Categories > Original > Fantasy > White Razor

The Razorwhite in Rijatai

by Kadrin 0 reviews

Tarrion Razorwhite comes back from his station.

Category: Fantasy - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Action/Adventure, Fantasy - Warnings: [V] - Published: 2005-05-06 - Updated: 2005-05-06 - 14176 words

The sun was rising over the vast deserts of Rijatai, already starting to heat the sands from the cold of a desert night to the blazing heat of its day. The desert creatures were starting to stir - golaps unburrowing themselves from their hiding places, rai padding out from their caves, and the ludges of the pens in Sikeh Ai bleating themselves awake. Most of the danh of Sikeh Ai were only just stirring, but the kim danh were long awake, and just going into their first meditation of the day. And on a dune a few hundred metres from Sikeh Ai, a young man who was not of the kim danh was greeting the day in an elabarote series of combat stances, flowing from one to another with all the liquid grace of a jat danh dancer. This man was Tarrion Razorwhite, full and practicing hero of Kadrin Hero School.

Tarrion breathed carefully, evenly, in a rhythm with the form. Kadrin taught its forms only as practice, to familiarise its students with the feel of combat stances. Tarrion had coupled them with Khemri meditative breathing exercises learnt in Sikeh Ai, and in doing so had turned them into a contemplative dance. As he moved, he did his best to feel himself as part of the world, and then to retract his senses and feel only himself, but with new senses and new perspective. To truly understand himself.

It rarely worked, but it was extremely relaxing.

He was past Unarmed Form Number Six, which Instructor Mali had called the Dance of the Petal Hand, and moving onto Unarmed Form Number Seventeen, the Tambal's Careful Strikes, when a now-familiar voice interrupted him. The shout was wordless, but Tarrion instantly recognised it as the deep voice of Sikeh Kim Rai, the grizzled leader of Sikeh Ai's kim danh who had taken Tarrion in when he had been stationed to Sikeh Ai by Kadrin.

"Sikeh Kim Rai," Tarrion greeted him, turning and raising a hand.

"I apologise for interrupting your meditations, Tarrion," Sikeh Kim Rai said. The Khemri said - in quiet, sincere tones that brooked no mythmaking - that the man had nearly singlehandedly broken into a Black Blossom Fortress and slain the Heretic warlord Aitep in single combat. His soft, polite tones did not seem to suit a man with such a history, but Tarrion had seen Sikeh Kim Rai fight, and believed every word. "We will be making this week's trip to Tena Monastery within the hour. I believe you have a letter to post to your school?"

"Yes, I do," Tarrion said, with a nod. He stepped down from the dune on which he had been meditating, and walked beside Sikeh Kim Rai as they walked back towards Sikeh Ai. They appeared almost comic: Sikeh Kim Rai's height of six and a half feet was considered nigh-heroic by the Khemri, while Tarrion's of five feet and a few inches was not.

"You will be coming with us, I assume?" Sikeh Kim Rai asked, and Tarrion nodded again. "Good. The men of the kim danh are practicing their iutan today, and I would find it hard to replace you. Sikeh Jat Cul is used to you by now, and that man is as resistant to change as a golap to a bridle."

"I admit, Sikeh Jat Cul bothers me," Tarrion said.

"He did not greet you well. But he's a good man, and a man who tries to be a good man. The second is rarer than the first."

Tarrion nodded. As a Kadrin hero, he had some experience in the matter.

By then, they were approaching the gates of Sikeh Ai, the great walled Khemri city that had been Tarrion's station for the past three months. Over that time, Tarrion had been present at seven desert skirmishes with Ai Dhan Heretics, an attack on a Black Blossom Fortress, a Heretic attack on the nearby Tena Monastery, a Heretic attack on Sikeh Ai itself, and one actual case of the Sikeh Ai kim danh as a whole turning back a Thaern. The fifty six warriors had nearly killed the Warlord, and with only ten killed themselves. Tarrion had been impressed.

Sikeh Ai was a city made for war, as so many Khemri cities were. Unlike their sister-order, the Ai Dhan, the Khemri were warrior monks, an order pledged to take up arms against the end of the world and the rise of the Dark Deity. Until such time - upon which Khemri prophecy was unclear, but emphasised that it could be any time - the Khemri had pledged themselves against minor evils, of which there seemed to be no shortage in Rijatai. More often than not, they fought legions of Ai Dhan Heretics, against whom Sikeh Kim Rai had so distinguished himself; but even without Heretics, the Khemri fought wild desert creatures, the occasional unusually amoral embassies of the Grukian Regency, and sometimes even Thaern. Sikeh Ai's kim danh was never quiet, and most of the warriors that had been kim danh for more than a year were either heroes or dead. It was small wonder that most of the Khemri considered Kadrin Hero School's roving enforcers of love and justice to be brothers in arms.

While Tarrion had lived in Sikeh Ai, he had slept in the low dome of the kim danh building, close to the centre of the city. Sikeh Kim Rai, who was shrewd when it came to the psychology of a soldier, had offered Tarrion either a grand suite on the highest story, or a simple bunk with the rest of the young men of the kim danh. Tarrion, who was shrewd when it came to the psychology of a host, had taken the bunk. It wasn't to the kim danh building that Sikeh Kim Rai led Tarrion, though, but to the slightly higher dome of the jat danh building - speakers, negotiators, and artists, where the kim danh were warriors and warriors alone.

Sikeh Jat Cul was standing outside the jat danh building, dressed in the same all-concealing black robes as Sikeh Kim Rai, but with a jat danh crest on his right lapel where Sikeh Kim Rai wore a kim danh crest. Tarrion had been given gloves and head-and-neck scarves, of some light fabric that the Khemri wore, coloured white instead of Khemri black in an homage to his Kadrin heritage. Sikeh Kim Rai, half laughing, had promised to give him black robes when the heat made him faint. Tarrion had not fainted yet. He, of course, wore no crest himself.

"We've collected the letters from the danh buildings," Sikeh Jat Cul said, without a greeting. "Your kim danh are in the entryway, and the caravan is just outside the walls. The caravan is ready to leave whenever you are, Sikeh Kim Rai." He didn't say that they'd been waiting far too long for Sikeh Kim Rai to turn up with his foreign friend, and his silence was extremely loud.

"Thank you, Sikeh Jat Cul," said Sikeh Kim Rai, his voice as polite as it ever was. Tarrion was mystified. He himself would have been unable to let that pass without an extremely pointed response. "I would like to check on my kim danh before we leave, and make sure that everything is in order."

"Of course, of course," Sikeh Jat Cul said. "The day is young, another delay cannot hurt us overmuch. We may still be in Tena Monastery before the heat becomes too great to bear."

There were five kim danh gathered in the jat danh building's entryway, all five of which Tarrion had worked with long enough to know on sight: Alon, Mei, Tel, Cor, Gan. Seemingly as one, they turned, and saluted Rai as he entered the room. The harmony of Khemri kim danh had surprised Tarrion, when he first arrived at Sikeh Ai. His only explanation, so far, was that the Khemri believed deeply enough in their shared cause that it did unite them, to the level where they could almost hear one another's thoughts - like a Sympathy bond, but made naturally, without magic. He almost envied them that bond. Kadrin heroes nearly always worked alone.

"Sikeh Kim Mei," said Sikeh Kim Rai. "Report to me."

"Since our arrival here and your departure, nothing to report," said Sikeh Kim Mei. "Sikeh Jat Cul checked on us twice and made disparaging comments. That is all."

Sikeh Kim Rai laughed at that. "Nothing unusual. I believe that Sikeh Jat Cul will never respect me or mine."

"Sikeh Kim Rai," Tarrion asked, at first unable to stop himself. He found himself quite easily stopped when Sikeh Kim Rai turned a friendly, questioning glance on him - Sikeh Kim Rai's dark eyes were, perhaps, even more powerful than his iutan. He finally managed, "...why do you still guard Sikeh Jat Cul's caravans? If the man has no respect for you and treats your help as worthless..."

"Who else is there, Tarrion?" Sikeh Kim Rai asked.

Tarrion was silenced. I should have known. "We are all Khemri." Sikeh Kim Rai had said that to him on his very first day in Sikeh Ai, when he had asked if there was ever conflict between the danh. Ever since then, Tarrion had observed Sikeh Jat Cul making cutting remarks about Sikeh Kim Rai in all corners, and Sikeh Kim Rai doing his best to genially slow Sikeh Jat Cul's caravans, but Sikeh Kim Rai assured him at all times that he would die, if necessary, to protect Sikeh Jat Cul and his people.

Privately, Tarrion thought it would be a long time before any such sacrifice would be necessary. Sikeh Kim Rai, for his name and his prowess, was said to share the strength of the desert rai, and Tarrion wondered if even a Thaern was a match for the grizzled Khemri. Of course, when he thought about it seriously, he always came up with the answer Yes. A thousand times over, in fact.

