Seeker of Legends Preview
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 the road cut through, 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 the carriage, his buttocks aching from the days-long ride through the forest. The carriage was old and worn, the seat cushions stiff and uncomfortable. It was 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 seated in the carriage, a younger man with light brown hair and a pencil-thin mustache. It was Seeker Murin, a low-ranked Seeker Dante was mentoring. The man – 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 exterior. A convincing counterfeit; anyone lifting the lid would find a fully-functioning machine inside. But hidden within that machine was a sealed secret compartment, nestled between its gears. And in that compartment was an obsidian container containing 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 the Seekers, making them stronger, faster, or smarter.
Each artifact brought them one step closer to the Founder’s grand vision: the Ascension.
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 a lack of self-confidence. All signs of a low-level Seeker. Assuming he was ever promoted, Murin would be exposed to a stronger form of the Founder’s will, through an upgraded Seeker medallion. This would cure his weaknesses eventually, 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 grumbled.
“How they do it,” Murin continued. “Especially the guy who sold us that,” he added, gesturing to the music box. “I mean come on, his dick had to be huge.”
“Like I said,” Dante stated coolly, “…I don’t.”
“They’re not even human anymore,” Murin pressed, oblivious to Murin’s unspoken sentiment – that he didn’t want to talk. “They’re like…animals there.” He grinned. “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, passing through the Glade of the Deep to reach the King’s Road. Then they’d taken the road 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 a half-century ago.
Tykus had driven the peasants – and the Original – out, laying waste to the old Outskirts, digging the tainted earth of the ruined city up and tossing it into the ocean.
Dante stifled a yawn. 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 of 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 mused, breaking the silence. His eyes were on the music box.
“If you’re smart,” Dante grumbled, “…you’ll never find out.”
“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 weren’t 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 forbidden. Preservation of one’s humanity was the sacred mission of the Acropolis, the great fortress where the highest nobles lived…and King Tykus himself.
“I wonder if this came from the Deep,” Murin mused. Dante glanced at him.
“Why’s that?” Murin pressed. “What is the Deep, anyway?”
“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 Great One went there a long time ago.”
“What was what, a hundred years ago?”
“Hell of a lot longer 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!”
Both horses veered to the left, bring the carriage rolling straight toward the leftmost edge of the King’s Road…and the sheer, twenty-foot drop to the ground below.
“Get out!” Dante shouted, shoving the music box off the seat and diving rightward toward Murin’s door. He grabbed the door handle and pulled it, shoving the door open…just as the carriage’s front left wheel rolled off the edge of the road.
Dante scrambled over Murin’s lap toward the open door…and felt the carriage tilt to the left, making him slide toward the opposite door. His back slammed into it, and he grunted, bracing himself. He saw the horses plunge off 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 found himself 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 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 brought him agony.
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 lent 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.”
“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. Hopefully Murin stumbling out of the carriage would be distract the enemy. The kid was useless now, except as bait.
Dante waited for Murin to get clear of the carriage, then braced himself, kicking his door just below the handle. It burst open.
A fresh jolt of pain shot through his ribs, and he held his breath, his eyes watering. He waited for the pain 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. Which 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 his 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, seeing nothing but trees and bushes.
Then he heard footsteps behind him.
Dante spun around, then relaxed. It was Murin; the man was limping into the forest, his sword in plain sight, moonlight shimmering off the blade. Exactly as Dante had hoped.
Murin jerked back suddenly, an arrow protruding from his chest.
Dante broke out into a run toward a large tree ahead. He reached it, ducking behind it, keeping his sword down low. He felt panic rising within him, and suppressed 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 tree trunk until it was between him and the carriage. His ribs hurt terribly, and his hands were slick with the blood trickling down the countless wounds in his forearms. The hilt of his sword felt slippery, and he wiped his hands on his pants one at a time, then gripped the hilt of his sword tightly.
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 ahold of his medallion, after all.
There could be more than one archer.
The thought made the hair on the nape of his neck stand on end, and he glanced 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…
Pain lanced through his left leg, and he cried out, dropping his sword and falling onto his back on the hard ground. He looked down.
An arrow was sticking out of his shin.
He scrambled to his feet, then saw something burst out of the mist ahead. A man in a black cloak, their face hidden in the shadows thrown by the hood over their head. Holding a bow, sprinting right at him!
Dante reached down, retrieving his sword. The cloaked man dropped the bow, unsheathing a sword from their hip in one smooth, quick motion. Moonlight danced off the silver blade, and the man reached Dante within seconds, swinging their sword at him with terrible speed!
Dante felt his Seeker reflexes kick in, and he blocked the blow, 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 who’d ever lived, some of the most skilled swordsmen in the world. He thrust at the cloaked man’s chest with perfect technique, aiming unerringly for their heart.
