Aresk had never hesitated in a fight in his life, but he had also never felt so out of control of himself. He didn’t remember deciding to hit Arquin; he specifically recalled deciding not to. So he halted, uncertainly, with his fist still extended and the human staggering away, barely keeping on his feet after that first punch.
“Damn, you guys really do hit hard,” Arquin commented, catching his balance and straightening up. He was neither bruised nor bleeding. “Well, can’t say I didn’t ask for it. How well can you do without sucker-punching someone?”
That conveniently resolved Aresk’s personal dilemma. With a wordless roar, he charged forward, completely in agreement with himself now on the matter of pummeling Gabriel Arquin.
Amazingly, the human just stood there and watched him come. Were they slow as well as frail? Aresk swung a wild haymaker and Arquin soaked it up right on the ear, staggering sideways. He only just avoided falling, but Aresk kept after him, launching punches at his head and chest.
Even through the fog of his fury, he quickly realized that something was wrong, here. The human was just standing there; he only exerted himself to stay upright while Aresk knocked him around the clearing. He didn’t fight back, or dodge, or even block. After a few frenetic seconds in which he landed enough uncontested hits to have put even another orc on his back in the dust, Aresk paused, fists still upraised, squinting at Arquin in the firelight.
He still looked…fine. The man didn’t have a mark on him, not so much as a drop of blood.
“Good,” Arquin said briskly during Aresk’s hesitation, straightening his coat. “Good power, decent speed. I can see you don’t get in a lot of serious fights, though.”
“Gabriel,” Gairan warned, but the human kept on talking.
“Everything’s in your upper body, and that won’t do if somebody fights you back,” Arquin said. “Balance is the first and most important thing in a fight, and yours is terrible. Look, start with a stance. You want your feet shoulder-width apart, with your knees slightly flexed, and put your weight—”
The sheer condescension of it was enough to drive Aresk almost senseless with fury. His bellow of rage split the evening and he lunged, drawing back his fist for a blow that would have cracked a tree.
He barely saw what happened, but somehow Arquin shifted just a hair out of the way, caught his arm, and spun them both around, using Aresk’s own momentum to hurl him bodily across the clearing. The came up against the trunk of an oak so hard it shook and deposited a shower of acorns on them all.
“What?” he choked, stumbling back and whirling around, fists up to block. The human hadn’t pressed his advantage, though; he was still just standing there.
“Aw, that’s nothing,” Arquin said modestly. “You should meet my friend Toby, he’d have you on your knees with your arms in a knot by now.”
Baring the full extent of his tusks, Aresk surged toward him again, fist upraised.
Then he stopped. Without lowering his arm, he stared at the inexplicably unruffled human.
“Now that,” Gabriel said, pointing at him, “is your first tactically correct decision.”
Even realizing how easily he was being baited, Aresk couldn’t help himself. He at least changed his approach this time, shifting his motion to deliver a powerful uppercut which Arquin didn’t even try to avoid. The orc’s fist hit him right under the chin, lifting him a full yard off the ground and finally sending him to the dirt on his back.
The next moment, he snapped both his feet around Aresk’s right leg in some kind of lock; pushing on his ankle with one foot and pulling his knee with the other, he forced the leg to buckle and sent Aresk staggering down to a kneeling position.
While he was still reeling for balance, Arquin rolled deftly back to his feet. Aresk shot upright the instant he physically could.
The two of them stared at each other in the firelight, neither moving.
“What are you doing?” Aresk demanded harshly.
“Making a point,” Arquin said in total calm.
“How are you doing this?” he roared.
“Haven’t you ever seen the Sifanese fight?” Arquin asked with a good-natured little smile. “This is nothing. When I passed through Kiyosan I asked a sailor to show me some of the martial arts he was bragging about and my ass was in the harbor before I realized he’d touched me. And that was just some guy, not a master or anything.”
“We don’t fight the Sifanese,” Raghann commented, “but both karate and kendo are known to us…just not to Aresk, here. His father would never stand for him studying human arts. I think that is not the point he was curious about, though.”
“Why aren’t you hurt?” Aresk demanded.
