Before-notes:

1. I had no beta to look at this before posting, so I'd really appreciate reviews. I really wanna know what you think :).

CHAPTER 7: LIVING DEATH

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Forest in Eastern Morgal, late evening

Myalkni stopped to catch his breath, exhausted from all the running. He had hugely underestimated how far away that lake was. He forced himself to keep moving- he couldn't stop now.

What if Latakia catches up to me, worried Myalkni. Well, he'd have to fight her here, without the lake. He had no idea what kind of fighter she was, though he figured she'd probably use her scythe.

She doesn't know how I fight either, Myalkni reminded himself, trying to be optimistic. Latakia also has more to lose, he realized. If she wins, I'll just return to my situation a little while ago, but if I win, she'll lose her life.

But then, Myalkni realized his own life was actually at stake, in a different sense. Latakia couldn't kill him, of course, because she'd face Arcanus' wrath. But if she defeated him and bent him to her will, he would be enslaved forever. Then, Myalkni thought, his life will not be his own. Once I've become an automaton, I won't really have a life in any meaningful sense any more.

The coming battle with Latakia was his last chance to avert that fate. Once I burn that caravan, I'll lose any self-respect I had, and I'll lose the will to resist Arcanus… I'd lose myself, forever.

This train of thought made Myalkni terrified of losing. He slowed his pace, fearful that exhaustion could endanger his chances against Latakia.

Myalkni began feeling like he was being watched. He whipped around, only to see the motionless forest path. He knew monsters tended to seek out and attack those they sensed were exhausted or injured. The ice shouldn't have melted fast enough for Latakia to have caught up already, so it was more likely a monster stalking him- and that was worse, because it meant that he'd have to face a monster before facing Latakia.

He looked around. The shadows of the trees were getting very long, and what he could see of the sky was a dark red. It would soon be completely dark. Myalkni felt almost impatient for Latakia to come for him already. No I don't want that, I'm so exhausted, he reminded himself.

Myalkni heard a rustling noise behind him. He turned around to see a large clump in the dirt advancing towards him. He quickly jumped aside and it rushed passed him. Then, it turned around and rushed towards him again. He had no idea what this thing was- it seemed like the sand itself was moving at him.

Myalkni blasted the moving sand with a deluge of water. The sand swerved swiftly to the side, as if it was being blown by some strong gust. But there was none.

Myalkni continued blasting forth the water at the sand. Suddenly, huge, thorny nettles shot out of the ground, shielding the moving sand being, whatever it was. The plants rapidly grew, their tips encroaching upon Myalkni like tentacles, threatening to ensnare him. All this water I've been blasting has probably helped that thing grow, Myalkni thought grimly. He immediately halted the flow of water and froze what water there was, causing the plant to lurch back. Its tentacles began shriveling up and drying out.

Myalkni dashed away from the plant- thus, back toward the caravan. Don't look back, don't look back, he thought. But he couldn't restrain himself. When he turned around, his gaze was frozen in place by the sight of the nettle withering. It seemed to be slowly turning into sand. This is bad, Myalkni thought. There's no doubt that was Psynergy. Whatever it is that's stalking me, it must be very dangerous.

The sinister plant's large, elaborately patterned, mahogany flowers slowly were dissolving into sand, one petal at a time. Somehow, it mesmerized Myalkni. He couldn't wrench his head back to look where he was running.

Suddenly, something smashed into his leg, tripping him. Before he could catch his fall, a long, slimy vine wrapped itself around his chest and scooped him up. When he tried to draw his blade, another vine shot up and bound his arm. The more he struggled, the more the plant constricted him. He struggled, he squirmed, but it was to no avail.

Myalkni's ears were caught a sound resembling a desert wind, with a whistle to it. Psynergy?

Right in front of him, sand billowed up from the trail into a funnel. It flew around faster and faster until it seemed to assume a human form.

Latakia emerged from the dust.

So it's her after all, Myalkni thought grimly. That's probably how she escaped the ice trap too; she probably dissolved into the sand.

"You… thought… you could escape," Latakia said in between gasps. Myalkni realized that she sounded even more exhausted than he was. Knowing that, Myalkni wasn't going to waste a second.

Mustering his Psynergy, Myalkni drained all the water from the vines that were holding him. The vines withered away, releasing him. He then sent forth those vapors upon Latakia. Right before her, the vapors crystallized into ice shards, which Myalkni flung upon her. Latakia stumbled and fell. When she struggled to get up, Myalkni used what was left of the vapors to call forth a flowerlike ice formation, which arose from right beneath her. It rose to pummel her in the chest, sending her sprawling back.

