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Servant of Rage, Chapter Two

Servant of Rage releases April 3, 2018, but last week, someone went and posted chapter one for free. The madman! Oh, but what's this? He's gone and done it again? Someone needs to stop this manic.

Anyway, enjoy this second chapter that mysteriously made its way out into the world, and stay tuned. If the current trend is anything to go by, chapter three will appear next week. In fact, I've even heard there's a schedule or something behind all this.

If you enjoy this chapter, well, lucky day! Servant of Rage is available for preorder right now!

"Avatar: The Last Airbender as directed by Quentin Tarantino."
- Definitely not the author of this book


Chapter Two:

The Nature of Conquerors

 

It is not in the nature of conquerors to kneel. Kemu, Khan of the Ghangerai, Foremost of Those who Tame the Horse, and Fist of the Ancestors, considered himself a most fearsome conqueror. And yet here he knelt. It is not in the nature of conquerors to kneel — except in the presence of even greater men.

“Kemu, my friend, I am glad you have come.”

The Old Father spoke without turning. He sat at the crest of the hill, hands folded in his lap, eyes turned toward the sun rising over the distant horizon. The steppe stretched away before him, a seemingly endless expanse of earth and grass, the occasional gust of wind rippling across its surface.

“The house of Kemujin stands ever at your service, Blessed One.” Whether you deserve it or not, you quivering old fool.

“You speak with honor, as always. But you will forgive an old man if he tires of formalities.” The Old Father patted a spot next to him in the grass. “Sit with me, and let us speak as equals.”

 “No man may equal you,” Kemu said as he sat beside him, legs crossed.

“Not while I live, no. But after my death, another will replace me. I only hope he is wiser than I, and does not prolong his suffering.”

Only a fool would say wielding the power of the ancestors was suffering. It was a shame the Old Father was not of Ghangerai blood. Even the lowliest Ghangerai herder would show more resolve than this damned thin-faced westerner. Still, Kemu knew what was expected of him, and played his role.

 “You are suffering, Blessed One?”

“It is the bloodrage, Kemu.” He sighed, and the khan saw a shiver run through his frame. “I have seen the birth of nations, the rise and fall of countless kings and emperors. And khans.” He turned to face Kemu. “I’ve known six generations of your family, taught your grandfather’s grandfather the ways of the horse and the bow when he was but a boy. And yet, the bloodrage is still there. It always has been, and I fear it always will be.”

He seemed to dwindle then, the old man — who hadn’t changed for as long as Kemu could remember — shriveling into himself, his wrinkles lengthening as shadows overtook his features.

Pathetic.

“The power of the ancestors flows through me.” The Old Father reached out with one hand, palm turned to the sky. Storm clouds growled above and the ground shook below like a great beast stirring from slumber. “And yet I am powerless to resist the bloodrage. Every day it wears me down that much more. Rips another piece of me away and consumes it. I fear soon there will be nothing left. I will have become the rage.” He suppressed another shudder.

“I cannot imagine the pain, Blessed One.” Shall I end it for you?

The Old Father laughed.

“‘Blessed One.’ I once found it an appropriate title. Now I find in it only irony. This longevity, this power, is a curse. But I’ll no longer live as its slave. I will be free.”

The khan forced his burgeoning smile into a solemn frown.

“The rumors are true, then?”

“They are. I have been fighting this battle for what seems centuries. Can’t remember a time I wasn’t. Let the poor fools who come next take their turn.” He paused, as if gathering his words. “Tomorrow is the Ghangerai celebration of the victorious dead. I do not intend to live to see it.”

Finally, you’re speaking sense.

“Do not mourn me, Kemu.”

Oh, I won’t.

“And do not make war on the Zhong Empire.”

Oh, I will.

“I’ve long favored them, as I have also favored the Ghangerai. Just as the world benefits from your strength, so too does it benefit from the knowledge of the Zhong. I know you and they have not always seen eye to eye, but I ask you now to continue the peace with them. They do not deserve your ire.”

Ire had nothing to do with it. It was about conquest, plain and simple. The Zhong lived for their dusty tomes, and they were welcome to them, but the Ghangerai lived for conquest. Now, finally, they would have it.

“At sunup tomorrow, I will leave this world, Kemu. You must prepare. You know what will happen after I am gone, yes?”

“The cycle will begin anew.”

“I am the last of my kind, but once there were many. When I die, there will be many again. They will be young and powerful. They will bring chaos and destruction. And one day, the strongest of them will replace me.”

The Old Father, coward that he was, seemed to find some courage in what he said next. The simple truth of it didn’t leave room for much else.

“Soon, I will die, Kemu, and the cycle will continue. As it always has. As it always must.”

* * *

Sunup was not yet come on the steppe, the last grasp of darkness holding tight to the world. In the predawn dark, Subei trained. As always.

