17 min read

Who Walks in Flame – 3

Who Walks in Flame – 3

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

Kerenthos never intended to honor the bargain with Bregissa. But he knew it would be easiest on her if he simply showed up with the army, days out on their march, at a time when it was too late to go back. That way, she wouldn't have to worry about it.

The time has come to tell her, he thinks, I have no choice.

Bregissa is standing beneath the shade of a scraggly oak, humming a tune beat into her by Orthinn, long ago. Hiding behind a nearby wagon of supplies, Kerenthos watches as a scout runs up to Bregissa and reports: "The Witch-King is only a day away, my lady."

"What does Lord Tantren think of the land here?" The Kings had elected Lord Tantren as the army's tactical and strategic commander.

"I don't know, my lady."

Kerenthos steps out from hiding. "Tantren thinks this is as good a place as any on the plains to face the Witch-King. I was just speaking with him not half an hour ago."

Bregissa spins. Her eyes flare. Her lips draw in. Anger flickers across her face, then vanishes. She turns to the scout and says calmly, "We shall make our stand here. Let it be known to Lord Tantren and the Kings of the East."

The scout hurries away and Kerenthos limps toward her. She turns away and gazes across the plains again.

"I'm sorry, Bregissa. I had to come. I had to protect you." You are all I live for. I couldn't stand to face another day without you. I could have lived as a king, forever. I chose you instead.

She doesn't answer him.

"You are angry with me?"

"Should I be?" she replies, languidly.

"I lied to you."

"Was it a lie if I didn't believe you?"

"You knew I was with the army?"

He spots a brief flicker on her face, a smile almost. "I did not. I thought you had kept your word. I am … surprised."

You're hurt but you will never admit it.

"I hope you will forgive me."

"There is nothing to forgive. You have been true to who you are, and I love you."

"But you won't face me? You won't greet me with a hug or a kiss? You must miss me as I miss you."

"I am angry for now. Maybe I will look at you tonight, over our last meal before the battle. I think it's gruel again."

He chuckles. "We're on campaign. It's always gruel."

"War really is distasteful then."

"Your humor is poor."

She shrugs.

"Since there's so little time left for humor, perhaps you should leave what's left to me."

That does make her smile, for a moment, and he knows that in an hour or two, she will no longer be mad at him. That is good, because he fears he will be too exhausted to stay awake through dinner.

* * *

The Scorch-Walker rocks beneath him. In the distance, parched grasslands burn. Desert spreads behind him as the energy flowing from his iron amulet dries streams and withers all verdant things. He does, however, leave an occasional oasis. After all, he is merciful, Khuar-na the Witch-King.

He strokes a hard, crimson scale and speaks to the Scorch-Walker. “Flame and smoke as far as the eye can see, my friend. I never wielded so much power before. I can now create deserts within days.”

Alien thoughts seep into his mind: amulet, planet core, magnetic forces, heat.

“Yes, I agree.” He lifts the amulet and rubs a thumb across its surface, feeling an unseen micro-fracture that had almost destroyed the device. “It could not have held much more energy, though.”

His thoughts turn to his slain people, now dust and faint memory. So what if they had the eyes of reptiles and their blood ran cold? They were still as like the people on this planet as not. They had not deserved the genocide the humans unleashed upon them.

His eyes narrow as he looks out upon the Army of the East gathered before him in their thousands with pikes and swords, horses and armor, cannons and muskets.

Though the cannons could kill him and injure the Scorch-Walker, Khuar-na does not fear gunpowder. A smile tugs at his lips. “A deadly surprise awaits them, old friend. They will learn why the West fell so easily.” The Scorch-Walker’s laugh echoes in Khuar-na’s mind.

Khuar-na speaks to his people, his voice booming through the use of a simple enchantment.

“Today, we will have our revenge! Today, a new order shall begin on this world. My people, we will rise again!”

The cheers of ten thousand desperate souls resonate across the battleground. The captains he appointed divide his motley, ill-equipped horde into two groups of equal size.

“On my signal,” Khuar-na shouts. "Give no quarter!”

After that, Khuar-na’s army picks up its pace, moving forward at almost a jog. The Scorch-Walker matches them, though it is little more than a casual walk for a beast of its size. Opposite to them, the artillerists load their weapons. Squads of archers and gunners take their positions. Pikemen and swordsmen stand their ground before them. Cavaliers with pistols, lances, and sabers move to the sides, preparing for a flanking maneuver.

Do they think me ignorant of tactics and technology? Clearly, they don't remember the weapons their ancestors faced, and overcame despite the odds. They must think weapons such as theirs are new inventions.

