All the Ronins, Sentinels, and Dark Warlords have gathered at Mia’s for a campout weekend. Dais told the story of how he came to serve Talpa (see Illusions of Power). At Sekhmet’s urging, Kale also shared his story (see Into the Darkness). Now it is Sekhmet’s turn.
Sekhmet eyed the others around the campfire. “My story started so long ago, that my life before Talpa sometimes seems like a dream. I was his first Dark Warlord, chosen generations before Kale, Dais, and Anubis were even born. There are many things I have forgotten…and many things I will never forget.”
Cyanara walked through the woods, gathering herbs in her basket for healing potions and poultices. She could tell from the scent of the air that the approaching winter would be full of sickness in the nearby village. They would be beating a path to her door for her cures. She sighed. That was the only time they had contact with her—when they needed something. Otherwise, she was the “demon-mistress of the woods”, the “evil one”. The superstitious villagers did not associate with her or speak to her. They would not even let their children play near her cottage. But when the incompetent village healer couldn’t help them, they came creeping to her door. She could never turn away those in pain or need.
A strange sound from the bushes made Cyanara jump. She waited a moment for her heart to stop beating so fast. Surely it was just a wounded animal. Moving slowly, she pushed aside the branches. There lay one of the strangest creatures she had ever seen. He was an odd sort of person with wild green hair. His skin was also green and covered with fine scales. Then he turned his head to look at her. Such strange eyes—wide with tiny dots in the middle. He moaned again. She rushed to help him. When she got closer, she could see that he was bleeding from several deep gashes in his side. Sword wounds. He also had others bruises and cuts all over his face and arms. He did not want her to touch his wounds. Then she realized why. The blood was dark green and burned like live coals. She poured cold water from her cask onto her burnt hand and then his wounds. Without hesitation, she rummaged in her basket of herbs for something to stop the bleeding. He looked at her through fever-clouded eyes, but she could see he was also curious. Cyanara smiled and then proceeded to patch up his wounds, ripping pieces from her skirt to use as bandages. She did her best not to touch the blood, but by the time she was done, her hands were red and welted. She gave him a root to chew on that would break his fever and allow him to rest. She then applied a soothing balm to her own hands. His sleeping head in her lap, she stayed with him throughout the night.
Sage broke in. “Wait a minute! You don’t have green skin and scales.”
Kento piped up. “Yeah! Are you even in this story?”
Sekhmet smiled. “I will be soon enough. For you to understand how I came to serve Talpa, it is important to know about my parents. From the moment my mother Cyanara was born she was an outcast simply because she’d had the temerity to be born to a long line of magically gifted healers and seers. All hated and feared by those hypocrites of the village. They also thought it was wrong of her not to seem ashamed of her ‘evil lineage’. But my mother never hid her strangeness. She could understand and speak the secret languages of the animals, could sense things in the air, could see the mystical creatures that hide themselves from the eyes of most humans. That is why she did not fear my father. She had seen many strange things in the woods all her life. Sometimes they came to her for aide—usually they left her alone and she did not bother them.”
Uli’s eyes were wide. “You mean like unicorns and dragons and stuff?”
“And stuff, yes.”
Trace was curious. “What was your father doing there away from H’ris lands alone?”
“My father was also an outcast among his people. He had tried to convince the H’ris to make alliances and treaties with humans. He was quickly condemned to die. He fled, barely escaping with his life. The H’ris as a whole had an obsessive hatred of other races—especially humans. They believed they were the only sentient creatures worthy to roam the earth. They tended to stay in their own lands, but sometime would cross into human places to gather people for sacrifices and show their power. Their attacks were always brutal.
(*author’s note—for more on these people, read SW5: Land of H’ris)
It seemed natural then that two such loners and outcasts would come together. Of course their joining only made their ostracizism by the villagers worse. Their fear and disdain quickly turned to revulsion, out-right hatred, and intolerance. Now my mother was not only a witch in their eyes, but a demon-consort, a mother of demon children. What hurt mother the most was that the villagers would no longer bring their sick to her—even if they were dying. They didn’t want her to taint them with her ‘evil touch’. My parents wouldn’t let us go anywhere near the village because they were afraid what the superstitious cretins would do to us. But, of course, we all sneaked away at one time or another. We each soon learned why our parents didn’t want us to go there. As the oldest, it was lonely for me as a child--until K’taran was born and then M’sara. The three of us were very close—we had to be. There was no one else.”
Rowen turned to Oshay. “K’taran? Isn’t that your clan name?”
