“Rakeesh, you know I’d love to see your homeland, but I can’t leave right now.”
“I feel strangely worried about Tarna,” the liontaur remarked, “though I have no particular cause for worry. I am rather anxious to see my mate and daughter. But I wait upon your convenience.”
The prince nodded, still gazing out the narrow window onto the desert. “Where in Shapier could she be?” he said softly, fingernails tapping nervously on the sill. “I’ve searched Rasier twice, sent messengers to Darun and all the other stupid towns, and checked all the caravans.”
Rakeesh stood and came to the prince’s side. “My friend,” he said, laying a hand on Achim’s shoulder, “is it possible that she does not wish to be found?”
“Oh, why would she do that?” the Hero replied impatiently, pulling away and striding about the small lounge. He finally came to rest against a pillar on the open side of the room that looked out onto a courtyard.
“It may be that she fears you, as any thief would fear the prince of her country.”
“But that’s ridiculously stupid,” said Achim loudly. “I’m still… I would never… She’s my…” He grunted his frustration with the idea and began pacing again.
“This obsessing is not healthy,” said Rakeesh. “You need to take your mind off of this matter. Though I shall not pressure you to accept my invitation, I think a trip to Tarna would be for your good.”
“I can’t leave here for anything less than an emergency when there’s a chance she might come back.” But just to make sure (his heroic side slightly worried), he asked, “There’s no major problems in Tarna, is there?”
“There are not,” said Rakeesh, correcting his grammar, “any of which I am aware, and yet I sense…” The Paladin trailed off, shaking his head.
“Then I can’t go,” the prince said decisively.
“Of course,” said Rakeesh graciously, though disappointed. He knew this eager, fresh-faced Hero would amuse his mate, and was anxious to show him to her.
“Your highness,” called a voice from across the courtyard, a guard striding towards them. He was followed by a chestnut centaur.
“Heinrich!” cried Achim, his face brightening somewhat.
“Your highness,” said the centaur with a bow. Rakeesh could sense the man’s agitation, and see it as his tail flicked nervously from side to side. “I am come at the baron’s bidding to request your aid as Hero of Spielburg.”
Achim settled down. “What’s happened?” he asked.
“A killer, sent perhaps from Hell itself, is wreaking havoc on the southern countries and moving north. He has already taken uncountable lives, and many say he is mad. But he is also deadly, and the baron fears for his people. It will not be long before he reaches the Spielburg valley, and the baron requests that you stop him before he does.”
The human and the liontaur exchanged looks. “I think this is the distraction you were recommending,” he said with a protracted sigh.
Everyone was blonde, and wasn’t that hilarious? It made her so angry… Thus she simply put her swords through him and walked on, thinking that the doors of a hall could not open if there were trees in the way. That rush, that wild and indescribable joy of death pressed on her, blowing like a hot wind over the ocean, ruffling the frothy foam-tipped water of brilliant blue-green — a good, bright way to be agitated! There was no danger from angry, crushing waves when the wind would bear her up!
The gravel crunched beneath her feet, reminding her of ugly jewelry; the ocean was so evil, but that was over. There was no carpet, actually, but there was a town. Here she had an emptiness, annoyingly. It was gnawing at her, eating the insides of her being; it hurt, despair — it told her to fill it. No, the mud did not sing. Villagers worked and ran and walked and laughed and lived. They had no emptiness, but they would fill hers. She grinned and drew her swords.
Scream, bleed, and everything else delightful, fueling the wonderful rush that consumed her and beat back the hollowness. She laughed. But her face! The extra mansukos around her waist were for her head so she wrapped it. Hadn’t her hair been long once? She hated them and laughed. “Death!” she said experimentally, running a finger over her broken lips before she covered them. “Deathscar.” She laughed again. Move now, she must, purple or no.
Did such a remote location really export? The banners weren’t right. Hours; it was getting colder and darker and blacker and greyer, and here was a horseman. “Hi!” she called. “Ho there! Warn them Deathscar’s coming!” He reined up, gave her a strange look, and rode on. “Warn them!” she shrieked after. And then it was gone. The fullness that had been ebbing drained fully and spirally, and what was this new delinquency? She clenched her muscles and shouted as the wave of ravenous emptiness struck her, sickening her. People would die for this; it was worse than before. People would die.
