Bitefighter’s ambusher—a Fellstorn sorcerer who’d magically disguised himself as a weathered boulder—wove his scepter in figure eights, leaving violet contrails hanging in the air. The velociraptor’s pupils shrank into dots. A second later, 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 outat 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. He flailed his staff and blurted a counter-spell. Pitch-black slices whirled from its tip, cutting through Kor’Thank’s thaumaturgy. 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 rapidly—his bones became visible through his skin and garments.
Kor’Thank cast another spell. This time, a swirling rainbow ball appeared in his palm. He chucked it at the sorcerer’s chest. Multicolored ripples undulated out from the point of contact before he detonated like a frog that had just ingested a black-powder bomb. Fragments of bone went flying everywhere, showering the earth in blood and gore.
Kor’Thank raced forward, staring intently at the magician’s staff, propelled twenty feet up by the explosive discharge. As it spun end over end, Bitefighter’s frightened visage gleamed from the its gem.
The staff flipped, twisted, and disappeared behind a rock.
Kor’Thank’s breath caught in his chest. When he leapt over the boulder and scanned the ground, his heart stopped.
The gem was shattered. Its broken facets were carelessly strewn across the ground.
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.
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 brushed past Krul’Dar and stopped five yards away from his men, all of whom were arrayed in a neat line.
“Which of you was it?” he rumbled. “Who was in charge of rear security?”
After a pregnant pause, a single barbarian stepped forward. “ ’Twas I, my king. Patrolman Rok’Th—”
Kor’Thank grabbed Rok’Thar by the throat, cutting off his air with a merciless squeeze. “Do you realize what you’ve done?” Kor’Thank hissed. “What he meant?”
The guardsman sputtered and gurgled. His eyes rolled back into his skull, and Kor’Thank let him go with a forceful shove. Rok’Thar knelt in the dirt, coughing and hacking as he caught his breath.
“I am…” the guardsman spat up a glob of blood-flecked mucus. “I am sorry, milord…”
Kor’Thank spun on his heel, stepping off the path and onto the sands. This particular stretch of desert was known as the Badlands. The name was fitting. Here, there were beady-eyed lizards that never slept—that waited still and silent in nooks and crannies, scanning for prey they’d eat a piece at a time. In the deeper reaches, there lived dog-sized arachnids. Those would venture out at night to eat the lizards.
Kor’Thank sprinted toward a tree, his muscled thighs cording and rippling. As he picked up speed, he cocked his right hand back into a fist.
He scissored his legs midflight, smashing through the trunk with a meaty fist. He began beating the tree with savage abandon, tearing his 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 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 its trunk 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 tree after tree after tree, snarling and roaring all the while.
Eventually, he stopped.
He was now facing 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. The shift of sand beneath his booted feet 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 metal and 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.”
“The Indashi needs their king; they need—”
“Then they’ll have to 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: “It would be a monster.”
“Kor, you can’t just—”
“Leave me, Krul.”
The Chronicler glanced to either side, then back at Kor’Thank. “There are creatures out here that would rip you open and fill you with eggs. Beasts that would cocoon your flesh and eat you a piece at a time, so they could savor your pain.”
“Let them come.” A dark chuckle. “I welcome their cruelty.”
Krul’Dar was at a loss for words. Finally, he asked, “Then who will rule in your stead?”
Kor’Thank looked over his shoulder, allowing Krul’Dar a glimpse of a rage-narrowed eye. “That is something you must decide for yourself.”
Krul’Dar’s heart broke a little; it was audible in the quaver of his voice. “When will you return?”
“I do not know. But if I come back, it will be as something different.”
Kor’Thank lifted his eyes, scanning the distant peaks. “I will make peace with my demons.” He clenched his fists.
“Or I will become them.”