This story is copyright D.K. Latta and may not be reproduced, or redistributed, for commercial purposes without his permission.
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The sound alone sent him stumbling back, hands clapped over his ears, Hawk's Wood dangling loosely from its thong about his forearm. The beast's scaled tale twitched once, then twice, and taloned toes pawed at the smooth ground like a bull. Its arms were as thick as Kainar's thighs.
Kainar felt a tremble start in his legs and work its way up his spine till even his hands shook. He drew in a breath, but his lungs filled only half-way, as he choked on his own terror. He was too old for this, too frail and weak and foolish. He had taken the position as Guardsmaster precisely so that he would not have to face monsters such as now stood before him. In his younger days he might have taken it, but now? He glanced at his hands, thin and boney and liver-spotted, and he could picture the white of his beard, the way his skin drew tight and fissured across his boney cheeks. What good was he to Mina? What good was an old, old man. He took a faltering step backward; away from the fearsome monstrosity.
Holy men make their weapons the minds and spirits of other men, brother.
The crocodile beast glared at him through slitted yellow eyes, its tongue darting in and out snake-like. Trembling, he wanted to turn, to run, but dared not turn his back. And so he nervously inched backward, eyes locked on the beast blocking the way ahead.
Kainar, how old-
The beast hissed at him.
He glanced over his shoulder. He was almost to the stairs. Could the beast traverse steps as easily as a man? As quickly?
Kainar stopped. Through old, shrivelled lips he asked, "What?" Slowly, he looked down at his frail, unsteady hands. "What?" he repeated. They were not his hands, not really. His still had meat on them, his were still tanned and strong. And his beard had streaks of grey in the mass of red true, but nothing more. Nothing more! He was not a young man, not as strong or as spry as he was. But neither was he old.
He glared across the corridor at the beast that barred his way, licking its lipless mouth cockily. He was deceived. With a roar, he charged at the beast, ready to fight and die if need be, but no longer would he run. The holy man's mist had played on his mind, his inner doubts. But Kainar would not leave the girl to her fate, not while angry blood coarsed through his veins. He leaped at the beast which, strangely, turned as if to run from its puny mortal attacker. Kainar swung Hawk's Wood mightily and, with a gout of blood, the lizard's head came free of its misshapen body.
But it was a black robed figure that fell headless to the floor.
Kainar stared down at the corpse for a moment, realizing the mist affected more than his mind. It attacked his senses as well. Then he trotted on down the corridor, the chanting louder in his ears.
The hallway soon opened to become a balcony encircling an amphitheatre. Above was the great dome he had spied from outside, cut into which were long, tapered windows that allowed natural sunlight to peer down into the ancient nave. Kainar wondered if even the mother sun recoiled from the sight below.
Two score of black robed monks were gathered, arms outstretched and fingers splayed, chanting a mantra in a tongue even Kainar could not place, but which made him shiver unconsciously nonetheless. In the centre of the room was a great stone dais and his eyes widened as he looked at it. Mina was laid out struggling upon the cold rock, completely naked, and bound at her wrists and ankles. Over her stood Ashwok, her own father, brandishing a long dagger as he joined his voice to those of his followers. One word Kainar made out from the gibberish.
Kainar's upper lip curled.
It would seem Ashwok spoke only in half-truth's
"Aye," he muttered. The cult of Uutrolt had indeed been revived, but not by the Fairns. In fact, he now understood why they had attacked. To prevent him bringing the girl that Ashwok intended offering to his ancient god.
Kainar too intended to prevent the sacrifice, but not at the cost of an innocent's life. There was more deserving blood that could be spilled this day.
With a Kuy battle cry that had not crossed his lips in a score of years, Kainar, the Red, climbed onto the railing and jumped. He landed in the thick of the black robed figures, his aging knees taking the impact badly. But the monks, startled from their ritual by his battle cry, were unprepared. With Hawk's Wood's whistling blade, he carved a bloody path through their ranks, and marched purposefully toward the altar. The monks screamed and ran, stumbling and clawing over each other to get beyond the reach of his hellish axe.