The man’s face crinkled into a mask of grief and despair. “You come too late, Hero,” he snarled. “Deathscar has come and gone.”
“Deathscar? Is that what he’s called?”
“He went north; go find him and rescue some other town; fifteen lie in the ground since his passing here.”
Achim looked at him in horror. “Fifteen?” The man nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“So are we,” he replied bitterly, and walked away.
The demon wizard laughed as the image faded. If that girl were in Tarna, it would make his task pathetically simple; as it was, he had spent the last three months slowly coaxing the tear in space open, feeding the gate orb with the low-power essences of ape-men and the occasional leopardman. And still the rip was small, because he dared not steal too many lives lest the people of Tarna become aware of it. But soon he would begin his master’s plan and the savanna would flow with blood.
Now, if he had that girl here…
But the girl was also playing a part, keeping the mighty Hero far from Tarna and its dealings. He could not scry her, but he could follow Achim’s progress in tracking her. He only wished he could be there to taste the deaths she was so rampantly causing.
The smell of steel and blood and then she killed her. It felt so pulling and ivory. Shoving her swords back into the sheath, she walked on through the silent town echoing with the sound of her voice screaming out her new name.
A larger road joined the smaller one just after this, giving her more victims. But soon they were all gone and Deathscar was full and energetic once again. Happily, there was no bread involved with the finches. Those were annoying. Brilliant yellow; no, it was an orange-yellow, darker than lemon but brighter than a peach. Here — it was a huge city on which she looked down like the heartless eagle bending upon the hapless dove. The road became cobbled beneath her feet as she descended towards the death, smiling to show her perfect teeth. Her teeth were beautiful. That was because she was hungry.
What did she want? Meat, of course, but it must be burned. It had to be black; that was the only way she would like it. Too much blue was in the world already. But in the city was sure to be a butcher’s shop; there had been one in the last city she’d passed. It was too cold. She wanted it burnt. This was silly. The place was so busy, but she did not kill them yet; she could restrain herself until she’d been filled with food and then they would all die.
They all stared at her. “Don’t stare,” she told someone as he passed. He laughed. This was fraying the short thread of her temper. Buildings, flanks of wood and stone, and the dark of alleys and covered side-streets. Too many people, all alive, all happy, all full of energy and happiness and food. Her hands were clenched and then she smelled the bakery.
Running in, she pulled her swords out and said, “I want food.”
The muttering idiot screamed, fatly and so annoying. “Help help! Help help!” Deathscar vaulted the counter and stabbed her. A strange colored echo and image came to her then, warning her; they were coming now because of the fat woman’s scream. She gathered up the bread that she wanted and raced for the back door. This felt more right, killing and then stealing; how delicious this was!
In the alley behind there were some beggars; she killed them. There were cries behind her now, and people getting in the way. That was fine; she could kill two at once because she had two swords. The street opened and there was a river. She ran over the bridge and into a quieter place where the buildings were smaller and had flowers. She liked flowers as long as they didn’t crawl into her head at night.
There was mud. She jumped into it and splashed it all over the man near her. Then she killed him too. This was so much fun. She could do this forever. Adrenaline and blessed fullness pumping through her blood, she continued on through the city.
“So you’re saying Deathscar’s a woman?”
“I don’t want… oh!” The elderly man turned away, his face twisted with anguish, and hobbled towards his home.
“She came through,” said another man, shaking his head. “She was screaming the whole time, and we couldn’t take our eyes away from our windowpanes as she cut down everyone who happened to be outside.” Tears came to his eyes, and his voice was choked with pain and sorrow. “She kept saying, ‘Deathscar is come. Don’t forget her.'”
“This has to stop,” said Achim. “This woman is an utter lunatic, obviously.”
“I suggest we move more quickly, your highness,” said Heinrich quietly.
“I would have to agree,” said the prince, and the demon wizard laughed again. What a complete idiot! His agony when he discovered the true identity of she whom he pursued would be absolutely delightful! The wizard himself had only just found out, through spare-time back-spelling, who exactly Deathscar was, as well as her previous relationship to the prince of Shapier. The whole situation stuck him as remarkably ironic, amusing to say the least.
