Three horses swept across the grasslands of the Endless Plains, Xandr upon the bulky white stallion, Warrior; Emmalina upon the ebony Shadow, and Thelana upon the lightest and most swift, the toffee hued mare, Arrow. Before them a strong gale whistled and frolicked through hair and clothing, and to their backs the ominous Pewter Mountains faded to a distant silhouette of overlapping grays. Thelana basked in the elements contesting playfully about her senses, her chestnut braid snapping like a whip, the ravished hairs along her body, the power of Arrow’s warm and throbbing muscles. The Ilmar possessed an intimate relation to the world, to the air, to the earth, to the water, and Thelana felt a similar bond to the beast beneath her. Its nature was her nature. Together they could fly effortlessly across the entire field and beyond, off the face of Enya. To cripple Arrow, any horse, so that it could not run, was to destroy its soul, and Thelana was aware of this as if the beast had told her itself.
The remainder of the day would have continued uneventfully, if something had not appeared above the western horizon. It was like a shifting mound rising above the wheat, expanding and contracting. Thelana steered the mare toward it and the others followed. Soon and without much commotion, the thing came into view, lumbering lazily out of the haze that billowed with each thunderous step, an enormous lizard. Its tail and neck were like cedar trees, and a tiny cranium swiveled like a pendulum from side to side as it walked. The body to which these appendages belonged was more than adequately immense, the size of a galleon. Thelana was enthralled, and called out, “Let’s go closer!” turning into its path. The lizard, known as a bronto, was not a remarkable thing, at least not to the three adventurers who had recently slain, among other things, a dragon. Sensing no threat, the bronto did not offer them as much as a glance.
“Isn’t he magnificent?” Thelana asked, daring to race between the bronto’s legs.
“It is indeed,” Emma replied. “I read that they were hunted to extinction . . . it’s nice to know that few exist somewhere on this world.”
“Careful, Thelana!” Xandr shouted, but she was already ducking beneath the animal’s many tons.
Emma sighed as she slowed her pace and closed beside him. “All of life’s a game to her, isn’t it? I wonder if she even knows what death is.”
“She knows how easily men can die,” he replied. “But in her mind, she is immortal.”
For a time they traveled with the bronto, watching the peculiar way in which it managed to keep up with the horses with its slow yet far-reaching feet. Crowning the sky, the greater moon of Infinity shone faintly in shades of blue and green, and the bronto offered welcome shade as the western rays glittered against its body. At the edge of the horizon, shapes in the noonday haze suggested other such lizards in lands untouched by man. At last, the russet field receded giving way to a rocky expanse of sloping hills. Buried beneath centuries of growth was a narrow road of hand-laid stones. Here was a welcome sight, and in their hearts new hope brewed, that the Endless Plains might come to an end.
The bronto parted from their path and the travelers came upon a two-wheeled wagon drawn by a different kind of lizard, a beast with a head half the size of its body, with a shell forming from its skull that fanned outward in an array of horns. It was a trike. They approached to inquire as to their whereabouts, slowly so as not to startle the trike or its crew.
From the surrounding thicket came others. Xandr and his companions were unsure as to their number, but their intentions were without doubt. Some of them had spears or swords, others bows notched with arrows. They were from all avenues of society, from farmers to sailors, merchants to soldiers. One of them stepped forward, brandishing a crude bronze-tipped spear, wearing the garb of a Hedonian soldier, but the helmet was lacking polish and the traditional feathered plume. His clothing suggested a patchwork of cultures, hard leather boots from Northendell, a gold-trimmed vest from Abu-Zabu.
“Stop right there!” he ordered. “Where are you three going?”
“We’ve come from the Endless Plains,” Xandr replied, tugging at Warrior’s mane.
“Is that so?” said the man. “There’s no land north from there but from the mountains, and those are bitter winds indeed. I say you are lost.”
“And what makes you think so?”
The man smiled. “By the habit of your dress, of course; you are Ilmarin, are you not?”
