grimaced again, staring at what remained of his limb, the toes amputated, a deep ulcer on the knob on the right side of his ankle. A consequence of his dread disease, the flesh rotting as its lifeblood was taken away bit by bit. Yesterday, the gangrene – wet, black flesh – had extended halfway up to his knee, angry red streaks winding up his leg to his groin, where painful lumps had grown. But now…

His breath caught in his throat, gooseflesh rising on his arms.

The red streaks were gone…and the skin at his shin was no longer black. Islands of pink flesh had grown there.

Dominus stared at them, hardly believing his eyes.

It’s working.

He looked at his foot, at the stumps of his toes. To his surprise, he saw pink flesh growing from around the exposed bone there…and tiny blood vessels growing within the thin, transparent membrane around those bones. Even the ulcer on the side of his ankle was a bit shallower, new flesh visible at its base, growing inward.

Dominus smiled, a chuckle escaping his lips. Then he began to laugh, moisture brimming in his eyes and dripping down his cheeks.

It’s working!

He turned then, to the obsidian chest on his nightstand. The very chest that Edgar, the Seeker, had retrieved for him. Inside was the embalmed head of a very special Ironclad, one with a unique gift. The ability to regenerate, to heal any wound.

And now, after weeks of exposure to its flesh, it had finally given that gift to him.

Dominus laughed again, finally allowing himself to have hope. Hope that he might survive this horrible disease, that he might live for a while longer, to find a suitable heir to the Duchy of Wexford. His son Conlan was dead, his protégé Axio now in line for the throne. With little time left to live, Dominus had resorted to securing a lackluster heir, a relative of meager will and ability.

Now he had a chance to do better…to secure the future of the Duchy, and that of the kingdom itself.

There was a sudden knock on the door.

“Yes?” Dominus called out.

“Are you all right, your Grace?” a voice called out from beyond his bedroom door. It was Farkus, his loyal servant.

“Quite alright,” Dominus replied. “Come in,” he added.

The door opened, and Farkus stepped through. He was older even than Dominus, in his late seventies now. He’d been tall once, but now his back was stooped with age. He had long silver hair, and his face was smooth-shaven, in the manner of all servants. Farkus gave a short bow, his gaze then drawn inexorably to Dominus’s right leg. To the man’s credit, he said nothing.

“Send two dozen of my soldiers to Vi’s home,” Dominus ordered.

“At once, your Grace,” Farkus replied. But he did not leave, knowing full well that Dominus was not finished. After spending over three decades with his master, Farkus had absorbed Dominus’s superior will, becoming so much like him that anyone seeing them for the first time would assume they were brothers.

“Tell them to retrieve all of her artifacts,” Dominus continued, “…and destroy her house.”

“Of course, your Grace,” Farkus replied.

“That is all,” Dominus stated.

Farkus bowed, then hesitated, glancing at Dominus’s leg again.

“Shall I retrieve your will, your Grace?” he inquired. Dominus smirked.

“Yes.”

Farkus left him then, and Dominus sighed, throwing the sheet back over his legs. There was a great deal for him to do in the coming days, not the least of which was dealing with the aftermath of Vi’s death…and the consequences of his actions against the Guild of Seekers. He’d bought off one of their Seekers, after all, and stolen the head of the Ironclad from them. It was perhaps the most valuable Ossae ever discovered, and the Guild knew it. They would undoubtedly send Seekers to retrieve Vi’s personal possessions, wanting nothing more than to gain her incredible skills. And Dominus had a suspicion that High Seeker Zeno – the leader of the Guild – would be terribly eager to retrieve the Ironclad’s head as well.

The Guild would be stupid to go against Dominus, of course. He was the Duke of Wexford, second only in power to King Tykus himself. But Dominus knew that it was folly to underestimate his opponents. He had to assume the worst, and plan for it.

There was another knock at the door, and Farkus returned, carrying a rolled-up piece of parchment in one hand. He walked up to the side of the bed, handing it to Dominus…along with a small glass tube. Dominus smiled.

“Thank you, Farkus.”

“Do you require anything else, your Grace?” Farkus inquired.

“No,” Dominus answered. “Thank you.”