“Close. My people, the Clan Kataran, are descended from the families of Sekhmet’s brother and sister. They traveled to another land and intermingled with the people there, creating a whole new group.”
“I thought I'd heard you call him ‘uncle’ earlier.”
Sekhmet balled his fist. “Yet another reason I curse Talpa’s dark soul. He did not tell me K’t and M’sa had survived.” Sekhmet continued the story.
“M’sa! M’sa! Where are you? It’s time for dinner.” S’kmet looked in all her favorite hiding places. Not a sign of her. It was getting dark. Where could she be? K’taran ran up the path towards him. “Any luck?”
K’t shook his head. “I’ve looked everywhere. I even went down to the river and the cave. None of the tree spirits there have seen her all day.”
S’k could not communicate with the strange creatures of the woods, but K’t could. He accepted that. “You don’t think she…”
K’t frowned. “Not after last time. They were so horrible to her.” They looked at each other. She was young. The young forgive and forget too easily sometimes. She’d gone to the village. They took off running.
S’k hoped they could find her before something bad happened. Last time she had gone into the village looking for some other little girls to play with. A group of children had beaten her and chased her away. They’d also cut off a lock of her hair as a trophy. Poor M’sa. She was the least human-looking of the three of them. She’d inherited all of father’s physical features while K’t and S’k had managed to at least come out with scale-less pale skin.
As they reached the edge of the village, they could hear a commotion. They followed the sound of the angry voices. A big man held M’sara up off the ground, shaking her furiously. She was crying hysterically. S’k and K’t ran at the man. When he saw them coming he dropped M’sa. S’kmet gave the gathered crowd his most sinister grimace. They seemed to wilt a little. “What is going on here?”
The man pointed a shaky finger at M’sa. “That…that thing attacked my daughter and her friends. Look at her face! She’ll be scarred for life! Decent children can’t play in the village anymore without worrying about demon…” He trailed off at the look of pure venom K’t gave him.
“If my sister hurt her, she deserved it.” K’t helped M’sara up and dusted off her dress. He took her by the hand and turned back towards the woods without a word.
S’k followed but did not turn his back on the villagers until they were past the trees. He looked at his sister’s bloody nose, torn dress, and bruised face. “Why, M’sa? Why did you go there again?”
She sniffed. “I thought maybe they’d like me this time. I took them sweet cakes. But they said they were prob’ly poisoned and threw them on the ground. And then they…they pushed me down and started kicking me. I got really mad…and I…I scratched one of them. My hand got big and scary just like father’s. I didn’t mean it! They made me so mad.” She started crying again. K’t picked her up and began to carry her. “Why don’t they like us, S’k? We didn’t do anything to them.” S’k didn’t say anything. That was a question he’d been asking himself for years without a good answer. To him, being different was no reason.
Zane spoke up. “To some people that’s the only answer that matters.”
Zoe shook her head. “Children can be so cruel. But they usually learn it from their parents. It’s hard to be so young and try to be like everyone else when they won’t let you.” She and her brother definitely understood. They’d been teased and tormented and bullied all through their young lives because of their own strangeness. Being shy, telepathic albinos didn’t make them socially acceptable. Having a father who couldn’t stand the sight of them hadn’t made things easier.
Oshay was looking at her own hand. “So when your sister said her hand got ‘big and scary’, did she transform it into a clawed form like I do in battle?”
“Yes. That was the first time she displayed the transforming ability. K’t and I didn’t have it. K’t had mother’s heightened senses and I got father’s venom-creating abilities. After that incident, M’sara did not go near the village again. For the most part, we were content to live by ourselves. But our peace wasn’t meant to last.”
Cyanara stood in the doorway of the cottage, staring out into the trees. K’sar came up behind her and wrapped her in his arms. “What is wrong, my love?”
“What you feared is coming to pass. They’re on their way.”
K”sar stiffened. “How soon?”
“I just sensed them. They’re already in the woods and will be here shortly. A few of my ‘acquaintances’ will slow them down, but the H’ris are cunning trackers and they are closing in on us from all sides. Even if we run right now, they’ll catch us.”
“Then we will make our stand here. I’ll start making preparations. Talk to the children.”
Cyanara spoke to S’kmet alone first. He was the oldest…and she wanted him to do something for her. “I need you to go to the village. Ask them for help to fight the H’ris.”
“Mother! They won’t come.”
“Let them know how dangerous the H’ris are to them as well. They hate humans. Surely they will go to the village next and destroy it, sacrificing some of them to their bloodthirsty serpent god. Also remind them of the lives they owe me. Maybe they will feel shame and act honorably for once.”
