The battle yak’s cloven hooves trod upon chalky, yellow stone. As Moka led the beast by the reigns, her husband paced a few yards to the fore, and Savorin, the Elf she’d come quickly to despise, wedged himself between his mount’s shoulders. He was nestled within the yak’s tawny fur, laying casually on his back as he flipped through a volume of verses. It was held in his left hand, and occasionally, Savorin bit from an apple he cradled in his right.
“Lost in your reading?” she called, breaking the quiet for no other reason than it perturbed her. Around her, the land rose up on either side of their path; moss-covered stone formed towering hills that sloped gently toward the path they walked, steep enough to disinvite further exploration or ascension. It led in one direction, ever eastward, and Ahusaka seemed nonplussed by the fact that the horizon was unchanging, and their travels seemed to plunge them deeper into everything they had already seen.
From his position on the yak, Savorin answered, “It’s one way to pass the time, sister.”
“The fact that your ‘brother’ forced me into marriage does not make us siblings.”
“As he’d tell it, you agreed. And blushed so prettily when you considered his proposal.”
“He never did forbid me from killing you.”
Savorin turned his sapphire eyes to Moka, then quirked the corner of his mouth upward into an amused smirk.
“I’d not raise a blade to you, even in sport,” the Elf said. “If your defeat at his hands has so deeply wounded your pride, you may take my life as recompense for the sense of injury my brother has inflicted.”
Ahusaka called over his shoulder, “I would thank you not to antagonize my wife, or I’ll kill you myself.”
Savorin laughed, and Moka couldn’t help but chortle. She glanced to her husband and asked, “Why does this path seem perpetually familiar?”
Ahusaka glanced back and smiled. It was an odd gesture, given that he did so with a muzzle rather than a mouth, and it sometimes made it seem as if he were snarling. Beastkin, she’d called him. A fox on two legs, half her size but twice as agile for it. His mismatched eyes glimmered with curiosity as he replied, “We seek magicked ruins, hidden from those that would plunder them by sorcery and guile. Despite walking all day, I’d imagine we’ve scarcely covered a mile. Savorin would have a better sense of that than I.”
Moka felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. It was said that Elves were more than comfortable with sorcery, and gave form to it with ease. When Ahusaka had bested her in their duel, Moka’s closest friend had nearly intervened in a bid to save her life. Savorin had prevented it, and threatened an Ogress with no consideration for the disparity in their size and strength. Surely he commanded magic of some form, if he’d meet a warrior-maiden in battle with no trace of hesitation…
But walking beside a practitioner of the art was one thing. Entering ruins that had been magicked by a sorcerer to mislead those who sought them was another. Ahusaka had tempted her with the prospect of danger, but Moka did not expect that danger to be of the supernatural sort. Though she was physically superior to both men, physical strength meant little in the face of confusing magics that could warp one’s perception of time passed or distance traveled.
And yet, the beastkin strode along with a spring in his step. He occasionally twirled his spear, his banner trailing from its crossbar with each idle flourish.
“Will we make camp soon?” Moka asked.
“Aye,” the fox responded. “Look above.”
“Oh?” Moka asked. When she did, she took note of the sky overhead. At first, nothing seemed out of place. The more she studied it, however, the more she noticed the faint striations that stitched the clouds together. They rippled unnaturally, and while it appeared to be early morning, she saw slivers of the setting sun eking through those cracks somewhere to the west. It was strange, and confusing. She asked, “What is this?”
Savorin crunched at his apple as he admired the poetry on the page before him and said, “We have been taken in by an enchanted glamor, and a very powerful one. I’d imagine it covers an area spanning tens of miles.”
“Is it dangerous?” the Ogress asked.
“No,” the Elf answered. “It’s meant to misdirect, not to harm. When we narrow in on the ruins it seeks to guide us away from, however, the danger will be very real.”
Moka nodded, and Ahusaka said, “Here, by the roadside. I’m ready to eat, and I’m sure you’re ready to rest. Since my dear brother has done plenty of that already, he can help me pitch the tent.”
Savorin snorted, then his book and half-eaten apple vanished with a flick of his wrists. He rolled to one side and dismounted the giant beast of burden, then began tugging at straps and picking at buckles to retrieve the equipment he’d need for his task. Moka led the battle yak off the beaten path, though at this point she wondered if that path even existed, and looked to Ahusaka.
“These ruins you intend to plunder, what do you seek from them?”
“These ruins that we intend to plunder,” Ahusaka corrected. “You’ve thrown your lot in with us, now.”