He would have liked to see Achim’s climactic meeting with his former love. But there was still the girl’s strange quality of scry-repelling, and this was a mystery he could not outpuzzle. When he asked for images of her past, which should not have appeared given this aforementioned quality, he saw her whole life before him, up to a point. After she had reached the palace of Rasier and run away from her friends across the plaza, all was yet grey, even as it was when he tried to bring up current pictures of her. Why had it changed? And how in the name of Hades had she gotten where she was now?
But this was all irrelevant, and he let the image sink into the sand as he heard the voice of his master calling him. He had more important matters to think on.
Here was resistance, but it was almost comical. All these trees and bushes and they thought they could hide from her. But Deathscar knew. She would always know through the bright shadows of color that tasted so acridly silver. They would spring out and attempt her destruction, but they would fail because she… sensed them. She laughed. Approaching the spot, she readied her twitching hands for the attack. What kind of a bell was that?
It gave five — not enough, but they trusted in their surprise and that they had her surrounded. At the moment she sensed it to be right she drew and met them — two left, three right, like a tooled bit of leather. She twisted away from the one who jumped on her back; somehow she knew he had a knife. Then she kneed the woman before her in the stomach, flipped partially (there were too many hands clutching at her for a full jump) and rammed someone’s side.
Then there was pain, and there was blood, and she was angry. Let them all be consumed, then! The emptiness would eat them slowly as it ate her, its alkalinity corroding them as it did the newly-opened wound in her back, bleeding. It poured, wandering around her for victims darkly and all she wished was for their pain and death; she willed it with the image of a floating, twisted piece of iron.
Now was there a new darkness that her swords bore, flaming black with the power of her desire for suffering, causing her cream-colored bands to glow in contrast. She whirled, sending her deadlier blades through someone, maybe two. He stabbed her again, and she drove her right sword into his neck. Something — she knew it was coming, but to dodge was to put herself in the way of the woman’s obviously practiced kick to her head. She opted for the latter, seizing the foot before it could draw back from the dizzying blow it had scored. Deathscar reeled, and the woman thrust her to the ground as the last remaining man flung himself at her with his dead comrade’s dagger.
But like a fallen bear she still held one of her impossibly flaming swords, and threw his cooling shape away before he could inflict any damage. She stumbled as she climbed to her feet, still stunned by the woman’s vicious kick. She knew that her other sword was in her enemy’s hands, no longer burning, and that the woman had raised it high for a killing sweep against her.
Throwing herself sideways, she twisted around and brought her foot to the base of the other warrior’s skull as the sword descended into air. The woman shouted and fell, drying finally as Deathscar employed her dark weapons.
Staggering, she walked off, groggy but energetic, contemplating. The glare of a crystal goblet would please her, but how could she ensure that her Maruroha swords were never again used except in her favor? She held them in her two hands, looking at their hot and dripping lengths now devoid of fire. Her hidden face broke into a feral grin. Unwrapping the mansukos on her forearms, she drew the right blade across her skin, cutting a red line into the exposed flesh. “Sayeto,” she said to the sword. Repeating the ritual with her left sword and right arm, she dubbed the former Oyin and commanded them. “By this blood you shall never turn on me again.”
She needed water.
Achim turned away from the bodies with distaste. Unlike their find of the previous day, which had been one woman and four men, these were all male, bearing the marks of Deathscar’s passing: sword-wounds with which he was becoming all too familiar. At least now he had a coherent description of what the killer looked like–that is, what she wore, for apparently her eyes were her only visible feature.
“Your highness,” said Heinrich, still looking at the victims, “these are recent killings — I would say less than a day old.
Achim turned with surprise to look at the gory scene again, and the demon wizard shook his head. Disappointingly, the prince of Shapier would be upon her within hours, so quickly he’d been moving now, and then he would be within Deathscar’s anti-scrying range. The wizard regretted it because this was his chief source of diversion.
“What do you watch?” asked his master unexpectedly from the rip, which was now wide enough for their plans to move forward. The wizard waved his hand, making his view visible to his master. Briefly he related the story and his own opinions on it. “Very amusing,” said the demon king. “She may well be useful.” His visage was removed from the swirling green vortex, and the wizard gestured the scrying field away, wondering what his master intended.
A moment later a spiny, red-black demoness forced her way painfully through the gap, relying heavily on the energy of the gate orb. She bowed low to the wizard and spoke. “My lord tells me there is a mortal whom I may possess.”
