Taxes do not make a religion and the power of life and death does not make a Goddess—Lin Fal the Prophet, year 1 of the New Faith.

After burning the unfortunate village, the Temu war party hurried their spoils out of Sabuto territory. The Temu dead were carried home to their tribe as well. On the border of his domain, Taischek announced to his warriors that they would attack Dursalene. The warriors applauded this choice because the rysmavda temple in Dursalene was wealthy and managed the Sabuto gold and gem mines.

Their enthusiasm for the ambitious undertaking increased when Taischek explained that Shan would use his magic to breach the stockade. Few people ever saw a rys work magic and the opportunity to see Shan’s magic created curiosity and excitement.

Sending along a small squad of warriors with the spoils, Taischek turned his war party back into Sabuto territory. Dursalene was well within the Sabuto domain and the raiders kept away from any paths in order to conceal their movements.

After sneaking through rugged untraveled country for six days, Taischek estimated that they neared their goal. He had not been this deep into Sabuto territory since his youth, but he remembered well the land of his hated enemy. When Dursalene was only a few hasas beyond the next ridge, the sun was burning low and orange in the west and the King hid his force in the forest.

Taischek and Shan decided that Shan would lead some scouts on a reconnaissance and determine the best path for the war party to take out of the hills. Then the rys would stay ahead to cast his destructive spell on the city and send the scouts back to get the war party.  Shan asked Dreibrand to accompany him, and Taischek assigned two warriors, Teso and Iley, to the team. If the scouting team did not bring back any discouraging news, the Temu would raid at dawn. Shan had confirmed that only a moderate force of warriors guarded the town. The Sabuto would be anticipating Taischek to be aiming at a smaller settlement nearer the border, as was his habit.

The war party settled into a camp without fires to rest while the scouts slipped into the dusky woods. As an Atrophaney lieutenant it had not been Dreibrand’s place to scout and the opportunity to prowl ahead and spy on the enemy excited him and burned away his weariness after days in the saddle.

Silently the three men and the rys slipped through the darkening trees to the top of the ridge. From there, they saw the lights of Dursalene and outlying farms. Hearths and lanterns sent their warm glow into the cooling night unaware of the enemy eyes watching from the hills.

Halfway between the scouts and the town, a campfire blazed on the hillside, blinking occasionally as men passed by it. Shan examined the area, feeling the land with his mind. The Sabuto camped on a table-like piece of land that jutted from the slope and served as a lookout post for the valley. Less than a dozen Sabuto manned the position, and their purpose was to monitor the road toward Dursalene instead of watch the uninhabited hills behind them.

Even so, they sat directly in the Temu’s path.

“How many do you think are there?” Dreibrand asked.

“Eleven,” Shan stated confidently. “I think those odds are tolerable for us.”

“Can you kill them with your magic?” Teso asked eagerly.

Uncomfortably Shan considered the question. He could use his power to destroy flesh from a safe distance, but he was not sure if he was ready to take that step yet.

“I would prefer not,” Shan replied.

Dreibrand suggested, “Let us creep closer and then judge the situation. Half of them might be asleep, and we can dispatch them simply. We are warriors. We should not give every task to Shan. He has the stockade to think about.”

Although Teso obviously wanted to see a rys spell, he did not ask again. An old saying warned against wishing for a rys to use magic.

“I’d rather see their blood on my sword,” Iley said darkly, in support of Dreibrand’s idea.

With weapons out and stealthy steps, they moved down the slope. Nearing the camp, they heard boisterous Sabuto voices, ending Dreibrand’s theory that most of them would be sleeping. The noisy activity, however, cloaked the sounds of the approaching scouts, and they crept very close to the Sabuto camp.

In the clearing around the big fire, the Sabuto warriors engaged in a game of chance that wholly held their attention. The dice, varying in shape, were thrown across a blanket and then the results hotly debated before all participants agreed on the outcome. Gold and silver coins littered the blanket and clinked nervously in the players’ hands.

“I think I shall join their game,” Dreibrand whispered.

“What do you mean?” Shan asked.

Teso and Iley leaned in close as Dreibrand revealed his plan. With his allies taking their places, Dreibrand composed himself and slipped his sword into its scabbard. Quite casually he strolled into the ring of firelight and attracted no immediate attention. A particularly rare roll caused a burst of cheering and a couple disappointed groans.

“May I play?” Dreibrand inquired in the common tongue.

A lifted liquor bottle stopped short of a mouth and dribbled on a warrior’s shirt, and one Sabuto choked on his pipe smoke. Several jumped before freezing to stare at the tall blond man. The fire reflected on Dreibrand’s lighter skin, making the Sabuto think a ghost had drifted in from the woods. After their initial shock, a few warriors glanced around nervously but Dreibrand’s friends hung back in the dark.