Moka exhaled softly, then said, “And I expect it to bring me misfortune. Whose grave do you intend to rob?”
“Do you think me the kind of whoreson that’d defile a grave?”
As Savorin began driving spikes into the soil, Ahusaka said, “I suppose you’re half right. We’ll be treading on burial grounds, but not for the purpose of stealing from corpses.” He helped Savorin erect their tent, a pyramidal thing that scarcely had room for her. Moka imagined the constrained space forcing the three of them together, and the strange idea of laying beside a husband when she’d never entertained the idea of marriage.
Once they had it erected, Savorin built a small fire a short distance off, thankfully without the use of whatever sorceries he commanded. In its light, his deep blue eyes were illuminated, and he watched the flames pensively as Ahusaka joined them.
Though most northerners tended to find Ogress fare too heavily-spiced for their palette, neither her husband or her “brother in law” appeared put off by it. That disappointed her mildly. The three of them ate pancha this evening, a mix of dried fruits, nuts, and salted meat that had been pulverized into a powder. When compacted, the stuff could keep for a year or two in good conditions. Moka watched as Ahusaka ate, and the odd way his jaws worked at the dried meat.
“How will we navigate this… enchanted maze, then?” she asked.
Savorin reached into a pouch at his side, and withdrew the most beautiful work of art she’d ever seen. It was a compass, fashioned from a metal of rose gold hue. Where a typical compass would have a plain face and a black needle, this one’s face was formed of light. The glow was soft, the colors variable and warm. Its needle was a sliver of obsidian the length of his finger, cut and polished until it resembled a tree branch, wreathed in ivy, with that ivy’s leaves acting as each of the needle’s points.
“It’s more of a mirage,” Savorin said. “Have you ever seen the Red Deserts of D’hennex, sister?”
Moka attempted to find annoyance in being called ‘sister’ again, but the Elf spoke without sarcasm, making the emotion difficult to reach for. She answered, “No.”
Savorin continued to study the compass as he spoke, then eventually shifted his eyes from it, to the fire, and then finally to Moka.
“The heat’s hellish,” Savorin said, “Out on the dunes, it makes the air shimmer, and once you’re exhausted and thirsty enough, the mind begins playing tricks. Men have died while wandering in circles because they believed an oasis was just over the next dune.” He gestured toward her with the compass, and Moka found it a startlingly casual thing to do with something that looked so very beautiful, and so very delicate. “This glamor simulates the phenomenon, but more directly. Most who come down this path travel a mile or two out of their way without realizing it, and completely miss the ossuary.”
“Ossuary?” she asked.
“Most northerners don’t leave their dead for the buzzards,” Ahusaka said. Surprise stole the Elf’s features, then he shot a glance at his partner in grave-robbing. Ahusaka continued, “They occasionally store the bones of the deceased in… I suppose you could call it a ‘grave above the ground.’ Sometimes boxes, sometimes coffins.”
“Ogres leave their dead for the buzzards?” Savorin asked. Though he was obviously shocked, there was a tinge of disgust to wrinkle his fair features and chase the smugness from his countenance.
Ahusaka reached for his wineskin, flicked the stopper off with his thumb, then began washing his dinner down. He said, “We’re nomads. Hardly see a point in burying the dead when they may have died in an area we have no intention to revisit.”
Rather than take offense from Savorin’s discomfort, Moka was amused that she’d finally managed to offend the Elf in some small way. She grinned, one of her pronounced incisors glinting in the firelight.
“We bury our dead in the sky,” she said. “First we carve the bodies, so they’re a bit more inviting. Those big buzzards have a wingspan that exceeds my height, and beaks that can crack stone. By the time they’re done, even the bones are gone.”
Savorin reached for Ahusaka’s wineskin, took a healthy pull, then redirected the conversation, looking half as if he might vomit.
“As I was saying,” Savorin continued, “We are entranced by a conjured mirage. Ahusaka and I studied it from a distance for weeks, gathered information from nearby camps and towns, and managed to track this lovely compass down as well.” He closed it, then slipped it back into his pouch. “A glamor of this puissance requires a constant influx of mana, that mana must travel to it through a ley line, and this compass can follow those ley lines.”
“You’re speaking another language right now,” Moka said dryly, finishing her meal.
“It’s a magic compass that can give us our bearings while we’re trapped in a magicked illusion,” Ahusaka simplified. “We’re nearing our destination, and when we’re done, the illusion will be dispelled. I intend to destroy the object projecting it.”