The man dodged to the side at the last second, then slashed at Dante’s neck!
Dante parried the blow…or tried to. The man pulled the attack back at the last minute. But the feint caused the enemy to lose his balance, stumbling backward. Dante lunged forward, slashing at the guy, but the man dodged easily, scooping dirt from the ground and flinging it 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 gasped, 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 sliding 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 his belly with both hands. There was a dagger at his hip, but he didn’t bothering reaching for it. It was futile, he knew.
He was already dead.
Dante stared up at his attacker, feeling hot blood pour from between his fingers. The cloaked man stood there, facing 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 young man, he realized. With skin nearly as dark as the night sky, and black eyes that glittered in the moonlight. His hair was so short he was almost bald.
“You’ve just attacked two Seekers,” Dante growled, grimacing as a fresh wave of pain shot through his belly.
“Damn right,” 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.”
“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. Not that it mattered…he wouldn’t live to relay the information. But he was curious.
“About the guild,” he replied. “And a certain artifact they stole.”
Dante gave the man a smug smile.
“Over my dead body,” he muttered.
The man shrugged, flipping his sword around so he was carrying it backward, gripping the blade with both hands.
“Works for me.”
And then he swung his sword over his head, chopping downward at Dante’s face.
Hunter knelt before the Seeker he’d killed, ignoring the ache in his thigh as he did so. Even after two weeks, the two gashes he’d suffered there hadn’t fully healed. The pain was a constant reminder of Traven, the Seeker who’d tried to kill him…and who’d killed his best friend Vi.
He closed his eyes, the image of Traven’s warhammer coming down at his head flashing in his mind’s eye. The last thing Vi had seen before her death. A memory he’d absorbed from her, just as readily as he was able to absorb emotions from others, or skills. Or any other trait, for that matter. For unlike on Earth, in this world all traits were potentially transferrable.
Hunter opened his eyes, staring down at the dead Seeker. At the deep, ugly wound he’d made in the guy’s skull. He’d killed Traven the same way, after the guy had double-crossed him and Vi. After Traven had betrayed them both to get the severed head of the leader of the Ironclad, the prize Duke Dominus had hired Vi and the Seekers to retrieve.
And it had been Dominus that’d ordered Vi’s death…and Hunter’s.
Hunter felt an all-too-familiar pang of grief, and forced it aside, gritting his teeth. He’d wasted enough time wallowing in self-pity. Hell, he’d spent most of his life playing the victim. Grieving over losing his mother when he was eight, blaming his alcoholic father for ruining his life. Letting the kingdom turn him into a sex addict. He refused to be a victim anymore, to let people push him around.
What was done was done. Dominus and the Seekers had screwed Vi over, and left Hunter for dead. And that would prove to be their biggest mistake.
Get the head, Hunter recited to himself. Take back what they killed Vi for. Get stronger. Then kill them all.
He rummaged through the Seeker’s pockets, finding a few coins 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 contained, but they might be valuable. Any artifacts were potentially valuable, if absorbing their traits made him stronger. Faster.
He finished searching the man, finding nothing more of value. He didn’t bother taking the guy’s weapons, knowing that his own were far superior. 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 one side, hiding the ghastly wound in the guy’s forehead. He closed his eyes, bowing down and 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 process any of the images, letting them come and go as they pleased. They were the Seeker’s memories, he knew. Fragments of memories, 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 ducked inside, looking around. The Seeker had mentioned an artifact…
He spotted an ornate 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.
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; merely being close to an object that had absorbed someone else’s emotion would cause him to start feeling that emotion.
He studied the box, suddenly knowing that it contained an artifact. An illegal artifact, in fact, from the Kingdom of the Deep. It was not his memory, of course…there was no way he could’ve known that. 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. According to Vi, it was an exceedingly rare gift, one that no one had possessed for over a century. Until now.
It wasn’t just people that he could absorb memories from. He could absorb those of animals as well, even after death. And their deaths were usually their most powerful memory…a fact that had quickly converted him to a vegetarian.
Hunter stuffed the box into a large pocket in 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 to the first Seeker, pulling 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 starting to peek out from above the horizon, its rays casting the clouds above in brilliant orange-red. He left the trees behind, walking forward into the clearing beyond, until the ground gave way suddenly, ending in a steep drop-off. Beyond, a massive, cylindrical canyon lay, dropping 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 wall, 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, of course. He had nothing to fear anymore; the worst that could happen to him had already happened to him.
And most of it was his fault.
He forced the thought out of his mind, knowing all-too-well where it led. He’d spent enough time wallowing in self-loathing. Not that he didn’t have a good reason for it. He’d unwittingly killed his own mother after she’d mortally wounded Vi. And he’d murdered his brother the day he’d arrived in this terrible world, blowing the guy’s face off with a revolver. A brother he’d never even known he had, one somehow transformed into a monster. One of the Ironclad.