“He’s a demonblood.” Gairan was staring up at him with a faint frown; neither she nor Mother Raghann had moved from their seats during the fight. “Part hethelax. You would need magic to make him bleed, Aresk.”
Aresk could only gape at her for a moment. And then at Arquin.
“You—that—how long were—”
“It isn’t news,” Gairan said, frowning more deeply. “He told us this earlier today. I thought it was strange you didn’t respond, but I thought you must have heard. It’s not the kind of revelation someone just…glosses over.”
“So this is how you fight?” Aresk snarled at Arquin. “With magic and trickery?”
“Blood isn’t something you can just turn off,” the human pointed out. “Unless you know something I don’t. In which case, sure, show me how to stop being invulnerable, then you stop being twice my size, strength, and sturdiness, and we can try a rematch. That sounds fair, right?”
Aresk took a step closer to him. “And now you’re making fun of me?”
“Like I said, I’m making a point,” Arquin replied, still infuriatingly calm. “This is why peace matters. The Enchanter’s Bane is widely considered the worst weapon ever created and the Empire has long since destroyed the methods, records, and anybody who knew how to build one, but weapons have still advanced. If we’re to restore Athan’Khar and the Kharsa people to it, they can’t live as they did before. Constant war with your neighbors is not an option, they would crush you. The way you live now, with the Sifanese, is a much better path. Why would you ever want to go back?”
“Why? Because battle makes us strong!” Aresk raged, clenching his fists at his sides.
“Your people haven’t fought a battle in a hundred years. Does that make you weak?”
“You didn’t even land one hit on me!”
“Yes, that’s correct,” Arquin said simply. “I didn’t. And do you feel like you’ve won, here?”
Aresk physically vibrated with the repressed urge to punch him again. He repressed it because the effort would have been completely wasted. And the urge kept rising, because that was exactly the human’s—half-human’s—point. Somehow, he had worked himself into a corner where he did not understand what kind of fight he was in and everything he might do meant he would lose.
Finally, taking the only route he saw left, Aresk turned and stalked off into the darkening forest.
Full dark had long descended by the time she found him.
Aresk had seated himself on the horizontal remains of what had once been a massive tree, staring into the night and listening to the constant noise of crickets and owls. He heard her coming, of course; she made no attempt to disguise her approach. Still, he just sat, staring at nothing, while she circled around the log and finally took a seat alongside him upon it.
For a while, they were simply there. She waited for him.
“Is the world going to be like that, then?” Aresk said suddenly, still not looking at her. “That was… There was nothing I could do to him. I felt helpless. I have not felt helpless since my mother died.”
“The world was already like that, Aresk,” Gairan replied quietly. “We’ve been in no position to fight anyone since we settled here. The Sifanese would surely crush us if we gave them a reason.”
“But they don’t,” he whispered. “Because…they have no reason.”
She said nothing.
“And that’s it, then,” he finally breathed. “The last, true death of who we were. My father and those who agree with him are always talking about reclaiming our place, restoring the old ways… But even if the Deathspeaker’s plan works and we can re-settle our true home, there’s no going back, is there? We can’t test ourselves against the humans. Our history is truly dead.”
“Death begets life,” she said. “We can’t be what we used to be, but that doesn’t make us nothing.”
“And that’s what I’ve been sitting here, thinking about. What are we? Here, we’re…caretakers, guests. Tolerated as long as we are inoffensive and useful, but not wanted. It’s not our place, we don’t belong, and the Sifanese never let us forget it. In Athan’Khar we were strong, feared… But we can’t become that again. We can’t stay, and can’t return. What are we to become, Gairan?”
“I don’t know, Aresk.” She shifted closer to him and reached up to put an arm around his shoulders. “But I know that we can become something. My clan has people like your father and Mother Raghann, too, people who are obsessed with either restoring the old ways or resigning ourselves to our place here. Always one or the other, those are the two positions. The more age and wisdom someone has, I think, the less they can see past their own point of view. But you’re here, thinking about what we should do. That’s what will save us—finding a new path. I’ve never respected a man more.”