Xandr raised a brow. “You know of the Ilmar?”
“Certainly,” he said with an edge to his voice that Xandr did not like. “When I was captain in Hedonia, I ushered a whole lot of you into service.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?” Thelana inquired.
He glared at her with an offensive eye. “We helped them adjust to their new home. We taught them to dress themselves, and offered them a way to repay our kindness.”
“You enslaved them!” she cried.
“Indentured service is hardly slavery.”
“We– They,” she corrected herself, “didn’t ask for help!”
He directed his spear toward Arrow. “We could have let you rot instead! In fact, we should have, you undeserving, half-human filth!”
Emmalina, having kept quiet till now, muttered under her breath, “I don’t like where this is leading . . .”
“Enough!” Xandr exclaimed. “Tell us what you want or let us be.”
“Well,” the man said, as from poisoned lips, “if you’re heading south, you should know that this land isn’t free. It is in the bounds of the Hedonian Empire, and there is a tax to come through here.” The others in his company could be heard suppressing their laughter.
“A traveling tax!” Thelana blurted, “That’s outrageous! We won’t pay it.”
“A lady should learn to hold her tongue!” the Hedonian rebuked. “But you’re not a lady, are you? You’re an Ilmarin whore, shaking her ass in plain view for every man to grope!”
Like lightning out of a cloudless sky, Thelana was in possession of her gold and jade bow, an arrow emerging from the tips of her fingers. “I’ve killed men for less.”
Emma wished she could bury herself in the folds of her sleeves, wondering why no one bothered to mention her plainly un-Ilmarin appearance.
“Thelana, please,” Xandr cautioned, waving a hand of restraint. “Look, good sir, we don’t want any difficulty here. As you can plainly see, we are Ilmarin, and as the Ilmar possess no currency, we have nothing to offer you.”
“Ah, but you do . . . you might give us your mounts. They’d bring a fair sum.”
“Never!” Thelana scoffed.
Now Xandr could feel a raging burn within him, and he answered, “See here, I have tried to show you kindness, but it is plain to me that you are no more than lowly highwaymen robbing any and all passers by, and we will not succumb to this.”
“Oh, come now,” the spearman protested, “you are Ilmar . . . you don’t even know to fight. Do you really long to die in defense of your horses?”
Xandr’s countenance grew cold and grim, and a shadow passed over his eyes that made him appear like some brooding god. He glanced at the brigands that had come, and even their Hedonian leader stepped back in hesitation. “All of you, listen to me, I am the Batal of Legend; I am the slayer of Moontalon, the ancient dragon of a thousand generations; he who slumbers beneath Fire Mountain slumbers no more . . .” With that he slipped a hand into the bundle at Warrior’s side, and his fingers enveloped a shaft of gleaming silver. “I have wallowed in the blood of merquid and halfmen; I have trod upon a sea of goblin corpses; I have cut down men like weeds, and I tell you now that today I do not wish to spill the blood of men, but Emmaxis, the Sword of the Ancients, shall not sleep in its sheath if you leave me the choice. Part ways, I beseech you, for you have challenged the wrong people this day.”
There was a quiet after that, followed by a mumbling amongst the brigands, and some turned slowly and quietly away. But most remained.
“Powerful words, indeed! But you expect us to believe you slew a dragon? An army could not kill a dragon, even if one could be found!” And he turned to his men. “He is bluffing, you fools! What knows he of war? Look at him; he is a naked barbarian . . . He has nothing to meet the points of your steel but his bare loins! Let him boast all he wants . . . there is no Batal in this world, only those who take what they will.”
The time of discussion was ended, Thelana knew. But there was no fear in her emerald eyes, only a contemplative determination, making note of the three archers among the attackers. They were amateurs to say the least, waving their ill-made bows threateningly. Of the three, only one appeared to even know how to hold a bow properly. The others would miss her even if she sat still. But Thelana did not intend to sit still. An eternity passed between the last words of the Hedonian and her next breath. Her arrow lodged between the eyes of the archer to her left. Not enough life remained in him to stretch back his bowstring. The other two bowmen panicked, spinning their arrows into the ground.
