14 – To the Keep

“The Crushbones are at it again. They’ve got some captives Feir’dal and Fae.” Lady Ceren spoke in a staccato rush, her words blending without pause.

Rakhanar felt the blood drain from his face. The thought of fae being held by those vicious orcs sent a wave of fire through him immediately. The orcs treated them like nothing more than bugs and were known to tear off their wings to sell as novelties. He couldn’t help but see his best friend’s face. Siffy.

His gut twisted painfully when he thought of her, missing her as his best friend and sometimes something more. He knew that was wrong, though; that could never be. Still, he wanted her by his side, and as he had slowly made a home out of his empty little acorn house, he found himself placing the delicate Fae furniture with her in mind.

What if Siffy was one of the captives?

“I’ll get them out.” Rakhanar tapped his amulet, ending the conversation, and turned to Wildstreak. “Did you get that?”

The golden unicorn nodded and pawed the earth. I know the way.

“Good. Let’s go!” Rakhanar swung up onto his back with a clatter of armor and Wildstreak moved out, thundering down the dirt pathways that wound through the green hills and valleys of their magical homeland, even straight through an encampment of orcs. These had come to know them and scattered in terror, cringing.

They plunged into a cave, a pass-through deep into hostile territory. Midpoint, there was a small band of resistance, and as Rakhanar and Wildstreak thundered by they picked up a shadow, a little Ratonga on a pony who squeaked with glee and fell in behind them.

As they neared the keep the orcs were tougher, braver, and much more determined to defend what they considered their territory. They converged on him, snarling insults and threats in their guttural tongue, but Rakhanar slashed his way through them, hacking at their grasping hands as they tried to pull him from Wildstreak’s back, barely slowed in his urgency. Red throbbed in his eyes as they charged up to the Keep and he took out the last of the guards flanking the wide doorway with a final lethal downstroke of his blade. Familiar heat surged through his body and he ached for more, more blood to release this fire inside him. Wildstreak reared, overwhelmed by the contact, empathically picking up his chaotic energy, then slammed his front hooves down hard and stood trembling.

Here… Here… Go, Rakh! Rakhanar could feel Wildstreak’s sides heaving even as he, himself, panted, struggling to bring his rage under control.

“Whoa, Wild, whoa…” Rakhanar sheathed his bloody claymore at his back and leaned forward to pat the stallion’s broad neck. He closed his eyes and consciously slowed his breathing. His control was being tested, but there was also a beautiful intensity in this life that challenged death every day. Though he cherished his memories and it was that magical, peaceful life that he fought to protect, he couldn’t see himself going back to the innocent days with Siffy now.

He turned at the sound of rapid hoofbeats approaching and coming to a halt behind him, opening his eyes as if in a daze. He had forgotten the little Ratonga, who now grinned up at him from a tiny pony.

“Hi, hi!” It was hard to tell with Ratonga, but the voice was feminine. She waved cheerfully. Rakhanar just stared, his body still thrumming with energy.

Then another horse and rider appeared, trotting up the bloodied pathway. It was a slender form astride the dark horse, clad in hooded red robes trimmed in black, feminine. A wand was tucked through her belt.

She brought her mount to a stop before them and looked Rakhanar up and down for a moment before speaking, her eyes shadowed under the hood. “Thank you,” she murmured. “You made it easy to get through.”

Rakhanar barked a short laugh. “My pleasure.”

She glanced over her shoulder at the trail of scattered orc bodies. “Definitely not theirs.”

He followed her gaze but said nothing, then narrowed his eyes. Robes, a wand. A magic user then. The red and black gives her a wicked air. No telling what kind of magic.

“My name is Lily Redbird.” She inclined her head politely as her horse stood stamping and blowing.

The little Ratonga piped up, “Meeses ees Ehacofi.” Her gear was chainmail and leathers. Maybe a scout of some kind.

“Rakhanar.” He nodded in return as he swung his leg back over Wildstreak’s rump and slid to the ground with a clatter. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Lily, who had been gazing about with a disinterested air, turned to look at him quickly at the mention of his name. He pretended not to notice, but his mind was moving fast. She knows my name. Someone is looking for me. Turning to face her again, he kept his face carefully neutral as he watched her. I doubt she’s from Qeynos.

