The grass was tall and waving around the small hollow where the Wild Man slept. Even if someone happened to look into the shadow of the ancient oak that shaded him, they might see nothing more than the jumble of twigs, leaves, and other detrius he used as blanket and camouflage. Indeed, even without the careful placement of his cover, it was difficult to tell where the dirt of the forest floor ended and the Wild Man began, so streaked with filth was his skin wherever it was not protected by equally dirty leathers and furs. His breathing was silent even in sleep; years of hermitage had conditioned him so thoroughly that he was stealthy even while unconscious. He never slept deeply, though (another survival skill), and so when the sounds of a war party crunching through the underbrush reached him, his eyes snapped open and he was instantly awake, even before their loud voices made their way to his ears.
The tankard was nearly drained.
Ogo frowned slightly (essentially a deepening of his normal expression these days) and regarded it with an air of resignation. The problem was not that it was his last tankard of the night, as evidenced by the fact that he could still focus both eyes upon it without straining. Ogo was well versed in determining how drunk he was; for quite some time now, drinking had become his avocation, and he turned his analytical mind to it in much the same way he had studied the path of war so long ago, to the point where he could measure his degree of inebriation by the effort it took him to bring an object at arm’s-length into focus. The Sho constitution, so well suited for cold weather and deceptively explosive personal combat was notoriously unforgiving when it came to alcoholic tolerance. Only years of diligent work had enabled Ogo to temper his system to the point where he could label himself a "drunk" if he so chose, and Ogo was a keen observer.
It was not his ability to pay… the rampant inflation that had robbed the pyreal of all value over the past few years had somehow bypassed the going price of alcohol, thankfully, and even Ogo’s relatively pitiful savings would keep him joyfully sloshed for the rest of his life. In practice, he would never need to dig very deeply; the worthlessness of coin to the "adventuring crowd" that had caused it to devalue in the first place meant that one could literally pick coin off the ground at the foot of nearly any merchant, abandoned by wealthy shoppers who cannot be bothered with any change under ten thousand… ten thousand! What Ogo would have given for ten thousand pyreals back in the day when even the cheapest bamboo yumi represented the majority of his wealth! And now those once-treasured coins litter the ground, mouldering at the feet of vendors who cannot bring themselves to pick them up, maintaining their stations as buyers and sellers of unwanted goods purely on momentum, an inability to break themselves out of their outdated roles, as useless as that once-treasured bow, and as quickly forgotten in the mists of the past.
What cause the deepening furrows on Ogo’s brow was the fact that his tankard had been allowed to empty at all. Was it so long ago that he had been a favored guest in this place, in so many places like this? Why were friends of the minute not keeping his drink topped off with whatever the local brew was? Keeping the old warhorse properly embalmed seemed to be a minor price to pay for the value of Ogo’s stories, and many a young warrior (murderer, he corrected himself) had picked his brain for hours on end while maintaining a steady flow of the swill of the house into the erstwhile mentor.
Ogo would be the last person in Dereth to label himself a suitable training master, but innovation in war was slow it seemed, and as one of the first men to lumber into combat with the strange enemies this place had to offer, Ogo’s knowledge of fighting was just about as good as any man’s. That he was trained from childhood in a number of nearly forgotten schools of Ryu Jou Gai kenjutsu and taijutsu, and claimed to have once had dinner with a famous Iaido master’s second cousin, gave his stories an additional mystique and flavor. He was also gifted with a mind that, while not well-suited to academic pursuits, was perfectly suited for tactical thinking and observation. Every time he packed his wounds with boiled cloth after a skirmish, or hid in a concealed hollow after a timely retreat from a losing fight, his brain digested and analyzed his strategy, his mistakes, the reactions of his opponents. No matter that most of his opponents here were nigh-mindless drones who flung themselves to their doom again and again without hesitation, Ogo’s ability to discern the finer points of close quarters melee had given him a fighting form as refined as any, and this apparent mastery was well worth the price of a drink or two to the wide-eyed neophyte.
That was, of course, only to the neophyte. The corrupting influence of magic was wide-ranging, laying early claim to milksops like his brother Sashi. That would have been fine had that been the end of it, but as time passed the seductive power of dweomers captured the imaginations of more and more perfectly good armsmen, and not just those pesky rabbity "exclusive" archers either. To Ogo’s dismay, a growing number of his former compatriots had given themselves over to bookish arcane studies, allowing their technique to get sloppy, their attention shifting from the fundamental concepts of footwork, balance, and explosive power in favor of finger-waggling claptrap. Ogo held firm on his philosophy that such nonsense could only serve to dilute the "spiritual path of the warrior" or some such deep-sounding label as he could conjure on the spot.
The problem was that it seemed to be working, as evidenced by the growing number of "warriors" who could barely swing a cudgel without losing their grip on it, but could whip off powerful incantations left and right as well as, or better than, people who had studied these things since the first days of Dereth’s myriad wars. Spells to make up for the weakness of a girlish frame, atrophied by months of lamplight study instead of exercise. Spells to ward off skull-crunching blows a clumsy knob-kneed "fighter" is too unskilled to duck. Spells to harden a soft cotton sleeping-gown into impenetrable armor so that arthritic, emaciated mockeries of men might not chafe their delicate skin with proper mail. Spells to make up for every frailty a fighter may have inflicted on himself through this "magic" obsession so that these babes could waddle into the middle of battle, knowing only the direction of the enemy and which end of the knife to stick in him. Scarecrows with weapons.
The scarecrows were winning.
"Bah." Ogo set his tankard none too gently on the cracked oak table and fished a bit of pickled pork out of a nearby barrel. As he had been getting lazier since his semi-retirement from active soldiering, his once-taut body now sagged a bit. The effects of every snack and every pint were now somewhat evident in the belly that took up the slack in his skin as his most prominent muscles receded to more normal proportions. Still, even without the sharp definition that comes with daily toil and the trials of a life of constant conflict, it was evident to the casual observer that Ogo was substantially strong, if a bit out of shape. Where his physique once proclaimed "warrior," it now announced "barfight."
Finally successful in freeing the tidbit from its container, he concentrated on chewing the bit of gristly meat, now bearing more strongly the flavor of the preserving brine than the animal that was its claimed origin. A bit of the salt water ran into his throat unexpectedly, and he gagged a bit, attracting the attention of a bored Aluvian serving wench.
"Everything all right there?"
Ogo recovered and blinked a few times. "It doesn’t have to be pork, you know," he rasped.
"’Scuse me? It surely is pork…"
"Drain the life outta it, embalm it wi’ brine. Does it matter any more what it used to be?"
She eyed him curiously. "Are you quite all right then?"
"I’m near outta grog."
"Ale sir. You be drinkin’ ale."
There was a growing need in Ogo’s lower abdomen. He rose carefully to his feet, steadying himself on the table with both hands. "Fill me up. I just gotta run outside for a minute." He made his way slowly to the door, as the waitress went to fetch the ale-flagon, shaking her head.
As he exited the tavern, he nearly ran right into a fellow wearing a hooded robe, carrying a short stick in one hand, precariously overbalanced by an absurdly huge wall shield that was strapped to his spindly left arm in three places. The shield probably weighed more than its bearer, and Ogo chuckled to himself, causing the man to slow down and look at him.
"Scarecrow," laughed Ogo.
