Chapter 2 (A reason to race home)
The jarring explosion of noise jerked Kkaj from the throes of sleep. His heart raced, and icy octospider legs climbed down his spine, suction cups pulling at his skin. He shivered. No. No. No.
A warm hand rested on his chest and shook him. “Kkaj?” Roffor’s smooth voice held the wretched memory at bay. “What’s wrong? You’re sweating.”
“Nothing.” His voice rasped. “Just — Never mind.”
Her beautiful eyes held his. “Tell me.”
“I … .” He glanced left to find nothing then right.
The three horses that had survived the initial onslaught of magic whinnied as Saffer loaded the last of their camping supplies. She stretched her back, and a deep sigh slipped through her pursed lips. Despite searching for four days, the only thing they had discovered was how little supplies they had brought to the initiation.
“I-I think we should —” Be together. He set his jaw. His gut clenched. No! You’re dating her sister who is everything you’d ever want in a woman, and you can’t be trusted not to hurt her even if you weren’t. “— split up for today’s search.”
“Kkaj … .” Roffor pulled him into a sitting position.
Saffer stomped over and grabbed him the collar of his ragged, silk shirt. “No. We’re leaving today.”
“We can’t.” He pressed his palms into the dirt-covered streets and pushed himself up. “We haven’t finished searching the whole —”
Saffer shook him by his collar then popped him in the nose with her index finger. “Eh-eh!”
She hit him in the nose again. “Eh-eh!” She released him and put her hands on her hips. “We have much more important things to do, and we barely have enough food to make it back to JimKar city without killing the horses.”
“We could forage.”
She rolled her eyes.
A rolling chuckle spilled from Roffor’s mouth as she placed a hand on Kkaj’s shoulder. “Besides the fact that none of us have ever had to even shop for our own food, the smoke, destruction and countless fires have made sure no wildlife or plant anywhere near the city.”
His throat contracted, and the world around him spun. A rush of wind batted against his face before something slammed into his shoulders. He hung motionless, his body limp.
“Kkaj?” Roffor and Saffer asked as one.
He shook his head, and the sky righted itself in the up position. Everything around him solidified.
Roffor held his right shoulder while Saffer gripped him by the left.
Nausea twisted his stomach into a knot, but he fought down the rising bile. “I’m fine. I-I-I-I made —”
Saffer tangled her fingers in his hair and pressed her lips against his.
His eyes met Roffor’s while he kissed her sister.
Roffor held his gaze and took a step away from them. What would it be like to kiss her? Were her lips just as soft? Was her tongue also like a vulturesnake?
He found himself getting hard and killed the image. He was dating Saffer, and that was that.
A long moment later, Saffer pulled away and grinned. “Better?” She shuffled backwards to stand beside her sister.
Kkaj nodded. “Much.”
“Help me pack up your bedroll, or we’ll be late for the king’s meeting with the foreign emissaries.”
His toes pressed into the soles of his soft leather boots. “Moonshine! I had forgotten about that.”
Both women glared at him with narrowed eyes and said, “We excused your language on the first day because you were distraught.” Their voices snapped like crocobear jaws. “But for the heir of a distinguished family, much less the heir to the Orienkk distilleries, we will not tolerate such foul words.”
A sigh sucked the strength from his muscles, and his shoulders slumped. “Fine. Fine. I’m sorry.”
Both women grinned.
He shook his head then knelt down and folded his bedroll. “At least we should miss the tournament he’s holding for them.”
Roffor helped him stuff his bedroll into his horse’s saddlebag and arched an eyebrow. “Why do you hate fighting tournaments so much? Ever since your father hired us, you have held nothing but distain for them.”
The blood escaped his cheeks and turned into ice. He shivered. His teeth chattered.
From the other side of his horse, Saffer repositioned his saddle. “Yeah. Everyone around the world knows who you are. Where we are from, they call you the unbreakable —” Her words vanished.
Everything blurred, and Kkaj buried his face in his horse’s white mane. He trembled and sobbed. His turned the horse’s hair wet.
“Quiet, sister!” Roffor’s voice snapped, carrying a whip of reprimand. She placed her hand on the small of his back and massaged it with a firm grip.
The grief passes and his muscles relaxed. Why did Roffor’s touch feel so good?
Saffer scrambled around his horse and wrapped him in a tight hug. “I’m sorry. So sorry. I only wanted to know what had happened.”
He swallowed. “I … killed my last opponent.”
“What?” both women said at the same time.
“It was a private tournament for the kings and nobility of JemKej, and my pride got the better of me. I quite fighting shortly after.”
Saffer squeezed him tighter. Her warmth pressed into his skin and thawed his blood. “The public records claim that you had never killed any of your opponents.”
“The king kept it quite for my father.”