"Then," said Sikeh Kim Rai, turning to his kim danh, "we are ready to leave. I will tell Sikeh Jat Cul - he will be pleased. Unless anyone has a convincing reason for us to remain?"

Tarrion chuckled. None of the kim danh joined him.


Despite Sikeh Jat Cul's loud, sniffling imprecations, the caravan did indeed reach Tena Monastery before the desert sun became too much to bear, and not a moment too soon for Tarrion Razorwhite. Despite being a full hero, who had on two occasions faced Thaern face-to-helmet, trained fully by Kadrin and honed to a deadly sharpness through his stations, he found that being around herd animals tested his combat training to its limits. He was sure that before he reached twenty years old, a ludge or a tralin or some creature of the kind would usher him to an early grave.

Though he had to admit that dying before twenty was not quite as early a grave for a Kadrin hero as it was for almost anyone else on Avarr.

Tena Monastery was like most Ai Dhan monasteries: low and white, but somehow /shady/, and full of plants that had no business growing in the harsh deserts of Rijatai. The whole structures were sustained by Ai Dhan magic, and some of the luckiest also took care of Whole Spirit khajj. The khajj, it seemed, wanted to exist in a beautiful place and for everyone around them to be happy, and a khajj's monastery was full of lush plants and waters. Tena Monastery had no khajj, but was gorgeous regardless.

Very few Khemri cities had anyone with this control over plant magic, and those that did would consider this use of it a criminal waste of power. Most Khemri focused always and only on their iutan - specialised combat magic, unique to each Khemri. For food, they raised the ludges, and traded meat for vegetables to the Ai Dhan.

Tarrion took off his sword, which was called White Razor and was perhaps the finest sword made by mortal hands, at the gates of the monastery, and simply left it lying against the wall. The Ai Dhan were peaceful to the point of obsession, and none of them would touch a sword. Strictly speaking, they preferred visitors to take off their swords before entering, but no Khemri would ever disarm himself, and the Ai Dhan made allowances for the Khemri. The Ai Dhan and the Khemri, after all, shared a common heritage.

"Sikeh Jat Cul!" an Ai Dhan called, and walked towards them with arms wide. She was the only monk in the courtyard that wasn't shying away from Sikeh Jat Cul's caravan - most Ai Dhan considered the Khemri brothers, but brothers lost long ago, now turned savage and dangerous. Perhaps the black-clad, well-armed Khemri had a certain mystique to Ai Dhan youth, but there was nothing that could entice them to come near.

The Ai Dhan woman - Kell, Tarrion remembered - embraced Sikeh Jat Cul - keeping herself well away from the sword at his side - and stepped back to inspect the ludges and wagons in the courtyard. "You've brought your usual load, then?" she asked.

"And then some," Sikeh Jat Cul said. "I brought some little ornaments as well, this time. Some things our lan danh made. We thought we could see if you were interested."

"That's as maybe," Kell replied. "I'll have to take a look at them." She turned to Sikeh Kim Rai and his kim danh, with the customary flinch she always had upon addressing men who were trained and prepared to kill whenever necessary. "On behalf of Abbot Jan, I offer the freedom of Tena Monastery to the kim danh and jat danh of Sikeh Ai, and to Tarrion Razorwhite of Kadrin Hero School. Eat of our fruit and drink of our water as honoured guests."

"I and mine thank you," Sikeh Kim Rai said. "Though you needn't have addressed us separately. I consider Tarrion Razorwhite as much kim danh as any raised to the role."

Tarrion was, for a moment, rendered speechless. He almost missed the kim danh moving past him, and Sikeh Kim Rai clasping his wrist in the Khemri fashion before entering the Monastery proper. He'd looked up to Sikeh Kim Rai as he'd looked up to the Kadrin Instructors, but he'd never dreamed to be named kim danh...

"Oh, Tarrion Razorwhite."

Tarrion looked up. Kell was standing in front of him, holding her manifest. "Yes?" he asked.

"There is a visitor waiting for you. Mali Kadrin. She has been given the freedom of Tena Monastery, and is currently in guest quarters. Do you know her, or is she a messenger?"

"No," Tarrion said, shaking his head. "I know her very well. She's my old Instructor. Did she say what she was doing here?"

"She said she had come to see you," Kell said. "She's in the Room of Blue Petals and Flowing Water. I could bring a monk to direct you..."

"No, thank you. I know the way." He had stayed in the Room of Blue Petals and Flowing Water himself, when he had first come to Rijatai and before Sikeh Jat Cul's caravan had come to take him to Sikeh Ai. He'd considered the blossom trees and tiny river in the room itself to be needless frippery, but pretty enough needless frippery at that.

As he walked through the halls of Tena Monastery, Tarrion noticed - and not for the first time - that the monks did not shrink from him as they shrunk from the Khemri. It was strange, to Tarrion. He was every inch as hard as a kim danh, though perhaps not so much as Sikeh Kim Rai. He could kill with his bare hands and in less than a second. Was it simply, he wondered, that he didn't wear his sword? Was it that they understood Kadrin, and its code of love and justice? Was it that they understood Khemri and exactly how deadly a kim danh could be? Or was it simply that Tarrion was small and pretty where the kim danh were all but brutal-looking?

Still musing, he reached the door to the Room of Blue Petals and Flowing Water, and knocked.

"A moment!" came Mali's voice from inside, a voice Tarrion would recognise in an instant. From his arrival at Kadrin Hero School - he believed he'd been thirteen - and his mnenomic numb, Mali had raised and taught him. Diplomacy first, then when he came of age and made the decision to fight, all the barehanded and armed combat recorded in the great books of Kadrin. Even when he'd ended his numb and regained his memories, it was still Mali who he thought of first and foremost as his mentor.

She opened the door.

She was just as Tarrion remembered - Five Islander short, even shorter than Tarrion, with the dark skin and dark hair of all Fivers, and the scar on her cheekbone that a would-be bandit king dealt her in single combat. She even wore her Kadrin robe. The only thing different from Kadrin was that she was unarmed - of course/. Even in Tena Monastery, though, that seemed strange. Mali had been called the Weapons Master of Kadrin, and claimed proficiency with at least fifty different weapons from across Avarr. It was rare to see her without /some kind of exotic arms on her person.

"Tarrion!" she said. She didn't hug him. Tarrion Razorwhite did not hug.

"It's a pleasure to see you, Mali," he replied, with a faint bow and a Kadrin salute - right hand laid above his left shoulder. "Though I must admit I did not expect to. What called you away from Kadrin?"

"A long story," Mali said. "And one that can wait until we reach Sikeh Ai."

"You're coming to Sikeh Ai?" Tarrion asked, baffled.

"I'm not trying to steal your station, Tarrion," she said with a smile. "I've always wanted to meet the Khemri, especially of an Ai so notorious as Sikeh. And I need to talk to Sikeh Kim Rai."

"Why's that? What do you need to talk to him about?"

"...Ending your station," Mali said, after a pause.

"You want me to leave Sikeh Ai?"

"We want you to come back to Kadrin. Tarrion, there are bad things happening at our Hero School, and I feel that it might lead to a... a fight, a battle, something violent. I want you there because even if you can't stop what's happening..."

"What is happening?"

"To be totally honest? I don't know. But if it does come to a battle, I want you there because you're an exceptional fighter for your age and you just might turn things our way."

"Our way?" Tarrion was starting to become worried, and when worried, he took pains to become angry in order to hide it. "As opposed to whose way?"

"Tarrion, all I know is what's happening at Kadrin. I don't even know if it's leading to something or just a lot of coincidence. I don't know who or what's behind it and I don't know what they're planning and I don't know why they're planning it. If I did, I would have stopped it by now."

More than likely, Tarrion thought, she would have. She or Harrag, or Patil, or any of the other Instructors Tarrion had known at Kadrin who seemed able to take on the entire Armagian Army single-handed.

"So," Mali said, stepping out of the Room of Blue Petals and Flowing Water and closing the door behind her, "lead me to Sikeh Kim Rai."

"I don't know where he is," Tarrion responded. "Just because he's in charge of me during my station doesn't mean..."

"Tarrion, in your previous visits to Tena Monastery, has Sikeh Kim Rai followed any pattern?"

"He visits the Abbot to make his submissions, walks the Corridor of Red Petals and Cloth, and then waits outside with his kim danh," Tarrion responded promptly, and didn't know he was being made fun of until he saw Mali's smirk.

"Tarrion, you are a wonderful hero, and were I a civilian, I would feel safe under your care. But you're quite susceptible to hero worship."

"It's not /worship/..."

"Also, you like to make your Instructors' lives hard. So, lead me to Sikeh Kim Rai."

