The Khanlarians

 

Chapter One

The Survivor

 

Consciousness entered his brain like smoke will slowly rise from a smoldering camp fire on a still morning.  The realization that life still existed woke forgotten senses with little explosions of feeling making each new experience singular unto itself, like random raindrops bursting in the dust of a dry country road.  It was like being reborn.  He was floating in an unknown gray emptiness where flashes of pain sang like arrows and he was unable to control the helplessness he felt in the swirling of senses that imprisoned his mind in that abstract world of terror.

His eyes ached with all the pressure of someone leaning their whole weight on them with clenched fists and he knew better than to try to open them yet.  He explored his head with trembling fingers, finding that his hair was wet; wet with the softness of cold rain, wet with the dank grease of perspiration, wet with the warmth of blood.  His blood.  With unsteady fingers he traced in pain the warm break in his flesh, a ragged hair entangled wound that ran from the top of his forehead almost to the crown of his head.  Already it was beginning to congeal, clotting into damp scabs that pulled the entangled hair in pinpricks of agony every time he moved.

At last the floating ended.  Suddenly he was heavy, aching, cramped, cold and tired beneath the weight of complete exhaustion.  The groping for knowledge became a reality.  He was alive.  Then without warning his nervous system orchestrated itself, sending messages of pain screaming along each nerve into the confusion that was his mind.  Pain. Exhaustion. Cold.  His brain finally caught hold of the groping realization that he just might be dying. 

His eyes opened without consent and terror welled up within his stomach like a ball of lead within a sudden growth of gas.  His throat convulsed as hot bile spewed forth and he retched many times without control from deep inside his belly.  Fear, giddiness and terrifying weakness combined within him.  His head felt like it was being stabbed with red-hot needles and balance became the most important thing in the Universe to him.  Tottering on the brink of fainting he held on and enjoyed the most wonderful excitement, as his eyes controlled the flashing lights and began to focus. 

He was alive!  Now the pain was almost a comfort, for it proved life.  Yet the cold and damp became like huge wet hands stroking gleefully away at his strength.  He lay huddled in wet mud, his back uncomfortable against the rough solid of an ancient tree.  His   feet were aching with cold and when he looked down at them he saw they were caked in heavy layers of ochre colored clay, their shape almost lost.  His left knee throbbed with pain and he could see that it had been badly torn.  From the kneecap to halfway up his thigh blood was seeping from the blue and purple mash that had once been flesh.  His clothes were torn and stained with filth, their true colors lost and forgotten.  He moved to try to help the cramp in his back and the sudden breath wrenching stabbing pain beneath his heart informed him that some of his ribs were probably no longer intact.  His hands were battered and ripped, aching with the cold and his arms were coated in mud and drying blood. 

There was no arguing the fact.  He had problems!  Before he could weigh his chances, or come up with a course of action, the exhaustion returned and he slipped away into an undeniable sleep, where nightmares of many armed giants and sinking sands fought for possession of his screaming mind. 

Yelling a bloodcurdling war cry the headless dwarf came crashing through the thorn bushes at him, carrying a swirling long sword in each hand.  The dwarf came faster than a full-grown man could run, blood pumping from the stump of a neck.  Just as the first sword cut down and touched his bound and helpless body he was awake.  It took several seconds of painful squirming against invisible bonds before he became truly conscious and the nightmare gave way to reality and a more rational understanding of the situation.  Not that fact was that much better than the nightmare itself at that moment.  His memory was gone and no amount of mental exercise could unlock the dark place it had retreated into.  There was Now, there was Here and there was Pain and there was a growing despair that this just might be Hell, which he knew of and could well describe, yet was unable to recall from whom or even where, he had learned of such things.

In the ghostly light of the pre-dawn his eyes made out the debris of the battle that had all but destroyed him and might well claim him yet.  He had obviously taken a heavy sword stroke to the head, for his helmet lay a few feet from his feet, rent from the head of the nose-guard across the right plate to just below the tail of the crest.  A few feet beyond it lay the swordsman who had landed that blow; his battle axe was still embedded in the man's throat where the neck joined the shoulders.  His dead enemy's young-old face was a waxy white.  There was obviously little blood left in him and soon he would be gone altogether for millions of tiny ants were encrusting the hand which even in death still tried to remove the axe.  They covered the dead youth's body, almost concealing his once smart maroon tunic. 

The two of them had a lot of company in the swamp that morning.  Everywhere the remains of the battle showed that few had deserted their cause before Death had taken the final hand in each man's game of Fate.  It could only have been one of those chance situations between his enemy's maroon uniformed   companions and the blue uniformed army he had served, in that neither side had been able to break and run, for they stood and fought on a small island.  Any fool unwise or coward enough to bolt and run into the swamp, would have been rewarded with a crossbow bolt or a javelin in the back before he would have been able to struggle a few yards.  With no escape possible and no alternative but to slash it out hand to hand at close quarters, the carnage had been terrible.  The dead lay speared, beheaded and dismembered all around them, friend and foe alike. 

No Cause could rescue them for their families and loved ones now.  Half floating in the swamp, ingloriously draped across thorn bushes, collapsed like bundles of old clothing on the grassy banks that made up the island, they shared death together in that unique silence.  The stench made his stomach heave but it was the silence, deathly quiet except for the heartless buzzing of the feasting flies and the occasional caw of a carrion crow, which tore apart his sanity.  It was a world of death, with wraiths of morning mist hanging above the stagnant water like dead souls unsure of where they were expected to depart to.  It was a place no man would wish to die in.

Suddenly the crows took to the air in loud protesting flight and the noises of the swamp went quieter still.  Through the fog, from somewhere beyond his field of vision, came the squelching, splashing sounds of a body of men moving in a very determined manner.  Men, obviously heavy laden, were wading through the thigh-deep swamp in his direction.  He forced his body to bend, then crawl, to retrieve the axe from the flesh of his erstwhile enemy.  Even as it came free from the dead man's flesh he knew the effort had been too much for him.

He understood then what it meant to be truly helpless, even as all the lights in the world dimmed and then went out and he dropped through that giddy infinity of pure black terror into unconsciousness.

 

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Chapter Two

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