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July 6, 2014

The Hunt
by Zelgaddis

I knew he was close. He had to know I was there, too. The clouds slithered across the pale hemisphere of moon that barely illuminated the frigid desert wasteland. Plunging my staff into the bleak, rolling landscape, I cursed my luck under my breath as my vitriolic utterance vaporized inches from my face into the frigid night air. That strange man said I'd find "him" here, prowling amongst the endless sandy tide. "The Man with a Hundred Heads.", "The Sand Reaper.", the greatest warrior to ever live, Chevtul.

To say his reputation preceded him would be to call a perfectly faceted dragon crystal "somewhat hard to come by". But finding this man, this enigmatic hunter, was a task the difficulty of which defied overstatement. It was only on a chance encounter with that raving cripple in a New Ashton bar after a month of failed searching that I found the lone fleck of a genuine lead after panning through the mire of rumor for so long. And it couldn't have come at a better time.

I'd have dismissed the cripple's claim as quickly as I did him when I first saw his fevered hobble to where the bartender stood. Here was yet another old codger drowning his woes in a tankard of stiff drink. But rather than order a pint, his words jarred me from my stool with a greater compulsion that any sorcery could weave.


"Am I too late?" the lame frothed through broken lips, eyes peeking out like a terrier's from beneath his raven shag, darting full of paranoia about the room. "Where'd that damn fool go?"

"What?" the bartender quailed, retreating a step from the stench of gangrene and wine, "sir, if you don't-"

"The fool wizard what's looking for the man with a hundred heads!"

My barstool tangled through my legs as I lurched ravenously toward the invalid. There was something in his voice that told me he had something more to say than the well-wishers, rumor-mongers, and cryptic caution-bearers combined. Fear.

"What do you know?" I said in a whisper that still thundered through the now-watchful crowd, clutching the middle-aged man's shoulders before retracting my right hand with disgust as he winced. It felt like I had grabbed a cloth bag full of pudding.

Infected, bloody pudding.

That, with fortune's favor, was of the maggot-free variety.

I wiped my hand on the bar as he locked a cold stare on me that dared me to look away.

He spoke slowly, his voice crawling across his tongue in a metered, deathless whisper, measuring each syllable with the utmost care, like a perfectionist on his deathbed, searching for just the right set of words to be graven immortal upon his headstone.

"You cannot win this fight. Chevtul is not a man," he said.

Chevtul. He has a name.

"His armaments are an engine of death lashed together from the arsenal of a thousand fallen warriors. Chevtul doesn't feel pain. Nor does he know fear. If you fight him, it will be the shortest, most meaningless battle of your life."

The man's torn face suddenly seemed more youthful, his eyes flashing with the wisdom of a time before staring down the neck of a bottle.

"I fed my right arm to that desert in exchange for my life. Would you do as much to save your own?"

"Enough. Where did you see him?"

"Lurking in the broad wastes of the Rhaiaden. You won't find him, though."

"What? Why not? Where does he duel now?"

"I just told you."

"Don't trifle with me, drunk! My family is-"

"I tracked your crisscrossing path from Riverton to this tavern with little more than a description. Words carried so far with such urgency are not to be taken lightly," he said.

"I will fight and I will win; I have tracked this man for months before you ever heard of my quest. I have visited the farthest reaches of this land and now I know my search was not in vain. I will hunt him where he lives. I will show him pain. He will understand fear."

I cast a darkened sneer downward at the now-speechless cripple, and at once turned deftly on my heels, falling into my usual crisp gait as I strode with new resolve toward the exit. As my open palm struck the ornately crafted oak of the tavern door to the sprawling din of the city streets, I thought I heard him shout something behind me as I cut into the glut of humanity on the street of hewn stone.

It sounded something like "don't disappoint me."


Meaningless words.

"Any sight of him?" A brash, gravelly voice resonated in the depths of my mind.

These words... only slightly more useful.

"No. I know he's here, though. I can sense a powerful presence in these desert wastes," I responded back, focusing my thoughts into the necklace which bound our two minds together.

"I did too, about six hours ago when you sent me alone to this forsaken desert. It's called the sun. Have you ever wandered into the mouth of Hell in full plate? Imagine that, only doing it as a favor for an idiot, and you're pretty close to what I was feeling this afternoon."