The air was cool, chilly almost, but sweat ran from his forehead, dripping into his eyes with a familiar sting as he followed the ebb and flow of the imaginary battle. An army of opponents stood before him, each twitching with anticipation, waiting for their turn to join the fight. There seemed no end to them. Subei expected there never would be. He’d come from nothing, an orphan of war, but now he was something. More than something, even. Near the khan’s finest hunter, or so he liked to think. But if the imaginary enemies stretching to either horizon told him anything, it was that there was still progress to be made. And he'd be damned if he planned to stop anytime soon.

“Shit! I’ve slept too long!” Bataar jolted awake, pulling himself from his sleeping furs and hurrying to gather his weapons and gear. Such sudden movement should have spooked the horses, but they’d long grown used to Bataar’s frantic morning routine. It had become a regular occurrence over the years.

“Calm, brother. We’ve some time yet,” Subei said as he nodded to the still-dim eastern horizon. He set his weapons down as he did so, resting his round headed mace against his shield. In traditional Ghangerai fashion, the shield consisted of a circular iron base with the outside face wrapped in coiled wicker. The coils spiraled inward until they met at the center beneath an iron spike. As useful for defense as offense.

“You think Commander Jian is taking his time?” Bataar shot over his shoulder while quickly rolling his sleeping furs.

“I think riding in the dark is a dangerous endeavor for marked men and hunters alike. Horse turns an ankle out here, you'd best prepare for a long, slow walk home.”

Subei had led his brothers from the camp days ago, and the world felt right again the moment he had. This was the way they were supposed to live; their horses beneath them, the wide steppe around them, and a hunt just ahead. Anything else was wasted effort.

Bataar was not so relaxed. “Commander Jian is halfway to the Westdowns. If he clears those, we’ll never catch him in the deserts beyond. He’ll have escaped.”

Escaping us only leaves him to a far worse fate, Subei wanted to say. The old tales said Ghangerai were bound to their land. As free as they were, as far as they roamed, they could never truly leave the steppe. Those that did lived half-lives, growing sluggish and weak. They would abandon their yurts for a sedentary life, sell their horses for drink and jewels and other shameful fineries. In a generation or two, they’d be Ghangerai no more, absorbed into whatever lesser civilization had seduced them.

The khan refused to let a commander as distinguished as Jian fall so low. Death was a far better alternative. And whether by their hands when they caught him, or the executioner’s blade when they dragged him back, Subei and his brothers were tasked with seeing the commander’s honor never had to bear such shame.

“We’ll catch Jian yet,” Subei said. “In the meantime, I’ve made breakfast.”

A pile of bulbs so small as to almost be mistaken for berries lay in the grass at the center of the camp. Bataar huffed as his eyes fell across them.

“Onions again? I’ll stick to meat. Don’t feel like vomiting today.” He dug a dried strip of salted mutton from his pack.

“You offend the earth itself, scoffing at its bounty so!” Subei feigned insult as he scooped up one of the wild onions and dropped it into his mouth. He crunched into it and forced a smile as the sharp, bitter taste stabbed at his tongue. He swallowed hard with only the slightest cringe. “Delicious.”

“Urgh.” Kashi rolled onto his back and groaned at the sky, eyes half open. He blinked a couple of times before sniffing sharply.

“Onions again?”

“Care to partake?” Subei tossed one of the pungent bulbs at his younger brother. Kashi swatted it away and mumbled incoherently before rolling onto his side and turning his back to them.

“Come now, that’s no way to start today’s celebrations.” Subei kicked his brother's boot to nudge him into consciousness.

“Celebrations?” Kashi’s voice was muffled beneath the sleeping furs he’d pulled over his face.

“It’s Khulan!” Subei spread his arms wide and tilted his head up to the sky. “Today we celebrate our victorious dead.”

Kashi grumbled and shifted in his furs.

“I don’t know about victorious, but right now, I feel about dead.” He slowly sat up, cringing as the first rays of dawn broke in the east, the light beating against his half-closed eyes.

“Looks to be rain,” Bataar said from behind. “A bad omen on Khulan.”

Sure enough, the brightening horizon revealed a gathering of dark clouds. Lightning flashed within the churning mass, itching to set upon the world below.

“No matter.” Subei dismissed the storm with a wave of his hand. “We’re following Jian west.”

“Storm looks to be heading this way.”

“We’ve outrun storms before. No reason this one will be any different.”

“You sure?” Bataar lifted his chin; Subei followed his gaze back to the horizon.

The storm was closer now. Much closer, the clouds swirling and shifting as they rolled across the sky directly towards them.

“A little rain never hurt anyone, I suppose,” Subei said, but even he felt the uncertainty in his words. Something wasn’t right about the storm. He couldn’t quite tell what. Maybe it was the way it moved, rolling and churning with sinister purpose, or maybe it was the lightning within, crackling and flashing with growing ferocity. Whatever it was, something felt wrong. Unnatural.

Kashi was up now, drowsiness forgotten as he hurriedly packed his gear and loaded it onto his horse’s saddle.