They found him walking the Corridor of Red Petals and Cloth, where the magical red blossom trees were in their weekly fall season. Sikeh Kim Rai, one of the hardest warriors Tarrion Razorwhite had ever known, was staring at one tree's falling blossoms with an expression of open rapture on his face. Tarrion had known poetic fighters in his time, but few of them had been as large, as strong, or as rough-looking as Sikeh Kim Rai. The combination of roughness and gentleness in the man, of warrior and scholar and leader and friend, was part of the reason Tarrion supposed he did worship him.

"Sikeh Kim Rai!" Mali said, laying her right hand on her left shoulder and half-bowing. "It is more than a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance."

Sikeh Kim Rai turned himself away from the falling blossoms, and looked down to Mali. "I fear you know more of me than I of you, lady," he said.

"Sikeh Kim Rai, this is Mali Kadrin, one of my Instructors," Tarrion said.

"An Instructor of yours?" Sikeh Kim Rai asked. "A lady of high standing in Kadrin?"

"I am just one of many Instructors..." Mali started, but Tarrion was nodding.

Sikeh Kim Rai slowly lowered himself to his knees, not taking his time out of effort but out of the desire to show as much respect as possible. Tarrion was surprised, and almost shocked, to see that Sikeh Kim Rai was making the his submission to Mali as he had the Abbot. "The Khemri consider Kadrin heroes to be brothers in arms, and I consider any great lady of Kadrin to be a greater presence than myself." And then the formal words of the ritual: "I, Rai of Sikeh Ai and of the kim danh, place myself and all who follow me completely at your command."

Tarrion was about to lean in to tell Mali exactly how she was supposed to behave at this juncture, but Weapons Master Mali was as much a diplomat as any jat danh, and even more so. Almost regal in her bearing, she laid her right hand upon his forehead. The image should have been ridiculous, as Sikeh Kim Rai was nearly as tall as Mali when he was kneeling, but both warriors' presence gave it a sort of dignity. "I thank you for your submission, Rai of Sikeh Ai and the kim danh," Mali said. "Please stand."

Sikeh Kim Rai rose. "I hope I have not embarrassed you," he said.

"Not at all," Mali said, smiling. "I trust I will not embarrass you, therefore, by asking if I may be allowed into Sikeh Ai."

"I have made my submission to you," Sikeh Kim Rai said. "If you asked me to lead you to Thaern Rock, I would do so. If you asked me to lead you to the prison of the Dark Deity, I would endeavour to find the way."

"I don't think we'll be going that far," she said, smiling at Sikeh Kim Rai and Tarrion both. "Nor to any place that dangerous."

Sikeh Kim Rai nodded. "Sikeh Jat Cul will be some time yet," he said. "Would you like me to show you Tena Monastery, or would you prefer to wait with my kim danh?"

"I would be flattered to see the monastery," Mali said, and Tarrion nodded, and then felt a fool for nodding. Kell had shown him the monastery when he had first arrived, and Sikeh Kim Rai had shown him the monastery again when they had first met.

Sikeh Kim Rai turned, and walked. Tarrion started to follow him, but Mali laid a hand on his shoulder in gentle restraint.

"Would he truly follow me wherever I ordered?" Mali asked, calculatingly.

"The ritual of submission is a very important custom to the Khemri," Tarrion responded. "He would take you to Thaern Rock, and kill anything that threatened you and did not kill him first."

"Hmm," Mali said. "That might be useful."

She walked past Tarrion, who followed her after a second or two of staring.

"I said we weren't going anywhere as dangerous as Thaern Rock," Mali whispered to Tarrion before they caught up with Sikeh Kim Rai. "Perhaps I should have added, /yet/."


"There are stories and stories told of you, Sikeh Kim Rai," Mali said, from beneath a ridiculous wide-brimmed hat the Ai Dhan had lent her for the walk through the desert. She'd flatly refused to ride in the caravan, and Sikeh Jat Cul had sniffed notably and muttered something not quite under his breath about difficult Kadrinners. "Even in Kadrin, those who seek can hear stories of the greatest kim danh in Sikeh Ai."

Which was true, Tarrion reflected, as far as it went. But in Kadrin, those who sought could hear stories of /anyone/.

"There is one story, however, told above any others. Even those who haven't heard the rumours that you are as strong as the rai of the desert, or that with your khemjat you can cut through solid cir... even they have heard that you have stormed the Black Blossom Fortress that was once Oteg Monastery, and that you have slain the Heretic Aitep in single combat. And this story, unlike the others, seems to have no hint of myth. Would you tell me how you did it?"

For some time, it seemed that Sikeh Kim Rai would not respond, and Tarrion feared that Mali had somehow offended him. Then he raised his veiled face to the sky, and said, "Oteg Monastery was not far from here. Smaller than Tena, but linked, after a fashion. A brother monastery, so to speak. The monks had enchanted the soil to nourish velt fruit. I fear there will be no more velt fruit in these deserts for some time, now."

He put one hand to the hilt of his khemjat. It was a gesture, Tarrion thought, of /memory/, of how he remembered holding his khemjat when he had stormed the fortress that had once been Oteg Monastery.

"Aitep was a good man, so I've heard. He took care of the older monks, and sometimes the velt fruit. The lesson on his precept rod was 'Do Good Deeds For All Who Need Them'. He meditated most diligently. He was, one would think, the last man who would ever turn to the Dark Deity. But... evil is seductive, and the desire to throw off responsibility and claim total subversion to a god, even a god that speaks only malevolence, is strong when it emerges. The ranks of the Ai Dhan Heretics even include some who were once Khemri - many will not say this, but I acknowledge our frailty, and in doing so, I hope to defeat it. I do not know exactly what turned Aitep to his weakness, but when I met him in his Black Blossom Fortress, he had reforged his precept rod into a precept sword, and the lesson upon it was 'Discard Those Who Do Not Reward You'. Maybe that says something.

"I think there were six, at first. I do not know how long Aitep was Heretical, and biding his moment, or if he was the spark that prompted the other six to come out of their holes, but I think there were first six. They reforged their precept rods into precept swords and went through Oteg Monastery. They slaughtered the monks, or drove them into the desert, and perverted the spells that nourished the plants, so that their many-coloured blossoms all turned black. Aitep named himself lord of the Black Blossom Fortress, and as they always do, the Fortress started attracting Heretics. I wonder, sometimes, why there are so many of them. I wonder, sometimes, where they all come from.

"The monk who came to Sikeh Ai was named Ralt. He was dying when he came to our gates, and the best efforts of our lan danh could not save him. Before he died, he spoke of Aitep's Heresy, and the gal danh decided that I and my kim danh would be sent to Oteg. I took fourteen kim danh that day, Sikeh Kim Mei and Sikeh Kim Alon among them. We were outnumbered by four to one, or something like it. Three of my kim danh were killed. Their names were Polt, Jan, and Cul. We broke through their defences quickly, and made our way to the central room of the Fortress. It had been a hall for the velt fruit, but Aitep had made it his throne room. The velt plants were twisted by his magic, and they looked as if they were rotting. He called to me when I entered with my kim danh, and called me by my name, and told me he would fight me himself. I and my kim danh could have rushed him and killed him in seconds, but I accepted his challenge. I sent my kim danh to kill his servants.

"I drew my khemjat, and I waited for him to come to me. He did, of course - it is a common factor amongst the Heretics that they will always lead a charge. I caught his precept sword on my khemjat and threw him aside, but he was stronger than I had hoped. I punched him, threw him backwards..." Sikeh Kim Rai shook his head. "We fought. Aitep was not as skilled as I, but he matched me strength for strength, and he was wearing me down. Finally, luck - or the Dark Deity - let him score a blow to my hip, and in his success he was distracted enough that I could lock his precept sword with my khemjat. Then, with my left hand, I lit my iutan, and sent Khemri fire through him. He recoiled, and dropped his sword as he tried to extinguish the flame, and I took my khemjat and struck his head from his shoulders."

A pause, for a moment.

"Then I gathered my kim danh, and we used strength and our iutan to tear the Fortress apart, leaving no one stone touching another. We burnt out the corrupted plants, and filled all the wells. The power of our iutan turned the sand to black glass, and to the best of my knowledge, there is still a small plain where that fortress stood that is littered with glass. Our ri danh went with Ai Dhan workers to build them a new monastery, elsewhere."

He sighed.

"That is my story, Mali Kadrin, that which is heard even in Kadrin Hero School. Was it worth the telling?"

"I had wondered if you were the man the stories claimed," Mali murmured. "I think you are."

As if in response, a rai shrieked its high-pitched hunting cry, and Mali grabbed the long ense spear-sword from her back. "What was that?" she asked, lowering the ense to a fighting stance.

"A rai," Sikeh Kim Rai responded. "A desert predator... quite common in this area."

Mali turned to him with a smile on her face, which Tarrion thought quite unfair. If he'd said the exact same thing, he was sure he'd be met with a quick half-thought rebuke - I know what a rai is, Tarrion Razorwhite. "Are they dangerous to travelers?" she asked. "I've heard they can be quite deadly."