"I brought you here for your ability to wield a sword, not your ham-fisted way with metaphor, Salinador."

"You're grim. And that's saying a lot for someone who just walked into a desert intent on killing a man he's never met."

I didn't bother responding. Tracking by night was difficult enough without my bodyguard's "witty" banter. The cold, night-blackened sands shifted listlessly in the faint breeze, carelessly eroding the footsteps of a living ghost--my only roadmap to my quarry. Only traces of those recent impressions could be seen. Suddenly, in the isolated, vast nothingness of the naked sands, the tracks stopped.

Am I alone?


"What's got you so worked up?" Salinador said, shadowing behind me as I tore about the room, stripping the walls bare of the equipment that hung there, a monument to the last of my adventuring days almost two years ago. My trophies clearly had not been well maintained, despite the fastidious polishing I attended to in every spare moment before my search began.

"It's him. I finally got a solid lead."

"Where have I heard that before?"

"This one was different. He knew Chevtul!"

My voice quaked as I spoke. The anxiety bubbled deep in my innards. The bottoms of my feet tingled in my boots, and suddenly I felt as though my knees were numb as I dashed haphazardly across a floor laiden in raw eggs. Age dissolved from my brow as my reckless body surged about the room like an electric snake.

"Who? He has a name?"

Salinador looked unimpressed. He had grown complacent in our failure. It numbed him. He would need extra motivation.

"Of course he has a name. He is only a man."

"Don't do this to me again. Don't make me follow you into the desert in some misbegotten quest for glory."

That tore it.

"DON'T trivialize my quest, because you know this is about more than that. Glory is for daredevils and war heroes, and let them have it. Glory is selfish and fleeting."

"And what you want isn't?" Salinador said, rocking back on his heels as though he knew I'd take his statement in jest.

I didn't.

"For someone whose job it is to remain at my side at all hours and protect me from danger, you're certainly imperceptive. This is about family, Salinador. A concept I trust you haven't forgotten? I alone bear the burden of preserving my good family name, and in so doing I will rid the world of this criminal. Only then can I accede to my rightful place and shape the land of Medievia into the thriving, powerful land I've always envisioned. That I was promised it would be. Glory follows its owners to the grave. My name shall resound throughout these lands for all eternity!"

"So I don't suppose there's anything I can do to persuade you to let this go?"

Salinador, ever the master of understatement.

"Now come. I've I speech to deliver."


I stepped forward tentatively and then retracted. I could still sense a powerful presence. I wondered if he could've gotten spooked and teleported away to fool my tracking.

Unlikely for a man who doesn't feel fear. I focused again on my amulet.

"Salinador. Are you there? Have you seen anything?"

"Other than my breath and the sand?"

That's a no.

I paused and carefully examined the surroundings. The lands were barren. No place to hide. Had he slipped through my fingers like the sands of which he was master?

"Salinador. It's getting late, and this sand worse than a marsh. It's so soft in some places that I sink right in. We'll try to catch him tomorrow."

"Thank the gods. I'm going to come to you. Stay put."

I grit my teeth and stabbed my heavy staff downward into the sand, nearly toppling over as it immediately sank a foot into the sandy drift.

"Ugh, what a hellhole," I muttered, ghostly quiet, fixing my gaze on the buried end of my staff.

I jumped as my stomach lurched upward into my eyeballs--a familiar voice resounded through my skull like a pebble being shaken in a clay pot. Antlike in the background, I saw the one responsible for the jarring missive as my gaze jumped upward like a flame.

"I can see you! Stay there! I'll be right there!"

"Hurry," I thought back.

"I guess I'll just have to scrap my plans for the scenic route."


I approached the town square followed by Salinador, his hand clutching the hilt of his decorated crystalline sword, appearing a statuesque guardian worthy of a tomb of a fallen hero such as Eldrick.

"So I guess no one showed up, huh?"

Until he opened his mouth.

"It matters not. Word travels fast when there is big news to be told."

Salinador sighed. Snake venom bubbled at a thousand degrees in my voice box, but even as the pressure threatened to reach critical mass, I kept the lid on. Salinador was too important to lose for merely the most satisfying seconds of my life.

