Isaand walked the sunlit road in search of a dying girl.
The sun was high overhead, shining gold in a clear blue sky broken up only by periodic flocks of distant birds wheeling in intricate patterns through the air. The road was hard packed earth with an orange cast, his footsteps leaving little puffs of dust trailing in his wake. To either side the road sloped down to fields of golden-brown grass that swept back and forth in the constant breeze, and when he looked out across the endless fields the grass seemed to flow like the waves on the ocean. Hills popped up here and there, cresting the horizon, with strangely bent trees atop them covered in leaves like bristling needles.
Isaand wished he could feel the sun on his skin, the hot air that poured off the road like it was a skillet. His bleached skin felt only the same vague, prickling numbness as always, shot through with occasional flashes of sudden pain. His royal blue cloak was wrapped around him tightly, its hood covering his white hair, and yet he shivered, unable to banish the constant chill he’d felt ever since he’d been afflicted. His footfalls landed with a strange floating sensation, clumsy, but he had his trusted bonewood quarterstaff to help him keep his balance. Even if he could not feel the sun, the day’s warmth and beauty touched something in him, and he felt a hint of contentedness.
“This is good land. My mothers and fathers would have loved it here,” Isaand said, sweeping his free hand sideways to encompass the horizon. “It’s so open, so free, and empty of any judgmental eye but those of the gods above.”
“Except for all the gods that are of this happy land of yours. There’s a great deal of them. I itch at all the attention they’re giving me. The spirits scurry away like mice into their burrows and the gods are watching like hawks, uncertain if they see prey or foe,” Vehx said, from his spot on Isaand’s shoulder. The sendra had the claws of his forepaws dug into the thick cloth of Isaand’s cloak, and his lower serpentine body hung over Isaand’s back, wrapping around his gut like a belt, his wings tucked away. His voice was proud and laced with arrogance, and far deeper than ought to belong to a four-foot winged serpent covered in tawny fur.
“These lands are lightly peopled; the young and weaker gods are pushed out from the more civilized areas. Even old Teraandis would have a hard time keeping track of what gods call these fields home,” Isaand said, speaking of the old master-bard who had trained him in godly lore.
“They could do with a good deal more civilization if you ask me. Three days I’ve gone without a proper meal. If you spy a farm let me know so I can go snatch a chicken,” Vehx said with a bit of a growl.
“You’re a predator, aren’t you? There ought to be plenty of prey in that grass: go hunt.”
“Yes, it’s just that simple, is it? This body is a kettha; they live in jungles and climb trees to eat eggs out of nests and glide down on sluggish sloths. Does this look like a jungle to you? This dumb animal’s brain looks out at all that grass and panics, looking for a tree to climb.”
“I’m sorry, all I heard was ‘I am a stupid animal,’” Isaand said with a grin. On his shoulder, Vehx hissed and dug in his claws. Isaand barely felt it.
“I am no animal, as you well know. It is hardly my fault that glorious Szet chose the body of a dumb rodent to be my vessel. If it at least had a bigger brain, I’d have something to work with.”
“Next time I do something stupid, that will be my excuse. It’s not me, it’s just that my brain is too small!”
“Tch, you humans’ brains are just fine, it’s your own fault you don’t bother to use them properly,” Vehx said. The fight seemed to go out of him all at once, and he slumped against Isaand’s shoulder. “Keep your eyes out for that farm, Lector. I’ll not be of much use to you if I don’t feed soon, and my pact will be broken. If you let that happen, it will be on your head that my contract is ended, and you’ll have no company for the rest of your foolish journey.”
“You cannot starve, can you?” Isaand asked, curious.
“No, nor will I sicken. Sendra have no need of ordinary sustenance, otherwise I would simply share your meals. But if I do not fulfill my ban, my connection to this beast weakens, and my power shrinks. Think on that before you get yourself into danger.”
Vehx fell into sullen silence, and Isaand continued down the road. He carefully scanned the horizon, not for a farm but for any sign the party he searched for. The road ran northward here, and the Settel stream flowed northwest. His quarry would have followed the road, then turned off it eastward at some point, if his suspicions about their intentions were true. He hoped it were not. He would have liked to believe that the people of this tribe were decent folk, charitable and empathic, not the opportunistic jackals he had so often come across before. But he did not think it much likely. One did not drag a plague-ridden child towards danger for benevolent reasons.
Up ahead, where the road rose slowly to curve along the side of a hill, Isaand spotted a change in the landscape, some shadowed object against the flat blue sky. But approaching, he saw it was not his query, nor even a farm. His knuckles gripped tight around his staff as he slowed his tread to stop before it.
