Coming Full Circle

The port city of Paranaeth, Lukia.

Kyas examined the keen edge of the elegant long sword. It was razor sharp and shone brightly in the morning sun. Kyas felt the weight. It was well balanced and not too heavy.

“A fine blade,” confirmed the merchant. Kyas nodded and continued to examine the blade. “For you I’ll only charge fifteen pieces of gold.”

It was a princely sum of money but in no way out of his price range.

“No thanks,” smiled Kyas as he replaced the blade and continued along the market.

It was not the price that had stopped him from buying it. The fact of the matter was that he had no need for it. He was no soldier and no blades-man. Not out of choice though. Kyas Navar was tall, just on six foot. His lean features made him seem shorter though. At twenty-eight years of age he had done very little physical activity in his entire life. Living in the house of his father, the school master, he had been discouraged from rough-stuff and brought up on philosophy, languages, economics and history. His father believed that a wise man made a living from using his brain, not his body. That resulted in Kyas never being able to explore his desire to be a soldier. When Kyas came of age he begged his father for the funds to enroll in the Lukian Academy of Advanced Martial Combat. This was refused.

Instead Kyas was made apprentice to the Port-Master. He handled all matters of a financial or administrative nature for the office of the Port-Master. While the position was somewhat prestigious and the pay very good, Kyas felt unfulfilled. The work itself held enough challenges to keep him on his toes as the port city of Paranaeth was one of the busiest in Thort. Situated on the East coast of the Thort continent it saw the passage of just about every vessel that traded in Thort. In addition to that it was the only port in the otherwise landlocked Lukia. Thankfully there existed a brisk overland trade too, which centered around the capital Cardenaeth, far to the countries Western border.

From the outside one would consider that Kyas had done quite well for himself. He owed a small neat house in a well to do area of Paranaeth, he had two horses, a sizable savings, and even owned a slave. Even his best friends were unaware of his unhappiness.

The other aspect of this unhappiness centered around his personal life. It was unusual for a man to be unmarried by twenty-eight and it did make him stand out. It seemed that luck was never with him when it came to women. From his first love to the last woman he had courted, it had been borderline disasters. Sometimes it was timing, other times it was the wrong woman, but mostly just rotten luck. It started way back before he had even come of age when he fell for a bubbly, fun loving brunette, Maria. She had taught him everything he knew about intimacy and he was deeply in love. She wasn’t. As time passed she eventually needed to move on and she caught the eye of a dashing young army officer several years her senior. Kyas was unceremoniously discarded as she and the officer left town to his new posting somewhere in the hinterlands.

Kyas, completely heartbroken, vowed never to love again and ploughed into his work. It didn’t last. After a few years he met a shy young woman, a few years older than him, who had her husband walk out on her and their new-born son, leaving them destitute. Kyas stepped in and took care of them. She was grateful and showed her gratitude by sharing his bed. Without consciously realizing it he fell for her too. But just as he was about the ask her to marry him, the husband returned. Having never loved Kyas, she immediately fell for her husband’s charms and promises. She believed that because of their son she owed him a second chance. Once again Kyas was left shattered. She and her husband still lived in town and he saw them from time to time. The tragedy was that Kyas as well as most of the town knew of his continuous infidelity. After two failed relationships, Kyas was able to steel himself to emotion. It took a great deal of effort, but he refused to be hurt again.

His efforts to protect himself then scuttled his next relationship. She was a quiet apprentice dressmaker, named Heida who had lived in Paranaeth all her life just like Kyas, yet they had never met. Quite by chance they had met at a textile auction and the romance blossomed. Yet as things became more serious, Kyas chose to back off. There was nothing wrong with the relationship but Kyas was afraid. After a few years she became tired with the lack of progress and ended the relationship. Having expected it all along Kyas did not get hurt. But he did realize his mistake some months later, but she was already betrothed to another.

After that Kyas was in limbo emotionally for a very long time. A few women expressed their interest in him but none of them held the slightest interest for him. Then he met Sara. She was a bard and one of the most vivacious women he had ever seen. She sauntered into town with her band of thespians and wowed the Paraneath nightlife. Unfortunately her high standard of living did not match her income and she latched onto Kyas and his purse. The relationship was intense and passionate. Kyas against his better judgment, fell for her worldly ways. She professed her love for him and made him feel like a king. He was on top of the world. Then it came time for her troupe to move onto the next town and Kyas made some shocking discoveries. It seemed his purse could not provide for all her needs and several other merchants had believed they were the only ones entertaining the young musician. All had been lead along and fooled by her awesome acting ability. This time Kyas had been left numb. He was angry and ashamed but not broken. It was a strange feeling. Everything else in his life had become bland and he treated everything with gross indifference. It was as though there was no heart left to break.

He whistled tunelessly as he entered the store of his good friend, Rowan the grain merchant. The fat man looked up from the heavy dark wood counter he was leaning on and smiled at his old friend.

“Greetings bean-counter,” he jested as Kyas approached him. He had long been called bean-counter by his close friends and some not so close, due to his financial responsibility.

“Good day to you big man,” responded Kyas with a smile as he leaned on the counter. “How is business?” Rowan sighed as he always did before he began to lament his situation.

“Nothing wrong with the business,” he remarked, “The army has been placing some impressive orders for the troops in the hinterlands. You know the bloody dervishes are causing trouble again. But the damned wife is on my back as usual.”

“Ahh,” responded Kyas with a few knowing nods.

It was always the same story. By now Rowan should be a rich man. As a grain merchant, business was always good and he was one hell of a salesman, but he had his problems. If Rowan had been a little more disciplined when he was younger he could have been general in the kings army, but his discipline let him down. A naturally big man he was a promising soldier. With great stamina and natural ability he distinguished himself in battle but all the coin he earned he drank away or spent on whores. In addition he did not see the need to train too hard during peace time and started putting on weight. This reduced his speed and the injuries started piling up. Eventually he was discharged from the army on medical advice. Too many broken bones and too many torn muscles had rendered him unfit to serve.

Taking his severance package he bought into a small merchants concern and also married the merchants daughter. She was a homely girl who quickly bore him two adorable children. But the quiet life did not agree with Rowan and without fighting to occupy his time he compensated by continuing to whore around. Much coin was spent keeping these mistresses entertained and so Rowan remained less than rich. The wife had found out soon and the quiet homely girl had turned into a hell-storm unleashed. Instead of leaving him she dedicated her life to making him miserable. He in turn could not leave her or his father in law would see to his economic ruin. So life went on in Rowans world as he sought ways to make his days more bearable.

“You know last night we were having a civil conversation, just discussing our end of the year trip to the mountains when out of nowhere she suddenly threw a fit about that business trip I need to take to Cardenaeth!” Rowan shook his head. “She went on about me just taking this trip to see Traysi.”

“Traysi?” queried Kyas.

“Traysi, Traysi,” answered Rowan, “You remember that red head I banged a few years back.”

“Was she the one with the freckles?” asked Kyas. He had long since given up trying to keep track of his friends “conquests”.

“No that was Ruby. Traysi was that girl I first started seeing back in my army days. Remember she used to work at the Ploughmans Arms,” clarified Rowan.

“Oh yes,” nodded Kyas, despite not having a clue who she really was.

“Anyway I might just cancel the trip. It will cause less crap,” muttered Rowan reaching for a pile of papers and a feather pen, “Do you need to place an order?”

“No not yet,” replied Kyas, “ What have you heard about this dervish uprising? I hear that the king has sent three more detachments to the hinterlands. Isn’t that a bit much?”

Rowan rubbed his chin and shrugged.

“Maybe it is a bit much. You know when we fought them we never needed to call for reinforcements. Maybe it’s the quality of soldier being produced these days. Don’t make them like they used to,” he smirked as he jokingly patted his ample gut. Kyas smiled.

“I must get back to the office,” he stated as he stood and stretched his back, “There’s talk of some Rygerstania merchantman coming in the next few days. That’s going to back things up here quite a bit.” He waved to his friend and left the store.

Kyas strolled briskly along the cobbled streets of the old quarter into the harbor. His offices had a magnificent view of both the harbor and the harbor mouth. Greeting the front office staff as he passed through, he mounted the stairs to the second floor and his office. It was a huge open plan office which occupied most of the second floor. He was greeted at the top of the stairs by his assistant Simon, a humorless, dull man of around thirty.

“A message for you Sir,” he said handing Kyas a plain white envelope.

He then turned and slowly returned to his desk. Kyas took the envelope and went to his office. At first he piled into some paperwork while Simon brought him his usual after-lunch mug of steaming sweet-tea. He nodded his thanks. When he was satisfied that he had at least cleared the decks for the moment, he relaxed and opened the envelope. It smelled like cherry blossoms and it contained a letter. He read it.

Dear Kyas

I know I haven’t seen you in a while, so how are you doing? I am just fine. Can you believe that I have finally finished my schooling? I am so looking forward to this year. It’s the reason I am writing you. I don’t know if you heard but I have been accepted to the Church of the West Youth Corps. We are going to send a “mission” to the hinterlands so we can convert the dervishes and stop the war. I am so excited! But there is a problem and I need your help. You have always been so kind to me. I need to raise 10 pieces of gold in order to pay for my travelling and meals while on the mission. The church doesn’t pay as we are all volunteers following our calling. If you could help in any way it would be greatly appreciated. I will understand if you say no though.

Hugs and kisses,

Emma.

Kyas leaned back in his chair mulling over what he had read. Emma was the young sister of Heida, his old girlfriend from years back. When he had been seeing Heida, Emma had been just a slip of a girl still at school. She was sweet and very attractive. She was to Kyas the little sister he never had and to her he was a big brother. He was extremely fond of her and she tagged along when he and Heida went somewhere on many occasions.

She was right it had been an age since he last saw her. It was hard to believe she was already finished school. That would make her sixteen by his calculation. Kyas grabbed a piece of paper and began scripting a reply. Of course he would help her. She was a wonderful person. He gave the letter to Simon to have delivered to the house along with instructions to have the funds delivered to her. He wondered when she was leaving and if he would get around to seeing her before she left?

He quickly shook himself out of his reverie and applied himself to his work. Across his desk came the financial facts of the Rygerstannian merchants arriving soon.  He noticed they had some rather large fees due if they wished to trade in Lukia. There were always large fees involved when merchants brought in products readily available from local merchants. It was meant to discourage foreign competition. The simple fact was that Rygerstannia could produce certain goods like weapons far cheaper that anyone else. Even with the trade fees they did well. Without them they would make a killing. He drafted the trade approval adding the proviso that they paid their dues in advance. He left his signature off until he had seen payment.

***

It was after dark when he had done all he needed to and left Simon to close up as he took the short stroll home. Kyas enjoyed the walk. It was the only real exercise he got and he hated the idea of putting on weight. When he got home the lights in the house were on. His slave Cathbad had dinner waiting and greeted him at the door.

“A pleasant day at work master?” enquired the loyal slave.

“No just the usual Cathbad,” smiled Kyas to his slave as he removed his jacket and sat down to the carefully prepared meal.

Cathbad was a good man. Kyas trusted him. He was a foreigner and had been born into slavery. His father was believed to have been some noble who had got a slave pregnant. His parents had bought Cathbad for him when he moved out of their house as a parting gift. He had proved indispensable taking care of all the mundane tasks of running the house for Kyas. For over a year Kyas had been toying with the idea of purchasing Cathbad his freedom and then hiring him on as a servant. He was still thinking about it.

As he ate the tasty meal he thought about Emma`s request. Not a month ago he had had a similar request out the blue. A letter was delivered to him from Sara, who was still in Cardenaeth. She too needed money. It was around fifty pieces of gold for some investment she wanted to make in a theatre in the capital. He had laughed hysterically when he saw it and even got a grin out of the usually humorless Simon when he showed it to him. He tossed it away without even replying. He still could not get over her audacity.

Emma was different. He was truly fond of her and he knew her to be a good person. In fact her entire family was good people. He got a kick out of helping people he felt deserved it.

***

The next few days passed without incident until he was strolling home in the late afternoon when he got ambushed by a giggle of young girls, with Emma amongst them. She blindsided him and threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said as she placed a kiss with every “thank you”. It seemed she and her friends has been going somewhere when she spotted him and ran on over. He gave her a hug and extricated himself from her embrace.

“Only a pleasure!” he smiled, “When do you leave?”

“It’s soon! At the end of the week!” she enthused, “We go to Cardenaeth first and then to who knows where. I am so excited!”

He could tell she was. She spoke with her eyes and practically jumped up and down as she spoke. Kyas was quite taken back by how attractive she had become. He bet she had the suitors lined up outside the house. Her poor dad he thought.

“Are you coming to my farewell? Its tomorrow night!” she asked.

Kyas was not keen on running into Heida but nevertheless promised to make an appearance. This made her very happy and she kissed him again before she and her squad of “followers” waved goodbye and disappeared down the street. For the rest of the walk home Kyas had a warm feeling inside him. He knew his small token of help had made someone good very happy. No sooner had he arrived home and was about to dig into supper when the knocker sounded at the door. Cathbad went to answer it.

“It’s for you master,” called Cathbad, “ It’s the constabulary!” There was concern in his voice. Kyas stood and came to the door wondering what they wanted with him.

“Yes?” enquired Kyas.

“Are you Kyas Navar, son of Petrus Navar?” asked the heavy-set constable at the door.

“Yes,” answered Kyas, “What’s going on?”

“Please come with me,” he barked.

“What’s going on?” queried Kyas.

“Please sir. I don’t want any trouble. Just come with me now!” ordered the man. His tone was stern.

“Okay I will just get my coat,” responded the confused young man.

Kyas took his coat from Cathbad and shrugged in answer to the slaves quizzical look. He followed the man outside and saw another two constables waiting at a wagon. He motioned Kyas inside and the wagon took off. They appeared to be heading to the Fort where the governor stayed, not the prison. Kyas was getting alarmed and wondered like hell what was going on.

In the main courtyard the wagon stopped and Kyas was practically hauled out and marched off. He could get no word out of anyone as to what this was about. He concluded that they did not know themselves. He was taken straight to the governor’s audience hall. Inside was the governor at his huge desk, the Port Master Obet, and some other men he did not recognize. They all looked grimly at him.

“I sure hope like hell someone is going to tell me what is going on,” stated Kyas a little more confidently than he had expected. He was just a little angry now as well as nervous.

“You are here to explain yourself young man,” barked the governor. He was an intimidating man in his fifties, with steel grey hair and hard features.

“Explain what?” asked a confused Kyas.

“This!” shouted the governor as he stood and thrust a document at Kyas.

Obet lowered his head and shook it slowly. Utterly confused Kyas looked at the document. He gasped in shock when he saw it was the trade approval for the Rygerstannians with his signature on it. He had not signed it.

“This is a mistake,” he began, “House Lavalle has not yet paid their trade dues. I did not sign this!”

“Oh yes they have paid Kyas. They paid in Rygerstannian minted coins, and you signed for it,” declared the governor.

“I didn’t sign this. I swear!” gasped an exasperated Kyas waving the document.

“We have compared the signature to some of your other documents and it is a perfect match” added Obet who had been silent until now, “Don’t make this any harder than it is my boy.”

“Just how did you imagine you could get away with it?” asked the governor.

Kyas was deathly pale with shock. It was a nightmare! It couldn’t be happening!

“I didn’t do it. I swear,” repeated Kyas, “Anyway where is the money if I took it?”

The governor looked over at the men to his left and nodded. They left the room and returned carrying a small chest. They put it on the desk and opened it so that Kyas could see its contents. Inside the lamp light glinted off a pile of shiny gold coins. The Rygerstannian eagle was prominently displayed on their face. There was about fifty pieces in there, about one fifth of the total fees due.