The first cannons boom. Their fire concentrates on the Scorch-Walker.

“Charge!” Khuar-na orders his troops as the Scorch-Walker launches into a sprint, dodging and weaving. Cannon shots scream by, missing a target the artillerists never imagined could move so swiftly.

They struggle to reposition and lead their shots ahead of the Scorch-Walker, knowing they will get one, perhaps two more volleys before the behemoth plows into their front lines.

The second round goes off in staccato fashion with artillerists firing as soon as they think they have shots. One cannonball whizzes by Khuar-na, missing by only a few paces, yet he remains unfazed. A second strikes the Scorch-Walker in the chest. The great beast grunts as a scale cracks. The flattened, thirty-pound ball falls to the ground.

With eyes sharper than those of any human, Khuar-na spots the leadership element left of center. A thought, and the Scorch-Walker veers toward them.

A battery of light, maneuverable cannons trains its fire on Khuar-na. The Eastern captain raises his hand, trying to guess when the behemoth will next weave. Musketeers aim their guns. Khuar-na grabs his amulet, engraved with the sign of an alien sun ten billion years away, and directs the surging energy within it.

Carnage follows.

* * *

The Scorch-Walker’s approach begins as peels of thunder and plumes of dust and smoke. The earth shakes, and in the distance, it seems that the entire West burns. Refugees and scouts told of lands already turned to desert wastes by the might of the Witch-King.

When the Scorch-Walker rises on the horizon, like a moving fortress, the soldiers lose their nerve. They fidget and back away.

“Steady!” yells Bregissa. “It’s nothing more than we expected!”

Men return to their positions, but still they rock from foot to foot, as if weighing the balance of their lives. But there are no other options. Bregissa warns them a victory will be won only with great hardship. Battle now, battle later, it must come to this one way or another.

As two men fall to their knees and beseech the elder gods of storm and sky, she mutters, “I didn’t prepare them well enough.”

“You did what you could,” replies Kerenthos. He looks haggard. He's gotten too old for campaigning, and his leg hurts, as if the missing lower half is still there, rotting away from the wound that ultimately took it.

“Can you walk with me?” she asks.

“As far as you need me to,” he says, though at the moment he isn’t sure he could march another league without collapsing.

With Kerenthos in tow, Bregissa stalks through the ranks and stands in full view of the army. She blows three sharp notes on the Horn of Valyn and thousands of eyes leave the approaching horror and turn toward her.

As a skald, Bregissa can work three key magics with the power of her voice. She can compel an individual of weak will to obey her. She can sway a crowd toward her opinion by manipulating their emotions ever so slightly. And she can boost her voice to a volume five times louder than normal.

“Men of the East!” she shouts. “Today we become legends! The Witch-King’s beast may kill us, but we will not die as cowards! Khuar-na will not take our honor!”

She feels hearts and minds strengthen, but not enough.

Bregissa draws the white-steel saber given to her by King Hugix, whose advancing years forced him to stay behind. The metal is the color of bleached paper with only the slightest sheen to it.

Bregissa faces the Scorch-Walker and waves the saber. “Come and die, bastard king of serpents! I will wait for you here at the front! I do not fear you! My army does not fear you! Even our babes at home do not fear you!”

The Witch-King can't hear her. But her gesture lends courage to the soldiers. And as the minutes pass and she declines to move, the soldiers realize she isn’t merely boasting. She truly plans to remain.

Several kings and lords come to her. “Return to the command post,” they urge. “We will need your leadership and guidance.”

“No,” she tells them. “I am busy being a figurehead. The plans are made. They are yours to execute. Leave me to my duty.” And in a whisper only Kerenthos hears: “And my doom.”

As the enemy forces increase their pace, Bregissa embraces Kerenthos and kisses him deeply, for what she thinks must surely be the last time. “You don’t have to stay up here with me.”

“I have already come here against your orders. Why would I leave now? And why do you torture me so? As if my love is in question, as if I wouldn’t willingly die with you for even the slightest cause you chose?”

“Forgive me, my love. I just had to try.” She hugs him close. “You know you are the strength of my soul and the true heart of my voice. Though the Isle yet needs guarding, I’m glad you're here after all. I don’t think I could face this without you.” She pulls away and passes the saber to him. “The white-steel would fare better in your hands. I entrust it to you.”

“But I’m nearly a cripple!”

“Nonsense. I’ve seen you practice your swordplay. You can still take five men by yourself. And you’re not burdened with my duties of leadership.” He starts to argue but she cuts him off. “I feel it is right for you to wield it. We will not discuss it further.”

