Phalax Aberis dropped into a low crouch as the snap of a bowstring resounded from the curved stone walls of the dried ravine he traveled through. Dead roots ran across the ground in random disarray, pebbles and larger rocks nestling within their loose grip, small sprouts of green plants pushing up between it all every once in a while. Small trees infrequently burst up from the rocky ground, seeming dilapidated in the heat of the day.
A moment later, Phalax’s eyes found the speeding shaft and he flung his body left to avoid it. Although he needn’t do so, it was difficult for him to break his habits from working as a captain of Cavia’s Watch for so many years. Then, he’d been normal, susceptible to the pointed tip of an arrow as much as the next man. Now, though, that was far from true.
His armor was brilliant, without an imperfection to be seen. It became impossible to tell where the pieces ended and fit together; the suit was literally a single piece, a second skin that flexed as well as his own flesh. A flung spear wouldn’t have pierced Phalax’s steel hide, let alone an arrow.
Despite the magnificence of the suit, it was anything but security to him. It was his prison, a merciless chain wrapped around his throat.
Phalax scanned the short natural walls surrounding him without catching a glimpse of his attacker. Larger trees loomed up from the shelf that at one time was moist and fertile soil but had since become as forgiving as a solid slab of stone. The frequent breaks in the trees and their withered branches, which resembled decrepit fingers with far too many joints, provided little cover, but still his attacker eluded him. Although he doubted it given their size, it was possible that whoever had shot the arrow had ducked behind one of the few bushes dotting the top of the hard packed dirt wall, silent sentries to watch the passing of countless centuries.
He had been travelling through a ravine in the Arrow Tip Mountains that at one time long ago must have held water. The path sloped upward ever so slightly, climbing toward the peaks of the mountain range. Copper and brown dominated the landscape, rarely interrupted by the greenery that somehow managed to burst from the stony ground of the mountain at such elevation. Beyond the peak, which was perhaps a mile or two away, the sky unfurled its endless waves of light blue, clouds rolling across the heavens, puffy passengers spurred along by the current of the air.
This wasn’t exactly Phalax’s idea of a nice hike. No, he wouldn’t be travelling this path had he been given the choice. A god, however, wouldn’t allow him his own choices anymore.
Sunlight reflected off a steel tip, the bright glint catching his attention above and to the left of him. The arrow plunged at him moments later but Phalax let this one bounce off his armor, the impact barely registering as its stone tip shattered against his forehead. He took off toward the short natural shelf and leapt to catch a hold of the lip. He marveled for a moment at the agility he was afforded despite the armor that encased him, recalling that the steel was completely weightless.
Dirt cascaded over him as a small chunk of the earth crumbled in his right hand. His left hand began sliding and soon he’d fall. His will became reality as spikes formed on the palm and fingers of his hand and dug into the ledge, arresting his slow descent.
Suddenly, a booted foot stomped on Phalax’s left hand. Any man wearing normal steel armor would have at least felt a shock of pain and lost his grip at the terribly hard strike. The blow registered more as a vibration than anything to him, his grip holding firm. He swung his right hand up to grip the meaty ankle of the man standing over him and his hand became like a net of bristling hooks. He yanked and the spikes sunk deeper into the man’s flesh, grinding against bone and sending him careening from the ledge.
The spikes spearing from his hands melted away, lest he be taken along with this man as he plummeted. Phalax landed on his feet in a crouch while his enemy met the ground with his back.
The man stood up slowly and Phalax allowed him to rise unmolested. Blood ran down the man’s leg and his bow lay on the dirt ground. He spun to face Phalax while pulling two knives from sheathes strapped to his hips.
The blades were long and menacing but Phalax paid them no heed; they would prove to be much less than effective against his armor. Also, Phalax was stuck staring at the man’s face: a visage of blunt features, sun-baked skin, and puffed scars.
A Deth Uk of the Arrows. Not a too uncommon thing to chance upon seeing as how a large tribe of them resided here in the Arrows. Phalax’s mind whirled as he understood now where he was heading.
His enemy would not allow him the time to dwell on those things now, though, as he began to advance forward. Phalax lost all will to fight this man and instead wished to seek answers from him.
Phalax put his hands up in a sign of surrender and said, “Wait. I don’t want to fight you.”
The Deth Uk snarled several words in a different language that sounded like a practiced threat. Phalax immediately fell into a fighting stance and began moving toward the Deth Uk, not of his own volition, however. The armor encasing him stalked forward, dragging his body along with it.
It was as if the barbarian’s words held some sort of magical sway over the suit as it pushed Phalax to move his legs forward.
