Three years spent on the run.
I was supposed to head to Alsomn, burn Adkins’s house down around him, and rescue my little sister from his clutches, in a feat of extreme and cathartic violence. I would give everyone involved a taste of their own medicine. I would plant their severed heads on spikes. I would free the captured princess. We would ride off into the sunset and live together, happily ever after, far from any danger.
It didn’t happen that way. At all.
The world is not that kind.
I didn’t even get a glimpse of the Emperor.
Nor of Akasha.
In fact, I’ve been driven farther away from Alsomn than I was when this all started. Right now, I’m on the edge of the Frontline, hiding in one of the cities forming the belt which isolates the human kingdom of Lamos from the blasted, polluted wasteland stretching between it and majin territory.
I remember the burning, spirited rage I felt, back then, in the ruins of our little house, when I resolved to do everything I could to rescue my last living family member. It allowed me to ignore and walk past every injury, every difficulty, every pain. It allowed me to endure.
For a while.
There is little left of that rage, now. It didn’t survive the past three years. I’d like to think that I did good enough, that it’s impossible for someone who’s not completely insane to remain in a state of berserk, unending rage for years on end. But the truth is that… no, it’s not good enough. I have accomplished nothing. I have failed, utterly and completely.
I am not as unflinching and unbreakable and determined as I thought.
And every day, a voice whispers in my ear that it’s already much, much too late. That, after three years, there’s nothing left for me to save. That every single thing I do from this point on – or indeed since quite a long time ago – is, and has been, utterly pointless.
My eyes slowly open, and I wake from my light sleep, gazing at the closed door of the room. There’s no sound, no noise, but I can feel the presence standing on the other side of it. My hand slowly trails down, and my fingers coil around the hilt of my dagger.
ton, ton, ton-ton-ton, ton-ton
Quiet, discreet knocks follow the pattern I was expecting from my visitor. But that’s not enough to put me off my guard. He might have been followed by someone else, or he might have been coerced or paid off into opening the door for someone else.
I wipe the last remnants of sleep from my eyes, then draw my dagger and get to my feet. I step close to the window and unlatch it. In case I need to run away, I’ll just have to push it open and jump out.
“Enter,” I call out toward the door, tensing in preparation.
With a creak, the wooden door opens, and a young boy creeps inside, looking sneakily left and right down the hallway outside to make sure no one saw him come in.
Finally, he closes the door behind himself and looks at me. He doesn’t seem to notice how anxious I am – from his perspective, with my dagger hidden behind my back, I must just be leaning casually against the windowsill, waiting for him. He looks dirty and malnourished. One of his front teeth is missing, giving him a strange lisp every time he talks, which is not helped by his thick accent.
“Mam, the people you was waitin’ for arrived in the city today. I came to warn you as soon as I saw ’em!”
I regard him blandly. “How many?”
“Sixteen. They was all wearin’ those armors you told me ’bout, an’ they was ridin’ on expensive horses like General Helius does. They looked strong! Except for one of ’em, who was wearin’ normal clothes.”
And Karim is with them.
Time to run.
I glance through the window at the height of the sun in the sky. My caravan should leave in approximately three hours. The city is big enough that I’m sure I’d be able to hide for that much time, but they’ll expect me to flee through the Frontline. Some of them will be watching the outgoing caravans while the others inspect the city. And Karim can just keep watch from the sky.
Still, I don’t have a choice.
I look back at the boy. What are the chances that, as soon as he leaves the inn, he’s going to go to Karim and sell him my location? Pretty high, I’d say. It’s happened before. Out of the boy’s sight, my grip tightens around my dagger. But I hesitate. Killing a child doesn’t sit well with me.
“Mam?” the boy calls, probably wondering why I suddenly went silent.
Eventually, I loosen my hold on the dagger’s hilt.
Instead, I reach into my pocket for a coin, which I flick into the boy’s hand. “Find them again, and keep watching their movements. Focus on the one wearing normal clothes. Report to me in three hours. I’ll be at the inn near the north gate of the city, near the weapons depot. You know the one?”
“The Bannered Hare?”
“Right. That’s the one.”
“Understood, Mam,” the boy says with a nod and an excited voice, his fingers closing around the coin. Then, he’s gone, running off to either do my bidding or sell me out to my enemies.
The boy’s choice doesn’t matter, though. In three hours, I’ll be gone. In fact, if he can lead Karim and his men to the Bannered Hare, that’ll make my escape easier.