"I beg your pardon?"
Ogo composed himself and regarded the man with sad eyes, still slightly watery from his choking incident. "Your life," he said slowly, so as not to slur his words, "is a piece of pickled pork."
The half-drunk Sho wandered off to find an accomodating bit of foliage to relieve himself against, once again chuckling at his clever alliteration, oblivious to his audience’s puzzled expression.
There were two men and two women tromping carelessly through the woods, and upwind of the Wild Man. The breeze carried hints of tobacco, perfumes, starch, and overspiced food to him… the stench of town… along with their banal conversation. The Wild Man had a healthy fear of civilization and all of its products, including these people, or perhaps it would be more accurately be termed "loathing." Towns meant nothing to him but a place to scavenge food and supplies if he was desperate, stealing what he needed under cover of night, never in any real danger of discovery by the citizens’ civilization-dulled senses. He listened… "Mayoi accent," he thought, observing their awkward gaits and weak postures. In any sane just world, they would have been eaten by a leopard as soon as they strayed from their cribs, but this world was anything but sane or just. They passed him ignorantly, and lumbered toward the area of their likely destination, the doorway into the South Direlands. The Wild Man let them go and stalked away from the area. He had to be more careful about where he slept.
Ogo had not always been an oft-soused tavern drunk simmering in his memories. When everyone, including Ogo and Sashi, had been transported to Dereth, he had been one of the first to leap into combat with whatever scavenging creature threatened his party, with whatever weapon he could scrounge. Clubs, knives, clumsy roundeye broadswords, even bare hands saw action nearly every day in defense of himself and his "charges" (generally consisting of his bookish brother and whomever happened to be in the vicinity). To Ogo it was a matter of survival and his own personal warrior’s path, and he found the whole concept of "adventuring" to be dangerous and infantile. He sought fortune only insofar as it would pay for his dinner; he sought fame only to the extent that he might impress a woman to share her own ideas of "treasure" with him.
By and by small settlements were appearing and expanding, and Ogo dutifully fought off the mauraudering humanoids that encroached on the foundations of the newborn town of Shoushi. By this time he had managed to scavenge himself some proper battle dress and a decent weapon or two, as had others, and side by side they held the line. Even his weakling brother turned out to be of some use, sending gouts of magical flame to worry the enemy from the safety of a formation of true fighters. During this time, Ogo had learned a great deal about the art of war through experience, and by the time Shoushi had become firmly entrenched behind walls of stone and lime mortar, Ogo had emerged as a combatant of high order. A disasterous attempt by the local elders to "promote" Ogo to militia instructor ended after several no-shows at morning drill following late tavern parties and a particularly notorious incident involving a visiting female envoy from Samsur, and Ogo was left to the directionless, moment-to-moment life of the "adventurer," a label he did his utmost to shed through a conspicuous lack of travel.
When things quieted down a bit, Ogo noted with interest the large number of people trekking away from the relatively secure environs of town proper, armed for battle. Some taproom inquiries revealed that there seemed to be an ongoing effort to confront the enemy on his home turf, no doubt in an effort to secure a larger territory for homesteading and agriculture purposes for the Sho immigrants. It seemed a worthwhile cause to prosecute this war, and there was the added benefit of saleable loot, and so Ogo pursued this course of action, as he was no doubt suited better for the career of "soldier" than any other save "bard," a notably unprofitable career choice in this fledgeling society.
The events of this "war" took him deep into the nearby grotto where the felinoid "drudges" made their home, to the Green Mire where it was rumored a local hero had been interred amidst the enemies he died against, and to various other locales across the countryside, all the way peppered with assaults on scout encampments throughout the wilderness. The combat suited Ogo well, and the booty recovered paid for his room and board, and even allowed him to dole out a few coins to his effeminate brother, who had gone back to the security of the library and his yellowed parchments. Ogo vigorously attacked the enemy at every opportunity, feeling confident that he was making a difference to his adopted fellows, and that the little town he had helped to defend would be stronger for it soon, not to mention the notoriety amongst the local girls his activities generated.
It was only after several months of these guerilla actions that he began to notice the lack of impact he seemed to be having on the holdings of the enemy. Wherever he helped to rout an encampment of spies, they would return the next day. The drudges never abandoned the grotto, and the subterranean caverns were never laid open to the mining interests of the town’s mercantile caste. Ogo was a free armsman, and as such had left the necessary business of securing and entrenching captured terrain to the more organized militia while he ventured forward to harass the enemy. It became apparent that there was no securing at all, and combined with the vast advantage held by the enemy in arable land and breeding stock, the efforts of himself and others like him had only the effect of keeping Shoushi from being overrun outright on a day-to-day basis. What was worse was that others in his line of "work" knew about this situation, and semed to tacitly accept that their daily battles for survival were thus cheapened by lack of support.
"Where are your diggers?" he demanded, tromping into the Shoushi provisional council’s chambers, interrupting yet another of their effete tea-drinking social events. "How hard is it to take a man and show him how to drive a sharpened stick into the ground butt-first? Why are there no watchmen to keep the enemy out of the camps I burn day after day? Jojii alive, you could have taken acres of defensible planting ground by now, rather than depending on the poor hapless foragers to get your grain, at the mercy of every enemy that you failed to drive permanently away from the lowlands! You havent’s even secured the riverfront!"
"The tides of this war are never stable enough to do these things," answered Kura Xiang He, a husky former freedom fighter turned politician. Ogo remembered him as one of the most efficient looters of the dead, and his pockets were lined by the likes of arms trader Ven Ounan, paying him for the cartloads of repairable arms he had brought in on a daily basis. "To hold any more than the palisade’s enclosures would thin us far too much…"
"Thin? Thin! What would you know about thin, you bloated profiteer! While you were counting your blood money, you could have been helping to secure new borders for the people, and you could have done it while sitting on your fat ass in a watchtower instead of kissing up to the authorities!" Ogo waved derisively around the room; he was close to treason, but law was fast and loose in the frontier town, and if he had bothered to think about it, Ogo would have felt secure in the knowledge that his value as an able grunt far outweighed any indignation the elders might have felt.
"That’s quite enough, Mu Ogo," interrupted an older man, using the formal ordering of the intruder’s name. "Frankly, this has been discussed before, and it is the consensus of not only this council but of the vast majority of free armsmen that no effort be made to secure additional territory from the enemy at this time."
"Pardon me for observing, councilman Naru, but that’s just insane," fumed Ogo.
"It’s true. The consensus is that the economic benefits of additional growing land are outweighed by the difficulty that defending that land entails, and our adventuring locals are more favorably disposed to hit and run tactics against the enemy rather than the static patrols that increased perimeters would require. Besides…" Naru glanced briefly at the blustering Kura Xiang He, "the influx of goods taken on these raids can more than adequately make up for any economic losses our small acreage might entail."
"Oh, that’s just great. So you let the enemy move back into their land because you want to rob them again?" Ogo ground his teeth.
"The looting of battlefield goods has proven to be more than adequate to support us. ‘One bushel of the enemy’s rice is worth five of your own.’ You should know that."
"Idiot! That’s only for armies in the field! Not like you would know anything about that."
"That’s quite enough!" stated Naru with finality. "You are out of order here. The current policy stands."