The Deth Uk seemed as though he hadn’t figured out Phalax’s amazing ability yet as the man brazenly approached him. Phalax willed a spear and shield to spring from his hands but, to his amazement, not a thing happened. It seemed as though he was watching his life take place behind the eyes of another man. He had no control.
The Deth Uk roared as he lunged forward, one knife speeding toward Phalax’s stomach and the other, his throat.
Phalax’s instincts screamed at him to twist aside from the blades, but his body would not respond. Each blade found its mark with intense strength, and then skipped off the impenetrable steel as though they were nothing more than twigs striking the side of stone building. Phalax still felt the vibrations through his armor, however, and imagined for a moment that the blades had somehow punched through and opened his throat and midsection wide. Before he could be sure whether or not he was soon to be a dead man, his right hand balled into a fist and slammed into the barbarian’s stomach.
Phalax’s body became inert, stuck in that moment as if the two men had become statues. Oddly enough, the Deth Uk stood hunched over, frozen in time just as Phalax was.
A cough, then the sound of something wet splashing into the dirt followed by the shudders of a dying man wrenched Phalax back to the present. He was confused by the man’s reaction to nothing but a punch, but only for a brief moment.
Phalax looked around the man’s back, through the eye slits of his helm and beheld four thick, serrated spears of steel stabbing through the man’s skin by several inches.
Phalax managed to back up a half step and saw that his knuckles were buried in the man’s gut.
The barbarian did a strange thing then. He looked up at Phalax with something other than the expected hate in his eyes. It was understanding. He managed to whisper a few wet words that meant nothing to Phalax as he brushed his hand across Phalax’s chest. Then he expired.
Phalax yanked his hand back and the corpse collapsed into the dirt. He held his hand before him and marveled at the spears of steel that had sprouted from his knuckles, each one more than a foot long.
The spikes melted in moments and he was left staring at a gauntleted hand like many he had seen before. Hakmrid, the god of the Deth Uk, had originally given Phalax his powers to destroy the demon threat to Zepzier and avenge the deaths of his wife and son. The price for this amazing ability was free will. Given the choice, Phalax would not have killed this man. He most likely had a family awaiting his safe return. He was, however, without a single choice when Hakmrid controlled him.
He never should have been walking up the Arrows. He never should have run across this man. He never should have donned the amulet that gave him his amazing ability but annexed his free will. He never should have been imprisoned by the very system he served while his wife and child were slaughtered at the hands of demons.
Fresh guilt formed at the corners of Phalax’s eyes as he thought of the man’s family. A son, daughter, wife, siblings, parents all carrying on about their business without the slightest inkling as to the fate of this man. Killing was easy when Phalax was filled with hate. That wasn’t the case now. Without hate, he only sought death to uphold what was right and protect the weak.
That’s what death and war ultimately boil down to, he thought. By killing one man, I’m saving another more deserving of a life. He believed that he had saved his own life in this moment but he couldn’t justify that he was more deserving. His life held little meaning now.
Since the death of his family, Phalax had struggled to find a purpose to continue his life, a reason for his still being alive. He had come close to finding one, or maybe he had just been staving off the inevitable, as he attempted to rebuild his life beginning with his childhood until he had found that perverted by the influence of the bastard god controlling him.
The words of Hakmrid rang fresh in his memory, “You will level your sword at any who oppose my reign in this world and in others. Your time to heal has not yet come. More pain awaits you, my champion, and it begins soon. I am not to be defied.”
Hakmrid had spoken to him after he, along with four others blessed by other gods, had prevented the destruction of Cavia, the capital city of the country of Baronfall, and possibly all of Zepzier. Demons had come to demolish all order and reign over humans but Phalax and the others had won that battle, albeit at the cost of the lives of the other four.
Phalax was doomed to kill without cause until he was somehow killed himself. The only release now would be death and that seemed impossible other than with age. The armor protecting him was impenetrable and unwavering. He would conquer death and be more dead inside for doing so.
His feet began shuffling forward, deeper into the mountains, but Phalax grit his teeth and tried to lean away from the path before him. His steps faltered not at all and he growled in desperation until his voice turned to a shout with such effort. Hakmrid gleaned Phalax’s meaning and allowed him freedom.
Phalax spun back around and scooped the dead man up into his arms. He slung the corpse over his shoulders, the weight of it difficult but manageable. Once done, he was spun around then forced along the dirt path by his steel prison.
Something other than the corpse weighed him down, though. Phalax felt an emotional blanket crushing him like a block of lead.