Through the dirty glass of the window, I can see the boy hurrying down the street toward the west gate, presumably where he last saw my pursuers. With a sigh, I walk out of the room, then down the stairs to the first floor. I throw the room’s key to the innkeeper in passing, turning a deaf ear to his attempt to get me to stay a little longer and give him more of my money, and join the flow of pedestrian traffic, tugging the edge of my hood lower over my face. I head east, toward the caravans’ staging area.
It’s a broad square, filled with people and carriages. The carriages aren’t simple wooden affairs. They’re built of sturdy metal, with a proper roof and doors and narrow, thick, reinforced windows. No horse, no matter how hardy, could pull such a moving fortress. Golems, on the other hand, are much stronger. A line of them stand, unresponsive, next to the outer wall of the city, ready to leap into action at their masters’ call. Their shapes are roughly humanoid, except that they don’t have a head, and that their limbs are as thick as old tree trunks. Every single one of them looks like they could crush a man in a single blow.
Right now, with the imminent departure of a caravan, two of these golems are walking ponderously back and forth between a warehouse and a cluster of armored carriages, holding crates and cargo and loading them into and atop the wagons.
With a quick spell to lower my weight, I climb up to one of the rooftops overlooking the busy square. I sit underneath a curtain held up by wooden poles. Presumably, the building’s occupants come up here to enjoy the shade during summer days. Right now, though, I’m alone. For a while, I watch the workers direct the golems and work to prepare the convoy for departure. There still hasn’t been any sign of Karim or his men, and I almost think like I’ll be able to escape to majin territory unmolested.
The world is not that kind.
Eventually, I see a squad of knights enter the square. One of them approaches the leader of the caravan. They’re too far for me to hear their conversation. I doubt they’ll directly cancel the caravan’s departure, though. Travel through the Frontline is a risky venture, and to increase their chances of making it through, caravans are usually backed and funded by some pretty powerful people, in exchange for a cut of the resulting profits. And despite its dangers, trade between the two continents brings a lot of profits indeed. I wouldn’t be surprised if the City Lord himself has his fingers in this particular pie. Him or a wealthy merchant. Perhaps a high-rank noble house, too. In any case, though Karim might carry the word of the Emperor himself, we’re far from Alsomn, far from the Emperor’s eyes. On the surface, the City Lord might agree to help Karim on his hunt for me, but if his profits are on the line, Karim will find himself drowned in red tape until – oh, my! – it’s already too late to prevent the caravan from leaving. Even delaying the caravan by a few hours would be quite an ordeal. The Frontline’s geography is constantly shifting. Welcoming plains will transform into snow-capped mountains, and then into poisonous swamps. But any serious convoy will call upon some specialized mages to predict the lay of the land and the best time of departure. With the help of divination magic, they’ll build an exact schedule until they’re as sure as can be that they will be able to cross the wasteland unscathed, and they will not tolerate messing with that schedule. That would mean messing with their profits, after all.
No. My caravan will leave in three hours. I’m almost certain of this.
All I have to do, is to be on it when it does.
And discreetly, too. Karim and his men might have scruples as long as they don’t know where I’m hiding exactly, but if they see me enter one of the carriages with their own eyes, they won’t hesitate to draw their swords and attack, the City Lord be damned.
I stay carefully out of sight and watch the situation unfold from my vantage point. As I expected, the soldier talking to the caravan master seems to grow increasingly frustrated. His body language becomes more aggressive with each word. But the caravan master isn’t impressed. He’s a large man, bald, bearded, and wearing a sleeveless roughspun tunic that shows off his muscled arms. A large, ugly scar cuts across the left half of his skull, as if the man once took an axe to the head and lived to tell the tale. Despite not wearing any armor and carrying no weapon to speak of, he still makes the soldier talking to him, one of Karim’s elite troops, look like a pampered little greenhorn. That’s not too surprising, though. He’s a veteran of the Frontline. Someone who makes it his living to cross a hostile wasteland filled with mutated abominations won’t be easily intimidated by a simple human being; he’s definitely seen far worse sights than this.
After a few minutes of the soldier attempting to convince the intractable leader of the caravan – of what exactly, I’m too far to overhear – Karim himself arrives on site. My body unconsciously tenses when I see him. We’ve fought several times, since our first encounter three years ago. He never managed to defeat me as easily as he did on that day, where I was injured and exhausted from the start, but neither have I ever held the advantage against him. He has yet to actually capture me once and for all – mostly because he has to hold back his strength to take me alive – but if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have been driven so far from Alsomn.