“I see.” After kissing him on the cheek, she let him go and helped him into the saddle. She took a deep breath. “It isn’t against the rules to kill your opponent, is it?”
Roffor elbowed Saffer in the gut.
Saffer doubled over and grunted.
Roffor grabbed her sister by the back of the neck and dragged her towards the other two horses. “That’s not the right question to ask.”
Kkaj forced himself to smile then opened his mouth. It’s not that it was against the rules, but who I killed. The words didn’t leave his mouth.
Once both women had climbed onto their horses, all three of them rode from the desolated city at a trot. Every so often, he would slow to look back, and they would nudge him forward. Even when the city could no longer be seen, he still glanced over his shoulder. Why couldn’t they stay a bit longer? All they would discuss in the stupid meeting was the price of liquor, tariffs, trade and borders. Not important at all. If only his father hadn’t fallen ill.
Roffor coughed. “Did you hear anything I just said?”
Kkaj blinked. She was talking? “Of course.”
“Then repeat it back to me.”
“Um. Well. You were … . Um.”
Saffer burst into laughter, nearly falling from her saddle.
A deflating groan twirled from Roffor’s gaping mouth. “Why do you always zone out like that?”
“I didn’t zone out. I was —”
“Be quiet.” Roffor squeezed the bridge of her nose. “I don’t want to hear another one of your lame excuses.”
“I wasn’t —”
“What part of the word ‘quiet’ do you not understand? The Q? Maybe the three vowels back to back?”
Kkaj opened his mouth only to shut it then nodded.
“As I was saying, why don’t we keep more loaded guns around next time? I know the king wouldn’t provide more Drunkzards, but I’m sure he would leave us with some regular guards. We don’t even have to kill them. If we shot them in the legs —”
His cousin’s smug face appeared in his mind. Her eyes glowed with the possession of Greed, and she charged forward with two massive balls of fire floating above her hands. He shook the memory and shivered.
“Why not?” Roffor asked.
“No.” His voice cracked. “Just no.”
“Then could you at least keep your own guns loaded? You carry so many of them, most masterpieces of engineering, yet they are worthless without gunpowder and bullets.”
Bile climbed his throat and caressed his dry tongue. “N—” He swallowed despite the sour taste. “No. You know how I feel about loud noises.”
“Why?” Roffor’s voice carried the snap of frustration. “Why are you so scared of loud noises?”
In his mind, a woman’s voice cried out, screaming in pain. Was that what his cousin sounded like? Bang! Crack! Pop! The jarring sounds echoed off the stands and hushed the woman. Silence.
“What about Lucidity?” Saffer asked, pulling him from the memory before it took on a vivid shape. “If we could drink heavily without losing ourselves to possession, we could control the situation before it gets out of hand. No matter how powerful one of the initiates is.”
Kkaj trotted over to Saffer’s side and kissed her on the cheek. “That’s a wonderful idea!”
“But,” Roffor said, “the king only has a small amount of it and the side effects … .”
“Buying it from the king would be a waste of time and money.” Kkaj increased his pace. “He rarely even sales it, and even when he does, he wants an outrageous amount for it. Besides, he is a bit paranoid and likes to keep his small supply for a safety net.”
“Then what are you suggesting we do?” Roffor’s brow scrunched, and she fidgeted in her saddle.
“There’s only one thing we can do.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“It’s our only choice.”
“There’s no way we’ll be able to make it there and back in one piece.”
“If the king will lend us his map, it’ll be easy.”
Saffer harrumphed. “What are you two talking about?”
“Stuff,” Kkaj and Roffor said as one. They both snickered.
“I hope the two of you have a hangover.”
“Sister!” Roffor sounded shocked, but the grin splitting her lips said otherwise.
“We are talking about getting a large supply of Lucidity.”
Saffer bit into her lower-lip. “But-but that can only be distilled in the wastes.”
“Yes,” he said.
“But anyone who stays in the wastes for too long dies. Either from lack of food or monster attacks.”
“We’ll be alright if we go straight to the distillery and back.”
I hope so. Kkaj pulled out a flask of vodka. “Of course.” He twisted the cap and drained the remaining liquor. An inferno raged in his chest. His cheeks flushed. A smooth, tingling sensation spread across his skin, and all the tension of the day fled his body. “Ah.”
The spirit of Pride scratched at his thoughts, clawing for control of his body.
He pinned the spirit in his mind. “Fill your horses with Earth energy. We need to ride as fast as possible.”
Pop-pop. Both women opened their flasks of vodka and took three heavy gulps.
While using his legs to maintain his balance, Kkaj rested his hands on his horse’s neck and poured Earth energy directly into his horse’s muscles. Thump. The pounding of his heart was the last sound heard before his horse thundered off towards JimKar city.
Next: Chapter 3