“What is this?” asked Kyas with a growing sense of dread.

“Part of the dues no doubt,” answered the governor, “Now where is the rest?”

“How is this connected to me!” frowned Kyas.

“We found it in your office hiding place Kyas. Please stop trying to play innocent,” urged Obet softly.

“I am innocent!” shouted Kyas. “What hiding place in my office?”

“We found the loose floorboards where this stash was being kept. Now tell us where the rest is,” ordered the governor.

“Look,” stormed Kyas leaning on the desk, “I don’t know what’s going on here. I didn’t sign this form. I didn’t receive any money for it and I didn’t even know of any loose boards in my office. Consequently I have no idea where the rest of the money could be!”

There was a moment of silence and Kyas thought he might have made his point.

“I was hoping you would have been less stubborn about this. You come from a good family and you have been a more than capable financial manager,” sighed the governor. He spoke slowly and clearly, “You are to be taken from here and thrown into the prison dungeons. If you do not tell us where the rest of the gold is then you will be shipped off the hinterlands to serve in the army’s penal battalion until you tell us what we want to know.”

Kyas was white with fear and he shook his head.

“No this is wrong!” he shouted. He kept repeating it as the constabulary dragged him off.

***

A week had passed and Kyas remained incarcerated in the Paranaeth Prison Dungeons. His father had come to see him and his embarrassment was plain to see. Kyas never wavered from his story and continued to profess his innocence. He did not know if his father believed him.

What he had discovered was that House Lavalle, the Rygerstannian trade house had stormed out of Paranaeth vowing never to trade in Lukia again. The balance of the trade dues remained undiscovered. Kyas did not need it spelled out to him. He knew he had been setup, but why and by whom? He had no enemies he knew of.

Daily there was pressure put on him to come clean but he couldn’t . Already all his worldly possessions had been sold to make up a part of the difference but his savings and all his assets was only worth around one hundred pieces of gold. He was lost. He had nowhere to turn as no-one believed him.

Finally the day came he had dreaded. Shackled hand and foot he was loaded onto a wagon bound for the front. News had not been good from there. Dervishes had achieved some surprising and stunning victories against the Lukians and there was talk of raising town militias in order to send more troops to the front. This was unheard of before.

***

The wagon trail slowly crawled to Cardenaeth where more wagons and prisoners joined them. After a two and a half week journey they reached the hinterland border. With minimal food and water and no washing facilities, Kyas did not look anything like the man who had been arrested. He was still dressed in the work clothes he had been arrested in and they were filthy and torn in places. His hair was an unruly mop and a healthy beard had been grown. His facial features were hollow and gaunt from weight loss. He did not have much weight to loose in the first place. Moral was at an all-time low and Kyas had resolved to commit suicide as soon as the opportunity arose. He could not live like this.

“Get out!” yelled the gruff voice of the soldier who opened the back gate of the wagon.

Kyas and the other prisoners silently obeyed. Kyas struggled to stand up straight as the confined space of the wagon had caused his long legs to cramp. He stretched and winced in pain. At least it felt a little better now.

“Alright listen up!” barked the soldier again, “I am going to give you instructions and you are going to obey. Anyone who does not gets lashes. After three sets of lashes you will be taken into the woods and buried.” He strolled up and down the lines of the assembled prisoners. He was not a tall man but he was well built and Kyas figured him to be in his forties as he had hardly any hair left on his head. “From now on you will be known as Mud Company. Your new names are as follows; 1, 2, 3, ….”

The soldier walked up and down the lines of men stabbing a hard pudgy finger into each ones chest and calling out a number. The last number Kyas heard called out was 30. The number assigned to Kyas was 16.

No time was wasted. Mud Company was immediately marched off to some marquee tents where they were ordered to strip and were issued with what could only be described as overalls. Kyas managed to keep his boots as they were of a much better quality than the issued ones. Added to that Kyas had already worn his boots in. Next up was a shave and cut. The prisoners were shaved bald and their faces shaved clean. It made them all appear more or less identical.

Before the day was out they had been put to work. With pick and shovel they dug and shifted dirt. It was long after dark before they were ordered to stop. Those who collapsed were dragged off for lashes. Kyas barely avoided being one of them.

Like zombies the prisoners dragged themselves off to the mess tent where they were served up a hot broth with a hunk of hard bread. It was the finest meal he had tasted in weeks. No prisoner took more than 30 seconds to finish the entire meal. Their barracks consisted of metal stakes driven deep into the ground with lengths of chain and manacles to which they were shackled under a clear night sky. Some of the prisoners had struck up casual friendships but none spoke to Kyas. These were hard dangerous criminals who could see that Kyas was an outsider. Of the crimes committed amongst the prisoners only Kyas did not have murder on his resume. Under the watchful eye of a few guards Kyas crashed.

***

The first week at the army camp had been unbearable. It was up before dawn and back after dark. Mud Company did everything from digging trenches, building ramparts, cutting wood, packing supplies and disposing of trash.

Being unused to physical activity Kyas was in agony. By the end of the week he was handling a little better. Unfortunately during that time he had felt the bite of the bullwhip for collapsing while hauling firewood back to camp. The wounds now pulled when he worked and the sweat still stung the open sores but like anything the longer it goes on the more used to it one becomes.

 After three weeks it was evident that Mud Company did not have too much to do at Fort Terresand. So they were crammed back into the wagons and moved to Fort Arganess. It was closer to the front and was in need of repair as it had just recently repulsed a Dervish advance. Strategically it was very important. It represented the deepest civilized point of the hinterlands. As well as a fort, Arganess was also a town where many Lukians had settled at the encouragement of the king. They were mostly trappers, hunters and woodsman but there were also many soldiers and some tradesmen.

As they entered Fort Arganess Kyas could see the massive wooden palisade around the city was burnt and broken in places. Inside the city there was practically no sign of battle. This was good. It meant the walls had held.

Mud Company was housed in what might have been an old warehouse. There were no shackles this time as the doors were simply locked. At any rate escape would mean trying to survive out in the hinterlands and all knew this was not an option. Still the soldiers made a point about driving these facts home.

For a week Mud Company worked like the slaves they were hauling timber from the forest to Fort Arganess and set about repairing the palisade. The work was back breaking and made worse by the blazing sun and the stifling forest humidity.

By now Kyas had put on a little weight but not much due to the lack of food. Only two meals a day were allowed. His hands were rough and calloused from the heavy labor. A slight amount of muscle had begun to show on his lean frame and he seemed taller with the added shoulders. He was by no means big, just bigger than he had ever been before.

Suicide had left his mind and was replaced by thoughts of revenge. But who? As far as he could tell the best place to find out who framed him was to find out who received those trade dues. Only House Lavalle would know who they paid so he would need to get to them. But escape was far away and even further away was Rygerstannia. The thought of revenge kept him going. He was truly surprised to find how that burning anger sustained him.

After all this time some of the prisoners had also accepted him. They liked the fact that he never caused trouble and never asked for anything. He had been able to start a casual friendship with a scarred individual named Lothar. He had been a prize fighter until and injury to his eye caused him to retire. He had been working as a heavy cum debt collector up until he “accidentally” killed someone he was roughing up. That added to a string of minor assault charges was enough to land him in the penal battalion. He was lucky. He could have hanged.

It had been a particularly hot day with humidity figures at around 100%. Many prisoners passed out but the guards were too tired themselves to administer any beatings. Just as the sun was dipping behind the tree line, Mud Company came struggling through the main gate. Stripped to the waist they trudged to the warehouse, their muscled bodies glistening with sweat. The towns women folk, to a skirt, stopped to watch these “dangerous” men trudge past. Some of the prisoners grinned or winked at the staring women causing them to blush or giggle or both.

Kyas was not concentrating and looked up to see what the fuss was about. As he did so, he felt as if he had been connected by a sledge hammer in the back of the head. The very first face he saw was familiar. Maria! There she stood. With numerous other women she was gawking at the bare-chested Mud Company.

She was older. Well it had been just over ten years. When he caught her eye there was no immediate recognition, but he remained fixed on her as he filed past. She had a quizzical, confused look on her face as though he seemed familiar but she could not place him. Kyas half stumbled into the warehouse and collected his bowl. He sat and ate his chow absentmindedly.

“And now?” queried a voice. The huge shape of Lothar towered over him.

“Nothing,” muttered Kyas as he continued to eat. Lothar sat down in front of him and began to eat too. He continued to stare at Kyas.

“What?” asked Kyas.

“Nothing,” replied Lothar, “Just waiting for you to tell me what’s up.”

Kyas realized that Lothar was one of those people who had a hard time accepting the answer he was not wanting to hear. He sighed.

“One of those skirts out there today is an old ex,” he mumbled as he finished his meager meal.

“No shit?!” exclaimed Lothar.

“No shit,” confirmed Kyas with a vulgarity he was to his dismay becoming comfortable with.

“What you going to do?” asked Lothar.

“Do?” responded Kyas, “Nothing. That was a long time ago and she is married to some officer around here. Besides I don’t think she recognized me.”

“I’m not surprised,” noted Lothar, “You don’t look anything like the poof you were when you arrived!”

Lothar and Kyas shared a chuckle. It was a long time since he had laughed. It felt out of place.

Kyas tried to ignore the thoughts of Maria but every day as they trundled back to their warehouse, she was nearby staring at Kyas. He took a bit of ragging from the other prisoners about his “woman”, but it was fairly good natured. The way she stared at him had Kyas convinced that she had no idea who he was and it was killing her. She had always been a curious one he remembered.

***

It was a bright hot day when the Mud Company made their way out into the forests to cut wood for some internal constructions which had to be attended to. Finally the wooden palisade had been completed and was ready to withstand the next Dervish attack. The morning went well with some fine timber being identified and cut. While on a water break a startled young stag bolted into the encampment and then just as startled bolted out the other side.

“What the hell?” muttered an old leathery convict.

“That was a little weird,” agreed another hulk of a convict with a scar on his nose and cheek.

“Deer sometimes run blindly when startled or being chased by a preditor,” noted another of the prisoners Kyas thought was called Manis.

As he said it he rose from his tree stump stool, hefting up his two handed wood axe as though he was about to see a bear or something worse appear from behind one of the trees. Some other convicts also rose peering out into the woods. The soldiers accompanying Mud Company half heartedly left their posts to investigate. Their hands were draped loosely on the pommel of their swords.

Before Kyas even had a chance to decide whether to stand or remain seated the air was filled with a barrage of swift whooshes and thuds as a volley of arrows tattooed the soldiers and some of the standing convicts. They all crumpled to the ground in silence, dead.

The rest of the convicts scrambled for cover as volley after volley of arrows cut down the rest of the standing convicts and ploughed into the seated ones. Kyas put his back up against a tree to ward off the arrows. He looked to his left and saw that Lothar and the last remaining convicts had done the same. The trees would offer scant protection as the arrows stopped and the sound of horses could be heard.

His heart pounding wildly Kyas sneaked a glance from behind his tree. In the clearing he saw about ten horsemen. The horses were smaller than the ones he was used to seeing but they were well muscled and Kyas guessed they would be fast and durable. The horsemen were olive skinned in leather armor carrying short-bows and long swords. Their hair was longish and tied back. Such was the style among their peoples. Hinterland Dervishes!

One spoke. Kyas was at that moment extremely thankful to his dictatorial father for his extensive schooling. His recollection of dervish was patchy but he caught the jist of it. It seemed that the one who spoke was the leader. He was quizzing a subordinate on the casualties. It seemed he was of the opinion that some of the men in the clearing had got away. The subordinate was a small man with beady eyes. He denied seeing anyone flee and was certain that they had got everyone. He also reminded his superior of the strict timetable they had to adhere to.

Kyas’s blood ran cold. The beady eyed man then told the leader that they should return to the main body of the army as the attack on the “Lukian Outpost” was due to begin. The horsemen wheeled their mounts and galloped out the clearing. Kyas dared not move.

At length he saw Lothar move. Then he and the others followed suit. The clearing was a bloody massacre. Kyas retched as did one other convict. Lothar seemed unfazed and walked among the dead.

“I wonder what they said as they left?” pondered Lothar as he stopped next to the body of one of the soldiers, “They seemed in a hurry to get out of here. Look they didn’t even loot the bodies.” He unbuckled the soldiers weapons belt.

“They were talking about attacking Fort Arganess,” informed Kyas as he wiped his mouth. The survivors looked at him surprised. “I speak a little dervish ok?” They shrugged their indifference.

“Well hell that settles it,” stated Lothar, “We are as good as free!”

“What do you mean?” asked one of the survivors.

“When the dust settles after the battle there is going to be mass confusion. When they finally get around to looking for Mud Company, all they will find are these remains. Well the little left over after scavengers take their share. We will be presumed dead for sure. No outstanding warrants, no prices on our heads. This is great!” announced the old pugilist.

“What about Arganess?” asked Kyas, “Shouldn’t we warn them?”

“Fuck em,” spat Lothar, “If we go back there its back to being a prisoner. I am heading for the border. I will take my chances with the worst the hinterland can throw at me.”

“I’m with Lothar,” stated one of the other convicts.

“Me too!” was the confirmation from the other two survivors as well.

Kyas sat down and massaged his temples. It was the perfect chance to escape. He had his reservations about trudging off into the wilds of these parts. It was rumored that creatures existed there which were still only thought of in myth and legend. What vexed him most was the thought of Arganess being caught unprepared. The last attack would have given the dervishes a clear indication of what the walls could stand up to. If they were attacking again they must surely believe they can breach the defenses this time. Many women and children might die.

“Come on genius. Are you in or out?” asked Lothar using a nickname he had recently acquired when the convicts found out about his extensive schooling. Kyas breathed deeply and sighed.

“Go on without me,” he said, “I will warn Arganess.”

“Don’t be retarded!” yelled Lothar, “Is this about that skirt?”

“No!” Gasped Kyas, “Hell no!………..It’s just the right thing to do. I have to.” Lothar raised his eyebrows.

“I suppose you must do what you feel you must,” he concluded, “But I still think its damned stupid.”

He and the other three survivors stripped the soldiers of equipment and Kyas did likewise. They then bid him farewell and disappeared into the trees. Still not completely convinced he was doing what was in his best interests, Kyas Navar, prisoner 16, Mud Company, took off toward Fort Arganess, his ‘borrowed’ blade banging against his hip as he jogged.

***

The din of battle could be heard quite clearly, even as far away as in the forts dungeons where Kyas now found himself. He had made it back to Fort Arganess in double quick time and was immediately tossed into the dungeons. He tried to explain what had happened and what danger they were in but he was treated with great suspicion. He was careful to mention he was the sole survivor of the massacre but was sure they thought there was no massacre and he had just escaped and wound up lost. Still a detachment of soldiers were sent to investigate.

They had been gone for no more than an hour when two stragglers beat a hasty retreat back to the Fort, reporting a massive army of Dervish on the march toward them. An ambush had all but slaughtered the detachment. It was enough warning to make some preparations before the Dervish arrived. For instance riders had been sent to Fort Terresand for reinforcements and some citizens who were able took to the road and left Arganess.

That was a few days ago. By now Fort Terresand was aware of the situation. Kyas paced the cell impatiently waiting for word from one of the guards about the battle situation. Kyas was surprised at how well he had been treated by the guards. He assumed they appreciated his sacrifice in delivering the warning.

He had just settled down for a nap when he heard the key hit the lock of his cell door. Rolling over he stood up. The door opened and a heavily bandaged officer filled its frame. As he walked in he examined the interior, then he addressed Kyas.

“What’s your name convict?” He barked.

“Prisoner 16,” answered Kyas obediently.

“Your real name man!” clarified the soldier.