Farkus bowed, then left, closing the door behind him. Dominus set the metal tube on the bed, then turned to the rolled-up parchment in his hand, unrolling it and staring at the large, perfect letters at the top. “Last Will & Testament,” it read.

Dominus stared at it for a long moment, then got out of bed, crumpling the document into a loose ball and throwing it in a metal wastebasket. He retrieved the tube from the bed then; there was a syringe at the top, with some tinder visible at the bottom of the tube. It was a fire piston, technology reverse-engineered from a similar device brought by an Original hundreds of years ago.

He depressed the plunger quickly, compressing the air inside…and superheating it. The tinder at the bottom of the tube burst into flames, and Dominus pulled the plunger out of the tube quickly, tipping the tube over the wastebasket, spilling the burning tinder into it.

Then he watched as the flames grew, devouring his Will.

He waited until the flames died away completely, ignoring the smoke filling his room. He hardly cared that it stung his eyes, or that its stench would taint his fine bedding. Farkus would see to their cleansing.

Dominus turned away from the embers of his will, limping up to his nightstand and grabbing the cane that was leaning against it. Hidden within was a spring-loaded sword, a weapon that, in his hands, was exceedingly deadly. He smiled grimly, turning to gaze out of his bedroom window, at the huge expanse of his gardens far below. He’d been given a second chance, one that he had no intention of wasting. There was no telling how much time he had left; he needed to act quickly and decisively.

He turned away from the window, limping toward his bedroom door.

It was time for him to write a new future.

 

***

 

The sun had reached its peak in the sky overhead by the time Hunter made it through the Fringe, half-hidden by feathery-looking clouds. Hunter glanced to the west, seeing darker clouds hovering low over the horizon there. He turned forward, weaving around trees as he walked deeper into the forest beyond the Fringe. Everything was a little different here, he found. The flora of the Fringe resembled typical foliage one might find on Earth. But here, everything was…mixed up. The grass underfoot had a thin layer of bark at the base, and crunched under the soles of his boots. There were still trees, of course, but some of them had leaves that resembled huge blades of grass. Bugs crawled on the ground, many of them hard to spot because of their woody carapaces. Some of the trees even had spikey hairs on their bark, reminding Hunter of porcupine quills.

It was all very strange…and the deeper he went into the forest, the stranger it got.

Some trees were segmented, like a centipede, with branches coming off at different angles from each segment. Others went up, then arched over to plunge into the ground, rising back up to form more arches, like a serpent. He’d even spotted something that looked like a walking bush…an animal the size of a large dog, with six spindly legs and branch-like things sprouting from its back. Hunter had kept his distance, but to his relief, the creature had paid him no mind.

It was, he realized, the logical result of the bizarre laws of this world, that each organism could give its traits to nearby creatures. Why the Fringe had little of this variation, he had no idea…but there had to be a reason.

Hunter grimaced at the slight burn in his legs, particularly his shins. He was in much better shape than he’d been even when Vi had been alive, but he was still no match for her. He had a long way to go before he gained her strength and endurance, and he had every intention of doing so. In order to become as good as Vi, he needed to train like her. He had to be better every single day.

He tripped over a fallen rock hidden beneath some leaf litter, and caught himself before falling, feeling a flash of irritation. He resisted the urge to kick the stone, continuing forward. It was the forest, he knew. While nature here didn’t seem to harbor the anger of the Fringe, it still hated humans. Hunter knew this because he hated humans, at least at the moment. He was absorbing the forest’s emotions.

Either that or he was hungry.

He waited for the emotion to pass, remembering what Vi had told him.

Emotion is temporary. Action is forever.

A lesson he’d had to learn the hard way.

He felt an all-too-familiar glumness clutch at him, and shoved it aside, refusing to go down that path again. He reminded himself that this too was an emotion, and therefore temporary…even if it felt like he would never be free from it.

He focused ahead, spotting a large hill in the distance, the trees starting to thin out. They gave way gradually to huge blades of grass, nearly half the height of the trees themselves. He reached these, having to part the blades with his hands as he continued forward. It was like walking through a corn field back in Wisconsin, where his dad had been born. Eventually, the grass grew shorter and shorter as he went, dwindling to a relatively normal height ahead…and giving him a better view of the hill.

Hunter slowed, feeling a sudden sense of deja-vu.

I’ve been here before.

