“Wait.” Her pitiful attempt at stopping them flew over the archers heads. The Wanderer did not have to watch the arrows miss their target, she could see the failure in the fearful reaction of the men who had loosed those arrows. Her gaze flicked back to the small gathering of mages just in time for the wall to crumble beneath her feet. Before the earth would only move when she struck it with her pick, now it folded like sand with a flick of a man’s arms.
The heat seared itself onto the flesh of her stomach and arms. Dust crept into every pore and the air was torn from her lungs. The wanderer blinked slowly, dirt clinging to her eyelashes. A man was walking towards her, the heel of her palm was pressed into the burning earth as she pushed herself to her feet. Her axe lay a few steps before her but the dust refused to settle.
“You’re a good speaker.” he said in Ash as he marched through the smog towards her. “But who are you to lecture us about freedom?”
Her gaze was glued to her axe, not even his pathetic words warranted eye contact.
“I am no one.” The words left dry lips, her eyes remaining on her sole comfort. “I lecture no one.” There was something smug in his tone, in the way he strode through the smog as if he owned the very ground he walked upon. Her fingers twitched as she desperately wanted her axe back within her tight grip. One worn shoe shuffled forward, her right hand moved to cup the air. A harsh breath was taken in through her nose and her fingers turned claw like. The dust in the air halted before her.
“I was merely informing them...informing those that you enslaved once again, that their freedom is a lie.” Rage had its dirty fingers tight around her throat as her fingers tensed closer to each other. Dust slowly drifted away from her body, moving like a curtain from her form. Congregating around her like a dirty glow, only when all the dust had shifted did she gift him eye contact. A deep seated fury was etched in the green of her eyes. Another shuffling step and her left hand copied her right, her knuckles slowly turning white with the tension. “But who are you to take their freedom hm?” Her head jerked back to the city revealed by the rumbling wall behind her.
“Take their freedom?” the young mage looked up, following her line of sight. “We take no-one’s freedom. Only those who enslave themselves by standing with corrupt tyrants like the Enlightened need fear the Leveler’s wrath.”
He began to pace up and down before her, like a caged lion; his head turning to keep his eyes on her.
“We are here as liberators.”
A sharp twist of her wrists and the settled dust beneath her axe vibrated violently. It held just enough power for the axe to lurch to arm height. Her fingers gripped the handle and she left it pointing at the newcomer. She had been in the city mere hours, she hadn’t received a single warm welcome from this place but she would not let its people meet the same fate as the army who stood before her.
“Tell me stranger, who are you?”
A smile tugged at one corner of the young man’s mouth. “I am the Leveler’s Apprentice. Under the old rulers of Ash I was nothing. Now I have runes of my own to break the chains of the Valley. That is what the Leveler offers these Lightmen. I know the Enlightened are paying you, because that’s how they operate. They buy with gold or they threaten with their so-called divine authority. You’re not even from this city - I can tell by your accent. Wouldn’t you rather fight for something better than just money, for someone who would actually see your worth?”
The arrogance in the young pup before her was overwhelming. “And under the new rulers of Ash...you are nothing.” Her words sickly sweet as they dripped from her lips. “You are exactly the type of man that those behind you would grind into the dirt if given the chance.” Her gaze momentarily shifted to the crowd standing still behind the ‘Apprentice’. The Wanderer’s jaw tensed as he plucked the true reason that she was fighting this fight….for gold. She raised an eyebrow as he blatantly tried to sway her to his side.
The Apprentice shook his head, his expression hardening. “How little you know.” He ceased in his pacing, his fists clenched in fervour. “We have strength and purpose. Tell me, sister of Ash. What do you have?”
Nothing. She had nothing but the clothes on her back, the axe in her hand. She didn’t yet know if she could trust those she travelled with. She didn’t have the purpose that this stranger had. A small smirk tugged itself onto her lips, strength was one thing she did have.
“I have nothing. So I have nothing to lose. I stand before you not for those fucking Enlightened, they could rot for all I care. I stand before you as one of the last defences of the children in this city...the mothers, the fathers, the elderly. That will surely perish in your….liberation.”
