The Staff of Sakatha
by Tom Liberman
Thank you, mom, for your proofreading expertise.
Thanks to my gaming group; Alex, Andy, Brad, Fred, Jon, and Nick for providing me a playground with which to imagine Corland.
Jesus Garcia Lopez
for the wonderful cover.
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The long staff appeared to be a white crocodile on the point of its tale in the hands of the gaunt child of the dragon who glanced back and forth between the precipice at his back and the approaching horsemen to his front. He wore what once were gaudy robes, but the silver and gold stitch-work was ripped away, leaving long rents in the fabric, and the collar was torn to reveal a heavy coat of chain mail underneath. At his feet two other children of the dragon were on their knees, their hands pressed together, eyes closed, and heads tilted up towards the sky.
The smaller of the two, who wore a heavy silver necklace with a brilliant green snake carved of jade, coiled and ready to strike, looked up to the standing dragonchild and gazed at him for a moment, “Lord Sakatha,” it hissed through front fangs as its long narrow tongue slithered out of its mouth, “the Emperor’s men are coming. We must pray for salvation.”
“There is no salvation,” said Sakatha and tapped the end of his staff on the ground. “The Black Horseman is at their head and he will not negotiate, he will not take prisoners, he will not be corrupted; he and his companions will slay us and take the staff for their own.”
“How can this be?” asked the other dragonchild. “You promised that the emperor would be defeated that you would rule the world, that the children of the dragons would rule at your side.”
Sakatha moved his eyes to take in the second of his companions and stared at him for a long moment, an instant that seemed to draw out immeasurably considering that the extent of their lifespan equaled the time it would take the horsemen to arrive at the cliff. “I was wrong,” he finally said. “Is it that difficult to fathom that I underestimated the power of the emperor?”
“I don’t understand,” wailed the creature at his feet that clutched wildly at the symbol around his chest. “You will save us, Great Sakatha, won’t you?”
Sakatha shook his head once again and planted the staff firmly in the ground to await the arrival of their pursuers. It was the matter of only a few more minutes before the six horsemen appeared at the plateau where the three dragonchildren awaited.
The obvious leader of the horsemen was a darkling with deep purple skin and silver eyes. He rode a massive black unicorn and even the animal’s horn was the color of night. Fire came from its nostrils as it breathed and the rider looked at Sakatha with a narrow smile and eyes squinted to a slit. “This is the end, Sakatha,” he said. “I come by order of the emperor himself from the throne of kings in mighty Das’von. You have been convicted in absentia of treason to the empire. Do you deny your guilt?”
Sakatha shook his head slowly and looked up at the sun that rose high in the sky. “You would be nothing more than a worm crawling under the ground had you not that black sphere around your neck,” said Sakatha as he pointed to the neck of the lead rider where the black sphere seemed to emanate darkness that spread over the man.
“I do wear it though,” said the Black Horseman. “And I carry the order of your execution under the seal of the emperor,” he went on and produced a large envelope sealed in wax with a symbol of a running cheetah. “Do you choose to fight or accept your punishment with dignity?”
“You wish me to fight,” said Sakatha. “You wish me to invoke the power of the staff I created. My token of rule is my own, crafted by my hand, not stolen from someone else,” he said and almost spat the words as he glared at the black ball around the neck of the leader.
“We nomads,” said the rider with a wave of his hand towards his companions, “are a desert people. We accept the sunrise as the herald of the day and the sunset as the harbinger of the night. You are who you are, Sakatha. You are as you have always been. You will do what is in your own best interest. I have traveled far to find you and am not adverse to stringing out the pleasure I will enjoy at killing you and the high priests of your blasphemous religion.”
“Death to you, Ming!” screamed one of the children of dragon on his knees and started to rise to his feet as he muttered strange words and reached into his robe for something.
Before he even managed to get both feet under him one of the riders spurred his horse with such rapidity that the beast was under way seemingly before the priest started to rise. A sword flashed out from under the heavy riding cloak of the nomad and pierced the eye of the priest in an instant. The rider made a flicking motion with his hand, the tip of the blade ripped the eyeball from its socket, which then flew over the edge of the small precipice, and disappeared into the depths of the chasm.
The priest screamed, clutched the hole where his eye once was, fell first to his knees, then face down on ground, and whimpered while he clutched at his face.