Ogo barely restrained himself. "Fine, then. See how well your vaunted policy holds up years from now, when your bands of hired thugs and murderers decide to check out the pickings elsewhere. I hear there are a lot of opportunities for a Sho bandit… excuse me, warrior… in the northlands. I’m sure your local adventurers would be glad to continue to trek back here to your hamlet to drop off their ‘one bushel of the enemy’s grain’ when they’re bedding down with roundeye women and drinking wheat beer with gaijin."
Kura Xiang He puffed up indignantly. "That’s absurd. Of course they will not leave home."
"Really, fat man?" Ogo stepped directly over to the death merchant, who flinched despite the phenomenon that kept Ogo, or any man, from striking another in anger. Kura stayed still as Ogo paused before him, then hastily grabbed a jar of preserved plums and a smoked bird off the table in front of him. He made no protest as the intruder carried his food toward the door of the council hall.
"I’ll hear all about it when I come back home, I’m sure."
He was hungry. He was almost always hungry, fearful that stuffing himself would leave him sluggish and vulnerable, unable to kill if it became necessary during a meal. A wild apple would keep him focused for a moment , but he needed something more substantial lest his strength flag. Carefully studying the ground, he found signs of passage, and where the ground became softer with moss and loam, he identified tracks of banderlings… probably a scouting party. They tended to carry provisions. The Wild Man followed the tracks into the foothills.
Back in the present moment, Ogo has encountering a small bit of difficulty. In his experience, it was one thing to feel the urge to piss after drinking heavily, and yet another to convince his relevant appendage to accomodate this need. Urging it on through concentration usually had a counterproductive effect, but typically it was only after several seconds of this straining that Ogo remembered this fact, and set about distracting himself with random bits of whimsy, nursery rhymes, bad poetry of his own devising, what have you. And so it was that he was halfway through an old tea-house song about the first Aluvian traders to his home prefecture that started "There was once a hairy, round-eyed man" that he first became aware of someone watching him. He sighed… how could he relax now?
The voice was old and familiar. Ogo froze, and looked over his shoulder, still holding his member towards a tree, now in a somewhat more protective fashion. A man stood some six paces from him, clad in an ornate deep blue robe from somewhere in the Gharu provinces… Yaraq? He stood slightly shorter than Ogo, less bulk, less muscle, less of a gut. A thin, wispy mustache and goatee adorned his countenance. Still, the resemblance was unmistakable.
"What the hell do you think you’re doing, Sashi?"
"I came to speak with you, brother. I have been studying, and would talk about a project you may find to your benefit."
Ogo turned to face his brother, uncooperative member still in hand. "Well, I’m doing fine, glad you asked. It seems like only years ago that you vanished. Where’s yer brother Ogo? Oh he’s off doing something frightfully important I’m sure, chortle chortle. Wow this is one nice-lookin’ weapon here, wonder what the hell it does, I’ll just ask Sashi to have a gander when he returns from his self-imposed exile. What’s that, just refer you to an enchantments mentor, hot young missy? Sure, my brother may be back god-knows-when, I’m sure he can help you out with your…"
"I apologize. How are you Ogo?"
"Actually, I’m having a bit of trouble at the moment. NO I DON’T NEED ANY HELP! NO MAGIC!"
"I am not wielding a focus, brother."
"Keep it that way!" Ogo indignantly turned back to the tree that had held his attention previously. He muttered to himself for a bit before speaking again. "Walk off into the wilderness and disappear for years, then wham, come back ready to transform my… what the hell did you want, anyway?"
Sashi was unperturbed. "As I stated, some facts have come to my attention about the world in which we live. I have come to some disturbing conclusions. I have come to propose a course of action which you may find desirable."
"There’s only one thing I’m desiring right now," said Ogo as he struggled with his problem, increasingly troublesome. "Make this quick, will you? My attention span ain’t what it used to be."
"That may be a problem. It’s not an easy situation to grasp or explain."
"Ha! Ever the witty one. For me to grasp, to explain to me you mean. I bow before your superior intellect, book boy."
"Not for anyone, nor to anyone."
"Then why me? Why not one of your thousands of wizarding pals, eh? This has all the trappings of one of those ‘mysteries of the universe’ yer so damned curious about. All I care about is how to avoid getting killed, where I’m getting my next meal, and…" Ogo paused to try to get a better angle out of his trousers, failing miserably. "… other problems of a more down-to-dirt nature."
"I came to you because of your perspective, your ability to work out problems instinctively, as you displayed so well when you were a fighting man. I…" Sashi hesitated for the briefest of moments. "You are my brother."
Ogo glared over his shoulder. "Ha! Brother? You’ve been gone years without so much as a messenger!" He turned his focus back to the task at hand. "I suppose if our sire was still around, you’d have ignored him too?"
"Ogo, there is insufficient evidence to support the idea that our father was ever alive in this place. Or in Ispar."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
There was a brief pause. When Sashi spoke again, his voice was oddly modulated. "What if none of us is what we believe?"
Ogo turned over his shoulder again, slowly this time. Sashi was still there, but on his face was a familiar hard white mask, of the sort that some of the scarecrows had been sporting. A Virindi mask, taken from the weird creatures’ remains and repaired in Ayan Baqur, worn as a grisly trophy of a hideously foolish adventure. They were dead, lifeless as their former owners, no more menacing than the little poppets made in the likeness of the feared Olthoi.
Sashi’s mask was… alive.
They looked at each other silently for a time. Presently, the whispers of the forest gave way to a familiar overtone, and Ogo took his gaze away from his brother to scrutinize the source of the splashing sounds. He turned back.
"Give me a minute, will ya?"
The banderling scouting party had built a small fire around which they spoke to each other in gruff, monosyllabic barks. The Wild Man had plotted his attack, and had a rusty shou-ono in one hand, a rock in the other. He was about to throw the rock to draw off their attention when they were one after the other shrouded in the distinctive compressing shrouds of Imperilling magic. Cursing, the Wild Man returned to cover and watched as an incredibly thin woman, little more than a child, came crashing clumsily through the trees wearing little more than a gown and laid into the surprised and weakened scouts with a dirk. The banderlings rallied, but found their blows turned ineffectually by master-level protection enchantments, and in less than half a minute they were all dead. Another woman wielding a wand then stepped in and they conversed briefly about the younger one’s so-called "strategy," which consisted of little more than waiting for the older woman to suffiently weaken her enemies to the point where a little girl with a letter opener could have killed them by accident. They left then, leaving the corpses and possessions of the fallen, neither of them ever aware of the Wild Man. The Wild Man considered pursuing them,decided it was not worth it, and entered the destroyed camp. Leaving behind a small amount of pyreal coin and herbs, he returned to the woods with an armful of preserved meats, a cheese, and some serviceable bandages. The Wild Man retreated into the boughs of a tree to eat his prize.
The brothers walked deeper into the darkened woods while Sashi told Ogo about his life. His struggles to break the patterns behind magic, only to have his greatest accomplishments cheapened by a group of loose-lipped researchers, laying open the once-guarded secrets of magic to anyone and everyone. The pointlessness of his continuous fighting, his battles becoming exercises in tedium as he slaughtered countless enemies on a never-moving battle line. The despair and hopelessness that clouded his thoughts day after day, driving him to desperate ideas and ethics. Where Ogo had taken refuge in drink and thoughts of the past, Sashi had contemplated suicide.