“Kyas. Kyas Navar of Paranaeth,” answered the convict feeling rather curious. The man eyed him for a moment as though he was trying read him.

“I have an offer for you,” he began, “As I am sure you are aware the battle is not going as favorably as we would like.” Kyas shrugged.

“I was not aware,” he stated. The officer continued.

“General Dulok has instructed me to offer you a chance to have your case reviewed with favorable considerations.”

“If I do what?” asked Kyas suspiciously.

“If you fight,” stated the officer plainly, “We need every able bodied man to fight including you and your guards.”

“I am no soldier, sir,” noted Kyas.

“You’re a killer and that’s good enough for me,” explained the soldier, assuming that Kyas was as much of a thug as the rest of Mud Company.

Kyas licked his lips and thought for a second. Die in the dungeons when the Dervish break through or go out swinging? He realized that if things were as bad as the officer was intimating then there was no way that reinforcements would arrive soon enough. He was getting fatalistic too and there is no armor against fate.

“Ok, let’s go,” nodded Kyas. The officer looked relieved and led Kyas out the dungeons.

***

From his position on the wall Kyas could see the immense Dervish army arrayed on the field outside the city walls in the mid day sun. There were thousands of them and they completely encircled the forts walls. He shifted his shoulders trying to get the ill fitting mail shirt he wore to feel more comfortable. The shortage of weapons meant that Kyas had been issued with a rather well worn wood axe. Well it was about the only weapon he had wielded with any regularity.

The squad of men he had been thrown into were mostly old men and young boys. They had been rushed up onto the palisade to reinforce a section that had taken a pounding repelling the last Dervish attack. Now they stood waiting, watching the Dervish units regroup and prepare for another assault. Behind him he could hear wounded crying and men barking orders as the logistical side of the battle was being administered. He could feel the eyes of his ‘companions’ on him. Clearly they did not trust him and he knew there was precious little chance of being able to rely on any of them to watch his back.

Despite the obvious peril of his situation he felt remarkably calm. Or was this exaggerated indifference? He didn’t care. All he knew was he was going to try and stay alive as long as he could. He did not want to be robbed of his chance at revenge. Anyone who stood in his way he would cut down. Right now it was in the form of a few thousand hinterland dervish. It was time to start swinging.

The dervish advance was swift and meticulous. Numerous ladders hit the wall at the same time and the dervish swarmed up them. The few archers left inside Fort Arganess peppered the masses with arrows but they were too few to make any impact. The dervish responded with artillery which crashed into the walls and into the buildings beyond.

Suddenly and to Kyas`s surprise he was filled with rage. It was like wave which washed over him. He stepped forward and swung the old two handed axe in a powerful overhead strike into the helmet of the first dervish up the ladder in front of him. The blow was so powerful it split both the metal and the man’s head underneath it. He toppled backwards taking the man directly below him with him.

Instinctively Kyas lashed out with a boot and sent the ladder toppling backwards into the mass of bodies below. The action seemed to fuel Kyas as he screamed at the top of his voice and rushed to the next ladder. He hardly felt in control as he rained blow after blow on the hapless dervish attackers. None had any chance to try and attack him as they died before they set foot on the palisade.

His fellow defenders cheered him as they too fought back furiously. Kyas did not feel scared or tired or uncertain as he swung again and again. He lost count of how many men he slaughtered but he was wet and sticky by the time the attack was called off. He was bathed in red and everything was slippery, but he clung grimly to the old axe as he watched the dervish retreat.

The rage which up until then almost clouded his vision it was so tangible, suddenly left him. All at once his limbs felt leaden and he collapsed to his knees. All around him lay bodies of both defenders and attackers and for a brief moment he could not remember how he had got there. The sun was just dipping behind the tree-line. He trembled with fear and exhaustion. He felt hands patting him on his back and words of congratulation from the defenders as they walked past him. From far away he could hear a soldier barking orders.

“That’s us,” said a blood splattered youth to Kyas, “We are being called off the wall.”

The young man limped down the steps off the wall as new green recruits filed past him to take up position. It was almost dark and it seemed the fighting was done for another day.

As Kyas tried to stand he became acutely aware a searing pain in his side and his left arm. He looked down at his forearm in the dying light. A vicious jagged cut dripped blood onto the rampart. He then tried to examine the wound to his side but was unable to get a clear look. With considerable effort he pushed himself to his feet. Very unsteadily he made his way off the palisade.

“Dam Boy!” he heard a voice call, “I have never seen anything like that in my life!” Kyas glanced at the voice. It belonged to a grizzled old veteran who was walking toward him. “What’s your name axe-man?”

“Prisoner 16, Mud Company, sir,” said Kyas wearily. The old soldier raised an eyebrow.

“No guessing how you ended up there,” he commented with just a hint of black humor, “Anyway I am glad you were on our side today. Come let’s get those wounds seen to. By the way, the names Galedin, Sergeant Galedin, 1st Infantry Battalion, Hinterland Company.” The two men shook hands and made their way to the infirmary.

***

The infirmary was a converted general dealer. All the stock was gone and in its place were rows and rows of wooden trestle beds. The wounded were everywhere and the moans and painful cries of the wounded mixed for a cacophony of misery.

“Wait here I’ll get you a surgeon,” ordered Galedin motioning to an empty bed. Kyas slumped down with fatigue and started fumbling at the strapping of the mail shirt.

“Let me help you with that soldier,” he heard a woman’s voice say and glanced up to see her dressed as a volunteer nurse, looking tired and bloody.

When she realized who he was she was taken aback. She still didn’t recognize him. Without a word she began helping him remove the heavy old chainmail shirt. Kyas kept his eyes on her waiting for her to say something.

“That doesn’t look good,” she said looking at the wound in his side. He ignored the wound as it didn’t seem to hurt much anymore and kept looking at her with a sly smile just at the corners of his mouth. “What are you looking at?” she snapped meeting his gaze.

“Take it easy Maria. I am sure your husband won’t mind me just looking at you,” he replied smoothly. Her shock was so tangible you could have cut it with a knife.

“Do I know you prisoner?” she gasped. Kyas nodded.

“It was a long time ago, a different life in fact,” mused Kyas. He watched her face to see if the penny dropped. Nothing. “It’s me, Kyas Navar of Paranaeith.” Her jaw dropped and she clutched her hand to her mouth.

“Kyas! What happened? How could you end up here, like this?” Her eyes were still wide with surprise.

“It’s a long boring story. Let’s just say that I had some bad luck. And you?” he enquired.

“Well I …..” she began but just then the surgeon arrived and ordered her to fetch some equipment. She left and he began examining Kyas.

“We will need to put a few stitches into that arm and it looks like the arrow head is still lodged in the side. I am going to have to cut it out,” reported the fatigued surgeon.

Kyas shrugged and waited for him to continue. It wasn’t as painful as Kyas had expected and he was soon stitched and bandaged up. The pain was now just a distant dull throb and Kyas barely noticed it. It surprised him because even as a kid he had had a terrible pain threshold. Even the smallest scratch had felt like agony. He was glad the time in Mud Company had toughened him up. He didn’t get a chance to talk to Maria and was taken to where the rest of his new unit was billeted for the night.

With no chains or restrictions he felt a little uneasy. The entire unit just about stood when he entered the quarters and they greeted him respectfully. He nodded back and found an unoccupied cot where he dumped his helm, axe and mail shirt.

Before he got a chance to inquire about food a large bowl of stew was brought to him by the young lad from the palisade. He ate quickly and then curled up on his cot and crashed into the deepest sleep he had ever experienced. He dreamt.

In his dream he was taking a stroll next to a quiet, steady brook. It led into a large copse of trees and Kyas followed it. The trees were huge and obviously old. An intense peace permeated the air inside the forest and Kyas felt invigorated. A scraping of metal made him glance to his left. In an idyllic clearing sat a large muscular man dressed in a pale grey metal breastplate and a long white cloak. He was fair-haired and had a short-cropped beard. He sat on a fallen log and was carefully sharpening a long blade. Kyas approached the man. As he got closer the man looked up.

“Welcome Kyas Navar, Warrior of Legend,” he remarked.

“Excuse me?” responded Kyas, “I think maybe you have the wrong person.”

“I know who you are I assure you,” was the confident reply.

“I am no warrior and certainly no legend,” promised Kyas.

“Not yet,” assured the big man, still honing his blade.

“Alright so you think you know me. Great. Who are you?” asked Kyas as he glanced around the clearing. They were alone.

“I go by many names. In some places my names are revered and in others they are blasphemous and treated with derision,” responded the big man cryptically.

“What is it that you do?” continued Kyas.

“Let’s just say I watch people and events and I sometimes influence them when I feel it is needed. I have been doing it for a very long time,” mused the mysterious man.

“Are you a god?” gasped Kyas, a little afraid now.

“Not actually, but if it makes you feel better then think of me that way,” offered the man, “True I have no age and true I don’t live in the realm of men but its more complex than that.”

He sheathed the blade and stood up. The man was easily seven foot tall and broad shouldered.

“What is it you want from me?” asked Kyas, “And where are we? Am I dreaming?” Kyas felt his voice waver ever so slightly.

“You are perceptive. I do want you to do something for me. However now is not the time to get into that. You must return from sleep and prepare for battle. I have touched you and imbued you with un-natural skill and strength. Did you not feel it in battle? Wake up! We will speak again.”

***

Kyas opened his eyes. It was still dark but he felt completely rested. The rest of the men still slept as Kyas sat up. The stitches in his side should have pulled but there was nothing. He felt no pain.

He stood up, gathered his meager belongings and stepped out into the muggy pre dawn air. He walked over to a well in the centre of the courtyard and drew a bucket of water. After dunking his head and washing his face, he stripped off his tunic and examined his bandages. Brashly he undid the binding to look at the wound.

He gasped. The stitches were gone and only a red scar bore any evidence of a wound. It looked weeks old. Immediately he stripped the bandages from his forearm. It was the same result. Quickly he replaced the bandages. He did not feel like trying to explain how he had recovered so fast.

The dream. What was going on? Who was the big man and what did he want? Kyas hefted up the old wood axe to examine the nicks on the blade. It felt as light as a feather. It was then that Kyas noticed his arms. They were no longer lanky and lean but hard and packed with muscle. They did not seem much bigger than normal but the definition was considerably more.

Then Kyas began to examine the rest of his body in the growing light in detail. Yesterday he had been a lean and slightly muscled convict. This morning his lean frame was packed with the muscle of a prize-fighter. His stomach was flat and hard and his shoulders broad. Kyas almost broke into hysterical giggles as he admired his body.

Quickly he composed himself and began strapping on the mail shirt. Yesterday it had felt too big and loose fitting. Today it was snug. No sooner had he finished and he heard the clanging of the morning bell. The fighting would begin soon.

***

Calmly he brought the blade up in a parry and set aside the dervish curved blade. He then leapt backwards to create some fighting space. He took a moment to steal a glance behind him to see how the retreat was progressing. They were almost all through the gate.

He turned his attention back to the advancing dervish. They moved forward cautiously. In the narrow confines of the Arganess streets they could only advance three a breast maximum.

For almost a week they had held the palisade. Kyas moving from section to section beating back hordes of dervish as any line faltered. He was un-tiring and as deadly as the plague. His sheer presence at any section sent the defenders into a frenzy and no section broke while he was there. He earned more than just the respect of the towns folk but also earned himself numerous names. The most common was Bladestorm, or Slayer, but there were also less thoughtful ones like Kyas the Killer and Ferryman. Kyas took only slight pleasure in the admiration mainly due to the fact that his keen mind had summed up the tactical situation of Arganess and seen how hopeless it was. It was only a matter of time before it fell. They were too greatly outnumbered.

 Now six days later the city walls had been breached. The general retreat had been sounded and now the survivors streamed back to the Fort itself. Kyas had fought his way to where the street narrowed and formed a bottle neck where the dervish had had to slow and eventually stop until they could get past Kyas himself. This had bought enough time for the survivors to get behind the Forts walls. He was in danger of getting surrounded if the dervish managed to negotiate the streets of Arganess and find a way behind him. So slowly he backed up inching his way to the fort and at the same time thinning the ranks of dervish in front of him.

 As the days had passed Kyas had modified his equipment. It seemed it did not matter what weapon he held in his hand he was an expert. However it was with the long blades that he was truly a master. He now carried a long straight blade with a hand and a half hilt and a straight cross guard. He did not bother with a shield as he alternated between one and two hands on the hilt. The mail shirt had been replaced with a metal breastplate on chainmail, greaves and gauntlets. He dispensed with the helm as it obscured his peripheral vision too much.

Finally he had his back to the Fort entrance. From inside men screamed for him to make a dash for it so they could shut the massive doors. Kyas grinned and threw himself into the startled ranks of advancing dervish hacking and slashing and carving up the first few ranks. The advance halted at once as no dervish was keen on facing the blade storm.

Kyas then turned on his heel and dashed into the Fort. The massive doors slammed shut and the dead bolt was dropped in place. A mighty cheer erupted from inside the fort as though they had won some fantastic victory not retreated to where they would make their final stand.

Kyas forced a smile and patted backs as the same was done to him. He knew that all they had left was slim hope that the reinforcements from Terresand would arrive soon. If he had to give his true views on their situation then he knew that hope would be crushed.

***

Kyas still was amused at how so much had changed in such a short space of time. It was not the change in himself he found so strange as how he was being viewed now by what was left of the towns folk. The first day he stood on the walls ready to fight he was treated with suspicion and was insignificant in the whole scheme of things. He owned nothing, not even his own life. Now not even a week later he was viewed as a hero, a rallying point for the defence of Fort Arganess. Prisoner 16 was the hope. He even had his own quarters within the fort and General Dulok consulted him regularly and assured him each time that his sentence was as good as over.

Kyas unbuckled his weapons belt and tossed it onto the floor. There was a knock on the door as he stripped out of his armor.

“Yes?” he called. The door opened and a young staff officer entered.

“Sir, may I clean your weapons and armor for you?” he asked politely.

“Sure Ok,” said Kyas.

He was rather fond of having someone take care of the mundane tasks of daily routine. It reminded him of old times when Cathbad was still his servant. He washed the grime of battle off and settled down on his bed.

Only a few more days. That was the most they could hope to hold out for. The staff officer had left with his equipment. He dreamed of what it would be like to return to Paranaeth. There was another knock on the door. It was too soon for the staff officer to return so it must be his food. Another perk of being a hero.

“Yes?” he called from the bed. When the door opened Maria came walking in carrying a tray of foods. Kyas quickly sat up.

“I have been instructed to bring you your meal Bladestorm,” she said placing the tray on the table in the room.

“My names Kyas. You know that,” responded Kyas.

He looked long and hard at Maria. While she had not told him her tale, he had found out from various sources of her lot. She had been married to a respectable officer who had been posted out to Fort Arganess. They had been quite happy and she bore him a bright young boy. But all good things come to an end. He had been killed in a riding accident and his other life had been discovered. It seemed the officer had a very strong taste for gambling and had run up some huge debts. When the estate was settled it still owed many creditors vast sums of money. It fell to his immediate family to settle the debts. Maria was forced to sell just about all her possessions. Her family was unable to help her but promised should fortunes change they would assist her. So far it had come to nothing. She now found herself working as a servant to the general. Her position was not much above that of a slave, but it kept her and her son fed and clothed with a roof over their heads. What Kyas could not understand was why she had not taken another husband? She was still a beautiful woman not yet thirty.

“Is there anything else you would like?” she asked, her head bowed not looking at Kyas, her hands folded in front of her. Kyas got off the bed and examined the tray. Everything seemed to be there.

“No thanks Maria,” he said, “It’s all here and it smells great.”