"Caravans have been attacked," Sikeh Kim Rai admitted. "A kim danh warrior of any training is a match for most rai, though. His sword against her claws - perhaps, the rai would win. But kim danh have their iutan." He smiled, then. "No caravan I have traveled with has ever been attacked by rai. Some say they recognise their brother, and stay clear."

The rai shrieked again. The sound was nothing like Sikeh Kim Rai's voice in battle, his harsh shouts and roars, but perhaps the underlying ferocity was the same. Due mainly to his name, Sikeh Kim Rai was often compared to the desert rai by both friends and enemies. Tarrion saw him as something altogether different.

It was noon. The desert was starting to burn.


"Instructor Patil is dead," Mali told Tarrion, when they were both sitting cross-legged in a kim danh training room. Her ense rested in front of her, the blade towards the door. White Razor lay sheathed in front of Tarrion.

"Instructor Patil?" Tarrion replied, dumbstruck. Patil had been an armagian hero, tall and blade-thin, and perhaps the fastest warrior Tarrion had ever seen. Once, Tarrion had watched him spar against seven other full heroes, and defeat them all simply by virtue of his speed. Tarrion had thought him completely unkillable, as invincible as a Thaern. "How?"

"A Life Diver attacked him. Do you know Life Divers?"

"Ultimate assassins... Sympathetics. That's all I've heard."

"Well, the rest is easy enough. Using Sympathy, they link their lives completely to the target's, and then..." She shrugged. "Then they kill themselves, or close enough. They take their lives down as far as they can, and then they come back after the target has drowned. The Life Diver was killed. We tried to take her alive, but... It's almost funny, really. Saili Kakura Tokatado knocked her unconscious and she fell off a wall and died. She killed Namag of the White Towers Pact and wounded Instructor Harrag."

"How could a Life Diver get into Kadrin?" Tarrion asked. "I thought our defences were too strong for that."

"They were/." Mali clapped her hands, a Five Islander gesture of helplessness. "But not any more, it seems. Instructor Irata was poisoned. One of the Heads of Kadrin was shot through the throat with a wrist-mount bow. From the angle, the arrow had to come from the top of Tevless Dormitory. There's no way an assassin could get there. Another of the Heads - Faras Tangen, he gave you your certificate of graduation - was decapitated in his apartments. His Kadrin blade was in his hand. The attacker left no trace. This year, seventy heroes were sent to their stations, and /fifty five have either not returned or lost contact with Kadrin. That's twice last year's proportion of lost heroes. Twenty have been killed at Kadrin itself, as opposed to three last year."

Tarrion was staring, gape-mouthed. "This cannot have happened," he said, in some attempt to rationalise.

"Of course this cannot have happened!" Mali responded. "But it did/! Kadrin is losing power by the /day - power, and people. Recruitment hasn't slowed yet, thank Zigen and all His brood, but how can that last long? Our heroes have always had deathwishes, but at this rate, they've got to decide that straight suicide is safer than coming to Kadrin before long."

Tarrion stood. He realised that he'd picked up /White Razor/, though in some testament to his sanity, he hadn't unsheathed it. "Do we believe that these attacks are connected?"

Mali clapped again. "What to say? On the one hand, this is simply too much of a coincidence. On the other, we have either a super-soldier who can be everywhere at once or the budget of a large nation. Who has those resources and the desire to attack Kadrin?"

"The Greenskin Nation," Tarrion posited.

Mali snorted. "That bastion of stability? They'd never stand for something that changed things as dramatically as an attack on Kadrin. And whatever you think of them, they don't like Thaern any more than we do."

"So, Kadrin is now a battleground." He was pacing the room now, White Razor in his hands. "Why take me back?"

"Because Kadrin is now a battleground. We wouldn't fight with half an army. I've seen enough of Sikeh Kim Rai to know that he's more than capable of handling his own problems, and we're rapidly losing our power at home. If you think you'd be safer here, Tarrion, let me remind you that Talru Kékaas, one of the heroes killed this year, was assassinated in her room in the House of the Sky Rider's capital city. She had far more than walls and the kim danh to protect her."

"My own safety has never been my priority." Tarrion began the process of fastening White Razor to his back. "Very well, then. It seems we go back to Kadrin."

Mali stared at him for a moment. "Now? Without any planning, any time spent deciding how we should counteract this?"

"With what little we know, how can we plan?"

Mali conceded the point, but not gracefully. "You truly don't make your own safety a priority, do you?"

"If I did, I never would have joined Kadrin."

"Tarrion, you have a place in my heart alongside my brothers, but burning Zigen how you annoy me at times."

She took up her /ense/, leveled it over one shoulder, and left the room. It was some time before Tarrion followed her.


When he reached her, she was talking to Sikeh Kim Rai.

"I was thinking," she told him, "that we could commandeer the ship from Tena Monastery, but that would hurt them... maybe not drastically, but it would. I saw a map in Tena Monastery, and there's a site to the southeast that could allow us an easier trip, almost as close as Tena. Pali Monastery. Can we take ship from there?"

Sikeh Kim Rai never stiffened, or bristled, or anything of the kind. There were ways, though, to tell that the man had been shocked, and Tarrion had noticed them the moment Mali had said "southeast". Finally, he said: "If you wish me to take you there, Mali Kadrin, I will."

"There is a 'but' in your voice," Mali noted.

"Pali Monastery no longer exists. It was overrun three weeks before Tarrion's arrival here, and it is now a Black Blossom Fortress."

Mali took this well, nodding quietly and obviously rescheduling for a departure from Tena. Tarrion did not.

"You said it is a Black Blossom Fortress. Almost as close as Tena Monastery. Why is it still standing? Why haven't we sent the kim danh?"

"We did send the kim danh, Tarrion," Sikeh Kim Rai said, quietly.

There was a moment of silence before Tarrion said, rather lamely, "Oh."

"Beyond that," Mali said, "we'll have to leave from Tena. Though it seems intrusive. I've just gotten off their ship and I'm asking to take it back."

"They have other ships at Tena Monastery, Mali Kadrin," Sikeh Kim Rai said. "And our Ai Dhan brothers care nearly as much for Kadrin as we do. Trust me, borrowing one of their ships for one trip will hurt them not at all. And now, if I may, I would borrow your student."

Tarrion didn't quite know what Sikeh Kim Rai meant until the Khemri's hand fell on his shoulder.

"Have him back promptly," Mali replied, waving a hand dismissively.

Sikeh Kim Rai led Tarrion to the archway of the kim danh building, a few hundred feet away. The area around the door of the kim danh building was always quiet - it seemed to mark a more than physical barrier between the kim danh and the Khemri who were not kim danh. Which was amusing, when Tarrion thought about it. The most quiet, retiring ri danh was more of a fighter than the average Armagian - the Khemri were massively militaristic, as befit a culture waiting and preparing for the end of the world. Tarrion felt right at home.

"I have a gift for you," Sikeh Kim Rai said, and walked into the kim danh building.

Tarrion waited. Sikeh Kim Rai hadn't explicitly told him to wait, but then, he didn't need to. Tarrion flattered himself that he understood the great kim danh by then. He felt a rather dismal suspicion that he was entirely wrong.

When Sikeh Kim Rai returned, he was carrying a travel chest, slung casually under one arm. He laid it down in front of Tarrion, and knelt to unlock the clasps. He pushed the lid back, revealing a great deal of folded white fabric.

"On your second day here, you asked why our kim danh do not wear armour," Sikeh Kim Rai said.

"And you said, 'oh, but they do'," Tarrion said, smiling with the memory. "I still believe that you were deliberately trying to confuse me. You let me guess eight times before you told me that the robes were magically enhanced."

"Stronger than chain," Sikeh Kim Rai said, and gestured to the white fabric in the chest.

Tarrion caught the hint, and picked the fabric out. It fell into the shape of a Kadrin robe, long loose sleeves and low skirting, exactly his size. Carefully laying it aside, Tarrion pulled out the rest of the fabric - a Kadrin-styled undershirt and trousers; as well as Khemri-styled gloves and headscarf.

"Once I had told you about the robes, I asked you why Kadrin heroes do not wear armour. You told me that heroes work best when they are light, and fast." He gestured to the enchanted robes in the chest. "A gift for you, from the entirety of Sikeh Ai. I had Sikeh Lan Ala sew and enchant them, just as he sewed and enchanted my own."

"Thank you," Tarrion said, feeling the words wholly inadequate.

"Tell me, Tarrion. Once I had asked you about your robes, what else did I ask?"

"You asked... You asked about my sword. You thought it was too thin and fragile to work properly in combat conditions."

"And you told me of its miraculous metal, yes. But my doubts are my doubts, and I cannot shake them as quickly as I would like."

Before Tarrion knew what Sikeh Kim Rai was saying, the Khemri had unclipped the sheathed sword at his side and held it towards Tarrion, hilt-first.

"A gift for you, from me," Sikeh Kim Rai said.