Orders spread down the lines. Fear runs rampant as the beast grows larger in their sight, but for the moment, their resolve is set.

The first cannon shots boom. The beast suddenly launches into a full sprint, and the shots miss.

“By the gods, how can it move so fast?” says Kerenthos.

More shots and more misses follow as the Witch-King continues to evade. But at last one hits the behemoth front and center. A cheer rings out amongst the troops, and then dies as the shot falls harmlessly from the beast’s scales.

With the strange, half-reptilian humans charging along the flanks, it's obvious that the behemoth aims for the center where Bregissa and Kerenthos are waiting.

“Unless the cannons find a weak spot, we will die sooner rather than later,” Kerenthos says.

“Hush, love. Embrace hope.”

It's almost upon them when the musket units spread throughout the army target the Witch-King, and the archers nock their arrows, preparing to fend off the enemy fighters.

The beast ceases to weave and heads straight, but off center, to the right of Bregissa and Kerenthos.

“He’s going for the high command!” Bregissa shouts. “We may have a chance at him when he passes us!”

Kerenthos points. “Look, the Penthian battery has trained on him!”

Bregissa hears the captain giving orders to the crack artillery battalion as they aim two dozen cannons filled with grapeshot. Hope swells within her that at least the rider will be taken out. They can't miss him.

“Ready, aim—”

The amulet of the Witch-King flares to life, stealing her breath. A split second later, her hopes shatter as a tremendous explosion rocks the world around her.

* * *

Scorched and bruised, her ears aching and ringing, Bregissa peels herself off the ground. Smoke swirls around her. She coughs and struggles to catch her breath. Faintly, at first, she hears screams of terror and wails of pain.

Through the haze, Bregissa sees what remains of the Eastern army struggling in disarray. Not a musketeer or artillerist yet stands. The cannons lay shattered, twisted, and melted. Every man with wealth enough to carry a pistol is wounded, if not dead. So much destruction. How could we have known? Many survivors flee in panic, pursued by the Witch-King’s minions. Bregissa spots one coastal baron pinned beneath his fallen horse, clutching at his side where his pistol exploded and punched a hole in his armor.

Kerenthos appears, covered in smut, scraped and battered, but alive. “We can’t win.”

She shakes her head. “We’ve still got a chance.”

“But all we’ve got left is archers and infantry!” He draws the white-steel sword and sighs. “There’s no hope here.”

“Look!” replies Bregissa, pointing. “We still have hope.”

Bregissa and Kerenthos sprint toward the high command as Lord Tantren, in his gleaming plate mail, lifts his spear tipped with white-steel, rallies the knights around him, and charges. Above them towers the Scorch-Walker, shrouded in the drifting smoke clouds.

Hellfire streaks down from above and strikes two knights, as the behemoth lifts a giant foot and stomps it down onto Lord Tantren. When the foot rises again, Bregissa sees neither man nor spear.

Now only Kerenthos can kill the sorcerer. The third white-steel weapon she knows was lost along with its wielder, for Count Krenn, who commanded the outlying cavalry, loved his four ornately carved pistols. It would take too long to find the weapon now.

The beast kills scores with several more stomps then swallows at least a dozen at once. Finally, it spins with surprising agility and flicks its tail through the ranks, breaking some soldiers and halving those in lighter armor. All the while, the Witch-King casts hellfire at select targets, seemingly tireless, as if the spell to ignite the army’s gunpowder had cost him no stamina at all. His victims writhe helplessly, their flesh burning as if coated in oil.

As the army routs, Bregissa and Kerenthos are still hundreds of paces away from the behemoth.

“We'll never get near them without cover, or some sort of distraction,” Kerenthos says. “Even then…”

Bregissa clutches the amulet in which remains the bulk of the talent energy she took from Orthinn's soul. She calls out the power and catches it in her hands, cupping it like water. She lifts it to her lips and swallows. Immediately she employs the voice of influence and shouts as loud as she can: “Men of the East! Rally to me!”

From all over the battlefield, those able to move heed her cry. Some of those fleeing stop and turn back, fighting their way through Khuar-na’s soldiers. They can’t help but meet her summons, for in that moment, her voice is fully awake, with all the force that her legendary father had possessed. And added to that is her own power, skill, and passion.

Surpassing anything Orthinn ever accomplished, her voice perhaps works too well. Witch-King and behemoth turn toward her. A final swish of the beast's tail completes the destruction of the army’s high command, leaving the land nearly devoid of king and baron.