The Sabuto leader put his coins in a pocket and slipped out his dagger. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded.

Dreibrand came a few steps closer until the threatening suspicion in the eyes of the Sabuto stopped him. “A wanderer seeking Dursalene,” he explained.

The curiosity aroused by his strange appearance and the fact that he appeared alone prevented the Sabuto from immediately pouncing on him.

“What tribe are you?” the leader asked, wondering if Dreibrand was some sort of weird-looking outcast.

Dreibrand shrugged. “No tribe. What is this game you play?” he asked, drawing their attention back to their gold and silver.

“What gold do you have?” inquired a practical but greedy Sabuto.

“Ah, no gold.” Dreibrand smiled and swiftly pulled out his impressive Atrophaney blade. “Only steel.”

The Sabuto now knew that he was trouble and everybody went for their various weapons. Shan jumped into the firelight, and the rys’s body was bathed in a fierce light that stained the camp in its blue glow. Shan’s sword arced like lightning and cut down two warriors before anyone could recover from the shock.

Dreibrand charged the group of Sabuto and easily killed three men before meeting any resistance. Now the Temu warriors leaped into the fray, striking their enemies with sword and war club, completing the confusion. Without even a chance to organize their thoughts, the Sabuto died. The last four fought their individual attackers, but they were intoxicated and petrified by Shan. The last Sabuto warrior saw that all of his fellows were slain and he fled. He scrambled on terrified feet, almost eluding the intruders, but Teso hurled his war club with lethal skill. The weapon twirled across the air, and the stone end shattered the Sabuto’s skull. His body crashed to the ground at the edge of the firelight.

Shan faded to his normal appearance, and the cold blue glow yielded to the warm light of the campfire and the cozy crackle of burning wood. One Sabuto groaned, and Iley quickly ended his wounded state. Teso hopped over a body and trotted to retrieve his war club.

“They didn’t know what to make of you,” Iley joked to Dreibrand, while bending down to scoop up some coins. Examining the gold, Iley added, “They are richer around Dursalene.”

Teso returned with his trusty war club and helped himself to some of the coins. “Come get your share, Dreibrand,” he invited. “Unless you wanted to gamble for it.”

“I will get mine in Dursalene,” Dreibrand said dismissively.

He noticed Shan stood on the edge of the jutting land and went to join him. The rys stared at Dursalene, only a couple hasas away now, and the torches twinkling on the catwalks of the stockade. Shan had his arms folded across his chest and the night breeze tugged at his streaked hair.

Without removing his intense gaze from the Sabuto town, Shan spoke. “You three go back and get the troops. This spot suits me, and I will stay here to cast my spell. Make sure Taischek is ready to strike with the first light of dawn. When you are in place, take out your warding crystal and I will signal you. When it flares, I am ready. Ride for the town even if the stockade is still intact. I will blast their walls before you get there.”

Shan turned to his friend and no longer seemed withdrawn. In a casual tone he added, “And on your way, please drop my horse off so I can catch up to you. But do not disturb me at all.”

“Will you be safe here by yourself?” Dreibrand asked. As a matter of principle, he did not like leaving Shan alone in enemy territory.

“Go now, Dreibrand. No one will find me,” Shan insisted. “I need you to make sure Taischek charges on my signal.”

Accepting that he had much to do in the night, Dreibrand nodded and collected Teso and Iley to return to the camp. As the scouts hurried up the slope, Dreibrand looked over his shoulder. He faintly saw the outline of Shan’s form against the starry sky and wondered what forces the rys called upon.

~

Taischek shifted in the saddle, his bones creaking with the leather, yet his blood pumped youthfully as he thought about his hated enemy. Sacking Dursalene was going to upset the Sabuto so much that Taischek almost wished he could stay behind to witness their prolonged distress.

General Xander and Dreibrand flanked the King as the war party waited on the edge of the woods near the town. They had only to gallop across a few pastures to reach Dursalene, which appeared to still be ignorant of their presence.

The night grew old and the dawn approached, and Dreibrand watched his warding crystal, waiting for the signal. Xander fidgeted on the other side of the King.

“This had better work,” the General growled impatiently.

“It will,” Taischek soothed his surly friend. “Shan would not lead me to ruin, especially while raiding the Sabuto. I am rather looking forward to seeing what he will do.”

“If he can really do anything,” Xander complained. “Has anyone ever seen him do anything like this?”