I wouldn’t have been forced to sleep with one eye open for the past three years, to flee to majin territory on the off chance that I can gather reinforcement there and stage a rescue mission at a later time.
I wouldn’t have been so thoroughly convinced that my power is insufficient, that I alone cannot save Akasha from her plight. That I am helpless and weak.
I clench my fist tightly as, in the square below, Karim intervenes in the dispute between the soldier and the caravan master. A few words from him diffuse the situation, and he sends the irritated soldier away, taking up the negotiations himself. It doesn’t take long after that. The caravan master goes back to his work of organizing his convoy and supervising his workers, while Karim returns to his group, more eyes than mine following him back with interest and curiosity. The armored, hardened soldiers under his command don’t look as out of place here as they could in more peaceful cities of human territory, but they’re all still distinctly elite. The atmosphere each of them exudes is incomparable to a standard soldier.
I know from experience that they die just as well as one, though. They may have driven me back all the way here, but I made them pay for each step with the blood and lives of their comrades.
Still doesn’t change the fact that I failed utterly, of course…
Karim’s soldiers cluster around him as he gives them his orders, then they hurriedly depart in twos and threes toward different directions, spreading through the city to look for me. Eventually, all the soldiers leave, and only Karim remains in the square. He probably expects that, no matter where I am now, I’ll need to pass through here to leave human territory.
The fact that the soldiers are spread out all over the city certainly makes my task easier – I wouldn’t stand a chance if all seventeen of them were gathered together here. But easier doesn’t mean easy. If it were any of the other soldiers who’d stayed on watch here, I doubt I would’ve had too much trouble silencing them and slipping into the convoy. But Karim will be a much more difficult opponent. He’s not only stronger than me in a straight fight; I also lack confidence in assassinating him. I have been fighting him – or more like, running from him – for three years, and I have yet to see him let his guard down.
So, now that this man is blocking my only way out of here…
I have no choice.
Let’s just hope I’ll find an opening I can exploit before my time’s up.
Three hours until the caravan departs.
Time is running out.
For more than two and a half hours, I waited for the right moment.
I watched Karim, and Karim watched the caravan. As the time of departure approached, passengers and their families, merchants and the soldiers and employees escorting them, all heading for majin territory, started trickling in. The square steadily filled with people. Each one was one more variable for Karim to keep track of. Each clump of chatting citizens a potential opportunity for me to get past him and escape his clutches. It would’ve been easier for him if he’d kept a few of his soldiers with him, but he didn’t. Even though some of them sometimes come back to report on their progress in the rest of the city, they all leave again soon afterward.
Eventually, a burly caravan worker ended up shouting at Karim to get out of the way as his loitering distracted them from their labor and disturbed the waiting passengers.
And that was my chance.
Karim didn’t cut the belligerent fool in half. He courteously apologized. Then, he went to sit well out of the way, atop a pile of wooden crates, stacked against the wall of a warehouse, the top of the pile just reaching one of the warehouse’s second-floor windows.
Karim sat right in front of that window.
I immediately spotted his mistake.
Then, it was trivial for me to sneak inside the warehouse.
And now that I’m in position…
I bite my lip and tighten my grip on my dagger. Its blade shines a dull, sickly green from the poison coating it. I slow my breathing down as much as possible and do my best to ignore the anxiety stirring within me.
I press my back against the wall.
I don’t need to look through the window to know my target sits right outside. And that I’ll only have one chance at this. I need to kill him before he even realizes what happened. Quite a few people are milling around in the square outside, by now. I can’t afford to miss my first strike. If a battle starts, even if I manage to escape afterward, I’ll have lost my window to board the caravan. And even if I do manage to kill Karim, if I do so too publicly, there’s no way I’ll be allowed to join the convoy. I’d be an obvious security risk, someone who’d murder an imperial soldier in broad daylight.
I forcefully press down the fear building up in my chest, then step to the side in front of the window, finding myself facing Karim’s defenseless back. My free hand grabs his collar and yanks him toward me, in range of the dagger in my other hand. He’s in civilian clothing, but the fabric might be reinforced, so I aim for the base of his skull, to sever his spine and neutralize him in an instant.
At least, that was the plan my exhausted, frantic brain conceived.
In practice, it doesn’t work quite like that, unfortunately.
Karim lets me pull him into the warehouse without resistance, but when I try to stab him, the blade of my dagger seems to skid against an impenetrable, invisible barrier a centimeter or so above his skin. Perhaps, I took too long to stab once I’d grabbed him, allowing him to react. Perhaps, he detected my presence in the warehouse before I struck, despite my confidence in how stealthily I moved. Or perhaps, he was expecting I’d try to kill him from the very beginning and was ready for me. Perhaps, his so-called mistake was no such thing, and he was just goading me into making a move.