I waited only another moment before the assembled crowd of mostly my family, their friends, curious onlookers, and not to mention a few key campaign contributors and lobbyists, before approaching the hand-carved wooden podium my father had purchased for my election bid.

With a grand sweep of my hand, I bid the crowd silent.

"Assembled Medievians! You have truly been fortunate to be here this day, as inheritors to a grand new age! Even as I speak, my critics and enemies conspire to slander my name in the press. They call my words idle promises, they claim I am of no great lineage!"

I raised my hand as though to stay the fury of the crowd and quickly stifled the itch of a sneer when that fury befitted a kitten more than an angry mob.

"My lineage is proud! And I will not be so easily baited."

The crowd began to stir. My cue was right on time.

"But I have talked to my constituency; I have met with Medievians of all walks of life to hear their plight! Which is why today, a week before the election, I make a solemn vow. I will not rest, I will not stop, until I prove to all those here and those reading about this tomorrow-"

I shot an angry glance at the reporter pawing lazily through his notebook. He stiffened momentarily until he thought my gaze was averted.

"-that I can make Medievia a better place. That I can prove I am the only one in this race of whom the title 'Governor' is befitting! I have information on his whereabouts, and rest assured, by election day, the Man with a Hundred Heads will have a new name - the Man with a Hundred Bloody Stumps!"

I drew my thumb across my throat for added effect and basked in the collective hurricane of the crowd's silence.

"I will-" I stopped as my ears perked up.

A snicker became a chortle, and grew into a chuckle. It surged through the crowd outward from the front row like dominoes and soon Castle Square was filled with uproarious laughter as I stood beside myself wishing to be left with Salinador's jabs. I fought the tide of laughter with my words.

"I will- I will RETURN! When the job- when the job is done!"

My eyes fell dead as I turned my back to the unworthy. My regime would be an undeserved paradise for the fools. My cloak billowed like a wilted leaf behind me as I cut sharply past my still-laughing family. Having to live with the shame of doubting me would be punishment enough for the wretched crows.

"Come, Salinador. I've a promise to keep."

Salinador ambled behind me. Gods, let me get away with just one clean shockwave at that barely suppressed smile. What I would give for just one.

My mind barely had enough time to focus on one indignity before another insult tore me with briar tendrils. Trekking down the road from the city gate, my narrowed, burning eyes fixed on my muddy, determined visage, half-buried in the dust. My campaign sign, kicked down and in tatters. The once-proud blues and yellows of my house crest lay stained, half-buried, and totally ignored in the Medievian soil.

My bold gaze looking toward the triumphant future of the Medievian continent mocked me from the dust, torn down the nose by some careless peon's boot.

Devoured and half-digested on all sides by mediocrity. Why didn't they want me? Why did I want them? These questions plagued me every step of the campaign trail--mostly from my family. The campaign adviser my father had appointed informed me days ago that only a handful of people even knew I was a candidate for the governorship. Now it became clear. The answer to every question that muddled and vexed my campaign. To make them--every one of the doubters--pay.

"I really don't think it went that bad," Salinador said.

Again with that suppressed smile.

I grit my teeth and fumed, reaching into my robe and clutched a folded-up piece of paper, steadying my breath as it comforted me. All of the doubters would pay. And I had the means to make it so.


"I can't believe it. Eight hours in this worthless desert and not even a suntan to show for it," Salinador ruefully mumbled, swaying impatiently from side to side, treacherously close to where I had only moments ago dislodged my staff.

"Consider yourself lucky you didn't collapse from the extreme heat."

"Hardly comforting, considering you sent me out in it to hide for six hours before you arrived."

"Just take point. And let's take it slow. No sense getting ourselves ambushed for being careless."

"That may just be the first sensible thing you've said since the day before you said 'hey let's hunt the Man with a Hundred Heads!'"

Salinador paced forward a single step and suddenly dropped waist-deep into the sand, pitching forward and barely maintaining his balance as he thrashed impotently within his grainy prison.

I stepped back, attempting to put some distance between the pit and myself before bending down and extending my staff toward my flailing bodyguard.

"Grab it!" I shouted.

Frantically, Salinador lashed out with both hands and grabbed the end, nearly pulling me in with him.

"Calm down, you idiot! Let me help you!"