Dreibrand’s Atrophaney heritage surfaced. He had an aversion to this negative talk before a battle and retorted, “Yes! I have seen Shan’s magic. He kept Miranda from freezing to death on the glacier from many hasas away. Shan challenges Onja, and you would doubt that he can break a wooden Sabuto fence?”

Sighing, Taischek calmed the warriors. “Settle down, young Dreibrand. No one doubts Shan. Xander just lacks patience and is quick to grumble.”

Xander snorted.

Day broke quickly once the sun passed the Rysamand but Shan had yet to signal. With the day brightening, the Temu knew they would soon be spotted so close to the settlement. Shan had to hurry.

Every bird chirp seemed like a squawk of alarm from Sabuto spies and the horses stomped, reflecting their riders’ nerves. Taischek monitored the crystal in Dreibrand’s hand and continually glanced at the foreign warrior for an explanation.

“Oh, this is ridiculous,” Xander hissed. “Sire, we must leave.”

Taischek’s heart sank. He really wanted to raid Dursalene, and he had really believed in Shan. He did not understand how the rys could have failed, but he could not waste his warriors on a raid that could not succeed.

“The time seems longer than it is,” Dreibrand offered. He had played a part in many great battles and victoriously stormed many eastern cities, so his nerve was slow to dissolve. He had battled on fields turned muddy with blood and the Sabuto town distressed him little.

Dreibrand’s confidence encouraged Taischek, who decided to wait longer and was soon rewarded with the desired signal. Dreibrand held the glowing orb aloft so some of the Temu could see the bright blue light and know the time had arrived. Excitement rippled through the warriors and raised weapons clattered in the morning air. Dreibrand tucked away the warding crystal, tightened his grip on Starfield’s reins, and drew his sword.

Smiling to Taischek, he said, “Shall we?”

The King bellowed a great war cry and started the charge. The Temu poured across the open fields toward Dursalene. The stockade remained intact, but Taischek’s faith in his rys friend was renewed. He now suspected that Shan only timed things so closely in order to show off.

At the hillside outpost littered with Sabuto bodies, Shan gasped as he released his spell. He had mingled his thoughts with the very matter of the wooden stockade, and he felt the power surge through his body and soul as he deployed his magic. No clouds crossed the perfect morning sky, but a thunderous crack split the air and was heard throughout the valley. The gates of Dursalene flew apart in a thousand dangerous splinters, impaling the morning crew that approached to open the town anyway. Wide sections on the other three sides of the town exploded, leaving the town exposed and stunned.

The Temu horses faltered in terror mid charge because of the explosion, and the riders struggled to master their steeds. Once the horses returned to obedience, the Temu hollered joyously at the ruined stockade and resumed their charge.

The noisy disintegration of large sections of the stockade thoroughly distracted the residents from the approaching war party. A couple Sabuto watchmen, who had not been thrown from the shaken stockade, did notice Taischek’s charging men, but their warning got lost in the confused terror. One jumped down from the catwalk and ran screaming for the town hall. No one comprehended his cries until Taischek jumped his horse over the shards of the gate, his cruel mace once again ready for business.

The Temu completely infiltrated Dursalene before the stunned residents could manage a defense. Many Sabuto had been jolted to the floor during the explosions, and they stayed there, covering their heads and thinking some awesome disaster struck them. Only the rumble of marauding riders brought the Sabuto out of their shock enough to realize a tangible foe descended on them. Warriors seized their weapons and burst into the streets to give battle to the Temu.

The explosions had shaken the bed of the captain of the Dursalene garrison, who was a notorious late sleeper, and he awoke to the shrieking of the two former maidens who shared his bed. More annoyed by the cacophony than frightened, the captain flopped out of his luxurious bedding, while bidding the girls to be quiet, and stormed to the balcony.

From the town hall he had a clear view of Dursalene’s main gate, and squinting in the morning sun, he could not believe the gate no longer existed. He did not understand the scattered chunks of wood and the nearby dead men with bloody shards blasted through their bodies. Not until the captain saw Taischek gallop into the town followed by his warriors with tightly braided hair did he comprehend that the Temu were attacking. What trickery had destroyed the gate, he could not guess, but it did not matter.

Flying from the balcony, he jumped into a pair of pants and scooped up his sword and shield. Downstairs, his men gaped out windows or hid under tables or ran around in confusion, but the appearance of their leader ended their disarray. Barking commands, the captain steeled the nerves of those unhinged by the explosions and guided his men out to confront the enemy.

With his warriors rampaging efficiently through the town, Taischek decided to pay a visit on the town hall. Accompanied by General Xander and his toughest warriors, the King charged the Sabuto rushing out of the building. Dreibrand also rode next to the King and plunged into the melee, his strong arm swinging his sword with unstoppable skill. The Sabuto defenders were at a serious disadvantage against the horsemen, but they were numerous.