“Ah, a shrine,” Vehx said. “Some kind of dog?”
“A wolf,” Isaand corrected. A small hut of woven grass and sticks sat on the side of the road, four foot high. It was open, empty except for a wolf-shaped effigy of woven grass, sat on its haunches with its gaze turned out on the road, watchful and protective. “I know this one. Her name is Amauro of the Golden Breeze, protector goddess of the fields of Hondarra. She’s the only god with a large following in this land, even has a few Lectors of her own. She blesses her people with bountiful harvests so long as they supply her with a bloody carcass each half-moon, and watches over travelers who show her accustomed respect.”
“Ah, very good. What should we do then, leave a sacrifice?” Vehx asked.
In response, Isaand raised his staff.
“What are you-”
He swung, and the point of his staff stove in the wolf’s head, sending puffs of grass flying in every direction. Isaand swung again and again, smashing the idol to pieces until he was left breathing hard, leaning against his staff on the road.
“Are you an imbecile? Do you want to bring the bitch’s wrath down on you?” Vehx demanded. “If you’re not going to leave a sacrifice the least you could do is show some respect.”
“I have no respect for slavers and incompetents,” Isaand said. He forced a smile to his face, turning away from the wreckage.
“You’re a trained orator, surely you must know the concept of irony, right Isaand?” Vehx said.
Isaand continued on without a word, eyes watching the horizon.
They caught up with their quarry within sight of the Settel, though the men had not yet reached its banks.
Four of them there were, short but well-built and muscled, with sun-bronzed skin and neatly shaven heads but for fringes of hair that ran down the center of their scalp to the back of their necks. The men were bare-chested and wore woven-grass trousers, their chests and backs adorned with red and yellow and blue tattoos. Each carried a short spear and a long wicker shield, along with slings and pouches of stones hanging from their belts.
The girl marched between them, at the center of a diamond formation, each of them keeping their distance at least ten feet away, spears angled slightly towards her as if warding away her disease. She stumbled along slowly, weak and suffering, head down with her chin almost to her chest. Isaand had heard her hacking, tearing coughs from hundreds of yards away, and had followed it to the group. She was clearly at the end of her strength, struggling along by sheer force of will, with no one willing to lend a hand. The sight touched something in Isaand, awaking some fatherly instinct to care for and protect the young and helpless.
“Hold,” the closest spearman said, “and name yourself.” He was somewhere in the middle of his second decade, and the oldest of the girl’s escorts. Isaand spotted the triple bands of crimson around his upper arms. Thinking back to what he’d learned of the grassland’s customs, he was fairly certain it signified some warrior’s rank. The other men had only a single band apiece.
Isaand planted his quarterstaff in the grass beside him, put his fist to his chest, and bowed low and gracefully. Rising again, he swept off his hood to give them a look at his face. The three-bander held a stoic gaze, but two of the others gasped. In the clear light, Isaand knew he looked ghostly pale, his skin bleached with pale blue veins standing out clearly beneath. His hair, though still full and feathery, was a creamy white, except for the occasional strand that remained his natural jet black. His eyes, too, were strange: his pupils were smaller than they should have been, leaving the whites too-large, and what color remained was a pale icy blue, barely distinguishable against the white.
“Greetings and blessings upon you, warriors. Before you stands Isaand Laeson, bard, traveler, and most importantly, healer. Might I have your own names?” Isaand said. Upon his shoulder, Vehx fidgeted. He hated being left out of introductions.
“I am Marilk. I walk the grass by the grace of Amauro,” the three-banded warrior answered. The others muttered their own names, repeating the mantra about Ahuaro in an obvious ritual.
“Well met. And you, child?” Isaand took a couple long strides toward, causing Marilk to lift his spear cautiously, but Isaand only dropped into a crouch, the better to meet the eyes of the ailing girl. Slowly, as though unsure whether the effort was worth it, she raised her head.
The girl was ten or eleven years old, stick thin though surprisingly tall, coming up almost to chest height of Marilk. Her skin had an ashy, grayish cast to it, and black spots stood out here and there on her bare arms and shoulders, like old bruises but much darker and strangely shaped. Her head was half-shaved, the opposite side grown long and brushed over in an asymmetrical style. Isaand suspected she had had lovely hair, long and dark and straight, but now it had gone patchy and thin, and was graying as well. Her eyes were unfocused, and at their edges a dark puss was slowly leaking out, covering her cheeks in a substance much like old blood. She swayed slightly in the wind, and Isaand believed that if a strong enough gale rose up she would be blown over.
