Featuring Crimson, Pitdegrif, Sendrik and Lo-Rei as the winners of the 'Echoes from the Zem' event.
The cave was still shaking as Anax emerged from it, wiping the blade of his spear, which oozed dark, thick blood. He had found opposition from the khärn after all, but nothing that the famous celeanni could not handle. The sky was covered with a thick blanket of gray clouds. Most of them were the result of the emanation of the volcano, but it was clear that the effects of the Cataclysm were still visible on Khilma's exterior, giving the scene a bleak atmosphere.
Waiting for him in the entrance were two other warriors of Celea. The first, called Suther, was dressed in soldier's clothes and his head was covered with a helmet, and it would have been difficult to distinguish him from the thousands of warriors who had landed in Skara like a cloud of locusts years ago. The second, however, he wore a more singular garb. A crimson cloak covered almost his entire body, revealing only a few metallic pieces that covered his chest and vital organs. A metal mask also covered his chin to the middle of his face, half hidden by the hood that masked everything but his eyes. Anax walked toward them with a calm air.
"When you said you were going to get me a distraction, I wasn’t expecting that to be honest."
"I would have chosen something less drastic," Suther replied, glancing sideways at the masked figure, "but Crimson insisted on covering the top of the mountain in explosives.”
Anax did not respond, looking at Crimson as well. The resources of that hired assassin seemed endless.
"I did not know that the Red Fire could have that effect on a whole mountain. You must’ve used a lot.”
"It does not take much. The Red Fire serves its purpose to ignite the ships of the enemies as much as it does to break down a mountain.” Crimson shrugged distractedly, “You just have to know where to place it.”
"Well, what's new about the interior?" Suther asked, interrupting the conversation. "Have you found the durnite?"
Anax shook his head. It seemed to irritate Crimson, who was twitching impatiently.
"I told you it must be me who entered Khilma. We have done nothing but waste our time.”
Suther stepped forward, bringing his face close to that of the masked man.
"You have a little more respect, scum," he said, tapping Crimson's chest with two fingers. “You're talking to Anax, captain of the Itâm. He was already leading the conquest of these lands before you …”
The blow was so fast that Suther could not see it, and it caused him to fall to the ground with a clatter. A soldier, tanned in a thousand battles, he did not lie there for long. He grabbed his spear with his hands and jumped up to slay Crimson, but something in the hooded posture of the assassin made him change his mind. The pose of Crimson seemed to imply that he could strike at both him and Anax with one movement, despite the distance between them. They were frozen for a few moments until Anax burst into a low, serene laugh.
"Suther, I have fought with you for years, and I know you can deal with ten enemies at once, but this time you seem to have misjudged your strength." Anax turned his head, looking at Crimson with amused expression. “No, I do not even know if I could dance with this killer. Better to have him on our side.”
"That will be for as long as you pay me enough," Crimson said, relaxing the hand that held the spear and nodding in the direction of Suther in respect. The soldier rubbed his jaw with the back of his hand and tried to change the conversation.
“All right. Where to now?”
"West," Anax replied, staring up at the horizon from the top of the mountain. “If the rumors are true, our durnita may have come there as well.”
"I still do not understand how important a durnite is," Suther mumbled as he began to pick up his belongings.
"Only Andras knows," said Anax. He did not bring any luggage. He did not need it, for that land, in spite of the Cataclysm, was much more welcoming than the place from which he came.
Anax and Suther started walking down the narrow path, but Crimson was slow to follow them. He narrowed his eyes on a higher point of the mountain, and after a moment, he smiled.
“You think he saw us?” murmured Jes-Ter, instinctively hiding behind a rock.
"Do not talk nonsense," Neo replied. Both had invoked the Sign of the Empty Form, which allowed them to disappear from the sight of friends and enemies. Lo-Rei dressed in gray, which camouflaged the Guardian of Signs among the rocks. She kept her eyes on Anax while he walked down with the other two celeanni. She had not liked the look of that masked man, and unlike Neo, she doubted if Jes-Ter would be right. He seemed to look at them directly as he smiled, but after a moment he followed the footsteps of his companions.
