If Soga heard what Karolek said to me, he hid it well. With a snap to one of his henchmen, a large package was given to the bounty hunter from the first wagon– the one that had held all those weapons. Karolek took this with a nod, his other hand untying and handing over a pouch of coins from his belt.
I grabbed my large bag of goods and cursed its size and weight. This would make it harder to run…or fight.
I tried to slip away while the sorcerer appeared distracted, but just as I reached the door, I felt my bag get tugged back. I looked to see Karolek grinning at me, the light scars on his face wrinkling as he held me with just a pinch of his fingers. His newly acquired package he’d wrapped in cloth and slung over his shoulder.
Seeing those scars on his face… I had given him those a year ago, when we first fought. I had raked my claws from his cheek down the side of his right neck. It was an ugly reminder of that time. My Twin and I had been at odds. The rage inside of us ran amok.
“Now, now, friend! We have much to catch up on, you and I!” Karolek said with cheer. “My business is already done. Come, let’s walk together.” The large man gave a two-fingered salute to Soga, who answered it with a half-bow.
As Karolek escorted me to the door, his large hand never leaving my shoulder, the Higashan trader called after us. “We shall be here another three days should either of you require anything else!”
I didn’t even look back as we cleared the door to the dark muddy streets outside.
Fighting had occurred to me. Of course it had. But I refrained for much the same reasons I imagined Karolek did. If Soga found out about my bounty, he might think turning me in to be a far more profitable venture.
We strode in silence, me just a little ahead while Karolek trailed close behind, one hand still holding my shoulder in a soft but unrelenting grip.
Finally, I said (because I still felt a strong buzz from my drinking before) “I’m sorry about your face.” Then I added with a sullen glance. “We were fighting for our lives that night.”
Karolek only raised an eyebrow at me, his friendly smile gone. “I am beyond caring for such things. Life is more than what we see.”
My face tensed in a scowl and I tried to shake off the man’s hand. “Then listen to me when I say that I am not what you think I am!”
Karolek’s grip tightened, and he said, “Oh ho! The kitten has me all figured out, does she?”
I let go of my bag, the heavy thing crashing to the dirt street, before I grabbed Karolek’s massive wrist with both of mine and twisted. I shifted away as I did so, but he tried to grab me again. His momentum shifted toward me, so with a quick sidestep and a strong pull, I launched the man past me. To his credit, he only went two steps before he stopped and swung around with a fist. I ducked under this, and buried my fist in his gut–
As hard as I could.
His body cleared the street, smashed into a crumbling wall, and slumped down. He grunted, his face tensed with pain but his eyes still alert and locked on me. I could see his hand reaching for the ingots on his belt.
To me, our last encounter had been just a few short months ago. I still remembered how it felt when Karolek’s blades had sliced my achilles tendon, the blood filling my boot, the stench of the dirty snow hastening the rise of my gorge. My death stared me in the face, my fear growing in its shadow. I had been a kitten then.
I was so much more than that now.
“Stop!” I screamed. The force of my intention wrenched out of my throat so hard it hurt. The air rippled, cutting a swath through the dirt. In the fraction of a second before my sonic power struck, I thought I saw Karolek’s eyes widen before he was driven and buried in the rubble that once had been a border wall.
In the ringing silence, the dust rose. It was like a curtain, falling on Karolek. It said, He is defeated! Now you may escape!
But could I really? He knew I was here. He would come hunting for me. Had I truly dissuaded him enough to secure our safety for the time we so desperately needed to heal? To plan? To escape?
It was true that Lacertli favored all paths to survival, including fleeing.
I did not feel this was that moment.
With my vermagus magic fraying my vocal chords to the point of pain, I stalked through the whorls of dust to where Karolek lay stunned amidst the crushed bricks and pulverized cement.
“Hear me, Karolek,” I said. “I am not, and will never be your bounty. I am not the mewling kitten you cornered, nor the savage beast you unleashed whose hope bled out onto the street.” I reached down and grabbed him by his solid chin, my fingers digging into his skin. His eyes blinked and squinted up at me. He made a move like he was trying to reach for something on his belt. Again. The stubborn fool!
“Cajeck,” I spat, before I shoved him deep into his own shadow.
I followed him into the ether, the resistance stronger than what I remembered it being in the Other Place. In that dimension where universal law was often absent or turned on its head, slipping into shadows felt like something as simple as dipping into water. Cold water, but water all the same. Here? It was like pushing through shifting sand or even thick mud. The shadows did not yield so easily, and I could feel something pulling at me, like the world was trying to stop my departure.
The Umbralands was just as I last remembered. A dark and shifting mirror of the real world. By now, I felt comfortable here. Perhaps moreso than I did in the real world.
Karolek did not seem to share my feeling.
The large man, having been forced up and backward out of his position in the real world, tripped and stumbled away from the rubble of the ruined wall and into the street. His face was pale and his features drawn as he stared around him. He even held a hand out like he could stave off what he was seeing somehow. The other hand still stubbornly held onto his package, the long rectangular item hanging down at his side from where it was slung in its cloth.