“That’s no business of an outsider,” Marilk cut in, before the girl could open her mouth. He swept his spear up, one-handed, leveling it’s point at Isaand’s face. “All travelers are welcome and protected in Amauro’s grass. Nonetheless, I must ask you to withdraw. We are about the business of the Mau-ret tribe, and you have no place interfering.” Behind him, one of the younger men was whispering to another, trying to guess what the bizarre creature clinging to Isaand’s back was. Vehx stood up a little straighter, puffing out his wings.
Isaand ignored the warning, continuing to speak only to the girl.
“That’s alright, I already know your name. It’s Ylla, isn’t it? A pretty name. I spoke to your parents, Hratha and Eessa. They asked me to find you.” At the sound of her parent’s names, Ylla’s eyes widened, and she sucked in a breath, trembling.
“Stop talking to her,” one of the men said, marching forward angrily. He closed within spear range, but stopped as Marilk held up his fist.
“Listen closely, Ylla. I am a healer, a very, very good healer. I can heal the plague that has afflicted you, and make you as good as before. I will heal you, and take you back to your parents, but you have to agree to it, do you understand? You have to tell me it’s okay, or I can’t help you.”
Marilk made a series of clicking noises, along with a single hand signal, and his three warriors fanned out, circling around to surround Isaand on all sides, Marilk remaining before him guarding the girl. Vehx hissed, but Isaand kept his eyes on Ylla. Still, she did not speak.
Isaand stood at their approach, fingers tightening on his staff. Vehx slid down his back and disappeared into the grass. Marilk met his gaze, and delivered an ultimatum.
“No one believes your claims, charlatan. Take your false cures elsewhere. If you do not withdraw, I will call upon Amauro to revoke your protection.”
“Why so hostile, friend? I am only here to help. What harm could there be in letting me try? Or is it that you have some need of the poor girl’s suffering?” Isaand’s voice changed, becoming steely and sharp enough to cut. “Why don’t you tell me where you’re taking her? No, let me hazard a guess. You’re going to march the sick girl down to that little stream right there, the one that flows straight to the fields of the hated Toh-ret tribe. Then you’ll set her down in the middle of that water and slit her throat so her malignant blood flows downstream to decimate your enemies. Do I have it right?”
Marilk’s eyes narrowed, but Ylla gasped. She reached out towards the warrior, pleading, but he pulled away as if from a fire, only disgust in his gaze. Ylla stumbled back as if she’d been struck, and fell to her knees.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about. The girl’s already dead, anyone can see that,” one of the warriors behind Isaand shouted.
“I see her standing and walking. Most corpses I’ve seen have difficulty performing those tasks,” Isaand said.
“It’s as you say,” Marilk said, sadly. He had the decency to look ashamed, at least. “What will you do about it? We need the curse she’s been given, to right the greater wrongs done to our people. You cannot be allowed to cure her, if such a thing is even possible. You are one man, and no warrior from the look of you. Will you fight us, force us to spill a traveler’s blood?”
“I’d rather not,” Isaand said. “I abhor violence.”
“Then move along.”
“Not without Ylla. I’m still waiting for your permission, girl.” Isaand watched her nervously. She had opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Perhaps she couldn’t speak. That would make quite a mess of things.
“Then we are done talking,” Marilk said. He reached to his belt and drew a long curved knife, then held it to his own palm and began to slowly draw the blade across it, chanting. The other warriors tensed up, as if expecting Isaand to leap forward and attack.
“Oh great Amauro, your servant calls upon your wisdom. By this show of fealty, I ask you to revoke your protection of this traveler, who I name Foe.” Palm slit and bleeding, Marilk reached down and tore a hand-full of grass from the earth, then threw it bloody into the wind.
Though the sky remained clear and cloudless, a great boom of thunder roared.
Isaand spun into motion, turning to swing his staff at the man to his side, all three of them charging in at him. A spear-point came straight towards him, but he managed to get his quarterstaff under it and flick it off target. He crashed into the warrior, bounding off his shield and getting on the other side of him. The other warriors were already repositioning, moving as a team to keep him pinned on multiple sides.
Isaand never saw Marilk move. One moment he was facing off against the three warriors, the next he felt a sharp crack against the back of his skull and found himself lying in the grass, dazed. He tasted blood and spit, his tongue stinging where he’d bitten it in the fall. Grass shifted as Marilk stepped closer, the point of his spear angled down at Isaand’s head. “I think we are done,” Marilk said.
“Szet nah ko teriz nau,” Isaand said, and quickly tapped the spear’s shaft with his hand. Marilk pulled it away before he could get a grip on it, rearing back to stab it downward, but he paused as he heard a high-pitched buzzing. Isaand flipped his hood over his head and turned his eyes downward.
