Bitefighter’s ambusher—a Fellstorn sorcerer who’d magically disguised himself as a weathered boulder—wove his scepter in a pair of figure-eights, leaving violet contrails hanging in the air. A second later they flew toward the velociraptor, enveloping its body in lavender haze. Bitefighter’s pupils shrank into dots, then his body transformed into an aquamarine cloud. His essence—now contained in the bluish mist—streamed into the gem-tipped end of the sorcerer’s staff.
Kor’Thank shot his right hand out toward the sorcerer, contorting his tongue and hissing an arcane phrase. Five bolts of lightning flew from his fingers. The sorcerer’s expression went from gloating to frightened as he flailed his staff and blurted a counter-spell. Pitch-black slices whirled from its tip, cutting through Kor’Thank’s deadly thaumaturgy. Four of the bolts vanished in a twitch, but one got through, striking the wizard in the middle of his chest. His flesh and clothing began strobing rapidly; his bones became visible through his skin and garments.
The king cast another spell. This time, a swirling rainbow ball appeared in his palm. He chucked it at the sorcerer’s face. Multicolored waves rippled out from the impact, then the magician detonated. Fragments of bone went flying everywhere, showering the earth with blood and gore.
Kor’Thank broke into a headlong sprint, eyes fixed on the magician’s staff. As it spun end over end, twenty feet above the ground, Bitefighter’s frightened visage gleamed from its gem. The staff flipped, twisted, and disappeared behind a boulder. Kor’Thank leapt over its crest and scanned the ground. His heart stopped.
The gem was shattered. Its broken facets lay strewn across the earth.
Red fog wisped from the shards. It briefly formed into a semblance of Bitefighter…and then it vanished.
Kor’Thank’s massive shoulders heaved and tensed. He slowly turned around and faced his men. His head was bowed. His eyes were shadowed by his shoulder-length hair, which had fallen across his face like a necromancer’s hood.
He raised his head and began walking, brushing past Krul’Dar and stopping before his escort, all of whom were arrayed in a neat line.
“Which of you was it?” he rumbled. “Who was tasked with rear security?”
A single barbarian stepped forward. “ ’Twas I, my king. Patrolman Rok’Th—”
The king grabbed him by the throat, cutting off his air with a merciless squeeze. “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 into his skull, Kor’Thank let him go with a forceful shove. Patrolman Rok’Thar knelt in the dirt, coughing and hacking as he clutched at his neck.
“I am…” the guardsman spat up a glob of blood-flecked mucus. “I am sorry, milord…”
The king spun on his heel, stepping off the path and onto the sands. He sprinted toward a tree, his muscled thighs cording and rippling. As he picked up speed, he cocked his right hand back into a clenched fist.
He leapt forward and added torque to his strike by scissoring his legs, smashing through the trunk with a meaty fist. He began beating the trunk with savage abandon, tearing flesh and nails as he punched and kicked, thrashed and stomped.
A hundred yards back, his men watched in terrified silence.
After he’d reduced the tree to a pile of splinters, he dropped to his knees. He drew in a lungful of air…held it…then expelled a harsh, ragged breath—halfway between a choke and a sob.
Then he leapt to his feet and charged another tree, breaking it cleanly in two with a ferocious shoulder-check. The impact stole his balance and spun him to the ground, but he pushed off with a hand and kept running. Kor’thank tore across the desert like a man possessed, smashing through dozens of trees, snarling and roaring all the while.
Eventually, he stopped.
He now faced away from his men, toward the far-distant hills. Wood-specked blood pooled on his knuckles, dripping off their caps in fat, dark droplets.
Krul’Dar approached him. Due to the tense silence, the shifting sand beneath his boots sounded deafening. When he was a dozen yards away, Kor’Thank spoke in a gritty, broken tone—as if his throat had been lined with jagged rocks.
“Do not come 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.”
“Remember who you are; the Indashi people needs their king. They need—”
“They’ll have to wait,” Kor’Thank rasped. “For if were I to take the throne at this particular moment, ’twould not be a king that ruled these lands. It would be a monster.”
“Kor, you can’t just—”
“Leave me, Krul.”
The Chronicler glanced to either side, then back at his friend. “There are creatures out here that would rip you apart and fill you with eggs.”
“Let them come.” A dark chuckle. “I welcome their cruelty.”
Krul’Dar was at a loss for words. Finally, he asked, “Who will rule in your stead?”
Kor’Thank looked over his shoulder, allowing Krul’Dar a terrifying glimpse of his rage-narrowed eye. “That is something you must decide for yourself.”
The Chronicler’s heart broke a little; it was audible in the quaver of his voice. “When will you return?”
“I do not know. But when—if—I come back to Ug Rung, it will be as something different.”
Kor’Thank lifted his eyes and ran them across the distant peaks. “I will make peace with my demons.”
He clenched his fists.
“Or I will become them.”