He hoped the compliment might cheer her up. She seemed withdrawn as though she carried a great burden. She still did not make eye contact. “Is everything ok?” he asked. She sighed and idly ran her finger along the edge of the table.

“The general sent me here to……..to give you anything you wanted,” she swallowed nervously.

“I said its all he………….,” began Kyas, but then he paused as he realized what she meant.

He put his fingers under her chin and raised her head to look into her eyes. She looked incredibly sad.

“No Maria,” he whispered softly, “I have got everything I want thanks.”

“Wait,” she said, “You don’t understand. The general has sent me.”

It suddenly made sense to Kyas. The reason she was able to settle her late husband’s debts was because she had help. No doubt from the general. She now owed him. It also made sense why she did not remarry. She couldn’t until she worked off her debt. He had seen the old generals wife and had no doubt how Maria was working off her debt.

Maria walked to edge of the bed and began removing her clothes. Kyas wanted to scream out no, but he was just flesh and bone and with each item of clothing she removed he felt his heartbeat increase. In no time at all she stood naked at his bed. Memories of how good she had been and how good they had been together flooded back.

Without a word he went to her and took her to bed. He marveled at how his stamina and skill was enhanced. She moaned and groaned and shuddered in ecstasy under him. For longer than he ever could have maintained before, he pleased her. After an age and a bit he finally released. They lay there in each other’s embrace.

Maria`s heart pounded wildly as she gasped for breath. Never before had she imagined it could ever have been this good. Both she and Kyas were bathed in sweat. Too comfortable to move they fell asleep like that.

***

“You are doing well Blade-Storm,” commented the big man. Kyas gave a wry smile and shrugged.

“I am feeling stronger and faster every day,” he noted.

“It is leveling out now. You are almost at your peak,” confirmed the mystical being.

“Then what?” wondered Kyas aloud.

“Then you will be ready to pay me back. You haven’t forgotten about our last chat?” checked the being.

“Of course not. What is it you need me to do?” asked Kyas.

The big man smiled and clasped his hands behind his back as he leant back against the trunk of the massive birch.

“I want something that used to belong to me back,” informed the big man.

“Who’s got it. Show me where and I will go and take it back. No-one can stop me!” assured Kyas rather cockily.

“Beware vanity Blade Storm. None falls so hard and so far as the proud. Anyway it’s not who that has it but what,” mused his benefactor.

“What do you mean by ‘what’ has it?” asked a puzzled Kyas.

“Here, deep within the hinterlands of Lukia, there are places that not even the Dervish have ever been,” declared the being, “In these places dwell creatures that have been forgotten by mankind.”

“What kind of creatures?” Kyas was both intrigued and a touch nervous.

“Powerful mystical creatures. Creatures that…….well creatures like me!” he said at last.

“You want me to take something from a god?” blurted Kyas.

“I told you that it was more complicated than that,” he said, “To some we are gods and to others fearsome creatures.”

Kyas frowned. He did not like the high level of uncertainty. Who was this he was dealing with?

“OK,” he said slowly, “So where is this god, thing, whatever, anyway?” The big man produced a small glowing white stone. It hovered in the air.

“This will lead the way for you,” he told Kyas.

Kyas reached out and took the stone out of the air. It was wondrous! He could not get over its beauty. It was like a small dash of pure white light. It felt cold to the touch.

“When do I leave?” asked Kyas still gazing at the little white stone.

“Tomorrow,” confirmed the big man.

“What about the battle?” asked Kyas now focused back on the issues at hand.

“Tomorrow the forces from Terresand will arrive to evacuate all of Arganess back to Terresand. You will not go. You will follow your quest,” he stated

“But…..” began Kyas but the big man held up his hand in silence.

“Wake up. Events have already been set in motion. Stay true to your quest Blade Storm!”

 The dream drifted off and Kyas woke with a start. He was alone in his quarters. Maria was gone. He paused for a second before climbing out of bed. He then realized he was clasping something in his hand. It was a small white stone.

***

“This is your last chance. Come with us. Please!” pleaded General Dulok. Kyas shook his head as he adjusted the metal greave on his forearm.

“Look at how slow you are travelling,” pointed out Kyas, “The Dervish are more than likely no more than a couple of miles back down the trail. I have to stay here and delay them or no-ones going to make it.”

“The rock fall will slow them,” noted the general.

“Not for long enough. Go now general. I insist,” urged Kyas. The general nodded reluctantly and turned his horse around.

“You are a good man Navar. I will speak on your behalf when we get to Fort Terresand,” promised the general.

With that the general and his retainers galloped off after the wagon trail of refugees from Arganess. Kyas scrambled up over the rubble and watched for the enemy.

It had been just before dawn when the message came. Several cavalry units from Terresand were waiting just beyond the Dervish encirclement and were about to launch a dawn raid on them. The attack was to act as a diversion for Fort Arganess to empty and try and sneak past the remaining Dervish and hit the road to Terresand.

General Dulok had been disgusted at the order to abandon the fort but orders were orders. As the attack struck the forts doors had opened and all the remaining survivors had poured out. Soldiers led them out fighting a path to the perimeter. Militia brought up the rear. Once clear of the Dervish lines the survivors pushed hard for Terresand. The cavalry caught up with them on the road and informed them the Dervish were giving chase.

The general then devised a plan to instigate a rock fall where the road narrowed between a small pass. It seemed as good a time as any to take leave of the general. Kyas volunteered to stay behind to hold the barricade for as long as he could. That way he could leave and follow his quest once he had bought the survivors enough time.

He had not been sitting there long when he spotted the first riders belting down the road toward his position. He stood, drew his blade and waited. A party of five horsemen came to a halt about 50 yards from the rock-fall. They were about to dismount when one noticed Kyas and shouted something.

Like a bunch of panicked schoolgirls they wheeled their horses round and belted off in the direction they came. Kyas could not help chuckling. A squad of blood thirsty Dervish afraid of the son of a school master!

It was almost nightfall when he saw the Dervish again. Like ants the army crawled across the open ground in long lines toward Kyas position. Damn, thought Kyas. He knew he should have made a move earlier. It was too late now. He would be cut to ribbons on the open veld now. He decided to wait for nightfall and then try to sneak off. He hoped they would camp before maybe attacking tomorrow. Thankfully that was their intention. He tried to remain level headed knowing that the army had stopped to camp because he alone was obstructing their progress.

While the Dervish army made camp a unit of archers took up position near the foot of the rockfall and looked up at Kyas on his perch on the summit. A Dervish officer belted out orders as the unit knocked arrows.

 Kyas was just about to scramble unceremoniously back over the rim of the summit behind cover when another more senior officer made an appearance. Kyas paused as the two officers appeared to be debating a matter. The archers lowered their bows. The first officer ordered the archers away and the senior officer remained and cast a watchful eye over at Kyas.

Within a few moments a tall lean warrior, followed by two what can only be described as squires as they carried his weapons and armor, arrived. He saluted the senior officer and began donning his armor. One of the squires began climbing up the rockfall toward Kyas. He cautiously watched him approach. Bowing the young man offered Kyas a letter. Kyas took it and the man scrambled away. On it written in neat flowing script stood;

Bladestorm,

The highest respect to you and your ability. I, champion of the Dervish Empire, do hereby extend to you a challenge to meet me in a test of arms. I offer you my word that it will be a contest between only you and myself. The victor will not be harmed no matter who it is.

Yours in Honor,

Salamud.

With raised eyebrows Kyas read the letter written in perfect Lukian. Salamud stood fully equipped and ready to duel. Kyas thought back to his extensive historical studies. The dervish as a people were known for their respect of martial prowess. Their honor in this respect eclipsed the Lukians.

Kyas shrugged. If they kept their word it would ease his passage. It was a big if! Never mind the fact he would be facing a true blade master. Until now he had only tested his skill against peons. At the most a unit commander had been faced. Considering what he might have to face in the future it seemed a good opportunity. For the first time since he stood on the wall he felt nervous, as he descended the rockfall.

A murmur, which got louder the lower he got, spread through the assembled army. Kyas stopped several yards from the champion.

“Greeting Bladestorm,” the champions voice was deep and rich as he addressed Kyas.

He was tall for a dervish, over six foot. His hair was tied back in a neat ponytail and his dark eyes flashed with intenseness. Kyas could see even under his armor he was well muscled and he stood with an easy grace of a blades man.

“Greetings Salamud,” said Kyas in smooth dervish. “Why do you risk facing me? Those archers could have maybe done the job.”

Salamud looked surprised that Kyas knew his language.

“I see you are a true warrior who not only hones his physical skills but also hones his mind with studies,” remarked the champion. Kyas just shrugged. “But in answer to your question, it is a matter of pride.”

“You don’t seem like a man controlled by pride,” observed Kyas.

“Not my pride Bladestorm,” noted the champion, “My general needs the pride of our army restored after you alone have paralyzed it with fear. No Lukian must seem invincible or they might fear facing more of your kind on our march forward.”

Kyas still was surprised at the respect he was given. If he beat this champion then he could strike a major blow on the invaders moral.

“Okay Salamud,” breathed Kyas, “Let’s see who walks away.”

With that he saluted the champion with his blade and took up a classical combat stance. Salamud followed suit. At first they circled each other watching and studying each other’s footwork and defensive guard. Kyas lashed out with some probing strikes. They were blinding fast but Salamud parried and watched. He was good. He was better than good. He was a true master and leagues ahead of anything Kyas had faced before.

Just as Kyas produced one of his probes, Salamud parried and countered almost as fast as Kyas. Kyas was forced to leap back to avoid it but still got nicked on the cheek. He was alarmed at how good the man was but breathed deeply and calmed himself. He was favored by a god. He could take this champion.

Kyas pretended to feint an attack but then carried through with it and followed up with a whirlwind of unbelievably fast strikes. He forced the Dervish champ back as he wide eyed attempted to block everything. Kyas gave him no time to counter as he relentlessly pursued him. All Salamud could do was parry and back up.

The crowd of Dervish gathered to witness the contest were awed at the frenetic pace. A sense of dread came over them as their champ at length began to show signs of tiring. The Lukian devil was unceasing. Small cuts then larger ones appeared on Salamud as his defence started being breached. The champion could feel the cold fingers of death reach out and touch his shoulder. His time was up. He was losing and he had no answer to the Lukian soldier.

He dropped his guard and struck out at Kyas. Kyas had read the desperation in his eyes and was waiting for it. At the very last second he swiveled on his heel and watched the Dervish curved blade harmlessly slice the air where his head was. His own blade he had put into a mighty round house power strike that connected the Dervish scimitar just above the hilt. Due to the angle and the force, Kyas’s blade neatly sliced the Dervish blade right off. Without pausing for even half a second Kyas had his blade at Salamud’s throat. Breathing heavily Salamud stopped and dropped the useless hilt to the ground.

“Finish it,” he panted.

“It is finished,” said Kyas as he lowered his blade.

“Why do you not end it,” asked a bewildered Salamud, “You have defeated me.”

“Because today was a lesson for me,” answered Kyas as he sheathed the blade. “I could have killed you but you made me work for it. You taught me just how good I am. I want you to live and bear witness to what happened here. Who knows maybe you could do something to end this war.”

“Are there more as good as you?” asked Salamud as the crowd began to murmur.

“I don’t honestly know. I am just a bean counter from Paranaeth. I never trained to be a warrior,” responded Kyas honestly.

“You will excuse me if I have difficulty believing that,” noted the Dervish champion.

“I have no reason to lie,” answered Kyas, “But I must be on my way. There are things I need to do. That is if I am allowed to leave.”

Kyas glanced at the restless crowd and particularly at the high ranking Dervish officers present. Salamud looked around.

“They may not like it but my word was given. They have to let you go. We are an honorable people Bladestorm,” promised the man.

Kyas nodded and attempted to leave. The sea of warriors parted to let him through. Kyas looked them directly in the eyes as he made his way out. He could feel the hatred but none raised so much as a finger. Kyas climbed the rock fall and disappeared over the top. On the other side he mounted his horse and rode off into the hinterland.

Once he was sure he was out of sight he produced the small white stone. It glowed and floated up before streaking off in a south westerly direction. Kyas pushed hard. The stone set a fast pace but was never out of Kyas’s sight. The stone was unhindered by creeks, low branches, fallen trees, or steep hills as it tore deep into the hinterland bush. Kyas kept his eye on the stone as he wrung every last ounce of effort out of the gelding he was on. They had probably only been thundering along for a few hours when the glowing stone came to an abrupt stop and floated in the air. Kyas charged right past it before reining in the exhausted horse.

“What now?” he asked the white glow not really expecting an answer. Still he had experienced stranger things lately. “We can’t already be there…er here …..ah whatever.”

He swiveled in his saddle and looked around. There was nothing special about the area, just more bush. He dismounted to give his stead a rest and stretch his back. A noise made him spin around, hand on the hilt. It sounded like a spontaneous roar of laughter from a crowd, but it sounded quite far away. Kyas rubbed his chin.

“You wait here,” he told the horse and the stone. Neither made any promises they would do so.

Kyas stalked off through the foliage, his weapon still sheathed. As he moved in the direction of the laughter it became clearer and louder. It was not constant and it sounded like men. He could also hear cries of a female nature. Kyas felt a familiar anger begin to brew inside him. Pushing aside a broad leafed plant he entered a clearing and stopped in shock.

A small building dominated the clearing. The Church of Lukia symbol was emblazoned on the front above the door. It was one of the frontier mission stations. Outside the front door were gathered a group of men. They were dirty and somewhat ragged. From their dress Kyas could see they were Dervish. Lying to the side along the wall of the building facing Kyas were five bodies. Two were men in their late fifties and three were women in their forties. They were naked and their bodies mutilated. It appeared as though they had been beaten to death with heavy blunt objects and possibly then had body parts hacked off like some sort of sick trophy. It was hard to make out but it seemed the men were cheering and laughing at something going on inside the circle they had formed.

Kyas shook with rage as he drew his blade and strode over. So intent on the activity they were focused on they did not notice his approach. Kyas was about five feet from the back of the first Dervish when he saw the object of their sick twisted perverted entertainment. A young girl was naked on the ground, her body showing welts and bruises from a beating. A raw hide rope was tied around her neck and a trouser-less Dervish was holding the other end like a leash. He was pulling the rope tightly toward his crotch so that the girl had no choice but to take him in her mouth. She choked and gagged as the rope bit into her neck. The Dervish rocked his hips as he clutched a bunch of her hair with the other hand. He threw his head back and gasped with pleasure which brought a cheer from the crowd. Another semi naked Dervish had mounted her from behind. He dug his nails into the soft flesh of her hips and thighs as he thrust himself into her over and over again, grunting away as he did so. He clutched her small body so hard and tightly that he practically lifted her off the ground, causing her to try and support herself with her hands as the raw hide bit deeper in her neck.

The rage inside Kyas exploded so violently that he felt he had gone blind. He blinked once then twice and he could see again. Ten Dervish lay dead around him and his sword was drenched in blood. He drew a deep breath and suddenly felt a little light headed. He looked around again and remembered the girl. She was curled up against the wall of the mission, her knees drawn up to her chest and hands covering her face. Her young body shook as she sobbed. Covered with Dervish blood he approached her. He put down the sword as he knelt next to her.

“It’s over,” he whispered, “They can’t hurt you now.”

She stopped whimpering and peered from behind her hands.

“Kyas? Is that you?” she asked softly.

Kyas gasped in shock and fell back on his haunches. Oh no! Not her. Anyone but her! He suddenly wished he had not killed them so quickly. He wanted to make them suffer.

“Oh Emma!” he sighed, “I am so sorry!”

