Bitefighter’s ambusher, a Fellstorn sorcerer who had magically disguised himself as a craggy boulder, wove his scepter in a pair of figure-eights, leaving violet contrails hanging in the air. A second later, the eldritch arcs flew at the raptor, enveloping his body in lavender haze. As Bitefighter’s pupils shrank into dots, 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, 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 his staff, cutting through Kor’Thank’s deadly thaumaturgy. Four of the bolts vanished in a twitch, but one got through, striking the wizard in the center of his chest. His flesh and clothes began strobing rapidly; his bones became visible through his skin.
The king cast another spell, causing a swirling rainbow ball to appear in his palm. He chucked it at the sorcerer’s face. Colored waves rippled out from the impact, then the mage exploded. Fragments of bone went flying outward, showering the earth with blood and gore.
Kor broke into a headlong sprint, his eyes fixed on the magician’s staff. The explosion had propelled it a dozen yards skyward; it was spinning end over end, Bitefighter’s frightened visage gleaming from its gem.
The staff flipped, twisted, and dropped behind a boulder. Kor’Thank hurdled it and scanned the ground. His heart stopped.
The gem had shattered. Its broken shards lay strewn across the earth.
Red fog wisped from the shards, briefly forming into a semblance of Bitefighter…and then it vanished. Kor’Thank took a half-step back, his mouth working in soundless gasps.
He wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come.
He slowly turned and faced his men, eyes shadowed by his shoulder-length hair. He brushed past Krul’Dar and stopped before the escort, all of whom were arrayed in a neat line.
“Who was it?” he rasped. “Who was tasked with rear security?”
A lone barbarian stepped forward. “ ’Twas I, my king. Patrolman Rok’Th—”
The king grabbed him by the throat. “Do you know what you’ve done? Do you know what he meant?” Kor let go with a forceful shove. The Indashi patrolman knelt in the dirt, coughing and hacking as he clutched his neck.
“I am…” Rok’Thar spat up blood-flecked mucus. “I am sorry, milord…”
The king didn’t answer. Instead, he walked off the path and onto the sands. He picked up speed as he charged at a tree, right fist cocked by his ear.
Kor leapt forward and scissored his legs, adding torque to his devasting strike. He beat 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.
Once the tree had been reduced to splinters, he dropped to his knees. He breathed deep…held it…then expelled a harsh, ragged breath—halfway between a choke and a sob.
Then he charged another tree, breaking it 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. He tore through the desert like a man possessed, smashing 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-speckled blood pooled on his knuckles, dripping off their caps in fat, dark droplets.
As Krul’Dar approached, the sand shifted beneath his boots. In the pin-drop silence, each step was utterly deafening. Kor’Thank spoke in a gritty, broken tone—as if his throat had been lined with jagged stones.
“Do not come closer. It would not be safe.”
Krul’Dar halted. “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 growled. “For if I took the throne as I am now, it would not be a king that ruled these lands. It would be a monster.”
“Kor, you can’t just—”
The Chronicler glanced to either side. “There are creatures here that would open your belly and fill you with eggs.”
“Let them.” A dark chuckle. “I welcome their cruelty.”
Krul’Dar was at a loss for words. Finally, he croaked, “Who will rule in your stead?”
Kor’Thank looked over his shoulder, allowing a 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 wholly different.” Kor’Thank stared at the distant peaks. “I will make peace with my demons.”
He clenched his fists.
“Or I will become them.”