“What is this?” he said, a small tremor in his voice.
I approached him, stepping carefully over the debris. His eyes snapped sharply onto me, and with a series of quick movements, he lifted his package, ripped away the cloth and the paper coverings, and held it aloft before him. A hammer blade. The length of the weapon was thick but had razor edges, and the tip was like a two-headed mallet with serrated faces. A brutish and graceless weapon in anyone else’s hands, but with Karolek’s metal sorcery I shuddered to think what he could get up to with it.
That’s why I had to get him to see this wasn’t worth it.
“Karolek, stop,” I ordered. My voice was turning hoarse, and I had to fight to keep the grimace from my face– my vermagus magic was wreaking havoc on my throat. “You can’t defeat me.”
“What have you done!?” he spat. His gaze was turning wild as his sweat traced lines of worry through the mask of dust on his face. “Where are we?”
I gestured around us. “This is the Umbralands. It is the boundary between the mortal world and the Somnium, the universe’s dream.” I stepped closer, my eyes finding and holding Karolek’s growing eyes. “You see, since we’ve last met, I’ve changed. I’ve fought things twice your size. Seen creatures that few mortals have ever seen. And I did this all under the banner of my patron.”
“Patron.” Karolek twisted the word, but I could still see the bewilderment in his eyes. He moved backwards away from me, his new hammer blade pointed at me like an unspoken threat. “Speak plainly! Umbralands? Somnium? These things mean nothing to me!”
I frowned at him. “Don’t they?” I stopped and put my hands on my hips. “Karolek, my bringing you here should have made it quite clear to you that you are dealing with something beyond your depth. On some level you have to know that, or else you wouldn’t be backing up from a girl you tower by a good two feet!”
He stopped his slow retreat, his eyes glancing down at his feet in what seemed to be surprise. Anger tensed his features and darkened his gaze. He brandished his weapon at me and yelled, “The truth! How did you bring me here? What are you!?”
“I am the champion of Lacertli, the god of survival,” I said, my voice vibrating with such intensity that I could feel my words down to my toes. My eyes narrowed as I watched the comprehension creep slowly across Karolek’s pale face. “He is the Lizard King. The Shadow Walker. The Umbralands are part of his domain.” I placed a hand on my chest. “As his champion, I have power here. Certainly more than I do in the real world.” I tilted my head to the side. “So if you wish to do battle, I should warn you that you will be doing it where I am strongest.”
Karolek still did not lower his hammer blade. He stared at me as though I couldn’t possibly exist, but I knew he heard the truth in my words. Then, finally, he lowered his weapon and groused, “I’ve never even heard of Lacertli!”
I shrugged. “Neither did I until he found me. He doesn’t care much for being worshipped.”
Karolek turned on the spot, his eyes taking in the hard shadows and the stark lights in the colorless border world. “Umbralands, hmmm?” He looked at me sideways. “You will return me to our dimension if I agree to leave you alone?”
“I will agree to return you if you agree to leave the past in the past, regardless of whatever boons you may gain in the present.”
His eyes narrowed. “The past in the past, eh? Then I suppose you really aren’t here alone, are you?” He pointed at the bag of supplies I’d dropped in the street. “Why else would you need so much supplies?”
My heart beat a little faster. “The supplies are for me alone. I don’t know where the others are.”
Karolek tsked, a shaky grin appearing on his haggard face. “A heavenly champion you may now be, but not so good at lying in a pinch it seems!”
My jaw clenched. Damn! I hadn’t focused enough of my magic to aid in my lie. “Do I or do I not have your word?”
Karolek shouldered his hammer blade and shrugged. “To leave the past in the past and to not pursue bounties in the present? Mmm…” he tapped a finger on his chin. Now I was glaring at him. Was he toying with his answer just to make himself feel better, or was he considering some angle I had neglected to account for?
If this was the case, then he still hadn’t noticed Kali lurking around the corner of the shadowy building across from us, her claws extended in preparation for a surprise attack. The shadows were where we could exist independent of each other for a short time.
Between the two of us we would need no time at all to slay Karolek.
After some time the man nodded. “Very well! Clearly I am outmatched. If your companions are hereabouts then doubly so! Such a shame… I could have used some more gold to my name.” He held up a hand, some of his jovial energy already restored. “Such is the way of things! As it stands, I came here pursuing another bounty entirely. Why risk being dead when there is easier prey to be sought?”
I let out a quiet sigh of relief. I wasn’t entirely sure I could trust Karolek, but for the moment at least, he seemed perfectly dissuaded from trying to cross me.
I held out my hand. “Come here.”
The sorcerer hesitated, one brow arching up. “Must we hold hands?”
I rolled my eyes and thrust my hand out again.
Karolek smirked wryly and approached slow, his eyes on my face and his hammer blade held up and back like he was afraid it was some kind of trick. Behind him, Kali nodded at me and faded out of sight.