He put his arm around her and drew her to him. She burst into tears as he felt her tense little body collapse in his arms. Of all the people in the world she was the one individual who deserved to never find out just how harsh the world was. She was an innocent without a malicious bone in her body.

At that moment he wanted to trade all his ability and fame if he could just take away from her what had just happened. She had been brutalized and dehumanized. There was no telling how scared she was now or how she would carry on. Holding her tightly but gently he carried her inside where they gathered up her belongings and headed back to his horse. She spoke very little and did not even ask him how he came to be here.

As night fell she ate a little and curled up and went to sleep. He had tended to her wounds after she had bathed in a nearby stream. They were superficial and not the wounds that bothered him the most. Before Kyas fell asleep he heard her cry out a few times, but she didn’t wake.

The next morning when he took out the stone, he held it tightly in his fist. He felt it pull in an easterly direction. He didn’t want Emma to see the stone as he really didn’t want to try and explain what he was doing. He placed her on the horse and then led the horse in the direction the stone pulled.

“Where are we going?” she asked softly.

“I need to do something for someone and then I will take you home,” answered Kyas as he took the geldings reins.

She just nodded and slipped into silence. For days the stone led the way. Emma remained very quiet and never smiled. Kyas did not push her. He felt it would be better for her to come to terms with what had happened on her own. On the evening of the forth day, when they made camp she broke her silence.

“I didn’t know you knew how to fight,” she said in her now very quiet and soft voice just above a whisper.

“I kind of have to,” he responded, “After all that has happened I know I would be dead if I couldn’t.”

“I wish I was dead,” she whispered emotionlessly staring at the fire. Kyas moved to sit next to her and gently put his arm around her. She stiffened slightly.

“Don’t ever say that,” he said tenderly, “The world does not have enough people as wonderful as you. You make the world a better place just by being you. And that is very important!”

She stopped staring at the fire and looked up at Kyas.

“All I have ever wanted was to just be happy and help people,” she choked as a tear rolled from her big blue eyes, down her soft smooth cheek, “How can I get married now and have a family? Who will want me now after that!” Kyas wiped the tear from her cheek.

“Listen to me,” he said, “The only people who know what happened that live, are you and I, and I will never breathe a word of it to anyone. But more importantly you are still the same person you were before and any man would sell his sole to have you as his wife.”

A very little smile crept to the corners of her mouth. She threw her arms round him and gave him a huge hug.

“Thanks Kyas,” she whispered and lay down with her head on his lap. In a minute or so she was fast asleep. Kyas gently stroked her hair until he too dozed off.

***

“You care for her Bladestorm. One needs no special powers to see that,” noted the mysterious giant. Kyas nodded.

“Why her?” he muttered, “She was over innocent, if that is possible.”

“Believe it or not everything happens for a reason,” said the big man, “I could explain it to you but your mortal comprehension would not be able to assimilate it.”

Kyas shrugged. He didn’t understand what the big man meant and he believed him that it was too hard to understand.

“How much further do we have to go?” He asked.

“You will get there tomorrow,” announced the giant, “You will come across the ruins of an ancient civilisation. There you will meet the one called Zuncheriselian. He has my Song of Ages. Take it from him.”

“If I fail, I still need you to do me a favor,” ventured Kyas.

“Don’t worry,” assured the big man, “I will arrange that your young ward gets home.”

“Thanks,” sighed Kyas, “Are there any pearls of wisdom you wish to impart on me about my opponent?”

“Well,” began the giant, “He is powerful, but he is also crafty. He will tell you lie after lie to try and confuse you. Ignore him. If you keep your head you can defeat him.” Kyas nodded thoughtfully.

“See you on the other side,” he smiled.

***

Kyas slowly edged along the broken, almost totally overgrown cobbled street. All around him the jungle had just about completely claimed back this area. Vines and plants swamped what remained of the thousands of stone structures he had come across. Blade in hand he scanned the surroundings for a sign of life.

One of the first buildings they had come across still had most of its stone roof and walls. Kyas left Emma there with his horse. He practically barricaded her inside with the loose stone that lay around. It wasn’t exactly the safest place in the world but it would have to do. Kyas was comforted by the giants promise.

At the end of the street he came to the ruins of what must have been a massive construction in its day. Most of it was rubble now so one could only imagine. Kyas could just make out the faintest trace of a sweet smell on the air. It got fractionally stronger as he got closer to the ruins. After a fair amount of searching he found a set of ornate stone stairs leading down.

Taking a torch from his backpack he lit it and descended the stairs. He counted them as he went down. Eighty-five steps later he was in front of two solid gold doors with symbols and engravings covering the dirty dull surface. Kyas gasped! The scent was even stronger here. There were no handles or hinges on the door that Kyas could see. Left with no other option he sheathed his sword and gave the doors a hard shove. They shifted less than an inch. Bracing himself he put his back into it. Very slowly the doors started to give way. Gritting his teeth he managed to open the doors a couple of feet. It was enough to get through. Light poured out from the room beyond and the sweet pleasant smell assaulted him.

Discarding the torch he slipped in. His blade was back in his hand. It was like reaching an oasis in the desert. Kyas found himself in a large hallway. The floor was polished marble and walls were inlayed with gold and precious metals. Lit sconces lined the left wall. The air was sweet and fresh and it looked as if it had just had an army of cleaners tear through there. Gold doors that shone in the sconce light lined the right wall and another set of double doors, smaller than the ones he had just come through were at the far end of the hallway. Kyas blinked almost un-believingly. He headed straight to the second set of double doors. He could hear instruments being played on the other side. What was this place?!

Kyas reached out to give the doors a shove, but as soon as his hand came within six inches of its surface the doors swung slowly in. The music stopped. As tense as a spring Kyas stalked in, his blade held up and at the ready. A cavernous room opened up in front of him. It looked like a massive ballroom. In the middle an orchestra of instruments floated in the air as if held by an invisible band.

“Well, well, well. It’s been quite a long time since I have had a visitor!” declared a voice.

The voice echoed in the huge room. Kyas focused on the source. A slightly built man of around forty-five years of age, dressed in a plain white toga came walking toward him.

“I seek the one called Zuncheriselian,” announced Kyas still maintaining his combat stance.

“You found me Mr err……?” frowned the man. Kyas was surprised. What was going on here?

“I have come for the Song of Ages,” continued Kyas ignoring the man’s question, “Hand it over and no-one gets hurt.”

The man frowned more and then smiled and then laughed. He clapped his hands together.

“Is that why you are here?!” he smiled, “I should have actually guessed. So he has sent another one!” mused the man. That made Kyas feel uneasy, “You should walk away mortal. This has nothing to do with you.”

“I am afraid I can’t,” responded Kyas, “Just hand it over and then things don’t need to get messy.” The man stopped smiling and Kyas shivered in his gaze.

“What kind of a man would take up such an ignoble quest for the likes of a creature like him?” His eyes narrowed as he seemed to look through Kyas.

“I have been warned of your lies Zuncheriselian,” sneered Kyas, “Let’s not beat around the bush.”

“Lies?” gasped the man, “Is that how he has tried to hide the truth from you? Do you even have a clue of what you are dealing with here?”

“Look!” bellowed Kyas as he stepped forward holding the blade inches from the man’s chest, “Don’t bother speaking because I’m not listening. Arm yourself if you are to make a fight of this. I will be taking the Song of Ages.”

“You have been misled mortal,” he warned, “Don’t doom yourself.”

“Have it your way,” muttered Kyas.

He glanced around the huge room. It suddenly occurred to him he didn’t have a clue as to what the song of ages looked like, or in fact what it was. There was nothing else in the room so he concluded it had to be in one of the rooms he passed in the hallway. Keeping his blade facing the man he backed off toward the hallway. The man walked slowly following him. The slightest of smiles sat at the corner of his mouth.

“I think I will just take a look in here,” he said as he headed for the first door. Suddenly the man’s face changed.

“NO!!!” he yelled so loud Kyas felt the room shake.

In a blur of speed the man darted forward, grabbed Kyas’s chainmail vest and hurled him fifty feet back into the ballroom. Kyas lashed out with his sword as he was lifted off his feet and tossed. He felt the blade bite flesh twice. He hit the marble floor with a resounding meaty thud and then slid a further ten feet. He rolled and struggled to his feet. The wind was knocked from him and a shooting pain lanced down his back. The man was standing in the same place looking at a cut on his forearm and another on his chest. He shook his head.

“Now you must DIE!” he snarled and rushed at Kyas with the same blinding speed.

In the second or so it took him to cover the sixty feet his visage and from changed. When he hit Kyas he was pure white with black slits for eyes and razor sharp claws for hands. Kyas swung at it but missed as the creature lifted Kyas and hurled him against the far wall. His sword popped out his hand as he hit the wall ten feet from the ground and then dropped hitting the ground with his left knee.

Pain wracked his body as did panic. With rage he fought through the pain and scrambled for his sword. The creature launched itself at the warrior again. Kyas knew it would hit before he reached his sword. He stopped and dropped to the deck. The creature flew over him and piled into the wall of the ballroom with a shuddering crash. A fissure of a crack tore up the wall to the vaulted ceiling. It stood and shook its head.

Kyas gathered up his sword and charged it. It turned slowly and menacingly toward Kyas. It actually seemed a little surprised when it found Kyas on top of it wailing away at it with his long sword. It ducked and leapt backward to avoid most of the blows. Kyas was still able to connect it with some of his best shots. The blade barely broke the skin, despite the power he put into the blows.

It landed several feet from him and snarled. Kyas would have liked to have been able to keep up the pressure and follow up the attack but his left knee was barely holding out. He was glad he was able to keep standing.

The creature once again took off like a lightning bolt at Kyas. Kyas was ready. He stepped off his good leg to his left landing on the suspect knee, letting the creature pass him. At the same moment he brought his blade around in a perfectly timed swift chopping two handed strike into the creatures path. The sword and creature connected head on.

The blade snapped. Kyas yelled out in pain as the muscles in his leading shoulder and arm tore from the force of the connection. The broken hilt was also ripped from his hands and it bounced off the marble floor. Clutching his shoulder he looked over at the creature. It had landed face down but it was slowly getting up. Thick black goo poured onto the marble floor from a massive wound to its chest. It gagged and coughed as it spewed forth the black blood.

Kyas hobbled over to the hilt, picked it up with his good arm, and drove the shard into the back of the rising creature. It only entered about an inch into the back but the creature flopped down again only to start rising once more. Still holding the hilt Kyas threw himself onto the prone creature. His added body weight drove the shard in up to the hilt. With a gargled exhale of air the creature expired. Despite the adrenalin Kyas was in a lot of pain.

He rolled off the creature onto his back. The movement was excruciating. He lay there gasping for air. At that point Kyas did not know if he was going to live. Almost immediately he was aware of a vibration in the ground that built and built and built.

Concerned he willed himself onto his knees. The body of the creature next to him shook and thrashed around. It was also swelling up and cracks ran the length and breadth of it. It didn’t look good so Kyas began crawling away. He hadn’t made more than a few feet when an explosion ripped through the air.

Kyas’s already broken body was once again flung across the room. He came to a halt near the doors he had entered from. Kyas had never experienced pain as he did at that moment. He could feel numerous bones had been broken and he was lying in his own blood. Every breath took supreme effort and each one was rewarded with a gargle of blood filling his lungs. He began to wonder if now that the deed was so to speak done, if he would lose his granted powers? He had experienced the miraculous healing they gave in the past but could not feel them working. Kyas concluded that if he was dying then he didn’t have much time left so he had better make the most of it.

Drawing a deep painful and ragged breath he lifted himself off the floor. He then forced his legs under him and straightened up. He tottered on dodgy legs for a second or two. Now upright when he breathed he also had blood rush into his mouth from the flooded lungs. He spat it out as he staggered out the ballroom. The first side door he came to swung open as he approached it. It appeared to be a bed room. Trailing blood and holding his near useless shoulder he staggered in and looked around. It was the most exquisitely furnished room he had ever seen. Everything was touched with gold.

“Oh my…!” he heard a gasp to his left.

Awkwardly he turned and was surprised to see the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life standing there with her eyes wide in shock to his appearance. She stood maybe 5’5” with the most perfect body he had ever seen. It was thin but curved in all the right places. She had long straight jet black hair that framed a finely chiseled face of smooth creamy white skin. Emerald green eyes rested above her small delicate nose that led to her full red lips.

Kyas felt light headed and he at first thought he had forgotten to breath so taken was he with her beauty, but he soon realized that it was not that. He gasped but no oxygen reached his lungs. Blood dribbled from his lips as more and more blood choked him. Death was imminent. He collapsed onto the floor. The pain was gone and he just felt a little cold. Somewhere a voice muttered a phrase that he could not understand. His vision blurred.

Suddenly a burning hot sensation coursed through him. Strangely it was not painful. His eyes shot open and he breathed deeply. He choked and coughed and blood poured from his mouth. With each breath drawn less blood came up and more oxygen was absorbed. There was a sickening grinding sound as it felt as though someone was manipulating the broken bones throughout his body all at once. He flopped onto his back still gasping for the sweet satisfying air. The curious burning sensation began to subside. Slowly his breathing calmed and he dared to raise his head. The beautiful woman was staring at him curiously.

“What…what just…happened?” he croaked. All he could taste was his own blood.

“I healed you,” she chimed, her voice like that of an angel, “You were dying.” For some reason she sounded incredulous. As if to say what were you doing dying?

“Thank you my lady,” said Kyas sitting up.

In the past someone bringing him back from the brink of death simply by muttering a few words would have had him questioning his own sanity. Damn he was really becoming jaded. The pain was gone but he did feel very weak.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” her voice floated to him as though from far away and right in his ear at the same time. He got to his feet and fought the nausea and light headedness.

“My name is Kyas Navar my lady,” he said with a curt bow of the head, “I had some business with Zuncheriselian.”

She stepped back at the mention of the name and looked at the doorway. Kyas glanced back half expecting him to be standing there. Thankfully he was not.

“Have you concluded your business,” she asked.

“Just about,” said Kyas.

“Where is he now” she asked apprehensively.

“Why,” asked Kyas cautiously, “What is he to you?” She tilted her head as if thinking.

“I suppose he would be my captor and I his prisoner,” she answered after a moment’s thought. Kyas breathed a sigh of relief.

“Well you are a prisoner no more my lady. Zuncheriselian is dead. I killed him,” announced Kyas. Now she really looked shocked.

“How is that possible?” she gasped. Kyas shrugged.

“It wasn’t easy I will say that much,” he told her, “Hell you saw what I looked like when I walked in here. He did that to me!” She frowned.

“Are you mortal?” she asked matter of factly.

“Well,” began Kyas, “I think I am but honestly speaking things have been quite strange lately so I don’t want to lie to you.”

“He sent you didn’t he?” she whispered.

“I am not sure who he is but I think you are right,” concluded Kyas, “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” he asked remembering what Zuncheriselian had said before the fight. She shrugged.

“It depends,” she said thoughtfully.

“On what?” asked Kyas. She looked at Kyas and paused.

“It’s complicated. I fear too complicated for your mortal intellect to fully grasp,” she answered. Kyas rolled his eyes.

“Yes I seem to be getting that a lot lately,” he muttered, “Please excuse my simple mortal brain.” He began searching the room.

“I am sorry,” she said, “I don’t mean to insult you. You are clearly a remarkable being among your kind but you are still only mortal!”

Kyas opened one of the ornate cupboards and glanced through it. Then it struck him. He turned back to the woman.

“How did you know he sent me?” he asked suspiciously.

“Only he could have sent you,” she replied.

“Do you know why he sent me?” continued Kyas.

“Of course,” she looked a little puzzled.

“Well how about telling me,” probed Kyas.

“He sent you to kill Zuncheriselian and fetch me,” she answered. Kyas took a moment to run a few things through his archaic mortal brain. He sighed.