"It seems that the bastard has got reinforcements," thought Lo-Rei, unconsciously grabbing the handles of her wakats, sharpened like death. That was not going to stop her. She had been tracking him for too long to let him go now.
"We have to get going," said the Guardian of the Signs, staring at the road through which the three celeanni disappeared.
“Do we not wait for the others?” Neo asked, turning to the mountain. She had teamed up with Useless and Hautis for a long time, so she did not see fit to part without them so soon. Their skills could be useful in that pursuit.
“Wait for them, if you wish. I'll try to leave a trail that you can follow.”
Neo and Jes-Ter looked at each other. No bond they could have had in Khilma was more powerful than that of the blood and the oath of vengeance against the Celea, those invaders who had driven them from their homes. They would not wait for anyone. They would follow Lo-Rei to the ends of Skara, for such was the power of the Guardians of the Signs.
The Tamvaasa gazed upon the great stone door with an air of concentration. His name was Pitdegrif, and he was a member of the kark Langwander. The clans of that vast territory had a habit of not only venturing into distant lands, but also trading with other people, especially Shinse and Joria, but also with the Durno, though not as often as the others. That explained the strange combination of clothing Pitdegrif wore, which were leather garments and pieces of rusty combat armor. He also wore the skin of a wolf's head that served as a helmet and hood, giving it a rather unique look.
After a long while sitting cross-legged in front of the gigantic temple door, he rose, picked up one of his axes, and struck it with the carved stone surface of the axe. Nothing happened. In spite of the excellent quality of the arms, he thought he appreciated a small dent in one of them, which made him murmur with displeasure. The rumors said that there was food there, but it wasn’t guarded by tons of rock, so he began to suspect that the long journey had been in vain. At least there was water in abundance, for in that part of the mountains the springs were clear and flowing, far from the ash that still covered the Rozsha and most of the inhabited land of Skara. But the absence of food became a problem: the animals seemed either to have died or had dug very deep into the earth until they found shelter before the appearance of the Two Suns. He had managed to catch some birds, but his diet over the past few days had been mostly insects.
“Can I help you with that?”
The voice that sounded behind Pitdegrif startled him, as he had made his way through several passages that were empty of people to converse with. Although perhaps what most startled him was the accent. He turned, trying to keep as calm as he could to confirm his suspicions. A few meters from where he stood was a durnite. A bit tatty, but it was a durnite after all.
"No, thanks," answered Pitdegrif. Any external observer would have noticed the strength with which he was now holding the axes, as if willing to slice the neck of the newcomer.
“Seriously? Because you do not seem to be having much success.”
“Do you think you could do better with that toothpick?” Pitdegrif replied, nodding at the sword the durnite had sheathed on his right side.
"No, not with my sword. In my land we used to use our heads for these things.”
"I'd gladly use your head as a ram, believe me. Although I suspect that it would take something even harder to bring down this door.”
The newcomer looked at the Tamvaasa amusedly, as if enjoying the conversation. He wore simple but elegant garments, in blue trousers and a coat, covering a chain mail. The golden ornamentation was worn out, but Pitdegrif noticed that they would have costed a fortune there in Durno. And would be priceless anywhere else.
"The Zem did not usually put just one entrance into their temples. There must be another access point on the other side of the mountain.”
“The Zem?” Pitdegrif said in a questioning tone.
"Yes, the civilization that built this temple," the Durnite looked at Pitdegrif in bewilderment. "Do not they teach you anything at school, back there in the North?"
"Slicing Durnite heads they taught us."
The Durnite laughed loudly as he advanced to Folkin's height, studying the door of the temple with a distracted mood. He put his hand in a small and beautiful bag and extracted a piece of Laise, the fruit of which the Durno extracted their precious liquor, the raice. Pitdegrif could not stop his mouth from watering. When was the last time he had tasted the fruit? He remembered it as sharply as his first victim in combat.