Then Sashi had been taken by the Virindi.
"Hold up," grunted Ogo as they entered a small clearing. He found a fallen log and eased himself onto it. "You joined the enemy?"
"Not joined. Kidnapped would be a more apropos term, but the situation was not entirely non-consentual."
The rest of the story came out in greater detail. Sashi explained as best he could the concepts and ideas that Overseer 9 had expressed, glossing over only the most technical of details… not that he or Ogo had language to describe them, in any case. It didn’t matter; translating the Virindi definition of magic into their primitive physics terminology wasn’t essential right now. Ogo listened intently to the story about the mage Sashi had delivered to his erstwhile masters.
"How many more did you… ‘deliver’ to them?"
Sashi shrugged. "Many. Most were released back into the world much as they had been taken from it, with no memory of the experience, and without significant loss of time. Their habits were generally so cavalier that they barely noted what month it was, much less account for several missing days."
"Most you say."
Sashi then began to get into the meaning of his encounter with Overseer 9, which was difficult to communicate without the comforting clarity brought by his dream. The ideas were not difficult for Ogo to grasp. But accepting them…
"Is this some sort of cowcake ‘nothing is real’ nonsense? All this to find out the Virindi read even more useless crap than you?"
"It’s not that simple. This is no exercise in abstract philosophy. As far as we are concerned, there are things that are real. What’s brought into question is the past."
"The past," Ogo snorted derisively. He dug around unsuccessfully for something to eat as he continued. "This is giving me a headache. You’re trying to tell me that the Virindi just made up a bunch of stuff and plugged it into our minds?"
"Not the Virindi," Sashi said, and Ogo thought he heard a bit of hesitation. Sashi noted his brother’s fumblings, and offered him a bit of bread from his own pouch, which Ogo accepted. "It’s… difficult. When we were ripped here, we lost most of our past. Strong collective memories like cultural legends may have survived, but the rest…"
"This is insane. You’ve lost your mind," Ogo said derisively in between bites of the tasteless crust.
"Listen. Why is it that nothing before our arrival here is clear? They have no firm roots in our memories because they are a stopgap."
"Memories fade with age. Hopefully I’ll live long enough to forget this particular conversation."
"You could not live that long. We don’t age here. Our brains do not age. We don’t forget things like that."
"How do you know? Seasons turn slow here, maybe we live longer because of it."
"Who was our father?"
Ogo put his flask down. What sort of a question was that? "Our father was a great man. He taught me the fundamentals of fighting, and honor, and uh… what sort of nonsense are you getting at?"
"I remember the same as you. Oddly enough, so does Zashi Watta. And Shai Kynn. And Jin Lee. Almost everyone I speak with has this impression."
"Yeah, well, kids look up to their fathers."
"What was his name?"
Ogo opened his mouth and froze. He stammered, "Ummm… give me a minute, it was a long time ago…"
"You cannot remember the name of your father."
"Our father. And give me a minute here."
"This is odd is it not? All of the others also had difficulty remembering, if it was the first time anyone had asked them."
"Very much so. What was his clan affiliation?"
"Ryu Jou Gai."
"You seem very certain."
"Of course I’m certain you idiot! ‘From discipline comes true power.’ How can you forget our heritage?"
"When I first came to here, I tried to piece together my memory. I though I was Chiran Jishui Dan. Makes sense doesn’t it? Battle magicians."
"That’s ridiculous. Chiran Jishui Dan didn’t have a monopoly on mystics. They just lacked the Dragon Temple’s strong foundation of armsmen."
"Yes, and then I remembered you were the elder brother, and to you there was no question about our clan heritage, and suddenly that made sense to me. Interesting isn’t it? I didn’t remember being Ryu Jou Gai until it conveniently fit in with remembering you were my brother."
Ogo didn’t like the way this was all going. He didn’t care for the empasis Sashi put on the word remembering. He was uneasy about his inability to remember the name of their father. He was more than a little miffed at the thought that Sashi’s faulty memory could have placed them into the clerkish splinter faction Chiran Jishui Dan. His head felt light.
His head felt more than light. He tried to stand up, and failed, landing heavily back onto the log. He blinked his eyes against his blurring vision. He was not drunk. What then…
"Bread," he breathed. "You poisoned me, Sashi."
Sashi shook his head. "Not poison. I’m sorry for the subterfuge, but you must be shown certain thngs, and I lack my… instructor’s particular talent at modifiying your senses. The discomfort will pass."
Ogo tossed the rest of the bland bread onto the ground, tried to grind it into the dirt with his boot, and failed. He was going to tell Sashi off in the most colorful profanities he had ever heard in three languages… a fitting last statement, he thought… when things started to change.
His mouth was dry. Banderlings always over-cured their drymeats, and their cheese was very pungent, particularly to one whose diet consisted largely of fruit and lightly cooked game. The last rainfall had been several days ago, and he would not trust a puddle to be free of contagion, so the Wild Man made his way through the low foothills toward a stream he knew of. He had a good mental picture of the area, drawn and detailed over months of wandering these lands, learning the terrain. It amused him slightly that the maps he had once consulted, scribed by renowned and respected cartographers, were less than useless when compared to the knowledge that only personal experience and travel made possible. He had a deep appreciation for the land, the Wild Man did, and sometimes felt pity for the townies who skipped over it like pebbles on water, following the portal trails to expedite their journeys to the one or two places they were interested in, blind to the splendor of the world about them. Fine, thought the Wild Man. Let them stay out of my land.
Ogo’s mind was not well-geared towards equations and descriptions the way Sashi’s was. His life was one of careful avoidance of bookish materials, in the not altogether invalid idea that they would interfere with his ability to graps and apply more practical knowledge. He had trouble explaining to someone the correct execution of what was once known as the "quarter-moon" yaoji technique, a way to counter an overhead smash from a heavy weapon in such a way that the momentum of the dodge to the outside simultaneously cut at the enemy’s hamstring in one fluid action. He probably knew that it was called this at one time, but the name of the technique was unimportant. The fact that Ogo knew the pattern so well, and could apply it instinctively, was far more important, and his intrinsic mastery of tactics was based on his superbly honed powers of understanding patterns.
So it was that once Ogo stopped feeling dizzy, his altered perceptions of the world came in the form of a heightened ability to sense patterns. Things that he had not paid particular attention to, or even had the slightest interest in, became clear to him, beginning with the way the drug was infiltrating his system. It broke away from the masticated bread in his churning stomach, seeped through the walls of his gut, and entered tiny blood vessels that trailed through his body, driven by his heart, and invaded his brain. The shifting the narcotic caused in the electrical patterns therein were a near-palpable thing to him, and behind his tightly shut eyes he could discern new branches forming in the complex web of his mind, a transfiguring web of light that…
I’m probably dying here and all I can do is hallucinate about the inside of my head, he chastised himself, and opened his eyes. Amazingly, he was still in the clearing, Sashi still standing near him… it looked like Sashi, but things were strange, at once hazy and more clearly defined. It was as if he squinted a bit, he could make out the way Sashi’s blood was moving through his own body. More than blood, there were thoughts, muscular activity, and things Ogo had no words for, but at once understood were… intentions?
"What is the name of our father?" asked Sashi.
