by Rob Steiner
“What if I told you that I knew who your father was?” Savix asked Karak as they strolled around the balcony that encircled the top of the palace tower.
“I would believe you,” Karak said, though he could not see how Savix would know a man that not even Karak knew anything about. But Karak decided that it would be unwise to doubt Savix’s knowledge. A part of him wondered if that was his fear of the necklace talking, or if he had truly come to believe that. He decided that it did not matter. Not anymore.
“Karak, my friend,” Savix said, “you are the product of generations of selective breeding, as was your mother and your father, and their parents, and their parents, and so on, for almost a thousand years. All of it just to create…you. Now it was my intention to have you come quite a bit sooner—maybe a hundred years after I started—but you cannot imagine how difficult it is to get two Mundanes to breed when they do not want to. Perhaps I was a bit naive. We had to resort to rape most of the time, women and men.”
Karak clenched his teeth and stamped down the hatred that threatened to rise in him. The necklace gave him enough pain to make him stumble, but not enough to knock him down. Avoid the pain. Do anything you have to, but avoid…that…pain.
“Your father was one of my disciples,” Savix said, “albeit one who was not of pure Fomorian blood. He was part of a Jaden’yar invasion of Hlaan lands, and your mother’s village was the first one in their way. Your father, however, knew exactly who your mother was, though she did not know him. He found her, raped her, and then ran off to join the other pillagers in their revelry. And later that night, while in a drunken stupor celebrating the completion of his one purpose in life, your mother gutted him with a dagger while he lay passed out next to one of his other conquests.”
Karak had always suspected he was conceived that way, for his mother’s eyes had always darkened whenever he asked her about his father.
“Your father was supposed to have taken your mother as his wife, not as a spoil of war. Your mother, however, was of pure Fomorian blood and was meant to raise you with Fomorian values. Your father was supposed to have assisted her in this. He accomplished his life’s purpose by impregnating your mother, but he failed miserably at what I thought would be self-evident—raising you to serve me.” Savix chuckled. “Now you see why it took me a thousand years of breeding to create you. My disciples tend to be a bit…enthusiastic. I suppose it’s simply the nature of the god we all serve.”
They had made one complete circle around the balcony and now overlooked the city and the bay again.
“And you know the rest of the story,” Savix said. “Your mother died in another raid when you were eight—after she was tortured and raped before your young eyes—and after years of living off what you could scavenge, you were taken in by Silek. Who knows, if your father had done his duties, your mother and siblings might still be alive to help you in the battles to come.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Karak asked.
Savix arched an eyebrow at him. “Do you not want to know where you come from?”
“I know where I come from, and I know my father was scum. What does it have to do with my ‘destiny’?”
Savix smiled. “Everything. Crane?”
There was shuffling in front of them as Crane came around the bend in the balcony from a door on the other side. He kept his head down, his gaze on the stone at his feet. When he was a couple of paces from Savix, he knelt on one knee and said, “Yes, my lord.”
“Show Mr. Frost your scar.”
Without hesitating, Crane stood and unbuttoned his white coat, then slipped it off his shoulders and let it fall to the floor. He unbuttoned his white shirt, all the while staring at Karak with an appraising expression, studying him as Karak would have studied one of his new whores. When Crane removed his shirt, Karak saw a man with an emaciated chest, as if Crane had been starving to death for months. The flesh was grayish white, with thin blue veins running all across its surface. Karak could swear he saw Crane’s organs undulating beneath that translucent skin. A bronze necklace hugged his neck, similar to Karak’s.
A long, jagged white scar ran from Crane’s navel up to the center of his sternum. Several more scars were spread around his chest, most concentrated around his heart.
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to heal wounds of this sort?” Savix asked Karak, waving a hand at Crane’s chest. “Even when it is possible, the man is never the same. As you can see.”
Karak looked from the scars to Crane’s face and suddenly realized why he had thought Crane looked so familiar the first day he saw him—in another lifetime—in his office.
Crane smiled, the mouth wide and unnatural. “He knows, my lord.”
“That’s impossible…” Karak whispered.
“Crane would have died thirty-two years ago,” Savix said, “if it had not been for one of my other disciples, who was also part of the Jarden’yar army. He brought Crane’s body to a secret Fomorian priest who had kept one of the harrowing stones from the glory days of Fomorian rule and used it to keep Crane, er, fresh until he could be awakened when Angra returned. The priest could have done the awakening himself had it not been for the cursed Barrier blocking Angra. Might have saved some of Crane’s good looks. But alas.”
Karak shook his head. His father was dead. His mother had told him so.
Answering his silent doubts, Savix said, “Your mother thought she killed him. And normally, those wounds would have killed any man. But she did not count on the fact that Crane was also important to my plans.”
Karak stared at Crane, who stared right back at Karak. The man’s grin was making Karak want to rip the jaw off his head.
“And now we come to your destiny,” Savix said. “You must kill your father, or he will kill you.”
“What?” Karak asked. He continued staring at Crane, whose grin had turned into a determined sneer.
“It is the only way I will know for sure that you are to be my champion. Now, there is one thing you must know before I release Crane on you. Only the power of Angra can kill him.”
“What are you talking about? How?” Karak already felt himself unconsciously backing away from Crane. He knew how fast those hands could move.
Savix sighed. “And now you know why I was most put out when Crane did not raise you… You hold your hand up to the black ring and ask for what you want. Like this.”
Savix raised his right hand, and Karak saw a forked tendril of black light shoot down from Angra faster than a lightning bolt. Savix nodded in Crane’s direction, and Karak felt a blast of wind pass him and slam into Crane. Crane’s emaciated body flew across the balcony and slid into the stone railing ten paces behind him. Crane rolled over and jumped to his feet. He walked back to where he stood before, the same determined sneer on his face, but he now breathed hard and favored his right side a bit.