That, of course, was impossible. It must be a memory he’d absorbed…Vi’s, or this client’s. Or maybe even the Seekers he’d killed. He stopped, withdrawing the rolled-up letter from his cloak and putting it to his forehead for a long moment. Then he put it back in his cloak, and looked at the hill again. He continued forward, somehow knowing that he should go rightward, following the edge of the hill. Why, he had no idea…it just seemed right. Back on Earth, he would almost certainly have ignored this intuition, but now he let it guide him.

Onward he went, staying on a natural path at the foot of the hill, following it as it curved leftward. He spotted something moving off to his right, in a copse of trees, and froze. It was another one of the animals he’d seen before, the creature that had looked like a walking bush. This one was considerably larger, about the size of a deer. It had only four legs, and limped along slowly, like a sloth. Again, it paid him no mind; still, he waited for it to pass further into the trees before he started walking again.

Eventually the path led through the hill, dipping down to form a valley of sorts that split the hill in two. Vertical cliff walls some twenty feet high flanked the path, casting a shadow over the path. Hunter hesitated, retrieving the letter once again and putting it up to his forehead for a moment. He put it away then, staring at the path, waiting to feel something. But he felt nothing…no memory was jogged, no sense of deja-vu. All he felt was a sense of unease…but was that an emotion he was absorbing, or his own feeling?

He grimaced, glancing back the way he’d come. There was no other way for him to go now, and his absorbed memories had led him here. He had no desire to backtrack, especially if it meant risking that he’d lose his way. He had to move forward.

Hunter continued along the path, feeling a powerful gust of air threaten to shove him backward. He baced himself against the sudden onslaught, hugging his arms to his chest. The air was significantly cooler in the shade, and the walls on either side made the path into a wind tunnel. He strode forward, fighting against the wind. After a few minutes, the path widened significantly, the walls on either side transitioning to sharply angled hillsides. Thankfully, the wind was much tamer here, slowing to a gentle breeze.

Eventually the path led to a large clearing, the short grass underfoot starting to crunch under his boots. He paused, kneeling down, and found that there was bark on the shafts of each blade…and that on some, tiny leaves sprouted from the base. He stood, gazing forward. The grass grew taller further out, eventually leading to a huge tree in the center of the clearing, some sixty feet away. It had a wide trunk with silver bark that looked like the skin of an elephant, and thick branches that extended outward almost horizontally. Its leaves were silver on the bottom and green on top, and its roots extended outward in all directions, covered with thick bark. All around the tree grew smaller trees, but unlike the big tree, these were small and misshapen, with twisted trunks and stunted branches.

Hunter stared at the trees, then at the steep cliff walls flanking the clearing. There was just enough room for him to squeeze by the densely-packed smaller trees. He continued forward, staying close to the rightmost wall, his boots continuing to crunch on the grass underfoot. As he drew closer to the first of the smaller trees, he slowed to get a better look at it. It was about five feet tall, with four gnarled trunks rising from the ground, merging into a single bloated, misshapen trunk halfway up. Small branches rose from this, leaves identical to the larger tree’s rustling in the breeze.

He stepped past the tree, realizing that most of the other ones were similarly misshapen. He followed the rightmost wall, squeezing past a tree growing a couple of feet from it.

Something grabbed his shoulder from behind.

He spun around, jerking his shoulder away, his sword somehow already in his hands. But when he looked, no one was there…just the tree he’d squeezed past. He took a step backward, his sword in front of him, his eyes darting from tree to tree. But he saw nothing.

Huh.

He hesitated, and was about to turn around when one of the branches of the tree in front of him swayed downward with a breeze, touching him on the shoulder. He took a step back, and it slid off. He stared at it, then chuckled, sheathing his sword.

Spooked by a tree, he thought. Some warrior I am.

He was about to turn around when the branch swayed down again, barely missing him. It stayed down then, and he frowned at it. There’d been no breeze this time. His eyes went to the tree itself; it too was deformed like the others, with two trunks rising a couple of feet to merge into a single trunk. Three branches sprouted from this, two on the side and one in the middle. There were knobby growths on the central branch, at its base…and something else.