“Are you the Song of Ages?” he sounded stupid saying it and he knew he would look like a prize idiot if he was wrong. She smiled.

“Quite perceptive for a mortal,” she said. Kyas just shook his head

“But how…..?” he started to say but stopped, “Never mind. I am sure my mortal comprehension would just fall short once more.” She just smiled. “Well pack your belongings, we better get going my lady,” he gave a wry smile, “He is probably waiting…somewhere.”

“I have all I need thanks,” she smiled and left the room. Kyas followed stiffly and gingerly. She stopped just before the main doors and turned. “You carry no weapon?” she asked.

“I broke my sword fighting Zuncheriselian,” answered Kyas, “I have another on my horse.”

“Come with me,” she ordered and walked over to the second door on the right from the main doors.

It opened and she went inside. Kyas followed. They walked down a long hallway decorated with flags hanging from the walls. Kyas did not recognise any of the heraldic symbols. At the end of the hallway were more doors that they passed through. They entered a large room with an altar on a raised dias at the far end. More symbols decorated the walls. It appeared to be some sort of place of worship but to whom Kyas had no idea. She approached the altar and ran her fingers over the symbols on its surface. Several glowed with a blue light as she touched them. The whole altar slid backwards revealing a stairwell leading down.

“This is a consequence of vanity Kyas,” she told him as she descended the stairs, “Zuncheriselian loved to show off.”

Kyas shrugged but followed her. The stairs led to a fairly large room. Kyas staggered and choked with surprise when he cast his eyes about the room. It was wall to wall with treasure of every description. Huge gold coins and gems littered the floor and poured from overflowing chests and sacks. Shiny weapons and armor lay scattered about, some of them half buried in coin.

“Some of this is from the old world and the rest was taken from those who failed before you,” she informed the stunned Kyas, “Close your mouth. You look stupid,” she told him. Kyas embarrassingly snapped out of his trance.

“Wow!” he whispered.

“Help yourself mortal,” she invited him.

He grinned like a child in a confectionery store. He examined the weapons, having to dig some of them out. After a while he adopted a fine long bladed sword with a hand and a half hilt. It was feather light and perfectly balanced. Strange symbols decorated the blade and a green stone, that reminded him of her eyes, was set in the pommel. He found a master worked breastplate which seemed to fit him with similar symbols decorating it. Despite the obvious length of time both items had been there, there was no tarnish to them. He also grabbed one of the smaller chests.

“Is that all you are taking?” she asked, “I heard mortals could not resist greed.”

“Sorry to shatter your illusions my lady,” he smiled, “It’s all I can carry and I want to get out of here.” She smiled and headed out with Kyas following closely.

 

Decked out in the new breastplate and new sword in hand, Kyas reached the top of the stairs leading to the ruins first. He carefully checked the surroundings for any danger before motioning her out.

From behind one of the broken columns stepped the big man. Kyas’s breath caught in his throat. It was the first encounter with this mysterious being outside of dreams. He looked past Kyas and addressed the lady in a tongue completely foreign to Kyas. He was smiling. She answered in the same unknown language, but she was not smiling. The exchange went on for some time with Kyas just standing there wondering just what was going on between them. While the discussion did seem to get heated at points it never seemed as if it would boil over into something more.

“Bladestorm,” he addressed Kyas, “You have done well.” Kyas half smiled and nodded acknowledgement. “Go now and continue your quest. I feel you have some part yet to play in the shaping of the histories of this continent.”

“I take it I won’t understand the significance of what has just happened here,” guessed Kyas. The big man smiled.

“In the greater scheme of things creatures like myself are un-able to directly manipulate certain events down here. You were part of the loophole I discovered. Does that make things clearer?” checked the giant.

“To a certain extent,” answered Kyas honestly, “But tell me now that I have completed the task, have you taken your powers back?” The mysterious giant chuckled.

“What I granted you was not something tangible like lending you coin,” he informed Kyas, “It would take a great deal of effort from my side to strip you of that now. They have become part of you.” Kyas was relieved to hear that.

“Goodbye mortal,” said the lady and she touched his forearm, “Something tells me that we will see each other again.”

“I hope so,” Kyas smiled at her. She walked over to the big man and took his arm. They both walked off into the ruins.

“Go and live the legend you are becoming Bladestorm,” called the big man over his shoulder just before they disappeared behind a wall.

Kyas let out a deep breath. He was tired and sore but feeling very satisfied with him-self. Deep in thought he made his way back to where he had left Emma. He failed to notice he was being followed. It was closer to being stalked.

At the building he found Emma asleep on his ground sheet. She stirred as he got to the doorway. Rubbing her eyes she sat up and stretched a little. Watching her there she looked even younger than her sixteen years. Being near her gave him an unusual warm fuzzy feeling inside. She looked up at him and smiled. Kyas opened his mouth to say something when her eyes went wide in horror and she screamed.

Instinctively Kyas spun around drawing the blade and sweeping it in a blinding fast arc at whatever had been behind him. His new blade sliced neatly through the neck of a giant snake which had reared up behind him ready to strike. The snake was easily 30 inches thick and over 20 feet long. The head flopped to the ground while its headless remains thrashed around as it expired in its own blood. Kyas scanned the area for more. There were none. He had to remind himself that this was a dangerous place and so far he had been lucky.

“This place makes me feel weird,” admitted Emma, “When can we leave?”

“Let’s leave now,” suggested Kyas, “I don’t like this place either.”

“Oh gods! Are you ok?” she suddenly cried as she noticed all the blood on Kyas. He looked down at the mostly dried blood now and laughed.

“I am fine,” he assured her, “It’s not mine,” he lied. She looked relieved.

“What exactly did you have to do here?” she asked curiously. He chose his words carefully.

“I had to stop something evil and help someone,” he said cautiously.

“I don’t remember you being this secretive Kyas,” she admitted, “Did you have to kill again?”

 He nodded. She looked at him but said nothing. She was not judging him and he knew that. Emotionally she was a wreck. So many strange feelings were running through her and she couldn’t make much sense of them. The thought of even seeing a man filled her with dread, yet at the same time the thought of not having Kyas nearby filled her with just as much dread. She was angry and had developed some frightfully violent thoughts. She felt changed despite what Kyas had said and that depressed her. Could she ever be happy again she wondered?

Kyas shoved the small chest into his saddle bags and packed up his gear. He then helped her onto the horse.

“Time to go home,” he announced and gave her a smile. She smiled back with genuine warmth.

***

The trip home was slow going with Kyas walking all of the way. Emma rode the horse all the time. In order to avoid the fighting, Kyas picked a route that took them far to the east. Their supplies were dangerously low when at last they came across a small rural hamlet.

Kyas was surprised to find they had passed into neighboring Dalburg. The little settlement was teeming with what looked like refugees. He could read the scars of war and hopelessness in their vacant stares. They made their way to the only Inn in town and they went inside.

“Sorry stranger,” barked the barkeep, “We are full up. No rooms available.” Kyas produced two of the large gold coins and slammed them on the bar top.

“Make it happen,” he ordered and fixed the man’s gaze. The middle aged proprietor gulped under the stare. He then looked at the two coins.

“We if you don’t mind the space I can set up something in the store room,” he suggested.

“Good man,” acknowledged Kyas, “We will be over at the window. Food is a good idea.”

The man nodded. After they had been seated but a few minutes, a serving girl brought them each a large steamed bowl of thick broth. Chunks of meat and vegetables bobbed slowly around. She also put down a wheel of cheese, two small warm loaves and a couple of tankards of ale. The two of them dug in. It had been a while since either had had a good meal.

Before they retired to the small room they learned that the refugees were in fact Lukians and that the war was going badly. The latest news was that the capital Cardanaeth was under siege. The thought was horrifying to contemplate. A general SOS had been sent out to neighboring countries and further abroad. The bad news was that so far only the small overseas kingdom of Grenz had answered the call and was sending troops. Kyas hoped that the war would be over before they reached Paranaeth.

***

After purchasing supplies at rather inflated prices, a well as a horse for Emma, they left the little settlement. She was awfully excited about her horse and it took her days to name it. The name she finally settled on was Prince. Kyas loved seeing her happy and the horse seemed to distract her.

They travelled faster now they made their way to the coast. All over they passed refugees. The growing numbers alarmed Kyas. After a week, due to the brisk pace, they hit the outskirts of Paranaeth. Kyas breathed a sigh of relief when he saw no Dervish army encamped nearby. He wondered if General Dulok had kept his word, or in fact if he had kept his word, if he had been able to get him pardoned or not. Kyas knew they would toss him back into jail if they found him here and he was in fact still a prisoner. The governor was a stickler for the law.

To play it safe they only entered the city once it was dark. Sticking to the backstreets they headed for Emma’s parents home. It was quiet on the street when they stopped in front of the modest neat middle class house. Kyas dismounted and helped Emma. Still looking around nervously, he took her to the front door. She was bubbling over with excitement and opened the door without knocking and rushed in.

Seconds later shouts and screams and cries of joy filtered back to Kyas. Slowly he entered the home he had once frequented so often. Inside he saw the whole family hugging and kissing each other and crying like babies as she briefly told them what happened. She left out the most traumatic part. He paused just in the doorway. There was her father and mother, her sister, Heida and her husband. It wasn’t too long before they turned to Kyas.

“My thanks lad,” said her father extending a hand, with tears in his eyes. Kyas took it and they shook. “Gods you have changed lad. I guess the legend is true.”

“That depends what you have heard sir,” replied Kyas seconds before her mother threw her arms around him and thanked him between sobs.

Heida stood with her husband’s arms around her and mouthed the words thanks to him. The husband gave a curt nod. He acknowledged them both. The man seemed on edge as if he was about to lose Heida to him. Kyas shrugged it off.

He was invited to the table where he sat next to Emma while her father related the news to him. General Dulok and the refugees eventually made it all the way back to Cardenaeth. The legend of Bladestorm arrived much earlier though. Very little was known of the prisoner turned savior. Some stories circulated that he was a pit fighter from an exotic land that had slaughtered a city guard patrol and was sent to the penal battalion. Others said he was a decorated soldier who made a mistake and ended up a prisoner.

His exploits bordered on mythical and had been a rallying point for the beleaguered troops of Lukia. All the stories ended with him falling at the pass holding back the Dervish so that the refugees could escape.

True to his word, General Dulok went before the ruling council and retold the tale of the unknown Kyas Navar of Paranaeth who was the real Bladestorm. The council issued a full pardon without question, as well as numerous military decorations, posthumously.

When this news hit Paranaeth the whole city was struck numb. Everyone suddenly regretted the circumstances surrounding Kyas’s departure and the treatment he and his family had received from them. Kyas’s father changed over-night. To be sure he was proud of who his son had become but the grief of hearing of his demise had broken the man. The rest of the city called for statues to be carved and streets to be renamed in honor of the cities latest hero.

The authorities in Paranaeth were a little less enthusiastic. He may have been pardoned but he was still the man who had been convicted of theft. They were reluctant to honor a thief, even if he was now pardoned in death.

Kyas sat back and absorbed the news. He could return to life as a free man. But there would always be the stigma of thief. Kyas had to clear his name before he could return his life to what it was, or something close to that.

“I have to leave right away,” he announced. They all looked at him quite surprised.

“You have been pardoned Kyas,” reminded the father, “That won’t change when they find out you are alive.” Kyas nodded.

“I know. I just can’t stay here with everyone thinking I am a thief. I must clear my name first and then I will be back,” he told them.

What he didn’t say was that when he got to the bottom of the conspiracy against him he was going to be dealing out some vengeance against the perpetrators that would shock the hardest of souls.

“Where will you go?” asked a teary eyed Emma. Kyas smiled warmly.

“The only ones who know who took that money are the Rygerstanians who paid it over,” he told her, “I will simply find out who took the payment and the mystery is solved.”

“Rygerstania is far away,” she gulped. Kyas gave her a gentle hug.

“I will be back before you know it,” he promised, “You will be safe here.”

Kyas set about inking a letter to his father and then to the governor. Despite the pardon he could not face his father and see the shame reflected there. In his eyes he was still the thief who shamed the family. His father was a proud man and Kyas knew this. In the letter he simply stated that he was alive but would not return to Paranaeth as a thief. He would return exonerated or die trying. To the governor he wrote a similar thing. Emma’s father promised to deliver both letters and to verify their authenticity.

Then in the dead of night Kyas left them and went straight to the docks were he purchased passage to Rygerstania. To avoid detection Kyas kept his hooded cloak on and kept to the shadows. Before first light and with the outgoing tide the ‘Wind-Raven’ set sail for the distant land of Rygerstania.

***

Kyas scooped up spoonfuls of the rich broth and shoved it into his mouth between chucks of warm freshly baked bread he tore off the loaf. On any other day the meal would have seemed ordinary at best but today it tasted like heaven. After three weeks at sea living on pickled meals and hard tack, this was awesome.

He scooped up the last little bit left in the bowl and scoffed it down before pushing the empty bowl away. His hunger was sated for now. Collecting up the metal tankard he drained the last few mouthfuls to wash the meal down. He leaned back in the chair and groaned. That felt good.

The inn he was in was not unlike any other inn he had ever seen, except it was in Kraglin, a port city in Rygerstania’s southern barony.

“Anything else I can get you sir?” offered the young serving wench as she collected up the bowl and tankard.

“No thank you,” replied Kyas, “I think three bowls and two tankards are my limit.”

He smiled. She returned the smile and headed back to the kitchens. Kyas stood up and headed out. He walked down the busy street leading to the Mercantile District. Having left most of his gear in the relative safety of the inn he was not too worried about pickpockets. Still he kept one hand on his coin purse and the other on his fine blade.

The butterflies raced around his stomach as he approached the front doors of the House Lavalle Trading Enterprises building. They were the Rygerstannian trading house that came to Paranaeth so many moons ago. Actually it wasn’t that long ago but it felt like lifetimes ago to Kyas. Two brawny individuals stood guard at the door. Each was armed with a stout billy club and a short sword. Hard lacquered leather breastplates adorned their barrel chests.

“Yes?” said the one as Kyas approached.

“Can I speak to someone in charge?” he asked politely.

“You got a appointment son?” the guard asked.

“Sorry no,” admitted Kyas, “How do I make one?” The guard with his thug like appearance surprised Kyas by reaching for a pile of papers and a charcoal pencil.

“Name?” he asked as he prepared to scribe.

“Kyas Navar of Lukia,” he answered.

“Reason for appointment?” continued the man.

“To clear up the debacle that was your last trading venture to Paranaeth,” he continued. The two guards looked at each other and then at Kyas.

“Wait right there,” ordered the scribe.

Kyas obliged as the scribe disappeared inside. He wasn’t gone long before he reappeared at the door and motioned Kyas in.

“Follow this man,” he ordered gesturing to another brawny guard inside, “He will take you to Mr Varrapac.”

Kyas nodded and followed. His guide led him through vast warehouses where armies of workers either loaded or off loaded wagons of boxes of all shapes and sizes. Despite the melee of people they all seemed to know what they were doing.

They stopped in front of a slightly built man of around forty with a distinct receding hairline. He was busy scribbling furiously on a clipboard and barking orders to several subordinates at the same time. They scattered at pace to carry out his orders. The man looked up at the two men in front of him and handed the clipboard to an assistant. He had a stern gaze and a hard uncompromising demeanour. He gave a curt nod to the guard who backed off and stood a little distance away.

“You know something about our last expedition to Paranaeth?” he asked. It was no nonsense straight to the point.

“I know you got a raw deal over there but believe me it wasn’t as raw as the deal I got,” began Kyas. The man’s eyes narrowed.