The oaf battled the sand like a cranky infant until finally tiring himself out, finally gaining enough composure that I could begin to pull him free; I could almost feel the bloodthirsty glint in my eye as I caught first sight of my quarry.

At first, the sand appeared to stir and dance carefree in the stiff wind. A fine spray of granules erupted forth from treacherous footing as a hateful, shadowy tangle of a man burst from his sandy tomb, hiding from us no longer. A blanket-like sandy-brown cloak wheeled in the darkness, revealing muscular limbs and weather-beaten features beneath as he emerged from the cold ground as gracefully as if it were a lake.


At last.

In startling silence, he coiled his body like a baenlyr and shot upward, defying gravity as he extracted himself from the grainy entrapment and entwined his legs around Salinador's arms. Completing the elegant dance, a shimmer rose above his cloaked, enigmatic form. A falling star lanced downward, thrice plunged into Salinador's battle-worn armor, slicing through the hardened metallic shell like butter with a crisp "shlink shlink shlink." Salinador hung in his attacker's grasp, frozen where he stood, his eyes two white globes hanging great as the moon, mouth agape, too terrified to scream, torn between panic and agony. His expression locked in ambiguity as blood at first trickled, then burst free from his petrified jaws as I completed my incantation.

A black, whispy tempest boiled around me; rising from my feet at first like a cobweb in a breeze, growing and growing, drowning me entirely as my body strained at the effort of commanding the vast reserves of mana within me all at once. I raised a trembling arm, which hung like a wind chime in a hurricane. With the last of my strength, I extended a single finger, pointing at the trunk of this otherworldly monster and muttered the word of power.

My ears burst as the maelstrom of magical energy unraveled itself from my soul and wound a deadly path into the torso of the mysterious warrior. A flash of white blinded me as my body turned to jelly and threatened to give out. Wave upon wave of nausea crashed against my stomach and vertigo took reign of my mind. As the dull, echoing roar subsided from the cacophonous eruption of my spell, a sudden gleam rushed toward me as the single fang of a throwing dagger ripped into my abdomen. I'd have gasped if I weren't so exhausted. Somehow, I didn't think the silent flinch sufficiently conveyed my shock.

In spite of my most devastating attack, the warrior was made of stone. Instantly he closed the gap, springing off the shoulders of my devastated bodyguard and closed the distance between us in a heartbeat, dropping his bloodstained implement in the sand. It impaled itself in the dune, scarring it, seemingly hanging in indecision before a slight gust tipped the knife over, toppling it unceremoniously on its side.

The cloaked figure reached across and drew a sword into his left hand. A cruel, serrated blade danced in the frigid desert air as it tickled my still-numb jaw and chest, staining the dynamic sandy canvas at my feet. A second later, he punctuated the elegant stroke of his blade by cracking the hilt of the weapon between my eyes. With that deft blow, my attacker seemed to multiplying himself into three as my body went rigid and then slack as my limp form capsized into the rolling wastes.

The stiff, grainy blanket did little to break my fall as the cold night air dragged the breath from my lungs, leaving a sharp, ravenous ache. My arms flailed drunkenly as I struggled against my own unresponsive body to try and weave another spell, but no words formed at my lips. The Desert Reaper stood above me, hefting his sword, wasting no time in idle boast. The black blade loomed tower-like in the sky, slashing the night air and coursed at an awkward angle, falling ineffectively at my side as the iridescent glint of a crystalline blade intercepted its path. The bloody visage of Salinador, blackened in the night, shed bloody tears as with a thunderous grunt he shoved his weight into our cloaked malefactor in a desperate riposte, casting away the shadowy figure's cruel weapon.

Staring nightmarish hatred from the nether beneath his hood at my bodyguard, Chevtul twisted his body out of the melee, tumbling maddeningly, his body a feather in a cyclone as he rolled away grasping the hilt of his blade and hoisted it. Undeterred, Chevtul lunged forward, an awkward miasma of limbs and clanking piecemeal armor crisscrossing into Salinador, cleaving angry, bloody craters into the mantle of Salinador's damaged body.

It was the distraction I needed. I rolled backward, reverse-somersaulting to my feet, steadying myself on my staff as I chanted the words of power. Finally able to stand on my own strength, I began to weave sublime arcane patterns in the cool breeze with both arms.