Her axe swung down beside her side and the dust surrounding her shifted. The flecks of dust were beckoned to her left hand. “But I am pleased you see my worth.” The smallest of smirks tugged itself onto her lips as the dust by her hand formed into a tight spinning ball of grit.
“You have the right heart.” the Apprentice admitted. His lips were pressed together in a thin line, the muscles in his arms tense. “But if you won’t listen to reason then we have nothing more to say to each other.”
He let out the slightest chuckle, a soft exhale of breath.
“And I don’t suppose you’re going to run.”
“I’ve run far too much from men like you.”
Perhaps it was the ego that radiated from him, the smug smile he gave her, the suggestion that she should run….it all reeked of something that she left behind. The veins on her hands strained under her skin. The pick axe head dropped to the ground, dragging through the sand as she paced before him. Every speck of dust that burst upwards was captured in the bubbling ball of dust that spun by her side.
The Apprentice tilted his head to one side, cracking his neck. He was no longer amused. “Men like me?”
The Wanderer gently shook her head. “Monsters like you. Pitiful excuses for men.” Sweat was dripping down her forehead, standing directly under the sun was taking its toll on her. “Men who steal others freedom. Men who tear flesh from the people they own. No..not men.” The Wanderer stopped her axe from scoring the earth and raised it to point at the stranger once again. “Slavers. They are not worthy of being called men. They are monsters... exactly like you.”
The rune-spell came without warning. An invisible force, like a chain that had suddenly wrapped around her waist and yanked backwards, lifted her up and slammed her into what was left of the city wall. Her back hit the rough sandstone with a crunch, the force pinning her against it like a huge hand.
“Slaver?” the Apprentice rasped, biting down hard on the end of the word. The muscles in his throat ticked, as if he was struggling to swallow.
He stalked up the slope of tumbled rubble towards the Wanderer, his shoes digging hard into the gravel. Dust billowed around him like a stormcloud. He began to tear at the scarf around his neck, and then at the leather bindings around his wrists, throwing them furiously aside. Underneath, his wrists were scored by ragged white scar tissue - manacle marks.
“Do you see this?” he screamed at the Wanderer, flecks of spit flying from his lips. He jerked his head to one side and clawed at the edge of his shawl to reveal another ugly patch of scarring on the side of his neck. It was the kind of scar left by a strip of skin being torn away. A strip of skin that might have once held a slave brand.
“I kill slavers!” he shouted through the dust-choked air between them, and the Wanderer felt the invisible pressure constrict around her ribs. “You’re about to die to a slave, you bitch!”
Hot stale breath was torn from her lungs as her back made contact with the crumbling wall. The power she had seen so far...was nothing compared to this. Fear started to trickle through her body as she failed to pry herself from the wall. Her left hand was frozen in it’s claw like form, the dust storm left behind where she had stood moments ago.
If his reveal was meant to shock her...it failed. If anything, it forced rage to triumph over the fear in her stomach. He knew exactly what that life was like and he would force this city into it. “Are you so blind?” Her next breath was harsh. Invisible chains felt like they were digging into her flesh.
The Wanderer knew he expected a pitiful plea for her life but instead he was gifted a deep growl. Rumbling from deep within her chest as her left hand snapped to facing skyward. The dust clouding between them shot towards the screeching Apprentice. Clinging to his clothing, staining his skin...crowding into his open mouth and fighting to get past his eyelashes. The man let out a cry of alarm that turned into a choking cough.
“If you th...think I will let c...chains take my breath again... .You are a f.fool.” Her words fought past the dust that was attempting to creep into his ears.
The Apprentice twisted away, eyes screwed shut against the simple but effective runecraft, and the pressure against her chest suddenly evaporated.
Her fingers were close to touching each other as she forced the dust to create as much annoyance as possible. The pressure against her chest was lifted and she fell forward. Her forehead nearly brushed the sand as her left hand unfurled to catch herself. Sharp harsh breaths were dragged past chapped lips before her gaze snapped up to the man before her.
