Bitefighter’s ambusher—a Fellstorn sorcerer who’d magically disguised himself as a weathered boulder—wove his scepter to either side, leaving violet contrails hanging in the air. The velociraptor’s pupils shrank into dots, then his body transformed into an aquamarine cloud. His essence—now fully contained in the bluish mist—streamed into the gem-tipped end of the sorcerer’s staff.
Kor’Thank knew a fair amount of magic, but he was 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 lightning flew from his fingers.
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 apart 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, and his bones became visible through his skin and garments.
Kor’Thank cast another spell with his left hand. This time, a ball of swirling rainbow appeared in his palm. He chucked it at the sorcerer’s chest, causing multicolored ripples to ripple out from the contact and engulf his torso. The sorcerer detonated, like a frog that had eaten a black-powder bomb. Fragments of bone went flying outward, showering the earth with blood and gore.
Kor’Thank raced forward, eyes fixed on the magician’s staff. It had been propelled twenty feet up by the explosive release. As it spun end over end, Bitefighter’s frightened visage gleamed from its gem. The staff flipped, twisted, and disappeared behind a rock.
Kor’Thank’s breath caught in his chest. The gem could still be intact. Maybe—
When he leapt over the boulder and scanned the ground, his heart stopped.
The gem had been shattered.
Red fog wisped from its shards. It briefly formed into a semblance of Bitefighter…and then it vanished.
Krul’Dar walked toward the king. “Kor? Kor, are you—”
Kor’Thank snapped a blocky fist up to his ear. Krul’Dar halted.
Kor’Thank’s massive shoulders heaved and tensed. Though it nearly cost him his sanity, he maintained his calm. He slowly turned around.
His head was bowed. His eyes were shadowed by his shoulder-length hair, which fell 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. “Which of you was in charge of rear security?”
After a pregnant pause, a single barbarian stepped forward.
“ ’Twas I, my king. Patrolman Rok’Th—”
Kor’Thank’s hand shot out, grabbing the barbarian by his throat. The king’s eyes were dead and flat. Whitened fingers tightened around the guardsman’s neck.
“Do you realize what you’ve done?” Kor’Thank hissed. “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, coughing and hacking as he recovered his wind.
“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 failed to ensure they were watching their quadrants.
This is on you. You and no other.
Kor’Thank spun on his heel, stepping off the path and into the sands.
This particular stretch of desert was known as the Badlands. The name was more than appropriate—here, 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. Those would venture out at night to eat the lizards.
Kor’Thank sprinted toward a wilted tree, his muscled thighs cording and rippling. As he picked up speed his right hand cocked back into a fist. A furious scream built in his throat.
He hurtled through the air and scissored his legs, smashing through the trunk with a meaty fist. He began beating the tree with savage abandon, tearing flesh and nails as he punched and kicked, thrashed and stomped. Froth and spittle flew from his lips. A hundred yards back, his men watched in terrified 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 and he spun to the ground, but he pushed off with a hand and kept running. The king tore across the desert with punches and kicks, smashing tree after tree, 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. When he was a dozen yards away, Kor’Thank spoke in a gritty, broken tone, as if his throat had been lined with rusted metal and jagged rocks.
“Come no closer, Chronicler. It would not be safe.”
“He was a noble steed, Kor’Thank. But he would not want you to—”
“Speak not of what he would want.”
“The Indashi needs their king; they need—”
“They shall wait,” Kor’Thank rasped. “For if were I to take the throne, ’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 things out here that would lay eggs inside you while you still drew breath. Beasts that cocoon your flesh and eat you slow, so they could can your pain. If you were attacked, then—”
“Let them come.” A dark chuckle. “I welcome their cruelty.”
Krul’Dar was at a loss for words. After a few seconds, he asked, “Who will rule in your stead?”
Kor’Thank looked over his shoulder, allowing Krul’Dar a glimpse of his rage-narrowed eye. “That is something you must decide for yourself.” He faced away.
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.”