Crackling energy popped and hissed as a pulse of rippling azure energy illuminated the gritty wastes, bursting into nothingness as it splashed across the preoccupied Chevtul's shoulder, torquing him violently to one side. The rolling swell of the blast echoed across the dunes, followed by the sudden depressurizing rush of air from the shockwave.

Tearing from the impact, the stranger's cloak flapped and billowed in the stiff wind, snagging in the tempest and pulling free of the reeling hunter's face, giving me a clear view of my prey. His greasy, sand-spun black mane encircled his head, spilling down into his cloak. His eyes locked with mine, plumbing the depths of my resolve. His pale, sand-scarred face splashed starkly against the dark as a grim smile snaked across his wind-slashed lips.

His attention to me undeviating, he parried away the last of Salinador's maddened strikes, bringing his cracked, egg-yellow boot to chest-height and planting a shattering kick to my bodyguard's sternum, blasting the wind from Salinador's pierced lungs.

It was in that seamless, lashing stride that I saw what I had been waiting for. Chevtul's cloak billowed from his body and I saw he held no shield. He had no appendage with which to hold it.

A thousand curses boiled to the surface but were caught in my throat.

"YOU!" Is all that escaped.

"I'm getting on, you know. A man my age couldn't have seen the end of so many battles without doing a little research," he said, any humor suffocated beneath that battle-frenzied ivory mask. "Glory-hounds are the most predictable."

My entire body quivered as I flushed, "you have no idea of my motive."

I harpooned backward as a caustic flash of sapphire engulfed me, resonating a thunderous roar across the landscape. I contorted reflexively, landing on my feet, catching myself on the ground as my knees buckled utterly.

A scorching trickle of pain breached the levy of my threshold, and suddenly I found myself clawing desperately at my chain mailed torso, frantic for some diversion, some release from the surging tide of agony.

"Return home," Chevtul barked, retracting his hand from casting his spell. "And I'll allow you to live as a failure, rather than die as one."

With that, Chevtul turned slowly, stomping off toward the dry horizon, no limp in his step. Salinador looked on, mouth agape at the sight of the hunter turning his back on his prey, his face a torn stew of blood and confusion.

"You seemed to recognize him. What, is he running in the election against you or something? The more I see how politics works-" Salinador said as Chevtul tromped out of earshot.

"No, that was him! The man from the tavern!" I growled.


"The one who said I'd find Chevtul here! I can't believe-"

"Wait. That guy? You must be joking."

"No. I was so close!"

"We are getting out of here right now."

"You coward-"

"Are you insane?" Salinador said. "He played you, studied you, got inside your head and saw how you worked. He's smart, he's a killer, and he's got you figured out!"

"You give this man too much credit."

"I can afford it if it means our lives. I'm supposed to protect you, not die for you, you selfish-"

"He has no idea who he's trifling with," I said, blunting Salinador's fury.

"Do you? He's already driving you back into his battlefield. He's got you angry and he knows you well enough that you'll charge recklessly back out there to get at him! For someone who draws his strength from years of cloistered study, you're not a very fast learner."

"We're going after him!" I shouted, resolved.

"You must be joking."

"We had him!"

"Oh yeah. He was begging for mercy."

I turned and looked in the direction Chevtul had been walking, but he was nowhere in sight.

Come on, you coward. Come back and finish this.

I follwed Chevtul's tracks into the moonlit oblivion, driven by the chariot of unquenchable bloodlust. The heat of the previous battle only parched me further. We charged frantically into the silent abyss for what seemed like mere seconds. I stopped suddenly, frozen stock still in place as my boot hung precariously above the daggered jaws of a cruel steel trap haphazardly placed halfway in the sand.

"Don't move," I whispered behind me.

I planted my staff on the grounds, knocked off-kilter as it plunged into the greedy sand. Bingo.

"We can use these," I hissed. "He left these for us to slow us down."

"What are you thinking?" Salinador's husky voice resounded in my skull.

"I'll forge ahead and try to draw him out," I whispered. "I'll push him back into these traps, make him fight in these. Stay hidden and wait for a clear shot as he tries to retreat."

I pushed forward, away from the hungry maw of the sand to my right, and circled the trapped field from the left.