The dust slowly subsided as the Wanderer pushed herself to her feet. Pausing only for a brief moment, she flipped the axe gently in the air and caught it before pushing herself away from the wall. Worn shoe soles were little relief against the burning sand but she forced herself to run towards the spluttering man.
Down on one knee, the Apprentice cuffed the sand out of his eyes just in time to see her bearing down on him. She got the pleasure of seeing his eyes widen in shock, before he swept his arm violently outward, as if to ward her away, and something smashed her sideways off her feet so that she went tumbling across the cracked earth. The Apprentice coughed and got to his feet, spitting a gummy mixture of saliva and dust onto the ground.
There was something sweet in seeing someone who had previously underestimated her be shocked. Something heavy hit her side and she felt sand burn her skin again. Harsh breaths were forced from her nose as the Wanderer pressed her knee into the sand, pushing herself slowly to her feet. She twisted the axe in her hand as she approached the dust covered man. It pleased her to see how a thin layer of grey clung to his clothing.
The sun caressed her shoulders as sweat glistened on her pale skin. “Come on then.”
The Apprentice cuffed his lips with his knuckles, and offered her a smile that was as cold and hard as a dagger cut. He reached out to his right, clawed his hand, and swept it back. Chips of broken stone rose up from the ruins of the wall and hurled themselves at the Wanderer in a stinging hail.
Her gaze was swept in the direction of his over the top gesture. A curse word sat on her lips as she curled herself to the ground. Leaving only her back vulnerable to the attack. Her left hand frantically tensed into a tight fist. A layer of dust rose up, forcing the rocks to slow in their attack and the smaller rocks to falter in their course.
The Wanderer cradled her head against her knees and let the remaining rocks hit their target. Some missed. Not as many as she would have liked. The rocks that hit her flesh would leave her heavily bruised in the days to come. One particularly sharp broken stone sliced past her side, tearing her shirt and forcing the first trickle of blood to stain her skin.
It took more effort than before but she forced herself to stand again. It was a rather familiar sensation, pain pulsing through her back. Her axe was raised before her as she strode purposefully forward, “Try again.”
The Apprentice’s lips were peeled back, teeth gritted as he advanced to meet her. He held up his left hand, and a thunderbolt flash of light seared across the space between them. The Wanderer’s vision exploded and swam with blinding red and purple blotches.
Blinded, she felt a hand close around her neck, flipping her backwards and slamming her back against the ground. The impact drove the breath from her lungs, and she couldn’t draw in another as the hand began to constrict. The other was wrapped around the wrist holding her pickaxe, pinning it down. The vice-like fingers were scarred; rough with calluses and scored with old wound-lines, just like her own.
Her fingernails dug into his hand, her feet weakly kicking out at the sand. The axe was still firmly within her right hand but she couldn’t raise it. The pain and lack of oxygen made her limbs feel heavy. His hand was tight around her wrist making her feel helpless. The hand around her throat was another familiar sensation that she had promised herself that she would never feel again. The Wanderer had pictured her death in many different ways...but this had not been one. Not at the hands of another escaped slave.
The Apprentice’s face swam back into view above her, backlit by the burning sky. His face was twisted into a snarl as he tried to choke the life out of her. Their eyes met in mutual hate, a predator’s target lock. But then the Apprentice’s gaze dropped, sliding down her left cheek. The pressure around her throat receded as he registered the small X branded into her skin - one scar among many, but one with a very specific meaning to the slaves of the Ash city. Master’s favourite.
His fingers slackened for a moment and she could finally drag one feeble breath in.
The hate slid off the Apprentice’s face like a mask, replaced by a look of blank shock. “You too?” he whispered.
She held his gaze for a moment, letting the realisation hit his stomach. Then her left hand twisted his hand away from her throat as her knee made contact with that tender place between his legs. The Apprentice let out a sound that was half a gasp and half a grunt, instinctively folding up as he flinched away from the blow. As his head reeled forward, she lifted her shoulders and snapped her head back to violently headbutt the shocked Apprentice with as much force as she could muster. The other mage tumbled away, still half-curled around his injured groin. Twin rivulets of blood streamed from his nose, shockingly bright against the grey dust coating his skin. Gasping and spitting away the blood from his lips, he tried to rise.