They dismounted also and dropped the reins where their mounts, who were trained to stay, stood. Wildstreak, on the other hand, trotted off and sparkled into nothingness. Enjoy, Rakh…

Rakhanar had learned some caution. Appearances could be deceiving. He drew his Claymore and turned to wipe it clean on a patch of weeds stubbornly clinging to life at the foot of one of the wide stone balustrades. Turning back, he held the huge blade casually, but at the ready.

“There are captive Fae in there. Are you here to help – or not?”

Lily lifted slender hands to push back her hood, revealing auburn hair and Elven ears. Her eyes flashed at his tone. “There are also Feir’dal.”

He paused, then nodded once.

Ehacofi looked between the two of them. “Meeses helps too! Orsies gotses fat pursies!”

Rakhanar dropped his gaze to the little ratonga and chuckled. “So they do.” He turned and pushed through the wide double doors and the two followed.

* * *

~Diaman Darshan~

Wizard of Wildfire & Shadow Walker Wordsmith ((a/k/a  The Real Me ))

Diaman Fighting with Fire

 

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13 – Breakaway

Rakhanar had no intention of going to the guild hall with Shialli and Lady Lilithna now. Once free of the dungeon, they would have no need of him. If the hall happened to be empty, he was quite sure he would disappear.

So while they called back to the guild hall, he used the other spell he had picked up from the innkeeper in Kelethin and called himself home. Caught in his battered armor, his helm invisible and his face exposed, he dashed inside his humble, empty refuge. Once safely hidden inside, his thoughts went back to Lord Toran.

He was tempted to call on the amulet right away to see if Lord Toran was all right, but he knew that he needed to wait. Surely Lady Lilithna and Shialli were taking him to a healer, and it wouldn’t help if he interrupted. If the Lord was dead, then he’d know soon enough. There was no rush to find out.

Stripping off his battered armor, he changed into his robe, then curled up on the floor in his empty little acorn house and used his backpack for a pillow. His stomach was empty and aching, but he was far too exhausted to care.

In the morning, he was ravenous. He sat up and stretched, then thought about returning to the hall to find out how Lord Toran fared, and to see if he could scrounge up some breakfast.

Rakhanar tapped his amulet. “Lord Toran?” He waited for an answer, holding his breath.

After a moment, the Lord’s familiar voice came back to him. “Yes? Rakhanar?”

Foolishly, Rakhanar nodded, then answered. “Yes, yes, this is Rakhanar. I’m glad to hear your voice! Are you alright, Lord Toran?”

“Ah, yes, nothing but a bump on the head. Good thing that orc hit me where I’m hardest.” He chuckled, then went on in his businesslike manner. “It’s good you checked in, I need you to report to the hall.”

Immediately Lilithna and Shialli came to mind. Rakhanar got to his feet, hand still on his amulet, and started pacing. Am I in trouble?

“Lady Lilithna and Shialli aren’t here,” Lord Toran continued in a gentler tone, as if guessing his thought. “There’s someone else I’d like you to meet.”

Rakhanar came up short and nodded. “Yes, sir, coming now…” He began to move his hands then, calling, drawing himself through the ether, and then he was standing in the entranceway, staring up at the four immense tapestries. Lord Toran entered from his right, coming from the crafting hall, and beckoned him to follow.

In the crafting hall, he could hear the rhythmic clanging of hammer against metal. Lord Toran headed for the forge where a creature was working, the likes of which Rakhanar had never seen. He – he assumed it was a he? – was like a huge frog, standing upright, but his sticky tipped fingers were deft on the hammer. He was humming and muttering under his breath as he worked.

“This is Rhygar,” Lord Toran said, raising his voice to be heard above the clamor. “He’s an expert armorer. I’m having him make you a new set, custom fit.”

Rakhanar turned to Lord Toran, his eyes widened slightly. “Custom fit?” They must want me to stay a while, to make that investment.

“You earned it.” Lord Toran smiled. “You’re rough, granted, but you have potential. I learned something too, yesterday: not to assume everyone has the rulebook already.” The Erudite nodded, satisfied, and turned on his heel, but then paused and turned back, raising a finger. “Oh. You might want to make yourself scarce for a while. You know – Shialli and Lady Lilithna?” he added with a smirk, then headed off to peruse a scroll somewhere.