Sensing his expression, the Durnite drew another piece of fruit from his wallet and threw it to the Tamvaasa with a quick gesture. Pitdegrif caught it in the air and brought it quickly to his mouth, nodding gratefully as he devoured the Laise.
"Now that we are friends, my name is Ninth," muttered the durnite, with his mouth full.
“Ninth?” Pitdegrif asked, surprised. “Your father wasn’t very original in giving names, was he?”
"It was not my father who gave me that name." Ninth looked nervous now, turning constantly in the direction of the path leading up to the Temple of the Zem. “Well, I'll be happy to help you find the entrance, but maybe I'll ask you a favor first.”
“A favor?” Pitdegrif was beginning to fear the worst, and his suspicions were confirmed by the heavy rumble of several steps approaching the top of the mountain where the Temple was.
Two khärn appeared wielding their favorite heavy weapons, trampling the ground as if to make sure that nothing was going to grow there again. One of them covered his head with a large animal skull and his bare torso was adorned with paintings of blood. The other carried a heavy armor of volcanic rock, still incandescent, and a mask covering the lower part of his face. Disturbing strands of dark hair hung on the top of his head, which was something not too common in the khärn.
"I'll introduce you to Sendrik and Seth," Ninth muttered, slowly drawing his sword from its sheath. “I am afraid that I have outstanding accounts with them. They have been following me through several passages.”
"Fantastic," replied Pitdegrif, still chewing on the Laice as he spun his axes. Two khärn against a Tamvaasa and a Durno. The world was definitely going to hell, if they started to make alliances.
The trail was difficult to follow on the stony ground. The three Shinse had followed Anax and his escort on Khilma's descent westward and were now in a steep valley, which was once a river basin by which a river had descended into the moors. That river had dried up aeons ago, when Khilma's heart exploded unceasingly pouring lava into Skara's sky, and did not seem to be stopping now after the appearance of the Two Suns.
"Are you sure we have not lost them?" Neo asked, pushing his blond mane away from his eyes. It was a gesture he made too often which made the others nervous, unaccustomed to seeing a shizu with golden hair.
Jes-Ter did not answer, as she was busy examining the stone-covered path. She had grown up in the mountains that separated the kingdom of Durno from Ku-Na-Zem, the Kingdom of the Seven Schools and the ancient capital of Shinse before the arrival of the Sons of Fire, so she was accustomed to trace anything from animals to groups of bandits. Without a word she straightened and looked at Lo-Rei, nodding her way. They had not seen the three celeanni all day, but they relied on Jes-Ter to keep track of them while staying at a distance not to be detected. Luckily, that valley ran between several ravines, both dry and not. If the three Shinse were kept silent, Anax, Suther and Crimson would not know that they were being followed. And there was nothing that a Shinse knew better than to go forward in silence.
"We'd better stop and rest," muttered Lo-Rei, quieter as she knew they were moving in the right direction. “We can still move far enough before nightfall.”
"If it falls," replied Neo, gazing up at the sky. As they moved away from Khilma, the layer of cloud that covered the sky was clearing, revealing the spectacle of Lô orbiting around Celem, turning the Maiden into an Astro in its own right. Every time the little sun began to hide behind Celem, it cast a strange multicolored light upon Skara. That happened two or three times a day, as they had the chance to check while wondering if that show could be seen by the rest of cultures on the eastern coast of Skara.
They sat under the shelter of large rocks that hid them from the sight of anyone trying to cross that gorge. They had never gone so far west, though it was said that most of their people had crossed the mountains, going north toward Nagaco, but they had stayed behind, each for different reasons. Neo had always been a loner, especially after losing all her family in the invasion of Celea. Since then, Neo wandered around Skara offering her services as a murderer and trying to take revenge on the Sons of Fire when she had the occasion, and fighting in the Coliseum allowed for many of those occasions. Jes-Ter had decided to use her skills to make a living as a scout for the armies of Durno during the Battle of the Hiria Fields. No one knew how she had ended up in Khilma after the Cataclysm. About the story of Lo-Rei, neither knew anything, but the curiosity they felt about a Guardian of the Signs outside the Matriarch's circle was killing them.