“Primarily, because we’re being paid to,” Ahusaka shrugged. “A noble’s boy met his end here. Hadn’t even lived to see twenty summers.” Moka felt that fear of the supernatural return again. It must have shown in her eyes in some small way, because when her husband looked to her, his mismatched gaze became a touch sympathetic. “Nothing as sinister as evil sorceries sucking his soul from him. He led a hunting party down this path, and none of them were ever seen again. Likely ran through their provisions, panicked, and kept traveling deeper into the illusion.”
Moka looked to Savorin and said, “You told me this illusion wasn’t dangerous.”
“It isn’t dangerous to us,” he clarified. “To an inexperienced boy of seventeen? I shudder to think of what the lads went through. Hunger and fear are a nasty combination.”
“Not exactly a pleasant thought to end a conversation on,” Ahusaka said, offering the wineskin to Moka.
She chuffed and said, “I’ve my own spirits. You couldn’t get an Ogre babe drunk off that fruity wine of yours if he sucked it from the breast.”
Savorin, his disgust with the funerary rites of the Ogre people momentarily forgotten, laughed aloud.
The longer they sat by the fire, eating, drinking, and sharing one another’s company, the more Moka felt the weight of this illusion pressing in on her. Now that she was aware of it, and paranoia had sharpened her eye, she began seeing those cracks in reality all around her. Never for more than a moment or two, and it was always something so small as to nearly be imperceptible; just a faint flickering that gave the briefest glimpse of the world on the other side of the illusion, and the illusion that had been cast was only different from the real world in small ways. Small enough ways that a human boy had wandered around in this madness-inducing sorcery until he’d starved.
Perhaps it was good that Ahusaka had chosen to destroy it, even if he’d only done so as part of a contract.
“It doesn’t quite look like it,” Moka said, watching the sky warily, “But my weariness tells me night has likely fallen.”
“Likely,” Savorin agreed. “I’ll secure our belongings before we retire. Will that great beast of yours stay put while we sleep? I’d hate to think of it wandering off with all of our supplies. We’d likely not track it down again until after completing this contract.”
“You could always sleep with him, if you like,” Moka teased. When the Elf gave her a flat look, she added, “The yak is well-trained. You needn’t worry.”
“All the same,” Savorin said, and that glint of devilish playfulness returned to his azure eyes, “I think I will sleep atop the beast. I wouldn’t want to act as an impediment to a… fruitful wedding night.”
This time Moka scoffed, and color flooded her face. As her mouth worked for some manner of retort, Savorin stood, sauntered off, and began cheerfully whistling to himself as he stowed their equipment and fetched a shovel to put the fire out.
“Ignore him,” Ahusaka said. “He teases you because you always react.”
The Ogress stood, stretched, then headed wordlessly for the tent. It felt cramped inside, but she was grateful for it at present. Though the strange, false sun shined dully overhead, the chill of night had fallen upon their camp, and the tent contained what heat remained very well. She removed her armor, now clad in a simple blouse and loose-fitting trousers, then lay across the furs lining the floor of the tent. With half an ear, she listened to the Elf and the demihuman discussing their plan for the following day, and occasionally one or the other would call raucous laughter out into the otherwise tranquil night. There was merriment between them, and the closeness of their friendship made her think of Teno, the friend she’d left behind when she’d forfeited her life to Ahusaka by failing to best him in a duel.
That he’d chosen to marry her rather than kill her was still a queer curiosity, and though it had humbled her pride, she had eventually come to the conclusion that this was better than having her throat cut because that pride drove her to underestimate an opponent.
He entered the tent, steps unsteady for how much he’d drank, then flopped to his belly on the furs. Where Savorin wore as much finery as was practical along with his armor, even on an excursion into an ancient ‘ossuary,’ her husband was much less fussy about his dress; a long robe of soft blue, with golden clouds patterned along the sleeves and a slit near his hind end for his brushy tail to pop through.
Moka eyed him, then asked, “You seriously intend to attempt laying with me, don’t you?”
Ahusaka had closed his eyes, a look of contented bliss on his face as he savored the warmth of the furs. When they opened again, they were alight with amusement.
“You won’t be the first Ogress I’ve lain with. If you’re feeling impatient, however, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a bit longer.”
“Not feeling amorous tonight, I see,” she said with a smirk. “Are your humours misaligned?”
“More that I’ll need a clear head to lead this expedition tomorrow, and I’d rather not be distracted by pleasant memories of a prior romantic entanglement.”