“But Mother. Why me? I want to stay here and help you get ready.”
“Because you are the fastest. You are also the oldest--I think they will more readily listen to you. We don’t have much time. Go!”
S’kmet ran as fast as he could, almost tripping over things in the dark. As he entered the square, he received the same baneful stares and flinching gestures he’d always gotten when he came across anyone from the village. He approached a group of people standing nearby. “Please. We need the help of as many able-bodied men as we can get! My father’s people are coming!”
“So? You can have a family reunion.” A man sneered with contempt.
“You don’t understand. They’re killers.”
An older woman sniffed. “If the demons have finally come to claim their own, why should we interfere? Let them take you all and leave us in peace.”
S’kmet was getting angry. He didn’t have time for this. “If you help us, maybe we can stop them in the woods. Then they won’t come this way!”
“Who’s to say they want to come here anyway, demon-spawn? Sounds to me like they just want your cursed family. It’s none of our affair.”
“But they hate humans! They won’t stop at just killing us! Being so close to a human village—they’ll take it as a sign from their god to slaughter you.”
“If those monsters come here, we’ll take care of them. But we aren’t going looking for trouble. Now get out of the village before you bring their wrath down on us, too! Go on! Get! Abomination! Demon!” The man threw an apple at S’kmet. Several other villagers were now gathering around. A hateful mob-spirit filled the air with tension. One by one they began to throw things at S’kmet. They cursed him and his entire family, yelling and screaming with hatred and fear.
S’kmet ran towards the woods. He turned to look at the villagers, shaking with rage. “This is how you repay my mother? The woman who has saved so many of your worthless lives when your stupid healer gave up? Who never let your scorn stop her from helping anyone in pain? If I live, I swear to you, I will return and make you all pay. Your pathetic curses won’t stop me! I’ll destroy you all!”
Gilgamesh interrupted. “So now your heart was dark with hatred. You were ready for Talpa to approach you.”
“Almost. My threats were spoken in the heat of anger, but not yet backed by pain and suffering and utter loss. I still had hopes, and I still had my family. If they had lived, I probably wouldn’t have destroyed the village. But I cannot say for sure. As it was…” He went on.
By the time S’kmet got back to the cottage, the place was beset by chaos. He could not see M’sara or K’taran anywhere. Mother stood in the doorway, magical flames leaping from her hands to engulf a couple of the H’ris. S’kmet knew how much that was costing her. She didn’t normally have the kind of power needed for such magic—she had to be drawing from her own lifeforce. Soon she would weaken. Father was surrounded by several of the lizard-like H’ris warriors. S’kmet drew the sword his father had given him a few years before. It was the match to the one K’sar now swung at the enemy. S’kmet charged to help his father.
When the H’ris saw S’kmet, they were outraged. They turned to K’sar. “You disgusting filth! You disgrace us all. To sire offspring with a…a human! Your abomination will die by your side, sacrificed to S’rpes, the Deadly. As will your unnatural woman.” K’sar brought up his sword just in time to block the swinging warrior.
S’kmet swung his blade at one of the enemy fighters, slicing into his sword arm. He dropped his weapon, giving S’kmet an opening to thrust into his chest. S’kmet heard one coming up behind him and spun to strike him with his fist. He’d generated a coat of venom across his hand as he hit the warrior—a trick his father had taught him. The H’ris were generally immune to poisons, but S’kmet and his father had discovered that he could produce new and exceptionally toxic ones. The warrior was stunned by the blow, but seemed to recover. Then he suddenly started gasping for air and collapsed. It was a good trick, but S’kmet doubted the others would give him the opportunity to touch them with his bare skin again. He traded blows with another warrior for several minutes, staggered back by the sheer physical strength of the larger fighter. The H’ris brought down his blade with both hands. S’kmet sidestepped the slice and kicked him in the stomach. When he balled over, S’kmet brought his sword down to cut off his head.
A blood-curdling scream pierced the air. S’kmet looked over just in time to see his mother’s protective shield fail her. A H’ris thrust his blade deep into her stomach.
“MOTHER! NOOOOOOO!!!!” S’kmet turned to go to her, not noticing the warrior coming up behind him. He spun around at his father’s warning cry but he was too slow. The H’ris struck him with a heavy, gauntlet-covered fist. S’kmet fell to the ground unconscious.