There was too much, and she was hungry again. Strangely, she wanted to remember and could not. Only here, only now, and the past was hardly. She knew by the wounds and the bond that her weapons were with her strongly, but the image of what she’d done, the feeling, the glory, were gone — swallowed in the emptiness that made war with itself inside her. Too much. The grey-blue was rounded, with lines of white at the curves where light hit it, and scrabbling grey where the color had been rubbed. Also the scattered misty doors of lead, but of course she blinked.
The mouse, the flower, the sand, and all with a lizard sardonically collected. There were too many spiders anyway, so she did not really care. She was Deathscar, and royal in her talent; withstanding was a merit of little value.
The fullness was like a budding rose in the choice, and she imagined the sled flying. She startled a fox that was eating a rabbit. Looking at it, she smiled. Oh, that was waggish; that was one of the truly funny things of the universe. As a shadow passed over her she laughed, throwing her head back and screaming.
“That will be sufficient.”
She stumbled backwards, knocked down by the power of the command blasting from before her. As she climbed to her feet she saw, settling to the ground in a gust of wing-beaten wind, a dragon. “Thou hast sinned against me for long enough,” said Orono, reaching out a giant clawed hand, clasping the human firmly, and drawing her in.
Orono was red with purple and yellow stripes down her snake-like body. She had large golden eyes and a fringe of something wispy and hair-like around her head like a mane. Her wings long and black, bat-like, and her massive claws the same color, her eyes glowing with fire and her long tail lashing, it was obvious to the trembling Deathscar that she was overcome. “A time it took for me to find the fate of my true daughter and awaken sufficient to know thee as her replacement,” said the dragon, the strength of her voice alone weakening Deathscar’s knees and making her head spin. “And now to find thee, my surrogate child, taking such unnecessary toll on thine own people. I weep for thee.”
Deathscar swore at her faintly, having little breath in her body; her arms were falling asleep. Then Orono turned her mighty flame-eyed gaze away from the human to a point past her in the trees. “Thou, perhaps, knowest these dealings better than I,” she said. Whom was she addressing? “I give her to thee.” The dragon squeezed her, and with radiant multicolored flowers blossoming in the edges of her vision she blacked out.
As the great beast bobbed its head and let the woman fall, Heinrich entered the clearing and swore, rearing up in surprise and fear. But the dragon rose gracefully away, sweeping the treetops aside as it left them with the deadliest killer in the history of the continent.
“Thanks, I guess,” said Achim, shaking his head as the gusts of wind blew his mid-length hair around his face. After a moment he went forward and knelt at her side, his ears still ringing from what he assumed must have been the dragon’s speech. He felt a strange tingling in his palms as he rolled her onto her back, as if there was something more to this situation than there seemed. “Heinrich, do we have any…”
He stopped abruptly, and the centaur looked away from where he had been following the dragon’s path through the sky. All he saw was the human’s back as the prince crouched before Deathscar’s unconscious form. The prince was motionless. “Have any…?” repeated Heinrich approaching.
But the Hero, who had uncovered the killer’s face, did not seem to be listening.
Stars swam in her eyes before she came fully to her senses, but those words she heard. Fully aware of the biting cords securing her ankles and wrists, she sat up and stared at him with a look haunted by hollow ferocity. The emptiness was there again, overpowering and tearing her, but something had changed, for what was this horrible brightness in her mind?
“En Shevil is dead,” she spat, “and so shall you be. I hate you.” She saw a pine tree crashing into the ivory palace and shedding sap all over the furniture. Oh, she’d gotten him with that one. Now, now she knew. She knew! She knew she had known more people once — Manta, Kylur, Rakeesh, Thalanna — but she despised them all. She laughed. Somehow this had lessened her hatred of Tsukishiro and Tekawaya.
“I’m going to help you,” he said at last. “I love you.”
“Ha! Love!” She gave her obscene opinion on the subject. And what about the boxes holding all the glass shards? Those were nice too.
His face twisted in pain and he looked away from her. At his first sight of her face he had felt nothing — no shock, no sorrow, no surprise even. The realization that En Shevil, of all possible people on the face of the planet, was Deathscar simply did not register. The knowledge flew above the surface of his thoughts, visible but not penetrating or affecting. And then the shock had come — creeping up on him so gradually that he had not realized he’d almost passed out from it until Heinrich’s distant voice had recalled him to the world.