Hunter hesitated, then stepped toward the tree, peering at it. He felt profoundly uneasy; there was something off about it. There were two small holes at the base of the central branch, and a deep grash below these. Something white was stuck deep within that gash; he walked up to the tree to get a closer look, then jerked backward, his breath catching in his throat.

They were teeth.

He stared at them, then at the two holes above. Something glittered within each of them. A chill ran down his spine as he realized what they were.

Eyes…staring right at him.

He took a step back, staring at the twin trunks, unable to help noticing the slight bend in the middle of them. Or the bits of fabic poking out of a few clefts in the bark.

The gash moved suddenly, almost imperceptibly, a sound coming from it. Clear liquid drooled out of one corner of the gash, dribbling down the bark. One of the side branches swayed, its bark creaking.

Hunter swallowed in a dry throat, staring at the thing, feeling dread come over him. He had the sudden urge to run, to sprint away from this clearing and go back the way he’d come.

I never should have come here, he thought.

It made the noise again.

Against every impulse, he stepped forward, leaning in. The gash moved again, a faint whisper coming from it.

“Kill…” it said.

Hunter stared at it, hardly believing his ears.

“What?” he asked.

“Kill…” it repeated.

Hunter backed away from it, drawing out his longsword and holding it before him. He glanced at the other trees, half-expecting them to turn and attack him.

“…me.”

He blinked.

Those two glittering eyes stared at him, more drool dripping from the corner of the thing’s mouth. For that was what it was…a mouth. His eyes went to the thing’s branches, and he realized that they were each bent in the middle, like arms. Twigs sprouted from the end of each branch like fingers.

“Kill…me,” it rasped.

Hunter felt goosebumps rise on his arms, and he took another step back, holding his sword between himself and the…thing.

“Why?” he asked.

The tree said nothing, merely staring at him. He hesitated, then reached out with one hand, touching one of its branches. All he felt was cool, dry bark; no images came to him, no memories. He withdrew his hand, staring at the thing’s eyes. Reaching forward again, he placed his palm just above those eyes.

And felt immediate, overwhelming terror.

Get out!

He jerked his hand away, backpedaling quickly, his heart pounding. Though he’d only touched the tree for a moment, he knew without a doubt what it was.

This thing is human!

He swallowed in a dry throat, continuing to back away. He had the sudden, powerful urge to run. To go back the way he’d come, to go back home – to Vi’s home – and never come back. He resisted it, knowing full well that urge was not coming from him. It was coming from the tree.

He closed his eyes, recalling the memories he’d been given. They felt like his own, indistinguishable save that it didn’t make sense for them to be his. He…or rather, the thing in front of him…had been a man once. He’d been following this path when he’d come up to the big tree in the middle of the clearing. There’d been fewer smaller trees then – it’d been years ago – and he’d been exhausted. He’d decided to set up camp by the big tree, and had curled up next to it, falling asleep.

And when he’d woken the next morning, something had been terribly wrong.

He’d tried to get up, but his body had been terribly stiff. He remembered looking down, seeing his skin covered with thin bark. He smashed his arms and legs against the ground to crack the bark, so he could move better, and blood had oozed from the wounds. After what’d seemed like an eternity, he’d managed to get to his feet, and he’d started walking away. Slowly, painfully. One step at a time.

But with each hour that’d passed, the bark on his limbs had grown a little thicker, making it harder and harder to move. After a few days – or maybe longer – he’d stopped at this very spot, unable to move at all. Over the weeks that had followed, roots had sprung from his legs, plunging into the dirt, anchoring him here for eternity.

Hunter opened his eyes, staring at the tree’s twisted face.

“Kill…” it rasped. “…me.”

He hesitated, gripping the hilt of his longsword with both hands. If he did kill this thing, he’d be taking the life of an innocent man. Or at least what had once been a man. But to not kill him would be to sentence the man to a fate worse than death. The man was trapped in his own body, unable to escape. He had no quality of life whatsoever. It would be cruel to not grant him his wish. But it would be murder if he did.

Hunter grimaced, knowing that with each minute that passed, he was putting himself at risk of suffering the same fate. He glanced at the big tree in the center of the clearing, knowing without a doubt that it was a Legend. A living being with a will so powerful that it could change everything around it into something like itself. He’d never imagined that a plant could be a Legend, but the man before him was proof that it was possible.