Rakhanar gave him a half grimace, half grin, calling to the Lord’s departing back, “Will do.”

The froglike creature paused in his work to turn and look him over, still muttering, humming. Among the mumbling, Rakhanar caught a command, “Off with that robe,” accompanied by a wave of a green, splayed hand. He hurriedly complied, then Rhygar quickly lassoed him with a measuring tape, keeping up the friendly, familiar mumbling in way that put him at ease. Then Rakhanar slipped back into his robe and wandered over to the food table while the creature returned to work.

There was definitely some magic at work around this frogman, shimmering and shifting, enhancing the metals, speeding up his progress. It wasn’t long before he was done, and when he handed the neatly stacked pile of armor to Rakhanar, it was still warm, infused with energy. This armor was shiny and polished, embellished to hold spells that increased his power, just slightly. He loved it.

Thanking Rhygar profusely, Rakhanar took the armor and Lord Toran’s advice, heading out of the hall to disappear on his own terms for a while.

At the magic globe, he thought of Faydwer. As soon as he found himself standing on the high platform of the tree city of Kelethin, he pulled his whistle from his belt and called Wildstreak. The golden unicorn shimmered into being before him, his ears perked up.

I was wondering when you would call me. The unicorn’s tone was, as always, cheerful.

Rakhanar moved up to hug his neck and give him a rough pat. “You won’t believe what happened…” He looked around warily, adding, “Not here. Let’s get out of Kelethin.” Grabbing a hank of mane, he pulled himself up on Wildstreak’s back, and the unicorn whipped around, rearing, then plunged down the nearest walkway that would take them beneath the city. They found a quiet place where water pooled at the base of one of the huge trees that supported the teeming city of the Fae, and Rakhanar slipped off his friend’s back.

Wildstreak listened patiently as Rakhanar filled him in on the events since he had seen him last with barely a whicker of humor, while Rakhanar moved restlessly about him, excitedly acting out certain events in his tale. And then Rakhanar stepped back and crossed his arms over his chest, one eyebrow flicking up.

“So what did you mean about that first orc I killed? That he couldn’t believe it?”

The golden unicorn lifted his head slightly, his liquid eyes shining. Ah, that.

Rakhanar shifted the weight of the pack that contained the new armor gifted him by Banedon. “Was it that obvious I didn’t know what I was doing?” The question came out with a bit of a smirk. Even as he said it, he realized how vastly different he was feeling after meeting with Banedon. If not for that, he might been broaching this subject with wounded pride.

Oh, no no no. Not that at all! The unicorn gave him a merry horse laugh. I was thinking of something completely different. The thing is, none of you believe that. Because you can’t, really, and deep inside you know it.

Rakhanar stood and stared into the shining eyes of his unicorn friend for a moment. A wave of something… peace…? swept him. Mamafae had said things like that all his life. It never really meant anything then, but coming from Wildstreak… Somehow, now, it was starting to sink in, just a little.

“Well.” He dropped his gaze, and began to dig one boot into the dirt, thinking. “Well…” Then his restlessness rebounded, and the peace was gone, for the moment. Not forgotten though; it could never be forgotten.

“I’m going for a swim.” He kicked off his leather boots and pulled his robe over his head, tossing them aside, then dove into the cool water. “Coming?”

Wildstreak shook his mane and plunged in behind him. They splashed and played in the water until the sun was low in the sky. It reminded him of his childhood days with Siffy, except now there was a suit of shining plate armor waiting on the bank for him to strap on, to protect him from a dangerous world.

For the next month, he roamed in the wilds of Faydwer with Wildstreak, practicing his fighting on his own so he wouldn’t endanger others. As the days passed, his skills grew. The Crushbone orcs who harassed the tree city learned to hate and then fear him, though the fae folk he protected never saw him. Even if they had, it was doubtful they would connect the wild boy of Faydark to this lone, silver-armored warrior who was thinning the ranks of the orc menace with a vengeance.

He got stronger and the fight got easier, and when he was ready, he called in on the amulet again. This time an unfamiliar female voice answered, the voice of Lady Ceren. Lady Ceren was a paladin, and her focus had little to do with objects of power. She was sending him on a rescue mission, deep in orc territory: a rescue mission in a fortress swarming with orcs.