Even now he could hardly believe it, tried to tell himself it was some terrible mistake — a lookalike, a twin. She did not know who her parents were, after all. But all justifications of his incredulity were empty. Cold and numb, he’d let her fall back into the mud and stood, walking away from the sight he could not remove from his mind. He did not know how he’d spent that night, wandering in circles around the clearing, listening to her breathing as she slept, his heart and mind seemingly tied by the same ropes he’d put on her. He was exhaustively dumbfounded as to how any of this could have happened.
“Are you hungry?” he asked her at last.
“Yes,” she replied. Then he realized he had no safe and dignified way to feed her, so he just shrugged. The pain was building, each new biting question or idea thrown atop the previous unresolved conflict until a mountain of leering, hazy thought towered above him. Where had she gone? How had she lost her senses so completely? Who had taught her to fight in so short a time? What was to be done? Bitter, frustrated tears came to his eyes as he thought about how he remembered her — this was not the same girl he’d fallen in love with. And yet there she was before him, En Shevil and no other.
“My lord, what shall we do with her?” asked Heinrich.
“I don’t know. I’d say…” he choked, but resumed after a moment. “I’d say she needs to pay for her crimes, but you can see she’s… not herself.” The centaur nodded silently.
“I hate you!” she shouted at him. “You should die!”
“Erasmus!” Heinrich suggested. Achim nodded quickly, drawing a hand over his face.
“That’s right,” he said at last, standing up. “I’m sure he can help. How far are we from Spielburg?”
“If we seek the road again, I’d say five days’ march, barring snowstorms in the pass.”
Achim forced himself to look down at their struggling prisoner, her wild eyes seeking refuge anywhere but on his face. He glanced at the scabbard he’d taken from her back, now hanging at his belt. “How do we get her there?” he asked, his voice for the first time relatively even.
“I hate to suggest it, but she can ride on me,” sighed the centaur, “if you gag her.”
“We’ll have to tie her on,” the prince said. “I don’t see any other way.”
“You put more ropes on me and I kill you,” she growled. “I hate you.”
“Yes, you’ve said that already,” said Achim, exasperated even through his anguish. But his annoyance concerned Deathscar alone; for her true self he felt only pity.
Their trip to Spielburg was not remotely pleasant. With a thief and a murderer slung over Heinrich’s lower back and secured with ropes, her oaths were muffled but still audible. They found they could not feed her, for she tried to bite them like a cornered animal, then made overly-vocal complaints on the starvation. She never tried to escape, however; it was as if En Shevil had gained some victory over Deathscar and would not allow the killer to hinder her resurrection. At night she often screamed or wept in her sleep and kept them awake. It was after sunset eight days later that they stumbled, weary and more than depressed, into the valley and made their way towards Zauberberg with a hunger-weakened, unconscious patient for the wizard.
En Shevil awoke and knew something immediately.
While she had been Deathscar she had possessed no recollection of past events, merely drawing on her ‘memory’ like a logbook — she knew what had happened, vaguely, factually, but could not recall the associated sensations.
It was different now.
Every face turned towards her in terror, every cry of every victim, every body in the dust, rose up before her, in number not a few. Each fruitless show of courage at her coming, each miniature army sent against her, each new price on her head, the smell of blood, the taste of fear, the powerful energy of death — all, all was here and now, clearly replaying itself, like magic, inexorably before her unwilling eyes. She felt her hands committing murder, heard her voice laughing, saw hatred and alarm in the eyes of ones she did not even know.
Every solitary event, each fragmented emotion of the past depravity, the outline of every crime — in one agonizing moment it came down on her, an avalanche where every boulder alone was deadly, but whose combined strength was immeasurable. She gasped violently under its weight, struggling with something she did not recognize, and yet knew as well as herself.
Then she began to scream, and could not stop.
Askgaella felt another tremor through the web of power that held her on this plane: another of her people had crossed. When her master conquered this world, she assumed he would diffuse it into his own, making the two planes one. Until then, the essence-powered gate orb held open the rift between them, and every demon on this side would feel its gains and losses. It was annoying, but sufferable for the cause of her brilliant master. She smirked; the glory of her king in his bloody war meant little to her, though she chided herself because of it.