A particularly gymnastic Sabuto, seeing the fearsome Temu King, launched himself from the top of the hall’s steps and pulled Taischek from his horse. The Sabuto died for the glory of seizing his tribe’s great enemy, but he did unhorse the King and Taischek found himself surrounded by Sabuto. Taischek’s wicked mace forced a bloody path through the swarming Sabuto as he tried to regroup with his men.

The sudden vulnerability of Taischek did not escape the attention of the captain, who plunged through the battle to confront the Temu leader. Taischek killed a Sabuto who lunged at him, and then saw just in time the captain’s blade slashing at his upper body. Taischek ducked behind his shield, and the impact of the sword sent unsettling vibrations through his body. Taischek shook off the blow, and the thrill of battle did not let him feel the strain. His mace arced for the Sabuto captain, who dodged the sweeping spikes. Yanking back his sword, the captain hooked his blade under one of the mace’s curved points and jerked the weapon from the King’s hand.

The loss of his mace at that moment doomed him. Although his loyal men fought fervently and would surely win the day, their victory would be a minute too late to save his old Temu hide.

The captain brought his sword down hard, splitting Taischek’s shield, and the other Sabuto held back the frantic Temu. Taischek blocked the excited flurry of blows from the captain with the remnant of his shield and hoped for an opportunity to grapple the man with his bare hands.

With a determined howl, the Dursalene captain knocked Taischek off his feet with a mighty blow. Taischek could not recover from the fall in time and he locked eyes with the captain, facing death with bravery. Taischek thought of his family and his people and accepted that his time with them was completed.

Lasted a lot longer than I should have, he thought.

But the Sabuto’s sword never crossed his flesh. The head of the captain flew from his shoulders and as his body tumbled, Taischek saw Dreibrand looming over him with his bloody sword. Dreibrand extended a hand over the headless corpse and helped Taischek to his feet, and the gratitude was clear on the King’s face.

“Dursalene is yours, King Taischek,” Dreibrand announced. When his horse had been stumbling on bodies, he had jumped from the saddle to save the King.

The King completed his opinion of the young man. He definitely liked his foreign mercenary and would show him favor. Taischek sensed that the Temu were lucky to have access to the easterner’s wit and skill, and he was glad that his enemies did not.

The Temu routed the defenders, and those who could not run away soon died. Taischek glowed in his possession of Dursalene. The Sabuto King would learn of this outrage by nightfall, and Taischek happily pictured the man’s livid expression. Having border villages looted annoyed the Sabuto, but the rape of Dursalene would really set the Sabuto Tribe behind.

“Come Dreibrand, let us go inform the local rysmavda that they have not collected their tribute for Jingten this year,” Taischek suggested cheerfully, dismissing his recent flirtation with mortality.

At the temple, Temu warriors were already trying to break down the barricaded entrance. A team of four battered the doors with a marble bust of the Sabuto Prime Rysmavda, who dwelled in the capital city of Chanda. The local rysmavda had retreated into the sanctuary of their temple and they hurled threats from behind the high shuttered windows.

The barred door of the temple reluctantly began to split and the marble bust crushed the beautiful designs carved into the surface. The stern face of the marble Prime Rysmavda suffered the indignity of battering his own temple. The sturdy door resisted as long as it could, but it had never been meant to resist such bold behavior from humans. The wood shattered and the warriors hurled the bust through the gaping entrance. The marble sculpture crashed on the floor, and the nose and an ear chipped off.

Taischek whacked the broken door out of his way with his spiked mace and strode into the temple with his gang of warriors. The senior rysmavda of the temple faced them in the antechamber.

“Begone blasphemer!” he cried. “Onja shall torment your soul forever for your crime.”

“Onja’s power is gone and she can’t help you,” Taischek shouted triumphantly.

The rysmavda cowered as the Temu King raised his terrible weapon and the bloody spikes ripped across his chest. Blood spurted across the shredded blue robe, and the rysmavda crumpled, screaming in pain. Another blow ended his life.

The Temu swarmed into the inner sanctum of the round temple and two rysmavda kneeled before a pedestal with a crystal orb on it. The orb was about half the size of the great orbs in Onja’s throne room, but it pulsed with the blue glow of rys magic.

Faith could not keep one of the rysmavda on his knees, and he sprang away from the pedestal as the Temu stormed toward him. The rysmavda who stayed on his knees died first, and the one who fled died second.