In any case, after parrying my first strike, Karim grabs my outstretched arm and tosses me over his shoulder in a textbook throw. Fortunately, I react in time. Before my back can slam into the ground with debilitating force, I reverse the direction of gravity on my body. It slows down Karim’s throw enough that I can somewhat regain my balance. I arch my back so as to land on my feet first, though my arm is still trapped in Karim’s hands. Then, I lean backward even more and slam my knee into the top of my opponent’s skull. It’s quite the contortion and not a very stable posture, but it does the job.
My counter strike lands squarely, and Karim lets out a pained groan. He finally has to let go of my arm, though not before twisting my wrist enough that I have to drop my poisoned dagger, and stumbles back, colliding into the side of a heavy wooden desk standing against the wall.
“Miss Nerys,” he calls blandly once we’re both back to standing properly on our own two feet. He rubs his head, where my knee struck. “I can tell you’ve become stronger again.”
I grit my teeth and curse inwardly. This is bad. Not only did my assassination attempt fail pitifully, but I was even forced to use my magic. It wasn’t a huge spell, but it’s entirely possible someone outside in the square might have noticed the qi fluctuations.
But there’s no choice but to continue, now. The moment I struck, I’d committed myself to this course of action. A small burst of gravity sends the fallen dagger back into my hand in a spell I couldn’t have pulled off three years ago.
Yes, my magic is much more powerful now than it was then.
But… I doubt that’s going to be enough. Karim is no pushover.
Still, I have to end this quickly. Ideally, in a single move. Before a caravan worker comes to pick up something inside the warehouse. Before anyone notices the ruckus of our fight. Before one of Karim’s soldiers comes back to give a report and investigates why his boss is gone.
Gravity propels me forward and shoves Karim back against the desk behind him. The air is knocked out of his lungs by the impact, and I take this momentary opportunity. This time, I don’t stab at an obvious target like his throat but instead slash at his hands. Far from fatal, but the poison coating the blade would dull his senses and give me an edge. If it ever hit, that is. Once more, despite Karim’s distraction, the dagger only scrapes against an invisible barrier of wind hovering above his skin. But I expected this. Karim’s wind walls are too solid for me to break through. But as powerful as they are, they also require just as much investment from him. He shouldn’t be able to create too many of them too quickly, even if all his focus was undivided on the task, which it isn’t.
With another spell from me, more powerful than the previous one, the dagger seems to bounce off Karim’s defense and shoots toward his face like an arrow. It’s an all-or-nothing attack. The dagger flies so fast that I’m even forced to let go of it lest it wrenches my arm out of its socket.
Karim’s eyes widen at the sight of the dagger’s tip bearing down on him. He only has a fraction of a second to respond, and for a moment, I almost think I’ve got him. Until he dodges. He leans his head to the side just barely in time to avoid a direct blow, the dagger leaving a thin line of blood on his cheek before burying itself to the hilt in the wall behind him.
Karim lets out a hiss through gritted teeth. It’s nothing but a scratch, but even he can’t help but wince at the pain of the poison spreading from the wound. There’s nowhere near enough of it in his system to kill him or even debilitate him, but it’s got to sting quite a bit.
He would easily be able to cure that if he had even a few seconds of time to spare, but I come at him right behind my thrown dagger, flicking a knife from one of my sleeves into my palm. His hands are up near his face, now. I’ve little chance to get past his guard and hit anything vital up there, so I strike down, trying to lodge the knife’s blade between his ribs. His clothes might be armored, but they also might not, and I need to push him. I can’t allow him to catch his breath.
Except that Karim doesn’t need to catch his breath. When I’m right in front of him and halfway through my attack, his pained face suddenly slips back into his usual, neutral expression, as if his suffering had been nothing but an act. His arms swing down with a whoosh of displaced air, far faster than I’ve ever seen from him and clearly supplemented by magic. He catches my wrist again and twists it to the side. With a sickening crack and a stab of pain, Karim breaks my arm and the knife drops out of my suddenly limp grip. Without waiting for me to recover, he presses his advantage and his hand, fingers stiffened into a blade, slashes at my throat.