Slowly, he leaned against her, and she pressed her weight into him in reply.
“So the Jendi still hate us,” he murmured. “I wonder what makes the difference. He didn’t say the Viridi do…”
“Did your father ever tell you how we worked with the Sisterhood?”
“He said the Kharsa and the Avenists tested themselves against each other, and made each other stronger.”
“There are other stories, that are less widely known now,” she said. “The traditionalists in my clan don’t like to hear them. But there were Kharsa heroes all through the Age of Adventures. Whenever a great demon lord or warlock or necromancer rose, headhunters were called and sent to destroy them alongside Chosen of Avei and Omnu and Salyrene. In the Hellwars, in plagues of undeath, in every great disaster, Athan’Khar sent armies. Our people raged against evil and cut it down wherever it rose. All that which hunted humanity feared us. The Avenists appeciated our strength, and appreciated the wars that honed us. They are a people of purpose. But the Jendi…they just wanted to live in their own land.”
Gairan hesitated, then gave him a gentle shake.
“We were strong with the humans as much as against them, Aresk. We’ve gained strength from the Sifanese, whether they like it or not. We can’t be as we were and we can’t go on as we are, but we can still be strong. We are a strong people, and that won’t change. It’s just a matter of finding a new way to be strong, in this new world. The Deathspeaker presents an opportunity, but I think the most important thing he said was about keeping Tiraas from taking over the recovery. We have to find our own way, and not let it be found for us.”
“You’re right.” Aresk wrapped an arm around her, pulling her close. “You are right. I just…I wish I knew how.”
“Keep thinking, Aresk. Keep watching, and you’ll find it. I believe that about you.”
If she believed it, he would have to make it so. And that was all there was to it.
At least the next day’s walk was quieter.
Neither Arquin nor Raghann said anything about the previous night’s events. The old shaman managed to convey without a word that she knew and understood everything about everyone’s business, which was nothing new; Aresk was beginning to wonder whether she actually had any such insight or had just perfected the art of seeming like it over the years. The human, for his part, was as polite and friendly as ever, when spoken to. He mostly left them alone, however.
This time, Gairan walked alongside Aresk the whole time, to his delight. What had passed between them last night had not explicitly settled anything, but it had clearly made a great difference in a way he didn’t quite understand yet. The two of them didn’t talk much, leaving the group to its quiet. For now, it was good enough.
Their destination was reached shortly before noon. Aresk, being of course very familiar with the area surrounding Camp Khashrek, had discerned where they were going by midday yesterday: the disused Vidian shrine sat atop the center of a slightly curved ridge, which had been carved into terraces entirely taken up now by a cemetery. A single stretch of stone stairs led straight to the shrine itself from the base, with paths branching off it at intervals leading among the quiet graves. He himself had avoided this place, though his hunts had repeatedly brought him near it; the maintenance of Tsurikura’s protected sites was the work of the clans’ shaman, and the Vidian priests who periodically traveled to the island to conduct their rituals.
The area around the base of the cemetery hill was clear of trees, and the small party emerged from the forest to find it already occupied. Preparations had clearly been made in advance, to judge by the warriors taking up obvious guard positions around the small meadow. These were not Queen’s samurai in armor, but Battle Sisters, women whose black robes bore Avei’s eagle sigil in golden embroidery. All their attention shifted to the three orcs and their human companion was the group stepped out of the treeline, but none moved to intercept them. Clearly, they were expected.
Each of the orcs nodded respectfully to the Battle Sister they passed closest to, a younger woman with particularly fine features. Arquin gave her a broad smile and offered a greeting.
Her eyes slid right past him, and her hand found its way to the handle of her katana. He coughed and hurried past, ducking his head. Behind him, Raghann grinned in open amusement.
“Kon,” Aresk said in a low voice, veering over to walk beside Arquin as they approached the stairs to the shrine.
The human looked at him sidelong. “Pardon?”
“…that’s what I said.”