Ogo really wanted nothing more to do with this line of questioning, nor the asker, but the question had been festering in the back of his mind since it had first been asked, and the words were enough to get Ogo thinking about it again. He watched himself crawl back through his memories, sifting through them like luminescent threads, connecting the past to the present. At the root of each memory was the event itself, clear as when it had first happened. Am I moving through time? he asked himself silently. What has that bastard done to me? He tried as best he could to rush into the past, ignoring the memory-roots of his life as a wandering drunk, as an ersatz mentor to young swordsmen, the pivotal argument with that fool Naru and the fat looter in Shoushi, the struggles to safeguard himself and his companions in the first days of their time in Dereth, until…
"What is this…" he murmured to nobody in particular.
The thing that worried him was the way that the threads changed as he got closer to his awakening in Dereth. The threads still reached up through the depths of his memory and time to the place where his conscious mind could draw upon them, and as expected the threads continued deeper, back into the murky depths of his own private version of history, but the "roots" seemed to all cluster around the point where his awareness hovered now, amidst his memories of his arrival in this new and hostile land. The pulses of memory flowed both ways here, forward and backwards, but then why would the events not be based deeper when they…
Ogo shook his head furiously and growled through gritted teeth to avoid the conclusion he was coming to, but just as he could no longer deny that his day as a useful mercenary were through despite his years of experience, he could not ignore the implications of what he was seeing now. Any memory he had of his time in Ispar seemed to originate here, in the place where he had been collecting himself after his arrival in Dereth.
The memories of his father started here as well.
Dry sobs wracked him as he collapsed onto his hands and knees before the log. The meaning was too much for him.
"I’m sorry, brother, I did not know it would…" began Sashi as he moved to help Ogo off the ground.
Ogo’s reply was a snarl as he instinctively whipped his hand around, trying to ward off his brother. Naturally the attack had little effect; Sashi was protected by the same strange magics that protected all men who did not pledge themselves to Bael’Zharon. Ogo watched his clawed fingers slice through the air in front of his blurred vision, the atmosphere flowing around his talon-fist like water, and his fingertips merely brushed the front of Sashi’s tunic, rather than the intended ripping effect the technique aimed for. Sashi stopped short, and Ogo crouched and stood, trying to ram him with the full weight of his body, an assault that was similarly neutralized.
The fact that Ogo was even trying to harm him was enough to cause Sashi to step back slowly, hoping to give his enraged brother time to calm himself. As he did so, Ogo drew a small knife from his boot and thre it expertly at the mage. It was a perfect throw, and the dagger slid smoothly through the air point-first, only to slide harmlessly away from Sashi’s throat at the moment of impact, falling to the dirt with a dull thud.
"The visions can be upsetting. I am sorry," said Sashi softly.
Ogo shuddered with impotent rage. "Sorry… you have exposed my entire life as a fraud," answered Ogo in a tremulous near-whisper. "All our lives… just some crap that seemed convenient. Are we all dreams? All that we thought we were?"
"I think we may have in fact come from somewhere else, maybe a place called Ispar. As for the rest…" Sashi shifted uncomfortably; Ogo looked equally likely to try to attack him again or to break down sobbing. "It’s hard to say. The stronger collective memories of our culture and our homeland may be too powerful to be simply erased. I’m trying to… I’m not sure how much is true."
Ogo struggled on weak legs towards his brother, who stood uncertain of his intentions. When Ogo was within arm’s reach, he collapsed slowly forward, embracing Sashi in a way that neither of them could remember from before. He was not preparing to throw him to the ground, as they thought he had as a child. They embraced like…
"Brothers," whispered Ogo.
Sashi was surprised by this turn of events; whether he empathized with the sentiment was hard to tell, for many of the parts of him that were capable of love and understanding had been long since eroded away by his long mania, and whatever was spared from his years of insanity were probably torn away by his experiences with the Virindi. So he simply held Ogo for some time, trying to ignore the way his shoulder was dampening with tears, before holding his brother up at last, looking into his reddened eyes, trying to discern how Ogo had fared through this revelation. What he saw reassured him; Ogo could deal with trauma. He was still the strong one.
"Walk with me and let us talk about this," said Sashi, and Ogo nodded. As Ogo followed the mage, Sashi reassured himself that all was going to be all right. With this crisis averted, he could now try to explain his own viewpoint on the current situation. This was going to be dangerous, for both of them, and thankfully Ogo was stable enough to listen.
What he failed to realize was the way that Ogo’s gaze continued to study him as they proceeded. The retired armsman had seen a glimpse of something new when he first attacked Sashi with the claw-hand, something that gained clarity when the dagger was turned aside. A new pattern, like a luminescent film that flowed lazily over Sashi’s outline like oil on the water, barely noticable. That was, until he had been attacked. The field tightened at the moment of the strike, absorbing the energy of the knife point, neutralizing its lethal potential. The knife had this same aura, as did Ogo himself, and everything he touched, fading with time. He could see it in their footprints as they walked through the forest, fading slowly with their passing. Something to mark us, he thought. Dye from the gods.
The field had parted when he embraced Sashi, allowing his tears to soak through the tunic.
I must learn this quickly, he thought, licking his lips to remove the lingering taste of his weeping fit. I doubt I have many tears left with which to study more.
The stream was fast and cold, snowmelt from the Linvak range on its way to the sea. The Wild Man sniffed it carefully, then brought it to his mouth in cupped hands and drank. He was thankful that he was not in the lowlands surrounding Sawato, where the water pooled and stagnated, a breeding ground for biting insects, leeches, and disease. He drank more, then took handfuls of the water and scrubbed his face, peeling away layers of dust to reveal ruddy skin bristling with dark facial hairs, weathered by the elements. He rubbed his hands in the stream and regarded them. How much they have changed, he thought, and how little. Calluses dotted his palms where he held onto rough-barked firewood almost every day, worn smooth in places he used to grasp weapon handles. He was stronger than he had ever been, the bumps of the bones in his wrists barely perceptible under the layers of muscle earned with constant labor. He dropped his hands into the stream again, picking up more water. He was running it through his filthy, tangled hair with his fingers when he heard the growl.
The brothers walked silently on. At length, Sashi paused for a moment, and reached up to remove his mask. There seemed to be a faint clicking as the Virindi face came off, and he took great care to wrap it in a leather shammy and a towel before burying it deep in his satchel. Only after carefully closing the flap of the pack and fastening the leather knot through its grommet did he speak again. "This can be dangerous. Please listen carefully."
Ogo grunted assent, watching his brother carefully.
"As I explained, the Virindi that I came to know as ‘Overseer 9′ painted a picture of us all as fellow victims of the bumblings of the radical Empyrean mage Asheron. I believe he was accurate in this regard. ‘He’ also expressed an interest in advancing the abilities of humans so that they might find a way to hasten a departure from Dereth. I believe he was truthful about this as well."
"So no problem. Just keep kidnapping more of us for them, then. I suppose I’m next."
"No. Listen. You must have noticed that although as a race we seem to be gaining in prowess, our techniques aren’t really getting any better. All we are doing is adopting one or two approaches to battle, approaches that aren’t really new or revolutionary. Back when you were active, there were many combatants trying many different things… kendo, kyudo, their analogues among the desert folk and the barbarians, magic as an attack, magic as a defense, magic in support, taijutsu…"
"Yes yes. I hardly need a lecture on the names of fighting systems from a mage."