I stumble back a few steps, my uninjured hand rising to cradle my throat. I fall on one knee and desperately try to force air into my lungs as Karim looks down at me with half-lidded, dispassionate eyes. He stands before me, gently rubbing his sore cheek – so he really is in pain… just not enough to make him flinch – but he doesn’t go for the kill and gives me ample time to recover. As I massage my throat, I see him flick his hand and throw a small pill into his mouth. Mere seconds later, the cut on his cheek disappears, and he wipes off the few trails of drying blood left on his face with a handkerchief, which he then folds carefully and returns to his pocket.
“Yes. You’re indeed stronger than before, Miss Nerys,” he says eventually. “But it’s still far from enough.”
I try to answer him, but can only cringe and stop at the ache in my throat.
Karim is silent for a few moments before continuing, his expression blank and unreadable. “Miss Nerys, your quest to rescue your sister is doomed to fail. No matter what happens, there is no scenario in which you succeed. There is no possible future where you come out on top.”
“You’re… wrong,” I force out in a crabbed, strangled voice.
Karim closes his eyes and shakes his head, sighing heavily. “No.” Then, he turns his hand, and a recording crystal, the likes of which I bought to entertain Akasha back in happier days, appears atop his palm. He tosses it to the floor in front of me. “See for yourself, Miss Nerys.”
“What’s this?” I ask, my voice slowly returning to normal as the pain in my throat finally starts to fade a little.
Karim simply looks down at me impassively. I frown and hesitantly reach for the recording crystal. With it in hand, I slowly make my way to my feet and take a wary step back to give me time to react in case it’s all a ruse.
Then, I look down at the small crystal resting in the palm of my hand and activate it.
Soon, I wish I hadn’t.
The start of the recording only shows a little girl sleeping in a cave. It’s dark, but the scene is still decipherable, and the little girl perfectly recognizable.
I recognize her clothes. It’s the dress she was wearing the day she was taken. And her age seems to fit. This must have been recorded three years ago, soon after Karim and his soldiers attacked our house.
A stone of dread seems to have settled in the pit of my stomach as Karim’s earlier words take on an even more ominous tone than they already had.
My heart beats loudly in my chest; my fingers clench in a white-knuckled grip around the crystal. And it only gets worse from here.
The recording isn’t very long. There’s no sound, the image quality is poor, and it seems to cut at seemingly random points, producing a disjointed arrangement of scenes with little to give an idea of how much time passes between each, though they at least appear to be in chronological order.
I watch as my little sister gets infected by a Tainted rat, my horror only mildly dampened by her survival. I watch as she struggles onward despite the worsening symptoms of her sickness. I flinch when she gets kicked around by a rabbit demon almost as if I received the blow myself. I watch as she lies, unconscious and covered in blood, at the bottom of a darkened stairwell, her face pale as death, her arm mangled. I watch as she stumbles exhaustedly through a swamp of sorts, water up to her ankles and tall reeds surrounding her in every direction.
And I watch as the light goes out of her eyes, the demon hound that bit her arm off at the shoulder slowly bleeding out next to her.
When the recording ends and the nightmarish images flicker out of existence, I meet the haunted eyes of my reflection in the crystal’s clear surface. My face is as pale as Akasha’s had been in the last minutes of the recording, and though elves are reputed to show very few signs of aging right up until their death, I look a decade older now than I did when I entered that warehouse and tried to assassinate Karim.
I’m not sure how long I stay there, standing dazedly in the middle of the warehouse, staring into nothing, until a long, strident whistle suddenly breaks the trance, and my hand tightens into a fist, as if trying to crush the recording crystal into pieces.
“No,” a hoarse voice says, one so raw and broken I can barely recognize it as my own.
I’m not sure what I’m denying, or refusing, but it’s the only word I can say, the only thought I can form.
Almost unconsciously, I stumble out of the empty warehouse – Karim disappeared at some point; I don’t know when or why, and I don’t even wonder – and look at the bluster and activity filling the square.
It all feels distant, unreal. The golems are already in position, primed to pull the carriages, and the passengers are bidding their goodbyes and filing inside the armored transports. The caravan is about to leave – the meaning of the loud whistle that woke me up. Without bothering to check for Karim or his soldiers or anyone who might be keeping watch against me here – the thought doesn’t even occur to me to be careful – I hobble toward one of the carriages and follow the stream of passengers into it.
Soon, I’m sitting inside the carriage, a friendly human man sitting next to me attempting to engage me in conversation. I think, at least. I can’t seem to make out his voice, to understand his words.
I simply stare blankly forward, right up until another whistle rings out and the carriage lurches forward. Right up until the caravan crosses the Frontline and reaches majin territory.