Hunter focused, realizing he’d reached the bottom of the canyon. He veered rightward toward the long bridge, crossing it to reach the 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. And the guild.
Get the head. Get stronger. Kill them all.
He turned away from Vi’s house, walking across the short 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.
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 upon it. That done, he climbed 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, eyeing 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.
He was about to turn away when he spotted something in the air above her house. A black 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 walked up to the front door, opening it and stepping inside.
Everything 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, peeling 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. He studied it, interpreting as best he could:
Need to speak with you. New job, usual perks.
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. Sooner or later 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…and he hadn’t come up with a backup plan yet.
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 dissipated rapidly, far too quickly for him to make sense of it.
Still, he had an initial – C – 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 the client could point him in the direction of Vi’s other clients, he might just have a chance at accumulating a lot of powerful artifacts like Vi had. Artifacts that would make him stronger, faster, and more skilled. Powerful enough to take on Duke Dominus…and the Seekers.
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 he walked back across the long bridge 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 his journey 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 get his revenge.
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 a hand on the sheet covering him.
To his surprise, he found that it was dry.
He was even more surprised that he’d woken up at all. High 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 having made 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 stench of rotting flesh to assault his nostrils. But none came.
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 bony knob on the right side of his ankle. A consequence of his dread disease, the flesh rotting as its lifeblood was choked off 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 completely black. Islands of pink flesh had grown there.
Dominus stared at them, hardly believing his eyes.
He looked at his foot, at the stumps of his midfoot. To his surprise, he saw pink flesh growing from around the exposed bone there…and tiny blood vessels growing within the thin, transparent membrane covering those bones. Even the ulcer on the side of his ankle was a bit shallower, new flesh visible at its base.
Dominus smiled, a chuckle escaping his lips. Then he began to laugh, tears brimming in his eyes and dripping down his cheeks.
He turned then, to look at the rug before his bureau. A trapdoor lay hidden beneath, to a small cubby that held an obsidian chest. The very chest that Edgar, the Seeker, had retrieved for him. Inside this was the embalmed head of a very special Ironclad, one with a unique gift. The ability to regenerate…to heal from 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. Like so much of humanity, the man was a disappointment.
Now he had a chance to do better…to secure the future of the Duchy, and that of the kingdom itself.
There was a knock on the door.
“Yes?” Dominus called out.
“Are you all right, your Grace?” a voice inquired 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. 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.
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.
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 glancing 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. One future ending in fire, with the promise of something new rising from the ashes.
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 turned 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, emerging into the deep forest beyond. Everything was a little different here, he found. The flora of the Fringe resembled foliage one might find on Earth. But here, everything was…mixed up. The grass underfoot had a thin layer of bark at the base of each blade, and crunched under 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 dull ache in his legs as he walked, particularly in 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…which he had every intention of doing. To become as good as Vi, he needed to train like her. He had to be better every single day.
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 déjà vu.
I’ve been here before.
That, of course, was impossible. It had to be a memory he’d absorbed…Vi’s, or this client’s. Or maybe even from one of the Seekers he’d killed. He knew 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, and froze. It was another one of the animals he’d seen before, the creature that’d 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. It paid him no mind, but 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 it. 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 déjà 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 stay the course.
Hunter continued along the path, and after a few minutes it opened up into 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 stem. He stood, gazing forward. The grass-tree hybrids 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 other trees with similar bark, but these were smaller and misshapen, with twisted trunks and stunted branches. There was barely any room between each tree, so densely had they grown together.
Hunter eyed the trees, then the steep cliff walls flanking the clearing. There was just enough room between the two for him to squeeze by the densely-packed smaller trees. He continued forward, staying close to the rightmost wall. Reaching the first of the trees, he stepped between it and the wall, squeezing past. He passed another tree, then another.
Something grabbed his shoulder from behind.
Hunter spun around, jerking his shoulder away, his sword somehow already in his hands. But when he looked, no one was there…just one of the trees 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.
Then a branch of the tree in front of him swayed downward with a sudden breeze, touching him on the shoulder. He took a step back, and it slid off. He sheathed his sword, shaking his head.
Spooked by a tree, he mused. 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 stared at it.
There’d been no breeze this time.
His eyes went to the tree itself; it was deformed like the others, with two trunks rising a couple of feet to merge into a single trunk. Three branches sprouted from this, one on either side and one in the middle. There were knobby growths on the central branch, at its base…and something else.
Hunter leaned forward, peering at it. There were two small holes at the base of the central branch, and a deep gash below these. Something white was visible 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 fabric 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.
Hunter swallowed in a dry throat, staring at the thing, dread coming 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 wheezed.
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 surrounding him, half-expecting them to turn and attack him.