When he woke up, he found himself strung up inside the cottage, hanging from the ceiling. His one eye was swollen shut, but he could still see out of the other one. He looked around and saw his father and mother hanging nearby. They were both stripped to the waist and had been carved and burned with strange symbols. “Father? Father, wake up! Mother?” His mother’s breathing was short and ragged. She was unconscious and barely alive. K’sar was in better shape, but still groggy. S’kmet himself felt fuzzy-headed. They must have drugged the three of them to keep them weak. He realized they were being kept alive for the sacrifice. There was no sign of K’t and M’sa. The H’ris must have already sacrificed them.
Kale was puzzled. “Why did you assume they were dead? They could have escaped.”
“There were two other places where it looked like someone had been tied up. They were empty. When I heard the chanting and then the cheers from the H'ris outside, I thought my brother and sister had already been sacrificed.”
“But what happened to K’taran and M’sara?”
Oshay spoke up. “Our clan stories do not say how they escaped. Only that they came from the lands of the west, bringing knowledge and healing skills--with hearts full of sadness and pain. The people of my ancestral lands were being killed by plague, and the strangers knew of a cure. They were welcomed as messengers of our protector, the benevolent and wise Great Dragon. After they helped everyone, they stayed and started families. The Katarans were all descendants of M’sara or K’taran. Variations of those names were still popular for many generations. I had a grandmother Mimsare and a brother Ket.” Oshay smiled at Sekhmet. “I also had a cousin named Semket.”
Sekhmet snorted in mock derision at that. “How unfortunate for your poor cousin.” Sekhmet sighed and stared back into the fire. He continued.
Several H’ris came into the room and began cutting down his parents. They dragged the two of them away. S’kmet tried to break loose of his bonds, but he was so weak and groggy he could barely see straight. When he heard them start the sacrificial chanting, he strarted yelling. He cursed and screamed until he was hoarse. Then the voices fell silent. A few H’ris came back into the room with ornate daggers and pokers. They spat on the blades, their acidic saliva sizzling on the metal. Now he knew how his parents received their scars. The pain was unbearable as the ritual torture dragged on and on. They carved and burned symbols into his chest and back as he cried out. He finally, mercifully passed out. He dreamed of ways to kill them all slowly and painfully. He would wipe them from the face of the universe. And the villagers…they would pay. Oh, they would pay. The H’ris had sent enough warriors to take a family or even a small village by surprise. But if the villagers had organized and attacked the H’ris first…He cursed them one and all, remembering their faces full of hate. Suddenly a voice called his name. He thought he was dreaming at first, but he was conscious again.
Uli broke in. “It was Talpa, right? *Koff! *Koff!”
“Yes. I had reached the point where I had nothing left to live for except my hatred, bloodlust, and desire for revenge. He offered me the armor. I gladly accepted. I killed the H’ris warriors with ease. But I didn’t stop there. I made good on my promise to the villagers. I went back there and made sure they knew exactly who I was and why I was going to kill them all. When I was done, there was nothing left but wreckage. I had crossed the line into evil and allowed Talpa a way into my soul. He then filled it with his own poison until I was his to command—his Warlord of Venom.”
Kento pretty much summed up everyone’s feelings. “Wow.”
Mia was glad she’d invited the Warlords to their party even though Ryo had tried to talk her out of it. He said they would probably not even want to come. And if they did, they’d just make everyone uncomfortable. He was right on both accounts. But Mia thought it was a good level of unease. Maybe talking about their tragedies would help the Warlords heal—maybe even help a few of the Sentinels and Ronins put some of their own troubles in perspective. And anything that brought the Warlords and the other two groups closer together couldn’t be a bad thing, could it? She looked around to see that everyone was stretching their legs and getting something to drink. She turned to Ryo. “Pretty intense, huh?”
He put his arm around her. “You aren’t kidding. Man! I thought you were crazy for inviting them, but I think you did the right thing. You’re too smart for your own good.”
“Why thank you. I try. Now I see what Anubis meant about the Warlords becoming more like the people they would’ve been without Talpa’s influence. Sekhmet has been acting like a big brother to the other Warlords. Have you noticed? A concerned big brother just like he was in his life before the armor.” The two of them sat in silence for a few minutes, taking in all that they’d heard so far. There was only one more Warlord to tell his story—one who was now a Sentinel. She tilted her head towards Anubis. “You think he’s ready?”
“I hope so. I don’t know if having Oshay here makes it easier or worse for him.”
“If the two of them are ever going to come to terms, he has to explain why he killed her whole clan.”
“Has he told you the story?”
“He hasn’t told anyone. This will be the first time.”
Everyone went back to the fire and sat down. Then Anubis sat down, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.