“You said ‘can.’ Also ‘nitch,’ when the vowel you wanted there was more of an ee. And you heavily emphasized one of the syllables, which Sifanese doesn’t. The language has fewer sounds than Kharsa. Or Tanglish, I understand. It also has lots of homonyms; half their humor is puns. So it’s very important to pronounce correctly, otherwise you can find yourself making an off-color joke you didn’t intend.”
“Oh, gods,” Arquin muttered. “What did I say to her?”
Aresk grunted. “You said ‘hello’ in the manner of a mush-mouthed idiot foreigner. Good try, but maybe you’d better keep letting your magic sword translate.”
Arquin actually grinned in open amusement; he looked like he might have laughed, had their mission and surroundings been less solemn. At moments like this, Aresk couldn’t help feeling that Gabriel Arquin would be an okay guy if he didn’t embody everything wrong with the world.
At the top of the stone stairs they passed beneath one of the towering, squared arches the Sifanese liked to use in ceremonial places. Apparently they had some spiritual significance, which Aresk had never learned. After last night’s conversation, he was starting to wonder how badly his father’s opinions had tainted his understanding of the world. The shrine itself was not large, a low building with an open front and a traditional sloped roof, surrounded by quiet gardens within the shade of the massive trees which surmounted the cemetery.
Two Vidian priests stood before the shrine itself, and bowed deeply to them. Aresk had always deliberately avoided these; swathed in black robes with white ceramic masks, they were inscrutable, silent, and altogether…
“Creepy,” Arquin muttered.
Aresk looked at him in surprise. “Aren’t these priests of your religion?”
“The cults in Sifan are different than what I’m used to. Believe me, those samurai down there don’t much resemble Silver Legionnaires. These guys…more of the same.”
“And so you have come!”
Once again, Kyomi appeared standing on top of something, this time the front edge of the shrine’s roof. That seemed rather disrespectful to Aresk, but in a country where her kind were known as goddesses he supposed she got to decide exactly how much honor was to be shown to whom and what.
The instant she spoke, both Vidian priests spun toward her and folded themselves to the ground, pressing their masks against the grass with their hands forming triangles in front of their foreheads. The kitsune had never demanded such obesiance from the Kharsa, but in the presence of it Aresk made his own bow deeper than he usually did—and noticed that the others did likewise, including Raghann. Arquin also bowed, shifting his feet and grasping the scabbard of his enchanted sword, generally looking uncomfortable. Apparently he wasn’t accustomed to the gesture.
Kyomi stepped off the roof into thin air, and drifted down to the stone path as lightly as an autumn leaf. She offered no acknowledgment to the two prostrate priests, simply nodding to the group. “Shaman. Hunter. Gabriel. And of course, Vestrel and Evaine!”
Her green eyes shifted to look past them at that, and Aresk risked a glance over his shoulder—then had to steel himself against jolting in surprise. Two ghost-like figures stood on the path behind them, just inside the arch, little more than black blurs like shadows lifted off the ground. So indistinct were they that it took him a moment of study to realize their odd shapes were due to each having black wings. Most unsettlingly, each carried a scythe, which was incongruously vivid enough in appearance to look tangible.
“In this land,” Kyomi stated, wearing a vague little smile, “among my people, this would ordinarily be an occasion of great ceremony. But we are here on behalf of the orcs, a people noted for straightforward practicality. And so, let us be about this as swiftly as we may. Sisters, the gate is open. Please go ahead, and scout the path before us.”
Gate? Aresk could see nothing that resembled a gate. Before he could wonder in earnest, the two indistinct figures of the valkyries swept past the group—and, to their immense discomfiture, partly through them, black wings slicing through flesh without touching. It was harmless but quite disturbing.
“Sorry about that,” Arquin said quietly. “They haven’t touched anybody in thousands of years; most people can never even see them. They get pretty casual about personal space.”
None of the orcs replied, being fully occupied by watching the shadowy valkyries vanish. The moment they reached the open front of the shrine, before touching the altar which stood just past the shade of its roof, they simply winked out of existence.
“So…that is the gate?” Gairan inquired, quietly but aloud. “Just…there? Out in the open?”