Crushbone Keep.

* * *

~Diaman Darshan~

Wizard of Wildfire & Shadow Walker Wordsmith ((a/k/a  The Real Me ))

Diaman Fighting with Fire

 

12 – Mortal Enemies

The trip back down through the passages to the commander’s quarters was uneventful, but for Rakhanar, every shadow hid a threat. His blood heated up behind his eyes, welcomed now. He stayed in control, aware in the moment though, listening as Banedon now filled him in on the layout of the dungeon.

The orcs, even the commanders, were stupid. They didn’t expect them back so soon. When they pushed through the door, Shialli rushed the one on the left of the opposite door, running him through before he could move, while Lilithna simply reached out to pull the life from the one on the right. The group dashed across the short length of the rectangular room while the orcs stayed in their quarters. Rakhanar could hear them, still talking in their gutteral way that sounded like snarls, insults and threats, as the four moved through the guarded door to the deeper caves beyond.

There was a short passageway there, not heavily guarded now since none were expected to make it past the commander’s quarters. Shialli dispatched the few orcs they ran into with aplomb. They entered a large room beyond and the smell of old blood hit Rakhanar in the face.  There were counters with laboratory instruments all around the walls and a table in the center of the room equipped with shackles. Not the kind of place anyone who didn’t like pain would want to wake up in. The smell of acidic chemicals hung in the air, stinging his nostrils.

Lilithna seemed quite pleased. “Hmm. I could do something with a place like this. Needs more chains. Then all I would need would be a few “test” subjects…”

Rakhanar couldn’t contain a harsh snort. Mistake.

She turned to him hungrily. “Are you volunteering?”

He glanced up, then away again, smirking. “I’ll have to think about it.” Quick pause. “Pass.”

The Lady frowned. “No taste for pain, eh? It can make a man out of you…” She let the thought hang in the air, strangely making the offer sound almost tempting, until she added, “…before you die.”

Rakhanar snorted again. “My taste is for giving pain, if it keeps my mates from death. Not like yours, sweetheart.” As soon as the last word was out of his mouth, he knew he had stepped over a line.

Her eyes blazed. “I don’t have a heart.”

He knew he should just let it go, but he was chafing, red pulsing in his eyes unreleased. He glanced at Shialli, then back at her. “You could’ve fooled me.”

“You would have to have a mind to fool.”

He closed his eyes, sighing. Trading insults was not his strength. It got out of hand for him so fast. Control. Breathe. Control. Cool down, cool down… “I meant your lack of one would break…” He opened his eyes and nodded to Shialli. “… hers.”

He saw nothing wrong with acknowledging the devotion that Shialli obviously had for the Lady. Shialli, however, seemed to find this infuriating beyond belief. She whipped one purple crackling blade from its sheath and had it at his throat before he could even flinch.
“Can I kill him now, my Queen?” She hissed the calm request through clenched teeth and pressed the blade down on his shoulder. Rakhanar had no choice but to sink to his knees, and at the moment he chose that course willingly. He was in trouble and he knew it. Nothing would save him now but mercy.

Lord Toran just stood and watched, that knowing smirk on his face. No help there.

If there were any time for him to feel fear, this would be it. His body was barely warmed by his inner flame; there was no rage to shoulder it out. And yet as he looked into Shialli’s eyes, all he could feel was pity.

He had been wrong. Whatever bond there was between these two, it was not love. This female, in this moment, seemed incapable of it. What kind of life could she have had, never to have known love?

They had that in common, in a way. If not for Siffy’s friendship, he might be just like her.

Rakhanar, stone cold, not daring to twitch, turned his eyes to Lady Lilithna. There was no mercy there. He was going to die. One word…

He was strangely calm, resigned to his fate. It seemed familiar, facing death before he had really known life. He had no idea where the deja vu’ came from, but it was there, an eerie bending of time, backward and forward, across some unknown universe to settle back in this eternal now moment.

He wanted only one thing before he died.

“Forgive me, my Lady. I meant no harm.” His deep, man’s voice was low and even, and he was the only one who knew it wasn’t even the voice of a man, but an untouched youth.

Lady Lilithna’s glowing eyes flickered. Surprise?