Staring off into the distance, I closed my eyes and listened harder than I've ever listened before. I heard the sound of wind skipping across the grainy sprawl, the leathery rustle of bat wings in the night air, the sound of sand parting in the distance behind me. Chevtul.

"Wait a minute. How could he bury these so quickly without us-"

I ripped the telepathic amulet from my neck, dropping it at my feet and slipped a powerful magical pendant from the cuff of my overcoat, palming it slyly as my hands glided up to fasten the icy metal clasp around my neck. The echo in my mind ceased, and suddenly I felt clarity. I felt my attunement with the mana sequestered within me harmonize, my body seeming to hum soundlessly. A mournful pang plugged me in the gut for a split-second as I wrenched myself around to face Salinador's quizzical glance which somehow came into focus against the pitch black sea.

Spiraling upward to the surface, Chevtul's bulky, scarred form glided with vile, divine grace befitting an angel of death. In a smooth, unbroken movement, Chevtul stood like an ancient pillar astride the rolling tide, wrestling Salinador's balance from unsuspecting feet, sliding a constricting arm across Salinador's throat and bowed him backward. The sand reaper's hapless victim floundered, gasping ineffectually, knifing blindly into the unfeeling blackness as Chevtul lashed a brutal kick at Salinador's Achilles. Salinador's legs split agonizingly as he corkscrewed into the earth. Chevtul reeled upward with that cruel blade, angling it downward, and yellowed teeth grit with determination.

I watched in muted awe, my view of the carnage partially obstructed by the throbbing black, ghostly sinews of magical energy entwined around my body lapped delicately at my armor.

My visage looked on through the rising tendrils of shadow that leapt into the night like coursing flame. Downward plunged that hateful, toothy blade as the frigid air whistled mournfully at its descent.

Salinador's body jerked involuntarily as his unfeeling aggressor meted out crimson punishment one blow at a time. Viscous, warm rivers cut the cool sands beneath the fallen wretch, splitting outward, meandering confused paths outward into the rolling wastes, gulped eagerly by the parched landscape. And finally, Chevtul stopped.


"Salinador, are you prepared?" I asked even as my bodyguard checked through his belongings a fourth time.

"If I say no, can we leave?" Salinador mumbled, toeing the desert's edge with his boot.

"Make sure your amulet is fastened tight. We'll need that to remain in contact with each other. Find a safe place to hide-"

"And stay until nightfall. Got it. And what will you be doing until then?"

"I've my own preparations to make. Besides, if he sees us wander in together, it might make him less likely to emerge and fight."

I didn't like Salinador's prying, nor his demeanor as he eyed me up and down, seeming to try to sniff out any emotion from my stony glare.

"I'll contact you via this amulet after nightfall. By morning, Chevtul's legacy will be little more than a footnote to my deeds. Don't disappoint me."

I turned crisply around, a wry smile spread across my face as Salinador struck out into the furnace. Sun-bleached remains emerged from the dynamic, wind-lashed tempest. The back of my scalp burned with hellfire as I glanced over my shoulder, watching Salinador vanish into sandy oblivion.

I paced slowly away from the desert, shoving a hand in a discrete pocket of my robe; plumbing its hidden depths until my hand struck the rough crease I was searching for. I withdrew it carefully--a neatly folded piece of paper, pristinely preserved. I gently unfolded it and glanced over its contents for the dozenth time--a two-day old correspondence I now knew by heart: "Returned from the Rhaiaden yesterday, found your man. Barely made it out alive. A man with one arm and can hide in the sands. Be careful. Don't go alone. I set a number of traps in the south sands where he likes to hide. You'll be safe if you stand in the center. The bottom half of this letter contains a map of the trap locations. Study it well. Those iron teeth do not repay carelessness kindly. I expect that reward you promised, or I'll be hunting you next. -Kunal"

I still couldn't believe Kunal returned alive, nor the report he carried with him. That lame from the bar thought he could fool me. He may have offered his right arm to the desert in exchange for his life. Tonight, I will offer the body of a doubter in exchange for his. Night couldn't fall soon enough.


Chevtul stood over his fresh kill unsatisfied, frantically searching the breathless, chilled landscape for his next victim. I saw him first.

I lunged forward, pressing my strength into the resistance of the magical energy I harnessed, and from my outstretched arms coursed the savage dark power, burning the landscape as it rushed toward its desperate target.