"I can't," Tarrion said. It was ridiculous for a Khemri, especially a kim danh, especially the leader of the kim danh, to go unarmed for any period of time. It was ridiculous that he would give up his sword to a man he barely knew. It was utterly ridiculous that he would give up his sword at all - Khemri swords were highly personal, regarded as part of the soul.

"I particularly wish that you do," Sikeh Kim Rai replied.

And under that voice, Tarrion could not help but obey.

The sword was a khemjat, a well-balanced, thick-bladed hand-and-a-half sword belonging only to the kim danh. The leather wrapping the hilt was hard-worn from Sikeh Kim Rai's many battles, in ridges and valleys that were too big for Tarrion's hand. For all that, it felt perfectly /right/, and Tarrion thought briefly that he could use the khemjat easily as well as he could use his White Razor, with which he'd trained for all his six years at Kadrin.

"I /can't/," Tarrion said. It was almost blasphemous to hold Sikeh Kim Rai's khemjat, a reversal of the natural order of things. For all that, his protests was starting to become mostly reaction, with little thought behind them.

"Tarrion." Sikeh Kim Rai dropped his hands, rejecting any opportunity to hand it back.

What am I meant to say to this? Tarrion thought to himself, looking at the khemjat in his hands. If "thank you" was insufficient for the armoured robes, how much more so was the sword that was almost part of Sikeh Kim Rai himself?

And then the only possible answer came to him, as it should have much earlier, and he sank slowly to his knees. "I, Tarrion of Kadrin Hero School, place myself and all who follow me completely at your command."

Gently, Sikeh Kim Rai laid his calloused right hand upon Tarrion's forehead. "I thank you for your submission, Tarrion of Kadrin Hero School," he said. "Please stand."

Tarrion drew himself to his feet, suddenly wondering if he'd overstepped his bounds.

"You are kim danh," Rai said then, and smiled. "As much kim danh as any raised to the role, as I said."

Tarrion stared at him for a moment, and Rai returned his regard.

"Your Instructor is waiting for you," Rai said.

Slowly, Tarrion nodded, and turned to walk back to Mali's side. Rai didn't follow him.


The Ai Dhan were a nation of total pacifists. In his time at Sikeh Ai, Tarrion had seen Heretics toying with loyalist Ai Dhan, a single Heretic attacking a larger Ai Dhan and beating him relentlessly. The Ai Dhan, though physically larger and probably stronger, would only run, and if he could no longer run, simply block the blows as best he could. The kim danh had needed to save lone Ai Dhan from death many times. Some - and Tarrion, for a while - asked why the Ai Dhan couldn't simply fight back. They always had the advantage of numbers. It had taken Sikeh Kim Rai's explanation for Tarrion to learn that the Ai Dhan would actually prefer to die than to use violence. And so they ran, and they fell, and they warded off as many blows as they could... and then, if someone would fight for them, they survived. If not, they died in their faith. Tarrion didn't understand it, but it must have worked somehow. The Ai Dhan had survived for thousands of years.

But there was nowhere to run to on a ship.

So for a while, the Ai Dhan simply didn't sail, and even once they had, only one Ai Dhan monastery was founded outside Rijatai. They discovered, to their great sorrow, that the Heretics had taken to the seas first. Even if Heretic pirates didn't catch them, there were many, many other corsairs. Eventually, outsiders were hired to defend the ships. These outsiders weren't called marines, or even defenders - but there was little doubt as to what they were.

On the little ship /Tena Sea Child/, there were six hired Pactlander mercenaries, three Khemri, Sikeh Kim Tel among them, a massive free-willed mangra-otun who typically stayed in his room, sharpening his axe, and the two Kadrin heroes. The armed outsiders expected little difficulty.

Freed of negotiating with outsiders, at least for the moment, Mali had taken to perching at the edge of the ship and staring into the sea, responding to any questioning with monosyllables. Tarrion didn't really mind, spending his time alone walking the ship and thinking on what she'd told him. He wore Sikeh Kim Rai's khemjat at his side and White Razor at his back, looking almost overprepared for battle. In truth, he tried not to think about the khemjat.

As he passed, Sikeh Kim Tel - who had always been the most open of the kim danh, besides Sikeh Kim Rai - tried to draw him into a game of Lady 'Midst the Spearpoints he was playing with three of the Pactlander mercenaries. He declined politely. The first time he'd played Lady 'Midst the Spearpoints had been in the Pactlands themselves, against three men who could not only perfectly memorise the sequence of the cards but had turned out, later, to be cheating. He'd been soured on the game since.

Taliah Kim Ban and Taliah Kim Rijat stared at him as he went past, appraisingly. Doubtless Taliah Ai knew of the heroic Sikeh Kim Rai, but they'd heard nothing of the Kadrin hero he'd come to favour. All they saw was a tiny young man wearing an overlong, exceptionally thin sword on his back, and a khemjat at his side. No wonder they didn't think much of him.

The mangra-otun, Garl Tolugh, was outside his room for a rarity, though he hadn't stopped sharpening his axe. Massive in green skin and long black hair, Tolugh scowled at him as he passed, more open and more refreshing than the Taliah kim danh. Garl Tolugh scowled at /everyone/. Tarrion passed him by with a nod as he dragged his sharpen stone over the edge of his axe, and deliberately refused to wince as a flurry of sparks hit the boat's wooden deck.

Finally, he made his way to the prow, and scanned the horizon carefully. As a defender of the /Tena Sea Child/, he figured he might as well earn his keep. He wouldn't see anything before the lookout did, of course, but it helped him relax.

A moment later, Sikeh Kim Tel joined him at the rail.

"I don't think I would much like to go to Taliah Ai," he started the conversation. "They seem abrupt and unpleasant there."

"All that most people see of Sikeh Ai is Sikeh Jat Cul," Tarrion murmured.

"Spare us," Sikeh Kim Tel said, conceding the point.

They stared at the waves for a moment, Sikeh Kim Tel drumming his fingers on the hilt of his khemjat. It was impossible, of course, for the ship's guards to travel unarmed as they would be expected to in an Ai Dhan monastery, but the Ai Dhan crew still gave the heavily-armed marines a wide berth at all times. For that reason, Tarrion tried to stay away from any of the areas the crew needed to get to in order to work. He was beginning to think he was the only one, though, ever since he'd seen the Taliah kim danh sitting in deep discussion near the mainsail's sheets, Sikeh Kim Tel enthusiastically talking to a ghost-white Ai Dhan who was attempting to work the bilge pumps from as far away as possible, and Garl Tolugh leaning against the ship's wheel and smirking.

"Tarrion," Sikeh Kim Tel said. "Let me see your sword."

Tarrion gave Sikeh Kim Tel a sideways glance.

"I've seen you fight. It's just like there is a line protruding from your hands, and you cut it through the air. I want to see a sword like that."

After looking around for any Ai Dhan on the deck and finding none, Tarrion slowly drew the two-handed White Razor from its sheath on his back, laid the blade on one hand, and held it out towards Sikeh Kim Tel. Sikeh Kim Tel didn't touch it - to touch another kim danh's sword would be an invasion of privacy, and in even asking to see it Sikeh Kim Tel was more forward than most kim danh - but he hovered his forefinger over the blade, and marveled at the thinness of it. The blade was no wider than the first joint on Sikeh Kim Tel's finger.

"It would break, surely," Sikeh Kim Tel said. "A sword this thin cannot stand. And if it can, why do no other Kadrin heroes have swords like this?"

"It's made of irralaen." Tarrion tapped the sword near the tip. It didn't vibrate at all. "The metal is extremely hard and dense. The sword needs to be extremely thin to be useable, and even then, the balance is strange. It's hard to smith a White Razor with anything near a worthwhile balance, and the wielder needs to be either extremely skilled or trained only with a White Razor in order to use it. The original smith only made twelve, and only one has been successfully smithed since his death."

"You can't parry," Sikeh Kim Tel theorised. "Any impact would turn a sword like this into a lever. Even if it didn't break, it would come out of your hands."

"No, you can't parry," Tarrion said, and returned the sword to its sheath on his back before turning back to the water.

"I wonder, though," Sikeh Kim Tel said, behind him, "which came first? Your sword is called /White Razor/. Your iutan is called /White Razor/. You are called Tarrion Razorwhite."

He seemed ready to go on, but Tarrion interrupted. "Razorwhite is my family name," he said, in a voice that was nearly a snap. "My father smithed the White Razor swords, of which mine was the last and finest. And I named my iutan in his honour."

Sikeh Kim Tel was silent for a moment. Then, he said: "I apologise. I truly didn't mean to anger you."

Before Tarrion could respond, a cry came from the lookout tower. "A ship! North and twice west!"

White Razor was back in Tarrion's hands in a moment, and Sikeh Kim Tel similarly drew his khemjat. Both men scanned the seas on the horizon, as the other defenders turned up in seconds - Mali with her /ense/, Pactlanders with spears, Taliah kim danh with khemjat, and Garl Tolugh with his axe.