She stared at him silently for a moment, then slowly raised her hand. “We… need him. For now.” Then she smirked. “Besides, it would be such a waste. All that … hot… blood…”

Rakhanar didn’t even dare to breathe, much less release his breath in a sigh of relief. The last comment was definitely a jibe, because his blood was anything but hot right now.

Shialli nodded coldly and flicked her wrist, drawing her blade back to sheath in a flash. It was really nothing to her, after all.

He got to his feet carefully and bowed to the Lady. “Thank you,” he said simply.

Lady Lilithna showed her teeth slightly in something that could have been a smile, but was not. “It was nothing,” she purred, but he knew she was really saying, “You are nothing.”

At that moment, orcs burst through the door. Big, from the commander’s quarters. They had tarried too long.

Rakhanar and Shialli moved as one to face them, keeping them pinned to the doorway for the most part, but the first one had slipped past them in the first instant and targeted Lord Toran, apparently figuring him for the mage, the biggest threat but the weakest against his strength, brute force.

Before anyone could move to protect him or Lord Toran himself could get off a spell, the orc clipped him at the temple, dropping him to the blood crusted stone floor. Rakhanar finished off the orc he was facing and spun back, too late to do anything but avenge Lord Toran if he was dead or keep the orc from finishing him off if he wasn’t. He slammed his sword into the orc’s back with a grunt, thrusting all the way through.

Shialli managed to press the rest back into the passageway. She slammed the door, bolting it, and turned her back to it to brace it, her eyes wide.

“We have to leave!” she yelled, focusing on the Erudite on the floor. “Call spells, now!”

Lady Lilithna began the weave of mana immediately, pulling the power to her. Sparkling light converged, even as she swooped down to hoist Lord Toran’s shoulders, connecting with him to pull him with her.

Rakhanar ripped his sword from Lord Toran’s attacker and sheathed it bloody, then followed through the shimmering between as Shialli began to disappear as well.

* * *

~Diaman Darshan~

Wizard of Wildfire & Shadow Walker Wordsmith ((a/k/a  The Real Me ))

Diaman Fighting with Fire

 

11 – Recovery

Rakhanar sucked in a huge gulp of air and jerked upright.  His eyes were open but still unseeing, still in that place before, though its memory was fading fast, dreamlike.

Stars fled from his vision, chased by the reality of the caves that flooded in to replace their comforting shine with darkness shot by erratic torchlight.  He stared for a moment, gasping air, then slapped his hand to the puncture in his armor at his belly, remembering.  There was no pain, now.

“Waste of good healing potion, if you ask me.”  Shialli’s voice came to him out of the shadows to his right, close to the narrowed passageway leading back down.

“We didn’t.”  Lord Toran’s calm voice came close from his left and rear.  Rakhanar turned his head to look over his shoulder, meeting the purple eyes of the Erudite, blinking.  The Erudite crouched beside him, one hand resting on his knee, clasping a flask.  Then Rakhanar looked around, taking in where they were, still gasping.  The big doors to his left were familiar. They were at the entranceway of the dungeon.

“Was I…?” he started to say, but Shialli’s sneer cut in.

“Dead?  I should be so lucky.”

Surprisingly, it was Lady Lilithna who stepped in for him. “Now Shialli, my pet, don’t be so hard on the boy.  Everyone has their, um…” the freeblood paused, snorting softly, then found the word she wanted,  “…use.  Even a mundane berserker such as he.” Rakhanar snapped his head back to the right, from whence the Lady’s spider silk voice echoed in the caves, sibilant.  Bristling at her use of the word “boy,” he tightened his lips as he narrowed his gaze at first her, then the flaxen-haired female at her side, sneering back at him.

Why do you hate me so much? The words formed in his mind but not on his lips.  He kept his mouth closed.  He knew he had done nothing, unless it was an offense to admire her beauty and her incredible skill with her blades.  Bringing it up would only infuriate her further. It could be simply because he was male, or looked like someone who had hurt her before.  Or both. And, he was beginning to understand, some people didn’t need a reason to hate.

What he wouldn’t give to have a female look at him the way Siffy had, even when they were only best friends. If only she hadn’t been fae.

Rakhanar turned his gaze back to what he thought might be the slightly more sympathetic gaze of the freeblood, but what he found in her eyes… He barely restrained a shiver. Her lips were slightly parted and her tongue slid along the bottom of her teeth as she looked at him.  He knew what “use” she was contemplating.