Myalkni then drew his blade and charged forward, determined to finish her while she was down. The mystical blade glinted with a bright, greenish light, eager to taste flesh once again. A vine from a tree to his left flew into his path, but he lopped off its tip with his blade in an instant.

Before he could make it to her, however, Latakia had gotten up and drawn her scythe. Myalkni had never been trained to combat a scythe-wielder, but it was too late to stop his advance. I'll feint from the right and nail her left flank, he decided.

But as he lunged forward to, Latakia brought down her scythe's blade onto his extended arm. Latakia hopped backward as she did so, completely unscathed. Fortunately, her scythe hadn't plunged into Myalkni's flesh, but it had scraped it, cutting open his right underarm and unleashing a brief spray of blood.

Myalkni quickly healed himself as he ran backwards to escape Latakia's response attack. With that scythe, she has a much greater range than I, he realized. He also knew that the scythe's curve would circumvent any attempt to block it. He didn't know its full extension range either. At least she's pretty worn out, Myalkni thought, trying, and failing, to be optimistic. He was running on adrenaline and desperate to win this battle as soon as possible, terrified by the prospect of losing.

"Give up, there's no way I'll let you win!" she gasped. "Never,"he breathed defiantly, gasping for air. There was no way he could give up now.

Latakia was now advancing upon him, and Myalkni backpedaled as fast as he could. Clearly, Latakia was too fatigued to avoid being predictable, and when her scythe reached for him, he nimbly leapt backward, evading the swipe. He noticed that, perhaps due to her fatigue, Latakia took awhile to recover her position. Myalkni gingerly walked backward as he finished healing his wound. Well, I can't let this battle drag on into the night, so I need to take a risk, he decided. The two then charged at each other again. Myalkni motioned with his blade like he was going to attack, but then abruptly stopped himself when he approached her range. He stepped back, evading the scythe's counterattack. Then, as she slowly withdrew her scythe, he closed his eyes and went in for the kill. He knew that if he failed, it could be over for him. When he lunged, he threw himself as far forward as he could, vaguely hoping he could bypass the scythe's range.

He felt his sword penetrate flesh. YES. When he opened his eyes and yanked back his blade, he saw he had slashed her left forearm. For a second, Latakia's left arm clutched her chest, writhing in pain, as she stared with shock. But she wasn't defeated.

She swiped at him again, but instead of going back, he ducked and threw himself forward, bringing himself too close for the scythe to hit. He looked up to see the end of the scythe's wooden handle flying at his face. He barely had time to react, but he managed to block it with his left arm. The handle clobbered his arm and sent him sprawling to the side. He frantically flung himself forward again to escape the scythe's range, while slashing at Latakia's legs. His blade was stopped by the scythe's hilt, the ends of which were now splintered off. The hilt then swung toward him again, but parried it. His blade then flashed a bright green, as he flung back the scythe's hilt and slashed forward again. Latakia jumped back, avoiding the attack, but the zol-forged blade released a harsh gust of wind.

Latakia, buffeted by the gale, squatted in a vain attempt to endure the blast, but she was sent flying back anyways. She tossed her scythe aside as the whirlwind overwhelmed her, probably to avoid becoming tangled with her lethal weapon.

Seeing her grounded, stunned and unarmed, Myalkni wasted no time in scrambling forward. As he did so however, the ground below him gave way. The sand beneath his feat rushed backward, preventing him from reaching Latakia and annihilating his balance. He tried to jump forward to bypass the moving sand, but he had inadequate footing. He fell on his face.

He looked up to see Latakia drawing a jagged, crimson dagger from her belt. Horrified, he reversed direction and scampered backward, but Latakia's treacherous sand caused him to lose control. Before he knew it, he was tumbling backward. The rocks strewn over the gravelly trail battered him on all sides.

When he regained firm footing, Latakia was busy healing herself. He couldn't let that happen, so hurled a spike of ice at her. Latakia managed to smash one of the rocks on the trail into it, but it merely shattered into smaller shards which assailed her, undaunted. One found its way into the partially healed gash on her arm. Having bought more time, he tried to heal his own wounds, but it was no use. His well of Psynergy had dried up.

Myalkni was battered, fatigued beyond belief, and it hurt to move. He knew he had to finish this soon. He mustered all he had left and charged forward.

As he approached Latakia, he alternated his speeds, knowing that if she knew when he was going to attack, she could easily smite him with that dagger. He would feigned attacks and then abruptly stop, before resuming his advance, to confuse her. It seemed to be working, as she seemed less and less sure of herself. He then jumped forward and halted once more, thinking to himself that the next one would be the real attack. But just as he resumed his advance, a huge chunk of rock flew out of the ground, clobbering his chest.

The blow knocked out both Myalkni's breath and a fair amount of blood. He lay on his back, coughing up blood, hurting everywhere, unable to rise. He suspected that at least one bone was broken. He knew he had lost. He braced himself for what was next.