When his extended hand came close enough, I grabbed it and stepped over onto a particular stark shadow being cast by a building across the street. “Stand here.” Karolek did as asked and I willed the shadows to take us.
We emerged from the other side, me somehow feeling both physically spent but anxious of mind, and Karolek looking as though he wanted to vomit his last meal. I looked at him with some pity as he leaned over onto his knees, dry heaving, and said, “Don’t feel bad. Everyone else ends up feeling sick too.”
He coughed and spat onto the ground, then looked around at me with faraway eyes. “Really? I can’t imagine why!”
A little smile appeared on my lips, despite myself.
The large man straightened, his hammer blade held down at his side while his other hand planted itself on his hip. “Phew!” He looked at me again and said, “I’m a man of my word. I’ll leave the past in the past. Your friends are safe.”
My expression soured. “I told you, it’s just me.”
He chuckled roughly. “Of course.”
I went to retrieve my bag from the street. A quick peek revealed that the pickled food jars had somehow remained intact. I smiled, glad.
“You know… now that I think on it,” Karolek started behind me. I turned to look at him, my eyes blinking with bemusement. The sorcerer was gazing up at the night sky. “When I was a young boy, there was an old man in my village. He used to throw scraps of meat to the lizards just before dusk every day. His son used to beat him for it. Said he was wasting meat on a dead superstition.” He looked at me, frowning deeply, the scars on his face wrinkling as he did so. “When I asked the old man why he did it, he said it was offerings to the ‘king in the shadows’.”
It wasn’t a question, but I could feel Karolek’s searching gaze was looking for something.
I gave one brief but assertive nod.
Clarity and wonder lit up the man’s face. He gave me a little bow.
I turned away from this. “Don’t bow to me.”
Karolek gazed at me quizzically. “Then what am I supposed to do?”
“Leave me alone.”
The man threw his head back and laughed. “Fair enough!” He turned and started to walk away, but paused. “Actually,” he looked back at me, his eyes squinted. “I wonder if you know…”
When he didn’t finish, I snapped at him, “What?” I was tired and eager to be home. My throat was also throbbing painfully. The cost of using magic I had no formal training in.
“I’m not sure where you’ve gone, little champion, but things have taken an odd turn on the Sibesonan continent.” He held up a finger. “Rumors have been spreading from the west… Whispers that the Kreut Forest has started to turn green again… and no one seems to know why.”
My eyes grew wide, despite myself. When I had cleansed the Kreut Forest of the possessed nymphs and lost spirits that had sucked the life out of it, Lacertli had told me it would once again return to normal. But never had I imagined it would be so soon. And as stupid as it sounded, it astonished me that anything I did would be noticed by anyone.
Karolek raised another finger. “The dwarves to the north say that one of their long abandoned cities has been cleansed. Travelers have spied them migrating into the mountains in droves, looking to reclaim what their ancestors had built.”
That was what Elmiryn and Quincy had gone through. Still, I didn’t know what Karolek was leading to with all this.
He held up two more fingers. “In Fiamma, a Halward statue was destroyed during one of their most auspicious festivals. And in the Lycan forests to the Southeast? The tribes were battling some unknown monster that mysteriously vanished. You’d think they would have been pleased about this, but they hunt for the ones they say are responsible… as if some great crime was committed.”
My gaze dropped as my eyes pricked with surprised grief. Gudahi and Sanuye. Elmiryn had been forced to kill them both in an effort to keep me safe. Gudahi especially had been a friend to me. The pain of that time was still fresh.
Karolek was now gazing at me with such intent I was on edge all over again. “All of these things occurred within the last year. They have caused such a tumult that it has drawn prestigious attention!”
I was impatient with this. I crossed my arms and bit out, “And what attention is that?”
Now the metal sorcerer was smiling so wide he looked as though he had won a great prize. “Why, it is one of your peers! The champion of Njord has been traveling the continent in the wake of each of these events, and where do you suppose his travels have led him?”
My stomach dropped. My hands curled into fists in the crooks of my elbows.
The champion of Njord. The man Tobias had named Wind in his tales. The man whom Quincy had called father.
“Jack,” I breathed. “He’s here?”
Karolek held up his hands, but his fierce smile remained. “I have not seen him, but the city folk have been buzzing about his presence in the region for the last week.” He scratched at the scars on his cheek, his smile turning slanted. “Seems to me that the only business he’d have here is to investigate the business that took place here so many months ago. How does it connect with everything that has happened? I haven’t the faintest…” his eyes narrowed. “But I’d imagine he would very much like to speak with those who freed Syria.”
Suddenly I was feeling nauseous. Karolek, whether unaware or indifferent to the effect his words had on me, turned and started down the road, back the way we had come. “Just thought I’d share that with you! I may not be any match for your particular talents, but the champion of the wind god?” he tsked, shaking his head.
I watched him go for a time, my fear clenching around me. Then I turned and ran up the road.