5 min read

Who Walks in Flame – 1

Who Walks in Flame – 1

About this series

An air-pistol-wielding priestess battles a sorcerous witch-king and a giant, flaming monster in this this sword & sorcery short story of truly epic proportions.

Millennia have passed since the witch-king Khuar-na last threatened the world of men. Now returned, he and his fiery behemoth have scorched the fertile fields of the West to desert waste. Only the Kings of the East can stand against him, and only if Bregissa the Skald can successfully lead them with her secret, stolen power

With claws like sabers, a house-sized paw rips free from the earth and uproots a giant elm. Another bursts forth, sixty paces away. Between them, an angular head explodes upward and topples a stone granary. A scaled body the length of two villages snakes up after it, driven by eight powerful legs. Dirt crusts its scales of crimson, gold, and amber … until a dismissive shiver casts a cloud of dust so large it obscures the moon.

Flaming eyes open.

Ancient malevolence views the world once again.

A flick of its spiked tail decimates a stand of olive trees. Then the behemoth lowers its head, opens its razor-fanged maw, and out rolls a dark, oily tongue. Wrapped within that tongue is something like a man, a being not seen in three millennia.

This … man … of an old, forgotten race breathes.

He remembers.

“Khuar-na,” he says, naming himself as he slides from the tongue. He rubs a scale on the lowered snout of the behemoth and murmurs: “Old friend.”

Khuar-na runs scarred hands along his body, touching the pockmarks where wounds once bled. Deep, deep within the hot earth, the magic of the Scorch-Walker healed them. Their gamble paid off. The nightmare has ended.

Khuar-na scans the lush fields around him. How many centuries have passed? he wonders. This was hot barren waste when we dug in. Our glorious homeland. The splendid sands are gone. It is naught but the stink of human fields and orchards now.

Faint footsteps, hushed cries. The Scorch-Walker snaps his head up. Khuar-na turns and a smile spreads across his reptilian face.

A family fleeing a farmhouse: A panicked husband and wife urge their four children to run as fast as they can and stick together.

My sons and daughters. Where are they now? Dust of centuries. Murdered by the humans who overthrew me.

With one hand, Khuar-na caresses the rune-carved amulet of dark-iron hanging from his neck. I used to be merciful. There was a time when I would have regretted this. He extends the other and a gout of sulfurous hellfire springs from his palms and streaks unerringly toward its targets. The humans burst into flame. Their flailing limbs light the night like maddened fireflies.

Khuar-na is pleased, and into his mind, the Scorch-Walker laughs. They are one in their joy and united in their desire for vengeance.

* * *

Under the ashen light of the Dark Moon, Bregissa the Skald sings druid songs as smooth as spider silk and with a curious magic draws the egg from her womb. With trembling hands she places it in a root-tangled hollow beneath a giant, lightning-charred oak.

There her egg will wait, perfectly preserved, until fertilized by a man chosen by the gods. What purpose this will serve, she does not know. But henceforth a terrible magic will strike down any who approach the tree without the blessing of the gods.

“I have done what the Goddess asked of me,” Bregissa tells her companion and lover, Kerenthos, who stands between two twisting clay pillars adorned with forgotten runes, watching in silence.

She wants to tell him the alternative the Goddess gave her. But it’s so unbearable she can’t bring herself to say it aloud, even to brave Kerenthos.

Blessed lady, she prays in silence, your desire is beyond my ken and far beyond my skill to interpret.

Bregissa dresses, putting on a golden ceremonial robe she normally wears only on the great festival days. Then, incongruously, she straps a saber and a wind pistol to her waist.

“We should go back now,” she says.

Kerenthos makes no reply. He is still staring at the barren oak, as if mesmerized. His hands are trembling.

* * *

The palace sits, broken and eroded, on a treacherous mountaintop in the far reaches of the West Kingdoms. Forgotten, except by the … humans … who live in the valley below. The Scorch-Walker and Khuar-na burn a path of destruction all the way to this valley, humans fleeing before from them. But the people of the valley do not retreat, for in song and dance they remember their legacy. Khuar-na, their last king, has returned after 2,746 years. The day of their restoration has come.

From his perch on the top of the Scorch-Walker’s head, saddled on a vestigial horn, Khuar-na immediately senses their difference and studies these people with his witch-sight.

This is all that remains of my kind? Ignorant brutes, hidden like cowards, appearances masked by magic. A final spell from my sister, no doubt.

They're savages, unfit but for slavery. It is not acceptable.

But I have no choice. From these I must build our future.

Patience.

I have time enough for restoration after my vengeance is taken.

As his people, the Skithikri, gather before the Scorch-Walker and kneel, Khuar-na turns his gaze upon what was once his glorious palace, his golden eyes turning a languid gray. For a few moments he sees not ruins but strong walls, curling spires rising far into the sky, and fluttering pennants, captured from his enemies. He hears the sibilant voices of children, the laughter of corpulent wives, the grunting of soldiers training, the whispers of scheming magi. He smells roasting flesh and jasmine wafting on pure mountain air. He relives his greatest moment: The spread of an army a hundred thousand strong, throughout the valley and down into the lowlands: Crying his name, swearing their allegiance to the second century of his reign, their first on this planet, having fled their dying home world.

The Scorch-Walker lowers his head, parallel to the ground, and Khuar-na walks out onto the tip of the snout. His magically enhanced voice booms through the valley as he addresses his fellow Skithikri. Through no small effort, he hides his contempt.

“My people, your King has returned! Blessed are the days. Deserts shall return. Palaces will rise again. Humans will bow to us as slaves.”

He raises his iron amulet high above and speaks a spell of countering, made easy for he remembers well the structure of his sister’s spells. The illusion of pure humanity falls away, revealing…

Khuar-na recoils in disgust. They have mated with humanity. Their blood has been watered down. In silence he stares, openly contemptuous of their pale skin, patched with scales, the hair on their heads, the fattened pupils… He closes his eyes.

Strength. Patience. It is nothing that I cannot correct in time.

Spurred now by a surging anger, he shouts: “Make ready now! We are few in number but strong in desire. I have seen our enemy on my way here. They are weak, unsuspecting. The crumbling age of men shall end in the fire of our vengeance.”

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