Myalkni cursed himself. He had screwed it all up. He could think of countless mistakes he had made, and couldn't forgive himself. Every opportunity missed and every mistake had been a catastrophe. It all started when couldn't just get myself to follow through when Arcanus was asleep, he decided.

After an eternity, Latakia walked toward him. Won't you heal me already, just like you always did after you finished tormenting me? he begged silently. He tried to speak, but only blood came out. What had he intended to say? He didn't know.

Latakia herself looked ready to collapse. He worried that he might have to endure this pain longer, because she might be too drained to heal him.

He stared dumbly as she held out an arm into the air. A vulture swooped down from the sky and dropped a squirrel onto her hand. The squirrel was still quite alive, and squirming, but Latakia gripped it firmly and it couldn't escape.

She then impaled the squirrel with her crimson dagger. It yelped and died. The dagger flashed eerily. But she kept the dagger in the squirrel's tiny body, and Myalkni watched it shrivel up, slowly disintegrating into nothing. It was a grotesque sight and if he weren't already in agony, he probably would've vomited. Meanwhile, Latakia's own wounds healed. She seemed to have sucked the life from it.

Myalkni shuddered as he coughed up more blood. For a second, he was actually grateful to Arcanus. Because of his father, Latakia was obliged to heal him rather than subject him to that squirrel's fate.

When Latakia finally approached him, her palm glowing with Psynergy, he eagerly anticipated being healed.

But instead of healing his wounds, suddenly he was filled with unbearable pain as Latakia clenched her glowing hand into a fist. Language was unable to describe it. It was like he was filled with a burning acid that was corroding his whole body. The agony caused him to roll around on the ground, which only added to the misery. All he could think about was the pain. All he wanted was for it to stop. Nothing else mattered.

"It can stop right now," he heard Latakia say. He listened eagerly, desperate for the agony to end. She paused, much to his dismay. He couldn't wait a second longer.

"You must merely swear to never again resist us," she said agonizingly slowly. "Otherwise, the pain will return."

"So," she said, snapping her fingers. "What's your choice."

Small ghosts holding candles emerged from nothing. But Myalkni didn't hesitate.

"Yes!" he croaked between bloody coughs.

He realized what had happened, but it was too late. She healed his wounds and the agony left his body, which were only replaced by a crushing dread that permeated his mind.

"Few people ever gave in to me that fast," she said, with a (bizarrely) almost consoling tone. "You were kinda pathetic, you know."

Yeah, I sure am, Myalkni thought bitterly. He hated himself, how pathetic he was, and the pampered upbringing had rendered him unprepared to endure pain.

-~:|~~|:-:|~~|:~-

Road from Belinsk to Sahha, deep night

Karis sat against the wagon's wall, her arms wrapped around her legs. She and Tyrell had hitched themselves a ride with a group of supply carriers. Most of Morgal's nomads were beastmen, as that was their tradition. However, most supply carriers were drove oxen in order to carry their heavy loads. Ox-driving was mainly done by humans, the ones who domesticated oxen in the first place.

Tyrell didn't seem bothered by the bouncy ride or the occasional box slamming into his body. He was peacefully sleeping, his head resting on top of one of the many boxes they sat amongst. Karis had no idea how he managed it, but she knew he had always been like that. She couldn't manage it though. It was going to be a long night.

It was a stroke of genius. The drivers were humans, but their livelihoods depended on the East remaining part of Morgal, as otherwise they wouldn't be able to continue their current route. The Morgal army wouldn't harm them because of their well-known loyalty. At the same time, their human brethren would never attack them, because if they did so, they could jeopardize their food supply. The last thing the rebels wanted was to cause their people to starve.

Amazingly, it was Tyrell who came up with this idea. She hadn't expected anything like that from him. It's probably just a lucky stroke on his part, and he probably hasn't a clue how perfect his idea was, she had thought.

It had only been six or so hours since she leftw, but Karis already missed Matthew. Why hadn't she let him come? She couldn't even remember. I'm probably just tired, that's why I can't remember, she thought. But she still couldn't forgive herself.

She tried to get her mind off that topic. How would she ever keep Tyrell out of trouble without Matthew's help? It's like I'm always babysitting some ten-year-old boy, except he's much bigger, she mused.

All of a sudden, Tyrell jerked awake and bellowed "Stop!"

Karis looked at her companion in shock. From the light of the lantern in the back of the wagon, she could see that he was sweating profusely, so much that his normally untamed hair was dragged down onto his face. His right hand was clutching his left. His chest expanded and contracted vigorously as he panted.

"You okay?"

"Yeah… I'm…completely fine," Tyrell grunted unconvincingly.