He tore his eyes from hers, finding it a little more difficult than he liked, then focused to his right, where his helm, now visible, lay.  Saying nothing, he reached for it, settling it over his head. It clicked into place and the half gem on its lip met its mate on his now battered cuirass.  United, it glowed briefly, and the helm wavered into the unseen again so that his vision was unimpeded.

“We still have orcs to kill,” he growled softly, sliding one booted foot closer to his body.  As he turned to shove himself up to his feet, a groan rumbled in his throat.  He was stiff and sore, needing to warm up again.

“You haven’t done enough damage?” Shialli demanded, looking incredulous.

“Me?”  Rakhanar just looked at her, stretching to his full height and twisting to work out his kinks.

“Rushing in there screaming like a maniac, swinging that useless sword.  We just needed to get through that room, not fight the whole damn lot of them in all the connecting ones.”

Rakhanar froze. Standing stock still, he stared for a second, shame flushing his face.  He knew his chocolate-toned skin was darkening to near black.  Dropping his eyes, he murmured, low, “I got… excited.”

Lady Lilithna took a regal stride forward, and he brought his head up to meet her gaze, watch her threatening advance.  Her eyes were gleaming crimson.  “Don’t. Do. That.”

She was starting to look like a target. Rakhanar found his ire rising. He knew his eyes stayed green even when he saw red, but he could look fierce too.  He straightened, glaring, pulling his shoulders back.  But the freeblood’s gaze was pulling him in, death-wish enticing, so he tore his eyes from hers and frowned at Shialli instead. They’re not going to lay all this on me!

“Nice time to tell me.  You’ve all been here before, I take it?” Rakhanar did his best to keep his tone adult, with that nice bored touch.  A hint of anger but not a trace of boyish whine. Let them think this place was beneath my notice.

“You haven’t?”  Shialli twisted her lips, one brow flicking up.

“No.”

“Why didn’t you tell us that?”

“I didn’t hear anyone ask.”

Lord Toran’s level voice came from behind him. “Enough.  You’re right.  There are more orcs to kill.” Rakhanar dropped his gaze again, busying himself with checking the dents and rends in his armor, then bending to retrieve his sword, hiding his relief at the intervention.  He needed to get his furnace stoked again, but not at the expense of focusing more hatred from these two very dangerous females.

He nodded, pushing his lower lip out slightly.  “Let’s go.  I’m ready.”

* * *

~Diaman Darshan~

Wizard of Wildfire & Shadow Walker Wordsmith ((a/k/a  The Real Me ))

Diaman Fighting with Fire

 

10 – Dungeon Defeat

This next mission was in the Commonlands as well. Lady Lilithna called Lord Toran to accompany them and he came promptly, but the little fae priestess was nowhere to be seen. That was bad.

Rakhanar felt his control slipping before they even stepped off the docks. A dark elf male, lounging by the magic globe, glared at him as he passed. A tempting fantasy popped into his head – Wham! Right into that arrogant sneer. That would wipe it off his face. He could just see the elf’s eyes crossing as Rakhanar shoved him in the water.

It was close, but he kept his fists clenched at his sides. He stared straight ahead with a tight smile and kept moving.

As the other three called their own mounts, he whistled for Wildstreak and the sight of the unicorn calmed him considerably. The unicorn nodded at him and he swung up onto his golden-hued back.

Refreshed and ready, eh? More orcs to kill?

Rakhanar patted his broad neck and smirked, silently answering. You got it.

The two of them moved out behind the Erudite guild leader, the white-haired dark Lady, and her devoted bodyguard. This time, the savannah crossing went quickly, a little more familiar. They made the journey in comfortable silence, for Rakhanar broken only by the sound of his own heartbeat, rising in tempo to match the beat of Wildstreak’s hooves as excitement overtook him again.

Rakhanar studied the exotic creatures prowling through the grass, and though some were familiar from picture books in his youth – the lions, elephants, hyenas – others were strange and unknown to him. Just as they neared the entrance to the caves, he thought of the unicorn’s comment the last time they were crossing this grassland, about the orc who had met his death at Rakhanar’s hands: Of course he didn’t believe it…

Lord Toran raised a hand, bringing them to a halt before the wide doors, so it was too late to bring up the subject. Did the unicorn think he was that obviously green, or …? His tone didn’t imply that, but Rakhanar couldn’t figure what he could have meant by that.