Hunter took a deep breath in, steeling himself. Then he nodded.

“Okay,” he agreed.

He strode up to the tree, tightening his grip on his longsword, the hilt feeling slippery in his sweaty palms. He planted his feet, then swung his sword as hard as he could, aiming for just below the tree’s open maw. He threw his hips into the motion, his blade striking true. It sank an inch into the bark, then stopped, lodging there.

The tree screamed.

Hunter yanked the blade free, stumbling backward. Thin, reddish sap poured from the gash made by his sword, and the tree screamed again, the awful sound echoing through the clearing. Hunter took a step back, then turned to run.

“Kill…me!”

He stopped, turning to face the tree again. Its eyes were locked on him, bloody sap still seeping from the wound below its mouth. Hunter swallowed past a lump in his throat, wiping one sweaty hand, then the other, on his pants. There was no way he’d be able to chop through the tree’s neck in one blow. Or two, or even three.

“I’m sorry,” he stated, shaking his head. “I can’t.”

“Do…it,” came the raspy reply.

Hunter clenched his jaw, tightening his grip on his sword. He couldn’t just leave the man here, wounded and in pain. If he did, he’d leave the man behind. But the memory of what he’d done – or failed to do – would follow him wherever he went. Hunter knew all too well the power of his conscience. It never forgot, nor did it forgive easily. If Hunter didn’t put this tree…this man – out of his misery, it would be a decision that would haunt Hunter for the rest of his life.

Het set his jaw then, taking a deep breath in, then letting it out.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated.

And then he charged forward, swinging his sword as hard as he could. The blade struck true, hitting the tree exactly as it had the first time, sinking deeper into its woody flesh. Sap flew out with the force of the blow, splattering Hunter’s clothes.

The tree howled.

Hunter grimaced, bracing himself and yanking his sword free. He gunted, then swung again, chopping deeper into the tree. Again and again he swung, ignoring the tree’s agonizing screams as his blade sank further into its flesh.

At length, his blade chopped through a hollow tube in the trunk, and mercifully, the screaming stopped.

Still, those glittering eyes stared at him, wide with pain. He could feel the man-tree’s terror, and knew that it was still alive. Again he swung at it, his arms burning now, his muscles tiring quickly. He resisted the urge to stop, knowing that every second he gave himself to rest, he would prolong this poor creature’s suffering.

So he continued, long past the point of exhaustion, until at long last the deed was done.

When he’d finished, Hunter stumbled away from the severed head, his sword slipping out of his hands and falling onto the ground. He fell against the angled cliff wall, leaning on it, his breath coming in ragged gasps. Sliding to his buttocks, he looked down at his cloak, finding it covered with bloody sap.

Bile surged up into his mouth, and he vomited.

The nausea passed quickly, and he tried wiping the sap away with his hands. But it was no use; he took the cloak off, tossing it aside. He hesitated, then leaned over to grab it, using the inner layer to wipe off his face and hands. Then he threw it away again, rising unsteadily to his feet. He resisted the urge to glance at the severed stump, grabbing his sword and wiping the blade on the grass underfoot. Then he sheathed it, turning away from the trees and continuing forward down the path. Eventually the clearing ended, the cliff walls gradually closing until they were only a dozen feet apart from each other. His muscles felt like lead, every step a herculean effort.

A sudden pang of fear gripped him, and he looked down at his hands, half-expecting them to be covered with thin bark. But he saw only his skin. He pulled up his sleeves, running a hand over one forearm, and found the skin smooth and soft.

Thank god.

Still, he felt a little stiff, and couldn’t help but wonder if the tree’s influence was already working its power on him. He chided himself, knowing that it was all in his head. He was fine. He was strong-willed, after all. Vi herself had said he resisted change…in his physical appearance as well as his personality.

You’re fine, he told himself.

Or was he?

Hunter continued forward, getting as far away from the Legendary tree and its victim – or victims – as he could. Whether or not the tree had changed him, even in the slightest, he’d probably never know. But it was clear that it was possible. The memories he’d so casually absorbed from the people he’d touched – Vi, Traven, and the Seekers he’d killed, not to mention that tree – had already changed him. It was hard enough trying to remember which memories were his and which were not….and it would only get harder with each additional memory he absorbed. Sure, he might have a strong personality, but what would that matter if he lost track of which past was his?