“Navar……yes….the greedy administrator,” the man nodded as he recalled the facts.

“I was wrongly accused sir,” announced Kyas evenly, “I would not be here if I were guilty!”

“You have less time than you think to prove your innocence young man,” threatened Mr Varrapac, “Or you won’t leave here alive.”

Kyas tried to hide his smile. He could slay all the guards here if it came to that, but it would serve no purpose.

“I will prove it in due course sir,” responded the bladesman smoothly, “First I need to know who your delegation handed the money over to. There is the one who is guilty I am sure.”

“It was you,” replied Mr Varrapac sounding annoyed.

“Let me speak to the man who did the handing over, because I assure you it was not I who received it,” requested the confident warrior.

Varrapac yelled at a worker sneaking past to go and call a Mr Sothering. The worker darted off.

Moments later an office door burst open and a brawny man of around forty years of age stormed into the warehouse.

Past his prime now Max Southering still had an impressive physique. It had come from years of soldiering in many of Rygerstanias military campaigns. The non commissioned officer was a strict, hard and organized man who’s talents in logistics had caught the attention of the Lavalle Trading House. It took some persuading but they finally managed to get the soldier to join them as an expedition leader. In the two years he had been with them he had more than proven his worth. It was just the Paranaeth expedition that had not gone 100% smoothly and the blot had almost driven the perfectionist off the rails.

“Where is the snake?!” he bellowed as he strode over to Mr Varrapac, “I will rip his innards out with my bare hands!”

Mr Varrapac calmly motioned over to Kyas with his head. Southering came to a halt in front of Kyas looking puzzled. His face was flushed red. He turned to Mr Varrapac.

“I was told that Navar fellow was here,” he said through clenched teeth.

“That’s him,” replied Varrapac, “Or so he claims.”

“This isn’t him,” insisted Southering, “I won’t forget that face.”

“I am Kyas Navar Mr Southering,” assured Kyas, “But I was not the one who took your trade dues.” Varrapac and Southering looked at each other and shrugged.

“Who was the Navar I met and handed over all that coin to?” asked Southering suspiciously.

“That’s what I am here to find out gentleman,” sighed Kyas, “Now please Mr Southering describe the man you dealt with.”

***

Kyas Navar drove his fist so hard into the stout wooden door that the door snapped along the grain lines and broke in two as it fell to the ground. His impressive strength was still with him as was his toughness as he felt no pain. However the anger he felt could just be masking everything.

He stalked over to the table and produced some coin. The innkeeper appeared at the door and opened his mouth in order to complain about the door when Kyas thrust several coins into his hand.

“I don’t want to hear about it OK?” he glared at the innkeeper.

The poor man turned white and said nothing. He took the coin and backed off. Hell it was only a door. No point in getting killed by this deranged foreigner over a door. He could not believe the change that had come over the friendly young man since he had left earlier.

Kyas packed up his things roughly, barely containing his anger. Southering had described the ‘Navar’ who took the coin and signed their papers. Kyas knew at once. The humorless dull little man of around thirty who was described to him could only be one man. Simon. How could that ungrateful weasel betray him? He thought of how good he had been to his assistant and how well they had worked together. Kyas had made sure that Simon was well paid for the post he held and was always granting his infrequent requests. The betrayal galled him but he was sure of the guilt. Simon was the only one who could have had access to all the factors that incriminated Kyas. He could not believe how he had misjudged Simon.

With his kit packed he strode out the inn and straight to the harbor for the first boat back to Lukia.

***

“Look,” sighed Kyas a little exasperated now, “What will it take to let me off here?” Conrad, the ships captain, furrowed his brow. He wanted to help the likeable passenger but it was just too dangerous. Lukia was practically no more.

In the time Kyas had been away in Rygerstannia the Dervishes had stepped up their campaign and streamed across the land like ants. Not only had they laid siege to the capital Cardenaeth but also to the vital port city of Paranaeth. The general consensus was that Lukia would fall. It was just a matter of time. Captain Conrad did not know who controlled the docks as fighting raged in Parranaeth. He could not risk putting into port.

“I am sorry lad,” he apologized, “Short of swimming I don’t know what you can do.”

“I will give you three pieces of gold to borrow your lifeboat,” offered Kyas, “One of your crew can row it back!” The Captain considered the proposal.

“Ok,” he said at length, “I will see if I can find a volunteer.

***

Staying low, Kyas hauled himself up onto the wharf. Once up he gave the boatman the thumbs up and the man immediately started rowing back to the ship. He would not stick around for one second longer than it took to earn the considerable coin.

Kyas crept to a low wall and surveyed the dock area. In the predawn light all was quiet. Evidence of battle was everywhere. Kyas wondered if he was behind enemy lines or not. From his position he could see his old offices. His journey was almost over. He had almost come full circle.

Sliding over the low wall Kyas kept to a crouched run and covered the distance to the warehouse wall as fast as he could. There was still no sign of life anywhere. Unconsciously he adjusted his breastplate ever so slightly. His ancient magical blade was out its sheath and ready for action. He poked his head around the corner and watched the ally for movement. Still all was quiet. Cautiously the blade-master navigated the back allies of his old home town and made his way to the garrison. He was getting close when he smelled, before he saw, the stench of men closely crowded together.

At a corner leading into one of the main roads in Paranaeth he glimpsed the assembled Dervish Army. Spread out and using numerous buildings, the Dervish had set up a forward position bordering on the old sector of town. Ahead was the Garrison. They effectively cut off any chance of re-supply for the defenders from the harbor. The outer walls must have fallen. That was no mean feat. Those walls had never been breached before. It seemed the defenders had fallen back into the temporary safety of the old sectors walls and the garrison.

Kyas retreated back into the ally and scaled the wall of the nearest building to get a better view. From the flat roof of the double story structure he could see that a front line had formed at a breach in the old wall. The situation was much worse than Kyas had imagined. He licked his dry lips and cursed quietly but violently.

As he watched, the Dervish Army rose and prepared for battle. He could just make out the beleaguered defenders waiting for them. His revenge would have to wait. He had the small matter of his legendary reputation to uphold.

Leaping to his feet he raced across the roof and leapt to the adjacent building. Landing on the run he sped off toward the next building, clearing the ally width with relative ease. He picked his route carefully and within a minute he was in front of the advancing Dervish leaping from roof to roof. He was lucky that in that area the law had governed the height of all structures limiting them to two stories, lest they impede the view from the old wall. Below him the Dervish advanced oblivious to his presence. Ahead a few defenders had spotted the figure shadowing the Dervish and some pointed and shrugged in confusion.

Kyas dropped off the roof of the last building and calmly strode to the middle of the street and turned with his back to the defenders, facing the Dervish. There he stopped and watched them advance. Behind him the defenders stood behind their makeshift barrier and mumbled and whispered at the strange events unfolding in front of them. The street was not meant for the advance of a large army. It was just over 20 feet across.

The Dervish, packed a little too tightly together, stopped their advance to stare at the lone warrior. Kyas wondered if they had an idea of who he was. If they did they would surely have wished they had bowmen nearby! From behind them he heard orders barked and the mass continued its advance. Kyas felt the exhilaration of the impending battle surge through him. It was much more controlled now but just as intoxicating.

With an un-godly roar he took off in a flat sprint toward the mass of Dervish and leapt into the front rank. The magical blade hummed as he scythed into the bodies with it. As easily as an arm passed through a waterfall, so the blade passed through armor, flesh and bone. The bodies of the Dervish offered almost no resistance to the blade as Kyas swept back and forth, upward and over, carving the shrieking Dervish to shreds. Blades and shields brought up in defense were just as useless.

The pack of men still pressed forward, unable to retreat due to the pressure from the unsighted masses behind them. From the front to several ranks back however the Dervish attempted to retreat. Kyas moved slowly backward toward the barricade slaughtering wave after wave of Dervish. From the Dervish side offence was minimal, while dying came in great supply. If they didn’t know before then they surely knew now. The Bladestorm was upon them!

The Dervish advance was methodical. Many Dervish now stood in and on the remains of their fallen comrades as Kyas backed up against the barricade. In one fluid move, Kyas created some space for himself with an exaggerated wide slash, and then turned and scrambled up and onto the barrier to join the cheering defenders.

With no time to acknowledge the cheers, he turned back on the Dervish and, holding the middle of the breach, he delivered out copious amounts of fresh hot death to the fanatical but terrified Dervish attackers. As before his presence inspired the defenders who clearly understood who he was. Many could not contemplate how it was that he was there, but they fought beyond themselves nevertheless.

After a solid two hours of battle, the Dervish were forced to retreat as they could no longer clamber over the piles of bodies of their fallen warriors. Unaccustomed to retreat they awkwardly backed off to reveal a sea of blood and gore knee-deep. The defenders seemed less fatigued now than before the battle started. They cheered and screamed and beckoned the Dervish forward for more.

Sweating slightly and breathing comfortably Kyas smiled and accepted the congratulations of the defenders. Kyas pushed through the throngs of admirers in search of the commander.

***

“Just give us his name and if he is still alive then I will clap him in irons and we will hold a trail when this is all over,” pleaded Argondar, the governor and garrison commander. Kyas shook his head.

“No sir”, he replied, “I will deal with this my way when this is all over.” Argondar sighed in frustration.

“If you take the law into your own hands then you could find yourself back to where you started,” argued the commander.

“I will never be back there,” vowed Kyas, “Look there are more important matters at hand.”

Argondar nodded and looked back at the map on the table. The arrival of Kyas had been nothing short of a miracle. Completely besieged and on the brink of falling, Paranaeth was almost finished. In just one day the staunch defenders had driven the Dervish back and opened a route to the harbor.

Wherever the Bladestorm went the Dervish retreated. If they did, under duress, stand and fight they were massacred. The stories of the Bladestorm had if anything not done him justice. He was a one man army.

Today would be a huge test. No doubt the Dervish would throw absolutely everything at them to break the defense. They had come so close. Just then the door burst open and a beaming young officer ran in.

“Sir, reinforcements have arrived!” He announced smiling.

“Who?” asked the commander, “From where?”

“It’s the 1st Expeditionary Lancers from Grenz,” he informed them.

“I thought they were fighting to the interior,” frowned the commander.

“They were sir,” continued the officer, “They were sent to break the siege here sir. They marched at night and came up through the docks, completely avoiding the Dervish!”

“He is a shrewd officer that Captain Taldar,” Argondar told Kyas reffering to the lancer’s commanding officer, “Any news from the capital?” The officer shook his head.

***

Kyas stepped onto the blood stained walls of the port city of Paranaeth. Behind him a city lay in ruin, in front of him an army swarmed off in retreat. He watched as the Grenz Lancers harried the Dervish as they withdrew. The black and gold standard streamed out above the charging horsemen. Dervish scattered in disarray every time a charge was mounted.

Feeling immensely satisfied, Kyas looked back at his shattered town. Already shipping was flowing in and out the harbor as the city attempted to return to normal. It was a long way to go yet.

The day after he arrived the defenders of Paranaeth and the newly arrived lancers threw themselves at the still stunned Dervish. Initially the Dervish had withdrawn from the old city walls to discuss the arrival of the Bladestorm. Before they had even had a chance to meet, they were under attack. This totally unexpected move started the rot. Several top commanders were killed in battle as they tried to rally their troops. The Bladestorm, like the messenger of death he was, personally accounted for the army general as he and the Lancers tore through the army HQ.

After four days of fierce street fighting the Dervish, although still numerically superior, had no alternative but to flee the city. With very few officers left the retreat was a shambles. The normally strict and disciplined Dervish scattered.

Kyas stayed there and watched the activities. By midday the Lancers had wheeled and returned to the city. The fields outside Paranaeth were littered with corpses. Kyas could not even begin to count the numbers of dead but it was thousands.

The thoughts of food hauled him off his vigil and he returned to the shattered port city. As always throngs of admirers greeted and clambered to talk to him wherever he went. As always he was aloof and distant, still not terribly comfortable with the attention. For the first time since his return he made a point to go and see his parents.

A teary eyed father greeted him at the door.

“Welcome back my boy,” he beamed as he hugged his son.

Kyas returned the embrace. Pride ran deep in the family and it was the first time he could look his father in the eye and not feel ashamed.

“It’s good to be back father,” replied Kyas as the two went inside.

“I am sorry I doubted you Kyas,” admitted his father.

Kyas smiled as the two men sat down and shared a few mugs of ale while Kyas’s overjoyed mother supervised the servants in preparing a fine home cooked meal. Neither Kyas nor his family wanted for anything despite the scarcity of supplies. Kyas told his father of what had happened since his departure from Paranaeth all those months ago. Most of it was already known to him from what Emma’s father had told him.

He too was incredibly surprised to hear that Simon was the one who had betrayed him. Kyas had discovered that Simon had fled Paranaeth when the story first broke that The Bladestorm was in fact Kyas. Rumours circulated that Simon and a mysterious young women had made for the capital shortly before it fell under siege. If that was so then they were trapped there. It suited Kyas just fine. Already there were preparations being made to launch an expedition to relieve Cardenaeth. It went without saying that The Bladestorm would ride too.

Kyas spent the next few days at his parent’s house while preparations were made for the expedition. In that time Kyas had all his confiscated property returned to him by the governor, but Cathbad, his slave, was not among the property. He had been sold to a merchant who had left town. After discussing it with the governor, it was decided that Cathbad would be sought and returned to Kyas. Then he was going to offer the man his freedom.

It was the day he was about to leave that news broke of the story of Emma’s rape by the Dervish. It had spread through the city. It seemed that she had confided in a friend of her ordeal, but the conversation had been overheard. The deep seated hatred for the Dervish bubbled over in the recently relieved town. For reasons unknown Emma was marked as tainted by her Dervish violators. Her family was instantly shunned and she was completely ostracized by all. No-one wanted to be associated with Dervish used goods.

Kyas nearly flew into a rage when he heard the news. He wasn’t sure who he wanted to kill first, the eavesdropper or everyone who had shunned her. Leaving his preparations where they were he stormed off to her parents house. He arrived to find two youths, armed with paint and brushes, illustrating the front wall of the house with Dervish hate graffiti. He was upon them before they knew what was happening. It took supreme effort of will not to wring their necks there and then.

Instead he hauled them off their feet and dumped them over a neighbor’s garden wall. Terrified and lying in a heap they did not move as Kyas emptied the remaining paint all over them.

“What the hell Bladestorm?” he heard a voice behind him exclaim. He turned to see a well built young man, who he recognized from the siege, looking rather confused.

“Listen up!” boomed Kyas to the rapidly assembling crowd. He glared at them as they gathered, watching them almost wilt under his rage filled visage.

“This family is VERY important to me,” he announced gesturing to the house of Emma and her family, “It has come to my attention that for the most infantile reasons, you all have decided they are not good enough to be considered citizens of Lukia.”

“But the child is some Dervish whore!” gasped the young soldier.

Like lightning Kyas snapped out an uppercut that lifted the big fellow off his feet so that he sailed backwards through the air and landed unconscious on his back. There was a collective gasp from the crowd as they all took a step back.

“You may all assume you have heard wrong,” growled Kyas through clenched teeth, “Anyone who insists on making an issue with this family will be coming into direct conflict with ME!” He watched the faces of crowd. He had given them a fright. “You will show this family the respect you show to my own, because upon my return from Cardenaeth I will be asking for the hand in marriage of Emma.”

The announcement sent shock waves through the crowd. They could not seem to fathom why the hero, the legend, the almighty Bladestorm would want a young woman like Emma after what she had been through. “Does anyone have a problem with this?” he challenged.