Jes-Ter was the first to ask her directly.
“Lo-Rei, you know that we both are willing to follow you to the end of the world to kill those celeanni,” said the tracker, spitting on the ground after uttering that hated name. “So I think we have earned the right to know the reason why you persecute Anax. After all, he was part of my team in a couple of fights at the Coliseum.”
"It does not interest you," answered Lo-Rei with a cutting edge like that of her wakat, though her expression was hidden behind the white ceramic mask that kept her from their eyes. “But he deserves to die, and he will, for that was my oath.”
"It's a shame," a voice behind her said. “I would have been very interested to know.”
The three Shinse jumped like a spring to discover Crimson on the rock on which Lo-Rei had rested her back. The Guardian of the Signs was the most astonished of the three. Only the Matriarch herself had been able to approach her without her being aware of her presence. Who was that masked Celea and how far did his powers really go?
Although Crimson had his spear crossed behind him, Neo, Jes-Ter, and Lo-Rei attacked as one being. They released their poisoned kunais, but Crimson dodged them easily. One after another they launched into the attack, striking with devilish speed, like waves breaking against the rocks with the fury of a storm. But Crimson dodged all those blows, and without even needing to use his spear. He hit Jes-Ter in the stomach with his fist and threw Neo several paces away with a kick. Lo-Rei, however, was a warrior of almost unparalleled power among the Shinse. Both fought a unique combat, although Crimson made use of the advantage that the height of the rock provided to dodge her attacks. Finally, against the attacks of the Guardian of the Signs, Crimson was forced to take out his spear, which he used to strike Lo-Rei.
The blow was flat and with the pole, because Crimson did not seem interested in mortally wounding his rivals, but it still hurt immensely. Lo-Rei, who was trying to climb the rock where the Celean was in order to reduce his vantage, fell onto the ground. Crimson did not do anything to finish her, but stayed on top of the rock, waiting while Neo and Jes-Ter helped her to get up. The mask that covered Lo-Rei's face broke into several pieces, revealing the face of a beautiful woman in her late 30s, her eyes were red and wet with tears of anger.
"I'm sorry if I've been a bit rough, but you have not left me much choice," Crimson said. “Now, if you do not mind, tell me why you're looking for Anax.”
“He deserves to die. All of you bastard invaders! You deserve it!”
"I understand you feel that way, though I have to say that I arrived in Skara well after my compatriots. But what does that have to do with Anax?” Crimson questioned.
"He commanded the first troops to land on the Shinse coasts. Where Na-She died. She was my daughter, and from that moment I swore to get revenge.”
Crimson did not react, remaining silent for a few moments. Finally he put his spear back across his back and spoke again. “All right. I understand that feeling, but unfortunately I can not allow you to kill Anax . . . yet. Before you do so, he has to take me to someone. Someone who has alluded me for some time, and who I’m seeking revenge on myself.”
"But . . . You're escorting Anax yourself!" exclaimed Jes-ter.
“Sometimes you have to do things that you do not want to do to fulfil your own goal. As soon as that goal is fulfilled, I promise that I will hand Anax over to you. Let him be the one to answer for his crimes, not the rest of my people.”
“And how long will I have to wait?” Lo-Rei asked. “Because, believe me, I've waited long enough.”
"Smile at the time that you wait to collect your revenge. That way it will taste better. Besides, I'm afraid that very soon we'll be busy with other things, and we’ll not have time for retaliation,” the crimson-clad assassin explained.
“What do you mean?” Neo asked, surprised.
Crimson looked them over, and though his face was covered almost completely by his steel mask, they could see the worry in his eyes. “You haven’t heard? A war is coming . . .”
Thanks a lot to Crimson for translating this into English!