“Breakfast in the saddle, then.” Subei followed suit, strapping his pack tight and untying his horse’s reins from the stake in the ground.

The rising sun’s warmth had just reached him, a relief to the now-cold sweat on his face — until a storm wind kicked up and swept it away.

“The ancestors smile on us on this auspicious day.” Bataar’s voice dripped with sarcasm as he shivered in his sleeveless leather armor.

Then Subei noticed the change in the air. Couldn’t describe it at first. Almost too faint, but the longer he thought on it, the more certain he was. The air was different. Felt…anxious, almost. Another gust of wind rushed past and the grass around them rippled and waved, the longer stalks bent almost to the ground under the assault.

“We need to leave!” Subei yelled, but his voice was lost among the wind, swept up and carried away.

A shout caught his attention and he turned to find Bataar frozen in place, eyes wide. The foremost tip of the storm was just edging over him, but that wasn’t why he'd shouted. His hair, previously hanging to his shoulders, was rising slowly into the air, ends stretched taut as if grasping toward the sky.

“Ancestors above…” Subei began to curse, but the world exploded in a blast of burning blue light.

The clouds split as if torn open and a bolt of lightning as pure and bright as the noonday sun arced down to slam into Bataar. He was lifted off his feet, mouth open in a silent scream, and thrown backward.

Subei shook his head, vision swimming in the wake of the bolt. Bataar lay several feet away, smoke billowing from his clothing, the ends of his hair burning with orange embers. Some small relief rushed through Subei as his brother let out a long, coughing breath.

Bataar mumbled a curse, blinking repeatedly as he raised one hand before him. Where once the skin had been a clay-colored tan, now it was divided by a pale silver scar. It began at the joint of his thumb and ran down the back of his hand to his wrist.

And then it moved. Bataar fell backward, holding the hand away from him. With a sharp jerk the scar shot forward, cutting a path through his skin and up his forearm. Another jump and it reached his elbow, stretching and widening as it went. Bataar screamed and grabbed at his arm as it began to smoke. The scar was glowing now, burning a brilliant blue. A sizzling filled the air as the arm began to pop and hiss like meat over a fire.

Bataar rolled onto his stomach and buried the arm beneath him, wrapping his entire body around it as if to smother the pain. The hissing grew louder as the scar continued to spread. It stretched up over his shoulder and then disappeared beneath his leather armor. It reappeared at the base of his neck, reaching up toward his head before fading away in an ever-thinning line.

Bataar’s scream burst from his throat as he rolled to his knees, veins bulging beneath his skin. The scream ended in a whimper as his voice cracked, then gave out altogether. His eyes rolled up and he collapsed back to the earth. His skin continued to burn and pop, but the scars faded slowly, their light dwindling by the moment. His chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm. Subei released the breath he'd been holding.

His relief was short-lived.

The air was growing charged again. He could feel it once more, could feel the tension rising. Subei raised his eyes. The clouds above were churning rapidly, seeming to swirl around Bataar, a gaping hole opening at their center. Inside was nothing. A void. Darkness so deep it seemed to swallow the light around it, to suck it away into some eternal depths. A growling roar echoed from within and the ground shook.

Subei cursed and looked to Bataar. Any moment, another bolt could strike down and finish him. But it wasn’t his brother he needed to concern himself with.

He gasped as pain jabbed into his side.

The air began to pop. Quiet at first, then more rapid, and louder, louder, painfully loud. A spark of light snapped from Subei’s belt buckle and arced into his stomach with a painful jolt. Then another. And another. He choked down a gasp as the jolts built to a frenzy, stinging, burning, searing again and again as the tension in the air continued to build. It grew and grew as if the very world had sucked in a great lungful of air and was holding it in, waiting, waiting. He felt the hair on his head pulled upward, stretching to stand on end — and then it broke.

The sky screamed as it split again, a bolt of lightning exploding from the gaping void amid the clouds.

The world burned blue, and then he was airborne.

The ground was below, then above, then below once more, rushing up to slam into him. Subei's breath burst from his lungs in a wheezing gasp. He coughed, choked, sucked in deep, but the breath would not come, was stuck in his throat. The smell of burning flesh filled his nostrils. His flesh, he realized, as the world shook and wavered.

Kashi was running toward him now, one hand outstretched. Something hot pricked at Subei’s arm. He looked down as light burst from his left arm, the same scars he’d just seen on Bataar clawing their way through his flesh.

The pain spread like fire racing through his veins. He could feel his skin splitting, feel the scars working their way up his arm, over his elbow, burning like streams of molten steel as they grew and branched sideways into a latticework of fiery light.

His world was pain, his thoughts were fire.

The burning grew, searing and popping and hissing until he feared his flesh would melt, would drip from the bone like wax from a candle. The wind whipped around him and rain began to lash his face. Steam rose where the raindrops touched his flesh. The world spun as darkness ate at the edges of his vision.

Kashi arrived next to him, sliding to his knees.

Subei fell forward and the world went black.