He knew one thing for sure:  if he wasn’t careful about who and what he exposed himself to, he was going to deeply regret it.

 

 

 

Chapter 3

  

The triple moons of Varta shone overhead, the lesser light of countless stars struggling to penetrate the dense clouds approaching from the west. To the human eye, these pinpricks of light would be dull, barely visible, and the forest they looked down upon would be frightfully dark.

But Xerxes was not human…and he was not afraid.

To him, the moons shone like lesser suns, the stars shimmering like diamonds in the infinite blackness of the night sky. Their light bathed the forest in a silver glow, every detail of the trees – their rough bark, their leaves – visible with a sharpness and contrast that would amaze any human.

Xerxes strode through the forest, this place the humans called the Fringe. Grass, leaf litter, and twigs crunched under the thick black plates of armor covering the soles of his feet, smashed into pieces by his incredible weight. Creatures hiding in the shadows spooked at the sight of him, bolting away as quickly as they could. And they were wise to do so; at over eight feet tall, his entire body covered in thick black armor, and two pairs of powerful arms, Xerxes was an Ironclad…one of a race of creatures so dangerous that few would dare stand against them.

And of all the Ironclad, Xerxes was by far the most deadly. Except of course for the Queen.

He felt his tail twitch, swinging to one side, then the other irritably. A thick, translucent membrane extended from the top of his head and all the way down his spine, terminating in a broad-based tail that stopped at knee-length. Filled with glowing blue gel, the thing seemed to have a mind of its own. He could control it if he wanted to, but if not, it did what it pleased. And to those wise enough to watch it, it showed them exactly how he was feeling.

He heard the thump, thump of dozens of other Ironclad behind him, and quickened his pace, not bothering to turn around to see if they would do the same. They were his soldiers, loyal to him without question. He was the son of the Queen, after all. They all had a piece of her will within them, molding them into her image. They lived and died at her command…and she had commanded them to obey him.

Xerxes spotted a break in the forest ahead. It was the end of the treeline…they were almost there. He continued forward, putting up one hand and flashing a few rapid hand signals.

“If he attacks you,” he signed. “Do not fight back.”

They obeyed, staying well behind him. They would not risk getting too close, and being exposed to his aura. The Queen forebade it.

He continued forward as silently as possible, feeling a familiar excitement come over him…the same feeling he’d had when he’d seen a young man appear out of thin air in the Deadlands a month ago, falling to the ground, his limbs jerking uncontrollably. A man with dark skin.

Xerxes hadn’t known for sure who the man was, but the few vague memories he’d taken from his mother had made it clear who the stranger could be. Someone they’d been waiting for for nearly half a century:  Hunter. 

My brother.

And despite impossible odds, it had been Hunter. But the Kingdom had gotten to him first.

Xerxes felt an all-too-familiar anger grow within him, and he let it, grinding his teeth as he walked to the edge of the forest. He passed the end of the treeline, emerging from the forest. The Kingdom had taken everything from him and his mother. From their people. When they’d taken Hunter…

I’m coming, brother.

He felt a burst of excitement at the thought, of finalling reuniting with his brother. Of being able to speak with him at last, without interruption. Without anyone or anything getting in the way. To be able to tell Hunter everything that had happened to them…and how they would get their revenge.

It wasn’t long before Xerxes found himself standing near the edge of a cliff, a few dozen meters beyond the forest line. He stopped, gazing downward to see a familiar sight:  a large, cylindrical canyon extending a hundred or so meters downward, to a lake at the bottom. Countless waterfalls cascaded down the sides of the canyon in a huge circle, rivers emptying into it in an endless stream.

He stared downward, spotting the two small buildings sitting on islands in the middle of the lake below. And something else…tiny orange lights forming a long line across the bridge spanning the lake.

He clenched his four fists, his eyes widening.

They were soldiers, he realized. Almost certainly from the Kingdom. Carrying torches, and moving toward the house on the larger island.

Toward Hunter.

Xerxes bolted to the left, sprinting across the edge of the cliff toward a narrow path hugging the canyon wall, sloping downward toward the shore far below. He ran with incredible speed, hardly fearing the hundred-meter drop a fraction of a meter to his right. With his glowing mane and tail, the enemy would be sure to spot him, but he didn’t care. Faster he went, pushing his body to the limit.