Ashwok, more the pragmatist than his followers, glared at Kainar with eyes narrowed by unholy fury. Then he flipped the sacrificial dagger, catching it by the tip of its blade, and threw it with all his might at Kainar. Hawk's Wood shot up, almost independent of his will, but too slow. The blade was deflected, but only barely. Instead of burying itself in Kainar's throat, it tore into his left shoulder. He screamed, but with his right arm, continued to hack at the bodies pressed between him and his goal.
Had the knife found its mark, Ashwok could have retrieved it and resumed the ceremony. As it was, he had no second blade with which to pierce his daughters soft skin.
Lifting his head, he closed his eyes and spread his palms. "Uutrolt, come to us, your disciples. We have the final offering for you, the final life that will establish you in our world. We only ask that you take her yourself and rid us of your enemy." At this last, he opened his eyes and stared at Kainar. "Uutrolt. Uutrolt, we beg you! Come and bring order to our world!!!"
Mina struggled, her body glistening with the sweat of her exertions, matting even her pubic hairs. She moaned against the gag in her mouth, seized by a panic she could not explain.
Kainar stared at the man with a grim smile on his lips. Ashwok stood, arms outstretched in a seemingly futile supplication to his absent god.
Kainar stumbled, just a little, from the loss of blood caused by the gash in his shoulder; the blade having fallen free. Then he savagely brought Hawk's Wood done on a monk's shoulder, and across into another's torso.
Kainar, be wary
He frowned, then felt a slight vibration in the ground, a shudder that went up his feet and into his knees. The earth itself gave a groan. The monks stopped and glanced about nervously, even they seeming unsure of the cause of the vibration and noise. Laughing, Ashwok jumped down from the stone platform, leaving his daughter writhing helplessly.
"Now, heathen," he roared, pointing at Kainar, "now you will see!"
The stone dais shifted, then began to move -- but not as if from an earthquake, nor did it shatter or crack. Rather, it flowed, yet still retaining the hardness, the unyieldingness of unliving rock. Kainar muttered a curse to his Kuy gods who seemed so very small and ineffective just now. The stone flowed up, sprouting massive arms and a head, made all the more eerie and unnatural by its total lack of features. Despite having no mouth, the thing roared with triumph.
Across its stone belly, Mina struggled.
The stone, however, no longer ceased at the edge of the dais. Rather, it spread out in a ring, like seeping water, whatever it touched becoming grey stone, whether purple amber, lichen, or wood torches. The monk nearest his god turned and screamed as the stone touched his toe, then spread up his leg like a rushing army of ants until, in moments, he was silent. A stone carving of a robed monk stood where a living being had been.
Kainar stared, open mouthed as the grey spread further and even the monks broke and ran in panic.
Order, brother. Uutrolt brings order to the world: unchanging, unalterable. The solution to chaos -- death
Ashwok screamed with laughter. "Take her! Take our offering, o Uutrolt, and know our love!"
Belatedly, Kainar realized Mina was still strapped to the stone god's middle, as yet unpetrified. And as the stone head, with a grinding of rock, looked down to regard her, he realized Uutrolt only just realized she was there himself.
He staggered forward stiffly, to take arms against a living god. He stumbled, weak from blood loss and the battle, then haltingly righted himself. In his heart he knew there was nothing he could do to save Mina, or the world. Except precede them both.
Now, brother, now is our time, our moment
Your foretold destiny...and our parting. Strike, my brother. Before Uutrolt slays the girl and confirms his presence in this plane. Strike with all your strength. Bury me in the stone god
Dumbly, but having no alternative plan, Kainar ran forward, raising Hawk's Wood high above his head. He screamed the ancient battle cry of the Huy for the last time. Thews corded like knotted rope, blue veins bulging along his arms, he brought Hawk's Wood down on the flank of the stone god. The axe bit deep and wedged.