"Tell me, what are the systems in use today?"
"Hardly a proper system to be found anywhere." Ogo paused. "Nothing but mages pretending to be taidoka, mages pretending to be kyudoka, mages pretending to be stickfighters if they happen to be of desert nomad descent. Not a one of them with an inkling about technique. A few white mages going out with a ridiculous little dirk in hand."
"Ridiculous yes. Does it seem strange that they are in such prominence, to the near-exclusion of other, logically equally valid, practicioners?" One look at Ogo’s pained expression told Sashi he need not ask, so he continued. "What is the source of their lack of technique?"
"Easy. They rely almost exclusively on their chanting and hand dancing to save them from the deaths they so richly deserve."
"More than that?"
Ogo thought, still not taking his eyes off his brother. "They have no experience."
"They might counter that they have many hours of battle under their belts."
"Time on the battlefield is not the same as battle experience." Ogo was falling back into his role of the arms mentor, and his voice took on a more natural tone. "The true test of one’s abilities is in how they carry you through any situation, not just versus the same opponent for the thousandth time. These scarecrows care for nothing but the Linvak giants, the bugs, and those blasted apes. The only time they ever see anything else is when necessity dictates, and if they manage to somehow live through something new and different, their only thought is on how long they will have to run to return to more familiar enemies."
"Yes. Did you know that the guardian Tuskers are the slaves of the Virindi?"
"It wouldn’t surprise me one bit."
"It’s true. Explorers uncovered breeding and training grounds for them a long time ago. They are the preferred haunts of would-be heroes, except that they never do anything more heroic than slaughter more of them."
"Now, think about the… ‘scarecrow’ phenomenon. Is there any reason that such absurd approaches to survival and conquest should rise to dominance?"
"Hell, no. It’s amazing they don’t all cut themselves the first time they try to take up a weapon in their bony hands. Are you just trying to anger me again?" Ogo disliked any discussion relating to his obsolescence, and it was beginning to show in his face.
"No, I am not. It just so happens that these bastardized mages happen to be ideally suited for dealing with the three opponents you have outlined: the mountain Lugian, the Olthoi spawn, and the guardian Tusker."
"Yes, you’ve made this point very clear. I might as well settle down to raise crops."
"That’s not the point. The Tusker is a perfect test subject for the Virindi, who have absolute control over them. I suspect the Virindi also hold some sway over the swarms, and the Lugians for that matter, or at least they observe them carefully. There are similar areas which seem to perform the same functions for the Lugians and the Olthoi as the dens do for the guardian Tuskers: a perfect staging area for mass combat with humans. Coincidental, neh?"
"Very soon after the time of the discovery of the dens, the other environs of the ‘Direlands’ became extremely inhospitable to all explorers, and especially those who were not perfectly suited for a life of Tusker combat." A cloud seemed to pass over Sashi’s expression at this, although it was difficult for Ogo to tell.
"It makes sense. With all of our… best fighters crammed into the lines against the apes and such, the free-roaming threats multiply and get more dangerous."
"It’s not just that. It’s difficult for me to express this, but…" Sashi’s hand went unconsciously to the cover of his satchel wherein his mask rested, and he held it shut more tightly. "I believe the Virindi are responsible for this as well."
Ogo actually laughed now, a quiet, dark chuckle. "So now the Virindi control everything? Why are we even trying, then? You certainly got in good with the right people, Sashi!"
Sashi became more intense, his hand pressing down on the flap of his pack. "No, they don’t control humans, not directly anyway. But they are pushing us toward their ideal of the perfect fighting human, based on their most controlled experiments: how well we kill their slaves. And if it happens to be the bastardized mage that happens to do best against the three primary enemies of the day."
"You mages seem to do all right, if I recall," Ogo admitted with some reluctance.
"Archmages did, at one point. This too has changed." Sashi sighed. "In short, the reason that so much of our ‘new blood’ consists of bastardized mage-fighters, I believe, is because someone has been manipulating conditions and events to make it favorable. We are being evolved."
"And you think it’s the Virindi doing the evolving."
"Listen, the Virindi understand things that no human could possibly grasp. I can’t even describe some of the things I was shown. The little pieces that make up solid objects, like dust, only so much smaller… The force that gives us weight, they use that like we use farming tools… Ogo, they can see where your soul goes when you are killed!"
"So can I. It’s called a lifestone."
"The Virindi are responsible for the lifestones."
Ogo’s eyes narrowed and he regarded his brother, dubious as to his claim. He opened his mouth to speak, but suddenly stopped, and squinted again. He was focusing on Sashi himself, the field around him, and then he was seeing past him somehow, into the threads of his memories. Sashi did not move, confused, while Ogo followed the strings of the past down, down, back to the point where Ogo might see where…
"Sashi," he asked quietly. "Where are your memories?"
Sashi couldn’t reply. The question was too strange.
Ogo pressed. "You don’t have anything there. You don’t remember Ispar."
The mage answered carefully, still not fully understanding where this was going. "Anything you or I might think we remember about then is probably a lie, Ogo. You can’t…"
"Why did you remove them?" the older brother demanded.
"I removed nothing," said Sashi softly. Ogo was becoming belligerent; would he try to attack again? "I recognized them for what they are. They mean nothing to…"
"They mean EVERYTHING!" roared Ogo. "I will not desert my past!"
"It may not be…"
"SHUT UP!" Ogo’s body was a mass of trembling, tense flesh. Sweat was beading on his forehead. "I don’t care what you say about them. I don’t even care if it’s true! I need my memories! What am I now, if not the child of my experience? Rob my history, and I am nothing! And now is what matters!"
Sashi was still as Ogo continued his tirade, but whether out of pity or fear was unsure. Ogo stalked menacingly around his silent brother, spitting a monologue such as one might deliver at a rite of passage. "I am Mu Ogo of the Ryu Jou Gai, of the Sho people of the land of Ispar. I learned the way of steel from the monks of the Dragon Temple, and mastered it on the field against the enemies of my adopted homeland. I have staunched my blood with glowing iron and bound my wounds with silk, and am stronger for my pain. I have attacked without quarter my foes in their fortresses, and have denounced others in their own council chambers. I have been poisoned by my own brother, who seeks to rob me of all of this, and have not surrendered." Ogo crossed to his brother in three long strides. "YOU WILL NOT TAKE THIS FROM ME!"
Ogo slammed a fist into Sashi’s solar plexus.
The ursuin was of the Linvak variety, coming to the stream for the same purpose the Wild Man had, and was intent on enforcing its territorial claim. The Wild Man reached for his shou-ono even before turning to face the creature, but too late; three long claws sunk into the meat of his shoulder before he managed to roll away, the axe dropped and forgotten on the bank. He now faced the animal, drawing a long gutting knife from his makeshift belt as it roared its displeasure. When it charged again, the Wild Man sidestepped and leapt onto its back, grasping a tuft of rank fur with his free hand. Before the enraged ursuin could shake him off to pin and maul him, the tip of the gutting knife sank into the back of its neck, severing its spine neatly. The Wild Man twisted it once for good measure as his attacker fell limp, and he stayed on it for a few moments longer in case there was any fight left in it. There wasn’t, and he released his grip, drawing out the knife and wiping it clean of gore on the matted fur. He was turning his attention to his shoulder wounds when he realized that he was being watched.