The soldiers reached the end of the bridge, rushing toward the house in the distance. One of the soldiers reached the house, taking a warhammer out, then winding up to swing it at the front door.

Xerxes roared, the sound echoing through the canyon. He pivoted, leaping over the edge of the path, hardly caring that he was only halfway down. Free-fall gripped his gut, the wind shrieking past him as he accelerated toward the rocky shore, still eighty meters below.

Downward he plunged, the ground rushing up to meet him.

And then the void took him.

He fought it, clutching on to consciousness. Pain tore through him, agony beyond description. His vision returned quickly, and he saw himself lying on the ground on his belly. Saw one of his arms outstretched, bent at an impossible angle, white bone protruding from his shattered armor, blood spurting from the wound.

And as he watched, the bleeding slowed, then stopped.

The flesh knit together, starting from the edges, near the undamaged tissue. His arm straightened, the ends of his bones realigning, the armor covering it sloughing off, replaced by a thin layer of fresh, new armor. This thickened as he watched, the pain peaking, then quickly abating.

He grunted, pulling his arms underneath him, then pushing himself up from the ground. He stood then, hunks of shattered armor falling from his chest and belly, already replaced by smooth armor underneath. Glancing across the wooden bridge, he spotted the soldier near the door swinging his hammer against the door, which burst open under the impact. Soldiers rushed into the house, their weapons drawn.

Hunter!

Xerxes roared again, bursting forward, bounding up to the bridge. A few soldiers were still standing on it, near the middle. They turned at the sound of his voice, their eyes widening as they realized what was coming for them. But the soldiers who’d gone into the house didn’t come out.

Xerxes closed the gap between himself and the nearest soldier, lunging at the man. The soldier backpedals, swinging his warhammer awkwardly. But he’s too slow; Xerxes rams his shoulder into the soldier, throwing the man backward into the lake.

Another soldier rushes him, chopping down at his head with their warhammer.

Xerxes raised one pair of forearms to block the blow, then reached out and grabbed the soldier by the upper arms, lifting the man off of the bridge and slamming his armored forehead into the man’s face. The soldier’s head snapped backward, blood spurting from his nose and mouth, his eyes unseeing. Xerxes flung him off the bridge, rushing toward the soldiers huddled at the other end of it.

They turned to face him, backing up and forming a “U” around the end of the bridge, their warhammers at the ready. Xerxes sprinted right at them, reaching the end of the bridge and rushing at one of the soldiers in front of him. The soldier backed away, the soldiers flanking Xerxes rushing in and forming a circle around him. He ignored them, continuing forward, his eyes on the house ahead.

Something smashed into the back of his leg, throwing him down onto his hands and knees on the ground. He grunted, turning his head to see a warhammer chopping down…right as it struck the side of his head.

Pain exploded through his skull, his vision blackening.

Anger turned to rage.

Another blow struck him in the middle of his back, then another, and he roared, lashing out blindly with one arm. He felt it strike something, and he clung on, rising to his feet. It was one of the soldiers’ warmhammers. He tore it out of the man’s hands, swinging it in a wild circle, striking one of the soldiers in the temple. Their head snapped to the side in a spray of blood.

The man dropped.

Xerxes swung the hammer again, smashing it into another soldier’s skull. He tossed the hammer away then, feeling more blows rain down on him. He grabbed the nearest soldier, pulling them in by the upper arms and lifting them clear off the ground. Xerxes yanked the man’s arms out to the sides, using his second pair of arms to pummel the man’s chest over and over again. Ribs caved in under his fists, and he roared, yanking the soldier’s arms out to the sides as hard as he could. The man’s shoulders tore out of their sockets, tendons popping loudly. Then the skin tore, one the man’s arms ripping free from his body, blooding spurting from the gaping wound.

Xerxes tossed the man aside, grabbing another soldier and tossing him to the ground onto their back. He leapt on the man then, ignoring the blows landing on his back from the other soldies. He tore at the soldier, feeding his rage, giving in to it completely. Its power coursed through him, making him feel almost giddy.

He grabbed the man’s face, slamming the back of their skull against the ground over and over again, until they moved no more.