"I see it," Sikeh Kim Tel announced, pointing. "There."

Tarrion peered, and Mali with him. Tarrion's eyes were good, he knew, but Mali made him look blind. "There's no one on deck," she said. "Maybe it's abandoned, or maybe the crew are hurt, or maybe they're hiding."

"For no good purpose," said one of the Pactlanders. "Pirates."

"It's not impossible," Mali demurred. "But we don't even know if there's anyone on the boat."

"We're tacking towards it," Garl Tolugh said. "And it's drifting towards us. If it really is abandoned, we can change course."

"I want to know why it is abandoned," Taliah Kim Rijat replied.

"And if there's someone there, they may need help," Mali added. "Sikeh Kim Tel. Ask the captain not to change course."

Sikeh Kim Tel nodded, and walked off towards the ship's wheel.

"Try not to be so obvious about your khemjat!" Mali shouted after him, and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like "/children/."

Tarrion stood, holding White Razor in his hands, and watched the ship draw nearer. Garl Tolugh stood next to him, for once not sharpening his axe. The weapon looked much more deadly than it had at rest, almost Thaernish. Two Pactlanders stood at the edges, ready with grapple lines.

Finally, the boat came close, and both Pactlanders threw out their lines, catching its railing and dragging it to the side of the /Tena Sea Child/. Tarrion and Mali vaulted the railing near simultaneously, landing together on the deck of the boat with weapons at the ready. They proceeded carefully over the planking as sequential thuds marked the arrival of the Taliah kim danh, and then Sikeh Kim Tel, and then a heavy impact that shook the boat - Garl Tolugh. The Pactlanders with their spears waited aboard the /Tena Sea Child/, to defend against an attack and to cut the ropes if necessary.

"Tarrion," Mali said, keeping her voice low in warning with her ense high in front of her. "Prepare for battle, but don't go above Blue Level yet. We don't know who might be looking out underneath."

Tarrion nodded, and concentrated his spiritual energy into his body with brief gestures of his hands, instigating a commensurate rush of energy, strength and speed. The cast was not at all uncommon, and all Kadrin heroes knew how to do it. From their behaviour, and the low chanting Tarrion heard under their breath, Sikeh Kim Tel and the Taliah kim danh were doing the same thing. He highly doubted that they would keep to Blue Level.

The boat could only hold, by Tarrion's best estimate, twenty above and twenty below deck, and the above deck was completely empty. It didn't look hurriedly abandoned - all ropes were tied off, all luggage borne away. Tarrion found himself reassured by that. If pirates were laying a trap, they'd make it less obvious.

Mali jabbed her ense into the air for a moment, and pointed. She'd found a door to the space below deck.

Tarrion took position behind her, and heard the Khemri and the mangra-otun fall in behind him. For a moment, he was glad he was in front - Garl Tolugh, in particular, he suspected of going in swinging. Any Kadrin hero knew to assess the situation first.

Mali opened the door, and Tarrion burst through, White Razor at an eye-level combat stance.

Chaos followed. Tarrion's highly-trained eyes took a moment to adjust to the scene, as the people hiding below the decks ran frantically to the walls, one or two stepping forward with improvised weapons. They were shouting, mostly wordlessly, holding one another back, protecting each other. One stepped forward, raising a club in an attempt to be threatening through his terror - Tarrion could have killed him in half a second - before one of the shouts raised over the others. "Kadrin!" it shouted. "He's of Kadrin! Don't fight him! Stand down!"

"Stand down," Tarrion echoed to Sikeh Kim Tel, who had his khemjat in hand and was trying to push past him. "No threat."

Sikeh Kim Tel withdrew, but reluctantly. The man with the club lifted it higher for a moment, his upper lip seeming to pull back from his teeth, and Tarrion slowly lowered White Razor to point directly at the ground. "No threat," he said again. "I'm going to put it away."

He raised the sword, as slowly as he could, and slid it into the scabbard on his back. Then he raised both hands, and displayed them palms-empty. It was a gesture, not a true disarmament. Kadrin heroes were well versed in unarmed combat, and the mass of humanity - more than twenty, far more than twenty, packed under the ship tight against one another - would have to know that. But it was a gesture. "May I come down?" he asked.

A shiver of whispering passed through the group, with more than a little dissent. Finally, a bearded man in poor fabric stepped forward. "There's... there's not much room down here," he announced, with less surety than he was aiming for. Tarrion recognised his voice - he was the man who'd called the club-wielder off. "You'll be..." His voice trailed off, and didn't start up again.

Tarrion stepped backwards, palms still up. "I understand. Would some of you like to come up to the top deck, or should we return to our own ship?"

The bearded man looked in an agony of indecision, consulting in whispers with his fellows. Tarrion noted that not all of them looked as poor - there were some fine fabrics among the crowd, and one woman was wearing what looked to be a cressel-fur coat. In such close quarters, the heat would have been intolerable. "Stay," the bearded man eventually said. "We'll send some people up."

Tarrion nodded, and withdrew, and Mali closed the door behind him.

"Well done," Mali said. "As I expected. You're quite the diplomat when you need to be."

"There wasn't much diplomacy in that," Tarrion demurred. "I told them that I wouldn't hurt them. That was all." He looked at the closed door, as the group moved away from it. "Refugees."

"Obviously. But refugees from what? They looked Armagian, and surely there's no war in Armagio."

"In case of a war, Kadrin might not intervene, but surely it would at least rehouse refugees," Tarrion replied.

"Unless the war is the war against Kadrin," Mali said, and then clapped her hands. "It's pointless to speculate. Let's ask them."

It was only a few minutes longer when the party was sent out from below deck. A man in fine clothing, two women in peasant's garb, and the bearded man. Obviously, they'd wanted to keep continuity of contact - one of the first lessons Tarrion had ever learnt about negotiations - but they wanted the finely clothed man involved as well. Perhaps they thought him the best speaker, or perhaps this was a show of the little strength they had. It was strangely pitiable.

The refugees sat cross-legged across from Tarrion and Mali, who sat themselves with the Khemri behind them and Garl Tolugh leaning against a railing. Fortunately, all of them had put their weapons away. Unfortunately, all of them still looked extremely dangerous. The fine-dressed man's voice quivered as he asked, "Why are you here?"

"We're traveling to Armagio from Rijatai," Mali said, easily taking over from Tarrion without any discussion passing between them. Tarrion was glad of it. "We saw your ship along the way and decided to investigate, to see if you needed help."

There was no response to the baited question. The women and the bearded man looked one amongst another. The finely-dressed man would not meet Mali's eyes.

"Why are you here?" Mali asked, probing.

"We..." the finely dressed man started, and then changed tack. "We are from Norvias. It's on the western coast of the Armagian Plainslands."

"I know it," Mali nodded. "It was a busy town when last I was there."

"A Thaern came," one of the women said, abruptly, and that ended conversation.

Everyone in Armagio and almost everyone on Avarr knew Thaern, Kadrin heroes better than most. They were warlords, common people plucked from their lives; stripped of their memories; given massive, featureless, nigh-invincible armour; and sent into the world as forces of simple and implacable destruction. The arrival of a Thaern was disaster. The Kadrin heroes spent most of their time turning Thaern back, trying to force them away from population and back to the fortress Thaern Rock. Often enough, they succeeded. Often enough, they died.

"He was... one of ours," the man added. "Before he attacked, he took off his helmet, and we thought we'd be able to fight him. And then we saw who he was. And then he started killing us."

"Some of our people tried to talk to him," said the first woman. She didn't say what had happened to them. It was obvious.

"We had a hero stationed nearby," said the bearded man. "She was making a run of nearby villages, to make sure everything was well. When she came back to Norvias, the Thaern was already inside. She drew her sword..."

"She charged him," the second woman continued. "He just waited. When she got close enough, he slapped her sword arm aside - we'd seen her drag anvils with that arm - and he just..."

"He cut her in half," said the man in fine clothes, looking ashen.

"There was no time in between," said the second woman. "First she was charging him and then she was dead on the ground."

"We managed to escape," said the bearded man. "We had one boat in harbour. As many as we could bring, we brought, and we piled onto the ship and put to sea. We had to leave some behind. They're dead."

"How many are you?" Mali asked.

"Sixty seven," the bearded man replied.

"At least three hundred dead," Mali said, mostly to herself. "But you escaped. You were lucky in that, and you took your opportunity well."

The villagers nodded, looking entirely unconvinced.

"Would you like to come back with us?" Mali asked. "We have room for you on our ship, and we can put in near to Norvias. The Thaern will surely have..."

"No," the finely-dressed man said, with desperation in his voice. "We will not go back there."