With a loud crack the spear exploded into splinters. Marilk stumbled back, bleeding from dozens of small piercings. Isaand climbed to his knees, found the three warriors watching warily.
“He’s a Lector,” one of them said.
“Keep our distance then. Jarik!” the other said. The two warriors placed their shields in front of them, their spears angled outwards, while the third dropped both. He drew out his sling instead, fitted a stone to it, and began to swing. A shock of fear ran through Isaand, and he leapt up and backpedaled.
The slinger screamed, his missile flying wide as Vehx leapt up from the grass and grabbed hold of his bare torso with all four claws. He sunk his small needle-like teeth into the man’s neck, and kept the bulk of his body behind him out of easy reach. The slinger grabbed Vehx’s body and drew out a knife. Just before he could cut into the Sendra’s snake-like body, Vehx transformed, turning into a dimly luminescent outline that passed through the man’s body like it was gas. One of the spearmen turned to stare, and Isaand took the oppurtunity to plant his staff before him and begin chanting.
“Szet et era no kuur, Szet et naru tessa ver, Szet ko vamma-”
“He’s calling on his god! Gut him!”
One of the spearmen hefted and flung his weapon forward expertly. Isaand watched it come on a direct course for his gut, but a few seconds before it hit Vehx appeared out of his light-form and snatched it out of the air. It was too heavy for him to carry, but it fell to the ground at Isaand’s feet instead of impaling him.
“-istana ean, istana pes, istana Szet-”
Marilk was on his feet again, his curved knife in his hand. All four warriors charged straight towards him in a wild rush. No matter what he tried, there was no avoiding all four of them. Isaand held his ground, continuing his prayer.
“–ISA SZET ETTARA KAU!” Isaand shouted the last of his chant, lifting and slamming the butt of his staff into the dirt.
As though a burst of wind had erupted from him, the grass flattened in all directions. The four men slowed, expressions bewildered, their grip on their weapons going slack and falling to their sides. Marilk was closest, and he actually bounced off of Isaand as his momentum carried him forward, then stepped quickly back, staring in utter confusion.
“Don’t worry, none of you are in any danger from me,” Isaand said. “Szet wishes peace between us.”
“Why didn’t you pacify them right from the beginning?” Vehx asked.
“How do you think they would have responded if I’d walked up to them and started chanting?” Isaand said, annoyed.
“What did you do to me?” Marilk asked. His tone was hopeless, like that of a prisoner facing an execution he could do nothing to stave off.
“Nothing harmful. Though I can’t say the same for you.” Isaand gingerly touched the back of his head. His hair was sticky with blood, and he could feel a split in the skin. He winced, but felt the pain beginning to vanish already, the wound swiftly knitting itself back together. He’d have a lump for a few days though. Szet never healed a wound to nothing, a fact that filled Isaand with much irritation. “My god has touched your minds, and taken away your hostility. You are still fully in control of your actions. You’re just going to have a hard time hurting anyone for a while.”
Marilk glared, glanced down at the knife in his hand, then raised it threateningly. After a second though, he dropped it again, looking tired and defeated.
“Good man. Maybe now we can settle things like gentlemen,” Isaand said, patting him on the shoulder as he walked past the four warriors. Ylla was on her knees now, hair hanging over her face.
“Ylla, are you okay? I will heal you now… but you have to say it’s okay, do you understand? Szet does not heal those who do not accept his aid.” He touched her bare shoulder, feeling the terrible heat of the fever within her. Slowly, Ylla turned her head up, breathing heavily. Her mouth moved, slowly forming three syllables.
“Please… help… me…”
Isaand smiled. “That will do.” He clapped his hands, and paused to consider the words he would need.
A cloud passed in front of the sun, its shadow falling over them and making him shiver. Hadn’t the sky had been clear all day? He looked up-
An enormous wolf, nearly twenty feet tall, loomed over them. Her fur was made of golden grass, waving constantly in the wind, and her eyes burned with orange light. A low growl was rising in her throat, and as it grew louder the earth beneath them began to shake.
“A-Amauro…” Isaand stammered out. “Great goddess, how pleased I am to look upon your majesty…”
The wolf snarled, then glanced around at the four warriors who had fallen to their knees, kneeling in reverence. Amauro raised back her head and howled, the sound flattening the grass to the horizon in all directions. As the howl reached its high point, Isaand felt Szet’s miracle break. The men snatched up their weapons once more.
“Run!” Isaand grabbed Ylla and fled. She was skin and bones, hardly any weight, but she made an awkward burden, and the warriors easily cut her off. He found himself hemmed in by the warriors, the goddess wolf behind him. Ylla tightened her grip around his neck, and he could feel her heart beating in her chest, slowly, out of sync. She did not have long to live.