The study had paid off. Ogo couldn’t explain exactly what he did, much in the same way he couldn’t properly explain the control of one’s center of mass for leverage, although he understood and used it himself so well. It was possibly a combination of angle and intent that allowed the fields surrounding him and Sashi to ignore the fact that Ogo was attacking, and they parted like smoke as the crude balled fist smashed into a nerve cluster under Sashi’s breastbone with a satisfying thwack.
For his part, Sashi’s eyes widened in shock as he suddenly lost the ability to breathe, and he crumpled to the ground, gasping desperately as the pain blinded him. Pain is a remarkable thing, and its presence precluded all other thoughts Sashi might have otherwise entertained at that moment, such as how Ogo had managed to hurt him at all. The experience was so alien that it was intensified manyfold, and the downed mage could only barely make out what Ogo was saying through the roaring in his ears.
"What are you now, brother?" Ogo breathed. He wasn’t nearly winded from the effort of his tirade and his attack, but he was beginning to get the feel of combat back, and realized how much he had let himself slip during his years of inactivity. "How does this fit in with your vision of the way things really are? From where did my knowledge of the heart punch come from? It’s surely of no use here, so how would I know?"
Sashi’s eyes were glazing over slgihtly as he tried desperately to make his lungs work. He weakly grabbed a wand in trembling fingers with which to try to heal himself; Ogo contemptuously kicked it away. It was a good kick, spraining Sashi’s fingers as the toe of the boot collided with his hand. His mouth gaped in a silent scream as he drew the injured hand back to shield it from further damage, but Ogo easily grabbed the hand and pulled his arm straight with it. The master fighter turned the extended arm a little clockwise and applied the tinest bit of pressure, and Sashi’s world was hot agony again.
"You know, any child could have countered this lock in a dozen ways, it was so slow," growled Ogo as he maintained his control over the arm as Sashi weakly rolled onto his stomach, in a futile attempt to get away from the pressure. "That roll you’re doing, you look like a gaijin knifefighter who never saw the inside of a proper dojo. Pretty soon you’ll probably try to kick at me from the ground, if you have the strength. No? How about a few curses about my ancestry? Those are pretty popular with the helplessly ouitmatched too." Ogo shifted his grip a little to make things easier on himself, never relieving the pressure for a moment. "What’s wrong, Sash? Have you forgotten all your childhood training? Oh wait, that’s right, you don’t have a childhood. Too bad for you."
Ogo jerked his victim’s wrist for the briefest of moments, and was amused as the way Sashi’s whole body momentarily twitched in response. Sashi turned his head toward his captor, face streaked with tears and dirt, a single dead leaf hanging unceremoniously from his hairline. His eyes were unfocused, and He mouthed something, though no words came out… it looked like, "Why?"
"Eh? Couldn’t quite catch that," chuckled Ogo. "Did you say why? You’re mister answer, you should know. But that’s your problem, isn’t it? You always have to know the why of everything. You need to know so much about why everything is the way it is, you never stop to actually see it for yourself. Why do you care? This is what should be concerning you right now!" Ogo squeezed lightly on the damaged fingers, and Sashi’s face became a rictus of pain for a few eternal seconds before Ogo pushed him away and released him; the locked arm was a superb lever, and Sashi rolled over almost completely, before setting onto his back, gasping.
"Well, let’s see, that blow should be wearing off pretty soon, and you’ll start breathing again. That probably means you’ll start talking again, but it’s an imperfect world, neh?" Ogo wiped sweat from his forehead as Sashi began to swallow tiny, precious breaths of cool night air. He strolled over to stand close to Sashi, and looked down at him. Almost casually he placed the sole of his boot directly on his brother’s throat, but did not press down very much. Sashi’s weakened, injured hands moved feebly to his neck as he stared at his brother.
"Do you know what this is? It wasn’t taught at the temple, because it’s astoundingly bad. Terribly vulnerable. The target, if he’s still able, can turn my ankle and throw me, can grab and roll me for a superior position, hell he can probably grab me in the balls if he’s fast. This is something of my own. I used it on incapacitated drudges and the like when I didn’t have a blade handy, sort of a finishing technique. All I need to do is lean forward a bit. Lucky for me, drudges never learned a damned thing about taijutsu… and, apparently, neither did you."
Sashi was very still except for the fast, shallow movement of his chest. The boot stayed exactly where it was.
"You know what sort of technique the scarecrows use? They grab whatever it is they happen to be using, and swing it in the general direction of the enemy. Any toddler can do that. I am no toddler, because I remember being a toddler, and I’m done with it now. You don’t have that anymore. Who are you, Sashi? You’re a shell of a man. You have no passion, no rage, no love anymore. Why should you? You’ve burned away the things that make you human." Ogo spit in Sashi’s face and released him, stepping back a few paces. "You’re nothing now."
Sashi had progressed to ragged, shallow breaths, but they were more regular now, and he weakly rolled onto his hands and knees and retched. He spit a bit of dirt out, rich in loam and minerals, from where it had seeped into his mouth while his face had been held down. A bit of bile burned at his throat, but there was nothing to actually vomit. When was the last time he had eaten? Did he even need to eat anymore? His panting became audible as his voice returned in agonized groans.
"Of course, what am I now? How long can I keep asserting my humanity, when you’ve so kindly ripped it away from me and tossed it away?" Ogo’s voice was softer now. "What should I do now? Should I sit in a little cellar somewhere like you, trying to figure out what was real and what was dumped into my head out of convenience? Tell me, boy."
Sashi moaned a bit and stared at his brother, unsure what to tell him.
"Lucky for me it doesn’t really matter," Ogo continued, not waiting for any sort of reply. "Only thing that matters now is now. Maybe I’m just as false and hollow as you. Maybe you’ve been lied to, and killed yourself for a fairy tale some Virindi laid on you. But I won’t let it destroy me like you did."
Ogo walked forward and grabbed Sashi by his collar, lifting him to his feet. "I am leaving now, and you will not follow me. Go back to whatever little cubbyhole your ‘friends’ have set aside for you so you can keep killing yourself for them. Do not do this again. Do not find me." Ogo’s voice lowered. "You killed my brother Sashi, whom I go to mourn, and you tried to kill me as well."
"Ogo… I…" Sashi was unable to think of anything to say.
"What was the name of our father?" asked Ogo just before he hit him again.
The palm heel strike caught Sashi right on the point of the chin like a battering ram, and his jaws snapped shut audibly. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he went limp. Ogo dropped him to the ground where his Virindi caretakers might find him if they were so inclined, and left the woods.
"That was pretty good," said the townie who now approached the Wild Man, an emaciated-looking fellow in amuli armor four sizes too large for him, a giant heaume that he had removed to reveal a nondescript Aluvian countenance, and a gnarled staff in his hand. When the compliment was answered with nothing but silence, he continued: "You look like you could use some help. My name is Garn, and I am a lord. My vassals number in the hundreds, and are well-cared for and supplied. You could be too, if you would but swear allegiance. You have great potential, I see, and with just a little nurturing and education, you could be a powerful force against the powers of darkness. I offer funding, lodging, equipment, any help you might need. Do you know anything of magic?" The Wild Man picked up a rock.