Pain shot through the back of his skull as a hammer struck it, and his head jerked downward, stars bursting in his vision. He leapt to his feet, swinging in a blind fury, using all four arms to smash or grab anyone nearby. His fist collided with a soldier’s head, knocking the man out instantly. He grabbed another soldier’s hammer, tearing it from their hands and tossing it aside, then reaching forward with two hands, grabbing their head and sinking his massive thumbs into their eye sockets. They shrieked as their eyeballs ruptured, clear fluid pouring down their cheeks.

Pain shot through his left knee as a warhammer smashed into it, the amor there cracking. He fell to his knees, then lunged at the soldier who’d attacked him, shoving the man to the ground and landing on top of them. Xerxe’s fists rose and fell, smashing into the man’s face and body again and again. Then he rose to his feet, his knee still hurting, but already starting to heal.

The remaining soldiers backed away from, their eyes wide with terror.

He rushed them, tearing through them one by one. Some turned to run, others tried to fight, but they all failed. He beat them, tore at them. Snapped their limbs and smashed in their skulls, until there was no one left to kill…not even the soldiers that’d rushed out of the house to attack him.

And when he was done, Xerxes stood a few meters from that house, covered in the blood of his enemies, his heart pounding in his chest. His rage – that wondrous, incredible rush – faded slowly, and he looked around, wanting nothing more than to feed it a while longer, to feel the pleasure it promised. It was then that he saw his Ironclad striding across the bridge toward him, staring at the carnage he’d wrought.

One of them stopped a few meters before him, fingers of one hand moving rapidly.

“Hunter?” it signed.

Xerxes turned to the house, striding up to the door and ducking down to step inside, his head still scraping against the ceiling. He saw no one there…just a bed, some weapons on the walls. He grimaced, stepping back outside to face his men.

“Not here,” he signed back, feeling profoundly irritated. He suddenly wished he’d ignored his mother and come for Hunter sooner, before his wounds had fully healed. Before the glowing fluid in his mane had refilled completely. She’d forbidden it, and now Hunter was missing.

If his brother was dead, it was her fault.

He grit his teeth, pushing the thought out of his mind. He took deep, slow breaths, forcing himself to calm down. His anger left him, and he missed it, wanting nothing more than to feel it again. To have it fill him, and make him lash out and destroy anything in his way.

“A survivor,” one Ironclad signed, pointing at one of the soldiers lying on the ground. The man was badly injured, his face bloodied and one arm bent at an impossible angle. Xerxes grunted, striding up to the man and signaling for an Ironclad to pick him up. They did so, hauling the man to his feet.

The soldier screamed, his broken arm dangling limply at his side.

Xerxes stepped right up to him, looking down at the man. Nearly a meter taller than the soldier, Xerxes towered over him…and when the soldier looked up at Xerxes, his eyes widened in terror.

“Please,” the soldier pleaded. “Don’t kill me!”

Xerxes stared down at him, saying nothing.

“Please,” the soldier repeated, tears dripping down his cheeks. The man was shaking, sweat beading up on his skin.

“WHERE IS…HUNTER,” Xerxes asked, his voice deep and raspy. Each word took effort to produce, forcing each sound from his throat. He’d been able to speak well once, like mother. Before she’d changed.

And changed him.

The soldier’s eyes widened, no doubt shocked that Xerxes could speak. They all reacted the same way. So predictable. Except for that one woman, the one who’d cut off his head.

“WHERE?” Xerxes repeated, glaring at the man.

“I don’t know,” the soldier answered. “We came here to grab Vi’s stuff.”

“THE…WOMAN,” Xerxes deduced. The soldier nodded. Xerxes sighed, turning away from the soldier and staring at the empty house. Of course the Kingdom would want the woman’s things. She’d been a far better warrior than anyone he’d ever met. The only one who’d ever bested him in one-to-one combat.

He lowered his gaze to the ground, imagining himself bashing this soldier’s face in. But the thought no longer interested him. He raised one hand, flashing rapid signals to his Ironclad. Then he began walking away, toward the long wooden bridge in the distance.

Behind him, the soldier screamed, the sound echoing across the canyon, piercing through the endless roar of the waterfalls all around them.

 

Seeker of Legends is due for publication by February to March of 2018!