Being a low-level demoness, she was forced to the degradation of walking (or flying, since she’d reached seventh class and earned her wings), physically, to her less-than-urgent assignment. Having experienced teleportation when she’d been partnered with Gorllex, who was fourth-class, she could attest to this method’s inconvenience, but having also no desire to participate in the long-awaited war on Sehkmet, she did not complain. Once she possessed this killer, she would be happy, and might someday be promoted for it. Then she’d only need one more advancement to be magically endowed.
Hades knew she’d been long enough without promotion. It was her family, of course: no seed of Chekghaera could make much of themselves in the service where an Ingk was their thirder, and it had taken all of Gorllex’s pull to get her in at all. What she’d really wanted for some time was a nice possession to take her away from the demon plane and Ogo Ingk, and it had been out of pure luck that she’d been immediately available when his amazingness the king had needed a possessor.
So here she was walking through a pathetically boring desert at a pace so slow a bird might have thought her human. It was a long way to Spielburg. She sighed, and was answered by a strange rattling from behind her. She took to the air as the deadly tail of a massive blue-black scorpion flashed across the space where she’d been. With a grin she pulled free her sword Blackblood, which had been passed down through generations of Chekghaeras since its forging at the human hands of Chollichihaua. For a seventh-class thrall there was no killing to be done in the demon world, and she’d not shed blood in far too long. She descended on the beast.
Achim dozed, sitting on a rug in the corner with a wooly brown blanket pulled up to his chin. He had been thus most of the night, waiting for En Shevil’s reawakening. After they had brought her to Erasmus, who’d been expecting them, the wizard had transported to the inn, now the Horse’s Tail, where by prior arrangement with Hilde, the new owner, a room was ready for the ‘invalid.’ Achim had been astounded at how prepared Erasmus had been for the situation, and slightly resentful that the wizard, having known so much about what was going on, had done nothing but wait for the Hero. However, the spell had apparently worked, so perhaps Erasmus had been perfecting it during the painful time Achim had spent trekking the countryside.
Somehow her first awakening had been perversely relieving: to know that someone felt worse about this than he did had lessened his own sorrow considerably; perhaps the thought that she might need his comfort and support had drawn him back to lucidity as well. Still, her scream had been disturbing, and had been followed by a rapid speech in some language he did not know, while En Shevil cast her eyes about the room but seemed to see nothing. Then she’d turned her face towards the wall and fallen silent, unconscious again by some cause or other. Erasmus had gone home, and besides Heinrich’s looking in once, briefly, the prince of Shapier had been contemplatively alone since then.
Arousing from a sad dream that hadn’t quite reached the happy ending he knew was coming, he was not at first sure what had brought him from his inadvertent slumber. Out the window the stars were dim, resting in the face of impending dawn, but that light had not yet reached the sky. All was silent and peaceful, still under the calm Erana had so long ago lain. All aspects of his situation seemed so neutral, it was as if time had stopped. Then the silence was again broken, furtively, by what had first disturbed him: quiet, breathy sobs, almost harsh in the placid darkness. He rose and felt his way to the bed, the sound of his bare feet drowning out her nearly inaudible crying. He could see her now, sitting with her knees drawn up and the blanket pulled around her. Standing motionless before her, he said nothing. Her face buried, she did not acknowledge him. What to do?
Hesitantly, he put his hand out and touched her hair. It was so short! She gave an anguished cry and turned her head away from him. It was heart-wrenching to see her thus, and with a half-sigh he dropped his hand. As it slapped against his thigh she whispered something he did not hear. After a moment she repeated herself: “Even you.” He had no reply. Presently he sat down beside her and put his arms around her. She sank limply up against him and whispered, “I threatened you,” accenting each word as if she did not know which of three connected ideas most to stress.
He leaned back against the wall, still holding her. All the exhaustion of his pursuit was for some reason converging on him now, and though he was ashamed to admit it in the face of what she was going through, he felt he could sleep as he had not since leaving Shapier. There was now no chance of his losing her, no need for rapid continuance of his quest. Though he struggled to keep his eyes open and his ears attentive for anything beyond her quiet grief, he drifted without realizing it and slept.