The second priest watched in silence for a moment and then stood, his arms raised high in surrender, “Mighty Left Hand,” he said and turned to the rider. “Might I beg for mercy?”
“Now you think to address me by my proper title,” said the horseman with a shake of his head. “After you and your kind betrayed the emperor’s daughter and tried to take her city. Now you think to plead for mercy after your minions murdered every human child in Stav’rol when they refused your kind offer of alliance, now you think that?”
“It wasn’t me,” said the priest, but then a gush of blood came from his throat as Sakatha the Great cut it with a single swipe of a curving knife that glowed with green energy. The man gurgled for a moment with a strange little sound, then fell to the ground, and slowly bled out his life as he twitched pitifully.
“I grew tired of his voice,” said Sakatha. “Do you mind that I took the liberty Ming? Or should I use your many honorifics, Black Horseman, Left Hand of the Emperor, Demon Rider, He of the Lonely Charge?”
“Titles are pleasant,” said the darkling, “but in the end are merely flatteries of bygone deeds. You wouldn’t want to tell me where that noxious steed of yours has flown off to, now would you?”
“Chusarausea the Toxic you mean,” said Sakatha and raised his eyebrows to look at the leader of the horsemen with a puzzled expression.
“The stench of that foul beast still haunts the wardrobe of the emperor’s daughter,” said Ming with a sad shake of his head. “What she saw in you I cannot fathom. It was clear to me from the beginning ….”
Here a moan from the man on the ground interrupted his speech.
“Kill him already,” said the Demon Rider and his orders were carried out instantly. “Now, where were we?”
“Queen Doria, the delightful daughter of our august majesty,” replied Sakatha with a polite nod of his head. “Perhaps she admired my staff. It is rather lengthy,” he went on and caressed the long staff held in his right hand and smiled broadly.
“So I’ve heard,” said Ming with a sudden smile on his dark face and he laughed. “You face death as a nomad might, Sakatha, I admire that. Tell me where the dragon has gone and the secrets to the staff and I’ll make sure your death is quick.”
“That I will not do,” said the dragonchild with a shake of his head and he lifted the staff again and pounded it into the ground. This time the thing suddenly shook and a moment later instead of a living crocodile it took on the shape of a mummified beast of the same type. Where once brilliant green scales were carved up the length of the spine, now tapered and decayed wraps stood instead.
“An interesting trick,” said the Black Horseman, his five companions suddenly tense and spread out in a semi-circle around the child of the dragon.
“Have no fear,” said Sakatha but the voice was not strong anymore, it was suddenly wheezing and weak like that of an old man. “My last trick will be of no harm to you.”
“You will cheat me of killing you,” said Ming as he watched the dragonchild’s face suddenly grow old in a mask of wrinkles, then the skin crumbled away and left behind a skull as the robes drooped on the now skeletal frame. “You kill yourself?”
“No,” said the rickety voice that somehow came out of the living skull. Sakatha still stood but as some sort of undead monstrous copy of his original form. “I am no longer Sakatha the Great, ruler of the children of dragons, King of the Marshes and Swamps, I am now Sakatha the Undying, Sakatha the Lich Lord, Sakatha who Shall Rise.”
“Interesting,” said the Demon Rider and pursed his lips with a smile. “When, might I ask out of curiosity, will this rebirth take place?”
The skull had no lips by which to reveal its teeth and smile, but that was the impression it gave off in any case. “Ages from now, when the Staff of Sakatha is recovered, when Chusarausea wields it, I shall return, I shall fulfill my destiny, I shall rule the world!”
The Black Horseman shook his head for a moment and then drew out the slimmest of scimitars that glinted with a flash as the sun caught its blade, “Nothing for me to worry about then,” he said and made a little motion with his head as he and his companions closed in on the thing that was once king of all the children of dragons.
A rider on a brown splotched fox trotter emerged from the low rolling mist that tended to gather around the foothills of the Mountains of the Orc much like a swimmer might suddenly break the surface of a high mountain lake after a deep dive. He wore a long gray cloak fringed with a floral arrangement on the collar of both the neck and sleeves, and his horse seemed small for his frame as the stirrups were so low that they almost dragged the ground. He stopped for a moment, pulled out a well tattered of parchment, and looked back over his shoulder towards the narrow path that led high into the peaks. Ahead of him a small river flowed from his right to his left and he traced a blue gash on his map that was labeled “Frosty Run.”