The dark eyed sorceress, not wishing to take part in the ghastly ordeal, began singing. Her robes folded about her steed and a raven emerged where she had been sitting.
Xandr ducked beside his mount, using Warrior as a barricade, then moved at his attackers carrying a long, narrow object wrapped in an earthen shroud. The men were quick to surround him. He unfastened the threads in his hands, leaving the shroud to the wind, revealing a gleaming sword, silver as a mirror, the length of a man from tip to pommel, six feet in measure, wrought as from one piece of iron. A terrible feature emerged from it like a thing longing to be free of its confines, with teeth like elongated thorns, a metallic, fiendish, grimacing, inhuman skull. Where the eyes would go, the emergence stared, as if a living thing.
At the mere sight of the sword, the brigands fell to the ground screaming, covering their ears. Others simply ran. But their leader was too preoccupied to notice, thrusting his spear at Thelana and her mare. She deftly avoided its point, and then hacked at its bronze tip with her bow-sword. Not far from her, a ring of spears closed about the Batal, but Emmaxis shredded their weapons, deflecting and crumpling their bronze tips like tin. The second to fall was a brigand who had dared to step near Xandr’s blade—his lower leg separated at the knee, and he collapsed in agony in a shower of blood. Thelana pounced like a great battle cat from the seat of her mare, and with a hand atop the Hedonian’s helmet, she brought him down. Before he could fully realize what had happened, her emerald eyes met his, and he could feel her breath against his throat, smell the sweat glistening from her brow. There was a gash behind his thigh and a hilt protruding from a space in his vest, clasped in the bloodied fingers of a woman.
She smiled at him. “I found a bare spot.”
Already the group of brigands was disintegrating, only a few remaining to challenge the Ilmar. It was apparent they were unprepared for battle, perhaps never having had the need. A fourth brigand became mortally wounded by Emmaxis’ newly made cleft in his jugular, nearly removing the brigand’s head. It pained Xandr to do it.
“Is there anyone else that wishes to die?” he shouted.
The brigands fled all too agreeably, some dropping their weapons as they turned. Three bodies remained. The man with the severed leg was already cold and pale. Life ebbed quickly from the other, whose head bobbed loosely from a thread of flesh. But the captain remained breathing.
Emma swooped downward, her feathers lengthening into hair, her talons softening into feet. In human shape she snapped up her cloak, to quickly hide her nakedness, and accosted Xandr.
“Your sword,” she said. “Did you see what happened?”
He was silent.
“It terrified them. Some fled at the mere sight of it. There is power in it, like I’ve never felt before.”
“Yes,” he murmured, lifting the blade to his eyes, “I’ve felt it too, ever since Moontalon, ever since Nessus.”
Xandr turned from her to the Hedonian.
“Please!” he begged, “spare me!”
Thelana glared where she stood, dagger in hand. “And why should we, you scoundrel?”
“Please,” he said again, “I was once a captain in Hedonia. I was in the city when she fell, when the waters came and the merquid . . .” Tears began to roll across his cheeks, “I have a daughter– eight months to the day, I swear it . . . We’ve been forgotten . . . left to wander the lands, homeless, penniless, seeking ways to live . . .”
Thelana’s eyes remained as steely as ever. “So you chose the way of the highwayman?”
“We didn’t mean to harm anyone, we just–” and he started to cough, violently.
Xandr brushed a hand across her. “Let him be.”
“Are you sure? He probably won’t survive the stabbing I gave him. Might as well end his misery.”
“No,” he said, “he’ll live. We can bind him. Send him back to his daughter.” Then he turned to the coughing man, saying, “Tell us, if you are truly a captain of Hedonia, and not just the thief of some poor infantryman’s helmet, where we can find the nearest city.”
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