"Haw! What a nekode!" Tosan Ki brandished a three-bladed combat glove in front of his impressed friends. Flames sprang from the edges of the honed edges, dancing in the air above the bearer’s hand.
Ogo happened to come out of the thick of the forest near this scene, and he turned to the small party of scarecrows, peering at them intently. No doubt the poison had already worked through his system by now, but the knowledge had not, and Ogo squinted at them to figure out their histories. To his complete lack of surprise, they were missing their pasts in much the same way Sashi did, but Ogo figured that these men did not need to be conditioned to this; they simply didn’t care. They were born inhuman.
This amused Ogo a bit, but at the same time deepened his undercurrent of melancholy. Am I the last man on Dereth? He strode purposefully over to them, though what his purpose was even he couldn’t have said at that point. They were still oohing and aahing at the "nekode" when he got there.
"It’s called a bagh nakh," he corrected them.
They turned to stare at him. "What?"
"The bagh nakh is a ritual combat glove worn by certain sects of the desert folk. The neko-de is little more than a climbing iron used by the Nanjou."
"Piss off, you idiot. You have no idea what yer talking about," said a Sho in the party with a polearm held absurdly in one hand.
Ogo widened his stance a bit. "I suppose you also think that pigsticker of yours is called a ‘swordstaff’ instead of a naginata. You should know what your weapon is called before you learn to wield it, though I somehow doubt you’ve gotten very far with that, either."
The third man in the party, a dusky-skinned nomad with a short staff slung on his back, approached Ogo. To Ogo’s amusement, it was the same scarecrow he had run into outside the tavern earlier that eve, but he didn’t appear to recognize him. "I don’t remember any of us asking for your opinion, pussy," he said, reaching to push Ogo away with his weapon hand.
"Funny, I don’t remember asking for permission," replied Ogo as he turned left and stepped inside the clumsy hand, grabbing the wrist with his own left. His right arm swooped under and around the offending arm at the elbow, and cranked up hard. There was a loud pop from the elbow capsule, and a little cry of shock came from the man. Ogo drew his arm back, and stepping in, wrapped it around the back of the man’s neck, still holding his arm straight. A backward shift in weight, and the man’s neck cracked sickeningly, and he flopped to the dirt, nerveless, with a look of utter astonishment on his dead face.
The man with the fire claw and the one with the naginata stared in amazement. "Sloppy," muttered Ogo, and he quickly moved to the second one. It seemed likely that they couldn’t hurt Ogo at all, thanks to the field that Ogo was now gleefuly circumventing, but why take chances against these babes? He needed practice anyway.
The target stumbled backwards, trying to bring his weapon to bear with one hand, the way he was accustomed to wielding it, but the clumsy grip was useless against a target smart enough to get inside the range of heavy blade. He drew his head back to instinctively protect it, and in doing so exposed the base of his throat. Ogo crushed his larynx with a stiff spear hand, and the man gasped, "Gup!" and fell on his ass. Ogo grabbed the naginata as the man sat down, and stamped him in the chest to drop him flat on his back, where he proceeded to strangle to death slowly.
Tosan had managed to recover from the shock of the assault by now, and was shuffling toward Ogo, shield strapped to his left arm, the flaming bagh nakh still worn. "Little better," mused Ogo as he got the correct grip on his newly acquired weapon, finding its balance as he circled away from his enemy’s weapon hand. He poked at the man’s shield ineffectually, watching the man flinch and stumble. Afraid, he’s afraid… and his balance is terrible.
Tosan was having some difficulty getting inside the range of the naginata, a distinctly new and different situation for him. Spears and other pole weapons had been in Dereth for as long as anyone could remember, but laziness and the protective field had caused armsmen to use them as little more than big daggers, failing to take advantage of the wonderful defensive techniques available to a man holding a weapon taller than himself. That nobody ever used proper line formations meant that the overwhelming advantage of the polearm class in these situations was never fully realized, which meant that almost nobody actually used them, which in turn led to a lack of understanding of their proper use. To Tosan Ki, Ogo’s two-handed grip and extended stance were completely innovative and new, but to Ogo they were standard concepts of orthodox yari technique. He was merely stalling, keeping his position secure behind his ludicrous wall shield, afraid to turn and run lest he expose his back to this murderous foe.
The shield was getting heavy on his arm, and like so many other of his age, Tosan had no sense of the value of patience, and so it wasn’t long before he yelled and lunged forward with the flaming claw, arcing it through the air with a trail of smoke and sparks. In a flash of inspiration, Ogo neatly thrust the head of his weapon at the claw, and with a clank sandwiched the blade in between the smaller protrusions of the bagh nakh. He pressed forward slightly, and reflexively, Tosan pressed back. The weapons stayed locked for a long moment.
Ogo suddenly swung his weapon back, and with the resistnce gone, Tosan stumbled foward, hands out to break his fall. In the same motion, Ogo swung the lighter haft of the weapon around, and with the shield conveniently down, cracked the metal butt-plate of the naginata against the enemy’s head.
Tosan groaned and fell to the earth, began to push himself up again, and was thrust into the dirt. Ogo had placed his heel on his neck.
"Why…" coughed Tosan, helplessly flat on his stomach. "Why do you want to take my life?"
Ogo paused, then shrugged. "Not like you have anything to lose," and he drove the point of the naginata through the small of Tosan’s back, pinning him to the earth. Tosan tensed and hissed for a moment, and collapsed, and was still.
The naginata was a bit cumbersome for Ogo’s tastes, and so he left it where it was, helpfully pinning Tosan’s body down so it would be easier to find once he returned from the lifestone. He picked up his bag and went through it, discarding bank notes, glowing stones to feed to enchanted devices, and foul-smelling spell components, and more junk, leaving the bag nearly empty by the time he slung it on his own back. He had found a small quantity of beef jerky, and gnawed on it thoughtfully as he looked around at the carnage he had wrought. Why is it that I don’t feel any different, he wondered to himself. I have killed three men in cold blood.
No, he corrected himself. These were never men.
Swallowing a bit of the savory meat, he walked away from the scene, away from civilization, listening for the sounds of a stream. The jerky made him thirsty.
Garn collapsed to the ground in pain as the stone hit him square in the forehead, and blood ran into his eyes. He sputtered as he wiped it away, and the Wild Man was on him, knocking him down. Garn tried to get away, but the Wild Man straddled him high on the waist where he could control him, and it was hopeless. His hands flailed frantically to ward off his attacker as fists crashed over and over into his face, and Garn cried out when his nose collapsed with a wet crunch. The Wild Man got up just long enough to plant a heavy knee directly into his captive’s abdomen, and he took the staff from him. Garn watched wide-eyed as the hermit held the magical focus in both hands, looking over it carefully, and his jaw dropped when the madman snapped it in two.
The Wild Man got off him only after taking an herbal compress from Garn’s belt pouch. Garn stayed on the ground, paralyzed by fear and amazement, and said nothing as the Wild Man rubbed the wounds he had received from the ursuin, tasting the blood to check for infection. He placed the medicinal herbs over the gashes, shifting a fur over the compress to hold it in place. He stayed there as the Wild Man returned to the stream, recovered his axe, and placed its haft through a makeshift beltloop. Finally, the Wild Man replied.
"You offer nothing."
The Wild Man walked toward the mountains without looking at his would-be patron.