And so the man of stone crumbled. Hunks of his scarred, tumorous flesh evaporated without spilling a drop of life on the thirsty sands. Backward Chevtul staggered, stumbling away from the trap-laden battlegrounds, barreling downward into the tumultuous, windswept ground. My body folded limply, dropping me to pulpy knees as I slumped forward, catching myself on rubbery hands inches from one of those eager, smiling sets of metal teeth. I crawled need fully toward where Salinador and Chevtul lay, utterly shattered from the war we waged here on this night. Rising high from their bodies were the pungent fumes of torched flesh and cauterized blood. I finally pushed myself upright as my body strained from the effort, weaving a drunken path in the sands to the twisted human wreckage that lay on the other side of the trapped field.

I fell to my knees at Salinador's side, reaching into the holster on his hip for the dagger I had given him when he became my bodyguard months ago. I examined its razor-edges, turned the beautiful blade over and marveled at the craftsmanship. I tucked the blade into my belt as I jumped in fear, my torn muscles barely supporting me as terror gripped my strained heart and bit my bones deeper than any cold. A hoarse, gurgling cough rose pathetically behind me. I whipped around to look at its origin when suddenly my frame of vision spun clumsily into the sky as something struck my knee from behind, causing my body to contort inward, falling in a heap on my back into the moonlit sands.

I rolled instinctively to one side as the air parted under the vicious swing that planted a serrated edge an inch to the right of my face. I twisted my body away, swinging a wild kick as I stood, which Chevtul dodged effortlessly as he stared at me behind a charred, peeling, and expressionless stare. I threw my agonized body toward the trap-laden battleground, narrowly and haphazardly dodging my way through, sand splashing up behind every step like the puddle-water of a child playing in the rain as Chevtul lumbered behind me. If I could fight from the center, I could use the battlefield to my advantage. This is my desert. Kunal's letter was righ-

My mouth widened in a silent scream, chewing sand as my ankles clapped together in the crushing jaws of their confinement. What had happened? This was the center, right?

"I see you got my letter," Chevtul huffed.

He reached into his cloak and grabbed something--a heavy, brown leather bag. He loosened the drawstring and tossed the sack a foot from where I flopped uselessly on the sand, pulling at my bindings as pain spiked upward from the torn meat and split bones above my ankles. My feet felt warm, glowing; numb, and yet each bony shard crying out individually. The dichotomy wracked my brain in a torturous limbo as every effort to liberate myself splintered my mind in agony. Nearly blind and half-mad from my short-lived captivity; I watched as the contents of the bag spilled free, rolling momentarily and then snagged by the tricky surface. Even in my pain-crazed thrashing, I recognized it immediately as a human head.

A familiar face. Kunal's.

Chevtul strode silently to my downed form as I meekly raised my staff in my defense. He stomped down on my fingers outstretched along the haft, crushing them as he swung downward with his sword, a gleaming bolt of metallic lightning crashing into my right shoulder, severing the limb from its socket, tearing tendon and bone with the hateful barbs of his signature weapon. My scream burst forth from my lungs and crashed against the rolling dunes, issuing a mocking echo back into my ears.

"I grow weary of the desert. For years have I haunted these numberless dunes, ruled them. From chaos, my blade shaped them to fit my design. And in the span of my years, much of me did they claim in return. No one dwells these wastes for free, boy. I paid for each grain in blood. Do you think I ruled here a lifetime because I allowed that payment of blood to be drawn from my veins? You came to take it from me?" Chevtul punctuated his question with a brutal heel across the fingers on my remaining arm, eliciting a chorus of wet cracks and snaps like rotted wood.

"It's yours, glory-hound. My barren kingdom."

He turned on his heels, marching aloft the shifting sandy tide, loping, wounded from the battle, toward the horizon. Trudging with that same measured caution he spoke to me with so long ago. Wounded, and yet something about his gait seemed undeniably regal.

I pawed at the unforgiving steel jaws ineffectually, and then looked to my soggy, leaking stump. Even as dawn approached, blackness engulfed me in its callous embrace. I reclined in the desert sands of my bought-and-paid-for dominion, eyes cast to the horizon, and waited the darkest sunrise.


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