“I have just given you a head start,” Savix said. “Now begin.”
Both of Crane’s hands shot toward Karak, one toward his throat and one at his feet. Karak dove beneath the hand going for his throat, but he could not escape the one going for his leg. It latched on to his foot and began dragging Karak back toward Crane. Karak pulled the knife out of his belt that he had meant to use on Silek, and plunged the blade into Crane’s hand.
Crane howled, and his hand released Karak’s foot. Karak jumped to his feet and ran past a laughing Savix and around the bend in the balcony. He tried opening the double glass doors, but they were locked. He lowered his shoulder and plunged through the glass into Savix’s study. Karak kept running toward the spiral staircase, shaking the glass shards out of his hair and jacket. He did not bother to see if Crane was following.
At the foot of the stairs, the two soldiers who guarded the entrance tried to block Karak’s path. One of the men brought his musket up, but Karak ran into him at full speed, knocking him backward. Karak fell on top of the man, but scrambled to his feet before the other one could apprehend him. He heard the guard fire. The musket ball shattered a lamp less than a pace from Karak’s shoulder.
He rounded a corner, only to find five more guards running toward him, muskets with bayonets pointed at him. They dropped to their knees to fire. Karak ducked back into the hall he had just come from an instant before the musket balls tore chunks from the walls. He sprinted down the hall, past startled servants, some of whom fell wounded when the guards behind him fired their muskets again. Karak ran in a broken pattern to keep the guards from drawing a clear shot at him. He charged between servants who came out into the hall to see what the commotion was about, using them as cover.
At the end of the hall was an arched doorway with the doors swung open. Karak charged through the doors and onto a crushed stone path that curved into a garden filled with willow trees, their branches hanging all the way to the ground.
Once he rounded the bend in the path, Karak dove into the willow-covered bushes to his right. He forced himself to calm his breathing as the guards sprinted past his position.
He listened a few moments. The guards’ shouted to each other as they searched the garden. He backed out of the bushes, away from the stone path. He made his way deeper into the forest of willow trees, running as stealthily as he could.
Karak was wondering why his necklace had not stopped him fleeing from Savix, when he emerged from the willow trees at the edge of a cliff that dropped hundreds of feet to the crashing waves below. Karak skidded to a stop just before the drop-off, and even made himself fall backwards to keep from tumbling off the edge. He scrambled to his feet and turned around.
He stopped when he saw Crane part the willow branches. Crane was still shirtless, and the sun made his thin muscles and sharp bones more pronounced beneath his translucent skin.
“Don’t call me that,” Karak said.
“It is who you are. You are my greatest achievement, my life’s purpose.” Crane smiled that unnatural smile.
The rage that had been building in Karak, that rage that he had wanted to unleash on Savix for orchestrating his whole sorry life, exploded from Karak. He leapt for Crane’s throat with a raw scream, but Crane’s left hand shot out and took hold of Karak’s throat. Karak felt Crane’s grip tighten, and he was suddenly unable to take in any air, or even exhale. He felt his tongue lolling on the side of his mouth and his eyes growing wide.
“Now I will kill you,” Crane said, studying Karak’s face. “For it seems that you are unworthy to serve our master. You are weak. Just like your mother, just like your bastard brothers. Perhaps I will rape you before you die, just to give you a taste of what I did to them.”
Karak did not remember consciously raising his right hand, but when he realized he had done so, he called on Angra to strike down Crane with as much power as it could. Karak felt a rushing torrent of rage and hatred flow through him, enough to make his body feel like it would explode if he did not release it. He looked into Crane’s eyes. Karak saw them widen when Crane recognized what was about to happen. Fear dominated them, but also…pride.
Crane’s body bulged, heaved, and then exploded into a spray of red, gray, and black. Karak flew backward and landed on his back, the little air left in his lungs bursting from his throat. His ears ringing, Karak took in several deep, rasping breaths, staring up at the rings in the blue sky. When he had his breathing under control, he sat up slowly and looked at where Crane had been standing. There was a small blackened crater, its perimeter littered with broken dirt, charred chunks of flesh, and bits of burning white cloth.
Karak looked up to see Savix emerge from the willow trees, a wide smile on his face and his hands clapping.
“Well done, my boy, well done. I knew the only way you would call on Angra was to destroy the cause of so much pain in your life. Now you will have the power and prestige that was once your father’s.”
Karak stared at the bits of flesh that were left of his father. The man had been every bit the demon out of Hlaan mythology. A rapist, a murderer, a monster of the highest order.
And Karak was now on the same path. He had used the same power that Crane had drawn on to kill Primus and his Swornmen, the closest thing to brothers Karak had ever known. The same power Crane had used to turn Silek against Karak, the man Karak considered to be his true father. Now Karak was enslaved by the same man, or demon, who had twisted Crane. Enslaved with the same necklace. Karak suffered a blast of pain for his impertinence, so he quickly abandoned those thoughts of Savix.
“You will serve me well,” Savix said, walking toward Karak. “I will give you the power and riches that you have always wanted, but never dreamed possible. You are my champion. My Zervakan.”
Karak would not become another Crane, and he decided what to do just as he began moving toward the cliff. He heard Savix cry out, and then he felt a pain that made the pain he had suffered in Savix’s study feel like a breeze on his neck. But Karak’s momentum had carried him too far for him to stop, and he plunged off the lip of the cliff and into empty space. He did not realize any of this, for the pain that scorched him had already driven him insane.
But the moment he hit the rocks below, he knew peace.