-~:|~~|:-:|~~|:~-

Valley-side overlooking caravan resting site, west of Port Rago, late in the night

Myalkni looked down from the valley-side. Everything was aflame, everything. There was something about the fire that was oddly peaceful, despite the destruction it wrought, despite the turmoil in Myalkni's mind. Somehow, it was numbing, allowing Myalkni to pretend he could forget what he had done. He couldn't, though.

Both he and Latakia had stood over the makeshift town, cloaked in camouflage shades of black and dark green. He had been holding a switch.

Latakia had whispered into his right ear to press. He had hesitated. Then his right arm was ripped open. He had held back his cry, knowing it would make the pain worse.

He lit the fuse. The pain stopped, the gash healed immediately, but he saw in the blast's light that he retained a deep, black scar. He'd never forget this night as long as he had that.

He had done everything Latakia commanded, hitting switches and fuses in succession. The village was bombarded first by an onslaught of dust and leaves, and then a rain 0f flames. It wasn't a natural blaze. The fire wasn't limited to the orange color of fire, instead displaying a wide range of eerie tones. It possessed a sinister beauty. And everything burned: houses, people, wagons, even water.

Finally, Latakia had let loose an avalanche, blocking off the west– the way to Belinsk. She made sure there were a handful of survivors to tell the tale. She had protected them from the flames with her stones, guided them to the west exit in a number of ways, and prevented the avalanche from crushing them.

The exit leading to Port Rago was left untouched, to implicate the rebels. Everyone would think that the blocking of the route to Belinsk signified Rago's desire to separate itself from Morgal. And just in case the separatists weren't thoroughly incriminated, Tuaparang agents had materialized and ran around the city with torches proclaiming the death of the Morgallian "occupation" of "Pamorasak," which Myalkni guessed was the name of the nation the rebels were fighting to create. These agents committed the full range of crimes against the beastmen as the caravan burned. Latakia didn't bother herself about their fate, and they, too, were buried and burned alive.

Without a doubt, the civilians of "Pamorasak" would face a horrible revenge from the army. Myalkni knew he had indirectly killed them too.

Myalkni turned to face Latakia. Her eyes were glazed over, and she seemed totally unmoved.

"Latakia…" Myalkni began. "Is this… something you're often assigned to do?"

"Well, I don't usually burn, usually I just bury," she replied numbly.

"Actually, the last time I've seen… so much fire…" she began, emotion slowly seeping into her voice, "was when I was very young."

"Aside from having Psynergy, I was a normal girl, but everything changed when Sana invaded," she continued lifelessly. "Everybody was in denial, we all insisted they wouldn't reach us in the capital, but they did."

"You're from the Land of Snakes?" Myalkni asked. That nation, to Ayuthay's northeast, was conquered by the Empire, which burned its capital city to the ground along with its inhabitants. It then swamped the land with colonists from its original territory, and the land was now called Kaocho. It all had happened when he was a very young child, but he heard the story repeated over and over again during the time when Ayuthay was besieged by Kaocho. His own people had been determined to avoid that fate.

"So you still remember it," Latakia observed. "We always called our land Vayu.

"When the army came, I fled the burning city into the forest. When I returned, everything was gone. I cried and cried, and I returned to the forest," confessed Latakia. "I didn't care whether I lived or died. I probably would've died if Arcanus didn't take me in."

"I knew better than to bite the hand that fed me, the hand with power. I obeyed his every order," she explained.

"But, aren't you ever bothered that you regularly do the same thing that was done to your home?" Myalkni protested.

Latakia was silent for awhile. "That's not all I ever do," she replied after awhile. "And," she continued, "it doesn't matter."

"There's no right and wrong in this world," she concluded. "You should get rid of that naïve idea. There's only giving pain and receiving pain, and its best to make sure you feel nothing, ever."

Myalkni turned back to the city. He had given a lot of pain.

Everything that had passed seemed to have happened in an instant, but the present seemed to drag on forever. The future, meanwhile, was null to Myalkni.

Now, I am naught but a standing, breathing corpse, Myalkni observed grimly.

"You're the same as me now," Latakia said.

I've lost everything.

-~:|~~|:-:|~~|:~-

Next Chapter: Land of the Burnt Grass

AUTHOR'S NOTES:

1. I'd really appreciate your reactions as reviews, especially since I didn't use a beta, so only I've seen this before posting it.

2. Names:

I. Pamorasak- from the Russian district Primorsky, which lies approximately where Rago should in the real world, and the Amur river, which separates Russia from China. Myalkni misinterpreted it; it actually refers to the area around Rago.

II. Vayu- from the Chinese historical country of Baiyue, a country that originally lied to China's south, but was conquered by China.