Bitefighter’s ambusher—a Fellstorn sorcerer who’d been hiding behind a boulder—wove his scepter through the air, leaving violet contrails in the wake of its crimson-gem tip. The velociraptor’s pupils shrank into dots, then his body transformed into a cloud of aquamarine mist. His essence—now fully contained in the cloud—streamed into the end of the sorcerer’s staff.
Though Kor’Thank knew a fair amount of magic, he was typically loath to use it—he preferred beating faces and breaking spines—but this was neither the time nor place to indulge his proclivities; he shot his right hand toward the sorcerer, contorting his tongue and hissing an arcane phrase. Five bolts of light flew from his fingers, splitting the air with radiant jags.
The sorcerer’s expression went from gloating to frightened. He flailed his staff and blurted a counter-spell. Whirling slices of pitch-black light shot from its tip, cutting into Kor’Thank’s magical assault. Four of the bolts vanished in a twitch, but one got through, striking the wizard directly in the chest. His flesh and clothing began strobing, and his bones became briefly visible through his skin and his garments. An agonized scream burst from his lips.
Kor’Thank drew his left hand up and cast another spell. This time, a ball of swirling rainbow appeared in his palm. He chucked it at the sorcerer’s chest, causing multicolored ripples to engulf the wizard. A second later the sorcerer detonated, like a frog that had ingested a black-powder bomb. Fragments of ribcage and skull went flying everywhere, showering the earth with blood and gore.
Kor’Thank raced forward, eyes fixed on the magician’s staff. As it spun end over end above the desert, Bitefighter’s frightened visage gleamed from its soul-stealing gem. Kor’Thank reached out with a splay-fingered hand.
The staff flipped, twisted, and disappeared behind a rock.
His breath caught in his chest. The gem could still be intact. Maybe—
But when he leapt over the rock and scanned the ground, his heart dropped.
The gem was shattered.
Red fog wisped from its shards. It briefly formed into a frayed semblance of Bitefighter…and then it vanished.
Behind him, his men slowly backed away. Krul’Dar broke from their ranks and walked toward the king.
“Kor? Kor, are you—”
Kor’Thank snapped a blocky fist up to his ear. The meaning was clear.
Kor’Thank’s massive shoulders heaved and tensed. Though it nearly cost him his sanity, the king maintained his calm.
He slowly turned around.
His head was bowed. His eyes were shadowed by his shoulder-length hair, which draped across his face like a necromancer’s hood. He brushed past Krul’Dar and stomped toward his escort. When he was five yards away from his men, all of whom were arrayed in a neat line, he stopped in his tracks.
“Which of you was it?” he rumbled. “Who was in charge of rear security?”
After a long, pregnant silence, a single barbarian stepped forward. He was a gnarled giant; from a sufficient distance, one might have thought he was carved from rock.
Yet before Kor’Thank, he trembled like a five-year old schoolgirl.
“ ’Twas I, my king. Barbarian Patrolman Rok’Th—”
Kor’Thank shot a hand out, grabbing the barbarian by the throat. Beneath the shadow of his hair, the king’s eyes were dead and flat.
Krul’Dar laid a hand on his shoulder. “Kor—”
“Touch me not, Chronicler.”
Krul’Dar withdrew his hand.
Whitened fingers tightened around the guardsman’s throat. “Do you realize what you’ve done?” Kor’Thank hissed. “Do you realize what he meant?”
The guardsman sputtered and gurgled. When his eyes rolled back in his skull, Kor’Thank let him go with a forceful shove. The man knelt in the dirt, clutching his neck and coughing roughly.
“I am…” the guardsman spat up a glob of blood-flecked mucus. “I am sorry, milord…”
Bitter regret sliced through Kor’Thank. The fault is yours, oh wise and noble king—you quaffed ale right alongside them. You failed to ensure they were watching their quadrants.
This is on you. You and no other.
Kor’Thank stared at the guardsman, giving nothing away in his numb, soulless gaze.
Then he spun on his heel, walked off the path, and into the sands.
This particular stretch of desert was called the Badlands. It was an appropriate name, for everything here was withered and misshapen. There were beady-eyed lizards that never slept—that waited ceaselessly in nooks and crannies, scanning for prey they’d eat a piece at a time. In the deeper reaches, there lived dog-sized arachnids. These would venture out at night to hunt the lizards.
Kor’Thank sprinted toward a wilted tree, his muscled thighs cording and rippling. As he picked up the pace he cocked his right arm back, a furious scream building in his throat.
Then he hurtled through the air and scissored his legs, adding torque to his punch and busting through the trunk with a meaty fist. He began beating the tree with savage abandon, tearing flesh and nails as he punched, kicked, and stomped. Froth and spit flew from his lips.
A hundred yards back, his men watched in nervous silence.
Finally, he dropped to his knees, the muscles on his back rippling and heaving. He drew in a lungful of air…held it…then expelled a harsh, ragged breath—a sound that was halfway between a choke and a sob.
Then he leapt to his feet and charged another tree, breaking its trunk cleanly in two with a ferocious shoulder-check. The impact stole his balance but as he spun to the ground, he pushed off with a hand and kept running. The king tore through the landscape with punches and kicks, snarling and roaring all the while.
Eventually, he stopped.
He faced away from his men, towards the far-distant hills, his hair matted with sweat and grime. Wood-specked blood gathered on his knuckles, dripping off them in fat, dark droplets.
Kru’Dar approached the king. When he was a dozen yards away, Kor’Thank spoke in a rough, broken tone—as if his throat contained rusted metal and gritty rocks.
“Come no closer. It would not be safe.”
“He was a noble steed, Kor’Thank. But he would not want you to—”
“Speak not of what he’d want.”
“Elithia needs its king; it needs—”
“Then it shall wait,” Kor’Thank rasped. “For if were I to take the throne as I am now, ’twould not be a king that ruled these lands.”
He paused. Then: “ ’Twould be a monster.”
“Kor, you can’t just—”
“Leave me, Krul.”
Krul’Dar glanced to either side of him, then back at Kor’Thank. “There are things here that would lay eggs in your guts while you still drew breath. Evil beasts that would cocoon your flesh and eat you slow, so they could drink your pain. If you were attacked, then—”
“Let them come.” A dark chuckle shook the king. “I welcome their cruelty.”
Krul’Dar was at a loss for words. After a few seconds he asked, “Who will rule us in your stead?”
Kor’Thank looked over his shoulder, revealing a singularly terrifying rage-narrowed eye. “That is something you must decide for yourself.” He faced away again. “Just as I must decide if I’m fit to rule at all.”
Krul’Dar’s heart broke a little; it was audible in the slight quaver of his voice. “When will you return?”
“I do not know. But if I come back, it will be as something wholly different.”
He lifted his eyes, scanning the distant peaks. “I will make peace with my demons…”
His bloody fists clenched by his sides.
“Or I will become them.”