"Very well," Mali said, nodding and not sounding surprised. She wasn't surprised, Tarrion knew. He'd seen her deal with survivors of Thaern attacks, and they almost never wanted to return to the lands that had been devastated. When a warlord with the power of a force of nature struck at one's home, it was difficult to feel safe there again. "At least let us give you provisions."

"We... could use some water."

"I will have some barrels delivered," Mali promised.

From then on, there was nothing to discuss. Mali wished them good luck and protection on the path ahead, and they wished the Kadrin heroes the same, eyeing the Khemri and the mangra-otun with some suspicions. Tarrion considered himself lucky they hadn't taken it upon themselves to enter the negotiations. Taliah Kim Ban had a scar across his face from his hairline to his cheek, cutting across his missing eye and bending his mouth into a permanent sneer. Even if he had shown a heretofore unseen concern towards courtesy, it was unlikely the refugees would have received his counsel well.

Before long, Mali was bidding them farewell, and a few more of them were starting to come on to the deck. A few. Not many.

Later, as Garl Tolugh carried water barrels over to the refugee ship, Tarrion asked, "Why couldn't we have taken them somewhere else?"

"We have to get to Armagio, and to Kadrin, sooner rather than later," Mali replied. "We have to put in near Norvias. They wouldn't tolerate that. As it is, they'll be uncomfortable, but they'll survive. Many around the world are not so lucky." She shifted her footing. "Do you think that cold?"

"No," Tarrion said, shaking his head.

"No," Mali echoed. "I suppose you wouldn't."


Leaving the Tena Sea Child and its mercenaries behind, Tarrion and Mali traveled on foot to a tralin ranch, and bought tralin to ride to Kadrin. At Mali's insistence, they rode hard enough to reach the Hero's School within hours. It looked much as it always did: gray stone, long buildings, high walls and higher towers, heroes on patrol. The headquarters of the second-greatest military organisation on Avarr, and by far the best beloved. Totally unassailable.

And yet it was assailed.

It didn't look like it.

Mali dismounted from her tralin in one graceful leap, throwing the reins to a nearby handler. Tarrion clambered down with much less grace, narrowly preventing the tralin from biting his ear off. The guard at the West Gate recognised Mali in a second, and opened the gate to her.

"Vanel," Mali greeted him. "Any news?"

"None good, Instructor," Vanel said, saluting right-arm over left-shoulder.

"Such a surprise," Mali marveled. "What's happened?"

"Daran Tornil is missing, and has been missing since a day after you left. We assume the worst."

Mali clapped her hands. "How many Heads of Kadrin does that leave us? Three, yes?"

"Two, I'm afraid. Tarn Pagrak was killed."

"I hadn't heard," Mali said, and turned to Tarrion. "This is what it's like here, now. The death of a Head of Kadrin can go entirely unnoticed."

Tarrion didn't respond.

"The remaining Heads are thinking of elevating Harrag Kadrin, or another Instructor of long experience. Your name was mentioned."

"I decline. Let's wait to restore a command structure until we're sure it'll last a week."

Vanel shrugged. "Tell that to them."

"I will, at that."

She led through the gates, and Tarrion followed her.

Kadrin didn't look any more like a fortress under attack from the inside. Kadrin students were sitting on the grass, eating early dinners, reading books, chatting amongst themselves. One was showing a new sword to another student, which drew Tarrion's attention for a moment. It took him deeper inspection to see what was going on - heroes were taught to take in the whole environment in one glance, not needing to look again. The students, and even the full heroes, were moving their eyes left and right near constantly.

Tarrion realised that the students of Kadrin were /scared/, and while disappointed, was unsurprised.

And once he had realised that, it was easier to see Kadrin under attack. There were half as many guards on the walls as there should have been - drawn away to replace heroes killed at their stations, Tarrion thought, and then killed in turn. There should have been at least four Instructors in the courtyard, with classes of twenty heroes-in-training following them. Instead there was only one. Harrag Kadrin was demonstrating holds and throws to a class of at least forty, who were craning around him to see. The gates should have all been opened. Why close them, when Kadrin's help was available to all, and no force could hope to overcome the combined heroes? Even Thaern never moved in groups of more than four, and four Thaern could be dragged down, stripped of their armour, and killed. It had been done before.

Behind Tarrion, Vanel swung the massive gate shut with a resounding clang, and that summed up everything.

"Kadrin Hero School is under attack," Tarrion said to himself, trying to solidify the concept in his mind.

"Mé gives way to ki," Mali said, in tones of assent. Tarrion had no idea what she was saying, until she explained. "It's from a lumen play. The lumen god said 'ki' when she saw chaos, and 'mé' when she had made a universe from the chaos. Existence gives way to nothingness."

Tarrion looked at the students, all of them in full uniform and travelling with short Kadrin blades at their sides, and could find nothing to say.

"Your old room at Tevless Dormitory is unoccupied. I've applied to the housing officials, and they've set it aside for you. I need to report to the Heads that I've got you back, and then they'll probably send me back out to bring back someone else. Meanwhile, do what pleases you. There's a few things I should order, though. Don't take any weapons from the armouries, we're stretched for supplies as it is. Don't leave Kadrin except for short trips - Harrag Holm is the absolute limit, and if you go to Harrag Holm, ride, don't walk. Don't drop your guard at any time."

She was about to say something else, but shut her mouth firmly as if to trap it between her teeth. Mali was Tarrion's favourite Instructor, and he fancied he could read her particularly well. She had been about to say Don't die.

"Here's your key," she said instead.

Tarrion took it.


Mali came back four days later with a wide-eyed boy, obviously just graduated, whom Tarrion had never met. He carried a staff, instead of the Kadrin blade, and seemed to be in a perpetual state of nervous alertness. Tarrion didn't approve, but supposed he couldn't blame the boy.

Tarrion had taken to checking the boards outside Kadrin's cemetery - which was mostly for show, as most heroes were given state funerals elsewhere. One of the boards was titled, in small letters so as not to disturb the living, "Reported Killed". Another was "Missing and Believed Killed". The last, very small, was "Died Naturally". When Tarrion had been training at Kadrin, these boards had been solemnly updated every week, and there had always been at least one name to add. Since Mali had brought him back, the boards had been updated every day, and there was still always at least one name to add.

Most, like today's example - Arras Tragor - were added to the Missing and Believed Killed board. Tarrion believed that at least some of them were abandoning their robe and sword and running, hoping to become normal and mortal and untargeted. Every day she'd been gone, Tarrion had expected to see Mali Kadrin appear on the Reported Killed board.

But she returned, and she was safe, and Tarrion breathed a sigh of relief and started to think that maybe, possibly, things weren't as bad as he had thought. The next morning, hours before the sun would rise, another hero nearly tore him from his bed in order to wake him from sleep.

"What?" he asked, alert near-immediately.

"We're under attack," said the figure in the darkness, and ran, his task completed. The door to his room was open - the other hero must have had an emergency key.

I know, Tarrion nearly said, and then heard the sharp sound of metal on metal and the muffled shouts from further inside the dormitory building, and realised what the other hero had meant.

He pulled himself out of bed instantly, and very nearly grabbed his swords and strode into the corridors in his sleeping trousers. A cut-off shout of pain - from closer than Tarrion had expected or hoped - stopped him in his tracks, made him rethink. Tarrion was lithe, and nimble, and had exceptional combat footwork. Even so, it was probably the height of stupidity to go out near-naked. Still listening to the rising sounds of battle, Tarrion dressed quickly in the Khemri-Kadrin clothing Sikeh Kim Rai had given him, strapped on White Razor and the khemjat, and moved cautiously into the hallway.

It was empty. Even the combat seemed quieter, now that he was in the open.

He drew White Razor - it sounded too loud - raised it carefully to an eye level defensive stance, and padded down the corridor. Every time he passed a door to a hero's room, though likely unoccupied, he pictured it exploding outwards and a wave of marauders falling upon him. His normally unimaginative mind was busy inventing any number of things that could have happened to the hero who had woken him up. While focusing his spiritual energy to Green Level, the highest he could maintain for any length of time, he did his best to squelch both unpleasant fantasies. He had no appreciable success.

He turned a corner, just in time to see a young man dressed in Kadrin robes fly back from a doorway and impact on the wall on the other side. Tarrion's movement drew the young man's attention, and he managed to lock eyes with Tarrion for a moment - he was Mali's retrieval, the boy with the staff - when a figure stepped out of the room and swung a massively oversized axe, taking the boy from hip to shoulder and nearly burying itself in the wall. He didn't make a sound, leaving no counterpart to the grotesque patter of blood, or the thud of his body.

Then the figure turned, and stared.

It was easily seven feet tall in its all-concealing armour, and broad, and it seemed to fill the corridor in what was obviously an optical illusion. The armour was a dark gray that reflected none of the little light in the corridor, and it was both oddly organic and oddly alien - it followed the lines of the form aptly, in that the wearer was obviously an armagian or a lumengram, but it could be any armagian or lumengram. The head was oval, as it would be unarmoured, but totally featureless. The axe in its hands, the axe that it was levering out of the wall where it had momentarily caught, was larger than Tarrion, and looked as though it could cut the world in two.