He chewed his lip as he swung his leg back and slid off the unicorn’s back. Later, Wild… We’ll have a lot to talk about after this, I’m sure. With a last pat on the stallion’s muscled shoulder, he sent Wildstreak trotting off to happyland.

Make sure you don’t get killed, and we will. Wildstreak’s cheerfully delivered parting shot echoed in Rakhanar’s mind as the unicorn faded into a cloud of sparkles and disappeared with a whickering laugh.

Unicorns sure have a strange sense of humor. But Rakhanar was in agreement, in a way, finding it funny how hard it was to believe even now, that he could die. He was more uneasy about the killing he was doing, but he realized as he neared the towering mountainside that he had never known fear. It just was not how he responded. The rage came so fast and so hard that it crowded out anything else.

He followed the group past the thick doors and into the dark interior for his first journey underground. The first thing he noticed was the smell – damp, earthy, cooler than the savannah air, and fetid with the scent of orcs. The walls were roughly hewn from the rock; the passageway ahead wound down into darkness, out of sight.

The group paused at the entrance. Shialli drew her lightning-imbued blades, the crackling purple lighting up the space with an eerie shifting of the shadows, and the darkness flickered with menace. Lord Toran murmured in an arcane language, making elaborate motions with his hands that ended in a fist to his breastbone, his glove clanging on the dull dark, red-piped armor he was fond of wearing. Rakhanar felt the Erudite’s power, strengthening, protecting, and then Lady Lilithna’s softer tones joined in and shot prickles of arcane energy through him. Rakhanar slid his own blade from its sheath. The slicing sound clashed with the heat that flared in his body with its icy whisper.

Moving down into the belly of the orc’s lair, he found himself welcoming the red sheen in his vision, this time, as his breath sped up and time slowed.

It wasn’t long before they encountered the first band of orcs, coming up the passage to investigate. Without the fae priestess to protect, Rakhanar had nothing holding him back. Red rage took over. He rushed up as Shialli met them with her own wild howl, contemptuously calling more orcs in to die on her blades.

Rakhanar, scanning, counted six. In seconds three were down, sliced by Shialli’s spinning blades, almost too quick to follow. Lord Toran threw fire and the fourth orc screamed as his leathers blazed, the metal studs melted into his chest. Lady Lilithna’s dark power converged on the fifth, draining him of life energy, and he died with a whimper.

The sixth orc had slipped past Shialli. Rakhanar met him with a snarl, swinging his heavy sword with sudden ease as adrenaline swept him. The orc’s green skin and piggish eyes registered in the flickering light, his thickly corded arms raised over his head to bring his heavy mace crashing down toward Rakhanar’s skull, but Rakhanar was faster. His sword sliced up to intercept the bash and took the orc’s arms off at the elbows as he spun by, evading the dropping weapon, the amputated limbs, and the gush of blood. Rakhanar stepped past and kept his sword moving effortlessly, merciless in this dance of death as he ended the arc of his second spinning swing with a thrust through the orc’s back, grunting through bared teeth. The orc didn’t have time to mourn the loss of his arms before he lost his life.

Rakhanar didn’t see the creature’s eyes in death. It was getting easier.

Yanking his blade from the dead orc, he turned to rush on down the passageway close behind Shialli, his hunger awakened, his heart pounding a slow drumbeat in this focused, nearly timeless state. The pulsing crimson in his eyes matched the beat in his ears. When the next group of orcs came trotting around the corner, armor clanking, he didn’t even hear his own war cry, just that drum of dark fury. The smell of blood in his nostrils was overwhelming, rising like steam from his sword.