The crowd quickly shook their heads. While they might not have understood his motivations, they knew who he was. He was just about beyond reproach. In a matter of seconds the idea was sinking in and being accepted. Their hero was going to be married! It was cause for celebrations! Already Emma’s status was being elevated in the eyes of the citizens. Smiling now the crowd dispersed to spread the wonderful news.

Calmer now Kyas nodded and accepted the congratulations from individual members of the crowd. He could not believe how they had changed so quickly. He turned back to the house. The door was open and Emma stood shyly in the doorway. He approached her and took her in his arms and hugged her gently. She returned the embrace and sobbed quietly.

“You don’t have to say yes Emma,” he told her, “We can talk about it when I get back. It’s just important that you are treated right.”

“I understand if you don’t want to go through with it,” she whispered.

“I think you are missing the point,” he told her wiping a tear from her cheek with his thumb, “There is no-one I want to marry more in the world right now. I want to start a family and do all the things I have been putting off for so long now. I want this and I want you!”

A smile broke across her face like the dawn breaking after a dark stormy night. She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him as tightly as she could. Kyas held her in a firm embrace and lifted her off her feet, swinging her in a gentle circle before returning her to the ground. He then tenderly kissed her lips and removed a strand of her brown blond hair from her face.

They went inside where he officially asked her father and mother. They seemed stunned and surprised but happy. Kyas could not stay long. He told them to make whatever preparations were needed while he was gone. Then he left after embracing his fiancé one last time. His brash spur of the moment action had his heart beating wildly as he headed home smiling.

***

Kyas stood calmly, neatly decked out in full military trappings, his rank of Captain emblazoned on his ceremonial armor, and his artifact blade resting at his side. He watched the riders approach slowly.

To his left was Governor General Argondar of Paranaeth, and to his left was Captain Taldar of the Grenz Lancers. The open flat plains of Cardanaeth spread out in front of them, teeming with Dervish warriors. The city itself lay just beyond that, still under siege. Behind them the Grenz Lancers and the Paranaeth ‘Marauders’, as they called themselves, waited for instructions.

The army had marched out of Paranaeth ready for war. It was not a large army by any means, just over two thousand strong. It was however bolstered by an incredible sense of self belief after their routing of the besieging Dervish at Paranaeth. They also had in their ranks as close to a living god that any of them could imagine. The Bladestorm had saved the day at Paranaeth and would no doubt do the same at Cardanaeth.

However as they approached Cardanaeth a Dervish messenger cautiously approached them requesting parley. He delivered a message from the Dervish High Command. They wanted to meet with the Lukians to discuss a truce. This had been totally unexpected. Argondar had agreed and sent a message back for their delegation to ride out to the Lukian Army where he and his delegation would meet them.

The four horsemen reigned their ponies a short distance from the trio and dismounted. Kyas immediately recognized Salamud, the Dervish champion. Two elderly Dervish in full battledress led Salamud and another staunch looking Dervish warrior to the Lukian delegation. They stopped about ten feet away and silently regarded the Lukians. Kyas gave Salamud a curt nod and Salamud returned it.

“So it is the Demon-blade,” said the elder of the two Dervish officers to Salamud. Salamud nodded and remained expressionless. The old man sighed. He then looked at the other elderly officer who simply took a deep breath then paused and nodded. The two stepped forward leaving the younger men where they stood.

“Greetings my honorable and noble adversaries,” greeted the Dervish general in fluent if heavily accented Lukian.

“Good day to you too my respected enemy,” answered Argondar in halting Dervish as Kyas had instructed him. The old man raised an eyebrow.

“We are here to sue for peace,” he told Argondar. Argondar nodded.

“What are your proposals?” he asked the old Dervish leader, this time in Lukian.

“I propose we cease hostilities right now at this place and both sides keep what they currently have,” his eyes narrowed as he watched Argondars reaction. The proposal was totally un-reasonable as it would mean giving up more than half of Lukia’s land.

“I am afraid I have to respectfully decline that offer,” responded Argondar, “You ask too much.” The old general had expected this. He feigned mock disappointment as was the style in Dervish negotiations.

“What do you consider fair?” he asked Argondar.

“Withdraw your forces to the border of the hinterlands. I will enter Cardenaeth and ratify with the council that the borders be redrawn to reflect the old ancestral borders prior to our two nation’s first conflict nine hundred years ago,” put forward Argondar just as he and Kyas had discussed the previous evening.

The old Dervish General raised his eyebrow again. It would mean giving up 80% of what they had conquered. Despite this it would be a major victory. The general was concerned. His army was beginning to take strain in the extended campaign. The complete and utter defeat at Paranaeth sent shock waves through the invaders. Doubt crept in. He had no more reserves to call up. If Cardanaeth did not fall in the week he would need to withdraw. Supply lines were also stretched. Then there was the enigma of the Bladestorm. Units would rather flee than face him alone. He doubted he could maintain cohesion in attack if they knew he was somewhere among the enemy. The story of Salamud’s defeat still was fresh in their minds.

“I accept your shrewd offer on behalf of the Dervish tribes,” answered the old general at length. He knew that most of the army would appreciate this but he also knew that it would be a bitter pill for some of the radical elements to swallow.

“Once your army has withdrawn I will enter the city address the council. A time and place will be nominated for the official secession of hostilities,” stated Argondar and with that the Dervish delegation returned to their horses. Salamud approached Kyas and offered his hand. Kyas took it in a warriors grip.

“Greetings Salamud,” said Kyas.

“Greetings Blade-Master,” answered Salamud showing great respect, “Today is a good day but with dark clouds,” he whispered to Kyas. Kyas frowned. “Most of my people will welcome the return home with our ancestral lands returned to us. There are some who will want to continue the war. They are radicals and few in number. Be wary Blade-Master for they may not accept this peace. Beware of Khalid Kular. He has almost six thousand loyal to him.”

Salamud looked into Kyas face and he saw the concern there. Salamud wanted the peace to last.

“I will be wary great Salamud,” responded Kyas, “We will make this peace last.” With that Salamud nodded and returned to his horse and left with the delegation.

“What was that about?” asked Argondar.

“We may still have trouble,” warned Kyas deep in thought.

“Do you think they are lying?” quizzed Taldar. Kyas shook his head.

“No,” he answered, “But it seems there are some radical elements.”

“I thought all Dervish were radicals,” mused Argondar.

“It’s the radical Dervish’s radicals we need to be concerned about,” explained Kyas. Argondar and Taldar exchanged puzzeled glances. “We don’t need another stand up fight,” continued Kyas, “And no Dervish will face me one on one. I think another tactic is in order. First I have some unfinished business in the city.” Kyas wheeled his horse and trotted back to the army followed by the other two.

***

“Have they been found yet?” asked an impatient Kyas as he paced the reception hall of the Ruling Council of Cardenaeth.

“We are expecting news very soon sir,” babbled a nervous official.

Kyas stopped pacing and took a deep breath and relaxed. He was concerned at how everything was so precariously balanced. He had left the army encamped on the plains and with a delegation sneaked into the city. He didn’t want the defenders distracted by his arrival as a battle might still need to be fought. He met with the ruling council who gushed at his appearance. It was embarrassing. He presented the peace proposal and made one request. The proposal took a while to be accepted but it was finally accepted.

They then ordered his request. The man from Paranaeth called Simon and his woman were to be found and brought to the palace. Kyas waited. He was just about to start pacing when the doors swung open and city constabulary half dragged the weasel Simon in with a little surprise. The woman brought in with him was none other than Kyas’s ex-girlfriend from years back, Sara. Kyas was unable to mask his utter surprise. The constabulary dumped a shaking wide-eyed Simon at Kyas’s feet. The normally taciturn Simon immediately began babbling.

“Kyas!” he moaned, “Please don’t kill me. I am so sorry! It was one moment of madness. I don’t know what I was thinking!” He tugged at Kyas’s trouser leg. Kyas roughly stepped back letting Simon drop to the stone floor.

“Why, you ingrate?” spat Kyas, “Just tell me why! I was bloody good to you as bosses go.” Simon sobbed but did not answer.

“Answer the Blade-Storm!!” bellowed the chief constable as he plunged his boot into Simons side. He yelped and rolled into the fetal position. Kyas held up a hand, stopping the chief.

“Please don’t kill me,” moaned Simon. Kyas crouched next to the man.

“Tell me and I swear I won’t kill you,” promised Kyas. Simon looked up at Kyas through teary eyes.

“I don’t know what I was thinking. When I used to see you and her together I was so envious. Then when she left it was as though I wanted her more. I took that letter she sent you, that you threw away and I contacted her. She promised me the world. I forged your signature and met with the Rygerstanian delegation and took the coins. By then I realized it was too late to turn back. She came to me and it was great! I had to protect myself so I framed you. I was so sure it would not work and I would be caught. I had no idea it would go as far as it did! I swear!”

Kyas stood and shook his head. Sent to hell because of some whore. He looked over at Sara who smiled at him. She seemed unconcerned at the proceedings. If she was even a little scared she didn’t show it.

“Can I go now?” she sighed, “I did nothing wrong here.” She glanced around the hall looking disinterested and then examined her nails.

“Nothing wrong?” glared Kyas. She looked back at him, annoyance all over her face.

“I didn’t know where he got the coin,” she sneered, “And I didn’t ask.”

“You lie!” screamed Simon, “It was all your plan! You were angry at him for ignoring your request.”

She just snorted and looked away. A powerful and dangerous mix of emotions tore at Kyas’s insides seeing Sara again. He was stunned at how cold she was. He was left with a deep sickness in the pit of his stomach, like his inner core had rotted. He bit his lip and steeled himself.

“Lock them up,” he ordered, “I must address the council. The chief of the constabulary nodded and hauled the protesting two away.

***

Kyas lay motionless barely daring to breath. Stealth was not something he excelled in. He was however adequate. He watched the two sentries breathing fire as they quietly but passionately discussed the upcoming battle and the total annihilation of Lukians as a race of people.

As promised the bulk of the Dervish army had given up the siege of Cardenaeth and withdrawn. Grenz Lancers monitored their progress from a safe distance. However as Salamud had predicted Khalid Kular and his six thousand had refused to break camp and set about preparing for battle. As night fell on the Dervish radicals, who still held a three to one numerical superiority over the Lukians, Kyas stripped off his armor and briefed the commanders of his plan. The council had ratified all he asked for. While Kyas doubted the legality of what was about to happen he had no doubt as to the justice.

Now just shy of witching hour Kyas lay in sight of Khalid’s tent. It had taken him an hour to get into striking distance of the Dervish encampment and five hours of belly crawling to get to where he was. He knew that patience and focus would pull him through.

Allowing the fired up conversation to distract the two sentries he glided past them and under the tent flap of the large elaborate field tent of the commander. It was even darker inside. Still prone he let his eyes adjust. Listening carefully he discerned four separate breathing signatures. At least three were sleeping but one was surly awake. He scanned the interior. Seated on a pile of cushions watching the tent entrance was a muscled Dervish man-at-arms. Kyas was to his left and a little behind.

He took two silent crouched steps and from behind he wrapped his powerful arms around the beefy neck and clamped his second hand over the man’s mouth. With a start the man tried to stand and flailed as he struggled. Silently he desperately tore at Kyas’s vice grip. It was no use. As he ran out of air his resistance slackened. He eventually passed out.

Kyas eased the bodyguard to the ground. Nothing stirred. As quietly as he could he crawled to the two shapes he could make out curled up on numerous large cushions spread over the floor. The distinctly female shapes could only be from his harem. Only two?! Khalid was really slumming it mused Kyas to himself. Inching his way between them he paused so that he could reach both.

Slipping his hand over the mouth of the first one he put his other hand to his lips so that as she opened her terrified eyes the first thing she saw was him indicating silence. He whispered.

“I am Demon-Blade,” in Dervish, “Make a sound and I will eat your heart.”

Her fear was paralyzing. She was silent as he gagged and tied her up. The second sex-slave was exactly the same. Satisfied Kyas approached Khalid. The bulky Dervish cleric lay on his back and snored. Painstakingly slowly Kyas stepped over the sleeping form so that he straddled him and crouched. He then placed his blade less than an inch from the man’s throat and sat on his chest.

“Wha….,” was all he got out before he froze in horror. Kyas smiled and tapped the blade against the Dervish’s throat.

“Good evening great Khalid,” he whispered, “I am sorry to intrude but I needed to get your attention. I needed to show you that while I don’t want to specifically kill you that it is easily within my grasp.”

“It is noted Demon-Blade,” muttered Khalid regaining his composure.

“I know you are a man of honor Khalid. It is the way of your people,” continued Kyas, “I wish you to leave my land with your honor intact.”

“That is hardly possible now,” Khalid mused, “It would be like running with my tail between my legs.”

“I disagree,” smiled Kyas, “Tonight need not be seen by your men as my assassination of your dignity. I have a gift for you. I will give it to you shortly and it will seem as though we rather bought you off than dare face you.” Khalid seemed surprised as he considered it. “Or I could simply kill you and see if your men are keen on facing Demon-Blade who now descends on them at night killing them in their sleep?”

That made up Khalids mind for him.

“I will choose your first proposal Demon-Blade,” he told him.

Kyas got off the Dervish leader and allowed him to dress. He woke the passed out bodyguard and Khalid ordered the furious soldier to stand down. He obeyed. The three then left the tent and surprised the embarrassed sentries.

Kyas took a lantern, lit it and signaled the city. At once the gates opened and four riders came out. By now the Dervish camp was just about all awake. Confused they milled around trying to find out what was going on. Khalid ordered that the riders be allowed through.

When they got there Kyas approached them. Two soldiers led two other horses with a bound and gagged Simon on one and a bound and gagged Sara on the other. He hauled the two prisoners off their mounts and dragged then to Khalid.

“Mighty Khalid Kular,” announced Kyas loudly in Dervish, “May I present to you two slaves as the official peace offering from me Demon-Blade.”

A loud gasp and murmur rippled through the Dervish ranks. Demon-Blade was there! While the dervish looked tired and haggard they would fight in an instant.

“Demon-Blade,” responded Khalid, “Your offer is humbly accepted. Go in peace and we will return home.”

Kyas nodded respectfully and withdrew to the horses. He mounted the one and one of the soldiers took the reins of the other. An audible mumbling and muffled screaming erupted from the gagged prisoners as they realized what was happening.

Dervish soldiers dragged Sara off to the Harem tent while Simon was dragged off elsewhere. Kyas caught a glimpse of Sara’s face as she was taken away. Her disinterested bored look was replaced with absolute abject terror. Now that was justice thought Kyas as he and the two soldiers galloped off back to the city.

***

I can’t believe it worked!” exclaimed Captain Taldar as he watched the radical Dervish break camp faster than the regular army had done a day or so before.

“Personally I figured you would have just incensed them with the ‘insult’ and spurred them on to even greater fanatical heights,” confided Governor General Argondar.

“It is quite amazing how much a near death experience changes one,” noted Kyas, “Even a radical leader like Khalid Kular.”

“Does it mean the war is over?” asked Taldar. Kyas smiled.

“For now,” he whispered, “We will have to see what the future brings.” He packed the last item of equipment onto his horse and mounted up.

“Why don’t you stay for the celebrations?” asked Argondar, “At least enter the city with us. You are its liberator and the people will want to see the legend.” Kyas shook his head.

“The legend is tired,” he told them, “He is also getting a little too big for my liking. You go into Cardenaeth and you accept the praise due to you. There was a lot more to this war than Kyas Navar. It’s time the survivors acknowledged that good men and women triumphed and many died for the liberation of our country. Go and celebrate that!”

“But where are you going?” asked the governor-general.

Feeling indescribably relieved and satisfied Kyas turned his horse and started off.

“I’m going home,” he called back, “I’m getting married you know!”

THE END

 

This post was submitted by Peter.


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