I have outdone even you, Orthinn, she thinks. If I survive, it is me that history will remember most. You will be, at best, nothing more than the one who taught the greatest skald ever.

In complete disregard of their fear, soldiers rush toward Bregissa. The Scorch-Walker crushes many of them as it speeds toward Bregissa and Kerenthos, covering the distance between them in mere seconds.

The Witch-King draws back a hand and flings hellfire at her. She dodges to the right, but the flaming mass changes course to match her movements. At the last moment, Bregissa throws herself flat. The fiery orb passes over and strikes behind her with a heavy thud.

With the stink of sulfur burning in her nose, Bregissa climbs to her feet, only to see two more streaking toward her, one lagging behind the other. With no chance of avoiding both, Bregissa stands tall. Perhaps her death will inspire those remaining.

With the flames so close that she can hear them crackling, Kerenthos leaps out in front of her. Blade held before him, the fire hits the white-steel, splits in half, and fizzles into puffs of smoke. The second one nears, and Kerenthos bats it away with the sword.

Khuar-na curses in his strange tongue, and the Scorch-Walker rears up.

“Move!” Bregissa yells.

She and Kerenthos sprint away, and the beast’s feet pummel the ground, barely missing them. Just as the two skid to a halt and ready their next move, the house-sized head of the behemoth snaps at them with far greater precision than its feet.

Bregissa dives to safety, but Kerenthos, unable to run any longer, jumps as high as he can and drives his sword toward the beast, hoping to stab an eye. The sword misses and cuts through the scales of the lid instead, drawing forth a dark ichor.

The wound is nothing more than a scratch.

The Scorch-Walker snaps its head back and the curving horn of its snout bashes Kerenthos. The sword falls from his grip as he tumbles through the air, blood spraying. He lands fifty paces away and lies unmoving.

Bregissa runs toward Kerenthos, but the beast’s head whips around and blocks her path. From high atop the behemoth, the Witch-King sneers, his sinister eyes alight.

Bregissa draws the wind pistol. Maybe she can get a shot on the rider and knock him from his perch, for all the good that might do. Noticing the pistol, Khuar-na’s eyes narrow. He touches his amulet.

The bronze wind pistol instantly becomes hot, but before she can cast it away, it cools suddenly. Then the tiny needle of the shot meter, which had sat on “1” for all her lifetime, goes haywire, pounding against the upper limit until the needle breaks and the glass that encased the meter shatters. The weapon pulses, almost as if it's alive. She prays it will yet work.

“Face me like a man, coward!” Bregissa shouts, trying to lure the Witch-King closer.

The behemoth chomps at her with its wicked jaws but pulls up just short, toying with her. Laughing, the Witch-King links his hands, joining forefingers and thumbs. Dripping flames form between his hands and then blast toward her, growing as they near so that they will entirely consume her on impact.

The Scorch-Walker roars as Bregissa aims the pistol and pulls the trigger.

The elemental forces of fire and air collide. The explosion hurls Bregissa backward as it whirls the hellfire into a vortex. The magic of the rejuvenated gun of Arkos the Maker prevails and blasts the vortex into the still-opened mouth of the Scorch-Walker.

As the flames storm down its gut, the beast groans and convulses, bucks wildly, and wrenches its head back and forth. The Witch-King desperately clutches to the scales and screams words of power. The spell holding back the rain relents. Dark, heavy clouds appear suddenly and unleash a downpour.

“Gods bless you, Arkos,” Bregissa pants, as she reverently places the wind pistol aside, its barrel melted and bent. Then, ignoring the Scorch-Walker’s throes, she scurries about looking for Kerenthos.

With one final sputtering roar, the behemoth collapses with a thunderous shudder. Dust and ash fly through the air. In the distance, soldiers cheer Bregissa’s victory.

Bodies lay strewn across the battlefield, and Bregissa can't find Kerenthos lying amongst them, though she knows roughly where he should be. She searches for the white-steel sword as well, but it too eludes her.

“Let the Witch-King be dead,” she prays.

Her prayer is not to be answered.

“You will pay most dearly, human,” says a sibilant voice behind her. “A thousand deaths for the death of my friend—a being older than your world and of far greater importance.”

She turns to face the Witch-King of the Skithikri. From a sheath on his back, he draws a long, wicked scimitar. Flames creep down the length of the blade. Swiftly, Bregissa draws her saber and attacks. The Witch-King doesn't attempt to parry or dodge. He doesn't even blink. Her blade speeds toward his face, then collides with an invisible barrier only an inch away from his skin.