The Ogress tilted her head slightly, expressing mild shock. This tiny creature was fond of flattering her, and at first she’d taken it as an insult, much in the same way she interpreted Savorin’s japes to bring him amusement at her expense. In the demihuman’s case, and perhaps occasionally in Savorin’s, that praise may perhaps have been honest.
The warrior-maiden (though, she imagined the ‘maiden’ portion of that title wouldn’t be applicable to her for much longer) thought back on her exile. Her kin had seen her as small and weak, unfit to bear a child, and unfit to remain in the steppes to struggle for survival alongside them. They had sent correspondence to the clans camped all throughout Arthen, and must have described her in unflattering terms, as only one expressed interest in having her. When the Ogres cast her out, she had no expectation they would care if she survived her journey for how little they provided her in the way of equipment and provisions.
But she had survived, perhaps out of spite, and found her place with Clan Piran. At times, thinking on having given up what she’d earned because she and this demihuman had gotten into a drunken shouting match that ended in a duel to the death infuriated her. At others, it wasn’t as if her existence in exile was any more fulfilling than it was prior to that exile. Here, surrounded by sorcery and two men who were near enough to being strangers, she at least had a purpose.
And she had someone else who saw value in her, when before, only Teno had.
“For a mercenary for hire, you’ve quite the silver tongue.”
“Blame Savorin,” he yawned, closing his eyes again. “A true poet, that one, and it rubs off on you. A bit of a rogue, as well. He’s talked us out of more fights than I could ever recall.”
“And how many has he talked you into?”
“Probably an equal number,” Ahusaka sighed.
“Why does he call you his brother?”
Her words brought an enthusiastic laugh out of him.
“He and I met much in the same way you and I did,” Ahusaka said. “I happened upon his Caravan, and found myself impressed with a maid there. She was meant to be his wife, and in a moment of impulsive pridefulness, I offered to duel him for her hand.”
“He accepted such a foolish proposition on his wedding day?”
“I wasn’t the only one that chose to be prideful,” Ahusaka said. He rolled to his side, stretched, and opened his eyes. One of his furred ears flicked toward the battle yak as it bellowed and bellyached over its boredom, then the ground shook gently as it laid down for the night. Moka heard Savorin speaking to the beast, then to her surprise, heard him singing a soft lullaby to it.
“How does that story end?” Moka asked.
“It was the best fight of my life,” Ahusaka said. “At some point, I’d forgotten all about my potential wife, and wanted nothing more than to keep fighting him until my heart gave out. We incapacitated one another at the same time, meaning that neither of us won the duel.”
“And then the fair maid laughed at us, as a technicality of Elvish protocol freed her from the responsibility of accepting either of our hands if neither of us could conclude the duel. We fought to such exhaustion that we could barely lift our heads, let alone our weapons.” Ahusaka shrugged. “She broke away from her Caravan after that, and Elves treat such an action as an offense to be punished with an exile similar to your own. I don’t think she particularly cared.”
Moka laughed from somewhere in her belly, then brushed a few tears from the corners of her eyes. The way the laughter bubbled up unbidden had her convinced that her spirits were finally affecting her.
“We were impressed with one another,” Ahusaka said, “And like the Elf maid, Miriam was her name, Savorin too left his Caravan to travel at my side. One day we intend to conclude that duel properly.”
“And here I was hoping that I was the best you ever had,” the Ogress said, eliciting a smirk from her husband.
“Perhaps if you’d taken me seriously, you would have been. Do you take me seriously now?”
She blushed and fixed her eyes on the furs between them.
“At any rate,” Ahusaka said, “If I begin reminiscing about the adventures Savorin and I have gone on, I’ll be reminiscing all night, and we’re better off well-rested for what comes next.”
“Very well,” Moka said. Before she rolled over to face the wall of the tent, she chewed on her lip thoughtfully, then frowned and asked, “Why did you seek my hand?”
“I’m not a particularly complicated man,” Ahusaka said. “You’re beautiful, you impressed me, and so I decided you would be mine, or I’d die trying to make that my reality.”
She considered that for a moment that stretched into a minute, and before she could give voice to any of the other questions that tugged at the back of her mind, the fox began to snore, his chest rising and falling evenly. Moka watched him in the dull light of the false sun that barely managed to shine through portions of the tent’s walls.
Rather than roll over and turn her back, she reached out across the distance, then drew him close. Her cheek laid against the furs, she closed her eyes, drifted off, and dreamed of where her travels would take her next.