YOU DARE TO TRESPASS ON MY LANDS AND SPEAK THE FOUL NAME OF AN UNBOUND?
The goddess’ words were not within his ears, but in the wind and the grass and in his head, suffusing everything around him. His knees shook and his gut dropped at the mere sound of it. Isaand turned, Amauro staring down at him with burning eyes.
YOU HAVE ONE CHANCE. DEFY YOUR BLASPHEMOUS GOD AND I WILL SLAY YOU SWIFTLY AND ALLOW YOUR SOUL TO GO WHERE IT WILL.
Vehx crawled onto Isaand’s shoulder, and he took comfort in his presence. The sendra reminded him of the choices he’d made. The path he’d been shown, and decided to follow. The path his god Szet had offered him, without the constant manipulations and restraints that crippled the common worshiper. Isaand may die here, but he would not apologize for his choices. He stood taller, holding the sick girl against his chest, and narrowed his eyes, meeting the goddess’ gaze directly.
“I will not. I am Isaand Aislin Laeson, chosen Lector of Szet the Peaceful. I will break the chains your kind has forged to shackle the whole world, and I will not bow to slavers and tyrants.”
Isaand smiled. “Aye, and proud to be one.”
The wolf’s growling rose, until the ground shook so strongly that Isaand could barely stand. She bent her legs, tensed to pounce. Deep within his soul, Isaand felt the power Szet had entrusted to him. He took a deep breath, reaching for it, and spoke.
Amauro leapt like a boulder loosed from a trebuchet.
The sendra leapt forward to meet the wolf. As soon as he cleared Isaand’s shoulder, he exploded into light so bright that Isaand had to close his eyes, and doing so, was still dazzled by his brightness. A hearty roar let out, a match for the wolf’s howl. A great shockwave exploded from the point where they met, and Isaand was thrown to the grass.
He opened his eyes to see a massive golden dragon made of light, a mile long, fierce and serpentine, coiled around the wolf made of grass. The wolf sunk its fangs into the dragon and tore away a chunk of light, and within it could be seen a dark sky filled with stars. The dragon’s claws shredded the wolf, sending streams of grass flying into the air that burned into ash.
The battle raged for an hour as Isaand huddled in the dirt. The warriors all fled within minutes. When the air stilled and the ground calmed, Isaand climbed shakily to his feet and looked around. Huge furrows had been torn in the earth, and the stream Marilk had set forth to defile was choked with dirt and dust. A sharp scent of burnt hair filled the air, and the sky overhead had become overcast and gray.
Isaand found Vehx huddled over the corpse of a thin old wolf. Its fur was gray and patchy, and faded scars marred its skin. The furred-serpent Vehx inhabited was busy tearing at its flesh, ripping off small chunks and swallowing them down. This sendra must feed regularly on the raw flesh of a freshly slain beast, or his power will fail you, Szet had told Isaand. The avatar of a goddess was a far better meal for a predator spirit than a farmstead’s chicken.
“Oh, you’re still here,” Vehx said, in between mouthfuls. “I thought we’d flattened you at some point.”
“Still in one piece,” Isaand answered. “As are you, I see.”
“The wolf made a good show of things, but I don’t think she’d had a true fight in centuries. She abandoned her avatar and fled back into the grass. I would not suggest we stay in these lands one second longer than necessary, though. Given time, she’ll come back stronger than before.”
“We’ll be on our way in a moment, then. A few miles across that stream, and we should be quit of her domain.” Grunting with exertion, Isaand lowered Ylla to the ground, carefully. The girl lay bonelessly against the dirt, eyes turned up at nothing. Vehx froze.
“She died? You didn’t heal her?”
“Her heart let go, after the first shock of the battle.” Isaand sat beside the girl’s corpse, softly brushing the hair away from her face. Twin faces, a little boy and a girl with jet black hair, smiling mischievously, flashed in his mind like daggers in his heart.
“Ah, well. Can’t say you didn’t try,” Vehx said, failing to sound sympathetic.
Isaand hesitated, his mind working slyly, considering without bringing its arguments consciously to bear. Szet required consent to work his miracles. But the dead had no will of their own.
“What are you doing?” Vehx asked. Isaand placed both hands on the girl’s chest, over her heart, and began to chant low and steady, feeling his god’s presence within him. A bright thread appeared in his Godseye vision, linking the body to his. Distantly, he felt Szet’s attention, and what might have been a nod of approval.
“Rise,” Isaand said simply.
Ylla’s heart beat beneath his hands. Her mouth opened and breath wheezed out.