“Anyone fooling around a sacred site deserves whatever they stumble into,” Kyomi said indifferently. “We will not be disturbed, thanks to the Sisters. If our great experiment comes to nothing, I will obviously not leave the gate open, and if it succeeds, there will be a permanent presence of guards here. Worry not, young shaman.”
“Of course, Ancient One,” Gairan murmured, bowing again. “I did not mean to question.”
“You’ve given no offense,” Kyomi replied with a mysterious little smile. “You also, Gabriel, calm yourself. I’m pleased to see that you care for them so, but Athan’Khar is no more dangerous to them than anywhere else, so long as they do not approach Kharsor itself—which they won’t. Nothing in the region around the gate can reach across the dimensional divide to touch them.”
“I see,” he said thoughtfully. “Where is the other end of the gate, exactly?”
All three orcs shifted to stare at him. One did not question a kitsune, especially in that tone.
Kyomi, though, smiled again, with a bit more emotion. “I see why Kaisa likes you so much.”
His jaw dropped. “Wait, she what?”
“Unless you have performed a very detailed study of geography since we last spoke, the exact location will be meaningless to you. I chose a site which was sacred to the Kharsa and thus relatively unscathed by the mad spirits which still lived there, but held no inherent magic to be twisted by Magnan’s atrocity. Vestrel and Evaine will investigate the conditions on the other side, and then…we shall see what we shall see.”
“Ancient One,” Raghann said with a diffidence Aresk wouldn’t have thought her capable of, “we are deeply grateful to you for undertaking this labor on behalf of our people. As always, we are your servants.”
Kyomi’s eyes flicked to Aresk, and as he dropped his gaze he had to wonder whether such a creature could tell how he felt about having his and his entire race’s service so blithely promised that way.
“Have you figured it out, yet, Raghann?” the kitsune asked pleasantly.
“Figured…what out, Kyomi-sama?”
“Whether all this is a step in a larger plan,” Kyomi explained, amusement heavily tingeing her voice, “or simply a joke?”
The sound of soft wind through the branches above almost covered the intake of breath from all three orcs. Though not from her ears, of course.
“Okay, you cut that out,” Arquin ordered, and Gairan forgot herself so far as to whip around to stare at him in horror. One of the kneeling priests physically twitched. Arquin was scowling at Kyomi, and pointed an accusing finger. “You’re a creature older than civilization with the power to level mountains. Tormenting old ladies is beneath you.”
Aresk was very certain, for a moment, that they were all about to die.
“A fair criticism,” Kyomi said, still smiling, and actually bowed to the human.
Gairan looked as if the entire earth had been yanked out from under her. Aresk could relate.
Two dark blurs zoomed out of the invisible gate in swift succession, and he was more pleased than he could possibly have imagined to see eerie avatars of death.
“Ah,” Kyomi said, turning to face them with her sharp ears perking up. As far as Aresk could tell, she and the valkyries just stood there, staring at each other. He edged toward Arquin, leaning over to mutter out the side of his mouth.
“Are they going to speak?”
“They are speaking,” he replied just as quietly. “I’m afraid that’s as visible as they get, and that’s because it’s Vidian holy ground with a giant dimensional rift in it at the moment. But they’re describing the area around the other side of the gate, which they say is…” He paused, tilting his head. “…quiet? Relatively speaking.”
“Quiet enough, for our purposes,” Kyomi agreed, looking over her shoulder at them with a knowing little smile which she pulled off even better than Raghann, unsurprisingly. “Quiet enough that an old shaman and a young shaman can send forth an entreaty. Do not approach the gate; conduct your rituals to call out to them from this side. If they respond favorably, we have a beginning. If not… Best to be upon our ground, not theirs.”
“Athan’Khar is our ground,” Aresk rumbled, and then immediately wanted to punch himself. This habit of speaking before thinking reared up at the most inopportune times.
“I suspect, young hunter,” Kyomi said with a grin that showed off her pointed little canines, “that this entire enterprise will hinge upon whether you can convince them of that.”
“How do you convince the maddened, rage-altered spirits of a million murdered souls of anything,” Gabriel muttered, frowning deeply.
“That, young Deathspeaker,” said Raghann, “is a shaman’s duty.”