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The poet smiled in his peculiar way, lips twisted in long-suffering grace. "All I have done since I made my promises. I am a killer."
The pause that ought have followed split with the distant shriek of imperiled terror. Fatal calm settled over the beleaguered land, and the two hunters forded the brook that captured their conversation and bore its sentiment beneath a cold pool. Northward, they ran the road found after, and where it bent, a wagon lay ruined, its drivers bled and rent. Just beyond, wicked fiends, a dozen of them, maybe more, tall as a man and half again, toyed with dead meat. One stood larger, imperiously observed the ruin, patient with its lesser kin ere he'd order them march on.
The hunters slowed in approach, and one looked to the other. The poet brandished his burning spear. "At your leisure, Wulfrik." He ran ahead, and the devilish host turned as one to see the errant lancer. Destin raced onward, into their midst, eyes set upon one fiend's heart as he leveled his spear. A dozen arguments of lighting and fire blasted the paladin, striking as thunder, and he spun through the air, a flailing cyclone that gracelessly crashed into the earth. One of the horned fiends already loomed, barbed fork plunging toward the prone poet's throat.
A burning blade came between, swept away the deathly thrust with the clarion ring of sparked steel. Wulfrik stood between man and mortality and barked some defiance before a thick tail cast in cold iron swept into his side and sent him careening toward other violence. Destin rolled to his feet, a talisman dangling from a black-gloved hand, and he threw the swelling light of his faith against the devils. The fiends screamed the clamor of hateful fear, scattered and stumbling, desperate to be gone from the poet who hung judgment from a leather string.
Wulfrik's eyes found fire as he hamstrung one devil in flight. It crashed to a ruined knee and turned in rage against the hunter. Wulfrik hilted his blade in the stunted thing's breast, and he made it lie down with the strength of his arm, braced it against the earth with his boot as he ripped his sword free. Arrows chased the deserting, an archeress come lately and game for the fight, death in the wind for the rapacious.
Destin stalked, righteousness spinning from his grasp, the two-visaged coin pierced and run through with leather. Devils scrabbled and died, their hearts burst by a spear guided by zeal. It came to murder. The lancer sung the devils the opus of their sins, and they dreaded to hear it. Fearful, they fell to arrow and sword and spear, disgraced and banished until the road was calm again.
It was some time later that one man offered the other a drink, and the other declined.
"I do not remember fear, its thrilling sense."
The man kept beneath the broad brim gave a dry chuckle as he steadied behind a tipped bottle.
It was later, still, that the poet again forded the brook that captured their conversation and bore its sentiment beneath a cold pool. Southward, he walked, to make way for a shadow. Destin smiled in his peculiar way, lips twisted in long-suffering grace.
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Left of him, there was a whisper in the grass, and she stood there, the abominable made art, speaker of tongues, confessor. She was kind to his memory, arranged as he remembered, and she set no eye upon him as one slender, ebony limb crossed her middle, made a brace for the other. Atop one carefully listed hand, she set her slender chin.
"Tell me of your adventuresz."
In those perilous lands, where men and women made love and war, where victory was sung with the ritual of godly devotion, a man in piecemeal mail bound in buckle and lash stood in sand ringed with tall stone. The effortless embrace of a black mask, streaked thrice with the white impression of lightning, bathed him in his own breath, patient and deep. The sun prevailed, burning gaze bathing a bloodless field rich with the gore of uncounted hallowed contests. There were vile things in the amphitheater that circled this ground, but they disturbed him not. What sound there was, was the eager hysteria of spirits incensed with the expectation that the violence to come was ordained. His spear hung in a limp and bare hand, its point buried in the sand.
Perhaps it was.
Ahead of him, across the sand, she stood there, whom he first thought divine: the liar, the practical. She was much like his memory. Raven hair gathered behind her slender shoulders, ends barely kept and bound to frame the strands. Even so many paces away, deeply brown eyes like rain-wet earth shone with vibrant luster and stared toward him. In mail like his, she cradled a spear in one hand, its metal tipped toward the earth. Sandals lashed well up her leg dressed her feet as she sauntered toward him, the predatory bounce of her hips setting uncertain tempo. She ceased with enough field between them that she could not kill him yet.
A crier stood upon a distant dais broke the clamor with his bellowing as he named the champions.
"Erin Tarmikos! Avenger! Champion! Sworn in faith to Assuran!" The mass burst into the sustained roar of a champion's adulation.
Awash in the deafening ferment, the man in his mask watched Erin Tarmikos smile as she righteously thrust her spear into the air. The crier's broad span stilled the crowd with soothing strokes of his hands through the air.
"Brings damning judgment against! Destin Owlspur! Sedition! Treason! Murder of the faithful! The destruction of His righteous avengers!" The wind split with piercing whistles, howling perdition as Erin Tarmikos smirked against the hapless poet.
"Isn't it perfect, Destin? Mm. Maybe a touch . . . too much . . . for your delicate heart."
"You taught me well to waste no want on a stranger's love, Erin."
She laughed, airy and light and lost in the din. "You still wear the mask."
"It seemed to me to be the best last thing you might see, a last mercy you cannot decline."
The crowd quieted again before the crier, who swelled his belly with a funereal breath. "We resolve these crimes beneath the dire gaze of Assuran! Lord of Three Thunders! He will guide the spear of the just, and the guilty . . . will . . . perish!" Thousands of voices surged and swelled, shouted the primeval passion for blooded truth.