As he read the map his youthful face showed a square jaw with no trace of manly whiskers and light gray eyes that danced in the morning light. A broad smile, so genuine and happy that it seemed to cause even the birds to chirp with a little extra vigor, came across his face. He tucked the map back under the gray cloak, turned the horse to his left with a subtle movement of his hand, and began to follow the river downstream.
A few hours more and the mists of the mountain morning lay far behind him as he came to a river junction where another stream flowed from the north into the Frosty Run. He stopped again to pull out his map only to smile even more deeply than the first time and let out a great, “Whooop!” that echoed so deeply and loudly that a woman who tended to her kettle in a farmhouse almost a mile away looked up and around for a moment before she went back to work.
In the distance the rider saw smoke from what must be the chimneys of a small town, he dismounted quickly, and stood next to the horse so that they were shoulder to shoulder. He rubbed the mane and neck of the beast with gentle motions of hands so enormously large that the horse appeared to be a small version of the breed. “Eschrichtius,” he said and leaned down to whisper in its ear, “many miles, many months but now we are close to our destination, we will complete our mission.” Tche young man looked up to the sky, his hand fell on the thick gray scabbard at his side where a stone handled hilt protruded, and he ran his finger over it lightly, “For the Gray!” he shouted and slapped the horse on the rump, which launched the trotter into motion, and it pranced over the fields and left the young warrior behind for the moment.
He stripped off his gray cloak and revealed a rather skinny frame considering the tremendous size of his hands and then pulled off a heavy chain shirt and the jerkin below it. Within a few moments he was naked, his well-tanned and muscled body still yet to completely fill out. He took three enormous strides towards the river, dove in with a great splash, and screamed out in pain and ecstasy as his body hit the cold mountain runoff.
Ten minutes later, still swimming in the river with massive overhand stokes, he felt a presence and, with a look to the shore, spotted a young man near an eddy in the river with a small keg in his arms. Behind the boy stood a two-wheeled barrow with half a dozen more of the small kegs stacked neatly in it, on it side was emblazoned a symbol of a frothy mug of beer with the name “Smooth Stride” etched below.
“Hail there, boy,” shouted the young man in the river and stood so that the upper half of his body was revealed. “Is this Elekargul and do you understand me?”
The young boy nodded his head, his eyes wide as he stared at the behemoth in the river. The boy wore a heavy wool coat and deerhide pants that were worn and sturdy at the same time. “You have a funny accent,” he replied, “But I understand you.”
“I’ve been studying the whole trip,” said the young man in the river with a shake of his head that sent water cascading in all directions. “Father made me promise.”
“Who … who are you?” said the boy. The keg still dangled in his left hand and his eyes squinted a little to get a better look. As he glanced around the boy spotted the pile of clothes that included the chain shirt and the thick scabbard with the stone hilt and took a step backwards away from the river.
“I am Jon Gray, son of the Gray Lord, ambassador of Tanelorn the City of Gray. I come to Elekargul to meet with the First Rider and conduct affairs of the state.”
“Oh,” said the boy.
“I’ll come ashore there and get dressed if you don’t mind. I don’t mean you any harm,” continued the naked young warrior in the river.
The boy on the shore nodded his head and backed away further yet.
Jon emerged from the water, his thin frame somewhat blue from the short immersion. He strode up to the young man, gave him a hearty clap on the shoulder, and stuck out his hand, “Jon Gray at your service,” he said.
The boy looked up at the young man who stood at least a foot taller than him and whose body was half again as wide at the chest.
“Sorus Brewer,” he said with a look over his shoulder towards the smoke that rose down river. “I’m a brewing apprentice from Black Dale. I’m getting fresh water from the creek. How tall are you?”
Jon laughed aloud his deep voice booming and young Sorus suddenly found he couldn’t stop the laugh that rose to his own throat and, he smiled brightly. He thought to himself that nothing could go wrong with this enormous young man at his side. It was the first time he had the thought but many years later he still remembered the moment and how true it was in so many respects and yet how utterly and completely wrong it was at the same time.