Along the River Comes Danger and Opportunity
Zacharion sat alone on a raft, a pole thrice his height sitting on his lap, drifting down a gentle small river. He’d left the Solar Nation behind weeks ago, and with it the degenerating social order that he knew that his appearance precipitated. Soon that left his mind, dismissing it as a matter best left to his hosts to handle, for his mission concerned far more—and far greater—concerns.
The Wildlands, being before him in his mind, occupied his attention. He felt a certain pull, a tug here and a nudge there, directing his travel out of Solland. In his sleep, he encounters the dream form of the very woman he seeks: the Witch of the Wildlands. Already, they dance- and they have yet to see each other with waking eyes.
“You bear my icon, and his mark, boy. That will get you to my presence, but it does not gain you my attention. Prove yourself.”
So, here on this raft, the boy Zacharion now pondered what would possibly be sufficient proof of worth to such a crafty crone. He threw his mind back, back as far as could be had, to the words of his late master: “The one men know as ‘The Witch of the Wildlands’ is old, very old, older than me despite all contrary claims- and thus remembers a time before the dawning of the sun, when the night lingered on long past its time, and thus remembered many secrets of the days before the Azure Flames. She will not yield easily to those she knows not, but she can and will yield- I conquered her, and so you must if it comes to it.”
Just then, as he rounded a bend in the river, Zacharion spotted a landing. On that landing he saw an abandoned house. Quickly, he got to his feet and pushed himself to the land and made landfall; he dragged the raft out of the water as much as he could, and then tied it to a nearby tree to prevent it from drifting away. Picking up a club-like branch on the ground, he then approached the empty house; seeing it empty, but also recently inhabited, he quickly searched it for anything useful- but as he made to leave an explosion—a loud crash and a blast of air—threw him on his back.
“Who trespasses here?” boomed a throaty voice, and as Zacharion’s vision cleared he saw that a monstrous man stood in the doorway, a man-like thing misshapen in its flesh as if it melted. The boy got to his feet, faced the thing and answered: “I am Zacharion, last apprentice of Holy Ilker, and I travel to the Wildlands to fulfill my master’s final order.”
The man-thing looked over the boy with its man-like eyes, and recoiled at the sudden flair of Ilker’s Kiss upon the boy’s brow. This did not escape Zacharion’s notice, and he pushed the thing to the floor. Kneeling on its chest, he stared into its face.
“I will fulfill that order.” Zacharion said, “Now, tell me who—and what—you are!”
Recoiling away from the sunlight from the boy’s brow, the thing’s anguished voice arose and it said “I am Gek, Chained to the Horde of the Frozen North!”
Zacharion remembered that group. Ilker destroyed them a generation before his birth, when a young man. “Ah! A survivor of the broken horde, and one of the slaves at that- you are a wretched one to live like this.”
“Not alone.” Gek said, “I am one of a band that ranges here, and soon they will come with food and loot- and they will find you quite entertaining.”
Again, recollection: Ilker once said to Zacharion “The thralls of the Dark Lords are numerous, but base in thought and deed. They are obsequious to their masters, and brutal to those weaker than they, covetous and cunning in their way. They hear and remember secrets, hoarding them as they do their treasure.”
Zacharion drew a knife from his belt and slipped it beneath a fold in the skin, near its neck. “I have killed before. I know you now, Gek. Thrall to a Dark Lord you were, and you did not fight Ilker; you fled, deserting like the coward you are, before you caught sight of my master’s steel and steed. Yet you are here, in comfort suitable to your kind, and that tells me that you deserted not to avoid battle- but to betray your master for another Lord’s banner.”
Zacharion cut away some of the rags about its neck, revealing a brand on its flesh- a brand that he knew, that of the Dark Lord of the Fel Wastes, which would explain the melted flesh. “Yes, you took up the Flesh-Shaper’s banner. Bad enough that you’re of a kind that betrayed its fellow Men, but you go on to compound your sin by committing treachery of your own will- and now you know what it wrought. What did you offer in return for the Shaper’s brand?”
Gek hesitated, and the knife cut shallow into its neck, a black ichor streaming from the wound.
Zacharion glared at Gek now, the Kiss’s sunlight now like midday, and the intensity seared Gek greatly; “I cannot!” Gek said, “It is all that preserves me!”
Zacharion drove the knife into Gek’s neck, sinking it to the hilt. “No longer shall it preserve you. Soon you die, and go where you should have long ago. Your secret is worthless now, so give it to me.”
The boy knew he risked failure, as this one was not witless, but yet it was a thing unnatural- one without a place in the world, save what it stole from others. He left the solar fire from the Kiss flow out, down his arm and out his hand, through the knife and into the brand. Gek screamed in agony.
“Tell me, Gek! Tell me and death becomes easy and swift for you!” Zacharion said, hoping that the pain scrambled the thing’s reason enough to make it talk- and it did.
“I know the Witch’s name!” Gek said, and he spoke it. The boy marked it, and let Gek die.