Erin's mouth widened and bared her white teeth in a marauder's smile as she coiled away from the poet, aligning her spear against him. "All this blood on your hands, Destin, all of these avengers, who brought justice for the meek, and you are the good man who stands in the way."
Destin's eyes watched the woman's gaze as she made ready for his death. He knelt and carried his empty hand, his left hand, through the sand, its fingers coiling around a fist of the finely fractured rock. He stood, and he waited. He clutched that costly sand, suffocated it in his grip until his hand shook, until his heart ached for all that the bloodborne earth stood for. He opened his hand, he let go, and the sediment streamed from his dusty palm, fell in a shattered column to return to its broken origin. He kicked the leaning shaft of his spear, sent his hand rushing down its length to grasp it at its center as it straightened toward the avenger prepared for him.
Each rushed for the other in sudden stride. Erin fell to the earth listless and limp, Destin's spear through her breast, a prop robbing a corpse of repose, a body in artless mien.
"Yes," he spoke to the dead woman pitched in the sand at his feet, voice an uncanny hollow behind the face of their mask. "I am."
He straightened and bore his whispering lips away from the woman's ear, fell into her gaze, soft and gray. He held those eyes, kept them until his heart ached for all they might have stood for, and he let them go.
"You will learn," he said before he left, familiar melancholy steadying his timbre, "that I am always kind." He walked north.
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“What man would command you to be rid of your vice, then be well of your own device?” The poet’s hands captured the woman’s face and cradled it still as he washed the thin skin just beneath her eyes. “There’s no sense in doing a thing alone when there’s one willing and well able.”
He clutched the cloth into a ragged ball and set it aside, then bent and plucked something from the basket he’d brought: a mug yet steaming. He held it aloft for the woman’s gaze. “Broth,” he murmured, the man’s lips and tongue announcing the sustenance with breathy reverence. “You do have to eat.”
Her legs bent and slowly eased her back up against the headboard. She gave herself a moment to catch her breath, to ease her nausea and the aches. Her eyes fluttered down to the broth, already accusing it of treachery. She lifted her hands toward it; each rattled like leaves in the fall. She growled and let her hands drop, frustrated. “Why do you care, anyway? A lost Uthgardt without allegiance drunk of her own failings. One would think you had better things to do, better people to keep company.” Even as she retained a smile plain upon her features, her eyes betrayed thoughts of a more melancholy corner of her mind.
The blond man brought the cup to the woman’s lips, gold-flecked gaze peering over its rim to address the woman’s own bloodshot blue. “I have only my promises; all else flees. Don’t wonder that I keep them."
His flesh cooled, grew cold, and he closed his eyes. In the umbral span, he sensed the gentle, sincere encroachment of the frigid upon flame. He wanted to shiver, to twist, abandon discipline . . . be warm. He bade his palms show their faces beneath the water, made them when they tarried, and he raised his blind features to the thin light cast from the pale sun. His eyelids made a red curtain over the blue orbs within; they denied the warmth.
The world around continued to wake; the poet dreamed.
In his own dark halls, he crashed to the stone floor, victim of too-careful intervention on his behalf. She dropped her knee in his chest, left the other to his side, and thrust the end of her crossbow into his throat. It made an easy way to follow, and his eyes climbed the stock of the taut weapon, saw a plush, wide mouth wrenched into a killer's sneer and strands of a blood-red cascade cutting lines through golden eyes that should have had an easy time of malice for all the fiend in them.
There was none.
When he overcame her, pressed her against the stone wall and demanded she be still until at last her heart gave out, there was none.
"Why?" she asked him for the second time. He told her, and she left with no more understanding.
For all the memories etched in her skin, she still looked like the woman he had loved, illustrated love with upon a limitless canvas with perfect complement. Silver hair, at least, was as it ever was, hung away from sapphire eyes and a cheek that swelled angry from a blow he'd not been there to see.
"You forget so easily," he softly admonished, and he laid a bare hand on the woman's shoulder. Healing light flared and went out, and her face, at least, was as it once was.
The woman shuddered and sighed as she was restored, and she sent shining strands swaying as she shook her head. "I haven't forgotten anything."
A little farther away, reclined on a bench, blood-red cascade fanned around subtly blue skin set with golden eyes, a fiendling ravaged an apple, four rows of shark-like teeth savaging the sweet fruit.
He emerged from the arctic pool, drenched and cold, naked symmetry shuddering its protest against a sharp spring breeze carrying the first scents of life. He clambered into dry clothes, dry boots, their shore-bound sentry ended, and he threw a heavy cloak about his shoulders and sunk within. Unsettled steps took him next to the fire he'd prepared, and he sat close by, the gold in his eyes made bright by the dancing tongues. He mastered his frame and settled its shaking fiber, and he breathed the long sigh of brief, coveted peace.
Named me, already, and perfectly. Prescient irony, appellation well made, well seen, and never before so soon. Precious agony puts fire in my breast, lest I am not kind enough, and my good sense is slipping. I am dripping still with the cold bathing of tempered melancholy, waring folly, and I do not chase it, but destined man, loving heart, you've eyes that see, and they will not miss what they've sought.
I love the rain, I love the rain, but an honest heart is hard to mind. I love the rain.