This group fell just as quickly under the flashing fire of blade, arcane blaze and siphoned life. The orc Rakhanar charged met him with a sword too, this time. The creature’s weapon clanged as he managed to parry Rakhanar’s first swing, let his blade bounce and come back in at another angle, sacrificing power for speed, but he couldn’t stop Rakhanar’s power-drive. His second swing sang with power as he spun back and around, dropping low. Rakhanar felt a sting as the orc’s blade bit into his forearm, denting the bracer. He growled as a surge of rage flooded him, and his strike took out the orc’s leg. He slammed his sword into the thick thigh, nearly severing it, catching the blade in bone. Blood spurted, black under the flickering torches and the eerie light of the elven female’s blazing purple blades, somewhere to Rakhanar’s left. He lunged up, roaring, and kicked into the orc’s belly, freeing his blade and sending the howling beast crashing backward. Roar still rippling raw in his throat, Rakhanar dove, sword leading, and thrust the blade into the heart of the downed orc.

He stared down at his kill through a veil of black – his hair falling across his vision – then snapped his head up to focus through narrowed eyes on the others, one at a time. The red wave was surging through him and he knew instinctively he had to mark them in his mind now.

Blond elf female. No target.

Freeblood female. No target.

Erudite male. No target.

Then he went blind.

The next thing he knew the group was standing before another door. His breath came loud and fast in his ears, contained by his invisible helm, but his body was thrumming with energy like a snarl vibrating through his entire being. A vague sense of nightmarish memory, of meeting many other groups of orcs, making kill after kill, tickled in his brain.

He was staring at Shialli’s back, and Lady Lilithna was to his left. The white-haired freeblood female leaned forward and hissed in his ear. His mind was an animal’s, innocent of symbolic meaning, and her words were nothing but garbled emotion in sound, matching in truth and out of synch in lies. These words dripped like poison. He lost the first words, then he shook his head, blinking, clearing his thoughts slightly. His jaw was still tight in a grimace, his nostrils flared to take in the needed air to fuel his inner inferno.

“… should be easy enough, right, berserker? Your thirst for blood shall be slaked, no? This place crawls with them, no matter how many times we come to thin their worthless ranks.”

From this he gleaned they had been here many times before. They must think I have, too.

Shialli turned her head, in slow motion, her eyes furious slits over her shoulder as she reached out to push on the heavy door. It swung open silently and Rakhanar pushed forward after her. Berserker. Is that what they call people like me?

The quarters beyond Shialli’s shoulder were tight, sectioned off through the middle of the room with blocking walls. Two orcs were visible, standing against the far wall to the left. They were bigger than the usual, more elaborate in their armor. He didn’t care. Red. The red… Blood and fire. The wave of it crashed over him and he was moving without thought, raising his blade back over his left shoulder for a vicious downward swing, rage ripping from his throat as he charged into the room behind Shialli.

Something slammed into him from the rear, cutting into his armor at his right side. The shockwave blasted through him and he went wild. He spun, swinging, to face the new threat, and his sword clanged into the center wall.

Big, well-armored orcs charged out of the doorways lining the room and his last realization before the red wave swamped him, clearing his mind of coherent thought, was just how cramped the space was, how hard it would be to use his strength and power here.

The orc he faced had a dagger, dripping blood. His blood.

He felt warmth stream down his hip from the now throbbing puncture in his side.

Madness. He ducked his head like a bull charging a flag and pulled his sword in tight to his right side, then dove at the orc, point leading, striking with his whole body, snakelike. He felt the satisfying plunge through steel into flesh as the huge orc went down under his slam, but the canny creature hooked his leg even as he fell, dying, and Rakhanar couldn’t correct his balance. He crashed on top of the orc.

The other orcs were on top of him in a flash, pounding, slicing at his armored but exposed back. He hauled his knees under him and shoved his torso up by the hilt of his sword, still imbedded in the orc’s chest. Howling, he yanked it up with him to his left, only to have it blocked by the center wall. Another cut went into his belly, screaming fire, and the orc’s small, greedy eyes in his face were anything but dazed with disbelief. He was gloating.

Rakhanar stared into the red-rimmed eyes as the pounding in his head slowed even further and wet warmth slid down his body under his armor from the hilt of the dagger in his belly. As if from a distance he could hear the females screaming, yelling, angry, in pain. “… get out! … all over us! Damn that…” And Lord Toran’s voice, still level, rushing through incantations in rising panic.

Still he felt no fear. Nothing but wave after wave of heat, rage, pain throbbing in his belly, at his back…

And then blackness.

* * *

~Diaman Darshan~

Wizard of Wildfire & Shadow Walker Wordsmith ((a/k/a  The Real Me ))

Diaman Fighting with Fire