Bitefighter’s ambusher, a Fellstorn sorcerer who’d magically disguised himself as a craggy boulde, wove his scepter in a pair of figure-eights, leaving violet contrails hanging in the air. A second later, the eldritch arcs flew toward 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 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 center of his chest. His flesh and clothing began strobing rapidly; his bones became visible through his skin and garments.
The king cast another spell, causing a swirling rainbow ball to appear in his palm. He chucked it at the sorcerer’s face. Multicolored waves rippled out from the impact, and the magician detonated. Fragments of bone went flying outward, showering the earth with blood and gore. Kor’Thank broke into a headlong sprint, his eyes fixed on the magician’s staff. The explosion had propelled it twenty feet into the air; it was spinning end over end, Bitefighter’s frightened visage gleaming from its gem.
The staff flipped, twisted, and disappeared behind a boulder. After Kor’Thank hurdled the rock and scanned the ground, his heart stopped.
The gem had 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 took a half-step back, his mouth working in soundless gasps. He wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come.
His hands dropped to his sides, then his head to his chest. His massive shoulders heaved and tensed. He slowly turned and faced his men, head bowed. His eyes were shadowed by his shoulder-length hair—it had fallen across his face like a necromancer’s hood.
He brushed past Krul’Dar and stopped before his escort, all of whom were arrayed in a neat line.
“Which of you 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?”
The guardsman sputtered and gurgled. His eyes rolled completely back, and Kor’Thank let him go with a forceful shove. The Indashi patrolman knelt in the dirt, coughing and hacking as he clutched at his neck.
“I am…” Rok’Thar spat up blood-flecked mucus. “I am sorry, milord…”
The king didn’t answer; he spun on his heel, stepping off the path and onto the sands. He picked up speed as he sprinted at a tree, muscled thighs cording and rippling, right fist cocked up by his ear.
Kor’Thank leapt forward and scissored his legs, adding torque to his strike. 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. Once the tree was 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 he spun to the ground, but he pushed off with a hand and kept running. The king tore across the desert like a man possessed, smashing dozens of trees, snarling and roaring all the while.
Finally, 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.
Krul’Dar approached. The sand shifted beneath his boots. It 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 stones. “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—”
“Then they’ll wait,” Kor’Thank growled. “For if I took the throne as I am now, ’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. “There are creatures here that would open your belly 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 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 ran his gaze across the distant peaks. “I will make peace with my demons.”
He clenched his fists.
“Or I shall become them.”