Eyes alight, Khuar-na spins his scimitar once then strikes. The blade bites deep into her right knee, slicing bone and cartilage and cauterizing opened flesh. A second swipe severs the fingers of her sword hand.

Along with her blade, Bregissa falls, eyes glazed with shock, her fingers scattered before her. Khuar-na readies another attack, but suddenly a mauled, lurching Kerenthos rushes out from behind one of the behemoth’s feet. Wielding the white-steel saber, he lunges toward the Witch-King’s back. As Khuar-na begins to pivot, the blade slides through his protective barrier, pierces his lower back and exits from his chest. Steaming, red-brown blood pours from the wound.

As Kerenthos twists the saber and drags it free, Khuar-na whips his own blade around and cleaves through Kerenthos’ wrist.

Hand and white-steel sword fall.

Kerenthos drops to his knees, clutching at the cauterized stump of his arm. It's not his only wound. Blood seeps from cuts on his chest and back. His left arm hangs useless, the result of a dislocated shoulder, and his left ankle can barely hold his weight. Only adrenaline, and his love of Bregissa, has kept him moving. Now, even that is not enough.

Vomiting blood, Khuar-na collapses to a single knee as the Eastern soldiers hurry toward them, having defeated the last of his soldiers. But Khuar-na is defiant. Grimacing, he picks up the white-steel blade and flings it away. Then he touches his talisman and chants a spell.

Flames shoot up from the ground to form a ten-foot high ring around Khuar-na, Kerenthos, Bregissa, and the Scorch-Walker. The flames burn so hot that the approaching soldiers can’t get within a dozen paces.

Heading toward Bregissa, the Witch-King stumbles and his eyes dim. Even so, she can’t summon the will to oppose him. Khuar-na recovers and lifts his blazing scimitar toward her.

Hellfire leaps from the blade to her injured leg, which bursts into flame. She screams, but the flames dissipate after only a moment. A cruel, mirthless grin tugs at the Witch-King’s lips.

She can do nothing to stop him. Yet she feels his death approaching. They have won the day and need only to outlast him.

She crawls toward Kerenthos. “Kill me, torture me, do as you will,” she says to the Witch-King, “but I will suffer at my love’s side.”

Khuar-na smiles in a most sinister way. "I am not a fool, woman. I know the game you're playing. Trying to delay me, to hold out just a little longer. But I will not let you win. You have ruined everything. Death slithers up to me, but before it strikes, I will see that you pay for what you've done."

He places a hand over his wound and staggers toward his huddled foes. The woman holds the man, tears streaking down her face, and with the power of her voice, she soothes his pain. Khuar-na gathers his fading strength. I must see this through. I owe that and so much more to my old friend. A rapid sequence of visions race through his mind, visions of twisting spires, of roaring crowds, of harems and feasts, and another planet he once called home.

“You must pay for the life you stole from me. Your people must pay for centuries of transgressions. This world will burn under my rage.”

She glances at the white-steel saber, lying ten paces away.

“Even dying, I could kill you three times before you ever reached that blade.”

Crestfallen, Bregissa and Kerenthos gaze into one another’s eyes.

“You have but a few moments left,” Khuar-na says. “Spend them wisely.”

Bregissa clings to Kerenthos, and tenderly, they exchange proclamations of love.

Khuar-na turns his back to them and trudges over to the Scorch-Walker. “Here you will always lie, old friend, your massive bones an eternal monument to our rage.”

“Hope,” Kerenthos whispers to Bregissa. “There is yet … hope for…” His body trembles and he begins to fade.

Bregissa thinks of the seed she planted in the roots of the Oak of Antenin. She looks at her lover, and suddenly she knows, somehow, what he did. She grabs him by the shoulders and shakes him until his eyes open and he focuses on her.

“Kerenthos, stay with me. Keep your thoughts on the Sacred Oak. Think with all your might. We fight for it now and we shall guard it into death and beyond.”

There is doubt in his eyes.

For the second time she summons the full might of her voice, backed by Orthinn's spirit and her own passion, and such is the power in it that they both believe what she now says beyond any shadow of doubt: “We will guard the tree in the beyond. We will guard it forever.”

Khuar-na, Witch-King of the Skithikri, pulls a jeweled knife from his belt and slits his own throat. He whispers a mighty incantation as his blood pools on the iron amulet hanging from his neck.

The wall of fire mushrooms and swallows Bregissa and Kerenthos, killing them instantly. From there, the flames spread outward.

Khuar-na’s last sight is that of a world ablaze.

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