Ragged breaths echoed past her ears. Blood rushed back through her body and she slowly rolled over. Seeing blood pour from his nose made her chuckle softly. The Wanderer pressed the head of her axe into the ground beneath her and used it for leverage to push herself to her feet. She was tired of this fight, she was tired of this old slave who thought her an easy foe. Although shaky on her feet, her gaze was firmly latched onto the Apprentice. Like a predator zoning in on its prey, she crept towards him. Her axe slowly raising to her side, ready to swing.
“Wait…” he implored. She didn’t, and the Apprentice was forced to leap back with arms spread wide, the pickaxe slicing the air centimetres from his stomach. She swung again, and again he just dodged the hissing bronze point. The third time he reached out and closed his fist, twisting it downward. The Wanderer felt the pickaxe jerk as he tried to rip it from her grip. The bronze head dragged sideways and down as she struggled against the invisible runecraft.
“I don’t-” the Apprentice began.
With her main weapon in his grip, she felt trapped. The blade dragged down towards the sand and she promptly let the handle drop from her grip. As he attempted to speak again, she let her fist rear back and swiftly make contact with his jaw. “Fight me.” Using her left hand, she curled it in the scarfs and cloth that covered his chest. Hauling him closer to her and not allowing him to stumble backwards. “You started this...now fight me.” She reared her fist back, ready to hit him again.
The Apprentice raised his hands in defence, but open to block, rather than clenched to strike. His left hand closed around her fist, struggling to hold it back. His right hand caught the wrist of the hand twisted in his clothing. “I won’t fight another slave.”
His sudden change of heart infuriated her. With his grip on her wrist and his other hand stopping her fist, she growled under her breath at him. The Wanderer yanked him closer to her, her nose nearly brushing his. “I am no slave. Not anymore.” Her fist slowly pressed against his, easily moving its way towards his face.
A splintering crack slashed through the air. A jagged line in the earth fissured between the two struggling mages, and the earth bulged upward to fling them apart. As both staggered to retain their footing, the Wanderer saw another of the Ash mages, this one garbed from head to toe in red, striding back out of the city towards them.
“Having fun?” the red mage asked. He was limping slightly, but he smirked through his dark beard and bead-clasped moustaches.
“Wait, Redmoor.” the Apprentice barked, holding up a hand towards the newcomer. “Let her live.”
The wizard called Redmoor frowned, an expression that contorted further as a twitch spasmed his face. “And why?”
“This was a demonstration. We need to give them time to think on it.” The Apprentice was still panting, and cuffed blood from his lips as he raised his right fist towards the sky. Several pulses of light flickered out from him, throwing the three mages’ shadows against the ruined walls as stark black silhouettes. Flash flash. Flash flash.
At the signal, the other Ash mages began to reappear, vaulting over the collapsed wall foundations or streaming back on comet tails of black smoke.
The Apprentice half-turned his head to spit blood onto the ground at his feet. “You’ve seen what we can do. At dawn tomorrow, we’ll be coming back through that breach, with all those spearmen behind us. Welcome us, and you’ll live - you’ll all live. Resist us, and you’ll die.” He looked at the Wanderer, his bloody, dust-streaked face almost pleading. “Don’t resist.”
“Y..You can’t expect me to trust you.” Her words harsh as she kept her eyes on the Apprentice. She knew that when they entered those walls, every member of the Enlightened would be felled in seconds. “I’d rather die free than blindly follow a new master.”
The mage that the Apprentice had called Redmoor grinned at her. “The Leveler has the Greater Moonstone, woman. Your days are numbered.”
Rage filled eyes snapped to the man called Redmoor, “My days have been numbered since birth. I’ve fought through more than you can imagine...I’ve got more fight than you think, you Captain Hook wannabe.”
The red mage smiled without humour, and turned to follow the others as they retreated. “We shall see.”