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 two main branches, 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. Then he leaned in, placing his forehead just above those eyes.
And felt immediate, overwhelming terror.
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!
Hunter had the sudden, powerful urge to get the hell out of here. 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 this 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 nearly a year 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’d 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, each step taking hours.
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 guy 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.
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. 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 follow Hunter wherever he went, haunting him for the rest of his life.
He 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 where 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 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 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.
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 probably 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 really 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.
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 formidable 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 dangerous. 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 ended at knee-height. 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 tree line…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, as doing so would expose them to his aura. The Queen forbade it.
He continued forward as silently as possible, giddiness coming 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 absorbed from his mother had made it clear who the stranger could be. Someone they’d been waiting for for nearly half a century: Hunter.
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 tree line, 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 elation at the thought, of finally 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 to finally get to know his brother.
To be a family again.
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 a hundred or so meters below, with 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 spotted 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. Nearly twenty of them, almost certainly from the Kingdom. Carrying torches and moving toward the house on the larger island.
Xerxes bolted to the left, sprinting along the edge of the cliff toward a narrow path hugging the canyon wall, one leading downward toward the shore far below. He ran as fast as he could, 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 in the darkness, 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 front door, taking a warhammer out and winding up to swing it at the 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 fifty meters below.
Downward he plunged, the ground rushing up to meet him.
And then he smashed into the ground, the world going black.
He fought the void, 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 torn flesh knit together rapidly, 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, his pain peaking, then quickly abating.
He grunted, pulling his arms underneath him and 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.
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 saw 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 backpedaled, swinging his warhammer awkwardly. But he was too slow; Xerxes rammed his shoulder into the soldier, sending the man flying into the lake.
Another soldier rushed him, chopping down at his chest with their warhammer.
Xerxes didn’t bother to block the blow, letting it strike him full-on. The hammer bounced off his thick armor, the ricochet making the soldier stumble backward.
He 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 shattered nose. Xerxes threw him down so hard he bounced off the bridge, careening into the lake.
Then he turned to the soldiers huddled at the other end of the bridge, charging at them.
They backpedaled rapidly, forming a loose “U” around the end of the bridge, their warhammers at the ready. Xerxes sprinted right at them, reaching the end of the bridge and charging at the nearest soldier. The man backed away, the soldiers flanking Xerxes forming a circle around him. He ignored them, barreling 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 to see a warhammer chopping down at him…right before it struck his temple.
Pain exploded through his skull, his vision blackening.
Anger turned to rage.
Another blow slammed into 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’ warhammers, he realized.
He tore it out of the man’s hands, swinging it in a wild circle as if the massive weapon weighed nothing, striking one of the soldiers in the temple. Their head snapped to the side in a spray of blood and brain matter, the sheer force of the blow sending the man flying through the air.
He landed on the packed dirt, never to move again.
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 allowed it for a moment, the pain feeding his rage, stoking his bloodlust. It built up within him, bringing him to a place beyond thought or reason.
He roared, grabbing the nearest soldier by the arms and lifting them clear off the ground. Xerxes forced 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, organs rupturing with the sheer power of the blows. He yanked the soldier’s arms out to the sides as hard as he could then; 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, blood spurting from the gaping wound.
Xerxes tossed the man at another soldier, knocking him flat on his back. Xerxes leapt on the man then, tearing at the soldier’s face with his fingers, ripping the flesh from the man’s bones. The bloodlust peaked, its power nearly orgasmic.
He grabbed the man’s butchered face, slamming the back of their skull against the ground over and over again, until they moved no more.
A hammer smashed into the back of Xerxes’ skull, snapping his head downward.
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, shattering the man’s skull. He grabbed another soldier’s hammer, tearing it from their hands and tossing it aside, then grabbing their head and plunging 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 armor 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. Xerxes’ fists rose and fell, pummeling the man’s face and body again and again. Then he rose to his feet, his knee already healed.
The remaining soldiers backed away from him, their eyes wide with terror.
He lunged at them, tearing through them one by one. Some turned to run, others tried to fight.
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 lose himself in 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, the top of 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. She’d forbidden it, and now Hunter was missing. He clenched his fists.
If his brother was dead, it was her fault.
Xerxes grit his teeth, pushing the thought out of his mind. He felt his anger draining away, and he missed it, wanting nothing more than to feel it again. To have the bloodlust take over, 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. Wetness spread over the front of his pants.
“Please,” the soldier pleaded. “Don’t kill me!”
Xerxes stared down at him, saying nothing.
“Please,” the soldier begged, tears dripping down his cheeks. The man was shaking, sweat beading up on his skin.
“WHERE IS…HUNTER?” Xerxes demanded, 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 he’d changed.
The soldier’s jaw dropped, 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.”
Xerxes stared at the man, then sighed, turning away 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-on-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 in March of 2018!