Pointing to Xander, Taischek told him to clear out the upper levels, and the General bounded up the wide staircase at the opposite side of the inner sanctum, followed by half the warriors.

“Kill them all!” Taischek ordered.

Dreibrand had rushed inside the temple with his sword ready, but there was nothing for him to do. The King had killed two of the three dead priests, and the intruders met no more resistance on the ground level. A few brief screams came from the upper level, but Xander and his crew were soon finished with the violence.

Dreibrand looked around the inner sanctum of the temple. White columns lined the circular wall, and between the columns, rich frescoes of brilliant color filled the spaces. Each fresco featured a portrait of Onja in various settings. Sometimes she was the aloof Queen on her throne, in others she walked in lush meadows and seemed to beckon the bloom from the plants or she brushed her blue hands across the golden tops of ripening grain. In one pose, Onja stood over a mother and new infant, which immediately disturbed Dreibrand although he realized it was supposed to be appealing. In another portrait, only the starry night surrounded Onja, but no matter what the setting, she always bore the same beautifully indifferent face.

He counted twelve portraits and in the last space stood a statue instead of a painting. Carved from the blue stone of the Rysamand, her polished form was larger than life, and the glow from the orb on the pedestal reflected on the jewels set in her eyes.

“What do you think? Are you a believer yet?” Taischek said.

Dreibrand smiled. “No, King Taischek. But the art is quite good.”

Taischek laughed, seeming to find the comment particularly funny for his own reasons.

The crashing of furniture being tipped over came from the upper level and Xander soon came downstairs to report that the temple was completely clear.

“We have already found much in their quarters. These priests were squirreling away more than their share,” Xander said wryly.

“Typical,” grunted Taischek. “But we know where they keep the good stuff.”

A warrior extracted a set of keys from the corpse of the senior rysmavda near the entrance and gave them to Taischek. The King unlocked the door under the staircase, which led down to the temple vault. Many chests of treasure were stowed below the inner sanctum, and the Temu hurried to loot the vault.

“Take as much as you can carry. We’ll have no time for wagons. We have to be riding out of here before late day,” Taischek announced while breaking the lock on a chest with his heavy mace.

Dreibrand selected two bags of gold. One had coins and the other held raw nuggets, carefully pried from the bones of the mountains. He left the broken temple and deposited the gold in his saddlebags. He watered his horse, and after affectionately scratching Starfield’s neck, he wandered to the gaping city wall to watch for Shan. Dreibrand was not worried about someone looting his unattended saddlebags because all of the warriors were brimming with gold and silver.

Dreibrand saw the last of the retreating Sabuto moving south into the woods. The gaps blasted on all sides of the town had been a sort of mercy to the citizens of Dursalene because they had provided avenues of escape. Otherwise, the raiders would no doubt still be killing people. The shrieks of terrified children faded into the countryside along with the occasional anguished cries from wounded Sabuto struggling in pain to get away.

Out of the eastern hills Shan emerged on his magnificent white horse, galloping across the pastures already trampled by the Temu charge. Dreibrand waved to him.

The rys gestured to the fleeing Sabuto when he reached Dreibrand. “They will not be gone long. The warriors will regroup and they will send for help that will not be long in coming. Taischek better not take his time,” Shan said.

“He’s not,” Dreibrand assured him.

“Let us go make sure,” Shan suggested knowingly.

“Shan, do you think the Sabuto saw you?” Dreibrand asked.

“Yes, and I wanted them to,” Shan replied. “The news of my power and defiance of Onja will quickly travel beyond the Sabuto domain. People everywhere will soon have to decide between Onja and me.”

Dreibrand nodded thoughtfully. This could get to be a big war.

They found Taischek still in the temple, alone except for a few warriors straggling in and out. Standing near the dead priest who had stayed on his knees, the King stared at the crystal orb and the blue glow looked sick on his face.

“You should not look at that thing so long,” Shan admonished as soon as he saw him.

“It’s true, Shan. She really can’t strike us down anymore. If she could, she would kill me right now. I have defiled and pillaged her temple of her tribute, and nothing has happened,” Taischek said.

“Well, you do not have to stand here waiting for her to try,” Shan complained. “Are you ready to go?”

“Let my men catch their wind,” Taischek soothed. He turned away from the orb and happily smacked Shan on the shoulder. “What are you worried about? They won’t come back so quick after what you just did. You almost scared me off.”

“I suppose you best get used to it,” Shan said, scanning the bloody bodies.

Taischek knew the consequences would be serious, but he stuck to his fanatical good humor. “The Prime Rysmavda in Dengar Nor will certainly be waiting for me with open arms.”

“Yet another reason you should hurry home,” Shan added.

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