It was not the first time he'd ever encountered a Thaern Warlord, but every other time, he'd had fair warning. He'd known what was coming. Now, he was alone in the dark in Kadrin Hero School and there was a Thaern staring at him and it had just killed a boy and there was /no way out/.

None of his previous encounters with Thaern had ever gone well. No encounter with Thaern ever went well.

With White Razor in a two-handed grip, upwards across his body in a protective stance that seemed stupidly insufficient, Tarrion walked carefully down the corridor towards the Thaern. Over the chant in his mind - it's a Thaern, I'm going to die, it's a Thaern, I'm going to die - he heard the thok as the Thaern's axe came loose of the wall. The Thaern took the axe into a combat stance, pointed its massive head at Tarrion, and then charged.

Tarrion, deprived of options, broke into an answering run, keeping White Razor firmly in its protective place accross his body. He couldn't parry without losing the sword - Sikeh Kim Tel had been right about that - but it might be enough to keep him alive. The Thaern's footsteps were massive, like hammer blows against the wooden floor. It was far too short a time before they were barely any length apart, and the Thaern was swinging his massive axe overhead to cleave Tarrion in half.

Tarrion dodged to one side, and the axe blow fell close enough to set his clothes rippling. The Thaern immediately gave up the axe, knowing as well as Tarrion did how long it would take it to retrieve it, and reached out to grab Tarrion by the arm or neck. Tarrion was stronger than most soldiers, and at Green Level was stronger still, but even then he knew he couldn't break a Thaern's grip. He slammed White Razor into the small of the Thaern's back, not even scratching the near-invincible armour, and used some of the momentum from the strike to push himself forward and past the Thaern.

And then he /ran/.

Thaern always chased a running man. The hammer-blow footsteps were behind him, even louder and more intense than before. Tarrion nearly closed his eyes to block out sensation. White Razor was too heavy in his hands, throwing off the balance of his running, and Tarrion had a moment to reflect on how horrible it would be if his defence ended up killing him before reflecting on the fact that the window ahead of him already had its glass pane broken, and without thinking about it he launched himself forward and out, rolling and turning when he hit the ground to bring White Razor around in front of him.

The Thaern was at the window, its head cocked, obviously thinking. Tarrion scuttled backwards.

Then it visibly shrugged - it shrugged/, the monster at the window /shrugged - and turned away, probably to retrieve its axe.

Slowly, not trusting his body, Tarrion dragged himself to his feet, and looked around.

There was only a very little to see. The moon and stars gave little light, and the torches had either been extinguished or just not lit. A building far to Tarrion's right was on fire, one of the armouries, and that gave most of the light there was. Tarrion saw that there were lumpy things strewn across the Kadrin courtyard, shadows on the ground, and as his eyes adjusted to the dim light he saw with very little surprise that they were corpses. Corpses in Kadrin robes, beaten, decapitated, partly dismembered. There was what looked like an arm holding a Kadrin blade near Tarrion's foot. Thaern weapons were not subtle, and had no finesse. Thaern tactics were the same. Part of Tarrion wanted to fall to the ground and scream until his vocal chords broke.

Kadrin is weakened and underdefended, Tarrion reasoned, stepping through the charnel field. He could hear metal clashing not too far away - too close for it to be the Thaern who had fought him in the corridors. We are in a position of vulnerability never before seen. This must be why an attack has succeeded that could have never before succeeded. Even so, four Thaern could never have done this much damage. They are moving in greater numbers and there is no reason why. Even if the Thaern had seen their opportunity, it was nothing exactly new - Thaern Rock had held the forces to destroy Kadrin for most of its existence. The simple reason Kadrin - and Avarr - continued to exist was because Thaern did not work together.

Someone was ringing the alarm bell, as if anyone could be told who didn't already know. Before long, it stopped.

There were shouts and screams from all directions, and the sounds of combat and clashing metal, and as Tarrion walked through the courtyard, another building was set afire. Tarrion seemed to move in his own little island of calm. The Thaern, he thought, must have thought that they had already killed everyone in the courtyard, and that they'd blocked off any way there.

He finally came to the West Gate. Both gates were torn from the wall around them, and the wall itself was seriously damaged. The gatekeeper Vanel was lying against the broken wall, underneath one of the gates. To the best Tarrion could see, he'd been stabbed in the chest with a Thaern sword. Entirely beyond help. Tarrion turned away, and followed the line of the wall.

There was little damage there. Most of the chaos and the carnage came from the centre, it seemed.

Tarrion heard a martial shout, and turned to run towards it before he even realised it was Mali.

She was illuminated by firelight, in her Kadrin robe and carrying her ense/. There was a Thaern in front of her, and from first sight Tarrion knew it wasn't the Thaern he'd fought in the corridors. She was jabbing the /ense at it, keeping it at the end of its massive reach, keeping it from getting close to her. Even so, when it had the chance to swing its axe, it always came far too close to Mali for Tarrion's comfort. And there was no conceivable way she could win - she could only bludgeon the Thaern for so long, and then she would be tired, and then she would be dead.

"Mali!" Tarrion shouted, stepping forward.

Mali didn't turn to look at him. Turning her attention away from the Thaern would have killed her. "Tarrion," she said, with enviable calm, "get out."

Tarrion didn't protest, but neither did he move.

The Thaern swung its axe hard, and Mali had to leap backwards to avoid it. She snapped the ense at its helmet, forcing it to throw its head back, and then stabbed into its stomach, pushing it backwards a little, and regaining some ground. "Get out," Mali repeated. "I will meet you at Erta."

Again, Tarrion almost decided to remain, before realising that there was no point. To kill even one Thaern, one needed at least three heroes, superior tactical preparation, and a great deal of luck. Tarrion didn't have the first or the second, and the third was apparently an impossibility. He turned and ran. Behind him, he heard the Thaern try to pursue him, before a sound that could only be Mali's ense snapping into its armour hard enough to unbalance it. "I'm your opponent," she said, crisply, and Tarrion moved as fast as he could towards the nearer North Gate.

There were no bodies at the North Gate, but there was a hero, and there was a Thaern. The hero was unremarkable, dodging the Thaern's blows with an agility that would soon run down. The Thaern was massive, and wearing apparently unique armour - it was planed in ways that Tarrion hadn't seen before, planes that would deflect attacks, rather than absorbing them. There was a seeming crown of prongs on its helmet, to catch swords and trap them. Its axe was oversized, even for a Thaern, and came to a point in two long spears. As Tarrion ran to assist the hero, the Thaern leisurely shifted its grip closer to the axehead, and then thrust the axe through the hero's chest with enough power to lift the man off the ground for a few seconds.

Tarrion slowed, knowing that his chances to prevail had been cut down significantly.

The Thaern quickly snapped its axe back and forth, shaking the dead hero from the end to collapse into the wall, and turned to face Tarrion. Slowly, knowing it had time to waste, it raised its axe to point directly at Tarrion, the two long blades looking like an optical illusion stretched far too far, and Tarrion knew as he had never known before that he was already dead. It was simply a matter of time.

He backstepped a foot or two, raising White Razor in front of him, hoping to put space between himself and the Thaern and then to run back to the West Gate and hope to escape that way. The Thaern's two long strides, nearly halving the distance between them, quickly put the lie to that idea.

Holding up /White Razor/, Tarrion broke into a run forwards, slapped the flat of his sword against the flat of the Thaern's axe to knock it aside, if only briefly, wheeled around on the other side of the Thaern to face it again, and then for a moment could only comprehend that he had hit a wall and that there was an incredible pain in his left side. At the same time, he realised the warmth of his blood and saw the Thaern pull the blades of its axe out of him, pulling it back to swing. It was no surprise. Tarrion didn't close his eyes.

Oddly, it was also no surprise when two Kadrin blades slammed into the Thaern's arm, one after the other, knocking it off balance enough to save Tarrion's life. Tarrion found himself looking at a tableaux - the Thaern, having cut nothing, looking around to see what had stopped it; and a young lumengram hero Tarrion had never met, holding up both her Kadrin blades in an expression of defiance. Then she ran, and of course, the Thaern chased her.

Then Tarrion closed his eyes.

He sheathed /White Razor/, as gently as he could, and pressed his armoured robe into the two large wounds in his side. The Thaern had forced the two blades at the end of its axe through two layers of the armoured robe, with enough power left at the end to smash through the stone of the wall. Tarrion hoped nothing but skin and muscle had been punctured - if the Thaern had clipped an organ, Tarrion was unlikely to survive.

He turned, and tried to walk, and found out that he could move reasonably well. With very little stagger, he stepped outside of the gates, and began walking in the direction, he hoped, of Erta.

Behind him, in noise and fire and Thaern, Kadrin fell.
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