Farewell, brother. The road was good to us
Uutrolt, enraged, turned from the struggling girl on his stomach and with a sweep of his massive hand, sent Kainar flying across the room to land sprawled on the purple floor. Ironically, knocking him clear of the spreading ring of stone. Dazedly, Kainar looked back.
Hawk's Wood, still in the giant's side, trembled and Uutrolt roared as if with pain. From the end of the axe's handle, something sprouted. Kainar squinted, frowing. It was as if it grew buds. Uutrolt threw back his featureless head and screamed a scream that was heard from one end of the great swamp to the other. Fissures spread out from where Hawk's Wood was embedded in the god, and Kainar realized with a start that he could see thick, brown roots squirming from the axe head, burrowing into the crack he had made, but going deeper, pushing, digging.
Screaming and flailing about, Uutrolt was a living jigsaw puzzle as Hawk's Wood spread fingers through his body. And where ever the roots invaded, stone, naturally, was displaced. As it was in the natural world, so to, it seemed, was it in the unnatural one.
With a final tooth-rattling death scream, Uutrolt, ancient god of order, shattered into rubble.
And in his place stood a massive, fully grown hawk's wood tree, long, curling roots, like tentacles, digging into the mound of unliving stone. Mina lay limply on the rubble, unmoving, then slowly raised her head. The ropes about her wrists and ankles were loose now, having nothing to be bound to anymore.
Grimacing, Kainar clutched a hand over his bleeding shoulder and sat up, staring, but not quiet comprehending. "Hawk's Wood?" he called. "Hawk's Wood?!?"
The tree made no response. Did the spirit of the axe still inhabit the living plant, or in order to become a tree again, did it relinquish its consciousness? "Hawk's Wood?" he repeated quietly, feeling numb. Numb and very much alone. He had roamed the continent for almost thirty years with the axe at his side, often his only companion for weeks on end. His brother in arms.
Slowly, through the mist of stone dust, Ashwok approached, a vacant gaze in his eyes. His lips worked over his teeth. "You...killed Uutrolt."
"I saved you and yours from his idea of order, Ashwok, you fool. You ought to be grateful. And grateful that with this bad arm, I'm in no mood to send you to him, though I should."
The monk clutched in his hands a large chunk of the dead god, and with trembling arms, he raised it above his head. "You killed Uutrolt!"
Kainar made to roll out of the way, but then Ashwok stiffened, a choked cry bursting from his lips. Blood flecked his chin and, twisting slightly, he pitched over, rock and all. Mina stood behind him, the bloodied ceremonial dagger clutched in her hand.
Without saying a word, she knelt and tore a strip from her father's robe. She came to Kainar's side.
He looked at her naked body. "You're unharmed I see."
"More than I can say for you," she said, then managed a slight grin as she bound the strip of cloth tightly about his shoulder. "Once more I'm an orphan," she glanced back at the corpse, "but I can't say I'm not glad this time." Suddenly she looked up, eyes wide, as distant screaming could be heard. And a hollering as well. "What-?"
"Half the monks panicked and ran when Uutrolt began turning them to stone, the other half ran when he fell to pieces. Either way, they must have forgotten their bows." He shrugged. "We'll wait here the night, let the Fairns work out their bloodlust. It should be safe enough to travel in the morning."
Mina nodded, acquiescing, then she brushed damp hairs from Kainar's brow. "You'll be a hero when we return to Hannah town, the grandest Guardsmaster in all-"
"Former Guardsmaster," he said quietly. "Without Hawk's Wood, my fighting days are done...as it was foretold. Perhaps I'll get a farm somewhere, settle down. I'm much too old for all this anyway."
She smiled, then leaned forward and kissed him. At first gently, then her tongue darted between his lips and the kiss became much more than friendly. As she pulled back she said, "You're not so old. Besides, even a farmer needs a wife."
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